Sunday, September 30, 2007

When You Haven't Got a Prayer

First a prayer for folks over 50 who are cranky, then a story about prayer which will make you think, hopefully.

--- THE SENILITY PRAYER : Grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.

A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm
at sea and only two of the men on it were
able to swim to a small, desert like island.

The two survivors, not knowing what else to
do,agree that they had no other recourse
but to pray to God. However, to find out
whose prayer was more powerful, they
agreed to divide the territory between them
and stay on opposite sides of the island.

The first thing the first man prayed for
was food. The next morning, the first man
saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the
land, and he was able to eat its fruit.

The other man's parcel of land remained

After a week, the first man was lonely and
he decided to pray for a wife. The next
day, another ship was wrecked, and the only
survivor was a woman who swam to his side
of the land.

On the other side of the island,there was

Soon the first man prayed for a house,
clothes, more food. The next day, like
magic,all of these were given to him.

However,the second man still had nothing.

Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so
that his wife and he could leave the island.
In the morning, he found a ship docked at
his side of the island.

The first man boarded the ship with his wife
and decided to leave the second man on the
island. He considered the other man unworthy
to receive God's blessings,since none of his
prayers had been answered.

As the ship was about to leave, the first man
heard a voice from Heaven booming,

"Why are you leaving your companion on the island?"

"My blessings are mine alone, since I was the one
who prayed for them," the first man answered.
"His prayers were all unanswered, and so he does
not deserve anything."

"You are mistaken!" the voice rebuked him.
"He had only one prayer, which I answered.
If not for that, you would not have received
any of my blessings."

"Tell me," the first man asked the voice,
"what did he pray for that I should owe him

"He prayed that all your prayers be answered."

For all we know, our blessings are not the
fruits of our prayers alone, but those of
another praying for us.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What our Stories Tell Us-- Part II- 2007 Holiness Lectures

Since I will be away next week at Baylor doing the Parchman lectureship, I am going to go on and post Dr. Joe Dongell's second lecture now, since some of you eager beavers can't wait to hear about Option C-- which as they say is a 'live' option.

When people ask me, 'do you believe in real change in the human heart, real change in character and life, not just the restraining of sin' my constant response is--- 'Believe in it? I've seen it! It happens. God is great, God is good, and God is gracious. Enjoy---- BW3


Yesterday I described the problem of the human race as involving a deep inward curvature in each one of us…a curvature we have created because we have turned away and unplugged from the life-giving God. Somehow we are all predisposed to bending everything around us into serving us, into supplying us with life, into propping up and securing our very existence.

I suggested that all Christian theologies (whether Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Baptist, or Pentecostal, or Orthodox) have agreed that, however marvelous was the new birth, however wonderful the joy of sins forgiven, however powerful can be the presence of the Spirit….that we must admit in all honesty to this sad reality among ourselves: that even though we have tasted the goodness of the Lord in forgiveness and new life, grace has not yet reversed this self-centered distortion. When push comes to shove, we tend to respond, sadly, in typically human ways. We must not dismiss these sad episodes as innocent lapses, or as minor chinks in our armor; but should be seen for what they really are: windows into the foundational parts of our souls

I suggested that there are three different expectations about this within Christian thought:

Option A: This is the fixed and inescapable reality of the Christian life, and it will continue to be reality until the moment we die. Hoping for anything more than the forgiveness of sin is tantamount to religious fanaticism, and will guarantee spiritual disappointment..

Option B offers a measured and modest hope. It proposes that our behavior, with God’s help, can be modified to some degree, but we never will we shake the self-centeredness that rules the deep recesses of the soul.

But Option C envisions a real breakthrough at the core of our being: a reversal of polarities such that the inward-pointing vectors are, by God’s transforming work, turned outward so that we can in fact give ourselves freely in loving others, and loving God with our whole hearts. Instead of existing as gravitational fields drawing everything and everybody in around us to serve out needs, we can be converted into outward-flowing fountains free to lavish love on others, including those prickly people, those grudge-bearing people, those narrow-visioned people, those ungrateful-for-all-that-I’ve-done-for-them people, those on-the-other-side-of-the-fence-from-me people, those who-don’t-see-it-my-way people. In other words, Option C envisions a salvation so big and grand, a salvation so expansive and rich, that it keeps rolling through the forgiveness of our sin, and pushes right on toward the transformation of character and disposition.

I’ve come to believe that the hope for exactly this kind of inner transformation runs throughout human culture. Yesterday I introduced you to Christopher Booker’s analysis of storytelling through the ages, and how our stories seem to fall into seven types of plots which are populated by an assortment of stock characters. He concludes that these patterns are engrained in the human psyche, and have been reinforced by their endless repetition at hearth fires over thousands of years.

Yesterday we looked at the character of the Monster. Today we examine Booker’s description of the Hero.

Near the beginning of most stories we will meet the hero. But Mr. Booker suggests, that if we look carefully at the Hero, we will notice that the Hero is somehow partial and deficient. He or she actually bears some of the egocentric characteristics of the Monster about whom we spoke yesterday. But as the story moves forward, the hero is called upon to embrace some dangerous venture, or to embark upon some frightful quest, during which…and here is the interesting part…the Hero will undergo a deep and decisive change: the Hero will be transformed into the kind of person who is the exact opposite of the Monster: whereas the Monster is fundamentally self-centered, the Hero becomes, in the process of the passing through the ordeals of the story, a person for others, a whole person, a person whose egotism has in fact been transcended, not merely modified or adjusted.

Here is my guess (but I have not yet checked it with Mr. Booker). I’m guessing that the Holy Spirit who lives and moves throughout all human society, has somehow been inciting us all along to be inventing and telling stories with this lofty vision of moral transformation. It is amazing to me, that even apart from a particular knowledge of Scripture or the Gospel, human beings have been dreaming and fantacizing about being remade, about being reborn, about being inwardly changed from self-centered consumers of others to other-centered givers. May I ask this question? Is the Gospel we preach big enough and grand enough to match this extravagant human hope? Does the Salvation we offer include provision for change at the core, or… does it settle…basically…for offering forgiveness with modest behavior modification?

The Bible is filled with language and images of robust hope for real change at the core of who we are.

• The Bible invites us to picture “rivers of living water flowing out from” our hearts.

• The Bible invites us to dream of a “circumcised heart,” with all of its impurities stripped away.

• The Bible invites us to imagine the rare and beautiful transparency of what it might be like actually to love our enemies.

• The Bible invites us to contemplate a life of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

• The Bible invites us to savor the thought of one day looking in God’s spiritual mirror to discover that somehow, by grace, we have in fact put off the old person and its deceitful lusts, and have in fact been renewed in the spirit of our minds, and have in fact put on the new person, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

• The Bible invites us to ponder the awesome possibility that God actually wants to so renew and restore us so that we not only do the things that Jesus did, but we in fact have the mind of Christ, the attitude of Christ: that bearing of character soaked in self-giving, self-surrendering love, that internal disposition that gave rise to his selfless actions as a man for others.

But through the centuries, we have found ways of blunting the force of these calls and promises. Sometimes we appeal to Realism: “Look around,” we might say. “Do you see anybody really living like this? And by the way, is this really possible? We then warn ourselves, Don’t be swept into a na├»ve optimism and the inevitable disappointment it will deliver.” And so, wisely (we think) and with an ultimate concern for our emotional stability, we effectively drain these passages of their power, and settle for something less.

Or we think Reductionistically. We say, “My Bible says that I am ‘In Christ,’ that the old has passed away; all things have become new.’ So I am telling you that because I know I’m a Christian and I know my sins are forgiven, I can deduce from this fact that all things have in fact become new. I am a completely renewed person in God’s eyes, even if I don’t look new, feel new, think new, smell new, talk new, or behave new.” But by this kind of reckoning, the whole business of moral transformation has been detached from life as we live it right now, and the power of God has been cordoned off into a kind of abstract, heavenly accounting system. A partial truth has been turned into the enemy of the whole truth, and the whole will of God.

Another way of dismissing the golden hope offered in Scripture and dreamt by humanity is to become Mesmerized by the good, but lesser gifts of God. It has been a perennial temptation for the church across the centuries to believe that demonstrations of power and miracles constitute the highest form of spirituality. We tend to imagine that we must be right in the middle of absolutely maximum Christianity if we see cancer being destroyed, or limbs straightened. We tend to imagine that we are encountering Christianity “on steroids” if we see debt being erased, or sight being regained. We believe we are standing on the pinnacle of it all, if a deeply harbored secret is miraculously divulged. But time and time again in Scripture we will find that these sweet blessings, as remarkable and wonderful as they are, always point beyond themselves to something even more majestic.

For example, in the 6th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples were sent out by Jesus to cast out demons and heal the sick. They were so successful in their “power tour” that even King Herod took note, and began trying to figure out who in the world this Jesus fellow was. But the Gospel story moves on into chapters 8-11 where we find these same disciples being exposed as not yet having come to grips with deeper matters of the heart. There they are, fresh from their display of healing power, but now they are busy comparing themselves with each other, busy figuring out a pecking order among themselves, busy planning for career and promotion. They were happy to identify with Jesus in his power, but were hesitant to walk much further with him on the road to Jerusalem. Why? Because Jesus was headed toward the cross, toward the ultimate display of self-giving love, of pouring himself out all the way….for others. And so we find ourselves as readers rejoicing for 8 chapters as Jesus restores sight, stills storms, and multiplies loaves, only to discover a more intransigent, more resistant opponent to the will of God than all of these. It is the sick and self-centered human heart as paraded about so graphically by the disciples. So I’m asking: what would be the greater miracle? What would be the more glorious display of divine power? What should be considered the more astounding and confounding work of God? To restore a crooked arm, or to restore a crooked heart?

Consider also the invitation Paul offered to the Corinthians. Without doubt they were riding high on a wave of spiritual enthusiasm and displays of power. Certainly it was spectacular! God was at work! Supernatural things were happening! Surely they were maxing out all the categories of spirituality, soaring in the highest orbits attainable. Or were they? You know how it goes there in I Corinthians 12 through 14. After Paul had clarified in chapter 12 some of their confusion about these powerful gifts, the Apostle went on to pen one of the loftiest poems in all of Scripture, I Cor. 13. May I radically paraphrase it this way? “My dear brethren, you’ve set you sights too low! Yes these miraculous manifestations are splendid, and certainly they are God’s good gifts to you. But don’t let these good gifts blind you to the best. Lift your eyes towards the highest goal of all…towards something that radiates the very heart of the Father in His most resplendent beauty. It is LOVE! Self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-forgetful love…life poured out for others.”

Let me put it this way. Show me a person in whom love has come to reign, show me a congregation that has been baptized in the self-giving love of Jesus, show me a people who have entered into this vision of the outward-turned life and I’ll show you what the world has been fantacizing and dreaming about for millennia…but could only speak of in the form of fiction! Show me a human heart, that has been turned from itself, turned outward for others, that has undergone the Great Reversal, and I’ll show you a miracle that defies all realistic expectation, a miracle that no sorcerer can duplicate, and no magician can approximate. Why? Because a people who are entering into this kind of love, are entering into that rare song of love echoing back and forth between the Father and the Son and the Spirit in the eternal fire of free self-giving and receiving. To sing this song is to be sharing in the very life of God.

Well it’s probably right now every practically-minded, level-headed person here this morning is asking that bottom-line question: “HOW?” How can this happen? How can we live into this hope of renewal in love at our very core?

I have three suggestions to offer.

First, Wait expectantly within the Means of Grace.

Years ago I read an account of how Henry Ford, the great industrialist, hired managers to run his factories. He would take them out to dinner, and then for dessert order a piece of apple pie. When the pie came, Ford would watch how the prospective employee would eat it. If he began eating it at the point, Ford would not hire him. But if he began eating at the crust, Ford would hire him. Ford’s reasoning was this: a good manager will always tackle the toughest problems first, and the easier problems later…just like eating your pie starting with the tough crust. Well, you can be sure that many good managerial prospects were passed over, and had not the foggiest idea why.

Some folks live in spiritual fog, hoping to receive grace from God, but fairly puzzled about how that might happen. Their spiritual life turns into a swirling experiment, the taking up and the laying aside of…now this spiritual discipline, now that; now this religious exercise, now that; the traveling now to this conference, now to that… Somewhere we have heard that it might have something to do with how we eat pie, so we’ve ordered a hundred pieces, and we’re trying to eat them from every imaginable angle…and comparing notes with each other to see if anything works.

I want to tell you that God is not like Mr. Ford. When our pie is delivered, the Father is leaning over and whispering into our ears…”I want to hire you…let me tell you what to do….Start at the crust!”

These whisperings, my friends, are the means of grace. They are the pathways the Father himself has given us as the assured and regular channels of his work in our lives. Yes, God can work through a puppy dog, or a piece of glass, or a budding flower, or half-eaten toasted cheese sandwich…because God can do whatever God wants. But God has laid out us for the ways in which He wants to approach us, and the channels through which transforming grace is promised to flow.

You were probably wondering why we read from Malachi 3 earlier this morning. Would this be a sermon on tithing? Or what? Here’s the connection. It was on Malachi 3 that John Wesley based his sermon on the means of grace, sermon #16 according to my edition of his standard sermons. I don’t have the time to plunge into my own autobiography here, but this passage, and Wesley’s sermon on it, in a way, saved my life. There in Malachi 3, God called out to His People, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” And the people asked, “But how shall we return you?” (Note: It’s the “how” question.) The Lord replied (unlike Mr. Ford), “l’ll tell you how…” and then the Lord proceeds to tell them to “bring the tithes into the storehouse, and I will pour out a blessing upon you beyond your imagination.” Now Wesley rightly sensed that something is going on here more than tithing. For what we see is the Father identifying a pathway of approach, and then promising to pour out his blessing along that very pathway. We too can walk along the pathways God has laid out, with the full confidence that God will meet us there.

So in seeking God’s grace for inner transformation, let us lift up our hearts in full trust, and be traveling down these well-worn pathways of the means of grace:

Let’s lift up our hearts to the Lord in prayer, asking and seeking and knocking, persisting in calling upon the Father for our hearts to be made like His…

Let’s feast upon Scripture, fueling our hope for transformation by allowing the Bible’s grand vision of love fill our imagination…

Let’s feast frequently at the Lord’s Table, where Jesus promises to be wonderfully present through our taking the bread and wine. And when He is near, everything is possible.

Let’s meet together in intimate groups for hearing the voice of God through one another, and for seeking God, hand in hand. Here we will bear one another’s burdens, and give each other permission to ask all the probing questions. Here we will hold each other accountable in love, and help each other speak the truth about ourselves.

These means of grace have no power in themselves. We cannot use them to leverage God forward. We cannot make them effective by ginning up our intensity of our faith and really, really, really, really meaning it. No, Grace will flow because the Father has given us these means, invites us into them, and promises to meet us there.

My Second suggestion for HOW…is this: Embrace Suffering and Service.

Most of our prayers, I fear, are devoted to avoiding suffering. And yet few precious gifts of God have come apart from it. All the blessings of the atonement pass to us through a cross, and Jesus asks us to take up our crosses to follow him. Suffering never comes at the right time. It never approaches over the right issues. It is never delivered through the right people. It usually strips away our choices, and then, worst of all, can draw down over us a cloud of doubt and fear.

Do not run from this. Accept the pain that will be part of the strange providence of God.

Yes, embrace suffering, and embrace service. Help the weak. Hug the sick. Hang out with the lost and hopeless. God seems often to be hanging out very near them. Let’s de-romanticize love by giving ourselves to those who will not thank us, or cannot repay us. It does not matter how we feel about this. We are not doing this to get that warm fuzzy feeling so often promised. By embracing suffering and service, we are walking into the fires of transformation.

My Third suggestion for HOW…is this: Ask the Father for a Full Assurance of His Love for you.

This takes us back to the beginning of everything we have been saying, yesterday and today. We are all inwardly curved, rigidly set in both defensive and aggressive postures toward others, fearful of being forgotten, overlooked, ignored, dismissed, bypassed, or lost. We are scrambling to secure our life and significance, scrambling to be known.

But this reveals that we have not yet broken through to the full assurance of God’s rich love for us. Though “believing in Jesus” for forgiveness, we may still harbor deep inward hesitations about God’s character and God’s real attitude toward me”

We may say:

•I am not quite sure he really knows me, right now, every part of me in my hopes and dreams, in my fears and confusion;

•I am not really sure he loves me. Yes, I sort of believe he has forgiven me, somewhat equipped and gifted me, maybe even given me a call and a vision for ministry, but does he take delight in me? Does he rejoice in me?

•I am not fully convinced God is good, all the way down. Surely he is just and righteous and powerful and holy, but do his plan include abandoning me just when I need him? Or ignoring my pain? Or hurting me right where I’m vulnerable?

Here’s the issue in a nutshell: we cannot release ourselves from the heavy responsibility of self-defense until we catch a full vision of the God who actually loves us all the way, and who is for us all the way. And who is good, all the way to the bottom. We can “surrender” all we want, but I suspect that it is psychologically and spiritually impossible to surrender fully to someone we are afraid of.

But it is the God who gave himself for us, and knows us, and craves our safety and wholeness, who says to me and to you…”Lay down your little tin sheriff’s badge: let Me be your life, let me be your defense, let me be your hope, let me be your all.” Only when we are so assured can we “afford” to give away our own “life supply” to others, and indeed back to God in whole-hearted loving.

I don’t know a better way to say yes to God in these ways than to come to his table this morning. As you receive the bread and wine, you can be saying YES to staying in the fire of the means of grace; you can be saying YES to suffering and service, as the bread and wine so beautifully represent; and you can be saying YES to a prayer of crying out to the Father to be that liberating supply of life….

•You may ask me, “Can this Great Reversal really Happen to me?” Yes, I believe it can.

•You may ask me, “How long will it take?” It may take weeks, or months, or years. Let God worry about that part of it.

•You may ask me, “Will I know when it’s happened?” Maybe…but I’m guessing other people will notice it first!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What Our Stories Tell Us-- The 2007 Holiness Lectures

Dr. Joseph Dongell my colleague here at Asbury gave two superb lectures last week for our annual holiness lectures, and he has graciously allowed me to publish them here on this blog. What follows here is the first of the two lectures. In a subsequent blog we will make available its sequel, but it will be interesting to see your reactions to these fine lectures, which produced a considerable response here. These lectures do what all good lectures ought to do-- tease the mind into active thought about important matters. BW3

Holiness Conference 2007

How Bad Is It, Doc?

•We have just emerged, over the last few years, from the bloodiest century in the history of the human race. We human beings have been killing each other off at an alarming rate. We might begin with the well-rehearsed figure of 6 million Jews exterminated by the Third Reich. But what numbers would we offer beyond that? I was surprised to learn, several years ago, that the total number of dead, attributable to the carnage of WWII, is right at 50 million: nearly equally divided between 25 million dead combatants, and 25 million dead civilians.

•Were we to add the total dead from WWI, we should add around 12 million. Then we might toss in the commonly agreed upon death count from Stalin’s crusade of murder among his own people: a cool 20 million. And the numbers keep growing…. from the killing fields of Cambodia, to the tribal genocides in Africa; from the constant slaughter in American cities, to the massive starvations that stem directly from political oppression; from the running conflict in the Middle East, to the running conflict in Southeastern Europe…the number soars. Zbigniew Brzeninski, former Security Council chairman, in a 1993 book has calculated that as many as 175,000,000 lives were “deliberately extinguished through politically motivated carnage.” Matthew White in the Historical Atlas of the 20th Century pegs it slightly higher, at 188,000,000. Earth is not the “pale blue dot,” as the late scientist Carl Sagan sentimentally described it, but it is a bright red dot that has been dripping with our own hatred and blood since the very beginning, when Cain killed his brother Abel.

Miroslav Volk, Christian theologian and native Croatian, in his book entitled Exclusion and Embrace describes the endless cycles of violence that have been rolling forward through the centuries and worsening. One group of people comes to believe their identity, their culture, and even their very existence, have come under threat from another group of people. The besieged ones, naturally then, divide the world into two camps: “us’ and “them,” and then begin redefining these “Others” in the most extreme forms possible: They are “the enemy.” They are wildly wicked, unspeakably ugly, and totally twisted. “We,” on the other hand, are as close to perfectly innocent as human beings can possibly be!

Then armed with the certainty of their own perfect innocence and powered by the fear of their own extinction, each side sets out to exclude the Other, the Enemy. How does exclusion work? Volf lays out the three ways in which we human beings have been practicing exclusion for millenia:

First… most simply and directly, we exclude our enemies through Violence. We announce, “We will destroy you. Then you will no longer threaten us.”

Or second, we exclude our enemies by Assimilation. We announce, “We will swallow you. Yes, come live among us, but, we will absorb you into ourselves, so that you will lose every distinctive feature of your identity. You will become who we are.”

Or Third, we exclude our enemies by Self-Insulation. We put up thick walls around ourselves to protect ourselves within our own territory. We declare, “Stay outside these walls, and we will grant you the full right to live or die, or do whatever you please in the rest of the universe.”

Here’s what is fascinating to me: All three forms of exclusion are powered by one and the same underlying conviction: “We are now at risk of extinction, and we must now do whatever it takes to keep ourselves from being erased by those Other.”

All of this has its roots, no doubt, at the very beginning or our history in Adam’s sin in the garden. Among other things, that rebellion involved much more than simple disobedience to a simple command. It included an “unplugging” from the Living God, and that ‘unplugging’ had disastrous consequences. Since God alone is truly alive in God’s own being, then God alone is the source of life for the whole creation and every creature in it. And so if we turn and unplug from the Living God, we are unplugging from the life itself. Picture an astronaut floating on a space walk just outside the shuttle, who at some point says to himself, “hmm, I think I’d like a little more freedom…I’ll just cut this cord right here so I can drift wherever I want…

Well, having unplugged ourselves from the source of all life, there has been a loud hissing sound, as now we are gasping for air to breathe, gasping for life, battling to secure our own survival. Somehow each one of us in the long parade of humanity has now become inwardly curved. Lacking the life-giving presence of God within us, each one of us has had to reorganize the whole universe around him or herself, making oneself the center of one’s reality. Now I am tilting everything and everybody towards myself I order to fuel my existence, in order to underwrite my very being. Here is the point I want to press: Ego-centrism, or self-centeredness, is not simply a minor moral fault that shows up in a few immature people. No, it is the hallmark of our whole race, and it is an absolute necessity for our survival in the godless world of limited life resources we have now made for ourselves.

I have a certain admiration for the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche…not because I agree with his program, but because he actually dares to say what most people believe but won’t admit. (I have paraphrased some of his tortured grammar to make him easier to understand.) Nietzsche writes:

If we were to refrain from injuring, abusing, or exploiting one another, we might actually succeed in developing what some call “good behavior” between individuals. But if we were to make “good behavior” the cornerstone of society, we would soon discover what “good behavior” really is: it is the denial of life, and will inevitably result in dissolution and decline. We must think through the reasons for this, and resist all sappy, sentimental analysis: life itself in its essence requires appropriating, injuring, and overpowering those who are foreign and weaker. Life requires oppression, harshness, forcing ourselves on others, and at the very least, exploitation. If a group of people is lively and not dead, then they must do to other groups of people everything that individuals within the group would refrain from doing to each other. Those who are truly alive will want to grow, to reach out around themselves, to pull towards themselves, to gain the upper hand over others…not out of some moral reasoning, but because they are truly alive, and because life simply is the will to power. Exploiting others is not the mark of a decadent, imperfect, or primitive society. No, it is part of the fundamental nature of living things. Exploitation is a consequence of the true will to power, and that is simply the will to be fully alive. (Beyond Good and Evil, pp. 152-3)

I hope you saw it: Apart from a living connection with the Living God, our only way of staying alive is to center in on ourselves and suck the life out of others. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

I discovered an interesting confirmation of this vision of human life from a book that captured my interest over the summer. I was sitting in one of those overstuffed leather chairs in the Joseph Beth bookstore when the title of a book across the aisle caught my attention: The Seven Basic Plots. Now my personality type and learning style make me hunger for any book that promises an overview of anything. And that’s just what the author, Christopher Booker provides. He has analyzed a huge swath of stories found in every imaginable form of fiction, from many cultures, and across the centuries. Just scanning his index of about 500 stories is interesting, with titles such as Cinderella, Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, King Kong, Madame Bovary, Beowulf, Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, Schindler’s List, Psycho, …even the Three Little Pigs…and on and on. Booker has concluded that nearly any story we tell will fall into one of 7 basic plot types: he calls these Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth.

He claims that the underlying commonality within our storytelling has not happened by chance, or because of limited human imagination. Rather, it flows out of deep archetypal patterns somehow written into the code of humanity itself, in almost a Jungian sense.

But what interests me even more is his classification of character types that show up in our stories. It is almost as if the human mind has pre-set expectations for how people will act in our stories, and that we tell all of our stories using a fairly limited cast of stock characters.

Booker goes on to describe one particular character appearing in most of the 7 plot types: a character he calls “the Monster.” He claims that the one supreme characteristic of every Monster that has ever been portrayed in a story is this: he or she is egocentric. This ego-centrism makes the Monster (in his inner soul) heartless and unable to feel for others, although this may sometimes be disguised beneath a deceptively charming, kind or solicitous exterior. The Monster’s real concern is to look after its own interests, at the expense of everyone else in the world. The Monster sees the world through the tunnel vision of its egocentric desires, meaning that most of the time, the monster is blind to its own perversion and blind to true reality. So fixated is the Monster upon itself, that it has difficulty belonging to anything greater than itself.

Though I have gathered that Booker himself is a thoroughly secular man, he almost becomes a gospel preacher when he declares that monsters do not represent a few ghastly individuals running loose here and there among us, but rather, monsters represent the common disease infecting all of us. Booker puts it this way: “the Monster in storytelling represents everything in human nature which is somehow twisted and less than perfect.” It is through the single character of the Monster that storytellers for millennia have, knowingly or not, been exposing the deep moral sickness of all humanity. Written deeply into the internal coding of every one of us is a suffocating self-centeredness which propels us into the self-protecting behavior which then leeks out into the many varied forms of violence we inflict upon each other.

I think it comes together this way: When we human beings unplugged ourselves from the living God, we took it upon ourselves to supply ourselves with life, somehow to become the ultimate guaranteers and underwriters of our existence. But since we have no life in ourselves, we have, of necessity, transformed ourselves into blood-sucking predators, revengeful hoarders of the means of life. We must either destroy or hold at arms length all others who would draw down our precious supplies of life.

Now we come to the Scripture of the morning, Matthew 5:43-48…and the shocking call of Jesus to “love your enemies,” and to “pray for those who persecute you.” In light of all that we have been considering, the command to love our enemies isn’t just difficult, or inconvenient, or costly, or unpleasant. It is downright irrational. It sounds like a call to self-erasure: It sounds like a death wish. It contradicts our deep instinct for survival, by calling us to give our love and prayer for those who are bent on our harm, or on our pain, or even our extinction.

I want to offer five reflections on this passage:

First, Jesus seems to assume the constant reality of enemies. He doesn’t say, “if” you have an enemy, love him, but “love your enemies.” Enemies apparently are a normal and undeniable part of a fallen world.

Second, Jesus doesn’t precisely identify who our enemies are. This I judge to be an intentional ambiguity, forcing us to consider the many different levels at which people threaten our well-being: all the way from those who would threaten our very lives, or our jobs, or our reputations, or our self esteem, or our peace of mind.. whether they do so intentionally or not.

Third, Jesus does not settle for the non-hatred of our enemies. He does not settle for benign isolation or detachment from those would cause us pain, but calls for positive love and active prayer for these persons. A disciplined neutrality or coolness toward those who threaten us is not yet the way of Jesus.

Fourth, Jesus is not terribly impressed by the way we human beings can pour out our love on those who love us, or on those who will appreciate our generosity. As Jesus points out, even the most morally corrupt people on the planet can do this. The real test of love is how we react to those who threaten us and the things we hold dear.

Fifth, in calling us to love our enemies, Jesus calls us to imitate God’s own ways. God lavishes his cooling, refreshing, enlivening, invigorating, thirst-quenching rain even upon people who hate him, who abuse his name, who slander his character, who deny his existence, who spurn his truth, who reject his Christ, and even who actively campaign against his Gospel. Upon these very ones who so deeply grieve his heart the good rain falls, and the gentle sunlight glows. Jesus calls us to be like that to our own enemies.

But so high is this calling, so unnatural, so irrational from a human point of view, that even we Christians seem unable to walk very far down this road. Even among ourselves, when we feel wounded or threatened or attacked by another brother or sister we too often choose to keep our distance and hold a grudge, or even launch counter attacks. I find it interesting that Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, was utterly pessimistic about this very matter. Paul Althaus summarizes Luther’s conclusions:

What Jesus demands [in loving our enemies] exceeds our powers and is contrary to our nature. We cannot give orders to our heart. Anger against our enemy is ineradicable. In spite of every appearance of friendliness, deep down inside himself a man seeks his own advantage and therefore he is inwardly closed up against his brother…[and in this Luther was describing Christians] [The Theology of Martin Luther, pp. 150-153].

Clearly Luther believed that God can and does forgives our sins, that God can and does dissolve the guilt of all our evil behavior in the blood of Christ, that God pours out upon us the Holy Spirit…that God grants us new birth and life through the living and abiding Word. Yes, all of this is true, but it is also true that every Christian theological tradition, and every lineage of spiritual wisdom agree that as wonderful and remarkable and beautiful as is the New Birth is, it generally does not reverse the inner distortion of our hearts; Our deepest parts we are still curved inward, still harboring the Monster mentality that seeks to enlist everyone around us in servicing our needs, and that authorizes us (of course only in extreme circumstances) to demean or belittle or reject others, or conversely to insulate and hold ourselves off from others…all for the sake of preserving our own fragile existence or the rightness of the causes we champion.

The Monster mentality of self-focused living can thrive particularly well among us who are devoted to Christian ministry, even in a seminary. It peers our from the box into which we think we have locked it, but its odor seeps out in a thousand ways, with a thousand curious twists. Perhaps it is Monster mentality when just a minor word of correction absolutely floors us, and we think life is now not worth living at all; or when we constantly require delicate, tip-toeing treatment from others and need exceptions to the rules others are expected to follow; or when we have trouble imagining that ideas we ourselves have not generated could possibly be valid; or when we gauge our worth by comparing ourselves with others... and end up feeling secretly relieved when certain others fail, or slightly sick when certain others succeed; or when we presume that our own motives are absolutely pure, but then ferociously dissect the possible motives of others with cynical imagination; or when we find ourselves obsessing about “fairness”, and are driven to distraction in campaigning to right every single against ourselves; or when we are quite delighted in our spectacular demonstrations of love and sacrifice for the poor and helpless, but are deeply hurt when we are not publicly recognized for these; or when we demand forgiveness from others for our faults, but grant forgiveness to others in tiny slivers tipped with poison; or when we advocate tirelessly for justice and mercy, or solid theology, or refined exegesis, or cultural sensitivity while leaving a trail of broken relationship in our wake; or (and please forgive me in advance for this!) when in hearing a list like this, we immediately think of all the other people who needed to hear this list, without even considering that I might be the man, I might be the woman.

But what are the prospects for us as we sit here this morning?

There are many Christians who have concluded, along with Luther, that there can be no release from this deep distortion and its power over us until we slip into the grave. God’s grace, in this view, is limited to the business of forgiving sin. What does the Gospel offer to fallen humanity? Essentially it offers us amnesty for our horrid behavior. We’ll call this option A.

Others are slightly more optimistic. We’ll call this option B. Yes, we remain inwardly distorted, but through the help of the Holy Spirit we can learn, little by little, how to edit our speech and actions so that we might become incrementally more pleasing to God. The deep inner disease of self-centeredness will always remain, but God’s grace can bring some meaningful (thought limited) success in restricting just how far our monster mentality acts itself out. So according to Option B, the Gospel offers to fallen humanity amnesty for our horrid behavior, along with some hope of managing the Monster Mentality.

But is there an Option C?

I live out in the country about four miles south of here on a hill down towards the river. One of my hobbies is working on the land, and trying to garden. In the process I often collect large piles of brush tree limbs to be burned. I have to admit that there is special joy in setting off really big bonfires. (It’s amazing what a cup or two of well-placed diesel fuel will do to get things going!) Well about two years ago I set off a particularly large blaze. It was summer, and it was fairly dry, so I’m pretty careful about this stuff: I have a spot about 200 feet from the house, and about 100 feet from the nearest tree. I even pulled the garden hose down to the pile and soaked the grass all around it to prevent the fire from creeping out into the field. So I set off the blaze…and it was glorious! Flames leaping straight up 20 feet or so, snapping and crackling…with quite a roar. And then a problem I hadn’t anticipated. A wheelbarrow load of dry leaves I had buried deep in the pile had begun to burn. And because of the powerful updraft, these burning leaves were now being sent high into the air, and were drifting out in many directions, and were beginning to settle downward, still burning. There I was, holding my little garden hose, frozen in my tracks. Then I began running around, dragging that hose with me, trying to douse the falling leaves wherever they landed: here and there, and everywhere.

Spiritually speaking, I believe we can chase around and succeed, even quite well at times, in extinguishing here and there the burning leaves of self-centeredness as they fall. We can indeed, with the Spirit’s help, edit (to some extent) our words and deeds, and limit the behaviors that our monster mentality wishes to sponsor.

But, you know, at one point as I was staring at the inferno there in my front yard, seeing that those burning leaves were spewing out than I could chase them down, the thought struck me…shouldn’t I run to the source of the problem? What if I could hose down that clump of leaves and stop the problem there? Is there an option C?

And this is the question I want to leave with all of us this morning: Is there an Option C? Can God’s grace go further than forgiving our sins? Does the Good News of the Gospel offer more than the hope of merely managing our self-centeredness? Could it be that the saving work of God and can run deep enough to reach right on down into the core of our character, down into our dispositions themselves, …. to lay hold of that inward self-obsessed curvature and reverse it, transforming us into outward-flowing people, now liberated to live in love, and to live for others?

What about Option C?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Anti-Evangelical Bias outstrips Anti-Semitism amongst America's college Professors

It really isn't all that shocking to discover there is an anti-Evangelical bias amongst college professors in North America. A recent poll shows just how much this is so, and what is shocking is how much more animus is directed at Evangelicals compared to Mormons or Muslims or Jews. The survey of college professors can be found in World Magazine-- follow this link

The most salient information is this---

In a scientific survey of 1,269 faculty members across 712 different colleges and universities, 53 percent of respondents admitted to harboring unfavorable feelings toward evangelicals. The next closest group in the unfavorable ratings was Mormons at just 33 percent. Muslims’ unfavorable rating was just 22 percent.

The study was done by Gary A. Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, who set out to gauge levels of academic anti-Semitism compared to hostility toward other religious groups. He found that only 3 percent of college faculty holds unfavorable views toward Jews.

Notice please who did this survey-- a group that could be called an 'anti-Semitism' watchdog agency! They certainly could not be construed as a group given to distorting or concocting data that would simply confirm Evangelical suspicions.

What this survey does not deal with is anti-Evangelical sentiments at non-Evangelical seminaries (particularly mainline seminaries) in North America, but I can tell you that a survey, if honestly done would find evidence of that as well.

I do have to say however that my own anecdoctal non-scientific personal experience is that things have actually changed for the better in some quarters in recent years if we are talking about hirings at seminaries. I was once told by a Dean of a United Methodist seminary that over his dead body would an Evangelical be hired at his institution. This was 25 years ago, and today that institution has hired more than one good Evangelical scholar, and frankly so have other major non-Evangelical seminaries as well. Old prejudices however die hard.

What is perhaps most interesting to me about this extensive survey is that while 'liberal arts' colleges apparently have become less 'liberal' or open minded about Evangelicals over the last three decades, various seminaries have become more 'liberal' or open-minded in their thinking about Evangelicals in some ways.

Progress can be cited not only at many mainline seminaries, but also well-qualified Evangelicals have also been hired at some of the more prestigious Ivy League Divinity schools such as Yale and Princeton. To some degree this can be put down to the coming of age of Evangelical scholarship in this same period. When I was entering college at the beginning of the 70s, there were about 2 Evangelical NT scholars who had world-wide regard and could be hired anywhere-- I am referring to F.F. Bruce and Bruce Metzger. Things have changed in a major way since that point in time. Now Evangelicals are leaders in many areas of the study of the Bible and cognate disciplines. We have much to be proud of, but also miles to go before we sleep.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

'God' responds to lawsuit--- Twice!

Lincoln Nebraska seems like a sane enough place. But recently it has been the site where a lawsuit has been filed against God by a state senator (Ernie Chambers-- see the previous blog post on this matter). Now, there have been not one but two responses to this suit. The story can be found on MSNBC's site, and here is the link---

The more intriguing of the two responses simply 'appeared' on the counter at the Douglas County court office, source unknown. The document does however mention St. Michael the Archangel as a witness.

Of a more mundane variety is the full and formal response by a lawyer from Corpus Christi Texas, one Eric Perkins, acting on behalf of his client. You will find the document on the left, signed by God, and you will notice at the top of the document that God is plaintiff in this counter filing. The details in the document prove interesting. For example we have this---

"Defendant denies that this or any court has jurisdiction ... over Him any more than the court has jurisdiction over the wind or rain, sunlight or darkness," according to Perkins' response.

As for Chambers' contention that God made terroristic threats, inspired fear and caused "widespread death, destruction and terrorization," Perkins wrote that God "contends that any harm or injury suffered is a direct and proximate result of mankind ignoring obvious warnings."

This story is by no means over, as Chambers says that even if God can't be summoned into court, he would like the court to have a hearing, nonetheless, so presumably God could be tried in absentia, as sometimes happens in the case of dangerous criminals.

Stay tuned for further developments. In the meanwhile, I am wondering if Senator Chambers remembers what happen when Job challenged God to show up.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Just in Time for All Hallow's Eve-- Ezekiel's Skeleton People Show Up

Prophecy in Ezekiel 37 Proved True---

Story follows: (


Archaeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race Of Skeleton People

December 8, 1999 | Issue 35•45

Related Story---

AL JIZAH, EGYPT—A team of British and Egyptian archaeologists made a stunning discovery Monday, unearthing several intact specimens of "skeleton people"—skinless, organless humans who populated the Nile delta region an estimated 6,000 years ago.

Enlarge Image Archaeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race Of Skeleton People

An archaeologist examines the intact remains of a spooky "skeleton person."

"This is an incredible find," said Dr. Christian Hutchins, Oxford University archaeologist and head of the dig team. "Imagine: At one time, this entire area was filled with spooky, bony, walking skeletons."

"The implications are staggering," Hutchins continued. "We now know that the skeletons we see in horror films and on Halloween are not mere products of the imagination, but actually lived on Earth."

Standing at the excavation site, a 20-by-20-foot square pit along the Nile River, Hutchins noted key elements of the find. "The skeletons lived in this mud-brick structure, which, based on what we know of these people, was probably haunted," he said. "Although we found crude cooking utensils in the area, as well as evidence of crafts like pottery and weaving, we are inclined to believe that the skeletons' chief activity was jumping out at nearby humans and scaring them. And though we know little of their language and means of communication, it is likely that they said 'boogedy-boogedy' a lot."

Approximately 200 yards west of the excavation site, the archaeologists also found evidence of farming.

"What's puzzling about this," Cambridge University archaeologist Sir Ian Edmund-White said, "is that skeletons would not benefit from harvested crops, as any food taken orally would immediately fall through the hole behind the jaw and down through the rib cage, eventually hitting the ground. Our best guess is that they scared away a group of human farmers, then remained behind to haunt the dwelling. Or perhaps they bartered goods in a nearby city to acquire skeleton accessories, such as chains, coffins and tattered, dirty clothing."

Enlarge Image Archaeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race Of Skeleton People jump

An artist's rendering of what a warrior-skeleton may have looked like.

Continued Edmund-White: "The hole in that theory, however, is that a 1997 excavation of this area which yielded extensive records of local clans and merchants made no mention of even one animated mass of bones coming to town for the purpose of trade. But we are taking great pains to recover as much of the site as possible, while also being extremely careful not to fall victim to some kind of spooky skeleton curse."

As for what led to the extinction of the skeletons, Edmund-White offered a theory.

"Perhaps an Egyptian priest or king broke the curse of the skeletons, either by defeating the head skeleton in combat or by discovering the magic words needed to send their spirits back to Hell," Edmund-White said. "In any case, there is strong evidence that the Power of Greyskull played a significant role in the defeat of the skeleton people."

According to Hutchins, the skeletons bear numerous similarities to humans, leading him to suspect that there may be an evolutionary link between the two species.

"Like humans, these creatures walked upright on two legs and possessed highly developed opposable thumbs," Edmund-White said. "These and many other similarities lend credence to the theory that hundreds of thousands of years ago, human development passed through a skeletal stage. These skeletons may, in fact, be ancestors of us all."

"Any of us could be part skeleton," he added.

Other experts disagreed.

"The evidence of an evolutionary link between humans and skeletons is sparse at best," said Dr. Terrance Schneider of the University of Chicago. "Furthermore, it is downright unscientific to theorize that skeleton life originated in Egypt merely because mummies, another species of monster, are indigenous to the area. Spooky creatures are found all over the world, from the vampires of Transylvania to the headless horsemen of Sleepy Hollow."

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

'The Sorrow of God'-- G. Studdert-Kennedy

Kennedy was a chaplain in WWI for the British and saw the worst of human evil in the Maginot line. In this poem, done in Cockney dialect ( I have Americanized it a bit for the sake of intelligibility. It can be found in his wonderful long out of print book 'The Unutterable Beauty' pp. 131-36) Kennedy assumes the posture of a soldier whose faith has been badly shaken by seeing a young corporal being blown to bits in the trenches. Like Job, he begins to rant against God, until suddenly an insight breaks through through the pondering of the cross. In many ways this poem is especially appropriate in view of the mess we are in in Iraq just now, and all the heartache it is causing various American families.

"Yes I used to believe in Jesus Christ
And I used to go to church.
But since I left home and came to France,
I've been clean knocked off my perch.
For it seemed alright at home it did,
To believe in a God above
And in Jesus Christ his only Son
What died on the cross through Love.

When I went for a walk of a Sunday morn
On a nice fine day in the spring
I could see the proof of the living God
In every living thing.
For how could the grass and the trees grow up,
All alone of their bloomin' selves?
Ye might as well believe in fairy tales,
And think they were made by elves.

So I thought that that long haired atheist
Was nothing but a silly sod
For how did he account for my Brussel sprouts,
If he didn't believe in God?

But it ain't the same out here, you know
It's as different as chalk and cheese,
For half of its blood and the other half mud,
And I'm darned if I really see
How the God who has made such a cruel cruel world
Can have love in his heart for men,
And be deaf to the cries of the men as dies
And never comes home again.

Just look at that little boy corporal there,
Such a fine upstanding lad,
With a will of his own, and a way of his own
And a smile of his own, he had.
An hour ago he was bustin' with life
With his actin' and foolin' and fun;
He was simply the life of us all, he was
Now look what the blighters have done.
Look at him lying there all of a heap
With the blood soaking over his head
Like a beautiful picture spoiled by a fool,
A bundle of nothing-- dead...

And the lovin' God he looks down on it all,
On the blood, and the mud, and the smell,
Oh God if its true how I pity you
For you must be livin' in hell.
You must be livin' in hell all day,
And livin' in hell all night.
I'd rather be dead with a hole in my dead
I would by a darn long sight,
Than be livin' with you on your heavenly throne,
Looking down on yon bloody heap,
That was once a boy full of life and joy,
And hearin' his mother weep.

The sorrows of God must be hard to bear,
If he really has love in his heart.
And the hardest part in the world to play
Must surely be God's part.
And I wonder if that's what it really means,
That figure who hangs on the cross.
I remember I saw one the other day
As I stood with the captain's hoss.

I remembers, I thinks, thinks I to myself
Its a long time since he died,
Yet the world don't seem much better to-day
Then when he was crucified.

It's always the same, as it seems to me,
The weakest must go to the wall,
And whether it's right, or whether it's wrong
Doesn't seem to matter at all.
The better you are and the harder it is,
The harder you have to fight,
It's a cruel hard world for any bloke
Who does the thing which is right.
And that's how he came to be crucified,
For that's what he tried to do.
He was always a-tryin' to do his best
For the likes of me and you.

Well what if he came to the earth today
Came walking about in this trench
How his heart would bleed for the sights he'd see
In the mud and the blood and the stench.
And I guess it would finish him up for good
When he came to this old sap end,
And he saw that bundle of nothing there,
For he wept at the grave of a friend.

And they say He was just the Image of God
I wonder if God sheds tears.
I wonder if God can be sorrowing still,
And has been all these years.
I wonder if that's what it really means,
Not only that he once died,
Not only that he came once to earth
And wept and was crucified?
Not just that he suffered once for all
To save us from our sins
And then went up to his throne on high
To wait until his heaven begins.

But what if he came to earth to show
By the paths of the pain he trod,
The blistering flame of eternal shame
That burns in the heart of God?...

But why don't you bust this show to bits
And force us to do your will?
Why ever should God be suffering so,
And man be sinning still?
Why don't you make your voice ring out,
And drown these cursed guns?
Why don't you stand with an outstretched hand
Out there betwixt us and the Huns?
Why don't you force us to end this war
And fix up a lasting peace?
Why don't you will that the world be still
And wars for ever cease?
That's what I'd do, if I were you,
And I had a lot of sons
Who squabbled and fought and spoiled their home,
Same as us boys and the Huns.

And yet I remember a lad of mine,
He's fighting now on the sea.
And he was a thorn in his mother's side
And the plague of my life to me.
Lord how I used to switch that lad
Until he fairly yelped with pain
But fast as I thrashed one devil out
Another popped in again.

And at last when he grew up a strapping lad
He ups and says to me
'My will is my own, and my life is my own,
And I'm goin' Dad to sea.'
And he went, for I hadn't broken his will,
Though God knows how I tried,
And he never set eyes on my face again
Until the day his mother dies.

Well maybe that's how it is with God,
His sons have got to be free.
Their wills are their own, their lives are their own,
And that is how it has to be.
So the Father God goes sorrowing still
For his world which has gone to sea
But he runs up a light on Calvary's height
That beckons to you and to me.
The beacon light of the sorrow of God
Has been shinin' down the years,
Flashin' its light through the darkest night
Of our human blood and tears.

There's a sight of things which I thought were strange,
As I am just beginnin' to see.
'Inasmuch as you did it unto one of these,
You did it unto Me'

So it isn't just only the crown of thorns
What has pierced and torn God's head
He knows the feel of the bullet too,
And he's had his touch of the lead.
And he's standin' with me in this here sap,
And the corporal stands with Him,
And the eyes of the laddie is shinin' bright
But the eyes of the Christ burn dim.

Oh laddie I thought as ye'd done for me
And broken my heart with your pain.
I thought ye'd taught me God was dead,
But ye've brought Him to life again.
And ye've taught me more of what God is
Than ever I thought to know,
For I never thought he could come so close,
Or that I could love Him so.

For the voice of the Lord, as I hear it now
Is the voice of my pals that bled,
And the call of my country's God to me
Is the call of my country's dead.

And Jesus said to Saul--- 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?'

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Religion in the News--- God gets Sued!!

God, according to the Bible, is omnipresent. This means, according to State Senate from Nebraska Ernie Chambers, God can be sued, since he resides in all the U.S. of A. Specifically Senator Chambers is suing God for what the insurance companies usually call 'acts of God'-- namely natural disasters, such as the tornadoes that recently struck Kansas and Nebraska. Here is the story link for you to mull over---

By all means launch the video attached to the story to hear what the Senator has to say. Lest you think that this is purely frivolous, actually it is not. Ernie Chambers is rather famous (or infamous) for his snide remarks about Christians, and presumably the Christian faith. Of course the Senator is going to have a difficult time getting God into court, one would think. In fact, God will have a much easier time getting Senator Chambers into court, in due course. But the story raises an important point. To what extent should God be blamed for what might be called random natural disasters? I am not talking about specifically targeted judgments like those depicted in Exodus or Revelation. I am simply talking about your average generic twister that causes mayhem for God's people and everyone else in its path. Think of hurricane Katrina and the mayhem on the Gulf coast, not just on sin city in New Orleans, but also on the First Baptist Church in Biloxi.

John Piper on his website of course recently had a post about the disastrous collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis. His view was that however random it might seem to us, that actually this was the will of God, and in essence we should just suck it up. God is sovereign and he disposes things as he will, and according to his sovereign pre-ordained plan. If you just happened to be on the raw end of the deal, so much the worse for you. Since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, actually God has a right to judge the whole world now, if he so chooses. The fact that he spared some shows God's mercy, according to Piper, but he was under no obligation to spare anyone. 'There but for the grace of God go I", so to speak. This doesn't sound much like an attempt to mourn with those who are mourning. It is interesting that Senator Chambers and Rev. Piper would seem to agree on the source of this sort of mayhem.

My question for them would--- is God the author of sin as well? Is God responsible for all that goes wrong in the world? Do these folks really have no clear sense of secondary causes which, while we can say God allows them to happen, we certainly would not want to say God causes or ordains them to happen? Is there no such thing in their vocabulary as God's permissive will? And even if there is-- what good is it for them to talk about God's permissive will, if in fact they think that God pre-ordains both what he permits as well as what he does directly?

I would suggest that there are some significant theological flies (or gadflies) in this whole ointment. Let's start for a second with the book of Job. There is this little story about Satan being allowed to tempt or test Job using a whole slew of disasters, natural or otherwise. Now clearly enough God allows this to happen, but do you really want to claim that God predestined the Devil to do his work? Isn't Satan's work evil? Is God the author of evil? I think not.

Or think for a moment about the Beelzebul controversy in Mark 3. Jesus is accused of being in league with Satan. Now notice how Jesus responds to this charge. He doesn't say, "I couldn't do otherwise, because God foreordained me to do this, whether in league with Satan or on my own." No, Jesus calls it blasphemy! To attribute the work of God to the work of the Devil is 'blaspheming the Holy Spirit' who only does good always. Now the corollary of this is also true. To attribute the work of the Devil to the work of God is also blasphemy. Careful Rev. Piper, you might being falling under this warning Jesus gave here to his interlocuctors.

Who is it that really wants to wreak havoc in human lives? Who is it that really seeks to destroy and devour all that is good, and true and beautiful about human life? Does the Bible really lay these sorts of things at the doorstep of God or not? Why is it that Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it abundantly? Why does it say that God so loved the world (not the elect notice, but the world) that he sent his Son into the world, not to condemn it, but to redeem it? Is God chiefly life giving or death dealing? And while we are at it-- how did death come into the human equation in the first place? Was it God's will? If so, why does Paul call death the last enemy that must be overcome by God in Christ, the last result of human sin and the Fall to be overcome in 1 Cor. 15?

Oh yes and one more thing. Consider James 1 for a moment. Here James reminds us that when we are tempted, we should never say 'God is tempting me', because not only can God not be tempted to do anything wicked or evil, God himself tempts no one! Did you catch that? No one. But the Bible is clear enough that Satan does tempt people and yet it does not come from God. And here in James 1, James says that actually the ultimate source of the rot in this cases is the sinful desires of the human heart that lead humans to misbehave. This is interesting because it implies that James thinks there are other viable actors in the human drama besides God, and that God has not rigged the drama such that angels, demons and humans will inevitably dance to a pre-ordained divine script. Indeed, he thinks that some behavior of humans, and the Devil, and others, is antithetical to the will of God, whether revealed or hidden. Falleness and its effects was not a part of God's perfect plan for his relationship with human beings.

Doubtless Senator Chambers hasn't thought through all the theological ramifications of his lawsuit against God carefully enough. But this cannot be said of Rev. Piper, I am afraid. He's just guilty of having an unBiblical view of God, that ironically is closer to the fatalistic one found in the Koran, than the Biblical one found in the New Testament.

As Forrest Gump once said "well hush my mouth--that's all I have to say about that!"

Friday, September 14, 2007

3:10 to Yuma-- I tend to like it!

I must confess to being a Russell Crowe and a Christian Bale fan, as actors at least. I must also admit to loving well done westerns, and this is one. But on the other hand, most do overs turn out to be less good than the original, especially if it was a classic. As for the 1957 version of '3:10 to Yuma' I personally would not describe it as a classic. It was not in the category of 'High Noon' or even 'Gunfight at the O.K. Corral'. The story was suspensful then and it is in the remake, but the difference is severalfold: 1) Crowe and Bale are better actors than those in the original; 2) the supporting case is better; and 3) the cinematography is much better, not surprisingly since there are now HD cameras.

Unlike so many movies of late, this one is svelt. There is no lard, no filler, no marking of time, just 2 hours (actually a few minutes less) of pure drama. There is also no CG so far as I can tell, and no need for it either. The producers are to be commended for resisting the temptation to rely on the celestial technology now available. Westerns don't much need such bells and whistles. The actors also do their own stunts. The movie is old fashioned in many ways, and is all the better for it.

Perhaps a few reflection on the genre of Westerns is in order at this point. Lest we think the genre has died out altogether I would remind us all of recent excellent movies like 'Open Range' with Robert Duvall, perhaps the all time best cowboy either on TV or on the big screen. Who will ever forget his performance in that runaway smash series 'Lonesome Dove' with Tommy Lee Jones and a cast of thousands. But clearly enough Westerns have long since passed their heyday, the apex being in the 50s or early 60s, even on TV (remember 'Bonanza' or 'Shane' etc. ?). Why have Westerns faded into an also ran genre (and why exactly is '3:10 to Yuma' not showing in more first run theaters)? One suggestion is that we now live fully in the age of technology, the age of Star Trek and Star Wars. Kids don't want cowboy outfits and holsters and guns any more. They want light sabres, or more to the point sci fi X box games. Another reason surely is that the day that we believed in the triumph of rugged individualists who could ride into town and solve all our problems by rendering a sort of rough justice (remember the Clint Eastwood westerns?) is probably over. Disillusionment sets in after intractable quagmires like the war in Vietnam, now followed by the war in Iraq. There is no silver bullet and no lone ranger that could solve those sorts of problems.

Whatever the reasons for our lack of love for westerns these days, this movie has one feature that makes it especially interesting to Christians, and it is a regular feature of the western genre, and that is the presence and influence of the Bible, and in general Biblical ideas and religion, despite the toughness and roughness of life on the ole frontier. In '3:10 to Yuma' we have the nice juxtaposition of a villain, who is a somewhat likeable rogue, spouting one quote after another from the Bible. He is particularly fond of Proverbs. I am referring to the character Crowe plays-- big bad Ben Wade. He is also given to artistic expression in the form of doing pencil sketches. He is also a stone cold killer. Westerns of this ilk raise the very good question of how the Bible can be so omnipresent and yet seem to have so little impact on the behavior of those who keep quoting it fervently.

I will not spoil the plot of the movie which has all the classic elements of a good western drama but I will say this. Like in so many westerns, this is a story about the gaining of respect, and the redemption of a man's honor which had been besmirched by the vicissitudes of life and his failure to respond to them bravely and in good faith. So many westerns are about that sort of self-redemption. They are also about family values, interestingly enough

So go see this western if you have a chance, and see what all the critics are raving about, and in the process learn the winning ways of westerns, even if their rarity shows how westerns have lost most of their audience. For another excellent review of this movie see my colleague Lawson Stone's review at his website.

The Truth about Cats and Dogs

Love comes in all sizes....

Your Friends will support you when

you need a
Shoulder to lean on....

Friends are into understanding what

you're all about....

They see beyond the

black and white
To discover your true colors....

They understand

the way you are.
Even when you just

wake up in the morning

So make your own kind

of music....

Follow your heart

wherever it takes you....

And when someone

reaches out to you,
Don't be afraid to love them back....

You'll have a friend for life....

Who will always give you a hug...

And teach you to think out of the box...

And to practice patience and tolerance.....