Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Camel and the Needle

Jesus once said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.  That's a hard saying. Did he really mean it? Did he mean that a rich man can never enter the Kingdom, as we all know that a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle? On the other hand the Bible clearly indicates that many godly men from Abraham on down acquired great wealth.

Many have tried to explain this hard saying of Jesus in various ways, but clearly the disciples seemed to have taken this quite literally because they immediately asked, "Who then can be saved?" (Luke 18:26).

There is a simple explanation for Jesus' statement, one that illustrates an effective teaching method that he used often. Jesus was a master of word pictures and hyperbole. Jesus did this all the time. He warned against straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). No one took it to mean that the scribes and Pharisees were swallowing camels.

He talked about taking the speck out of your brother's eye while there is a beam in your own (Matthew 7:3-5). No one took that to mean that people had giant two by fours coming out of their eye sockets. They got the point and understood the lesson.

I would offer that it is the same with that camel and needle thing, even though the disciples did not at first get it. Take a look at the context of this teaching.

A rich man approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments and names a number of them, significantly naming the last several that deal with how we love our neighbor but omitting those that tell us how to love God. Jesus does not contradict the man when he claims that he had kept those commandments his entire life. But he does tell him that he needs one more thing -- one difficult thing: To sell what he has, give it to the poor, and then follow Jesus. 

By this Jesus was showing the man that while he might have done a pretty good job of loving his neighbor (the Commandments that Jesus quoted to him), he was falling short in his love toward God (the Commandments he did not quote) because he was ranking his wealth before God.

In those days a form of the Wealth and Health Gospel had infected people's thinking. They believed that having great wealth was proof of God's blessing, which would imply that poverty was a result of God's disfavor. Even today many at the preaching of false teachers have fallen for this fallacy, which Jesus' statement to the rich man should surely contradict. That's why the disciples asked Jesus, "If the rich can't be saved, whom God is clearly blessing, then who can be?"  

Jesus, of course, said that with us it is impossible, but with God all things are possible, which happens to be a true statement about rich and poor alike.

The point to be made might sound almost heretical. Yes, we accept the Bible as the inspired word of God. But we have to be careful when we take things too literally.  We use figures of speech when we talk. We must also accept that Jesus did too.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Middle Verse

I'm thankful for the 2016 election cycle. The name-calling dysfunction and the distressing choices remaining to us have been good things because this messy milieu is a reminder of The Middle Verse.

It's true we long for real leaders who offer real solutions to real problems. It's true that we need statesmen whose prime interest lies in what is best for the country instead of their own pocketbooks and power base. And it's also true that such leaders get rejected in the election cycle in favor of those with a gimmick or a stunt. 

But this time around it has been a good thing to have clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right because it all serves as a reminder of The Middle Verse.

In the King James Bible The Middle Verse is in the 118th Psalm. That's the verse that has as many verses following it as it has before it. By chance more than design The Middle Verse reads, "It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man."  (Psalm 118:8) The 9th verse is much like it. "It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes." 

Or, as a friend once said, "Don't worry about who is in the White House or who is in the outhouse. God is still on his throne."

That seems like good advice not just for this year, but for all years.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Evil for the Greater Good?

A recent blog by Steven Woodworth exposes a fault line that can trap the best of us. Although his piece focuses on a specific presidential candidate, he exposes a universal principle that can entrap us should we become too enmeshed in an ideal, belief, or even religion. Christianity itself can be included in that formulation in spite of the New Testament offering explicit warnings about it.

Woodworth refers to a scene in George Orwell's novel 1984. Winston and Julia, who are determined to fight the tyranny of Big Brother are in a dialogue with O'Brien, who is holding himself out as a representative of an underground rebellion known as The Brotherhood. Here is the scene:

“You are prepared to give your lives?”

“Yes.”
“You are prepared to commit murder?”
“Yes.”
“To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?”
“Yes.”
“To betray your country to foreign powers?”
“Yes.”
“You are prepared to cheat, to forge, to blackmail, to corrupt the minds of children, to distribute habit-forming drugs, to encourage prostitution, to disseminate venereal diseases — to do anything which is likely to cause demoralization and weaken the power of the Party?”
“Yes.”
“If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child”s face — are you prepared to do that?”
“Yes.”

Woodworth notes that each succeeding question that O'Brien asks leads deeper and deeper into morally objectionable behavior and then ultimately into unspeakable cruelty. Thus the moral question is raised: how far are you willing to go in support of a good cause? Are you willing become no better than your enemy in order to defeat him?  Or, in the Apostle Paul's formulation, "Shall we do evil that good my come?" (Romans 3:8)

Study the history of mass movements and it becomes clear that revolutions against tyranny that might begin with the purest of motives so often descend into witch hunts and reigns of terror. The French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot .... we could go on and on.

It's worth noting that Jesus faced such a temptation. Just before he began his ministry he spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying (Matthew 4:1-11). At the end of those 40 days the Adversary himself showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. All of their glory and all of their power were flashed before him. We have only part of the conversation, and we can wonder if the devil knew that Jesus' ultimate purpose is to gain the whole world and set up the Kingdom of God, but doing it God's way rather than through intimidation and force. "Jesus," he might have said, "there is no need for you to have to go through all that suffering and pain to redeem the world and bring peace to it. I'll just turn it all over to you right now. You can save yourself a lot of trouble. The only thing you need to do is worship me and do things my way."

Jesus saw through this ruse and banished the Evil One from his presence. Later he reminded us that it does no good to gain the whole world if we at the same time lose our souls (Matthew 16:26). He had to be thinking about this temptation when he said that.

It's striking that Jesus never makes the devil's or O'Brien's requirement of us. In spite of the fact that people claiming to be Christian have profaned the name of Christ by their actions, Jesus was explicit in what he expects of us, and it is not doing evil in the name of a greater good.

Once when some of the disciples asked Jesus for special positions in his kingdom, he replied to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink of the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized?" They said they would able to do that, not realizing that the "cup" and the "baptism" of which Jesus spoke were persecution, trials, and martyrdom. (Mark 10:35-39)

The requirements Jesus always gave, and which we see repeated throughout the New Testament, are not commands to push the bounds of decency beyond recognition. Are you willing to suffer poverty for the cause? Are you willing to have friends and family turn against you? Are you willing to be hunted and persecuted like common criminals? And when all that is going on, are you willing to pray for those who persecute you, forgive those who wrong you, and love those who mean you harm? Will you turn the other cheek?

Jesus made many such statements, always leavening them with reminders of the need to love our enemies, to serve others rather than dominate them.  It's a radical departure from the ways of the world. You cannot do evil and hope that good will come. It is worthless to gain the kingdom and lose your soul.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Nicholas F. Cacchio: Faith, Flag, and Family

Let me tell you about my Dad. I can define his life with three simple words: Faith, Flag, and Family.  


With one of his favorite girls
Dad was born into a poor, immigrant family in Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania. He was the second youngest of eight children. His father could neither read nor write, and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was five. The burden of raising the younger siblings rested on his three older sisters.  Theirs was a close and loyal bond. They had no other alternative.

That little village in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania during those pre-World War II days was not the most accepting place for an Italian immigrant family, especially a poor one. And poor they were. The Great Depression was how they lived years before the 1929 Crash. For a while their home was an unpainted clapboard shack with no electricity and an outhouse for plumbing. Breakfast was a quarter-slice of bread, a fork doubled as a comb, and a rope served for a belt for donated pants that were way too big and were prone to fall down.

In the fall the boys would get picked up by a nearby farmer, and they would slave many days picking up and sacking newly plowed-up potatoes. Payment was in the form of a sack of potatoes per day. This is what they ate on all winter. Springtime meant planting a garden out of necessity more than pleasure, and the woods provided roots, herbs, and berries.

A family enduring that could easily disintegrate. This family grounded in loyalty and faith knit themselves tighter.

Dad used to tell the story of an old Civil War veteran whom he befriended. The old guy and toddler Dad would sit on a bench in town, the veteran leaning on his cane, grizzled and boney-fingered. A little math indicates this old soldier would have been born in the 1840s while John Quincy Adams was still walking the earth and only a few years after the death of James Madison, the Father of our Constitution.  That was the wingspan of the life of my father, who fellowshipped with a man born close to the Founding and also  touched the life of his 21st Century great grandchild.
Some soldiers in the 3938th

The day came when Dad would emulate his Civil War friend and answer his country's call. He served in the US Army's 3938th Gasoline Supply Company in Europe, serving primarily in France and Belgium. In essence his unit sat on top of a big, fat explosive enemy target. Part of his job was to transport gasoline to the front and escort a truckload of POWs back. It was him -- one guy with a rifle -- sitting in the back of a troop transport with thirty guys who spoke only German. "If they wanted to," he said one time, "they could have jumped me."  I'm glad they didn't want to.

On the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, I was sitting in my home in Lee's Summit, Missouri, and a little light went on. I'm a history buff, but it had never before occurred to my thick skull that "France" and "Belgium" in World War II meant "Normandy" and the "Ardennes Forest".  So I called him. After reminding him that he had been alive for more than a third of the time since the Declaration of Independence (see John Quincy Adams, above) -- he got a laugh out of that -- I asked him if he was in the Battle of the Bulge.  "Yeah. I was there," he said.
 
Somewhere in France (1945)

"What was it like?"

"The sky was filled with wave after wave of airplanes.  Tanks and military equipment all over the place. Lots of men. And it was very cold and and lots of snow. But we were young and we could handle it."

"We were young and we could handle it." No bragging. No bravado. He had a job to do and he did it. Typical of a generation that did its duty and performed it not for honors but because it had to be done.

In his Sunday best
Dad came home from the war and got a job at the Shredded Wheat plant in Niagara Falls. He met my Mom there, got married, had a family, bought a car and a house. As a kid I was incapable of understanding how the twin trials of poverty and the bloodiest conflict in history had shaped him. After saving the world for liberty and seeing his share of real blood and real guts, that house on 61st Street, a steady job, and the therapeutic effect of his garden in the backyard was really enough for him. By the time he was 25 he had experienced enough excitement for an entire lifetime. He took care of his family and made sure we had comfortable surroundings. That was all he wanted. And that's actually quite a lot.


I think Dad's happiest days were after his grandchildren came along. He always had a quirky sense of humor, but this was especially true with his granddaughters. They were the light of his life. One of his favorite bits of silliness was to make little word plays with common phrases. "Cheese Nips" became "Knees Chips". "Grape Nuts" became "Nape Guts". "Shredded Wheat" became "Wetted Sheets". And he loved working on his "cross-eyed" puzzles.

And then there were the Awful Waffles. Dad always liked to eat healthy, and whenever we visited with the girls, he would whip up a daily batch of whole grain and wheat germ fortified waffles for them. This was the kind of concoction that would hit your stomach and stay there all day. The girls loved them almost as much as they loved their grandpa.

We have talked about his love for family and his love for his flag. There was also his faith. What made Dad a hero was not just his service in the War. It was his simple commitment to earning an honest living and taking care of his family. The common man's devotion to these timeless principles preserves a nation. 

It was the same with his faith.
 
Dad and his brother Joe, August 2015

Dad was not a great theologian. He couldn't quote scripture or present a systematic theology. He had the simple, God-fearing faith of the common man. Tell the truth. Earn your own keep. Help other people when you can. Pray for others. Religious rituals are not the path to God. Dad knew there is a God. He had the kind of faith that there has to be a God who created so much beauty in the world, who holds the world together, and who will set the world to rights.

 Love God. Love your country. Love your family. Faith, flag, family. I'm going to miss you, Dad.

RIP. April 13, 1923 - March 7, 2016



 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Abigail

My friend Ramon Coleman gave a sermon recently about a woman named Abigail. You can read her story in I Samuel 25.

Abigail was the wife of a rich but foolish man named Nabal. More than foolish, Nabal was coarse and greedy, profane and selfish. He and Abigail lived in an area where the soon-to-be king David and his 600-man retinue were active, and those men, being honorable men, protected Nabal and his flocks from poachers and predators.

Nabal, crude as he was, returned the favor by delivering insults to David and his band. The verbal slugfest escalated into near warfare, with David vowing to kill Nabal and all his men.

Enter Abigail. She heard about the impending attack, and -- with cool head, wise words, and big heart -- she encountered David and his men on their way to attack and persuaded him to return to camp.

After the sermon my younger daughter asked me a question. "Why is it that we stereotype women as reacting with emotion?" A corollary question might be, "Why do we stereotype men as the ones who act on cool logic?"  Here is an example from Scripture of a woman acting with grace under pressure while the men were hurling insults at each other and going for their swords.  People might be surprised that this is what the Bible holds up as a good example of womanhood, but there it is right in the middle of the Old Testament.

Scripture confirms what we often see in life, that men's egos and pride often lead to emotional reactions with potentially lethal results. Just as important, the Biblical view of the ideal woman might not be what you have been told it is.


Saturday, February 27, 2016

A House Divided

Politics divides. The art of winning an election includes the use of wedge issues, which we can think of as issues raised to drive a wedge among the opponent's supporters in the hope of attracting their votes or at the very least getting them to stay home on election day.

 What might be necessary to win an election might not be good for the country as a whole. Consider this fable by Aesop:


A Lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them; but whenever he came they turned their tails to one another  so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon an end of all Four. (Cited in Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek, Penguin Group, copyright 2014, page 20)

Now take a look at videos from two Presidential primary debates. The first is from the 2016 campaign. If you can stand the entire 13 minutes, you have a better stomach than I do.




Now look at this from the 1980 primary.






 

Maybe those were more civil times, and maybe not. Regardless, this exchange informed voters on where the candidates stood. The issue could have easily been turned into a wedge issue. Instead, during a troubled time in our history, two men discussed rationally the issues at hand.

A house divided cannot stand. The Slanderer is roaming about as a roaring Lion to divide as much as he can.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Meditation on Zechariah 8:16 - 17

These are the things you must do: Speak truth to one another; make true and sound decisions within your gates. Do not plot evil in your hearts against your neighbor, and do not love perjury, for I hate all this—this is the Lord’s declaration. (Zechariah 8: 16-17, Holman Christian Standard Bible)
God makes four mandates here:

1.  Speak truth to your neighbor.

2.  Make true and sound decisions in your gates, "gates" being the place where legal matters were settled.

3.  Do not plot evil in your hearts against your neighbor.

4.  Do not love perjury.

When I was reading those two verses, the state of my country's political environment came to mind.  Imagine for a second a political campaign where each and every candidate applied these four rules. Imagine further our governmental institutions living by those principles during their deliberations. Such a milieu seems like a pipe dream given our contemporary experiences, but surely if enacted our viewing of the evening news would no longer be an exercise in blood pressure management.

But the blame for this state of affairs cannot be placed entirely at the feet of those in the public square. They act the way they do for one reason: it works! We the People allow them to succeed when they act like SOB's because we condone such behavior when it is our SOB's who are doing it.

If We the People have a role in the incivility of our times, We the People must take the lead in reversing it.

Currently I serve on two commissions established by the city in which I live. Because these appointments are overseen by city officials the deliberations have the risk of becoming politically charged. I was gobsmacked personally when I stumbled across that passage in Zechariah, and I took that as a mandate to personally repudiate today's standard practices in favor of the model of the Four Mandates, and to model it in such a way that it will appeal to the better angels of the other commissioners' nature. We can still disagree, for disagree we must, but we can at least raise the level of discourse so necessary in a civil society. 

In the one-man show Give 'em Hell, Harry , the newly inaugurated President Truman is depicted writing a letter to his daughter Margaret. The letter is likely fictional, but the sentiment is real:

And finally, Margaret, to be a good president I fear that a man cannot be his own mentor. He cannot live the Sermon on the Mount. He has to be a Machiavelli, a Caesar, a Borgia, an unctuous religio, a liar, a what-not to be successful.  So I probably won't be. But I'm having a lot of fun trying the opposite approach. Maybe it'll win. Lots of love, Dad.


In a fallen culture where Machiavelli and Borgia are the virtual patron saints it will be fun to try this, whether it be in the coffee house, the White House, or City Hall.

Post Script:  If you are wondering how the world would look if we practiced the Four Mandates of Zechariah 8, read that chapter in its entirety.