The Importance of Staying Limber

In Christian circles there is a high degree of suspicion towards people whose beliefs are constantly changing. We applaud Luther for his “Here I stand; I can do no other” attitude but we deplore Bunyan’s Mr. Pliable. Luther stands strong in the face of opposition while Pliable is blown this way and that by “every wind of new teaching.”

It is right to be critical of Mr. or Ms. Pliable, or any other spiritual Gumby who bends over backwards to avoid conflict or debate. He or she takes the path of least resistance, not because it is true but because it is easy. He or she is not convinced by facts but guided by the moral and intellectual fashions du jour.

A spiritual Gumby keeps an eye on the latest trends, eager to stay on society’s good side. When things gets tough, the spiritually tough (like Luther) stand firm, but the Gumby folds.

No one wants to be a spiritual Gumby, but one mustn’t mistake being stubborn for being strong. Obstinacy is not a sign of spiritual muscle. At first glance, some people look firm, but it’s only because spiritual rigor mortis has set in.

It is necessary to remain unbending before injustice and immorality, but the virtue does not lie in being unbending but in acting justly and morally. Too often people see inflexibility itself as a virtue. It is nothing of the sort.

A person who thinks inflexibility is itself a virtue is already on the way to becoming rigid. That person, to his or her credit, may not yield to the pressure of unjust or immoral cultural demands, but when the time comes to yield to God, he or she may not be limber enough to do that either. A Christian’s life is characterized, as St. Paul tells us, by transformation into the likeness of Jesus. But to the unyielding, transformation can only be a painful ordeal.

The biblical term for a follower of Jesus is “disciple.” A moment’s thought makes clear that an unyielding disciple is a contradiction in terms. Since a disciple is first and foremost a learner, the person who thinks she knows everything already cannot be a disciple. An unwillingness to learn and change puts discipleship to Jesus at risk.

The Bible has a term for the unwillingness to learn or change: “stiff-necked.” It was a word early Bible readers understood well. When an ancient farmer plowed his field, he would use a long pole with a sharp iron tooth to prick an ox’s neck on the left of right to get it to turn. But a “stiff-necked” ox would not feel the jab and would continue on its way.

Likewise, a stiff-necked person is insensitive to the jab of divine persuasion. He or she continues down the same path, even though it leads to trouble. It is therefore necessary to remain soft enough to feel and pliable enough to change.

Why do people get spiritually stiff? There are a number of reasons. Lack of exercise – they’ve sat too long without testing their intellectual and spiritual muscles. Or they have suffered an injury, spiritually speaking, which has twisted their beliefs. Or they are afraid. Fear – of loss or injury – will cause a person to tense up, and unremitting fear can make him or her stiff.

How does one stay spiritually limber? Start with stretches, including hearing those with whom one disagrees and thinking through their arguments. But that’s just a warm-up. There is nothing that will stretch a person like actually doing what Jesus instructs his disciples to do. Thinking abstractly about Jesus’s words is good, but doing them will have the extraordinary effect of training a person to be pliable to God and inflexible to cultural pressure at the same time.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/30/2016

 

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Mary Magdalene’s and John bar Zebedee’s Easter Stories

The following is a piece I wrote for Lockwood Community Church’s 2016 Easter Sunrise Service. The actors, Sarah Asher and Glenn Snapp, made the script better than it is, but I share it with you anyways in the hope you’ll find it encouraging. – Shayne

Mary Magdalene and John bar Zebedee’s Easter Stories

Mary Magdalene, Part I

Here’s how Mary Magdalene might have told her story.

When they killed him, it was like they killed me too – the me I was becoming; the hopeful, happy me. The me that people liked, that had friends. Before Jesus, life was a kind of blur. I just moved from thing to thing, from person to person, but nobody really cared about me and, to be honest, I don’t think I really cared about anybody. My life was a nightmare.

Then I met Jesus and everything changed. It’s like I woke up. For the first time since I was a little girl, somebody really cared about me. And it wasn’t just Jesus; his friends cared about me too. They became my friends. They took me in, made me one of them. They talked to me, listened to me, laughed with me, sometimes laughed at me—but I didn’t mind because they really liked me. I don’t know how to say it… For the first time I could remember, it wasn’t just me. It was us. I was saying things like, “We should go to the market. We should bake some bread. It felt so good to say “We.”

But we were us only because of him. We all knew it. He was the only thing that held us together. He was our heart. One day I said to Mary and Salome, “We would never have become friends if it wasn’t for him.” And they agreed. Salome said, “We’d never become anything, if it wasn’t for him.” But we were something with him! How exciting it was when we entered Jerusalem together with all the rest of the Galileans going to the festival. They shouted to him – to our Jesus – “Hosanna! Blessed is the King of Israel! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And then he was gone. They took him. They killed him. And they might as well have killed me too. Without him to hold us together, I was sure we would all fall apart. None of those people I called my friends would have said “Hello” to me on the street, if it wasn’t for Jesus. Now that we’d lost him, I was so afraid I would lose them too.

On the day it happened, we (Salome and Mary and me, and a few of our friends) followed the Council Member and his people to the tomb, and only left in time to get back before Sabbath started. But we made plans to meet when Sabbath was over to see to it that his body was properly prepared for burial. Our people have very strict customs, and we were all afraid they wouldn’t be observed.

Since we were almost all from Galilee and were staying in different places around the City, we made arrangements to meet at the tomb just at first light. Salome and Mary and I would come together, since we were all staying in Bethsaida. His mother, Joanna, Mariam (Clopas’s wife), and a few others were coming from the City.

 

Mary Magdalene, Part II

As the three of us approached the garden, I got worried. During the Sabbath, some of the men were saying that the stone had already been rolled over the entrance to the tomb. If what they said was true (and they were sure that it was), there was no way we could move it. I said that, and Salome said, “Well, who can we get to roll the stone away?” We were still talking about it when we came the garden. Because it was still pretty dark, we were almost at the tomb before we saw what had happened.

We just stood there. Nobody said anything. Nobody had to. I knew immediately what had happened. Those dogs who had murdered the best man who ever lived had taken his body out of the tomb so that we couldn’t give it a proper burial. They had taken it somewhere and were probably doing horrible things to it in order to disgrace him even more. They hated him so much that they weren’t satisfied with killing him, they had to shame him too.

The other girls just stood there, but I ran. They said, “Mary, stop! Where are you going?” But I didn’t stop. I just shouted, “I’m going to tell Peter.” If anybody would know what to do it would be Peter. Somebody had to tell him (and the others) that they had taken his body.

I ran all the way. My side burned like fire and I looked like a fool, running into the city like that, but I didn’t care. The men were still in that same upper room, and when I got there I had to stop and catch my breath. At the top of the stairs I pushed the door, but it was locked, so I knocked and called. I heard the bolt slide and John bar Zebedee stood there, blinking into the morning light.

John’s Story, Part I

This is how John might have told his story.

After what happened, we thought they’d come after us too. We talked about it all night long. We were staying – hiding, really – in the upper room of the house that belonged to John Mark’s father. I didn’t really believe they were coming after us, but that’s what everybody kept saying. Well, everybody but Peter. He wasn’t saying anything. I don’t think he said a single word.

And we kept talking about Judas. I could hardly believe he did it. I mean, I looked up to him, at least at first. How could he do it? Thomas kept saying that Judas knows where we are, and when the Sabbath’s over, they’ll come for the rest of us. We ought to get back to Galilee as soon as possible. We needed to disappear.

But like I said, I didn’t really believe it … until somebody started banging on the door like they were trying to knock it down! I almost jumped out of my skin. Everybody got real still. I can still remember how big their eyes were – except Peter’s. He never looked up from the floor.

Then we heard Mary’s voice. “Let me in!” I drew back the bolt and opened the door. She looked wild – her hair was blown back and her head covering was missing. She pushed right past me and asked, “Where’s Peter?”

As soon as she saw him she said, “The stone isn’t there. Mary and Salome – they stayed. I came back to tell you. I ran the whole way. They’ve taken his body, and we don’t know where they’ve put it.”

That got Peter’s attention. He seemed to think for a moment, and then it was like something boiled over in him. He got up and went outside without saying a word. I followed him. When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he began to run. So I ran too. I knew where he was going and, since I knew Jerusalem a lot better than he did, I knew how to get there faster. (Not to mention I’m fifteen years younger than him!)

I got to the tomb and it was just like Mary said. The stone was laying off on one side like it had been tossed there by some kind of giant. Everything was perfectly still. There was no one around. I bent down and looked into the tomb.

Then Peter got there, huffing and puffing. He sort of pushed me aside and went right in. Then I went in too. And it was just like Mary said. His body was gone. But it was the weirdest thing. The burial shroud and the sudarium – the head cover – were lying on the slab. The sudarium was folded up perfectly. Why would anyone take his body and leave the burial cloth? And who would take the time to fold up the sudarium? It didn’t make any sense, but what else could have happened? That was the real question – what else could have happened – but we didn’t know enough to ask it.

We walked back by the way I’d come. I had all kinds of questions, but Peter still wasn’t talking. When we got to the house, Peter just kept walking. I asked him where he was going. He didn’t answer. I asked him what I should tell the others. He said, “That’s up to you.”

Mary, Part III

I followed Peter and John out of the door, but they ran and it was all I could do to walk. As I walked down the street, I could feel the darkness descending on me, like it had in the old days. I was so afraid that I was going back into that.

By the time I got to the garden, Peter and John were already gone. None of my friends (Mary, Salome, Joanna – none of them) were there. It was just me, alone again, just like it used to be. I started to cry. After a few minutes I bent down and looked into the tomb and I saw two men in there. Before I could say anything, one of them asked me why I was crying. Or maybe both of them asked, I can’t remember. A kind of fog had descended on me. I said something, something stupid, like, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him.”

I turned around and the rising sun all but blinded me. There was a man standing there, just a few feet away. He said the same thing the other men said: “Woman, why are you crying?” I thought – it doesn’t make any sense now, but I thought – that maybe he was the one who took the body, so I said to him, “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you put him and I’ll go and get him.” I know it was a stupid, but it was all I could think of.

Then he said, “Mary.” Just that. Just “Mary.” And I knew it was him. I looked again and it was like the darkness lifted. I said to him, “Rabboni!” It didn’t even dawn on me to ask him what had happened. I just knew he was there. He was alive. I grabbed hold of him, but after a moment he said, “Don’t hold on to me. Go tell my brothers!”

I didn’t argue. I went – my third trip along that route and it wasn’t even 8:00. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I knew everything would be alright. I wasn’t afraid anymore. My master was here! As long as he was here, I would be fine. Everything would be fine. I went back to the upper room – Peter wasn’t there yet – but I told the rest of them: “I’ve seen the Lord,” and told them what happened. They didn’t believe me. Then Mary and Salome and Joanna and the others came and told them the same thing. They still didn’t believe them either. Then Peter came back. He didn’t say much. He just said, “It’s true. I’ve seen him too.”

John’s Story, Part II

Everyone got really excited. We were all talking at once (except for Peter, who was still really quiet). But Thomas said, “This is crazy. You’re crazy. I’ve got to get out of here before I’m as crazy as all the rest of you.” He went out and slammed the door, and I pushed the bolt again and locked it.

For the next few hours, everybody was talking to everybody else, all at the same time. We tried to get Peter to tell us what had happened, but he only said, “It’s true. He’s alive.” Sometime later, while we were all talking, there was a … a sudden change. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s as if the candles flared brighter. It was as if music had just played. I think we all felt it; I know I did. And then there he was, standing right in the middle of us. It was him. At first we were so startled we couldn’t move. But he laughed; laughed and said, “Shalom.” Then he said, “What – you think I’m a ghost?” and he laughed again. He showed us his hands and his side. It was really him. The marks were there. He took some fish and ate it, and laughed again.

We gathered around him. I touched him. I guess I wanted to make sure he was real—that I wasn’t just dreaming it. But he was as real as ever – almost more real, if you know what I mean.

Epilog to John’s Story

(1 John 1:1-3) That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

 

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The Power We So Blithely Invoke

Sometimes God scares me. Not like an angry parent scares a cowering child. It’s not like that at all. Still less like a bully scares a retiring classmate.

“Scares” is probably not even the right word. “Awes” would be better, though anyone who has truly been awed will understand my choice of words. It includes a sense of largeness that makes a person feel small and a sense of weight that makes a person feel insubstantial. In the presence of the overpowering God, one perceives one’s own powerlessness.

The biblical writers described this as “the fear of the Lord.” It was not some cringing sense of alarm they had in mind, but a commanding sense of the power, size and “otherness” of God. The person who has experienced “the fear of the Lord” understands that God is like a mountain: there’s no getting around him. He is the one “with whom we have to do.”

Some people may think of this as a negative thing. I can only assume they have never experienced it. To know it – not just abstractly, but with one’s whole being – is exhilarating. It breathes life into a person. It also brings insight and perspective, which is why the teacher says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

If the “fear of the Lord” is the beginning of wisdom, ours must be a very foolish generation. And if the “fear of the Lord” is exhilarating, ours must be a very bored (and boring) generation. “We have,” Dorothy Sayers lamented, “efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet and author Annie Dillard asked: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

When we lose the sense of God’s otherness (holiness) and magnificence (glory), religion becomes a strategy for coping with life or even just a hobby. As A. W. Tozer put it, “Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms.”  At our hands, the incomprehensible power that created galaxies; the power that is a person and yet more than a person; the one who says, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live,” is offered the position of personal assistant.

When we lose “the fear of the Lord,” worship is inevitably degraded. Worshipers see the weekly gathering as obligatory, and attend out of a sense of duty rather than anticipation. Because church leaders know this (and perhaps even feel it) they try to find ways to ease the burden of Sunday morning for the weary worshiper.

There are two principal approaches for doing so: make the worship time entertaining or make it productive. The church building becomes a concert hall, a comedy club or a lecture hall. Church leaders become rock stars, comedians or would-be Dr. Phil’s. Church services become amateur entertainment events, minor-league therapy sessions or bogus wealth management seminars.

The problem with all this is that church meetings end up being about pleasing the worshiper (or “attendee,” which is probably more accurate) rather than pleasing the awesome and astonishing God. Ironically, pleasing that God is a real possibility but pleasing the worshiper is vaporous fancy.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/23/2016

 

 

 

 

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Books I Wish Someone Would Write

I recently saw an article about books that someone should write. Christian leaders had been interviewed about the kind of books they would like to read and, while I admit I found most of their suggestions uninteresting, I found the idea inspiring. So here are a few books I wish someone would write.

The first would be, Rugged Hermeneutics: The Impact of Individualism on Biblical Interpretation. Hermeneutics is the science (some would say the art) of understanding the meaning of a text according to universal principles: interpret literally, when appropriate; interpret contextually; interpret historically, etc.

But behind the principles of hermeneutics lies a worldview that shapes their use. In America that worldview is intensely individualistic. This has led American Christians to see Jesus as personal savior while remaining blind to the Bible’s strong emphasis on the corporate people of God. Religion in America is largely a “private matter.” Even when we pray, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” we are too often thinking, “My Father in heaven … give me my daily bread, forgive my trespasses and lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil.”

I’d call the second book I wish someone would write, The Death of the King and the Birth of the Kingdom: Where the Atonement and the Kingdom Intersect. The king and the kingdom have too often been divorced in biblical theology. It’s common for preachers and Bible teachers to talk about why Christ had to die in order for individuals (see book one) to go to heaven, but why did Christ have to die in order for the kingdom of God to be established?

In general, liberal Christians find it easier to talk about the kingdom of God than about the atonement of Christ, while conservative Christians wax eloquently about the atonement but stutter when it comes to talking about the kingdom. Yet the Bible teaches both, and they are profoundly interrelated. Without Christ’s death there is no kingdom. Without the kingdom, Christ’s death is trivialized as the entrance fee through the pearly gates.

Because we lack a kingdom perspective, we fail to understand the relation of Christ’s cross to God’s larger purpose for creation. It is also why St. Paul’s language about the need for God to be reconciled to humans has proved so difficult for some scholars to grasp. They claim that he really meant that humans need to be reconciled to God. Something similar has happened with the biblical word “propitiation,” and for the same reason. Why would a loving God need to be propitiated?

One reason these scholars turn from the common meaning of the biblical words is that they are trying to fit them into a context where salvation has everything to do with getting into heaven and nothing to do with God’s kingdom coming on earth. Seen from the former perspective, everything depends on whether humans accept God. Seen from the latter, the decisive thing is whether God accepts humans – is reconciled to them – because they come to his kingdom as those who are joined to Christ (or are “in Christ,” as St. Paul likes to put it).

Another book I wish someone would write is, The Great Omission: A Manual for Teaching Them to Obey. Before any reader writes to inform me that Dallas Willard has already written that book, I hasten to say I know that, I’ve read it, and my copy has underlining on almost every page.

I love Willard’s insights and heartily recommend his book, but the one I have in mind is a little different. It would be a manual for church leaders who are searching for practical ways to teach people to obey Jesus’s commands. How can churches create a culture in which obedience to Jesus is considered realistic and doable? What would that church’s structure look like? How can the various generations in the church be inspired and instructed to live Jesus-shaped lives?

Those are three books I’m dying to read. I’d also like to read How the Cleveland Cavaliers Won the NBA Championship, but I’ll stick to non-fiction this time around. Perhaps some reader would like to set her or his hand to the task? Do so, by all means; and I wish you Godspeed.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/16/2016

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The Story of God (Biblical Version)

National Geographic is currently showing a five-part television miniseries titled, “The Story of God.” That a geographical society (rather than a theological one) is telling the story leads me to expect that it will not be about God as much as it is about how people from various geographical regions think about God. That is of course a fascinating story in itself.

Morgan Freeman is the series host, presumably because he has prior experience: he portrayed God in Bruce Almighty and its sequel Evan Almighty. Of course, George Burns would have been an even better choice, since he also played God and, one assumes, has had some firsthand experience since then, but he isn’t taking new roles.

Now I have nothing against Morgan Freeman. He’s a great actor and seems to be a nice enough guy. I would love to have him as my neighbor (preferably in Malibu), but I’m just not sure about having him as my guide to God. Besides that, the story of God has already been told in a robust and coherent fashion in the Bible. Of course other sources have told it in other fashions, but I am most familiar with the Bible.

The biblical story of God – or autobiography, as Christians in some sense believe it to be – reveals the Deity to be like humans in some ways (they were, after all, created in his image) and yet to be very different in other ways. Humans, for starters, are embodied; God is not. Humans interface with reality through the medium of matter – indeed, they are composed of matter. But God is spirit.

Humans can only be in one place at a time. But the Bible teaches that God is everywhere all at once. He transcends time and space. It is not that part of God is in one place while part of him is in another; God has no parts, as the theologians tell us. He is present in his entirety on the far-off moon of some distant solar system and he is present in his entirety on the spiral staircase of my DNA where, perhaps, he dances like Gene Kelly, just for the joy of it.

Humans are subject to time. God is not. In fact, as St. Augustine told us, time is subject to him. He created it. God never gets any older. He never has to wait for anything. All time is constantly present to him. We have a past and a future, but past and future are immediately present to God. We have a beginning and an end. He is the beginning and the end: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

We learn things. God already knows them. He knows everything, is omniscient, as the theologians say. He has never been taken by surprise. Never disappointed. He knows who the next president of the United States will be and how many hairs are on his or her head. He even knows how many will be left and what color they will be when that person’s term in office ends.

God is omnipotent; that is, he can do anything he chooses to do. This and the other qualities of God revealed in the Bible are so far outside human experience that we cannot even relate. We have no clear image of what omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence are. God remains “numinous,” to borrow Rudolph Otto’s description; “the Wholly Other.” With such a gulf between us and God, creature and creator, how can humans ever know anything true of him?

Enter Jesus. Because humanity lacks the resources to know God, God took the initiative to make himself known. While the Bible affirms that, “No one has ever seen God,” it goes on to say “but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” Jesus is presented as the entirely unique being who both reveals God to humans and makes it possible for God and humans to connect. This is not the oft-told story of humanity’s efforts to discover God, but the astonishing story of God’s action to recover humanity.

Morgan Freeman will undoubtedly tell a fascinating story of humanity’s search for God, but more compelling still is the Bible’s story of God’s search and rescue mission for us.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/9/2016

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Misdiagnosing the Disordered Soul

I left home for a breakfast meeting early one cold morning a month or two ago, and my car refused to get up and go. A half-mile down the road and I still hadn’t reached thirty miles-per-hour. I had already noticed a serious decrease in gas mileage, so I knew I had a problem. When I got to my meeting, I asked my car-guy buddies about it, and they pointed the finger at my transmission.

Having been through two transmissions (and thousands of dollars) on another vehicle, I quickly accepted their diagnosis. They explained that some cars were very sensitive to transmission fluid levels, and the first thing to do was to make sure the fluid was at the proper level.

On the way home, the car behaved itself and I had no problem driving at posted speeds, though the engine rpms went through the roof as I went up a small hill. I intended to take it to the shop at my earliest convenience but life wasn’t particularly convenient, so days and weeks passed.

Last week I took the car to a mechanic friend and asked him to give it a long overdue tune-up and flush and fill the transmission. He called a few hours later to say there was nothing wrong with the transmission. The diagnostic equipment revealed an ignition misfire, which he said could explain the symptoms I was experiencing. He expected the tune-up would fix the problem and said he would try to save me the expense of new coil boots by applying a silicone grease.

But the tune-up didn’t fix anything. The plugs weren’t the problem. The transmission wasn’t the problem. So my friend installed new coil boots along with the little resistors (not sure that’s the right term) that come with them. And that solved the problem.

I had jumped at my breakfast buddies’ explanation – they certainly know more than I do – but they were mistaken. Even my mechanic’s first solution failed. Cars are complex enough that similar problems can be caused by very dissimilar malfunctions.

People are more complicated than cars. Their problems can result from a variety of causes, some spiritual, some physical and some mental. Take, for example, the man who once confided in me that he was experiencing suicidal thoughts. He acknowledged a history of depression, which had worsened in recent months.

I might have assumed the cause for his depression was spiritual and counseled him to fast and pray and read Scripture. Or I might have located the source of his problem in his failure to get sufficient exercise and encouraged him to get a gym membership. But after talking to him several times, I sent him to a doctor who prescribed medication. Within two weeks his suicidal thoughts were gone and his depression had begun to lift.

I’ve heard of people whose depression has been unsuccessfully treated by casting out a demon. I’ve known people who have tried to treat physical disorders with spiritual disciplines and spiritual disorders with antidepressants. Forgetting that people are embodied spiritual beings with cognitive/emotional processes is like forgetting that a car has an electrical system as well as mechanical and exhaust systems. To try to solve every problem with the same solution is to assure failure, both in cars and in people.

But in people as in cars, problems are often layered. A genuine spiritual problem may be concurrent with genuine physical and psychological issues. People of faith have often been accused of blindness in this area, but they’re not alone. People in the medical and social services fields often try to fix problems without regard to underlying spiritual causes, and the results are equally unsuccessful. A tablespoon of God may not cure a toothache, but neither will an antibiotic cure a disordered soul. Many people go to the doctor who would be better served by joining a church.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 4/2/2016

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Things you might not know about Easter

Everyone knows about Easter. Jelly beans, colored eggs, and dress clothes. Big dinners. And the whole religious thing. What else is there to know?

There’s plenty. For example, did you know that the word “Easter” is derived from the name of an ancient goddess who was worshiped around the Middle East? She was known as Ishtar (Astarte, Eastru), and her feast was celebrated in April. But the resurrection of Jesus completely upstaged Ishtar, and the Christians commandeered her day for their own celebration.

And did you know that the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus were people no attorney would ever have called to the stand? And even if he had called them, it’s unlikely a judge would have allowed them to testify. Why? Because they were women. Women were considered too emotionally unstable to be reliable witnesses. The ancient historian Josephus says that women were disqualified from testifying because of “their giddiness and impetuosity.”

That explains why, when the women first told the apostles that Jesus was alive, the men did not believe them. Before seeing for themselves, they dismissed the women’s report as “nonsense,” a word which in contemporary medical terminology referred to delirium. Nevertheless, God granted these women the honor of being the first witnesses to history’s most momentous event.

Did you know that not one of the Evangelists who wrote the Gospels (the New Testament histories of Jesus) used the term “resurrection” to describe what had happened? This is nothing less than astounding. Long before the histories were written – in fact, within a couple months of Jesus’s death – Christians were using the word “resurrection” liberally. By the time the Gospels were circulated, it was both common parlance and accepted doctrine.

The refusal of the Evangelists to use the word is completely inexplicable if the theory, popular in some circles, is true: that the early church concocted the story of Jesus’s resurrection as a way of elevating Jesus’s status and validating the faith. But surely if that was what the early Christians were trying to do, they would have jumped at the chance to use the theologically significant word “resurrection” in their accounts.

A better explanation is this: the reason the Gospel writers didn’t use the word “resurrection” is that the people whose history they were telling didn’t use it. Those people were sure that Jesus died; was dead as a doornail; dead and buried. And they were just as sure that he came back to life after three days: that he was walking-talking-eating-drinking-laughing real. But during those first days, they did not yet realize this meant that Jesus had been resurrected. It took instruction from Jesus himself for them to grasp the enormity of what had happened.

There’s more. Christians see the events of that first Easter as the hinge on which the door between the ages turns. In a biblical worldview, unlike many other religious worldviews, history is going somewhere. It is not circular or cyclical; it is moving toward a goal; moving, in Jewish and Christian phraseology, from this age to the age to come.

The early Christians recognized that this age and the age to come meet and overlap around the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christians needn’t watch for the end times, because they know they’ve already commenced with the resurrection of Jesus. Instead, Christians watch expectantly for Jesus’s return.

According to Christian theology, the resurrection of Jesus was not a one-of-a-kind miracle that affected only him. It was the inaugural event of the new creation, which will be followed by the resurrection of “those who belong to him.”

Jelly beans, colored eggs, and dress clothes are hardly adequate means for expressing the importance of Easter. People should really get together, shout praises, sing songs and celebrate. Oh, wait. That is what people do in churches all around the world on Easter Sunday.

And even that is not enough.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/26/2016

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