Thursday, April 30, 2020

Smeagol on a Leash

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Hope, and the Problem with People

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Quitting Before the Final Whistle

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Anonymous Asks (90)

“Why should I talk about my faith at school?”

Here’s a thought: maybe you shouldn’t. Or at least, maybe you shouldn’t make some kind of formal policy out of it.

When I was growing up, we recited the Lord’s Prayer in public schools. There was something close to a common consensus that the Christian faith encouraged character qualities which, if not practiced by everybody you knew, were at least almost universally acknowledged as values we’d like our kids to have. And if helping your children learn the merits of honesty, loyalty, hard work, persistence, hope, patience and kindness could be accomplished by telling them stories about Jesus, most parents were okay with sending their kids off to Sunday School too.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Point of Faith

“I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Imagine for a second that at the time you came to Christ you had been told that your life from this day forward was to be characterized by people throwing rocks at you, telling lies about you, betraying you and letting you down, calling you names, hitting you, throwing you in jail and trying to kill you. Moreover, in addition to all the abuse you could expect as a matter of course from your fellow man for the sake of your testimony to Christ, you could also expect more than your fair share of all the nasty, apparently random things that happen to people the world over: getting mugged, having to work hard, getting no sleep, getting sick, suffering chronic pain from old injuries, lacking food and having your transportation fail regularly in spectacular and dangerous ways.

Would that have changed anything? Might a bout of frantic back-peddling have ensued?

In some cases, maybe.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Time and Chance (33)

Once upon a time, one of the richest, most powerful and wisest men in all of human history set himself the task of discovering the meaning of life. He found himself frustrated. He also recorded his search step by step for us in the book of Ecclesiastes. He added one observation to another seeking to uncover what he calls “the scheme of things”.

In doing so, oddly enough, he found himself repeatedly looking not just at the created world, or at society, but at individual men and women. In their own existential thrashing about, the more alert unbelievers today do exactly the same thing: they look around at others in hope of finding lives well-lived and lifestyles worth emulating — people of integrity and consistency — and, informing those qualities, perhaps some coherent explanation of our place in the universe that will satisfy their thirst for meaning and purpose.

After all, you are not terribly likely to discover a coherent worldview in a brothel or under a barroom table, are you?

Friday, April 24, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: A Methodist to Their Madness

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Ten Commandments That Failed

It seems morbid, perhaps, to be raising the topic of 9/11 going on two decades later. It was a sad, bitter moment, one that we might all wish to forget.

But wisdom does not always come quickly, and events of this magnitude take a very long time to understand. There are some things which are best left unsaid in the heat of the moment, but are better brought slowly to the surface when due time has passed. Such is the case with what I am writing today.

Even now, the fall of the World Trade Towers is not an easy subject.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Fifth Business

Facing pressure from his publisher to explain the meaning of his new book’s title, Canadian novelist Robertson Davies cooked up the following phony quote:

“Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.”

I read the otherwise-rather-grubby novel in my teens and the only part of it that stuck with me was the term Fifth Business. It seemed like a very apt description of a lot of people’s lives, I thought at the time.

They used to be called bit players. Nowadays we give them awards and call them character actors.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Above My Pay Grade

“That’s above my pay grade,” said the former senator.

It was 2008. The subject was abortion. Presidential candidate Barack Obama had been asked, “At what point does a baby get human rights?”

At bare minimum, his response indicated an aversion to being pinned down on the subject and a desire to avoid conflict over the issue as he campaigned to be president of the United States of America. There were “larger issues” at stake, he undoubtedly thought. He was prepared to let evil slide for the sake of what he perceived to be the “greater good”, which presumably included his assumption of the presidency.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Anonymous Asks (89)

“Is physical healing part of Christ’s atonement?”

There is a sense in which it is. Revelation speaks of the leaves of the tree of life, which are “for the healing of the nations”. We also read that in the New Jerusalem, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Without the sacrifice of Christ we would have none of this to look forward to. All our hopes for eternity are tied up in him. Everything we have now and ever will have is a direct result of his death on the cross.

But that’s obviously not what’s being asked.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

91 and 19

You will surely remember Psalm 91. That’s the one which begins, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty ...” It’s often attributed to Moses, and is famous for being very comforting — I heard it read at a funeral recently — and even more so for being quoted by Satan in his temptation of the Lord Jesus.

It also includes two statements which we might be inclined to try to apply to nasty little flu viruses that kill people, among other things: “For he will deliver you from ... the deadly pestilence” and “no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent.” On a quick reading, it sounds as if dwelling in the shelter of the Most High and making God our refuge is the ticket out of most of the unpleasant and disturbing things that can happen to us in this life — not just new and virulent diseases, but war and wild beasts and even unfortunate accidents — as well as being the absolute guarantee of a long life. What a sweet spot to live in!

But does 91 really apply to COVID-19? Can Christians reasonably claim its promises in connection with the current pandemic? I hate to be a party-pooper, but a careful reading of scripture does not allow us to appropriate this familiar psalm for our own comfort quite so freely.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Time and Chance (32)

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

I have a feeling that’s an old Clint Eastwood line from somewhere. At any rate, the next six verses of Ecclesiastes are all about human limitations in a fallen world. Verses 19 and 20 have to do with mankind’s moral limitations, verses 21-22 with our interpersonal limitations, and verses 23-34 with our philosophical limitations.

Basically, we are sinners who don’t get along. Moreover, outside of God’s word, we are incapable of coming up with any reasonable explanation why that might be. We don’t act right, we don’t socialize right, and we don’t think right. That’s a fairly hefty indictment.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Days of Programs Past

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

A Dose of Worldliness

The most recent version of this post is available here

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

God’s Photo Album

The Bible is full of pictures.

Now, illustrations — whether they are symbols, metaphors, or even when they come in the form of full-blown parables — are not reality, and it does us good to keep that in mind. They are useful snapshots in which we may catch glimpses of ourselves, of God, and of spiritual truths we might otherwise miss. To ensure we don’t, God has given them to us in a form we can easily process and relate to, one which often stirs an emotional reaction that can bring us to repentance, awe, appreciation or some other good state. For example, Nathan’s story about the poor man’s ewe lamb drove David into a righteous rage ... until he realized the story was all about him.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Can a Mormon be Saved?

In a recent post, Amy Hall at Stand to Reason entertains the possibility that some Mormons may be saved. It’s a thoughtful piece, and Hall describes several conversations she’s had with LDS members that are enlightening as to the differences between Mormons and Christians in terms of our hopes, goals and understanding of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. In the end, she concludes a saved Mormon is theoretically possible but doubtful.

I found myself more or less agreeing with Hall: LDS theology is pretty far removed from the Christian faith in many respects. It would be difficult to imagine attending an LDS gathering for any great length of time without cluing in to that fact.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Anonymous Asks (88)

“What should I say when someone morally offends me?”

When you set out to correct people, one of several things may happen: (1) they reject your advice and never think about it again; (2) they reject your advice now, but take it to heart later when they have time to reflect; (3) they accept your correction politely, but only in order to get you to stop talking and go away; or (4) they accept your correction politely and actually learn from it.

It also happens occasionally that your intended target rejects your advice, but other people come to know of it and benefit from it. That is not the ideal outcome, but it is still a pretty good one.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Fate of the Coward

We are living in scary times. People are afraid.

Biblical fear can be good or bad. Perfected love banishes it, but in a fallen world, fully mature love is a rarity and fear still serves the occasional valid purpose in God’s dealings with us. For one, Christians are encouraged to bring our pursuit of holiness to completion “in the fear of God”. For another, fear sometimes gets your attention in a busy world when nothing else will.

Our modern translations tell us one of the things the miracles of Christ regularly produced was awe, usually accompanied by giving glory to God. The word for “awe” in Greek is phobos, more commonly translated “fear”. This is fear at its most useful.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Time and Chance (31)

Anecdotal evidence is not conclusive in any court, but it’s still evidence. What you have observed in this life has a profound effect on what you believe. What you think you’ve observed may have an even greater influence on you.

So what is it that really matters? What sort of life would your neighbors call “good”? There are very few people out there who haven’t yet decided. Some of them are making very silly choices, but they are still making them. Having “seen everything” (in their estimation), they are now deciding what course of action makes the most sense for them. If you ask them nicely, they will often tell you why.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Crippling the Response

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Ah, the coronavirus! I was so determined not to go there in this space. Then it threatened to go on and on and on, and then it became such a feature of our current media experience as to be utterly inescapable. After that, it changed the way we do most everything, at least for the foreseeable future. And still we left the subject alone; after all, if you want the latest on COVID‑19, you can get that absolutely anywhere, right?

Tom: But then The New York Times started blaming evangelicals for “crippling our coronavirus response”, and there you are: turns out it was time to start talking about it here. Not being an expert of any sort, I don’t want to discuss the virus itself, where it came from, how it is spreading, and what might be done about it; nor do I want to speculate about what the total bill for fighting this thing will be. I simply want to talk about the church and its response to the crisis.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

The Beautiful and the Not-So-Good

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Word for Word

“If you don’t have access to the original language, stick with a word-for-word translation like the NASB ...”

There is a common misconception, usually among those who are only familiar with a single language, that it is possible to translate Hebrew or Greek — or any other language, for that matter — word for word. I used to believe it myself. It is not the case, and the translators of the NASB would tell you themselves that they have not attempted any such thing.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

A Tale of Two Rebukes

One generation and three chapters of holy scripture apart, two powerful men experienced God’s correction. One handled it right. One didn’t.

Both were good men with a notable character flaw. One accepted instruction, while the other became offended and died obdurate.

Perhaps in comparing their stories we may see ourselves in one or the other.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Anonymous Asks (87)

“Are our dreams from God?”

There are all kinds of theories about what dreams are, what they mean, and the purpose they serve for human beings. One theory is that dreams are our brains attempting to derive meaning from meaningless stimuli, attempting to create order out of chaos. Sigmund Freud saw them as a window into the unconscious. Psychologist Rosalind Cartwright says dreams “help us process new, emotionally important information and add it to our conceptual memory system”. Sleep scientist Robert Stickgold says there is “precious little on which dream researchers agree”.

That about sums it up. From a scientific perspective, the answer is that we don’t know what purpose dreams serve, or if they mean anything at all. Where dreams are concerned, we cannot be certain about much of anything.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Tyrants and Pushovers

Nobody likes a tyrant. I don’t imagine anyone ever did even when, as is so often claimed today, tyranny was the defining feature of patriarchal leadership in the secular world, in church government, and even sometimes within families. At least this is what we are led to believe.

I have no doubt a significant number of the horror stories about the abusive leadership of times past are perfectly true, and should serve us well as cautionary tales. But I very much doubt all of them are.

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Time and Chance (30)

Much of what we read in our Bibles is not what we might call “inspired”: the choice of English words made by translators; the marginal commentary; beginnings and ends of verses; chapter and passage headings ... all these things were simply not subjected to the same level of divine control which the writers of scripture claim for the Greek and Hebrew text itself.

This being the case, once in a blue moon something done by a translator or publishing house works against our ability to discern the meaning of a text. One of my brothers is fond of pointing out how many times a chapter division in our English Bibles has obscured his understanding of a passage which should rightly flow right on without pause, and did so in its original form. Sometimes the answer to a question posed at the end of chapter 3 (where you probably stopped your daily reading) is to be found three verses into chapter 4 (where you have probably forgotten what it is answering by the time you read it tomorrow).

Friday, April 03, 2020

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Youth Problems Part 2: Life in Suspended Animation

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means (6)

We have been talking about brothers and brotherhood. Brothers share DNA, parents, history, culture and sometimes values. Ideally at least, brothers feel a sense of high obligation to one another and always have each other’s backs.

Other than in rare cases of Solomonic excess, one only has a few literal siblings. All others are only “brothers” in a figurative sense. On the basis of the Old Testament, I have compared brotherhood to the layers of an onion, in which the highest level of responsibility lies toward those at the center of our lives and radiates out through the “layers” of immediate family, then extended family, tribe and nation.