Saturday, November 23, 2013

Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard Review by Chris White

I must admit I was a little wary of reading this book about the death of Jesus not because I had any fear my faith would be destroyed, but because O’Reilly is a political commentator by profession (although I understand he has some background in Catholicism) and not a qualified theologian.  As someone who actually worships Jesus of Nazareth as the son of God on pretty much a daily basis, I don’t want his story trampled on by someone who frankly doesn’t know what he’s talking about or has a predisposition towards thinking the gospel is a bunch of hokum.  If I could use a travel analogy, when I check my new luggage at the airline counter, I don’t expect my suitcase won’t be bumped a little bit, but I want my belongings treated with respect and not just slung around by some imbecilic baboon who is bent on damaging my stuff all in the line of just doing his job.  As I turned the last page, I felt that Messrs. O’Reilly and Dugard, had treated something that is sacred for me with the utmost respect and courtesy.
Now that said, I didn’t really learn anything new in the book.  But then again, I am a pastor and have been studying this topic for 32 years and have done my share of Good Friday and Easter Sunday meditations which have had me in this material (both the scriptures, ancient secular histories, and supplemental studies that are cited as resources for this book).  What I enjoyed about Killing Jesus is something only Mr. O’Reilly can deliver and that is his keen sense for the politics and connections in the Roman Empire (which included the Israel of Jesus’ day).  Many political figures are referenced in the Gospels, but their backgrounds were unimportant to the writers and so other works must be consulted to really make any connections.  Also if you’ve read Killing Lincoln or Killing Kennedy you’ll see the similar and very effective pattern of bringing the protagonists together from different periods and places until they collide on the fateful day.  It’s very helpful and a great device for giving some interesting background that could come off as dry or incidental otherwise.
I would recommend this book for someone unfamiliar with the New Testament who wanted to learn more about what happened to Jesus and his rise to prominence.  It is certainly not all you should know but it is a well-done primer.  If you are familiar with the Gospels and Acts, this does a great job of supplementing them without changing the story.  Use the excellent bibliography in the back for suggestions for further reading.  Mr. O’Reilly, thanks for putting Jesus Christ in your “no-spin zone”!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Small, Real, Abiding Faith by Chris White

Mulberry Tree

“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’  And the Lord said, ‘If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’” Lk.17:5-6

In the sphere of human endeavor, great tasks or accomplishments require great resources and efforts.  It is quite natural for us to assume that great works of spiritual value must also require great amounts of faith.  But the Lord’s reply to His apostles request was just the opposite.  You don’t need a great amount of small faith, you need only a small amount of great faith.  What’s the difference?  It must be the conviction that God is in no way limited by situations and circumstances and can answer all prayers in accordance with His will.  The mulberry tree in Israel is deeply and broadly rooted but also could not survive being planted only in water.  It would be impossible to pull it out by human effort and impossible for it to thrive without divine intervention.  This is the kind of faith that can trust God for the impossible.  The call to this kind of faith must also be tempered with not putting the Lord to the test.  Jesus wasn’t afraid to jump off the pillar of the Temple because the Lord wouldn’t catch him, He was afraid to presume to do something the Father had not told him to do.  Presumption is not faith, it’s really a species of disobedience.  The way to avoid this trap is to trust God enough to not move beyond what you’re certain He has told you to do and not to move beyond His provision.  This is always hardest with people who have a bias towards action, but waiting on the Lord is the mark of real trust and humility.  As with all things spiritual, the Lord Jesus looks not to the quantity, but the quality of our faith.  If it is real, a small amount is all you need.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Wisdom of Silence by Chris White

I got off my plane at the Medford Airport.  I was thoroughly energized by the last six weeks having spent them at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, but it was good to be back home with the family.  It was also good to be away from the sweltering humidity of a Mid-western summer; something that must be experienced to fully understand the graciousness of our local climate.  But what surprised me the most when I got back home was the quiet.  I had grown so accustomed to the 24/7 background hum of Chicago that I no longer heard it anymore.  By comparison, the Rogue Valley was silent and that silence made everything I heard more brilliant by comparison.

The Greeks had a god of silence named Harpocrates.  They "borrowed" him from Egypt after Alexander the Great conquered them.  Harpocrates is the child Horus (an Egyptian god) who has a finger to his lips.   In Egyptian art fingers to the lips symbolize a child, but the Greeks did not understand this and took the gesture to mean "shhhh" or to be silent and thus Harpocrates began his new reign over quietude.  Harpocrates has been well-known since late antiquity and was frequently employed in art as a symbol of the ideals of quiet contemplation and silent prayer.  I recently visited a renaissance era Benedictine monastery and there in the library was a large painting of Harpocrates with his finger to his lips and a Latin phrase that said something to the effect that "wisdom is found in great silence."  It might have actually said "no talking or gum chewing in the library" as I am a bit of a novice in translating Latin to English.  Regardless, there is a wisdom to having zones of silence in this world as the continual babbling and small talk of people rarely puts us in a position to receive that wisdom of God that can only be found by listening.

Hugh Feiss O.S.B. in his book Essential Monastic Wisdom speaks of the Benedictine value of silence.  It is not silence for its own sake, but a purposeful discipline of the mind and tongue that is geared at helping a man or woman grow to be an attentive listener to God, his superiors, and fellow man.  In becoming more apt to listen, there follows other good fruits such as speaking truthfully to one's neighbor and being cautious and more measured as to give no occasion for offense or even gossip and false witness.  When words are fewer, they have greater value.  When someone speaks, they are taken seriously.  I have a valued colleague whom I regularly consult for his insights into business and personnel matters.  When he doesn't weigh in on something I'm talking about, I take that very seriously and will often say to him that his "silence is really quite deafening!"  His words always have value because they are not used commonly or carelessly.

The Bible speaks much about listening and cautiously measuring the use of our words.  One of my favorite verses says "When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent (Prov. 10:19)."  Elsewhere we read "Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding (Prov. 17:27)."  The Godward reason we should measure our words is the Lord says we will have to give an accounting before him for the careless words we have uttered (a sobering reality for a person like me).  Towards our fellow man we need to discipline our words because there is no such thing as unsaying something.  Courtroom lawyers know this quite well and will go ahead and say things and object to things all the while knowing that a judge can tell a jury to disregard something, but the fact remains the thought has already set sail in everyone's mind.  I know from experience and the sacred confessions of people under my spiritual care, that some of the deepest wounds of the soul come from words spoken carelessly and heartlessly by parents and peers.  Even if those words have been apologized for profusely, they still  have a way of registering permanently.  If we take this to heart and think before we speak we might find many things best left unsaid.

Mother Teresa, a person I have come to profoundly respect, said “In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”   The biggest part of really finding the Lord's presence is humility and one of its greatest demonstrations is realizing what we have to say isn't anywhere near as important as what He has to say.  Do we really think God doesn't know our needs, fears, frustrations and longings?  Faith tells us to pray (which is ostensibly talking to God) but faith also tells us to humble ourselves before the Lord.  Surely the wisdom of silence gives place for both.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Was the Church Lady Right? by Chris White

Many years ago comedian Dana Carvey had a regular sketch on Saturday Night Live called "Church Chat".  "Church Chat" was a mock television show where news of the week and cultural developments would be reviewed from the perspective of a buttoned-up, judgmental, Bible-thumping character called the Church Lady.  Of course the punch line of the sketch invariably led to her regular evaluation: "I don't know who inspired that….could it be….SATAN!"  It was irreverent, mocking, and of course quite hilarious and even as I write, I'm smirking in remembrance of her sketch with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or was that Jim and Tammy Baye Faker?  Memory seems to fail me.

It was all in good fun and the Church Lady is definitely a caricature of a type of Christian who sees the devil behind everything even when there is an obvious explanation that would be to the contrary.  There is an equal but opposite type of a Christian as well who sees every little thing that happens as God's direct benediction upon their lives.  If a person like this had been in the passenger seat during my commute to work this morning they would have said "oh, praise the Lord!  He's given us favor with hitting all green lights this morning!".  The reality was that I was purposefully speeding and maniacally weaving in and out of traffic on wet pavement and in the fog.  So if God was blessing me, it was not his favor towards my sin, just mercy on my stupidity.  But these extremes aside, I do want to go on record as saying Church Lady not completely wrong in her assertions about the Prince of Darkness.

I believe in the person of Satan.  I  reject the position that the devil is a human fabrication to explain why decent human beings make really bad choices.  I equate such thinking with the belief that the stork delivers babies to people and that Santa Claus and his elves live at the North Pole and only come out at Christmastime (even these symbolic images are accretions on some serious facts).  Satan is also not an impersonal force of evil exerting influence on humanity like gravity or barometric pressure.  There are plenty of people who believe such things and as C.S. Lewis would say, nothing would delight the Enemy more than we don't believe he exists.

If the polls are true, Satan must be do a happy dance every time he thinks about America .  Belief surveys tend to show a clear majority of Americans (55-57%) do not believe that Satan exists.  The  Barna group who polled only Christians on this question several years ago showed that 59% didn't believe in the person of the devil.  So, if Barna is to be believed here, those people who self-identify as Christians believe even less in the devil than the general population does.  Brilliant.  Once again, I'm certain nothing delights the devil more and I guess I must identify with the minority of self-professing Christians who believe the Bible should be taken literally.

Satan as he appears in the scriptures is at great variance with the devil of public imagination.  He is described as quite beautiful in appearance and not the least bit red or having horns, tail, or a pitchfork in his possession.  What is taught about the evil one is that he is an angelic being created by God who became so arrogant that he attempted to oppose his Creator and in so rebelling became the devil.  His complicity in the occasion of Original Sin reveals something of his nature and his own rebellion against God.  He appears to the parents of the human race as some form of attractive creature and through subtle suggestion leads them to believe God has been less than good to them and that they should take control of their own destiny.  Such a plan had a serious plausibility factor built into it, but when acted upon was quite disastrous and in the end delivered none of its promises.  Beguiling people with stellar appearance, promising them a glorious future and then delivering them to a diminished existence is not a strategy that is limited to American politics alone.  It is the essential core of Satan's standard operating procedure.

Two of the names ascribed to Satan are a dark angel "masquerading as an angel of light" (2 Cor.11:14) and the "accuser of the brethren"(Rev. 12:10).  There are many other names or descriptions for the devil given in the Bible, but these two give insight his strategies against Christians.   The principle effort of Satan is to deceive a person in such a way as to disconnect them from God.  Please listen carefully here.  I am not saying Satan can disconnect God from you.  I am saying he will do most anything he can to get you to sever your ties with the Lord.  Surprisingly one of his best tools for this is religion.   What makes religion good is that it elevates the human mind and soul with an insight that is greater than ourselves about how to live, think, and treat others.  By the same token, this is what makes religion so dangerous as well.  Not all religions are true (unless of course you believe that logical contradictions are logical) which means that if the light you get from it is not true, you find yourself doing things like flying airliners into New York skyscrapers or committing group suicide when you spot a comet in the sky.  The Devil very obviously cloaks himself in religious light to appeal to man's spiritual bent, but what he speaks from behind the masquerade is anything but the truth.

Where I live (the state of Oregon) religious people are much fewer and most people shy away from the spiritual.  What I have long observed here is that Satan has another plan for the more secularized which leads them to give ultimate value to very temporal things.  I'm not saying there is anything wrong with recreation or family or hobbies, but for too many this has become the thing of supreme value which means for all intent and purposes, God's place has been usurped by snowmobiling or worse yet, a new iphone (I have watched people in airports gaze at their smartphones with expressions that border on worshipful ).   Then of course there is the chemical pathway to meaning.  Drugs and alcohol are horrible addictions which I would not make light of, but in a sense they artificially produce many of the same things people would find in religion.  Drink enough merlot or smoke enough weed and at least for a while there is peace of mind and even a mild sensation of transcendence.  Of course it’s illusory and never ends well for the person, but that was exactly the point.

What is so devilish about all these things is people are lured in (rarely against their own wishes) and once they are in deep enough, Satan finishes his work of destruction.  If you are trapped in a false religion or are an atheist, secularist, or drug addict, he’ll nurture you along until you die separated from God like he is.  If you belong to Christ, once you’ve been lured away with his temptations and are trapped, he will do what he can to discredit you and render you completely neutralized.  He is the accuser of the brethren because he knows God is holy and just and wants us condemned and punished even as he is going to be in the future.

In this matter,  Satan is right.  God is holy and just and does condemn and punish sin.  If He didn’t do so He could hardly be considered holy or just.  But this is where the good news of the Gospel needs to be taken to heart.  God is able to remain perfectly just and holy while at the same time show mercy and grace to sinners because He sent His son Jesus to die and take our judgment upon Himself.  This was a costly thing done for us but if He who is creator and judge assumes our penalty, then truly are no longer guilty or condemned by God.   Satan may accuse us before God all he wants, and in every regard it could be said those accusations are not without warrant.  We are all guilty as charged.  But the penalty is already paid by Jesus, which effectively leaves you not innocent, but forgiven in the eyes of God.  This is why Christians say we are not perfect, just forgiven, unless of course you are the Church Lady.  She is perfect.  Now, isn’t that special?