Hang Up; I’m Leaving You a Voicemail

Nobody obeys the Bible because nobody possesses a 100% accurate understanding of its requirements. The Bible, like every other written text in the world, requires human interpretation. Anything that requires human interpretation will eventually come under human control. Christians, Muslims, Jews all follow religious systems manufactured by human leaders from sacred texts.

When adherents give themselves without question to their religious systems, they come under the control, not of God, but of other people who will never be worthy of such allegiance. Dogmas require complete loyalty, but they can never be trusted.

The Apostle Paul held up his experience as case in point:

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:13-14)

As Saul of Tarsus, Paul had participated in the imprisonment and death of many innocent people under the auspices of performing God’s will. Looking remorsefully back, he named the context of his actions, “Judaism.” He used the term not to describe faithful adherence to the Torah, but rather to “the traditions of my fathers.”

Once dogma has become equated with the will of God revealed in Scripture, it’s almost impossible to escape. It becomes the lens through which we interpret all new information. Paul describes this type of blindness as a veil over the heart in 2 Corinthians 3:15, “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their (unbelieving Jews’) hearts.”

Refusal to relinquish their assumptions about the written code veiled the understanding of the Jews:

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. (2 Cor. 3:13-14)

Israel didn’t want to believe that their way of life and history as a nation had been provisional. They were “Bible based believers” who couldn’t accept that their Bible pointed away from itself to an unwritten covenant with God open to all people.

Paul knew the mind of the unbelieving Jew because he had been one until on that fateful day on the road to Damascus Christ’s pragma ran over Paul’s dogma.

I can’t help but to hear autobiographical overtones in 2 Corinthians 3 especially at the end of the chapter:

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:16-18)

Through the mystery of inspiration, God encoded images of Christ beneath the script. A superficial focus on meeting the requirements obscured the face of Christ from the Jews of Paul’s day. Once a person accepted Christ as Lord, those external requirements would be swept away to reveal the picture which had been hidden behind them all along. Far from obsolescence, the Scriptures take on a new relevance as they reveal the glory of the Lord.

Back when humans used cell phones to make and receive calls, I would occasionally play a little game with folks while leaving them a voicemail. I’d get a notification that they, having seen my missed call on their caller ID, were trying to call me back. I’d answer and say, “Hey, I’m leaving you a voicemail. Could you please hang up, so I can finish?” Sometimes they’d pause and then laugh. Other times they’d groan. One time, a lady said, “Oh, okay,” and she hung up!

Holy writ, like voicemail, was a device to aid communication between two disconnected parties. Once personal contact had been made, it would have been silly to resume the old communication method. The former aid to communication would become a hindrance to it.

Silly as that analogy may sound, it’s almost an exact description of what the Jews of Jesus’ day did when he entered their community.

Christ had superintended Israel throughout their history as the mysterious figure often referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures as “The Angel of the Lord.”¹ Jews in the first century would have been very familiar with the stories of this being who appeared as a human to wrestle with Jacob, to give marching orders to Joshua, or to talk up Gideon.

How grievous that Israel failed to recognize their divine guardian when he finally came as one of them! Listen to his lament/rebuke from John 5:39-40:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Scripture fulfills its ultimate purpose when we use it as an instrument to point to Christ. When we treat the text like a legal code, it will always obstruct our view of the One who is The Truth.

This applies to the edition that we call “The New Testament” as much as it does to the Hebrew Scriptures. Christ died to remove the previous media, not to replace it with an upgraded one, but so that our connection with God could be immediate (i.e. without media). According to Paul, everyone who puts their faith in the death of Christ dies to obligation to the law, so they can then go on to live for God. In Romans 7:1-6, he likens this transition to the severing of a marriage covenant by death thereby freeing one to marry another. The identity of that second spouse seems to have been lost on many who would treat the New Testament like a rule book. Notice in vs. 4-6 of Romans 7, that we didn’t die to the law to be married to the New Testament or to the teachings of the apostles. We died with Christ so that we can be married to him:

So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (emphasis mine NAW)

Christ died to liberate his people from obligation to the Mosaic Law not because it was Mosaic but because it was law. This passage contrasts obligation to the law against union with Christ and “the old way of the written code” with “the new way of the Spirit.”

We call the Hebrew Scriptures “The Old Testament” because those thirty-nine books have become “old” when considered next to the later written revelation contained in twenty-seven books which we call “The New Testament.”

Paul never spoke of the law and the prophets as “The Old Testament.” He simply referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as “the law” or “the Scriptures,” because he had no concept of a second authoritative book. For Paul and his contemporaries, the new covenant consisted of something alive within the heart of each believer which outmoded the whole concept of religion based on an inspired text as well as everything that goes with it.

How ironic that even today, we’re so enamored with Paul’s own writings as a normative standard for faith and life that they have become the veil on our hearts keeping us from a living relationship with Christ. Paul didn’t replace the law of Moses with his own words; his words announced that it had already been replaced with grace through faith.² We struggle to understand how such ethereal things could constitute the new covenant, so we canonize Paul’s words into a new law.

By grace through faith, we’ve been brought into direct connection with God in Jesus Christ. In order to maintain that connection, we must give up our dependence on the previous media. No matter what anyone says, we mustn’t hang up to check voicemail.


Footnotes:

  1. I first encountered this idea in David Murray’s book,  Jesus on Every Page. Thomas Nelson Publishers. P. 77-82
  2. Romans 6:14, Galatians 3:21-24

I Never Studied Law

I grew up on Warner Bros. cartoons.

I once heard that the older ones weren’t actually created as entertainment for children, but as shorts to precede feature films.

I remember one bit in particular that evaded me as a child. At one point, Elmer Fudd forced Bugs at gun point out to the end of a limb and then sawed off the limb. Once it was cut through, the limb remained aloft and the tree crashed to the ground with Elmer in it. Then, Bugs broke the fourth wall to say, “I know this defies the law of gravity, but I never studied law.”

The six-year-old me knew that the law of gravity and jurisprudence differed from one another, but I couldn’t fully appreciate the humor. I get it now. Through this shtick the geniuses at Warner Bros. invited their audience to laugh at human arrogance. For all of the time, money, and energy our species spends on legislation and litigation, not a bit of it has an ounce of power to affect actual events. We simply do not have that kind of authority.

What if we found evidence of legislated reality? What would be the implications of discovering that nature obeyed a seemingly prescribed limit?

Maybe you’ve heard that time slows and then stops the closer one gets to the speed of light. In a recent study I did, I was surprised to discover why that happens: Speed is a function of space over time. The speed of light is a constant in the universe. When a vessel nears the speed of light, the light inside has the potential to double that speed as it is carried along in the vessel. To ensure that the constant remains constant, time actually dialates. Since light can’t travel faster than 186000 miles/second, the second expands to enforce the speed limit. Clear as mud? Here’s a video to make it clearer.

So, I wonder about that. Why would impersonal universal forces obey a speed limit? Could it be that someone with authority over nature set that limit and prohibits it from being exceeded?

Strange Fire

The religious group that I came up in was built on the notion that God gave the New Testament to humanity as a blueprint for the way he wanted them to live and worship him. We believed that in the letters of Paul God had prescribed exactly how he wanted collective worship to be performed and that any deviation from that prescription would incur divine judgment.

For those of you who’ve always wondered, that’s why Churches of Christ “don’t have music” – the New Testament prescribes singing and so “playing” is forbidden.

To illustrate the gravity of any sort of innovation, we’d point to the tragic story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3. These two sons of Aaron offered “strange fire” before God which he had not authorized. In response to their sacrilege, fire flared up from the presence of the LORD and killed them. God required that anyone who came near him treat him as holy.

God hasn’t changed. We mustn’t despise him in any way. Worship has changed, though. When asked by the Samaritan woman about the proper location to worship God, Jesus divulged a secret:

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (John 4:23-24)

The redemptive work of Christ would transition worship from physical rituals and sacrifices to spiritual practices and offerings (Spirit). He would reveal the reality (truth) represented by the temple and priesthood which had been shadows cast on a wall awaiting the full light of Christ’s presence.

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced exclusion from the temple service in retribution for their “blasphemous” proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. The author of that letter wrote to assure them that they would suffer no loss whatsoever since worship under the superior priesthood of Christ could never be withheld from anyone. Why not? Because we worship “outside the camp” in the wilds of our daily lives and not within sacred spaces or under the auspices of any human authority. Consider the glory of vulgar worship that pleases God:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.”

 So we say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?”

 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.  Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 12:28-13:16 emphasis mine NAW)

This section is bookended with the idea of pleasing worship to God. Everything in the middle describes that pleasing worship. God has not changed since the days of Nadab and Abihu. He’s a consuming fire today just like he was then. On the day Christ fulfilled our obligations to God, the curtain of the temple ripped from top to bottom. The divine presence has been released, imposing holiness on every aspect of human existence.

Now, we worship when we mow our brother’s yard, take our sister a meal, or pray for a brother in prison. We encounter the transcendent and pure when we have sex with our spouse. We pay homage to God when we follow our leaders into the abandonment of material gain and goods because of faith in his provision. Consuming a ceremonial meal does nothing for our hearts because grace keeps us ever partaking and always filled. Instead of making an animal pay for our devotion to God, we offer the more costly gifts of unashamed confession of his name and sacrificial service and giving.

In light of that description of worship, the rituals and ceremonies which the church offers smell like strange fire.

We don’t gather weekly to worship. The early church didn’t model their meetings on the worship at the temple but on the gatherings at synagogue. God never called upon Israel to gather every Sabbath to worship him. He gave no direction whatsoever regarding the procedure or structure of synagogue service. Jews which had been scattered after the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE, spontaneously began coming together (the literal meaning of the word “synagogue”) for mutual encouragement and learning.

Jesus never told his people when, how, or why to meet. He made them a called out people of the resurrection and disbursed them among a hostile world. Having risen out of Judaism, they knew that meeting once a week for mutual encouragement and learning was critical to the maintenance of their distinct identity and spiritual vigor. In structure and procedure, early church gatherings were almost identical to synagogue service.

Here’s the kicker, just as synagogue grew out of necessity and was shaped by human thinking, so church gatherings, governance, and their liturgy have no connection with divine mandate. God gave the gift of wisdom to Paul and the other apostles who ministered to their generation, but they appointed elders in every church because every synagogue was presided over by elders, not because Jesus told them that churches should be elder led. Paul prohibited women from ministering in the gatherings of some of the churches, but women couldn’t even attend synagogue.

If we’re going to regard Paul, then we’ll need to respect his declaration that we no longer serve God under a covenant based on written rules but one which expresses God’s purposes in Christ. When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, he didn’t specify how often they were to eat it. He only required that as often as they did partake that they remember him. Communion is for us. Through that remembrance, we come back to the wellspring of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul spoke of divine discipline carried out on those who ate unworthily, but the sacrilegious actions had nothing to do with mishandling emblems; it consisted of mistreating the people of God.

We meet to encourage one another – that is the spirit of Paul’s letters. When we attempt to strain out every doctrinal gnat of church procedure, we always end up swallowing the camel of dead legalism.

Because we meet for mutual encouragement, we need to stop asking, “What did the early church do?” or even, “What does the Bible say about how we should meet?” and start asking, “What will encourage everyone to go out into the world and really worship?”

 

 

 

Charity Disparity

The following article is about atheism and philanthropy.  Notice that of the $430,000 raised for cancer research in 2012 by “atheist groups,” $215,000 came from Stiefel (who is independently wealthy) and that a large portion of the remainder came from Christians.  No wonder Stiefel doesn’t want to entirely alienate religious people.  Obviously, he recognizes that they’re the ones who give.
CNN Belief Blog

Strategic Planning

I just reblogged a post on Islamophobia.  I agree with the facts related in the post and with the contention that many people fail to call out the misdeeds of Muslims out of fear of backlash or worse.  However, I would not say that Islam is ultimately to blame for the evils committed by some Muslims around the world.  Islam just provides a convenient palate upon which the sinful hearts of humans mix the blood-red hues of their hatred.  Other convenient ideologies have been churchianity, Communism (rational atheism applied), nationalism, and racism to name a few. For the real issue check this sermon I delivered on November 11th.

Strategic Planning

Growing Young

I’m coming to believe that human thought goes through three phases on individual and societal levels.  Humans begin in intellectual childhood.  They believe the things they’ve been told.  They are limited by rules and driven by fear.  Some societies and individuals remain in childhood.  Often they do this because those entrusted to lead them seek only to exploit them.  Whether it’s a communist government or a denominational board, codependent leadership must jealously defend the naiveté (pronounced “orthodoxy”) of their constituents.

Beyond childhood, humans can develop into adolescence.  Those in this stage break out into individual thought and personal gratification.  They rely on peers and mistrust established authority.  They rabidly question assumptions and delight to liberate “children” from them.  While more aware than children, intellectual adolescents have their own blind spots especially to the limits of their own perspective.  For minds to progress they must go through some form of adolescence.  Sadly, some people remain in adolescence indefinitely.  One example would be Richard Dawkins and his sympathizers.

Should a person somehow find the humility to continue learning past adolescence, he or she will move on into intellectual adulthood.  At this level, a person has faced struggles and had the rough edges knocked off.  More than once, he or she has had to admit that much of what they were told while in childhood was in fact true though misunderstood or misinterpreted.  Intellectual adults have discovered a world outside their own minds where others’ ideas and needs disallow the luxury afforded to the critic.

My prayer for all of us is that our minds can grow up.  After all, Jesus told us to love God with our minds as well.

Empty Legacy

photo credit: waycoolpics.wordpress.com

No person should be allowed the luxury of holding a belief while ignoring its implications.  Why?  Because the implications of today’s prevalent beliefs shape the ethos of the next generation.  For instance, suppose I had been born into a culture which had been largely shaped by the belief that the ability to overcome a rival tribe was conferred on me through a rite of manhood.  Obviously, I would go through that rite.  After several defeats I might come to question the effectiveness of the manhood ritual.  I might come to believe that the rival tribe’s practice of cannibalism made them more powerful.  Since cannibalism had not been part of my cultural ethos, I would probably find the idea of eating another human to be distasteful (pardon the pun).  For me, eating another person would be hard, but propagating my ideas would be easy.  Suppose I convince others in the tribe of my position and after another defeat at which I get killed, they decide to eat a couple of the felled rival warriors.  What if after that, my tribe won the next battle?  My tribe would most likely continue to dabble in cannibalism.  Within two generations the buffet would be open.

Lately, I’ve encountered some pretty aggressive anti-theists.  The messages coming from that camp are fraught with what I would label, “ideological dissonance.”  So, just to do my part to help everyone come into personal harmony, I present this atheistic ontological syllogism for review:

P1- Meaning is an interpretive construct of a sentient mind.

P2- Sentience requires interplay between evaluative consciousness and memory.

P3- Consciousness and memory are products of chemical processes in the human brain.

P4- When the brain is destroyed, consciousness ends and memories are erased.

C1- Relative to the deceased individual, regardless of the details or duration, the life that he or she lived becomes retroactively meaningless.

P5- At some point, all brains and their products will be destroyed.

C2- Human life, regardless of the details or duration, is utterly meaningless.

P6- Resources invested in something which is utterly meaningless are wasted.

C3- The attempt to survive or accomplish anything is a total waste.

If you disagree, please tell me why.  If you agree but still choose not to commit suicide, then it’s because you fear the only certainty of your existence.  In short, your life isn’t advancing the human condition or accomplishing anything noble; you are just procrastinating.  So, the most consistent atheist ethic would be “die today” or “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.”

If you are living in the West, then you were probably raised with a value system which says that you should value human life.  The basis of that value is, “all men were created equal” or some similar formulation.  Your heart is trying to retain a borrowed ethic the basis of which your mind and mouth deny.  So, feel free to keep going where you’re going, just please admit that you are going there.

Fish Eyes

Mike the mallard bobbed on the surface of the pond, the early November wind whipping through his feathers.  Driven by an empty gizzard, Mike plunged toward the silted bottom.  Halfway down he encountered a rather large bass which caused him to backpedal a bit then come to a full upright position under water.  The bass, equally startled, came to a dead stop.  The two stared at each other for a few awkward seconds before Mike broke the silence with a little small talk.

“Boy, this water sure is cold today.”  He observed.

To which the bass replied, “What water?”

My Two Masters Part One

I’ll admit it: The movie, “Karate Kid” has to some degree defined me as a person.  I’m not talking about the nepotistically-produced, pathetic excuse for a remake.  I mean the gloriously cheesy, deliciously predictable original.  I grew up without a father and really without a consistent father figure.  As a modern individualist, my rational mind never allowed me to acknowledge my need for a mentor but the relationship between Daniel and Mr. Miyagi compelled my hungry heart.  Ironically, the movie came out during one of the two summers I spent with my father.  We are both fans of the martial arts.  We went together.  Sitting next to a man who had never been there watching a man who didn’t exist, I found a mentor.

I got into Tae Kwon Do.  Martial arts helped me in many ways.  However I hung up my dobok three years later when I discovered a greater mentor – Jesus.  After twenty five years of training under the Master, I’m still blown away by all he has to teach.  Looking back, I’m surprised to discover that Jesus and Mr. Miyagi teach similar lessons and employ similar methods.  Over the next few posts I’ll be sharing a few.  The first is:

“Avoid the middle of the road.”

On the day of his first lesson, Mr. Miyagi asked Daniel, “Are you ready?”  Daniel responded, “I guess so.”  The master seized this teachable moment by explaining that a man who walks on either side of a road is safe while the one who walks in the middle will be “Squish!  Just like grape.”  Mr. Miyagi admonished that a person who makes up his mind either way regarding karate will be safe while the person who takes the “guess so” approach to karate places himself in harm’s way.

Jesus also instructed people who offered him conditional commitment that they would be better off not following (Luke 14:25-33).  In fact, half-hearted disciples make the Master want to barf (Rev. 3:14-18).  From the standpoint of the progress of the gospel, an open opponent is preferable to a half-hearted adherent.

Jesus and Mr. Miyagi teach that those who would come under their tutelage must buy in or get out.  The alternative is “squish.”

To be continued…