“The Book of LIfe” in the Book of Revelations

A Christian lectionary is a book or list of selected Scripture readings for corporate or personal worship. Lectionaries include something like a “Daily Office,” which provides suggested daily Bible readings for individuals. These include one or more psalms, a reading from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament letters, and one from the New Testament Gospels. Those who use the Daily Office will read through most of the Bible over a period of two years.

This week’s Revised Common Lectionary’s readings include the opening chapters of The Book of Revelation. Each day’s readings include one of the “letters to the seven churches” which are found in the second and third chapters of The Revelation.

The Revelation was written sometime in the late first century. The early church, which had begun as a subset of Judaism and enjoyed its standing as a government-sanctioned religion in the Roman Empire, had by the time of publication been condemned as an “illicit religion.” Persecution against Christians spread across the Mediterranean and beyond. The Revelation was written to be a source of hope to hard-pressed Christians.

Because the book contains prophetic material dealing with the future, some interpreters have held that each of the letters to the seven churches was intended for an audience from a different period of church history. According to this interpretation, the first letter, sent to the Church at Ephesus, addressed issues related to the book’s first readers, with each ensuing letter addressing a later generation and the final letter intended for the church at the time of Christ’s return.

It is common for those operating from this perspective to say that the final letter, the one to the Church at Laodicea, describes Christians living in our time. In the letter, that church is chided for being lukewarm, an accusation often leveled against contemporary Christianity.

Perhaps there is something to the futurist approach to the letters, but there is too much detail specific to the destination of each letter to think that they were not primarily intended for the first century churches to which they were sent. Likewise, there is application to our time in each of the letters, not simply in the final one.

For example, the fifth letter is sent to the Church at Sardis. The church there is told to wake up, probably a reference to the famous fall of Sardis in battle in 546 BCE. Because the city’s residents thought it was impregnable, they were caught sleeping during an enemy invasion and conquered. Conversely, the withering description of the church as having “a reputation of being alive” when it was really dead could be leveled at the contemporary church as well.

Even for the Church at Sardis, there was hope. There were some in the church who had remained faithful and whom Jesus described as “worthy.” To these, he gave this promise: “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father …”

The “book of life” Jesus referenced is mentioned in the Old Testament, where it appears to be a registry of God’s people—the people to whom he gives life. The New Testament makes use of two etymologically unrelated words for life. The first, “bios” (from which we get words like biology and biography), refers to the hustle and bustle, work-a-day life humans share. When brainwaves go flat, and heartbeats cease, this kind of life ends.

The other word for life is “zoe,” which is the origin of the name “Zoe.” It refers to the eternal life God himself has and shares with those who trust him, who open their lives to him. People “whose names are written in the Book of Life” possess this kind of life, which thrives in heaven and changes people’s lives for the better on earth.

A dubious revivalist used to place a large book on a table at the front of meeting halls, which he called “the book of life.” For a donation, he would write people’s names in it. Such shenanigans would have outraged the Biblical writers, for whom the eternally-enduring, personally-transforming life is God’s free gift to those who trust in his Son Jesus Christ.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/12/2019

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Don’t Just Make a Resolution; Make a Habit

The bad news is, as William James put it, “All our life … is but a mass of habits.” It is also the good news. Of course, our habits can dig a rut from which we might never emerge, but they can also construct a lookout from which we can discover ourselves and our world.

Humans are habit-making creatures – thank God. What a mess life would be if we weren’t! If humans did not form habits, every time we walked into a dark room, we would have to think about what to do next. We would have to logic it out. As it is, we just flip on the light switch.

If we didn’t form habits, no one would be safe on the road. Each driver would have to think about how to accelerate, make a turn, and stop the car. When some unforeseen event took place – a car ran a red light or a child wandered into the street – there would be no time to think through what to do next. The results would be disastrous.

We might complain about gaining weight and giving in to the temptation to eat junk food, but what if we had to think about how to take in nourishment? What would our lives be like if, at each meal, we had to recall how to chew and swallow? Eating would take all day long, and most of us would be woefully malnourished.

We may despair over the bad habits that we or our relatives and friends have developed, but the inability to form habits would be a far crueler fate. Without habits, we would be utterly exhausted within an hour or two of rising in the morning. Without habits, we would have no time for exploring the world or enjoying the good things in life.

According to Aristotle (as summarized by Will Durant), “We are what we repeatedly do,” but we like to think we are what we occasionally do – or imagine ourselves doing. We’re like the duffer who thinks he’s the kind of golfer who hits in the thirties on nine holes because he once had four pars and a birdie. But what he repeatedly does in nine holes is hit three bogies, two double-bogies, and one triple-bogie. That’s the kind of golfer he really is.

Character – who we really are – is not formed by our intentions but by our habits. The good news is that character is not fixed. We can break old habits and form new ones. In fact, just forming one new habit can begin a cascade of changes that can radically improve a person’s life.

Each January, millions of Americans make resolutions. They post them on their social media pages, and let the world know they are going to lose 20 pounds or stop smoking or read Charles Dickens. They make resolutions when they should be making habits. They lay out a distant goal, but don’t consider the path to getting there.

The only real way to keep resolutions is to form habits. This is the place to focus our energies. For example, instead of, or along with, making a resolution to lose 20 pounds, we might choose to form a habit of eating a mid-afternoon fruit or vegetable snack. That will affect our habits when we are at the grocery store. It will affect our habits when we are packing our lunches. If we continue these behaviors long enough for them to become habits, losing 20 pounds becomes much more likely. But if we don’t change our habits, we’ll not change our weight – at least, not for very long.

How long does it take for a behavior to become a habit, “to perpetuate itself,” as William James put it, “so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do…”? According to experts, on average it takes 66 repetitions of the behavior to form a habit.

This is good news. Forming habits, which in turn forms character, does not require gargantuan willpower. It only requires frequent repetition. This is true whether we are forming habits of eating, thinking, or relating, both in the physical and the spiritual realms.

This year don’t just make a resolution. Form a habit.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter

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The Story Behind the Star of Bethlehem

The next big holiday on the church calendar is Epiphany, which is celebrated on January 6, twelve days after Christmas. At Epiphany, the church recalls the visit of the magi, commonly referred to as “wise men,” to the child Jesus. The word epiphany is Greek for “appearance,” and refers to the appearance of Christ to non-Jewish people.

The surprising story of the magi is found only in the Gospel of Matthew and skeptics have questioned its reliability. The idea that a star would appear over Bethlehem and serve as a guide to astrologers from a distant land seems like a folktale, but there is historical evidence that supports it.

The magi are mentioned in ancient literature outside the Bible. The fifth century B.C.E. historian Herodotus claims they were members of a Persian tribe with priestly duties similar to that of the Levites in Israel. He describes the Persian King Cyrus’s conquest of the magi and writes that his grandson Darius crushed a rebellion instigated by them a generation later.

The first century Roman historian Suetonius claims the Armenian King Tiridates brought magi with him to pay respects to Nero in Rome. The statesman and philosopher Seneca relates the arrival of the magi in Athens to present sacrifices in Plato’s memory. From what history tells us of the magi, presenting gifts to Israel’s newborn king is just the kind of thing we would expect.

The Old Testament also mentions the magi. The Book of Jeremiah seems to refer to the chief of their tribe in the context of the Babylonian conquest. The Book of Daniel repeatedly refers to the magicians – a derivation of “magi” – and astrologers. These were probably Zoroastrian priests who specialized in studying the stars. Very detailed astronomical charts were kept in Babylon from at least the 8th century B.C.E.

The prophet Daniel was a Jewish expatriate living in Babylon, who rose through the ranks to become a high-level administrator in the kingdom. He supervised the work of the wise men. The Scripture says that “King Nebuchadnezzar … appointed [Daniel] chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners.”

This raises the question: Did Daniel, the intelligent and pious Jew, instruct the magi in the ancient prophecies of his people? For example, might he have taught them the ancient prophecy that “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel”? Did he tell them that “From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’” – that is, almost 500 years?

If he did, which is certainly possible, the magi in the Gospel of Matthew may have found Bethlehem’s star because they were looking for it, and they were looking because a former head of their order told them that in 500 years “a star will come out of Jacob” – that is, Israel.

By the time the first century rolled around, the magi weren’t the only ones expecting a world leader to come from Israel. Suetonius wrote: “There had spread over all the Orient and old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world.” Another ancient historian, Tacitus, wrote that “there was a firm persuasion … that at this very time the East would grow powerful, and rulers from Judea would acquire universal power.” The seed of that “firm persuasion” and “established belief” may have been planted by Daniel centuries earlier among Babylon’s professional stargazers.

The biblical scholar Colin Nicholl believes that the “star” was a comet, which appeared around the time of Jesus’s birth in the constellation Virgo (the Virgin), convincing the star-gazing magi that Daniel’s promised king had been born. Nicholl plugged his calculations into a star chart and found that the comet would have moved from east to south in a way consistent with Matthew’s description.

It is possible to lose the point of the story in the details: God loves the whole world and wants everyone to know him. He even sent the message of his Son to foreigners who worshiped other gods, believed in astrology, and practiced a strange religion.

That is unexpected, but surprisingly good, news.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/29/2018

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Mary, Mother of Jesus – Secret Agent?

A staple of spy novels and movies is the sleeper agent. A man or woman who has been positioned in a country with orders to blend in, but who is ready to act when called upon. Before a sleeper agent has been activated, he or she goes to work, watches television, has friends over on Friday nights. In other words, lives a normal life.

In fiction, sleeper agents never have the big picture. They carry on with normal life until a secret messenger is dispatched, and they are sent into action. They are told what to do but not why they are to do it, and they have little idea how their actions will contribute to the whole. What they’re instructed to do may even seem trite: “Go to the 7-11 on Woodland Ave., buy a quart of chocolate milk, and leave it on the front porch of 99 Elm Street.” What that has to do with anything or how it is going to help the war effort the sleeper agent does not know. His or her job is not to know but to obey.

Much of the tension in these stories arises from the fact that the agent doesn’t know why he or she is being asked to perform some action. They must trust that their superiors know what they’re doing and are making the right call.

It strikes me that the mother of Jesus had a lot in common with the sleeper agent of spy fiction. She was in a foreign, hostile land. (Scripture often pictures the earth as under the authority of a foreign power, a usurper.) She blended in: a young woman, engaged to a respectable, hard-working man, sharing in the life of her small community. Then a secret messenger was sent to her and everything changed.

She was a teenager when she was activated for duty. Talk about being in the dark: she was given her mission, which was potentially hazardous, but told nothing about how it would all work out. When Mary said yes to God, she had no idea how her fiancé Joseph would respond. He could have trashed her reputation. He could have dumped her. He could have done both. And the fact is he was going to dump her but was prevented from doing so because he too was an agent, and he received last-minute orders to go through with the marriage.

When Mary accepted her orders, she didn’t know that troops would one day surround her village, looking for her child. She didn’t know they would carry out a massacre. She didn’t know that she and Joseph and the baby would be forced to flee the country and live in hiding abroad. She didn’t know that, when she came back to her own country years later, their former province would be unsafe and they would have to relocate to the north.

Consider Mary’s story. She was threatened with the loss of her reputation and her fiancé. She was forced to flee her home and even her country. Then began (as far as is known) years of silence, without directives. Years. Was she doing the right thing? Was there more she should be doing? She must have longed for certainty, longed to place her life and the life of her son on some well-defined grid, and lay out how everything was going to happen. If Mary was like us, she was hungry for information, but it was not forthcoming.

In Mary’s life, there was always room for doubt. Doubt about herself, about Joseph, and about how things would turn out. Consider the uncertainty she endured when her son, having grown into a man, faced death threats and repeated attempts on his life. Think what she went through when his disciples sent word that he had been arrested. And then the ultimate disaster: his crucifixion. How did that fit the plan?

At this time of year, people frequently talk about getting into the Christmas spirit, by which they mean generosity or cheerfulness, and that is good, but it doesn’t go far enough. But the spirit of Christmas is also the indomitable spirit of Mary, which says: “I am the Lord’s servant …May it be to me as you have said.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/22/2018

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Christmas Is Really Act 2

Can’t get enough of Christmas? You’ll love the prequels and sequels.

It is the season for prequels and sequels. Mary Poppins is the big sequel this year. It’s the first year since 2012 that there hasn’t been a hobbit or a stormtrooper on the big screen. Fans will have to wait until next Christmas for Star Wars: Episode IX.

I watched the first Star Wars—later retitled as Episode IV: A New Hope­—when it came out in 1977. I might not have seen it at all had our dorm’s resident adviser not insisted I go. He said, “Looper, you’ve got to see this movie. There’s a guy in it that looks exactly like you. Exactly.”

“Really?” I asked.

“You’ll know him when you see him. His name is Chewy.”

The movie was fun and my friends and I saw the resemblance with my doppelganger, but I didn’t realize at the time that the movie fit into a larger narrative. It had a backstory—a prequel—and would have a fore-story—a sequel.

Christmas is like that. It is intriguing and satisfying: the tale of an unwed mother and an ostracized family, an angelic messenger, and noble shepherds. We can enjoy it without knowing the rest of the story—or even that there is a rest of the story. We can enjoy it, but we won’t grasp its importance until we understand how Christmas fits into the larger narrative.

Christmas has a prequel and a sequel, and it only makes sense within the context of the larger story of what God is doing in the world. What makes this story different from others is that we are not merely viewers; we are participants. The story is interactive: We have a role and the story adapts itself to how we play it.

The origin story of Christmas

What is the prequel to the Christmas story? To relate it in any detail would take quite a while—and readers can find it in the Old Testament—but here is a summary. The backstory is that a super-intelligence created carbon-based, physical-spiritual hybrid beings and placed them on a planet—our planet, as it turns out. The Creator designed these beings to be a race of godlike and loving protectors and rulers of creation.

Eugene Peterson paraphrased this part of the prequel this way: “God spoke: ‘Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature. So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.’ God created human beings; he created them godlike, reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female. God blessed them. ‘Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.’”

Unlike other creatures he designed, the Creator engineered humans with a high degree of autonomy: They can make choices, formulate plans, and carry them out, as they see fit. This autonomy was a key part of the design. Humans were the glory of creation.

But as the story progresses, the nascent humans are co-opted by a dark power and drawn away from their Creator with disastrous results. The spiritual part of humans, who were designed as spiritual-physical hybrids, undergoes catastrophic failure. Without the spiritual component, humans become like other animals, only more intelligent. Chaos ensues, unleashed by injustice, greed, and hatred.

The Creator, though, does not give up hope for his human creatures. He communicates with those capable of interacting with him. There is no undoing the damage done by human rebellion, no going back, but the Creator plans to carry humanity forward. He immediately sets in motion a plan to right what has gone wrong and restore humanity’s spiritual life. He begins shaping a millennia-long lineage chain among his human creatures.

Within that lineage, he promotes a particular culture, and superintends a specific genetic line. He does this over a period of thousands of years. He plans to enter humanity himself through the line he has prepared, in order to free humanity from the rebellion and restore its damaged spiritual function. That’s the metanarrative into which Christmas fits.

A dramatic middle chapter

Once we are aware of the prequel, it becomes clear that Christmas is not a stand-alone story about the birth of a beautiful child under trying circumstances. It is the story of a rescue mission, an invasion. It is a bittersweet story because when the Creator entered his creation through the line he had spent thousands of years preparing, his own creatures did not know him.

So, John in his gospel writes, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10). Not only did they not recognize him, they did not accept him: “He came to that which was his own,” the line and the people he had been preparing for millennia, “but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11).

Of course, in the tale we call the Christmas story, there is all kinds of excitement. There is a tyrannical ruler who serves an empire that is under the sway of the original dark power. As soon as the tyrant becomes aware that the empire has been infiltrated, he makes an attempt on the Creator’s life. There are bad guys aplenty in this story, but there are also friends and unexpected allies. There are covert messages. There is a dramatic escape.

But here is the exciting thing about Christmas: It is the middle of the story, not the beginning nor the end. “It occurs at the … climactic point of redemptive history,” says Larry R. Helyer, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Taylor University. “The war was far from over but the decisive battle had been won when God entered the fray in the person of his eternal Son.”

The Creator’s strategy is full of surprises. Rather than going to war against the rebels, as one might expect, he goes to war for them. He could have overwhelmed them with his vast power in a campaign of shock and awe, intimidated them with threats of punishment, or appealed to them on the basis of their greed or selfishness—the same old story of the ways of power in the world. But he did none of those things. His sights were set on something more radical than conformity to a set of rules: He was out to change humanity from the inside.

To that end, the Creator lived among humans as a human, modeling for them the life he makes possible and instructing them in how to live it. But they needed more than instruction. They needed the kind of life they had lost and didn’t even know was missing. To make that possible, the creator had to give his life on their behalf. He did this by dying and returning to life. That is the climax of the story, which is narrated in the New Testament Gospels.

The Christmas sequel is closer than you think

This is the climax but it is not the end of the story, which continued on, as chronicled in The Acts of the Apostles. Helyer points out that Christmas, like other biblical stories, is a sub-narrative, which must be seen in its overall context. To isolate it from the grand narrative is to compromise its relevance: “The Christmas story is in danger of becoming a ‘story’ like other stories,” Helyer says, “unless it is constantly seen as a turning point in The Story.” Only by constantly holding this truth before us can we “help the new generation to know The Story and thus their story.”

The story is still going on and still being chronicled. John wrote in Revelation: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” (Rev. 20:12) And what’s recorded there will no doubt include the heroics and bravery and extraordinary faith of God’s people in this generation. We are a part of the story now and have a role to play in it.

We undergo a paradigm shift when we realize that the story that was set in Bethlehem is continuing now in Cleveland and Dakar and Mumbai, only at a different point in the story-line. If we isolate Christmas from its prequels and sequels, the people in the story lose their identity as our fellow-disciples. They cease to be like us and therefore cease to be examples to us. They become extras, cameos and role-players. As Lynn Cohick, provost at Denver Seminary, put it, “In pulling the Christmas story from the narrative, we lose Mary as a prophetic voice and a disciple we can follow and emulate.”

The Christmas story may be beautiful in isolation from its larger narrative, but it ceases to be relevant. As Cohick goes on to say, “If you rip Christmas out of the story … you don’t really appreciate how you should behave here and now in the Kingdom of God.” When Christmas is lifted out of its place in the grand story of God’s covenant faithfulness, we lose our place, the significance of our everyday life is undermined, and we fall out of the story.

Jesus also loses his place. He becomes the beautiful child but ceases to be God’s Messiah. The early church knew better. For them, Jesus’ birth “had strong political overtones,” Cohick says. It was more than a pretty story; it was a dangerous one. It meant something. It still does.

It is unexpected and even a little unnerving to realize that we are in the same story as Mary, only further along in the plot. What happened to her, to Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi is part of our story. Just as they needed faith in God, courage in danger, and resoluteness in times of turmoil, so do we. Our story is thrilling a sequel to theirs, but it is not the final installment. That is still future, when the king who came comes again; this time, not as a baby, but as a victor. Or, as the author of Hebrews phrased it, “not to bear sin, but to bring salvation” (Heb. 9:28).

Through the wonder of grace, we are joined to the heroes of the faith—Abraham and Moses, David and Jeremiah, Mary and Joseph, Paul and Timothy, and many others we don’t yet know but who have played roles in the ongoing story. We have our roles to play too, characterized by the same confusion and resolve—and glory—they knew. And all of this because of the shocking invasion, when God joined himself to us, bivouacked in swaddling and concealed in a manger.

First appeared on 12/12/18 on the Christianity Today website

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Is the World Getting Crazier? (Probably Not)

Is the country headed down the tubes? It sure seems that way. The sanity quotient is going down and the spitefulness quotient is going up. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.

Consider, for example, the U.S. diplomat who mentioned D-Day as illustrative of the long history and strong relationship our nation has with Germany. Or the congressmen who worried Guam would tip over and capsize. He later said he was joking, but who knows? As far as spitefulness goes, there was the New York congressman who threatened to break a reporter in half and throw him off a balcony because he dared to ask an unsolicited question.

Would you agree that people in government these days are crazier and meaner than ever before—that things are rapidly going downhill?

If you would agree, history suggests that you shouldn’t. There have always been crazy, mean people in government and there have always been wise and kind people in government, just as there are now.

The biblical writer Luke, a doctor with a historian’s temperament and approach, listed the imperial and state rulers who were in office when John the Baptist (and, a short while later, Jesus) appeared on the scene. He first mentions Tiberius Caesar, the Roman Emperor at the time.

Tiberius was an effective general in his early years, but as his reign progressed his mental health deteriorated. He began to spend less time in the Capitol and more time at his vacation retreat on the Isle of Capri, where his reputation for sexual deviancy was well-known. The philosopher-statesman Seneca wrote that Tiberius became increasingly rude and insulting. His paranoia became apparent. He had people executed merely because they said things he didn’t like.

Then there is Pontius Pilate. He was the Roman prefect of Judea who ordered Jesus’s execution. The Jews hated him, and petitioned Tiberius to recall him. When Pilate illegally used treasury money and the people responded with mass protests, he sent troops into the streets in plain clothes with orders to infiltrate the protestors and kill as many as possible. It was a massacre. Tiberius sent an official reprimand but did not have Pilate removed from office.

Luke also mentions Herod Antipas, who ordered the arrest and, later, the beheading of John the Baptist. Antipas was power-hungry, sly, and always in debt. In a power play, he accused his own nephew of crimes against the empire, but his nephew outsmarted him and convinced the emperor to arrest Antipas and install him on the throne in his place.

Luke includes local office holders Annas and Caiaphas as well. Annas had held Israel’s most powerful and esteemed position, the office of high priest, for years. When he left office, he managed to get his son Eleazar appointed. When Eleazar left office, Annas got his son-in-law Caiaphas the high priesthood. When Caiaphas left, he got four more of his sons into the high priest’s chair. The old man never left the stage. He merely went behind the curtain and pulled the strings.

If we were living during Tiberius’s reign, we would have been saying, “What’s the world coming to? Look at the people in office! The country is headed down the drain.” Things really haven’t changed – that’s the bad news. The good news is that God hasn’t changed either. He was at work in that world bringing good and he is at work in this world doing the same.

One deduction to be drawn from this historical survey is that it is a mistake to put trust in the high and mighty rather than in the Most High and the Almighty. The psalmist wrote, “Do not put your trust in princes…” Were he writing in our day, he would say, “Do not put your trust in politicians” or, perhaps, “Do not put your trust in celebrities” or “business leaders.” Help them? Certainly. Work for them? Maybe. Put your trust in them? Not a good idea.

History should also teach us that hope rarely springs from a seat of government. It usually comes through ordinary people. When governments fail and rulers disappoint, God is not flummoxed and we must not be either. He has already made preparations and will send help. It might even come through us.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/15/2018

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God and Judgment in the #Me Too Era

Oprah Winfrey once explained that a sermon was the immediate cause of her departure from the orthodox Christian faith. In his Sunday message,her pastor Jeremiah Wright read and then exposited an Old Testament text in which God portrays himself as being jealous. Oprah decided then and there that she wanted nothing to do with a jealous God.

Ms. Winfrey is an extraordinarily talented and intelligent person, but she got Pastor Wright’s message all wrong. A jealous God is good news for us. A God who doesn’t care what his people do or what people do to them would be unbearably bad news, like a man who didn’t mind if his unfaithful wife chased other men or didn’t care if other men harassed his faithful wife.

People’s jealousy is sourced in insecurity but God’s is sourced in love. People’s jealousy is limiting but God’s is liberating. A jealous husband prevents his wife from reaching her potential by restricting her freedom. A jealous God enables a person to reach her potential by overcoming obstacles to it. God is not only jealous for who we are but for who we can become and is opposed to anything that blocks our fulfillment.

Those who deceive,oppress, misuse, and otherwise harm God’s much-loved people will, sooner or later, face the jealous God. Many Christians have shied away from talking about this for fear it would push people away from God, as Wright’s sermon pushed Oprah Winfrey away. But in the era of #Me Too, it might be time to rethink that. Understanding that God will punish those who hurt his loved ones might actually attract people.

The Bible teaches that people do not get away with the evil they do, neither the subordinate nor the celebrity, the small-time operator nor the powerful official. The biblical writers repeatedly warn the man who thinks he has gotten away with evil that he is mistaken. What he did is known. A reckoning is coming, one that not even the rich and powerful can evade.

St. Paul wrote that “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” Obvious or not, ahead or behind, there is no escape. It may take years for the truth to come out, it may take ages, but the truth will be revealed. The person who misuses one of God’s people, which includes everyone, since he is the Creator of all, will have to answer to God for his or her actions.

The biblical doctrine of judgment has been largely overlooked for a generation or more. Because Christians have struggled with reconciling the God of love revealed in the life of Jesus Christ with the God of judgment presented in the Bible, they have remained silent. However, reconciling the God of love with a God who allows evil to go unpunished is just as problematic. A God who says, “Oh, well,” to the oppression of the poor or the sexual misuse of the defenseless, who shrugs his shoulders over genocide and says helplessly, “What’s a God to do?” is not an improvement.

Fortunately, such a God is not the one revealed in the Bible. From its first book to its last, the Bible teaches that God will judge human beings. No biblical doctrine is more easily demonstrated. What’s more, God’s judgment is not bad news, as has often been implied, but very good news.

The Biblical writers understood this and celebrated it. To them, the doctrine of judgment meant that God will make things right. Evil will not win and evil-doers will not escape. Wrongs will be redressed. Love and justice will be rewarded.

Believing God’s judgment to be good news, the Biblical writers extolled it: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy; they will sing before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.” Judgement is good news in the # Me Too era and every era. It offers hope that what has gone so wrong will one day be set right.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/8/2018

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Tolerance: Rediscovering the Lost Virtue

“In many ways tolerance is a lost virtue, and often, where it does exist, it exists from the wrong cause.” Those are the words of the Scottish scholar William Barclay, first published in 1953. Though there has been a great deal of talk about tolerance since then, it’s not clear that the lost virtue has ever been found.

Over the decades, talk about tolerance has risen like the waves of the sea, only to subside, then rise again. The concept of tolerance has been a wedge that activists hammer to create an opening for the acceptance of a previously unpopular opinion or practice. Once acceptance has been gained, interest in tolerance invariably falls until the next cause blows in.

There was a swell of tolerance talk in the 1990s and early 2000s, but if that was the decade of tolerance, the second decade of the century has been the decade of intolerance. Tolerance has become an anti-virtue. We are not going to tolerate – you can fill in the blank: racism, sexism, illegal immigration, hate speech, east coast elitism, Trumpism, even intolerance – any longer.

Both the demand for tolerance and the counter-demand for intolerance can be wrong-headed. Frequently, those demanding tolerance want us to accept their opinions and practices, while those demanding intolerance want us to reject the people who hold opinions or take part in practices with which they disagree. But this is to get things backwards. It is unnecessary, and sometimes reprehensible, to tolerate opinions, but it is necessary to tolerate people, even when they hold opinions we emphatically reject.

Our generation could learn about tolerance from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley, who lived in an age when upper-class men often wore powdered wigs, once wrote: “I have no more right to object to a man for holding a different opinion than mine than I have to differ with a man because he wears a wig and I wear my own hair; but if he takes his wig off and shakes the powder in my face, I shall consider it my duty to get quit of him as soon as possible.”

When the Methodist movement began, Wesley was determined it would be characterized by tolerance. “I resolved to use every possible method of preventing … a narrowness of spirit, a party zeal … that miserable bigotry which makes many so unready to believe that there is any work of God but among themselves.”

The maxim among the early Methodists was, “We think and let think.” Intolerance does just the opposite. It doesn’t think and it doesn’t want anyone else to think either.

What Wesley taught the Methodists, he also practiced. According to William Barclay, John’s brother Charles had a son who left the Church of England, of which his father and uncle were ordained clergymen, and became a Roman Catholic. This came at a time of strong anti-Catholic sentiment in England, yet John wrote his nephew, “Whether in this Church or that I care not. You maybe saved in either or damned in either; but I fear you are not born again.”

When tolerance is directed to the wrong object – to opinions and practices, rather than to people – society suffers. Opinions and practices that don’t merit acceptance are received while people for whom tolerance could provide a path for change are rejected. Ideas should stand or fall on their merit but people can only stand on grace.

A misplaced object is not the only, nor the most critical, place tolerance can go wrong. A misplaced motive is even more detrimental. Barclay writes: “Our tolerance must not be based on indifference but on love. We ought to be tolerant not because we could care less but because we look at the other person with eyes of love.”

Barclay has uncovered the one foundation that can support authentic tolerance: love. Jesus taught his followers to love people, including those whose opinions and practices were morally deficient or socially harmful. He even commanded them to love their enemies. Only in this way is it possible to resolutely reject a person’s views and at the same time genuinely accept the person.

And that’s something that can change the world.

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Thankfulness Is a Predictor of Spiritual Vitality

The holidays are the season for giving, for getting together with family, and for watching movie sequels and prequels. This will be the first Christmas since 2011 that there has not been a hobbit or a stormtrooper in the movie theaters, but Mary Poppins will be back.

 It can be hard to understand what’s going on in a story if you don’t know the backstory. This is not only true in the movies; it’s true in everyday life. The dynamics of the workplace will confound you unless you know that the woman in HR who is married to the boss used to be married to your department supervisor. Knowing the backstory is also important when it comes to understanding the Bible.

One of the fascinating backstories in the Scripture has todo with the relationship between Jews and Samaritans – as in the “Good Samaritan.” The northern Jewish kingdom of Samaria was conquered in the Assyrian War, its inhabitants deported, and the land resettled by people from other conquered nations. The new residents, known as Samaritans, and their southern Jewish kingdom neighbors did not get along.

 When the Samaritans offered their help in rebuilding the devastated Jewish temple, the Jews refused and told them they were unworthy.Later, according to the biblical scholar William Barclay, a “renegade” Jew married the daughter of a well-known Samaritan leader and preceded to build a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem. A famous Jewish general led a raid into Samaria and destroyed the temple. The Samaritans responded by vandalizing and contaminating the Jewish Temple.

This is the backstory to the Bible’s chronicle of Jewish-Samaritan relations. It helps the reader understand why Jesus’s disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village. It also explains why Jesus’s disciples were shocked to find him speaking to a Samaritan woman – something no other Jewish rabbi would have even thought of doing.

One of the Bible’s more famous “Samaritan stories” comes from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus was traveling along the border of Samaria and Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem, when he encountered a band of lepers. In the Bible, the term “lepers” signifies people with a variety of contagious skin diseases. Such people were completely cut off from society.

This particular band was comprised of nine Jews and one Samaritan. They pled, from a distance, for Jesus to heal them and he did. He sent them to the priest, the person authorized to readmit former “lepers” into society, and they all rushed off to resume their old lives. All except one: the Samaritan.

He came running back to Jesus, shouting praise to God, and threw himself at Jesus’s feet, overwhelmed with gratitude. Jesus looked around to see if any of the Jewish members of the band had returned, but they had not.Disappointed, he said: “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?”

There are fascinating aspects to this story. For one thing,we see how isolation can make strange bedfellows. Before contracting leprosy,the Jews and the Samaritan would have had nothing to do with each other but being rejected by society brought former adversaries together. One can see how something similar might happen among Christian traditions that have historically snubbed each other. If society ever anathematizes Christians, which is conceivable,liberals and fundamentalists, Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians might finally learn to get along with each other.

It is also interesting to see that the Samaritan, whose theology was all wrong – Jesus says as much in John’s Gospel – was the only one to get it right. Apparently, being wrong-headed is not as harmful as being wrong-hearted. Perhaps this is a truth political rivals should consider before demonizing their opponents. It is certainly one people of faith should consider before demonizing anyone.

One would expect that the Samaritan, like his Jewish companions, had a life waiting for him, perhaps a family and a job. Yet he paused to give thanks, suggesting that he did not merely see God as a means to an end but as the end for which life was a means. This, in turn, suggests that ethnicity and religious training are not good predictors of spiritual vitality, but thankfulness is.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/24/2018

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The Danger of Idolizing Technology

Every era has its gods – the powerful entities that people routinely turn to for protection, provision, and personal fulfillment. In our era that god is technology.

Technology has achieved ascendancy in this generation, at least in the West, but it began its rise to power in the Renaissance. The advance of crank and connecting rod technology, the inventions of the flywheel and the navigational compass, and preeminently the invention of the printing press transformed the cultural landscape.

Technology has been a rising star in the pantheon of powers ever since. Transportation technologies from the steam engine to the airplane to self-driving cars have made the world more accessible. Communication technologies have made the nearly instant transfer of information possible. Health technologies have changed the diagnosis and treatment of disease to the point that some futurists are talking about lifespans without a terminus.

This has been largely good for humankind, and remarkably good in some cases. But somewhere along the way technology went from being a tool that humans used to a power that humans trusted. This was certainly the case in post-war America. Baby-boomers grew up in what was proudly called “the atomic age.” Progress was everywhere. Nothing seemed impossible for us. With technology to lead us, even the sun, moon, and stars were within our reach.

The post-war generation has witnessed the apotheosis of technology. It’s family, like Zeus’s family in ancient Greece, has been exalted above the rest of the pantheon. The trouble with technology, like most of the gods in world history, is that it doesn’t love people. This isn’t to say that the gods of a given age don’t help people; they do, but only when it serves their purposes.

We can see that dynamic at work today. Big Data is one of technology’s youngest and strongest children. Big Data is virtually omniscient. It knows what you buy and how much you are willing to pay for it. It knows how long an item sits in your shopping cart, and how many sites you visit before making a purchase. It knows your name and the names of your family, your annual income, your habits, your hotel preference, your playlist, and how much money you are likely to spend over the holidays.

Its purpose in knowing these things is not to promote your well-being. Aware of that, various agencies – the EU, the U.S. Congress, and others – have tried to limit Big Data’s reach. Their success has been limited because most people are willing to trust their lives and personal information to Big Data in return for the much-sought-after blessing of convenience.

That may change when predictive purchase behavior modeling makes it possible for companies to charge the optimum price for goods and services any given individual is willing to pay. Airlines may someday charge one person $350 for a ticket to Dallas, $50 more than it charges someone else, simply because it knows that person will pay it. A pharmacy may charge one patient 50 percent more than it charges another for exactly the same drug.

Economic costs are not the greatest danger this god presents. Humans take on the characteristics of their gods. The biblical writer captured this dynamic in a poem about those who make and worship idols: “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”

If a people become like the god – the power – it reveres, what does that mean for a society that idolizes technology? Technology has no compassion. It cares nothing for those it watches over. It enriches those who feed it but does so by appropriating the goods of those who don’t. Technology has no moral code; it is heartlessly utilitarian. It has no loyalty – older versions are tossed on the junk pile; it updates as it sees fit.

Does that sound like our culture? A shortage of compassion. A crumbling moral code. A lack of loyalty. Updating friends and even spouses regularly. Is that what we want – to be like the technology idol we adore?

There is only one God we can safely worship, knowing that webecome like the God we trust. It is the one who is “compassionate and gracious,slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/17/2018

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