zigzag journey

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

Archive for the tag “resurrection of Jesus”

Journey Post 48: Good neighbor Sam?

Note:  I was set to publish this nearly a month ago.  But the ending was not right.  I trust that it is, now.

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“Who is my neighbor?”  Luke 10:29                                                                                                                                          —Question put to Jesus by a young law expert

Love … It is the big idea … bigger than any good feelings which may come with it.

Genuine love affects how we act toward others in every area of life.  Simply put, love compels.  Love forgets self.  When love is real, it will at times act contrary to feelings, contrary to self.  Love does the right thing.  I am an inconsistent practitioner of this kind of love.

God’s idea of love is seen in the life—and supremely the death—of Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:3).  It was this kind of love that St. Paul described in the passage often read at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind…

One of the radical ideas that Jesus taught his disciples—and anyone who would listen—is that “love your neighbor” includes “love your enemies.”  It must have seemed new and radical to those who heard him say this in his first major public teaching, “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Yet it was only as new and as radical as God himself.  Little did they suspect that “love your enemy” is a central premise of how God operates and how he desires that we operate in our relationships.  “Impossible,” you say?  Precisely.

There was once a young man who was confronted with this reality about love—and its impossibility.  Jesus met the young man, an expert in the law of God who seemed confident that he knew what God expected of him.  But he came away from his encounter with Jesus having had a truth adjustment.  It’s a pity that we don’t know what the young man finally did with this truth….

For us, the parable Jesus told him, “The Good Samaritan,” has become a cultural moniker for laws that protect us when we try to do the right thing, such as helping an injured person out of a damaged car at the risk of further injury.  It’s nice to have those laws.  They enable us to do something seriously good for another without regard to negative consequences for ourselves.

For Jesus, the parable he told has to do with doing good (love) for others without regard to self.

The story is simple and well known, as is its basic lesson.  Most people are at least familiar with it:  A man is beat up and robbed on an isolated road and left for dead.  A priest and another guy come upon the man but avoid him and keep going.  They were religious types whom you’d expect would have stopped to help.  Another man, a foreigner from Samaria, sees him, stops, cleans his wounds, lifts him onto his donkey, and takes him to an inn where the victim can rest and recover.  The Samaritan pays the inn-keeper to provide whatever the man might need and promises to reimburse any extra expense.

The lesson here is actually much larger than helping a stranger in trouble.  That can easily be missed in a casual read.  We know we’re supposed to “love thy neighbor.”  But the young man took it further, asking, “who is my neighbor?”  Why would he do that?  Wasn’t he the expert?

If you haven’t done so yet, please read the account in Luke 10:25-37.  As you do so, take note of the young man’s two questions.  These provide the context for the parable.  And, they raise an important question that Jesus leaves hanging….

We’ll begin with the people in the parable.  Then we’ll consider the young law expert himself and what he was after with his questions.

The priest who passes by serves at the temple in Jerusalem.  The second man is a Levite whose job it is to help at the temple.  They probably rationalized their non-action (we humans have a built-in propensity for this), which might have run thus: “If I touch him (he might even be dead), I would be ‘unclean’ and would not be able to serve at the temple.”  So they let themselves off the hook with their own importance.  They didn’t just ignore the man: they passed by on the other side of the road so they wouldn’t be defiled.  That way, they likely told themselves, they would remain “clean” to serve God….

Enter the Samaritan.  He was, well, a Samaritan.  He wasn’t just a foreigner, but a very special kind of foreigner.  There could not have been a greater contrast: essential temple workers/despised Samaritan.

Despised?  How do we know that?  Because all Samaritans were … by the Jews back then.

A little background:  Samaria stood between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south of Israel during the time of Jesus.  Long before, Samaria had been the capital of northern Israel.  It had been finally conquered by Assyria in 712 B.C.  The king deported many Israelites (to weaken their state) and brought in Assyrians (Gentiles, non-Jews) to replace them.

Eventually, of course, there was intermarriage, and their seed was considered half-breed and thoroughly unclean.  Samaritans took on many pagan practices.  While they considered themselves worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, they would not go to the Jerusalem temple, but built their own.

Jews assiduously avoided Samaritans.  They despised them so much that they wouldn’t even walk through their land to get to Galilee.  (Jesus made a point of walking right through Samaria, on one occasion stopping to speak with “the [Samaritan] woman at the well,” recorded in John 4.)

Jesus emphasized that all of God’s law was summed up in the word “love.”  While the people were told by their religious leaders to “love your neighbor and hate your enemies,” Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy in this: they would not be any different from pagans, who did the same.  “Be perfect as your Father is perfect,” he told them—like their Father who showers the blessings of his creation upon all.

By using a Samaritan as the one who showed mercy and kindness, Jesus struck a nerve:  This was no theoretical enemy, this was a Samaritan!!  His people had turned their backs on the true worship of Yahweh.  (Jesus had this habit of tossing in unexpected zingers to make his points unmistakable.)

So what about this young law expert?  Jesus certainly put him in his place, right?  Not exactly.  There was something else in play for this young man, though our account doesn’t make it clear just what.

Law experts often appeared as enemies of Jesus, along with their pals, the Pharisees.  Many were, but there is no proof that such was the case here.  The text said that he stood up to “test” Jesus:  the word doesn’t indicate whether he was trying to trip up Jesus or simply trying to find out if he might actually be Messiah.  Jesus never rebukes him.  And while it says that he wanted to “justify himself” (which sounds terribly self-serving) by asking who his neighbor is, Jesus gives him a very straightforward answer—in story form—then sends the young man on his way with a pointed instruction: “Go and do likewise.”

“Likewise”??  This was insult added to injury:  Jesus wasn’t just saying to help people in trouble—which the law expert undoubtedly agreed with—but, in effect, “be perfect, like this Samaritan was perfect,” i.e., it was the despised Samaritan who did what God wanted, not his fellow Jews!

Reading the parable, most, including Christians, focus on the command to love your neighbor.  It feels right, and it is.  But don’t overlook the context.  I did for years, reading past the man’s original question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus, in recognition of the man’s great learning, asks him what the law says, “How do you read it?”  His answer (love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself) elicits this: “You’ve answered correctly.  Do this and you will live.”

Here the young man, “wanting to justify himself,” asks who his neighbor is.  We don’t know his true motive, but Jesus did: no one understood the human heart better than he.  Maybe the man had heard Jesus talking before about loving your enemy; maybe he had self-doubts.  We’re curious.  So was Peter once when he got curious about John: “What about him?” “If I want him to remain … what is that to you?  You, follow me” (John 21:21,22).  Oops….  Anyway, the point is: what is the lesson for us?

You may be wondering why Jesus didn’t tell the young man, “Believe in me and you will be saved”?  His answers, instead, kept coming down to keeping the law more perfectly.  The law expert got the point about the Samaritan … perhaps he even went off determined to love his enemy….

The question that Jesus leaves hanging here is this:  If doing good (i.e., doing God’s moral law, doing his will) is required to “gain eternal life,” what, then, is the role of faith?

Jesus knew that the young man, intent on keeping the law, would eventually run flat up against a wall, frustrated, disillusioned by the law he loved and counted on to make him righteous before God.  No matter how hard he tried.  Just when he thought he was making progress … Did God move the goalpost?

Another story can help us understand the role of faith.  It’s about another young man who came to Jesus and asked the very same thing—and got the same answer—about eternal life.

This second man is known as the “rich young ruler” (e.g., Luke 18: 18-30).  He told Jesus he had kept the commandments since he was a boy.  Jesus said he still lacked one thing:  sell all he had, give to the poor; then he would have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow him.  Jesus loved this man, Mark says.

The rich man became sad; he had so much.  He’d seemed so close: did God just move the goalpost for him, too?  Jesus remarked that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  Those around him were astonished: they assumed the rich had God’s favor.  So who can be saved?  Jesus: “What is impossible for people is not impossible for God.”

Both young men missed the point: no matter how much they loved, or how much they gave up, they could never put God in their debt.  Of course God wants people to do his will, but when the question becomes “What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?” the wrong question is being asked.

The disciples were still missing the point here, too.  Right before the rich ruler, some children were brought and the disciples had tried to turn them away.  Jesus was indignant.  “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these … anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:15-17).  How’s that?

We agree: “let the children come.”  But we also say, as Dorothy did after the Wizard gave tokens of their brains, heart, and courage to her friends: “I don’t think there’s anything in that black bag for me….”

Have you ever considered what is meant by “the faith of a child”?  They are sweet and innocent, right? “Jesus loves the little children….”  But children are not giants of faith.  They are dependent, helpless little people, innocent because their trust has not yet been violated.  Yet we are wired to trust (have faith).  It’s essential for daily life, for every bite of food, every chair in which we sit.  By the time we’re adults, most of us have had our trust violated enough that we no longer give it easily, and we didn’t notice….

We need help to trust.  The question isn’t always, “whom do I trust?” but “how can I trust?” and “is it safe?”  That requires honesty.  In a moment I’ll never forget—on a hospital bed in Vietnam in June, 1969—I faced the question:  Did I really believe?  Was Jesus real?  I didn’t know—how can I?  Questions—and honesty— flooded my mind when I realized that I really almost died the day before….

I suspect that the young law expert had a moment after he left Jesus when he knew he was up against a wall and could never meet such a high standard as Jesus had laid out for him.  And the young rich man?  Jesus “loved him.”  Surprised?  He doesn’t only love the little children.  Irony:  the disciples likely deferred to him, since he was rich.  The disciples didn’t hinder him.  He had his own hindrance.

Leap of Faith

After my own moment of honesty, I slowly began to understand that God wasn’t asking me to take some blind leap of faith.  Nor was he telling me to sit around and wait on the Spirit to zap faith into me.  I was an historian: I knew I needed to follow the evidence, and especially to investigate the resurrection.

Bit by bit, I began to realize I could trust God’s word.  Jesus’ life and death was the fulfillment of promises made long before.  One day, two years after my moment on that hospital bed, I knew that I believed.  I knew I could trust him.  I didn’t know how little faith I had at that time, but it was a start….

Other people come to faith in other ways.  Some quickly, some slowly, some in anguish, some come quietly.  In my case, there was a clanging bell inside my head (a literal noise), followed by silence….

The big thing that keeps us from God is not sin per se, but our lack of trust in someone else’s love.  God’s invitation is out there for all to hear if they will.  “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).  “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The first public words out of Jesus’ mouth were: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:3).  There’s no special virtue in being poor: they’re stuck in a place where they have no one to trust but God to provide for their daily needs.  Having that spirit means you have no one to trust but God.  You’d be surprised how he shows up, dresses our wounds, and pays the expense.

I hope those two young men eventually made that discovery.  I’d like to ask them how that happened.

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.

journey post 29: Dreams and Resurrection

“A dream is a wish your heart makes….”  Or so sang Cinderella.

I remember puzzling over this as a young boy.  I knew that there were two kinds of dreams:  what goes on in your head at night, and something you’d really like to do—a longing.  Most of my night dreams seemed rather dark or negative, and as for those longings in my heart, there was always some roadblock:  they were pulled from my loose grip, or I let fear keep me from going after them.

The night dreams seem to have been related to deep fears.  I never had the dream about showing up for class in my underwear, though I often had the one about showing up for class and forgetting a test.

There was one dream vividly etched in my cranium at 5 or 6.  It would become a periodic nightmare, starting after my parents took me to see a re-release of the 1933 “King Kong,” probably in 1953 or ’54.  In my dream, I was wandering through a dark jungle forest with lots of ivy everywhere.  (We had a lot of ivy in our back yard.)  I grew weary and sat down against an enormous tree.  The giant upside-down head of Kong came from above, staring into my eyes, half-smiling, as though anticipating … something.

dreams King Kong head

That’s when I’d wake up crying.  My mom came and comforted me, and she put a night light in my room.  That light cast frightening shapes and shadows on ceiling and walls.  I imagined Kong everywhere; and the seven-story Bekins building in Glendale became for me “the building that King Kong climbed up.”

Dreams Beekins bldg

The former Bekins Moving and Storage Bldg

AKA: the building that King Kong climbed up

For many years, the longings of my heart met one disappointment after another.  At one point, I wanted to go to West Point and be an army officer, but when my dad told me that a Congressman would have to write a letter of recommendation, I knew that could never happen, so I never tried.  I thought about being a civil engineer until I got a geometry teacher who didn’t care whether we understood or passed his class—and I didn’t.

My love of history and America led me to think about teaching, helping others understand our great heritage.  The people who stirred my imagination most were my 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade History and English teachers who inspired me to understand the world and not give up my ideals.  I wanted to go to Berkeley, one of the finest schools for history, but I figured they’d never take me, so I never applied—I don’t think I even mentioned it to my counselor.

dreams Berkeley

U.C. Berkeley (by Ansel Adams)

By my second year of junior college (1968), the world was falling apart.  After Tet, Walter Cronkite came back convinced we could not win.  Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated.  Life was making less and less sense.  I had wanted to understand Vietnam.  Instead, as that nightmare got closer and divided our land, I went.  Was there ever any doubt?  I would return in a body bag.  But God had other ideas….

A bumper sticker explains, “Christians aren’t perfect—just forgiven.”  That’s true.  Whatever you may think happens when a person becomes a Christian, humans carry a lot of baggage into Christianity, though for awhile it may seem like it was all left behind.  We certainly have a new life to look forward to by and by, but the present life can still absolutely suck.  When we went to Africa in 1980, my deepest longings had to do with being another Wycliffe or Tyndale, men who braved much to bring the Bible to the English-speaking world.  In 1989, we came back with our family falling apart.  By the time we reached the States, my dreams had again been snatched away, and my faith had gone through a 7.0 earthquake.  God, I thought, had let my dream crumble so I’d understand how little I mattered to him.

dreams John Wycliffe

dreams William Tyndale

Top:        John Wycliffe

Bottom:   William Tyndale

Years before, in missionary training, one leader asked us, “What do you count on when everything is falling apart?”  There was only one answer for me at the time:  the resurrection.  Jesus had risen from the dead, so he was exactly who he said he was.  Returning from Africa a broken family was that “everything falling apart” time for me.  I knew it was time to rebuild the foundation of my faith, and get counseling to rebuild my relationship with Michelle and my children.  The two went together.

I have quoted or discussed C.S. Lewis a number of times in the course of writing these posts.  You may know, as I’ve often said, he was a “certified smart guy,” an Oxford don and professor at Cambridge in a day when a professorship was not a license to push a political or social agenda.

CS Lewis Port makes you happy not Christianity

C.S. Lewis

You may not know that he specialized in Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He loved Norse and Greek mythology.  He not only knew scads about ancient myth, but discovered how myth reflected the dreams of people.  Lewis writes that God “sent the human race what I call good dreams:  I mean those queer stories scattered all though the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.”*  According to Lewis’ friend J.I. Packer, such stories, found worldwide, formed “the thought that did most to bring him back to Christianity.”

dreams Norse myths

There are those who would read the previous paragraph and conclude, “See?  It’s all based on myth!”  Lewis took a different tack, seeing myth as evidence that God had planted dreams in the heart and, when they became reality in space and time, people would realize, instead, “It was there all the time.”

As we proceed through these posts on the resurrection, keep in mind that those persistent longings for “something better” are not unique to you or me or a few great thinkers.  They are rather a gift, an inkling, a dream that has resided in the heart of mankind from the beginning.  So, just maybe….  So maybe the void in our hearts was meant to be there, and the dreams are not just a tantalizing lie after all.

 

*Mere Christianity, p 50.

journey post 27–Reality and the Resurrection … The starting point and why it matters

Evangelical Christianity has taken quite a beating in the past half-century, some of it self-inflicted.  Hypocritical, legalistic, self-righteous, judgmental, irrelevant.…  Such are the adjectives representative of common criticisms.

I’m not here to deny the criticisms: unfortunately, they are more valid than we Christians would like to think.  Yet, while Christians are drawing an abundance of flak, Jesus seems to be doing alright with the people.  Surveys indicate that Jesus remains one of the most popular people ever.  One recent querie among Americans placed him and Abraham Lincoln at the top.  (I don’t think it was the beard.)  One of the most telling censures on Christians is one I’ve quoted before, offered up by Mohandas Gandhi.  Gandhi was deeply interested in Jesus and studied him and his teachings closely, and that fact has much to do with the non-violent strategy he applied to the fight for the liberation of India.  He spent much time with Christians in England while studying to be a lawyer in the 1880s and 90s.  He observed them closely.  What he said captures the essence of any critique of those who claim to follow Jesus:  “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  Things haven’t changed much….

Gandhi older

Whether you like or dislike Christians, the issue in Christianity is actually not the people. The issue is and always will be one thing, one person:  Jesus himself.  But, how do we know that he is who he said he is?

Looking at his followers doesn’t seem to give us much help on this.  True, Jesus told his followers to be salt and light.  True, he told them that others would know that they were his disciples (i.e., apprentices who actually learned from him and lived it out) if they loved one another as he loved.  And, true, they haven’t done this.  So then: do we walk away, saying, “A pox on both your houses”?  Many have walked away, bitter and frustrated at the legalistic and impossible demands of those they once looked up to.

There is a way to discover the truth.  When I returned from Vietnam in 1969 with more questions than answers, it didn’t take long to realize that there was only one question that really begged … SCREAMED … for an answer.  It was not the question of myth: whether Jesus actually lived or not.  I was surprised to learn that even most atheists or skeptics don’t deny that he was an actual person.  Nor do most deny his claim to be the Messiah (Christ), nor that he was a great teacher—nor that he was crucified.

The central question was and always is the resurrection.  Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Resurrection--empty tomb

The resurrection was the message that the apostles preached, the validation of who Jesus is and what he died for.  The empty tomb is the sine qua non of Christianity.  Without it, Christianity is a deluded religion, foisted upon deluded people by a well-meaning but deluded leader—or a charlatan—people who are left with no forgiveness, left with no hope.  C. S. Lewis forced me to ponder whether he was a liar, or a lunatic, or just who he said he was—those are, pretty much, the available options.

donkey image

I began this blog, lo these many months ago, seeking to recount my zigzag journey.  I wanted to work up from those first questions, proceed through my search, and come up with the evidence for the resurrection, and go on from there.  Presto!  But as I reflected on my own journey, I remembered that one of my primary reasons for doing this gig was to help others avoid some of the same pitfalls and zigzags that this Donkey failed to see.  Much of what I did not see was because my own assumptions (read that: pride) left me thinking I could do this on my own—not a very healthy way of approaching God, after all.  It took some 35 years for me go from the empty tomb to recognizing a big problem in my life: that I lived on a performance treadmill.  I lived on that contraption because my functional theology was operating from a fundamentally wrong view of God, a God who seemed more interested in making me know my place than in enjoying my company.  This is the reason I zigzagged from my initial idea and spent time writing and thinking about the conscience God gave us, what it means that God is a father who delights in his children—and allows evil in this world.

If I could lead you to the door of the empty tomb itself, you might still question why it matters at all.  If you’re one of those (most people) who see God primarily as judge (or worse), waiting to highlight your every flaw for all the universe to see, why in the world would you want to get to know such a being and spend your life trying to live up to his impossible expectations—much less spend eternity in his presence?  But, just perhaps, the reality and your thinking don’t quite match up?  If you’d like to find out, the door of the tomb is a good place to start.  Ready?

resurrection--door of tomb

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