The Secular Apocalypse

For the last 100 years the world has been living under the threat of doomsday. From 1914 to 1918 the most devastating war the world had ever seen took the lives of about nine million combatants and seven million civilians. The war was so catastrophic people didn’t know what to call it. Some called it “The Great War,” others called it “The War to End All Wars.” No one called it World War One, because no one could image there could ever be a second world war.

Then, just as the war was winding down a new strain of flu began to surface. One of the first cases was in Fort Riley, Kansas. Seven people died on a remote island north of Norway. Eventually the outbreak became severe in Spain, and the plague was called the Spanish Influenza. Before it was over 20 million to 50 million people had died, including 500,000 in the United States.

In Philadelphia a parade to celebrate the end of the war in 1918 drew a crowd of 200,000. Meanwhile St. Louis shut down the city with a very unpopular ruling. But the death rate in St. Louis was less than half of that in Philadelphia.

When things returned to normal, the roaring twenties followed the decade of death. But then it all came crashing down with the stock market failure of 1929, and the Great Depression followed. The depression didn’t really end until the Second World War, which was ended by the atomic bomb.
But prosperity returned and American factories were running full speed and new suburbs were sprouting up around our cities.

The prosperity and growth did have the side effect of pollution. In 1952 a “killer fog” resembling the biblical plagues in Exodus, and lasting five days killed 4000 right away and another 8000 through lingering illness.

By then the Cold War was in full force. The world had been divided into two spheres, the Communist Block and The Free World. The fearsome weapons developed to end the second world war hung over our heads like a sword of Damocles. Meanwhile, US soldiers, sailors, and marines were sent to South Korea to keep that country free.

The initial success in liberating the South made MacArthur overconfident, and he invaded the North to destroy its army and finish the task of liberating the Korean peninsula. But the Americans were met on a frozen tundra by the Chinese army who had invaded from the north.

The Chinese army was poorly equipped, but they had an unlimited number of young bodies to sacrifice. The approached uphill in wave after wave. Only the first lines and the last were given rifles, the last two shoot deserters. Those in the middle ranks were instructed to take a weapon from their fallen comrades in front of them.

The war in the North ended in a stalemate, and US forces are still there in South Korea and the DMZ keeping the peace.

Then the sixties brought us a serious of shocking assassinations and a quagmire in Vietnam, with protests in the streets and on college campuses. Amid that chaos, someone noticed that rivers were on fire and Eagles were dying. People started paying attention to the Doomsday Clock, which represented how close we were to extinction. It was originally set at 7 minutes to midnight, back in 1947 when it was created. In January of this year the clock was set to 100 seconds before midnight.

For one hundred years we have lived with the threat of the end of human life—and most other forms of life—on earth. The world has been in a secular apocalyptic threat. It’s no wonder that so many have been attracted to biblical texts speaking of the last days or judgment day.

The End of the Temple

In our text for today Jesus speaks of the last days and the end of the age. He is not referring primarily to the last days of the earth but to the last days of the Temple in Jerusalem. King Herod was in the middle of a massive renovation of the Second Temple. It was called the Second Temple because Solomon’s temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians around 586 B.C. A pitiful copy of Solomon’s temple was built after 70 years of captivity. Those old enough to remember the original wept when they saw the replacement.

Religion without a temple was unimaginable in Bible times. The temple for Judaism was a symbol of God’s presence, a place of prayer, a refuge of security. King Herod did a good job of building a glorious temple, and Jesus’ disciples marveled at the craftmanship and beauty. But Jesus told them the days of the temple were coming to an end. They couldn’t imagine the world continuing without the temple, so they assumed Jesus meant the end of the world. So, they asked Jesus a series of related questions. When will this happen? What will be the sign? And what will be the sign that you are coming?

Matthew 24 records the same incident, and Matthew makes it very clear that Jesus is speaking of two different events. He referred to Christ’s Second Coming to make the world right as “that day.” He referred to the end of the temple and the events surrounding it as “these things” and promised they would be fulfilled in “this generation.” He gave clear signs of “these things” that would happen in “this generation,” but said no one knows when “that day” will be.

Luke is primarily concerned with the end of the temple and the events that will precede it. Since we are following Luke’s Gospel this year, we will try to focus on his concerns. Let’s begin with the opening verses in today’s text:

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Luke 21:5-6)

WHY DID THE TEMPLE HAVE TO GO AWAY?

The temple was only a temporary provision. It was a concession to the needs of the people. They couldn’t imagine worshipping God without a solid, stone temple in a central location. They could not imagine praying to a homeless God. In the book of Genesis, the ancestors followed God from place to face and worshiped him wherever they were. Sometimes they built a simple altar or some other memorial. Then they moved on. In Exodus, they followed a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and worshiped God as he led them on the road to freedom. Moses did give them blueprints for a portable tabernacle, a “tent of meeting.”

But when David established the capital in Jerusalem, he thought a portable tent wasn’t good enough. So, he prayed and offered to build a house for God. The Lord was pleased at David’s offer, but would not allow David to do the work because his hands were stained with blood. The killing he did may have been justifiable and necessary, but still the Lord wanted his house to be a place of peace and built by a peaceful king.

So, Solomon undertook the work. The Lord accepted it and agreed to meet the people at the temple and hear prayers from there or said while facing that place. But there are hints throughout the Old Testament that the Master of the Universe did not really need or desire a stone temple.

The real place God desires to dwell is the human heart.
Until people could get used to that idea, God allowed them to think of him as dwelling in a room in an edifice—as long as they remembered he is not confined to it. The Lord inhabits heaven, he fills the universe, but when God’s people remembered to humble themselves and pray, he would hear their prayers from heaven and reveal his gracious presence in the House on earth. But that was only a temporary provision.

God’s plan was for the dead sacrifices offered at the temple to be replaced by the offering of praise, by the joyful living sacrifice of hearts filled with the goodness of God. God desires for the whole earth to be his temple and every human heart to be a holy of holies, the inner sanctuary of the temple. As Paul and Peter put it, we are living stones in this living temple.

Corruption in the Temple

The community who moved down by the Dead Sea made that migration because they knew the temple establishment was corrupt. It wasn’t the foreign armies that defiled the temple this time; it was the priestly establishment who controlled temple activities. Jesus agreed with them when he drove the money changers out of the temple courts.
Herod’s building project was ongoing when Jesus and his disciples walked by.

In fact, the project was not completed until A.D. 64, just six years before it would all be destroyed. Just about that time various factions in Jerusalem and Galilee became so violent, civil war broke out. Then the Romans sent in the armies to put it down and bring their version of peace. What God had intended to do peacefully and naturally was now going to be done violently by a pagan army.

And so it happened. Christians who remembered the teaching of Jesus fled when they saw Jerusalem surrounded by armies. Those who remained in the city suffered horribly. Jesus wept at the thought of all that suffering. It is true that the leaders of Jerusalem brought it on themselves and their people. That does not make the suffering any less awful.

There were signs such as Jesus mentioned. Earthquakes, famines, strange meteorological phenomena, the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. The end of the temple era came. The General Titus ordered his soldiers to spare the temple. But one drunken soldier set it on fire. The Gold that crowned the building melted and ran down into the cracks between the stones. So, the soldiers dismantled the stones to get to the gold. Just as Jesus had predicted, not one stone was left on top of another.

The temple had to come to an end, but the people didn’t have to suffer the way they did. Their leaders failed to listen to the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and the Galilean teacher who came to their courts.

But the end of the temple itself is good news. It means that Christianity is a worldwide faith. It is not limited to one place or one people. Every nationality, every tongue, every tribe, every individual can be a holy place, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

I miss touching and greeting my brothers and sisters face to face today. But we are bound together by a spiritual bond that is not broken by physical separation.

Why Religion? By Elaine Pagels

That was the question her parents asked when young Elaine announced she was going to enter Harvard Graduate School to study religion. A few years earlier her secular father was furious to learn that she had gone forward at a Billy Graham crusade and given her life to Christ.

Describing the crusade she attended with friends in California, she said the evangelist spoke of the national sin of racism and mentioned that the USA was the first and only nation in history to use a nuclear weapon. Although her personal religious perspective changed over the years, she never criticized Graham, and expressed gratitude for the world the experience and Evangelical Christianity opened to her.

She continued to attend a weekly Bible study with her evangelical friends throughout high school—until tragedy struck. Her close friend Paul was killed in a car accident, and her evangelical friends told her he was in hell because he was Jewish. A curious reminder of the atmosphere in which she grew up, Jerry Garcia was part of her circle of San Francisco friends and was riding in the car and injured in the accident. She believes his reaction to surviving the accident was reflected in the name he chose (from the Egyptian book of the Dead) for the new band he formed shortly after the tragic event.

Tragedy is the theme of the book. I don’t need to give a spoiler alert, because she mentions in the introduction the tragic deaths of her son and husband. The details are heart wrenching.

Reading those details was uncomfortable for me, but her main theme, her religious journey, was disquieting for me. She describes sexism at Harvard (she was first denied admission to the program because they didn’t believe a woman could persevere and complete her research), and sexual harassment by her adviser, who was not named in this book, but was in some of her earlier writings. Nevertheless, she did persevere.

Her research centered on the newly published Nag Hammadi texts, Coptic translations of secret or lost Gospels. She described her findings and those of her colleagues in the book The Gnostic Gospels. Her approach to the history of early Christianity is popularized by Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. She believes the Gnostic Gospels represent a faith free from dogma, a faith that emphasizes free inquiry and looking within for the truth.

Professor Krister Stendahl, professor and later dean at Harvard, was one of the good guys in her story. She described telling him at her admission interview she wanted to explore the essence of Christianity. He asked her, “What makes you think it has an essence?” The group of researchers she joined came to describe various diverse Christian movements in the days before a defined dogma suppressed diversity and dissent.

I have long believed that Christianity will always be in need of renewal and reform; but I have also believed that the resources for that renewal will always be in available in the traditional sources: primarily the New Testament Scriptures, with some guidance from the church fathers, the Apostles Creed, and support from the Old Testament prophets. The numerous recent failures of various Christian leaders and the followers makes me wonder if the traditional resources are enough.

Professor Pagels is a good story teller. I listened to the audiobook version, and I had several driveway moments waiting to finish an episode. The reader was pretty good, but not perfect. She didn’t always pronounce the words correctly and sometimes paused prematurely. When Pagels spoke of a beautiful “Reformation hymn,” the reader said “re-formation.” But audiobooks are great for someone who spends much time in a car.

Growing Up Conservative, 2

Here are the rest of my reflections on my Bible college education.

Yes, we were taught a conservative view of the Bible and the Christian faith. We were taught that the “social Gospel” was dangerous. We were taught our primary mission was evangelism, winning people to faith in Jesus so they could go to heaven, rather than building schools and hospitals. We were warned about liberal theologians who were basically atheists that used religious language as metaphors. But we were not taught hate. Overall, my conservative religious education was positive and wholesome, and made me a better person.

Brother Wilson had been the founding professor at Ozark Bible College. He celebrated his fortieth year while we were students there. There was also a new, younger professor, Knofel Staton there. He was known as a dynamic speaker. He spoke nearly every weekend in different churches or conferences throughout the area. Sonja and I both enrolled in his “Introduction to Bible Study Class” our freshman year. It was an amazing class. This was before I had enrolled in the official hermeneutics class, but it was a seminar in historical and contextual interpretation.

Professor Staton’s favorite theme was unity. The church was to be a community of unity. He loved to explain agape, the Greek word for God’s love. Agape is “seeing a need and moving to meet it.” The church is a community of unity, the body of Christ through which his love flows to a hurting world. Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping single mothers, sponsoring alcoholics anonymous, fighting racism, all these works of love were as valid as evangelism. He led us through Romans 16 and pointed out all of the women who were active in ministry. He mentioned Deborah in the Old Testament and called the theory that God chose her only because there were no strong men available “poppycock!”

I did a lot of reading beyond course requirements. Whenever I found a good author I ready several books by the same name. One of my professors liked Elton Trueblood. I read his book on Philosophy of Religion in conjunction with a course on the subject. A statement in that book surprised me for its direct and simple logic: “You don’t have to believe anything that is irrational.” Specifically, he was talking about Christian beliefs about hell. The statement struck me. I had somehow believed we have to believe some things that don’t make sense, as a test of faith, or because God is smarter than we are. But here is a Christian thinker who says, No, you don’t have to believe things that don’t make sense.

Along with several of my friends, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship, which emphasized genuine repentance and obedience to the words of Jesus Christ. We didn’t know much of the historical background. We thought obedience meant being faithful in prayer and church attendance, avoiding pornography and alcohol, the traditional sins for conservative Christians. We didn’t realize the book was written in 1937, three years after Hitler seized power, and that for Bonhoeffer, obedience meant resistance to the ideology of Arian Nationalism, white supremacy, the idolatrous worship of a strong leader, and the compromise of the churches in endorsing “German Christianity.” Later I would make a more detailed study of all of Bonhoeffer’s major writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison, written while he was paying the personal cost of his following Jesus.

You had to be there in the late 1960s and early 1970s to appreciate Francis Schaeffer. He had a ministry in the Swiss Alps called “L’Abri Fellowship.” Wandering hippies and students on a Wanderjahr and young people needing a few days of detox would crash for a day or a month and think deep thoughts and have deep conversations with Francis and his wife Edith. These vagabond seekers experienced genuine Christian love and heard answers to their deepest questions, while being challenged with new questions. Occasionally Francis would tape record a lecture and put it in an archive. He also collected recordings from other visiting lecturers, such as Os Guinness.

Francis Schaeffer had long hair and wore Lederhosen. His voice was high-pitched and always reminded me of Truman Capote. Friends would gather his recorded lectures and transcribe them into books. And the books were eloquent. Schaeffer critiqued modern literature, philosophy, and theology, along with art and politics, and presented faith in the living God as the alternative to modern despair; He spoke of “The God Who Is There,” as a reality not just a metaphor.

There has often been an element of anti-intellectualism in conservative religion. We valued the positive contributions of Schaeffer’s thought. But he also gave us “permission” (if we needed it–yes, we needed it) to attend to great art and literature and to think serious thoughts.

At the other extreme of intellectual stimulation was a satirical journal called the Wittenberg Door. Reading it helped keep my perspective in balance. The magazine regularly lampooned icons of the evangelical subculture. But it also included serious interviews. I was introduced to Martin Marty, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and many other serious Christian thinkers and activists. A cartoon in the Wittenberg Door characterized what kind of magazine it was: a young man standing at a news stand was surreptitiously looking at its pages hidden under the cover of a Playboy magazine.

Growing up Conservative, part 1

Below is a brief excerpt from a chapter in the book I am writing. It is about my Bible College education:

Naturally, a Bible College is a conservative institution, but not in the way you might think. My professor of hermeneutics challenged us to think for ourselves, to understand the meaning of words in their historical context, in fact to take a historical and contextual approach to the text. It was from professor Seth Wilson (we called him “Brother Wilson) I learned how to read ancient texts.

He would occasionally diverge into politics. I remember him saying Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest traitor the country ever had. I wasn’t sure what he meant, because he didn’t elaborate. Once he mentioned the peace conferences at Yalta where the allies gave Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Otherwise, I assumed it was because he thought Social Security was a slippery slide toward socialism.

Years later I took a university history course on the history and rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. We studied the history and his speeches. I learned that there wasn’t really much choice about which countries the Soviets occupied. They were already there; boots on the ground had settled it. Western Europe and America were exhausted from war and there was no stomach for a new war against communism. I also was exposed to the view that FDR had saved capitalism by mitigating its harshest failings. But it was brother Wilson’s comments that sparked my interest in learning more about President Roosevelt.

There are three features often associated with conservative religion I was never taught at Ozark Bible College. We were never taught racism. The idea that black skin is “the mark of Cain,” was debunked. We were taught that God loves all people equally.

We were never taught that the King James Version of the Bible is the original, or the only, or the best English translation of the Bible. In fact, in hermeneutics class, we had to read the original preface of the translators to the reader, in which the translators responded to criticism that they were presumptuous to revise the Bible. (If you look at the dedication page in the King James Version, it says, “other translations diligently compared and revised.”)

We were taught that we should learn Hebrew and Greek if we really wanted to know the Bible in the original language. Brother Wilson raised some eyebrows when he wrote an essay defending Today’s English Version, or Good News for Modern Man back in the 1960s. We were even taught textual criticism. I learned all about the different manuscripts and the variant readings in them my Freshman year, and was fascinated by it.

We were also spared indoctrination in the dispensational interpretation of the Bible. This is the belief that the Bible contains a blue print of the last days, that there are signs we should look for, and that we should expect the rapture of the church, when people would mysteriously disappear while driving cars and flying airplanes. We were taught that the book of Revelation was written to encourage Christians in the first century who were suffering persecution from the beast, the emperor.

Go Set a Watchman

I just finished listening to the Audiobook of Go Set A Watchman, read very effectively by Reese Witherspoon. The manuscript was written in the 1950s but never published until it was discovered in 2014. The story is set after To Kill A Mockingbird, when Jean Louise (Scout) is a grown woman of 26. Go Set A Watchman was written before the more famous book, the main theme of which is summarized in a brief section.

Mockingbird was a gentler and more effective way of dealing with racism. Had she published the Watchman manuscript in the 50s, it would probably have been banned and its author blacklisted.

Mockingbird is probably a more perfect artistic accomplishment. Go Set a Watchman, though, has its literary moments, with some colorful characters and amusing scenes.  The scenes of the motherless child reaching puberty and the anxiety it causes should be required reading for every teacher or youth worker who deals with middle school children.

The last few chapters resemble a platonic dialog more than a dramatic story and consist of a series of intense exchanges between Jean Louise and those closest to her.  Her angry speeches against racism are countered with genteel defenses of the way things are and why it is necessary to go along and get along. It is this social commentary that we need now.

You remember back in November when everyone warned us to avoid politics and religion at the family gathering for Thanksgiving? Jean Louise’s speeches are the models for what we should have said.

Flash Fiction Contest

From the park-and-ride lot, it is nine miles down hill, so I don’t have to arrive sweating and hot. At the end of the day the uphill workout burns off stress. The road from the interstate highway into town is four lane with a whole extra lane for a shoulder, separated by a rumble strip. What could be a safer place to ride a bicycle?

Except for the driver texting on a sunny afternoon who didn’t hear or feel the vibrations. On my evening return journey I stop and pause before the white ghost cycle and the white flowers.

No Job for an Academic

There are no jobs for people who want to teach critical thinking skills to college students. The job of professor does not exist anymore, at least in areas like communication or humanities. Or to be accurate there may be a few such jobs, but the odds of a qualified person getting one are like winning the lottery. Eighty percent of college courses are taught by non-professors. Usually that means adjuncts with no benefits, no security, and minimum wage salaries.

Some find creative ways to make ends meet.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/28/adjunct-professors-homeless-sex-work-academia-poverty

I think there is a better way. We should all become entrepreneurs. At least, that’s what Muhammad Yunus believes.

https://hooksbookevents.com/event/world-three-zeros-new-economics-zero-poverty-zero-unemployment-zero-net-carbon-emissions/

To Professor Roxanne, who is willing to put her body on the line so she can teach critical thinking skills to young minds, I would say, you don’t have to put on the red light. Find a way to sell your critical thinking skills. Market your mind.

Here is a secret. Not too many college students are interested in learning those habits anyway. But there is a niche market. There are people who would really like to know how not to be duped, how to find solutions and train others. They just might not be able to afford tuition at the nearby university. Maybe they can’t pay $40,000.00, but they could pay $500.00. Get a dozen of them together and form a seminar.

Find a way to market critical thinking. Print some T-shirts and have coffee mugs made.  Call it therapy, anti-duping therapy.  Demagogue resistance training.  You could also market seminars to businesses.  The skills you teach will make their employees more productive, creative, and engaged with the job.

I attended a Police impersonators concert Friday, and I have the words stuck in my mind:

Put on the Red Light,

Put on the Red Light,

Put on the Red Light . . .

 

Why I Am a Small ‘c’ catholic

The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase kath’ holen ten oekoumenen, “throughout the whole inhabited world.” To be a catholic Christian means you follow the faith that is accepted and practiced throughout the whole world. The word ecumenical comes from the same phrase. To be catholic and to be ecumenical mean the same thing. It means you share the faith Christians down through the ages and throughout the whole world have followed.

That faith centers in what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ. God sent his son into the world to show us the way of peace and love, to bear our sins on the cross so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God and to one another, to rise again conquering death on our behalf so we can be assured of eternal life, and to give us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live lives of love and peace, anticipating the final transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

This faith is summarized in a confession known as the Apostle’s Creed. It contains the words, in addition, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic church.”

All followers of Christ belong to that church. It is not perfectly one or holy or universal as we see it now. But because it is claimed by Christ and because he works through those people, it is one, holy, and catholic.

I say small ‘c’ without meaning any disrespect to large ‘C’ Catholics or Orthodox. In fact, I have a growing respect for the Roman Catholic Church and the various Orthodox churches who are also Catholic. I have a lot of respect for the popes I have known in my lifetime, especially St. Francis. Some of his recent predecessors did not do enough to deal with a horrible problem in the church, and I don’t excuse that. But that is a problem the authorities in Rome and in America and other countries will have to deal with.

I keep a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my desk and receive a lot of benefit from it. The catechism gives better answers than some of my conservative Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters (I have to say and sisters, although women theologians are fairly new in those circles) to questions about science, sexuality, economic justice, ecology, world religions, human rights, and the modern historical study of the Bible.

Once I had a student who freaked out when he heard the term “free church catholic” at a conference. I could use that term to describe myself. I remain free to follow my own conscience and hold my own convictions. In other words, I remain free to disagree with the catechism or the teachings of the church. For example, when I say Rome gives better answers on sexuality, I still disagree with its teaching that celibacy is the only option for those who accept a religious vocation, for those who have been divorced and remarried, and for others. But the place for that conversation would be at the Boji Stone (our local coffee shop), in a friendly, respectful atmosphere.

The Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann has spent his life engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants, Marxists, atheists–anyone who will sit down and talk to him. He says you don’t have to give up beliefs that are important to you to have a conversation. In fact, he says, if you suppress your differences, you deprive the other person of a genuine conversation partner. Today I am emphasizing what I have in common with all followers of Christ, and why I am a catholic Christian.

And so, I am free to participate in the long-established participation of Ash Wednesday and Lent. To some extent, participating in a season of fasting, self-denial, and reflection also reflects a bit of solidarity with Jews, who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and other fasts; and Muslims who fast during Ramadan and other times.

The deprivations we catholics undergo during Lent are pretty mild compared to the fasts the other children of Abraham endure. During Lent we can choose what to give up. I suggest either giving up something you don’t need anyway, or something you enjoy but that is not really essential. I visited with a lady yesterday who told of a friend who gave up smoking every year during Lent. She said he was aware of it every moment, constantly reaching for his empty shirt pocket. But that constantly reminded him of Jesus and what he suffered for us. (I wondered why he didn’t just stay quit–but that is another story).

There is one other kind of fasting, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah. It’s not really giving up something ourselves, but it is thinking of others in need.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house,

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

I Am a Disciple and I Need Discipline

Jesus established a church. He was not completely anti-institutional. But he wore sandals and had long hair! Paintings from fifteen centuries later show him with long hair. Sculptures and paintings from the first century show that most men had short hair. And everyone wore sandals back then. Jesus dressed like a traditional Jewish Rabbi. He had fringes on his garment as specified in the Torah.

I was a little too young to be either a Vietnam warrior or a hippie. I had uncles and cousins who served their country in Vietnam, and I respected them for that. But I was also a teenager and would have let my hair grow longer if my dad had let me. I listened to rock and roll. I liked to think of Jesus as a rebel. And there was some truth in that. The truth is he followed the will of his father wherever it took him.

But Jesus established a church. His band of disciples was somewhat organized. They collected funds for distribution to the poor. And they had a treasurer to manage the fund. Jesus had a house in Capernaum. It’s true he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” I don’t know if he is referring to his traveling ministry, the many days he was away from home–or if he means what John said, “He came unto his own and his own received him not.” He may have had a home but he was not at home, not welcome in this world. But his band of disciples were organized into what would become his church.

We have four ways of thinking of the church.

1) The first is the church building, the house of worship, we may even call it the house of the Lord. My father made sure we understood that the church was the people not the building. He always referred to the church building as the church house, or inside where the pews were as the sanctuary. And he was right. But it’s also true that we need a place to gather, to worship, to fellowship, to do the church’s business. And it is also true that it is good to have a place that is beautiful and makes us look toward heaven.

Have you ever visited a medieval cathedral? You can’t help but feeling you are in a holy place. People sometimes say, “But couldn’t they have taken the money and given it to the poor?” Who do you think built those cathedrals? Craftsmen, carpenters, masons, skilled and unskilled workers who either were poor or would have been poor without the work. Some of the cathedrals were jobs programs for hundreds of years.

The early Christians met in the homes of those whose homes were spacious enough to host the church. In the Roman empire people who could afford it often had a room in their house dedicated as a private chapel for their favorite god or goddess. They also made sure to include a shrine for the worship of the emperor. They might would invite their close friends on occasion to participate in prayers or ritual worship.

Christians who dedicated their houses as centers of worship and fellowship welcomed all, rich and poor alike. Their fellowship also included meals in which the poor were included as equals. Think of the generosity of those who allowed their homes to be used multiple times each week as the gathering place of the church. Many of these homes eventually became what we think of as “churches.”

2) We also think of the church as an institution. We like things that are spontaneous. We like things that are new and fresh and not bound by tradition. Then we say, “that was great, let’s do it again!” And by the second time we do it, we already have traditions. Anything new and exciting and important will quickly fade away unless there are some kind of institutions to preserve it. Jesus proclaimed something absolutely new: The Kingdom of God is coming. God is going to rule on this earth. His Will, will be done here, as it is in heaven. Jesus entrusted the work of the kingdom to his church, to his disciples. And disciples need discipline.

3) The church is not just an institution. It is a family, a community. That’s what my father was trying to teach us. And he was right. When I was a child I used to wonder why my parents would take so long after church talking to everybody. Now I understand. That was family they were talking to, and they might not see them again until next week.

We’ve been talking here about the men’s fellowship. We already have a good women’s fellowship and a good everybody fellowship–but there is something about a men’s fellowship. It was important to my dad when he was a young father trying to bring his kids up right. He played on a church softball team. That had area men’s meetings. I know there was some serious teaching at those meetings, but I especially remember my dad telling about the fun they had. Once they played a joke on an area preacher at a fellowship meal. They served steak and baked potatoes. There was nothing wrong with the steaks, but they gave brother Keith a raw potato wrapped up in aluminum foil.

They also did service projects, helped widows and elderly people with repairs on their homes.

Jesus called his disciples to be a community, a family. He gave us the task of sharing his love with those around us.

4) When we say we are going to church, we usually are thinking of the worship service. The church is a community that gathers for prayer, praise, fellowship, the study of God’s word, celebration of the sacraments, seeking God’s presence and his grace. When we “go to church” we are the church gathered for worship.

The church also gathers at times to make decisions. I find it fascinating that the Bible chose the Greek word ekklesia as the name for the community of followers of Jesus. The word comes from Athenian democracy. In Athens every citizen had the right to speak freely in the public assembly. Every citizen had the right to vote on any important matter.

The Church is a community that has authority to enact decisions under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In Matthew 16, Jesus gave that authority to Peter, the Rock. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” If that seems like a lot of authority to give to one man, look what Jesus says in Matthew 18:19-20. He gives the same authority to any two or three of his followers gathered in his name.

Obviously this could be misused and misunderstood. In the immediate context Jesus is talking about what we sometimes call church discipline, or excommunication.  He is also talking about the authority to forgive.  The purpose of disciplinary action is redemption and reconciliation.  The same community that may exclude also has the power to forgive and restore.

If I can share one more story passed on from my dad, he had a friend that belonged to another church. This church had some rules they took very seriously. One was that Sunday was observed as a strict Sabbath with no work, exertion, or worldly pursuits. My dad’s friend went coon hunting one Saturday night. This was a popular sport in the Ozarks. I used to think it was cruel since the game was not hunted for food; I changed my mind when a raccoon got into our friend Margaret’s chicken coop and tore the heads off about 18 hens. Anyway, the church was fine with hunting, but the man made the mistake of staying out past midnight when one of his hounds got on a hot trail. They put him out of the church for breaking the rules.

Jesus does give his followers authority to withdraw fellowship from a brother or sister who persists in harmful behavior after being counseled. It’s important to notice a couple of things. The purpose is reconciliation. Excommunication, is the end of a long process that begins with private communication. And, as soon as the person repents, he is to be forgiven and welcomed back.

This kind of church discipline is almost never seen in church today, and for good reason. We all have faults and failings and don’t want to think we are better than someone else. We would rather be merciful than judgmental.

I think there is one area where we should enforce church discipline, and that is domestic abuse, and especially child abuse. It is interesting that Jesus gives this teaching after saying it is better for a person to have a giant millstone put around his neck and be cast into the sea than to harm a child. That’s a pretty harsh teaching. But children are pretty important to Jesus.

Who Do You Say that I Am?

Caesarea Philippi was in the far north of Israel.  The city was located at the base of Mount Hermon.  Hermon is 9200 feet in elevation.  In Colorado, they are proud of their Fourteeners, mountains with an elevation above 14,000 feet.  But the base of the Fourteeners can be anywhere from 8000 to 10,000 feet.  Mt. Hermon is near the sea and is visible from the Dead Sea one hundred miles to the South at 1300 feet below sea level.  So, though I haven’t been there, I assume the view of Mt. Hermon would be just as impressive as Pike’s Peak. Image result for mount hermon

Any city named Caesarea was built in honor of one of the Caesars.  There is another Caesarea in Palestine, on the coast.  The Caesarea below Mt. Hermon was built by Herod’s son Philip.  Philip built a temple to Augustus Caesar there.  There were other temples and shrines there too.  Caesarea was a pagan city, barely part of Israel, at its northern boundary.  The ground is rocky, and there is a cave or grotto that had long been considered by the local inhabitants to be the birthplace of the Greek god Pan.

There is an English word that comes from this god’s name–pan-ic.  One of his special abilities was believed to be spreading terror or panic among army troops.  The Greeks prayed for his assistance against their enemies.  They believed Pan could send mysterious noises among the ranks and make them think they were being bombarded by supernatural and human forces.  Pan-icked soldiers would drop their weapons and run or even turn on each other.

The human face of the god was ugly and frightening.  He had horns, and his image later became a model for medieval paintings of the devil.  His form was barely human on the top half, but below the waist he was a billy goat, and he was lusty and aggressive.

Before Pan, the ancient nemesis of Israel, Baal, was worshipped in the grotto.  The historian Josephus described the cave.  Naturally, it was dark and there was a sheer drop off into a bottomless pit.  As far as anyone could tell anyway, it was bottomless–except that far down there was water, and the water was deeper than anyone had ever been able to measure.  The water filtered down through Mount Hermon from melting snow, and sometimes it surged all the way up and spewed out of the mouth of the cave.

Because of its dangerous and mysterious nature, and because of its association with pagan gods, some ancient people considered this cave to be the gate (or one of the gates) of the Underworld (also known as Sheol, Hades, or Hell). 

Jesus took his disciples, and asked them a question as they stood on the bare rock near the cave of Pan.

Who do people say that I am?  Evidently the belief that one of the great prophets would return was strong at that time.  After all, the Lord had said in Malachi, “behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.”  To this day, when Passover is observed an empty chair is left for Elijah.  At the end of the meal a young child is sent to open the door and look for Elijah.

Elijah had challenged the idolatry in his day, and many people evidently thought Jesus fit that role well.  Of course, before Jesus many thought John the Baptist fulfilled the return of Elijah prophesy.  Remember Herod’s son Philip?  His brother, Herod Antipas, had stolen Philip’s wife and John the Baptist rebuked him for it.  That angered the queen, and she demanded John’s head on a silver platter. 

Jesus was related to John and began his own ministry before John’s ended, but not everyone was aware of those details.  Jesus became well known after the death of John.  Many people wondered if Jesus was John come back.  Others saw him as the Baptist’s successor.  Maybe Jesus was the Elijah who was to come.

Other people said he was Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.  I wonder why Jeremiah?  Was it because he predicted the New Covenant?  Or was it because of his sympathy and tears for his own people?

Jesus spoke Aramaic.  About a dozen Aramaic words are preserved in the New Testament.  Twenty years ago when I was studying the languages of the Bible and the world where biblical history happened, I heard of a few villages in Iraq and Syria where Aramaic was still spoken.  The people in those villages were Christians who were convinced they spoke the language of Jesus exactly as he spoke it 2000 years ago.  I remember thinking it would be a great opportunity to go and study with those people and learn to speak their language as they spoke it.  I don’t know for sure what has happened to those people but I am afraid the opportunity to go and learn from them is gone forever.

The Aramaic word Kepha means ‘Rock.’  (In English it is spelled ‘Cephas’)  The ground around the grotto of pan was solid rock.  The rock rose up behind the cave toward Mount Hermon.  Maybe Jesus had a sense of humor–or maybe he saw a potential in his disciple Simon that no one else could see.  Jesus gave Simon a new name: Kephâ, Cephas, the ROCK.    One thing about Cephas.  When he didn’t know what to do, he would do something.  When he didn’t know what to say, he would say something.

So when Jesus asked, “But who do you say I am?”  Simon-Cephas spoke up.  By the way, when Greek speaking people started to follow Jesus, the name Cephas got translated for them into the Greek word for a rock, Petros, or Peter.  Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels were written, and he called the big Fisherman, Cephas.  But in the Gospels he is more often known as Peter.  His full name is Simon bar Jonah (son of Jonah), aka Cephas/Peter/the Rock.

Who do you say Jesus is?

Peter gave the right answer this time:

“You are the Messiah (the Christ) the one God anointed with his Spirit to bring his Kingdom, to bring peace and righteousness to the earth.  You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Jesus is the one God the Father sent to bring us to him and to bring his love to earth.

Jesus answered him, “blessed are you Simon bar Jonah, for Flesh and Blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven.  You are Cephas/Peter/the Rock, and on this Rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

What did he mean “on this Rock?”  Some say he means the faith he had just announced, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  This truth is the foundation of our faith.  Years later Paul would write, “No other foundation can anyone lay but the one that is already laid, Jesus Christ.”  The Truth of who Jesus is, is the foundation of our faith and of the church.

Or did he mean the church would be built on Cephas/Peter, the Rock?  “I will give to you the keys to the kingdom.  Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.  Whatever you set free on earth will be set free in heaven.”  Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead Peter used those keys.  He said two things: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  And he said, “God has made him both Lord and Christ (the Anointed redeemer), this Jesus whom you crucified.”  When they said what shall we do, he answered, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”  In other words, when anyone prays to Jesus Christ, turns away from their sins and turns to him, and identifies with him by receiving the cleansing sacrament of baptism–Christ comes into their life, the Spirit of God enters their heart and soul and gives them a desire to do his will.  He had the keys.

Or when Jesus said, “on this ROCK” maybe he was being very literal.  Did he mean, “on this Rock-hard ground, right here in front of the gate of hell–I’m going to build my church–and the gates of hell will not be able to withstand my attack.

I am so glad Jesus didn’t call me to build his church.  When I look out and see all the potential in this church and this community, and when I think of the responsibility to build the church–I can’t do it.  But then I remember, he didn’t ask me to build his church.  He asked me to follow him.  He asks us all to build each other up in the faith.  He asks us to bear witness to what we have seen and heard, what we have experienced.

I am so glad Jesus didn’t call me to convince anyone of the reality of God or the truth of who he is. 

Those are two things we should all be glad of.  We don’t have to build his church.  We don’t have to convince anyone.  We just follow him.  We are disciples, followers and learners.  We are also witnesses.  Not eyewitnesses like Mary and Martha and Peter and John.  They saw the empty tomb, they saw the risen Lord.  We are faith witnesses, witnesses of what God has done in our lives through faith.

I have read a lot on theology, philosophy, history.  I enjoy discussing it.  I know there are reasons for my faith.  And if you want to talk about it over a cup of coffee, I am glad to do that.  Look me up.  But I can’t really argue or persuade anyone into believing in God or following Jesus. 

The reason I believe in God is because God is capable of making himself known.

God loves everyone; he wants everyone to know him.  But there is a timing that is known to God.  When the time is right, he will call individuals to come to him by faith.

Two things God used to convince me: One was seeing the presence of  God in the lives of other people.  I saw love, joy, peace . . . the fruit, the evidence of the Holy Spirit–which means the presence of God in someone’s life. 

The other thing God used was the Gospels.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–or the person of Jesus in those books revealing the presence of God in the world.  The reason I believe in God is because of Jesus.  The more I read his story the more convinced I became.  It was not an idea.  It was a way of life.

As followers of Jesus, some bystanders will see him at work in our lives when we don’t even realize it.  Otherwise, we can say “come and see.”  The reason you should invite people to church is because they will see the love of Christ at work in his people.  They will see that this is a loving family.  And they will hear the gospel.

Who do you say that he is?  If you’ve never thought about that, maybe you should decide to start thinking about it.  Read the story.  This month, we are all trying to read the Gospel according to Matthew, the first book in the New Testament.

Maybe you have thought about it and you know the answer.  Maybe God has spoken directly to your heart.  If you can say, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then maybe it is time to ask him to come into your life.  Maybe it is time to stand up and declare it.

Adective Exchange

After months of intense negotiations conservatives and liberals have each agreed to give up a favorite adjective. From now on, liberals will only advocate for “Justice,” after dismissing the adjective “social.”
“I think we can do it,” said spokesman Jim Wallis, “after all the Bible merely calls on us to seek justice, and it does that without any adjectives at al.” Wallis went on to cite passages such as Isaiah 1:17,

“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

Conservatives will discard the adjective “radical” which is normally attached to the word “feminist.” They will have to call those who seek equality for women simply “feminists.” A spokesman for Rush Limbaugh said he will be able to comply as long as he is allowed to keep the expression “feminazis.”

Candy Experts Weigh In

After hearing a radio program discussing the three best and three worst Halloween candies, decided to ask some real experts–my grandchildren. Here’s what Ari and Elijah say about the subject.

Five Best Halloween Candies

1. Kit Kat’s are one of the best candies because they don’t melt easily even though they’re chocolate .
2. M&Ms are god because they are chocolate and they don’t melt, and you get a lot in one packet.
3. Nerds are one of the best Halloween candies because they are small and fill you up.
4. Reese’s are good because even though they melt, you can put them in the freezer and they still taste good when they are Frozen.
5. Snickers are one of the best Halloween candies because they are crunchy and soft.

Five Worst Halloween Candies

1. Tootsie Rolls are the worst because if you have caps on your teeth, they pull them out. Also, they taste bad.
2. Skittles are bad because if you hold the in your hand, they dye your hand.
3. Suckers are bad because they are sticky and they get broken up.
4. Milky ways are very sticky and the caramel can ooze down your shirt and your shirt will be sticky.
5. Jolly Ranchers because if you lay them down they melt into the surface and they are super sticky, and you can’t clean them up.

Healthy Alternatives

1. Apples, Granny Smith because they are very crunchy like skeleton bones. (Dissenting view: If I got an apple, I would throw it out.)
2. Crackers and cheese, or wafer sticks with cheese on the end.
3. Craft snacks: like a spider made out of cookies and pretzels.
4. Pistachios; you can get flavored ones also.
5. Fruit roll-ups because almost all kids like the.

How Conservative Values Unintentionally Undermined the Family

My wife and I did not have insurance when all three of our children were born. Technically, we did when our third was born, but the preexisting condition of pregnancy was not covered. Medical expenses were reasonable enough that we were able to make payments ahead and continue paying afterward. There were complications after the third birth, so it took us a while to pay off the debt, but we did manage to have our youngest paid for before she entered elementary school.

Doctors and hospitals are no longer so eager to make similar arrangements, and the total bills are no longer as manageable. An uninsured married couple facing a complicated childbirth could easily face bankruptcy today.

But we are no so hard-hearted as to turn expectant mothers out into the cold night to give birth in a stable. We do provide services for mothers and children. But our conservative heritage says men should be breadwinners, and there is no free lunch. We will take care of single women and their babies but not male heads of households. Perhaps there have been some recent changes, but for the last thirty years marriage meant financial disaster for a young couple in love facing a pregnancy earlier than they had anticipated.

It’s not just the young either who are forgoing marriage in order to receive benefits. Social Security advisors counsel retirees in some cases to “live in sin” rather than lose benefits they or their late spouse had earned. In other circumstances, on the other hand, they advise couples who hate each other to stay together (at least on paper) a few more years, for the sake of the social security check, rather than getting divorced. (You can find this advice in the book Get What’s Yours.)

All of this comes from the traditional idea that a man should provide for his household and nobody should get something for free.

Yet the widespread conservative hostility to democracy and representation in the workplace has undermined a man’s (or a single woman’s ) ability to provide for a family. Labor Unions are an extension of democracy (or republican ideals, if you can’t support democracy) into the workplace. Corporations are already organized and have most of the power. The only way people gained any advantage was to unite. President Eisenhower understood this. He supported labor unions and the right of the people to organize.

The last forty years has seen the decline of wages follow the decline of union membership. The decline of union membership followed the example of a president from the Grand Old Party who established his legacy by breaking a union. Today a candidate from an economically failing state brags that he took on the powerful teacher’s union.

Some people point to past corruption in labor and to violence that occurs during strikes. Corruption in politics has not lead us to abolish representative government. Instead we try our best to eliminate it, find it where it remains, and prosecute it. As for violence, do you know anything about the history of the labor movement?

I have seen the dismantling of the profession of professor over the last 30 years. Today 80% of college courses are taught be people who are not professors, many of whom are eligible for food stamps and other government benefits. One reason this happened is because professors were not allowed to organize, since they were part of management under the law. However, the other 80% today are not hindered by this law, and we may see more organizing by those who actually do the teaching.

2. My Asynchronous Striptease (Part 2) – No Sacred Cows

from my buddy Steve Davis

2. My Asynchronous Striptease (Part 2) – No Sacred Cows.

My Tail Light Experience

Here is my experience of being profiled: We lived in Memphis, TN. My dad had found a car for our daughter–bright red with dark windows. It looked like something someone in their teens or early twenties would drive. Some people said it looked like something a gangster would drive.

Our daughter’s friends thought it was cool, but she was a little embarrassed and prefered to drive something a little more demur.

I ended up driving her flashy red car. I got pulled over a block from my house one evening. When the officer saw that I was a clean-shaven, untattooed, middle-aged person, he was very polite, as I was in response.

He said he pulled me over because my tail light was out. I got out of the car and went back and looked at it, and we both saw it was working fine. He said, “Well it must be a short, you better get that checked out.”

Yes sir, officer.

Since he had pulled me over, he had to run my licence plate.

Nashville said my licence was expired.

But officer, it has the new sticker right on it. I just got it last week.

“Well, anyone can get a sticker. I’m going to write you a ticket. If you can proof you have a proper registration and paid for this years tags, the court will dismiss it.”

It took me several days of personal visits and phone calls, being sent from the County Courthouse to the city office, and more calls to Nashville. It turned out it was a simple mistake. Someone locally had not properly notified Nashville. Eventually the problem was solved.

But I learned two things. I saw how profiling works–in my case I was profiled because of a flashy car. Second, I saw how bureaucracy works and learned how frustrating it can be.

The Education Bubble is Bound To Bust

Its been about thirty years since our federal and state governments started reducing direct support for higher education and started steering students toward student loans.  Now students commonly leave college with the equivalent of a mortgage payment, a debt many of them can never repay or escape.

Private colleges, and specifically, church-related Christian colleges have bought into the same student-debt funded tuition scheme.

When I entered one such college in another millenium, I never heard of FAFSA.  Typically I would start the fall semester with enough money to pay my tuition, then in January, I might take out a short-term loan from the college, which I was able to repay over the summer and start the cycle again.  I was able to get through more years of graduate study than is profitable in the same way.

Back in those days we were reminded that our tuition was only a token, it only paid a small percentage of the cost of our education.  We were reminded that little old ladies on Social Security and hard working farmers contributed to our institution from their meager savings.  And that was true.

But somewhere in the last few years administrators of Christian colleges found it was easier to raise tuition than to raise support for their students.

Their peers headed for law school or business school might look forward to a lucrative job that would make repayment of their student loans easy.  Most of our students were headed to for far more modest (to put it mildly) salaries, and will be saddled with debt.

Hearing the tragic news about Kayla Mueller this week, I thought about some of my own former students who majored in intercultural studies and are serving people and God overseas, as she did.  These were some of our brightest and most dedicated students.  But many of them have to devote several years to paying off their student loans before than can go and serve in other lands among other cultures.

There will be another economic downturn, and tuition will become unsustainable.  Meanwhile, students are customers paying for a service and are entitled to have it their way.

There are only a handful of colleges that are bucking the trend.  One is Christendom College, a Catholic college in Virginia, and College of the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri.

Let the Earth Bring Forth Life

Sensational headlines get attention, so you can’t blame Salon for the bit of hyperbole in the title of the article God is on the Ropes, about a new theory that claims “Under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life”–certain conditions being those that prevail on a planet such as the earth.

I have been thinking for a while about a couple of verses in Genesis 1.  In the first God says, “Let the earth bring forth vegetation” (1:11).  Then in verse 24 “Let the earth bring forth living creatures (animals).”  Similar is verse 20, “Let the waters team with living creatures.”

God assigns a role in creation to the earth.  Other verses describes God as arranging “certain conditions,” separating the land mass from the oceans, providing an atmosphere, and roles for the sun, moon, and stars.

Genesis 1 uses simple images to describe the process of creation and the sequential development of life on earth as the creator willed.  If the language of science is mathematics, then you would have to say Genesis is unscientific because it does not use scientific formulas.  But there is nothing in Genesis 1 incompatible with what the natural sciences have shown us about the origin and development of life on the earth.

A New Journal–Free Online

A New Journal, the Journal of the Jesus Movement in its Jewish Setting, is available online free, here: 

The last article is a review by Craig Evans of the Jewish Annotated New Testament.

Our Annual Conference, the Western Fellowship of Professors and Scholars

is coming up next weekend, October 10-11.  Here are the presenters and topics:

Russ Dudrey,  “How Bookish is Our Faith?  The Problems of Preaching a Book-Centered Faith to a Non-Literate Generation.”

Loren Decker, “The Bible in an Illiterate Culture-A Historical Perspective”

Alisha Paddock, “Family Metaphors in 1 Thess 2.”

Mark Alterman, “What Kind of Authority is the Bible?”

Les Hardin, “Searching for a Transformative Hermeneutic”

Bill Jenkins, “Deflation of Truth in an Age of Distraction.”

Virgil Warren, “Friends” or “Sons”:  Comments on the Apostasy Question.

Here is the LINK for more information about the conference.