Lights, Camera, Inaction

In case anyone was worried, I’m not dead yet. And no, I don’t intend to shut down the blog. I realize my posts have been sporadic over the last few months, and I apologize. The problem has been the constant hustle-and-bustle of life in ministry. OK, alright, “hustle-and-bustle” should more accurately be “constant frenzy of doing more than I should but it all has to get done somehow, and I still need a few hours a day to sleep (unfortunately),” but you get the idea. Life gets crazy for us all at times, and it has been for me for quite a while.

A wise man once said, however, that when we absolutely don’t have time to slow down, we absolutely need to more than ever. The moment I tell myself I can’t afford to take a five-minute break is the precise moment that five-minute break needs to begin. My problem is that I’ve never been well-acquainted with inaction. I don’t take naps, I don’t sit in the recliner staring at the walls, and I don’t stretch out on the couch to watch television for a few hours (in fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve even sat on my couch in the last three years). Instead I read, I write, I clean something, I organize something else, I play an instrument, anything that will keep mind, body, or (ideally) both engaged.

That’s one reason I’ve missed blogging. It’s my idea of relaxing for a few minutes during an otherwise hectic day. I know, I know, I’m weird; I get it. But we all do different things to relax, and this is one of mine. (If you don’t judge me for that, then I won’t judge you for that last Andy Griffith marathon.) So what do you do? What are your hobbies? How do you unwind?

We aren’t designed to go-go-go 24/7. The loathsome necessity of sleep should teach you that. Even beyond sleep, however, we need those aforementioned hobbies, time with other people, something and anything which will force us to leave work behind and be elsewhere for a while, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Rest is good for the soul.

If you’re like me, though, you need a periodic reminder of that fact. Personally I always have to go back to Genesis 2. After all, if the Almighty took a day off, I probably should, too. And so He did: “By the seventh day, God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day, He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He rested from all the work of creating that He had done” (Genesis 2:2-3). Now, I don’t believe God overexerted Himself and needed to rest anymore than I believe He created the universe because He was lonely; both portray a god in want, and an incomplete god is not the God we worship as Christians. But for some inscrutable reason, God rested, and He told us to follow that pattern (Exodus 20:8-11//Deuteronomy 5:12-15). As Christ taught, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Clearly, then, God knew we would need rest in a fallen world and gave us the means to acquire that rest. It’s just notoriously difficult to make ourselves do it. Would any of us meet the Sabbath rest requirements? Can we do so little for a full twenty-four hours? The overwhelming majority of us, I’d wager, view the weekend just as the chance to work at home, to accomplish everything we didn’t have the time to do or were too tired to do during the week after we came home from working at our jobs. Hobbies and inaction fade into the background, get stored up for our retirement years. Work, doing, is everything, right down to the core of our identities. This is why the suddenly-unemployed have identity crises and why one of the first questions we ask someone new is, “what do you do,” second only to, “what’s your name.”

But we must take time for inaction, especially when we feel we can’t. We have to learn to slow down, rest, delegate, postpone. (Unless you’re a serial procrastinator; if so, ignore that last bit.) We are not human doings but human beings, and every so often we have to take the time to simply be.

Hopefully that means I’ll blog again next week.

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Civil Unrest

In an unprecedented move, I’m forced to blog twice in one week. Both yesterday’s post and this one are very much needed and come from a pastor’s heart. Forgive me in advance if I offend you, but if biblical truth offends you, line up with it. It won’t change, and I won’t apologize for it. But I am not the source of biblical truth and am therefore subject to error. The views below which are outside of Scripture are my own, and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, least of all the Almighty. I debated saying anything at all, but circumstances demand a faithful response.

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I’m not sure we qualify to call ourselves the United States of America anymore. We’re states alright, and this is still America, but united, we are not. Right now, we’re divided on everything surrounding our values and our history. Racism, Civil War statues, Nazis . . . I thought these matters were settled.

Apparently not.

Let me say two things that absolutely should not be controversial. First, racism is evil. Always. Period. For many reasons. We know from the creation narrative we are all made equally in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). All human beings bear that stamp of divinity we call the imago Dei irrespective of race, ability, age, or other factors. We further know from Galatians 3:28 race has no bearing on access to God or value in His eyes. Finally, Revelation 7:9 explicitly states people “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” assemble in heaven. No one is less-than in or omitted from the kingdom of God based on race, ethnicity, or other criterion other than relationship to Jesus Christ. And if that’s not enough to convince you, please remember: Jesus isn’t a white man.

Secondly, if racism is evil, which it clearly is, Nazism is as well. It is a militant racism, militant discrimination. The ideology of genetic/racial/religious superiority is so vile, so abhorrent, the world banded together to put a stop to its spread. If your ideology has its roots in the origins of the Holocaust, if it can be directly linked to genocide, if its hero is one of the most evil men to ever walk the face of the planet, then you need a new ideology. Don’t call it “free speech,” and certainly don’t call it “American patriotism.” We, as a country, fought in a world war to put an end to it. The swastika is our enemy, not our greatest good. And when our president fails to denounce it outright until pressured to do so, we have problems. It shouldn’t be that difficult to say Nazis are a bad thing.

Again, those things shouldn’t be controversial. What I’m about to say will be, however, especially in my context.

The matter of the Confederate statues is, well, beyond simple description. The statues that aren’t being moved or removed are being forcibly pulled down by angry mobs. In America. Those people say the statues represent the glorification of the great American evil, slavery. They argue (rightly) we don’t have statues to the losers of the other wars we’ve fought. And the country that would see them as true heroes and patriots, the Confederate States of America, no longer exists. Just as we have no monuments to Benedict Arnold, they say, we should have no statues of other traitors to the United States.

On the flip side, Southerners are notoriously proud of their southern heritage, and they bristle at the things going on the “godless” (I prefer “frozen”) North. The Confederacy, it’s argued, wasn’t about slavery but about the overreach of the federal government impinging upon states’ rights to govern themselves. The men of those statues are heroes who stood against tyranny to preserve a way of life. Tearing them down, they say, is tantamount to rewriting history and ignoring the sins of our own government.

Clearly only one group is correct.

Right?

I’m not a historian. It still seems to me, though, that slavery was the rallying point for a laundry list of states’ rights violations. In this way, the debate over slavery was the greatest symptom of a deeper problem, and so it became the public face of the war. I could easily be wrong. Regardless it is undeniable the men on those monuments fought to keep slavery in practice. Period. It was a constitutional right in the CSA, and we cannot pretend otherwise just because popular opinion surrounding slaveholding has changed. To deny this is to be guilty of erasing history — the very charge leveled against those calling for the removal of the statues.

This is a salient point. We must never destroy, whitewash, or deny historical truths. But neither can we diminish or abrogate the force of those truths by comparison to other historic evils. And the prevalence of precisely that is what demanded I write this today.

I’ve seen many people argue in favor of the South by saying African-Americans cannot speak about slavery from a special position since whites and other races have been slaves at various points in history as well. I personally refer to this as “illegitimizing of anger”: you can’t be angry because I deny the reason for you to be so is valid. In this specific example, it’s frankly outrageous. American enslavement of Africans has been widely recognized as one of (if not the) cruelest forms of slavery on record. But even if that were not true, why can’t we say it was evil and call other forms of the institution evil, too, and just stop there? Why not cry out against all forms of slavery, including current ones, instead of saying everyone was a slave so get over it? It’s infuriating we are unable to accept the realities of evil.

But wait, the common objection goes, no one alive in the U.S. today was ever a slave; they have nothing to complain about. The men on those statues did have slaves or at the very least fought for others to keep theirs; there’s your necessary historical component. By way of analogy, would you want a statue of your great-great-great-grandmother’s serial rapist and murderer on display in the town square as the local hero — because, after all, nothing ever happened to you personally? I thought not. I can agree this sort of argument can seem out of hand at times (you can’t use “my ancestor was a slave” as an excuse for everything), but it doesn’t make it less true on the whole for the discussion at hand.

A second disturbing comparison I’ve been seeing lately is likening the display of Confederate statues to Jews keeping Auschwitz in existence — because, as we all know, the Confederate battle cry was “Arbeit macht frei.” This comparison states we keep the one around as a reminder to ensure such evil never happens again, and so we should keep the other for the same reason. Remind me, though: what large, vocal minority of the German people wave swastikas around and treat concentration camps as places of hero worship? Oh, right, they can’t; it’s illegal in Germany. We, however, treat those statues, those graven images, as idols and elevate them as ideals; similar idolatry of Buchenwald is unthinkable. The comparison fails since we simply don’t see the generals of the CSA as villainous, as evils which should never recur.

Suppose, then, you still personally attribute positive meaning to the CSA monuments and maintain your stance as the historically-correct view of them. That’s what they stood for when erect, in other words, and that’s their only true meaning: champions of states’ rights against a government who only served some of her people. Original intent is all that matters, you say. I’m afraid this argument won’t hold up, either. Statues are symbols, and the meanings of symbols change over time. There are countless crosses worn by Christians, for example, because the naked cross represents atonement accomplished, salvation, and resurrection in our religion. Its original meaning, of course, was the torturous death of criminals and political dissidents. Wearing a cross around your neck in the time of the Roman Empire is unfathomable; it’d be like wearing a pendant of an electric chair today. The meaning has shifted.

Or let’s borrow an analogy from language. If I saw you laughing, smiling, and in a generally good mood around a century ago, I may easily remark to you, “You’re gay today.” If I did that to certain people in our own time, I wouldn’t escape the encounter with all of my teeth still in my head. “Gay” no longer refers to “happy.” It refers to homosexuality. The term can no longer be used even as it was a century ago — and many words change meaning more than once across the years. Now you can say we just need to educate the public and reclaim the original intent, but history shows us it doesn’t work that way; what has passed is past. Simply put, the meanings of symbols change over time, be it right or wrong, and we must live in those present realities.

In our current society, with our current problems with racism, discrimination, and neo-Nazis, maybe the loving response is to remove icons which have come to represent those evils, evils the figures in the monuments valued for themselves, regardless of other earlier meanings. The Civil War itself will never be forgotten; that’s guaranteed. It won’t be removed from our history books or cultural memory regardless of how many statues we don’t have around. (And the historiography argument cuts both ways, anyway). Again, it’s just not going anywhere. It won’t be forgotten, but it needn’t be glorified, either — war never should be.

As a Southerner and an Appalachian — and a fairly conservative one at that — let me close with an appeal to you to truly love your neighbor as yourself and to frame this issue in those terms. If the reason we insist on keeping those statues is “I’m culturally vindicated” and not “I love you,” they need to come down. Likewise, if the reason to tear them down is “We’re historically vindicated” and not “We love you,” they need to stay up. I personally say it may be time for their removal — not because of political correctness or pressure, not even out of concerns of historiography, but out of love for my brothers and sisters.

And remember: old soldiers never die. They just . . .

. . . fade . . .

. . . away . . .

Eclipse-O-Rama

If you were in my office earlier today, you would have overhead me say, “I don’t believe this. I’m going to have to do something I haven’t done in a long time: I’m going to have to go after the heretics myself.” They aren’t heretics, mind you — false prophets at worst — and I really don’t feel like dignifying their terrible teaching with a response on the day of the big event itself. But too many people have bought into it, including fellow clergy, and I have to be a good shepherd and do my part to steer the flock back to sanity.

Before I begin discussing the things swirling around the eclipse, it’s important for you to understand the target of my rebuttal. I hate to link to these sorts of things, but a good overview of both the general feeling and some details of the insanity surrounding today’s eclipse can be found here and here.

Now then. On to reality.

I want to start with a few comments on the nature of biblical prophecy itself, something we tend to artificially inflate (or, conversely, limit) enough as it is. Biblical prophecy can best be explained by the refrain of Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones: “Prophesy . . . and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says'” (Ezekiel 37:5,9,12). It’s not speaking in coded riddles, even if some actions are a bit weird. It’s declaring, either openly in words or in symbolic actions later explained, the word of the Lord. It’s telling a specific people a specific message from God. God doesn’t speak in incomprehensible gobbledy-gook it takes modern science to interpret; He is not the author of confusion, but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33, KJV). His word will be ordered, understandable, and available to all — not just so-called “prophecy experts” (most of whom are just trying to sell books — the very definition of a false prophet [see 2 Peter 2:3,14-15 and Didache ch. 11]). It’s not all doomsday; it’s not all judgment; it’s simply “This is what the Sovereign LORD says.”

With that said, let’s look at some of the specific things people are saying about the eclipse.

First, it’s crucial to understand every dire warning being expressed right now is possible only through a specific theological framework and a specific hermeneutic (way of interpreting the Bible). Those specific frameworks in use in this matter are collectively known as Dispensationalism, and as a minister in the American Bible Belt, I can say that it is the bane of my existence. Dispensationalism holds a few key beliefs:

  • There are seven ages of history (“dispensations”) corresponding to periods of salvation history (the exact number varies)
  • There will be a literal seven-year tribulation period where the world is in chaos
  • The Church will be raptured out before the great tribulation begins
  • Christ will literally reign on earth for a literal 1,000-year period following the great tribulation (a belief known as dispensational or pre-tribulational pre-millennialism). Note that in this scheme, Jesus is required to come back a third time following the tribulation.
  • Revelation is considered strictly prophecy (futurist reading)

Dispensationalism is unheard of in church history until the 1830s. Please understand: no one prior to the 1830s ever believed any of these things, or, if they did, it was perhaps one belief out of the set and never a fully coherent theological system. Dispensationalism caught on in America but was soundly rejected in the rest of the world for not aligning with historic Christian teaching.

If we, too, rightly reject Dispensationalism in favor of historic Christian orthodoxy, the doomsday prophecies surrounding the eclipse fall apart.

  • The seven-year period between eclipses is the seven-year tribulation period. There’s not a seven-year tribulation period, so this fails. It also requires us to know the exact date Jesus will return (so the tribulation can begin), something the Bible time and time again tells us is flatly impossible, for not even Christ himself knows.
  • Gentile nations like America are specially judged during the great tribulation, something heralded by sun signs. Again, there is no great tribulation, so this is false.
  • The so-called “Revelation 12 Sign.” Revelation 12 was never previously applied in such a way, typically being read historically as the birth of Christ, the birth of the Church, or the coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven — all legitimately possible interpretations given the full context of the chapter. Rev. 12:1 states, “A great sign appeared in heaven.” In English as well as in Greek, “heaven” is singular, the New Testament way of referring to the dwelling place of God. By contrast, “heavens,” plural, refers to what we call sky or space (as in Matt. 3:16, for example). Note: there are many instances of the plural including the dwelling-place of God, but very, very few cases in the New Testament of the singular referring to space/atmosphere, making it incredibly unlikely this is something referring to constellations. In any event, the Revelation 12 Sign relies upon a futurist reading of only select verses, which are then taken out of context.

Other parts of the “eclipse as judgment” scheme fall apart as well:

  • The temperature of the sun is the same as the next Hebrew year. But only on one temperature scale. And of course the numbers had to align eventually; that’s how numbers work.
  • One pastor calls this “The Sign of Jonah,” quoting Matt. 16:4 (skip ahead to 15:40 for the Jonah bit). It’s easy to see why he chose that specific verse. A similar passage, earlier in Matthew, explains the sign of Jonah as the resurrection, just as it has traditionally been interpreted: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
  • The second eclipse path crosses this one’s path on the New Madrid fault line, signalling disaster via earthquake. Really? Your best biblical prophecy is “X marks the spot”?

It should be obvious, then, there are no biblical bases for interpreting the Great American Eclipse as an omen of judgment on the country. It’s just a fascinating phenomenon.

With that said, Scripture does make it plain God judges wicked nations and evil empires — and we are both. We do well to fear divine wrath and straighten up our act. And we, as Christians, shouldn’t need to witness the sun blotted out of the sky to see that. It should be readily apparent through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit alive in us.

Outrageous

We seem to have entered the phase in human history when everyone gets viscerally angry about everything. I wish it were at least limited to the realm of politics so I could quietly sip my tea and talk about those lunatics in Washington without sounding hypocritical or myopic. “Partisanship has gotten so bad,” I would say, “nothing gets accomplished. They just yell and squabble and bicker and vilify. About everything.”

And so they do; I can’t deny that. But such prominent displays of outrage are increasingly ubiquitous, no longer confined to the Parliament — er, Senate floor. If you disagree with me in opinion, I’m entitled to my rant on social media. If you’re at variance with me in facts, I get to rave. If you quote foundational historic documents, I can scream at you. If I can make the focus of a thing about a tangential issue, say racism, sexism, or privilege, then I can get other people to share my outrage. (Granted, some things are about racial and gender inequality, but I daresay a lot of things cast in those lights simply aren’t — but they wouldn’t be as incendiary without that particular element inflated.)

It’s gotten to the point a lot of people are mad at everyone being so mad. Meta-anger.

Scripture teaches us anger isn’t inherently sinful. If it were, Jesus wouldn’t have cleansed the temple and cursed the fig tree, nor would Paul tell us to be angry without sinning. The kind of anger we see on display most often, however, seems to cross that line. Remember the death threats against people who wouldn’t provide services for same-sex “weddings”? The riots and looting following police shootings? Or perhaps anger-induced sins of omission, letting justice be undone just because the victim or someone around him/her angered those in power? Somehow we can no longer “be angry and sin not” (Eph. 4:26).

To me, this speaks of a deeper issue. Yes, it can easily (and perhaps even rightly) be argued people simply want things about which to be outraged. In a world of false love (pornography), false sorrow (“I’m fine”), and false friendship (Facebook), maybe we’re instinctually trying to hold on to a genuine emotion, and the easiest to grasp is rage. Maybe we need to be livid just to feel human. If so, God help us all. But I don’t think that’s really it. I think, at base, our restraint of outrage is simply the latest victim in the war against self-control.

Make no mistake: there is most certainly an ongoing war against the virtue — the fruit of the Spirit — known as self-control. The onslaught comes from media (Hollywood, television, books, music, news programs); from science (when unchained from the norming forces of biblical morality and used as a justification for all manner of things); from simple selfishness and pride; and from a host of other factors we collectively call the world, the flesh, and the devil. Self-control gets in the way of “fun” and consumerism, while a lack of it evades and erodes that nagging sort of religion we all know does nothing but impedes progress. The Galatians 5:23 self-control, in context, opposes “sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). It further opposes materialism, debt, and bad attitudes about job satisfaction, the size of your house, and “my church just isn’t feeding me.”

When we lose self-control, yes, we gain things like massive credit card debt and adultery and outraged rants on Facebook. And yes, we lose decency and civility. But we also lose a proper view of both the self and the other. Id and ego become terrible twin gods, and we worship them at hundreds of altars for thousands of dollars. The other becomes, not a fellow human being, but just another object to be consumed, sacrificed on one of those altars to the self. Instead of controlling the self, the self is in control — which means God is not.

And that’s just outrageous.

We need to reclaim self-control. Simple willpower is not enough, for our fallen human wills can never choose the good every time (or at all in the absence of God’s grace). We must rely upon God, upon a Strength made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). May we return to worship, to prayer, to the word and the Word who stands behind it. May we place God upon the throne of our hearts once more, and experience, not rage, but shalom, a peace which surpasses all understanding.

The Dead and the Dying

I’ve been putting a lot of research lately into the life cycle of local churches. In America, the average church is seventy-eight years old, and more churches close than open every year. But why? As our population continues to grow, we should be adding churches, yes, but we shouldn’t need to shutter existing ones. Add people, add congregations — not add people, subtract congregations and then add fewer than you closed. So why is this the trend?

Two reasons seem to dominate the discussion. First, fewer Americans attend services regularly, as the number of people claiming a Christian affiliation is at an all-time low, percentage-wise. They call this “the rise of the nones” — those individuals who, when presented with a list of possible religions, check the box marked “none.” These are people who do not claim to be Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, or anything else. It could be they’ve always been atheistic, agnostic, “spiritual but not religious,” or something else entirely. It could even be they grew up in a religious household and just lost their faith at some point in life. Regardless, the nones are one of the (if not the) fastest growing “religious” groups in America. As more and more people choose to opt out of a religious affiliation, fewer and fewer walk through the doors of the local church. Without people to donate to keep those doors open, they close forever.

The second major reason we close more churches than we open is that people choose to let their churches die. I’m not suggesting a group of malcontent Machiavellis get together in the church basement and strategically plot the demise of the congregation. I’m saying the members and leaders of the congregation are unwilling to either see the need for change or to enact the changes which are necessary for the survival of the church. These churches will only allow things to be done according to the preferences of existing members, saying in effect they’d rather die than allow x to happen — and so they do. After years of denials and refusals to adapt to the communities around them, they close their doors forever. And the saddest part? They have only themselves to blame.

Churches like that rarely come out and admit that’s what’s happening, though. Most instead will loudly aver time and time again just how open they are to change — yet they never allow change to happen. They will vow to do whatever it takes, anything at all, to keep the doors open — then politely refuse to lift a finger because, well, change means change, and change requires action.

With those attitudes — with the “us first” mentality — these churches quickly slide downhill. Members become older, and as they (inevitably) die, no younger people rise to replace them. Youth groups dwindle and perish as teens age out of the group or as youth volunteers simply quit. (Most of those newly-minted young adults, I’d wager, will leave the church, either their home congregation or the capital-C Church Universal.) Without new members coming in or the natural advancement of younger members, the congregation literally dies. Without enough donors to provide support, the church first loses staff and then closes the doors completely and permanently. Life support measures fail, and the patient dies.

All because members want it their way. They don’t want to give up what they have in order to reach others with the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of the Kingdom. Instead, they carefully remodel their church buildings into stained-glass tombs, mausoleums of The Good Ol’ Days.

Aside from the selfishness and arrogance it takes to do that, it’s just plain sad.

Church consultants say only two things can happen to a church on life support, one just doing what it’s always done and refusing to change. On the one hand, it can simply die over time, with the remaining members joining other congregations. Alternatively, it can preemptively sell (or give) its properties and other assets to a new church or ministry. The members will still go their separate ways, but the edifice will live on to provide a home for a new, vibrant body of believers. Sadly, those two options are generally agreed upon as the only ways forward for those on life support. Once a church hits a life expectancy of 5-10 years remaining, the experts say it’s nigh impossible to save.

There are exceptions, of course. The people may finally commit to change and turn things around. Those changes will have to be sweeping and dramatic, and they will probably cost many members who leave as the church they know dies to become something else. They may prove financially expensive as well. For those reasons, exceptions to the 5-10 rule seem few and far between.

Before we lay all blame for dying churches at the feet of culture, then, let’s look at ourselves. Are we truly committed to doing whatever it takes to reach lost souls (short of sacrificing the integrity of the gospel)? Do we truly believe the desires of others come before our own preferences? Has your church placed itself on life support?

Only you can answer those questions.

Answer them honestly.

Burn the Witch

I currently live in a little community called Salem. For better or for worse, I’ve yet to see any witches skulking about, even on Halloween (when you’d expect at least a small one asking for candy). Maybe the infamous events of 1692 in another Salem are still fresh on everyone’s collective mind, or maybe the opposite is true: we think so little of magic and witchcraft in our age of reason and science it’s too silly even to pretend to be a sorcerer.

Interestingly, and perhaps dangerously, magic has been discarded by the average person as something incredulous at best or non-existent at worst, banished to the realm of myth — yet the Bible very much treats it at reality. From Genesis 41:8 (Pharaoh’s court magicians) to Acts 19:19 (sorcery in Ephesus), witchcraft is presented not only as real, but also as decently prevalent. The world of the ancients is steeped in magic. Witches practiced a number of forms of magic, including divination, necromancy, conjuration, astrology, and others. And all of it was soundly condemned by the word of God. Exodus 22:19 is arguably the most famous of such passages: “Suffer not a witch to live.” Similar condemnations and prohibitions are found throughout the Old Testament: Leviticus 19:26-28,31; Deuteronomy 18:9-14; 1 Samuel 28:9; 2 Kings 9:22; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Isaiah 8:19-20; Micah 5:12; Nahum 3:4; and Malachi 3:5 to name a few (and to provide a taste for the scope of its treatment in the OT). The New Testament retains the classification of magic as something evil and ungodly in places like Acts 8:9-25,19:19; and Galatians 5:19-21. Sometimes the Bible associates it with the worship of false gods, as in the Torah, and sometimes it’s a simple “don’t you dare,” but the message is clear: witchcraft is real, and it is evil.

Some of the more “enlightened” folks of the twenty-first century will take issue with this. Surely we can’t base reality on a several-thousand-years-old book. We can’t know what that magic looked like, so we must bear in mind the words of author Arthur C. Clarke in Clarke’s Third Law: “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” Even if the witches weren’t simply advanced beyond their contemporaries, we are, and so surely our increased knowledge of science will tell us how they did what they did without resorting to some sort of supernatural explanation. After all, says this worldview, even miracles are only things science has yet to explain.

Not so, says the biblical paradigm — thus launching a thousand witch hunts.

The Inquisition burned many at the stake, and two of the most common charges were heresy and witchcraft. Two hundred years before the Salem Witch Trials, two German inquisitors composed the Malleus Maleficarum — the Hammer of Witches, a book attributing everything from a lack of faith in women to a healthy female libido to magical origins. I doubt many real witches were ever successfully prosecuted through the ages, but it didn’t stop men and women alike from being (perhaps mostly falsely) accused of sorcery.

In one regard, identifying a witch may be easier in our own day and time — most will admit it up front. Magic seems to have captured the imaginations of many, and for some, just dreaming about it isn’t enough. Those few flock to religions proud of a magical heritage and active witchcraft, such as the various strains of Wicca, shamanism, paganism, and druidism. Most practitioners are proud of their magic and, while they may not be listed under “Wizard” in the Chicago phone book, they don’t hide what they do, either. Just as in ancient times, magic has become part of household religion, with deities worshiped ranging from Hecate to Odin to the Triple Goddess and back again. Entire families of witches exist, parents raising their children in Gardnerian Wicca the way others raise them in Christianity.

It is, in a word, not good. (OK, that was two words.)

The Church can ill-afford to embark on more disastrous witch hunts, and we are far removed from burning anyone alive. Our job is to share the love of Jesus with all those who need it, witches included. We need to show the dangers of magic and offer a better way (not “more weight”). Everyone needs the salvation offered by Christ. We all need to lay aside everything and anything which interferes with our relationship to God.

Some place certain magic-related books, movies, and games in this category. The only reason I ever read the first Harry Potter book, in fact, was because my father wanted to know how truly evil the books were, so he bought a copy, tossed it to me, and said, “Here. You read faster than I do. Tell me what you think.” Most things like that, I feel, present no threat to anyone. Fantasy is precisely that: fantasy, not reality, and it’s not difficult to distinguish between the two. Additionally, any fan of fantasy can tell you about good Christian fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia, anyone?). As long as a person remains oriented to reality, no harm will be done by reading books about wizards. (Even if such things do inspire on kid in a million to pursue real magic, they will quickly learn the true thing is nothing like the storybook version.) The risk is truly minimal, and the rewards of sharing fairy tales with your children are priceless.

Even so, remember: there is no distinction between white magic and black magic in the eyes of God. All magic is sinful; all seeks power from sources outside of the Almighty. May we keep from sinning while showing love and mercy to those who, like us, fall short of perfection.

So don’t gather the firewood for the witch hunt.

Myths of Intimacy

I recently read an article by a well-meaning pastor making the case men and women can never be true friends because sex will always get in the way. It didn’t have to be actual sexual contact, he said, but desire would prove sufficient: one party would inevitably want to be something more than friends since the friendship probably began with such a goal in mind for at least one of the pair. A platonic relationship between a man and a woman was simply impossible, he concluded.

There are many reasons I disagree with that conclusion. Let’s face it: he’s making some broad fundamental assumptions whether he realizes it or not. First, to our modern sensibilities, the conclusion comes across as heteronormative; it fails to consider friendship between a lesbian and a gay man, an (admittedly) extreme case in which sexual desire for the other would exist on the part of neither. Next, it takes a rather reductionistic view of human relationships and identity which is both insulting and silly. If friendship is based on a semblance of sexuality, why only mention it in the case of man-woman friendships?  Since it assumes human beings are sexual beings (we are) who only reach out to others in sexual ways (we don’t), the obvious extension of that logic is to conclude men befriend men and women befriend women in part because of a mutual sexual attraction. We all know that to be false. We are creatures of wide and varied interests; not all attraction need be sexual in origin or expression. There is more to a human being than sexuality; ergo, there is more to a friendship (and love) than sex. Still, the conclusion drawn by the pastor’s logic would have you believe otherwise.

One thing he gets right, though, is that friendships involve intimacy. Where he immediately goes wrong is in defining intimacy as purely sexual in nature. I think sometime in the last century or so we’ve lost a true feel for what it means to be intimate with someone. It’s a closeness, a vulnerability, a freedom of self and authenticity. If I am intimate with someone, I share my private thoughts, feelings, beliefs, aspirations. And I need not share my body to share my soul, even in an age when so many share their bodies without ever baring their souls. There is a confusion there, a sense of misplaced priorities, I think. In our hook-up culture, so very many engage in “no strings attached” sex precisely because they believe they don’t have to be naked in soul to be naked in body. In a way, I suppose, we’ve redefined sex to include physical intimacy only and then assumed that’s the only kind of intimacy there is since it’s the only type present during sex.

Wheels within wheels . . .

At any rate, things didn’t used to be this way. We used to understand intimacy as a soul thing, and that’s why we claimed to be intimate with our friends as well as our lovers. Our friends, our closest companions, the family we choose for ourselves, are entitled to know our hearts — and so they do. Most of our friendships are based on a sense of commonality of soul: shared interests, shared experiences, shared dreams. But such intimacy costs something; vulnerability is not without risk. That’s one reason we used to make a sharp distinction between friends and acquaintances, between buddies and peers. Our friends saw our souls; we were intimate. We were cordial to our acquaintances, but they never knew our innermost workings; we weren’t intimate.

Now, of course, we’ve redefined “friend” as well. At present, I have 405 Facebook friends. Of those, the overwhelming majority aren’t truly friends but acquaintances — and sometimes rather distant acquaintances at that. Those people don’t know my favorite movie, how I take my tea, my dating woes, or why it’s rare for me to actually sound like I’m from Appalachia when I talk unless I make an effort to do so. My history is a mystery, my heart inscrutable, and my personal habits enigmatic if not just outright unknown. Nevertheless, an entire generation are now teenagers who have never lived in a world without Facebook or other social media. Most of their friendships exist on this shallow level, technological constructions carefully cultivated to avoid presenting anything negative or less-than. But aren’t friends there for the bad times, too? Loss, doubt, fear, confusion, illness — aren’t friends for such times as these? Not if we are never intimate with them; they’d never know they were required.

To get back to the article, the author recognized friendships require intimacy of a sort. And I grant you that emotional, spiritual, and mental intimacy should be a precursor to physical intimacy — and sometimes it can create a desire for sexual intimacy. But it needn’t do so. I can selectively bare my soul to those whom I consider friends without reducing any of us to purely sexual beings. So it is I am friends with both men and women with no desire on either side for it to be anything more.

I invite you to reclaim a robust definition of intimacy. Snatch friendship from the Internet and make it truly personal again. Rise above reductionistic takes on our identity. And show the right people the real you: bare your soul and be known.

Oh, the Humanities!

Most of you know I did my undergraduate work in English. It caused a slight row with my father, since it’s an infinitely impractical field, but the longer he’s taught science, the more he’s realized the value of my degree. My crowning achievement as an English major was writing close to twenty pages of feminist criticism on a book with no women in it. I won awards for other papers, but I consider that one the pinnacle of my literary career.

It was easier than you’d think, honestly. Ursula K. Le Guin is known foremost for her Earthsea novels, but she remains a celebrated author of fantasy and science fiction. The book of hers I read for my essay, The Left Hand of Darkness, is sci-fi — but complex sci-fi, something you can sink your critical teeth into. It explores many widely-differing themes, from the nature of war to linguistics and back again. The book is responsible for teaching me how perfectly useless it is to know the right answer to the wrong question, a lesson which has shaped me more than I would have thought possible. First and foremost, however, it is a book about gender-y things: sex, gender, engendered behaviors, masculinity, femininity, the hegemonic constructs of each, gender roles, you name it. Not bad for a book with only one man, no women, and a planet full of people who could be either one at any time. (Read it; you’ll understand.)

The discussion of dualism in gender comes from Le Guin’s Taoist beliefs. In her novel as in Taoism, light is the left hand of darkness, and darkness is the right hand of light. They are complementary, two halves forming an organic whole. She juxtaposes this on gender, just as in yin and yang, and concludes all are both. A truly human, human being is both masculine and feminine and exhibits qualities of both, with different genders (not sexes, genders) being dominant as the situation merits. It’s a fascinating, intriguing, holistic view of human identity which finds the other in the self and the self in the other without overt reduction to sexuality. It’s a Taoist harmonization that reinforces the Christian imago Dei, for both male and female were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

Of course, such things as literature and gender studies teach us about humanity (in the senses of both the species and the quality of human-ness), but they don’t pay the bills so much. They’ll never provide the cure for cancer or the next source of renewable energy. Unfortunately, they only teach us who we are, what it means to exist in the human condition (hence we call them the “humanities”). Our society runs on the practical, so we promote STEM fields exclusively and trod the rest underfoot.

This is a tragedy. And like a great Shakespearean tragedy writ large, it will end in the deaths of an entire species, for we can cease being human long before we die.

We’re not overly concerned with that, however. Here in the West, we’re far more preoccupied with how to make money. If a thing will make us rich, we’ll do it, and there’s little money to be had in jotting down verse or debating the Napoleonic Wars. In America, we’re particularly beholden to our specific brand of free-market capitalism, and, right now, the market is hot for the inhuman. We buy and sell phones, computers, and social media websites, all in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, placing a higher premium on things which substitute for people than on people themselves. We make money hand over fist by removing the human element at every turn: Facebook friends fill in for bosom buddies; robots replace line workers; pornography stands in for actual sexuality and making love to another human. And we let it happen in part because we got rich doing it, because it had a market and we supplied to meet the demand.

“The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” — 1 Timothy 6:10a.

Even if we don’t necessarily view it all in such capitalistic or economic terms, we will attribute the advent of this brave new world to simple practicality. It’s efficient; it serves a purpose; it’s convenient.

The practical is the enemy of the beautiful.

Beauty comes in many forms, both in the arts and humanities and in ordinary life. Few things, to me, can be as beautiful as a Beethoven violin concerto, a poem by Shelley, a painting by Monet or Waterhouse, moonlight on snow, a sunset on the plains, or the colors of the leaves of autumn in the mountains. None of those things have practical worth. Such sentiment has no cash value. And yet the smile of a child, the sleek elegance of a shark, the deep brown of the eyes of a lover, the dizzying depths of the Grand Canyon, and the serenity of the calm Pacific all mean something to us. They are all beautiful, all precious treasures.

I think it’s because beauty points us to God. It’s a reminder of the divine, proof a Divinity shaped the cosmos and rendered it beautiful. The quality of beauty has no evolutionary value (or at least none which has been convincingly proposed). It doesn’t help me survive or find a mate by sighing appreciatively at the sunrise or having a sonata reverberate in my head. There’s no advantage there. But they do remind me I am loved by God, that He values me enough to place me in a world of unsurpassed beauty for my enjoyment and gave me the gift of the ability to create more beautiful things. Beauty teaches me I am human, but Something Else exists which is not, which is transcendent, and which invites me to glimpse Him and know Him and love Him.

As our world turns from divinity, turns from God, it turns from the beautiful and the whimsical to the practical and the marketable. It is one of the greatest tricks Satan has ever played on us: convincing us to ignore beauty in pursuit of utility. He has torn our gaze from what points us to God and gotten us to look instead at that which keeps our hearts from Him. He has caused us to abandon our humanity, to ignore that blessed gift from a loving God, and made acting as random automatons — and treating others as the same — something to be desired.

Brothers and sisters, rebel against the prevailing paradigm. Refuse the worldview and opt out of the market. Rejoice in beauty. Read poetry. Listen to Bach. Paint landscapes. Be fully alive. Act as a human being. And love the God who saw fit to make you a human being alive in such a beautiful world.

Cruciformity

My favorite verse in the Bible is John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” As much as I love that message of incarnation, I can’t say it’s my life verse. The one I stumbled into for that job, the verse I remind myself of daily and use to make decisions, is far less pleasant (but no less true): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

What can I say? I like the cheery things in life.

Part of my attraction to Luke 9:23 is the role it played in my call to ministry. In a last-ditch effort to avoid it, I decided to do the wrong thing and use my Bible like a Magic 8-Ball. “God,” I prayed, “there are so many different directions I can go in life. Why should I sacrifice those lives for this?” Close eyes; open Bible at random; immediately read Luke 9:23-26. It was a bad method for discernment, I know, or maybe it was my own Augustine “tolle lege” moment. Regardless, it did the trick, and here I am. And every time I think of that verse, it reminds me of the cost of discipleship, that Christ bids a man come and die, that it’s “Not my will but Thine,” and that no matter how rough the road, it will always be worth it.

But crucifixion and cross-carrying, however, metaphorical they may be, are never pleasant tasks.

When we consider how a Christian lives in this world, how one engages one’s culture, we have to keep in mind the painful truths of Luke 9:23. Our lives are to be cruciform, and that has many dimensions. The first is the most obvious: the denial of self, the killing of ego and death of the old creature to become a new creation. I think we often view this as the “negative” side of cruciformity, the “thou shalt nots” of a cross-shaped life. To be fair, there are plenty of those. To be holy is to be other — other than normal, other than sinful. The Bible points to many things absent from a life of holiness: murder, lust, sexual immorality in all its iterations, drunkenness, deceit, etc. We as Christians cannot simultaneously carry a cross and indulge in such things.

Beyond biblical proscriptions lie a host of other choices to be made vis-a-vis the “nots.” A cruciform life takes into account a holistic portrait of living; after all, you can’t crucify only your hand or your foot. So we need to evaluate our other lifestyle choices: books we read, television shows we watch, movies we see, music we listen to, clothes we wear, places we go, company we keep. Careers, hobbies, everything is subject to scrutiny through a cross-shaped lens. And maybe the biggest cross you’ll carry is abstaining from an addiction, turning off the television, or letting go of an old friend. Choices shouldn’t be made lightly, and the underlying question is this: does the practice/show/etc. bring you closer to God, or is it hurting your relationship with Him? If it’s a case of the latter, it definitely needs to go. It just got added to your self-denial, a little extra weight on the cross you carry.

On the flip side, dying to ourselves daily means a series of “thou shalts,” too, and some of those are equally difficult. To deny myself means at times a specific denial of my right to justice, fairness, or vengeance, and instead calls for the love of the one who wronged me. We call this forgiveness. And forgiving someone, as we all know, is incredibly hard at times. It requires us to set aside pride and ego in favor of humility and love — not love of the wrongful act, but of the flawed human being who wronged us, the sort of love that prays for their good. Love itself can seem a burden, for love requires an endless number of self-sacrifices. In short, it requires us to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily so we can put the good of others ahead of the good of self. And that’s hard. It hurts.

And it’s worth it. Every step of the way. Because they will know us by our love.

Living a cruciform life, letting every action reflect the cross of Christ and be framed as cross-carrying discipleship is the way a Christian is called to experience this mortal coil. It is how we lose this life to gain a place in the next. It is how we follow our Lord and live for his sake. For his life, too, centered around a cross.

The B-I-B-L-E

It’s that time again, dear readers. I know I’ve written this message quite a bit, and I know you’re tired of hearing me rant and rave about it, but it’s necessary to address said topic once more. You see, I just got my hands on this year’s State of the Bible report, and it’s . . . well, it’s terrifying.

By now you’re already saying, “This again? This guy worships the Bible.” As a friend once said, the Baptist Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Bible, but here in the Christian Church, I’ll have you know we have Father, Son, and Holy Potluck (we seem slightly scared of the Holy Spirit, too, to be honest). In all seriousness, I don’t worship the Bible (or the potluck). I don’t think the word of God is God; I know, however, the Word of God is. I will not worship a book, but I will praise the One who is revealed to us in its pages. With that said, it’s easy to recognize the significance of the Bible: it is God’s primary way of revealing Himself to humanity, our best source to learn about Him and His will for us. Nothing which does that can be taken lightly.

Unless, of course, you don’t want to accept it at all.

According to the data gathered by the Barna Group, the number of people who fall on that side of the spectrum is growing. Of the 2,030 adults in the U.S. included in the survey results, 32% never read the Bible at all and only 16% read it daily. More alarmingly to me as a minister, only 93% of practicing Protestants and 88% of practicing Catholics hear the Bible read in church at least weekly. What do they do the other 7%/12% of the time? If we aren’t using Scripture every time we worship, what are we using? What forms the basis for our preaching, the latest issue of Time? If we don’t always read the Bible in our worship services, how can we possibly expect people to always read their Bibles at home? Well, the data are in: we don’t and they don’t, either. In fact, even the desire to read isn’t always there. A full 9% of practicing Protestants and 22% of practicing Catholics say they have no wish to read the Bible more often than they do. Outside the church, among those Barna classifies as “antagonistic” (those who see the Bible as a fully human book designed to control others), that number skyrockets to 91%.

Also frightening to me are the responses to what is being read. I can’t really argue with the 52% (of 668) who feel peaceful or the 49% who are more hopeful after reading Scripture. What bothers me is the mere 1% who feel convicted. That’s right: of the 874 people who responded to the question in 2016, almost nine of them felt convicted or guilty in some fashion. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting the primary function of the Bible is to inspire guilt, but the word of God should encourage us to be better, to sin less, to change our lives, and I can’t imagine that process beginning without a catalyst, a felt need — a sense that something in rotten in Denmark, a prodding of the Holy Spirit’s convicting grace. But I guess that goes hand in hand with the fact a full 7% of 341 respondents read the Bible and give no thought whatsoever to how it might apply to their lives.

There’s no reason to apply it, though, when something else can do the job. Of practicing Protestants, those who consider their faith very important and who worship at least monthly, 98% believe the Bible is a holy book — and 8% believe the same of the Quran, and 1% say no text is sacred. Ten percent believe all so-called holy books are simply different takes on the same faith and teach the same truths, and 13% maintain the U.S. Constitution is more important to teach and maintain morality (not law, morality) in our country than the Bible is. Then again, 6% believe it’s worse to be labeled intolerant than immoral, and 19% see no problem with being called either one, so why bother with a biblical morality at all? Again, these figures are for practicing Protestants. American adults on the whole paint a far more dismal picture.

What is considered unimportant remains unknown; the acquisition of knowledge requires a certain investment of caring about the subject matter. It should come as no surprise, then, to discover 7% of adults surveyed believe Paul was the disciple who betrayed Jesus and 5% think he was the first to see the resurrected Christ (only 56% and 57%, respectively, selected the correct answer from the available options). Moreover 3% believe Scripture says nothing whatsoever about serving the poor, another 3% say the Bible strongly encourages prostitution, and 53% thinks the word of God strongly discourages pornography (with 31% responding it’s totally silent on the subject).

It gets worse. Of a sample of 1,025 adults, few of them let the Bible inform their views on social matters. The following said the Bible has zero influence on their views of these issues: abortion, 47%; LGBT concerns, 53%; refugees, 45%; money, 50%; immigration, 57%; and war, 54%. The numbers for practicing Protestants: 11%, 20%, 12%, 6%, 24%, and 25%, respectively. Not even all Protestant Christians let the Bible speak to how they view the world, and the figures for Catholic Christians are no better. Small wonder, then, no one else consults the word of God on these matters.

Worse than apathy is antipathy. Again speaking of the general populace, 53% believe the Bible is oppressive towards the LGBT community, 37% towards women, and 26% towards various races. Almost one in five (18%) won’t read the Bible at all simply because of their views on homosexuality. But we’re also upset with the moral state of America. A full 81% say morality is declining in the United States, with 39% attributing it primarily to corporate corruption and greed, 33% to the negative influence of the various media, and 27% saying it’s because people don’t read their Bibles enough (the choice of only 55% of practicing Protestants). I can’t deny the influence of Hollywood and Wall Street, but they seem to me to be symptoms rather than root causes. If more people read the Bible and had a personal relationship with the God who inspired it, the symptoms just might get better.

I realize I’ve just thrown a lot of discouraging statistics at you. We can all see the Bible wields increasingly little influence in our society, not least because no one read it and believes it. The obvious solution is to teach it and preach it, to develop new paths of discipleship so as to increase one’s points of contact with Scripture. But that won’t be enough. We must do more to preach Christ and him crucified, to point to the God of the Bible, both in word and in deed. As people come to love God, they will love His Book. As they learn more about the Book, they learn more about God. As they learn more about God, they love Him more, and the cycle repeats. So while we must get more Bible into the hands of more people, we must start with loving them in the name of Jesus. Both components are crucial in making disciples who will make disciples.

That requires us to commit ourselves to the Bible. We, as individuals, need to read it and apply it to our lives. We must adopt a biblical worldview in all areas of life, fix before our eyes a cruciform lens sculpted by the Word of God through the word of God. Only then will we see the lives of others change as they, too, pick up the Holy Bible.

Tolle lege.