Monday, December 01, 2008

Hebrews 1:1

A great number of important ideas are here in the first two verses of the book of Hebrews.  God reveals himself by speaking.  He does so in various different ways, down through time and history.  There is a being called the Son through whom He speaks, and through whom He also created the world.  This Son has been appointed an heir.  These are the last days.  

There is no effort on the part of the writer to prove the existence of God, nor the idea that He speaks and has spoken.  He is apparently writing to those who accept these as truth.   God exists and speaks to us.

Speech is important.  We are speaking beings that live in time.  Our words are so important that more often than not they are all that remains of us when we die.  Millenia after their death, we the living still read the words of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Moses, and Jesus.  The ability to speak and understand speech is hard-wired into our brains, and one of the largest areas of the motor cortex in our brains controls the organs of speech.  Speech, or its proxy the written word, is undeniably our chief means of exchanging ideas of any kind.  

If we posit, for the sake of argument, that there is a God that both created us and remains interested in us, would it not be our expectation that He would use speech and words to communicate with us?  Furthermore, since we are the kind of being that exists in a sequential timeframe, and uses words to communicate between generations and pass knowledge down to those who come after, is it surprising that God would likewise reveal himself gradually over time?  We may be slow learners when it comes to history, but we do eventually learn.  These opening verses in Hebrews assert that God does use speech to reveal himself to us, and does so down through history.  In the past, he used those men and women called "prophets", but finally he has used this being called "the Son".  


It has been a long time since I have written here.  Writing takes discipline, and I have not been exercising discipline very much lately, I'm afraid.   I am also somewhat uncertain what place a blog should have in my life.  Is it a type of journal?  If so, it is too public for sharing one's deepest thoughts, the ones whose discernment and recording may be most beneficial to me.  Is it a type of conversation?  Perhaps, but with whom?  

There is an effort involved in writing a blog that must have some sort of return, I think.  Not simply a return to me, the writer, but some benefit accruing to the readers.  One has to believe it is worth the effort.  

I have been encouraged to write by some who have been my readers in the past.  I am full of self-doubt; my life has had many failures recently, and I have felt very much less capable than I once felt.   Nevertheless I will attempt to take up the practice of writing again.  

Friday, March 21, 2008

Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?

It is Good Friday, and today's Daily Office offers Psalm 22, the psalm that begins with the words Jesus spoke from the cross as He was dying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

The incarnation of God as man is a deep mystery, but Good Friday begins a mystery that seems black and bottomless: the death of God, the sundering of the Trinity. In a sense, this is the center point of all history. The day becomes night, the earth shakes and splits, dead arise out of their graves and walk about. It is as if creation itself convulses, as well it might; its creator, the very hands that formed it, has unaccountably and inconceivably been destroyed by his own creation. Can such a thing be? How could the earth not cease to exist? All eyes, even the unseen eyes of Satan, who perhaps knows best what is happening, are pulled relentlessly to that cross. Can it be? Have I won? The centurions fall down in fear, "Surely this was the son of God!" Unseen forces tear the temple curtain in two. Did the earth splilt beneath as well, foreshadowing the downthrow of the now obsolete center of worship? What is happening? How can God forsake God?

I think that we cannot hope to explain these things. A toddler might as easily attempt to explain lightening. We are but of yesterday and know nothing. Our forefathers saw these terrors at midday and have passed them down without explanation. There they are, raw and aweful, assaulting the mind with impossible realities. We do not understand, but could we expect to understand? We do not even understand our own material world; how could we understand events that involve its creator?

Because Jesus spoke the opening words of Psalm 22 from the cross, we infer that he was invoking the entire psalm, and hence applying it to himself. In the past, when I have read this psalm, I was troubled that it seemed somehow too "human" to apply to Jesus. It seems to be a psalm of lament and supplication to God for rescue from oppressors, for salvation in fact. It reads very much like a human being in deep trouble, asking God to deliver him just as He had delivered his ancestors in the past.

Yet of course, it was especially as a human being, as the Human Being, the second Adam (Adam meaning, in Hebrew, Man as in man-kind) that He was being crucified. Another deep mystery. Jesus so deeply identified with those for whom he was dying that for all intents and purposes (especially divine purposes) he became those he was dying for. He became sin, and it was as such that he was dying. He was not dying because he was God--God had no need to die--but because he was Man. "Behold the Man," says Pilate. He was dying as the second Adam, the innocent Adam dying in place of the sinful Adam. Hence, all his thoughts in Psalm 22 are thoughts from a man's perspective, a human's perspective. He is speaking for us, as we might speak had we been dying there, only guiltless. That is why the Psalm does not speak from God's perspective, though Jesus is also God. These are his dying words, and he is dying as a man, for man.

Hence, he speaks of us as brethren, and says he will praise God in the midst of the "assembly" of us, his people. He, as a man, is really beset upon, is really surrounded by enemies, both material and spiritual, is really dying and is really praying for deliverence. In one sense, of course, He is not delivered. His enemies prevail, and He dies under torture. Yet He is indeed delivered, and we through Him. We are delivered from death through his death, and of course He knew this all along. The Father has not despised the affliction, nor Jesus' prayers upon the cross. He delivered Him from death, and hence from the power of death, through death. So Psalm 22 ends with praise coming from all the nations and all the peoples, who have heard and remember. Yet unborn people will hear and remember, and will declare His righteousness because "He has performed it."

Friday, February 08, 2008

Not Negative

My friends at Reading Through the Bible are contemplating the Ten Commandments, first presented to Moses on Mt. Sinai, after the people had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. Note that the commandments begin by mentioning this context: "I am the Lord thy God which brought you out of shall have no other gods before me." God then goes on to list ten rules, ten commandments mostly having the form, "You shall not..." Does this seem odd? I have heard the complaint that the commandments are "negative", and that it would have been better for God to have used "positive language". Yet here He is, right after reminding his people that they are now free men and women, delivering this set of "negative" rules. Doesn't he get it?

Is such a formulation of law really negative? Or perhaps the question can be better formulated, "Which type of law restricts our freedom more, prohibitions (thou shalt not) or prescriptions (thou shalt)?" I propose that prohibitions are the least restrictive form of law, and that is why God casts his commandments in that form right after setting his people free. The Ten Commandments are not only consistent with their new freedom, but are excellent signs and symbols of their new freedom.

Consider the Garden of Eden. What could Adam and Eve do? Everything....except one single activity, one simple rule. They could climb trees, cut down trees, make love under the trees, make love in the trees, burn the wood, use the wood, eat the fruit from every single tree, run around, sing... whatever. In short, every conceivable activity under the sun was lawful except one: don't eat fruit from this one tree. "Thou shalt not eat the fruit from this one tree" was the absolutely least restrictive rule one could imagine, because it was negative. By saying, "Don't do this", God is allowing everything else. Imagine He had formulated His commandment in the positive. How would that be stated? "Act in accordance with My will." There's a positive formulation, but what does it mean? At every act, A and E would have to consider, " this according to God's will?" Talk about anxiety! Perhaps God could have said, "Do everything except eat from the tree in the middle of the garden." In the first place, this still contains the negative, but now it contains a daunting positive command: do everything else. So now they have to make love in the trees, and have to run around and sing, have to burn the wood and every other conceivable activity.

Most of our own laws work the same way. The laws in a free land generally do not prescribe behavior but simply forbid a small subset of specific behaviors, leaving its citizens free to do anything that is not specifically prohibited.

The simplest and least restrictive form of law, which is simply the declaration of God's will as distinct from His creature's, is prohibition. The Ten Commandments leave entire worlds of possible activity open to us. We can relate to God in all sorts of ways, exploring our own individuality in our worship, but we can't worship anything but our creator. We can say anything we want; we can sing, write poetry and plays, and explore all the rich possibilities of language written, spoken and sung; but we cannot dishonor God's name or use it trivially, nor can we malign our neighbor. We can enjoy all the aspects of sexual love, madly, wildly, as often as we want, wherever we want; only with our spouse. We can take all kinds of things for our own use, and create all manner of secondary things with them; only we cannot take for our use what someone else has taken for his, nor can we use these things as gods.

The Ten Commandments are simply the boundaries of our design as creatures. We were made a certain way, with certain wonderful strengths, and the commandments are in a sense our "specs". As Israel contemplated their new freedom from slavery, God was showing them that they were now able to make all sorts of choices they could not make as slaves. They could be merchants, or farmers, or herdsman, or craftsmen. They could live in what village they wanted. They could build their homes large or small, east or west, marry whom they willed, move when they wanted. They were free. Only, there were these ten kinds of things they could not do without harming themselves and their community. These commandments, in their simplicity and in their "negative" form, presumed and were emblematic of the people's freedom.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Apocalypse Code

I read Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth in the early 70', in college, when the European Union consisted of 10 nations, the Unites States backed Israel, and Russia backed her enemies, making the Arab-Israeli conflict a very credible tinderbox for worldwide nuclear holocaust. Having only been a Christian a few years at that time, it was my first encounter with "End Times Prophecy", and I was very interested. As many of the points in Lindsey's timeline required the identification and counting of ancient kings, I took some courses in Ancient Near Eastern History. It was immediately clear to me that there is nothing simple or clear about ancient history, and that the matter-of-course manner in which Lindsey asserted his own interpretation of ancient and modern history was intentionally misleading to his readers, at the very least as regards the level of certainty with which the underlying historical facts can be known. It just wasn't that simple, and his self-assurance was unwarranted and smug. I tentatively accepted his general premillenial framework, because it seemed to be part of the general evangelical system of belief and I knew no better. I didn't pursue it any further, as it didn't seem to be something one could actually substantiate.

Some years later, in my mid 20's, I came across More Than Conquerors by William Hendriksen. This book introduced me to the idea that the Book of Revelation was written for and could be understood by the church throughout the ages, not simply the church that happened to exist just before the end. Of course! II Tim 3:16 applies to all scripture, including Daniel and Ezekiel and Revelation, and all Christians down through history. Revelation itself begins with the blessing, "Blessed is he who hears the words of this book and keeps them." How would a first century Christian "keep" a book about international political intrigue, attack helicopters, biological warfare and intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 20th century! (or's getting pretty late, Hal.) It treated the Book of Revelation literally, ie, as literature, meant to be interpreted in the way it was written, by human beings who understand written language in all its forms. God had gone to great lengths to develop and teach a manner of expression suitable to the magnitude and sublimity of His works, and was using this language in the book intended to orient all his people, throughout the church age, to their own futures. This made great sense to me, and made all the king-counting and crazy ad-hoc mathematic contortions unnecessary, as the prediction of which part of the world was Gog and which Magog was entirely beside the point! I loved it. I still highly recommend it to anyone who is skeptical of all this Last Days Madness but feels that it goes with the territory of being a serious, Bible-believing Christian. It does not, and the good news, rarely heard in evangelical America, is that belief in such contorted end-times history is not the position of the Church through the ages, but a rather recent idea (end of the 19th century.)

Most recently, a gentleman in one of my Sunday school classes gave me a copy of Hank Hanegraaff's The Apocalypse Code. Do not confuse it with Hal Lindsey's "Apocalypse Code." Hanegraaff's subtitle is "Find out what the Bible really says about the end times, and why it matters today." I highly recommend it. Though it uses apolcalyptic literature (Revelation and Daniel and Ezekiel) as the context, it is really about correct exegesis and hermeneutics. It teaches one how to interpret the Bible, using the Bible as its own guide. The title expresses the core idea that the "decoder" for the book of Revelation is the Old Testament itself, as interpreted by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament. The concept is simple: God's purpose is to communicate truth to us, primarily truth about His nature and ours, and He has developed a rich linguistic, symbolic and metaphorical language to do so. He teaches us this language by using it in the context of known events in the Old Testament, then having Jesus himself use it in the context of events in the New Testament. Then, when he gives his great revelation to John on the island of Patmos, he uses the very same language, now presumably understood by His people who know his prior word, to lay out for them a vision of the Church age and its consummation in the New Jerusalem.

This book is great. Very readable, very honest, not the least manipulative, and not primarily concerned that the reader adopt a particular view of future history. He is more concerned that the reader learn how to understand Biblical imagery, and that the reader not adopt a wooden literalism in interpreting prophecy. He is also concerned to prevent the nearly-heretical aspects of some popular end-times interpretations, such as that a new temple must be built to reinstate the blood sacrifices that pointed to Jesus and that were fulfilled (and made obsolete) by his own sacrifice once for all.

Get it. Read it. Then talk about it.

(Click here for a site with podcasts of Hanegraaff discussing his book and the issues it addresses.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Right Hand of God

**Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power, your right hand, O LORD, shatters the enemy. (Exo 15:6)
**You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them. (Exo 15:12)
**And to which of the angels has he ever said, "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet"? (Heb 1:13)
**...looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
**Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. (Rev 5:1)

The "right hand of the Lord" appears throughout the Bible, in over a hundred verses. What are we to make of this? Is God right-handed? Does He have a body? Does this reflect some primitive conception of God as Man-writ-large, like Zeus or Thor?

Though it might be argued that, in one sense, since the Incarnation of Jesus, God does have a body, yet that is not the notion behind these verses. Rather, this use of "God's hand" is the condescension of God in speaking to us, and in accepting our speaking of Him, in terms that have meaning to us who are embodied and finite. To us, "the hand is that part of the body which enables man to be a doer, a tool-making and tool-using being; thus it is associated with power or control." (ISBE, "Hand") It is with our hands that we make things and control things. Short of losing our minds, the loss of our hands is most disabling. Even within our brains, the amount of space given to sensation and control of our hands is larger than any part except that given to our mouths and speech. We are, essentially, speaking and making beings, made in the image of a speaking and making God.

For whatever reason, the vast majority of humans are right-handed; our right hands are more easily controlled. (It would be interesting to speculate about why God created us in this assymetrical manner. Why, when we appear to have bilateral symmetry, are we actually, inside, assymetrical?) So when we speak of God's power to do things, when we speak of him as a maker or controller, we speak in terms of his right hand. It is not because he is right-handed, but because most of us are. This demonstrates a fact about the Bible that it is critical for a reader to understand: The Bible is written for us humans, and uses all the aspects of human language and literature. To take the Bible "literally" means to read it as it was meant to be read, not woodenly or concretely, but as "literature" ("writing"). We humans use metaphor, simile, hyperbole, and many other non-concrete forms of language, and our most expressive and well-loved literature is most filled with such non-concrete language. The descriptors "poetic" or "lyrical" are generally taken to indicate praise, while "prosaic" is generally a criticism. The Bible speaks of God's mouth, his eye, his arm, his feet, his heart, his sword, his breath. God speaks to us in terms that we understand, as beings that have our powers located in those organs. He uses our own manner of speaking, so that we will understand him clearly.

So, the "right hand of God" usually speaks of his power and control. Standing or sitting at a ruler's right hand associated one with his power, and hence was a place of honor. When blessing children, the right hand was normally placed upon the firstborn, symbolizing the favored status of being firstborn. (See the scene where Jacob blesses Joseph's children, Ephraim and Manasseh) Jesus is the "firstborn among many brethren". He is our elder brother; the Father's right hand is upon him.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Praying the Psalter

In his lectures on Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope recommended previously, Gideon Strauss observes that the chief reason he was able to avoid complete emotional and spiritual disintegration during his participation in South Africa's Commission for Truth and Reconciliation was that he had begun to pray the Psalter in the years immediately preceeding. He therefore already possessed a language for expressing to himself and to God the deep pain, personal brokenness, and agonizing thirst for justice that the endless accounts of violence and loss effected in him. Dr. Strauss is a learned man, and at the time already had his PhD in philosophy and had been many years a Christian. Nevertheless, it was these poems and songs, these works of literary art that preserved his soul and sanity, rather than the didactic, factual portions of scripture.

There is a sense in which we live in our songs and poetry more deeply than in our intellectual knowledge. This is most obvious in our youth, during which time we seek refuge in our music, even identify ourselves by our music. But I think it is true throughout life. Our hearts resonate with poetry and song more deeply than with other forms of expression.

Praying the Psalter gives language to our hearts, a vocabulary for every occasion in life from the most sublime joy to the deepest personal agony. The Psalms are especially human, and sometimes raw; they express even those feelings that we might otherwise feel are forbidden. They sing of feeling abandoned by God, of feeling jealous of the good fortune of people who seem not to deserve it, of hatred for enemies, of confusion, of sickness and fear of death, of the desire to be avenged. They are songs of human beings sitting honestly before a patient and understanding God, who is Himself a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief and betrayal. They lay it all out, even the twisted bits, and ask God to see and to respond, or even just to sigh with us. Praying these songs, seeking to identify with and understand the Psalmist, prepares us to meet these emotions and to see them as common to man if and when they come upon us.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Wonder, Heartbreak and Hope

My friend Gideon Strauss has posted three powerful lectures containing his reflections upon insights he gained in the months and years surrounding his service as a translator for South Africa's Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. (Click on the title of this post to go there and listen, or you can download them for iPod use by right-clicking the links there.)

Be warned: this is hard, sad stuff. Dr. Strauss found himself praying Psalm 137 for two years after the experience (that's the Psalm that ends, "O daughter of Babylon, happy is he who repays you...who seizes your infants and dashes them upon the rocks." If you have had trouble with this Psalm, (as I hope you have), these reflections may help you understand why it is there in the Psalter, how real and violent and dark is the darkness in this world, and how our wonderful and weeping saviour may draw wonder and hope even out of such darkness.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Born in Zion: Psalm 87

Over the past year, I have been spending a lot of time reading in Isaiah, in preparation for a Sunday school class I have been teaching. In that book are many oracles "against the nations", in which the Lord punishes them for their idolatry and for oppressing his people. There is a lot of doom and gloom in Isaiah, far more than those know who merely read the Christmas prophesies and the Suffering Servant segments, which are the climactic Good News that comes only after a lot of very bad news laid out in the preceding forty or fifty chapters. And it is not only the gentile Nations that are in trouble, but Israel and Judah especially, for they of all the nations should have known better, but behaved no differently.

How delightful then to find, again and again, in Isaiah and throughout the old and new testaments, that the delight of God rests, finally, not only in Israel but also in all the other nations of the world, even those who were her particular enemies. Zion is more than simply a hill in Jerusalem, but becomes figuratively that place, that city to which all of God's children eventually come.

In Psalm 87 we see a list of countries who were at one time enemies of Israel, and some of them her chief enemies: Egypt, Babylon, and Philistia. These are among "those who know Me", and it seems that God is pleased to say that they know Him. Furthermore, though being born in these countries granted one a certain panache in the ancient world, such as being from New York or Moscow or Beijing today, yet all those who know God are said to be "born in Zion." She is the central City, the only City in the end, after the fall of the only other city, Babylon. Once you become a citizen of Zion, that identity gathers into itself all one's other identities. When we are born again, this is the city in which we are born, so that it will be said, "this one and that one were born in her...."

That City will gather into herself all that is good, all that is beautiful and worthy in all the cultures and peoples of the world, and make it her own, because, of course, it was hers all along. As God makes his rain to fall upon the wicked and the righteous both, so His beauty is shed abroad among the nations, even to those who persecute His people and suppress his truth. All will bear fruit that will be gathered in again at the end, into his holy city for His pleasure and the pleasure of His people.
By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their
glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day--and there will be no
night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.

(Rev 21:24-26)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reading Through the Bible

Some old friends from "Kairos" have begun to read through the Bible together, and have started a blog in which they reflect on their reading. What a great format through which to wrestle with the truth! Click on the heading of this post to go there, and be sure to read the comments...I have asked one of their writers to see if she can post the reading schedule, so that anyone so inclined could join the group and read along. I have also placed a link in the margin at left, so you can easily jump there from this site.