zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the tag “Christianity”

Journey Post 47: A Memorial Day Encounter Remembering American Pie

Note to readers:   I’ve written an essay on the parable of the good Samaritan (called, “Good Neighbor Sam”), which I will post in a week or two.  But since today is Memorial Day, I thought it more appropriate to write about America and those who gave their last full measure of devotion.

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Friday night I had an encounter with American Pie.

I’m not referring to a recent series of films but to a classic song written and released in 1971, a retrospective on America in the decade 1959-1969 by Don McLean.  The song is a ballad, a lament about things lost.  It’s not just about the music and how it “died.”

The music is a metaphor for an America and a way of life that disappeared along with the music and died in a real way—at least in the perspective of 1971.  The sad longing to return to a simpler, more innocent time is palpable.  It looked to the time when America had saved the world and savored the happiness of music that made us smile and dance.  It’s a song worth reflecting on.

So why am I writing about this on Memorial Day, the day we remember our war dead?  Because Americans of my generation have a visceral attachment to the song, this ballad of the 1960s, this song expressing how things felt to us as we went forth doing our duty to preserve freedom and justice for our country and for struggling democracies around the world.  But, in the end, it seemed that the fate of Vietnam and the fate of America itself were one and the same: hopeless and not worth our sacrifice.

Many conflate Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  I certainly enjoy being thanked for my service, especially since that never happened until seven years after I came back.  But Memorial Day is about ultimate sacrifice, about losing one’s life for one’s comrades, about dying for our country.

Those of us who returned, however seriously wounded or hurting, did in fact return.  Most of us went back to civilian life, raised families and lived in their communities and led productive lives.  But we were all deeply affected by the experience in some way, some more than others.  In a very real sense, we all died, in part, in some fashion.  We left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left us.

I have my own memories of the men I served with, the men who died, especially my company commander, Capt. David Walsh, (pictured below, KIA June 10, 1969) whose story will always be with me—a man who led a small group out from our perimeter to take down snipers, who singlehandedly killed two of them before himself being brought down by a third.  He almost certainly knew that he wouldn’t come back, but he went out to keep safe the men he loved.

The Vietnam War is not explicitly mentioned in the song, but it hangs over every bit of it like a dark, ominous cloud.  That war was still going hot and heavy when Don McLean first sang the song in 1971.  Most troops would not be out until 1973.  Perhaps most Americans were thinking that we had already lost the war:  Newsman Walter Cronkite told us so.  After all, he was the most trusted man in America, (no irony intended).  He came to that conclusion when he visited Vietnam following the ’68 Tet offensive.

I played and sang American Pie in my first guitar recital on Friday night.  Before that night, I must’ve read and thought about the words every day for over a month.  Recitals like that are mostly about young people (middle and high school age), but the parents seemed at least familiar with the song.  I explained before starting that I had come home from Vietnam in 1969 wounded and disillusioned with an America that I loved: I think I shared the same outlook then as Don McLean did in the song—an America on the verge of self-destructing.

Vietnam may be fading from our collective memory, but it’s deeply embedded in the psyche of everyone who lived the confusing time McLean sang about.

He begins his ballad “a long, long time ago,” referring to “the day the music died,” his take on what happened in February 1959 when his hero Buddy Holly, along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, were lost in a single plane crash.

The song traces the course of the ten following years when we were “on our own,” going through a series of days on which, he says, is “the day the music died”:  After Holly, McLean loses his girl to another guy at a sock hop and knows he’s “out of luck.”  Bob Dylan (the “jester”) steals the “thorny crown” from Elvis (the “King,”).  Lennon reads Marx and the “quartet” (Beatles) practiced while “we sang dirges in the dark” (a possible second reference to the death of JFK).  As the culture and music was more influenced by drugs, the birds (Byrds) are “eight miles high an’ fallin’ fast” like bombs over North Vietnam. The Jester is on the sidelines and the Beatles are becoming Sgt. Pepper, who “refuse to yield” to other groups while the “sweet perfume” of marijuana is pervasive.  (Or, is the reference to “sergeants” to the military controlling demonstrators or the Chicago police dropping “sweet perfume”—tear gas—at the ’68 Democratic convention?)

     Any way you interpret it, the “day the music died” here seems to reveal that the American dream and promise of freedom is dead or dying….

On another day in December, 1969, there was the tragic Stones’ Altamont Speedway concert in which the Hell’s Angels did security, people died, and, McLean says, he saw “Satan laughing with delight….” “Jack flash” (Mick Jager) “sat on a candlestick.”  We were, as he said, “a generation lost in space with no time left to start again.”

McLean is a master at using double entendre.  Many have tried to figure it all out.  Don McLean himself has never explained it all, though he has mentioned some things.

His final verse was a retrospective on the era, and he has a line about the “three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast the day the music died.”  After ‘Nam, I was doing my own search for God, and I kept hearing the question—not, “Is God dead?” as Time Magazine famously asked on its 1967 cover—rather, “Has God finally given up on America?  Is he getting out while the getting’s good?”

After Tet ’68, America seemed to begin its fall into what we later called “Vietnam syndrome”:  God is no longer blessing America, we can’t win a war against a “little” enemy like this, and we don’t ever want to get stuck in a quagmire like that again.  How could America actually lose a war?

American Pie seems (chronologically) to end at Altamont in ’69.  But before the song was released we heard the revelations about My Lai, and  young Americans killing other young Americans at Kent State in 1970.  Those, for me, were the final straw … at least until Nixon’s resignation.

The chorus of a song is generally key to its understanding, to getting the main point:

‘Bye bye miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry,

An’ them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, and singin’,

This’ll be the day that I die…  This’ll be the day that I die.

Don McLean

I’m a couple years younger than Don McLean.  He was 13 when Holly died, I was almost 11.  But many of our experiences were the same.  For example, listening to Dinah Shore, the very popular all-American girl who had her own variety show sponsored by Chevrolet.  The Chevy song she sang played for about a decade.  One heard it everywhere all the time:  “See the U.S.A., in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call.  Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A., America’s the greatest land of all!  On a highway or a road along a levee, everything’s completer in a Chevy….”  This was America, even if you were a Ford man.

When Holly died, he was famous for the song, “That’ll be the day.”  He was singing about his girl, that, if she left him, “that’ll be the day-hay-hay … that I die!”  The good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye were lamenting his death.

Judging by all that Don McLean put into this song, they were lamenting much more: the death of America itself.  While the metaphor of the music standing for America, our way of life and our religion may seem a bit overdrawn to people now, it was very real in 1971.  It was not just a phase that we were going through and got over or grew out of.  Something real died, and those of us who returned from that war at that time know that something died in us as well.

That’s why I’m thinking that, on Memorial Day, it’s very appropriate to remember those of us who came back.  And it’s okay to mourn.  You may not be able to understand what died.  Just know that it did.

I find it greatly ironic for me personally that, in the year I came home (1969), I was just beginning to discover that those “three men I admire most,” as he called the godhead, were not getting out but were very much still around and interested in us personally and individually.  In the year he released American Pie (1971), I became a Christian.  And I began to live.

 

If you would like to read the complete lyrics of American Pie, you can do so here:  https://web.archive.org/web/20141129095635/http://www.don-mclean.com/viewsong.asp?id=89

Journey Post 45, What Jesus Actually Taught: The parable of the sower

Painting by Malcolm Guite

The Key to Understanding the Kingdom of God:  “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”  (Jesus)


NOTE:  The parable of the sower is recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8.  I’m focusing here on the account in Matthew 13:1-23.  I suggest reading it first.  You can Google the reference on another browser page.

First, a parable about windows.

I grew up in a house (built in the 1920s) with wood windows and sashes.  If you ever lived with those kinds of windows, you’ve experienced what I’m about to say:

Those windows stick … anytime, anywhere … when you least expect it … it just happens.  Why?  Maybe lack of use, maybe someone painted over the dirt, maybe the earth shifted or some other mysterious force of the universe was at work….

How you went about raising these windows was critical.  The least bit of uneven lifting made them refuse to go anywhere but crooked!  Those windows never would do what you wanted.  If you ask me, I think they had free will … or were possessed!

Such windows are a part of American lore: they show up in old movies, really old TV shows.  I’m mentioning them because those windows are me.  I am the Donkey, the epitome of stubborn.

You can draw your own conclusions about the causes for a stubborn window (i.e., stubborn heart).  I still can’t explain some of my own stubbornness.  It just was … is.

I never figured out how to fix such windows.  I didn’t want to, anyway.  I knew it would be hard work.

Fixing the stubborn heart is simple, but it’s hard.  The hard part is the willing: “whoever has ears, let them hear.”  What Jesus was saying was that, if you truly listen, consider and honestly seek to apply what you hear, there is a great payoff: you will understand the Kingdom of God and its secrets.

I’ll not get into theological arguments here about how to be willing, or whether you can even be willing if God doesn’t do something first.  I am here dealing with what is:  if you are willing.

The parable of the sower is a story about listening.

That is evident, since Jesus concludes by saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”  He quotes from the prophet Isaiah about those who never hear and never see.  Actual hearing and seeing depends on the condition of the soil (the heart).

I’d like to clear up some confusion that many, both Christian and non, seem to have.  This parable is fairly straightforward, but there are statements here that can lead one to conclude, as I once did, that either they’re stupid or else God has made them blind.

God wants to communicate.  He wants you to understand his ways, and this parable provides hope that we can understand spiritual truth, what Jesus calls the “secrets of the Kingdom.”

I learned an important lesson as a middle school teacher about how to learn.  I was teaching young people with learning disabilities how to read.  It was often a disheartening battle.  At that age, you may remember, many/most students weren’t exactly focused on learning.

Yes, there were always a few who were determined to learn.  But by the time they came to my classroom in 7th or 8th grade, many were already convinced they couldn’t learn.  They thought themselves stupid.  Some teachers even wrote them off as such.  They had stopped listening to the cheerleaders who said, “You can do it!” and ignored the exhorters who said, “Try harder!”

I wanted to find a way to give them hope, to motivate them.  I discovered that the only way for that to happen was for them to see that they could achieve some success, however small.  That would be something to build on, something to rekindle long-quenched hope and lead to more success.

My objective here is limited.  I won’t explain everything in the parable passage.  That would only be giving you predigested learning.  It’s more important to encourage those who feel like they don’t really “get it” to know that there is, indeed, a way to get it, and it’s within their reach.

I’ve realized that, in this parable, Jesus is not simply giving an apt illustration of how different people hear his message.  He is also providing an assurance—even a promise—that those who are honestly willing to listen, can understand the things of God and learn what he actually taught.

In previous posts, I sought to provide some useful and simple tools for “getting” Scripture.  Remember the question:  “What’s the main idea?”  If you look for this first, you’ll spare yourself thinking too much about the little stuff.  Also, always remember to think about context (with a capital “K”).  Considering context is important at every level.  As the saying goes, “You can prove anything from the Bible”—if you simply take it out of context.

These guidelines don’t sound especially spiritual, you might think.  Anyone can, after all, learn them in school.  But don’t forget: God uses human language to communicate with us.  Perhaps you’re wondering, what about the Spirit?  Isn’t the Spirit essential for understanding?  God indeed gave his Spirit to help his people understand and apply his word: he promised to write it in our hearts (see, e.g., Ezekiel 36:26,27).  And even if you’re a non-Christian, his basic message is there for you to hear, and, if you are willing, God can make it real in a way you’ve never imagined.

Jesus constantly faced large crowds, most of whom, he knew, would be ever hearing yet never understanding.  That’s a disheartening prospect.  But he knew there would also be some who genuinely wanted to understand.  And that is why he said what he did at the end of the parable: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”

That phrase is more important here than you might think at first glance.  It is more than a rhetorical flourish used to get them to pay attention.  It was like a code phrase, a reminder of what prophets had consistently said to warn the people about the consequences of not paying attention to what God wanted to tell them.  If they kept that up, their hearts would eventually become “calloused,” and they would be taken into exile as judgment.  That is why Jesus quoted Isaiah.  (After Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the people were scattered in the Jewish Dispersion.)

Along with the warning there was hope.  There’s this little word “otherwise.”  If they did listen, Isaiah was saying, “they might see … and hear, understand with their hearts and turn,” i.e., they would recognize their need of God and turn to him for deliverance, “and I would heal them.”  (Mark’s account uses the word “forgive” instead of “heal.”)

The parables were not meant to confuse people.  They were a sign that God was doing something wonderful (see 13:34, 35).  God was now doing something that had been hidden even from righteous people: namely, the Messiah was here!

Parables were also designed to promote understanding.  A parable is an analogy in story form.  The story form makes it easier to remember, and analogy is one of the most effective means of communicating in any language.  Analogies are word pictures that say more than any lengthy, explicit exposition on the same topic; they are packed with an incredible amount of detail simply because the pictures were based on familiar things in their culture.

Jesus’s stories were vivid, pungent, memorable—and short, mostly.  Even if you know little about agriculture, for example, you can understand most parables without knowing all the cultural cues.

Let me address a part that has confused many, including me.

When you read Jesus telling his disciples the “knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you but not to them,” you might conclude that only the inner circle elite (or elect) can get this.

But the point is that understanding spiritual truth (the secrets of the Kingdom) is not generally held back from those who genuinely want it.  As I’ve written before, God wants to communicate; spiritual truth is mostly pretty simple; but it takes a willing heart to “get it.”  The key to understanding is the willing heart, the listening heart that hangs on to what it hears, considers it, and seeks to put it to practice.

The seed is Jesus’s message of the Kingdom.  The soil is the human heart (soul, inner being, what we really hear or see with).  When someone pays no real attention and so does not understand, what little they have is taken away by the evil one.  The one who has no root is not allowing the word to penetrate—they may be joyful at first, but trouble causes them to abandon it in a relatively short time.

The ground with thorns represents the heart whose own agenda squeezes out God’s.  The good soil, of course, receives, understands, and produces fruit.  The fruit they produce is not the same for everyone.  Some produce just a little, some much more.

If you are just now beginning to understand some truth, take heart.  You may understand only a tiny bit, and produce just a little bit, but this will set you up to understand more.  Jesus often mentioned this basic principle of learning:  “Those who have will be given more….  Those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (13:12).

Think about this:  The first thing that Jesus did, after his temptation and baptism, was to begin preaching the gospel of the Kingdom.  When he said, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” here was another sort of code, announcing that the one the Jews had been expecting, the Messiah (Christ), was arriving.  This was the first “secret of the Kingdom.”  Even Judas understood that.  But his expectation of what the Messiah came to do was wrong (others thought the same thing).  He thought Jesus would throw out the Romans.  When he finally realized that Jesus would never meet his expectation, his heart was open to Satan—so even what he had was taken away.

Take heart, my friend.  “If you have ears to hear, listen!”  Take it in, mull it over, ask for understanding, hang onto it, seek to put it to practice.

Journey Post 41, Missing the Relevance of Jesus: “You have heard it said … but I tell you …”

The Donkey Understanding of Christianity, Part 3a, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, chapter 5)  REVISED

NOTE:  I have eliminated the short paragraphs at the end that referenced content from  Matthew 6. The paragraphs appearing after the picture that says, “Things I wish Jesus never said” have been substantially rewritten.

“If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, do you know what he actually taught?”

I remember hearing that question for the first time.  It was posed by Dallas Willard.  I struggled for an answer.  It didn’t come.  And I’d been a Christian for some thirty-five years….

dallas-willard

Dallas Willard

I was familiar with Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels, but right then I would have been hard pressed to produce any coherent summary (the main points) of what Jesus taught.  Willard also mentioned that Christians in different denominations “wore out their Bibles in different places,” i.e., they tended to focus on certain sections of Scripture to the neglect of others.  I knew this to be true, to my regret.

Michelle and I were year-old believers when we started Bible school.  We studied the life of Jesus, but we were taught that the important Christian doctrines were based on what Paul and others wrote to the early churches.  Those letters were most essential for Christian life.  No one said so, but my donkey brain takeaway was that the Gospels weren’t relevant today.  So, Jesus did not get worn out in my Bible.  Paul did.

The result was that, whenever I did read Jesus, some of his teaching seemed confusing or impossibly hard.  But, if it wasn’t relevant, then, so what?

I’m telling you this because, I’ve discovered over the years, I’m not the only donkey in the church.  My skewed view of God (which left me running on a performance treadmill), my non-understanding of my status as a son, my ignorance regarding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus (taking him on his terms) are, unfortunately, all quite common.  I missed the very things that could have corrected that thinking.

the-gospels

Willard didn’t stop with that question.  He also gave hope for an answer: take time to read the Gospels seriously, over and over.  Don’t rely on study helps, just read, keeping your eyes on Jesus and your heart asking God for understanding by his Spirit.  I was eager to take up his challenge.  It was 2008-09, and I was beginning to understand my adoption and to see God’s father heart.  At last confident of his love, I was ready for another step, this time to know what Jesus was about.  I’ll never regret taking it up.

It was like becoming a disciple (or apprentice) all over again.  After a couple times reading through each Gospel, my historical imagination plopped me down next to the others, listening, seeking wisdom, asking, “What is it you want us to understand?”  And it began to come….

jesus-teaching-disciples

One of the chief insights I gained was that, while Jesus came foremost to die for our sins, what he said and did was not simply preliminary to the cross. He had an agenda that was all about what it meant to really live, what “abundant life” was about.  As I read, I realized he was confirming my renewed understanding of the father heart of God.

I was seeing what had been there all the time: Jesus demonstrating the kindness and love of the Father and his desire to spend eternity with us … with me.  Jesus put his Father on display as no one had ever done, supremely on the cross of course, but also in everything he taught, said, and did.  His teaching was not platitudes of propositional truth designed to fill space until the betrayal.  Jesus’s teaching was an apprenticeship on how to live life in the way God had intended from the beginning.

Another insight:  It was dawning on me just how cognitive and academic had been my understanding of Christianity and Christian life.  In my case, it was a defense against the very thing that Jesus spent much of his time teaching and showing: what love means in real life.  Whenever I had seen it, Jesus’s underlying theme of genuine, self-giving love had been so threatening, so not safe.

This, after all, is the nature of discipleship/apprenticeship.  An apprenticeship brings people along so that they think and act like the master.  Jesus’s discipleship was no different.  The point of it was to get God’s perspective: on life, on relationship, knowing and living the other-centered and self-sacrificial love of the Father shown in the life of the Son.  It was this love that fired my own desire to see as he sees.

Jesus’s teaching was in many ways corrective.  It had to be.  The religious teachers, the Pharisees and priests and others, were not doing the job God gave them as stewards of the Scriptures and shepherds to his people.  They seemed to have no clue who God really is.  They did not know him or his love, mercy, or grace.  So they could only fall back on their ability to keep the letter of the Law, an external obedience making them proud and self-righteous.  They were false teachers giving a false view of God and laying heavy burdens on people’s heads.  Jesus’s most excoriating language was reserved for them.

Israel’s whole history had demonstrated God’s faithful love and kindness to his people.  Those who saw that love responded with love, love that issues in freely devoted obedience.  No Pharisee could have taught the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon is Jesus’s first recorded extended public teaching and reflects much of his core message.  He had already begun proclaiming the Kingdom as “at hand,” telling people to prepare their hearts (repent).  As an itinerant teacher, he would say many of these same things in different ways.

jesus-teaching-the-sermon-on-the-mount

The sermon, as recorded in Matthew 5-7, contains some of the best-known and oft-quoted sayings in the Bible, and has traditionally held an important spot in American popular understanding of Christianity.   Jesus begins the sermon with the “Beatitudes” and concludes with an analogy about applying what he taught, captured in the song I learned so long ago, “the wise man builds his house upon the rock.…”

The people he spoke to were wondering if he might be the promised Messiah (or, Christ) whom they expected would deliver them from Roman oppression and establish his kingdom.  What he actually taught surprised and disappointed many (including Judas).  If you read through the sermon, thinking how practical love is the underlying theme, you’ll begin to understand what Jesus was about.

I suggest reading Matthew, chapter 5 before continuing to read the rest of this essay.  As a teacher, I’m a great fan of asking “What’s the main idea?”  Keep context in mind: many read the trees in the Bible and miss the forest.  It’s the forest that makes sense of the trees.  God intends to communicate, not hide.  Jesus said: “listen if you have ears….”

The Beatitudes

The Beatitudes, with their repeated phrase “Blessed are the …,“ speak of internal character qualities that God favors, the kind of person God says will inherit his kingdom.  (The kingdom is wherever God reigns in the hearts of his people, both now and when God is eternally present with his children.)  His listeners found Jesus’s statements amazing—and refreshing: he wasn’t shoveling legalism.  The listeners were mostly poor and generally quick to acknowledge their need for God to get through life.

the-beatitudes

What was this kind of person?  Being “poor in spirit” contrasts them with the rich—typically proud—in spirit.  One who “mourns” does so because of death and all the pain that evil and sin have brought about—in their own life and in our world.  The “meek” is the gentle person who doesn’t insist on their own way, their own agenda.  One who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness” is conscious of their own need for personal righteousness and of the great need for justice in the world.  The “pure in heart” contrasts with one who is satisfied with external purity (as Pharisees seemed to be).  A peacemaker works for “shalom”: i.e., that everything be as it should be.  Such a person will inherit the kingdom, see God, be counted among his children.  It would be clear later that this description did not fit the religious leaders.

Jesus taught his disciples they were the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.”  They were not to hide the light, so their lives would bring credit to God and draw people to him, not drive them away.

Jesus’s take on the commandments: “You’ve hear it said, but I tell you….”

Many thought that Messiah would do away with the Law, (perhaps the externals), but Jesus said he came to fulfill its purpose and show what God truly intended by it.  What he said seemed to raise the Law’s demands: “If your righteousness isn’t better than the teachers, you won’t enter the Kingdom.”

The diligent legalist could point with pride to keeping its externals: they never murdered, or slept with a neighbor’s wife.  “…But I tell you”: rage or contempt made one as guilty as those who took a life; intentional lust would be judged the same as adultery.  The Law and the Prophets (i.e., all Scripture) called for love for all—since all people were made in the image of God.  Jesus’s remedy for lust sounds exteme: to “gouge out” an eye would leave most men blind.  Men lust in their minds, anyway.  Jesus liked hyperbole: his point was that sin (“disordered love,” one calls it) needs radical solution.

the-tough-sayings-of-jesus

Jesus concludes this portion of the Sermon with some astounding statements, things that seem impossible to keep.

Our society allows for divorce much more freely than did the Jewish culture of Jesus’s day.  Jesus’s statement about divorce seems incredibly harsh.  He indicates that, unless a woman had already committed  immorality, a husband divorcing his wife makes her into an adulteress.  A divorced woman in that age could not remain unattached: she would have to remarry.  Marriage was one of the first things God mentioned in Scripture (Genesis 2:23) where it speaks of the man leaving his parents and the woman leaving her home and the two of them being united into one, a union much greater than sex, a union of all that they are.

A common way to ensure that statements are true, such as in court, would be to have the person take an oath.  But Jesus told them not to take vows, since no one can guarantee the outcome of anything (except God).

His final statements, also based on the command to love, must have left his listeners thinking he might have a screw loose: Don’t insist on taking an eye for an eye; turn the other cheek to an insult; and don’t turn away from those who ask you for things.  Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.  In this way, you’ll be “sons” of your Father (i.e., like him) who gives rain and sun to all.

“Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  “Perfect” means “complete” or “mature;” i.e., like God.  But any way you put it, to love like God loves has to be impossible, right?

Was Jesus a radical, a revolutionary?  He could be considered that in some ways, especially if people actually lived in the way he was talking about here.  But keep in mind that much of his teaching was more about getting back to God’s original intent for all people.  Realistically, how can anyone hope to pull that off?  We’ll look at that in future posts.

 

Journey Post 40: The Donkey Understanding of Christianity and the Christian Life, Part 2. Where the red dot grows. Or, everything I ever needed to know, I should have learned in Kindergarten.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”            —A.W. Tozer

To a kid in the early 1950s, it seemed that everyone went to church on Sunday.  It was an important part of the culture.   “We live in a Christian nation,” people said.  We didn’t go to church, but some friends of my mom and dad took me and my brother.  Eventually, my parents followed.  I was five or six.

In Sunday school, we sang songs, heard Bible stories.  A very kind woman named Janet led my class.  She told us stories about Jesus from the New Testament.  Since every reference in my world back then revolved around “The War” (WW2), I remember thinking that this “new” testament must’ve been written since the war.  An early assumption.  I knew nothing.  Janet’s legacy was inscribed to me inside a small New Testament she gave me, a legacy of love and the importance she placed in this little book.

new-testament

A favorite song: “The wise man built his house upon the rock.”  I didn’t know it was the analogy Jesus used to conclude the Sermon on the Mount.  It was a happy song, filled with motions, repetitions, and loud noise.  “The rains came down and the floods came up” (three times), “but the house on the rock stood firm.” We’d stand straight, planted stern and firm like Superman.  Then: “The foolish man built his house upon the sand.”  When the rains and floods came, his house went SPLAT! and we’d all fall down.

The point of the song was to “build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  I didn’t have a clue what it meant: I was puzzled, but I never asked.  I didn’t want to let on that I didn’t know.  I grew up thinking I’m supposed to know the answers, or figure them out.  I don’t remember my parents telling me different.

kids-singing

That song is still popular with kids.  It has played in the background of my life like a haunting melodic theme: be wise, build your life on Jesus, and your life will stand strong in the storm.  It seemed simple enough, but I was unaware I was missing something.  Whenever I’d fail or felt unsure, I’d run faster and harder, read the Bible more, serve more, love more, be like Jesus more … right?

When I recognized my friend’s view of God, I realized it was a reflection of my own underlying assumption about the way God is: not what I would say I believed, but what was there, deep inside.  It was a bolt from the blue.  God to me was that same dark, ugly, never-satisfied father who would one day tell me what a disappointment I’d been.  No!  He just couldn’t be like that, else this whole Christian thing was a crock.  I was suddenly determined to find the truth, like that day on a hospital bed in Vietnam.  I had to know: no more BS!

Proverbs 3:12 spotlighted the word “delight.” God delights—delights—in me … a glimpse into the father heart of God.  I googled my question about how God sees believers.  The word “adoption” popped up.  I knew adoption: it was like “saved” or “forgiven”… or so I assumed.  God had obligated himself to it.  He promised.  It was like a contract: you believe, God takes you to heaven—whether he wants to or not.

trust-the-father

Trusting the father heart of God?

But Paul’s writings presented a different picture: adoption was a personal, intimate relationship with God as a father who showers an inheritance on his children.  He gives his Spirit to make it real by helping us recognize we belong to him, not in a “shut up and do as I say” way.  Rather, it was “live as my son.”

Paul said God planned our adoption.  It gave him great pleasure: he was passionate about bringing people into his family to be with them forever.

I would shortly discover that Jesus taught this same thing—and modeled it—with his disciples.

One day, I listened to a talk on discipleship.  The speaker asked: If you claim to be Jesus’s follower, do you know what he actually taught?  My “knowledge” had been filtered through conflicting systems of theological thinking.  So I began to read the Gospels over and over, praying to hear Jesus unfiltered!

jesus-teaching-disciples

I’ve never regretted that investment of time, thought, study and prayer.  I read in large chunks, chapters at a time, looking at context and patterns and concepts.  I read different Bible versions.  I began to lose my interpretive straightjacket and felt as though I were right there with Peter and the others, listening for the first time, watching him: entranced, curious, sometimes confused, praying for clarity.

This was no “Jesus lite.”  I began to understand why my high school pastor called him “the man’s man.”  Calling God “Father” scandalized the religious authorities.  Do you know the prayer?  “Our Father who art in heaven…”  Jesus taught the disciples to call God “Abba,” (like papa or daddy), an intimate term.  The greatest privilege the Christian has is to know God as father.  It’s not a title.  It’s a relationship.

I’ve now come full circle back to Janet’s Kindergarten Sunday school.  I know, now, I am building my house upon the rock, knowing I’m a “donkey” freed from donkeyness by the patient love of a Father.

My Red Dot

The red dot is that place on a locator map which says, “You are here.”  Here’s where I’m at:

red-dot

My core beliefs are no different from Christians in most any evangelical church.  What has changed since 2007 is the way I understand God as my Father and myself as a son and follower of Jesus.  I’m still getting to know my adoptive dad intimately.  It is a personal relationship, with room for growth.  I know Jesus better.  Jesus’s agenda was not just the cross, to die as a sacrifice for our sin.  It included showing us what God is truly like, how he thinks, and what he wants.  Jesus summed it up in the word “love.”

Is Jesus really deity?  Many don’t believe that, but I do.  He didn’t deny it, but he didn’t campaign to convince people.  He let his Father open the eyes.  Besides the cross, his main agenda was focused on showing people who the Father is, living life as the son, loving people, how to worship him in truth.  His name is “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us”.  The resurrection declared him to be “the Son of God.”

There are strange beliefs about the Holy Spirit; many hesitate to talk of him as though they were afraid.  But Jesus called him “the helper” whom he promised to send so we’d recognize God as Father and ourselves as his children and to teach us wisdom—i.e., to know his will in our hearts.  He brings new birth to believers, and he make believers more like Jesus: to think and live like him, to flourish as part of his family.

My core identity: I am my Father’s son.  Adoption changed my status to that of a son (non-gender specific).  I am “holy” in God’s sight, a word which means much more than moral purity.  It means that I belong to him; I am his, he is mine.  This is true of all his people.  I am also a follower, a disciple, an apprentice of Jesus.  “Apprentice” still communicates what it was a rabbi did with disciples in Jesus’s day.  An apprentice observes, listens, follows instructions, seeks to imitate, and, so the theory goes, becomes more and more like the master.  There are no journeymen and only one master.

disciples-love-one-another

Here’s a clue how to recognize genuine disciples:  Jesus told his disciples, “People will know you are my disciples if you ….”  Or, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow …,” i.e., learning from me means: be ready to die to your own agenda.

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I keep saying that God is like the perfect or good father.  A theological list doesn’t communicate how the originator of mothers and fathers is himself the perfect parent.  We understand (even if uncomfortable with) that humans are relational beings, creative and imaginative and loving—as God is.  “Knowing God” is not about knowing a list of attributes: it’s about knowing him.  That’s what Jesus said eternal life is.  Understanding God as a relational, loving, and trustworthy father makes the Scriptures come alive and helps eliminate the temptation to “proof-text” verses about this or that attribute.

Humans have a great capacity to trust—it’s built in by God, but it gets crapped on in our society, shattered by abuse, apathy, and self-centeredness.  We do respond to someone we trust, and if that person is God, we begin to understand that faith is not some mysterious force that he zaps into people.  It’s the very normal response to recognizing his trustworthiness.  God is continually shining a light on himself for the very reason of drawing out faith:  in creation, in Jesus, other believers, the Scriptures, in the message we refer to as the “gospel.”  Even when our faith is small, it can grow to be great, just as Jesus said when he spoke of a mustard seed.

My early faith was largely cognitive: Jesus rose, therefore I knew the rest was true.  But it was love that got me off the performance treadmill.  It was love (delight) that made me see I’m no longer afraid of him.  I fear him, but I trust him.  His love is changing me, and in response, I love him and aim to do what Jesus did—display God in my life.

To think of God as a perfect and good father makes a lot of sense: he invented the concept of parenthood, after all.  Doing so does not eliminate the majestic or sovereign aspects of who he is.  Rather it enhances them.  Have you ever thought what it would be like to the son or daughter of the President of the United States?

jfk-and-chidren

Here’s some quick statements about other stuff:

The “s” word (sin) makes people uncomfortable, makes them think they’re being judged.  Let me use another analogy to give some clarity on what I believe God thinks:  What things would be harmful to your child?  What would keep their lives from thriving, from living out their potential, from knowing they are loved or from loving others?  We invest a lot in them because we love them.  We train, encourage, and seek to guide a positive strong will—vs. training out a destructive self-will.  We teach them love and respect and some humility by loving and respecting them.  God does the same.

God will judge one day, and it won’t be pleasant for those who don’t want anything to do with him.  Judgment is another part of parenthood.  God is the only one who judges with absolute accuracy and fairness.  He is just: that is the baseline reason that Jesus had to go to the cross.  The cross was part of God’s plan to adopt children into his family.  Since he is absolute holiness, he had to find a way to bring us into his presence for time and eternity without compromising.  So Jesus redeemed us by being the “lamb of God,” a sacrifice to pay our penalty of separation from God.  We accept that by faith.

jesus-the-lamb-of-god

I love the Bible.  It’s the only authority for what I believe and how I live.  It reflects God’s desire to communicate, and reflects him and his character.  It contains everything he wanted us to know—for now.  His Spirit helps us understand it, yet anyone can read it and get the main idea.  The Spirit guided those who wrote it down, but it wasn’t dictated.  I don’t believe there’s any contradiction with true science.  The creation account?  The point is that God did it.  Nothing comes from nothing on its own.

The Father sent Jesus as Christ (Israel’s Messiah) to reconcile people and offer forgiveness so that we might live as free sons.  Jesus announced this good news and initiated his Father’s kingdom.  Then he took upon himself the consequences of our rejection.  Who doesn’t want to know they are truly loved?

Journey Post 39: The donkey understanding of Christianity and the Christian life, part 1: The parable of the 2×4

Preliminaries

I was once told this story of a farmer and his donkey:  One day a farmer needed to go to town.  So he hitched his donkey to the wagon.  Then the farmer and his friend climbed up into the seat.  The farmer flicked the reins, clicked his tongue, and said, “Giddup!”  But the donkey didn’t move.  He just sat down on his haunches.  The farmer flicked again, said “Giddup!” again, but still, no movement.  The farmer calmly climbed down, went to the back of the wagon, picked up a 2×4, and walked to the front: THWACK! upside the head went the 2×4.  The farmer calmly climbed back into the wagon and set down the 2×4.  The farmer flicked the reins and the donkey started on down the road. “What’d you do that for?” said his friend.  Came the reply, “Well, first you have to get his attention.”

donkey standing

“Donkey” is the family name given to me by the son of a Manjako chief in 1981 when we moved into his village in Senegal and began to learn his language.  “If you’re going to live with us,” he said, “you must have a Manjako name.”  The Manjako spelling of the name is different; nevertheless, it sounds nearly identical to our English ears.   I never learned the origin of the family name, but its meaning is not related to our English word.  And, for the past thirty-five years, “Donkey” has served as a sometime humorous reminder from God of how stubborn I am and slow to learn wisdom and other important stuff.  And the 2×4?  For now, let’s just say it represents measures taken by God to get my attention….

How I came to write this series of essays:

Our word “preliminary” is from French, or maybe from Latin.  Latin: prae, ‘before’ + limen, ‘threshold.’  Right this moment, we’re standing on a threshold, peering into a room where a tapestry hangs—the tapestry of my life.  The tapestry is incomplete, a design in progress, the patient, loving work of my adoptive father.  I’ve been a Christian since 1971, but I’ve had little appreciation for the nature of the love with which he has crafted that tapestry.  Most of my life has been lived on the backside among the confusing tangles of thread, zigging and zagging hither and thither.

tapestry backside

Occasionally, my father showed me a glimpse of the front side.  Sometimes it took one of the 2x4s to get my attention long enough to look—and once in a while to actually see—what was going on.  There is something of great beauty happening, but I can’t tell you what it is because I don’t yet know the rest of the story.

donkey tapestry

Above:  an unfinished tapestry….

I have shared parts of this story before.  So please forgive me if some of it is repetitious to you: it won’t be to all my readers.  The story is critical to understanding why I’m compelled to write what appears in the next five posts.

For much of my Christian life, my view of God was distorted, one which saw him primarily as judge, the father figure who was never satisfied with my best efforts to please him.  I did not realize that’s what I really thought, so I couldn’t have told you.   This view is actually quite common, even among Christians and ministers.  It may not fit what we think we believe, but it’s often behind how we live.  I call it our “functional theology.”

I would have not realized that’s how I actually saw God had I not seen the same view full blown in a young friend, had I not seen it destroying his marriage, his ministry, his life.  It was a dramatic attention-getter (another 2×4) which would lead to my eventually knowing God’s father heart and knowing, too, what I meant to him.  It didn’t change everything all at once, but it brought a revolution in my life–and the life of Michelle–that is still unfolding….

Several things were coming together about the same period of time (2007 and after) that brought this revolution.  Michelle and I were involved in a church plant in Hollywood.  There, I was brought face to face with how loads and loads of people didn’t like Christians.  I’d been aware of it before, of course.  But when I heard how many considered us hypocrites, self-righteous, judgmental, etc., etc., I figured they were making an excuse for walking away from God.  I’ve had to reexamine that assumption.

hope international bible fellowship

Above:  Hope International Bible Fellowship in Hollywood where we first met to plant a church

Actually, I’ve found that there’s still a search going on across our land.  People are trying to understand spirituality, looking for some larger purpose.  Most still believe in God; they’re just not sure that those who claim to represent him know what they’re talking about.  I’ve quoted Gandhi and even many Christian leaders who recognize that the greatest hindrance to becoming Christian has been other Christians.

But, to paraphrase the Sara Lee jingle, “nobody doesn’t like Jesus.”  That isn’t strictly true, of course.  Most people seem to see Jesus as a great moral teacher, though they’re puzzled over the miracles and the deity thing.  Too many have come to see Christians as people they don’t want to be around.  A friend told me once that Christians are the only ones who shoot their wounded.  I have known that truth for myself.  And most people around us are wounded in some way.

About the same time as the church plant, I was coming face to face with the fact that my so-called Christian life wasn’t working so very well.  I’d been a missionary, a church leader, a Sunday school teacher, a counselor.  But I was questioning my faith and pondering the fact that God kept bringing me to the edge of failure in ministry, work, and marriage.

Abundant Life

If you’d asked me, as a new Christian, what I expected my life to be like in thirty years, I would have answered: “An abundant, free life, filled with quiet joy as we walk with God and await our call home (i.e., to heaven).”  It hasn’t quite unfolded like that.

We’ve had a tumultuous marriage (mostly behind the scenes).  My dreams of being a great missionary and Bible translator foundered on the shoals of my self-protective life, and I resented that Michelle always seemed to know anything better than  I.  Our kids were seeing the hypocrisy, legalism, and even immorality at our mission school base.  Our oldest son was in near-open rebellion at this.  I struggled with my own suppressed rage over fear of exposure as a bad father, yet sensing a growing admiration for our son whose honesty and courage could no longer abide leaders who expected submission from kids while ignoring adult dirty laundry hanging in plain sight.

We left Africa in 1989 with me thinking God had pulled the rug out from under me.  Sacrilegious?  Yes.  But it reflected the reality of my still unrecognized view that God was distant, uninterested in me, uncaring and never-satisfied.  I couldn’t see just how insidious was my thinking:  I figured the problem was me, not God.  Only while counseling my young friend years later could I see how his distorted view of an unsatisfied and ever-demanding God was leading him in the paths of destruction.  He knew exactly how he saw God and could articulate it.  In his articulation I saw my own functional understanding, like looking in a mirror.  It scared me.  Had I missed something?

Missing something

It was in shear desperation that I went home and cried out, “What do you really think of me, Lord?  I have to know!”  I just couldn’t play church any longer.  I’d felt the same way after my appointment with a mortar round in Vietnam.  But God really did hear my cry, and I now realized how he’d waited on me to pay attention so I could see he’d been there all the time.

If ever there was a “word from God,” I heard it that day.  The word was: “delight.”  His whisper told me to look at Proverbs 3:12, a verse I generally understood as, “Hey, pay attention to the 2×4, stupid!”  Instead, as I looked, my eyes traveled to the qualifying phrase after the statement that the Lord disciplines those he loves.  It said: “as a father the son in whom he delights.”  Wait … What?  Delights?  You delight in me, Lord?

I had never put that word in close proximity with God—or my dad, for that matter.  Even though I felt I didn’t ever matter to my own dad, I understood what a father was supposed to be like.  To hear that word “delight” made me feel like I’d died and gone to heaven. My performance treadmill life had been about seeking to please God and everybody.  But now, the finger of God pushed the stop button and told me it was time to get off.  To know a father’s delight removes the fear of the unsatisfied eye.  He had known all the worst about me and delighted in me, his child whom he was eager to adopt.

Eager?  Adopt?  We’ll look at that in due course.  You’ll just have to wait….

father delights in son

There is something about knowing you are truly deeply loved that is inexplicable.  It doesn’t yield to convenient analysis, and you can’t help but respond to it.  We love when we’re first loved.  Love is not something we do because we’re supposed to.  We learn it by the experience of being loved in relationship.  I’ve been learning to love because I now know I am loved.

This is what actually compels me to write these essays.  I wrote about love last post, about my captain in Vietnam and how he had given his life so that we might live that day.  His life and death was an illustration of that quality of genuine, self-giving love that is the essence of Christianity.  I didn’t get the point at the time—back then, I only knew I couldn’t do what he had done—but when I really saw the love of God, I connected the dots….

Christians talk about love all the time and non-Christians don’t put much stock in it.  They look at us and say, “What you do speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you say.”  That’s why I want to focus on Jesus, what he taught, what he had to say about the Father, and how he put God on display by his life .

My plan for this series of essays is fairly straightforward, and much of it is already in draft form.  I may change some things, as per usual, but here is what I have in mind:

Part 2:  My personal understanding of Jesus, what Christianity is about, and what it means to live the Christian life.  This will give a quick overview and let Christian readers know I’m no raging heretic.

Part 3:  What Jesus actually taught: A summary look at the sermon on the mount

Part 4:  What Jesus actually taught: Looking at those troublesome parables

Part 5:  What Jesus actually taught: A look at other teachings, mostly from the Gospel of John

Part 6:  In Conclusion:  Additional notes and what it means to live as a disciple (apprentice) to Jesus

I think you’ll find that my beliefs are pretty standard Christian fare (orthodox with a small “o,” if you will).  I don’t like certain stereotypical terms used to classify Christians (“fundamentalist” and “evangelical”), and I don’t like to be pigeonholed.  I call myself a Christian, a believer, a follower of Jesus, a disciple.  Even “disciple” conveys weird things to some people, so I like the word “apprentice,” which still carries the same basic idea as what it meant to be a disciple in Jesus’s day.  More on that later.

In speaking about Christianity, I stress the word “relationship,” because what the disciples learned from Jesus was about how to live life in relationship to God and other people.  Being a Christian is not primarily about going to church, nor becoming a “better” person–though hopefully, that’s a result.  It’s not about going to heaven when you die, though that’s part of it.  Jesus said (John 17:3) that eternal life is knowing God.  The great privilege of the Christian is to know God as Father.

I hope you will find what I have to say to be informative, perhaps surprisingly enjoyable, and be challenged to really think.

The Lake Avenue Essays, # 1: The Missing Picture … Who I Am

There is never a good time for a father to die.  I was thirteen when my dad died.  That was in 1961; he was forty-eight.  It was my dad, and it was the absolute worst time.

My brother had joined the Navy two months earlier, right out of high school.  He had always been my dad’s favorite.  Now, I thought, I would have my dad to myself.  But I didn’t, and wouldn’t … of course.

The previous fall, I had started junior high—you know, that time when boys wonder about being a man and are confused about girls.  I’d always had a crush on some girl, but now….  The guys would snicker, “Have you noticed Sue P.?”  My dad and I would never have those conversations.

The school tried to encourage the special closeness of fathers and sons by sponsoring a breakfast that was coming up soon.  All the guys would be there with their dads.  I couldn’t go, even when my mom suggested I ask my Uncle Bud.  I just wanted to hide, and there would be no escaping the shame.

Life moves on.  But deep hurts don’t often move on.  They’re just there, like some background dirge accompanying the good moments and happy times, like a void that refuses to be filled.

I became conscious of the void when I was six or seven, when I discovered the family pictures in a big drawer in the old secretary by the front door.  The drawer was so heavy that I had to ask my mom to take it out for me.  The pictures were mostly loose, mostly black and white, though some were sepia-toned.  There was a painted high school graduation photograph of my Aunt Dee.  She was beautiful.  There were pictures of family and friends.  What most caught my attention were those of my brother.

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One picture had him standing by a coffee table with a huge birthday cake and one big candle.  In another, he was perhaps a year-and-a-half, sitting on my dad’s lap, pecking away for all the world as though intent on writing a composition.  My dad’s face was beaming, obviously proud.

But one picture was missing.  I remember more than once going back to look for it in that big drawer, but I never found it.  I never asked about it.  I was afraid of the answer.  The missing picture was the one I was sure had to be there, somewhere—the picture of just me and my dad.

The years moved on.  My life became a question whose answer was self-interpreted.  I began to conclude what a boy without guidance must:  I didn’t matter to my dad.  So, who am I?

1968 came.  Hope was assassinated and I got a letter from the president:  “Greeting….”  I knew where I was going (Vietnam), and I did.  Would I be a man?  When you don’t know who you are, such tests of manhood prove nothing.  I stood my ground, fought back, got wounded, came home.  The question was still there.

Life went tumbling on.  In the deep inner workings that seek to justify existence, I told myself I was better than my brother.  Everything proved it:  Michelle and I got married in 1970, we became Christians, went to Bible school and became missionaries, had three kids.  I was a teacher.  I was a church leader and counselor.  I was looked up to.  Yet, something was unsettling me.  As I counseled guys, I found them confused, struggling with a private picture of God as judge, never smiling, always demanding, never satisfied.  Their struggle was familiar, for I saw that same God.  I recalled what A.W. Tozer wrote, that what comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you….  So how could I help people trust God when I saw him like they did?  I was playing church with these peoples’ lives.  Like them, I was spending my life on a performance treadmill, chasing the smile of God.

I reasoned that God loves me, right?  He always did what’s best.  I’m going to heaven—he promised.  But did God even like me, or just put up with me?  Did I really matter to him?  Did he value me at all?

In a moment of desperation, I got honest with God.  It was 2006 or 2007—I’m certain of the moment if not the date.  I sat at my desk and I cried out, “What do you really think of me, Lord?  I have to know!”

God’s timing is not often early—and never late.  With the words barely out of my mouth, a verse came to mind I had thought of only when doing church discipline:  “My son, despise not the Lord’s discipline.…  The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11,12).

Something was different.  What was that last part?  Delights?  “Lord, you delight in me?”  If ever in my life I received a “word from God,” this was it.  My Father delights in me!  Delight made love concrete.

How…?  God for me had seemed distant, not much involved in my life, just up there, always watching, probably tired of my failures.  I googled, “What does God think of his children?”  I kept seeing the word “adoption,” a term Paul used to describe God taking people into his family.  Adoption had meant little to me in Bible school.  But now I knew:  It’s not just a process, but a father’s perspective.  No wonder Jesus taught his followers to call God “Abba.”  Like a perfect earthly father, he had passionately anticipated the day he would adopt me.  (The “pleasure” he felt in Ephesians 1:5).  God wants to be with me!

We intuitively see God like our own parents, particularly our fathers.  My picture of God was my dad!  But God is not my dad.  God’s discipline, all the troubles and disappointments are simply the proof of his delight in me, a message the Spirit brought to my mind as surely as the sun rises to a new day.

In a moment, God lifted the veil that had kept his true face hidden, and I heard him:  “You saw only that missing picture.  But you are my son.  You are the man I delight in.  And you will always be in the picture with me.”

The Lake Avenue Essays # 2: Whose Agenda?… And Whose Pigeonhole?

If Jesus came back to America today, he might conclude that we were already in the midst of a presidential campaign.  Candidates are being measured and issues debated.  Christians are being courted because our vote matters.  The candidates are measuring us, analyzing how we might vote.  They, and most Americans, see us as the “religious right,” politically conservative, likely Republican.

How do you like that?  Not here five minutes and already you’ve been pegged into a pigeonhole?

You might be comfortable with that particular niche.  But the point of this piece has little to do with where you actually fit on the political spectrum.  My point has to do with what most Americans would think when they learn that you’re a Christian.

Michelle and I came back to the States from Senegal in 1989.  We had spent most of the 1970s and 80s in missionary training and living in Africa.  We had been isolated from much that was happening in American culture—living in a kind of Christian bubble.  What we found here was a far different country from the one we had left.

A little history:  The Nixon landslide in 1972 made political operatives sit up and notice how much clout Christians could have as a voting bloc.  Roe v. Wade in ’73 pushed a button that demonstrated Christian anger and willingness to speak up about the changing social and political agendas in our country.  By 1980, a number of organizations were claiming to speak for conservative Christianity, including the “Moral Majority.”  The “Christian right” or “religious right” was now a force to be reckoned with.

Those were heady days for Christians.  The possibilities of power were exciting.  It seemed to many that standing up for “family values” could stanch the seepage of moral sewage from the ‘60s and restore a more Christian America.  But, somewhere along the line, many forgot that hearts are not changed by the ballot box or moral law, and (as Chuck Colson said), salvation doesn’t come on Air Force One.  The American church was lured away by a political agenda—deflected from following the agenda of Jesus.

Jesus had an agenda?  Your first thought might be, “Well, he was intent on getting to the cross.”  Or, “He tried to get us to preach the gospel to everyone.”  And you’d be right … sort of….

Jesus’ agenda can be seen in the Gospel accounts.  It’s not rocket science.  Some feel the Gospels are difficult, the parables confusing, so they largely ignore them or read small bits or perhaps John.  But I want to remind you of something your English teacher taught: “What’s the main idea?”  The question is, what did he teach his disciples—his apprentices, if you will—over and over?  What’s the pattern?  Jesus taught them to think and showed them his Father’s heart—to see who he is, how he thinks, and gain his perspective—that they might know him who dwells among us.  “The presence of God is the central fact of Christianity” (Tozer).  Israel missed God and had no light to reflect.  We face the same danger.

You may be aware that Gandhi spent much time in Britain, living among British Christians.  Afterward he had this to say:  “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  I don’t know about you, but if I am to be persecuted, I want it to be for the right reasons.  Just what am I known for?  What light am I reflecting?  Into whose pigeonhole do I fit?

Coming up … Only 3 months late….

I took a much longer time off from writing than I had anticipated.  As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to think through and pray about what I was going to say here–I will be hitting some hot-button issues.  But I also took time to look at some personal issues, and am now returning greatly refreshed and encouraged with where God is leading Michelle and I as we venture into this weird new state called “retirement.”

It’s great to be back writing again.

I am about to publish (this week, D.V.) the next installment in the series on the danger we face of repeating history and creating fear in the American public square. This post will directly address freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief (or “none”) in our pluralistic land, creating an environment safe for our incredibly diverse population.   Then we will resume examining the resurrection of Jesus.

I will also be putting up two essays that I have written for an arts exhibit at our church this next weekend.  If you’ve been following this blog, you may recognize some familiar themes.

Thanks for your patience.

journey post 31– At Risk of Repeating History, Part 1: A parable about fear in the public square

“The only thing we have to fear is—fear itself.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, 1933

fear in the public square--FDR 1st inaugural

Roosevelt speaking at his first inaugural, March 4, 1933

My agenda in this series of posts is to communicate that there is reasonable historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  It is the resurrection, as I’ve said before, that is the sine qua non of Christianity.  If the resurrection never really happened, then the whole superstructure is built on BS: either Jesus was a fraud or deluded, and his followers are to be pitied.

If Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, then his message of the gospel (“good news”) is true.  There is something that reasonable people can build trust on, in order to honestly know Jesus Christ and the God whose will and values he sought to live out.

Resurrection--empty tomb

I’ve taken quite a bit of time thinking and praying about presenting this particular post.  I’ve found it a great challenge to write something coherent that addresses two of my primary allegiances:  God and country, Christian values and American values.  I will likely step on everybody’s toes in the process.

My interest here is to “clear the air” so we can focus on Jesus and the resurrection instead of being distracted by all the noise and clamor often raised in the public square when Christians and non-Christians attempt to speak with each other about religious freedom, cultural values, morality, etc.  In clearing the air, I need to take some people to task, including both my fellow Christians and my fellow American citizens, Christian or not.

Christians and those who have been exposed to Jesus’ teaching know that he charged his hearers to be “salt and light” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13-16).  Those hearers certainly included all those he was speaking of in the Beatitudes … the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart, etc.

fear in the public square--salt and light

Many take “salt and light” as a charge to fight for what they believe are biblical values.  Since the 1970s, the “Christian right” et al has pitted itself against changes in moral standards and traditional values in a well-meaning effort to stand for righteousness.  The “culture wars” that resulted have succeeded in alienating a growing segment of the American population.  Large numbers of these people have launched another well-meaning effort, this one to insure that we are all more tolerant, accepting, and inclusive.  This effort has succeeded in raising the specter of fear, even paranoia, among Christians because it appears that their constitutional religious liberties are being systematically circumvented, compromised, or taken away.

A Parable

I’ve created my own version of the old story of three blind men who happen upon an elephant.  You know the story:  One runs into a leg and is convinced he’s found a tree; one comes upon the tail, convinced it’s a snake; while the third comes upon the trunk….

Fear in the public square--Elephant & Blind Men

My version is a parable to explain what I see happening that is preventing an open dialogue about the resurrection.  It has a message for both Christians and non-Christians (i.e., everyone).

The elephant here represents the institutional Christian church, (no particular denomination), and the Judeo-Christian ethic that lies behind our traditional system of law and moral values.  Because of age and size, it has dominated everything else in the room—which we’ll call “America.”

Three blind men are in the room.   One of the blind men, a convinced non-Christian, comes upon the mouth, feels its shape and size, and hears certain noises coming from it that sound really hostile to him.  The thing moves a leg, the room quakes, and the man senses the danger it may pose to him and all else in the room.  This blind man concludes that the animal is a hostile creature, ready to trample any and all creatures and he begins to seek a way to neutralize the danger that, he is sure, is about to erupt.

The second blind man is a Christian.  For him, the elephant is a friendly creature, ready to welcome anyone and certainly other beings in the room.  To him, this elephant was first on the scene, and therefore has a right to establish ground-rules for others that may enter.  But the second man has become aware of the first blind man’s alarm and fright, and hears him call out for a rope to bind the legs of the elephant so that it cannot harm or interfere with other people or animals in the room.  This second blind man gets frightened and attempts to fight off the effort to tie up the creature.

fear in the public square--Elephant in room

In the end, the third blind man (everyone else) runs away, afraid of the other two and terrified of the “thing” that they are fighting about.  The elephant, of course, has become so upset and scared by now that it turns into a raging beast, kicks both men, shakes off the rope, destroys the walls of the room and leaves it unfit for anyone or any other elephants to inhabit.

A couple of explanations are needed, perhaps.  First, the elephant represents the church as an institution, and is not synonymous with the teaching of Jesus.  The church is generally made up of all people who claim to be his followers—there are those who think they are followers, yet only warm the pews.

Second, there is no significance in the fact that the second blind man, a Christian, is separate from the elephant (the church).  No analogy or parable is perfect.

Here is where the toe stepping comes in.  I am telling this parable against both sides: against Christians whose good intentions to stand for righteousness are drawing attention away from Jesus and his gospel—and the resurrection that witnesses to him.  I’m also telling it against non-Christians whose good intentions are placing our common constitutional heritage at risk by seeking to squelch what they believe to be narrow mindedness and actual hate speech.  Their efforts are allowing fear to grow in the very place in which we need freedom to think and discuss/debate.  Our nation was directly founded by good folks who sought freedom and toleration for their beliefs.  Any time we allow fear in the public square, we risk the death of freedom and democracy.

fear in the public square--cartoon

I grew up hearing the following statement about who we are as Americans—it’s attributed to Voltaire:  “Mister, I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”  I hope it’s still true.

Next:  Replacing fear in America:  “Do your thing, man!”

journey post 30: Women at the tomb of Jesus … and the rest of the story

Most Americans know the story of the women—whether they believe or not.  But, most do not know the rest of the story.

door of the tomb--The Three Marys by Henry Osawa Tanner, 1910

“The Three Marys” by Henry Osawa Tanner (1910)

I knew the story:  I grew up going to church.  Most of my generation went at least for Christmas and Easter.  Every Easter, we heard it again….

Early on Sunday morning, some  women are making their way to the tomb to anoint the body.  They’re worried about access.  “Who will move the stone?”  But it’s open when they get there.  Going inside, they are face to face with men who appear as angels in glistening robes:  “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen just as he told you!”  Shaken, confused but joyful, they run back to tell the other disciples.  Peter and John race to the site.  John, “the kid,” waits at the entrance in deference to the older and slower Peter.  And the rest, as they say, is….

History?  Yes, most definitely.

women at the tome--entering

Many know another part of the story, about a woman named Mary Magdalene.  There are several Marys mentioned in the New Testament; this Mary was one of the disciples of Jesus, the young rabbi who rescued her from a life for which those who thought themselves upright dismissively labeled her a “sinner.”  She was a strong woman whose devotion to the man she expected to be the Messiah is portrayed in a tender vignette.  Like the other disciples, her hope had been crushed by the condemning verdict of the religious leaders and the iron fisted justice of Rome.  As she wandered away from the tomb, she spied a man she assumed to be the caretaker:  “Please, sir, if you have taken my Lord away, tell me where you have laid the body, so I can return it.”  Mary, obviously, had not yet comprehended what she had just seen and heard inside the burial cave.

The man looked at her and quietly uttered her name: “Mary.”  She knew his voice at once.  “Rabboni!” she cried.  When her joy was finally under control, he instructed her to go back and tell the others.

women at the tomb--mary magdalene and Jesus

Growing up, we knew that the touching story of the women was, indeed, great story, more so that part about Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus in the garden.  But history?  I know something about that, for history was my first love and a large part of my training, digging for evidence in the days before internet.  I related before that looking for evidence of the resurrection was a big part of my struggle to find the truth about Christianity.  But the story of the women at the tomb, the first eyewitnesses, was not on my—or anyone’s–radar in 1970.  They were simply other witnesses, right?

Wrong.  In all honesty, I did not realize until a few years ago just how important their story is to the credibility of Christianity.  It even helps to explain the rapid spread of this new religion during the first two centuries after Jesus’ death.

You know about the women, but do you know the rest of the story?

If the question sounds familiar, you may be thinking of radio newsman Paul Harvey.  I first heard him traveling around California with my parents in the 1950s, and listened to him most every day in the 70s.  That question was the “hook” he used to grab our attention in anticipation of some unknown—but very important aspect—of an otherwise commonly-known story.  His hook would keep listeners hanging as he went to commercial break, (which this is, sort of).  His “rest of the story” would provide a new appreciation for something that may never have been given much thought.

women at the tomb--Paul Harvey

Radio newsman Paul Harvey

If you don’t consider yourself a Christian and you question the Gospel accounts, especially if you consider these stories to be inventions, whether by design or by delusion, then it’s time to take a second look and consider….

It makes all the difference in the world that the first eyewitnesses mentioned in the Gospel accounts were women instead of men.  Not only does it buttress the case for the credibility of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; it may also help people understand that Christianity is not anti-woman, as many have claimed in the decades since World War II.

So here it is:  In biblical times, women held an inferior status in society to men.

What!  You’ve got to be kidding, Walt!  No surprise here.  What else you got?

Here is what you may not know:  a woman’s inferior status was institutionalized in the legal system.  A woman’s testimony was not allowed in court—not admissible as evidence, simply because of her status.  Let that sink in for a moment.

Then look at all four Gospel accounts.  Their story is there, right up front, included in every one.  No right-thinking man of the time would have included those nice stories—simply because they would have undermined the credibility of the entire Gospel.  But the writers did not withhold that information—they did not put some male-centric spin on the story.  The women are there, in your face, so to speak.

Jesus did a lot more than be nice to women, and his religion has done more to elevate the status of women than any other—even if some who call themselves followers do not act like it.   He welcomed them as disciples, which was a definite no-no in their culture at the time:  women weren’t considered capable of learning, you understand….  Jesus challenged a lot of assumptions that were contrary to the law of God.  If you read the Gospels with this in mind, you see it everywhere—and he taught his disciples to do the same.  The very definition of a disciple (or, apprentice), involves one who not only “learns” but who adopts the thinking and doing of the master.  Even Paul—often dismissed as a misogynist (hater of women)—spoke in glowing terms of their shared status as fellow “sons” (an adoption term) of God.

The subject of women’s “place” in Christianity will come up more in these posts, I’m sure.  I wanted to bring it up now in one of the first posts on the resurrection, before getting on to more of the history.  Yes, history.  Perhaps now that you know the “rest of the story”—that it was not thrown in to tug at your emotions—you might also be thinking, perhaps, that there’s more to this Christian thing than meets the eye.

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