Category Archives: Faith

Prescription for Health – or Poison?

Its a funny thing – a substance can either be the best thing in the world for what ails you, or it can kill you. I heard of a speaker one time who wanted to illustrate this point. He wanted to warn his audience of the dangers of di-hydrous oxide. Not only to warn his audience, but to actually drive them to take immediate action against this silent killer. Millions died from di-hydrous oxide poisoning every year, millions more were damaged to some degree. What was worse, di-hydrous oxide was everywhere! He had his statistics, he had his anecdotes, he had his impassioned pleas. After working his audience into a froth, he then called on them to eliminate the pernicious evil of di-hydrous oxide from their midst. There was nary a soul agin’ his proposal – but they did have one question – what exactly was di-hydrous oxide? Water. Plain and simple water. Two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Pure poison, that stuff, if used in extreme amounts. Except, we can’t live without it, when taken appropriately.

What can be a prescription for health can also kill. Even that which is necessary for life can kill, if it is applied in incorrect amounts. That which is blatantly obvious in the medical world is also just as equally true in the political and spiritual world, although perhaps not quite so obvious.

For just a slight digression, I think of the concepts of grace and faith. Two of the pillars of the Reformation were the twin concepts of grace only and faith only. That is, sinners are saved by grace only through faith only. Can you preach or teach too much grace, or too much faith? Well, not to get anyone’s underwear tied up in a knot, but yes you can. The idea of grace which is taught beyond what is demonstrated in Scripture becomes universalism – everyone is saved regardless of beliefs or behavior. Clearly, Scripture teaches that God abounds in grace, and that we are saved through that over-abundance of grace (Ephesians, anybody?). But, scripturally speaking, even grace has its limits. Same with faith: faith pushed beyond its scriptural limits is the enemy of faith itself (just exactly what James explained!). This is why Martin Luther was right to stress grace and faith, but wrong to include the word “only.” Yes, we are saved by grace (anyone who wants to deny that has not read Paul’s letters), and yes we are saved by faith. But grace is limited by God’s righteous judgement (he will condemn evil!), and faith must be demonstrated through righteous behavior. I now return to my previous thoughts, already in progress . . .

The prescription I am thinking of today is the idea of individualism. Taken in the right percentage, individualism is a good thing – a healthy thing. Take too much though and individualism becomes a noxious, deadly poison.

The idea of individual rights and freedoms is one of the concepts that has made the United States so great. I would not want to leave any other place than the good old U. S. of A., and the freedom we have entrenched in the Bill of Rights is one of the main reasons I can make that statement. What other nation, or what other culture, has created the space for so many people to achieve their goals, dreams, and even fantasies? What other nation, or what other culture, tells everyone, regardless of race, gender, or other identifiable characteristic, that he or she can become anything that person wants or dreams about? It is true that opportunities for success are not always equal, but such inequalities are not systemic in the type of a caste or hierarchical system. In America we not only protect individual rights, we also promote individual industriousness and creativity.

However, that individualism has taken a decisively bitter turn. That which was healthy has now become toxic. Increasingly, the twisted ideations of a few individuals are overwhelming the rights and protections of the community. Individualism has run amok. The engine that has created so much good has now jumped the tracks, and the carnage that it will leave in its wake will be devastating – if we do not stop it somehow.

What is true in the political/social world is also true in the church. The concept that every person, each individual, can read and understand the Bible for him or her self should be self-evident (pardon the pun). However, taken to an extreme, that radical individualism is actually destroying the community of the faithful. The primary unit of faith in the Old Testament was not the individual, it was the qahal, the community, the people of God. In the New Testament the individual was not the primary unit of faith, it was the ekklesia, the community, the people of God. Individuals had value as a part of the whole – as a part of the community. Today, the community (the church) is only considered a by-product of our rabid individualism. If we do not like what our present community (that we selected because of our individual preferences to begin with) says, we simply leave and find a community more favorable to what we want. We have the cart in front of the horse, and we cannot figure out why we are not moving anywhere.

A friend and I were discussing this issue recently in the context of the value of a higher education. Our extreme attachment to “rugged individualism” has fostered a distrust, and sometimes even an active dislike, of higher education. How often have you heard (or said) the comment, “I don’t need those silly commentaries or study books- they’re just written by a bunch of ivory-towered egg-heads. All I need is my Bible.” Toxic individualism at its worst.

The fact is, we desperately need those silly commentaries and study books written by those ivory-towered egg-heads. It is those ivory-towered egg-heads that translated our Bibles into English in the first place – and then helped us understand all of the bizarre and often opaque words, ideas, practices, and concepts that we find in the pages of the Bible.

In short – we need our community of scholars to save us from our toxic individualism. Left to our own inclinations we will interpret the Bible to mean exactly what we want it to mean. The hundreds, if not thousands, of different “churches” in the United States is all the evidence I need to prove that point. The vast community of scholars (egg-heads) we have available to us keeps us from doing that – they hold our feet to the fire and make us wrestle with centuries of other voices. Sometimes these voices are not correct in what they say – but they often challenge and correct our false understandings as well.

I do not put my faith in those “silly commentaries.” I want to obey only the Word of God. But I am a stronger Christian when I stand in community than when I stand alone – and this is no place more true than in my interpretation of Scripture.

Jaroslav Pelikan wrote what has become the defining understanding of the value of hearing other voices: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

Traditionalism is the end result of unchecked, poisonous individualism. I want to, and I hope I do, teach the living faith of tradition.

What Does It Matter, Anyway?

This post is intended to be a companion piece to my post of yesterday, so if you did not read that article, use the little arrow thingy and back up a page.

I think most Americans are familiar with the screech made by our former Secretary of State when she was being questioned about the murders of our ambassador and assistants in Benghazi. “What does it matter, anyway?” was her response when being questioned about what she knew, when she knew it, and what could have been done differently. “What does it matter, anyway” has become the mantra of an entire generation of Americans – not just politicians with a failed policy on their hands.

Yesterday I discussed the fact that we (primarily in the church) simply do not have the ability to stand firm anymore. Well, that is only partly true. We will fight to our last drop of blood over the color of the curtains, the positioning of the furniture, and the name of the song book that gathers dust in the book rack; but when it comes to issues of genuine faith, of matters that cut to the core of the gospel, we have one timid little response – “What does it matter, anyway?”

I see three primary reasons why congregational leaders, and therefore the congregations they lead, have found it impossible to stand firm against the onslaught of post-modern secularism. They are: a lack of a foundation, a lack of support, and a lack of courage. Let me address each of these individually.

First, I see the primary issue involved in an inability to stand firm as being the complete lack of a solid foundation. Most important, we have lost the foundation of knowing Scripture. Although we exist with the veneer of being a “Bible people,” we really do not know the Bible. This is true to varying degrees in many elderships, and is only magnified as we move down the generations. Elders today are not selected because of their knowledge of the Bible and their ability to put that knowledge into practice. Elders today are chosen because they are good business men, they are popular, they have the “perfect” family, and maybe even because they come from a long line of previous elders. My wife relates the story of having an elder get furious with her because she corrected him during a teen Bible class. If teenagers can correct men who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of a congregation, that congregation is in serious trouble. I wonder, though, how many teenagers would know more Bible than their elders? Our knowledge of the Bible is pathetic, and it is impossible to stand for issues of faith when we do not know what that faith is.

In addition to a lack of knowledge of Scripture, we have an even lower (if possible) level of knowledge of our history – our tradition. Some would even argue that we do not have a tradition. Yea, and babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. Tradition is a wonderful thing – a blessed thing. But you would not know that by talking to the average member of the Church of Christ. We know nothing of Alex and Bart and Walt and my favorite – ol’ Raccoon John himself. How could we know anything of our history, and why would we even want to, the way it is disparaged and ridiculed from the majority of pulpits and lectureships in the country? Here is a indisputable but despised fact: the more liberal a person is, the closer that person is to the most radical conservative in at least one respect – they both hate our history. Liberals hate it because, to them anyway, it makes us look foolish, immature, and ignorant. Ultra conservatives hate it because we are simply not supposed to have a history – we popped out of the ground fully grown in 33 A.D., and except for a few hiccups now and then, have been pretty much a perfect people. Both extremes are utterly and damnably wrong – contra the conservatives we have a history that stretches back to Abraham at the very least (remember, the “Father of the faithful”), but is made up of every nook and cranny of human history from that point on. And, contra the liberals, it is a wonderful, beautiful, mesmerizing, and totally enlightening history. Alex and Bart and Walt and ol’ Raccoon were brilliant theologians and practitioners. But you would not know it if you read any of our most recent attempts at explaining our Restoration History. (Okay, rant over.)

Second, elders – and especially our young people – find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand firm because they get little or no support when they try. It’s one thing to get shot in the chest when you are facing an opponent – but it is something entirely different when you are getting shot in the back at the same time. I have seen good men reduced to meaningless figureheads not by their opponents, but by the congregation they were leading. There is a good reason the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17). It is frustrating when an eldership appears to be paralyzed, but it is disastrous when an eldership takes a stand on an issue they consider to be a matter of faith, only to be skewered by the flock they are attempting to protect. Or imagine the confusion of a spiritually mature 16 year old girl who objects to having to shower next to a psychologically damaged 16 year old boy (in all his anatomically glorious self) only to be told that she is being a bully and needs to be more sensitive – and this by members of her own congregation! It is often difficult to take a stand when you know it is going to be controversial, or even worse, contradictory to secular theories. That difficulty is multiplied exponentially when the people you believe to be your spiritual family abandons you.

Finally, there is the issue of courage. It is difficult to take a stand on a matter of faith if you are confused about what that faith is, and if you are convinced that no one will stand with you if you try. But it is utterly impossible to take that stand if you are a coward, even if you know the truth and have a whole army standing behind you. I believe most elders and a majority of young people are good men and kids. But there is a disturbingly large percentage of elders (and adolescents) who are nothing more than weak-kneed, limp-wristed, lilly-livered cowards (I am trying to restrain myself here). These are individuals who know the truth, and who know that there are people who are looking to them for leadership and will defend them to the last bullet. They choose – willingly – to accept the path of least resistance anyway. They do not want to cause a scuffle. They do not want to be seen as being “old fogies.” They are more interested in their image than in their position of leaders (and yes, young people can be awesome leaders). Ignorance can be educated away. Support can be generated. But cowardice? Cowardice kills before the battle is even joined. “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself.” Oh, what timeless words.

Christians who are concerned about the perilous times in which we live must do three things. We must return to the Bible, we must once again become a people of the book. We cannot stand firm for a faith of which we are ignorant. We must also not only accept, but we must come to appreciate our history – from Abraham to the apostles to the Reformation to the Restoration to our present day. We are products of our history – and we must learn from that history or we are certainly doomed to repeat its disasters. We must stand in solidarity with those who are taking a risk to defend their faith. We must support our elders when they say “no” to the Baals and Asherahs of secularism. We must support our young people when they refuse to be driven by the twisted beliefs of this culture. And finally we must learn what it means to be biblically courageous – to “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). In a memorable line from one of my wife’s favorite movies, “Courage is not the absence of fear – courage is the decision that there is something more important than fear.”

All of this is critical because our faith, our morals, our beliefs, that which we stand on – all of these things matter very much.

What does it matter anyway?

Stand at the foot of the cross and ask that question. Then you may get it.

(Update, Aug. 11, 2016 – it occurred to me that some might notice that I omitted preachers from this discussion. Be assured, I have no mistaken ideas that ministers/preachers are exempt from being cowardly and just flat-out ignorant. As I was writing I was thinking primarily of congregational leadership, and for some strange, backward, unknown reason I still believe that ministers serve under the eldership, not above them. Yes, ministers/preachers lead, but if the elders would exert their God-given authority, fewer young trash-talking preachers would have a pulpit to do so.)

Live and in Living Color!

And now, the moment you have all been waiting for – okay maybe not all of you, and maybe not THE moment you have been waiting for . . . but here it is anyway!

Thanks to my lovely wife and the talents and kind assistance of one of our members, here is a video of the latest attempt at a sermon by the ol’ Freightdawg.

Anyone needing (or just wanting) a new preacher – feel free to share.

Thanks, and as always, I appreciate your companionship in the fog . . .


Boundaries of Brotherhood

I venture forth into troubling waters today – or, to follow the theme of this blog, into foggy skies. I’ve been wrestling for the past few days with a question that recurs frequently in conversations among brothers and sisters in Christ. That question is, “Who is my brother or sister in Christ?” At the center of the discussion is the frequently repeated and much discussed phrase, “in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus charitas.” (in matters of necessity, unity; in matters of doubt, liberty; in all things love) Confusion and ignorance reign.

There are two extremes. On the one hand there are the full, or near, universalists who will accept all or almost all who mouth the words, “Jesus is Lord.” For them everything is a matter of doubt or opinion, because if you make anything a matter of necessity or faith there would be some who would disagree and therefore be “outside” the circle of fellowship.

On the other extreme are those who come close (or who clearly demonstrate) Phariseeism. For them everything is a matter of necessity (or faith) and nothing is a matter of opinion. For them identifying those who are in the Kingdom is easy – because they are on a first-name basis with most of those they consider to be a part of that circle.

I find myself in an uneasy middle position. I say uneasy because intellectually I believe the number of the citizens of God’s Kingdom to be much bigger than my own understanding of God’s truth. However, my personality type and nature tends to push me into the second group. My tendency is toward Phariseeism. Intellectually I know God’s grace must exceed my own human limits – otherwise I would be God! – but emotionally I have a hard time welcoming those who disagree with me. After all, I am always right (c’mon – my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek).

I must reject out-of-hand the growing chorus of the “easy believeism” that is sweeping through the Churches of Christ. That is nothing other than the “Cheap Grace” identified by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We cannot accept that two diametrically opposite views of Holy Scripture can both be correct. We cannot accept that two diametrically opposed views of worship – or especially of the requirements of Kingdom membership – can both be correct. We must allow for differences of opinion and conscience, but at some point there must be a determination of wrong and right, of heresy and of sound doctrine. Likewise, we must be careful that we do not elevate our own intellectual prowess to the level of God’s judgment. We do not tell God who is a part of his Kingdom, God does that. Refer to my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1, the foundation for theology must be humility. Our greatest error is in proclaiming that we are beyond making errors. If universalism is wrong, so is Phariseeism.

This is not an easy subject to discuss – as emotions invariably run high and convictions run deep. As long as we are in these “earthen vessels” we are going to see things “darkly.” However, that does not mean we have to abandon all discussion and inquiry into the matter.

We must, however, pray for God’s Spirit to guide us into the healthy truth – the truth that sets proper boundaries where God has placed them, and not where fallible humans have placed them.

What We Have Here, Is a Failure to Communicate

I had a strange dream last night . . .

It appeared that I was summoned as a visitor to a sublime and dreadful courtroom scene. A preacher (whom I recognized, but will not identify to protect his guilt or innocence) sat forlornly at the defense table, while the prosecutor’s table was empty. Instead of one judge, there were a number of men, dressed in strange robes that resembled bedouin clothing more than that of modern judges. The gallery, of which I was a small part, was quiet – acting almost fearful, as if we were not really wanting to watch the events that would unfold before us.

The heavy tone of the room was broken when one of the judges cleared his throat and spoke. “Mr. __________, you have been summoned to stand before this tribunal before your death, rather than following your death, for a very special reason. Your record of service in the name of the one who sits on my left is impeccable. You have devoted the better part of your life to promoting the good name of Jesus and furthering his church. However, it was determined that you have recently become guilty of hypocrisy, and of a type that borders on treason against the kingdom. You will now stand and respond to our questions, for the purpose of ascertaining whether you will be returned to earth to continue your mission, or if you are to be removed from an earthly life altogether. Let us proceed . . . ”

Another of the judges spoke. “Mr. ___________, for the record, let us clarify. When you began your ministry, you professed to speak only of things spoken by Jesus, and written by myself and my partners on this tribunal, is that not correct?”

The preacher, pale and quivering, nodded and mumbled a quiet “yes.” Apparently he was aware of the identity of his interlocutors, although their specific identity was still hidden to the rest of us.

“Thank you.” Replied the second speaker. “Now, based on that confession, we have some questions we would like to pose to you to determine if, indeed, you have been faithful to that promise.”

“Is it not true” spoke a third judge “that as a young minister you spoke often and lovingly about the need to openly identify the Lord’s church through clear references to his name, or title?” “Yes, I did” replied the accused. “Then, why, here in these later years, have you chosen to identify your assembly as “_________________”? (name redacted for privacy reasons). “Well, it became obvious to me that by using the name under which I was first serving, that many people were put off, and refused to give my message any hearing. I wanted to lead as many as I could to my Lord, so I had to change the name on the building in order so as not to offend.”

At this comment the character seated in the middle of the group of judges raised his eyebrows, but remained silent.

“Let it be entered into the record that the accused withdrew any reference to the name or title of our Lord because such a reference was embarrassing and he believed it to be a negative influence” spoke the third judge. The other judges nodded in agreement, “So be it.”

The second judge once again spoke. “Mr. _________, you have stated many times in your early ministry that the record we who are seated before you must be listened to wholeheartedly, and obeyed faithfully, is that not true?” Another nod of the head and a mumbled “yes.” “Then, your proclamations in these later years are very troublesome. Just to name a few – you caused a serious defection in your congregation when you insisted the addition of practices into the worship service which are clearly not present in our writings, and you openly ridiculed certain other practices which are clearly given. You devalued the leadership qualities of men while encouraging women to step outside of their blessed and holy giftedness. You have even gone so far as to recently suggest that marriage vows can be exchanged between members of the same sex, provided those vows remain faithful. How do you answer?”

“That is easy,” the preacher said tremulously. “Modern scholarship has unequivocally determined that many words attributed to my esteemed judges did not, in fact, come from your pens. As a faithful minister I could not preach what was not the word of God. I could not continue to promote a false and dehumanizing gospel. Once that veil was lifted from my eyes, how could I return to chauvinistic and homophobic traditions?”

The gasps from the gallery drowned out the whispered conversations among the judges. The first judge rapped the bench with his gavel, ordering silence.

“So, Mr. ____________, are you telling these judges that the accumulated wisdom of over 2,000 years has been ‘unequivocally’ overturned by your ‘modern scholarship?” A quiet wave of laughter spread through the gallery. The preacher did not answer, but dropped his eyes. We in the gallery could see his face turning red.

The third judge who had spoken earlier resumed the questioning. “Mr. ____________, these are serious allegations, but throughout the history of the church on earth, many similar serious issues have plagued the Lord’s people.  God’s grace is certainly able to cover a multitude of misunderstandings – but we are not here to issue your final judgment, only to determine your fitness to return to your ministry. Far more troubling are some of your more recent lectures regarding the very nature of our Lord’s saving sacrifice.”

A fourth judge now entered the conversation. “Mr. ____________, your declaration to speak only the words of Jesus has been duly noted. Yet, you have repeatedly and clearly stated in recent sermons that the sign of solidarity with our Lord is no longer a necessary act of obedience to him. Baptism into our Lord’s death, a symbolic lowering into his grave, and a triumphant resurrection from that grave is, to quote your most recent offering, ‘something that is beneficial for the life of the believer, but cannot be made a requirement for salvation.’ Do I quote you accurately?”

Once again the preacher said, “yes,” but his mood had changed. Rather than meek submission, he was growing irritated with the line of questioning, and his ire was beginning to show. “Listen, I learned from my conversations with people from many different churches and even different religions that there are a lot of wonderful people out there, people who do not believe in baptism, but believe in Jesus. People who are good, moral, upstanding individuals with whom I could not find anything to question. Once again, I could not find any words that were clearly written by you all that would keep those people out of heaven.”

Finally the character in the middle of the group of judges raised his voice, along with his arched eyebrows. “I must disagree – for did not my inspired apostles record my very specific words, ‘Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved”? Did not my inspired apostles speak clearly and repeatedly throughout my new covenant about the sacredness and importance of the new birth into my blood and resurrection? Did not my apostles make it clear that there are most decidedly two groups of individuals, one who trusts in my words of promise and obeys my commands, and one who because of willful rebellion refuses to accept my authority and/or my clear instructions?”

As the final words were fading into the background, a thick and heavy silence fell upon all the assembled – far more thick and heavy than was at first.

After what seemed like hours, but what could have only been a few minutes, the first judge spoke once again. “Mr. ________, you have been accused of hypocrisy and actions that are treasonous to the church that you have pledged your life.”

“It is the decision of this court that . . . ”

Just as suddenly and mysteriously as my dream started, it came to a terrifying end. What was the verdict? What would happen to this well known and popular preacher? Would he be allowed to return and continue his ministry? Would he be sent back to correct his errors? And why was I given this privy information?

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Rest assured, brothers and sisters, the failure does not lie with the source.

I will not go to sleep comfortably any time soon . . .

Quantity, or Quality?

This is kind of a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the church becoming so focused on not offending someone that it loses its sharp message. Related to political correctness is a belief that the church is to measure its success based strictly on numbers. That is a false assumption, but it drives virtually every mission that the church seeks to promote.

I have been a part of the Church of Christ for all of my life – and a paid minister for much of that life. I can attest that whenever a new mission is being evaluated, or an old mission is being reviewed, one of the most important questions that must be answered is, “How will this help us grow numerically?” The question may not be asked in such bald terms, but whether it is blatant or more covert, the question is still there. If we are going to invest dollars in a mission, we want to see numerical results.

This eventually leads to the problem I discussed yesterday – if we want rear-ends in the pews we cannot preach or teach anything that might offend large numbers of our target audience. If we are a large, up-scale, predominantly white and affluent congregation the talk of greed, avarice and selfishness must be banished. If we are poor, lower-class and predominantly dependent on government aid we cannot discuss that issues of envy or resentment. If a large percentage of our congregation is borderline obese forget hearing a sermon on gluttony. If we live next door to a military base do not even think about hearing a sermon on the evils of military aggression and the need to obey Christ’s call to lay aside the weapons of destruction. The point is the overwhelming majority of the content of our sermons and lessons is determined not by the content of Scripture, but by the location of our church buildings and the make-up of our congregational membership rolls.

Believe me, I have been both perpetrator and victim of this mentality. Much of my job security has revolved around the stability, if not the growth, of the numbers of the ministry I have been associated with. I have been all too much a promoter of the “we have to have more and more people here” kind of thinking. But, I have also been burned by the same mentality. You are not invited to speak at all the brotherhood soirees if your only claim to fame is that you drive people away from your building.

I don’t think Jesus was all that hung-up about numbers. In fact, he was just as willing to see the slackers and the hangers-on turn around and leave him as he was to see the faithful follow him. He lamented the fact people would turn their back on him, but he never promised to bring in donuts and coffee if they would stay.

What Jesus was vitally interested in was the quality of the life of the disciple. If you said you were “in” with Jesus, he wanted to make sure you understood what that “in” meant. The cost of discipleship varied with the person, and Jesus would not expect the same effort from a 75 year old convert that he might expect from a 25 year old convert. But he would expect the same amount of love and commitment.

Churches of Christ are in a major quandary these days, as are congregations of virtually every religious stripe. Some of the issues confronting the churches have been created by our opponent, Satan. Some of the wounds we are seeking to heal, however, are purely self-inflicted. Part of the problem, although not all of it by any stretch of the imagination, is the fact that for several generations now we have been measuring success by the quantity of numbers in our pews, and not the quality of discipleship in those who sit in the pews.

In an odd sort of way, Jesus may be happier with us if we had fewer congregations made up of smaller memberships, if those members were fully committed Christians. The interesting thing is, if that were to happen, my guess is the numbers of the members of the church would grow exponentially. I believe people want to be a part of genuine Christianity. I think they are just sick and tired of the pseudo-christianity that is being peddled by so many number-hungry churches today.

God Did NOT Abandon Jesus #1 – Psalm 22

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1)

When we begin to look at the mistaken idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross the first place we must turn is the opening line of Psalm 22. I find it incredible to discover that some people do not even know that Jesus was quoting Ps. 22:1 as he suffered on the cross, (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:35) but even those who do recognize the quotation have rarely bothered to discover WHY Jesus quoted that single verse. Examining the Psalm goes a long way toward refuting the claim that God abandoned Jesus on the cross.

As I understand the most common explanation of the “Separators” (as I will call them, those who believe God separated from Jesus on the cross), we can see that God had abandoned Jesus because Jesus addressed God with his formal title, “God,” as opposed to his familial relationship (“Abba father,” see Mark 14:36). This is either an admission that the speaker is not aware of Psalm 22:1, or rejects any specific connection to the Psalm. So, recognizing that Jesus was indeed quoting (verbatim, that is) from Psalm 22:1, is there any specific reason why he would choose that Psalm? Let us turn to Psalm 22 and read.

The first thing that we note in reading Psalm 22 is that the first 21 verses are among the most specific and emotionally laden laments in the Old Testament. It is an emotionally draining Psalm to read.

In the first 2 verses the psalmist sets the tone for the entire poem – he feels utterly rejected by God. He prays, but there is no response. This is a continual prayer, not a one-and-done prayer. It is un-ending, and fervent.

In verses 3-5 he confesses that this result is radically out of God’s nature. His entire faith has been built around the idea that God hears, God responds, God delivers. But he himself has found no hearing, no deliverance. This result is shocking, and deeply disturbing to the psalmist.

In verses 6-8 the psalmist returns to his misery – he even despairs of his life – he is a worm, and no man. Everyone who sees him mocks him. It is one thing to be in physical or emotional pain, but to have all his nearest friends turn from him is almost more than he can take.

In verses 9-11 there is a return to the way he thinks it ought to be – once upon a time God took care of the psalmist, why not now? The situation is desperate, almost critical. Where is God? Why is the God who once was there, no longer there?

Verses 12-18 contain the bulk of the lament, the most graphic and specific complaints. And it is in verses 12-18 that we see the greatest connection to the events of the crucifixion. Some have even used the word “prophetic” in regard to Psalm 22, but I do not like to think of the Psalms as prophecy. The psalmist is not “prophesying” anything – he is lamenting a very real and  deplorable situation in his life – one the demands immediate attention from a God that has gone AWOL.

However, in verses 19-21 the psalmist returns to his faith – almost as if he is dredging up one more bucket of brackish water to his parched lips in the hopes that he can survive one more hour, one more day.

And then, right there in-between verse 21 and 22 there is a massive change. You cannot miss it – not if you read the Psalm for the Psalm and not try to make it something that it is not. The change in tone between 21 and 22 is palpable, and theologically as well as emotionally decisive.

The reader is not told what happens, but something earth changing happens to the psalmist. From verses 22-31 the psalmist is no longer in the mode of lament. The last third of the Psalm is pure rejoicing, celebration, and worship. It will not do for the psalmist to rejoice alone – no, he must go and proclaim his great good fortune to the assembly. And, pay very careful attention to verse 24

For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him (Ps. 22:24, RSV)

Psalm 22, the Psalm that begins with the plaintive cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” ends with the confession, rather the boisterous proclamation, that God never did forsake the psalmist, never did abandon the psalmist. The remainder of the psalm is one of the greatest affirmations of the glory and righteous rule of God anywhere in the Psalter.

Just for comparison, consider Psalm 73. The first 14 verses follow the same pattern as the early verses of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist complains bitterly and confesses that “…my feet had almost stumbled, my steps has well nigh slipped.” (v. 2) But, he did not stumble, his steps did not slip, because in v. 15 there is another one of those massive shifts, an “epiphany” if you will. The psalmist in Psalm 73 entered into the sanctuary of God and realized how wrong his earlier thoughts had been. We are not told of the circumstances of the shift in Psalm 22, but the result is remarkably similar. Psalm 22 and 73 and two examples of this transformative type of Psalm. They communicate through their words, to be sure, but their structure is critical to understanding the message of the psalm.

Why have I gone to such lengths to discuss Psalm 22? Because, when you remove Psalm 22 as a declaration of utter abandonment, it makes no sense whatsoever, especially no theological sense, to use the opening phrase as a declaration of Jesus’s abandonment on the cross. If the psalmist was not abandoned, how can this verse be used as evidence that Jesus was abandoned? Do the “separators” believe that Jesus was so ignorant of the Psalm that he was quoting that he did not know it was a raucous anthem of the presence of God and ultimate deliverance? What kind of theological illiterate do some of these individuals think that Jesus was?

There is a literary method of using one small part of a whole to refer to the entire body, it is called “synecdoche.” Many scholars believe that is exactly what Jesus is doing here with this Psalm as he quotes the first line on the cross. He is quoting a poem, or the first line at least, that ends in triumph. True, only the first line is quoted in the gospels, but that does not in and of itself mean he did not later quote more of the Psalm. Those who knew the Psalm would know how it ended, whether he finished the Psalm or not.

I have no way of knowing whether or not that is Jesus’s intention. We only have the first line, and we certainly cannot read Jesus’s mind as he suffered on the cross. But this much is clear – he is not quoting a Psalm of abandonment and rejection, but a Psalm of great faith and worship.

Two more quick points and I must cease. First, I believe it is noteworthy that both Matthew and Mark drew attention to the quotation of the Psalm NOT because of the content of the opening line, but because everyone in hearing distance MISUNDERSTOOD what Jesus was saying, and they believed he was calling for Elijah to come and rescue him. It is as if the evangelists were drawing specific attention to the fact that even in his last few minutes on this earth, Jesus was still being misunderstood and misinterpreted. Sadly, that  misinterpretation continues even today.

And, finally, I cannot leave Psalm 22 without making the point that canonically, the lament (and therefore the great rejoicing) of Psalm 22 leads directly into the most beloved of all Psalms of God’s presence – Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd.” This was not an accident of just throwing some poems down on the table and seeing which came up first. This structure is intentional, and the juxtaposition of Psalm 22 and 23 is profound. God not not abandon. God does not desert. God does not forsake. Indeed, God, the LORD, is my shepherd. I fear nothing, need nothing, but am tenderly loved and cared for.

He did not abandon any Israelite psalmist, and he certainly did not do so to his own Son, Jesus.

Next installment: The misunderstanding of Habakkuk 1:13

Let Us Be Done With Proving Everything, Shall We?

There is something deep within the psyche of the modern, born-again, “praise God and pass the contribution plate” Christian that cannot leave bomb-proof, unassailable, “put the atheists in their place” kind of scientific evidence alone. (How is that for incorporating generic identifiers?) What is mean is this – you cannot hardly turn on your computer today without someone, somewhere “proving beyond a shadow of a doubt” that some such thing once doubted is now finally, beyond any shadow of a doubt, proven to be real or historical or some such thing. It might be the age of the earth, or the hypothesis that humans shared living quarters with dinosaurs, or the exact, precise, down-to-the-minute day and time that Jesus was: born, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and/or will come back to earth. The number of things that science can supposedly prove “beyond a shadow of a doubt” is truly staggering. And, call me a skeptic, but I wonder if even a fraction of the claims are even remotely scientifically accurate.

Let me illustrate with a couple of stories. It is very definitely true that during certain times within history, Christians would travel great distances and pay money to visit “relics” of saints. So, pieces of holy objects such as the cross or Noah’s ark, or bones, hair, blood – you name it – from all sorts of “saints” started showing up with quite startling frequency. It is said, for example, that if you had every single piece of the wooden cross upon which Jesus was said to be crucified, gathered back from all the sales of “genuine cross relics” dealers, you could take those tiny little shards of wood and rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. Not bad for two beams of wood.

As a very real example of devotion to “relics” today stop and consider the veneration given to the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth of Jesus. Never mind it has never passed a test that dates it older than the middle ages, many believe it to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus.

The one story that just always leaves me shaking my head that so-called intelligent people will accept it is the story that EVEN TO THIS DAY gets retold regarding NASA, a special clock, and the missing day of Joshua 10:12-14. As the story goes, in order to go to the moon, NASA had to develop a clock with incredible accuracy. It  was so accurate, so the story goes, that the developers made it go BACKWARDS in time to verify its accuracy. They kept going back, back, back, until, LO AND BEHOLD they discovered a missing 24 hour period in the age of the earth – Joshua’s missing day!! Are you kidding me?? Intelligent people cannot see through this? But they can’t, because (1) they do not want to see through it because it purportedly proves a point they want proved and (2) what self respecting American patriot would question the National Aeronautics and Space Administration?

Has anyone who believed this story ever wondered why NASA did not just keep going back to find out PRECISELY how old the earth is with their wonderful clock? Has anyone ever heard of a clock that can tell time BACKWARDS? Yet, this story gets repeated ad infinitum by otherwise intelligent people and, because they tell it, it gets believed by an entire new generation.

Those who demand bomb-proof, unassailable, “beyond any shadow of a doubt” proof only prove one thing – how fearful and shallow their faith truly is. God did not allow the Israelites to know where Moses was buried lest his grave become a shrine. God did not allow Noah’s ark to survive lest it become an idol. God did not allow the ark of the covenant to survive for the exact same reason, as with the cross, the tomb, and anything else related to critical events in the Bible. Those relics are just raindrops in the overwhelming ocean of world history. We do not know nor can we calculate the day of Jesus birth, death, resurrection (beyond the “first day of the week”), or ascension, and we certainly cannot figure out the day of his return. Those who claim to be able to do so are charlatans – or are the mistaken minions of such charlatans. They either have an agenda to push, or a book to sell. Be very careful of such spiritual snake-oil salesmen.

Just stop and think – seriously think – about one question. If you cannot believe that God can raise his Son, his incarnated self, from the grave, just exactly why would having a piece of the cross on which he was killed prove that fact to you? And, if you can believe that God did, in fact, raise Jesus from the grave, why would you need to prove Joshua’s “missing day” to buttress your faith? There are occasions when I fear that Karl Marx’s statement that religion is an opiate for the people to be far, far too accurate for my comfort level.

But, if you still want to believe in all this new scientific evidence that proves everything from the age of the earth to the exact location of Moses’s 70 palm trees please let me know. I have a piece of Jesus’ cross that I would love to sell to you.

We Need to Listen to Anselm

Question – What do you get when you cross a bad scientist with a poor theologian? (Hang with me here, this is not a bad joke!)

Answer – An atheist

I just finished reading a book in which the author stated, unambiguously and quite proudly, that he can prove that God exists. Foolproof, airtight, with not the slightest chance that there could be a mistake proof that God exists. I was quite in awe until I read what his “proofs” consisted of – a long list of arguments that have been put forward for centuries. A long list, I might add, that has been particularly ineffective in proving the existence of God, except for those who already believe in God. If you already believe in something, it is quite easy to prove it exists. It is when you try to convince someone who is utterly certain of the falsity of your proposition that your “proofs” tend to get shredded. I happen to believe in God, so I also happen to appreciate many of the “proofs” that the author put forward. I also know atheists who laugh out loud at the supposed “iron-clad” arguments that are set forth. Now, disbelief in one proposition does not equal proof of the opposite proposition, but still, poor arguments deserve to be destroyed.

Notice in the famous picture of the creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel. God and Adam reach toward each other, but there is a gap – an existential difference between the two. God urges us as humans to seek for him, but still, we are flesh and he is God, and we will always be just a hair short of fully understanding the nature of God. John even said of Jesus, the incarnate God on earth, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:11)

I am one who happens to believe that good science and good theology should not be enemies. They are different fields, and ask (and search for answers) to entirely different questions. Good science attempts to answer the questions “what” and “how”. Theology attempts to answer the questions “who” and “why”. That is why I suggest that when you mix bad science and bad theology all you end up with is an atheist. A good person, no doubt, but someone who has placed their trust in something that is not God.

I feel very strongly that if you have to prove the existence of your god, you have a very small god. In fact, if you CAN prove the existence of your god then you have succeeded in creating an idol larger than any god – yourself. Step back and work through this – if your science (whatever it may be) can prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that your god exists, then your god is smaller than your science. That is to say your science can explain your god; ergo, your science is bigger, more complex, and more profound, than your god. You have just made your intellect your idol – you may worship a “god,” but just like the story in Isaiah of the man who cuts down a tree, cooks his food with half of it and fashions a god out of the other half, your god is still a thing of your creation (see Isaiah 44:9-17). You can manipulate it, define it, examine it, and ultimately prove that it exists by some physical test.

Now compare that with the God of the Bible. Since we were just in Isaiah, let us stay there. Read Isaiah 40:9-31 (for just one passage). Now – how do we “prove” a God such as this exists? To what do you compare something that is incomparable? By what standard do you measure something that is beyond measure – or even comprehension? The folly of the peanut scientific mind is that it thinks it can define, measure, describe or explain that which cannot be rationally bounded.

Writing in the early 11th century A.D., a theologian by the name of Anselm formulated what is often referred to as the “ontological argument” of the existence of God. Strictly speaking, however, it is not a positive argument, but the expression of the impossibility to create such an argument. It goes something like this – If I can conceive of something bigger than God, that thing that I have imagined must be God. But this is a logical impossibility, as God is the most comprehensive being that can be conceived. God, therefore, is “that than which nothing bigger can be conceived.” God is bigger than any science, any scientist, and even any proof of his own existence.

We need to give up this infantile attempt to figure out a “bomb-proof” argument or proof that God exists, and simply get back to worshipping the God that scoffs at all our puny little attempts to control him.

“And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, RSV emphasis mine.)

What if, or Even if…

One of the joys I have is teaching and learning from some really great young people. The other day following class a few of us were discussing various topics, and one of the things we were talking about was faithful obedience. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their great statement of faith came up, 

O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, RSV)

One of the students told the group he had prepared a lesson on the difference between faith and fear. The lesson is profound, so I share it with you.

Fear says, “What if . . .” Fear says, “What if I fail, what if I get sick or die, what if this solution costs too much or does not achieve the goal for which we out to overcome, what if the people reject me, what if there are unforeseen setbacks, what if, what if, what if.”

Faith says, “Even if . . .” “Even if I fail, even if I get sick or die, even if this solution costs more that the value returned, even if the people reject me, even if there are unforeseen setbacks, I am going to follow God and his word, and I am not going to give in to fear.”

It was a powerful moment. Far too often I have collapsed under the weight of the “what ifs.” I am cautious by nature, almost to a fault (maybe certainly to a fault). I like to see the end before I take a step. Could I have uttered the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? I shudder to think.

How many times do we worship false gods because we are afraid of the “what ifs.” How many good projects are not even attempted because of the “what ifs.” How much good could be accomplished if we would just say, “even if.” We really need to have the courage to swim against the crush of the crowds – the courage of our convictions.

I needed to hear that message. I hope it helps you too.

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