Love her. Submit unto him.

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses these words to introduce his instructions to husbands and wives, to children and parents, and to workers and supervisors. Like Confucius, Paul taught that one must know who one is in relation to others to be sure of what one ought to be doing. Ever since Paul wrote these words, people have been pulling bits of them out of the larger context and using them to try to control each other.

Men and women are different. The difference can be seen microscopically (the difference between X and Y chromosomes) or by studying the entire package. Some differences may be culturally induced (nurture rather than nature), but that does not make them wrong. Whether one attributes the differences between men and women to a wise Creator (as I do) or explains them as “survival of the fittest,” the differences between men and women help to form stronger families, stronger communities, stronger nations, and a better world.

Paul tells men to love their wives with a sacrificial, Christ-like love. This theme diverts Paul into the mystery of Christ and the Church, in which every marriage of a man and a woman becomes a picture or analogy of Christ and the Church. Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands “as to the Lord.” Since he has already told all Christians to submit to one another, it seems odd that he would reiterate that instruction to the wives.

To submit is not to be inferior. Jesus Christ submits to God the Father even though they are equal in power, in wisdom, in glory, and in every other way. To submit is not to be a willing victim to sinful behavior. Christians are told to exhort one another to good works. We are told to remove the logs from our eyes so we can see clearly to remove the specks from our brothers’ eyes. When Eve was created, she was to be a teammate of Adam. (Four hundred years ago the translators working for King James I of England chose the term “helpmate.” More recent translations have shortened the word to “helper,” but “teammate” is more accurate.) They were to work together in their assigned jobs: to care for the Garden, to rule over the land animals and flying animals, and to be fruitful and multiply.

All Christians should love each other and submit to one another. I speculate that Paul told husbands to love their wives because the masculine gender is more likely to stray from their proper mates. Men are more easily tempted to be unfaithful; women are more likely to stay and nurture their families. (These are generalities—of course many exceptions can be found.) Paul stresses that husbands should love their wives because strong love will keep a husband faithful to his wife.

In the same way, I speculate that Paul told wives to submit to their husbands because, as love seems more natural to women than to men, their desire to nurture can be changed into a desire to control. Sometimes men find it easier to let the women in their lives control them than to claim leadership in their families. Men joke about being tied to apron strings and about the old ball and chain. Men notice that the love of their wives can be expressed as controlling rather than as submitting.

Husbands are to focus their effort on loving their wives. Wives are to focus their effort on submitting to their husbands. Husbands and wives both should love each other and submit to one another. Paul does not address the matter of who goes first. A husband is not permitted to say, “I’ll start loving her when she shows she has submitted to me,” and a wife is not permitted to say, “I’ll begin to submit when he shows that he loves me.” Marriages flounder over such arguments, because marriages consist of two sinful people trying to share their lives with one another. The only remedy is that greater love of which marriage is a picture. Christ’s sacrificial love removes the stain of sin, making the Church and each of its members pure and holy in the sight of God. Without that guarantee, marriage would be a burden. With the forgiveness of God generating forgiveness between wife and husband, the teamwork can be joyful. J.

 

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Beatitudes

The opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew chapter 5, have been called the Beatitudes. Tom Sawyer tried to memorize them for his Sunday School class because they are short verses, but he found them confusing. In fact, many people have been confused by these lovely and simple verses.

Jesus describes the people he likes to bless. He calls them poor in spirit—which has nothing to do with how much money and property they own. “Poor in spirit” means that your money and property does not own you. He calls them those who mourn. He calls them meek. He says that they hunger and thirst for righteousness. He calls them merciful. He calls them pure in heart and peacemakers. He also warns that they will be persecuted, reviled, and the targets of vicious lies, all because of their relationship with Jesus.

Some Christians take these Beatitudes to be commandments from Jesus, additions to the famous Ten Commandments given through Moses. Others treat them as suggestions about how to live, or rules to be followed only by a few special people in the Church. This misunderstanding is caused by the mistake of overlooking the word “blessed.” This word adjusts the meaning of everything else Jesus says in these verses.

The original Greek word in Matthew’s Gospel, “makarios,” is used elsewhere to describe a royal grant. A blessing is given, never earned. It indicates the goodness of the giver, not the goodness of the receiver. Far from being a list of commandments, the Beatitudes are a list of promises, indicating that Jesus wants to bestow gifts on all people, and those who follow him will receive those blessings.

What are the blessings? They are seven, an indication of completeness when found in the Bible. The blessings are the kingdom of heaven, comfort, inheriting the earth, being satisfied, receiving mercy, seeing God, and being called sons of God. (Why sons and not children? Because God looks at Christians through the work of his Son. He sees the righteousness of Jesus. Of each Christian, God the Father says what he said about Jesus: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased.”)

The kingdom of heaven, the mercy of God, being called sons of God: all of these are gifts from God to his people. His people do not earn these gifts; Jesus earned these gifts with his righteousness and shares them because of his goodness. Think of it: blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. The mercy of God was already there for you long before your first opportunity to show mercy to others. The mercy you show to others is a result of God’s mercy, not a cause of his mercy.

That is the way all the Beatitudes work. The gift is named second, and the result of the gift is mentioned first. Because we have the treasure of the kingdom of heaven, we can be poor in spirit, not owned by the material treasures of this world. Because we are already being comforted, we can mourn over our sins and over the evil in this world. Because we will inherit the earth, we can afford to be meek today. Because we will be satisfied, we can hunger and thirst for righteousness. Because we will see God, we can be pure in heart today. Because we are already called sons of God, we can work for peace today.

The world will reject us. The world will treat us the way it treated Jesus. Yet because the kingdom of heaven is ours, we can accept the rejection of the world. After all, we remind the world of Jesus by resembling him and by imitating him.

The Beatitudes describe Jesus. He is perfectly poor in spirit, pure in heart, and all the rest. The Beatitudes help us to imitate Jesus by describing him to us. Our power to imitate Jesus comes, not from our efforts, but from his blessings. Because the kingdom of heaven is ours and we will inherit the earth, we can today act as if we belong in God’s kingdom. For Jesus has done the work necessary to make that kingdom our home. We hunger and thirst for righteousness, and we are satisfied, for the righteousness of Jesus has been given to us. To Christ be the glory! J.

 

Book report: The God Delusion

 

Richard Dawkins is a scientist, a writer, and an atheist. When I saw a chance to grab a free copy of his best-selling attack on religion, The God Delusion, I seized it. This month I have read Dawkins’ book and am ready to offer a review.

Some parts of the book are quite interesting and even useful—particularly those near the beginning and the end of the book. Much of what exists between the two is less satisfying reading. For a while, I thought that Dawkins might be engaged in deliberate satire, mocking the earnest but shrill defenders of religion whom he deplores. Alas, Dawkins is equally earnest and equally shrill in his attacks upon religion. His certainty that science provides correct answers to the questions of the universe blinds him to the reality that, at best, he can provide, for an agnostic, evidence that creation and evolution are equally plausible (or, one might add, equally implausible).

I was prepared for better writing. Dawkins’ friend, Douglas Adams, was able to skewer religion while provoking laughter. Although the back cover promises “a hard-hitting, impassioned, but humorous rebuttal of religious belief,” most of what passes for humor is snide sarcasm. I’ve seen better-phrased rebuttals of religious belief in the comments on various blogs, written by amateurs with no published books to their credit.

Logic is an important tool in the pursuit of scientific investigation, but Dawkins employs most of the logical fallacies identified centuries ago by Aristotle. He lists notorious abuses done in the name of religion, as if this was sufficient to condemn all religion. By the same logic, one could condemn science because it has caused pollution and nuclear bombs. He cherry-picks the Bible, reporting the statements he finds least believable without bothering to establish context for any of the quotes he selects. He references religious leaders who reject the truth of the Bible, as if their authority was somehow greater than that of religious leaders who still trust the Bible.

Dawkins firmly suggests that no one should speak of “Christian children” or “Muslim children.” He claims that no one can be part of any religious group without years of training and indoctrination. He offers no evidence for this claim. Dawkins speaks disparagingly of any person who does not accept evolution as a scientific fact beyond all doubt. In this book he never presents a shred of evidence that evolution is a scientific fact. (I am aware that he has written other books for that purpose, but somewhere in this book he should at least summarize his case for evolution since he uses opposition to the theory of evolution as a reason to attack religion. Given the poor communication skills he shows in this book, I am not likely to seek to read his books about evolutionary theory.

Dawkins also complains that the topic of religion is given a free pass in society, unlike any other topic. Bizarre behavior that should be unacceptable is allowed if it can be labeled as religious. People are unwilling to confront religious ideas with opposition, although they will debate any other subject. I don’t know where Dawkins has been living. I experience less tolerance of religious diversity than of cultural diversity, gender-identification diversity, or many other kinds of diversity in the world today. Perhaps Dawkins’ exaggeration balances that of the Christians who claim to be persecuted by those who say “Happy Holidays” to them.

Near the beginning of the book, Dawkins offers a usable distinction of theists, deists, pantheists, and atheists. (Rather than pantheists, he should have written panentheists. The former believe that everything is God, while the latter believe that God is contained in everything—a necessary distinction.) Many scientists, Dawkins says, are pantheists, viewing God as a result of the universe rather than its cause. While Dawkins remains an atheist, he shows some sympathy for the thought that a mighty God could develop in a universe of increasing complexity, although he says that a perfect God could not exist prior to such a universe. Nowhere in the book does Dawkins address the idea of entropy (the tendency of closed systems to become less complex over time), but his distinction allows for interesting discussion of these four approaches to belief in God.

When I was in college, I raised this question: Is it easier to believe that advocates of evolution were created or that advocates of creation have evolved? Dawkins provides a fine answer, explaining how religion could be a necessary part of human evolution, reacting to the world as it was seen in earlier times. He writes eloquently about the gaps in human knowledge that once were filled by religion but that now are closed by science. Reversing the metaphor, he speaks of science ripping away barriers to our sight, revealing a far more spectacular universe than our ancestors could sense or comprehend.

Dawkins does not realize, though, that believers find the vast universe unknown to our forbearers to be additional reason to praise the God who called the universe into being and shaped it according to his plan. Dawkins’ confrontation between science and religion is fueled by religious leaders, past and present, who have rejected science as a whole. Yet his approach borders on satire of religious discussion rather than a genuine attack upon religion as a whole. He seems to believe that no one can be scientific and religious at the same time.

To maintain an open mind, one must (from time to time) read the work of those with whom one disagrees. Perhaps the greatest benefit, for me, of reading this book is to confirm that rejection of religion does not result in clearer thinking and a healthier view of life as a whole. Dawkins demonstrates the truth that one can be a brilliant scientist without being an expert in other fields. I thank him for his effort, but I am not convinced by what he writes to abandon my faith. J.

Obsessive and compulsive reading

I am an obsessive and compulsive reader. Notice that I did not use the word “disorder.” There is nothing disordered about my reading. It does not interfere with my life, but in fact it enriches my life. All the same, I use my library in a way many people would find unnatural.

On any given day, I generally read from four or five books. (This does not include my daily Bible reading or any work-related reading.) In college, when I was taking four different classes and reading different kinds of material for each class, I was quite content. Now that I’m no longer in school, I continue my education, reading from an assortment of books that cover history, philosophy, theology, science, and literature. My mean average of books finished in a year is 120. (Yes, I keep track. My range since 2001 has been 91 to 176.)

As I start a book, I check how many pages it contains, and I calculate how many days I will be reading that book. A difficult book might hold me to twenty pages a day, an average book thirty pages a day, and an easy book forty or fifty pages a day. One of my coworkers has a husband who has the same habit. She has commented that she does not understand that habit—she reads to enjoy reading, and counting pages (in her opinion) lessens the enjoyment. Neither of us is able to explain to her why we count the number of pages we read in a day. We just do it.

In 2009 I arranged all my fiction books alphabetically by author and chronologically within the work of each author. I then started with Douglas Adams and began reading each book from beginning to end. Sometimes the jump from one author to the next is jarring—switching from Henry Miller to John Milton was recently quite a jolt. When I am finished with Milton, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is next. I’m looking forward to that book—I picked it up at a used book sale years ago and still haven’t gotten around to reading it. I’ve seen the movie more than once, and some of my daughters own copies of the book. One of them reads Gone with the Wind every year or so. This will be my first time.

If I like an author, I try to acquire all of his or her books. In my collection I have most of the books written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. I also have impressive collections of books by Dave Barry, Soren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, and Walker Percy. I have a copy of every book written by Richard Nixon, and I have about fifty books about Nixon, his presidency, and Watergate.

I have a shelf of books devoted to poetry and another devoted to drama. I have a shelf of books about King Arthur, ranging from fantasy works to historic investigations into the original Camelot.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that he tried meditation, but every benefit promised by meditation, he gained from reading a book. I quite agree. After a stressful day at work, nothing is more relaxing than time to read. I might be obsessive and compulsive about my books, but that’s OK—they keep me sane. J.

World religions and the LCC

I would rather have a Muslim family or two living in the neighborhood and practicing Sharia Law than be surrounded by neighbors active in the Lawn Care Cult (LCC).

In fact I would be delighted to live in a religiously diverse neighborhood, populated by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Daoists, Confucianists—even an eloquent atheist or two. I would want to organize a neighborhood book club in which we read about one another’s sacred traditions and discussed them respectfully—not as a debate, but as a genuine gathering to understand each other. But no matter how long I live, I will never understand the LCC.

A thought came to me while I was mowing this morning. My attitude toward lawn care resembles the attitude many people have toward Christianity: one hour a week is sufficient to meet my needs, and often other priorities cancel even that one hour of the week. I go through the proper motions to get through the hour as quickly as I can; and when I’m done, I’m done. God understands. Anyhow, I’ve never been too impressed with organized lawn care.

I started mowing after nine o’clock this morning. Mrs. Dim started mowing and trimming at seven. After all, you have to get to work early in the summer, before the day gets too hot. Churches ring their bells on Sunday mornings, so why shouldn’t members of the LCC be active early in the day? My daughters were grumpy about waking up to the noise, but I have taught them to be respectful about other people’s religious beliefs and practices.

I have said before that I wish I could be as zealous in my Christianity as Mrs. Dim is with her lawn care. Perhaps the problem is that the LCC has not found a way to make lawn care an uplifting experience. They have not experimented with ways to make lawn care more attractive to people new to the community, those who have not grown up nurtured in the LCC and its practices. They have not had meetings in which they ask each other what would make lawn care more attractive to those who are not part of their group. They do have pamphlets and flyers (from the Cooperative Extension Service and from Home Depot) and they have a weekly column in the local newspaper—in the very same section that contains the weekly religious column, the daily television listings, and the daily comics.

Noon is approaching, and Mrs. Dim is still finding tasks to keep her busy in her back yard. She calls it “piddling,” which sounds odd to me. I always thought “piddling” was what a puppy did on the kitchen floor if you didn’t get the puppy outside quickly enough. I have finished mowing, did a little trimming, and put my tools away long ago—I’ve had a shower and gotten some other tasks done, which is normal for a Saturday. In fact, since I started tying this paragraph, Mrs. Dim started blowing imaginary dirt off her deck, which has led to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” playing on my CD player. Oh, for some Sharia to discuss sometime! J.

 

War and migration

Citizens of the United States might assume that, when the wealthy and powerful people of the world gather to talk about important issues, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are high on the agenda. The rest of the world has some interest in the result of this year’s presidential election, but many other items are of far greater interest, even to Americans.

War and migration is probably the greatest preoccupation for those concerned about contemporary events. Violence in north Africa and west Asia—and the many thousands of people fleeing that violence—affects lives and businesses all over the world. No one who is involved in politics or in economic decisions can afford to ignore what is happening.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus noted that “wars and rumors of war” would continue until the Day of his return. One hundred years ago President Woodrow Wilson promised that the Great War would be the last war in history. Instead, it has been labeled “World War I.” Jesus was right; Wilson was wrong. Migration has also been a constant theme of history. People move to escape violence. They move to find jobs or to locate food. They move to enjoy better weather. They move to escape oppressive governments and to find greater freedom. Sometimes they move simply because they are bored.

In some cases governments encourage immigration. Russia once invited German families to relocate into Russia and farm land that was empty. American businesses (such as the railroads) used to advertise in Europe for workers, promising a better life in the New World. The Statue of Liberty in New York welcomes “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Just as often, governments try to limit immigration. Ancient China and ancient Rome built walls to keep the “barbarians” out of their land. Rome even paid some “barbarians” to live on the border and defend it from the next wave of immigrants. Tourists still visit Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, but those walls were not very effective barriers against the Xiongnu, the Mongols, the Goths, or the Huns.

The United States once set the standard for an effective modern method of welcoming refugees. When thousands of people fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States found homes for many of those people. When 125,000 Cubans escaped to Florida in 1980, the United States again found homes for them. Both times, the refugee families originally were housed on government property, such as underused military bases. Sponsors were sought and found for these families: relatives of the refugees, other families from the same land, church groups, charitable organizations, and anyone else who was willing and able to help. Refugees were documented and observed; they did not disappear into the general population. Sponsors cared for them and helped them to find homes and jobs and to adjust to life in a new and different culture.

The change was not always easy. American citizens were uneasy about these refugees from another part of the world. In 1980, rumors traveled quickly that the Cuban refugees contained many criminals, mentally ill persons, and other undesirables. In retrospect, the number of such people among the Cuban refugees was proportionally less than in the general population of the United States. Acts of violence did occur among the refugees in their camps while they waited for sponsors. Some of the refugees were displeased with the quality of life in the camps and with the length of time it took to find sponsors for all of them. Their protests over their condition were not always peaceful. Eventually, the United States was able to absorb these many refugees. They are part of the mosaic of cultures that compose the United States today.

Patterns of migration in the twentieth century actually affirm the values of American government. People fled the totalitarian socialist governments that called themselves Communist, seeking the freedom of societies that were democratic and capitalist. The Berlin wall was a powerful symbol of the difference; it was built, not to keep immigrants out, but to keep East Germans from leaving for the west. When Vietnam was divided into a Communist north and a non-Communist south, a few Vietnamese families moved north, but a million Vietnamese moved south. The escape from Cuba in 1980 is another reminder of the difference: that one vast migration alone dwarfs the number of people who have tried to enter Cuba during the decades that the Castro brothers have been in charge there.

The system that worked in 1975 and 1980 can work again today. International cooperation can shelter refugees from north Africa and west Asia for a short time while sponsors are found to integrate these people into a new culture. They can be documented and observed. The risk that terrorists lurk among these refugees is no greater than the risk of home-grown terrorists. Sponsors can be trained and equipped to watch for warning signs and report their suspicions to the proper authorities. That would make these refugees likely to be less dangerous than the boy next door.

Compassion for human beings requires more than walls and guards on the border. Today’s needy refugees can become the hard-working foundation of American and European enterprise tomorrow. Fear of people who are different is a common human trait. Refugees probably will be more frightened of their new neighbors (who outnumber them) than the neighbors are of them. Genuine compassion and sincere curiosity about those who are different can overcome such fear. While compassionate people deplore the violence that makes migration necessary, a touch of kindness can change a terrible situation into a blessing, both for the refugees and for those who welcome them. J.

Back from Dresden

The participants of the Bilderberg Conference for 2016 have returned to their homes around the world from Dresden. We can now enjoy the various conspiracy theories regarding this annual, invitation-only gathering of some of the world’s richest and most influential people.

From their own press releases, we know that they talked about the United States election, China, Russia, migration and refugees, and the “precariat” and the middle class. (Precariat describes workers who are struggling in the modern economy and have no long-term wage security.) Participants are allowed to share information they gained from the sessions, but not to quote any speaker directly.

Is this the New World Order at work? Did Bilderberg decide the outcome of this November’s presidential election? Are they managing the wars in north Africa and west Asia? Are they deciding on salaries and prices for the world’s economy? Are they conspiring to make themselves richer at the expense of everyone else?

Conspiracy theories are fun, so long as one does not take them too seriously. When a person loses optimism about the future because of conspiracy theories, that’s a bad thing. When a person stops trying to make the world better because of conspiracy theories, that’s a bad thing. When a person loses faith in God’s ability to rule creation and care for his people, that’s a very bad thing.

Conspiracies rarely succeed in changing history for two reasons. First, people who are greedy are not going to trust other greedy people to cooperate on a massive campaign of world dominance. Each conspirator is in it for himself or herself. They will battle each other and betray each other out of self-interest. Second, people are incompetent, and groups of people only pool incompetence. The fiasco known as Watergate shows how conspiracies really (fail to) work.

Only publicly-known conspiracies have any chance of success. The cartel known as OPEC managed to inflate the cost of oil artificially for about forty years, beginning in 1973. Everyone who was paying attention knew what they were doing. Finally greed and incompetence have robbed OPEC of its power: Saudi Arabia and Iran and Iraq want to continue producing more oil, even though that keeps the price low and hurts the economies of Venezuela and Mexico. American oil companies flourished during the reign of OPEC, and their production also increased over the last several years, drawing the price of oil lower. Now they are cutting back on more expensive mining for oil and laying off workers. The American oil companies are not struggling, but Russia and Venezuela—competitors of the United States—are facing hard times because of this economic change.

Back, though, to Bilderberg. Do they control OPEC or the American oil companies? No, they do not, but you can be sure that the conference discussed the economics of oil and the effect those economics have on politics, employment, and other areas. Can they control the election in November? No, they cannot, but you can be sure that the conference discussed the policies and personalities of the two major candidates and the effects either of them will have on world politics and the economy in the coming years.

So why did these rich and powerful people meet in secret? Would you believe that it was just to talk to one another and to listen to each other? Most professional workers are expected to be involved in continuing education, and the Bilderberg Conference is an example of continuing education at the highest level of society. Yes, the rich and powerful would like to keep what they have and, if possible, increase their profit. They realize, though, that war and rumors of war are bad for business. Economic recession is bad for business. Unemployment is bad for business. They are against all these things. Being unable to control them, they want to understand them. Being unable to control the future, they want at least to increase their chances of predicting the future.

For those reasons, they invite diverse people in politics and business to attend the conference and to speak to the conference. They exclude reporters and require participants not to quote one another directly—not because they have secrets to hide from the world, but because they want to speak openly to each other. They come, not merely to be heard, but to hear each other. They understand that their lives will only improve as conditions in the world improve.

Imagine if more people in the world would gather for these purposes. Imagine American politics if more speaking and listening happened in town hall meetings and caucuses rather than in media-driven events. Imagine if the Donald supporters, the Donald haters, the Hillary supporters, and the Hillary haters could all gather in a convention hall to speak to each other—and to listen to each other—with respect for one another and a genuine desire to understand each other. Imagine conversations about creation and evolution which were not debates with speakers trying to score points, but discussions with a genuine curiosity motivating all the participants.

The Trilateral Commission—which is very similar to the Bilderberg Conference in purpose and in structure—has tried to have their cake and eat it too. They assure the public that they have no hidden agenda, no plans to control the world, and no nefarious schemes being hatched at their meetings. They have also expressed both hope and confidence that their gatherings are helping to shape a brighter future because of the education and learning that takes place there. Conspiracy theorists are eager to ignore the assurances and to twist the hope and confidence into something far more sinister than what really happens at their meetings.

Friends, no massive conspiracy is trying to rob you of your freedom and your property. When the rich and powerful gather, they are seeking a rising tide that will lift all the boats. When they go home, they are still asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?” They have no way of cooperating with one another at the expense of the rest of the world, because they are ordinary human beings, just like you and me. Trust not in the rich and powerful, in politicians and business leaders, but do not fear them either. What power they have is brief and fleeting. J.

Woe to you who are rich

Jesus said, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:24-25). Believers and unbelievers alike nod and applaud when Jesus scolds the rich. We know that he is not talking to us. He is talking to those people who have more than we have—those who could feed the world’s hungry and shelter the world’s homeless and cure the world’s ailing people if each of them just gave a fraction of the wealth they have acquired.

But who are these wealthy people?

If you have eaten today and expect to eat again before this time tomorrow, you are rich.

If you own more clothing than you can wear at one time, you are rich.

If you have a roof over your head and four walls around you, so that when it rains you do not get wet, you are rich.

If you can control the temperature under that roof, keeping yourself cool in the summer and warm in the winter, you are rich.

If you can press a button or two and be entertained by musicians, actors, or athletes, you are rich.

If you must control your diet and your exercise to keep from gaining weight, you are rich.

Explain to the impoverished people living in Asia and Africa your frustration when you set the TV to record a movie or a ball game and the recording is missing the last ten minutes of the production.

Explain to the homeless people living in American cities why you turn the thermostat down a degree or two after spending fifteen minutes on the treadmill.

Explain to Jesus why his scolding was meant for other people and not for you.

Yes, we all give at the office. We all support Christian outreach which includes help for the poor. Some of us donate our vacation time to take trips to other parts of the world where we can help those less fortunate than ourselves… for a week or two.

The fact remains that we are rich. Ninety-nine percent of the people who have dwelt on this planet could not even imagine the comfort, the medical care, and the entertainment that we take for granted. We are the one percent whom God has blessed with material comforts, not because he loves us more, but because he expects greater acts of mercy and love from us.

You will do more when you have paid off your student loans or your credit card debt. You will do more when you have retired from your job and have paid off your mortgage. You will do more once the government gets off your back with high taxes and too many regulations.

Jesus did not wait before he offered you help. He looked into this world from outside of time and saw your cold-hearted regard of your neighbors, your addictions to wealth and comfort, and your neglect of his most basic commandments. Jesus had compassion, not only upon your neglected neighbors, but also upon you. He set an example for you, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, using the power he had to make life better for others. His example has become a Substitute, so that when his Father looks at you, he sees righteousness instead of sin. As a Substitute, he became also a Sacrifice, so that when his Father looked at him on a certain Friday afternoon, he saw your sins and treated them as they deserved. Jesus thought of you that day. He said, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

This forgiveness is not license to remain addicted to wealth and comfort, or to remain cold-hearted toward the poor. This forgiveness is wealth, and wealth is meant to be shared. As God has forgiven us, so we forgive one another. As God has given us hope of a better world, we share that hope with those around us. God loves us, and he teaches us to have his compassion toward those who need it the most.

Our treasure is in heaven, not on earth. Abraham and Job and Solomon were wealthy men, but God did not hate them for their riches. Like them, we can be poor in spirit, no matter how much we own in this world. Being poor in spirit is not measured by how much money you have; it is measured by how much money has you. When we judge ourselves by worldly standards, we know we are not rich, because we don’t even have enough money to buy everything we want. When we judge ourselves by heavenly standards, we know that we are rich, because our investment is in the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, and nothing in all creation can separate us from that love.

This wealth we share. We forgive those who sin against us. We share the hope we have in Christ Jesus. And, because God has blessed us with riches in this world, we do what we can, when we can, to serve God by helping others. After all, we were created to do good works, prepared for us from the foundation of the world. J.

 

On tenterhooks

You see a listing for a job opening. (Perhaps your best friend asks if you’ve seen it, and you hadn’t.) You read the description of the job, and it sounds like something you would enjoy doing and something you would do well. The application process is entirely online, so you answer the questions, attach a resume, and then you wait. The next day an automatic email acknowledges your application, but then you wait some more.

A month passes. Nothing has come from the company since the automatic email. You decide that the system has skipped you. Something in your application must not have matched one of the company’s high priorities for the position. You give up hope and turn your full attention back to your present life.

Then an email arrives. They want to interview you over a distance and select a day and a time they hope will be convenient. You reply quickly that the day and time they suggested is indeed convenient, and you arrange to take that afternoon off from work. You prepare yourself as well as you can, including a list of questions to ask when they invite questions from you.

The day comes. The interview seems to go well. They ask for additional information, and you send it the same day, along with a thank-you note for the interview. Then you wait some more.

A week passes. A second week is over. You are beginning to believe that some other applicant has been more appealing to the company. You know that they wanted to fill the position by the end of the month, and your sense of hope for the job dwindles.

This anticipation, hoping for a good thing but unsure if it will happen, is called being on tenterhooks. When cloth is made from wool or cotton or other natural fibers, it is stretched on a tent-like frame, called a tenter, to dry. Tenterhooks hold the cloth to the tenter so the cloth does not shrink. When you feel pulled in various directions by the tension of a possible change, you are much like the cloth held in place by tenterhooks.

During this time, you are living two lives. You are trying to stay in the present, take care of your house, and do your job. Yet you also are thinking about the new job, wondering about when you can move and what your next house will be like, and even deciding how you will announce to your coworkers that you are living. You are in the painful position of having one foot on each side of the fence. Until you know for sure about the job, it’s hard to keep from thinking about it, wondering about it, and even planning for it.

In a sense, Christians live like that every day. We know Jesus is coming in glory on a future Day to change the world, to make it perfect. We do not know when that Day will be. It could be tomorrow, or even later today. It might not come for a hundred years, or even a thousand years. Jesus said it would be soon, but soon to the eternal and unchanging God is not like your soon.

While we wait for that Day and plan for that Day, we have our lives to live in this sin-stained world. We have work to do: loving God, loving our neighbors, helping those who need help, forgiving those who sin against us. We share the good news of the Kingdom, even as we wait and wonder when the Kingdom will be fully revealed. We are on tenterhooks, stretched tight, anticipating a change for the better but not knowing when it will happen.

The difference is that we know it will happen. We have full confidence that Jesus keeps all his promises. He has promised to reveal his glory, raise the dead, announce his judgment, and welcome into his Kingdom all his people. We know that we are his people, because he has lived perfect righteousness to make us his people. He has sacrificed his life to take us out of the power of the enemy. He has risen to defeat all enemies. He has told us about his righteousness, his sacrifice, and his victory; and through his telling, he has given us faith in him.

We live each day as if it might be the Last Day. We keep ourselves busy doing the things we want to be caught doing when Jesus appears in the sky. At the same time, we plan for the future. We plant trees. We take care of the world and of ourselves and our neighbors, knowing that the Day might not come for a long time yet.

We have a foot on each side of the fence. We do the best we can in this world, but already we are citizens of God’s Kingdom. That citizenship empowers us to live like God’s people today. We may be on tenterhooks, but we know the future, and it is good. J.

 

Jonah

Last weekend InsanityBytes published this post about Jonah the prophet. Predictably, her post triggered an intense conversation within the comments. The book of Jonah is a lightning rod for debates about how to interpret the Bible. Even some conservative Christians view Jonah as an allegory rather than a history.

The most memorable event in the book of Jonah occurs when the prophet is swallowed by a large fish. The Bible is not specific about what sort of fish swallowed Jonah, and many have pictured him in the stomach of a whale. This is, of course, unlikely, since whales have sponge-like filters in their throats and eat vast amounts of tiny aquatic creatures. After doing some research about marine life, I have concluded that Jonah was most likely swallowed whole by a large shark. A great white shark can be more than twenty feet long, and many large items have been found in the stomachs of captured great white sharks. Recently a shark was found with an intact skeleton of a seven-foot porpoise. Reliable records from the 1600s report that a shark was found with the carcass of a fully armored knight in its stomach. Imagine Jonah captured in a shark’s stomach that was just a tiny bit larger than he was. At first he expects to die, but without air to breathe or any room to move around, he does not die or even become unconscious. After a few long, dark hours of this, the prophet began to pray fervently. A summary of his prayer is contained in the second chapter of the book of Jonah.

For many readers of the Bible, the account of Jonah is an object lesson about disobedience and compassion. God told Jonah to preach in Nineveh, but Jonah got on a boat that was going the opposite direction. God sent a storm to stop Jonah. When Jonah refused to reverse direction but instead sought death at sea, God sent a fish to contain Jonah. When Jonah came to his senses, the fish vomited Jonah onto the beach. From there, Jonah traveled to Nineveh and preached a call for repentance. The people of Nineveh repented. Jonah was furious. He had taken a good seat to watch fire fall from heaven to destroy the city, and God did not send the fire. God reminded Jonah how much God cared about the city and its inhabitants, even the livestock.

Jesus compared the time Jonah spent inside the fish to the time Jesus would spend in the grave. Jesus died on a Friday and was buried before sunset; he rose to life on Sunday morning around sunrise. The “three days and three nights” Jonah spent in the fish might also have been closer to forty hours than to seventy-two hours. (The Bible’s description of time in this case resembles that of a vacation resort that promises accommodation for “three days and two nights” but is only available toward the end of the first day and must be left before noon on the third day.) The miracle of a prophet surviving inside a fish and returning alive to the land pictured the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world’s Savior. Jonah’s ordeal and Christ’s resurrection are miracles, beyond the ability of science to predict or explain. Those who first wrote about these events were aware that they were miracles that went against the laws of nature; otherwise, they would not have bothered to describe them.

Aside from the fish stomach/tomb comparison, several other similarities identify Jonah with Jesus. Both men slept in a boat during a storm until their fellow travelers woke them in panic. This detail may seem trivial, but not many people are capable of sleeping in a boat during a storm. Both men had the wrath of God directed at them: God sent a storm because Jonah was disobeying God, and Jesus went to the cross to bear the wrath of his Father over all the sins of the world. Both men offered to sacrifice their lives to save other lives—Jonah told the sailors to throw him off the boat so the holy storm would cease, and Jesus died on the cross to pay in full for the sins of the world. Both preached messages of repentance that became vehicles for God’s forgiveness—the crew of Jonah’s boat became believers in the Lord because of Jonah, and the citizens of Nineveh repented of their sins and were forgiven by God instead of being punished by God. Likewise, the forgiveness of God is available to everyone in the world because of the sacrifice of Jesus, and his victory over evil is demonstrated by his own resurrection.

Jonah did not want to obey God; he had to be forced to obey. Jesus volunteered to do what his Father desired, even when his Father’s will included the cross. Jonah’s work rescued some lives, but the work of Jesus suffices to save the world. Jonah is remembered for spending time inside a fish, but Jesus is remembered for blazing a trail across the valley of the shadow of death, guaranteeing that his people will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.