Thursday, December 18, 2014

What Would Harry Truman Think?

Independence, Missouri is home to the Truman Presidential Library. When I lived in that neighborhood I was a frequent patron of the place, and this die-hard conservative became a fan and admirer of a guy I probably never would have voted for.

On one of my forays into the facility the curators had on display a looping video with clips of television programming from the early 1950s. Other artifacts from the popular culture of the day were figures from our entertainment industry who were effectively acting as unofficial ambassadors of American good will abroad. Louis Armstrong. Bob Hope. Bing Crosby. Gene Kelly. Fred Astaire. Quite a parade of popular culture and values depicting optimism, family, integrity, and standards.

Our popular culture was a window to our society, seeking to highlight what was good about our country and values. Go to YouTube and watch some of those old TV shows.  You’ll see an image of America that the world saw through windows of our media. True, we did not always lived up to our standards, but at least we knew what those standards were.

Take a look at the window to the world that the United States projects today. We are the largest producer and exporter of both Bibles and pornography, an interesting and blasphemous dichotomy if you think about it. Our “tolerance” of every aberration – or, better said, our promotion of every aberration – and the propagation of it abroad paints a troubling picture of who we have become to more traditional cultures around the world.  Honestly, who would want to aspire to a world populated by Desperate Housewives?

If I were sitting in some Middle Eastern country, it would not be some dopey 14 minute video clip about the Prophet that would enrage me. It would be the importation of materials designed to turn my daughters into harlots. I too would be tempted to level the charge of “Great Satan” against such a culture. Don’t think this is not a factor in what we see in the world today.

Indeed, if I were the real Great Satan, I would be trying to infect the world, but especially the nation that has more Bibles than any other book on its shelves. I would offer them, more than any other nation, a healthy dose of heroin for the soul. I would do everything I could to enslave them to their passions. I would drug them up, sex them up, beef them up, and entertain them up, all at taxpayer expense.  I would distract them from little things like integrity, honor, service, and work. I would fill their minds with a curious mix of apathy, dependency, and fear instead of hope, faith, and self control. Then I would control them and their votes.

Psalm 11:3 – When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?

I wonder what old Harry would think?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Untold Story: David Flees Absalom

King David’s fortress was under siege. He managed to escape, but he was able to take with him his throne, the symbol of his authority.

One of the king’s servants had grown up in the countryside and knew of a loyal but poor subject who lived in a thatched hut not far from Bethlehem. They paid the servant’s friend a visit, and he agreed out of loyalty to hide the throne in his humble abode. To reduce the chance of the throne being discovered, they built a loft, hoisting the throne to it and covering it up with thatch and sticks.

The king and the servant left, fleeing for safer territory, promising to return when he achieved deliverance.

Absalom’s forces knew that David had fled and tracked him to the loyal subject’s thatched house.

“Did David come through here?”

“No,” the man replied, feeling guilty about lying, but knowing it was to save the king’s life.

“You’re lying!” yelled Absalom, and as he yelled, his entire company of soldiers chanted together, “Liar! Liar!” Again and again, louder and louder they yelled, “Liar! Liar!”

The poor man succumbed to panic and ran inside his humble hut, slamming the door shut. With all the tumult and noise, the throne was shaken from its perch and crashed to the floor below. The man was caught in his lie and paid a horrible price for helping David and sheltering his throne.

Now here is the moral of the story.

People who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Time to Stop Praying?

One time God told Moses to stop praying. If we accept that prayer is a good thing, why would God tell someone to cut it out?

God to Moses:  “Why are you crying out to me?” (Exodus 14:15).  Given the circumstances, I would think the question should be, “Why not?”

Here’s the story. Moses had just led Israel out of Egypt. Through his hand God had turned the Nile into blood, brought many plagues on the Egyptians, and with boldness he had led the nation to freedom. Now, shortly after this triumphant march from slavery, Pharaoh has a change of heart and decides to chase down the fleeing masses with his infantry and chariots in order to drive them back to their former state.

Why shouldn’t Moses cry out to God? Why would God object?

In this is a lesson about prayer. The newly freed Israelites had already cried out to God (verse 10), after which Moses tells them to do something: “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” (verse 13). There are indeed times when all we can do is stand still and wait. As the old saying goes, “Let go, and let God.” But in spite of appearances this was apparently not one of those times.

Thus God says to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me?” And then he says, “Tell the children of Israel to go forward” (verse 15).  It is time to get off your knees and into your hiking boots. Tell the people the time for standing still is over. Now is the time to do something about your situation.

We can make two grave mistakes regarding prayer. One is to think that we can get along just fine without God’s help. If we just work hard enough, sweat hard enough, and think clearly enough, we can make all the right things happen. I can put on my boots and fight my own way through the wilderness.

Or we can make the other mistake.  There is something to be said for on waiting for God, “standing still”, shall we say. It’s true that in some circumstances God’s strength is revealed through our weaknesses. But simply sitting in our pajamas while waiting for God can be just as bad as thinking we can do it all on our own. Most of the time God expects us to be actively involved in carrying out his will. “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the children of Israel to go forward.”

God could not have led them through the Red Sea had they had just stood still and waited.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

If God Is So Smart Why Did He Bother with Us?

Think about this. If God knew that the human race would be so much trouble, why did he even bother? We’re a cantankerous lot who can’t seem to get along. We argue, fight, and steal. We form cliques and gangs, manipulate each other, and even war against each other.

Many of us lack trust in and respect for the God who gave us life, some deny that he even exists, and some are even in outright rebellion against their own Creator.

In various places in Scripture we’re called sons of God (John 1:12; Romans 8:14, 19; Philippians 2:15; I John 3:1-2). In other places we’re called heirs of God (Romans 8:17; Galatians 3:29; Titus 3:17; James 2:5). So here we are, troublemakers in many ways, yet with the revealed destiny and reality of being God’s kids.

Maybe we should think of it this way. Many of us are parents. We wanted to have children even though we knew all about the Terrible Twos, the rebellious teen years, and the risk of heartbreak and disappointment. But we wanted kids anyway because of the joy and love that they bring. We want kids because we understand the joy there is in sharing and giving unconditionally and the hope of a legacy we can point to with satisfaction to the end of time.

Maybe, in spite of the trouble God knew we would cause, our Heavenly Father wanted kids for the same reason we want kids. He figures we’re worth the trouble and risk.

What do you think? Are we worth the risk?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why Did Jesus Spit?

Jesus healed the sick. Sometimes he would pray for them. Sometimes he would heal them with words. Sometimes he would lay hands on them. He even, at least one time, healed from afar.

And there were three times when he healed with his saliva. (Mark 7:31-33, Mark 8:22-23, John 9:11). Why did Jesus use such an odd medical procedure?

Why did Jesus spit?

We get a hint of the answer from the context of the three accounts of such healings we find in the Gospels. We’ll examine specifically the blind man in John 9 because there we get a hint of the context behind the practice.

The immediate context of this healing is a discussion (argument?) in John 8 between Jesus and the religious leaders about who exactly Jesus was.  The leaders accused him of demonic possession, of being a Samaritan, and of being of illegitimate birth.

Several times during this exchange Jesus subtly uses two words (“I am”) when referring to himself (“I am the light of the world”, “I am from above”, “I am not of this world”, “I am he”, “Now I am here”, “You will realize that I am he”), and in due time he is not so subtle (“Before Abraham was, I am”).

These words raised the hackles of his listeners because it is an echo of how God describes himself from the burning bush, where Moses was told the name of God: “I AM WHO I AM”, and “I AM has sent me to you”. (Exodus 3:13-14)

By the end of Jesus’ “discussion” with the religious leaders, they knew exactly what Jesus was implying about his identity, and they attempted to stone him to death for such blasphemy (John 8:59).

Jesus escapes their wrath and immediately encounters the blind man whom he heals with a paste made from dirt and his saliva.

So why did Jesus spit on the ground and put mud in the man’s eyes?

The answer might be understood in terms of the religious leaders own tradition. This act of Jesus was to reinforce his argument that everything he had said about himself was true.

Quoting from the Talmud, which represents the religious traditions and teachings of the rabbis of the day: “There is a tradition that the spittle of the firstborn of a father is healing, but that of the firstborn of a mother is not healing.” (Bava Batra 126b)

Let’s see how this fits the context, particularly in the previous chapter of John 8. Jesus repeatedly refers to his Father (verses 16, 17, 19, 29, 38, 42, 49). The religious leaders, who knew a bit of Jesus’ history, couldn’t resist reminding Jesus of their suspicions around the circumstances of his birth (“We are not born of fornication. We have one father – God. Verse 41), thereby insinuating that his birth was illegitimate.

When Jesus healed the blind man with mud mortared with saliva, he was (beg your pardon) spitting in the eye of his enemies. In effect he was saying, “I am who I say I am. I am the firstborn son of my Father, whom you claim to know, when in fact you are sons of the devil.

This event illustrates not only the lesson Jesus was trying to teach, but it also reveals how an understanding of the religious and cultural milieu of the day can enrich your understanding of the Book.

It also answers that beginning question, “Why did Jesus spit?”

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Four Curious Examples

God doesn’t always speak through his prophets. There are at least four instances in the New Testament where God’s message is made known through what we might think of as surprising sources.

1.  The Magi. These are the “wise men” that Matthew mentions in the Nativity story. History tells us that the Magi were essentially astrologers who originated in the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. Our English word “magic” is derived from a similar root as the Old Persian word “magus”.  In the Greek world, which was one of the dominant cultures of the Middle East in the First Century, the word “magian” often carried a negative connotation, as hinted at in the book of Acts (Chapter 8), where we are introduced to the Samaritan charlatan Simon Magus. Yet, it was through these Magi from the East that Herod received the startling announcement that the true King of the Jews had been born.

2.  Pilate’s wife. We know neither her name nor much about her except for what some subsequent traditions have purported. Her moment in history is in Matthew 27:19. This one significant event happens when Pilate finds himself struggling with how to deal with the confluence of Jesus’ obvious innocence, the political pressure applied by corrupt religious leaders, and the mob scene demanding action under the threat of a riot. Pilate’s wife enters the scene through a written message to her husband: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."

Pilate’ wife was telling the truth and giving a warning. and it raises a curious question related to Amos 3:7: “Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” Was Pilate’s wife an unwitting prophet?

3. The High Priest. John’s gospel relates a comment of Caiaphas the High Priest (“You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish") and of this John says, “Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.…” (John 11:50-52).

The High Priest, as we know, was one of the chief instigators of the persecution and execution of Jesus with the motive of retaining his political power at the expense of seeking truth and justice.  Yet here he is, spouting out inspired prophecy about what Jesus’ purpose was all about. “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation should perish.”

4.  The Girl at Philippi.  In the city of Philippi Paul is preaching the Gospel of Jesus, when he captures the attention of a young female soothsayer. She proclaims, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." Day after day she makes this proclamation until she becomes such an annoyance that Paul finally has to rebuke the demonic spirit behind this and driving it way.

What should we make of this? Is it as Jesus said, "Forbid him not, for he that is not against us is for us" (Luke 9:50)? 

Maybe it's to realize that God can use whomever he chooses, whenever he chooses, wherever he chooses? Maybe God will get his word out regardless of the receptiveness of the people, using messengers that hostile people might give an ear to? That he in fact will do nothing without first revealing his plans, whether to true prophets or unwitting ones? 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Baseball and Apple Pie

It has been decades since the Kansas City Royals have been a contender. During that drought and growing fan disinterest, I forgot how wonderfully and uniquely American the game of baseball is.

Baseball is a game where everyone takes turns.

Baseball is a game where the defense has the ball.

Baseball is a team sport, but the focus is on individual accomplishment.

In baseball, a 5’ 6” 140 pounder can compete successfully with a 6’ 4” behemoth.

Baseball is a game best watched on the radio.

Baseball is like the US Supreme Court. Even when the umpire is wrong, the decision still stands.

In baseball you can fail seven out of ten times and still be an All Star.

Of the two great American traditions – apple pie and baseball – baseball is better because it doesn’t have any calories.

Baseball’s unique construct -- a team sport where individual effort is spotlighted, honored, and rewarded in real time for all to see --  places it in a unique position for both player and spectator. When you are at the plate and the pitcher is hurling 95 mile an hour fastballs in your direction, your teammates can cheer you on, but you are basically on your own.

When you are standing in left field and the batter launches a shot down the line, it’s up to you to break properly toward the ball and maybe dive to catch it. Your teammates might be there to pick you up, but, again, you are on your own.

Tell me, what could possibly be more American than that?

Maybe that’s why fans bond with individual baseball players in a way that is different from any other sport. Ballplayers from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Joe DiMaggio to Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to George Brett are to this day, decades and even a century later, cultural icons in a way that other sports find difficult to match. And these players are remembered more for their individual exploits than the teams they played for.

And the ballplayers who broke the rules of good taste and fair play are held in ill repute more, or so it seems, than athletes from other sports. Players are held in derision who juiced their stats through steroids, and prominent players have been banned from the game for actions that brought embarrassment. Thus, for breaking the public trust and breaking the hearts of little boys, justice was served.

On the dais at Cooperstown, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. spoke about the special bond between player and fan, and more importantly the obligation of player to fan. Said Ripken:

“When I realized that I could use baseball to help make life better especially for the kids, baseball became a platform. By trying to set a good example, I could help influence young people in positive and productive ways. And some of this became apparent to me in my earliest playing days. So as my major league career unfolded, I started playing a little more attention to my actions. I remember when Kenny Singleton showed me a tape of me throwing my helmet down after a strikeout and all he said was, ‘How does that look?’ I remember learning about a family who saved their money to come to Baltimore to see me play. I got thrown out in the first inning and their little boy cried the whole game. I remember how I reacted with anger when dad was fired after an oh and six start, and after each of those events and others, I vowed to act better the next time. …

“As the years passed, it became clear to me that kids see it all, and it's not just some of your actions that influence, it's all of them. Whether we like it or not as big leaguers, we are role models. The only question is will it be positive or will it be negative.”
With apologies to Cal Ripken, Jr., I would add that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are also a role model, and as the man said, “the only question is will it be positive or will it be negative.” You represent someone, and when people see you, they expect to see a reflection of the one you represent.   “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Colossians 3:17)  Throwing one’s helmet does no honor to the game or to your calling.  We must be better than that, for people are watching.

I love both baseball and apple pie, but somehow I believe that Whom we represent is bigger than both.