Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 14

[If this is the first installment of this series on Genesis you've seen, you deserve a little explanation. I'm a pastor of the Lutheran variety. But, as they might say in the movie, Airplane, "That's not important right now." What is important is that every week, I convene a Bible study called Tuesdays with Markie--an increasingly dated allusion to the Mitch Albion book. We've been working our way through the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis.

[The ancient rabbis considered Genesis the most important book of the Old Testament corpus. It sets the stage for every important theme in the Judeo-Christian faith. It certainly undergirds the faith of Christians. In saying that, I'm not really referencing the two creation accounts found at the beginning of the book, but themes like...
salvation not dependent on our works, but faith in a gracious God;
God's provision and care for imperfect people;
God's willingness to forgive;
the holiness of God; and so on
.[Human beings, even so-called heroes of the faith, are portrayed in all their fragile, imperfect wartiness, in this book. The effect of that is to give me hope that even an imperfect, warty sinner like me can have a relationship with the wonderful, gracious God of the Bible.

[I'm working to get these notes caught up with our actual discussions. Below this installment, you'll find links to previous posts in the series.

[By the way, right now, I've got three different series going. There's this one. There's another called Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time. And there's another on discouragement, which will appear occasionally.]

1. Genesis 31 begins with tension, a seemingly constant companion of Jacob. His brothers-in-law are complaining, saying that Jacob is doing well at his father-in-law's expense. Laban has also adopted a cool demeanor toward Jacob.

Chapter 30 tells why this has happened. For the first time, in this battle of schemers, Jacob has gotten the better of Laban. In actual fact, as Jacob will acknowledge, the advantage goes to God.

2. Jacob decides that it's time to scram. Out in the fields, Jacob conferences with his wives, the sisters, Rachel and Leah. The site was probably chosen for two reasons: (1) Shepherding is demanding work. Any farmer who has livestock can tell you that it's tough to take time away. Those animals always need attention and protection. (2) In the fields, Jacob can speak with the women away from spying ears and eyes.

This latter reason is undoubtedly the most important because Jacob proposes something drastic. He wants to take the women, their slaves, their family, and all the livestock Jacob has acquired and head back to the land where his father Isaac lives, Canaan, the land eventually promised to Abraham's descendants.

Jacob lays out his case to the women, arguing that Laban has repeatedly cheated him and that his attitude has become cooler.

Surprisingly, the women feel that their father has also mistreated them financially. They're ready to go.

Jacob and the women may seem prompted by decidedly unspiritual motives. But the Bible is an utterly honest book. It acknowledges the full panoply of human thoughts and emotions. Rachel and Leah also believe that God has decided to allow Jacob to thrive financially in spite of their father's efforts to continue taking advantage of Jacob. They further affirm that Jacob should do what God had told him to do.

This mixture of the seemingly pedestrian and pious, demonstrates one of the key components of the Judeo-Christian faith: We believe in what's called the immanence of God. God isn't far-off. When His people call, He hears. This immanence has its ultimate expression in something else that's called The Incarnation, the embodiment of God in the Person of Jesus Christ.

3. While Laban is off attending to the work of shearing his sheep, Jacob loads up his wives, children, servants, and livestock and heads back to the home of his father, Isaac. As they leave, Rachel steals her father's idols.

There is a whimsical element to this act, as often happens when the Old Testament talks about the idols worshiped by their Near East neighbors. The Hebrews were always poking fun at the manifest absurdity of worshiping finite things--be they carvings, sculptures, animals, money, success, horoscopes, people, or whatever. One of the most fun instances of this is found in Isaiah 44:9-20:
All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit; their witnesses neither see nor know. And so they will be put to shame. Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good? Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame. The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, "Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!" The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, "Save me, for you are my god!" They do not know, nor do they comprehend; for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, "Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?" He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?"
But there's more than whimsy in Rachel's action. She also demonstrates contempt, if not for her father's god, at least for her father. Later, this contempt is compiled when, to prevent Laban from finding the statuette, she sits on a camel cushion in which it is hidden and explains to her father that she would stand in deference to him, but she was having her period. An ancient Hebrew might have laughed out loud at this juncture in the story. Women were considered ritually unclean and defiled during this portion of their monthly mestrual cycle. The message would have been clear: This god who can be concealed in a camel cushion is below contempt by comparison to the one God of all creation.

4. There is also great tension in this story because Jacob, unaware of Rachel's thievery, vows that whoever might be guilty of swiping Laban's god will be put to death. Rachel must live however, in order for the great tribe of Benjamin to come into being, early hearers of this story might have thought. Besides, Rachel was the love of Jacob's life. Would he have kept his vow to Laban had he determined what Rachel had done? Would Laban, her father, have let Jacob go through with it? Vows, as we have seen before in Genesis, were considered inviolable things.

Forunately, Rachel's explanation to Laban, whether true or not, was sufficient to cause him to give up on the search. Two things I can't help but wonder though are:
Did Laban keep searching for his missing god after he returned home?

What did Rachel do with the stolen god?
5. Strangely to us, in this chapter Laban upbraids Jacob for taking his--that is, Laban's--family away. Actually, because Jacob is in something of a servile relationship to Laban, the father-in-law is justified in his anger, even though Jacob has been the victim of every sort of trickery, something which might seem to negate the legitimacy of Laban's position. But buttressing Laban's argument is the fact that in his culture, the son-in-law became part of the family, the father-in-law exercising a kind of dominion over his daughters, their husbands, and their children.

(6) Ultimately though, knowing that Jacob has been blessed by his God, Laban decides not to obstruct Jacob. They covenant together and make their peace.


Whether it's espoused by liberals or conservatives from within the Church, I've always felt that political proclamations made by Christians ought to be, with rare exception, clearly labeled "just my opinion."

Clearly, Christians of all stripes can say that life is precious, irrespective of the specific ways in which they might think life should be safeguarded in the political realm.

Clearly, Christians of all stripes can agree that even if we may disagree with others' life styles, governmental authority ought not practice bias or allow it to be practiced.

But, it's essential that we Christians not subordinate keeping Christ as our Lord to any allegiance we may feel to a political philosophy, or even to our country, as much as we may love it.

Two days ago, I presented some critical comments of Dr. James Dobson, a man whose early work on family living, parenting, and marriage to be extremely valuable. But I feel that he has veered too far into the realm of identifying Christ with his own politics, thus alienating people who might otherwise be won to Christ.

In talking about politics here, it's been my aim to be fair to all sides and to discuss current political issues sometimes from the standpoint of as unbiased a Christian perspective as I could muster and at other times, from the vantage point of one who constantly reads history. (I was a Social Studies major at Ohio State also.)

But occasionally, I too have veered into overt politicizing. And, because presenting the love of Christ is my highest priority, that has been a misstep on my part. I don't want to ever convey the impression that Jesus can be bottled up or packaged in some political program. Like Aslan, the Christ figure in The Chronicles of Narnia, the God we know in Jesus Christ isn't tame, He's insusceptible to our attempts to subordinate Him to our own preferences. He's the Lion of Judah, after all. He's wild and great and powerful and in theologian Paul Tillich's phrase, "wholly other." And, as Mr. Beaver told the Pevensie kids in the first Narnian book, this wholly other Lord Who can't be tamed or made to dance to our tunes is also good. He's gracious, loving, patient, self-sacrificing.

So, I refuse to put Jesus Christ in a box. I choose to let Him have free reign in me, so that the words of my mouth and the meditations of my mind will be acceptable to God...and tell the world about this incredible God, Who accepts us we are and helps the surrendered become what He made us to be.

On this blog, I'll keep looking at the politics of politcs from time to time, often looking at the history behind what's going on today. I will try to ask people of all political stripes to be fair to those with whom they disagree. I will speak out on a few political issues when I think the will of God is crystal clear. And, when politics and faith intersect--on issues like the Ten Commandments in public places, for example--I may have some things to say.

But I don't want to be a Jim, Dobson or Wallis. I'm sorry if I've ever edged into such territory. Let me know if you think I do so in the future.

UPDATE: I will also talk about other stuff in life, things like music, baseball, movies, books, TV, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, U2, Coldplay, the Boys and Girls Club, and such. I'm interested in all of life!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Dr. Dobson, Please Quit Playing This Dangerous Game!

James Dobson is playing a dangerous game.

It's not the one that he, with melodrama and perhaps unintended self-aggrandizement is playing, though. He worries that the reassurances he's issuing to listeners to his daily radio program that Harriet Miers will be a "good justice" may result in his having the blood of dead babies on his hands. (See here.)

No, I think by playing the role to which he aspires in our nation's politics, he risks losing the eternal lives of millions who will be turned off by his subordination of Jesus Christ to his brand of politics and political activism. Unaware of what Jesus is really like, they may think that Dobson isn't subordinating Jesus to his politics. They may think that the pushy, obnoxious, coercive Jesus that James Dobson commends is the real deal.

Already, many surmise that Dobson, with his megaphone and political connections, speaks for Christ and the Christian faith and so think that one must be a conservative Republican in order to be accepted in the Kingdom of God. How many millions are repudiating the Gospel because of his cartoon caricature of Christianity can only be guessed. It deeply saddens me!

Now though, he's claiming to have inside information and implies that he's received back channel assurances that Harriet Miers will vote the way he and many of his supporters believe that she should if Roe v. Wade comes back before the Court.

If you want people to know and follow Jesus Christ, Dr. Dobson, please quit playing this game. Focus on introducing people to Christ and trust that the Holy Spirit will transform their hearts to make the horrors that sadden and repulse you...and me...unthinkable.

This approach, the approach of humbly, lovingly sharing Christ with others, is the way Jesus commends that our mission as His followers be done. It requires faith, humility, love, and patience. But in the end, it will win over more hearts and minds than taking the levers of political and judicial power and forcing our will down other people's throats ever could!

For more, see here and here.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sunday Night This and That

Today was John Lennon's birthday. Had he lived he would have been sixty-five years old. Yeah, Lennon was a jerk. But he had a great sense of melody and wrote some wonderful songs. It was his vision that originally created the Beatles. His songwriting partner, Paul McCartney, continues to be a vital, rocking creative force and I'm sure that had he not been cut down at age 40, Lennon would be the same today.

This past week, I attended the Midwest Regional Leadership Conference of the Boys and Girls Club of America. (I'm board vice president of the Boys and Girls Club of Clermont County.) The Club movement is definitely worthy of your involvement and support. They make a difference in the lives of young people. Wherever there are clubs in this country--in cities, small towns, or rural areas, youth crime goes down, youth crime victimization goes down, and youth pregnancies decrease and kids perform better in school, complete their educations more, attend and complete college more, and stay out of trouble more.

The keynote speaker for our conference was former Dodger and Padre great, Steve Garvey. For ten years, Garvey played for the Dodgers, back when they were in the same National League division as my beloved Cincinnati Reds. For eight of the ten years of the 1970s, either the Reds or the Dodgers won the divisional title and Garvey, with his lifetime .296 average was always in the thick of things. Before he spoke, I approached him at the table where he was seated by himself, awaiting the beginning of the luncheon. "I just had to introduce myself to the guy who made my life miserable as a Reds fan," I told him. Garvey stood and graciously spoke with me for about five minutes. In his speech and in his interactions with people later, Garvey was absolutely a class act.

Yes, I'm disappointed tonight that my Buckeyes were unable to beat Penn State's Nittany Lions last night! The defenses of both teams were spectacular.

Prayers Are Needed Again

For the victims of the south Asia earthquake.

Authentic Faith and the Bible

Psalm 23
[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on October 9, 2005.]

The author Flannery O’Connor once told a story which, the first time I read it, was retold by the late Lutheran theologian, Joseph Sittler. Sittler loved it and after retelling it, reflected on its meaning.

It’s the story of an elderly couple who lived in the Appalachians, surrounded by breathtaking views. They were accustomed to sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of their home for as long as the weather allowed, simply taking in the same sights they’d seen hundreds of days before in their long married life. One spring day, they were doing the same thing, silently rocking and looking.
“Well, Sarah,” the husband said to his wife. “I see there’s still some snow up there on the mountain.” [Sittler then reflects:] Now they both knew that there would still be some snow on that mountain at this time of the year; there always was. So why did he say so? Because just to know that at times there’s snow, while at other times there isn’t, was to be able to embrace the shifting but eternal rhythms of life that had made them so content with each other’s company. In any marriage or intimate relationship you may say the same things, just like that, time after time; you may share a profound and compassionate interest in the same people. And while, on the one hand, this might seem so...boring; on the other hand it is simply breathtaking in its way of affirming the joy of life, and of living with someone that you love.
They say that familarity breeds contempt. It can also breed indifference. But if we let it, as was true of this old couple, familiarity can also breed things that are wonderful--”breathtaking,” as Sittler puts it: comfort, confidence, and assurance, for example.

One of the most familiar chapters in the entire Bible is Psalm 23. To prove it, a preacher I read about this past week did something I’m going to do right now. I’ll recite the first clause of a phrase and out loud, you finish it.
“The Lord is my shepherd....”

“He makes me lie down in...”

“Even though I walk through the valley of...”

“Surely goodness and mercy shall...”
You see, you are familiar with Psalm 23.

And yet, I wonder if our familiarity with Psalm 23 and with the entire Bible from which it comes has bred in us comfort, confidence, and assurance, as it should do, or indifference? Almost everybody owns a Bible. But not many of us read it, digest it, study it, absorb it, or give it a central place in our lives. We don’t allow the Bible the time it needs to help us know the God Who wants to be our good shepherd or to teach us what difference that makes.

If we did, more churches would be more vibrant centers of mission.

More of we Christians would be making sounder decisions about our lives.

More of us would be loving and serving our neighbors.

More of us would be engaged in ministries, serving Christ through our churches.

And more of us would be inviting others to worship and to know Jesus Christ.

You see, authentic faith, faith that helps us face everyday living and gives us hope forever, is strengthened when we read God’s love letter to the human race: the Bible.

Another familiar passage from the Psalms confesses to God, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and light to my path.”

And in the New Testament, the apostle Paul reminds a young pastor named Timothy, “There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of the Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another--showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.”

Today, world leaders are holding their breath, waiting for a viral strain known as H5N1 or the Avian Flu virus to mutate, making it possible for this deadly disease to be passed along from human to human, which it currently can’t do. Public health officials tell us that this disease, which is fatal 50% of the time and takes only three days to kill a person, could bring death to anywhere between 5- and 150-million people worldwide. Repetitions of events like September 11 in this country, March 11 in Madrid, the bombings in London, last December’s tsunami, the recent hurricanes along our Gulf Coast and in Central America, and the earthquake that just hit south Asia combined aren’t as threatening to the world as an Avian Flu pandemic could be. That’s why national leaders are drawing up plans to deal with this threat. It would be pure foolishness for them not to make such plans.

Christians who don’t read and study the Bible regularly--or who don’t worship regularly, pray regularly, fellowship with others regularly, or receive the blessings that go with service, giving, and inviting others to worship with them regularly--are setting themselves up for disaster.

We live in an imperfect world. Bad things happen. Temptations come to us. Accidents and disease may come to us. Relational discord may come to us. If we’re not reading God’s Word as a regular part of our daily routine--or engaged in the other habits of real life discipleship that we’re considering right now, life will knock us flat as quickly as the Avian Flu takes its victims or as the tsunami wiped out so many last year.

In a way, the message of the whole Bible is summed up well in Psalm 23. Psalm 23 tells us five important things about God, our good shepherd:
  • that He provides for us;
  • that He allows us to be at ease, confident that if we will let Him into our lives, He’s with us no matter what;
  • that He gives us life;
  • that He stands with us in dark times, even when we die; and
  • that He welcomes us to be with Him forever.
I sometimes hear people say, “Well, I believe in God. What do I need to mess with reading the Bible or worshiping or any of the other so-called disciplines of the Christian life for? If I’m freed from sin and death simply for believing in Jesus, I don’t need all that stuff.”

Let me tell you a true story.

Shortly after I learned how to ride a bicycle, I begged my Mom to send me on an errand to Gus’ IGA near the corner of Central and Sullivant Avenues in the section of Columbus called the Bottoms, where we lived at the time. I had a little twenty-four inch, beat-up blue Schwinn bike, a hand-me-down from my cousins. I’d grown tired of using it just to tool around the neighborhood or the blacktop in front of the warehouse behind our place.

Besides, Gus had a daughter named Mary Ann and she absolutely made my eight year old heart go pitter-pat.

My mother was resistant to the whole idea of my trekking to Gus' store. Sullivant and Central were busy thoroughfares.

But one day she’d started to fix something and she realized that she didn’t have a key ingredient on hand, tomatoes--for one of my favorite dishes to this day, Johnny Marzetti. My two year old sister Kathy needed attending and for some reason, we were down to one car at the time. So, Mom felt she had no choice but to send me to Gus’ for the tomatoes. She called me in from playing baseball out in the alley to give me my mission.

I was psyched out of my mind! Here was an important errand I could run on my own...and I might get to see Mary Ann in the bargain. “Remember, sliced tomatoes in the can,” my mother called out to me as I climbed onto my bike and pedaled off.

By the time I got to Gus’ five minutes later, I had completely forgotten what I was supposed to buy. I had to ask Gus to dial my home number--BR9-0502, so that I could ask my mother to repeat her order. After I got off the phone and had paid for the tomatoes, I asked where Mary Ann was and learned she wasn’t even around. A little disappointed, but still proud to be on such an important mission, I started riding back home.

I decided to approach my street, Thomas Avenue, by way of an alley that had a major incline to it. I suppose you'd say a major decline because it sloped down to Thomas. I started riding down that hill without looking to my right or left, just rolling downhill to the street. A car came along just as I approached the end of the hill. Boom! I hit the side of that passing car. Fortunately, neither I or the car were hurt. But I didn’t tell my mother what had happened until years later.

Now, here’s the point: In the blink of an eye, I had forgotten that I was supposed to get tomatoes. I’d forgotten that I should look both ways when turning onto a street. I’d even forgotten, apparently, how to use my brakes. I was so consumed with thoughts of being a big shot and of seeing Mary Ann, that the important things I knew and needed to remember got crowded out of my brain.

The same thing can happen to you and me when it comes to the most important thing in the world, our relationship with Jesus Christ. We can become so consumed with everyday life that we forget our Good Shepherd and our daily need of Him. Reading and studying God’s Word is one important tool God uses to daily remind us to keep building our lives on Him and His promises.

People of real faith read God’s Word regularly because we know we need these reminders. In a bad news world, it’s too easy to forget the Good News of God’s love, given to us through Jesus Christ.

Make daily Bible reading, guided maybe by the devotions in Our Daily Bread, a regular part of your life.

And why not join us this Tuesday for our weekly Bible study?

Don’t let your familiarity with the Bible breed indifference. Spend time with God through the Bible and you will know God better and you’ll be ready for your mission and you'll be ready to face whatever life brings your way!