Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sparrows Fall from Heaven

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.   And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matt 10:28-31 NIV)

Comforting words, those.  If God is aware of sparrows falling from the sky, how much more does he know of our travails!  Yet missed in this talk of God’s omniscience is a troubling fact:  sparrows do fall from heaven, and God does nothing to stop it.  Many sparrows have fallen in his sight, and not just sparrows.  People fall too.  It must grieve a loving God’s heart to see the sufferings of the ages.  Pestilence and storms.  Warfare and tyranny.  The suffering of martyrs.  Earthquakes and terror.  It has all been in God’s plain view, and just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, one must wonder if the Father’s heart is also grieved over the helpless falling of many sparrows.

I believe he does grieve, and I believe he can and does weep.  “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” God asks more than once.  (Ezekiel 18:31, 33:11 NIV)  And yet the sparrows continue to fall.  Because God’s purposes are beyond our poor power to understand, asking why can become an exercise in frustration. 

The “why” is important, but something else is more so.  Perhaps the better question when sparrows fall is not why, but what.  What am I going to do about it?  If a sparrow falls from the sky, do I curse the law of gravity?  Do I resign myself to the inevitable evils of the world?  Or do I nurse it back to health? 

When the storms of the world strike our brothers, do we curse God?  Do we languish in the misery of others?  Or do we rush to their aid and help carry them?  Paul calls us ambassadors for Christ (II Corinthians 5:20), and as such we need to be in the business of reconciliation.  The “what” is to be a tool in God’s hands, to offer the comfort, the support, the cold cup of water, the shelter over one’s head, or a hot meal to the fallen.

In such times, the fallen sparrows need Christ.  As his ambassadors we represent the God of the universe, and it is through us that God lights the world and reveals his love.  If we want to see God’s hand, perhaps it is at the end of our own arms.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

I Go, Sir!

"But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go, work today in my vineyard.' He answered and said, 'I will not,' but afterward he regretted it and went.  Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, 'I go, sir,' but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?" (Matthew 21:28-31 NKJV)

Do a study of the kings of the Old Testament, and be by how many began their reigns by honoring God, but then drifted from total commitment to apathy and eventually to complete apostasy.   

Even before Israel had a king, God had warned Israel of the dangers of power, money, and women and their corrupting influence upon national leadership (Deuteronomy 17:14 – 17).  Too few leaders either then or now have heeded this warning.     

Two kings, one an Israelite and one a Gentile, offer an object lesson.  The Israelite had all the advantages of a vision and mandate from God, all the wisdom the Holy Spirit could give,  peace, wealth, honor, and security.  God even talked to him in visions.  Yet he turned from God and built high places to Moloch and Chemosh.  That was the tragedy of Solomon.

The Gentile king began as a tyrant and a terror to the house of Judah.  He conquered and deported the entire nation.  He was pompous and powerful, and worshiped the false gods of his fathers.  Yet, near the end of his life, after an encounter with the true God, this Gentile king declared, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, all of whose works are truth, and His ways justice. And those who walk in pride He is able to put down.” (Dan 4:37 NKJV)

I once heard a preacher say that it’s not so much how you begin the race, but how you end it.  While that might not precisely true (one who runs the race correctly from start to finish has great advantages, it is certainly better to end well than begin well.  This we see in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21.  Saying “I go, sir” is not enough; it’s the act of going that counts 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

America’s Prophet

Here’s a book to put on your summer reading list.  It’s America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story.  Author Bruce Feiler draws on his Jewish and American roots to paint a compelling argument that America’s ideals and founding lie more in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the five Books of Moses, than in the New Testament.

This notion is not unique to Feiler. Heritage Foundation contributor Michael Novak has espoused the same idea, as has a1973 study by David Lutz and Charles Hyneman on the writings of the Revolutionary period.

From Columbus to Bradford to Franklin, from Tubman to Lincoln, from Lady Liberty to Martin Luther King, says Feiler, is the story of Moses.  Whether it be Moses the Liberator or Moses the Lawgiver or Moses the reluctant prophet, this prophet of the Jewish people provided the inspiration for most of the movements in our nation’s history that were reinforcements for the concept of liberty under law.

Feiler’s book is not just about interesting historical parallels, but the repeated citing of Moses and the Books of Moses by the movers of American History from its founding through the Presidential campaign of 2008.

Feiler gives us a much-needed reminder of the richness of our history, and he does so by celebrating both the blessings and responsibilities that freedom demands.  While acknowledging the warts of our nation’s past, he reminds us of the great, honorable moments of our history. Howard Zinn would not be pleased.

As he closes his book, Feiler reminds us to do one thing: to remember.  He refuses to surrender to the modern fad of blaming America first.  He acknowledges our imperfections, but holds out the example of Moses himself, who never reached the Promised Land, even as we have not yet attained the fullness of our ideals. Still, the story of that prophet of old -- his teaching, examples, and the story of his life -- point to something more than a simple Jewish tale. Moses offers us a universal truth that applies in a unique way to our American experience.

In reminding us to remember, Feiler writes::

“What will I tell my children about the meaning of Moses?   First, the power of story.  Exodus opens with a memorable statement:  ‘A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.’  The story begins with forgetting.  The pharaoh does not remember how a son of Israel saved Egypt from famine.  The rest of the Five Books of Moses become an antidote to this state of forgetfulness.  God hears the groaning of Israel and ‘remembers his covenant’ (Exodus 2:24).  Moses leads the Israelites from Egypt and urges them to ‘remember this day (Exodus 13:3).  The Israelites are ordered to ‘remember the Sabbath day’ (Exodus 20:8) and to observe Passover as a ‘day of remembrance’ (Exodus 12:14). Moses’ goal is to build a counter-Egypt.  He must construct a society that offers an alternative to ignorance and unknowingness.  He must devise a community that remembers. …

“I will tell my daughters that this is the meaning of the Moses story and why it has reverberated through the American story.  America, it has been said, is a synonym for human possibility.  I dream for you, girls, the privilege of that possibility.  Imagine your own Promised Land, perform your own liberation, plunge into the waters, persevere through the dryness, and don’t be surprised – or saddened – if you’re stopped just short of your dream.  Because the ultimate lesson of Moses’ life is that the dream does not die with the dreamer, the journey does not end on the mountaintop, and the true destination in a narrative of hope is not this year at all.  But next.”

Destroy a nation’s history and you will destroy a nation.  There are those among us who are attempting just that.  Bruce Feiler is not one of them.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Mick


Every boy needs a hero, and mine was Mickey Mantle, the great Yankee slugger of the 1950s and 60s.   That’s why I enjoyed the great summertime read The Mick, which is his autobiography.

Written in 1985, long after his baseball career had ended and after his admirers had grown to adulthood, it was a good, light read for this former Yankee fan, a sin for which I long ago repented.

Though Mantle softens some of the more raucous experiences of his baseball years, he does paint a portrait of himself as a flawed human being who did many foolish things, but a man who loved the game of baseball and loved being a New York Yankee.  His carousing and barroom brawls with his buddies Billy Martin and Whitey Ford make for great story telling, but the Mick is clear that his exuberance for living was fun at the time but foolish in the long run.

I was hoping for a redemption moment in his story, and after a manner there was one.  Mantle’s last few chapters discuss the strain his career and antics placed on his family, and that he never grasped that until after he had hung up his bat and glove.  The regret of not being there for his wife and boys from March to October during some very critical years was a palatable regret, but I was looking for more from this man that I idolized in my youth.

Mantle was clearly a religious skeptic.  He says that he began to doubt God when his father was diagnosed with cancer and given no hope.  The Mick had virtually no religious instruction as a youth and thus had no context in which to place the trials of life. 

Later in the book he speaks of Bobby Richardson, the great Yankee second baseman well-known for his deep faith and commitment to that faith.  Richardson conducted Bible studies for his Yankee teammates, and Mantle not only attended but recruited several of his fellow Yankees.  Then Bobby Richardson made a mistake.  Intentionally or not (I’m guessing not), Richardson embarrassed Mantle in front of his teammates by asking him if he would conclude their worship time by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.  Mantle did not know the Lord’s Prayer!  Feeling humiliated, he never went back.

This is an object lesson in how fragile people can be and the need to be sensitive to their unseen hurts and pains.  Psychological and spiritual injuries are every bit as real as a broken arm, but with a broken arm we can immediately recognize the injury.  You can’t tell that someone is hurting inside just by looking at them, nor can we always know what will act as a trigger.  Those who are in a position of encouraging and teaching others need a special bit of wisdom, a discernment that can only come from God.  

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?”

“You are prepared to commit murder?”
“To commit acts of sabotage which may cause the death of hundreds of innocent people?”
“To betray your country to foreign powers?”
“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?”
“If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child”s face — are you prepared to do that?”

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.