Thursday, October 12, 2017

No Such Thing As Bible Heroes

When I was a kid I went to Sunday School and learned all about the heroes of the Bible.  People like David, Moses, Gideon, Samson, and many others, and all of the amazing things they did through the power of God were brought to life through flannel graph.  I marveled with childish wonder at the strength of Samson, the deadly accuracy of David, and the strategy of Gideon.

The first time I ever read through the Bible cover-to-cover I was around 20 years old.  I remember being shocked that many of the "heroes" I had learned about as a kid weren't really very heroic.  In fact, most of they seemed like downright scumbags!  The picture I had learned about them in Sunday School as a kid was very incomplete.  Yes, Samson was physically strong, but he was also a womanizer, liar, and a vengeful jerk.  Sure, Gideon trusted the Lord and took on more than a hundred thousand Midianites with just 300 men, but he was also narcissistic and bloodthirsty and bent on revenge.  And yes, David did defeat the giant Goliath, vanquish the Philistines, and lead Israel into its golden age, but his personal life was a shambles, consisting of womanizing, adultery, lies, and murder.  

Why was I ever taught that these guys were heroes?  It's no wonder that some people who, like myself, grew up in the church and learned all their Bible stories became disenchanted with the Bible after having read it as adults.  All of those men and women we were told were heroes and who were worthy of emulation seem to be anything but.  In my opinion, the people whom God used in the Bible are decidedly not heroes.  A quick look at the accounts of their lives easily disqualifies them from heroic status.  

The problem is that, in trying to find human heroes throughout the pages of scripture, we have inadvertently overlooked the one true Hero of the Bible, the only One worthy of admiration or emulation: God.  God is the hero of the Bible.  The Bible shows us no other hero but Him.  All of the other characters in the story of the Bible are broken, flawed, damaged, sinful human beings who are empowered by God to perform heroic deeds in spite of their very significant personal moral failings.  If we look to the Bible for human heroes, we won't find many, because human heroes will always have flaws.  But that's not the point of the Bible.  The point of the Bible is to focus our attention on the only Hero who is worthy of praise.   

One of the amazing things about the Bible is its transparency.  "History is written by the victors," as the saying goes, and usually the victors write their history in such a way as to magnify their own strength, courage, power, and glory.  This is not the case when it comes to the Bible, however.  In almost every instance of the Bible's portrayal of a person whom God used for his purposes, you not only get a sense of their God-empowered courageous actions, but also of their significant personal shortcomings.  The Bible bares all when it comes to its heroes: their glorious victories, and their most depraved failings.  

But this reality should not cause us to despair that all of our childhood Sunday School heroes are frauds.  Instead, this reality should serve to magnify God's amazing grace, and leave us in awe and wonder that God can even extend his saving grace and use the scumbags recorded in the pages of scripture for his purposes.  

Think about it: Samson was a man who was only concerned with his own selfish desires.  This led him to womanizing and the loss of innocent life.  But God extended his grace to him, and even used him in the process of delivering the Israelites from their oppressors.  What kind of God does such a thing for such a lowlife as Samson?  Only a truly heroic God could do such a thing.  Or consider Gideon: fueled by bloodlust and a sinful desire for revenge, he went on a rampage and ultimately led his people away from God by creating a false object of worship.  What kind of God could reach down and rescue such a wayward individual?  Only a truly heroic God could do such a thing.  And think about David: his power and lust led him from woman to woman, until he ultimately murdered a woman's husband so he could have her for himself, and then he tried to cover the whole thing up.  Certainly only the most amazing of grace could come into his sleazy, murderous heart and deliver him from such sin.  Finally, think about Jephthah, whom God raised up to deliver Israel from their oppressors, but who was also the barbaric thug that convinced himself that sacrificing his own daughter was the right thing to do.  The kind of grace that is required for his redemption is no doubt inconceivable to the human mind.  

No, there is no such thing as a Bible hero, and that's a good thing.  Because if there were, they wouldn't need grace.  Thank God that all of the people we read about in the Bible are failures.  Thank God that all of them have debilitating character flaws.  Because it is in the contrast between their failures and God's kindness towards them that his grace is most magnified.  In other words, because our Bible "heroes" were such louts, we can more clearly see the true Hero who rescued them through his amazing grace.  

So don't become disillusioned when you read about the failings of the people recorded in scripture, and don't try to fool yourself into thinking that they weren't actually as bad as they were.  These were first class losers.  But don't forget, they're just acting like sinful people, just like the rest of us.  It just so happens that their failings are different than yours and mine, but we are all on the same level when it comes to our need for grace.  

Unfortunately, we sometimes try to sugar-coat the characters of the Bible, especially when we teach their stories to our kids.  We shouldn't.  Instead, we should know them in the fullness of all of their magnificently sinful failures.  Because when we realize who the heroes of the Bible aren't, we'll know who the true Hero is.  The more we can know their (and our own) sin, the more we will know and appreciate God's amazing grace that saves them (and us).  

Monday, October 9, 2017

Digging Deeper: Daughters and Donkeys

Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.  

The biblical concept of holiness is one that is being lost among American Christians, much to our detriment and shame.  Holiness speaks to an "other" quality.  For example, God is holy.  That means that he is utterly unlike anyone or anything else.  He is in a class all his own.  He is perfectly good and righteous, he is completely all-powerful, and his wisdom is unsearchable.  And we could go on and on talking about the ways that God is holy by listing his many attributes and counting all of the ways that he is completely "other."

Since God is holy, he calls his people to be holy as well (Leviticus 11.44-45, 1 Peter 1.16).  That is, God calls his people to be different, to be set apart from the rest - to be "other."  In the Old Testament, in order to make his people set apart or holy, God gave them several laws that they were to obey to show the world that they were different and that they were in a covenant with the true and living God.  In other words, Israel was to stand out from all the other peoples of the earth because of how they lived their relationship with the true God, and the purpose was for all the world to see that they were different - that they were holy like their God was holy.  If a foreign nation interacted with Israel, they could tell that Israel was different simply by the way they lived their lives.  Their holiness (their "otherness") was apparent by how they thought, lived, ate, acted, worshipped, and so on.

The opposite of holiness is what we'll call "worldliness:" an identification with and similarity to the world.  In the Old Testament, God's people - who had been called out, separated, and made holy through their covenant relationship with God - began to forsake holiness when they compromised the requirements of their relationship with God and began to think, look, and act like the world.  The more they looked like the world, the less holy they were.  In other words, the more they looked just like everyone else, the less they looked like God, and the less they fulfilled their duty of being a representative of God to the nations.

This temptation to conform to the world and to not be "other" is one of the main problems of the nation of Israel during the time of the Judges.  They seem to have compromised on everything, from worship, to culture, even to the very foods they ate.  Rather than being a people who have been separated for God, they were quickly turning into a people who looked, thought, acted, and lived just like everyone else - even pagans who worshiped false gods.  The focus of the sermon this past Sunday was to show how this was evident in the lives of Samson and both of his parents, and to warn us from following down the same path.  But there is even more evidence of Israel's tendency toward a lack of holiness that took place before the time of Samson.  Israel had been sliding down the slippery slope of worldliness for generations.  Indeed, as early as the time of Gideon we can begin to see that Israel doesn't look very different from all the other nations they're living with.  They're even worshipping the same gods as the pagan nations, and forsaking their cultural traditions and religious laws and ceremonies that had previously set them apart.

At the end of Judges 12 we read about three of Israel's judges who ruled over Israel and, unfortunately, didn't do much to bring Israel back to the holiness that God called them to.  Ibizan, Elon, and Abdon all judged Israel for a period of years.  There's not much known about these guys, and you probably didn't learn about them through a flannel-graph story in Sunday School when you were a kid.

When it comes to Elon, all we know about him is that he was of the tribe of Zebulun, that he judged Israel 10 years, and that he "died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun" (Judges 12.11-12).  But with Ibzan and Abdon, there are some subtle clues in the text that show us that these two judges weren't too concerned about being "other," but instead were quite content with blending in with the rest of the world.

Since the time of Gideon, it seems that Israel's judges were not necessarily content with just holding the office of "Judge."  Rather, they wanted to be king.  Gideon lived as a king with a harem and had 70 sons by at least 14 women.  That is not how "common" people lived.  Rather, that was the lifestyle of a king.  His son, Abimilech (which means "Son of the King") also wanted to be king, and murdered his 70 brothers to eliminate any competing claims to the throne.  After him, Jephthah agreed to fight for Israel only if he could be its "head" (i.e. "king").  Ibzan and Abdon wanted the same.  They didn't want to be just a "Judge" and represent God's justice and righteousness to their people.  They wanted a bigger piece of the pie.  The whole pie, in fact.  They wanted to be king.

How do we know that?  Daughters and donkeys.

First, Judges 12.9 says that Ibzan "had thirty sons, and thirty daughters..."  Like Gideon, Ibzan had lots of kids.  And to have lots of kids you need, well, lots of wives.  And the only people who had lots of wives in those days were kings - at least supposed kings.  And, like Gideon, this may have even included a harem with concubines.  And in order to feed all of these mouths (wives and children), a person in Ibzan's position would have to have a healthy stream of resources coming in.  Only a king could have those kinds of resources.  Ibzan could have stood out and been holy by judging over his people with humility and justice and righteousness.  But instead he wanted power, so he gathered up as many wives as he could find and had as many children as he could - 60 in total.

Furthermore, when it came time for his children to be married, Ibzan went "outside" of his people.  That is, he gave his daughters in marriage to foreigners, and he brought in foreign women for his sons to marry.  It's not going to be easy to be separate and different from the rest of the world when you're bringing the rest of the world in for your children to put down roots and raise a family with.

Similarly, Abdon disregarded the call to be different and instead went the way of the world.  We know this because "He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys..." (Judges 12.14)  Not only did Abdon follow in Ibzan's footsteps of having lots of children with lots of wives (just like all of the pagan kings), but his sons and grandsons also rode on donkeys.  In the ancient near-east, it was common for kings and nobility to ride on the backs of donkeys for their main mode of transportation. Abdon wouldn't let his travel in just any fashion.  They were sons of the king, after all.  They "deserved" to ride on donkeys.  And the kicker is that they rode on donkeys - just like all the rest of the pagans who lived around them.

God called Ibzan and Abdon to be different, to be set apart from the rest, to be "other."  But when it came down to it, they looked just like the pagans.  You couldn't even tell that they were part of God's people.

Unfortunately, even the church has fallen prey to the temptation to be like the world.  Many churches try to emulate the music, dress, speech, and multiple other aspects of the world all for the sake of being "relevant."  In a very real sense, the modern American church has ceased to be "other."  How do our gatherings differentiate us from the world?  How does the way that we interact with people at home, school, and work differentiate us from everyone else?

Like the Israelites of the Old Testament, and like Ibzan and Abdon, and all the rest of the Judges, God has called us to be holy - to stand out from all the rest because we are like him.  No, we don't live under the Old Covenant as part of the nation of Israel, so we don't follow the laws that they did, or hold the same culture or traditions.  Instead, Christians are called to stand out and be "other" by following the way of Jesus: by obeying God and his word in all things, by loving our enemies, by reaching out to sinners, by helping the poor and sick and hungry.  Jesus has given us the perfect example of what it looks like to be "other."  By emulating his life and death we will surely stand out from the rest of the world.

God wanted Ibzan and Abdon to be different.  He didn't want them to go the same way that all of the other pagan kings of their time were going.  He didn't want them to ride donkeys.  It's not that there was anything inherently sinful about riding a donkey, but he called his people to be different, to be other, to be holy.  God calls you to be different, to be other, to be holy.

There is a tradition in Major League Baseball that when a pitcher takes the field, it is bad luck to step on the foul line.  Every pitcher who takes the field makes a point of stepping over the foul line so as not to incur the bad luck that such an action brings.  In his autobiography, Dave Dravecky, a former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants said that every time he took the field as a pitcher, he made sure that instead of stepping over the foul line, he mashed it with his foot.  He wanted to be different.  wanted to be "other."  He wanted to make a statement that he didn't believe in luck.  Sure, it was just a little thing, a minor statement in the grand scheme of things, but it set him apart.

Even the "little things" of holiness are important, and serve to set God's people apart in the way of Jesus from the rest of the world.  And it makes a difference.  We don't strive for holiness for its own sake, but we strive to be different because our God is different, and we want to be like him.  We want the world to see him through us, through our holiness.

So even if you can have 60 sons and daughters, don't.  God doesn't want you to.  Be different.  And even if your sons and grandsons can ride on donkeys, don't.  God doesn't want them to.  Be different. Be holy.

Thursday, October 5, 2017


 About two months ago I saw a trailer for a yet-to-be-released documentary called "Calvinist."  As a Calvinist myself, and since the trailer was intriguing and looked well done, I preorder a copy of the DVD.  The movie was finally released and I received it and watched it earlier this week.

A Calvinist is a person who adheres to a Reformed understanding of salvation (also called the doctrines of grace, summarized by the acronym TULIP) and the complete sovereignty of God in all things - theology that was developed and propagated by Reformers such as John Calvin and many others.  The documentary does a great job in briefly explaining these doctrines in a creative, entertaining, and very well-produced way (in other words, learning about this theology through this documentary is anything but boring).

An additional purpose of the movie is to look at why Calvinist/Reformed theology has made such a resurgence in American Christianity over the past 20 years or so.  This is where I really connected with the documentary, as it seemed to be telling the story of my adult Christian life.  Almost every instance that led to this resurgence listed in the film has also been evident in my life.  Looking back on my life through the eyes of this film made me grateful to God how he awakened me to these life-giving, Christ-exalting doctrines in my spiritual journey.

First, the documentary says that one of the initiators of the Reformed resurgence was a preacher and teacher named R.C. Sproul.  Sproul, now 78, is a Presbyterian minister who has written countless books and taught on Reformed theology for decades.  In the year 2000 I was 20 years old and working as the janitor at Riverview.  The days of constant mopping, window washing, and vacuuming soon grew long and boring.  So I explored the church library for some listening options and came across a series of R.C. Sproul's teaching on cassette tape (yes, tape).  I began listening mostly just to pass the time while I cleaned the church, but soon became enraptured in what he was saying.  Later, I picked up one of Sproul's books, The Holiness of God which was a game-changer for me.  In this book, Sproul lays out God's holiness in a way that I had never heard before, elevating God to the position of supreme sovereign of the universe, and myself as a worm.  The contrast between his holiness and my own lowliness had never been clearer.  When we understand God's holiness, we get a new appreciation for his sovereignty and how and why he works in the world.  As I look back, this book was my entrance into Reformed theology.

Second, the documentary notes that a particular sermon by a preacher named Paul Washer was instrumental in drawing many people back to the authority of scripture and the call to continual repentance and Christian holiness.  Washer is a former missionary to Peru and is now the leader of a missionary society and itinerant preacher.  The untitled sermon has been unofficially regarded as the "Shocking Youth Message," as it was originally preached at a youth evangelism conference in 2002.  I don't recall how I was first turned on to listening to this sermon, but I do recall, however, sitting at my desk in my office, enraptured by what he was saying, almost in tears, feeling as though I was being punched in the gut over and over by what this man was preaching.  As one commentator I heard put it, "This sermon made me want to get saved - again."  I was so impacted by this sermon, I immediately purchased DVD copies and gave them out to as many people as I could - both Christian and non-Christian alike.  If you've never seen or heard the "Shocking Youth Message," you should stop what you're doing right now and take the next 59 minutes to watch it.  You will be changed by it.

Third, the documentary notes that one of the supreme reasons for the resurgence in Reformed theology over the last two decades or so has been because of the writing and preaching of John Piper. It wasn't until after I was married that I really got into Piper's writing and preaching.  I remember my first exposure to Piper's theology merely through the title of one of his books: The Pleasures of God: God's Delight in Being God.  The title intrigued me.  I had never before considered that God delighted in himself - that he delighted in being God, or that such a being as God had the right to delight in himself.  The content of the book had much more to offer, however, and I was hooked.  I have memories of washing dishes in the first apartment that my wife and I lived in, with John Piper's sermons in my ear buds (I had moved on from cassette tapes by then).  And Piper kept publishing books.  Books upon books.  And I ate them up.  The focus of Piper's writing and preaching, and his contribution to the Reformed resurgence has been to, I think, magnify the sovereignty of God, and how we as his children find our utmost satisfaction and fulfillment when we delight in his ultimate sovereignty.  This overarching message is probably most clearly communicated in Piper's seminal work Desiring God.  In this book you will most clearly read about Piper's flavor of Reformed theology.  Probably the most accessible representation of Piper's theology and its application to everyday life is his brief book Don't Waste Your Life.  If you want a taste of what delighting in the sovereignty of God looks like in your life, you should read this book.  It was significantly influential in my own life and thinking.

It has been interesting to see how my personal spiritual development has influenced my thinking in every day life.  My kids have recently gotten into the music of Petra - an 80's and 90's Christian rock band.  Their 1990 album Beyond Belief is truly a masterpiece and occupies a spot on my personal top 10 list (on cassette tape).  Recently, as I was listening to some of the songs from that album, my kids overheard and have since developed an appreciation for the music, to the extent that it's all they want to listen to nowadays.  Last week I told them that in conjunction with the album, Petra produced a 60 minute movie that told a story with music videos of their songs interspersed, and they wanted to watch it, so we did.  The movie tells the story of two brothers, the younger of which is an up and coming track and field star who is in the process of being recruited by universities and is receiving scholarship offers.  His older brother (who is also his running coach) reveals that he has been diagnosed with cancer.  This revelation infuriates the younger brother, who begins to blame God for all of his personal and family problems.  The older brother maintains his walk of faith, and tries to encourage his younger brother to continue to trust God.  As part of this process, the older brother tries to comfort his younger brother by saying, "God didn't give me this cancer."  This statement, regardless of how comforting a person might find it, is biblically inaccurate (and actually, I don't find it either comforting or encouraging).  This statement implies that God is not sovereign over cancer.  Rather, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign over all things - even horrible things like cancer - and that he either causes them or allows them to happen for his purposes, which, also according to scripture, are always for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8.28).  God is sovereign over everything - even cancer.  And that should change how we think about cancer: it is not stronger than God; it is not out of his control; cancer is not sovereign - God is.  That truth is encouraging; that truth is comforting.  The idea that God is not sovereign over cancer is, to me, terrifying.  If God is not sovereign over cancer, then it is an unsolvable mystery that can only lead to fear and doom.  Praise the Lord that he is, indeed, sovereign over cancer.  (Note: to show how even cancer is under God's control and can be used for his purposes and for our good, John Piper has written an excellent article called "Don't Waste Your Cancer."  Even if you don't have cancer, you should read it.  It is an excellent example of how Reformed theology is practically applied to every day life.)

In this documentary I saw a lot of myself, and the journey I took to get to where I am today.  This is just a snippet of what it covers.  I'm glad for the release of this documentary, and I hope a lot of people will see it.  If a documentary on the resurgence of a theological stream doesn't sound very interesting to you, you'll be surprised at how engrossing this film is, and by how much you enjoy it.  You should see it (the film is available on DVD in the Riverview library), and come to know the doctrines of grace which most beautifully and gracefully describe our God and the sovereign, glorious salvation he offers.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Digging Deeper: Did Jephthah Really Sacrifice His Daughter?

Each Monday I'm going to try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I just preached on the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.  Hopefully this series will be helpful to some, and interesting to those who want to dig deeper into the text.

The first installment in this series will center around Judges 11.1-12.7.  These verses contain the story of Jephthah - one of the judges of Israel.  The most shocking and controversial portion of the story is verses 11.30-40.  In these verses Jephthah vows that if the Lord gives him victory over the Ammonites, then he will sacrifice as a burnt offering to the Lord the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him upon his return.  No doubt Jephthah assumed that one of his animals would be the first thing out of his house to meet him, but this was tragically not the case.  Instead, Jephthah's daughter was the first one to meet him.  Being a man of his word, Jephthah laments that he will now have to offer up his daughter as a burn offering to the Lord.  But does he, really?

Many people have interpreted this part of Jephthah's story differently.  Some scholars believe that, instead of sacrificing his daughter, Jephthah merely dedicated her to the service of the Lord, perhaps in some fashion at the Tabernacle or in some other means.  There are several reasons that many have arrived at this interpretation.

1. God does not honor human sacrifice.  The primary reason that some believe that Jephthah didn't actually kill his daughter as a sacrifice is because the Old Testament clearly prohibits the practice of human sacrifice.  "You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods." (Deuteronomy 12.31)  God hates human sacrifice.  He finds it to be "abominable."  Surely God would not have been pleased with Jephthah's vow, and the fulfillment of said vow.  Jephthah would have known that, and would have backed off when the first thing to come out of his house to greet him was not an animal, but instead a human being.  Or certainly God would have done something to prevent Jephthah from carrying out his vow literally.  But, still wanting to be faithful to his vow, Jephthah "sacrificed" his daughter to the Lord by dedicating her to his service for the rest of her life.

2. Jephthah's daughter mourns her virginity.  When Jephthah's pronouncement is made ("Alas, my daughter!  You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me.  For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow." Judges 11.35), his daughter's concern doesn't seem to be her impending death, but instead her virginity.  In fact, she asks her father to give her two months so she and her friends can go up into the mountains and weep not because of her impending demise, but because of her virginity.  Many have understood this as meaning that part of the service to which she would be dedicated (in place of being offered as a burnt sacrifice) would require life-long celibacy.  Thus the mourning she does is for her impending life-long commitment to celibacy (not being married, not having children, not having the same fulfillment that others might have, etc.), and not her death.

3. The occasion became a national holiday.  A third piece of evidence for this interpretation is that the Israelites used the occasion as a type of holiday.  Every year the "daughters of Israel" would remember Jephthah's daughter and her virginity (Judges 11.39-40).  Had Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering, it is very unlikely that Israel would have marked such a barbaric and godless occasion on their yearly calendars.  It seems more likely that this remembrance was of the occasion of her forced celibacy, not her death.

Others, however, have not found this evidence persuasive, and I count myself among them.  It is my opinion that Jephthah did actually sacrifice his daughter to the Lord as a burnt offering.  I affirm, however, that God abhors human sacrifice, and that it is prohibited in the Old Testament Law, and that the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter was not pleasing to God.  But this doesn't mean that Jephthah didn't do it.  Many people have committed heinous acts in God's name - both in the Bible and throughout history - and we should count Jephthah among them for burning his daughter on an altar.  In his wisdom and for his purposes, God did not stop them from doing the evil deeds they did in his name.  There are several reasons why I believe this to be the case with Jephthah.

1. The plain reading of the text indicates that Jephthah carried through with his original vow.  When interpreting the Bible, there's a rule of thumb that is almost always true: "the plain reading of the text is almost always the correct reading."  Nowhere in the story of Jephthah is it even ever intimated that Jephthah did something other with his daughter than what he said he would do.  In fact, it is stated overtly: "And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made."  Any attempt to posit that Jephthah did something else with his daughter other than sacrifice her as a burnt offering is speculation.  The most plain reading of the text is that Jephthah did indeed sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord.

2. Jephthah's spiritual life was syncretistic.  Religious life in Israel during the time of the judges was overwhelmingly dominated by syncretism.  Syncretism is the combining of ideas and beliefs into one.  Israel had become so influenced by other cultures and religions that their religion was virtually indistinguishable from other religions.  All of the "Gods" of the peoples looked pretty much the same.  This meant that the Israelites regarded Yahweh - the true God - as being pretty much one in the same, or at least on the same level, as all the other gods that "existed."  Other gods demanded human sacrifices, so it follows that the syncretistic thinking of the Israelites led them to believe that Yahweh also delighted in human sacrifice.  Thus, regarding God simply as a god, Jephthah makes the mistake of thinking that Yahweh desired human sacrifice.  There seems to be a good amount of contextual evidence for this.  First, Israel's main problem in the book of Judges is idolatry.  They mix themselves into other cultures and religious thinking all the time.  It is the perpetual thorn in their side.  Second, Gideon appears to make a religious symbol that, at least to some extent, is to represent God or his will (Judges 8.27).  This is blasphemy.  God is spirit, and is not represented in any symbol, statute, painting, or otherwise.  Third, Jephthah himself appears to equate Yahweh, the true God, with Chemosh, the false God of the Ammonites by intimating that both "Gods" have the power to bless their people with physical resources such as land.  In Jephthah's mind, Yahweh and Chemosh are on the same level, so then to him it stands to reason that Yahweh would approve of human sacrifice just like Chemosh did.  I believe that syncretistic thinking led Jephthah to make his tragic, profane, and detestable offering.

3. Human sacrifice fits with Jephthah's pattern of life and behavior.  When considered as a whole, there's not much (if anything) about Jephthah's life that is commendable or worthy of admiration or emulation.  Indeed, it is difficult to find a single redeeming quality in the man's story in scripture.  While of course serious and reprehensible, human sacrifice is not the only mark against Jephthah.  He has many other issues that would serve to condemn him in the eyes of God.  Jephthah's story in Judges appears to be characterized by self-centeredness, wickedness, and a lust for power.  If this is true, and if his thinking was so deluded so as to bring about his other sins recorded in scripture, then it certainly isn't that much of a leap to think that he was led by his faulty thinking to the sacrificing of his own daughter.  Is it really so surprising that a selfish, wicked, power-hungry warlord would sacrifice his own daughter if it served his self-centered purposes?

In Hebrews 11.32 we read that Jephthah's faith is commended.  It is my belief that many have attempted to explain away Jephthah's barbaric action of sacrificing his daughter in an attempt to justify him, or to make him seem not as bad as he looks, as though Jephthah would have been a stand-up fellow if it weren't for that human sacrifice business.  After all, how can God save such a vile, wicked human being?  How could God justify using Jephthah for his purposes when he has done such horrible things?  This kind of thinking is unnecessary, though, and in fact, diminishes the glory of the gospel.  The mystery of the gospel is that God is a God of infinite grace who pays for the debt of sinners - horrible sinners.  All sin is a horrendous offense against a holy God, from white lies, to pirating music or television from the internet, to human sacrifice.  And God's grace can and does cover them all through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin.  Rather than justify Jephthah by diminishing the severity of his sin, I think an honest accounting of this text rather serves to magnify the grace of God.  God's grace can cover any sin.  Even the sin of child sacrifice.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Popular Across Facebook

Over the past few weeks I've noticed that Facebook has a new feature.  Stories and videos pop up in my news feed with the title "Popular Across Facebook."  No doubt our internet overlords at Facebook have determined that these videos and stories are ones that I am likely to read or watch based on other links that I have clicked in my social media browsing history, so these stories and videos are supposedly tailored to my interests.

But rather than identifying with these stories and videos and their popularity "across Facebook," I find them repulsive.  I hate them.

The reason I hate them is that they are filled with messages designed to get me to believe in false gods.  They are videos of "pastors" and "preachers" of a false gospel that has nothing to do with the God of the Bible.  You see, based on my browsing history, I've been lumped into a culturally Christian sub-category, and internet codes have determined that the popular stories and videos that I will most likely watch and/or read are Christian ones.  And so Facebook has shown me videos that are popular amongst the Christian sub-category.  The only problem is that the Christianity peddled (and I use that word intentionally) and espoused by the majority of these preachers and their videos looks nothing like biblical Christianity.

Rather, they preach a gospel of prosperity.  They preach a gospel of healing - but only if your faith is good enough.  They preach a gospel of God as a life-enhancement program that will help you live up to your fullest potential so that you can get that promotion at work, get a new car and house, and finally have fulfillment in life.  They preach a gospel that makes God out to be a good luck charm, rather than the sovereign Lord of the universe.

In short, these videos that are so "popular across Facebook" are promoting false gospels and the worship of false gods.  Indeed, it is accurate to say that idolatry is popular across Facebook.

Ancient Israel was a people who struggled with idolatry.  They were surrounded by other nations and people-groups who had their own ethnic deities, and Israel began to regard those false gods of other nations as being on par with the one true God.  They had a low view of God.  They didn't regard him as the one true and living God of the universe who reigns and rules over all and to whom all submission is to be given.  Rather, they regarded him as a casual deity who could help them live their best life now.  And if he didn't help them live their best life now, then they didn't have to worry because there were a plethora of other gods waiting in the wings that they could look to for help.  To them, God was merely a good luck charm, or maybe a butler who they could rely on to help them and do nice things for them.

It's no wonder that they left him when they got a better offer from somewhere else.

This is why Israel fell into idolatry - not because there was some kind of better power in these false gods, but because they had a low view of the one true God.  They thought he was simply one god among many.  Sure, he could help you now and again, but next month you might get a better offer from a different god, and so you go where the winds of idol worship take you.

Don't be fooled into thinking that idolatry was an ancient Israelite problem.  It's just as prevalent today in our culture as ever it was, and it is even existent in the American church.  Many people who call themselves Christians treat God as their butler.  They're not going to submit to him, but instead they want God to submit himself to their desires.  Sure, they might call on him when they need him, but when things are going alright in their lives, then they're going to pursue their own desires.  They're not going to concern themselves with what he wants from them - at least not until they might need him to get out of a scrape.  And if God won't give them what they want, then they'll go and find someone or something who will.

That is idolatry.  And it is no different than the idolatry with which Israel struggled throughout the Old Testament, except maybe that our idolatry doesn't involve worshipping a statue made out of stone or metal.  I heard a pastor say once that the most idolatrous time of the week in this country is at 10:30 on Sunday mornings, because there are many people who go to church to worship a god of convenience, or a god who will be their good-luck charm, a god who serve them.

And the reason for 21st century American idolatry is the exact same as it was for Israel: we have a low view of God.  As evidenced by the videos that are popular across Facebook, so many people view Go as a life enhancement program, or as a good luck charm, or even as a butler who exists to serve their every need.  But that is a false god, not the God of the Bible.  And these false gods are peddled to the American Christian subculture, and people eat it up.

The reason that many people - even Christians - are prone to idolatry is that they have no knowledge of the God of the Bible because they have forsaken his word.  It's easy to see a slick, silver-tongued pastor on Facebook and fall in love with his message about how God wants you to be healthy and wealthy, because we are prideful creatures, and if we're honest, the idea of being healthy and wealthy is very attractive to us.  And such we have such a minuscule foundation of biblical truth in our heads and hearts we will quickly move our trust and devotion to whichever god can satisfy our selfish desires.  Put simply, because we do not know the true God according to his word, we will fall to any false god that we find attractive.

1 Peter 3.18 says that "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  God wants nothing more than for all people to come to repentance and faith so that he can save them.  But he will not save them if they come to him as a good luck charm.  He will not save them if they are only coming to him to live their best life now.  He will not save them if they come to him to find health, wealth, and prosperity.  He calls people to repent and believe and to worship him in spirit and in truth, according to his word.

God will not compete with the false idols that are popular across Facebook.  He calls us to know him in truth, and in order to know him we must turn to his word.  It is easy to spot a false idol when we know the real thing.  Regardless of how "popular across Facebook" these idols are, they need to be smashed.

Know yourself.  Know the Bible.  Know God.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hurricanes and the Cross

Over the past few weeks parts of the country have been hit by two category four hurricanes: Texas, devastated by Hurricane Harvey, and Florida, which most recently felt the impact of Hurricane Irma.  Harvey has claimed at least 70 lives, and Irma more than 40, and untold hundreds of millions of dollars in property has been damaged or destroyed.  In the wake of these natural disasters, it has been a wonderful encouragement to see the world in general and the church in specific rising up to meet the needs of our fellow human beings.  Humanitarian efforts and the prayers of thousands have gone out to assist those whose lives have been so violently and drastically changed by these weather events.  When we help those in need we have the glorious opportunity to image our life-giving God who likewise provides for us in our time of need.  Let us show him to those who suffer as a result of these hurricanes by helping them in their time of need.

When natural disasters such as these occur, it can be tempting to try and discern the reason(s) for why they have happened, or why, in particular, God has either allowed or caused them to take place.  Unfortunately, some (usually high profile) Christian celebrities sometimes foolishly connect the occurrence of natural disasters to sinful behaviors or political ideologies.  But the Bible does not tell us how or why we should link specific natural disasters to other circumstances in the world.  In other words, we have no biblical justification for saying "Hurricane Harvey happened because _______________."  We simply have no basis for knowing specifically why a natural disaster has taken place.

That being said, the Bible does guide our thinking when it comes to the occurrence of natural disasters.  Although it does not give us specific reasons why a disaster occurs, it does give us at least four general principles that we should consider, especially in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

1. Natural disasters remind us that this world is not as it should be.  All of us intrinsically know that when people have been killed by a natural disaster, it is not right; it is not good; it is not the way the world was meant to operate.  God created the world perfectly, and in his perfect creation there were no natural disasters.  The entrance of sin into the world brought with it death and destruction.  The world became a dangerous place to live when mankind fell into sin.  Since then, the world has been "subjected to futility" and in "bondage to corruption," and has been waiting eagerly for the time when it will be remade once more into a perfect dwelling place where that corruption and futility will be no more. (Rom. 8.20-22)  When we hear about the death and destruction that has take place as a result of the recent hurricanes, it is a reminder to us that the world is a sinful, fallen place where bad things happen.

2. Natural disasters remind us that Jesus is coming back.  Over the past couple of weeks I have seen several social media posts about how the existence of these two very severe hurricanes so close in proximity to one another is a "sign of the times," or in other words, a fulfillment of biblical prophecy that Jesus' return is more eminent than it was prior to the hurricanes or had the hurricanes not occurred.  It is true that natural disasters such as these remind us that Jesus is coming back, but it is not accurate to say that his return is more eminent now that the hurricanes have taken place.  When the Bible speaks of "signs of the times" it does not do so in such a way as to give us clues about the exact date or hour of Jesus' return, but rather as a general reminder that he is coming to recreate the heavens and the earth into a glorious dwelling where life will flourish and death and destruction will be abolished.  Hurricanes and other natural disasters point us to his future return, and encourage us to long for his return and for things to be made right again.

3. Natural disasters remind us that we're all going to die.  We are all close to death, be it by a natural disaster or at the hands of a drunk driver, or simply an accident.  In Luke 13 Jesus comments on an accidental disaster that had taken place in Jerusalem: a tower had collapsed and killed 18 people.  Jesus says that it was not for any specific sin that these people were killed by the tower collapse.  They were not more evil than others.  The tower simply fell on them fell on them.  In the past year I personally have lost two acquaintances due to accidental circumstances: one by a drunk driver, and the other by an accidental drowning.  Both of those acquaintances were relatively healthy men in the prime of their lives who, on the day of their deaths, certainly did not plan on their lives ending.  But the reality is that death is close to each of us, every day.  When we think about natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it should remind us that we are all close to death, and that one day, much sooner than we think, it will be our time to die.

4. Natural disasters push us towards the cross.  Natural disasters not only remind us that we are all going to die some day, but they also encourage us to be ready to die.  Because we live in a world that has been disastrously affected by sin, and because death is close to each of us simply because we get out of bed in the morning, it behooves us to be ready to face it.  Again in Luke 13, as Jesus comments on the collapse of the tower that killed 18 Jerusalem citizens, Jesus says that the lesson to be learned from such a tragedy is to repent - to turn from our sin.  When we see suffering as a result of natural tragedy, we should realize that our time is coming, and that we need to be ready for it.  Each of us were born into a sinful state, separated from God.  In that natural, sinful state we are not able to live at peace with God.  But God has reconciled this - our most basic human need - by sending his Son into the world to live a perfect life and die a perfect death, and then rise from the dead.  By grace through faith in Jesus, we can be ready for when our time comes.  When we hear reports of death and destruction, we should be reminded of the folly of sin and our own need for redemption, and cling ever tighter to the cross and the redemption offered by and through the one who hung there.

In the wake of these recent disasters, the church has a wonderful opportunity to be Jesus to the world.  We can be his hands and feet as we meet the needs of those who have been touched by tragedy and loss, and we can be his witnesses to this world that is devastated by death and destruction of the life-giving, glorious truth of the gospel: death is coming for each of us, but it is not the end.  There is a Savior who will rescue us from its effects so that we need not fear when the rain comes and winds blow.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Get In The Game

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to coach my son's baseball team.  We had 13 players on our team, but could only play 10 in the field each inning.  This meant that each inning a few kids had to sit on the bench.  So I arranged our defensive scheme in such a way that everyone on our team would have equal amounts of time playing in the field and sitting on the bench.

But then, a few games into the season, something strange happened.  Some kids on our team would come up to me in the middle of the game and ask, "Coach, can I sit on the bench this inning?"  This question caught me off guard because, in my mind, our players were on a baseball team to play baseball, not to sit on the bench and not play baseball.  So I gathered my team around me one day and  told them, "If you want to sit on the bench during a game, I will certainly let you sit on the bench.  Now, because we have extra players, someone always has to sit on the bench.  But it should not be your desire or your goal to sit on the bench.  We are here to play baseball, not to sit on the bench.  So if you want to sit on the bench, fine.  Because I want players in the field who want to play baseball."

The Christian life is a lot like that.  Serving God with our lives is a lot like that.  In his wisdom, God has chosen to use his people to carry out his purposes in this world.  God calls people to serve him with their lives and to do what he has told them to do.  Sometimes, however, the things that God calls us to do aren't easy, and they don't gain us any recognition or notoriety for doing them.  Sometimes God callous to do things that we might rather not do.  And many times, a lot of Christians would rather "sit on the bench" than get in the game and be a part of what God is doing in the world.

The book of Esther is about a girl who has a choice to get involved in what God is doing in the world.  Someone was trying to exterminate all the Jews in the land, and Esther had it within her capacity to get involved in God's rescue plan for her people, but getting involved could mean personal sacrifice on her part, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to commit to that.  So Esther's cousin sent her a message and effectively said, "If you won't get involved in what God is doing to rescue these people, then God will find someone who will.  Now which would you rather be?  The kind of person who gets involved in hat God is doing in the world, or the kind who sits not eh sidelines while someone else takes your place?"

If God has called you to do something that you don't necessarily want to do, or something that you don't feel called or equipped for, do it anyway.  God will give you what you need in order to do what he wants you to do.  He will equip and resource you with what you need to accomplish his purposes.  And he will go with you to help you.  Don't just sit around; get involved in what God is doing in the world.

And you know what?  If you don't, he'll find someone who will.  If you're not eager to do what God has said to do, then God will go and find someone who is, and leave you sitting on the bench, twiddling your thumbs.  I don't know about you, but I don't want my legacy to be that when God called, I stayed home.  I want my legacy to be that when God called, I jumped into the fray; I got to work; I went to battle; I was a part of what God was doing in the world.  When I look back on my life, I don't want to be remembered as someone who thought about it so long that by the time I made a decision, the opportunity was over.

We are here to serve God, not to sit on the bench.  If you want to sit on the bench, then don't be surprised when you look back at your life and feel like you've never accomplished anything for the Lord because you never wanted to be in the game.

Unfortunately, one of the main excuses that people use to disregard the call of God is to say that they don't "feel led" to do something that God has directed them to do.  For some reason a feeling of calling is often used as a litmus test for Christian obedience.  This needs to change.  The Bible is full of examples of people that God used that almost certainly didn't "feel led" to do what God had said, but they did it anyway.  Ask Jonah if he felt led to go to Nineveh.  Ask Isaiah if he was excited about going to preach to a people whom he knew would reject him and his message.

Several months ago the Babylon Bee posted a satirical article that is an all-too-real representation of the way most Christian's respond to God's call.  That is, we tend to be eager to follow God when it involves doing something that we enjoy doing, or doing something that will gain us accolades or recognition.  But the reality is that serving God with our lives is not necessarily easy, and it doesn't necessarily include doing things that we enjoy doing.  But the question is not whether we will enjoy what God has said to do, but whether or not we want to be a part of his plan and purpose in this world.

God has a plan and purpose in the world that he is constantly working out.  And in his wisdom, he has decided to use us - his people - to carry out his purposes.  Ultimately it is God's power that accomplishes those purposes, but the way God moves is through his people who are willing and eager to obey his voice.  Through those who are willing, the Lord goes out into the world; the Lord shakes the earth; the mountains quake when God's people say, "Here am I!  Send me!"

Monday, July 3, 2017

Baseball, Ice Cream, and Hope

This summer it has been my privilege to coach my son's 9-10 year old little league baseball team. It's been a long and rough season for the West St. Paul A's, as we started the season 0-14.  Problems at the plate and in the field have plagued our team, but our players have been improving as the season goes along, which is really the most important thing.  But wins have been hard to come by for our team.  

A couple of weeks ago we played our regularly scheduled game, and something strange happened: we took the lead in the first inning.  After the inning was over, we were ahead 3-2.  And then the next inning came and we added on to that lead.  By the last inning of the game, the score was 13-4 in our favor.  As the coach I was excited because I really wanted our team to get a taste of victory, and to be able to celebrate a job well done together, and to finally be able to say that we won a game.  
I had previously told our team that at the time of our first win, I would buy them all ice cream from the snack bar located at the ballpark.  So during this game, before the last inning, I called my wife over to the dugout and told her to get ready to buy the treats for our team at the conclusion of the game.  "But don't buy them yet," I said.  "I don't know yet if we're going to win."  The other team had not yet completed their last turn at bat.  I hoped we were going to win, but I just couldn't be sure.  We had had leads in games before, but the other teams came back and beat us.  Could we hold on to this lead and secure the victory?  I didn't know, but I hoped so. 

Then the opposing team came up for their last at-bats.  They scored a run.  Then another.  Then another.  But finally, we were able to shut them down and came away with the win, 13-7.  Now that our victory was certain, I looked over at my wife and gave her the signal to go buy the ice cream!  There were smiles all around.  

When the Bible talks about hope it does not talk about it in the way that I hoped for our team to win that game.  My hope for winning was uncertain - it was a possibility, but it was never guaranteed.  The Bible talks about hope in a very different way: biblical hope is a confident and eager expectation of something certain.  

The foundation for biblical hope is not the skill of little league baseball players or the law of averages, but the character and nature of God.  If I hope that our baseball team will win the season tournament at the end of the summer, my hope will be founded on the ability of the players to win baseball games (which has not been a firm foundation thus far!).  Or, think about that promotion at work that you are hoping to get.  What is the foundation of your hope?  The approval of your boss, or your sales numbers, or your seniority level, or whatever.  When it comes down to it, those are all very shaky foundations upon which to place your hope. 

Biblical hope is founded on the character and nature of God.  God is always faithful to his promises, and he will always do what is right.  As Christians, we look into the future with hope that is founded upon who God has said he is in his word, and what he has said he will do.  This means that when we are in trouble and hope that God will deliver us, our hope is very secure because God has promised to deliver us, and he is always faithful.  Or if we are unjustly treated we hope that the wrong will be made right, and our hope is very secure because God is a God of justice.  

Psalm 43.5 says, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."  As the author of these words thinks about the problems in his life, he knows that there is no reason for his soul to be down cast, or for him to suffer inner turmoil if his hope indeed is in God.  Because hope in the one, true, faithful God of the Bible is not "iffy."  It's not a gamble; it's not a 50/50 chance.  Instead, it's a sure thing, because that's the kind of God that God is.  He is a God who keeps his promises and does what he says he is going to do.

It would have been foolish of me to buy the ice cream treats for our team before the game was even played, because my hope of winning would be based on their ability and effort.  But living and walking in hope in God being true to his promises is not foolish - in fact, it's wise and prudent, because God never slumbers nor sleeps.  There is nothing that will keep him from keeping his promises to his people.  We can know that we are hoping in God when our lives begin to take on the characteristics of someone who is looking forward to a future "payoff" of God's faithfulness with eager and confident expectation, whether that happens in this life or the next.  The question is, what should my life look like if I am living with an eager and confident expectation for God to be faithful to his promises?  This is what it means to hope in God, and to live a life that is characterized by hope.  

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Exclusion of Inclusion (or, The Intolerance of Tolerance)

One can't help but chuckle to oneself when considering how often those who hold to the "tolerance" and "inclusion" doctrines find themselves in violation of the same.  Inclusion of all people and all causes simply isn't possible (it's a logical contradiction), and it's funny (and sad) to see when those who fight to be inclusive come to the grim reality that their worldview collapses in on itself when taken to its logical conclusion.

The most recent example of this played out locally this past week.  Gay Pride Parade organizers uninvited the Minneapolis Police Department from participation in this year's pride parade, much to the chagrin of the Minneapolis Police Chief, Janee Harteau, who is herself a lesbian.  Parade organizers uninvited the police department because of the recent verdict in the Philander Castile shooting.  The reason the police department was uninvited?  Because parade organizers don't want to exclude those offended by Castile's shooting and the not guilty verdict given to Geronimo Yanez - a police officer.  Parade organizers apparently felt that to "include" the police department would "exclude" those who protest law enforcement in general.  In order to "include" those who were affected by the Castile shooting and verdict, parade organizers decided to "exclude" the police department.

Chief Harteau, however, took exception to this "exclusion" and said that she was "beyond disappointed" by the decision of the parade organizers.  It became a flap in the media, and parade organizers reversed their decision and re-invited the police department to take part in the parade.  Parade organizers released a statement that said, in part: "...we received input from impacted parties and through this input we recognize this decision has made members of the law enforcement community feel excluded, which is contrary to our mission to foster inclusion.  Our intent is and was to respect the pain that the people of color and transgender communities have experienced as of late, but our original approach fell short of our mission" (emphasis mine).

So, initially Pride leaders excluded law enforcement in order to foster the inclusion of people of color.  But now, having been snubbed, law enforcement put pressure on the Pride leaders to be re-included but at the expense of people of color, whose sensibilities have now been excluded.  So much for "inclusion."

Whenever you try to include some, you will - by necessity - exclude others.  It's just the way the world works.  A child is able to follow this logic, and also to find the fatal flaw in a worldview that goes against it.  But nevertheless, this is the prevailing worldview for a startling amount of people in our society.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Death Is the Ultimate Form of Healing

When I was a teenager in high school I had an unofficial spiritual mentor named Al.  Although I had grown up in the church, I was a baby Christian at the time, and Al was a fount of biblical wisdom that I quickly latched on to.  Al even spent some of his time in an informal discipleship group with myself and a few other teenage boys, talking about science, God, the Bible, and anything else we wanted to talk about.  Al was a retired biology teacher at Henry Sibley High School, so the conversations of the group often turned to matters of science and faith, particularly within Al's discipline of biology.  

Once, during a discussion on biology, Al said something that has stuck with me ever since.  We were talking about the human body and its ability to heal itself and be healed by medicine, but then Al said, "Death is the ultimate form of healing."  To be honest, this statement perplexed me initially, as the notion that the physical process of death could be considered a form of healing was completely foreign to me at the time.  When I thought of healing, I thought of a person getting better, or recovering from an illness or injury through time and medicine.  And when I thought of death I thought of disease or injury so severe that it caused the body to cease its functions, and that medicine had failed.  To me, death seemed like the exact opposite of healing.  

But as I've considered Al's words over the years and have continued to study the Bible, it has become apparent to me that Al's words can only be understood and appreciated from a Christian worldview.  The Bible teaches that Jesus has defeated death, and that Christians who are trusting in Jesus will inherit eternal life at the time of their physical death.  In heaven there is no pain, no disease, no injury, and no death.  Those things exist on earth, but not in heaven.  On earth we are plagued by illness and disease, injuries and weak bodies that are susceptible to germs and bacteria.  In heaven, none of those things exist.  When a believer goes to heaven, all of those earthly afflictions that plague our bodies are instantly healed through physical death.

There are many biological and medical conditions that can plague our bodies on earth, for which there is no cure.  Speaking personally, I have a skin condition that I've been told will linger on for the duration of my natural life.  There is no cure.  But some day, when I die, I will be healed of this condition, and the means by which I will be healed will be my death.  My death will result in my ultimate healing.  Similarly, my dad has lived with the effects of polio since he was seven years old.  At his death he will be healed of his affliction.  He doesn't want to die, necessarily, but I know that he is looking forward to this healing.  

Just this last week, a 98 year old saint and member of Riverview passed on to be with God in heaven.  For years she had been struggling with the effects of living in a 90+ year old body, and she was tired and ready to go to heaven, so she had been praying for that to happen.  A couple weeks ago, however, she fell and broke her pelvis, and was put in hospice care, suffering from severe pain every day.  She continued to pray that God would heal her - by allowing her to die.  And God did.  God healed her of her pain by taking her to be with him, where there is no such thing as old age and the complications that come with it, and there is no such injury as a broken pelvis.

In Psalm 40 David describes himself as having fallen into the "pit of destruction" and a "miry bog." (Psalm 40.2)  He's not speaking literally here, but rather that the circumstances of his life are like living neck-deep in a slimy swamp.  He asks God to help him, and as he awaits God's deliverance, he considers truth about God's mercy, love, and faithfulness.  He says, "As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me!" (Psalm 40.11)

When we think of our physical healing, I think it's safe to say that we don't often think of being healed through death.  We tend to think that God's unrestrained mercy and steadfast love and faithfulness will manifest itself in our lives through the restoration of our physical bodies.  We think of God using doctors and medicine to restore our bodies to their original health before we became ill, and indeed, this is often the case.  It seems evident that David expected God to deliver him from his physical circumstances and restore his body and condition to the way it was before he suffered this affliction that tossed him into the "pit of destruction."  And if and when we are restored to a healthy physical disposition, then we declare that God's mercy has indeed been unrestrained, and that his steadfast love and faithfulness have preserved us.  

The error we make in this thinking, however, is that God would be any less merciful or loving or faithful if he healed us of our afflictions through death.  In fact, as my mentor Al implied, God's mercy, love, and faithfulness are most fully realized in death, when a believer is removed from this life and is joined with Jesus in paradise.  God does indeed use the process of physical death to heal us of our afflictions, and healing through death is a good thing.  

But then, why seek physical healing?  If death is such a wondrous release, why not just speed along the process and take my own life?  Just a couple of years ago, Brittany Maynard gained widespread attention for her assertion that she would end her own life if and when the circumstances surrounding her cancer became too difficult to live with.  She fulfilled her plans, and took her own life as a means of ending the pain and suffering she was experiencing.  The act of taking one's life, however, is not a result of a Christian or biblical worldview.  We do not have power over life and death and healing. Only God does.  Only God gets to make those kinds of decisions.  Even when we suffer, we trust that God knows what is best in matters of healing, life, and death.  We have no authority to take our own lives.  Only God has the power and authority to give life, and only God has the authority to take it away.  We must not presume to be God and take life.  

This way of thinking should help us to reframe the way we think about death, especially when a Christian dies who has been suffering from an illness or unpleasant circumstances.  In the example of my 98 year-old friend who passed away this week, her death brings sadness, but also much relief and joy that she has been healed of her pain.  When we find ourselves in the "pit of destruction," we remember that God's mercy toward us will be unrestrained, and that his steadfast love and faithfulness will ever preserve us.  And we pray that God will restore our bodies to a good physical condition in the here and now.  But if he does not, we await and long for his unrestrained mercy to us at the time of our death, trusting that God will give us the exact kind of healing that we need. 

Just a couple of years after I left high school, my mentor Al was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away shortly thereafter, forever healed of the cancer that afflicted his body.  He was pulled up out of the pit of destruction once and for all.  In his death, the Lord's mercy was fully unrestrained, and his steadfast love and faithfulness was proved in its most full way.  

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Voice

I woke up to terrible new today.  My sister and a friend of mine both texted me to tell me that Chris Cornell had died.  I couldn't believe it.  I have been following Chris Cornell to one degree or another for the past 23 years.  I couldn't believe he was dead.  One of the greatest rock and roll voices of my generation was gone.  And in the hours that followed, it was discovered that his death was a a result suicide by hanging.  What a tragedy.  I'm still having trouble accepting it as I write this.

It's interesting how things affect you.  I've never met Chris Cornell personally.  I've seen him in person at four concerts over the past 10 years, but that's it.  It's not like we were close, or that he even knew I existed.  But following him and listening to his music for the past 20+ years makes me feel like I know him.  And as recently as just a couple weeks ago, I was listening to his most recent album and thinking to myself about how much I was looking forward to whatever it would be that he released next.  The man truly had a musical uniqueness that would be difficult or even impossible to duplicate.

That being said, I've tried to duplicate it.  There are several musical artists that I've tried to copy in my own musical pursuits - people that I have tried to emulate in my own singing and guitar playing.  Chris Cornell was number 2 on that list.  The way he sang was perfect.  I tried to sound like him when I sang (although, of course, I paled in comparison).

Equally tragic was that he seemed to have his life together in a way that many of his peers from that same era of music didn't.  Curt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Scott Weiland all died, mostly due to drug and alcohol problems.  Chris Cornell also went through a time of substance abuse, but came out of it.  He seemed to be doing well in his personal life.  He was married and had two children.  Apparently there was more going on than anyone realized.

23 years ago my seventh grade year was coming to a close, which coincided with the grunge music explosion of the early 90's.  Grunge music was all the rage, and anyone who was anyone at my junior high school was growing their hair out and wearing flannel shirts, and I was one of them.  I scooped up the very little money I had made mowing the lawns of neighbors and went to the local music store, intending to purchase my very own piece of grunge culture.  I had heard Pearl Jam and Nirvana before, and was a fan, but thought that purchasing one of their albums would be too risky, as my parents still kept a somewhat short leash on the music I listened to (although, as the third child the restrictions placed upon me weren't as tight as those placed on my sisters), and I thought they wouldn't approve of me owning an album by either of those bands - they were common enough that I think my parents had heard of them by that time, and didn't approve.  I decided to buy an album by a lesser-known band, and I hoped the music would be innocuous enough so as to not draw the criticism of my parents.  The album I choose was "Superunknown" by Soundgarden, on cassette.  It was the first album I had ever purchased with my own money, of my own accord.

I brought the tape home and showed it to my sister Susan, who was also into grunge music, although she was in high school at the time.  Her initial reaction was one of displeasure, as she thought it would be laden with foul language and immoral themes.  Before showing her the tape I had gone through the lyrics to scout them out for any cuss words.  I assured here that I only found two: "D*mn" and "P*ss" (I suppose the latter isn't technically a cuss word, but it was considered to be vulgar back then).  Believe it or not, that seemed to assuage her concerns, and we both listened to it.  A lot.  I would watch MTV at friends' houses (we didn't have cable at my house), just waiting for the video for "Black Hole Sun" to come on, or "Fell on Black Days."  And thus, my journey into grunge and rock and roll music had begun.  (Although, to be honest, I've never considered Soundgarden to be "grunge" music.  It's always had more of an "alternative" or "modern rock" sound to me.  And yes, I am that kind of music snob.)  But it wasn't just the fact that this was the first album I had ever purchased that made "Superunknown" special - it was also a fantastic album.  And the singer was amazing.  There was no one else in the music world like him.  Soundgarden became a regular part of my listening experience.

That tape led to others, which led to even deeper forays into the world of music.  My tastes expanded and deepened over time, as is common for most people.  But that was the start, and that album in particular held a special place for me because of its significance in the development of my musical tastes and expressions.

Soundgarden's next album, "Down on the Upside," came out when I was in high school.  I remember being blown away by their live performances on Saturday Night Live, which happened to be hosted by Jim Carrey, which spawned the "Night at the Roxbury" comedy bits that became so popular.  I remember it in particular for the performance of "Burden in My Hand."  By that time in my life, I don't think I had ever heard a song like that.  "Pretty Noose" was the other song they performed, and was equally mesmerizing to me.  I didn't buy this album, but my sister did, and I copied it onto a tape and listened to it like crazy.  (As an aside, I remember finding the liner notes from her copy of the CD lying around once, and I looked through them at the lyrics of the songs.  Susan had crossed out all the swear words from the liner notes!)  I remember that the drumming on "Burden In My Hand" was a revelation to me.  I had never heard anyone play the drums like that.  And again, that voice was unmatchable.

Not long after "Down on the Upside" was released, Soundgarden broke up.  I was a bit bummed, but certainly not too dismayed, as there was plenty of other music out there to be listened to, and listen I did.  Time went on, and Soundgarden faded from my mind as other music likewise came and went.

Not long after Soundgarden broke up, Chris Cornell started his solo career.  I'll be honest: I wasn't impressed.  I heard a song or two, and that was enough for me.  It seemed like it was too "easy listening" - too much of a departure from the Soundgarden sound.  I knew he was out there, but I wasn't really interested.

But then, in the early 2000's, Chris got together with the band members from Rage Against the Machine to form the band Audioslave.  I was not excited about this at all.  Rage Against the Machine was a band - also from my youth - that was known for its extremely leftist political positions and protest songs against anything with even a veneer of conservativism.  While this didn't surprise me, it bummed me out.  Chris Cornell had always been what I would call an "honest" entertainer.  I once read an interview with him in which he said that during Soundgarden's heyday, MTV had asked him to be a spokesman for their "Rock the Vote" campaign.  Cornell declined, however, and he said it was because MTV seemed to be clearly trying to get young people to vote for Democratic candidates.  He felt that MTV's efforts to get people to vote was actually a front for helping to elect Democrats.  He didn't state his own political leanings in this interview, but I appreciated his honesty and integrity in the matter.  Additionally, Cornell has gone on record that he prefers not to mix political messages in with his music (which makes this song stick out like a sore thumb to me, as though he was forced to record it).  He feels the two are best left separate, and I wholly agree.

And then, here he is teaming up with the guys from Rage Against the Machine - the most militantly leftist band in history (they were banned from Saturday Night Live for attempting to burn an American flag during a live performance on the show).  Hmmm.  I didn't know what to expect.

Then the first single dropped: "Cochise."  I was blown away.  Incredible song.  It has what is probably the second best scream in any song I've ever heard (Cornell owns the top space in this category as well, with the scream in "Drown Me" from "Superunknown.")  You may not think screaming is something to be admired, but believe me, there's an art to it, and Chris Cornell mastered that art.  To my surprise, the first Audiosoave album was a masterpiece.  Every song was great.  Every song was innovative and new.  Every song featured his unmistakable voice.  And none of the songs contained any leftist political commentary, which was an added bonus!

Audioslave produced two more albums, both good, but they didn't match the quality of the first.

Cornell then went on to do more solo stuff, and finally reunited with Soundgarden in 2010, producing the album "King Animal," which was classic Soundgarden.

There are a million other things to describe about Cornell's voice, and I'm certainly no expert, nor his biographer.  Time would fail to talk about Temple of the Dog, his covers of "Billie Jean" or "Nothing Compares 2 U," or his most recent and most brilliant solo work, and the other stuff he has done (like when I accidentally and pleasantly discovered his work on the "Machinegun Preacher" soundtrack). For example, show me another song written in the past 40 years like this one (not only does it sound like it comes from the soundtrack of a 1960's "spaghetti western," but I'd love to know what kind of guitar that opening progression is played on).  Or listen to the soulful, bluesy genius of "Bend in the Road."  Masterpiece.  Find out what I mean about his ability to scream in a way that is musical and adds depth to a song like "Murderer of Blue Skies."

That was another thing about him that was extraordinary: his ability to cross genres.  In the beginning he was mostly the grunge or hard rock guy, but that quickly branched into other genres of music, proving that he was capable of mastering the vocal style of any kind of music he put himself to.

Cornell's voice has always been the signature of Soundgarden, or pretty much anything else he's done.  The guy could sing like no one else you've heard.  His Wikipedia page says that he had a four octave range, and I believe it.  He could sing exceptionally high, and the sound of his voice was so unique.  As time went on and he got older, his voice got better, taking on a more gravely tone and texture.  He lost a bit of his range, but the gravel added a ton of soul.  His voice simply can't be duplicated.  And now we'll never hear his voice again.

As I stated earlier, I was fortunate enough to see him in concert four times - thrice as a solo act, and once with Soundgarden.  I attended each of those concerts with my sister Susan.  See here for her account of the first time we saw him in concert.  We then saw him perform an acoustic set at St. Katherine's University, of all places.  Then we saw Soundgarden perform in support of the release of "King Animal."  The most recent time we saw him was in October of 2015.

The most tragic part of his death is, of course, the lack of any assurance that he knew God.  Most of his lyrics included a lot of deep spiritual finagling, but never anything consistently Christian (although he ironically and accurately and identified the hypocrisy of the so-called "prosperity gospel" in the song "Wooden Jesus").  But as with anyone who dies without any assurance of salvation, there is always hope that somehow, someway, God made himself known to Chris and he put his trust in him before his death.  That's what I hope anyway.

In conclusion, an associate of mine (and fellow Chris Cornell fan), Levi Secord, posted this very well-written and apt reflection on his Facebook page today, which accurately expresses my feelings as well:
I was saddened today when I woke up to the news one of my favorite artists had died, Chris Cornell, apparently from suicide. I enjoyed his hauntingly wonderful voice, but also his honesty in his lyrics. He openly struggled with the world as it was, a fallen and broken world. Much of his lyrics reflected a mourning of the brokenness of this life and the seemingly hopelessness of it all. This resonates with me, for I recognize the world is not as it should be.  
His band mates described his music as "poetic existentialism," and his struggle with finding meaning in the world ultimately lead to nothingness. Though Cornell often struggled with religious themes, especially Christianity in his lyrics, he still could not seem to find truth or hope in it. He was looking for meaning and purpose, but was unable to find it under the sun without God. This is why his lyrics often portrayed a dark outlook with little hope.  
This lack of hope, and his struggle with trying to find ultimate meaning are found in much of his work, especially his later work songs like Show Me How to Live, Like a Stone, Out of Exile, Doesn't Remind Me, Light My Way, No Such Thing as Nothing, Dead Wishes, Higher Truth, Circling, and so many more. Sometimes he even quoted from Scripture (I am the Highway). But in the end, everything remained meaningless and hopeless for him.  
Take these lines from "Before We Disappear" found in his latest album (video below):
"Time ain’t nothing if it ain’t fast
Taking everything that you ever had
And giving nothing in return
But a cold bed in a quiet earth" 
There is no hope in these lyrics and they reflect a man who looked at the world honestly through his worldview and thus stared into the abyss. You will get nothing out of life but a grave in the end. I just said the other week that this line sounds familiar to some in the book of Ecclesiastes. Chris was a tortured artist to the core. 
The loss of life in such a tragic way, especially leaving behind a wife and children, is terrible news. But let us reflect on this--there is no hope under the sun if there is no God. If Christianity is a myth, if there is no truth to God becoming man and dying to save man and redeem creation, then we are to be the most pitied people on earth. If Christianity is false, then the grave is all we get. Chris was more honest in his worldview than most are today, and this honesty in the face of hopelessness surely played a role in him taking his own life. So today I mourn his loss, I pray for his family, and I lament that the world is not as it should be. But I do not do so as one without hope, for God is there, he does exist, and he has revealed his love and mercy through Christ Jesus. In the end there is more than just a cold bed in the quiet earth--there is eternity.