Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Why Tragedy?

  I was debating on what to write for tonight.

  I thought I might do a 2015 "Year in Review" blog, highlighting some of my more interesting moments and encounters within the last year.  I may still do something of the sort next week. But Saturday night, Dec. 26, the corner of Texas where I live was the victim of a horrific outbreak of tornadoes - nine twisters that left eleven people dead, dozens injured, and did tens of millions of dollars in damage.  I inadvertently got a first hand view of the devastation on Sunday, when a missed exit forced me to detour right across the storm's path.  Businesses and homes shattered and scattered, debris everywhere, cars upended and tossed about like children's toys in a tantrum - it was horrifying and humbling to see the raw power of nature destroy the works of men's hands so quickly and completely.

   So where was God in all of this?  How could One who loves us allow such carnage, especially at a time of year when we celebrate His supreme gift to us all?  Why did those eleven people die while others were spared?  Why was one house left standing while its neighbor was leveled to its foundations?

   I don't even pretend to have answers for everything.  I read my Bible, I pray for my friends, and I do what I can to be a good person and a good neighbor to those in need.  But those who reject God always have a field day when events like this roll around - "Where was your God in the midst of the storm?  How could He let this happen?"  The questions come thick and fast, and our answers may sound hollow in the face of human suffering.

   In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was confronted with a similar question.  Here is the story:

   "Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. “Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? “I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” - Luke 13: 1-5 NASB

   Was Jesus being callous here?  Was he belittling the deaths of these innocents?  Or was He making a profound statement about the existence of man in a fallen world? 

   Whether you regard the story of Adam and Eve as literal truth, mythology, or timeless allegory, it makes a profound statement about the nature of humanity: Death is our lot.  We are mortal creatures living in a fallen and imperfect world.  All of us are given a span of years, and none of us know how long that span will be.  We may say that some are taken "before their time," but that isn't true.  They were taken at their time, or they would not have been taken at all.  We grieve and rage and weep because they were taken before WE were ready for them to go.  Whether someone is killed by a tornado the day after Christmas or dies from the slow ravages of time in a nursing home, the grave is our ultimate fate.  Nothing we can do will change that.

   That's where faith comes in.  Paul told the church at Thessalonica two thousand years ago: "Now I would not have  you ignorant, beloved, concerning them that fall asleep, that ye may not grieve as do the rest who have no hope."  Without faith, the grave is the end of all things.  There is nothing waiting for us beyond, and those we have lost are gone beyond all recovery.  I cannot imagine such a hopeless and benighted philosophy - to think that your entire existence is a cosmic accident devoid of meaning or purpose, that we are nothing but hairless apes produced by a long series of meaningless mutations, and that when our life ends, nothing lies waiting.

   We who believe have hope.  Atheists and agnostics may ridicule us into thinking it's a false hope, but what do they have to offer in its place?  An existence that is amoral and meaningless? A life of hedonism, because the pleasures of this life are all we will ever have?  No, thank you.  I like the promise of Scripture so much better:  "Beloved, now we are the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be.  But we know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him just as He is."

"We shall behold Him."  What a magnificent promise - a promise no tragedy can take away!  In the end, faith is the only response that makes any sense in a world that is far too filled with suffering.

Monday, December 21, 2015

And Just Like That, It's Christmas Again!

   Where does the time go?

    This has been my first full year of keeping a blog, and I appreciate all of you who take the time to read it.  I seem to average about 40-50 views per post, and that's very flattering.  I am hoping this thing will grow over time, as my readership grows, but I'm happy either way.  The greatest hope of any writer is that people enjoy his words enough to come back for more.

     There are lots of things I could write about today, and no way to write about all of them.  So I thought that I might recap a few things that I talked about in church yesterday.  My sermon title was "Heaven Came Down."  As I read through a few verses from the first and second chapters of Luke's Gospel, I saw four occasions where heaven, quite literally, came down and intersected lives on earth in the course of the Nativity story.

   First, in the appearance of the angel to Zacharias in the Temple - here, heaven came down to an old man and woman, bereft of children in a time when your offspring were the only "Social Security" that there was.  They were facing the prospect of lonely old age, with no one to look after either of them once their strength and finances gave out.  Heaven came down and injected hope into a hopeless situation, creating life out of death, giving these two godly people the one thing they had always prayed for - but more than that, giving to all of God's people the messenger, the herald of the Messiah, that they had longed for since the days of Moses.  Four hundred years had passed since the last prophet spoke to Israel, and now God gently reminds his people, through this miraculous birth, that He is not done with them yet.  Even in the hopelessness of occupation and subjugation by Rome, God's plan was still rolling forward, and redemption was now at hand.

   Then there was the annunciation to Mary that her child would be the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, who would redeem not just the sons of Abraham but all mankind from the hopelessness of sin.  Here we see heaven coming down at a time and place least expected, but most needed.  Who was Mary?  While there has been a ton of mythology attached to her name, in the end, what we know is sparse: she was a virgin girl of the ancient line of King David, living a normal life in Nazareth.  She was devout, and very knowledgeable concerning the Scriptures (in her song "the Magnificat" recorded in Luke 1 there are 15 direct quotations and/or allusions to the OT), and most likely very young.  This peasant girl from a small village in a backwater province of the Roman Empire would give birth to the most significant human being to ever walk the earth - and a messenger direct from the throne of God came and gave her this news!  Heaven came down when it was least expected to bring the news most needed.

  Third, there is the actual birth of Jesus - all the wisdom, love, and power of the Godhead poured into a frail human vessel, a tiny infant possessing the consciousness that created the Universe. "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory - the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."  It would have been a step down of unimaginable proportions had God stepped into the body of Caesar Augustus himself!  But for the creator of the universe to incarnate himself into the body of an infant, born to an impoverished family, and cradled in a feeding trough for cattle - all to accomplish the redemption of a wicked and selfish people who had done nothing to earn God's favor or mercy!  Here is a love story beyond compare.

  Fourth and finally - heaven came down to pronounce the birth of the Messiah King, not in the Temple at Jerusalem, nor to the Forum in Rome - but to a band of penniless shepherd, camped in the field by night and tending their flocks.  Why God chose this unlikely band of witnesses to behold the arrival of His Son, we do not know - but it affirms the central truth of the Christmas story:

Heaven comes down to bring life to the lifeless and hope to the hopeless.  It comes down in the time least looked for, in the form least expected, and reveals itself to the least likely of audiences.  And yet - two thousand years later, we still remember and celebrate!

"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in."

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Vexing Issue of Islam in the Age of Obama and Trump

   Radical Islam, specifically those radical Muslims dedicated to jihad against the West, have been on the mind of every American since 9/11/01 slapped us in the face with the depths of evil to which some will sink in the name of religion.  Recent events in Syria, Iraq, Paris, and San Bernardino have made Islam/Jihad/radicalism the focal point of countless talk shows and FB memes all around America. As voices on all sides become more shrill and more insistent that the other side is wrong, maintaining any kind of mental balance becomes harder and harder.

     Two responses have emerged to the wave of Islamic violence radiating from the Middle East in recent years.  The first is that Islam is really a peaceful and tolerant religion, that groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haran are a tiny minority who no more represent a majority of Islam than Westboro Baptist and the KKK represent the majority of Christendom.  Therefore any kind of extra vigilance directed at Muslims is nothing more than racism, pure and simple, just as detestable as Bull Connor turning the fire hoses on Birmingham's black children as they marched for justice sixty years ago. That is the position of our President and many in his party.

   The other is a knee-jerk Islamophobia that regards every single Muslim on earth as a potential jihadist, secretly committed to the death of Western Civilization, opposed to all religious and political freedom, and ready to clap a burka over every woman in sight and turn every church into a mosque.  These folks argue that all Muslims must be regarded with suspicion and excessive scrutiny, and Donald Trump has become their spokesman.  You get the feeling that many of these people would be fine with forcing American Muslims to wear a yellow crescent on their chest and live in special camps where they could be de-programmed, or even eliminated.  So we see the endless parade of "Lock and Load!" posts on FB that do nothing but feed fear and hatred.

   The problem is that both of these responses are based on a false narrative.  There are about 1.2 billion Muslims in the world.  If even half of them were committed to jihad, our world would be awash in blood (yes, things in the Middle East are bad, but they could be so much worse than they are right now if ALL of the area's residents decided to rise up against the infidel!).  A majority of the world's Muslims are not committed to killing or forcibly converting their neighbors, and the fact is that many of them are decent people, our friends, neighbors, and co-workers who despise ISIS just as much as we do.  I mean, does anyone see Kareem Abdul-Jabar shouting "Allahu Akbar!" and blowing up half the crowd at a Lakers game? Of course not.  But, if you treat 1.2 billion people as enemies, you turn more and more of them into enemies - which is exactly what groups like ISIS want!

   On the other hand, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their ilk are not the tiny minority some would have us believe, nor have they somehow "hijacked" Islam from its peaceful roots.  Truth be told, their actions are closer to the actions of Muhammad and the first generations to follow his call to jihad - a bloody wave of warfare, slavery, and forced conversions that wiped out whole cultures and spilled over the Middle East and North Africa like a bloody tidal wave in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD.  No one knows what percentage of Muslims world wide are "radicalized" - nor is there any exact agreement as to what that term means.  But I daresay that the jihadists represent a far greater percentage of Islam than Klansmen and Westboro fanatics do of Christianity! (It's also worth pointing out that the Westboro goons, although they are often held up as an example of the most extreme and ugly perversion of Christianity out there, have never bombed a gay nightclub or cut the head off of someone they don't like!)  So the threat is real, and ignoring it won't make it go away. But it's also something that is impossible to defend against 100% of the time.

   So what do we do?  What is the proper response to this threat that seems so menacing - and yet is not nearly as great as our media, in their endless quest for ratings, makes it out to be?  In the wake of the Paris attacks, I made post on this very blog pointing out some of the dangers of taking the threat for granted.  And yet, as I look around thereafter, I see the dangers of taking it too seriously.  So here is what I propose:

    First of all, we can't let fear make us quit being Americans.  Being American means believing in religious freedom, rejecting persecution on the grounds of faith, even if the faith isn't one we share or find particularly appealing.  We also can't let fear eat away our compassion - that means we try to help the victims of conflict, even when we have huge deficits at home.  It means we try to offer some sort of shelter and aid to the victims of the conflict in Syria, even if that may mean bringing some of them here.  But what if there are ISIS sleeper agents among them?  So be it.  As Americans, we accept a certain level of gun carnage every year as the price of having the freedom to bear arms.  Far more Americans are killed every week by handguns wielded by their fellow Americans than have perished in all the terrorist attacks of the last ten years.  Yet we on the right side of the political aisle scream bloody murder at the thought of anyone infringing on our Second Amendment rights.  If we are willing to see that much blood spilled to preserve one of our freedoms, are we willing to bargain away other sacred American traditions for the fear that a hypothetical jihadist might strike at us after being given shelter and refuge?  Are we willing to condemn men, women, and children to death and slavery to avoid a threat that most likely will never touch us personally?

   Last of all, Christians must still be Christians.  I'm not talking about the idiot Crusaders who slaughtered tens of thousands of Muslims in the name of a Savior whose words they could not even read. I'm talking about the fearless, blazing faith of Jesus and his disciples who were willing to face death by the cross, the sword, and wild beasts with the name of the Lord on their lips and hearts full of love for those who were screaming for their blood.  It means that we must recognize that Jesus died for that radicalized Muslim cleric just as much as He died for you and me, and that above all we must pray for the salvation of the followers of Muhammad, that the love of God may conquer the forces of hate.

    Our government has a responsibility, before God and the Constitution, to defend our lives, liberty, and property against those who would destroy us.  That responsibility should be exercised cautiously, soberly, and, at times, forcefully.   But our government ultimately answers to and reflects us, and we must not let fear turn us into a dark mirror image of those who seek to destroy us.  We must remember who we are, lest we become that which we hate.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Faith Is Not Necessarily Blind . . . .

   Why do I write what I do?  If there is a common thread that runs through all of my books, it is my belief that the Gospels passed on, with careful accuracy, the teachings and the life story of Jesus of Nazareth.  Because I believe the Gospels, I therefore believe that Jesus - Yeshua, the simple Galilean carpenter born during the reign of Augustus a little over two thousand years ago - truly was the Son of God, a divine being come into the world to bring hope and salvation to mankind.  I believe in His teachings, and I believe the miracles he performed really happened as described.  I believe the rest of the New Testament was written by His disciples as part of their commission to "bind and loose," to lay down the doctrines and practices, based on the teachings of Jesus Himself, that would be binding upon Christians until the day when He returns for His church.
    Some of my atheist friends like to poke fun at my convictions, mocking my "blind faith" in a book that was written by men some two thousand years ago.  How can I be sure that these documents are true, first of all?  How can I be confident that the text we have today is even close to the original wording of these documents when they have been copied by hand again and again and again for centuries?  Why don't I accept the other Gospels - the books attributed to Thomas, Judas, Peter, and others that didn't make it into the New Testament?  I get asked a lot of questions all the time, and I respond to them regularly in the various social media forums that I belong to.  But I thought that I might devote tonight's post to some very basic explanations.
   Why do I believe the Gospels are true?  Simple.  First of all, they were written earlier than any other Christian writings except a few of Paul's letters.  Every single Gospel was written within the First Century, according to all but a few radical scholars.  At the latest, that puts them within seventy years of the events they chronicle.  However, most scholars would say that the three Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark, and Luke - were completed by around 70 AD.  I think a very convincing case can be made that they were written a decade earlier, in the early 60's.  So that puts them within thirty to forty years of the events they chronicle.  Consider that the biographies of the Roman emperors of the First Century that modern historians rely on were actually written a hundred years or more after those men lived, and that the stories of Buddha's life were not written down for nearly three hundred years, that's a negligible period of time.  Many of the participants in the events would have still been alive when the Gospels were written, and if you go by the traditional authorship (I have yet to see any convincing reason to reject those claims) assigned to the Gospels, two of them were written by eyewitnesses, one by a close associate of Simon Peter, and finally, one by a Greek doctor who clearly said that he got his information from those "who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the Word."  Secondly, the historical details contained within the Gospels in every case match up to the historical setting in which the events occurred.  Luke's Gospel in particular lists the names of numerous local authorities and officials, and in every case he uses the correct name and title for the correct person at the correct time and place.  John lists details of the Temple rituals, the geography of Jerusalem, and Jewish customs that a later writer would have had no way of knowing.  Accuracy in small details is a reliable companion to accuracy in major claims.  Third, while there are minor variations in the events chronicled in the Gospels, on the central teachings of Jesus and the chronology of his life, they are in full agreement - a hallmark of a true account.  The variations that do occur are a natural result of an event being recalled from more than one perspective, not "contradictions" as they are often touted to be.
   How can we be confident of our current text?  After all, the Gospels were hand copied by scribes for many  centuries.  Didn't they make mistakes?  The short answer is, of course they did.  However, the number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is so large (over seven thousand!), and the gap between the time the originals were written and the date of the earliest copies we have is so small, that it is a very simple matter for textual scholars to weed out the errors that have crept in.  For example, Homer's Odyssey is the second place finisher for number of manuscripts, with around five hundred or so.  But the earliest fragment of Homer dates to around 100 AD, nine centuries after he wrote, and the earliest complete copy is from around 800 AD.  That's a gap of some sixteen hundred years! We have two complete copies of the New Testament that date to around 320-350 AD (three centuries or less after their writing), and fragments of individual books that go back to within a single generation of the originals! (The Rylands papyrus fragment of John 18 has been dated to about 120 AD; John was the last Gospel written, around 90 AD or so.)
    It's also worth noting that none of these scribal errors really affect the meaning of the Gospel, or any of the cardinal doctrines of the church.  Of the 200,000 or so documented errors in the various Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, some 80% are simple spelling errors, and another 15% or so are errors in the order of words - the most common of which is a scribe writing "Christ Jesus" when the original text said "Jesus Christ." What exactly do errors like that change about our understanding of the Gospel?  NOTHING!   Only in a handful of passages in the entire New Testament is there any doubt about the original wording, and none of them change a single major doctrine of Christianity.
  Finally, why do I reject the "Gnostic Gospels" like Thomas, Judas, and others?  All of them date much later than the four canonical gospels - while some have tried to argue that Thomas may date to the first century, textual analysis makes a date in the mid-to-late second century far more likely. The other Gnostic Gospels date even later.  In other words, there is a very high probability, historically speaking, that the four Gospels of the New Testament could have been written by, or at least preserve the words of, the men whose names they bear.  The window of time is small enough, and every single ancient source ascribes them to those authors and no others.  However, all the other Gospels show up far too late to have been written by the men whose names they bear, which means they are based on a falsehood from the get-go.  They also contain numerous historical errors, and present a very different view of Jesus from that of the earliest and most reliable sources.  Not only that, the Apostolic Fathers of the second and third centuries after Christ were unanimous in condemning these works as "spurious" - in modern language, forgeries.
   So, in the end, my faith is based on a reasonable, historical conclusion that the Gospels are ancient, accurate sources of information about the life of Jesus.  That's not exactly "blind"!!!