Good Old Fashioned Suffering

I Once Thought I Would Enjoy a Lifetime of Easy Living. How Good it is that I was Wrong.

Since 9/11 it seems that so much of America has been struggling to regain its lost sense of comfort. Economically (and some would say politically) this has become even more difficult. Many wonder: Will we ever regain our ability to buy maximum quantities of stuff?

So what it we don’t? Now is the prime time for us, as a nation, to relearn the values of hard work, perseverance, community, simplicity, and — dare I say? — suffering. The present crisis can either kill us culturally and morally…. or it can make us stronger. We stand at a crossroads.

The message of the cross is this: Jesus died to pay a debt you could never repay… but to receive that gift you, too, must take up your cross and follow him. Faith was never supposed to be easy. We need God’s help. We need each other. We need to accept that in this life there are no quick fixes, but that’s okay because there are fixes in the end. Whether you , in this body, will live to see that end is beside the point.

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Christians + Rules = WTF?

A few days ago, a reader asked, “where  [did] the church decided to adopt a code of ethics of its own, and for what?”

I was stumped a bit, because there should be a simple answer… but there’s not.

From the outside, Christianity can look like it’s dominated by rules, especially by a long list of don’ts. Shoot, from the inside, many people feel oppressed by all the restrictions. Some people rebel and do whatever they think is right without any deference to authority, while others remain tied to a long list of shoulds. How did it come to this?

Commandments have always been part of faith in the God of Abraham. In the beginning, God gave humans a very short list (one item!) of what not do to, knowing that, as long as they obeyed that one thing, they would be responsible in living in the best possible way in everything else. Well, they screwed up, so God took things up a notch.

God gave Abraham any number of commandments throughout his life, but all of them were preceded by God’s promises — and all of them were for Abraham’s ultimate good, even if they didn’t make sense at the time (sacrifice Isaac!). Those promises were in the context of a trusting relationship.  Commandments without faith are dead. Obedience to commandments is part of a healthy faith, but it is not the be all and end all.

Jesus came to set people free from themselves, from each other, and from the deceptions that can weigh each of us down. With this comes great freedom, but in this life, there are some things that God – and responsible religious leaders – will warn us against because they will harm us or others spiritually, physically, etc.

If people claim to be Christians, but demonstrate their faith through rules more than through love, other people have the right to question their faith. But, on the flip side, if people claim to be Christians but demonstrate no self-control or concern for living out their faith in purity and responsibility, ditto. If you don’t feel like you have a cross to bear…. Faith is joyful, liberating, healing, and many wonderful things, but no one ever said it was supposed to be easy.

Faith Unprovable

I cannot prove the assertions of faith. No one can. That is what defines faith.

Published in: on August 18, 2008 at 1:33 pm  Comments (2)  
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Batman as Christ-figure?

(Contains Dark Knight spoiler.)

In an earlier post, I reflected on the differences between Batman, Superman, and Spider-man. At that time, I was of the opinion that Superman most vividly reminded me of Jesus and that Spider-man was the strongest of the three because he most clearly embodied the tensions of being human. However, after seeing the Dark Knight, I realize that Batman exemplifies aspects of Christ in ways that Clark Kent never could.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a multitude of ways in which Bruce Wayne is not like Jesus: violence, ruthlessness, willingness to lie, moral ambiguity, and such. But in his chosen calling, in his self-sacrifice, and in his humanity, Batman is much like Christ.

Batman was born as a sort of reverse incarnation. Rather than God becoming man, a man becomes more than a mere mortal by virtue of his choice and the actions that choice necessitates. His commitment to his calling overrides all of his other rights and needs. He became a legend. [That was the point of Batman Begins.] If Batman is the greatest of the superheroes, it is because he is super not by chance but by choice.

Likewise, Batman’s sacrifice of himself which defines him and makes him Christ-like. Beyond sacrificing his own personal safety, comfort, and well-being, Batman in the Dark Knightsacrifices his reputation. By defining himself as legend and nonetheless sacrificing his reputation, Batman has sacrificed his very self. Rather than allow the name of justice to be smudged and the hope for peace to be darkened, Batman took upon himself blame for actions that were not his. He became the ultimate superhero as a scapegoat.

Like Christ, “He was despised and rejected by men…. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:3-4).

Simply because Batman has not yet physically sacrificed himself to the point of death does not mean that he wouldn’t… or that he won’t. (Side-note: The Dark Knight provides the perfect set-up for a sequel to capture the essence of The Dark Knight Returns, storytelling genius Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel.)

Superman has often carried with him a certain stoicism. Batman, too, could often be accused of the same. However, in Christopher Nolan’s latest contribution to the Batman story, he struggles, cries, and nearly gives up. (There’s a man I can relate to!) But he goes on anyway. (Now there’s a man I can praise!) He will do whatever it takes to save Gotham, whatever the price, whether for criminals or for himself.

So what?

Do all great stories mirror the greatest story? Do we need reminders of who we are and of who we should be? Or is this merely for entertainment’s sake?

What Dogs Smell

For Emma.

When dogs smell, they smell in vivid color. They smell every hue of days past and days to come. When dogs smell, they smell the eons, every forefather and foremother who has ever peed. When dogs smell, they smell the beginning of time, the history of their race and of humanity, too. When dogs smell, they follow every trace of the Creator’s touch. When dogs smell, they do not smell rot or stench or death. Even bad smells smell good, for dogs smell redemption.

The Quest for the Historical Jesus

The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” is neither historical nor a quest.  Discuss.

Published in: on August 14, 2008 at 4:28 pm  Comments (2)  

Post-Apocalyptic Eco-Joy

A vision from Isaiah 34

Many times I read parts of the Old Testament without being gripped by the passage.  I take an already fragmentary book like Isaiah and look at its verses in isolation, which makes it even harder to figure out what’s going on.  Today was different.

The first half of the chapter contains a warning of God’s coming judgment.  “The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is upon all their armies….  He will give them over to slaughter” (v2).  There are many familiar apocalyptic images: “All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll” (v4).  Then there’s even more blood and gore, even for a Braveheart guy.  “For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution to uphold Zion’s cause” (v8).  Then something strange happens.

God gives the desolate land back to the animals.  “The desert owl and screech owl will possess [the land of Edom]; the great owl and the raven will nest there” (v11).  The passage goes on to describe thorns, nettles, and brambles overrunning the old battlements.  Jackals, hyenas, wild goats, and night animals will “find for themselves places of rest” (v14).

Some would look at these animals and, because they were ceremonially unclean (i.e., unfit for sacrifice), see them as symbolic of God’s judgment.  Maybe.  But what if God is simply returning that particular patch of land (Edom), back to its original inhabitants?  The language Isaiah uses is not unlike that used for the people of Israel, for he says of the above animals:

“None of these will be missing, not one will lack her mate.  For it is [God’s] mouth that has given the order, and his Spirit will gather them together.  He allots their portions; his hand distributes them by measure.  They will possess it forever and dwell there from generation to generation” (vv16-17).

Those are some happy animals.  God be praised!

Who is saved?

God only knows.

pickle + mustard + tomato = sanity

I once ate plain sandwiches for the sake of speed and efficiency. But I can barely describe the great delight and peace I now feel because I eat my sandwiches on toasted bread, heating the chicken or other lunch meat, putting on mustard and a slice of tomato, with a pickle on the side. It might cost a few cents more, but it’s even better than I can get in a restaurant.

So often I feel we treat ourselves to second best when, with a little bit of extra effort, we could have the best. I want to eat the best sandwich I can possibly eat given my means (and need to spend/save for other things). I want my sandwich to glorify God, if only by the praises it elicits in me as I eat it.

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

Published in: on August 6, 2008 at 9:45 am  Comments (2)  
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The Problem Is… Jesus

Post #2 in direct response to Avant Garde’s comments on All Roads Lead to Heaven? (Newcomers, please join the conversation.)

Avant Garde: “…in the guise of questioning the denominations/churches of christianity, and saying “no religion but God leads to heaven”, you really meant “your” God the Son alone leads to heaven!”

You are correct. I really meant that only Jesus – God the Son – leads to heaven. Can Jesus reach people through religions that aren’t Christianity? I address this specific issue under C* below. Faith comes from God but “religion” and religiosity are human constructs.

Meanwhile, I should tell you why I believe what I believe. Maybe you will write me off. Maybe you will continue reading. I respect your decision and point of view regardless. I do not expect you to change your mind. That would take a miracle. But I do hope that you will understand me.

A. Someone is “wrong” from everyone’s perspective

Everyone assumes that someone is wrong when it comes to religion. There are the obvious examples of Christians saying that Muslims are essentially wrong and vice-versa. But what about “All religions are true”?

Even the claim that “no one is wrong” assumes a group of people who are wrong: those who deny that claim and typically implies “everyone is wrong” about the ultimate realities of eternity.

To claim “I don’t/can’t/shouldn’t make claims” is a non-committal cop-out… and is often, in fact, not true of the one who says it.

Christians make ridiculous claims, but that does not mean that these claims are either untrue or more ridiculous than the claims that everyone else is making.

B. The Bible tells us what Jesus claimed

Not all those who profess to be Christians accept the teachings of the Bible in the same way. There are many issues, such as a six-day creation, which seem to be open to a greater deal of interpretation. But on the issue of Jesus, there is much clarity. The Bible deserves fuller treatment, but I can summarize my basic belief: if God exists and he is good, then he would have used just such a means as the Bible to reveal himself to humanity. (Re: Bible’s self-testimony, “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless…” Psalm 18:30).

C. This is what Jesus himself claimed

Jesus was crucified for claiming to be God in ways that were true of himself and of himself alone. He spoke with authority over the written scriptures. He healed, loved, served and led others as if he were the ruler of creation.  For example, “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58).  ‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7).  His sacrificial death on behalf of humanity could only be done by him, for he alone is fully God and fully human. If humanity needs saving, then we have never had a clearer savior.

D. Jesus saves in mysterious ways

Some churches give the impression that all you have to do is say his name in a prayer. The truth is more personal. We are saved by faith. But this isn’t any sort of will-power that we muster up. It’s a relationship… which God himself initiates. Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Paul, one of the first generation of followers, wrote, “”For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8).

*Some have suggested that there are “invisible Christians,” who have a personal relationship with God through Jesus either without publicly professing such faith or without even consciously knowing this. For example, a Buddhist or a Muslim could be a Christian without knowing it by loving God and loving others. Many Buddhists and Muslims find such ideas highly offensive. The idea is convenient those of us who struggle with outreach to members of other religions and with the idea of hell.  The idea has strength in the precedent of Jews before Christ clearly having access to God the Father and being “saved.”

E. Either Jesus saves and he alone, or Jesus does not save at all.

If Jesus died for the sins of the world, then we need him, because we all fall short of deserving to be with God forever. If Jesus did not die for the sins of the world, then no one needs him except as an example of how to die for a fictitious cause. Either Christianity is the truest truth or it is the biggest lie. There is no middle ground. Maybe other religions have the possibility of being partially true, but because of the claims of Jesus, Christianity does not have that option.

F. These issues are a matter of faith.

I can testify but I cannot prove. (See previous post.)

Caution

There are people who profess to be Christians who disagree with virtually everything I have just said (including a particularly nasty group of radical Dispensationalists who do not believe that there has ever been spiritual salvation for the Jewish people).

Conclusion

I don’t know if I have convinced anyone, but I hope that answers the question.  If I have not, or if anyone has further questions, I am, as always, open to your input.