A Note to My Readers -
I've decided to remove my Sunday posts from the weekly cycle. Although I hope they've been of benefit to some of you, they are necessarily secondary to my regular work of sermon preparation each week. I've found that having that extra post to write simply added to the burden of my work. For those readers who would still like access to my weekly work in Scriptural exposition, I would ask them to access the podcasts of my sermons (available through a link in the sidebar), since that remains the primary form of my Bible teaching each week.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

God Cares About You

(Note: This article was originally published as a devotional column in my local newspaper)

The marvelous message of Christianity is, quite simply, that God cares about us. We ought to stop for a moment and consider that there’s no inherent reason demanding that God must care about us, any more than we must care about the millions of bacterial life-forms that live in and around us. God is eternal, all-knowing, and sovereign over the entire universe. We are finite, mortal, tiny specks on one vanishingly small planet among his trillions of worlds. One can easily imagine that a God who created a universe like this would have a good many bigger things to care about than us.

But, astonishingly, he does care about us, and we know this for a fact because of the way that he has consistently revealed it to us. Rev. A. J. Padelford, the longest-serving minister of Second Baptist Church (1877-1909), put it this way: “How inspiring the thought: God thinks of me, even me! He yearns over me. He would save me. All this we find emphasized in his word.”

In every part of God’s outreaching activity towards humanity, we see his tender care displayed. In his work of creation, he gave us ourselves, as well as all the magnificent beauty that surrounds us. In the laws and commandments he laid down for his ancient people Israel, he gave us the knowledge of how to live well, how to avoid the pitfalls of ruination of that would otherwise follow from our undirected acts of selfish living. And above all else, he gave us his own Son, Jesus Christ, who existed before all worlds in a union of eternal bliss with the Father and the Holy Spirit. God, in his own person, joined himself to us—took on human nature, lived our life, suffered for us on the cross, died for us, and then conquered death definitively—all for us.

God cares about you. It doesn’t matter how far you may have drifted away from God, how many wrong things you’ve done, or how small or insignificant you may feel. God cares about you, enough to give everything up so that he could be close to you. And he not only wants to draw near to us, but to raise us up, empower us, and give us a mission and an identity that will shatter the narrow boundaries of our everyday lives by endowing us with the grandeur of his great mission in the world. If we are friends of God through Christ Jesus, then we have the unspeakable honor of becoming actors in the great story that he’s writing.

Once again, here’s how Rev. Padelford put it more than a century ago: “What an honor it is to be workers together with God, doing that which has given us to do, and rejoicing in the thought: We are fellow-helpers of the truth!”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Evangeliad (2:44-47)

There too was Anna, the prophetess,
Daughter of Phanuel, waiting to bless
The holy advent of the holy one;
For which she was watching with discipline—

In prayer and in fasting, in vigilance,
She sought for the promised deliverance;
Night and day in the Temple she waited
With undying faith and hope unabated.

Then she saw Mary and Jesus her son,
And she recognized her awaited one.
She thanked the God who had brought this to pass
And spoke of the hope that had come at last.

Mary and Joseph, they finished their task,
Consecrating their son, as God had asked;
And when all the laws had each been fulfilled,
They went back home, to their town in the hills.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Photo of the Week

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.

- Psalm 29:2

Monday, October 16, 2017

Quote of the Week

 On Desiring Fame and Long Life:

"Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives... The longest and the shortest thus come to the same... For the present is the only thing a man can lose... Bear in mind also that every man lives only in the present, which is an individual point, and that all the rest of his life is either past or uncertain. Short then is the time which any man lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this is handed on by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less one who died long ago."

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2:14 & 3:10 

(Painting: "Portrait of an Old Man in Red," by Rembrandt) 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O God, early in the morning I cry to you. Help me to pray and to concentrate my thoughts on you: I cannot do this alone. In me there is darkness, but with you there is light; I am lonely, but you do not leave me; I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help; I am restless, but with you there is peace. In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience; I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me... Restore me to liberty, and enable me so to live now that I may answer before you and before me. Lord, whatever this day may bring, Your name be praised.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Friday, October 13, 2017

Glimpses of Grace: Genesis 1

In Genesis 1, we have the first main account of God's work in creating the world. We also have a chapter that is lavished with rich symbolism that is only fully illuminated in the light of Christ, the New Creation, and the foundational doctrines of Christian theology.

Genesis 1:1-3 -
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

From the perspective of Christian theology (especially when contrasted with traditional Jewish monotheism), it's remarkable how clearly the first chapter of Genesis underscores our belief in the Trinity: the plurality-in-unity of the Godhead--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Right here in the first three verses, we can see these three persons of the Godhead at work in creation. God, that is, the Father, is the one who plans and oversees the work of creation. The Holy Spirit is hovering over the waters. The Hebrew verb for "hovering" can refer to the gentle fluttering of a bird's wings, or it can also be translated as "blowing softly," either of which is a beautiful image of the Spirit's gentle guidance of the process of creation. 

But where, you might ask, is the Son? Remember that in the New Testament, Jesus is described as the "Word" of God, and that he is listed as the active agent of creation, "through whom all things were made" (John 1:1-3). And, indeed, we see that principle at work here. Although the person of the Son is not directly mentioned in Genesis 1, it is notable that God chooses to create through the means of speaking; that is, by his Word. Genesis could easily have portrayed God as simply imagining the world into existence, or using some other means, so it is important that a specific mode of creation is listed, and that that mode is by God speaking. The Word is God's active agent of creation. So here, in the opening verses of the Bible, we have God the Father, his Word, and his Spirit: the Christian Trinity.

Genesis 1:26
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

This verse underscores the Trinitarian interpretation that we've already seen at the beginning of the chapter. God speaks about creating humanity, but he doesn't appear to be speaking to himself. In previous verses, his commands of "Let there be..." were directed toward the created universe itself, calling forth being from nothingness. But in verse 26, he changes the form, when presumably he could have simply kept to the pattern and said, "Let there be mankind upon the earth." Instead, he says, "Let us make mankind in our image." Who is he talking to? The Bible doesn't ordinarily use the language of the "royal we" in relating God's speech (that is, God does not customarily speak about himself in the first person plural, as a king might do, even though being only a singular person).

So he must be talking to someone. But who? Some scholars have speculated that this is an example of "henotheism," of God representing the greatest figure in a divine council of gods or godlike beings (angels or "sons of God" or "the heavenly hosts," as appear in other parts of Genesis), and so they say that here he is speaking to these other semi-divine or angelic beings. But that interpretation requires us to read extraneous characters into the text of Genesis 1. Angels or other supernatural beings are never mentioned in this passage. Rather, it makes more sense to assume that God is speaking to the other characters who have already been mentioned: his Spirit and (as we have argued) his Word. Another reason why he could not be speaking to angels is that he assumes that his interlocutors share his own nature. He cannot say to angels or to lesser divine beings, "Let us make man in our image," because God and the angels do not share a single "image," they are ontologically different. They are created beings; he is the Creator. Their entire being is contingent upon him, while he is the one and only "necessary being" (to use a philosophy term) in the whole scope of all that is. So, whomever he is speaking to in this verse is someone who shares his own nature, who is equally "God" as he is God. Another clue to this truth is that the following verse, 1:27, simply refers to man's creation "in his [God's] own image," not "their own image,"--a singular reference, following a plural reference, but both referring to the same exact thing. These verses indicate that God's nature is somehow, at the same time, both plural and singular.

Once again, the very first chapter of the Bible supports the foundational doctrine of the Christian Trinity: that God exists not simply as one monolithic whole, but that he exists as three persons eternally united in a communion of love, and sharing the full unity of an undivided divine nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This union is not simply a bonding of different items into a group, but a true ontological unity: since there is only one single divine nature, the members of the Trinity truly are "one God," as the Scripture teaches. And each member of the Trinitarian Godhead is "fully God," just as Gen. 1:26 suggests.

So even though the Old Testament never explicitly teaches the doctrine of the Trinity in clear, outspoken terms, it nonetheless is the only possible solution for what is going on in Gen. 1:26--a God who somehow exists as a unity-in-plurality, in which each member of his undivided being share in the full equality of an unbroken divine nature.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Taking a Knee: How a Symbol of Reverence, Used in Protest, Is Driving Us Mad

(Photo credits appear at the bottom of the post)

If you haven't heard the news yet, you'd better buckle up. In turns out that, as a form of silent, nonviolent protest against social injustices that affect racial minorities, a group of athletes have chosen to kneel during the national anthem. That's right. Kneeling. It's bad enough that Catholics and Episcopalians show blatant disrespect for God by kneeling during public worship, or that future husbands have regularly offended their future wives by kneeling at the moment of proposing, or that grieving soldiers have so often protested against their fallen comrades by kneeling in prayer at their gravesides. But now black NFL players are kneeling, too.

In case you haven't picked up on it yet, I'm poking fun at the sanctimonious horror exhibited by those who believe that the only appropriate posture in which to hear the national anthem is the same posture of protest adopted by the biblical characters of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (that is, by standing, for which offense those three reprobates were thrown into a fiery furnace). I'm not poking fun at it because I think that intentional acts of disrespect against the nation's most treasured symbols are a light matter, but rather because those who have taken most offense at it have obviously and thoroughly misinterpreted what is going on. 

The truth is, I'm actually not a big fan of the protests; I think they're a poorly-chosen symbol for the statement that the players wanted to make. But my criticism of the protests is simply that they are not nearly as effective as another means might be, not that the protests should necessarily be taken as offensive. 

In fact, as I'll explain at the end of the post, I'm closer to being offended at their kneeling for an entirely different reason: not because it disrespects the flag, but because they've chosen a posture that shows a bit too much respect for the flag. I'm offended that the great and reverential act of kneeling has been so debased in our culture that apparently no one knows what it means anymore. If we did, we would know that kneeling during the anthem is inappropriate, because it shows too much respect. Seriously. Read on, unless your jingoistic rage compels you to pen a fiercely patriotic treatise in the comments section first.

Now that I've hooked you into thinking that I'm possibly a lunatic traitor, let's get into the matter at hand. Why should the protests not be interpreted as offensive acts of blatant disrespect? Well, for a number of reasons, not least the fact that all of the people performing the protests have said that that's not what they're about. 

First, let's consider the task of a person like me, a conservative white male football fan, who sees this kind of protest going on. My first job is to find out what it means. Not to jump to the first weird idea that pops into my head as to what it might possibly mean, but to actually do the work of learning what the players are intending to say by using this symbol. Unfortunately, those who have taken offense at the protests have failed at this very first point. They're attacking a position that no one has actually taken (in philosophical terms, the "straw man fallacy"), and have really only proved that their patriotism is so intense that it seems to have overwhelmed their powers of reason.

Let me give an example of what I mean. When I was serving as a missionary in North Africa, in the midst of a Muslim population, I observed that the women on our mission team would don headscarves before going out for the day. This is a symbolic act, laden with cultural meanings. Now, I could have jumped to a conclusion and started railing against it in an entirely thoughtless manner, saying, "How could you wear that thing? Don't you know it's a symbol of Muslim society's repression and devaluation of women?!" But I would have been dead wrong, and everybody watching would have known immediately that I was an intemperate idiot. So what I did was, I learned what the headscarf meant to the women in my mission team. It was their act of acceptance of a cultural norm which valued modesty for women, and in that culture, the covering of one's hair is one of the leading expressions of feminine modesty, in the same way that covering one's bust is in our culture. Not only so, but it's a manner of expressing feminine modesty that is spoken of favorably in the Bible. So my fellow missionaries had very good reasons for choosing the symbolic act of using headscarves.

Now back to the NFL. What are these NFL players trying to convey with their symbolic actions? If you were to listen to the offended fans and pundits, you would come away with the impression that these players are intending to spurn the flag, to dishonor the sacrifices of our veterans, and to enjoy the limelight of pretending to be aggrieved victims of our society when in fact they're high-rolling millionaires. But if you actually thought that, you'd be wrong--just as wrong as I would have been had I prejudged my colleagues' decision to wear headscarves. When you listen to the players themselves, it becomes fairly clear what they're trying to say. Although they themselves have certainly benefited from our society's gluttonous fixation on sports, they nevertheless remain connected to, and representatives of, their home neighborhoods and the people who live there. They have brothers and cousins and friends who experience the harsh side of America's racial turmoil on a regular basis. So they chose to kneel during the anthem (following the lead of the first to do so, quarterback Colin Kaepernick) as a means of drawing attention to the way our society has often turned a blind eye to the scale of violence and bias against racial minorities. None of the players mention a primary agenda of disrespecting the flag, the anthem, or veterans (though they certainly are aggrieved at certain aspects of the society that the flag and anthem represent). But the bottom line is this: if you think that their primary intent is to exhibit direct disrespect against our nation's symbols, then you're simply wrong. There is verifiable evidence to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that that is not their intent. They have said, time and time again, that they are trying to draw attention to the corrupt nature of certain aspects of our society that lead to real suffering every day. 

But, you may say, even if that's not their intent, that's still the way it comes across. Can't a symbolic action be offensive simply because someone takes offense at it, whether the person doing it intended the offense or not? Yes, absolutely. In fact, I made that same exact argument when I said that people should stop using the Confederate flag. And that's why I think that this protest was poorly-chosen. There are more effective ways that NFL players could have used their fame to draw attention to the social problems of racism and violence in America. But they chose to use a symbolic act that was almost guaranteed to be misinterpreted. Basic communications theory stipulates that if you're choosing a symbol to convey a message, the best plan is to avoid the symbols that will likely be misinterpreted. Unfortunately, our political culture in the United States has given birth to a civic religion in which the flag is venerated in a sort of mystical fetishism, to the degree that any protest involving a US flag in any way is bound to be misinterpreted in the worst possible manner.

So, the NFL players bungled the efficacy of their protest. But scoring low points on efficiency doesn't merit the blowback they've received. The response of those most offended by these protests has been indicative of a very low degree of thoughtfulness. Even if a symbolic action might give offense, we are still beholden to consider the intent of those performing the action. We run into this dynamic in church life all the time. Some older portions of a congregation might find it offensive, at least at first, when young people show up to church in ratty jeans and t-shirts. But you know what we do? Although offended, brothers and sisters in Christ know that the way to resolve such things is to speak the gentleness of the truth in God's love, and more important still, to listen to one another. Once the older people learn that young people are dressing like that because they regard God as their loving Father, and that their dress is an expression of being comfortable in his house and of coming to him exactly as they are, without any false pretensions, then the offense usually goes away. And when young people begin to understand that older folks aren't simply stuffy legalists, but that they dress up as a way of giving honor, respect, and worship to God, then the resentment on their side goes away too. Older people will still prefer to dress up, and younger people to dress casually, but their offense will have been softened by the grace of understanding. 

So when we look at what the NFL players are actually doing, we see that they are not intending any grave disrespect toward the flag, the anthem, or veterans. And, as I playfully indicated in my opening paragraph, the mode of protest they've chosen is just about the most innocent one they could have possibly gone for. Kneeling is universally regarded as a symbol of giving great respect. It has never been a sign of protest. Rather, it is a sign of reverence, deference, and submission. The only other situations in which football players kneel are to pray together or to listen to their coach's directions in the locker room, and in neither context are they taking a knee to protest God or their coach. Culturally speaking, standing has far more often been used as a form of protest than kneeling has. The fact that the players chose to kneel during the anthem shows that their intent is not to protest the flag or the anthem, but to direct attention to an issue connected to those things (the race-based sufferings in our society), while showing proper deference to the symbols themselves. Had they chosen to turn their backs on the flag, or thumb their noses at it, or raise their middle fingers at it, then perhaps some of the horrified shock at their disrespect would have been in order. But they chose to kneel, which is usually considered an act of greater deference than of standing (though certainly less common in some situations). If you were to kneel in the presence of a president or senator, you would probably be asked to stand, not because kneeling is an offensive protest, but because it actually represents an inappropriate level of self-abasement toward someone who is simply another citizen. It is showing too much respect for that situation; it suggests worship when simple deference is in order. Standing would be more appropriate, because it shows respect while still retaining the unshakable dignity of the individual citizen under the law. 

Since kneeling is universally regarded as an act of reverence, and often of worship, let's do a little thought experiment. If we didn't have any access to what the players were actually saying about their symbolic act of kneeling, how would we interpret it? What would be the most reasonable cause for offense at their actions? Here's my answer: I would actually want the players to stop kneeling, because kneeling shows an inappropriate level of self-abasement to the flag, rather than the proud dignity of a true-hearted citizen. Committing a traditional act of worship towards the flag by kneeling during the anthem seems a bit much, as if our patriotism has tipped over the edge towards idolatry. So if I were to follow the lead of the much-offended and choose to ignore what the NFL players are saying about their actions, I would object to their kneeling because it shows too much reverence during the national anthem. It looks too much like worship, and we shouldn't be worshiping the flag.

Now, clearly, that's not what the NFL players are doing when kneeling, so my offense at the desacralization of kneeling would be misplaced. But, by the same exact token, everyone else's offense at the players "disrespecting" the flag is also misplaced. If you're willing to ignore the players' stated intentions in order to believe that they are disrespecting the flag, then you would also have to allow for my (far more reasonable) contention that they may actually be showing too much respect for the flag. So if you're not willing to allow me my misrepresentation, then you have to give up yours too.

So, NFL players: choose a better means of getting your message out. It's a good message, and one we need to hear, but most of the national audience is hearing something else when you kneel during the anthem. It's not working, so choose something else. And everybody else: practice the grace of thinking before you speak, and of giving our fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt. That's just common decency. 

(Images - Photograph, top: "Brandon Marshall Kneeling in Protest," by Jeffrey Beall, September 18, 2016, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license; Painting, upper inset left: "Saint Francis in Meditation," by Francisco de Zurbaran, c.1635, public domain; Photograph, upper inset right: "Woman from Israel with a Headscarf," by Peter van der Sluijs, October 12, 2012, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license; Photograph, lower inset left: "Parishioners of the Belmont Congregational Church," c.1910, public domain; Painting, lower inset right: "Abbot Christiaan de Hondt, by the Master of 1499, Antwerp, c.1500, public domain)