Piles of Faith

A pile is more than a heap of something; in construction terminology, a “pile” is a foundation element. Generally, it is a sturdy wood or concrete pier bored and poured deep into the ground upon which the rest of a building or bridge is constructed. In doing some morning reading, I encountered a book excerpt by James C. Turner (Cavanaugh Professor of Humanities at the University of Notre Dame). The excerpt observed:

“...intellectual problems of belief provide the clearest entryway into agnosticism...people seldom defined explicitly the basic rationale for their faith...So one cannot be sure which intellectual prop bore most of the weight of belief.”

Turner goes on to speak of the three most commonly given reasons for faith in the nineteenth century.  This particular quote however stuck out to me. A pile or pier foundation is only as good as its depth and material allow. A deep wooden pier is fine, but it may eventually succumb to termites or rot; a concrete pier is great, but if it is dug too shallow, then the entire building will drift out of square.

What are the piles of faith made of? They are surely composed differently from individual to individual, but have we ever taken a look at them? If one never bothers to inspect their spiritual foundation, it should come as no surprise when it develops problems that call to question the usefulness of faith itself. Many posit that faith is ultimately a matter of the heart, and that if you wait for it all to make sense in your head, you will never arrive at it.  While this is true to some degree, one can hedge their bets by looking to the witness of those believers gone on before us, and by periodically gazing into our own convictions.  

We must all make a leap of faith in order to accept Christ, but do not be too hasty to cast away the wings of logic and rationale, or you may not make the jump.

Teeth and Mountains

“Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future.” -Ecclesiastes 7:13-14 (NIV)

In my life, I have had extensive orthodontic work. Due to a dentally ruinous car wreck I suffered as a child, I have had brackets, braces, expanders, retainers, extractions, and even a couple surgeries. In spite of all of that, my bottom teeth are yet snaggled, I am one tooth shy of a full-mouth, and I have a backwards bicuspid.

The best efforts of money and man could not straighten my teeth. This realization led me to consider the mountains of the world; what would it take to make all the mountain chains on this blue planet line-up in a straight line? Hard to say, but I imagine that every bulldozer in the Caterpillar catalog wouldn’t even begin to make a dent in such an undertaking.

Some things, much as we may hate to admit it...simply are not meant to be. The above text from Ecclesiastes has a parallel in the New Testament, that I count among my favorite biblical texts: “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Is this a difficult pill to swallow? Can it be true that God allows/causes bad things to happen?

Absolutely...at least as far as we humans can see.

What makes some occurrence a “bad thing”? Surely it is the result(s) of whatever said occurrence is right? If I park my car close to a building, my walk is shorter. Behold! A good thing. If however, I were to park my car close to a building, and it slipped out of park and hit a child while I was away...well, that would be all measures be a bad thing. When a human declares that God does not exist, or that God is evil after a (series of) unfortunate events, what they are (theologically) doing is assuming that they know just as much as God, or at the very least, they assume that they are aware of what God’s ultimate goal(s) for the universe are. Those would be painfully proud claims coming from Socrates...let alone you or I.  Our vision as people is too often limited to focusing on the immediate bad, rather than the horizon of God's good.

Sometimes, we are in desperate need of divine binoculars.  Sometimes, things are not meant to be straight and neat. No matter how much one may work or wish otherwise, sometimes life will be crooked and craggy. Sometimes people will be incorrigibly cattywampus...but that’s okay, as there is indeed a God who can move people, for he has been moving mountains for millennia*.

 

 

 

*For more information on how, please reference any number of quality Earth Science textbooks; plate tectonics is a pretty fascinating bit of business.

Good Friday

What about Good Friday is good if it marks the day Jesus died?  It is easy enough to say that Jesus' death was "good" in that it saved mankind.  Yet, somehow so brief an explanation as that just doesn't seem to do the crucifixion justice as an event that changed history.  The words seem pitifully inadequate. 

This isn't an uncommon occurrence when one tries to use something as mundane as language to describe the workings of God.  Consider something as basic and essential as the doctrine of the Trinity...most all Christians could give you a rudimentary explanation of the Trinity: "It means that God is one being in 3 persons."  While that explanation is accurate, it raises more questions than it answers. 

This disconnect is just the logical threads of human experience failing to wrap around the divine perspective of God.  To man, 1 isn't 3, death isn't good, and celebrations are not unhappy.  That is what this day is however.  Today is an unhappy celebration of the radical, life-altering, time-changing truth of Christ's sacrifice.  Today marks the day that the God-man Jesus Christ suffered and died so as to bring eternal hope and joy.

Black & White?

To those of you who may be unaware...I am a fan of comic books.  So, I was understandably thrilled when my wife recently snagged me a very cool piece of art depicting the hero known as "The Question".  Perhaps you have never heard of The Question; that is understandable, as he is a bit of an obscure hero.  Many of you have probably heard of a certain more-famous character based off of The Question however: Rorschach from "The Watchmen".  Named for his "Ink Blotch" mask, Rorschach saw the world strictly in black and white...there was good; there was evil, and the two never mingled. 

Rorschach:  Great in comics...not so great in exegesis.

Rorschach:  Great in comics...not so great in exegesis.

While a staunch black/white rendering of the world seems an attractive way of looking at things, we should refrain from attempting to read the Bible in such a way.  

There are certainly absolutes in scripture: God is good and sin is bad.  However, this simple approach does not work when it comes to the people we see in scripture.  Who comes to mind when we think of biblical heroes?  Jesus certainly, but also Moses, David, Solomon, and Elijah.  Beyond these giants, we have prophets, Old Testament Judges, and even mere commoners who were chosen by God to be instrumental in the long arc of salvation.  

Aside from Christ...all of these characters were, in the end, people.  They were flawed, they worried, they doubted, and they sinned.  Sometimes in truly abhorrent fashions (see Jephthah).  So what is to make of them?  Well...their stories, ugly though they may be at times, yet serve to educate us and inform our faith.  I certainly would not endorse emulating some "Biblical Heroes", but rather we are to learn from them.  

People seldom fit into the neat little boxes we would like them to.  As you continue in your walk with Jesus; as you continue to grow and nurture your faith, avoid the temptation to read scripture with a good-guy/bad-guy mentality.  After all, apart from Christ, we are all bad-guys in some way...and accepting that my friends, is the first step towards repentance.  

 

When do we Arrive?

Last night at youth group, an interesting discussion broke out about how to know when one is "Christian enough".  Many times, we are made to feel...well, just plain not holy enough.  This is the wrong line of thinking however.  Course, one could spill a lot of theological ink delving into this, but I think a more tidy solution can be deduced.  

Often it is said that living the Christian life is doing what God wants you to do; while that is easily remembered it isn't exactly 100% right.  Rather, living the Christian life is doing what God wants to do through you.  

Is that not a distinction without a difference?  No, and here's why: 

When you seek to live as (you think) God wants you to, you will find yourself locked into moral conundrums...instances where the right thing to do, may seem to be a sinful thing.  Thus, you avoid sinning so as to call yourself righteously aligned with God, whilst what God sought to bring about goes ignored by you.  Crazy no?  

Consider Mark 14:1-9.  In the account, Jesus is being treated to dinner with a group of religious folk.  A woman comes in with a pricey bit of perfume and pours it on Jesus' head.  On the face of it, this is an extravagance on the lady's part; yet, Jesus winds up commending the woman, but not his dinner hosts.  Why?  Did they not both go to some expense to do something nice for Jesus?  A dinner party certainly costs money, just as perfume does...why was it not positively accounted by Christ?  

The heart of the matter is that it is quite literally a heart matter.  Both the religious folks and the woman off the street did something good for Jesus, but the woman acted in such a way that she intended it to bring glory to Jesus; she anointed him.  The hosts merely met an obligation that fringed Jesus...they acted as good and hospitable Jews such as the law commanded.  No more, no less.  Yet despite their acting as God ostensibly wanted, they actually were not.  

This is really a bit of a paradox, but such is the gospel (don't believe me? have a look at the beatitudes).  You don't exactly arrive at the Christian life, you simply do it...yet if you are doing it simply for sake of obedience, you are doing it wrong.  In all things, aim to give God glory...but don't do it because the preacher-man told you so.  Rather, work for the glory of God because it is for joy...for you, your neighbor, the rule of today, and indeed the promised coming Kingdom of tomorrow. 



How'd we get the Bible? (more info than you probably wanted)

Every few years, a news story will pop-up about someone finding "a lost book" of the Bible.  Usually, these stories are good for a few clicks on the internet, and then nothing else is heard.  Such stories do raise a question for curious minds though: how did we wind up with the Bible we have today?  How do we know not to add new books to it?  These questions also come up in youth group often.  After all, if a child starts to study something, they will naturally have questions about it.  So...how did we get the Bible we have today? 

At the most basic level, we obtained the Bible we now know through consensus...or widespread agreement.  The list of books that is recognized as being "official" by Christians is called the canon, from a Greek word meaning "reed"; this because reeds were used in ancient times as a measuring stick. 

As one might imagine, the Old Testament came first, and Christians largely inherited it from Judaism.  Christians primarily used the Greek translation of the Old Testament however, and as a result they came to include "apocryphal" books in the Bible...such as 1 & 2 Maccabees.  These books were stripped from protestant Bibles some 1000 years later by Martin Luther, who judged the authority/importance of scripture based on its testimony of Christ.  Thus, he had no use for the historically accurate but none-too-devotional Maccabees, the late-comer Sirach, and so forth.

The New Testament canon was formed in a somewhat more straightforward manner.  The writings of the Apostle Paul were among the earliest Christian documents created, and were nearly universally accepted as authoritative.  Until the persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero (64-68 AD) claimed the lives of the most illustrious apostles, there was no compelling need to have a written account of Christ.  It did not take long for the gospels to come into being after this development however; the gospel of Mark was created in 67 AD, while the rest appeared over the course of the next 30 years. 

Jesus proved to be a rather popular figure however, and there was a great deal of "Jesus fan-fiction" floating around.  Throughout the Roman empire, churches utilized gospels, Paul's letters, and a mish-mash of Hebrews, the Shepherd of Hermas, Jude, 2 Peter, Revelation and so forth.  The need for a more concrete list of official books came about as the result of a Roman heretic named Marcion.  Expelled from his church for "defiling a virgin", Marcion started his own church and created a list of official books, including the gospel of Luke and 10 letters of Paul.  Marcion was very anti-Jewish however, and the books he accepted were all heavily edited (by himself) to reflect a bias against Jews, as well as a preference for cult-ish, gnostic ideas. 

In response to the danger to the faith presented by Marcion, councils were called, and some of the leading Bishops of the time put their heads together...eventually agreeing and accepting as authoritative the set of New Testament writings we now have today.

 

 

Bible History in 25 Points

Now that we are once more in the thick of Sunday School season, I often find myself answering questions about where and when certain Bible events occurred, or being asked what historical bits of the Bible are most important and such.  Answering those questions can sometimes get very complicated, so I put together a chronological list of the major events that had an impact on the world of the Bible.  Enjoy!

1. Abraham (2000-1900 BC or so) -> Isaac -> Jacob & his 12 sons

2. Slavery of Israelites in Egypt

3. Exodus under Moses (1440 BC, 1250 BC, or 1220 BC)

4. Sinai and the giving of the Law -> desert wandering

5. Conquest of Canaan (the Promised Land) under Joshua

6. Time of the Judges

7. United Kingdom of Israel (Saul, David, and Solomon)

8. Temple is built in Jerusalem during reign of Solomon

9. Kingdom splits North/South after Solomon’s death, in part due to economic issues associated with the lavish nature of his reign (922 BC or so): Israel in the North, Judah in the South

10. Assyrian empire becomes world power

11. Assyrian empire conquers Northern Kingdom of Israel (720 BC)

12. Neo-Babylonian Empire becomes world power

13. Babylonians conquer Judah and level Jerusalem (March 16, 597 BC). Surviving Jews are sent away to Babylon in exile.

14. Persian Empire becomes world power

15. Jews returned to Palestine; 2nd temple of Jerusalem is built.

16. Alexander the Great conquers Persia, and much of the known world (spreading Greek culture and language)

17. Antiochus Epiphanes forces Greek values and religion on the Jews: outlaws the Sabbath, executes those in possession of Torah scrolls, and sacrifices a pig to Zeus in the temple of Jerusalem (the “Abomination of Desolation”, 167 BC)

18. Judas the Maccabee (Judas the Hammer) leads a rebellion and, against all odds, wins Jewish independence; cleanses and recommits the temple in Jerusalem (164 BC, the Jewish holiday Hanukkah celebrates this event)

19. Roman Empire conquers the known world, and gains control of Palestine.

20. Herod the Great made ruler over most of Palestine. He begins enlarging and remodeling the temple in Jerusalem (20 BC).

21. Jesus of Nazareth ministers to the region, proclaims himself to be the Messiah, and is crucified in 30 or 33 AD.

22. Resurrection of Jesus on Easter, his Ascension, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost creates the Christian Church. The preaching of the Gospel about Jesus to the world begins.

23. Earliest Christian documents are written (Paul’s letters are some of the first, earliest one included in the Bible believed written in 54 AD. Gospel of Mark written between 64-69 AD)

24. The Jews rebel against Roman rule. The revolt ends in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans (70 AD).

25. The Jews rebel against the Romans again, led by a man named Bar Kochba, in 132 AD. The revolt is crushed and Jews forbidden from living in Jerusalem. The city is rebuilt, renamed, and transformed into a pagan city.

"How much does it cost?" "What's it worth to you?"

Recently, Pastor Drew delivered a sermon on the text of Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler.  If you are unfamiliar with the text, the story is simple...one day, a man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit the Kingdom of God.  Jesus tells the man to sell all that he has, and follow him.  Being rich and possessing of much, the man goes away sad. 

The emphasis of the tale can be interpreted in several ways, but the constant is that the man did not anticipate the high cost of following Christ.  Jesus didn't demand that the man give him the money, nor did he tell the man to sell all his goods for the benefit of the synagogue.  Jesus was more concerned with the receptivity of the man to God...he knew the man's stuff would become a fence between the man and the will of God. 

While this is an adequate recap of the sermon, there is an aspect of this story we too often gloss over...the idea of cost.  Following after Christ is not supposed to be easy.  It is supposed to be costly.  Too often in church, we spend so much time on making the gospel accessible and easy...we talk of how with God "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light", that we forget that the same Jesus quoted there in Matthew 11:30 also told us in Luke 14:28-35 that we should be sure to have enough money to complete the towers we start to build. 

When we sit and think about what it means to be a disciple...when we consider what "Come Walk With Us" entails...when we begin to knock that the door might be opened for us, we must remember that the cost of following Christ is high.  God expects us to live in such a way that he is ever glorified through us, and in a way in which the Son is ever visible (Colossians 3:23).  Never stop building the tower of faith whose foundation was laid in you long ago.  Never let "stuff" bar you from the kingdom of heaven, and (in spite of the poetic wisdom of Robert Frost) do not let your own fences and hang-ups define your neighbors (Luke 10:29-37).

On Sin, God, and Infinity

When speaking of sins and God, the question of “which sins are the worst?” often comes up. The answer tends to vary wildly from person to person; whatever the reply, the logic is almost always rooted in personal opinion. Well...what does the Bible say? Does it speak to this at all?

First and foremost, we must acknowledge that the Old Testament laws do seem to punish/compensate different actions in different ways (see Leviticus 5, 19, 20, & etc..). However, Jesus seems to raise (yet even-out) the stakes in this regard in Matthew 5:21-28. Therein, he equates animosity with murder, and lust with adultery. Harsh. Accordingly, Paul states in Romans 3:23 that all have sinned and need a savior equally badly.

On the other hand, Christ himself seems to declare that there are “levels” of sin quite clearly in John 19:11: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

What do we make of this?

Consider for a moment the concept of infinity...a big idea, but one we must grapple with occasionally as befits our infinite God. Something infinite is something which goes on forever and ever. God is characterized as being infinitely good...because his goodness knows no limits. From Paul’s writing in Romans, we know that we are all in need of redemption by God on account of our sins. Put another way, our sin (degree of bad) makes us infinitely distant from the definition of “true good” (as good as God). Regardless of whether it is a bucket or a truckload of sin, the result is the same...infinite distance from God. So to God, sin is sin...big or little, it still drives a wedge between God and man.

Great! So all sin is equal...but what about that quote from John?

Consider the situation Jesus was in...he was before the Roman authority of his area. He had been wronged, not necessarily in a cosmic/eternal sense, but in a very human sense. One of his best friends (Judas) had betrayed him and was an accomplice in a scheme of trumped-up charges. Pilate on the other hand, was merely doing his job...handling a court-case. Though Jesus was fully God, and can thus never be completely removed from a cosmic perspective, he was also fully human, and thus prone to human emotions such as pain.

Jesus was pained by what Judas did to him. Though he knew it was coming, the expected blow hurts no less than the unexpected one. In God’s eyes, all sins are equally heinous. To man’s emotions and psyche however, they are not; to man (even the God-man Jesus), some sins strike very close to home, and it is only right to acknowledge these personal slights and betrayals as the most bitter.

Ike, Levi, Zed, Jeremy, and Jesus

This past summer, the church Sunday School examined the Gospel of Luke.  At one point, special attention and discussion was held over Luke 4:16-30.  The text speaks of Jesus' proclamation of himself to his hometown-crowd in Nazareth; he paraphrases Isaiah 58:6, and directly quotes Isaiah 61:1-2.  

When Jesus does so, he is not just fulfilling scripture though.  Certainly, he is indeed doing that, but there is a distinct reason that Christ chose these particular bits of Isaiah.  There are myriad Old Testament scriptures pointing towards Jesus that would have worked, but Christ chose this text.  Jesus seldom did anything arbitrarily, and that holds true for this text.  

Consider the whole of Isaiah 61...the chapter speaks of "The Year of the Lord's Favor".  What is this year of the Lord's favor?  Judging by the content and context of the chapter, it would seem right and fitting to equate this "Year of Favor" with the Jewish "Year of Jubilees" (Leviticus 25:8).  The Year of Jubilees was to be a special time that happened once every several years, wherein slaves would be set free, debts would be forgiven, and life in general would hit the reset button.  

However, there is no historical evidence that the Jewish people ever actually observed the time of Jubilees.  This is perhaps understandable...after all, can one imagine what a dramatic change would occur if every personal debt in America was forgiven tomorrow?  Things could get pretty chaotic, and it would be an accountants worst nightmare.  However, there is one exception to the complete dismissal of this command from Leviticus.  

In chapter 34 of the book of Jeremiah, things are very bad for the nation of Judah.  The armies of Babylon are ravaging the land, and things look rather grim.  It is then that Zedekiah, King of Judah, does something remarkable...he proclaims freedom for the slaves (Jeremiah 34:8).  Zedekiah proclaims the year of Jubilees!  That would be great news, for though the nation was in trouble, it's people might experience a new lease on life.  Yet, it was not to be.  Catching up with Jeremiah at verse 11 and 16, we see that despite Zedekiah's effort at reform...the people just couldn't let go.  

There is some argument as to whether the owners took their slaves back by force, or simply waited for these people with no capital, connections, or opportunities to fall back into debt.  What is clear however, is that the fortunate were reluctant to proclaim deliverance to their brethren in bondage.  This same theme can be observed in the resentment held in the heart of the prodigal son's elder brother (further, that famous parable is found only in Luke; likewise Jesus quote of Isaiah).  

So what is to be learned from this motley assortment of kings, authors, quaint holidays, and prophets?  

Simply, that regardless of circumstance, sensibility, or precedent, we should never be reluctant to share the true liberty that is found in the redemptive power of Christ.  Whether one is in bondage to sin, hopelessness, envy, or debt, the Day of the Lord brings the eternity of Jubilee...and all are invited.

Waves and Particles

If a person were to Google the word "light", they would probably see some Wikipedia entries and science articles explaining that light is a form of radiation that behaves as both particles and waves...composed of photons and so forth and so on.  Physics is fascinating yes?  

There is a strange irony of light that somewhat escapes scientific observation however; by itself, light is essentially invisible; and yet everything is invisible until light strikes it.  So it is with God: we cannot see him, but "in his light" (under his loving influence) we see and understand his love in all that surrounds us.  God's overwhelming generosity stands in complete contrast to the self-important scheming of human beings.  In church, light is often spoken of, and in fact, light seems to have been a favored metaphor of the Biblical authors for a number of things (the word is used around 272 times in scripture).  Fittingly, "light" seems to beam in both word and concept from every page of scripture. 

I am reminded of a blues song by the rock duo "The Black Keys", the chorus of which refrains: "You know what the sun's all about when the lights go out."  How frightful a thought that is to entertain!  We must not become entitled to the brilliant daily grace God begets us, but rather we must seek to interpret all aspects of our daily life in light of that grace.  If indeed we as Christians become blind to the light made visible in Christ for us, who then shall be left to lead the sightless out of the dark?

 

Church: Simple Things

Often times in church, we make much ado about nothing; we sweat problems, drama, and operating duties that ultimately have little to do with the Gospel.  It can be useful to take a step back from time to time and take a spiritual inventory: are we seeking God?  are we serving God?  are we "being Jesus" in the lives of our friends, families, coworkers, and social circles?  One can be faithful and indeed grow in faith without necessarily attending bible study eighteen times a week (indeed, Bible study as we think of it today was impossible for believers prior to the invention of the printing press in 1440), but what of something simple that we often times neglect?  What of Worship?  

The word "worship" comes to us from the Old English term weorthscipe, which was a term used to reference a "person of worth".  In our tradition, God alone is worthy of true worship as he is supreme.  In the Old Testament however, "worship" is presented and expressed using a variety of terms: "to bow down", "to serve", "to seek the face of the LORD", "to seek", and "to draw near to (God)".

Notice that these are all active terms.  Worship is an action...it is an activity presented by the worshiper.  In scripture, worship is never an item of consumption...it is not something one observes, orders a certain way, or sits in the audience for.  Rather, worship is something offered. 

Worship keeps our love relationship with God alive.  We praise his attributes, confess our failures to him, hear his promises and share our concerns with our creator.  When true worship ceases, our relationship with God begins to grow cold.

How do you worship?  When do you worship?  What do you regard as being "of worth"?  If these questions bring cause for hesitation...perhaps it is time to take a spiritual inventory and take action, come walk with us.

 

Passionate People

Wow, it has been too long since I have been able to gather my thoughts and write a blog for all you intrepid readers!  It has been a crazy summer for us here at First Presbyterian; we have had a PW triennium to attend, a mission trip in Arkansas to labor on, and I myself just recently returned from a week long excursion to Camp Carew.  This is all great news however, as to quote St. Jerome: "Facito aliquid operis, ut te semper diabolus inveniat occupatum."  (always do something, so the devil finds you occupied) 

Speaking of Saints, it seems a fair statement to say the Saints were people who were passionate about things above (Col 3:2).  While I was at Camp Carew, I was blessed to speak with someone who had a passion for Sociology.  She was a college senior, and I was captivated as she spoke over lunch about all that she had learned in her college courses about social systems and structures.  While I know precious little about sociology personally, it was interesting to listen to someone speak passionately about something they love. 

Do we let our passion's show through?  I was once friends with a man who seldom spoke of anything apart from RC airplanes.  As a result, I became somewhat familiar with the terms and principles of the hobby.  Are you passionate about the Kingdom of God?  Is Christ a stone's throw from your tongue in good times as well as bad?  If asked about you, would your friends and relatives list you as a Christian above all other qualities...would it crack the top 5? 

As Christ passionately bore pain for our sake, let us to passionately bear his gospel in hope for all.

Revolution

Revolution is a popular idea.  In 1968, The Beatles observed that we all want revolution, because we all want to change the world.  Truly, even if an individual sees himself as too small to change the world of his own accord, he no doubt longs to see change come about in it.  People clamor for justice, progress, security, and well-being. 

Unfortunately, revolution is not easy.  Robert Frost once mused that "the one-man revolution...(is) the only revolution that is coming."  No one can guarantee that another person will go-with-the-flow in times of change, and thus, many an order has avoided upheaval throughout history.  Such failures can break the heart of a revolutionary.  However, one must remember that any reorganization of society, laws, or governors is simply a new arrangement of sinners.  So really, why should anyone put their hope in the schemes of man? 

It is true that the only revolution one can assure is a one-man revolution...God has blessed man with a small degree of self-determination in this chaotic world.  Though the LORD knows the outcomes, and has placed all contingencies, any change ultimately starts in the heart of a person.  This was exhibited by Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler, Jesus' disciples pleading with him to increase their faith, and countless other times throughout scripture. 

So ya say ya wanna revolution?  Look to God, start with yourself, and you may just change the world.

George Whitefield on Adam and Eve

If you were to ask a professing Christian in America who the greatest preacher of all time was, they would probably respond with Jesus, and Billy Graham...in that order.  However, if you asked that question in the years leading up to the American Revolutionary War, the name George Whitefield would almost certainly come up.  George Whitefield was an open-air preacher who toured the American colonies throughout the 1700's until his death in 1770.  During his life, he was likely the most famous person in what would later be known as the United States of America.  George could rivet the attention of hundreds (even thousands) at a time, and he spun truly beautiful sermons...at times extemporaneously.  Here is a quote from his sermon "The Seed of the Woman, and the Seed of the Serpent".  

"Thus, when men sin, they lay the fault upon their passions; then blame and reflect upon God for giving them those passions.  Their language is, 'the appetites that thou gavest us, they decieved us; and therefore we sinned against thee.'" 

How very true are these words.  In the first story of the Bible, Adam and Eve are disobedient unto God; when they are questioned, both are quick to point blame away from themselves.  This is rather common knowledge.  However, consider how Adam in particular tries to deflect blame for his actions:  "..the man said, 'the woman which you gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat'".  

Some will notice that Adam seems to be blaming Eve for his actions...and this is in part true.  However, Adam is actually blaming God.  Essentially, Adam is griping that it is because God gave him a wife that he fell...had God never given him that darn woman, then none of this would have happened!  Ironically, God's helper and companion to Adam, becomes little more in Adam's eyes than a live-in-enemy of sorts.  George Whitefield picked up on this quirky aspect of the text and was calling attention to it.  

I cannot help but to think just how little has changed; as Adam blamed his downfall on God via his own passion for a companion, so do many in the world today blame their moral failings or religious backsliding on God through passions they see as originating in him.  Married men seek pornography and easy thrills while blaming God for an un-intimate wife.  Young people seek solace in destructive behavior while accusing God of placing them in an unloving home or lonely place.  Most compellingly, we perhaps see shades of this human inclination amongst the homosexuals, as they reason: "Had God not wanted me this way, then he would not have made me this way."  

Sin is a difficult topic, but if the great George Whitefield can teach us anything of it, it is that we so often use it as an enabler and a scapegoat for our own enmity against our creator...a being so superior to us we can do little else than rage against our own fallibleness in comparison to his grandeur. 

Where are they now? Apostles Edition

Whilst doing my usual rounds on the internet this week, I found an interesting diagram detailing the passing of the Apostles.

This diagram is quite accurate*, although knowing whether the remains housed in their respective locations are the actual apostles is quite hard to prove.  Does anything jump out at you about the deaths of the apostles? 

  • Consider that nearly half of the apostles were crucified. (see Luke 9:23-24) 
  • Consider that Thomas was killed by a puncture wound. (see John 20:24-29)
  • Consider when James the greater died.  He only survived Jesus by about 10 years, despite being one of the "inner three" of Peter, John, and himself. (see Mark 10:35-45)
  • Consider that James the Lesser, also known as James the Just**, was the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:18-19), yet did not believe until after the resurrection (Mark 3:20-21).  In spite of that fact, he went on to be the leader of the Jerusalem church, even advising Peter and Paul (Acts 15:12-20).
  • Consider that Andrew and Peter requested to be crucified on crosses other than the traditional Latin cross (the T shaped one), because they did not believe themselves worthy of dieing in the same way Christ did.  Despite this, their own crosses become renowned, and Andrew's in fact graces the flag of Scotland. 
  • Finally, consider Judas...whose shameful death came all too early.  Had Judas not given up, what work might he have done for the gospel?  Only God knows.  

* : A compelling case has been presented by Dr. David A. DeSilva, distinguished professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary, that John of Jesus' 12 disciples was not the author of the gospel of John, or the book of Revelation.  While not ruling out a natural death in 100 A.D., that particular date is decided upon in large part due to the year of the writing of Revelation.  If John didn't write it, and thus didn't have to live until 100 A.D., it is unlikely he would have as he would have been quite aged by that point. 

** : There is some disagreement over whether or not James the Lesser and James the Just are the same person.  The diagram assumes they are the same person.  If they are not, then the diagram actually gives us information on James the Just, brother of Jesus.  In that case, James the Lesser becomes a separate person who we know virtually nothing about aside that he was an Apostle, and a son of Alphaeus.  Some who hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, such as Roman Catholics, translate James the Just as the cousin of Jesus rather than his brother, a natural son of Mary of Joseph.

Awesome: more than a Mt. Dew Commercial

As a millennial, I remember a time in the late 90's or early 00's when everything became "awesome".  Personally, I blame Tony Hawk Pro Skater and the Sony Playstation, but regardless...everything from junk food to sneakers began being X-treme! and exciting.  I sometimes get nostalgic about this time and yearn for a Mt. Dew Code-Red, but more often nowadays, I reflect on how mundane the awesome became. 

When was the last time you were truly in awe of something?  I have seen parents become filled with awe at the birth of new life, or the uttering of a first word, but what of the rest of us?  What is there in this world that can truly slap us across the face with wonder and force us to acknowledge our own ignorance...or even insignificance? 

I can only bring a couple moments readily to mind; once was while I was taking Communion in a parking lot in California.  I was gathered with a small group of friends, and we were praying before celebrating our meager meal of faith.  When we had said amen, I bent down to help with the "elements", and noticed that our gas-station bottle of grape juice had somehow been knocked over and was spilling out onto the pavement and was soaking our hamburger buns.  Our leader and I both rushed to upright the bottle, but paused. 

The blood soaked the body, and spilled onto the ground.  I cried, and in that moment, nothing else in all creation mattered.  Something extraordinary sprang from the mundane...but objectively, there was nothing but asphalt, the wind, and some sad-looking groceries.  Perhaps the 90's were right, maybe everything is awesome; we're just trying too hard to "make it" happen when we should be waiting for it to.

That's in the Bible...Right?

Relevant Magazine is a pop-culture magazine for 20-somethings which tries to examine and engage the world from a Christian perspective.  Occasionally, they publish articles I find worthy of sharing.  This is one of them.  http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/7-unbiblical-statements-christians-believe

Since I cannot leave well enough alone however, I must add that #3, while correct, does not acknowledge that all peoples are yet bearing the image of God in a created sense, and are thus worthy of dignity and respect.  Non-believers may not be our brothers and sisters, but we can look at them like cousins...maybe 2nd cousins.  

Additionally, I must point out that #5 is commonly refuted by savvy Bible readers who quote 1 Corinthians 10:13.  However, that verse only specifically addresses temptation and not overall burden.  God overburdens us all the time; sin is a burden of debt we cannot bear, and that is to say nothing of personal tragedies and all the other things which come along and trouble us in our lives!  The weak man does not appreciate the strong until he must move something...in the same way, man forgets God until he must lean on him.

The Old Testament: Who can say?

This past Palm Sunday weekend, we had a "Disney Devotional" movie night for our Presby Kids.  We watched The Prince of Egypt (technically a Dreamworks picture, but who's really keeping track?).  The movie tells the story of Moses and the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt.  The focus of the devotional was the Jewish holiday of Passover and the importance of understanding Passover from the Christian understanding of deliverance through the blood of Christ.  In doing my homework for the event though, I noticed an Old Testament wrinkle that until now had escaped my attention.  

Back in college, I specifically remember not knowing the name of Moses' wife on a test.  Since it was the only question I missed that day, her name, Zipporah, is permanently seared into my brain.  Now, Zipporah is an interesting character because she was foreign...she was neither Hebrew or Egyptian.  Rather, we are told that she was the daughter of a priest of Midian (Exodus 2:11-25).  However, Judges 1:16 tells us that Moses' Father-in-Law was a Kenite...would this not make Zipporah a Kenite as well?  Yet still elsewhere in the Bible (Numbers 12:1), it seems that Zipporah is Cushite, or from the land of Cush (an area roughly corresponding to what we now call Ethiopia).  Further muddling the picture is at least 1 non-biblical source which seems to hint that Zipporah was Libyan! 

So what do we make of this?  Well, for one thing Moses was in a God-approved interracial marriage, and when Miriam and Aaron bickered about it, God cursed them with leprosy...that is a historically intriguing facet for anyone who knows much about racial discrimination in American history.  The more pressing concern though is what does this mean for the integrity of scripture?  After all, many non-believers and critics love to point out scriptural inconsistency as a reason to not have faith in God.  However, this is a weak argument.  

For one, Zipporah was likely a Kenite and a Midianite, as the terms seem to be used interchangeably in the Bible; this is not an impossibility as the Kenites were a nomadic group of gifted metal-working people living (generally) in the the Levant.  Since the land of Midian was a geographical area in the North-West Saudi Peninsula, it is not unreasonable that the Kenites would have found themselves there simply due to their roaming way of life.  

What of the Ethiopian claim then?  Well, we must keep in mind that the people saying Zipporah was from Cush were Aaron and Miriam...the only immediately distinguishing characteristic Zipporah would have had that would make them think this was her dark skin.  Moses' siblings were holding Zipporah's skin tone against her...not her actual nationality.  They assumed dark-skinned people must be from Cush, so that was the claim they made...perhaps inaccurately.

Miriam and Aaron suffered consequences from jumping to false conclusions over preconceived notions.  We must be careful to not do the same.  While it is easy to foster doubt by cherry-picking seemingly opposed scriptures, a more thorough understanding of scripture, as well as contextual knowledge, can really help us clear up the haze...not only in our own minds, but perhaps in the mind's of unwitting seekers of God as well. 

Now, while this scriptural mess was easily enough tidied up, when we are dealing with historical facts over 3000 years old, there will always be some mystery, confusion, and contradiction...but in all things there must be something to which only God can know, lest we become too much akin to God ourselves...and that is a troubling danger (Genesis 11:3-4).  So, when dealing with the Old Testament, we must sometimes know only enough to say "Who can say?".

The Lorica of St. Patrick

Yesterday was St. Patrick's Day.  While I first considered writing something on the Trinity, as that is perhaps St. Patrick's most known teaching (Patrick used a shamrock to teach how God can be composed of separate and distinct persons/parts while still being one being).  However, I decided it would be best if everyone not get a headache trying to fathom the unfathomable. 

So instead, I would call your attention to an ancient song, dating to perhaps the 5th century or earlier.  Traditionally, the song known as "St. Patrick's Breastplate" was actually written by Patrick himself.  Whether that is true or not, I would like to share an excerpt of the hymn's lyrics.

"Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger."

Just as we cannot fully grasp the Trinity, so too can we not fully grasp just how much Christ meant it when he said "...remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."  Whether within us in the person of the Holy Spirit, on our lips as scripture or words of love for another, or even beside us as a simple neighbor bearing the image of God...Christ is truly with us.  I encourage everyone to live like they believe it this week.