Friday, August 17, 2012

Life As a Vapor

Why you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.--James 4:14

Today was the last day of our annual vacation to Seaside, Florida and I sat for a long time in the gazebo atop the board walk down to the beach, watching the rhythm of the surf surging and receding. A year ago, my last day was not so peaceful.

On August 6th last year, on the last day of vacation I had a heart attack and spent 2 days in Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. I had a stent placed in my left anterior descending artery, known as "the widow maker". It was a close call. I was one of those startling cases of sudden heart attack: annual physicals, all of my blood lipids well within safe range, weight and blood pressure good. Decent diet and fitness level. Heart attack.

I am not alone in this. A period of two years or so has brought a series of distressing reports as family and friends have been brought low by disease. Four men I know have had sudden heart attacks; two survived, two did not. A co-worker friend succumbed to cancer. My wife's aunt, barely much older than us and more like a big sister, successfully fought back cancer. My father-in-law finally slipped from this life to the next after a series of complications that began with cancer.

To have survived a close call with a life threatening disease gives one's perspectives and priorities an abrupt shaking. Long a "type A" personality, I have begun the excruciatingly slow process of trying to unwind the tight coil of perpetual urgency that writhes within. It is a process of unlearning lifelong habits and replacing them with new ones. One year later it is challenging still.

It also provides opportunity to find new purpose in living, seeking more than the pursuit of all that natters for attention and allegiance in this temporal life. When I lay on the emergency room table with nurses and doctors working on me with such intensity, I was not afraid of death, but I felt I had so much left for which to live. Now my focus has shifted more to serving Christ with intentionality, seeking to give of myself to others. In so doing more doors have opened for me to minister and serve than I've ever experienced before.

My time of reading and study of the Scriptures and good books has taken on greater meaning and purpose. I am more reflective and have put down deeper roots in faith.

I miss the people who have been taken, especially my father-in-law who was a father to me longer than my own dad had a chance to be, having died (from heart disease) when I was eight. I relish the presence of those who have survived their battles. The aunt who has survived cancer was here for part of this vacation and she and I had a rewarding conversation about new purpose and meaning in living. I am grateful for my family and friends in a richer way than before.

So I sat today feeling the rain cooled ocean breeze and reflected on all that has transpired in a year. Tomorrow we will return to the Texas heat, yet in just a couple of months the morning air will be crisp and holidays approaching. My oldest daughter has just graduated college. My younger son will soon be married. I will draw joy from each of these events, cherishing time with loved ones present. Yet my joy will be accompanied with a pang of longing for those whose vapor has vanished from sight.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Men of Letters and the Age of Hypercriticism

There has been a heated debate in recent years via the book market by intellectuals over the question of God's existence. The last five years or so have seen the appearance of what has come to be called "evangelical atheists"...atheists not content to hold their view privately, but feel the compulsion to proselytize, to win converts away from religion to atheism.

Several "evangelical atheists" have entered this arena and authored best selling books. The two men who have most captured the limelight in this quest are Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Both men authored books that take dead aim at debunking belief in God and urging that, for the good of human progress, religion of all types should be shed.

Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist from Oxford University, argues primarily from the standpoint that the rise of scientific knowledge and inquiry has rendered religious belief obsolete, even going so far as to categorize it as "superstitious", a term he regularly applies to anyone who believes in God.

Hitchen's, a British journalist and writer, argued from the perspective of the harm caused throughout human history by wars and persecutions launched under the banner of religious zeal. Hitchens prefered to call himself an "antitheist", saying he wished he could support belief in God, but that his intellectual analysis precluded it.

A third entrant has been the American theologian Bart Ehrman, professor of New Testament Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ehrman's journey began as a teenager who became a born again Christian and who entered seminary, devoting himself to the discipline known as textual criticism. It was during this time that Ehrman began to question the veracity of the New Testament, questioning which led him to abandon his faith, first becoming an agnostic and later a full blown atheist.

Although each of these men may sincerely hold their beliefs (Hitchens is recently deceased), a common element of each of their works is that they each resort to what I refer to as hypercriticism. The term is not my own...I've seen it used elsewhere, but cannot cite who originated it. But a hypercritic is one who presents their point of view without regard to balance, integrity, tone and motivation.

Any author on any topic is entitled to reach conclusions and opinions and to present them to their audience. That is to be expected and is perfectly acceptable. Indeed it is the purpose of their writing or speech. But the hypercritic presents these acceptable outcomes in an unacceptable way by distorting one or more of the four qualities above. Often a hypercritic's work will degenerate into a rant: an emotionally charged diatribe oriented toward what they are against more so than what they are for. Their communication is a reflexive spasm of vitriol toward what they are against. A thin veneer of reason is applied for the sake of adding a fig leaf of credibility to what is merely an excoriating rag.

What follows here is a definition of each of the four elements above, how they relate to the topic of Theism vs. Atheism, and why I consider these authors to be hypercritics.

Balance has to do with presenting evidence and the various positions on a topic in a way that gives a fair hearing to each. On the topic of whether or not God exists it would mean that evidences of God's existence or absence be presented fairly from all sides, that presentation of arguments from reason and logic be equally balanced before conclusions are drawn.

Integrity is related to balance and has to do with the author being honest about their presentation. An author may present evidence in an unbalanced way without meaning to mislead, merely being overly zealous for one side and neglecting fair presentation of the other. But integrity has to do with intent, and whether they present unbalanced views in a willfully distorted way. They should present evidence and reasoning truthfully and not lie, distort, manipulate and mislead in order to win their case. Does the person of faith present evidence for the existence of God yet purposely omit or distort evidence that calls it into question? Does the atheist present only evidence that seems to point against theism and omit or distort evidence in support of it?

Tone has to do with treating the position they are against and the people who hold it with respect. Even if your position is achieved through balanced and honest reasoning, demeaning those who believe differently is rhetorical bullying.

Motivation has to do with what fuels the person's beliefs. Often a person believes what they want to believe despite what the evidence may show to the contrary. Their position may be linked to a defining life experience that has shaped them. In this sense, the person is motivated by emotion and willfulness, rather than an honest pursuit of the truth. There is nothing wrong with having motives for one's beliefs and writings. Most people have personal reasons that motivate their beliefs. But do they allow those motivations to steer them toward a belief unsupported by truth and reason and toward an intellectually corrupted presentation of their beliefs?

So why do I believe that Dawkins, Hitchens and Ehrman are hypercritics? I have read the works of each of them and found violations of the four elements I've just described.

Let me start with Hitchens, whose work "God Is Not Great" became a bestseller. Hitchens, I believe, left the door open to belief in God by asserting that he would like to believe in God but thought that intellectual argument precluded it. Hitchens' book, I believe, violated the elements of balance and tone. He spent some time arguing for the non-existence of God, but focused much of his book on the atrocities of religiously motivated movements and wars such as the Inquisition, the Crusades and Islamic jihadism. He argues that shedding antiquated belief in God will help humankind rid much of what has fueled so much bloodshed throughout human history.

These events are indeed an indictment of misguided religious zeal and avarice. But Hitchens violates balance by only presenting these bloody atrocities and ignoring the tremendous good done by religious groups throughout history. From the earliest days of the Christian church, Christian believers were known for their charitable work with the poor and downtrodden. The abolitionist movement against slavery in both the early days of American and in England were fueled by Christian churches. Both Christianity and Islam have medical relief organizations: the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. Medical missions organizations that care for the poor have done inestimatible work around the world for generations. Some of the largest and most far reaching organizations to help the needy are religious organizations. Hitchens not only ignored these, he even dealt backhanded derision to the likes of Mother Teresa and Billy Graham.

Hitchens also fails to even address that the political movement that made atheism official in its fundamental belief system was communism, which slaughtered tens of millions of people in the 20th century. Every single country that has ever become communist has resorted to brutal oppression of its own citizens. Unfettered by the moral judgments of religious conviction, literally every communist government that has existed has ruled as a gangster state, a collossal prison of tormented humanity. Hitchens, in his book "God is Not Great", expressed belief that wide spread adoption of atheism would lead to progress toward respect for human rights, but didn't address the horrors of officially atheist communism. (To be fair, though, Hitchens in other works was an ardent foe of human rights violations in communist countries, although to my knowledge, didn't explore the connection to their official atheism.)

Finally, "God Is Not Great" violated tone, as virtually every page was an emotionally charged rant against religion. Even if Hitchens had presented a more balanced view of the benefits and harms caused by religion, his cynically malicious tone by itself does serious damage to the credibility of his book.

Ehrman approaches his criticism in a more civil tone. His specialty is the area of textual criticism, the assessment and analysis of ancient manuscripts handed down by scribes over the centuries to preserve and transmit the Bible to succeeding generations. These retransmissions by hand were copies done by hand before the age of the printing press dawned. Most traditionalist theologians that hold to the position of biblical inerrancy...that the Bible is the inspired Word given by God with no errors...holding that the Bible as it was originally given to its authors by God was inerrant. They acknowledge that textual errors in retransmission over the centuries occurred, but were by far mostly small and inconsequential to the meaning of the text.

Ehrman makes exaggerated claims as to the significance of the textual variants by the copiest scribes, the vast majority of which were merely punctuation, spelling or syntax errors. A very small percentage of textual variations are more significant, but none make any change to the meaning of the passage in question or deviate from biblical doctrine and teaching elsewhere in scripture.

Ehrman also pays scant heed to the fact that the surviving manuscripts of the Bible, especially the New Testament, far exceed both in numbers and quality,the manuscripts of any other ancient writing. Scholars have discovered over 5,000 ancient manuscripts of biblical text, whereas most other surviving manuscripts of ancient writings from the comparable period number less than a hundred.

In my opinion Ehrman is a hypercritic because he presents an unbalanced argument that greatly exaggerates the importance of the textual variants in biblical manuscripts. He asks how we can trust anything we read in the Bible when the vast majority of variants are of miniscule importance. He doesn't just jump to conclusions, makes huge, sailing leaps to conclusions not warranted by the evidence. I will stop short of questioning the element of his integrity, but I wonder at his motivation, as he definitely presents a lopsided argument excoriating biblical veracity.

Finally there is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins makes the most of arguing that modern scientific methods and inquiry have rendered the notion of the existence of God obsolete. Dawkins, for all of his argument in support of scientific reasoning, does very little actual reasoning in "The God Delusion". His prefered method of argument is to mock, demean and belittle anyone who believes in God. Of the three authors I've cited here, Dawkins, even more so than Hitchens, degenerates his communication to a the level of a tirade. His book radiates hostility toward belief in God and anyone who believes in God is a superstitious idiot. In public appearances he calls for atheists not even to bother debating people of faith with reason, but rather to merely mock and demean them. He feels that they don't even merit the use of reason and are to be publically ridiculed. He uses sneering contempt as a rhetorical tool far more than he does actual scientific reason to present his case.

Dawkins also succumbs to the concept of "scientism", which means to elevate science to a place higher than it is capable of achieving. Science has accomplished incredible marvels for human advancement and benefit, especially in the last century. As magnificent as its accomplishments have been though, science does have its limitations. Science can neither prove or disprove the existence of God, and the claims of people like Dawkins that it can are overstated and place a faith in science beyond its capabilities, a faith known as "scientism". In essence, science itself is elevated to a form of religious faith credited with almost supernatural powers. Dawkins, whether he realizes it or not, is religious, and his faith is scientism.

These men have sold millions of books that hypercriticize faith, presenting unbalanced and unfair evidence and arguments for their case. Again, it is perfectly acceptable to take positions on issues and write books for one's beliefs. But let the reader be discerning and perceptive, and judge the merits of the writer's work by the criteria of balance, integrity, tone and motivation.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Do you believe this?

Here is my Easter message, 2012:
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Last week we looked at the Passion week through the eyes of a man named Cleopas who was mourning the events of Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion. The story ended in despair and desolation, with the disciples crushed by the events, their Master prosecuted, condemned and executed like a common criminal.

We all know what happens next, but they didn’t. For them, it was the darkest hours of their lives. They didn’t know what we know now. They were devastated by the events of that week and the last 24 hours and didn’t know what was about to dawn upon them.

Today we are going to look at the resurrection story, but focus primarily on the initial response of the women and of two of the disciples, and what we can learn from them.

When the crucifixion ended and the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross, he had to be buried in a hurried fashion because sunset was approaching on Friday, the start of the Sabbath. It was Sunday morning, the day after the Jewish Sabbath when a group of women set out right at sunrise to go to the tomb in order to properly prepare Jesus’ body for final burial. As the women approached the tomb they saw that the large stone across the entrance was rolled away. It doesn’t mention this, but apparently the guards had fled, with Matthew’s gospel saying that an angel appeared and rolled the stone away, and that the guards were so terrified that some of them passed out.

The women approached the tomb and looked inside. They saw two angels in clothes that “gleamed like lightning” and one of the angels spoke and said, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!” The angel told them to go tell the disciples and so they fled the tomb and ran back to the disciples. Mary Magdalene spoke for the group of women when they reached the disciples. She was amazed, and yet still uncertain of what she had heard. She told them “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and I don’t know where they have put him!” Now we, reading the story with hindsight, think to ourselves “She just had an angel tell her he was risen! Why is she saying someone took the body?” But we have to remember she has been through a terrifying, dizzying series of traumatic events the last 24 hours, watching her Master being tried and crucified. There was a conspiracy of betrayal with the High Priests and religious leaders. So her head is spinning and she doesn’t know what to believe.

Two of the disciples dash off to the tomb, and that is the focus of what I want us to look at today. I think that the initial response of the two disciples who first ran to the tomb to investigate matters provides a good representation of how we all look at the resurrection of Christ.

Is seeing believing?
The text of the disciples running to the tomb is in John 20, verses 3 through 9. Peter and John take off running for the tomb to see the situation for themselves.

So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb. 4 The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; 5 and stooping and looking in, he *saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. 6 And so Simon Peter also *came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he *saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. 9 For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.

John runs ahead of Peter and arrives at the tomb first. He looks inside, sees the empty burial cloth lying there, but he hesitates to go in. Peter arrives and being the man of action that he is, boldly goes into the tomb and also sees the burial shroud lying there, empty. Since Peter has gone into the tomb, John is emboldened to follow and it says that he sees and believes.

In this short little series of events lay three responses that typify most people’s response to the resurrection of Christ. Let’s look at the responses in the story, then look at how they match up with our typical responses.

First John arrives at the tomb ahead of Peter, looks in and sees the empty burial shroud, but doesn’t go in any further to investigate more closely. Recall that in the Greek language, there are different words used for the same term, but often with slightly variant meanings. In this passage we read that John “saw” the burial cloth and then that Peter also “saw” the cloth. But different Greek words are used here.

When John first ran up and looked inside the tomb, the word used for “saw” has the meaning of to glance at, to quickly scan. So John came to the tomb, quickly scanned the situation, but went no further and drew no conclusions. He may have been waiting for Peter, who was the de facto leader of the disciples, to see what he would do and think.

Then Peter arrives and more boldly, he goes inside. Peter came in and studied the situation. John’s gospel doesn’t tell us Peter’s response, but the same incident is described by Luke in his gospel, chapter 24, and it says that Peter walked away puzzled, wondering what had happened.

Finally, John goes into the tomb, and it says again that he saw the situation. But this time, a different word for “saw” is used. This word has the connotation of seeing with perception, with understanding. This time, John saw with understanding, and it says he believed. He got it. He knew a miracle had happened.

Even then, John seems to have only barely grasped that Jesus had truly risen, because his own account says that they still did not understand that Jesus must rise from the grave.

Which response represents you?
I think that the responses we see here from Peter and John are fairly typical to how people respond to the resurrection of Christ and the gospel message.

John’s first response. Many people respond to the gospel message and the resurrection of Christ like John initially did. They look at it, glance at it, but don’t dig into it to investigate it further. They just take a cursory interest in it but go no further and make no decision about whether they believe it or not.

Peter’s response. Others go further, perhaps enter in to a more studied relationship with the gospel message and the resurrection, but never come to a point of decision. They scratch their head and don’t know what to think about it. They put off a decision. They don’t commit. They never seem ready to make a choice about accepting the message of the gospel and committing to living for Christ.

John’s second response. Others however, size up the situation, see the facts before them, and they see with understanding. They get it. They grasp the magnitude of the life of Christ, his redemptive work by dying on the cross for our sins, and how he overcame death, all for us. They see it all with understanding and they believe. The Greek word used for John believing is that he trusted. He grabbed hold of that truth with faith and believed it unto salvation.
That is the decision we all must face when confronted with who Christ is, with the message of the gospel and with the resurrection.

Two facts about the gospel message are absolutely critical and require us to respond to them.

First, Jesus was not just a good teacher, a great leader, who was martyred for his beliefs and what he taught. He claimed divinity. He claimed to be the Son of God. That he was God Incarnate, God come to earth in human form. The gospels relate this in several places and it’s clear that the religious leadership knew he was making that claim because several times, in a rage, they said so, and they picked up rocks to stone him to death for blasphemy. An example of this is in John’s gospel chapter 10 where the religious leaders can’t stand it any longer, they are so offended, and they grab rocks to start hurling at him. Jesus asks them in verse 31 for which of his good works are they stoning him, and they respond that it wasn’t for his good works but because he, being a man, claimed to be God.

He also in several places referred to himself using the sacred Hebrew name for God “I AM”…literally YHWH, a term that means “The Eternal One”. It is considered holy and sacred among Jews, and here he was referring to himself as YHWH. It enraged them.

Combine this with the fact that the Old Testament prophets had foretold his coming in great detail centuries beforehand, add in his miracle healings, raising people from the dead and the power of his teachings, and you have to make a decision about Jesus being more than just another great religious leader that founded a great religion. We have to confront the fact that he was much more. He was God come in flesh to reveal the nature of God to us before our eyes. And that he took the punishment that we would have to face for our sin against God upon himself on the cross.

God made humankind in his image, like him in terms of being sentient beings, capable of awareness and abstract thought and the ability to know Him and understand the universe around us. But humankind is also fallen, flawed. We are made in the very image of God, yet we all have this twist in our nature away from God. We reject God, we turn away from him.

You know when your child does something wrong, and you ask them about it and they turn their eyes away from you when you try to talk to them about it? They can’t look you in the eye? That’s captures the very essence of our relationship with God. We were created by him, He loves us more deeply than we can imagine, but we’ve fallen away from Him and the relationship is broken.

We can’t repair that relationship, but God did. He himself took the punishment for our sin. It would be like that parent taking the punishment on himself for what their child did. Or like a judge who finds a criminal guilty, then pronounces sentence…on himself! God saw that humankind was powerless to cure their own sin and fallen nature, so he came as a man, suffered the punishment for our sins on the cross. God’s justice calls for punishment from sin, but his mercy and love provides a way for it to be satisfied so that we can have relationship with him both now and in eternity.
Then He went into the grave and on the third day afterward, defeated death.

The resurrection means everything. If Jesus had just died on the cross it would be easy to dismiss his life and ministry as just that of a great teacher and martyr. But it would make his claims to divinity look hollow and meaningless and mean that they weren’t true, therefore it would discredit much of what he taught, if not all.

But the resurrection changes everything. It punctuates the ministry of Christ.It validates his claim to divinity, because as God come in human form, he defeated death and the Bible says he paved the way ahead for us to follow one day into eternity to spend with him.

Buddha died and was cremated and his ashes are divided up among different sites in Asia. Mohammed’s tomb is in Medina. His bones are in there. Other religious leaders throughout history are buried and have shrines at their tombs around the world. Their bones are in there.

Jesus body is not buried anywhere. There are a couple of shrines to places people believe might have been the tomb of his burial. But he’s not in either one of them. He is not there. He is risen.

Conclusion: Do you believe this?
In John chapter 11, just before Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he tells Martha:

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

The question Jesus asked Martha is the question we must each one answer. Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That he is the Son of God who gave his life for us, suffering for our sin, then defeated death on our behalf, so the we might have eternal life with God?

Will we respond like John’s first look at the tomb? Just glance at it and not go any further in response? Will we be like Peter, looking more closely, but remaining confused and indecisive? In both of these first two responses, to not decide is itself a decision. It is putting off a decision that must be made. Or there is the third choice: to see with understanding, and to believe, to trust in Jesus and the work he has done for each of us, for you and for me, then to respond to Him in a prayer of acceptance through faith.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

From Utter Darkness, A Brilliant Light Shines

(This was the Palm Sunday message I delivered at my father-in-law's church this past weekend. Apologies for the length, but it was a pulpit message, longer than a typical article.)
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Chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel tells the story of a man named Cleopas, lamenting to a fellow traveler on the road what had happened to Jesus with the crucifixion. The account that he gives is brief and shows that he doesn’t yet understand the news of Jesus’ resurrection. How might Cleopas tell that same story years later with the benefit of hindsight? It might have sounded like this:

Three years had passed since Jesus began his ministry. The people of Israel had waited for centuries for the Messiah that the prophets had foretold. But when Jesus came, he was an unlikely Messiah: the son of a simple carpenter, raised poor, born in a stable. Maybe the world would have been more impressed if he’d been born the privileged son of royalty or the rich, with resources he could bring to bear against the oppression of the Romans.

The Romans! They were merely the latest, yet the cruelest of Israel’s oppressors. Israel was conquered first by the Babylonians. Then the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Then the Greeks conquered the Persians, and finally the Romans conquered the Greeks. Through it all, the land of Israel was just handed down from one conquering pagan nation to the next, and had hardly had a few years of autonomy in almost 600 years.

So we expected that the Messiah that had been promised through the prophets would finally lead the rebellion, rally the people, to throw off the Romans, to get their foot off of our neck as a people, and restore the kingdom of Israel as it had been under our greatest King, David, a thousand years ago.

But even though Jesus didn’t come from privilege, he nonetheless drew huge crowds. He taught like none of the other rabbis, priests and experts in the Law of Moses. The other teachers always referred back to respected rabbis’ teachings, such as “Rabbi Hillel says about this passage that we should do such-and-such.” But when Jesus taught, he referred to no one. It was his own teaching and it had the ring of truth and authority behind every word.

Then there were the miracles. With merely a touch, sometimes even with just a word, the blind could see, the lame could walk, a man with a withered hand received healing and his hand was whole. He even raised the dead! There was the poor widow whose only son had died. The funeral procession was carrying him to the burial place and everyone was weeping not just because he had died, but because of his poor mother. What would she do? First losing her husband, then her only son! Who would provide for her? She would be destitute, possibly living on the streets. Jesus saw the funeral, went to the boy’s body and raised him from the dead! Then there was Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha. In the tomb four days, and yet Jesus raised him! He walked out of the tomb and they had to untie the grave clothes from him!

So even though he was a mere peasant like us, his teaching, his power, his authority, drew huge crowds to him. But you know who wasn’t impressed with him? Who opposed him? Who hated him? The religious leaders, our rabbis and teachers of the Law, the Pharisees and the Sadduces. The ones we had always looked to for leadership and guidance in our spiritual lives. They hated him because they were jealous of him, because the people flocked to him, a mere carpenter. They hated him because he challenged them, because they were masters at keeping the law, of meticulous rule keeping for holy living, but had completely lost heart and compassion for our needs as a people. Even when Jesus healed a man of some terrible affliction such as blindness, instead of rejoicing that the man had been set free from his physical bondage, they carped and griped that Jesus had done this on the Sabbath, violating Sabbath law!

So it was that the stage was set for the final confrontation between Jesus and the religious hierarchy. Like thousands of Jews all over Israel, Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover remembrance of God’s people being delivered from the bondage in Egypt. Little did we realize what would happen. Jesus would enter the city, the nation’s capital, the center of the religious leadership, and challenge them head on. It would be the final clash, the last battle, and it wouldn’t be just between Jesus and the Pharisees, it would be between Jesus and the devil, between the power of the Living God and the dark forces of Satan, and at stake was the salvation of all of humanity.

But Jesus knew. Before coming to Jerusalem, he had told the disciples that he would suffer many things at the hands of the priests and teachers of the law, that he would even die but that on the third day, he would rise again. The disciples were incredulous and didn’t understand what he was saying.

Knowing the terrible suffering that awaited him, Jesus “set his face like flint” to go to Jerusalem. His face became resolute and strong even knowing what was ahead. He told the disciples to go before him into the city and where they could find a colt for him to ride into the city on. They went and found it and brought it to him. They put their cloaks on it for him to sit on, and you know what was amazing? That even though the colt had never had a rider before, and was still unbroken, he meekly allowed Jesus to ride him into the city, even with a crowd shouting around him.

The crowd, sensing the moment, lined the road and shouted “Hosanna! Glory to God!” They believed the time had come for the Messiah to overthrow the yoke of our oppressors, the Romans! Freedom at last! Glory would be restored to Israel!”

It was a tumultuous week leading up to the Passover. In fact it started off with Jesus throwing down the gauntlet. He came to the temple and in the outer area of the temple complex were the money changers and their booths. What a racket they had going on! What a thievery they committed against even the poorest of our people! They had turned the worship of God into a business opportunity for themselves. When a family would arrive and offer their sacrifice, the priest would find some defect with the animal they brought and tell them their animal wasn’t worthy, that they would have to go to the dealers outside the temple and buy an animal that was pre-approved by the priests. And if they had traveled here from far away and didn’t have the local currency, then they had to take their own currency to the money changers to exchange for the local, accepted currency. And of course, the exchange rate amounted to robbery.

Jesus came to the temple. He saw the animal sellers, saw the injustice foisted upon God’s people and the greed and corruption of the religious leaders and his anger burned. He stormed the stalls where the animals were sold and set them free from their cages. He over turned the money changers tables. He made a whip out of some cords and thrashed the crooks out of the temple area. And he shouted at them: “My house shall be a house of prayer. But you have turned it into a den of robbers!” The people were thrilled. The religious leaders were not.

That set the tone for the rest of the Passover week. Jesus had struck at the root of their corruption and they would not sit still for it. The religious leaders began to challenge his authority, yet he matched their every argument and put them to silence.

He told a parable about a vineyard owner who left his prosperous vineyard in the hands of his employees while he traveled in a far land. Every time he sent messengers back to the employees at the vineyard the employees, jealous to steal the vineyards profits for themselves, would abuse the messengers, beat them, even kill them and throw them out. They ran roughshod over the owner’s property. Then the owner sent his own son back to the vineyard thinking that they would respect him. But the corrupt employees schemed that they would kill the son, the owner’s only heir, so that one day when the owner died, the laws of inheritance would deed the vineyard to them and they’d finally own it outright and make all the money themselves. But the owner when he heard, returned and had all the corrupt employees executed and made others, strangers, to be the new heirs to his vineyard.

When the Pharisees , Sadduces and priests heard this story they seethed with resentment. They ground their teeth because they knew he spoke this parable against them.

Then Jesus called them to account for something that even we, his followers didn’t fully grasp at the time. Jesus had been teaching that he was no ordinary prophet, that he was God’s Son. This was the biggest and most vexing religious doctrinal contention between Jesus and the religious leaders. They considered it blasphemy for a man to claim to be the Son of God, to believe that the promised Messiah would be God himself come in human form. They considered that human flesh was corrupt and God would never come as a man. After all, hadn’t pagan kings for thousands of years claimed that they had been gods?

So Jesus quoted one of the Psalms where 1,000 years ago King David said: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Since the prophets said that the Messiah would be a descendent of King David, this verse poses a problem. Jesus asked the religious leaders: “If David refers to the Messiah as ‘Lord’, how can he be his son?” The question wasn’t whether the Messiah would be a descendent of David. The question was: no father calls his son by the respectful term, “Lord”. So for David to call the Messiah “Lord” means the Messiah would be more than just a human prophet, more than a mere man. He would have to be Divine, God come in flesh.

After this the religious leaders no longer challenged Jesus with questions. Instead, they plotted to have him silenced forever. They plotted to murder him.

Meanwhile, Jesus continued to minister to the people. He watched all the rich people throw money into the temple offering out of their abundance, yet said that a poor widow who threw in a penny had given more than anyone, because she gave all that she had.

He healed the blind. He laid his hands on little children and blessed them even though his disciples tried to shoo them away.

He taught that one day our great temple would be torn down, that terrible times would come to the earth and that he would return and defeat the powers of darkness trying to destroy all of humanity, that he would come on the clouds with power and glory and utterly defeat the armies of darkness, all evil and oppression and bring God’s victory to the whole earth. Some day…

Peter took to bragging again, telling Jesus that he was willing even to die for him. Jesus shook his head, telling Peter that before the rooster crowed the next morning, Peter would have denied him three times.

There was treachery afoot. The religious leaders gained an ally in one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot. In reality, they gained an ally in Satan himself because “Satan entered into Judas” to conspire with them to betray Jesus into their hands during a time of quiet, when their were no crowds present. Judas had been a member of a political movement called the Zealots who sought the violent overthrow of Rome. When Jesus disappointed Judas’ ambitions, he decided to betray him.

Just before Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples, Judas and the religious leaders struck a deal. They would pay him 30 silver pieces for leading them to Jesus at an opportune time. We only realized later, and Judas probably never realized, that he was fulfilling the words of the prophet Zechariah, who foretold that God’s people would sell him out one day for exactly that: 30 pieces of silver. Judas was fulfilling the very prophecy of God written over 400 years before.

Judas knew that Jesus liked to spend time in solitude and prayer and that there was a nearby garden close to where they would celebrate the Passover that he would likely go to after the meal. It was then and there that Judas would take the soldiers and leaders to arrest Jesus. Then, he returned to Jesus and the disciples, pretending that he was what he was not, that he was one of them still.

Jesus and the disciples secured an upper room to celebrate the Passover Seder meal. At the start of the meal, the disciples began to discuss, even to argue amongst themselves which of them would hold positions of the highest authority when Jesus lead the final assault over the established rulers, the religious leaders, the Romans, all the oppressors. Who would be Jesus’ right hand man? Who had earned it?

While they were squabbling over which of them was the greatest, no one noticed what Jesus was doing. He gathered a wash basin of water and a towel, and quietly began washing the dust off of their dirty feet . Normally this was the job of the lowest servant in a household. But here was their leader, their Master, the very man they were expecting to lead the rebellion over their enemies. Washing their feet like a common slave! One by one they fell silent, brought to a place of humility by the humble example Jesus was setting for them.

The Passover meal was served and Jesus made an incredible gesture of grace. He announced at the table that one of them would betray him. When each one wondered aloud whether it would be them, Jesus said it would be the one who dipped the bread with him in the gravy bowl. Then he offered the bread for the dipping bowl to Judas. This was an act that traditionally was offered by the Master of the house to an honored guest. Think of it! Jesus, even though he knew that Judas was in the very act of betraying him to his enemies, in grace offered the dipping bread and bowl to Judas as though he were the honored guest at the table. We should know such grace! Then he told Judas to go and do what he must do. And Judas slipped out to gather the forces of darkness against his Master.

Jesus then took the bread and broke it and told the disciples to take and eat, that this was his body, broken for them. Then he took the cup and passed it to them and said for them to drink, that this was the blood of the new covenant for the remission of their sins. God entered into a new covenant with his people for the redemption of all of humankind.

They finished the meal and Jesus took his closest disciples to the garden to pray. He went a little further alone and collapsed in agony, knowing what lay just before him, perhaps within the hour. He asked the Father if this could pass him, but that the Father’s will was what he wanted, not his own. And he knew. He knew that there was no other way. He submitted to the Father’s will.

Suddenly there was the sound of a mob, and Jesus was surrounded by soldiers. From a crowd of Pharisees emerged Judas who had told the authorities that he would officially identify Jesus for arrest by greeting him with a traditional kiss on the cheek. But Jesus asked him “Judas, will you betray me with a kiss?” meaning, with a gesture of friendship?

Peter reached inside his cloak and brought out a sword he’d been concealing and commenced a struggle and slashed off the ear of a man. Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear…right there in front of the Pharisees, who still, with this one last miracle, remained hardened in their hearts.

The soldiers seized Jesus, wrenched his arm behind his back like he was dangerous and needed to be controlled, and carried him off. First they lead him to the chief priests who put him on religious trial. Such a trial in the middle of the night was just the first violation of the rules for a fair hearing for an accused. The religious leaders had recruited a crowd of people of bad reputation to use against Jesus.They brought forth false witnesses who twisted Jesus words and made misleading statements about him. They harangued him and slapped him…and yet he never tried to defend himself. It was only later we realized that he was fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah written 700 years prior, who said he was lead like a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb before it’s shearers, he opened not his mouth.

Finally, they demanded point blank whether he was the Son of God and he declared that he was, using the Hebrew term “I AM”, the holy name of the Eternal Yahweh God, and that they would see him come one day in power on the clouds with angels. The chief priest shrieked in indignation. “What further need do we have of witnesses? You’ve heard his blaspheme yourselves!”

Then they took a “vote”, if you could call it a vote. Tradition called for votes of the Sanhedrin to be done with the youngest members going first so that they wouldn’t feel pressured to go along with the vote of the older members. But this was a lynch mob, not a legitimate hearing and they all shouted their enraged votes for death in unison, a cacophony of rants against the meek man bound before them.

Since Roman law disallowed them from their traditional means of execution, stoning, they had to hand him over to the Romans for execution. But the Romans wouldn’t care if some peasant prophet claimed to be their so called Messiah. What was that to Rome? It meant nothing. So the Sanhedrin had to trump up charges, and tell the Romans that Jesus was claiming to be a king and was gathering followers, which meant that he was leading an insurrection against Roman rule. They took him to Pontius Pilate, the local procurator. He quickly saw that this was a case of trumped up charges and tried to convince the mob to drop the matter. But they noisily refused, and fearing a riot that would get him in trouble with Rome, he passed Jesus up the chain of command to the local governor, Herod. Herod amused himself by taunting Jesus, but ultimately sent him back to Pilate. Pilate hoped that he could have Jesus whipped and that it would satisfy the mob, so he handed him over to be scourged.

The soldiers did their worst to him. Soldiers assigned to the duty of punishing prisoners were the lowest of the low. Unskilled, lacking in the intelligence and ability to advance in the military, they were typically low brow, sadistic brutes. They mocked Jesus, beat him with branches, pressed a crown of thorns on his brow until his face ran with blood. Then they scourged him. Using a leather whip with multiple straps, each strap embedded with bits of sharp metal and bone, they shackled him to a low wooden block and began to methodically beat him to a terrible, bloody wretch. The scourging was so terrible that sometimes prisoners died from the shock of it and never made it to the crucifixion.

Pilate displayed Jesus to the mob, hoping they’d be satisfied, but more loudly than ever they demanded his execution. So Jesus was led away to be crucified. He was so weak with shock he couldn’t carry his own cross to the place of execution as required and another man was forces to do so. They stripped away his garments, laid him on the beams, drove huge spikes through each wrist right at the base of the hand, then hammered a spike through the tops of his feet. Then they raised the cross, positioned it over the post hole, and dropped it in with a hard jolt, Jesus’ body twisting in agony from the shock of it.

Then, over the course of the next few hours, the life of the Messiah, the Son of God, God come in flesh, slowly ebbed away, suffering from the worst that humankind, even his own chosen people, had heaped upon him. Man had seen God’s brilliance and love come to earth…and had rejected him. Despised him. Hated him. Sought to destroy him. Satan, no doubt, thought that he had won the victory. The coup that he accomplished in the Garden when he seduced mankind into disobedience was now complete and mankind was doomed for eternity.

Even in this darkest hour, Jesus extended grace, asking the father to forgive those that had done this to him. They didn’t realize the full impact of what they had done and how it would fit in the plan of redemption that the Father was carrying out.

The sky turned dark and it wasn’t from an eclipse. Astronomers and scholars knew about eclipses and when they happened. This was no eclipse. Then he died, and the earth shook, graves came open and people who had been dead were seen walking through the city. The great thick curtain in the temple was ripped from top to bottom as though giant unseen hands had seized it and torn it apart. The Holy of Holies, normally only seen by the High Priest, was now open and accessible with no barrier.

Yet in spite of all these things, we were bewildered and confused. The man we had followed, had given our lives to for three years, was dead. Our dreams seemed to have died with him. Evil had won and we were desolated.

Jesus’ disciples and some of the women took his body down. It was late in the day, nearly into Friday evening, the start of the Jewish Sabbath. There was no time to properly prepare his body for burial. So Joseph of Arimethea, a rich man and follower of Jesus, hurriedly wrapped him in a burial shroud and he was put into his own tomb that he had set aside for himself one day. He and the women planned to return after the Sabbath to finish the preparation of his body for a proper burial. A huge round stone was rolled across the entrance, closing it off. The religious leaders and the Romans, suspicious of mischief over such a controversial figure, stretched a length of twine across it and sealed both ends to the cliff wall with wax impressed with the official Roman seal. Then they place several guards in front of the tomb to guard it until the women could come back after the Sabbath to properly prepare the body.

And that was it. It was over. Three years of ministry, ended with a terrible thud. The hopes of a nation for deliverance from Roman oppression were shattered. Our anointed Messiah was dead. Slaughtered like a common criminal. Our hopes and dreams had died with him. We all walked away numb with despair, our chance at redemption in tattered pieces.

Or so we thought. We couldn’t see, couldn’t even conceive, that the day after tomorrow, on the first day of the new week, our souls would be soaring with joy.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Courage to Face Evil

Much has been written and recounted in documentaries and movies of the countless acts of courage and heroism during World War 2. Whole libraries have documented the bravery of soldiers in battle against the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. Less has been written about the brave souls who served in the resistance movements in Europe and particularly within Germany itself. These were ordinary citizens who risked arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution in order to aid the Allies in the conquest of the evil regime of Adolph Hitler. For German resistors, the ethical conflict was vexing. In order to save Germany, they had to help the enemies of Germany and thus become traitors. The difficult reality was that their treachery was, ironically, an act of faithfulness toward their country, to save it from a madman.

One of these resistance leaders was a young Lutheran pastor in Germany named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a brilliant young theologian and would have been destined to become a great church leader had not the sweeping events in Europe led him to involvement in the resistance movement in Germany during the reign of the Third Reich.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born, along with his fraternal twin sister Sabine, to a comfortable middle class family in 1906. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a respected doctor of neourology and psychiatry in Germany. Dietrich was the sixth of eight children. His older brother Walter was killed in World War 1 and the family would suffer more terrible losses in World War 2. It was expected that Dietrich would follow his father into medicine, but from a his early teen years Dietrich knew that he wanted to study theology and become a pastor. He studied first at Tubingen University before matriculating to the University of Berlin where he graduated summa cum laude and later earned his doctorate by age 21. He was strongly influenced by the writings of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth.

Bonhoeffer developed into a man and a pastor who, though only in his early twenties, impressed all who knew him with his maturity and gravitas. His extensive writings focus on a life of Christocentrism: making the entire focus of one's life the Person of Jesus Christ. For Bonhoeffer, the Incarnation, the coming of God to earth in human form as Jesus Christ, was the central focus of human history and thus should be the focus of a person's life. It would be this unshakable devotion and faith in Christ that would empower Dietrich Bonhoeffer to resist the terrors of Hitler and the Nazis and ultimately to bravely face execution at the young age of 39 at the hands of the Gestapo.

A crucial turning point in Bonhoeffer's life came from a trip to America to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer was invited to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem where he was swept away by the passion and adoration of Christ by the black church and in particular by their spiritual music. He juxtaposed their passion for Christ with the staleness of the tepid theology of Union that elevated humanism above biblical theology, and this experience would lead to his transitioning from a purely intellectual, scholarly faith to a living, energized faith, fueled by passion for the living Christ. Also, his awareness of the needs of the oppressed and down trodden grew, which would later become a crucial factor in his early and open denunciation of the Nazis persecution of the Jews in Europe.

When Bonhoeffer returned to Europe he was confronted with the growing influence of the Nazi menace in his home country of Germany. Bonhoeffer was appalled by the rising influence of Adolph Hitler, the poisonous teachings of Aryanism and the fact that the church in Germany was being harrassed and hectored by the Nazi established state church called the Reich Church. Church leaders were being forced to decide whether to adhere to true Christian doctrine or to buckle and adopt a theology that elevated National Socialism and Adolph Hitler above Christ and the church. Hitler's plans for the extermination of the Jews of Europe were becoming increasingly clear, and church leaders in particular were in a position to speak out...or silently, in meek humiliation, look the other way. Bonhoeffer would famously say that it was not enough for the church to bandage the wounds of those crushed under the wheel of state oppression. Rather, the church should "jam" the spokes of the wheel.

Bonhoeffer lead a movement that became known as the Confessing Church; pastors and theologians who would not submit to the impositions of the Reich Church. Bonhoeffer began an underground seminary at Finkenwald to teach truly biblical Christian doctrine to seminary students. This act alone risked harrassment and possible arrest by the increasingly powerful Nazi regime.

As Hitler led Germany, Europe and the world into the abyss of world war, his own military hierarchy began to conspire to assassinate him before he destroyed Germany and Europe. Hitler had surrounded himself with a cadre of trusted generals and only by force could he be removed by the leaders trying to save Germany. A secret underground resistance of civilians coalesced along with the generals and other officers that were seeking an opportunity to kill Hitler and his most trusted generals such as Himmler and Heydrich. Bonhoeffer, though not at the heart of the assassination plots, was able to land a position in the German intelligence division from which he could feed information to the resistance.

After many aborted plots to take out the Fuhrer, in July of 1944 a plot called Operation Valkyrie finally reached fruition, led and carried out by Col. Claus Von Stauffenberg. Von Stauffenberg planted a briefcase bomb next to Hitler at a meeting and excused himself from the room. After he left, someone moved the briefcase. The bomb exploded but the heavy conference table shielded Hitler from most of the blast and he escaped with only minor injuries. The plot was quickly and ruthlessly investigated and names of conspirators extracted through torture. The conspirators closest to the plot were executed almost immediately. Though only minimally involved at the fringes, Bonhoeffer had other strikes against him with the Nazi regime due to his resistance to the evil influence of the Reich Church. He was arrested and imprisoned for nearly two years. Toward the end of the war, just a few weeks before the Allied armies conquered Germany and liberated the concentration camps, Hitler ordered the execution of the remaining conspirators and other undesireables, including Bonhoeffer. He was hanged in Flossenberg prison in April of 1945 at the age of 39.

While Bonhoeffer was in prison, it was reported that he was always peaceful and fearless. He was always a gentleman and was kind and generous even to the Nazi guards, so much so that he won them over and they treated him well. He was allowed extra privileges and small freedoms around the prison because the guards so admired and respected him. He would, however, often refuse to accept some privileges if it meant that his fellow prisoners would receive less or be somehow caused to suffer. This demonstrates one of the basic traits crucial to overcoming fear: cultivating selflessness. By focusing on others, we become less fixated on what may happen to us. Bonhoeffer modeled this character strength, showing more regard for the needs of others than himself, even living in abhorrent circumstances.

His fellow prisoners were amazed by his courage and peace in the midst of terrible circumstances. One fellow prisoner wrote of him, "[Bonhoeffer] was very happy during the whole time I knew him, and did a great deal to keep some of the weaker brethren from depression and anxiety."

Another description of him said, "His soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison...[he] had always been afraid that he would not be strong enough to stand such a test, but now he knew there was nothing in life of which one need ever be afraid."

So Bonhoeffer did have fears. But his fears were submitted to his greater desire to serve others and not himself. Bonhoeffer also taught that it is not just our good principles that help us to face trying circumstances and even to face down evil itself. He taught that it was a close, abiding relationship with God and Christ that was essential to triumph. He once wrote:

"If we are to learn what God promises, and what he fulfills, we must perservere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus. It is certain that we may always live close to God and in the light of his presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us, because all things are possible with God; that no earthly power can touch us without his will, and that danger and distress can only drive us closer to him."

Bonhoeffer, already the author of great works such as "The Cost of Discipleship", used his time in prison to write what he considered his life's work, simply entitled "Ethics". He did not let the horrors of imprisonment in a Nazi prison camp snuff out his life's work.

Like a diamond set upon a black velvet cloth, Bonhoeffer shone the brilliance of the eternal God and his goodness out of the gloom of Nazi oppression. Lives of people like Bonhoeffer offer at least a partial response to the question of theodicy...the theological dilemma often posed as "If there is a God, why does he allow evil to exist in the world?" Heroes such as Bonhoeffer offer the stark contrast of God's goodness and purpose in a world reeling from seemingly unchecked evil. Against such blackness, the Holy One shines like a nova through his humble and courageous servants.

Bad things do happen to good people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sets the example that we can have peace and courage even in the most trying of circumstances, by focusing on Christ and on others. In so doing we draw a supernatural strength that ministers to others, and, ironically, returns to us to impart strength and courage. Important qualities to absorb when we are tempted to succumb to much smaller fears of common day to day life.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A New Father

(Note: One week ago our family lost a great man, my father-in-law, James Love, who passed away after a long illness. The text below is what I shared at his service.)
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A great man has left us. He wasn’t great in the ways the world measures greatness. He wasn’t a great athlete or celebrity or billionaire businessman. He was great in the humble way he served the Lord to further his eternal kingdom. He was great in how he made deposits into the lives of others. He was great in how he led his family.

Jim Love was my father-in-law for nearly 30 years. My own father died a little before my 9th birthday. I had no brothers or sisters so at the time I met and later married the Loves' oldest daughter, Joi, I had only my mom and some cousins living across the country on my own side of the family. Psalm 68:6 says that God sets the lonely in families, and I not only married a wonderful, godly young woman, I was received into a great Christian home and made to feel more like a son and not just a son-in-law. So in part because of the number of years, but certainly because of the impact he had on my life, Mr. Love completed in my life what my own father was unable to. He became my new father.

His greatest legacy lives on in this great, godly family he leaves behind. He was kind, wise, generous and steadfast in his integrity and service to the Lord. He was always available for counsel in making decisions. My father-in-law exemplified the biblical quality of meekness. We don’t understand that concept today and equate it with weakness. The scriptures say that Moses was “the meekest of men” yet he confronted a tyrant king and led a nation to freedom. Jesus was meek, but huge crowds followed Him and He spoke with authority they’d never heard although He was “humble and gentle in heart”. Likewise Mr. Love walked in strength and authority, clothed with gentleness and humility. Wherever he was, he led and people followed.

He served faithfully in ministry throughout his life in Christian schools and in three churches he pastored. Since his passing this past Friday night, the family has received hundreds of emails of support from former students and people he pastored. He always focused on others above himself. If you had a conversation with him, he made it about you, not him. Right up until the end he was sharing Christ with medical personnel in hospitals and rehab facilities. They cared for his physical needs; he cared for their spiritual needs.

I’ve often reflected on why, in his last few years, he had to suffer so through all of his medical afflictions. But I never once heard him ask why he had to go through such pain. He was not one to sink into self-absorbed “why me’s”, but understood that the more important question was “For what purpose?”, what was God’s intended will that He could carry out through Mr. Love’s life in this way? We may never know in this life what that was, other than perhaps that in a world of suffering he could comfort others with the comfort he himself had received from God, and that he could be an emblem of godly courage for others to draw strength from.

As long as he had breath he gave away his faith to others, then he slipped from our grasp, leaving behind his groaning flesh, and entered the radiant joy of eternity with the Savior. There he is only living apart from us for a season, and one day we will each see him again.

Yes, God gave me a new father, and I couldn’t have asked for better.