Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Scary Part of Trust (Genesis 22)

(The Sacrifice of Isaac by Marc Chagall 1966)


The Bible has told us that Abraham trusted God. We have even seen him do things that demonstrate his trust. And we have seen Abraham fail to do what God wants in spite of his trust. So far God has asked some hard things of Abraham, but nothing that we can’t imagine doing even if they are somewhat extreme. He left his family, home, and the whole world he knew. He set out into the unknown with little to know evidence that he would be safe or provided for. He even circumcised himself and his sons.

But now we get to a test of trust that—if we are honest and we don’t hedge the way the story is told—is terrifying.

If we are honest, we cheat this story of all its impact.

When God askes Abraham to kill his son, we soften that command right away. When we tell this story to our children or to new believers, we make sure we let them know that this is just a test. God is not going to make Abraham go through with the sacrifice. We usually even make sure to highlight the fact that God will later condemn other religions specifically because they require child sacrifice.

But Abraham didn’t have the benefit of the full story, nor the extensive revelation that God has since given us about His character or the outcome of this story. Abraham was told to kill his son. Abraham had to trust God without understanding.

And that is what can be so terrifying about trust and faith. We don’t like to talk about it, but God requires from us not understanding, but trust. In fact, a large percentage of Christianity outright changes that fact. We prefer a God that wants us to understand His truth. It is much harder to trust a God that we don’t fully understand. But the problems are (a) we can never hope to understand God or what His plans are completely and (b) He usually wants us to trust Him before He will give us the portions of truth that we can handle.

The good news is that God did not ask Abraham to sacrifice his son first. Abraham was allowed to grow in faith and fall down from time to time before he got to the point where this was the test he was given. And thanks to Abraham, we now know more about God’s character and faithfulness making it easier to trust Him.

But don’t for a minute think that that will make your relationship with God more about understanding than trust; nor that trust will feel any less terrifying or feel in any way completely safe!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Doppelgänger

I got a friend request from myself
or at least he looked like me
but his photos,
his trips,
all he ate and all he did
were who I always wished I could be

Then I noticed
all his friends
were the people I’d known
before I just appeared as though I were he

Now it seems that I am just
a made-up account
replaced by a
nascent-narcissistic-sociopath-lived-to-be-managed-for-public-consumption
version of the meme-
the fetch that the world is meant to see

(Poetry Scales 59)  

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Obedience as God's Children (1 John 3:11-24)

John continues to describe the qualities of the Children of God as he had described walking in the light. The children of God don’t just avoid sin, they obey God’s commands.

When we compare what John is writing here to what has come earlier in this text, this portion sounds not like a call to obedience, but rather like the test of love again. That is due to two things going on here. First, in this second half that I am calling the “God as Father” section, John also talks a lot about love and the fact that God is Love. You could just as easily talk about 1 John being divided into “God is Light” and God is Love” sections. But also, the five qualities that John listed for walking in the light—avoiding sin, obeying commands, not loving worldliness, the test of love, and keeping the faith—become a little muddled in this second half. They are not five individual qualities, but all aspects of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

However, this section comprising the rest of chapter three is all about obedience. The pure “test of love” will come later, but here the commands of Christ are all summed up in the command to love. Just as Jesus summarized all of the Law and Prophets with “Love God and love your neighbor,” here John tells us that obeying the command to love one another covers every single instruction and demand God gives us.

To love is a command that we obey. This is not something the world or even Christians understand today. It is not a feeling, or a platitude. We are even told that we will have to exercise our obedience to love in the face of hatred; hatred from the world and hatred from those who claim to be followers of Jesus. And we do not get to isolate ourselves into a Christian ghetto and love people where we feel at ease and where we receive love in return. We love the way that we saw Jesus love: sacrificially, unselfishly, and whether it is returned or deserved or not.

Once again, this is an obedience and a quality that is beyond our ability. When we love as the children of God, it is with His power and help, not anything of ourselves.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Eye-Opening Culture Shock

The longer someone lives in one culture, the more difficult it is to deal with the move to a new one. But, ironically, sometimes the people who have an even harder time with such “culture shock” are those who have gone through such a change, and adjusted to a second culture.

The long-term culture shock and adjustment involved in making a long-term or permanent change of cultures is one of the most stressful things someone can do. And sometimes going through such a change does not make a person more apt to seek out such changes, but rather makes them even more change-averse. They become even more entrenched in the adjustments they have made. They hold on tightly to the “tried and true” and are even less likely to grow in cultural adjustment beyond the level that gets them by.

The danger for cross-cultural workers is that, once we have managed to adjust our lives into say, the 10% of the culture that we need to function, we can become even more blind to the other 90%.

As someone who grew up overseas and later moved back overseas, I have experienced three major, long-term culture shock events in my life. It never gets any easier. And yet, I find the experience “eye-opening” every time I taste it. As such, my family has sought out little tastes of feeling out of place every chance we get. Our idea of a good vacation is to go somewhere we do not know the language or culture, rent an apartment where the people there live, and try to taste life in that culture. In eleven years in Europe, we have done just that on at least 6 different occasions.

I think every time it gets harder.

One of the most valuable lessons I relearn every time we do it is that we live with blinders on. “Culturally adjusted” living is mostly about staying on track, following the familiar, and not seeing the outliers. Perhaps that is why, over and over again, God asks His people to leave their comfort zones and home cultures, and set out with Him into an unknown. When we get out of our routine, we see people we normally would never notice. We discover opportunities we normally overlook.

The trick is living that way all of the time.

When we go somewhere new, we notice how different the people are. In our “residence” cultures, we think people are familiar, comfortable, or similar to us. We might think that we have adjusted to be more like the culture where we live. Perhaps, though, we have simply found the people most similar to ourselves and become blind to everyone who is not like us.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Keeping Perspective

“It [terror] never stops.”

I suspect that is something that Trump hopes rather than laments. The two groups who benefit from terrorism are terrorists and populists. The one group seeks to obtain and increase their power by inspiring fear; the other seeks to obtain and increase power by fomenting fear. Terrorists hate and target the status quo; populists hate and target the fringe. The responsible reaction to both is to not live in fear and to not buy into the “us against them” mentality.

Last Thursday, Trump was responding to the killing of a police officer in Paris by a man inspired by terrorist ideals. The whole world heard of this killing and buzzed once again with fear and, frankly, excitement. To those of us in Paris that evening, life went on as it had before. Many unaware of what had happened.

Any death is tragic and this mans was not trivial. But it was immediately politicized as well. France was just hours away from national elections, and—ironically—it seemed the goal of ISIS must have been to aid the populist candidate in that election. Today we will see just how much.

As Trump jumped on the news—literally as it was happening before any details had emerged—he lamented how out of hand things were in France. With the new death, 217 people have now died at the hands of terrorist in France in three years. Yet that number of people are killed by guns in the United States every 56 hours. Why was this one death, half-way around the world, more important than the average of 93 people who die every day in the US? Because it serves the narrative Trump is feeding.

The apartment my family stayed in last week in Paris was in the heart of an immigrant area. We were just one block down the street from what looked like refugee housing. It was right where earlier this year, reports of rioting and “no-go zones” were. Those reports were later proven to be more fake news.

On the first evening, my oldest son and I walked through the neighborhood looking for a grocery store. We saw no white people. We heard almost no French. Just a mixture of African languages and Arabic; homeless people and people selling everything from cigarettes to meat cooked on make-shift grills built in shopping carts to electronics. As we walked and talked, he told me that he was feeling a mixture of two emotions: fear, and guilt for feeling fear from people who were just different.

The fact is that crime and violence are probably higher in that neighborhood than in other parts of Paris. And there are very likely people in that area that sympathize with terrorists. But we also lived there several days and never once had a rational reason to fear for our safety. In even the “scariest” parts of Europe, one feels safe.

Here’s hoping the Brexit, populist, craziness doesn’t carry the day in France. Let's stop giving the fear mongers what they want.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Tomorrowland (2015)

Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” is not a terrible film. But to hear people talk about it, it was. That is a classic case of expectations being disappointed. People wanted more from the man who brought us “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille.” “Tomorrowland’s” big sin is that it is forgettable.

That is particularly sad because the film had something to say, even if it is a somewhat cliched message. The cliché is something that today’s world needs to remember.

There is a scene early in the film at a school where teacher after teacher spouts doom and gloom. Everything from global warming to imminent nuclear war is addressed. But when a student asks, “OK. What do we do about this?” she is answered with silence. The assumption is that “the end is nigh.” There is nothing to do done other than complain.

Later in the film it is revealed that all of this negativity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Humanity is indeed going to destroy itself precisely because it thinks it is going to. The simple, but perhaps too needed message, is stop complaining about how bad things are and do your part to make things better. Don’t feed fear, feed hope.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

God is Always Faithful (Genesis 21)

Chapter 21 can feel rather anticlimactic. God made promises to Abraham and here we see those promises fulfilled. We expected it. Especially if we have an understanding of God based on the Bible. God is faithful. But this is a huge moment in Salvation History. This is the first moment of this sort along the way towards Christ, the cross and the Gospel message. God will continue to promise His people things and He will continue to deliver. We have come to expect it because it always happens. We can bank on God’s promises. But, again, this is a first.

Perhaps more interesting here is the fact that God shows Himself to be faithful in ALL His word. Yes, Isaac is the intended fulfillment of God’s plan and covenant, but God will be faithful to Ishmael as well. God cares about all of the individuals in His creation, even the “fringe” characters in life. He is not just the God of the key figures in His plan.

How often has God been faithful to people throughout history, even those who did not play a major part in Salvation History? Ones we will likely never know about? Always. That too we can bank on. God has so much more going on in His plans for creation than we read about in scripture or experience personally. Namely, He is involved in or offers to be involved in every single person’s life. We know too that He won’t force His way on the unwilling, and that He will allow people’s sin to be thoroughly punished. But He is there for all who turn to Him.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Living as God’s Children by Renouncing Sin (1 John 3:4-10)

Again, John is going to give us a list (the same list) of the qualities that the children of God possess. And the first quality on this list (as it was for those who walk in the light) is that they renounce sin.

In the previous list, John presented three false stances regarding sin: 1. Salvation with unchanged lives, 2. Salvation through merited grace, and 3. Denial of guilt. Here John is more direct in his admonition to renounce sin. First, he defines sin. It is lawlessness—generally speaking, not in the sense of obeying certain laws but rather general rebellion against God. Then, he reminds us that Christ came and lived a life without that sin—without rebellion—and died to remove our sin and guilt. Knowing this, how could we continue to practice sin?

Instead, what we practice as children of God is righteousness.

Not that we are perfectly righteous and never struggle with sin ever again. The key ideas to grasp in this passage are what John means when he talks about “practice” and “inability” to sin.

When John talks about children of God not sinning, saying that they “cannot sin,” we would perhaps use the phrase “such things are not done.” In God’s family, sin is not something we do. It is contrary to our values. That does not mean members don’t make mistakes; but we certainly see mistakes as such. We renounce such behaviors and seek to avoid them. And that is where practice comes into play. Children of God practice righteousness. The seek to improve their behavior with God’s help and discipline. What the certainly do not do is practice sin. The goal is to develop righteous habits and to avoid or overcome sinful ones.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Cobalt


In the corner of the parlor
Lives a little blue man
Behind the lamp where no one’s ever went

He collects dust bunnies
And comes out at night
To tickle all us children in our sleep

He used to live in a mine
But moved into our house
As he didn’t like the mine’s Sulphur scent

Technically a goblin who
Would murder and carouse
He’s now just a disturbing, scary, creep

And that is why us children
Aren’t permitted in the parlor
For we’re the sort he most loves to torment

And at night we tuck our covers
In all around us tight
Since he doesn’t make us laugh so much as weep

(Poetry Scales 58

Friday, March 31, 2017

Benevolence

Dum tempus habemus operemur bonum 

Use your hours, don't count them
Have them count, don't dull their passing by
Fill your plans with goodness
Leave each day a better shade of bright
Each month received is costly
Even aus Gnade und Barmherzigkeit 
So, unaware of minutes
Don't watch the clock, get busy lifting life


(Poetry Scales 57)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Avocado

Aligator pear, forgotten in the fridge
Your black and almost rotten flesh
Has nearly gotten squished
Your cold stone heart might have become
A large, thick, shady tree
But since you won't be good for long
I'll make you guacamole

(Poetry Scales 56)

Monday, March 27, 2017

Real Assurance (1 John 3:3)

3:3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

This little phrase in the middle of John’s letter provides an important reminder. The entire text of 1 John is an encouragement, a presentation of the qualities and characteristics of the believer, a series of proofs or affirmations. However, it is not a list of things that one pursues in order to earn salvation. Avoiding sin, obeying Christ, loving one another, disregarding worldliness, and keeping sound doctrine; these are results not causes.

Our salvation rests entirely in God’s hands. Even the faith with which we trust Christ is a gift from Him. On our own we are so prone to waiver. In Scripture we see example after example of men and women who chose to trust God, but then remained steadfast to that choice only by the grace of God. We hope, and we can have hope because God is faithful. And we can hope because He is faithful to uphold our choice to follow Him.

Ultimately, that is the assurance we will have by the end of John’s text. Yes, we can rejoice in the progress we make “walking in light” and showing the character of a child of God, but we can know that God will never drop us once we chose to make Him Lord of our life. We trust Him, not our ability to please Him. And He will make us more and more like Christ.

We are not faithful to God to somehow earn His favor. We are favored by God and thus He has earned our faithfulness.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Star Trek Enterprise (Season 2c)



Season 2b - Season 2d

The frustrating thing about Enterprise continues to be the way it invents new facts that negate older stories that—in timeline—have yet to occur. That, and this show tries too hard to be about something without really having as much to say as the old shows did. It isn’t that the era in which the show aired had less worrisome cultural issues to deal with. They just fail to be as provocative (and at the same time as subtle) as the original.

Episode 39: “Dawn”

Trek has done this story before (TNG season 3 episode 7 “The Enemy” and season 5 episode 2 “Darmok”). It is also a retelling of the movie “Enemy Mine.” I think Darmok is by far the most interesting of all these versions.

Episode 40: “Stigma”

The series makes a very clumsy attempt to comment on homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic using Vulcan mind-melding as a metaphor. This is clumsy because the series makes a mistake it repeatedly falls prey to as a “prequel” series. The implication is that “mind-melding” is a fringe aspect of being Vulkan, unlike the ubiquitous ability it was in earlier (later?) Trek. Added to that, the ability to share thoughts is an inadequate metaphor for homosexuality.

In the end, this episode condemns a society unwilling to help sick people due to a judgmental attitude toward the activity that leads to the sickness. That would seem like a bit of a disconnect, but it is sadly true to life. Helping sick people and trying to reduce risks with lifestyle changes should be two different things. Too many people are willing to dehumanize and condemn from a position of moral superiority.

None of that truth makes the clumsiness of this episode any better.

Episode 41: “Cease Fire”

Enterprise does a good job of telling an action story. That is something where newness with better production values and modern sensibilities in TV storytelling help the show. Captain Archer is being developed as a character on the side of right over and against any loyalties to race or society. That is an admirable quality, but one wonders how much trouble that will win him. As this episode demonstrates, most people sacrifice right and truth in favor of tribe everyday.

Episode 42: “Future Tense”

This is one of those time-travel stories where we are left wondering why it even remained in the timeline. At least they didn’t do the trope where events caused this episode to never happen.

Episode 43: “Canamar”

Basically an “escape the ever more complicated trap” episode. But since this is Trek, they do a fairly good job of hinting that corruption is causing a lot of innocent people to suffer needlessly to increase the benefit of corporate types.

Episode 44: “The Crossing”

A story in the vein of “The Thing” where you can’t trust anyone; and also a sort of the possession narrative. The suspense is somewhat effective, and the hints at a different perspective on the life we live is interesting, but ultimately doesn’t really explore much.

Episode 45: “Judgement”

This is an effective courtroom drama. When presented with a system that has become completely corrupt, Archer again stands up for truth and right. We are surprised (again) to discover completely new facts about the species we have known over the course of centuries of story-lines. It seems Enterprise wants to claim that Klingons were once more like Earth when it came to justice and truth. The corruption of the warmongering government is a new development. Forgetting for a moment the way this runs counter to everything we have seen before, it is a good cautionary tale for us, lest we allow our leaders to deny all the principles and ethics upon which we were founded.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Confounded by Sin (Genesis 19:30-20:18)

From the outside looking in, sin baffles us. Contrary to what we would expect following God’s judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah, we see both Lot and Abraham falling into sin’s trap. After such a display of the hatred God has for the evil of sin, you would think that people would be scared straight. But not only does sin rear its ugly head, it does so in ways that make no sense!

Lot and his daughters are the only supposed “righteous” souls spared from the terror of Sodom’s destruction. Even Lot’s wife turned back to the horror they were fleeing. Not just the horror of the cataclysm that was happening there, but the horror of the evil practiced there in a life that she couldn’t imagine going without. But, once safe, Lot proceeds to impregnate both of his daughters. The way the story is told, they get him drunk and he is a witless participant in their scheme. But one can hardly imagine it going down so simply. It is as repulsive to an outside observer as anything that happened in the cities just destroyed.

The next story has Abraham falling into his own old, questionable habits. He again gets his wife—the wife of the promise—taken by a stronger man out of fear. We don’t get as many details this time around as we did in the Egyptian event, and that makes the whole story even more baffling. Hadn’t Abraham been here before? Had he not been visited multiple times by the Creator of the universe with promises of blessing and security? Had he not experienced one of the longest periods of silence from God for taking God’s plan into his own hands? Had he not just negotiated with God in the events of Sodom and Gomorrah? Had he not just seen the very real consequences of going against God? Why is he still trying to spare himself by passing Sarah off as anything but his wife?

And yet the lesson of the story here is that we are hopeless. As crazy as sin obviously is, we all are born prisoners of it. We all do things that to any outside observer are plain stupid. We are trapped in rebellion against God and His perfectly designed life for us. We all need to be rescued from ourselves. It is good to be reminded of that fact all along the way…

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Poetry Scales (Round Three)

Avocado, Benevolence, and Cobalt,
Doppelgänger, Edelweiss, Fester, Gestalt,
Hinterland, Ineffable, Jackanapes, Kitsch,
Loganberry, Moss, Nickel, Osculate, Pitch,
Quackery, Raconteur, Streusel, and Transom,
Übermensch, Vellichor, Whey, Exaggeration,
To wrap it up, Yearning, and, not the least, Zilch


(Poetry Scales 55)

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Father's Love (1 John 3:1-2)

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.

Having told his readers how to walk in the light—i.e. live in their relationship with the Creator of the universe in a manner pleasing to Him—John prepares to double back and instruct them from a different perspective. Namely, how to relate to the Creator as heavenly Father. First, he reminds us of that quality of God. He is not just holy and good. He is also our loving Father. More than the light analogy, this picture of God reminds us of the amazing Gospel plan of God.

F.F. Bruce reflects on this aspect of John’s message in his commentary:

“…Genesis 3 tells how man, not content with the true likeness to God which was his by creation, grasped at the counterfeit likeness held out as the tempter’s bait: ‘you will be like God, knowing good and evil’. In consequence, things most unlike God manifested themselves in human life: hatred, darkness and death in place of love, light and life. The image of God in man was sadly defaced. Yet God’s purpose was not frustrated; instead, the fall itself, with its entail of sin and death, was overruled by God and compelled to become an instrument in the furtherance of His purpose.

In the fullness of time the image of God, undefaced by disobedience to His will, reappeared on earth in the person of His Son. In Jesus the love, light and life of God were manifested in opposition to hatred, darkness and death. With His crucifixion it seemed that hatred, darkness and death had won the day, and that God’s purpose, which had survived the fall, was now effectively thwarted. But instead, the cross of Jesus proved to be God’s chosen instrument for the fulfilment of His purpose.” 

That is the mindset with which we embark on the second half of 1 John…

Monday, March 13, 2017

Keep the Faith, Abide (1 John 2:20-29)

28 And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.

It is John who gave us the well-known teaching from Jesus, “Abide in me.” Here he gives us more indication of what that means. John really liked the verb he is using here. Of the 118 times the word is used in the New Testament, it occurs some 40 times in John’s Gospel, and another 24 times here in this little letter. The word is meno, and it means simply to stay, remain, abide, wait, etc. But what does it mean to abide in Christ?

On the one hand this is a simple concept. We are to abide, stay, remain, etc. in Christ. But people can take that idea and make it mean anything they want. More important than “living our life” with our idea of Christ, we need to be anchored in who He really is. And we don’t want to “stay” or stagnate in a single understanding of Him. We want to grow in our grasp of the implications of the Gospel.

(An interesting aside. My grandfather was pretty passionate about this whole concept. He saw the loss of understanding and use of the term “abide” as a loss for our understanding of the life in Christ. For him, the difference between “abide” and “live with” was an argument worth having. I wonder if we might not have lost some depth in English as “live with” overtook “abide”” around 1928, and “dwell” in 1970.)

Here in 1 John, we see that abiding in Christ has everything to do with teaching, with truth. John has just warned his readers against “antichrists.” Who are these antichrists? They are those who were a part of the churches that John was leading, but who had left the churches to follow a different teaching. Had they belonged to the fellowship of believers, “they would have remained.” (v.19)

John tells the church that they, instead, should let the teaching they heard from the beginning “abide in” them. Then they will “abide in the Son and in the Father.” (v.24) He also reminds them that the “anointing that you received from Him abides in you,” and that this anointing teaches you everything that is true.” (v.27)

The believer is to remain in the truth of the Gospel that they heard concerning Jesus, the teaching that has been handed down from Him. And this truth, this teaching, will remain in the believer because God Himself will teach and remind the believer of that truth.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A spoilery, lengthy look at "Logan" (2017)

The latest movie about Wolverine, “Logan,” is causing a lot of buzz in geek culture. Some are calling it the best X-Man movie ever made; others have gone so far as to call it the best superhero movie ever made. (This claim is a bit of a cliché amongst geeks, who tend to love the latest, shiny object thrown at them. A list of films called “the best superhero movie ever made” would include Deadpool, Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Avengers, X-Men First Class, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Batman Begins, The Incredibles, Spiderman 2, etc. The list goes on and on.

Personally, I have had a real struggle coming to terms with what I think about the movie. On the whole I think it squeaks by with a 3-star rating, just barely getting into the good category. There is a lot to like about the story, but also a lot to groan at.

First the down-sides.

This is a bleak, bleak story. Many think of the R rating as an excuse to throw a lot of language, violence, and sex at the screen. But the filmmakers insist that for them the appeal was to avoid following the obligations of kiddy-fare. They wanted to tell their story, not a market researched formula. So, they saw the “adult content” as a means to an artistic end. That could be good. I do not have problems in principle with stories that require an R rating. But I balk at the story when its main intent feels like a nihilistic, pessimistic vision of the future. This “superhero story” wants to embrace a world where those heroes failed, killed off their own kind, and bring death to everyone they encounter. The X-Men myth is about overcoming hate and fear in our culture. This version puts a firm stamp on that vision that reads, “failed.”

It may not be the story’s fault, but the audience it is aimed at is clearly not mature enough to handle it. Harsh language and violence is commonplace in films of a certain ilk. In “Logan” screenings, every cuss word induced sophomoric laughter. Every bloody kill blow was met with fist pumping celebration.

As to the violence, a strong theme of the film was a rejection of that violence. Logan warns the “gifted” individuals of the next generation to not become the weapons they were created to be. Yet the most disturbing and blood-thirsty death of the movie comes when the children all gather around the main antagonist at the climax and slowly kill him with a relish that is chilling. The audience by this point has been primed and prepared to join the children in relishing this kill. I can’t decide if that is a case of the film holding an accusatory mirror up to our culture, or merely a miscalculation that mars the message.

Then there is all the good.

This is ostensibly more a western than a superhero film. That is good. It is also a near-future story, set in a realistic 2029. That is even better.

Much of the story can be described as an attempt by refugees from Mexico trying to find a better future away from a slavery to evil corporations in a land of freedom. In the past that would have been the USA, but here it has to be Canada. It feels timely.

It is a slow, thoughtful story; not your typical action. There are real characters. There are real conversations. There is strong emotion. I was surprised that my audience didn’t see the end coming, but it moved them when it came. All the sophomoric laughter had turned to audible sobs in the end. (That made me chuckle. I am nothing if not at times a terrible cynic.)

Finally, there is the fascinating.

People who like to think about philosophy—and more particularly about philosophy of religion—liken our culture to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the same way that they had their pantheon of gods that were more metaphor than literal beings, we today have a growing secular religion built around mythological metaphors. It is not that people “believe” in superheroes, science fiction ideals, or the mythologies of comics; but they really do orient their lives and ethics around the ideals of these stories.

Some reviewers have highlighted the religious aspects of “Logan.” And it is not that this movie is somehow a hidden Christian story. It isn’t. But it is a highly religious story. It is a carefully constructed presentation of modern geek mythology as religious philosophy. A shot at the end of the film has a character uproot a cross grave-marker to turn it askew to form an X as in X-Men. And this is not simply a cute nod to Wolverine from an adoring fan. Nor is it just a maudlin moment of over emotionalism. (Although it is certainly that as well!) The religious mythology has been set up before this moment.

A big part of the plot in this story involves a group of young mutants trying to escape their evil creators to get to a mythological safe-haven known as Eden. They even have a set of coordinates to guide them. They know that there is a place at an exact location on the planet (located on the Canadian border in North Dakota) where they will find peace.

At the midpoint of the film, when Logan is helping one of these kids get to Eden, he discovers that the coordinates came from a made-up comic book story about the X-Men. He has already established that these comics are not retellings of the real adventures that he and the X-Men lived through. They are simply fiction inspired by the heroes. Logan realizes that their journey is in vain. Eden doesn’t exist. Yet when they get to the coordinates, there is a building. The rest of the kids have gathered. They are preparing to cross into Canada where they have been assured of safety.

It is a case of a reality being created from inspiration in the mythology. Not a religion based in pre-existing truth that has been revealed, but rather a religious system reverse-engineered. And that is what we have in our culture today as well. People making gods in their own image and fulfilling their own desires.

And, according to Logan, what does this new mythology offer? A bleak, bleak world where good might overcome evil for a time, but all we have is hope in uncertainty. Why would anyone reject real revelation with real hope for something like that?

And THAT is the melancholy that “Logan” inspires.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Judgment and Patience (Genesis 19:1-29)

“Now Abraham arose early in the morning and went to the place where he had stood before the LORD; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the valley, and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace.”

This story has fascinated and astounded ever since it was first told. It is one of the most well-known in Genesis. It tends to be one that causes uncomfortable squirming, or inspires harsh judgement. It feels extreme. In today’s ironically judgmental culture, it judged too judgmental. And it is thus far frustratingly unwilling to be supported by other historical accounts or archeological evidence.

However, within the flow of the larger story, it fits perfectly. It is also about a lot more than mere divine wrath. We see God continuing to deal with the sin of humanity as He has all along—judging it and not allowing it to become too extreme—but in an ever-merciful manner. In the flood, He ensured the continuation of humanity; here He saves people who have even the slightest redeemable relationship to Him. We see God’s chosen, Abraham, observing and learning more about God and His expectations (and love) through the events.

How many civilizations have died out from incurable, internal rot? Or, perhaps more interesting, how many have been allowed to persist due to a mere handful of individuals who are open to their Creator; unwilling to be carried away by a strong current of depravity?

Had the cities in this story mustered a mere six more “righteous” people, they would have been spared. What we see here more than terrifying judgement is a patient God giving chance after chance for repentance. Despite the sins that everybody loves to hate on display here, it is the great outcry against the cities that draws God’s intervention. And this destruction is not His first move. He has already caused them to be overpowered by a foreign government, sent Lot there to be an example, and had them rescued by Abraham. We can infer a lot of God’s activity in the cities trying to turn them around. They never learned.

And, even though a natural disaster seems to have been used to eradicate these cultures, that does not mean all such disasters are judgment, or that God exclusively uses this means to change human history.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Antichrists! (1 John 2:18-29)

John’s epistles are the only place in the Bible where the term “Antichrist” is used. And what that term—usually thought of more in relation to the beast of Revelation and Paul’s “man of lawlessness”—means here is eye-opening. Here the term is used for those who have claimed to be believers but who have abandoned the faith and apostolic teaching in favor of other ideas. The fact that these three instances here and one in 2 John are the only uses of the term is important to our understanding of the concept. We should not limit the idea of antichrist to the “Big Bad” at the end of time. John implies that the church age is full of them.

There is a lot of variety in Christian teaching. Ever since Luther opened the door in western Christianity for people to rely solely on Scripture for doctrine, people have been disagreeing on how it should be read. However, what Luther did was a correction on a large scale of the whole church turning away from sound doctrine.

Since then there has largely been agreement in reformed thinking regarding orthodoxy. Most of the variation in church teaching has either centered around minor, secondary doctrines, or has amounted to people taking different approaches to how orthodox teaching is lived out. Teachings that diverge beyond this tend to not line up with Scripture anymore.

What we want to avoid and guard against is the temptation to find new teaching, new ways of interpreting Scripture that have never been seen. That is the path towards dangerous, heretical, cultic leaning. The way of antichrists, is what John would say.

The other, even more sobering implication here is that the antichrist “spirit” arises out of—though never truly from within—the church. Other passages of Scripture, speaking of these bringers of false teaching, talk about how portions of the faithful will be deceived. The false teachings Scripture warns us against may not seem to be obvious, evil doctrines but rather appealing, seemingly spiritual ones. So, John’s exhortation here to “keep the faith” is of great importance!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Book Find: Lutherbibel 2017

The story of the Bible is tied up in not only what it says, but how it is read. It is extremely important that we read the Bible as it was intended. That we understand the message that is being conveyed. We should not merely use it as some other talisman that confirms what we want to hear; nor as just another book that contains great literature or cultural relics of history.

And a huge part of the way the Bible has been read throughout history (relatively recent history) is how it has been translated. The most important English translation—not just of the Bible, but of any book into English—the King James Version, recently celebrated its 400th anniversary. That’s impressive, but other languages preceded it. The first impactful Spanish translation, the Reina y Valera, came out in 1602, 9 years before the King James. And Luther’s translation into German, which influenced the King James, almost beat it by 100 years. The New Testament was published in 1522.

Luther’s Bible had an even greater impact on German language and culture than the King James did on the English. It unified and standardized German which then (and still, to a degree) was split into hundreds of regional dialects. It brought a unity to the many kingdoms and duchies through language.

This year, marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Luther translation has received an update. The latest revisions came in 1964 for the Old Testament and 1984 for the New. Interestingly, a lot of the revision this time around in a “pull back” from earlier work. “Corrections” and changes to the text that were intended to make the text clearer for modern audiences have been dialed back where they may have been unnecessary. There has been an attempt to get back to the essence of what Luther wrote.

This will prove an interesting read. There are places in Luther’s work where intentional deviations from the Hebrew and Greek were made. Luther would argue that his changes kept the meaning of the text, but such interpretive translations are usually unnecessary, and at times dangerous. Especially, getting back to where this train of thought started, if we want to read what was intended.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Abraham's Prayer (Genesis 18)

Chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis are strange and hard to read on multiple levels. Like many things in the book, they cause us to wonder and ask questions, many of which are not answered. Why does God appear to Abraham in person, simply to tell him what He had already told him in the last chapter? Or, if that is not the main purpose of the visit, why does He tell Abraham His plans for Sodom if Abraham will not change anything? Where were Sodom and Gomorrah? How exactly were they destroyed? Why were they destroyed, when so many other cultures have been as bad or worse since then? Why did Lot persist in living there if things had gotten so bad? What was his wife so attached to that she would turn back to such a double horror? The questions go on and on.

The second question above that is the only one that we should focus on; but answers may still be hard to find.

The story seems to tell us that God was on His way to judge the evil of the cities and “happened” to pass by Abraham. Abraham has to ask them to stop. It is then, around a meal, that God mentions the prophecy He had already revealed to Abraham. This time around Sarah hears it. But it is after dinner, once the angels of judgement are already on their way, that God informs Abraham of His plans. His reasons for doing so are interesting:

“…since Abraham will surely become a great nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the YHWH by doing righteousness and justice, so that the YHWH may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

God seems to have a dual purpose in revealing His plans to Abraham.

First, we see that God wants to impress upon Abraham the seriousness of sin against God’s holiness. God cannot abide the sin in His creation. In Sodom and Gomorrah’s case, the sin has reached a level of crisis. God is preparing to closely examine the people there, and see if the level is as dire as the “outcry” indicates. In Abraham’s story—the story of Scripture—we see that God is on mission to redeem creation from humanity’s sin; but we are also reminded that God’s justice is complete. We will come again and again to this lesson, God is merciful and gracious, but He will always remain just and will not tolerate sin. (See also 15:16 as it relates to the taking of the Promised Land in Judges.) God wants Abraham (and his descendants, both physical and spiritual) to learn the seriousness of this issue.

But God also wants Abraham (and his descendants) to partner with Him in His mission. Abraham does not just receive the news of coming judgement silently. He begins to bargain with God for the sake of potential redeemable people. This is a prayer for God to be true to His justice. The wicked must be judged, but what about the righteous? It is also an appeal to God’s mercy and grace. If a small fraction of redeemable people exist, can the city remain?

The prayer does not change events. God knew already what would be found in the cities. He did not tell Abraham in hopes that Abraham would persuade God to change. But the prayer does change Abraham and us as readers of this event. We see that God is indeed prepared to be merciful for the sake of a tiny remnant. A mere ten people would have spared the city. Later on we see that Israel itself is granted mercy in is sin, thanks to a tiny fraction of the people who remain true to YHWH. (1 Kings 19:18, and others)

God holds creation and His mission in His perfectly sovereign plans. He knows what He is doing, and He always acts in perfect love, mercy, and grace alongside perfect holiness and justice. However, He gives us glimpses of His plans and activity so that we can come alongside Him in His efforts to redeem His creation. So that we can have the opportunity to change and align ourselves ever more with His plans. We can pray with boldness as Abraham did, confident that God will do what is best, but also attentive to what we can learn through the things God shows us.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Post Script

To those who were unfamiliar with the Baptist history yesterday, here is some that you might need to learn:

John Smyth (Founder of FBC, in the literal sense.)

“That the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force to compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions (Rom xiii), injuries and wrongs of man against man, in murder, adultery, theft, etc., for Christ only is the king and lawgiver of the church and conscience (James iv. 12).” -Article 84 from Smyth’s Confession of Faith, 1612

Thomas Helwys (Co-worker of Smyth, and founder of FBC in England.)

“And we bow ourselves to the earth… beseeching the King to judge righteous judgement herein, whether there be so unjust a thing, and of so great cruel tyranny, under the sun, as to force men’s consciences in their religion to God, seeing that if they err, they must pay the price of their transgression with the loss of their souls. Oh let the King judge, is it not most equal that men should choose their religion themselves seeing they only must stand themselves before the judgement seat of God to answer for themselves, when it shall be no cause for them to say, we were commanded or compelled to be of this religion, by the King, or by them that had authority from him…” -from The Ministry of Iniquity, 1612

Leonard Busher (Author of the first Baptist treatise solely devoted to religious liberty.)

“Seeing, then, the one true religion of the gospel is thus gotten, and thus defended and maintained—namely, by the word preached only; let it please your majesty and parliament to be entreated to revoke and repeal those antichristian, Romish, and cruel laws, that force all in our land, both prince and people, to receive that religion wherein the king or queen were born, or that which is established by the law of man…” -from Religion’s Peace: or A Plea for Liberty of Conscience, 1614

“I read that a bishop of Rome would have constrained a Turkish emperor to the Christian faith, unto whom the emperor answered, ‘I believe that Christ was an excellent prophet, but he did never, so far as I understand, command that men should, with the power of weapons, be constrained to believe his law; and I verily also do force no man to believe Mahomet’s law.’ Also I read that Jews, Christians, and Turks, are tolerated in Constantinople, and yet are peaceable, though so contrary the one to the other.

If this be so, how much more ought Christians not to force one another to religion? And how much more ought Christians to tolerate Christians, when as the Turks do tolerate them? Shall we be less merciful than the Turks? Or shall we learn the Turks to persecute Christians?...” -from Religion’s Peace: or A Plea for Liberty of Conscience, 1614

John Murton (Successor to Thomas Helwys)

“…wherein is manifestly proved by the law of God, the law of our land, and his Majesty’s own diverse testimonies, that no man ought to be persecuted for his religion, be it true or false…” from the opening of Persecution for Religion Judged and Condemned, 1662

Edward Barber

Barber was a Baptist preacher in England in the 1600s. He was imprisoned for denying the tithe and infant baptism. From prison, he wrote a scriptural defense of religious liberty, the full text of which is available here.

Christopher Blackwood

An Anglican Priest who converted when he realized neither he nor any of his colleagues had an answer to Baptist arguments. He wrote The Storming of the Antichrist to instigate a thorough reformation, as he saw that the Reformation was inadequate and incomplete. In it he gives 29 arguments for freedom of conscience. He then examines 26 arguments for state-controlled religion and finds none with merit.

The Act of Toleration 1689

A groundbreaking act in the move towards religions freedom, not as fully realized as we see today after the founding of the United States, but a first, considerable step. H. Leon McBeth, in his history, The Baptist Heritage says,

“No group [other than Baptists in England] can claim more credit for the Act of Toleration.”

Roger Williams (Organized the FBC in America)

Williams exposed the fact that, those who had fled religious persecution to come to the Americas were just as capable of that persecution. In fact, it seems that they were far less interested in freedom of conscience and more concerned with having their way over any other. Williams fled and ultimately founded Rhode Island as a place where liberty of conscience would be the norm. He was only Baptist for a time, but he also wrote one of the most important books on the subject of religious liberty, The Bloudy Tennent of Persecution, 1644. Some think it directly influence Jefferson. It is readily available online. Here is a bit of the opening:

“First. That the blood of so many hundred thousand souls of protestants and papists, spilt in the wars of present and former ages, for their respective consciences, is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace.

Secondly. Pregnant scriptures and arguments are throughout the work proposed against the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.

Thirdly. Satisfactory answers are given to scriptures and objections produced by Mr. Calvin, Beza, Mr. Cotton, and the ministers of the New English churches, and others former and later, tending to prove the doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.

Fourthly. The doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience, is proved guilty of all the blood of the souls crying for vengeance under the altar.

Fifthly. All civil states, with their officers of justice, in their respective constitutions and administrations, are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual, or Christian, state and worship.

Sixthly. It is the will and command of God that, since the coining of his Son the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations, and countries: and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only, in soul matters, able to conquer: to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the word of God.”

On and on it goes. Consider Obadiah Holmes, Isaac Backus, and John Leland, David Benedict, and even the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. Again McBeth writes:

“Historians generally agree that Baptists were included among the “great number of our constituents” [who, according to Madison, were clamoring for the amendments that would make up the BOR] and that the “one point” on which they desired further guarantees involved religious liberty.”-The Baptist Heritage, 1987

The result:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

We can thank Baptists for those freedoms, and if we want to continue to enjoy them, we need to respect everyone’s use of them.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dear Baptists,

If you keep up with Baptist news these days, you see that there are a lot of people and churches upset with their institutions embracing positions of religious liberty. Prestonwood has suspended its support of the convention over the issue. They are concerned that the ethics arm of the convention no longer “reflect[s] the beliefs and values of many in the SBC.”

That begs the question, does Prestonwood (or the many people it references) know what Baptist values even are?

How about you?

Do any of the following names ring a bell?

John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Religion’s Peace: A Plea for Liberty of Conscience by Leonard Busher, John Murton, Edward Barber, Christopher Blackwood, The Act of Toleration 1689, Roger Williams and his The Bloudy Tenent. The list goes on.

Baptists have always been about religious liberty. Probably because we have so often been persecuted for our beliefs. But our “majority” status in America is perhaps why we have so thoroughly forgotten the cost of religious rule by a majority. We need to remember that our faith as spelled out in Scripture gives every man the right to be wrong. We defend that right because we also want to have the right to be right even when we are out of step with the majority. (As we ever are, by the way. If the religion of the U.S. were determined by majority and “might makes right” it would not be evangelical!)

You do not overcome other beliefs (Islam, for instance) by outlawing it. Even less by engaging it in military conflict. See the Crusades. In fact, that approach only strengthens the conflict. We engage every alternate belief with our testimony and the Truth of Scripture. And, if that does not convince someone, we should defend their right to see things differently. We do so because that is what we want for ourselves.

The minute our country starts opposing any belief legally, the minute we relax the separation of government and faith, is the minute we open the door for our own beliefs to come under attack.

And for all those who object and say that they already are, you are right. Largely due to the door we have been opening wider and wider over the past thirty years of trying to legislate morality and change our country’s heart condition through political rather than spiritual and cultural means.

People are not defending Islam by supporting the right of another faith to be practiced; they are defending our own Baptist freedom to believe free from government interference or persecution. They are opposing “the bloody doctrine of persecution for cause of conscience.”

Monday, February 20, 2017

Do Not Love Worldliness (1 John 2:15-17)

After a rather stylized encouragement to his readers, John exhorts them in a fourth quality of walking in the light. In addition to avoiding sin, obeying Christ, and the test of love, they are not to love worldliness. (John says “the world” but he uses that term in a wide range of meanings, one of which (as here) is to indicate the sinful culture of fallen humanity. He is not exhorting believers to not love God’s creation, but rather sin-prone culture. Thus, worldliness.)

The distinction between the first quality, “reject sin,” and this one, “love not worldliness” may seem subtle. However, John is not repeating himself. Worldliness is not sin, but rather the tendency of the world to embrace and relish the temptation that leads to sin.

Here, John describes worldliness in more detail:

“For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.”

What he is describing is the rather narrow range of means by which temptation offers sin to us. Humanity is prone to stumbling when it is offered things that are physically satisfying, aesthetically pleasing, or that whisper encouragement to our vanity. It is a universal truth that we see throughout history.

Right from the start, Adam and Eve are tempted to rebel against God by seeing that the forbidden fruit is: “…good for food, and that is was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise.” Satan used the same ploys when attempting to temp Jesus in the wilderness. He offered Him relief for His hunger, the world and all its glory, and an opportunity to reveal Himself as the Savior of mankind.

John is wise in encouraging us to not just reject sin, but to not become fond of the things in the world that tempt us. It is likely that the believers of his day were similar to those of our time. We are great at dancing on “the line.” We love to flirt with sin, to do as much as we can get away with without giving in to sin. The problem is that the line become quite blurry the closer one gets to it. What we want to avoid here are two things: the love of “nearly sinful things,” and the legalism that seeks to protect us from them.

Legalism is the cousin of loving worldliness. Adam tried to protect Eve from sin by adding rules to the command that God had given. He told her they could not touch the tree. It likely only made her more susceptible to sin, when touching the tree had no harmful affect.

Instead, John wisely encourages us to not love worldliness. Temptation makes sin seem enticing; we need to recognize its lie. Sin is not the appealing joy that it seems to be. Instead of getting as close to sin without sinning as possible; we should long for and appreciate the good things in life that God offers us. When we do that, we discover that God offers us truth where temptation offers lies. He provides us with all our physical needs in a way that He has designed them to be met. He has created so much beauty for us to enjoy that glorifies Him. And He gives us true fulfillment being the people He has created us to be.

Friday, February 17, 2017

"The Lego Batman Movie" (2017)

One of the best parts of 2014s entertaining-if-not-great “Lego Movie” was Batman. Plus, Batman. So “The Lego Batman Movie” promised to be an entertaining film.

Turns out it is also pretty great.

The film opens with a quote from one of Michael Jackson’s best songs, “Man in the Mirror.” (Amidst a non-relenting slew of very funny jokes.) It carries the theme of that quote throughout the film. (Along with the jokes.)

Lego Batman is the celebrity one would expect him to be in our celebrity-obsessed culture. He is super popular. He is also super-self-absorbed. And, being Batman—the hero created out of the trauma of losing his parents—he is afraid to form any relational attachments.

Without giving anything away, this is the story of a hero who needs to learn that the world can be made a better place when we work at changing ourselves. That is probably an oft-told hero plot, but it feels fresh and meaningful in Lego Batman. And it is something our culture needs to remember these days.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Righteous Results and Symbols (Genesis 17)

Well over a decade has passed since Abram had been “reckoned righteous” due simply to his faith. The intervening time has seen him trying to accomplish God’s promises in his own strength. It has led to a lot of damaged relationships and strife. And it appears to have distanced him from God for a while. In any rate, we are not told that God spoke to him during this time.

It is important to note that the Bible tells us he was justified in God’s eyes back in chapter 15. It is Abram’s faith that saves him. And, while obedience is an outward sign of faith, getting things exactly right is not. It is possible to turn to God in faith and still be mistaken about exactly how salvation is accomplished and what the Christian life looks like.

That said, when we truly trust God and want to follow Him, He will set us right. God finally appears to Abram again and reaffirms His covenant promises. He gives Abram a new name. He will now be Abraham. He goes from being “great father” (what an embarrassing joke of a name that must have been!) to “father of many” (an even more unlikely one). And this time, God tells Abraham what He expects of him in this relationship. Abraham is to live as God desires.

Again, this is not a condition of the relationship; it is the desired result. Abraham is God’s child so (and not because) he is expected to live according to God’s desires. And mere circumcision is not the extent of that behavior. It is just the sign, the reminder. God’s people are set apart from the world symbolically, but the signs require an authentic life of holiness to mean something. And, the authentic life requires real trust, real faith. Signs without obedience are hollow. “Obedience” without trust are hypocritical.

Abraham will continue to make mistakes. But they will diminish as he grows in faith. And it is God who keeps the promise; God keeps the relationship.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Test of Love (1 John 2:7-11)

Technically, John is still speaking of obedience as evidence of a relationship with God through Christ. The test of love here is not a whole new category of evidence. However, when he repeats the list of evidences in the second half of the book, he will distinguish this as its own category. So, we can go ahead and begin to speak of love as another evidence of genuine conversion.

But, this is really a continuation of the test of obedience and devotion. Love is the attitude and approach to life and relationships that the law attempts to prescribe. In that sense, the command to love one another is not new; it is the essence of the law. It is what we find when we read between the lines. Anyone who truly obeys Jesus commandments will exhibit love.

And as a quality of true believers, it is an especially helpful diagnostic. We have seen that people who really walk in the light reject sin. That can be a difficult thing to measure in one’s life. The struggle against sin—even in the most faithful of believers—is a daily reality. We have also seen that the true believer obeys. Again, the distinction between joyful followers of Christ and legalistic rule-keepers can be subtle at times.

However, love is the tangible measurement. Love is the driving force that compels us to reject sin and obey. It is our love for God that motivates that desire. And, it is the quality of love towards others that distinguishes obedience from legalism.

In his Gospel, John quotes Jesus’ positive expression of the command to love one another. Here in his epistle, John gives us the negative expression. If we do not love one another, we are fooling ourselves in our attempt to follow Christ. We are not walking in the light. We are stumbling around in the dark.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Seeing Things as the God Who Sees Does (Genesis 16)

Take a moment to consider the scope of these quick episodes in Abram’s life. We last saw Abram believing God’s promise. The next time that we are told of God speaking to Abram at least 13 years will have past. God’s timing is not our timing. We don’t see things the way He does. Walking with God one of the qualities we most need to practice is patience.

However, the question we must ask is: did it have to be so long? Abram is not exactly a great example of patience in Genesis 16. God has told him he will father a great people. Abram believes God, and we are told God counts him as righteous due to his trust. But we have to say that his trust goes only so far. Abram and Sarai quickly take God’s work and plans into their own hands and begin to do what they can to help make it happen. Sarai gives her Egyptian slave to Abram as a wife and he has his first-born son through her.

Take a minute to consider Hagar. Before she became a part of Paul’s allegory of the slavery of legalistic religion vs. the true Gospel message she was a real girl. A slave. She was likely acquired by Sarai when Abram was pretending she was his sister. She was property of a woman back when all women were property. She had no future. One cannot blame her for seeing Ishmael as a source of improving her lot in life.

The Abram we see here is far from commendable. He doesn’t trust God to do what He promised. He betrays his wife (even if it was at her suggestion) and sleeps with a slave girl. When she does conceive, he lets his wife mistreat her to the point where she takes his son and runs away. He is hardly heroic.

But we also get to know God better. He is the God who sees. He sees every one of His creations. There are no “little people” in God’s plan. The nature of the Bible message means that we often focus on key moments and key figures, but God watches everyone. He cares about every person. He is reaching into every life; calling people back to Him. God does not see the slave girl as a toss-away life.

And, the question we have to ask between 16:16 and 17:1 is, would Abram have saved himself 13 years—time for his son to grow into a man—if he had just waited on the Lord? If he could have seen things as God sees them? How often does our impatience cause God to force us to learn patience?

Monday, February 6, 2017

Obedience and Devotion (1 John 2:3-6)

John shifts a bit from a negative indicator (those in God do not sin), to a positive one: those who know God obey His commands. It harkens back to the statement in 1:6. Walking with God is not just about avoiding darkness, we also seek out and remain in the light. We don’t just avoid disobedience, we attempt to obey.

“Keep His commandments.” Much as with all the discussion of avoiding sin, this is not a claim of perfection. Just as John spoke of avoiding sin as a goal to aim for—a motivation driven by assistance and forgiveness from God to those who recognize their need for help—so this talk of obedience is more about intention rather than ability. It is more about devotion.

Not, “it’s the thought that counts.” The follower of Jesus truly does obey what they hear and learn in their walk with God. They may stumble and fall, but they devote themselves to walking with Jesus and are not content to merely claim to try.

Consider someone with a passionate drive or interest for a hobby like a sport or an art. Such a person is going to devote themselves—their time and money etc.—to that passion. They will not likely be perfect at it, or even be the best the world has ever seen, but they will grow in knowledge, ability, and skill. That is the “following” that is meant here. A person passionate about walking in the light will grow in their knowledge of God, His passions, and His desires for their life. They will hear and understand His commands. The result will not be perfection, but rather growth.

And that is specifically what John means here. In verse 5, he says that following God results in His love being fulfilled in us. We grow and are being perfected in God’s love. This is not a following of commands the way the Pharisees of Jesus’ day did; not a legalism that compiles a list of rules and then takes pride in keeping all the rules. Jesus consistently condemned that attitude and practice. Here we see a people who grow in understanding and implementing God’s love in the world.

After all, the goal here is not to become more religious and self-righteous, but to be more like Jesus. Jesus was selfless. Jesus did everything that the Father wanted. We are to walk (i.e. live) as our Savior did.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Trusting in One Stronger...Yet Again (Genesis 15)

In chapter 15 of Genesis, we find one of the most important statements in salvation history: “Thus Abram believed YHWH, and He reckoned it to Abram as righteousness.”

A major aspect of the message of the Bible is that salvation is obtained by faith. We see this clearly in the life of Abram/Abraham.

First, God tells him to leave his home and his father’s house and to set out to a land that God will show him; from the known to the unknown. Abram trusts God and obeys. (More on this “leaving” later at some point. It is a key, repeated theme in the life of God’s people.)

Now, here in chapter 15, Abram trusts that God will fulfill His promise to make Abram a great nation even though circumstances make this seem impossible. Abram trusts God. And we see that God considers Abram “righteous” due to this trust, and not to any action of merit on Abram’s part.

In fact, Abram proves himself unworthy of such a label again and again. Even his trust/faith is shown to be weak again and again. We saw how Abram quickly lost trust when he arrived in the promised land and encountered a famine. He ran straight down to Egypt, to an earthly power for salvation then. Now, God has said that He will give Abram descendants. We are about to see that Abram will again take steps to bring this about in his own ability instead of trusting God.

It seems that Abram is not only a reminder that God requires faith alone, but that even there we are hopelessly weak. It is a good thing that the Bible does not specify that we need an unfailing trust on our own part. God provides the salvation as well as granting us the faith to accept that salvation. If it were up to us, we would be lost.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

2017 NonModern Reading List

2015 was a good year for my reading because I set a goal for myself. Last year not so much. So, in an effort to force myself to stay disciplined to read I am creating a reading list for 2017. Here are some of the books I want to try to read this year:

Finish up: 

“Middlemarch” by George Eliot

“Nachfolge” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Fiction:

“It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

“The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick

“1984” by George Orwell

“The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three” by Stephen King

“Finders Keepers” by Stephen King

“Career of Evil” by Robert Galbraith

“Passenger to Frankfurt” by Agatha Christie

Non-Fiction:

“Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxis

“The Origins of Totalitarianism” by Hannah Arendt

“Simulacra and Simulation” by Jean Baudrillard

Friday, February 3, 2017

"Hunt for the Wilderpeople" (2016)

One of the most charming films from 2016 was Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” (It and 2015’s tremendous “What We Do In the Shadows” make me excited to see this year’s Thor film.)

It follows the story of foster-kid, Ricky—who the system has written off—trying to avoid being put back in that system when his latest foster-mother dies. He and the late-woman’s husband spend most of the movie out in the New Zealand bush while the entire nation is fascinated by their story and looking for them.

What a film with such a relatively simple plot needs is on full display here. Great characters, interesting story-telling, emotional investment, and wonderfully visual comedy. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison carry the film with wonderful performances.

However, what pushes this film past delightful to important and will land it on my list of top-films of 2016 is the meaning behind the adventure and comedy. Ricky is the victim of a system and a society who prejudge him and never give him a chance. This leads him into a series of homes where he is expected to live a certain way without ever having the benefit of someone who will accept him unconditionally and then work to help him grow as a person. This makes Bella’s death early on in the film even more tragic. However, it is her brief love and acceptance that inspire Ricky to see himself as more than just a throw-away kid.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Gospel Message: Christ Paid for Sin (1 John 2:1,2)

Lest we despair in the third false claim that John rejects, he offers us here too a joyful hope.

In 1:6,7 John contrasted claiming to be a Christian while living in sin with real fellowship as seen in living as God desires.

In 1:8,9 John contrasted the claims of those who said they were good enough for the Christian life with real fellowship as seen in self-awareness and seeking God’s forgiveness.

In 1:10 John said that a denial of guilt was a lie. Now here in the first verses of chapter 2, he reminds us of the Gospel:

For all who do sin, and are aware of that sin, and their need for forgiveness, Jesus is an advocate before God’s judgement. He is their propitiation--which is to say that He has paid the penalty for their sin. The punishment has been delivered and paid, and we can be declared righteous in His righteousness. Jesus offers this to the whole of humanity. All that is asked of us is to trust Him to be our advocate and propitiation. Unfortunately, what we saw in the three false claims John highlighted is that not all will turn to Jesus.

However, that is a theme of 1 John. We share the truth of the Gospel to everyone so that they at least have a chance to accept fellowship with God. In a world of “post-truth” we offer truth. Not judgement; no holier-than-thou condemnation. Not information; no facts that we have simply memorized and know. Simple witness; sharing what we know to be true because we have lived it. Even the accounts of other witnesses like John can be shared with confidence because we have experienced the Word of Life for ourselves.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Nature of Fellowship: God is Light, We Must Walk in Light (1 John 1:5-10)

So how does the goal of Christianity—restored fellowship with God—look like?

John starts by reminding us that God is light. Wholly light with no trace of darkness. This is symbolic language. God is not actually light. God created light along with all of the rest of reality. To say God is light refers to His holiness. Holiness itself is a bit symbolic. We think of “Holy” as being “good” or “godly” but that is because God is holy. What the term really means is completely different. God is unlike His creation. And since creation has fallen due to the sin of humanity, creation is separated from God. However, Jesus Christ with His sacrifice on the cross has atoned for that sin so that we might again be in God’s presence and have fellowship with Him.

However, John insists that the light or holiness of God matters. We cannot waltz into a relationship with God unchanged. In Christ we have access, but we must approach God on His terms. John highlights three obstacles to a relationship with God; three false claims people buy into:

Unchanged Lives: “If we claim we have fellowship with God, but walk in darkness…”

Some people think that knowledge is enough to please God. If we simply acknowledge the FACT that Christ died for the sins of the world we will be in a restored relationship. We can go on living in our sins because Christ’s sacrifice has covered them all anyway. That is akin to saying that we are inside a building because we know where the door is. You must enter through the door to get in the building, and you must live a life pleasing to God to be in the Kingdom. Yes, it is Christ’s sacrifice that makes that possible, but it is not enough to know that. We have to walk with Christ and follow His lead.

Merited Grace: “If we claim we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves…”

Other people think that they are followers of Jesus because it comes naturally to them, or they are somehow more open to the truth than others. Some Christians quickly forget (if they ever knew) that they struggle with sin nature. More often than not, these people develop limited lists of what constitutes sin and what doesn’t. So homosexuality is a sin, but gluttony isn’t; robbery is, talking bad about others isn’t. This is the realm of legalists and Pharisees. Instead, John reminds us that we need to live a self-examined life. We need to allow God to convict us where we stray and confess and repent of sins where they pop up. Jesus offers us all the forgiveness we need, but we need to acknowledge our need.

Denial of Guilt: “If we claim that we have not sinned, we make God a liar…”

In John’s day, some people thought that the body was bad and that all goodness in people resided in the spirit. And, since only spirituality was eternal, they didn’t need to worry about sins. Anything done in the body was temporary. Faith and eternal life was intellectual.

(Believe it or not this idea persists to today. Some people think heaven will be a spiritual place in "the clouds." The Bible actually speaks of a new heaven with a new creation, and that things will be as they were in God’s original plan, in the garden. We are both spiritual and physical being and we always will be. Our sin problem is a very real problem.)

Another way this attitude is still with us today is in the denial of guilt. Guilt is seen only as a bad thing. People convince themselves that they should never entertain it. And, while false accusations leading to guilt can cripple us and rob us of the joy of fulfilling God’s plan for our life, guilt as a result of real wrongs is an important warning. When people today try to write sin off as genuine mistakes made by well-meaning people, they are not only making God out to be a liar; they are lying to themselves. We are all guilty and, without the Gospel, that is a terrifyingly real problem!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Message of Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4)

We live in a time characterized as being “post-truth.” Germany declared “Postfaktisch” to be the new “word of the year” for 2016. It seems we have arrived where postmodernity has been leading us for the past 100 years. No one has any confidence in reality anymore. Things that are self-evident, or at least very likely and confirmed more and more each day, are openly denied by those who do not wish to accept them.

Just last week, when President Trump was inaugurated, we saw this play out in an almost comical way. Trump’s inauguration crowd was smaller than the crowd that had attended the swearing in of President Obama eight years prior. There was no shame in this. The earlier inauguration had been the historic swearing in of the first black president.

However, Trump, from his vantage point on the dais thought that the crowd was “huge.” (Even though he had not been on the stage in 2009 for comparison.) He sent his spokesman out to claim that his crowd had been the largest crowd ever. Period. Even though the data—the facts—all claimed otherwise. Photos, metro transit numbers, television viewership, was all down from previous years.

In spite of this, Trump supporters polled have claimed that pictures of Trump's crowd show more people than Obama’s. They reject what their eyes tell them to embrace an idea they wish were true.

Something that can complicate this whole post-truth reality we are wrestling with is that not all reality is so simply proven with facts. Sometimes—in cases not so clear-cut as photographs of crowd size—facts must be interpreted.

Do the facts of the fossil record support the theory that natural selection--a process whereby species are preserved--explain the origin of all species through a process of macroevolution? No. Not yet in any case.

Does the data show that global climate is warming? Increasingly this is becoming undeniable. Are we at fault or is it a part of a natural cycle influenced by other factors? That debate rages as people embrace their own selections of data.

And what about faith?

By the very nature of the concept of divinity, we cannot “prove” the existence of a creator who transcends our reality. Therefore, some people think the concepts embraced by religions lie fully in the realm of post-truth. They believe that you can only believe such ideas as opinions; that they lie outside the realm of facts.

That is not entirely true, however. Even if we cannot demonstrate the existence of God or a supernatural dimension to life through science, there are other facts to take into account. What are the claims of a religious belief? Do they maintain an internal consistency? Are they based on real facts? Do they effect real world changes that line up with what they claim to want?

This is the sort of thing 1 John was written to demonstrate. John is writing about truth, about things that he knew and experienced, about things his readers can trust. In 5:13, he states plainly, “I have written to you… in order that you may know…”

Look at the argument he so deftly handles in the first sentence:

“What was from the beginning,”

This can both refer to the eternal nature of the truth of Jesus Christ that he will be writing about—as he had already done in his Gospel—or to the fact that the truth he was about to reinforce was the same truth that had been accepted from the start of Christianity; all the way back to Jesus’ teaching.

“what we have heard,”
“what we have seen with our eyes,”
“what we beheld,”
“and our hands handled,”

This is a barrage of facts. John is reminding us that his truth is something he experienced. He heard Jesus teach. He saw the miracles performed. He observed Jesus and sat at his feet learning his truth. He touched the man who had proven himself to be God by defeating death.

“concerning the Word of Life—”

The content of John’s message is all about real life. Life that transcends the death and contamination and evil that we contend with in this fallen world.

“and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—”

Once again, we are assured of the reliability of the testimony given here. John experienced and lived with a taste of real life--eternal, transcending life--in the person of Jesus Christ.  A man who was at the same time the Son of God, God himself.

“what we have seen and heard…”

Again, this is not hearsay.

“…we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”

John ends this sentence by explaining his motivation for sharing the truth. This is not an exercise in knowing something. This is not an information dump nor an attempt to set people right on their understanding of the world. The goal of sharing the Truth is that people may have a relationship. A restored relationship with their Creator who loves them and wants them to experience Life—life as it was meant to be. A relationship with Jesus, the Son of God who is God but became a man as well, a real man living the life as the Creator intended it to be lived. And that they might have a real relationship with the people of God living in community as God intends.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Homunculus

When a messiah complex
Comes with skin this fragile
It hampers one’s hero delusion

When the thing one craves most is
Confirmation of grandeur
It causes empathic occlusion

When whatever they say is
An alternative truth
Then their world is just an illusion

Add it all up and what do you have?
A tremendous foregone conclusion

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Beware Again of Questions without Answers (Genesis 14)

This is either one of the most fascinating or frustrating chapters in Genesis.

It gives us the only highly detailed account of what was going on in the world at the time of Abram, with names of kings and cities and detailed accounts of battles and subjugations; but at the same time these details have yet to be found outside of Scripture.

It also gives us an account of Abram that expands our understanding of him. We know him as a man of faith willing to take risks, but also a timid man who cowers in front of other powerful men. He is generous, giving his nephew the choice of the land as well. Here, though, we see a man who takes on a powerful alliance of four kingdoms who have taken Lot hostage. And he wins.

If Abram has that capacity for battle, why hasn’t he taken the promised land for himself? He even refuses to take any personal winnings from the battle. He does not want to be indebted to the people in the land. He wants his blessing to be clearly from the Lord. That is likely the point of the story here as well. Abram is in the promised land because God has told him to be there. God has also said He would give the land to Abram’s descendants. Abram knows where success comes from. He is not about to take matter into his own hands. (Or is he? He shouldn’t be, but we are not talking about a perfect man of faith here, stay tuned!)

Finally, we get the most annoyingly interesting character in Scripture: Melchizedek. The King of Salem (Jerusalem) is seen a few times in the story of redemption. But the hints mentioned are the sort that send us—yet again—into a dangerously speculative mood. We have already seen how Genesis prompts all sorts of questions that it has no intention of answering. As frustrating as that is, asking the wrong questions of the text will only lead to problems.

Suffice it to say that Melchizedek reminds us that God is far more active in creation and history that the Bible will ever say. That knowledge is reassuring.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Introductory Context (John's Epistles)

John’s epistles can be tricky to follow. To a casual reader things like “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” followed by “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin,” can be confusing. We need some context.

People who study and compare John’s Gospel with the epistles believe that John’s community of congregations was facing a multifaceted theological challenge. If we realize that the epistles were written to a network of house churches that needed help with their teaching, things become a little easier to understand.

It seems that there were at least four schools of thought in the churches. First there was a group of Jews who embraced Jesus and John’s teaching, but struggled to see Jesus as truly divine. Then there were the Greeks who had a dualistic view of the world and had a hard time believing that Jesus could be flesh and still be good. People who had the correct, paradoxical understanding of Jesus being fully man and fully God were stuck in the middle. Finally, there was a group or groups of people who were leaving the churches to embrace completely deviant teaching.

John’s epistles (and the Gospel) were written in part to address these challenges. This explains why they at times argue against two opposing errors.

Reading 2 John and 3 John (the only books that can truly be called letters) really helps us see this tension. 2 John was written to a congregation exhorting them not to follow the false teachers. 3 John is addressed to a house church leader, encouraging him to stand up to a fellow, misled, leader and to embrace Christians from other fellowships who share sound doctrine.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Unique Claims of Christianity (3: The Way)

We find the core of Christianity’s uniqueness in John 14:

“LET NOT YOUR HEARTS BE TROUBLED. BELIEVE IN GOD; BELIEVE ALSO IN ME. IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE ARE MANY ROOMS. IF IT WERE NOT SO, WOULD I HAVE TOLD YOU THAT I GO TO PREPARE A PLACE FOR YOU? AND IF I GO AND PREPARE A PLACE FOR YOU, I WILL COME AGAIN AND WILL TAKE YOU TO MYSELF, THAT WHERE I AM YOU MAY BE ALSO. AND YOU KNOW THE WAY TO WHERE I AM GOING.” THOMAS SAID TO HIM, “LORD, WE DO NOT KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING. HOW CAN WE KNOW THE WAY?” JESUS SAID TO HIM, “I AM THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE. NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER EXCEPT THROUGH ME. 

Jesus makes claims here that He is the only answer to our problem of sin and death. Let’s look at His three claims in reverse order:

The Way 

And in the first place, Jesus claims that He is the way. This is where Christianity is truly unique. Other religions claim to show us the path to God or immortality or enlightenment. Jesus does not. He did not say that He had shown us the way. He says that He IS the way.

Christianity does not look at our hopeless problem with sin and death and tell us the way to work our way out of the problem. Every other religion does this. Their teachings all claim to have a path that we must attempt to follow and that, hopefully, we will arrive at the correct destination. They are all inventions of a man or a woman who had not yet arrived at their destination. They are all the claims of people who have died trying.

Jesus did not do this. Yes, He came and lived the life as we were meant to live it. He had a true relationship with His Father, the Creator of the Universe. However, He never said that the solution to our problem was to imitate Him. He claimed that He was the way. We do not achieve salvation by being as good as Jesus. We are saved by trusting in Jesus.

The Bible tells us that Jesus has already reconnected creation and Creator. He did this by taking the punishment of sin and rebellion upon Himself even though He did not earn that punishment. He died for the sins of the world and then He rose again. He is not offering us a hope of a path, He is offering us immediate restoration; relationship with the Creator. And His teaching is not a collection of theories. His claims are of a done deal. And they are the claims of someone who has conquered death.

Pride: Christians are often accused of being proud in their beliefs. True followers of Jesus can never be proud in their relationship with God. Because the Gospel reminds us all of who we actually are. We are all terrible sinners deserving of death. It is only in the Grace and Love of God that we have been forgiven and restored. And God has that same love and grace for anyone who wants to have it.

True Christianity is unique in that those who follow it can never see themselves as better than anyone else. The most faithful of Christians are the ones who are most aware of their shortcomings and weaknesses. They are most aware of their need for a savior. And they are also the most aware that the “worst” in society are loved by God in the same way as the “best.” There is no room for pride in Christianity. In fact, it is considered the primary sin.

Conclusion:

So, Christianity is exclusive in its claims, but it can and should never be intolerant, arrogant, or prideful. If Christianity ever becomes any of those things it has ceased to be the Christianity that the Bible tells us about.

On the other hand, Christianity is unique amongst all the other systems and cultural means of solving our problem of sin and death.

It does not offer change produced by ethical standards, but rather ethical standards that result from a material change.

It does not propose a theory about the universe and life constructed within the system, but rather a reconnection with truth from the One who created the system.

It does not suggest a path back to God that we must attempt to traverse, but rather a restored relationship with the Creator who has made His way to us.

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