Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Christmas Manger – Born to Die?





    During our Advent Bible Study, a few people were surprised when we saw an image that looked a lot like this one.  It is a feeding trough, a manger, from the part of the world where Jesus lived.  For many of us who grew up in northern woodlands, this is not at all what we have been taught or expect.  For most of our lives we have grown up with the idea that the manger in which Mary and Joseph placed the baby Jesus was a wooden thing made with boards nailed into an ‘X’ on each end and this doesn’t quite seem right.  For us, a people who are accustomed to being surrounded by trees, building things from stone seems unnecessarily difficult.  Where we live, trees grow wild and we have to mow, trim, cut and work to keep them from growing where we don’t want them.  Israel (and all of the Near East) is a different place.  Take a look at the pictures and videos that are available, look at the pictures you can find in books about Israel.  You will likely notice that in much of the country, trees are not common and often, where they are more common, they are tended and cultivated as food producing crops, not as building materials.  In that part of the world, stone is a much more common building material… for many things.  Stone is used not because it is easier or cheaper (it isn’t) but because it’s what they have.

    I saw this image a year or two ago and I have had conversations about Near Eastern building materials before so this didn’t really surprise me.  What struck me however came later when I opened this month’s issue of Biblical Archaeology Review and read an article on the Tomb of Pharaoh’s Daughter in Jerusalem.  There, included in the article, were photographs of stone sarcophaguses (sarcophagi?) found in and near Jerusalem.  I could not get copies of these pictures but they are similar to this one.



    Before the front wall of this was broken out, it would have looked strikingly like a stone manger.
An argument could be made that tombs that contain this sort of sarcophagus were built only for the rich and powerful of Israel’s elite.  Jesus would never have been buried in such a tomb… and yet… far more common in that time, even for middle class and poorer folks were burials in stone ossuaries, bone boxes, in which the remains of a buried person were re-buried. 


Jesus came to earth to sacrifice his life and die on the cross for our sins.   

Was his death and burial foreshadowed by the manger in which he slept on the day of his birth, or was it an accident? 

 Either way, it makes you think.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pearl Harbor - A Story of Forgiveness and Salvation?

    Seventy-one years ago today the Japanese navy, led by 36 year-old "top gun" pilot of his day, Mitsuo Fuchida, attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The surprise was nearly total and the destruction was immense both physically as well as to the psyche of the United States.  The Japanese admiralty expected that such devastation would compel the United States to sue for peace and stay out of their plans for expansion in the Pacific.  Instead, our nation was filled with a "terrible resolve."  Our reaction was not to surrender but to get even.  The death and destruction (on all sides) that spread across the Pacific and around the world was nearly incalculable.  Tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of men and women went to their deaths for reasons that, even now, are difficult to explain.


    For his part, Mitsuo Fuchida, was plagued by the death that he had witnessed and that which he had been a part of and he struggled to find a way to bring a message of peace to the world.  A friend who had been a prisoner of war in the United States, told him an amazing, almost impossible, story that revealed a way toward peace.  Later still he encountered the message of Jacob DeShazer, a B-25 bombardier captured by the Japanese after the Doolittle raid.  DeShazer, despite being treated horrifically during his imprisonment, had learned an amazing lesson as well during his confinement.  He traveled to Japan and spoke in venues across the country telling of the peace that he had found in their POW camp.

    Nathan Naversen has written a great story about this and I used it as a devotion at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting this morning.  It is an amazing story of peace and forgiveness that grew out of ome of history's greatest periods of death and destruction.  How is this possible?  Read the whole story here:

From Pearl Harbor to Golgotha

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Politicians, Rape and Bad Theology (Part 2)



The answer is that God doesn’t want that. 

Just because God loves life doesn’t mean that he intends for every person to come into being. 

Wait. 

What? 

Just because God loves life doesn’t mean that he intends for every person to come into being.

    Some people will read that and conclude that if God does not intend for some people to be born, then some people are not wanted by God.  Nothing could be further from the truth but in order to see why, we have to think carefully.

    Consider this example: If a birthmother chooses to give up her baby for adoption, it has nothing at all to do with the goodness of the child.  Many of those children will assume they were adopted because their birthmother didn’t want them or that they weren’t good enough, or that something was wrong with them.  Many suffer for years until they understand that their birthmother wasn’t keeping them even if they were perfect.  Birthmothers give up their children because they are unwilling or unable to be a parent.  Their choice has nothing to do with the perceived “goodness” of their child.  Often, birthmothers would like nothing more than to keep their child but understand that, for a variety or reasons, they cannot. 

    Giving a child up for adoption has nothing to do with being “wanted” and neither does rape.  Just because God doesn’t intend for a woman to become pregnant as a result of rape, doesn’t mean that God will not love the child that is produced.  

He does.  

    I am the fourth child in my family.  I was born five years after my next older brother.  It is well known that my parents thought they were done having children.  I was an accident.  My existence is unintended but I have never had any doubt that my parents welcomed me, wanted me and loved me since the moment that they knew I was coming.

    God does not want women to be raped nor does he want them to suffer the emotional trauma that will follow them through an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.  Even so, that does not mean that he does not love and value that child from the moment of its conception.  

He does. 

    What’s left to us, is an unwanted choice between two unpleasant outcomes.  We must choose between the emotional and psychological pain and suffering that will inevitably come with the pregnancy, and the destruction of that unique and valuable life that has been created as well as the emotional and psychological pain and suffering follows that choice.   

Neither choice is a good one.

This is a complicated and difficult theological problem. 

When politicians try to oversimplify it, they sound stupid.

(Click here to go back to Part 1)

Politicians, Rape and Bad Theology (Part 1)



    What is it about politicians this year?  I know it’s an election year, and I know that politicians often say (and do) downright dumb things, but it seems that this year an unusually large number of politicians are saying them.  Some of these things we can just laugh at, but as a pastor I cringe whenever politicians make pronouncements about theology and religion.  Several things have been said this year that defy common sense.

    Most recently, Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said that that pregnancy resulting from rape can be "something that God intended."   He has since clarified his remarks and made it clear that God does not advocate violence or rape but that if a child is conceived through rape, that this is something that God intended to happen.

    In order to even begin we need to review what we know about God.  First, God is good.  Not everyone believes this, but Christians do.  We believe that God created human beings for a reason and that even though we don’t always understand why, God loves us and wants what is best for us.  Second, God is omniscient, which means all knowing.  The Bible tells us that God knows everything that has happened and everything that will happen.  Before he created the universe he knew everything about us.  Third, everything that happens does not happen because God wants it to happen.  The whole story of Adam and Eve teaches us that human beings are stubborn and will do things that God commands them not to do, things that hurt themselves and others.

    Saying that rape is a part of God’s plan is patently ridiculous.  Rape is violent, brutal and is both physically and emotionally damaging.  Victims of rape often require years of therapy and some are never the same again.  It seems obvious that this isn’t something that anyone ‘good’ would want.  Richard Mourdock has essentially acknowledged this in his explanation but I don’t understand his assertion that a pregnancy as a result of a rape is something that God intends.

    I suspect that Mourdock’s thinking is that since God is a good God, and also a God that is the creator and protector of life, that once a life has begun in the womb, that this must be something that God intended.  Frankly, I don’t follow that logic.  Pregnancy as the result of a rape can add a significant emotional burden to a woman who is already suffering the effects of the original trauma.  The pregnancy can, and will, stir the memories of her rape over and over again and each time they return, those memories will cause the victim more pain.  Again, I come back to the question, “How can a good God want that?”

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Christians are Wrong; Atheists are Right


    This week, in the span of twenty four hours, I received two invitations; one from an Atheist friend, and a second from a good Christian friend.  The atheist invitation was for International Blasphemy Rights Day (held on September 30th of each year) which “is a day to promote the rights to freedom of belief and expression and stand up in a show of solidarity for the liberty to challenge reigning religious beliefs without fear of murder, litigation, or reprisal.”  The Christian invitation was to sign a petition to force Youtube to stop a video that was blasphemous to the name of Jesus Christ. 

Wow.  

    It isn’t often that this sort of thing drops into my lap.  What's more rare, is a situation in which I agree so strongly  with the atheists and so clearly disagree with the (well-intentioned) Christians.  To me, the atheists ‘get it’ and these particular Christians just don’t (however well-intentioned) particularly in light of recent events in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East.
   
    The United States is an amazing place.  Our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of speech like nowhere else in the world and that gives us, as Christians, an unprecedented opportunity to compete in the arena of ideas.  I believe, as the Apostle Paul did, that Christianity is absolutely able to stand on its own in any such competition if it is given the ability to speak clearly.  Our freedom allows us to do exactly that.  My atheist friends may disagree with me on matters of faith but they understand that this same freedom allows them to disbelieve without fear of punishment or reprisal, whether from Christians, or Muslims, or anyone else.  My Christian friends want someone to protect Jesus from being defamed when, I believe, Jesus doesn’t need protecting.  First of all, Jesus is completely able to defend himself if he chooses to do so and second, Jesus chose not to defend himself when his accusers defamed him face to face.
  
    In recent days the entire Middle East has been in an uproar over a video produced by an American and released on YouTube.  In it, the Muslin prophet, Mohammad, is presented in a negative light.  This, the Islamists claim, is blasphemous.  They demand that YouTube remove the video, that the United States government require that the video be removed from the Internet and pass blasphemy laws preventing such things from happening in the future (sound familiar?).  Free speech on the other hand requires that none of this happen.  Free speech allows any of us to say things, to present a range of ideas, even offensive ones, without fear of punishment or reprisals.  If the government were to prohibit us from blaspheming Jesus, then why not do the same for Mohammad? 

    Already our friends in Canada have passed hate speech laws that make it illegal for Christian pastors to preach what the Bible says about homosexuality (even if preached compassionately and not being deliberately inflammatory)  but that same speech, unpopular or not, is still legal in the United States.  If free speech is constrained to protect Christians today, it may very well be used to harm us tomorrow.  I don't like it when people burn flags, but I believe that it is a protected form of free speech that I am willing to protect.  I don't like it when the KKK or other hateful groups march and spout their venom from the public square, but it too is an important example of free speech.  Just because I don't like it isn't a good reason to make it stop.  After all, I have things to say that other people don't like very much and I wouldn't want someone to decide that my speech was no longer legal.

 In this case, I think the Christians are wrong and the atheists are right.
 
Jesus is not threatened by the people who oppose him.  Christianity doesn’t need the law to protect us from blasphemy.  Jesus is more than able to compete in the arena of ideas.

The atheists are right. 

Free speech is far more valuable...
                                                           ...for all of us.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Politics of Falsehood



    I try to guard my personal opinions from the members of my church because their knowledge of my opinion may interfere with my ability to communicate a far more important message.  I hope that no one in the congregation of our church ever feels that they cannot objectively hear what I am teaching about the Bible because of some perceived political disagreement.  Even so, I have grave misgivings about our upcoming election and it isn’t just about the candidates.  My problem is that, perhaps now more than ever, the truth is taking a beating.

    In the television series “House,” Dr. Gregory House is fond of reminding his staff that “Everybody lies.”  Never has this been truer than during this election.  Each candidate has been caught stretching the truth, or worse.  It seems that after every speech or public appearance the fact-checkers are out in full force pointing out what was incorrect or misrepresented.  Even the media have been caught being “inventive.”  Sadly in the decades since the Watergate scandal, we’ve grown accustomed to “media bias” and understand that each news outlet allows their particular worldview to color their reporting, but now we’re seeing media outlets create their own news or creatively editing audio and video without revealing what they’ve done.  Heck, even the fact-checkers can’t be trusted.  After a recent speech by Paul Ryan, one set of fact checkers went wild pointing out his apparent “lies,” followed by another that pointed out the flaws in the “facts” presented by the first set of fact-checkers, and so on… for nearly a week.  

(Sigh)

    The television show, The X-Files” told us that we should “trust no one.”  This election certainly seems to make us think that this is true, but if we take a look at scripture we might regain a better perspective.  Our problem is that we expect our leaders to tell the truth, and our anger and disillusionment grow out of their failure to live up to our expectations.  We often think of the Bible as being full of love and grace, but in this regard scripture cautions us to be far more cautious, perhaps even downright cynical.  Psalm 20:7 reminds us that while “Some trust in chariots and some in horses… we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”  Whenever we think that the government or the military or any human authority is our salvation, we are in deep trouble.  Isaiah goes farther saying, “Stop trusting in mere humans, who have but a breath in their nostrils. Why hold them in esteem? (Isaiah 2:22)  Particularly when we expect government to be trustworthy, our trust in is misplaced.  Psalm 118:8 teaches that “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in humans.”

    The clear theme here is that whenever we put our trust in human beings, we are sure to be disappointed but there is one upon whom we can safely place our trust.  Psalm 119:138 declares that “The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy.” And Proverbs 3:5 says that we should “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

    So does that mean that we as Christians should give our elected representatives and our media pass?  Should we simply overlook their self-serving dance with the truth?  Clearly, no.  Proverbs 12:22 says that “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” What’s more, Paul declares that “…it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” (Romans 12:21)  We should not overlook what our elected officials and the candidates for office are doing to the truth, but we should do all that we can to hold them accountable.

    As we move ever closer to our next presidential election, the followers of Jesus Christ need to hold fast to the truth that we have been given.  We cannot be content to choose the “lesser of two evils” but instead remember our calling to be agents of truth and good in the world around us.  The apostle Paul put it this way, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  (Romans 12:9)

    Instead of giving anyone a pass for playing fast and loose with the truth, or making excuses because “everybody does it,” let us instead recommit ourselves to love, hope, and goodness.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (1 Corinthians 4:2) 

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