Thursday, April 29, 2010

Noah’s Ark and the Flood Story

With the supposed discovery of Noah’s Ark, we have to ask, “Did it really happen?” In other words, is the story of Noah’s Ark a truly historical event or a myth? If it’s a myth, how does that affect our faith? If the artifact recently discovered on Mt. Ararat in Turkey can be shown to be the Ark, then that will go a long was towards verifying that there was such a boat.

I know some will disagree with me, but I have no problem believing that the Noah’s Ark story is a “sacred myth” that conveys a truth from God. Just as Jesus’ parables (which were fictional illustrations) make a point, so might the Noah story. The historical accuracy of a biblical story is irrelevant – it’s the truth that it conveys that’s important. Remember, the Bible isn’t supposed to be a history book or a scientific text book, but a book that transmits God’s messages to us through human intermediaries in ways that are easily understood by people from ancient to modern times.

I also don’t have a problem believing the Noah story as being historically accurate – a depiction of a real event. There have been flood stories in many ancient cultures around the world, indicating that something must have happened. A layer of sediment has been found around the world around the estimated time of the flood indicating something worldwide must have occurred.

Either way, we shouldn’t let the debate over these Old Testament stories get in the way of our faith. For Christians, it is important that we understand and believe the basics, which these stories convey to us. What are the basics? We find them in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. For example,

We believe that God made heaven and earth (although we don’t exactly know how).

We believe we are all accountable to God for our actions, and God will judge us.

We believe Jesus came to earth to pay the penalty for our wrongdoing so we could have the kind of relationship with God for which we were created.

We believe Jesus went willingly to the Cross to fulfill his purpose in coming to earth, he died, rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Noah’s Ark and Other Artifacts

There isn’t a lot of news about religion reported in the mainstream media except when it is bad. Sadly we’ve heard a number of bad news stories about Catholic pedophile priests, bishops covering up, and evangelical pastors caught in adultery (with both men and women). Now there is the rare news story about religion that isn’t unfavorable.

Although there have been sightings over the years in the area, an exploration team has supposedly found Noah’s Ark where the Bible says it came to rest, on Mt. Ararat in Turkey. The team has a high degree of confidence that this is the real boat built by Noah. While that’s pretty exciting, one could also ask, “So what?” What difference should this, or the Shroud of Turin, or miracles at Lourdes make to our faith (or lack thereof)?

Our faith should not be based on “proofs” provided by archaeological artifacts. Artifacts, if anything, should simply confirm what we already believe. I doubt if finding the ark will convince anybody to convert to Christianity or Judaism. God has to touch a person and that person has to be open to God’s touch. Closed minds mean closed doors, and there are certainly a lot of people who claim to be open-minded and tolerant who are anything but. All the artifacts in the world won’t open a closed mind – they will always find some objection.

An interesting case is the Shroud of Turin. A while back the Catholic Church hoped to put to rest once and for all the question of whether or not the Shroud was the burial cloth of Jesus. Scientists cut off an edge of the Shroud, did carbon dating, and found the artifact to date to around 1200 years ago or something like that. It was supposedly “scientifically” proven that the cloth did not date back to Jesus’ time. Some years later somebody made an interesting observation. The edge piece they cut off to do the carbon dating had skin oil on it from when the Shroud was occasionally displayed in the Middle Ages. A row of men would hold the Shroud by an edge and hold it up for a while for the people to view. So this “scientific” proof simply meant that there was skin oil on the Shroud from the Middle Ages.

But it really doesn’t matter. If you are a Christian, you should believe that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. You shouldn’t need artifacts to convince you.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Resisting Temptation

In an earlier post I stated that we can’t police ourselves. My point was that we have a predisposition to sin (do wrong things), and even various controls and inadequate and don’t stop us. We love the forbidden fruit. Consequently, we are vulnerable to temptation, and we are experts at rationalizing our wrongdoing: it won’t hurt anybody, nobody will know, everybody’s doing it, etc.

How, you may ask, do we keep from doing wrong things (euphemistically called “making bad choices” these days)? It isn’t easy, but as I mentioned in my earlier post, the best way to fight off temptation is staying close to God by regular worship, daily prayer, and weekly Bible study. Often temptations are stronger than we are, so we need God to help us. If we rely solely on our own strength, we will fail, eventually hurting ourselves and others.

You should realize there is nothing wrong with being tempted – even Jesus was tempted. How we handle it is the question. Do we rely on God to get us through? In the temptation stories of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13) the devil throws Scripture at him, misusing it to try to mislead him. Jesus, obviously knowledgeable in the Scriptures, throws some back at the devil, correctly applying it and driving the devil away.

The moral is that if we know Scripture, it can be helpful in resisting temptation, with the bonus that it helps us discern its wrong use or its misinterpretation in false teaching. Let us remember this passage from 1 Peter 5:8-9a: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith. (NIV)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

We Can’t Police Ourselves

If anybody still doubts that humanity is not infected with a sin nature, all you have to do is look at the corporate, banking, and financial industry wrongdoing. I hate to tell you, but people in those industries are no different from you and me. If we were in the position to do what they did and potentially profit handsomely from it, would you and I be strong enough to resist the temptation?

Knowing the sinful human nature, government and industry groups have put together ways of monitoring and controlling behavior. In business you have groups that determine what is determined to be appropriate accounting (GAAP-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles), so that abuses do not occur. In the financial industry you have the SEC, who is supposed to regulate investment activities so that investors are protected from fraud and abuse. Sadly, these watchdogs have let us down, so we’ve had Enron, Goldman Sachs, Bernie Madoff, and the like.

To those who naively believe that everybody is born “good” and society makes them go bad, I say just look at little children at play. They aren’t killing each other, but they have to be taught to share, some of them bully others, and most appear to be selfish.

What are the results of the sinful inclinations of people and their inability to police themselves?

The medical field didn’t police itself, so now we have costly medical care because of high malpractice insurance premiums and the practice of defensive medicine. Business didn’t police itself, and so we have untold misery as people have lost their life savings, charities have gone under because their endowments became worthless, etc. The Church couldn’t police itself, so you have pedophile priests and unfit ministers causing grief and ruining lives.

My point in all this is that we need to be close to God. Obviously those pedophile priests and unfit ministers weren’t close to God, just going through the motions. Staying close to God by regular worship, daily prayer, and weekly Bible study will help you to resist temptations when they attack you. It’s obvious we can’t do it in our own strength. So if you are far from God and not doing so well, make some changes in your life.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

In an earlier post I referred to the Pete Seeger anti-war song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” That song brings back a memory from 1967 that I’d like to share with you.

I was in army basic training at Fort Dix, NJ, in the fall and winter of 1967. I wasn’t in favor of the war in Viet Nam, but I wasn’t going to be a draft dodger either. So I worked with my army recruiter to enlist in a non-combat MOS (military occupational specialty). So if I did end up on the other side of the Pacific, at least I’d be supporting the troops, and not be one of them on the front lines.

One day during basic training, probably in early December of 1967, our company was out in the field doing some sort of training. Sometimes we marched out to these field locations, and sometimes we were taken out by truck (deuce and a half usually). While we were on this particular exercise, it started to snow. After a while, the company commander stopped the exercise (or it might have just ended) and had the trucks called to transport us back to our barracks.

Since the trucks were going to take a while to arrive, we waited in a small building nearby. Then the company commander said, “Let’s have a sing-a-long to help pass the time.” At that point, none of us felt like singing. We were cold, hungry, and tired. He suggested we sing a song that was popular at that time. You guessed it. He said, “Let’s sing ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’.”

So there we were, about 75 army trainees in fatigues coming back from learning how to kill, maim, and otherwise hurt the enemy singing the anti-war song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” It was a surreal moment, especially considering that we were those husbands, sons, fathers, brothers who were “gone to war, everyone.” I wonder if the lieutenant ever got the irony of the situation.

Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?
Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

(“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Words and Music by Pete Seeger (1955)
(c) 1961 (renewed) by Sanga Music Inc.)

I admit that as we sang that song in the most ridiculous of settings, tears came to my eyes as I pondered, “Which of these guys will return home in a body bag?” I knew some of them would. All because of stupid politicians in Washington like President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara.

Have we learned from the Viet Nam experience? Apparently George W. Bush slept through that class, because he once again sent troops into a questionable war, this time in Iraq. “Oh, when will they ever learn?” Sorry Pete, I don’t think they’ll ever learn. That’s the sorry condition of the human race, one that largely rejects or ignores the teaching of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ. He taught us and even showed us how to live, but we, like sheep, continue to go our own way. Oh, when will we ever learn?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Where Have all the Young Men Gone?

Pete Seeger, my neighbor in Beacon, NY, wrote these words many years ago:

Where have all the husbands gone, long time passing?
Where have all the husbands gone, long time ago?
Where have all the husbands gone?
Gone for soldiers everyone
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

(“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Words and Music by Pete Seeger (1955)
(c) 1961 (renewed) by Sanga Music Inc.)

Today I might ask a similar question: “Where have all the young men gone?” No, they haven’t gone to war, but a number have dropped out. Today, 57% of college students are women. Women are doing very well, which is wonderful, but where are the men? While some of this disparity may result from the African-American community per the article below, I don’t think that is the only reason. Please read the following article about black males.

Denominations Pledge to Help Black Youth

Three historic black denominations unveiled a new national plan last week aimed at keeping their young males out of prison and in school and church. Thousands gathered at the Carolina Coliseum in Columbia, S.C., for the 2010 Great Gathering. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church came together in a collaborative effort to address what they consider the "plight" of African-American males.

According to Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, more African Americans are in the U.S. correctional system than were enslaved in 1850. "A black boy, if he is born today, has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a black girl, a one in 18 chance," said Edelman.

The three Methodist denominations, which have a combined membership of more than 5 million, are calling it the Male Investment Plan and have pledged to fund it annually with $10 million. The program is designed for black males ages 5 to 25 and will address their needs, specifically in the area of the economy, education, health and spiritual enrichment. The goal is "to dramatically change the lives of our participants by exposing them to the awesome gifts given them by God," said Dr. Staccato Powell, pastor of Grace AME Zion Church in Raleigh, N.C., and chairman of the gathering. [,]

(From Pastor’s Weekly Briefing, March 11. Copyright © 2010, Focus on the Family.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured)

I suspect, and I hope I’m wrong, that the African-American males may be on the leading edge of a societal shift. More males may be becoming “slackers”. Unfortunately many parents accommodate them by allowing them to live at home, often rent-free and without any responsibility for chores. Such parents are enabling these kids to be bums.

Sadly, boys haven’t had good role models, both at home and in the media. Fathers have left their families for another woman or other reasons. Most men in TV sitcoms are portrayed as morons (such as Homer Simpson). Back when I was a kid, we had Jim Anderson of “Father Knows Best” and Ward Cleaver of “Leave It to Beaver.” There were many other similar TV programs showing upright fathers and husbands: Danny Thomas, Dick Van Dyke, and a host of others. Even in the westerns you had moral and dedicated men such as Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke”. Indeed, where have all the positive role models gone?

If you are a parent, act like one. Be there for your kid, encourage him or her, and don’t enable them to be irresponsible. Our future depends on it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pope’s Priest Doesn’t Get It

The Pope’s priest gave a sermon recently comparing the criticism the Roman Catholic Church is receiving for its child abuse to anti-Semitism. His talk showed just how out of touch the Church is. Certainly the Catholic-haters and Christian-bashers are having a field day, but that doesn’t mean all the criticism is unjustified.

Anti-Semitism is pure prejudice based on the person’s religion and/or ethnicity. The criticism of the Catholic Church is based on bad behavior. There’s a big difference. Sadly, the criticism of the church is justified, although I think the Pope may be catching more heat than he deserves. He truly may not have known what his underlings were doing, although we’ll probably never know for sure.

What’s sad, especially about the cover up and moving pedophile priests from one parish to another, is that the Church, of all institutions, should be honest in its dealings. Even the Church may have its bad apples, but the bishops should have been forthright and firm in handling such problems, especially when children are the victims.

One of the rules that may have resulted in having pedophile priests is the ridiculous and unbiblical requirement for priestly celibacy, which I’ve discussed in earlier posts. Celibacy should be optional, not mandatory. It would solve a lot of problems, including the priest shortage. Let’s hope that things change in the Catholic Church for the better.

One of the sad results of this whole mess is that some people will leave the Catholic Church in disgust, but I suspect most of them won’t join a Protestant church. So those disillusioned people won’t be spiritually fed, will drift away from any relationship with God, and may be harboring bitterness and resentment against God, Christianity, and the church universal. All because the Church couldn’t police itself.

One thing I’m thankful for, and that is that I was never molested by a priest in my 4 years as an altar boy and my 12 years in parochial school. God protected me from such a traumatic experience, and I believe God led me out of the Catholic Church so I could eventually serve him as a minister of the Gospel. I thought I was rebelling when I dropped out of the Church, but it was all part of God’s plan. Little did I know back then.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Why the Cross? (Part 5)

While we Christians look back at the Crucifixion as the most important event in the history of the world, we also look forward. We look forward to continuing to enjoy a fulfilled life in relationship with the living Jesus. We eagerly anticipate his Second Coming, and we are assured we have a great future beyond the grave – in the presence of Almighty God.

After reading these posts, hopefully you’ll have a better appreciation as to why Christian hymns and praise songs emphasize the cross. When we sing “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” it will take on a deeper meaning for us. When we sing “Lift high the cross” we’ll know why we want to lift it high. When we sing “Hallelujah! What a Savior” or “Victory in Jesus” we’ll better appreciate what Jesus did for us. When we stop and think of God’s love for us, how can we not be grateful and full of praise for all that God has done for us?
Like the hymn writer, we’ll want to say:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride

Friday, April 2, 2010

Why the Cross? (Part 4)

Since we are in Holy Week for Christians, we hear about Jesus’ Last Supper, his arrest, and his execution as a criminal on a Roman cross. Since Jesus’ death on the cross is central to Christianity, we should understand why such a thing happened. I’ve tried to explain this in a series of posts.

With the prior posts in mind, let’s see how what I wrote ties in with Isaiah 53, which was written over 500 years before Jesus. I think you’ll agree that Isaiah 53 is prophetic of what Jesus did in his passion and death.

III. Isaiah 53

Verse 4 says that Jesus took up and bore our sins, suffering the penalty of those sins on our behalf, thus satisfying God’s justice:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. NIV

This is also explained in 2 Corinthians 5:21 in the New Testament:

For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. NRSV

Verse5 explains the substitutionary nature of what Jesus did – he died in our place so that we can get right with God (“brought us peace”):

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds (or stripes) we are healed. NIV

He paid our penalty, and by that we are made whole with God (by his stripes we are healed). Verse 7 tells how Jesus did not resist his tormentors:

He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. NIV

Verses 9-10 again tell that although Jesus was sinless, he was punished because he took on our sins:

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. NIV

Verse 11b reiterates what was written earlier in Isaiah 53:

By knowledge of him my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

Note the use of the theological term “justify”, which according to Easton’s Bible Dictionary means:

The judicial act of God, by which he pardons all the sins of those who believe in Christ, and accounts, accepts, and treats them as righteous in the eye of the law, that is, as conformed to all its demands.

The Hebrew word translated as “justify” denotes being cleansed or being pardoned.

More on this in a concluding post.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why the Cross? (Part 3)

Since we are in Holy Week for Christians, we hear about Jesus’ Last Supper, his arrest, and his execution as a criminal on a Roman cross. Since Jesus’ death on the cross is central to Christianity, we should understand why such a thing happened. I’ll try to explain this in a series of posts.

4. We Can’t Pay

Another dilemma is that because we humans are so imperfect, there is no way we can fully pay the penalty for our numerous sins. Even our good works are inadequate – they can’t offset all the bad things we have done over our lifetimes, as we read in Isaiah 64:6a:

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. NIV

We read in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved from the penalty of our sins only through God’s grace when we put our faith and trust in Jesus:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast. NRSV

So God’s plan was for Jesus to pay our penalty for us – only God is big enough to satisfy his own justice once and for all. Since the result of sin is spiritual death, the only way to pay that terrible price is for Jesus to die a human death as we read in Romans 6:23:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. NRSV

5. Jesus’ Death an Act of Love

Jesus didn’t die to satisfy a wrathful and vengeful God, but to put things back into balance so we could have that relationship with God. Those who commit their lives to Jesus and follow God’s plan for salvation receive eternal life, as we read in John 3:16-18:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” NRSV

Jesus’ death on the cross was the ultimate act of love because he suffered for those he loves – us, as we read in John 15:13:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

6. Jesus Restored Us to Our Rightful Place

We should understand we are all God’s creation, but only those who have put their faith in Jesus are God’s children, as we read in John 1:12:

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. NRSV

Similarly, it says in Galatians 4:4a, 5b:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman … so that we might receive adoption as children. NRSV

More on this in a future post.