Do We Need a Religionless Christianity?

The young German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945 in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, just weeks before the United States Infantry liberated the camp. The Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer, yet one might say his fate was sealed by a decision he made in the U.S. in 1939.

He had previously spent a year in New York at Union Seminary, and had received an invitation to return, which he accepted. But after two months, he realized he had made a mistake. “I have come to the conclusion,” he wrote, “that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…” He returned to Germany and was eventually imprisoned and executed.

People who know of Bonhoeffer’s criticism of German politics might be unaware of his criticism of American theology—or the lack thereof. While at Union Seminary in 1930, he complained: “There is no theology here.” During his abbreviated visit in 1939, he wrote in his diary that the worship service at a prestigious New York church was “Simply unbearable… the whole thing a discreet, opulent, self-satisfied celebration of religion…Do the people really not know that one can do as well or better without “religion”—if only it weren’t for God himself and his word?”

Bonhoeffer was distressed to find that God was optional in American churches. On his first visit, religionists in America were optimistic, buoyant even, in their hope of bringing the justice of the kingdom of God—even if they were not expecting God to come along with it. But when he returned in 1939, things had changed. He found a religion that was still without God, but was also, to a significant degree, without hope. A darker theological mood in Europe, the Great Depression in America, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s pessimistic Moral Man and Immoral Society had taken the wind out of its sails.

In 1939, Bonhoeffer prophetically wrote about the American church: “For me there is no doubt that someday a storm will blow forcefully into this religious ‘hand-out,’ if God himself is still in the plan at all…” A storm has certainly blown across American religion and its landscape has been altered.

Religion has been in decline – some might say free-fall – for decades. Many people who still believe in God have completely rejected organized religion. A recent study out of Georgetown University found that formerly churched young adults “perceive organized religion as having corrupted Jesus’s fundamental teachings” and “believe they can live more moral lives without the baggage of religion.”

Perhaps Bonhoeffer would see this as a positive development. After all, toward the end of his life, he wrote, “We are approaching a completely religionless age.” He raised “the question of whether religion is a condition for salvation.” He seemed to posit the need for a “religionless Christianity.”

But for Bonhoeffer, a religionless Christianity was not a church-less Christianity, as it is for many moderns. The religion he hoped to jettison was the “anthropocentric … liberal, mystical, pietistic, ethical theology” that finds its origin in human aspiration and its goal in human fulfillment.

If Bonhoeffer were still alive, his keen eye would detect the same condition present in today’s churchless, individualistic spirituality that he found in the churchy Protestantism of 1930. It doesn’t really matter whether God is employed to enhance the life of an unfulfilled individual or to restructure the life of an unjust society: God is not an employee and humans are certainly not his employer.

These cases of mistaken identity stem from an underlying disorder: the absence of – or perhaps the unwillingness to hear – the word of God. On his first trip to New York, Bonhoeffer reported with dismay that he had not heard the gospel preached in a white American church. He would certainly not hear it preached in today’s therapeutic, individualistic spirituality either. But he would say once again that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what people, whether religious or religionless, needed then and still need today.

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Pray by Listening – Guest Post

by Kevin Looper

There once was a man who hated his job.  Every day as he pulled into the parking lot of his work, he would pray, “God, I hate my job! My boss is a jerk.  My coworkers are foul-mouthed, lazy, and selfish.  The work is pointless and I wish I could do something important.  This job barely gives me enough money to pay my bills and every time I am here, I wish I were anywhere else!  I would rather be at the dentist office getting my teeth pulled.  Please, give me a better job!” Each day after work, the man would go home and look at the want-ads, apply for other jobs and go for interviews.  The next day he would start it all again, but he never got another job. 

Why didn’t God answer his prayers?  Perhaps the man’s prayer did not get answered is because he was not really praying—or at least, he was only partly praying.  Real prayer is a conversation.  It is talking with God about what the two of you are doing together. When you order food at fast food drive-through, you can hardly call that “talking.” In the same way, when you simply tell God what you want and do not listen to what he has to say to you, you can hardly call that “praying.”  This man was not trying to hear what God said about his situation, he just wanted his order taken. 

Imagine what a difference it would make if the man would simply listen to what God had already said to him in the Scriptures.  What if he listened and obeyed what God said about how to deal with difficult employers and jobs: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.  It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Col 3:23).

What if he took this word from the Sermon on the Mount to heart, “You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).  He might realize that his coworkers are more than an annoyance to put up with and that his purpose at work is bigger than his job title.

His fears about money could turn into joyful reliance and trust if he would only listen and believe the voice of Jesus, who says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and everything else you need will be given to you as well”  (Mt. 6:33).  And even if the struggle continued and his situation did not change, he could be filled with peace and anticipation when he read verses like Romans 5:3-5; “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character hope.”

It is true that asking is an essential part of prayer and there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for a new job. But the real effects of prayer do not come from what you say to God, but from what he says to you. Richard Foster said, “to pray is to change.” Prayer can change our minds, our hearts, our feelings, and our situation—it can even change other people.  But it is God’s words that create the change, not oursGod spoke a word and the universe was created.  God still speaks today and his words hold the same power to bring about change in us and in the world.  Any spiritual growth we have, we owe to God speaking to us.

God still speaks to people in many ways, but if we are to grow in our ability to listen to him speak, we first need to learn how to hear him in the Scriptures.   Here are five ways to be sure that we are listening to God through the Scriptures:

  1. Begin your reading by asking God to speak to you through his Word.  It is easy to depend on your own understanding to guide you toward insight, but we read the Bible to hear God, not to have deep insights.  What you hear from him may be quite simple—something you have thought about many times.   On the other hand, you do not need to “force” God to speak to you.  If your daily reading does not lead to some life altering revelation, do not be concerned. Your job is only to have ears that hear and a heart that obeys.
  2. Be careful not to come to the Bible with your own agenda.  Motives matter when it comes to hearing God speak.  If we read only so that we can teach others or impress them with our knowledge, it shows that we are not actually listening with humility.  If we read in order to confirm our opinions or combat the opinions of others, we are not likely to listen well either. Your only aim must be to nourish your soul on God’s Word to you.
  3. When you first start learning to listen to God speak in the Bible, begin with passages that are already very familiar to you.  Come to your chosen passage as a place where you will have a holy meeting with God.  Don’t approach the passage as something to know, but as a place to be together with God. 
  4. Talk to God as you read! It is more beneficial to read through one verse of Scripture prayerfully than to read a whole book of the Bible without prayer.  The Bible is meant to be prayed through, not just read through.  By “pray through,” I simply mean, talk to God about what you are reading.  Ask him questions about the text.  Stop on certain words and phrases and talk to him about what you are thinking.  Turn the commands, rebukes, and encouragements into prayer requests for yourself and for others.  Turn the stories and the Psalms into praise and thanksgiving.  There is no other activity that can so increase your wisdom and your love for God as praying through the Scriptures. 
  5. Memorize Scripture.  How are you supposed to learn to listen to God speak to you in the Bible when you only have five distracted minutes a day to devote to Bible reading?  By memorizing parts of it! Committing portions of Scripture to memory helps us listen to God’s voice throughout the day, even when we do not have a Bible with us.  To the person who is willing to listen, God can speak through the same verse again and again in many ways and situations.

Kevin Looper is the youth pastor at Lockwood Community Church. He holds a BA from Taylor University and an MA from Wheaton College.

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Why Is There Time? There Is Time to Trust

Humans are surrounded by mystery and are themselves deeply mysterious. One of the profoundest mysteries in human experience has to do with our relation to time. Time is so much a part of our lives that we take it for granted. Our bodies even measure it with heartbeats and circadian rhythms. Yet when asked what time is, we do not know how to answer.Philosophers have long debated the nature, and even the existence, of time. The brilliant Cambridge philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell believed that our experience of the flow of time is an illusion. For Russell, time does not flow, it simply is.

One of the greatest thinkers in western history, St. Augustine of Hippo, mused: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

His colleague at Cambridge, the philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart, went even further. He argued that Lord Russell was mistaken: it is not the flow of time that is illusory; time itself is an illusion. McTaggart rejected the concept of time altogether.

The Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has defended a more traditional view of time. If I understand him correctly, he argues that there is an objective and transcendental time – a God-time – by which human (and any other) time is measured. But the Australian philosopher J.J.C. Smart claims this entails an infinite regress: if we measure our time by God’s time, then we must measure God’s time by a time that transcends it, and on ad infinitum.

Physicists are of little help on this score. Paul Davies, Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University, calls time “dynamical” and says it can be “stretched by motion or gravitation.” Even time, Einstein discovered, obeys the laws of physics. But this only tells us what time does, not what time is. Is it a medium through which we move, like a boat through a river? Or is it something that moves around us, like a river around an island, as in Isaac Watts famous line, “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away”? Is time an illusion? Is our experience of it an illusion?

We are back with Augustine: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”

Humans are able to look back on the past but are unable to enter it. They are unable to look into the future yet they must enter it. This may provide us with a clue to understanding the purpose of time, even though we are incapable of understanding its nature. God made humans temporal creatures so that they would have the opportunity to trust him.

If our relationship to time were different, if we were capable of moving around in time the way we now move around in space – forward and backward, in and out – the future would not be a mystery to us. We would know what is going to happen tomorrow and the next day, next year and far into the future. But there is good reason to think that under such circumstances faith would be impossible.

If I promise you $20 and you believe the promise, the surest way to put an end to that belief is to give you the $20. As soon as you have it in hand, faith is unnecessary; indeed, it is impossible. Faith requires an unseen future to exist. And the existence of faith is essential to our wholeness as human persons.

According to the Bible, faith is needed if a conversion to a spiritual life is to begin. Faith is also needed for that spiritual life to continue. As St. Paul says, “we live by faith.” Faith is also necessary to the fulfillment of the spiritual life. It plays an essential role, St. James taught, in the completion of human beings. In other words, life with God begins with faith, proceeds with faith, and reaches its desired end with faith.

There is time – quite literally: time exists rather than some non-temporal reality – so that humans can exercise faith. The universe is, at bottom, relational and not merely material, and enduring relationships are based on faith.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/26/2019

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Choosing a Church? Ask to See it First

Some years ago, my wife and I took a week’s vacation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We made arrangements to meet my wife’s sister and her husband in Mackinaw City and travel together to a vacation rental on a remote U. P. lake. Unfortunately, I waited too long to book a hotel in Mackinaw and had to look outside of town.

I searched the internet for hotels and found a nice-looking mom and pop place about thirty miles away. I have a soft spot for mom and pop motels – that’s pretty much all there was when I was growing up. Besides, this place was half the price of the big chains. So what if it didn’t have a flat screen tv? I was getting a great deal.

We pulled into the motel’s gravel parking lot and my wife waited in the car while I went to check in before going in search of a restaurant. Behind a counter in the tiny front office I found a clerk. When I handed her my credit card, she asked: “Do you want to see it first?” The question surprised me but didn’t alert me to our danger. I said thoughtlessly: “No, it will be fine.”

After dinner we returned to our room and carried in our luggage. To say it was dated would be like finding the SS Edmund Fitzgerald at the bottom of Lake Superior and complaining that it is old. The carpet was frayed. The bathroom sink was stained with decades of rust and gunk. There was a hole in the bathroom floor which might have opened up in an alternate universe, for all I know. If was pitch black and, as far as I could see, bottomless.

We pulled the bed covers back quickly in search of bugs. We didn’t see bugs, but we did notice used tissues on the floor behind the nightstand. I asked my wife: “Do you want to find someplace else.” She courageously answered, “No, it’s okay,” but I knew the right thing to do was to call it a loss and find better shelter.

Some people approach finding a church like I approached finding a room. They do a quick search, focus on one issue they consider important (my one issue in selecting the motel was price), then commit. It is not the best way to select a church.

Churches, like people, have strengths and weaknesses. One church’s strength might be its preaching, another’s might be its music, still another might be its strong sense of community. The church that is strong in preaching might be weak in community, the one with great music might have a watered-down theology.

Choosing a church on the basis of a particular strength could lead to regret. Better to look for the presence of certain core strengths that are important to church health. One of those core strengths is a love and respect for the Bible. A lack of dependence on the Bible might point to an unhealthy dependence on the latest trend or a hidebound reliance on an ancient tradition.

Look to see if the church’s pursuit of God extends beyond Sunday mornings. Are there Bible studies, discipleship-style groups, and spiritual formation opportunities happening during the week? Is the church active in the community? A church is not a church, no matter how dynamic Sunday mornings are, unless its love for God extends to the rest of the week.

Friendships and loving relationships are another distinguishing mark of a good church. How many cars are in the parking lot a half-hour after the last amen? Are people talking and laughing and praying together? Do they spend time with each other during the week?

A strong, healthy church uses time and resources to help people outside the church. If the church’s budget, which is a theological document, only includes items that directly benefit the church, something is out of balance. A good church follows Jesus’s example of service to others.

I often suggest people spend a month or more before they decide whether a church is for them. With churches, as with motels rooms, if someone asks, “Do you want to see it first?” answer “Yes.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/18/2019

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“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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