The Unheard Questions

February 26, 2009

The sunlight could scarcely come through the tightly drawn Venetian blinds. The room was dimly lit except for the artificial glow of the television mounted high on the wall. The partially drawn blinds of the other wall revealed the inner world of the I.C.U. – the green phosphorous glow of monitors, the scurrying of people in surgical scrubs, and busy nurses.

In this room the urgency of the I.C.U. desk was replaced by the slow, rhythmic, raspy sound of the respirator and the well-modulated voice of an announcer summoning, “Come on down, you’re the next contestant…

The face on the pillow was pale and distorted by the tubes that sustained an unconscious life.

The wife’s anxious voice began, “We meant to call you earlier. He slipped into a coma yesterday.”

A new kitchen featuring a no frost freezer…,” the T.V. blared accompanied by the applause of the studio audience.

“We think he was baptized, do you have records of it, do you remember him?” another interrupted.

“No, I don’t remember him, but I can check the records,” I replied.

“… a portable, convertible, under counter dishwasher…,” the well-modulated voice continued.

“We never really attended church much,” the wife admitted, “we were always so busy. We had hoped that you could talk with him.”

The audience went wild as the announcer exclaimed, “A new car … comes with air conditioning, sports package, and California emissions…”

“Would you like me to have a prayer with you?” I asked, knowing that it would be difficult to find the words.

The prayer was followed by our silence as we stood and watched. The wife caressed the patient’s face and hands and told him, “I love you.”

As we turned to leave the room, my curiosity got the better of me, and I asked, “Why the television?” leaving unspoken the words—for an unconscious man.

The wife replied, “He’s calmer with it on.”

Her answer haunts me. Where is the quiet amid so much busyness and noise? Where is the silence needed to reflect on who am I, why am I here, is there a God, where do I stand before Him? These essential questions of life become the unheard questions, drowned out by the din of modern living, while too many slip “calmly” into eternity.

Create Silence!

February 25, 2009

It was reported in our local news; a teenager was killed by an express train traveling at 70 m.p.h. He did not get off at his normal school bus stop. He likely had his back to the train as he crossed the tracks, and he had earphones in his ears. He probably didn’t hear the approaching danger, and now his parents live with what-ifs.

I sometimes wonder whether we have way too much noise in our lives. If we choose, we can live life without ever having a quiet moment. Maybe the noise of our busy technological lives drowns out approaching spiritual danger or at least the questions that might arise if only we were still.

Kierkegaard said that if he were a doctor and were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, he would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed, it would not be heard or heeded, for there is too much noise and busyness in our world. “Therefore, create silence.”*

What do I do with silence? It can be a time to be honest with ourselves (and God) about what is going on inside. What do I want? Where am I struggling and failing? What brings contentment? It can be a time to think about the big questions of life. Do I believe in God? Is their purpose and meaning to life? What should I do next? It can be a time to pray. It can be a time to listen to God’s word in the Bible. Silence may give us ears to hear the most important matters which are so easily drowned out by the noise of lesser things.

 *Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 35.

The Humor of Christ

February 24, 2009

In the introduction to his book, The Humor of Christ, Elton Trueblood tells of a family devotional. He was reading from the Sermon on the Mount and came to the section where Jesus says: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3, ESV) His young son began to laugh hilariously. Trueblood notes that the child had gotten the joke that sometimes adults pass over. Jesus used a very incongruous picture, a staple of humor, to make his point. Humor often punctures us and gets our attention in ways that a simple declaration fails to do.

We see examples of Jesus’ humor when he speaks of the religious leaders scrupulously concerned about the outside of a cup or plate, but the inside of the cup is full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25). Or again, the religious leaders are so concerned about ceremonial cleanness that they will strain out a gnat (an unclean animal according to the law), but swallow a camel (another unclean animal). Such incongruent images may have resulted in laughter from his audience. Trueblood notes the value of such humor:

If it were not for the medicine of created laughter, there would be no adequate antidote to pride and vanity among men. God has created us with a self-consciousness which makes conceit possible, but He has also made us able to laugh and thus to provide a balance to our danger. (The Humor of Christ, p. 36)

Recognizing humor in the teaching of Christ is one step in seeing the many facets of Jesus. We get the impression that Jesus laughs, but he also weeps, becomes angry, can be stern, but also loving and gentle. Jesus himself says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, ESV). Jesus helps us see God more clearly. Trueblood remarks:

The deepest conviction of all Christian theology is the affirmation that the God of all the world is like Jesus Christ. Because the logical development is from the relatively known to the relatively unknown, the procedure is not from God to Christ, but from Christ to God. If we take this seriously we conclude that God cannot be cruel, or self-centered or vindictive, or even lacking in humor. (The Humor of Christ, p. 32) 

The Author of Beauty

February 20, 2009

The wonders of creation are to be a pointer to the Creator. Humanity has frequently failed to see the meaning of beauty. The ancients worshiped deities that in many ways simply represented the forces within the natural realm. Although we are not likely to bow down to an idol, materialism means we often adore the gifts and not the Giver. Paul says that greed is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). Here’s a great line reflecting on the idolatry of the past.

If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. (Wisdom of Solomon 13:3, NRSV)*

*BTW, I don’t believe that the Old Testament Apocrypha (what others call the Deuterocanonical books) is inspired by God. But the above is still a great line.


February 19, 2009

Peter Kreeft tells this story about C.S. Lewis in his book, Christianity for Modern Pagans.

C. S. Lewis was asked by a media interviewer during World War II what he would think if Germans got the atom bomb, dropped one on England, and he saw it falling right on top of him. “If you only had time for one last thought, what would it be?” Lewis replied that he would look up at the bomb, stick out his tongue at it, and say, “Pooh! You’re only a bomb. I’m an immortal soul.”*

Whether a bomb drops on us or not, none of us are getting out of this physical life alive unless Jesus returns first. Our confidence in life cannot be in ourselves, our finances, our health, or anything else rooted in this world alone.

That clearly is the message of scripture. Christians are victorious, but it is because of Christ.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:37-39, ESV

The person who is in Christ cannot be defeated by anything that life throws at him. Defeat can only occur if we give up our faith (see Romans 11:17-24).

The assurance of victory in Christ is incredibly liberating. Life is going to throw “bombs” at us one way or another. Yet, I must confess that my first inclination may not be to stick out my tongue at an atom bomb. Christians may have to combat fear with faith. Why is this so?

Christian living involves faith in God and Christ. The ones in whom we trust are able to deliver us. If I focus on myself, however, my confidence is likely to waver. I’m only too aware that I have flaws and weaknesses. It is at those moments I need to reassure my heart by focusing on God. My boast is in the Lord, not in myself. My confidence is in the Lord, not in myself.

Christian living also involves the testing of our faith. That should lead to endurance. Endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope (see Romans 5:3-5). In other words, as we go through the struggles of life and keep our faith in the process, our faith grows stronger. We grow in our understanding through experience that the one in Christ cannot be defeated.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Psalm 27:1, ESV

*Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 56.

Skeletons in the Family Closet

February 18, 2009

A genealogy of a king’s dynasty need only have the list of fathers. Matthew’s list includes four women, and it may be helpful to ask why are they included? The first time reader has no idea of what is coming. The author writes from the perspective of knowing what’s coming, and he can foreshadow or hint at things to come. What are the stories of these four women, and how do they help us?

Tamar was Judah’s daughter-in-law (Matthew 1:3). She married Judah’s son, Er. But Er was wicked, and the text says, “the LORD put him to death.” The fact that Er died childless brought into play the custom (later law under the Mosaic covenant) of levirate marriage. Levir in Latin means husband’s brother. The custom meant that the brother would marry his late brother’s widow. Children from this marriage would be considered the descendants of the dead brother.

Onan, Er’s brother, married Tamar, but Onan didn’t want to father children for his dead brother. His strategy was not quite abstinence, and not quite fulfilling his end of the levirate bargain. His name gives us the word onanism. (Check definition two in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.)  The LORD also put Onan to death.

When Judah did not fulfill his promise to have his third son, Shelah, marry Tamar, Tamar hatched a plan. She dressed as a prostitute and placed herself along a road where Judah had gone to shear sheep. Judah avails himself of her services and in the process gets her pregnant. If we are shocked by the story, that’s the point. This narrative is not flattering to Judah, and this unseemly story is a part of King David’s genealogy. As the saying goes, you don’t pick your family.

The second woman is Rahab (Matthew 1:5). She is better known as Rahab, the prostitute (see Joshua 2:1-24, 6:22-25). She rescued the Israelite spies who entered the city of Jericho. In return for their safety, she is spared when the city is destroyed, and she made her life in Israel. Kind David has a non-Israelite, former prostitute in his genealogy. (I know that I’ve assumed “former” in the previous statement, but given the Mosaic law, it seems a very reasonable assumption.) It nevertheless, is a skeleton in the family closet of King David’s family.

The third woman mentioned is Ruth (Matthew 1:5). Ruth is an admirable woman. She has faith, loyalty, and hard work going for her (see the book of Ruth for her story), but she is a Moabite – not an Israelite by birth. Although the nation of Moab was descended from Lot, Abraham’s nephew (see Genesis 19:37), conflict had arisen between Israel and Moab. A summary of the conflict is in Deuteronomy 23:3 with some stern restrictions on Moabites. In other words, a Moabite great-grandmother isn’t exactly who you would have anticipated for King David, but that’s the family history.

The fourth woman is not mentioned by name, but her name was Bathsheba (Matthew 1:6). Literally, the phrase in Matthew is “by her of Uriah.” The great scandal of King David’s reign is painful to tell. While his army is in the field and David is at home, David commits adultery with the wife of one of his outstanding soldiers. When she becomes pregnant, David attempts to cover it up by bringing Uriah home on leave, but Uriah refuses to go home because his fellow soldiers are in the field. David covers his tracks by sending orders with Uriah (unknown to Uriah of course) that he is to be placed in the front lines, and then left without support, so that he will be killed. It’s a malignant chapter in David’s life that could have led him away from God if it wasn’t for God’s grace and David’s repentance.

So why allude to these skeletons in the closet? It’s as if Matthew is providing hints as to where his story is going to go. Jesus has an unusual birth. At first blush, it sounds scandalous when it is not. It’s as if Matthew is reminding his readers, “You respect King David, don’t you? Just remember parts of King David’s history. Don’t jump to conclusions concerning what I’m about to tell you. Listen to the whole story. Get all the facts. Be as fair to Jesus as you would be to David.”

The Burden and the Blessing

February 17, 2009

Blaming others for our own sins goes back to the very first sin. Adam blamed his wife (and possibly God for giving her to him), and Eve blamed the serpent (Genesis 3:12-13). By the way, their excuses didn’t work on God, which may be cautionary to us as well. Both were responsible for their own sins.

Sophisticated blaming today may include pop psychology: if I have unconscious motives for my behavior, I must not be responsible for it. (Of course, we will take the credit for praiseworthy behavior, even if it does have unconscious motives.) Theodore Dalrymple, a British prison doctor and psychiatrist, provides an insightful dialogue.

Another burglar demanded to know from me why he repeatedly broke into houses and stole VCRs. He asked the question aggressively, as if “the system” had so far let him down in not supplying him with the answer; as if it were my duty as a doctor to provide him with the buried psychological secret that, once revealed, would in and of itself lead him unfailingly on the path of virtue. Until then he would continue to break into houses and steal VCRs (when at liberty to do so), and the blame would be mine.

When I refused to examine his past, he exclaimed, “But something must make me do it!”

“How about greed, laziness, and a thirst for excitement?” I suggested. “What about my childhood?” he asked.

“Nothing to do with it,” I replied firmly.

He looked at me as if I had assaulted him. Actually, I thought the matter more complex than I was admitting, but I did not want him to misunderstand my main message: that he was the author of his own deeds.*

Accepting moral responsibility is a burden. We easily shy away from it. It’s difficult to say, “I have sinned. I am guilty. I am responsible.” We seem to have an almost infinite capacity of finding excuses for ourselves. Yet excuses only lock us into our patterns of destructive behavior and the painful consequences that attend them. Will Dalrymple’s prisoner make progress if he continues to view his behavior as governed by unknown motives beyond his control? Or, could change occur once responsibility is acknowledged? If he once acknowledges the bad choices, can he begin to see the good choices that need to be made?

I am grateful for God’s forgiveness and the Holy Spirit’s sanctification. I can’t transform my life without His help. But no progress is made until I accept moral responsibility. Confession and repentance liberate us from patterns of bad behavior. Accepting moral responsibility is a burden, but it also a blessing. It leads to change.

*Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom, pp. 7-8

Off to a Boring Start?

February 13, 2009

A genealogy seems like a boring way to start a book. At least that was my first impression reading the Gospel of Matthew many years ago. When we take a second look attempting to understand the original audience’s point of view, we can detect reasons for beginning with a genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17).

Mathew names Jesus as Jesus Christ. The expression is so familiar that we begin to treat Christ as a last name. It is a title. It means the Anointed One. It is a claim for Jesus to be a king in David’s dynasty. David was the second king of Israel and important because of a promise made to him by God. Suddenly a genealogy begins to make sense. In order to have a dynastic king, he must have the right pedigree. If he doesn’t have that quality, there is no point listening to all his other characteristics. For Jesus to be the Christ, he had to be the son of Abraham and the son of David. These two received significant promises that involved their “seed” or descendents (see Genesis 12:1-3 and 2 Samuel 7:12-16).

The first section of the genealogy takes us from Abraham to King David. Note the emphasis in the genealogy. Matthew is not content just to say David, but King David. The second section moves from David to Jechoniah and the Babylonian Captivity. This list is a list of kings. The third list begins with Jechoniah because it must continue with his son. (Jewish genealogies could include gaps with significant ancestors being mentioned and some minor figures dropped out of the summary list. The arrangement of 14, 14, and 14 is artificial and possibly helpful for memory.)

The Babylonian Captivity serves an important transition from the second to the third sections of this genealogy. The significance is the captivity brought an end to David’s dynasty or at least a hiatus to the dynasty. Psalm 89 captures the emotion of one wondering where was the promise made to David.

Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? Psalm 89:49 ESV

Isaiah used a powerful word picture for the coming loss of dynasty. The dynasty was like a tree that had been cut down – the stump of Jesse (linking this to David by mentioning David’s father). But Isaiah looked forward to a new shoot or branch coming out of the stump – the Messiah, the Christ.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. Isaiah 11:1 ESV

If we understand the pain of the captivity and the loss of David’s dynasty, we can grasp the significance of the Jesus’ genealogy. Matthew is telling his readers here’s the one who fulfills the promises made to David and to Abraham.

So what? David lived about 3000 years ago. Why should I care about his dynasty? Abraham lived about 4000 years go. Why should a promise to Abraham matter to me? This requires patience on our part. These are pieces of a larger whole. The big picture is God reconciling the world to himself. The pieces do in fact help make sense of our own life and the world with live in. If we give Matthew a chance to explain his good news, it’s suddenly not so boring. It brings life and hope.

Recognizing Blessings

February 10, 2009

Counting our blessings is important so that we have an attitude of thankfulness. But it is easy to overlook blessings because we take certain things for granted.

My wife has some Guardian Service Cookware that belonged to her grandmother and mother. Guardian Service Cookware was manufactured from the mid 1930s to 1956. For Christmas, our daughter gave her a Guardian Service cookbook that was purchased used on the Internet.

The beginning of the cookbook is striking because it tells how to set the burners for the correct heat. It gives instructions for gas, electric, wood, coal, kerosene, and gasoline. Yikes! What’s the MPG (meals per gallon) for a gasoline stove? And would I really want to be the one to light it? If you are interested in how to set medium heat on a wood stove, use one section from the fire box or a fairly hot fire.

Do you suddenly see a few more blessings in your life? My coffee is getting cold, I think I need to visit the microwave and ponder this.

Food for Thought

February 8, 2009

Simeon stood at the entrance of his tent gazing at the barren wilderness. “Rocks, nothing but rocks!” he thought. His mind wandered into a day-dream about wheat fields as if the barren wilderness had vanished. He could see the golden stalks of grain ripe for harvest. But the grumbling of his stomach brought him back to the present. “Ah, Egypt!” he lamented.

Outside the tent were voices-some strident, others just the low rumbling of complaint. “Why did you bring us to this desert to starve!” “In Egypt we had pots of meat and food!” “We’d be better off if the LORD had killed us off in Egypt!” Simeon joined the crowd waiting for answers.

The answers came, but how strange they were. “God is going to rain down bread from heaven!” They were told to gather only enough for one day, and then on the sixth day to gather twice as much, because the Sabbath was a day of rest.

But the strangeness of the answers was overtaken by the joy of finding food. It lay on the ground like frost, and tasted like wafers of honey. By the end of the day, Simeon still had some left. As he considered the instructions, he thought, “Why should the God of our fathers and creator of the heavens and earth care if I have leftovers?” But the next morning his jar was full of maggots and stank.

By the Sabbath, it seemed almost automatic for Simeon to go out and gather manna. He and few others went out and were stunned to find none. He almost dreaded going back to his tent. He remembered the maggots from the last time he tried to save some, but today was different. His manna was good to eat.

Simeon is imaginary, but the experiences reflect the narrative of Exodus 16. Concerning the manna, the Lord said, “I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions” (Exodus 16:4b, NIV). Later Moses would say of the manna, “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3, NIV). Every word? Obedience, how hard it is to learn! Manna it seems was not only their daily bread, but food for thought.