Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Fistful of Guns...

     I will return to 2 Corinthians soon, but some other pans have been put on the stove (my mind only has 4 burners!) and so I need to clean some out to make room for the new dishes to serve.
This one was just funny!
     I had an intriguing conversation with a gent from church... to be honest, I had been expecting this interaction with someone, and he just happened to bring it up.  With the very-publicized bouts of gun violence, and the reactions of the government and the American public, it is timely and expedient to ask ourselves:
What does the Bible say about the 2nd Amendment?
They sure look safe!
    So my conversation went something like this:  after some jovial small talk, he expressed concern about the possibility of stricter gun laws.  I told him my background briefly:  I own guns, I believe an armed society is a polite society, and I believe that a gun is a morally neutral object, to be used righteously or unrighteously.  Police officers or soldiers can (and frequently do) use their weapons in the service of the people to protect and serve.  I believe guns don't kill people... people kill people.  I believe these things both because they seem pretty evident to rational reflection, and because of the worldview of radical fallenness, basic justice and governmental interaction that the Bible proscribes.  With the necessary social conservative disclaimers taken care of, we can examine our guidelines and restrictions according to Scripture;  I don't think you have the time to read (or I have the time to write!) a comprehensive treatise on the topic... I just want to throw out some general points that I tried to (or certainly wanted to) communicate to my friend that day:
1.  We have the God-given right and responsibility to protect ourselves, our families, neighbors and fellow citizens:  to love our neighbor is, in certain, rare circumstances, to physically restrain him from doing evil.  Obviously, this is the healthy, biblical counterpoint to my last post.  This could mean even the taking of a life, if our neighbor (yes, the man kicking down your door to invade your home is your neighbor; Luke 10:29ff) is hell-bent on mayhem and murder, and all lesser responses have failed.  This is both love to this individual, by showing him in the strongest way the heinousness of his intent and not allowing him to commit the sin of murder, and more clearly, it is love to the people he intended to murder, putting our lives at risk to safeguard theirs.

"Then Moses came down from the mountain, and in his hand was..."
2.  We do not have the God-given right to protect ourselves, our families, etc. with a gun.  Scripture has no provisions, teaching or doctrine on our rights to or our restrictions from firearms.  I know there's a certain "Duh!" factor to this point, but it is astonishing how many evangelicals, conservatives, Republicans and all-round good ole boys who elevate the 2nd Amendment to the status of the 67th book of the Bible or the 11th commandment.  So if our right to bear arms doesn't come from God, where does it come from?  The government!  And the government giveth and the government taketh away... I am convinced that unless earth-shattering social revolution occurs, our country as conceived by its founders and their founding principles will cease to exist.  It will likely be replaced by a social democracy with values of inclusion, tolerance and enforced equality.  So what's a Bible-believing, Christ-centered Christian to do when the Man comes for your guns?
The early church had no official protection, no rights, no guns... just the gospel, and they rocked their world through their message and lives.  If God sees fit to put us in the same spot, may we be as faithful and potent.
"You come against me with a sword and spear, but..."
3.  Our power, protection and promise comes from God.  Anyone familiar with firearms can tell you their limitations:  they can't shoot around corners, they don't have "homing bullets", and so are useless unless you can provide the prerequisite marksmanship (or would that be "markspersonship"?).  Especially today and in the near future, the people with the most capable weapons are those who break the law.  In contrast, God never misses His mark:  every person He desires to save is gloriously converted (2 Pet 3:9) through the gospel and no lawbreaker can escape His omnipresent justice (Isa 2:19, Rev 6:15-17).  He never runs out of bullets... just like the hero in the action movie. 
     If your trust and security come from a gun on your hip, you are no better than Israel who trusted in chariots and horses (Ps 20:7).  Instead, you must cling to the name of the Lord your God to fell the giants of our day;  because...
"the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh (physical or earthly) but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ..." (2 Cor 10:4-5)
 Photos courtesy of DarrelBirkett, Rev. Bombasticos (!), VectorPortal, and upicks

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


     Yes, the original Batman with Adam West is still on the air.  A friend and I were strolling through the first chapter of Isaiah and we came across verse 15:  "your hands are full of blood".  It reminded me of another verse...
"The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence." (Ps 11:5)
"Boards don't hit back..."
     We started talking and my hackles came up (you know, the metaphor for our instinct to be self-righteous and justify ourselves).  You see, my apathy towards sports notwithstanding, I would consider myself a red-blooded American male, raised and spoonfed on violent imagery and videogames.  In my flesh, there's nothing I love more than a gory decapitation, preferably with a sword, or a spinning back kick followed by a kung fu flurry of fists.  So I still struggle at times to exercise sufficient care in my media intake (what is the RDA of gratuitous violence?);  I got to thinking "What does it mean to "love" violence?"  I even pointed out to my study partner that even the Bible has violent episodes and reports the demise of the wicked in graphic terms.  So what exactly does God hate?
     I had some clue where to begin;  before my illustrious career in public transportation, I enjoyed 12 years at the local grocery store.  I use the word "enjoy" only mildly facetiously:  the guys I worked with were great, and I actually preferred the physical activity to sitting idle in a chair for hours on end.  But what I loved most were the shoplifters... I worked the night shift and me and my crew revelled in the opportunity, with every shady character that entered the store (and there were plenty!), to stalk them and catch them in the act.  Then, as they exited the building with something shoved down their pants, we would exercise our right to a "citizen's arrest":  we would ask them to reenter the store as we called the police, and if they consented, we would play "good cop, bad cop" in an effort to persuade them to confessing to a five-finger discount.  But from our pugilistic perspective, it was much more exciting and entertaining when these ne'er-do-wells tried to run:  we usually outnumbered the offender 2 or 3 to 1, and the force we were permitted to use was generally only limited to not breaking any bones.  Our store was in a bad part of town, so we could look forward to 5-7 violent confrontations a month.  And I worked there for 12 years... for you math majors, that's a rough estimate of 720-1008 total throwdowns!  I'm sure the actual number is slightly smaller;  I didn't work nights until 3-4 years in, and there were other mitigating factors.  
People call my wife "T", so technically I am Mr. T!
     So God saved me 8 years ago, and I've been a busdriver for almost 6;  I remember the initial effect of bible reading and study during the day and violence at night.  I knew that theft was sinful and illegal, and the restraint of such criminals was not in itself a sin.   But after some prayerful introspection, I had to admit I actually enjoyed hurting people.  It made me feel strong and manly (if you don't know me, I'm 5'8" and 165 lbs... not exactly Mr. T!).  I tried to tell myself, "I don't have a "violence problem"... I can quit any time I want!"  But that realization definitely changed how I looked at my fellow man, even the guilty ones who "had it coming".  I remember a few comical incidents in the following months where after tripping and subduing someone, with their arm locked behind their back and myself atop them, I would try to inform them of the eternal consequences of their sin.  One in particular had every opportunity to come quietly and after the brief struggle, I exclaimed "Man, you need JESUS!"
      Today, I would certainly not classify myself as a pacifist, but neither do I enjoy the prospect of a fight.  God has given me a healthy fear of my own depravity in this area.  In a way, a physical confrontation generally represents the final, most depraved level of our existence:  at least one of the parties has become so bestial that only overwhelming force will stop them from their sin.  And as believers following a Man to whom little children flocked (they obviously felt safe around Him!), we should attempt every other avenue before resorting to physical force.  Men obviously have an obligation to strenuously safeguard our families and neighbors, but we must see even the offender (in the worst case, the gang member breaking into our home) as our neighbor as well, and if possible, prevent harm to him while restraining him.  I know police officers and soldiers are absolutely necessary, and I thank God for their service to us... but I wouldn't want to be one.  My name is Brett, and I'm a recovering violence-aholic.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What will you do with God's grace?

"Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain." (2Cor 6:1)
Not the place you wanna see God's grace...

     It's a frightening thought, isn't it?  The thought that God's grace would be wasted and not be enough to rescue its recipients.  Many folks sing (especially pagan country singers, much to my chagrin) about how amazing grace is, how it can save even wretches like us.  Perhaps it's telling that some have the audacity to change the word "wretch" to something less convicting and demeaning, a term that retains the facade of praising God, yet allows us to hold our heads high as we do God the honor of accepting His grace(!).  So it's timely for us to define what grace Paul is talking about and explore how this grace can circle the toilet, to our doom and condemnation.
     The world we live in is filled with God's grace:  especially in 21st century America, with our astounding opulence, wealth, security and ease, there are virtually countless things we can point to to display God's rich goodness to us.  And He is not discriminatory in His gifts of money, prominence, political power and the like:  Christians and pagans alike enjoy the sort of blessings Jesus referred to in Matt 5:45ff.  So what exactly does Paul mean in our verse... what gift(s) or graces specifically?  In the verses prior, in the last half of ch. 5, you'll notice that Paul is not talking about the blessings of a shiny new car or a reliable 4G network;  he's talking about the grace of being saved from the wrath of God through Jesus Christ.  How does God transmit this grace to us?  The preaching of the gospel;  I believe this is uniquely the most incredible gift God can bestow upon people in all times and places... the news of what He has done for us in Jesus.  It's especially humbling to realize that while God has commanded His servants to go to all nations, He has not providentially sent this news to all people.  Millions (if not billions) of people in medieval China and pre-industrial Africa and South America and innumerable other times and places simply were denied any knowledge of Scripture and/or Jesus Christ.  They did not receive this grace of God at all!
     So Paul's words are specifically directed to those who have enjoyed hearing the gospel:  those in first century Corinth, or 16th century Germany, or 21st America.  We are told in Luke "everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more." (12:48)  There is likely no place in all history that has been granted more grace in this area than ours:  Christian churches, colleges, TV, movies, programs, radio, webcasts, and last but not least, blogs.  So it stands to reason the people that will be under the strictest judgment will be the American who stubbornly, willfully chose to ignore all these, who refused the greatest light (other than the incarnation of Christ) shown to any people in history.  The explanation of this vanity is in the very next verse: 
" 'In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.' Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation."
     The only acceptable time for repentance, for receipt of the message of the gospel, for turning from sin to God is...

Here is the best way I can explain how one can grab hold of God's grace in Jesus.

Photo courtesy of Gerard Stolk

Friday, January 18, 2013

Have you seen a talking snake?

"Hey, lemme tell you something..."
     Before our next jaunt through 2 Cor, I have a couple of apologetic tidbits to share, one slightly funny, and the other downright tragic:  a couple of weeks ago, my pal FNA (Friendly Neighborhood Atheist) was in a rush, and just had time for one hasty quip:  "Show me a talking snake... just one!  There's a talking snake in that Book, show me one."  Later, I confessed to him that I had considered buying a talking snake toy and leaving it in his mailbox.  I asked if seeing a talking snake with his own eyes would make him believe that the Bible was true.  He said no, it would force him to admit that snakes could talk!
"So what would make you believe?"
"Seeing all those things for myself."
"So you would have to see the Red Sea part, and the dead raised to life, and water turned to wine... and then you would believe that the Bible is what it claims to be?"
"No, I would believe all those things were possible."
     Hopefully you can see the seemingly unshakable intellectual commitment my friend has:  the Bible is false, and no amount of evidence can prove otherwise.  This is exactly what Abraham told the rich man in Luke 16:  even a dead man returned to life cannot change the mind (or the heart) of an unregenerate person.  Only the power of God.
     Now the tragic:  today we were discussing my finances (I think he was frustrated at my lack of enthusiasm at retirement planning!) and he commented that I don't seem to care much about this life.  I smiled and asked "Well, what is the purpose of this life?"  He seemed not to hear me and continued:  "You see I'm in heaven right here!"  My response was incredulous.  "So your heaven has murder and AIDS and genocide and cancer...".  He talked about how much he enjoyed flying (I think he has a Cessna)  and how beautiful the view was from 5,000 feet, despite the pollution.  I had to go, but I couldn't help pondering about his "heaven"...  you see, if he's right, he has nothing to look forward to.  This is, as I told him, "as good as it gets".  His body will decay, his eyesight will fail (disqualifying him from piloting), everything he loves will slowly, then finally, be taken away from him.  What a diametric contrast from the hope and prospects of the believer!  Everything we most desire and most enjoy is yet to come:  the completion of our glorification, the untarnished perception and apprehension of the beauty of Christ, and the unequalled joy of being with Him forever.  Let this contrast inform our evangelism:  outside of Christ, every pleasure and diversion is fleeting and so bitterly temporary:

Is this heaven?
"There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind:  a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity;  it is a grievous evil.  If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life's good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he." (Eccl 6:1-3)
    We were created to be higher beings than to be satisfied with a full belly and a life of ease;  that's "heaven" only for my cat!  We yearn for more, for eternity. (Eccl 3:11)

Photos courtesy of Gaurav Trivedi and@boetter

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Who sent you?

Looks authentic...
Are you ever sent to deliver a message?  Maybe to a coworker or subordinate, to a child or student... the basic role is the same and something we're all familiar with on a personal level;  I'm sure you've used the phrase "Don't shoot the messenger!"  But I fear we have, with the onset of technical gadgetry, lost a real grasp of the official status of an ambassador on a grand scale.  To use a recent political example, take the overt hostility in Libya:  when the personnel of the United States embassy were attacked, it was a tragedy to be sure, a criminal act to be condemned, mourned and prosecuted.  But the enemies of the U.S. didn't stop there... they attacked and murdered the U.S. ambassador to Libya.  In times past, not really all that long ago, it would be understood that this was tantamount to an official declaration of war against a country.  In fact, one of the significant steps a civilization must take to become civilized is the recognition of diplomatic status;  without stringent protections for the messengers between countries, there can be no guarantee that the other party/country desires communication at all, casting doubt on whether any agreement or treaty will be honored and kept.
     So am I just babbling about political theory here, or is there some biblical applicability on the horizon?  As prone as I am to verbal (or written) meandering, Paul in 2 Cor does use the imagery of an ambassador.  In the first century world, Caesar could not Skype his governors, or even get a good conference call going.  So it was essential to have trusted, authorized men to carry messages and return with the reply.  Such men were given sealed documents to prove who sent them and what these rulers wished to express.  God usually condescends to use a medium we're familiar with, and so we are given 2 Cor 5:20:
"Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."
     It's incredible to think that the Creator of the Universe would trust us to tie our shoes correctly, let alone be His emissaries carrying the Most Important News Ever.  Now, the reception an ambassador can expect usually depends on 2 factors:  the prestige of the one who sent him, and the palatability of the message.  Paul knows on the first count, no one can beat him... I mean no one would put President Obama on hold, and who can trump this opener:   "God told me to tell you something!"  But on the other hand, how receptive would those same people be to the message that everything they've ever done is wrong, and the Judge of all the earth is coming to get them?  
     We're in the same boat as Paul;  our culture is just antagonistic to both the background and exclusivity of the gospel, and all people of all times instinctively hate to bow the knee to anyone but themselves.  But we are also sent by the same almighty God, authorized and sent to speak His words, and authenticated by the same seal of approval, the Holy Spirit (vs. 5).  We should feel a magnificent sense of wonder that God would allow His enemies to hear anything from Him aside from the keen whistle of His sword falling upon them.  I believe this is part of Paul felt as he pled with his audience... a heartfelt, urgent desire that those in Corinth repent and taste God's mercy in Jesus Christ.  But there is another part, a lower, more somber chord in the music:  Paul operates from a Scripturally-informed mindset, and knows that "not all have faith".  To those who persist in opposing God, we must grimly shake our heads (or "wag our tongues" in the King James):  they will not win.  All of God's foes will be overcome, either by His mercy or His justice.  Every knee will bow, in joyous praise or because it has been broken with a rod of iron.  So get moving... you're carrying God's mail.
Photo courtesy of zappowbang

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tent or Temple?

     I'm really having trouble being selective with this chapter... there's just so much meat and juiciness in just about every verse.  But we'll take a swing at the first few verses, and see if I can get on base (be thankful I'm speaking metaphorically... I'm not much of a slugger!).
"For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,  if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.  For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened--not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."  (2 Cor 5:1-4) 
A great place to visit, but who'd wanna live there?
     Paul has a complex and variable use of similes in vss. 1-4... both his day job (as a leatherworker /tentmaker) and the worship places of the Mosaic Covenant are in the background as he starts off.  So the contrast between the transient Tabernacle (especially during the wilderness wanderings) and Solomon's Temple shows us the proper perspective we should embrace regarding our physical shells;  but he also qualifies the building as "not made with human hands, eternal in the heavens", so the physical Temple is not the ultimate hope of believers either, but a sign/type of a greater reality (e.g. 1 Cor 3:16, 6:19).  The general draftiness of these imperfect dwellings (both actual buildings and our mortal bodies) only cause us dismay;  just like a constant drip from a leaky roof, the aches and pains of age (and in Paul's case especially, the side effects of abuse) are both an irritant and an inconvenience, hampering our enjoyment and our effectiveness in ministry.  Finally, the conditions of our bodies could be likened to the slums of any major city... the only thing holding those buildings up is the uniform coat of graffiti!  But God's providential purpose in all this is not to create a longing for lost youth... any Rogaine or Viagra ad can accomplish that!  Instead, believers are to yearn for life, true life from, in and through God.
Sure, they look fine now...
     A great place to define "life" is with its opposite, death.  In the first verses of Scripture, man is told regarding that fateful tree: "for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.”  So this means that the moment they ate, Mr. and Mrs. Adam's hearts would stop and they would keel over?  This is the false understanding with which Satan successfully attacked our first parents (Eve at least);  the reality of God's decree has to do with our spirituality, our ethereal essences which reside somewhere between the cells, membranes and tissues.  Once we sinned, our "life" ended:  our capacity to be connected to, receive vitality from and enjoy the Source of all life, God.  So just like a decapitated chicken running around the yard, the appearance of life Adam and Eve gave off post-fall was false and deceptive.
     And this deception is permitted to continue, in God's perfect plan, even after He gives new life to a person in Christ:  the "old man", our birthright from Adam, still decays.  Inside, the true believer is fresh, shiny and bursting with fruit flavor... and this is where our text comes into play.  Paul isn't sure which will happen first:  his death or Christ's return, but he is sure that one of the two will complete the process started at his conversion.  One day soon, "we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."  (1 Jn 3:2)
Photos courtesy of Allie'sdad and florisla

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Theology from a leper...

We've just about worn this one out...
     This is a great tidbit from, of all places, the "Read with me Bible"; we also have a slightly more advanced "The Children's Bible", which was mine when a wee lad many years ago, and it has been passed down to my own wee daughter. We were reading this morning the account of Naaman... I assume you have the actual text available, so take a gander at the way this book paraphrases the Scripture:
"But Naaman said, "I thought he would pray to the Lord. I thought he would wave his hand over my skin. Then I would be healed." So he went away burning with anger. Naaman's servants said "What if Elisha had told you to do some great thing? Wouldn't you have done it? But he only said "Wash yourself." You should be even more willing to do that!" So Naaman went to the Jordan. He dipped himself in it seven times. His skin became clean like the skin of a young boy. Naaman went and stood in front of Elisha. He said, "Now I know that there is no God in the whole world except in Israel."
     I know there are many dangers in eisegeting ("reading into") theology into O.T. narratives... but some instances are just so clear, you can't help but make the link.  Like 1 Sam 5 and how the ark foreshadows Christ, victorious in defeat (at least Jonathan Edwards thought it clear!).  So Naaman comes to Israel to find healing (a type of salvation), and expects to be treated as the great man he is;  no doubt he was thinking himself worthy of slaying a local dragon, finding the holy grail (which would be difficult before Christ!), or some other impossible task... then his deserved reward would be the medical miracle he desired.  But he was quite put out to find Elisha didn't need him to do anything;  no military success, strength of arms or any such feat fitting for such a mighty general.  Instead, Naaman was told to do something my daughter could do, to just take a dip in the river and slough off his sickness like road dirt. 
     So not only is this remedy offensive in its ease, but it defies belief:  Naaman had no doubt tried any other number of healers, shamans, witch doctors and the like, presumably all outfitted with outlandish folk cures, bizarre and mysterious.  It makes perfect sense to many (even today) that a boiled concoction of frog eyes and birch root can heal, but a bath with river water?  Wouldn't everyone be healed then if it was just so easy?  So what we must read into the story here (not too big of a stretch!) is the distinction between Naaman and every other sick peasant along the banks of the Jordan:  a message from God and the heart attitude required for healing;  Naaman would only go to the Jordan if he truly believed that obeying the word of the Lord would be effective.  Then what seemed laughably ridiculous would become Naaman's salvation.
     I hope you've made the N.T. jump already:  so many hear the gospel and say "Wait... a murderer on death row, hours from the electric chair, can repent and believe in Christ and then the next day be in heaven?  Nonsense!"  We want a salvation that we can earn, that is a reward for the deserving and is a testament to our own prowess and virtue.  But God wants or needs nothing from us... everything we could offer is putrid in His sight.  He simply says ""Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." (Isa 55:1)  I guess a good N.T. equivalent to this narrative would be Luke 17:12-14.  The lepers were told to go and show themselves to the priests, but their skin was still filthy!  Their flesh was still utterly diseased, but we're told that "as they went they were cleansed."  Only when we take God at His word, when He grants us the faith to trust His simple word (that often contradicts our best wisdom), then we are saved and healed.

Photos courtesy of Amazon and Thomas Hawk