Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Pop Images of Spiritual Concepts

Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds—his name is the LORD—and rejoice before him. A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. Psalm 68:4-5
Once a friend commented he didn't believe in some old man sitting on a cloud telling him how to live. Well, neither do I.
We've had thousands of years to study Scripture, yet for many there exist these erroneous ideas that remain pop images of spiritual things. Don't you sometimes wonder where they came from, especially when they get used to mock our beliefs?
A lot comes from honest mistakes or people intending to be helpful. An Artist will try to render the un-seeable as a picture the human eye can perceive. Thus the idea of God riding the clouds in Psalm 68 can becomes Michelangelo's Old Man poking through the clouds to point down at Adam. We can be grateful artists did not read the literal translation of Psalm 68:
Sing ye to God -- praise His name, Raise up a highway for Him who is riding in deserts, In Jah [is] His name, and exult before Him. Father of the fatherless, and judge of the widows, [Is] God in His holy habitation. (Young’s Literal Translation)
Otherwise, we may have had endless representations of God as an old man chasing us down on a Camel.
Much of what we think is real history comes from movies, much of what we accept as in the Bible just comes from popular media. When I was a child, I used to sing a sing called "I was Born About ten Thousand Years Ago". (It is also known as The Bragging Song.)

I saw Satan when he looked the garden o'er,
Then saw Adam and Eve driven from the door,
And behind the bushes peeping,
Saw the apple they were eating,
And I'll swear that I'm the guy what ate the core.

Obviously, the core got caught in his throat and we called it Adam's Apple.
Solomon's beloved may have envisioned him: "Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my lover among the young men" (Song of Solomon 2:3)but nowhere in Genesis when it speaks of the Garden of Eden does it mention apples.
Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2:8-9
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Genesis 3:6
We only know the tree had fruit pleasing to the eye and was good for food, but no description of exactly what the fruit looked like. Why someone somewhere at sometime tagged the fruit as an apple, I do not know. Since some try to turn the whole temptation and fall scene into some sort of repressed sexual myth, it might have been more apropos to make the fruit a pomegranate.
The next verse of "I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago" touches on another misconception:

I saw Jonah when he embarked within the whale,
And thought that he'd never live to tell the tale.
But old Jonah'd eaten garlic
And he gave the whale a colic,
So he coughed him up and let him out o' jail.

Here is a case of an error by earlier Bible translators, most notably in the King James Version. Out of the choices for the Greek, ketos -- sea monster, whale or huge fish -- they choose whale. Perhaps the translators thought only a whale was large enough to swallow a man whole, but this was not consistent with the Hebrew in the book of Jonah, which meant big fish. They should have chosen the word that matched the book being quoted in Matthew.
This simple wrong choice has caused some sniping at Scripture by critics ever since. I recall reading many years ago an attack on the story of Jonah in which the writer stated whales really had small or restrictive throats for their size and would not be able to swallow a man. I don't know if this is fact or not, any more than stories I have read about people who were swallowed whole by such fish as Great White Sharks and lived to tell the tale. I remember one such story told of a sailor so gulped down. His shipmates managed to capture the shark and sliced it open to free the man and he survived the experience. I also read of supposed experts who said a person might survive a period of time in the stomach of a large fish, but would be bleached white by the digestive juices. No wonder the Ninevehians repented. Imagine the appearance of a ghost before them shouting their doom!
One thing sometimes overlooked is we can't approach such events purely from a human perspective. There is no need to feel we must provide some scientific or natural explanation to miraculous events. Scripture describes God as providing or producing a huge fish to swallow Jonah. This fish may have been a one-time deal, a creation of God's for this singular purpose; that is, an ability to swallow Jonah, hold him prisoner within it's belly for three days and three nights, and spew him out upon the beach unharmed, if somewhat shaken.
Is it important whether the popular images of these events are correct? Does it really matter if Jonah was swallowed by a whale or by a big fish? I suppose in some ways, not at all, as long as the story is understood to have happened and the significance of it is understood. Still, even if one small detail isn't of much import on the surface, I think the correct version should be emphasized. Some of these misconceptions do make a difference and some distract from the truth.
And certainly the truth of Jonah in the belly of a wh...uh...big fish is important. Maybe we should take a look at why.


WHAT’S SO IMPORTANT ABOUT A BIG FISH STORY?

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." (Matthew 12:38)
He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah". (NIV)
And he answering said to them, `A generation, evil and adulterous, doth seek a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it, except the sign of Jonah '. (Young's Literal Translation)
But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of Jonas. (King James Version)
But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given it but the sign of Jonah. (American Standard Version) [Matthew 12:39 from four translations]
Let's walk up to anyone at random on an American street.
"Excuse me for asking, but who was Jonah"
"He was the guy got swallowed by a whale."
"And then what?"
"Oh, it's a whale of a tale. He built a little fire on the raft he was on and when the whale sneezed he whooshed out on the wave."
"I believe you're thinking of Pinocchio. I'm talking about Jonah in the Bible."
"Oh, that old fish story."
"Well, you're getting warmer. He was swallowed by a big fish, not a whale."
"Okay, big whoop. So, how'd he get out?"
"The fish vomited him out onto the shore."
"EEEEouuuuu!"
"And if you don't understand the sign of Jonah, God might vomit you out, too!" (Well, I probably shouldn't actually say that, it might be considered offensive. I admit it sounds yucky. On the other hand, if it is an important point do we pull our punches; soften our blow, just because someone might find it a bit gross? If it does seem somewhat unscriptural to put it this indelicate way I suggest you read Revelation 3:15-16.))
Most people remember Jonah being swallowed because as children it was a popular Sunday school lesson or they have seen many illustrations of some bearded guy being gulped down by a whale. I don't know how many actually read Jonah. Perhaps they think he is a character in Moby Dick. Admittedly, Jonah can be a hard book to find in the Old Testament being so few pages long. If you haven't read it, go do so now. It shouldn't take more than five minutes once you find it. There are only 4 chapters, 33 paragraphs and 1,751 words in the NIV translation. It's tucked in there between Obadiah and Micah. (That makes it easier to find, right? I used to have a minister who every once in awhile would refer the congregation to a verse in Hezekiah. Boy, you should have heard all the pages turning and he'd just chuckle, hee hee hee!)
But why is this strange little story even there? And what's all this vine and worm stuff at the end? Why should we care about this guy Jonah at all?
Because there is a lot of important information compressed into this little story, ideas that should concern you and me.
First let's familiarize ourselves with the story.
We first hear of Jonah in 2 Kings 14:23-25 and learn he was the son of Amittai (name means My Truth). Jonah (whose name means Dove) was a prophet from Gath Hepher serving under King Jeroboam II of Israel. Jeroboam II ruled from 793 BC to 753 BC. Jonah's adventures with the big fish probably occurred around the year 785 BC. (As an aside, Jonah also appears in the Qur'an [Koran] in Sura X.)
One day "the word of God came to Jonah" with an assignment. Get up to Nineveh post haste, Jonah! (Nineveh was an important Assyrian city, one that would become the capital of the Assyrian Empire in about five decades after Jonah's trip. It was at the site of modern day Mosul, Iraq.) This wasn't a pleasure trip; it was all business. God was unhappy with the wickedness there and Jonah was to tell the people to straighten up and fly right or God was going to do a Sodom and Gomorrah on them.
Jonah packed his bag and jumped onto a boat at Joppa -- heading in the wrong direction. He had no intention of warning those people. They were ba-a-ad. What kind of bad? Nahum tells us they were making evil plots against God, were exploiting the helpless, exceedingly cruel in war and if that weren't enough, they were hip deep in prostitution, idol-worship and witchcraft. Jonah wasn't going to go one mile out of his way for such folk, let alone 500.
Jonah, as a paying passenger, went to his quarters and slept. While he was snoring, God hit the boat with a furious storm. The seaman were scared enough to start praying to their own gods, which didn't help at all. It got so bad the ship captain roused Jonah and told him to get up and pray to his God, too.
Meanwhile, the sailors were casting lots trying to figure out who might be responsible for what had befallen them and all signs pointed to Jonah. They already knew he was on their ship in disobedience to his God, because he had told them so when he bought his ticket. Figuring this might have something to do with the problem, they asked him what to do. Give Jonah some credit. He said, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea."
Give those sailors some credit, too. Bad as things were, they didn't really want to kill the guy. They did everything possible to row out of the storm, but realized it wasn't going to happen. After some heartfelt prayers to The God, they did toss Jonah overboard.
Soon as they did, the sea grew calm and you had a bunch of guys who recognized who the real God was.
This didn't help Jonah, though. He was sinking like a he had a heart of stone (which maybe he did). Looked pretty bad for Jonah, flailing around helplessly in open water, but God had a plan; God always has a plan. God had prepared a big fish to swallow him and for the next three days and three nights Jonah got to think hard about what he could have done and should of done and wished he would have done.
Jonah spent his time praying; always a good idea in tight situations, besides what else is there to do inside a fish? He prayed for forgiveness with thanksgiving and he promised to make good on his mission. With that, God caused the fish to throw up and Jonah found himself back on dry land. He must have been a mess.
Well to make a short story even shorter, Jonah went to Nineveh and spent the next three days telling them to repent or perish. Then he stood back to see what would happen.
What happened was the people of Nineveh did repent and turn to God for mercy and were spared destruction (at least for this time. They kind of backslid later and didn't fare so well as a result, but that's neither here or there.)
Jonah wasn't happy about this. He was angry. He wanted to see those Assyrians get theirs. He wanted the big pyrotectic ending. He didn't get it and just sat and mumbled about it. He was so mad he told God that was why he never wanted to come here, because he knew God was forgiving and merciful. Jonah was so absorbed in self-pity over not getting his own way he suggested God let him die. God simply asked him what right he had to be angry?
Jonah went off to brood. And what did God do? He provided a vine to shade the man so he'd sulk in comfort. Jonah was pretty happy about that. He adored that nice cooling vine, but then God had a worm chew down the vine at dawn and when the sun began beating down Jonah wanted to die again.
But God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?"
"I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die."
But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" Jonah 4:9-10
Who made the vine? God. Jonah had made a little shelter, but it was the cooling vine, which really provided him with protection from the heat. Who made the worm that chewed down the vine? 
God.
Then the sun blazed down on Jonah because man is never as adequate in what he builds for his own salvation, as is what God provides. But did Jonah express appreciation for the time the vine did give him comfort? No, he felt he was entitled to that vine and he was angry and sulking again. Jonah was a pretty self-absorbed fellow. Here he was thinking only of himself, angry over a vine he had nothing to do with and not caring a fig about the fate of one hundred and twenty thousand people and their animals. And God had even told him those people were ignorant of right and wrong and needed guidance to know their right hand from their left. Jonah had a duty to try to show the people the way.
And what is God saying? You worry about your own comfort and things you didn't raise a hand to tend or make. God made and tended those people, all people. They may have been mean and nasty people, but despite that God cared about them. He wasn't going to wipe them out without giving them a chance to change. He made them, he tended them, he had a right, like the vine, to grow them or dispose of them as he saw fit. It wasn't what Jonah wanted; it was what God willed.
We're all a lot like Jonah if we're honest with ourselves. How many Ninevehians have you wanted to wipe out in your life?
"Hey, look at that fool drive. He cut me off. I hope he slams into a tree and kills himself."
"Man, those Wall Street guys don't deserve to make that much more money than me. I work hard. They probably got it by cheating or on whom they know. Look, they're taking that CEO out in handcuffs. Oh, I'm lovin' it. Hope he gets life at hard labor."
"Did you see that? That guy jumped the line and got the last Arianna Grande concert tickets. What'll I tell my kid, I promised her...hey buddy, drop dead!"
"I hate comedians making all those jokes about my faith. Using all those four-letter words to do it, too. I wish lightening would strike them."
"Those people over there, always trying to kill anyone who doesn't agree with them, even blowing themselves up to do it. I hope they all rot in hell!"
Are we any different than Jonah? Do we see beyond our own comfort zones? Do we look at what others do and stop and pray for them? Do we care about their life or soul? Can we get beyond our own hate to love those who hate us? Can we get beyond our own love of self to love others, for that matter?
Big funeral a few years back for Michael Jackson. A lot of people showed up expressing their love for the man. Really? Did they actually even care about the man? Perhaps if someone had really cared about the boy, he wouldn't have been so weird. If someone had really loved the man, perhaps he wouldn't be dead. Maybe he would have been happier being just another live local singer in a coffee shop than lying in a gold coffin. Did all those people come to say goodbye to someone they loved or did they come just to say they'd been there?
You don't want to leave this life just saying, "I been there". You want to leave saying, "I cared about those others who be there."
There is something else we need take note of in Jonah. If God has a purpose for you (and he does have a purpose for us all) you can't run away from it. He'll find a way to suggest you do it or...well, maybe you don't want to think about the "or".  It'll be worse than a big fish and let m tell you, I am not fond of seafood. I'm even less fond of being seafood.
Right about now, you may be wondering why this post began with quotes from Matthew. Jonah was Old School, wasn't he? He was back in BC, right? Maybe I should care about people, but why the big production with giant fish and vicious storms and all the drama?
Another man died around the time Michael Jackson left us and he who was also only 50 years old. He didn't quite get the big splash Michael Jackson got (or that Jonah made either), but he was memorialized some. That was the pitchman Billy Mays. (Do you remember him?) Its time to quote Mr. Mays:
"But wait, there's even more!"
Yes, it'll have to wait until next time. It's an offer you don't want to pass up and operators are standing by. It isn't going to cost you $19.95 either. It's totally free, not even a small handling and shipping charge.
You be sure to come back now, you hear.


WHAT HAS 5 LETTERS AND STARTS WITH J?
JONAH OR JESUS, MAKE A CHOICE


You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said, I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple. The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God. Jonah 2:3-6
As the crowds increased, then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you."
He answered.
Jesus said, "This is a wicked and adulterous generation. It asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:38-41 and Luke 11:29-32)
Can you imagine the faces of the Pharisees? This would be akin, I suppose, if someone stood in our church and said at the judgment Madelyn Murray O'Hair would rise up and condemn us. They must have been even more in a fury when Jesus told them He was greater than not only Jonah, but of Solomon. They probably couldn't even think about what the sign of Jonah meant. They didn't realize He was going to meet their demand for a miraculous sign, but most of them didn't recognize it when he did.
Why does Jonah get highlighted here? Was it because his name began with J and has five letters? No. Is it because his name means Dove, a bird often used to represent the Holy Spirit and peace? Not exactly. Does Jonah act exactly like Jesus? Hardly. It is because the prophet was an archetype of Christ in the Old Testament.
Let's look at Jonah's story a little closer.
Where was Jonah different? For one thing, Jesus set his sight on Jerusalem to fulfill his purpose and God's will. Jonah set his sight on Joppa and transportation to escape from his purpose. For another thing, when Jonah did actually complete what God's plan was for him, he sat around grumbling and griping about the outcome.
So what's the prototyping here?
Jonah is asleep on a ship during a terrible storm (not the only thing I think Jonah slept though). When he is awakened, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard. He willingly sacrifices himself for the saving of those men. They comply to his command that he must be sacrificed and toss him in the sea where a big fish swallows him. He is buried in the heart of the sea in a fish-tomb for three days and three nights and then he is thrown up upon the land. He is resurrected so to speak. The sailors have been saved from drowning and have begun praising and sacrificing to The God, so we could say they were resurrected as well.
Jonah now goes to Nineveh and preached salvation to them. They repented and their city isn't destroyed and so they too are saved out of Jonah's sacrifice and resurrection.
Jonah's similarities to Jesus don't continue after this point, however. Instead of rejoicing these sinners in Nineveh were rescued from destruction, he is upset by it and angry. Jesus' sacrifice was so all men would be saved who believed upon Him. Jonah felt his own sacrifice was wasted on people who didn't deserve any salvation and he wanted them dead.
If Jonah was a foreshadowing of Christ in his encounter with the fish, he seems to be a foreshadowing of the Pharisees, and of the Nation of Israel, to whom Jesus gives the sign of Jonah. As Christ is the Vine of Life, a vine grows up to give comfort to Jonah, but a worm eats it away much as hatred has eaten away any compassion or caring in the heart of Jonah. Jonah, who was a prophet, who knew the Law and heard the Word of God, did not grasp the Spirit of the Law, exactly like the teachers of the Law in Jesus' day. Jonah's comforting by the vine was only temporary. We could also say the Vine was like Christ in it was sent to comfort Jonah, but was cut off and because it was cut off Jonah was angry with it.
He probably resented the sparing of Nineveh even more because they weren't Hebrews or Jews, they were gentiles, "dogs", and an enemy of his nation. Yet, just as we find his nation rejecting Christ and salvation then salvation going out to the gentiles, we see it foreshadowed here.
However, this salvation of Nineveh did not last long, it was only temporary. Nineveh was to revert to evil and would perish in due time. The blood of lambs and goats is only sufficient to bring salvation for a short time. The sacrifice of any man, other than Christ, cannot bring lasting salvation either. The only lasting saving grace can be found in the Lord Jesus Christ, the last sacrifice, who like the sign of Jonah, was buried in a tomb for three days and three nights and resurrected to bring eternal life to everyone who is drawn to Him by God and believes. Who do you choose, Jonah or Jesus?

A Note About The Three Days and Three Nights
Jesus said he would be "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth". Some critics are happy to quote this as proof of an error. They point out if Jesus died on the cross at 3:00 PM on Friday and rose at dawn on Sunday, that is not three days and three nights. It is barely a day and a half.
Some defend this by claiming this is an expression, a colloquialism, and it was fulfilled by there being a portion of three days. Jesus died in the day on Friday (day 1), He was in the grave Friday night and all day Saturday (day 2) and he arose Sunday morning (day 3).
I have no problem with this as an explanation. We do the same thing ourselves. For instance my wife and I took a little mini-vacation during a Fourth of July weekend (although it got cut short when my wife fell in the shower at the hotel.) We told our kids we were going away for three days. We left late Thursday afternoon (4:00PM), stayed over Thursday night planning on going to several sites during the next day, then spending Friday night at the Hotel and coming home on Saturday. We counted Thursday, Friday and Saturday as three days, but in reality it would have been just somewhat over a day and a half (Thursday evening, All Day Friday, Saturday morning).
But in the case of Jesus, I believe in a different scenario. I don't think Jesus died on a Friday. I think this was a mistake made out of ignorance of Judaism. Scripture does not tell us on which day Jesus died. What do we know? We know Jesus died during Passover week. Have you wondered why it is that Passover and Easter never quite line up? Passover comes about the time of Easter, but it may fall on any day of the week, while Easter always falls on Sunday. Why should this be?
The Jewish calendar was based on moon phases. Passover came on a different day each year and when set in our modern calendars this was also on a different date, week and sometimes month each year. Easter is calculated similarly, so the two holidays always fall near each other, but not exactly because the early Christians decided to make Esther always be on a Sunday. It is sort of like our Memorial Day and Presidents Day. Originally these days were on a specific date, but some people wanted to have long weekends, so they were made a certain Monday of a certain month each year.
As we speak of an Easter week, with it's Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Passover is a multi-day celebration as well. There is Erev Pesah followed by Pesah, or the First Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is a weeklong feast, in which the seventh day celebrates the crossing of the Red Sea. The day after the First Day of Unleavened Bread is called The Omar or First Fruits. The Omar runs for 50 days, ending on Pentecost.
The First day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread is a Sabbath Day.
Here is what Scripture tells us. Christ was crucified the day before a Sabbath and hurriedly buried. He died at 3:00 PM, which was the hour the lambs were traditionally slaughtered for the Pesah feast. His body was prepared and wrapped and buried before sundown because the Sabbath started then. The women observed this preparation and the laying of his body in the tomb. We are told the women then prepared spices, rested on the Sabbath and went to the tomb early on the first day of the week (Luke in 23 and 24). In Mark 16 we learn the women bought the spices after the Sabbath. These statements seem contradictory for how could they get the spices before they purchased them, but this isn't mystical at all and really helps explain the three days and three nights question.
Jesus died at 3:00 PM on Erev Pesah. Joseph of Arimathea took the body and prepared it for burial. The women followed along and observed this all the way to the laying of Jesus in the tomb, and then went home for the High Sabbath of Pesah. On the day after that Sabbath, the women purchased their spices and prepared them, then rested for the weekly Sabbath on Saturday. Early on the First day of the Week, they went to the tomb and found Jesus all ready risen.
If Erev Pesah fell on a Wednesday, then Jesus lay in the ground all Wednesday night and Thursday Day (1 night and 1 day), all Thursday night and Friday day (2 nights and 2 days) and all Friday night and Saturday day (3 nights and 3 days). Scripture does not tell us when Jesus rose. Considering bribes were given to the guards to lie and say they fell asleep (an absurd premise given the number of guards and the punishment for such dereliction of duty) it was probably in the night. We do know the women went to the tomb at daybreak on Sunday and He was already gone.
I don't want to get further into this, which would be a whole other essay. Whether "three days and three nights" was an expression meaning a portion of three days or whether (as I believe) a literal three days and three nights passed, it doesn't change the fact that Christ was crucified, buried and Resurrected. And that this was a final sacrifice and a permanent means of salvation for all people who come to Christ.
***
(Madelyn Murray O'Hair, if you didn't know, was brutally murdered by an office manager at her American Atheist organization. He did it to steal money from the organization and then he murdered her and some of her family, cutting their bodies into pieces with a saw and burying the remains on a Texas ranch. This is what William Murray, Madelyn's son, had to say about his mother, from whom he was estranged after being baptized a Baptist and becoming a preacher: "My mother was an evil person... Not for removing prayer from America's schools... No, she was just evil. She stole huge amounts of money. She misused the trust of people. She cheated children out of their parents' inheritance. She cheated on her taxes and even stole from her own organizations. She once printed up phony stock certificates on her own printing press to try to take over another atheist publishing company.... Regardless of how evil and lawless my mother was she did not deserve to die in the manner she did." [Wikipedia])
***

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Seeing Through the Eyes of God: Part III of a Testimony and a Challenge

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." Matthew 5:31-46

(On the left, my daughter treating goats and sheep in Kenya. The Ethiopians lined up for medical examinations by her unit below is also from her photo collection.)


 What does it mean to be "born again"?   To have recognized our sin nature, confessed we are a sinner, believe Jesus died for those sins and rose from the grave, to ask him to forgive us and dwell in our heart? 
Is it to have God's Grace, our sins forgiven and forgotten? 
Is it to have the assurance of salvation and of Heaven? 
Is that it?
I have heard analogies between being a new Christian and being a new baby, the Bible containing the nourishing milk of the Word. God is our Father in heaven. He will comfort us and meet our needs and prepare a place for us. All kinds of nice things done for us, is that it? Is there nothing we need do? No to-do lists to this new life?
True, we cannot earn this new birth, cannot do any works to gain it, can't buy it, bribe for it or steal it. But if we have it, what do we do with it?

(Left: Homeless man sleeping near Carpenter Hall, Philadelphia by L. E. Meredith 2005)

If you think about it, we couldn't earn our first birth either. We couldn't do any works to be born. It was a gift our parents gave us. What did we do with that gift?
Well, a lot we shouldn't have, but what is one of the first things you see a baby do?
It looks around. A baby's gaze will go to everything. It will stare at bright colors, follow every movement, it will begin to see the world through its eyes. When we are flesh and not spirit, we see through our eyes. WE see things WE want and things WE want to do, places WE want to go and homes WE want to live it. 
But once we've seen the gift of new birth our focus should change. We need to see the world through God's eyes, not our own.
When I was erased from the rolls of that church and called a goat, I came to realize I had lost some vision. I had come to see church and Bible study as a cozy little escape from the world. It was a place for ME to be cozy and for ME to be safe.   It was ME rationalizing this as MY just deserves for 30 years of actively serving. Let younger people do the heavy lifting now, I'm a senior citizen in the Body of Christ, let ME be carried to the finish line.

 (Right: Spinal Bifida sufferer at the A. I. duPont Children's Hospital, Wilmington, DE by L. E. Meredith 1982)

After all, isn't that what Paul said in Acts 20: 24 -- However, I consider I've done much worth in my life, so you go ahead and finish the race and complete the task, the Lord Jesus has given me a time out.
No, it isn't.
Paul actually said; "However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace."
There are those who are hungry and thirsty, naked and sick and imprisoned. We need to see them. But it isn't as obvious as a photo. We can see the needing masses in Ethiopia lining up for medical attention, the homeless sleeping on the park grass in Philadelphia, the ill and the physically challenged in Delaware with OUR eyes.  After all, even the Pagans treat the sick, feed the poor and visit the imprisoned of this world. And we should do all that as well, but we must see beyond the obvious. We need to see those hungry for the word of God, those thirsty for righteousness, those naked of spirit and sick of soul and imprisoned by sin. These can be found among the rich, famous, powerful and healthy, as well as the poor and broken, in people all around us. Yes, we must aid those who are suffering physically and emotionally, but if they know the Lord, then someday they will have gain. But if we treat the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned, but don't see all who have souls in spiritual need and don't bring them the Bread of Life and the Living Water, then we haven't done what the Lord expects. And we can't see those needs unless we begin looking through the eyes of God.
I pray this is what I am about.
I would not want to be the Fig Tree giving the appearance of fullness, but bearing no fruit. And I sure don't want to be a goat.

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.  "If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. Isaiah 58:7-10

Friday, August 11, 2017

Schisms and an Invisible Man: Part 2 of a Testimony and a Challenge

 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Matthew 5:31-33

Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 5:1-4

How did I come to believe there was a God and what led me to salvation?
After the lost of six children, it was listening to the heartbeat of the seventh struggling to live that convinced me there had to be a God. It was the despair and depression of that seventh baby's death which brought me to a Bible preaching church where a sermon brought me to my knees before the Lord.  In a sense, the death of that child was the resurrection of me. That was in 1975 and I was 34 years old.
That was more than half my lifetime ago. I am 76 as I write this.
Life became quite different from what it had been. Much of my life had revolved around attacking churches, now it revolved around involvement within The Church. I don't want to list what all, but it ranged from simple chores to youth ministry to door-to-door evangelism. 
In 1977, my wife was pregnant again (she being a very stubborn and determined woman). No doctor would take her case, calling her foolish and saying it was guarenteed impossible for her to have a baby. It would end wit the same result. She was insane to do this, insanity being doing something over and over and expecting a different result.
A Christian doctor came forward to tend to her and the church formed a prayer group. They prayed and they brought us meals, because my wife was confined to bed for her term. And yes, once again that term ended in the fifth month, yet this time the outcome was different.
In 1978, my first daughter was born. (We were to have two more children, another daughter and a son. Perhaps to medical science these were impossibilities, but to God anything is possible. )

Yet, also in 1978, I had to change jobs and this necessitated us moving. Several serious events happened over the next few years. In 1982, with two young girls and a newborn son, we moved to where we live today and I joined a church in the area.
In the course of the next twenty-plus years I remained active in church work at my new church, although to a lesser extent. Growing children and a more demanding job took up much of my time. I (and my wife) were involved in doing many things revolving around the activities of our children and in the community. We even attended another church for a couple years in the early 'nineties, where I taught Sunday School to teenagers, but we came back to that first church again.
Then in 2006 I found myself thrown off the rolls of that church, branded a "goat".
How did this happen?
A bit of background is necessary.  The minister who had built that church and pastured it for 45 years retired and a new younger man took over the pulpit. I had been away from this particular church for a period because of something that had happened, but I began attending regular worship service there again and also joined a small Bible study group associated with the church. Things were fine for about a year, but then this new minister proposed radical changes that split the congregation.
I don't want to say what the difference was other than a matter of Scriptural misinterpretation. It did not involve any of the core beliefs of Christianity, only church organization. I had my doubts about the minister's stand when I went to the Congressional meeting where a vote was suppose to be taken on the changes. 
The vote was never taken that night.  Instead the meeting turned very ugly, angry and unchristian-like. I, frankly, stayed out of the fray. I was already stunned to have discovered I had been removed from the church rolls unknowingly. 
Before the arguments started, before it got mean, a vote was taken on a procedural matter. It was done by roll call, and my name was skipped. I though it was an oversight, but others I knew were also skipped, people of long-standing and deep involvement in the ministries of the church. When one of these questioned why they were skipped, they were informed they had been removed from the membership rolls and had no right to vote. I was one of these. Those others removed were all members known to oppose the proposed change.  When some of us protested, the pastor got up and said we were "goats" that needed to be separated from the "sheep". We were booed and attacked by newer members to the church at this point.

They justified my removal on the claim that I had failed to be in attendance and contact with the church, thus had failed to honor my commitment. Whether this was said of the others, I can't say, but it certainly wasn't true of me. I had been attending worship service each Sunday and the Bible study each Tuesday for the whole year. I also had not publicly made my views on the proposal known or actively campaigned for or against it.
How did I happen to be excommunicated?

Partially because I practiced Matthew 4. "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."
Jesus said: But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you -- But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen -- But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.
Isn't it funny how the world and the church make it difficult to practice such acts?  Oh, I suppose fasting secretly isn't much of a problem. You really don't have to tell anyone and I can't say anyone has ever asked me about my eating or not eating. I suppose if a person did a long fast they may get inquiries about their health, or more likely, asked if they were on a diet.
The world certainly doesn't care if you aren't praying publicly. The world would prefer you kept your prayers and the rest of your Christianity hidden away in a closet. The world doesn't want a show of prayer, they don't want prayer period. In the churches I have attended there are prayer meetings and prayer times when it is open to anyone to say an audible prayer. I haven't been to any Christian Church that criticize you for only praying silently.  
I have been in secular places where you were banned from praying audibly and silently. No, the world would be perfectly happy to never see you praying.
Ah, but giving, money, that is the world's meat. Oh, you are supposed to flaunt your wealth in the world. Even if you prefer not to be a flaunter, the world doesn't make it easy to hide your giving. You have United Way drives in your places of business where you are asked to pledge some amount from your pay.  You are assailed constantly by many charities for donations. You have a deduction on your income tax for what you give. But you have to have some proof you actually gave. This may be cancelled checks or receipts. Your church may provide giving envelopes and then a statement at tax time of what you gave the past year.
And if you don't show your giving, people think you are cheap and stingy. You may be chided by some for this. Everything is designed to make you want to scream, “I gave, I gave, I gave.”
But I try to give very anonymously. I don't give by check or envelop. I give cash, hidden away from all eyes as to the source. I don't claim donations on my tax form. My giving is between God and me. 
Thus I was attending this church every week and I was putting into the collection plate each time, but there was no record.  I was attending a Bible study every week, but no roll call was taken to be turned over to the church.  I was there, but there was no official record to prove it. 
Still, even if I had been absent from services, my blotting out of the church rolls was illegal under the church constitution. It stated any member who does not attend or have contact with the church for one year might be removed from membership. However, before such removal, a deacon, elder or the pastor must visit the member to inquire why they have stopped coming and attempt to bring them back into the fold. If after this, they still do not attend, they will be notified they have been removed from membership.
None of this happened. No one from the church visited or contacted me. I received no notification of my removal. Besides, I was not absent or out of contact with the church for a year.

Many of those discovering they were non-persons that night choose to appeal. Many also continued to fight the proposed changes. I wasn't among them. A schism had occurred. It was sad. There was no happy ending, no way back. Whichever side finally won this (and it was to be the pastor's); the other side would harbor hurt feelings and resentment. It was better to forgive and forget and move on than stay and be unwelcome or non-accepting of the new doctrine.
I won't, as I said, say what caused the schism, but I will tell you one thing I didn't agree with this pastor about it. There are Scripture passages that argue against his view.
There was something else.  He didn't believe any non-believers should be in the church (with a small c, that is his church building and service). He taught church was an exclusive club for believers only. He didn't believe the church should waste a moment on evangelism. He taught that allowing the lost to come to church was detrimental to the saved Christians there.
Once upon a time I was lost and went into a church. If they had made me unwelcome in their house because I was lost, who knows, perhaps I would still be lost. I believe one of the purposes of the church (with a small c) is to be a bridge to the lost, to help them learn the truth and to come to know the Lord and join the Church (with a capital C). When the time comes, the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats, not I or you or some minister. I believe our duty as believers is to try to gather more sheep.
I admit to being angry after that night when I found myself cast aside and labeled a goat. But then I realized it was a good thing. Not for that church, because a year later that minister and his associate minister were gone and that church went without a pastor for almost two years, its numbers shrinking and its former members flung far and wide in other churches.


But why was this a good thing for me?
Because I realized I was becoming an invisible man. I was fading away as a "salty" Christian as much as the photograph accompanying this post. It was a wake up call that I needed to heed or I was in danger of becoming a goat after all.