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August 28th, 2009 at 10:16 am

Why I Support Universal Health Care

in: Politics
I’d like to take the next 45 minutes to write a stream of consciousness case for why I support universal health care. This is a spur of the moment first draft. I will edit as I get feedback. I wanted to get these thoughts down while I was thinking ‘em.
Let me say up front that I oppose nationalized health care, any sort of single payer plan, and Obamacare at least as far as I understand it so far. I am also, for the most part, a political and fiscal conservative.
Neither do I have a good working definition as to who gets to be included in the word “universal.” That is itself is a minefield. However that is resolved I cannot see us turning our backs on the “strangers and aliens and sojourners” amongst us.
So how can I support such a notion? When I look around and see some people who live in huge houses in gated communities and others who live in relative squalor, it bothers me. Yet I know that “the poor will always be with us,” and that pretty much any attempt to equalize things is doomed to failure, the cure being worse than the disease. I am OK with the fact that I live in a small house and one neighbor lives and a giant house and another rents a tiny apartment.
But when I look around and see that most people have some reasonable measure of health care and some people have none, and that people are terribly sick and dying because of the lack of it, then I stand back and think, “wait a minute, this is just not right.” It is not unlike how I would feel going into a church and there being people who are poor and sick and dying on one side, and people who are healthy and well on the other side. I would be going into Amos mode. It would not be pretty. The very idea that the well to do side of the church could tolerate such a state of affairs would be evidence of deep moral failure.
The city is not the church. The community is not the church. Yet it bothers me only a little less than the middle and upper classes (struggling as they [we] may be in their own way) can sit back and be OK with the present state of affairs.
I am not a liberal and I am not of the mind to force the more well to do by governmental fiat to make this right, but it bugs the stew out of me that WE, those that have healthcare and have some means, and WE, all us groupings and organizations of people who have a stake in this matter, aren’t voluntarily offering solutions, solutions whereby each of us bears part of the load. That bugs me. And to the insurance companies, medical associations, the AARP, health care workers unions, hospitals, doctors offices, tort lawyers, pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, and every other group, I say, get your butts to the table. You’re going to make less – profits, wages, down the line. Accept it. Start offering solutions. What can YOU do.
To my fellow insured Americans, let me say this. If you’re OK with all your neighbors standing in line at the emergency room to deal with flu and minor injuries and other common sicknesses, then shame on you. You (and I) are going to have to accept that you cannot be covered for everything that you want or need. You must give up something – what are you willing to give up? You’re going to have to have higher deductibles or higher co-pays or someone is going to have to triage all the various needs somewhere somehow. We can’t keep the current state of affairs going. It will all come crashing down.
And to you cigarette companies who deal in sickness and death, how do you feel about all this? Do you sleep well at night? And you companies pushing soft drinks to our kids in schools, and any number of other things bad for their health, are you OK with that?
Just because a person is willing to buy something if you sell it doesn’t mean you should sell it. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should push it. How are you different than the pusher down at the corner?
And to all of us knowingly and willingly living high risk lives smoking, eating crappy food day in and day out, drinking too much, etc., how is it exactly that we have any “right” to have other people bail us out? How is it fair for a health insurance company not to “rate” us, and charge us more?
The issue of health is a public issue. How we raise and feed cows and pigs, how we grow crops and bring them to market, what sort of poisons we put into the air and water, what sort of cars we drive – all this impacts the cost of medical care. The ground level ozone created by inefficient and gas guzzling and pollution spewing cars and trucks, by industrial emissions, do you not think this is a health issue? Duh, it is, and it is driving up the cost of health care everywhere.
How can it be in our national and economic self interest to have so many people unable to be productive because they are sick, uninsured, victims of bad habits that decent preventative care could reduce, unemployable, missing days and days of work? How can that be good?
So what do I want? Do I want to see the government in charge of health care? No. Do I want our system to look like the one in Canada or Great Britain? No. What I want to see is groups and people voluntarily addressing their share of responsibility in the whole issue, and their share of responsibility in looking after their neighbor’s well being. Everybody needs to give up some “privilege” in order for the whole to be just and right. In the end I believe that we will all gain and live in a more healthy and just society.

I’d like to take the next 45 minutes to write a stream of consciousness case for why I support universal health care. This is a spur of the moment first draft. I will edit as I get feedback. I wanted to get these thoughts down while I was thinking ‘em.

Let me say up front that I oppose nationalized health care, any sort of single payer plan, and Obamacare at least as far as I understand it so far. I am also, for the most part, a political and fiscal conservative.

Neither do I have a good working definition as to who gets to be included in the word “universal.” That is itself is a minefield. However that is resolved I cannot see us turning our backs on the “strangers and aliens and sojourners” amongst us.

So how can I support such a notion? When I look around and see some people who live in huge houses in gated communities and others who live in relative squalor, it bothers me. Yet I know that “the poor will always be with us,” and that pretty much any attempt to equalize things is doomed to failure, the cure being worse than the disease. I am OK with the fact that I live in a small house and one neighbor lives and a giant house and another rents a tiny apartment.

But when I look around and see that most people have some reasonable measure of health care and some people have none, and that people are terribly sick and dying because of the lack of it, then I stand back and think, “wait a minute, this is just not right.” It is not unlike how I would feel going into a church and there being people who are poor and sick and dying on one side, and people who are healthy and well on the other side. I would be going into Amos mode. It would not be pretty. The very idea that the well to do side of the church could tolerate such a state of affairs would be evidence of deep moral failure.

The city is not the church. The community is not the church. Yet it bothers me only a little less than the middle and upper classes (struggling as they [we] may be in their own way) can sit back and be OK with the present state of affairs.

I am not a liberal and I am not of the mind to force the more well to do by governmental fiat to make this right, but it bugs the stew out of me that WE, those that have health care and have some means, and WE, all us groupings and organizations of people who have a stake in this matter, aren’t voluntarily offering solutions, solutions whereby each of us bears part of the load. That bugs me. And to the insurance companies, medical associations, the AARP, health care workers unions, hospitals, doctors offices, tort lawyers, pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, and every other group, I say, get your butts to the table. You’re going to make less – profits, wages, down the line. Accept it. Start offering solutions. What can YOU do.

To my fellow insured Americans, let me say this. If you’re OK with all your neighbors standing in line at the emergency room to deal with flu and minor injuries and other common sicknesses, then shame on you. You (and I) are going to have to accept that you cannot be covered for everything that you want or need. You must give up something – what are you willing to give up? You’re going to have to have higher deductibles or higher co-pays or someone is going to have to triage all the various needs somewhere somehow. We can’t keep the current state of affairs going. It will all come crashing down.

And to you cigarette companies who deal in sickness and death, how do you feel about all this? Do you sleep well at night? And you companies pushing soft drinks to our kids in schools, and any number of other things bad for their health, are you OK with that?

Just because a person is willing to buy something if you sell it doesn’t mean you should sell it. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should push it. How are you different than the pusher down at the corner?

And to all of us knowingly and willingly living high risk lives smoking, eating crappy food day in and day out, drinking too much, etc., how is it exactly that we have any “right” to have other people bail us out? How is it fair for a health insurance company not to “rate” us, and charge us more?

The issue of health is a public issue. How we raise and feed cows and pigs, how we grow crops and bring them to market, what sort of poisons we put into the air and water, what sort of cars we drive – all this impacts the cost of medical care. The ground level ozone created by inefficient and gas guzzling and pollution spewing cars and trucks, by industrial emissions, do you not think this is a health issue? Duh, it is, and it is driving up the cost of health care everywhere.

How can it be in our national and economic self interest to have so many people unable to be productive because they are sick, uninsured, victims of bad habits that decent preventative care could reduce, unemployable, missing days and days of work? How can that be good?

So what do I want? Do I want to see the government in charge of health care? No. Do I want our system to look like the one in Canada or Great Britain? No. What I want to see is groups and people voluntarily addressing their share of responsibility in the whole issue, and their share of responsibility in looking after their neighbor’s well being. Everybody needs to give up some “privilege” in order for the whole to be just and right. In the end I believe that we will all gain and live in a more healthy and just society.

As a postscript to my fellow conservatives. Obama is not correct about one important thing. This is not the last chance for a generation. The tide is moving inexorably toward some sort of universal single payer plan. If you don’t want that, then quit wasting your time screaming and yelling about socialism and use your influence to get the private interests to the table. for if we cannot do this voluntarily it will be imposed, and through that imposition the very socialism you so abhor will become the status quo. Enough of the red herrings and scare tactics. Do something positive.

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August 17th, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Why I Am a Christian

I often ask the question of myself, and am sometimes am asked by others, “Why am I a Christian?” By that question I suppose different things are meant, such as “why am I a theist rather than an atheist or agnostic or pantheist?” And, if I am a theist, “why am I a Christian instead of a Jew or a Muslim or a Zoroastrian?”
These are all good questions indeed. I’d like to take a brief stab at answering them, though, in truth, the question could take many many pages, if not books, to answer.
At one level, and quite a apart from any intellectual ponderings about the nature of things, I must say that I am a Christian because “something happened” in my life and heart back in my teens when I first heard the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ taught in the context of a youth retreat. At a simple level Jesus was presented in such a way that I found myself “inviting him into my heart,” to use the language of that day and time. I was prepared for the message I suppose by some innate sense of God’s existence, and it is true that I did not have any significant intellectual hindrances to believing that this Jesus might actually be there and be alive. And so, when I “asked him into my life” it was not against any serious intellectual objections to the basic notions. Perhaps in my youthful wanderings through the woods, in dealing with the difficult issues within my family, particularly my father’s drinking, in feeling incomplete and knowing I was incomplete, possibly after having listened to my sister speak of her relationship to God (though I treated her terribly), perhaps even due to some things I was taught in a confirmation class years before – in all of that I perhaps was “ripe” for the message of that retreat.
So, no, I did not first engage in serious study of the nature of the universe, the arguments for the existence of God, the probability of the resurrection of Jesus, or any such thing. Reflecting back now from the standpoint of my own present Christian world view and faith, I would say in fact that I became a Christian because God came to me and did something to me and in me such that believing in Him at that moment came “naturally.” I believe now that He had prepared me for that moment in time in many ways that I, at the time, was not consciously aware of. It is not without significance that there were after that night of “asking Jesus into my heart” immediate and spontaneous changes in me, changes which were also not brought about at a conscious level by me deciding to live this way and not that way, changes not even brought about by any conscious sense of guilt over wrongdoing. It was as if one day I liked the color blue and awoke the next day to like the color red. I seem to have been made into a different person.
I did lots and lots of reading after that initial conversion. The C. S. Lewis science fiction trilogy was perhaps the most significant tool in teaching me about the larger themes associated with my new faith. I also read most of his other books, and many books by Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, J. I. Packer, and the like.
I now refer to that process as “faith seeking understanding.” Often a person comes to believe, really finds himself believing, and yet his or her understanding of what it is that he or she believes is rudimentary at best. And then the lifelong process of filling in the blanks begins.
So, if any of you reading this essay were hopeful that I would provide the definitive argument for the truth of God’s existence and the truth of the message of the New Testament, as if it was first an elaborate study of such things that led me to faith, well, I hate to disappoint you, but it didn’t work that way for me, and this little essay does not provide any definitive argument. However, what I will do now is answer simply and rationally the questions first listed above as clearly as I can, from the very biased standpoint of one who believes already, and knowing that full treatment of these matters would take volumes.
Why do I believe in the existence of God? Well, even the question itself presupposes very much indeed. It presupposes some common idea of what a “god” might be in which I or others might believe. By “God” I mean an infinite personal being who exists independently of me and of history and who is not equal to and the same as matter and energy.
So, really I am answering the question, “Why am I a theist?” as opposed of course to being an atheist, who believes that there is not in fact such a personal being in existence, or as opposed even to being a pantheist, whose god as far as I can understand it is not a personal being or entity outside of and apart from the rest of the physical/spiritual reality.
For me there is one primary compelling reason for being a theist. Stuff exists. There is by all appearances a universe out there, a planet, people, stars, forces, life, made up of some extremely complex interactive relationships of matter and energy, a good deal of which we don’t understand.
Though I do not believe that the old argument of “first cause” is necessarily “proof” per se, it is impressive to me nonetheless. From where or what or whom did all this stuff come? How did it come to be? Because it seems that causation is a primary attribute of space time reality (every event seems related causally to a prior event) it does not make sense to me that there has never been an initial first cause, a true beginning imposed from the outside of the space time causal universe. Stuff is there and its bare existence demands our attention. How did it get there? So, to me, though it is not watertight as a formal proof, the explanation that there is a personal infinite God who created all things from nothing strikes me as extremely reasonable, and more reasonable than all the various other explanations as to the origin of the universe.
That fact that our universe is by all appearances ordered, that there is a correlation between its order and the workings of our own brains, i.e., that there are “rules” or “laws” which determine or at least describe much of its workings and which can be discovered and understood by us, that there is an aesthetic correlation between ourselves and our brains and this external world such that we find it to be “beautiful” – all of this argues to me for the existence of a rational and creative God who made both the universe and us as human beings. In other words, given the universe as we understand it, and ourselves as ones who have the capacity for understanding it, the existence of a rational and infinite creator being seems to be credible; it fits the evidence well and explains much; and it correlates with our own rationality and creativity as beings.
And when I look at human beings all over the world, people from every sort of ethnicity, race, and cultural background, I am amazed to find several common threads. All people everywhere have an innate sense of there being this certain quality or attribute regarding human behavior which we might call “right” and this quality or attribute of behavior that we might call “wrong.” Now, one person’s right may be another’s wrong, yet, everyone everywhere has this sense that there is a right and there is a wrong. Even people who say otherwise are betraying themselves. For they believe that their belief, that nothing can be called right or wrong, is, well, right, and that the beliefs of people who think that there is a right and a wrong are, well, wrong. So, there seems to be within the human species a universal sense of the ultimate moral nature of human life. I have tried hard to understand how it could be that such a universal moral sense could itself have been part of the process of natural selection; that is, that there was to our species a beneficial aspect to our brains being this way and not another way. And yet it seems unreasonable to me that all of the incredibly complex anatomical and biochemical and hormonal aspects to our neurological and endocrinal systems – all the stuff that has to be in place for us to have this complex moral sense – “fell into place” and was selected out in the relatively short time of the development of the human species from the non-human species. And if we argue that this “moral” sense is simply passed down environmentally and culturally, we are still left with the fact that it has either been passed down from the very first human beings, which begs the question of how they stumbled into this sense, or we are left saying that different peoples have all “developed” this sense independently in isolation and then passed it down to their forbears, which begs the same question eventually. It seems to me that this moral sense is “innate” and part of the package, part of the nature of the human species. And it rings true to me, and makes more sense as a rational explanation, that this moral sense reflects a deeper and more foundational moral sense “underneath” it and built both into the fabric of the universe and into the fabric of our natures. And so, as an explanation, the notion that the world was created by a moral being whose nature in some way we reflect makes sense to me, and seems more reasonable than the alternatives.
I would say the same about the universal innate human sense that there is such a thing as objective truth. Oh I know that this idea is passé in these “postmodern” times, and there is no doubt that the long term impact of pluralism and secularism and consumerism have trained us in the affluent western world to have a more relativistic feel for the nature of things. But try as we may we cannot escape the box we’re in. Even postmodern thinkers think they’re right about there not being ultimate truth. Even politically correct intellectual do-gooders cannot get around the fact that they think they are right when they say either that all is perception and that everybody must be free to follow his or her own personal truth, none of which can be said to be better or superior than other truths. I have never met people more passionate than those who are committed to the “truth” that there is no truth to be committed to. And so, as I step back, and look at the universal human sense that there is in fact a “truth” to be known and discovered, well, the notion that there is a rational being who created us and all things – and that there is such a thing as truth and such a thing as non truth – well, this just makes sense to me, more sense than the other potential explanations.
I am also impressed by the almost universal sense amongst peoples of all tribes and nations, of all races and ethnicities, that “something or someone is out there.” Something about us as human beings seems always to be leading us to think, imagine, hope for, believe in, or fear the existence of a god or gods of some sort. Atheism has never seemed to come naturally to human beings. There is indeed this almost universal “religious” sense pervading our species. Yes, it finds expression in many diverse and contradictory ways, but people everywhere, except of course in Europe and California, seem to believe that there is a god out there. I have to ask myself why. What best explains this innate human sense? Is there a religion gene? Can it be argued that at the deepest level of our brain anatomies and chemistries (and of course as a result of time and chance), that in our development as a species those individuals and groups whose brains by chance and mutation have been altered physiologically and anatomically to produce this religious sense have won out – that this characteristic has proven to offer survival advantages such that this mutated branch of our lineage has become more successful, such that those other individuals and groups who did not had these characteristics have disappeared and died out? Well, anything is possible I suppose. But it makes more sense to me to believe that we human beings are created by God to reach for Him, to know Him, such that all human beings have always attempted to do just that, believing in God or gods of all types, yet all believing in some being who is put there and responsible for our creation.
But this brings me now to another level of belief, if you will. Even if there is a creator God who has a rational, creative, and moral aspect to his being, there are many alternative takes on who or what this God is like, and what, if any, his or its relationship with the created order is like.
Once again, when I look around me, when I sense and feel (as much as I can bear to) the reality of human experience, the story of the Bible rings true as to its explanatory power. For when I look around I see this incredible mix of good and of evil, of beauty and of ugliness, of courage and of cowardice, of faithfulness and faithlessness, of love and of hatred, of honor and of dishonor. It seems that every person is a mix of all of these attributes. Most of us feel this mix within ourselves as well as see it around us. Yes, it is possible that we have evolved in ways that seem mutually contradictory, that the selection out of certain attributes for advantage in one area of life brings disadvantage in another. But the story of Genesis 1-3 rings more powerfully true to me, a story of noble creatures created in the image of a good and holy God, who have themselves fallen into rebellion and been cursed with an inability to regain or reclaim that which has been lost. This story explains both our nobility and our pettiness, our capacity for love and for hatred, our love for life and disregard for it, all at the same time. We know how hard-wired we are, not just for good, but also for evil. Most of us know, and fear, what lurks inside. And so the basic story-line of “creation and fall” squares with our common experience of the human race and the workings of our own inner person. It rings true. The world, it seems to me, is very much like a world created and fallen according to the story-line of the book of Genesis.
But several faiths claim these chapters as their own –the Jewish first of all, the Christian, and the Muslim. So why am I a Christian rather than a Muslim or a Jew?
The answer to this question rises or falls on the question of the validity of the New Testament account of Jesus of Nazareth. For, if this account is accurate and true, and particularly if it is the case that this Jesus of Nazareth was raised bodily from the dead, then it is most likely also the case that what Jesus is reported to have said about himself and about the kingdom of God is also true.
As a Christian I am struck, even stunned, by the many ways that the life and story of Jesus seem to be fulfillments of ancient Jewish prophecies. I could name many of these. But this is nowhere more the case that in the accounting in Isaiah 53 of the “Suffering Servant,” who, it says, “bore our iniquities and carried our sorrows.” When I read the gospel accounts of the arrest and trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and then read Isaiah 53, it is as if I am reading the very same story. The detailed similarities are stunning. In fact, did I not know better, I would be tempted to wonder if perhaps the gospels came first and Isaiah 53 came after. Or, I would be tempted to think that the story of the last day of Jesus’ life, and his death and resurrection, was part of a vast conspiracy to make people believe that Jesus was the one spoken about hundreds of years earlier in Isaiah 53. Can you imagine who would have to have been involved to pull off that conspiracy? Had the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day themselves accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, and if they were of ignoble character, one can almost imagine such a conspiracy succeeding. But they didn’t believe that to be the case about Jesus, and they were not of ignoble character. It just seems credible to me that the arrest and trial and suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus looks like fulfillment of the suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53, because, well, it is the fulfillment, and that Jesus was in fact the one foreseen in Isaiah 53.
And I am drawn to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, and to the suffering Jesus, and yes, I do believe that He bore my iniquities and carried my sorrows.
But none of that suffering would have mattered if Jesus had stayed dead. Yes, it would still be a story filled with pathos that would draw people into it who had themselves experienced suffering as part of the human condition. But the suffering as a suffering in the place of others, a suffering which bore iniquity and sin for others, that part of the story would have had no objective reality or meaning unless the subsequent resurrection were true. For, historically speaking, the same accounts which have Jesus telling the disciples that he would die as a ransom for many also have him telling them that he would rise from the dead. So how could one accept the notion of Jesus suffering in the place of others without accepting the notion of him seeing life and the light of day on the other side of that suffering, as both are part of the prophecy in Isaiah 53 and both are prophesied by Jesus himself.
Ultimately, there is no way to separate out the Jesus who said he would rise from the dead from the Jesus who said he would die as a ransom for many or the Jesus who told his followers to love one another. Those that try to pick and choose from the New Testament accounts those specific things that they think Jesus may have actually said, or those events which they think are more likely than the other events, well, these are on a fool’s errand and are revealing more about themselves than about Jesus. There is no historically credible way to “get behind” the gospel accounts, as it were, to find the real Jesus back there somewhere. To believe, for example, that Jesus likely said something like “love one another” but did not say “and on the third day I will rise again” is simply to believe what one wants to believe.
It is honorable and fair for the Jewish person to believe outright that Jesus did not rise from the dead and that the New Testament accounts of his rising are fictional. It is honorable and fair for the Jewish person to disbelieve what Jesus said about himself as the promised Messiah. It is perfectly reasonable at several levels and for several good reasons that the Jewish leaders would want to get rid of such a person if they believed him to be bogus. But is neither honorable nor fair nor reasonable for the pseudo-Christian New Testament scholar simply to create his own personal Jesus by picking and choosing what he or she thinks Jesus is likely to have said or done.
As to the Muslim view of Jesus, as much as I understand it, it does not seem credible to me to believe that Jesus was a good prophet and important messenger of the one God but not to believe in his bodily resurrection. For then one has to conclude that either Jesus was just plain wrong about himself, or that he was as a complete lunatic, or that he never said such things about himself at all (which is problematic as mentioned above), and that the accounts of his being raised from the dead were fictional, the latter raising its own set of historical problems as I will explain below.
Again, to me, what we think of as the historic Christian understanding of Jesus (in all its aspects) ultimately depends on the truth of his resurrection from the dead. Did it happen? Is there any corroborating evidence outside of the accounts of Jesus’ early followers that it did in fact happen? Well, as I look at it, there is such evidence, and it is powerful and almost irrefutable.
The disciples, of course, could have said anything they wanted to say about Jesus – what he had said and done while alive, the nature of his teachings, their beliefs that he was the promised Jewish Messiah. They could even have gotten together and cooked up a story about seeing him alive after he had died. That too is possible. But is it likely? I don’t think so.
What seems absolutely historically certain is that the disciples of Jesus really themselves believed that he had risen from the dead. What makes this certain is not simply that they said he had risen from the dead. What makes this seem certain is that they spent the rest of their lives, and indeed, in almost every case, they each gave up their lives, proclaiming and teaching that it was so, and that they themselves had seen and talked with Jesus after his death and burial.
The evidence is overwhelming, historically speaking, that the disciples of Jesus went to their graves believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Why would they do that? I have no credible explanation for this except that it was true, that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead and had in fact appeared to them over the course of forty days just as their accounts say that he did. To propose that the resurrection was not true, but that they all believed it was true, and spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that it was true, well, that itself just does not ring true.
Yes, there is the lame attempt to suggest for example that the disciples had all fallen under a spell, a sort of group hallucination. That is certainly not normal to human experience, though one can suppose that it is possible.
And yes, it has also been suggested that the disciples were victims of their own really strong psychological desires that the resurrection be true, such that their emotional need caused them to believe that it was so. That is possible.
But better to be a grown up about it and just say that they conspired, they lied, and they made it all up. And frankly, that is possible too. Human pride and stubbornness could have been a motive. Human pride can steel people to do all sorts of immoral and stupid things. But is it credible to believe that the disciples would have spent their entire lives, and given up their very lives in often brutal deaths, for the sake of such a lie? It just seems far-fetched to me.
Much more credible is the simple explanation that the reason that the disciples believed Jesus to have raised from the dead is that he was raised from the dead just as they believed. Had they been confronted with the real risen human Jesus, raised to life on the other side of death, then they would have been motivated not only to tell everyone about it, and to believe and put forward the teachings of Jesus before and after his death, but to die if necessary in the process, for the truth which they knew to be so. The truth of the resurrection makes sense of the rest of the story.
Believing the resurrection to be true is more plausible than believing it not to be true.
Which means, if the resurrection is true, that it is reasonable for me to believe the truth of all the other things that Jesus said, such his claim that he would die as a ransom for many, such as his claim that he was the fulfillment of the Jewish covenant, such as his claim that he was indeed the king that was to come, the messiah.
And if the resurrection of Jesus is true, and happened as Jesus said it would, it means that I am inclined to believe the things that Jesus believed about the existence of God, the creation of the world, about the nature of human beings, and about the historical pattern of creation, fall, and redemption. This also means that I am inclined to believe the truth of the stories Jesus Himself believed to be true, stories about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah. This also means that I believe what Jesus has said to be true about the future, the future of the universe, the future of the earth, and about the future of his own return. This also means that I am inclined to believe that Jesus has the right to tell me what following him is to look like, and what is right and not right for me as a human being to do and say to my neighbor.
It seems that we have come full circle. Not only are there good reasons to believe in the existence of an infinite and personal God, the creation of the world and human beings by this God, the truth of the basic story-line of the first chapters of the Bible, there are also good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and working backward, the truth of Jesus as the promised messiah, and working backward again the truth of what Jesus understood about the nature of God and the nature of the universe. In the end it all seems to fit together as credible and reasonable.
And so, for me, all these things added together answer the question, “Why am I a Christian?”
But what happened personally to me 30 years ago when I asked Jesus into my heart is also part of the reason for believing. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, Jesus promised that when people believed in him they would be changed, converted, altered, made different. And this has been happening now for two thousand years: men, women, and children walking down the road, minding their own business, and bam, here comes Jesus into their life and they are never the same. The historical fact of the profound conversions of millions and millions of people all over the world, men and women from every nation and race and ethnic group, itself argues for the truth of the message of Jesus. For he said that such would be so. And so it has been. And it was for me, thirty years ago now, as I was lying in my bed in my house at 6438 Bridgewood Road, Columbia, SC, talking to God, asking Jesus to come to into my heart, then going to sleep and waking up a new person, a Christian.
In Jesus,
Joel Gillespie

Every so often I will have a  conversation that suggests it would be good to re-post my “Why I Am a Christian.”  I recently did, and so I am…

I often ask the question of myself, and am sometimes am asked by others, “Why am I a Christian?” By that question I suppose different things are meant, such as “why am I a theist rather than an atheist or agnostic or pantheist?” And, if I am a theist, “why am I a Christian instead of a Jew or a Muslim or a Zoroastrian?

These are all good questions indeed. I’d like to take a brief stab at answering them, though, in truth, the question could take many many pages, if not books, to answer.

At one level, and quite a apart from any intellectual ponderings about the nature of things, I must say that I am a Christian because “something happened” in my life and heart back in my teens when I first heard the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ taught in the context of a youth retreat. At a simple level Jesus was presented in such a way that I found myself “inviting him into my heart,” to use the language of that day and time. I was prepared for the message I suppose by some innate sense of God’s existence, and it is true that I did not have any significant intellectual hindrances to believing that this Jesus might actually be there and be alive. And so, when I “asked him into my life” it was not against any serious intellectual objections to the basic notions. Perhaps in my youthful wanderings through the woods, in dealing with the difficult issues within my family, particularly my father’s drinking, in feeling incomplete and knowing I was incomplete, possibly after having listened to my sister speak of her relationship to God (though I treated her terribly), perhaps even due to some things I was taught in a confirmation class years before – in all of that I perhaps was “ripe” for the message of that retreat.

So, no, I did not first engage in serious study of the nature of the universe, the arguments for the existence of God, the probability of the resurrection of Jesus, or any such thing. Reflecting back now from the standpoint of my own present Christian world view and faith, I would say in fact that I became a Christian because God came to me and did something to me and in me such that believing in Him at that moment came “naturally.” I believe now that He had prepared me for that moment in time in many ways that I, at the time, was not consciously aware of. It is not without significance that there were after that night of “asking Jesus into my heart” immediate and spontaneous changes in me, changes which were also not brought about at a conscious level by me deciding to live this way and not that way, changes not even brought about by any conscious sense of guilt over wrongdoing. It was as if one day I liked the color blue and awoke the next day to like the color red. I seem to have been made into a different person.

I did lots and lots of reading after that initial conversion. The C. S. Lewis science fiction trilogy was perhaps the most significant tool in teaching me about the larger themes associated with my new faith. I also read most of his other books, and many books by Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, J. I. Packer, and the like.

I now refer to that process as “faith seeking understanding.” Often a person comes to believe, really finds himself believing, and yet his or her understanding of what it is that he or she believes is rudimentary at best. And then the lifelong process of filling in the blanks begins.

So, if any of you reading this essay were hopeful that I would provide the definitive argument for the truth of God’s existence and the truth of the message of the New Testament, as if it was first an elaborate study of such things that led me to faith, well, I hate to disappoint you, but it didn’t work that way for me, and this little essay does not provide any definitive argument. However, what I will do now is answer simply and rationally the questions first listed above as clearly as I can, from the very biased standpoint of one who believes already, and knowing that full treatment of these matters would take volumes.

Why do I believe in the existence of God? Well, even the question itself presupposes very much indeed. It presupposes some common idea of what a “god” might be in which I or others might believe. By “God” I mean an infinite personal being who exists independently of me and of history and who is not equal to and the same as matter and energy.

So, really I am answering the question, “Why am I a theist?” as opposed of course to being an atheist, who believes that there is not in fact such a personal being in existence, or as opposed even to being a pantheist, whose god as far as I can understand it is not a personal being or entity outside of and apart from the rest of the physical/spiritual reality.

For me there is one primary compelling reason for being a theist. Stuff exists. There is by all appearances a universe out there, a planet, people, stars, forces, life, made up of some extremely complex interactive relationships of matter and energy, a good deal of which we don’t understand.

Though I do not believe that the old argument of “first cause” is necessarily “proof” per se, it is impressive to me nonetheless. From where or what or whom did all this stuff come? How did it come to be? Because it seems that causation is a primary attribute of space time reality (every event seems related causally to a prior event) it does not make sense to me that there has never been an initial first cause, a true beginning imposed from the outside of the space time causal universe. Stuff is there and its bare existence demands our attention. How did it get there? So, to me, though it is not watertight as a formal proof, the explanation that there is a personal infinite God who created all things from nothing strikes me as extremely reasonable, and more reasonable than all the various other explanations as to the origin of the universe.

That fact that our universe is by all appearances ordered, that there is a correlation between its order and the workings of our own brains, i.e., that there are “rules” or “laws” which determine or at least describe much of its workings and which can be discovered and understood by us, that there is an aesthetic correlation between ourselves and our brains and this external world such that we find it to be “beautiful” – all of this argues to me for the existence of a rational and creative God who made both the universe and us as human beings. In other words, given the universe as we understand it, and ourselves as ones who have the capacity for understanding it, the existence of a rational and infinite creator being seems to be credible; it fits the evidence well and explains much; and it correlates with our own rationality and creativity as beings.

And when I look at human beings all over the world, people from every sort of ethnicity, race, and cultural background, I am amazed to find several common threads. All people everywhere have an innate sense of there being this certain quality or attribute regarding human behavior which we might call “right” and this quality or attribute of behavior that we might call “wrong.” Now, one person’s right may be another’s wrong, yet, everyone everywhere has this sense that there is a right and there is a wrong. Even people who say otherwise are betraying themselves. For they believe that their belief, that nothing can be called right or wrong, is, well, right, and that the beliefs of people who think that there is a right and a wrong are, well, wrong. So, there seems to be within the human species a universal sense of the ultimate moral nature of human life. I have tried hard to understand how it could be that such a universal moral sense could itself have been part of the process of natural selection; that is, that there was to our species a beneficial aspect to our brains being this way and not another way. And yet it seems unreasonable to me that all of the incredibly complex anatomical and biochemical and hormonal aspects to our neurological and endocrinal systems – all the stuff that has to be in place for us to have this complex moral sense – “fell into place” and was selected out in the relatively short time of the development of the human species from the non-human species. And if we argue that this “moral” sense is simply passed down environmentally and culturally, we are still left with the fact that it has either been passed down from the very first human beings, which begs the question of how they stumbled into this sense, or we are left saying that different peoples have all “developed” this sense independently in isolation and then passed it down to their forbears, which begs the same question eventually. It seems to me that this moral sense is “innate” and part of the package, part of the nature of the human species. And it rings true to me, and makes more sense as a rational explanation, that this moral sense reflects a deeper and more foundational moral sense “underneath” it and built both into the fabric of the universe and into the fabric of our natures. And so, as an explanation, the notion that the world was created by a moral being whose nature in some way we reflect makes sense to me, and seems more reasonable than the alternatives.

I would say the same about the universal innate human sense that there is such a thing as objective truth. Oh I know that this idea is passé in these postmodern times, and there is no doubt that the long term impact of pluralism and secularism and consumerism have trained us in the affluent western world to have a more relativistic feel for the nature of things. But try as we may we cannot escape the box we’re in. Even postmodern thinkers think they’re right about there not being ultimate truth. Even trendy  intellectuals cannot get around the fact that they think they are right when they say either that all is perception and that everybody must be free to follow his or her own personal truth, none of which can be said to be better or superior than other truths. I have never met people more passionate than those who are committed to the “truth” that there is no truth to be committed to. And so, as I step back, and look at the universal human sense that there is in fact a “truth” to be known and discovered, well, the notion that there is a rational being who created us and all things – and that there is such a thing as truth and such a thing as non truth – well, this just makes sense to me, more sense than the other potential explanations.

I am also impressed by the almost universal sense amongst peoples of all tribes and nations, of all races and ethnicities, that “something or someone is out there.” Something about us as human beings seems always to be leading us to think, imagine, hope for, believe in, or fear the existence of a god or gods of some sort. Atheism has never seemed to come naturally to human beings. There is indeed this almost universal “religious” sense pervading our species. Yes, it finds expression in many diverse and contradictory ways, but people almost everywhere  seem to believe that there is a god out there. I have to ask myself, “Why?” What best explains this innate human sense? Is there a religion gene? Can it be argued that at the deepest level of our brain anatomy and biochemistry (as a result of time and chance), that in our development as a species those individuals and groups whose brains by chance and mutation have been altered physiologically and anatomically to produce this “religious” sense have won out – that this characteristic has proven to offer survival advantages such that this mutated branch of our lineage has become more successful, such that those other individuals and groups who did not had these characteristics have disappeared and died out? Well, anything is possible I suppose. But it makes more sense to me to believe that we human beings are created by God to reach for Him, to know Him, such that all human beings have always attempted to do just that, believing in God or gods of all types, yet all believing in some being who is put there and responsible for our creation.

But this brings me now to another level of belief, if you will. Even if there is a creator God who has a rational, creative, and moral aspect to his being, there are many alternative takes on who or what this God is like, and what, if any, his or its relationship with the created order is like.

Once again, when I look around me, when I sense and feel (as much as I can bear to) the reality of human experience, the story of the Bible rings true as to its explanatory power. For when I look around I see this incredible mix of good and of evil, of beauty and of ugliness, of courage and of cowardice, of faithfulness and faithlessness, of love and of hatred, of honor and of dishonor. It seems that every person is a mix of all of these attributes. Most of us feel this mix within ourselves as well as see it around us. Yes, it is possible that we have evolved in ways that seem mutually contradictory, that the selection out of certain attributes for advantage in one area of life brings disadvantage in another. But the story of Genesis 1-3 rings more powerfully true to me, a story of noble creatures created in the image of a good and holy God, who have themselves fallen into rebellion and been cursed with an inability to regain or reclaim that which has been lost. This story explains both our nobility and our pettiness, our capacity for love and for hatred, our love for life and disregard for it, all at the same time. We know how hard-wired we are, not just for good, but also for evil. Most of us know, and fear, what lurks inside. And so the basic story-line of “creation and fall” squares with our common experience of the human race and the workings of our own inner person. It rings true. The world, it seems to me, is very much like a world created and fallen according to the story-line of the book of Genesis.

But several faiths claim these chapters as their own –the Jewish first of all, the Christian, and the Muslim. So why am I a Christian rather than a Muslim or a Jew?

The answer to this question rises or falls on the question of the validity of the New Testament account of Jesus of Nazareth. For, if this account is accurate and true, and particularly if it is the case that this Jesus of Nazareth was raised bodily from the dead, then it is most likely also the case that what Jesus is reported to have said about himself and about the kingdom of God is also true.

As a Christian I am struck, even stunned, by the many ways that the life and story of Jesus seem to be fulfillments of ancient Jewish prophecies. I could name many of these. But this is nowhere more the case that in the accounting in Isaiah 53 of the “Suffering Servant,” who, it says, “bore our iniquities and carried our sorrows.” When I read the gospel accounts of the arrest and trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and then read Isaiah 53, it is as if I am reading the very same story. The detailed similarities are stunning. In fact, did I not know better, I would be tempted to wonder if perhaps the gospels came first and Isaiah 53 came after. Or, I would be tempted to think that the story of the last day of Jesus’ life, and his death and resurrection, was part of a vast conspiracy to make people believe that Jesus was the one spoken about hundreds of years earlier in Isaiah 53. Can you imagine who would have to have been involved to pull off that conspiracy? Had the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day themselves accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53, and if they were of ignoble character, one can almost imagine such a conspiracy succeeding. But they didn’t believe that to be the case about Jesus, and they were not of ignoble character. It just seems credible to me that the arrest and trial and suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus looks like fulfillment of the suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53, because, well, it is the fulfillment, and that Jesus was in fact the one foreseen in Isaiah 53.

And I am drawn to the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, and to the suffering Jesus, and yes, I do believe that He bore my iniquities and carried my sorrows.

But none of that suffering would have mattered if Jesus had stayed dead. Yes, it would still be a story filled with pathos that would draw people into it who had themselves experienced suffering as part of the human condition. But the suffering as a suffering in the place of others, a suffering which bore iniquity and sin for others, that part of the story would have had no objective reality or meaning unless the subsequent resurrection were true. For, historically speaking, the same accounts which have Jesus telling the disciples that he would die as a ransom for many also have him telling them that he would rise from the dead. So how could one accept the notion of Jesus suffering in the place of others without accepting the notion of him seeing life and the light of day on the other side of that suffering, as both are part of the prophecy in Isaiah 53 and both are prophesied by Jesus himself.

Ultimately, there is no way to separate out the Jesus who said he would rise from the dead from the Jesus who said he would die as a ransom for many or the Jesus who told his followers to love one another. Those that try to pick and choose from the New Testament accounts those specific things that they think Jesus may have actually said, or those events which they think are more likely than the other events, well, these are on a fool’s errand and are revealing more about themselves than about Jesus. There is no historically credible way to “get behind” the gospel accounts, as it were, to find the real Jesus back there somewhere. To believe, for example, that Jesus likely said something like “love one another” but did not say “and on the third day I will rise again” is simply to believe what one wants to believe.

It is honorable and fair for the Jewish person to believe outright that Jesus did not rise from the dead and that the New Testament accounts of his rising are fictional. It is honorable and fair for the Jewish person to disbelieve what Jesus said about himself as the promised Messiah. It is perfectly reasonable at several levels and for several good reasons that the Jewish leaders would want to get rid of such a person if they believed him to be bogus. But is neither honorable nor fair nor reasonable for the pseudo-Christian New Testament scholar simply to create his own personal Jesus by picking and choosing what he or she thinks Jesus is likely to have said or done.

As to the Muslim view of Jesus, as much as I understand it, it does not seem credible to me to believe that Jesus was a good prophet and important messenger of the one God but not to believe in his bodily resurrection. For then one has to conclude that either Jesus was just plain wrong about himself, or that he was as a complete lunatic, or that he never said such things about himself at all (which is problematic as mentioned above), and that the accounts of his being raised from the dead were fictional, the latter raising its own set of historical problems as I will explain below.

Again, to me, what we think of as the historic Christian understanding of Jesus (in all its aspects) ultimately depends on the truth of his resurrection from the dead. Did it happen? Is there any corroborating evidence outside of the accounts of Jesus’ early followers that it did in fact happen? Well, as I look at it, there is such evidence, and it is powerful and almost irrefutable.

The disciples, of course, could have said anything they wanted to say about Jesus – what he had said and done while alive, the nature of his teachings, their beliefs that he was the promised Jewish Messiah. They could even have gotten together and cooked up a story about seeing him alive after he had died. That too is possible. But is it likely? I don’t think so.

What seems absolutely historically certain is that the disciples of Jesus really themselves believed that he had risen from the dead. What makes this certain is not simply that they said he had risen from the dead. What makes this seem certain is that they spent the rest of their lives, and indeed, in almost every case, they each gave up their lives, proclaiming and teaching that it was so, and that they themselves had seen and talked with Jesus after his death and burial.

The evidence is overwhelming, historically speaking, that the disciples of Jesus went to their graves believing that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Why would they do that? I have no credible explanation for this except that it was true, that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead and had in fact appeared to them over the course of forty days just as their accounts say that he did. To propose that the resurrection was not true, but that they all believed it was true, and spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that it was true, well, that itself just does not ring true.

Yes, there is the lame attempt to suggest for example that the disciples had all fallen under a spell, a sort of group hallucination. That is certainly not normal to human experience, though one can suppose that it is possible.

And yes, it has also been suggested that the disciples were victims of their own really strong psychological desires that the resurrection be true, such that their emotional need caused them to believe that it was so. That is possible.

But better to be a grown up about it and just say that they conspired, they lied, and they made it all up. And frankly, that is possible too. Human pride and stubbornness could have been a motive. Human pride can steel people to do all sorts of immoral and stupid things. But is it credible to believe that the disciples would have spent their entire lives, and given up their very lives in often brutal deaths, for the sake of such a lie? It just seems far-fetched to me.

Much more credible is the simple explanation that the reason that the disciples believed Jesus to have raised from the dead is that he was raised from the dead just as they believed. Had they been confronted with the real risen human Jesus, raised to life on the other side of death, then they would have been motivated not only to tell everyone about it, and to believe and put forward the teachings of Jesus before and after his death, but to die if necessary in the process, for the truth which they knew to be so. The truth of the resurrection makes sense of the rest of the story.

Believing the resurrection to be true is more plausible than believing it not to be true.

Which means, if the resurrection is true, that it is reasonable for me to believe the truth of all the other things that Jesus said, such his claim that he would die as a ransom for many, such as his claim that he was the fulfillment of the Jewish covenant, such as his claim that he was indeed the king that was to come, the messiah.

And if the resurrection of Jesus is true, and happened as Jesus said it would, it means that I am inclined to believe the things that Jesus believed about the existence of God, the creation of the world, about the nature of human beings, and about the historical pattern of creation, fall, and redemption. This also means that I am inclined to believe the truth of the stories Jesus Himself believed to be true, stories about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah. This also means that I believe what Jesus has said to be true about the future, the future of the universe, the future of the earth, and about the future of his own return. This also means that I am inclined to believe that Jesus has the right to tell me what following him is to look like, and what is right and not right for me as a human being to do and say to my neighbor.

It seems that we have come full circle. Not only are there good reasons to believe in the existence of an infinite and personal God, the creation of the world and human beings by this God, the truth of the basic story-line of the first chapters of the Bible, there are also good reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and working backward, the truth of Jesus as the promised messiah, and working backward again the truth of what Jesus understood about the nature of God and the nature of the universe. In the end it all seems to fit together as credible and reasonable.

And so, for me, all these things added together answer the question, “Why am I a Christian?”

But what happened personally to me 30 years ago when I asked Jesus into my heart is also part of the reason for believing. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, Jesus promised that when people believed in him they would be changed, converted, altered, made different. And this has been happening now for two thousand years: men, women, and children walking down the road, minding their own business, and bam, here comes Jesus into their life and they are never the same. The historical fact of the profound conversions of millions and millions of people all over the world, men and women from every nation and race and ethnic group, itself argues for the truth of the message of Jesus. For he said that such would be so. And so it has been. And it was for me, thirty years ago now, as I was lying in my bed in my house at 6438 Bridgewood Road, Columbia, SC, talking to God, asking Jesus to come to into my heart, then going to sleep and waking up a new person, a Christian.

In Jesus,

Joel Gillespie

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July 13th, 2009 at 12:32 pm

My New Take on Galatians: Why It Matters

in: NT Wright
In my last post on “My New Take on Galatians” I explained three ideas that have changed my reading of Galatians, and therefore also Romans and Philippians:
1. Jews of Paul and Jesus’ day did not believe in or teach “meritorious righteousness.”
2. The word “law” in Galatians should be translated “torah” and refers to requirements of the Mosaic Covenant.
3. The issue in Galatians is quite simply this: does one have to submit to Torah to be a Christian?
Many people who have followed the work of NT Wright are greatly distressed over the way in which Wright has redefined the concept of “justification.” Eventually I will get to that point. Suffice it to say at this point that I am not writing to defend or oppose Wright’s view of justification. Rather I want to stimulate thought as a result of reading Galatians with the above three ideas in mind. How they impact the way we understand justification we will see as we go along.
The question has arisen as to what difference any of these ideas above really make anyway. The answer to this question will best be determined as we go along. However I did want to offer a preliminary answer.
As we read and interpret the Bible it is inherently of importance that we read and interpret it rightly. Our interest is first of all in understanding what a portion of Scripture meant when it was written. For an epistle we wish to understand the original intent of the writer. We must be concerned first of all in finding the letters meaning in the context in which is was written. We should not go to a part of Scripture and try to impose on it questions it was not intended to answer. Doing that causes us to engage in eisegesis (or isogesis) and not exegesis, the one “reading into” the passage one’s own ideas and the other “reading out of” the passage its own ideas.
Even we do not know the full implications of correct understanding it is always better to understand a passage more accurately. That can be the only foundation upon which can build our faith and practice as Christians.
The first idea presented above is the hardest to extract from any one text using its own inner logic and clues, although it makes perfect sense given the other two ideas. Establishing the point that the Jews of Jesus’ day and Paul’s day did not believe in meritorious righteousness comes as a result of reading extra biblical material, intertestamental writings, as well as the canonical New Testament the biblical material.
But we have an enormously difficult time divesting ourselves of this idea. This assumption  is the lens through which Protestants have read Galatians and Romans for hundreds of years. And so with us today. So we come to the material with the question burning within, “How can I find favor with God?” “How can I escape the wrath of His judgment?” Or, as one evangelism model would have us imagine a question from God, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven.”
But this is not the question that Paul is addressing or answering in Galatians at all. In fact, an undo focus on that question will cause us to miss the point of the book altogether!
Many years ago, even before I knew about NT Wright or the “New Perspective,” I had become quite taken by the unfolding covenantal structure of the Bible. As I read and tried to understand this more and more it became apparent to me that promises given to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12:1-3 provided the framework for understanding all the rest of the Old and New Testament. God’s intent was to bless the world, and to bless it through the descendents or seed of Abraham. Ultimately and eventually this “seed” would be revealed as Jesus Christ, descendent of Abraham in the flesh, but more importantly the very son of God.
It became clear to me that God could not fulfill his covenant promise to bring blessing to the nations through Israel herself. She had been called to be a light to the nations but had failed ultimately, and was caught up in the curse of the covenant. But bringing His blessing to the whole world and not just one nation within it was God’s grand purpose, and that purpose provided the narrative framework for the rest of the Scripture.
Rather than seeing ourselves in the grand story of God’s purpose for the whole world, we tended to look at it from the standpoint of questions above, such as “How can I find favor with God.” Quite probably this very question is what causes us to translate “law” in terms of the general fallen human tendency (we think) of trying to earn or merit God’s favor. This question almost certainly has caused us to misunderstand the Jews of Jesus’ day as being all about meritorious righteousness. At any rate the question and assumption reinforce each other and cause us to miss the point of the letter to the Galatians.
The role of the Abrahamic covenant and God’s intention to bless the whole world through his “seed” Jesus will become a central theme of the letter to the Galatians.
So, when I speak of Greek “nomos” being better translated as “Torah” rather than “law” in a vague “general principle” sense, the difference is actually very crucial. For Paul,  the “Judaizers” seeking to impose circumcision upon the Galatians Christians were threatening the very nature of the gospel, not because they believed in “meritorious salvation” which they didn’t, but because they were opposing God’s promise to Abraham to bring blessing to all the nations through his seed, through Jesus Christ.
By submitting to Torah Christians would as a people not merely become subject to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, but in so doing God’s people again would become subject to the cursings and blessings of that covenant, particularly its cursings. And in doing so God’s promise to Abraham would never have a way to “get out” to the rest of the world, a world He had every intention to bless.
So what is at stake in these discussions is the full nature of the gospel itself, the fulfillment of God’s promises going back to Abraham, and to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden before that.
Really, when it comes down to it, in ,my opinion, is whether we choose to see the gospel more in terms of God plan for and promise regarding the world being finally fulfilled in and through Jesus, or not, and less in terms of how can I imagine to get myself into heaven and not hell.
More soon…

In my last post on “My New Take on Galatians” I explained three ideas that have changed my reading of Galatians, and therefore also Romans and Philippians:

1. Jews of Paul and Jesus’ day did not believe in or teach “meritorious righteousness.”

2. The word “law” in Galatians should be translated “Torah” and refers to requirements of the Mosaic Covenant.

3. The issue in Galatians is quite simply this: does one have to submit to Torah to be a Christian?

Many people who have followed the work of NT Wright are greatly distressed over the way in which Wright has redefined the concept of “justification.” Eventually I will get to that point. Suffice it to say right now that I am not writing to defend or oppose Wright’s view of justification. Rather I want to stimulate thought as a result of reading Galatians with the above three ideas in mind. How they impact the way we understand justification we will see as we go along.

The question has arisen as to what difference any of these ideas above really make anyway. The answer to this question will also best be determined as apply these three ideas to the letter. However I did want to offer a preliminary answer.

As we read and interpret the Bible it is of of course very important that we read and interpret it accurately and in keeping with original intent. Our interest is first of all in understanding what a portion of Scripture meant when it was written. For an epistle, we must be concerned first of all in finding the letter’s meaning in the context in which is was written. We should not go to a part of Scripture and try to impose on it questions it was not intended to answer. Doing that causes us to engage in eisegesis (or isogesis) and not exegesis, the one “reading into” the passage one’s own ideas and the other “reading out of” the passage its own ideas.

Even if we do not know the full implications of a historically and contextually correct understanding of a passage we must nevertheless stay the course and grapple with all the implications as best as we can. Sometimes over the course of the history of the church’s reading of the Bible old “ways of seeing” that have become ingrained are challenged. Such is the case with these simple ideas acting as a baseline for understanding Paul’s argument. As for myself this has caused a major shift in how I real the whole of the New Testament. Part of this shift is that I am no longer sure of somethings I used to be quite sure of, and am sure of other things I used to have no udnerstanding of. I no of no other way to establish a foundation upon which I can build my faith and practice as a Christian than rightly udnerstandfing the word of God.

The first idea presented above is the hardest to extract from any one text using its own inner logic and clues, although it makes perfect sense given the other two ideas. Establishing the point that the Jews of Jesus’ day and Paul’s day did not believe in meritorious righteousness comes as a result of reading extra biblical material, intertestamental writings, as well as the canonical New Testament writings.

But we have an enormously difficult time divesting ourselves of this idea. This assumption is the lens through which Protestants have read Galatians and Romans for hundreds of years. And so it is with us today. We come to the material with the question burning within, “How can I find favor with God?” “How can I escape the wrath of His judgment?” Or, as one evangelism model would have us imagine a question from God, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven.”

But this is not the question that Paul is addressing or answering in Galatians at all. In fact, an undo focus on that question will cause us to miss the point of the book altogether!

Many years ago, even before I knew about NT Wright or the “New Perspective,” I had become quite taken by the unfolding covenantal structure of the Bible. As I read and tried to understand this more and more it became apparent to me that promises given to Abraham in Genesis chapter 12:1-3 provided the framework for understanding all the rest of the Old and New Testament. God’s intent was to bless the world, and to bless it through the descendant or seed of Abraham. Ultimately and eventually this “seed” would be revealed as Jesus Christ, descendant of Abraham in the flesh, but more importantly the very son of God.

It became clear to me that God could not fulfill his covenant promise to bring blessing to the nations through Israel herself. She had been called to be a light to the nations but had failed ultimately, and was caught up in the curse of the covenant. But bringing His blessing to the whole world and not just one nation was God’s grand purpose, and that purpose provided the narrative framework for the rest of the Scripture.

Rather than seeing ourselves in the grand story of God’s purpose for the whole world, we have tended to look at it from the standpoint of questions above, such as “How can I find favor with God.” Quite probably this very question is what causes us to translate “law” in terms of the general fallen human tendency (we think) of trying to earn or merit God’s favor. This question almost certainly has caused us to misunderstand the Jews of Jesus’ day as being all about meritorious righteousness. At any rate the question and assumption reinforce each other and cause us to miss the point of the letter to the Galatians.

The role of the Abrahamic covenant and God’s intention to bless the whole world through his “seed” Jesus will become a central theme of the letter to the Galatians.

So, when I speak of Greek “nomos” being better translated as “Torah” rather than “law” in a vague “general principle” sense, the difference is actually very crucial. For Paul, the “Judaizers” seeking to impose circumcision upon the Galatians Christians were threatening the very nature of the gospel, not because they believed in “meritorious salvation” which they didn’t, but because they were opposing God’s promise to Abraham to bring blessing to all the nations through his seed, through Jesus Christ.

By submitting to Torah Christians would as a people not merely become subject to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant, but in so doing God’s people again would become subject to the cursings and blessings of that covenant, particularly its cursings. And in doing so God’s promise to Abraham would never have a way to “get out” to the rest of the world, a world He had every intention to bless.

So what is at stake in these discussions is the full nature of the gospel itself, the fulfillment of God’s promises going back to Abraham, and to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden before that.

Really, what it comes down to, in my opinion, is whether we choose to see the gospel more in terms of God’s plan for and promise regarding the world being finally fulfilled in and through Jesus, and less in terms of how can I manage to get myself into heaven and not into hell.

More soon…

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July 7th, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Hopkins, Ehrman, Being Human, Genesis, Politics

I just dicovered that if you want a category to show up in the category list you have to actually have posted something in that category. So, I thought I’d write a post and put it into all the various categories I have just recently added, so those categories will show up in my category list! Here are my new categories:

1. Gerard Manley Hopkins – One of my life goals is to write a devotional commentary on the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. There is no writer in any language in any genre with whom my spirit resonates more. I look forward to a lifetime with Hopkins, and sharing the significance of his work.

2. Bart (the devil) Ehrman – OK, I don’t really think he is the devil, well, maybe sort of…I just think he has a chip on his shoulder and is taking his personal faith problems out on a huge number of unwitting college students and uncritical readers, and I want to do what I can to stick up for the integrity of the New Testament. I hear Ehrman is a really nice guy and quite a debater, though Steven Colbert put him in his place, not just once, but twice.

3. Being Human – It is a personal pet concern of mine that Christians not lose sight of the significant “humanness” of the Christian life and Christian spirituality. I also want to uphold  God’s concern for the physical created order. Thanks for the title goes to Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs, and their great book “Being Human” which had a significant impact on my life.

4. Grappling with Genesis – I’ve thought of naming this category “Creation and Evolution” or “Faith and Science” and maybe I will, BUT, I have wanted for years to write about what I really think of the message and structure of Genesis One, and the concerns I have about evolution on the one side and intelligent design theories on the other. Now I get to.

5. Old Stuff – This is a new category containing all sorts of devotions, homilies, and Q and A’s I did as part of my role as a local church pastor. I don’t wish to present myself as a local church pastor now, and so I am sticking these together in a sort of archive category.

6. Politics – Ah, this will get me in trouble. Mainly I want to share thoughts about our form of government and the privilege we have in particupating in it, and maybe along the way try to debunk some political nonsense from the progressive left and the religious right.

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March 17th, 2009 at 8:09 am

A Christian Country?

I found the following article by T.  David Gordon, “The Decline of Christianity in the West: A Contrarian View” while looking for something else. I think this is an important and relevent essay regarding the relation between the Christian Church and the State, and the dangers of the Church being to cozy with the State, or “using” the State to advance its cause. This is a controversial subject. T. David Gordon is former professor of New Testament at Gordon Conwell Seminary, and currently is on the faculty of Grove City College. I would be interested in your response to his position.

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March 16th, 2009 at 10:49 am

Watching the Grass Grow

Someone, I don’t remember who, maybe Audrie Keen, said the other day on Facebook that she wished she had the patience to watch the grass grow. I don’t know exactly what caused her to say that, but it resonated with me. Sometimes it seems like in the rush and hub bub we’re all losing track of ourselves, and it is indeed in such quiet moments of watching the grass grow that we find ourselves again.

I used to spend more time watching the grass grow. OK, I wasn’t really watching the grass, just sitting outside, maybe on my patio, maybe in the woods against a tree, maybe on a hike lying down on a rock looking up, and just being there, watching, listening, absorbing. I always felt such love for things around me, such respect and awe, and a sense of privilege at being able to witness the mundane events of life – a bird collecting material for a nest, an ant crawling up a tree, a plant reaching for the sun, water rumbling-tumbling over a tiny fall, swirling in patterns here and there, tiny critters skimming across the surface. I used to think to myself, “This is a unique event in the history of the universe, what is happening right here, right now, and I get to witness it.” It made me happy. 

Sometimes I would feel very frustrated over not being able to communicate the feelings and thoughts that such times evoked in me. I wanted to do so not out of self importance, but because it just seems my nature to want to share with others what I have seen or known or learned. So often I could not articulate even for myself just what it was that I had seen or shared or known. And who would care anyway. 

I am older now, but the grind of life has not taken away from me the desire to watch  and listen to the grass grow and to share what I see and hear.  It is what I most want to do though it is hard to find the space.

I did not use to love people so much. They seemed to cause all the trouble in the world. But now I see and know that every person is as unique as every scene I witnessed as a watched the grass grow. Underneath the hard crust of banality every person has a story to tell, a unique story. There may be a cookie cutter outside, but there is seldom a cookie cutter inside. Each person is the only one in the universe who has experienced exactly what he or she has experienced. I find human lives fascinating now. 

It is the uniqueness of every moment and every person and every thing that interests me most these days. I am drawn to creation most naturally, but there are many ways to watch the grass grow. When it comes to people, watching the grass grow means being open to who the other person is, not imposing, not demanding, but watching and listening. Listening is often the greatest gift we can give to another. It may seem like hard work, but watching grass grow can be hard work too.

I used to have the sad thought, “All these moments, these millions of moments, they pass without notice. My life passes for the most part without notice. Does it all mean nothing?” I have been greatly comforted in knowing that God notices. He notices and He knows. I take comfort on that passage that says, “for you have died and your life is hidden in Christ with God.” 

I’ll end with another poem of Hopkins, “Pied Beauty.” Hopkins watched the grass grow a lot. He understood the unique beauty of individual moments. He loved the odd and fickle. I am glad he found a way to share his love.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things— 

     For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; 

         For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 

 Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; 

     Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; 

         And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

 All things counter, original, spáre, strange;   

    Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?) 

         With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím; 

 He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

    Práise hím.

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March 10th, 2009 at 9:54 am

The Prayer Jesus Gave Us

(This article appeared in the march 2009 edition of The ARP Magazine, as part of a monthly series  ”God’s Indispensable Word.”)

As I sit down to write this article I am looking out the window at the buildings of downtown Greensboro, NC. It is quiet downtown. It snowed last night leaving a slippery glaze on the roads. Looking out I am reminded of the words of Jeremiah at the beginning of Lamentations, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people.”

A flurry of needs and issues sweep into my mind. I am compelled to stop what I am doing and pray. But what shall I pray?

I am a member of the “free-form” generation, baby boomers who grew up in a spiritual environment that “had a form of godliness but without the power.” I got carted off to Sunday School and church by parents who were not believers, and into a service of worship that meant very little to me, and, as far as I could tell very little to anybody else. I have only a few memories of church back then, one of them being the recitation of Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. That and the tie, and the organ…

I began my life of faith in Jesus Christ when I was sixteen, after several years of not going to church anymore. I heard the gospel taught and explained in a para church setting. There was a lot of emphasis on being “real.” In today’s parlance the word closest in meaning to our “real” is the word “authentic.” The older I get the less I know what either of these words mean.

But back then I instinctively defined these ideas as meaning “not religious,” “not by rote,” “from the heart,” etc. Like many people my age I had a built in bologna detector when it came to matters religious. And this bologna detector was calibrated to sift out all vain repetition, such as The Apostles’ Creed and The Lord’s Prayer.

Prayers were “conversations with God” and were best done free-form. I had a “relationship” with God that couldn’t be boiled down to a creedal statement. Like many people of my era I was drawn more to the intimate rather than the transcendent aspect of God’s nature.

Apparently a whole lot of other people were in the same boat. Despite the more recent draw of many folks back into a kind of liturgical worship, the vast majority of Christians of my generation prefer the free-form approach to prayer and most other things. In like manner we have taught our kids by word and example the value of free-form, protecting them as it were from the empty rituals of our childhood.

Eventually I grew up. It dawned on me gradually over time that I should not be guided in my prayers by whatever happens to bubble up from my mind and heart in the moment. In fact, having tried to escape from formal and meaningless rituals of my childhood I had merely replaced those vain repetitions with another set of vain repetitions.

How is it that I would seek to place myself under the authority of the indispensible Word of God in this or that other area of life, yet not when it came to my praying? It didn’t make sense.

There are few places in the Gospels where the disciples specifically ask Jesus to teach them. In Luke 11, it says that Jesus had been “praying in a certain place.”  He must have made an impression for when he rejoined the disciples one of them asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Apparently John the Baptist had taught his disciples how to pray, and Jesus’ disciples wanted Jesus to do the same for them. So he did. “Prayer is a conversation with God,” Jesus said. “Close your eyes and imagine yourself in His presence and just let your heart guide you. And be sure to use the word ‘just’ over and over.”

OK, Jesus didn’t say that, though judging by my generation it would seem that He did. Rather Jesus offered a series of petitions beginning with “Father.”

The same basic prayer shows up in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:9.” Jesus had been teaching his disciples how not to pray, before turning his attention on how to pray. Don’t pray to impress. Don’t say things over and over as if the repetition is required to get God’s attention.  No, when you pray, pray like this:

“Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come,

your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

I look over these words now and I think: simple, thorough, appropriate, balanced, perfect! I can hardly think of any impulse that comes from within me that does not fit into one of these petitions.

I am to approach God as Father, and as “our” Father, not just “my” Father. I know that I can only call God my “Father” but through the saving work of the Lord Jesus who is teaching me to pray this prayer. So right off I am centered upon God who is God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

My instinct may be to jump right into my or other people’s needs, but not yet. First I am to focus on the holiness of God’s name, which is another way of speaking about the holiness of God Himself. Whatever else may be pushing its way into my heart, I need to pause before God’s otherness, His holiness, acknowledging it, and asking that it be honored within my heart and in the world.

Wow, intimacy (our Father) and transcendence (hallowed be your name) all in eight words!

OK, so now I can jump into my list. I told so and so I’d pray for them, and there is the economy, and my guilt, and my struggle to be obedient, etc.

Not yet. This prayer is teaching me to consider God’s greater will and plan first. I am to pray for the coming of His kingdom. This includes praying for Jesus’ return, but also for the kingship of God to be fleshed out in my life as well as in the world as a whole. I am to pray that God’s will, His prescriptions for His people and His world, to be done here on earth just as they are done in heaven.

Having now focused on God’s name and His will, my immediate needs (and our needs as a people) have faded a bit from the forefront of my heart, but they are still there. I can now ask God to provide for me and my brethren. We need food. I need work to buy my food. I may need a car to get to my work. I may need things other than food, as do my brethren round about me.

Finally I get to ask for forgiveness. Why isn’t that first? Don’t I need to get right with God before I pray? Well, yes I do, and that is covered in the “our Father.” I can only call Him Father if I am praying through His Son who died for my sins so that I might have access to God. And focusing on “our” Father I am being trained to think of the forgiveness of sins more broadly than my own need for forgiveness.

For everything there is a time, and my own sins do matter. Now I get to ask specifically for forgiveness of y sins, along with an implied petition that I would forgive others as the Father forgives me.

And speaking of sin, I need His help. I am “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” right into the traps of the evil one. I desperately need God’s help that I may stay strong in Him, and that I may resist the devil and his wiles.

As I have grown up as a Christian I have had to grow down as well, down from confidence that I know how to approach God, down from putting myself in the center of my concerns, down from giving too much consideration to my varying feelings, down from thinking of the kingdom of God too individualistically.

There it was all along, a simple easily remembered template for our life of prayer as God’s people, straight from the mouth of the Lord Jesus. If I really think that His word is indispensible why have I dispensed with it when it comes to my praying? I should not have.

The Church of Jesus Christ has acknowledged the indispensible nature of God’s Word regarding prayer all along, even if my generation has forgotten it. How do I know this? Because there is an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in all the major catechisms of the Christian Church, going back in time well before the reformation, and stretching across the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Churches.

The disciples asked the Lord Jesus to teach them to pray. And He did. It is odd that we who may seek Jesus’ will so readily in other area of life would so readily dismiss it when it comes to our praying. Should we not pray accordingly, as He has taught us? I think we should.

We don’t have to say the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer over and over, though it is fine to do so. We can pray “in this way” by using the structure of the Lord’s Prayer as a template so to speak. Can we think of any request, praise, or cry of the heart that is not covered under one of these headings? It’s all there, right before our eyes, in God’s indispensible Word.

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March 9th, 2009 at 10:05 am

Caring for the Needy: The Biblical Mandate

This is a guided Bible Study which I put together a long time ago – in 1984 I think – and which still blesses me as I read the passages.  I was inspired to repost this by comments made by a friend and Christian sister about the neglected elderly.

Meditation upon the following Scriptures should help us to marvel in God’s wonderful compassion, to lift up songs of praise for what He has done for His people, and eagerly desire to reflect His lovingkindness as we share of ourselves with our needy neighbors. Please read these passages prayerfully with an earnest desire to know God’s mind, to love Him, and to obey His commands. You may wish to save this as a resource for future study.

Basic Principles 

Deuteronomy 8:1-20             What seems to be the innate tendency of man when he becomes materially successful? What is the remedy for this aspect of our nature?

Deuteronomy 10:12-20         Note that the first specific commandment after God’s exhortation to the Israelite to circumcise his heart?  What attribute of God is revealed in this passage?  Who are the needy as revealed in this section?

Deuteronomy 15:1-11           Note in verse 10 the prerequisite for God’s blessing.   There is serious question as to whether Israel ever obeyed the commandments given in verses 1-2.  In what ways today are we hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward the needy among us?  Compare verses 4 and 11. How do you resolve these seemingly conflicting passages?

Deuteronomy 24:10-27         God’s wonderful compassion, which we seek to reflect, can be so practically implemented! Why were the Israelites commanded to care for the needy? (see vs. 17-18)   What corresponds to gleaning in our modern non-agrarian society?

Deuteronomy 26:12-15         (See also 14:22-28)  What does this say to us today about how our tithe money is to be distributed?

1st John 3:16-18                  Compare with Deuteronomy 24:10-27.  What is to be the basis for our benevolence? 

God’s Care for the Needy 

Here are some verses which point to the unique concern that God has for the needy and downtrodden:

 1st Samuel 2:8                  A poor soul exulting in God’s provision for her.

Psalm 12:5,6                       God looks out for the cries of the needy. 

Psalm 10:14,18                  When we go against the needy, remember who we’re up against!

Psalm 35:10                        Yet another reason to praise and marvel in God’s goodness!

Jeremiah 20:13                    And another!

 (see also Psalm 40:17, 70:5, 72:12, 74:21, 10:14)

Oppression and God’s Response

 2nd Samuel 12:1-10        Note David’s responses to Nathan’s parable.

Job 24:1-25                         This is a powerful passage, and one, as will be seen below, does not apply to Job.

Psalm 10:1-18                     The Lord will one day allow man to terrify no more.

Psalm 109:15,16                  How serious is the sin of oppression?

Proverbs 17:5                      He who mocks the poor shows contempt for God Himself!

Exodus 22:21-27                  Note how serious is the sin of afflicting the orphan or widow.

Proverbs 30:11-14                Those who oppress are haughty in God’s sight.

Isaiah 3:13-15                      God is the judge of the oppressor.

Isaiah 32:7                          The plea of the needy is a just plea.

Ezekiel 18:10-13                  Notice the specific sins which bring death to the unrighteous son.

Amos 2:6                            When God points His Finger of judgment at Israel, He points first to her oppressive ways.

Amos 5:11-12                      Note the sins which we described as being so great and deserving of judgment. 

Amos 8:3-14                        What are the sins which bring on such a harsh and terrible judgment?

Isaiah 5:8                            What would be a modern equivalent to “joining house to house?” 

Neglect of Mercy

Most of us are not outright oppressors of the poor, although we may support oppressive regimes or invest in companies which have oppressive practices. Yet we may well be neglectful, which can, in itself, be very serious.

Proverbs 21:13                     In what ways do we shut our ears to the cry of the poor?       If we do this, what can we expect when we cry out in a time of need?

Matthew 25:31-46                The words “did not do” in verse 45 epitomize the concept of neglect. Note the consequences of this neglect. Who are the needy in this passage? Who would fit this description today?

1st John 3:16-18                  What action should pity for a poor brother result in?

Luke 16:19-31                      We, to, in these very pages, have the commandments and warnings of Moses and the Prophets!

James 2:14-17                     What does the neglect of the needy brother say about the faith of him who neglects.

God’s Clear Commands Regarding the Care of and Defense of the Needy

Romans 12:13                     This is quite straightforward!

Galatians 6:10                     How do we prioritize whom we are benevolent towards?

Hebrews 13:16                     God is pleased when we share!

1st Timothy 6:17-19         Sharing is a means of storing up lasting treasure!

Luke 3:10,11                         Sharing what we have is an evidence of our repentance. How many “tunics” do we have?

Ephesians 4:28                  What should be one of the main goals for which we work?

Isaiah 1:16,17                      A strong command at the beginning of a big book.

Isaiah 58:1-12, esp. 6, 7       This is a beautiful description of a true fast.

Proverbs 31:8,9                    We are not only to help by giving, but by defending with our voices and votes. Think of the need of the unborn. 

Examples of Providing for the Needy

Praise God that He has given us many Godly men and women to emulate!

Jeremiah 22:16                    This verse characterizes Godly Josiah. Do we normally think of these things when we think of knowing God?

Ezekiel 18:14-17                 Notes the characteristics of the righteous son.

Job 31:13-23                        O Blessed God! Make me to be like Job!

Proverbs 31:20                     The noble wife opens her arms to the poor.

Acts 2:45 and 4:34               Look closely here at what the experience of the wonderful grace of God and the filling with His Holy Spirit does for the people. How can we follow this example of the first Christians?

Acts 6:1-6                           The importance of caring for the neglected widows is evidenced by the quality of those men chosen to meet the task.

Acts 11:27-30                      What a beautiful example of church sponsored famine relief.

Acts 20:35                            Paul labored diligently in order to aid the weak.

2nd Cor. 8:1 and 9:15      Note verse 9. Who is our great example? Note verse 13-15. Do these verses not have serious applications for us and do they not speak to the way our capitalistic economic system can be voluntarily Christianized? Remember (vs. 2) that one doesn’t have to be rich to be generous.

Matthew 25:31-40                Note those things which characterize the sheep who follow the Good Shepherd.

Philippians 4:16-19               The promise (often quoted and memorized) in verse 19 is made to those who shared with Paul in his time of need. As we give, God promises to meet our needs.

Some Food for Thought (Questions to Ponder) 

-     Caring for the poor and needy is as much a part of obeying God as anything else. It is a moral issue. Disobeying God results in moral guilt.

 -     Poverty can well be the result of laziness or lack of drive (Prov. 6:10, 6:11, 28:19, 23:21, 20:4, 19:15), and God seems to tell us that we shouldn’t feed the person who will not work (2nd Thess. 3:10); however, the reasons for poverty are not considered in most of the commands to aid the poor and the needy.

-     How do we give freely while at the same time not fostering further dependence, which is dehumanizing and psychologically damaging for the needy person, or at least the person who is potentially capable of meeting his or her own needs.

-     Even the able-bodied person may need emergency relief (Luke 10:34, 35).

-     Who are the needy today? In Greensboro? In the world?

-     How do we obey these commands when we often do not have the natural day to day contact with poor and destitute people? Are we exempt from the commands because of this? 

-     It would seem that poverty involves the lack of food, clothing, and shelter (1st Timothy 6:8, Job 24:1-25). Given the cost of living – food, clothes, housing utilities, etc., it would be impossible for a man or single parent to support a family and provide these necessities on or near a minimum wage salary. Often a poor mother has to leave the home and work in order for the family to have these things. What might this imply about the criteria we use in paying our employees?

-     Many people pray that God would bring into their paths people who need to hear the gospel. Might we also pray that He would bring into our paths needy people whom we can minister to in body as well as in soul?

 -     Whatever we do that is good and obedient is by His grace. Let us seek for this grace to grip us and energize us for the good works for which He has prepared us. 

-     To what extent is it right for us to isolate and insulate ourselves from the poor and needy who often live in neighborhoods which are not as nice and safe.

 -     How can we learn to give without having a paternalistic or condescending spirit?

 -     To what extent should we depend on the government to provide for the needy?

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March 8th, 2009 at 9:03 am

We’re All Cracked and Crumbling

I wrote this years ago in defense of friends who were suffering in various ways. I came across it again today and thought I’d replublish it. Little did I realize it might one day apply more directly to me.

A while back I made a comment one Sunday morning to the effect that if someone was thinking they could hear God talking to them that they needed to be on medication. Obviously the point I was trying to make was that God speaks to us primarily through his Word and not through direct audible language. I was being cute putting it the way I did in order to underline my point.

However, I was subsequently convicted that morning, and have been much since, that this was not a fruitful way of making the point I wanted and needed to make. I was suggesting, yes, that such a person who was hearing God speak audibly to them was crazy, and since in the common unkind worldly parlance we speak of crazy people needing to see shrinks and be on medication, thus this person needed to be on medication. Unfortunately this also implies the reverse, that those people who are on medication are crazy.

Well, those of you who know me know that I think we’re all “crazy” to one degree or another, which I will explain below. So when I say such a thing I am also laughing to some degree at myself and our common predicament, messed up as we all are. But it stills comes off as insensitive to say such things, because, well, it is.

So, I wanted to take opportunity to address the general issue of emotional or mental or physical struggles that do often require that folks take medicines of various types. I want to address this in order to state some general principles about the Christian life and our ministry as “wounded healers.”

With regard to our physical and mental and emotional selves, the truth is that we are all “cracked and crumbling,” and that at multiple levels. In no respect are we (yet) everything we were made to be. The fall of mankind into sin and the subsequent curse upon us has impacted us at every conceivable level. Amazingly, our creator God has loved us, cracked and crumbling as we are. He has showered us with dignity and blessing and honor. We are made in His very image, though it be clouded in many ways. And in Christ, we are being remade, bit by bit, evermore into His image. His Spirit dwells within us, yes, even us cracked and crumbling ones. Yes, the cracks are being filled in, and the crumbling is being slowed, or even reversed, but until we get our new bodies we will not yet be who we are to be, we will not yet be whole, we will not yet be healed.

We are all born with physical and psychic “cracks.” This is part of our genetic heritage. As we grow up, due to sinful and broken environments starting often in the womb itself, and due often to our own rebellion and alienation as we grow up, these physical or psychic cracks may widen and deepen, or new cracks may form, new conditions may arise. Sometimes by God’s grace, growing up in healthy environments and by his grace with less severe rebellion, some of these cracks heal. This healing can be substantial, but it is never total, not in these bodies, not even for the Christian.

I get migraines. It is possible I directly inherited the condition from my mother. It is possible I inherited merely a predisposition to develop migraines given other certain environmental factors coming into play. It is possible I developed migraines due to multiple concussions I experienced as a child and teenager. The science of migraine is unclear. Something happens to alter the brain chemistry. This may or may not be triggered by some internal or external factor. Something causes (among other things) brain blood vessels to dilate and put pressure on nerves, pressure which then creates many phenomena such as an aura, hyper sensitivity to sound and light, nausea, and intense pain. It runs its course and goes away – until the next one. There is medicine now that constricts the blood vessels and which can, if the migraine is caught early enough, take away many or most of the symptoms. It’s pure chemistry. And as one friend says, “better life through chemistry!”

There are many physical as well as psychic conditions which we can inherit directly, for which we have either a genetic predisposition, or which can develop due only to other life factors such as injury or trauma or unhealthy environmental influences or unhealthy personal behavioral issues, or all of the above.

I think a natural human predisposition toward dread was exacerbated in me by my father’s binge alcoholism. Many times he disappeared for days. Many times he almost died. I cannot imagine that that did not impact me in some way.

It seems also that our affluent western sedentary lifestyles make us more prone both to certain physical conditions as well as mental or emotional conditions.

At the same time living in the affluent west makes certain medications or therapies more available. Without the advancement in medicine of the last century many people in our congregation would be dead today. They are kept alive by medications that keep their body chemistries in balance.

With regard to emotional or mental issues, there is no more or less shame in taking medications for depression or anxiety than there is in taking medication for migraines or diabetes.

At the same time we live in a self indulgent narcissistic culture where we as human beings have come to value feeling good and feeling better above all other values and virtues. This type of society creates its own kinds of mental and emotional and physical problems, but more than that it creates a hyper focus on ourselves. It is said that we are a “therapeutic” society, bent on doing whatever needs to be done to feel better, and that we are therapeutic church, bent on the same while dressing it up in Christian jargon.

What if anything is the relationship between sin and these various issues?

As human beings we are born rebels. This is our inheritance in Adam. When we add our propensity to rebellion against God to the psychic or physical cracks we inherit or which we otherwise develop, we see that these – our rebellion and these psychic or physical issues – can merge, and the “cracks” can feed or become tools of our rebellion. That is, the rebellion can find channel of expression in and through our weaknesses, or take advantage of our weaknesses, or even use the weaknesses to advance or rationalize its own cause. For example, I have I believe a tendency to feel grumpy and be short tempered. In rebellion against God who has made me to be patient and kind, and desiring in my autonomy not to be told what to do, and unchecked by the Spirit or conscience, this “tendency” could result in rage or violence or unbridled negativism.

We see this merging of rebellion and physical/psychic weakness in addictive behaviors. Alcoholism for example is not simply disease and it is not simply rebellion – it is both.

Sometimes in the complexities of our minds and hearts the rebellious self “uses” the psychic/physical weakness as a tool to justify, rationalize, or excuse the rebellious tendency. This is all extraordinarily complex and gets at the root of the mystery of the human person, and I do not claim to understand it.

But we have seen in recent years the tendency for the rebellious self to wear psychic cracks as badges of honor or pride, and in principled ways use the psychic issues to rationalize or even indulge the rebellious desires of the self or to bully others.

Take migraine. I am apparently no longer simply a guy who gets migraines – I am a “migraineur.” I am special. I am a in a special class. I am part of the migraine community. I have my issues, and I demand you be sensitive to them. If you are not I will suffer terribly and it will be your fault. I might even have a stroke. I will not allow that. I demand all lights be out, that there be no noise, that everyone accommodate me. I am special. I cannot do anything or be in any environment that might give me a migraine. I cannot be held to ordinary expectations. I cannot be held to the command to love others. Others give me migraines. Others are not sensitive to my issues. Others need to love me. I am special.

When I put it this way we can see how my rebellion can “use” my condition for its own purposes of autonomy and independence.

But we can also imagine that if I were a severe migraine sufferer, that my condition could cloud the way I look at life in every way. It could make my life so difficult, and lead to such relational alienation and life trouble, that it could exacerbate my deeper inner alienation and darkness and leave me even more lost and alone and autonomous than otherwise.

So how does the Christian look at the issues in himself or herself in light of the very high calling to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

There are other things that happen in the brain and body chemistry which can cause emotional or mental symptoms such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, delusions, moodiness, addiction, grumpiness, or which can cause more purely physical symptoms, such as headache, lack of coordination, metabolism problems, blood chemistry imbalances, etc.

My point ultimately is that we as Christians need to accept and acknowledge the fact that we’re all messed up one way or another, and that in Christ we’re all in the process of getting better, one way or another. There should be no stigmas associated with having and taking medicines for any of these conditions.

Many people who are mentally ill are Christians. Their mental illness manifests itself in the context of the church as it does everywhere else. The Church must find a way to accommodate, love, and accept all these brethren. What is the option – a special church for the mentally ill? That is not only ridiculous for obvious reasons, but it fails to acknowledge that all of us are cracked and crumbling in some way. Many of the most difficult people have no apparent mental illnesses of any kind. They don’t take any medicines. Yet they may be sinful or proud in many other respects and cause trouble to no end.

So, we must be accepting and mutually encouraging and helpful one to another with regard to these areas where we are “cracked and crumbling.” There must not be any stigmas, any shame, any dismissal of those who are most severely impacted by mental or psychic disturbance. Any such stigma or shame implicitly amounts to the kind of ungodly favoritism that James spoke about in his epistle. “Love one another” means what it says.

At the same time we must not let mental or psychic illnesses be used as special cards to get a pass on the biblical injunctions which bear upon all Christians. The person who suffers from depression may go through times when it is especially severe, and extra compassion is needed, and he or she may even need to take a few weeks off so to speak. But neither depression nor anxiety nor ADHD nor PTSD nor schizophrenia nor bipolar disorder nor any number of namable illnesses should be “used” to avoid the opportunities, obligations and responsibilities of community.

If there is no shame then there is also no free pass.

Yet the person struggling with these illnesses will require some extra patience, forbearance, and help, particularly in times of special intensity or of psychotic outbreak. And though one does not grant a “pass,” neither does one ignore the practical consequences of many of these syndromes or illnesses. For example, a person with severe claustrophobia may have a hard time being cornered in a part of a room with any exit doors nearby. This needs to be accommodated. Some people due to their illness or situation struggle with being touched physically. A loving caring community that likes to hug and embrace one another in Christ needs to know and understand this. If there is an environment where the knowledge of such things carries no shame, then handling the normal consequences should be taken in stride, and be no more of an issue than the person who does not like to drink ice tea is an issue. In other words, it should not be an issue.

Often God uses  to great advantage the extra patience required ministering to people who are more severely impacted by physical or mental (or socio-economic) distress. Often a church is caused to grow together in the more essential things because of people who require certain special attention or sensitivity so to speak. And, lest it be forgotten, these very same dear brethren may themselves be gifted in remarkable ways and contribute greatly to the life and health of the community. Indeed, for many, their own experiences give them special insights, and special abilities to care for others who have similar circumstances.

And, again, it must be said categorically that most of the people who cause substantial trouble, who put churches under the burden of schism and discouragement and trial, are rebellious and prideful people with few if any of these particular mental/psychic issues.

I got the phrase “Cracked and Crumbling” from a line in an amazing song by Bill Malloneee called “Good Luck Charm of the Vigilantes of Love CD Audible Sigh. I leave you with the lyrics to Good Luck Charm:

Good Luck Charm by Bill Mallonee


yeah just where did it start this breaking of your heart

yeah and where did it go south you’re looking down in the mouth

of a ride that had just begun when the lap bar came up

yeah and sweetness it was bone dry at the bottom of the cup

yeah death she wears this strange perfume when you’re traveling the white lines

yeah she stumbles in here under a different name almost every night

we’re all cracked and crumbling just like that old sidewalk

and I suppose this must be the place where the walls went up

you make your smile a different way to cry

when the truth that they’ve been selling you is just another fine lie

yeah the candles on the inside they are flickering out

with the things they don’t tell you about

can you hear the bells can you hear the alarm

can you give away your life like a good luck charm

this is where it started breaking your heart

yeah this is where it started this falling apart

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March 6th, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Ten Short Christian Books I Like a Lot

in: Books

If you’re in the mood for some good Christian reading but don’t want to spend a month in one book try out a few of these. 

 

1. Life Together - Deitrich Bonhoeffer

 

2. Orthodoxy - G. K. Chesterton

 

3. Evangelism and the Sovereignity of God – J. I. Packer

 

4. The Original Jesus – N. T. Wright

 

5. The Wounded Healer - Henri Nouwen

 

6. Saved in Hope – Pope Benedict XVI

 

7. The Weight of Glory - C. S. Lewis

 

8. The Practice of the Presence of God – Brother Lawrence

 

9. The Pursuit of Holiness – Jerry Bridges

 

10. Pollution and the Death of Man - Francis Schaeffer

More to Come…

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