Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Name in Vain

The dialogue in lots of good movies and television shows contains profanity. I don’t always mind. In fact, as one who works in words, I can even appreciate the occasional well-placed curse word, especially if it fits the character speaking it and if it helps to communicate true feelings.

I mean, let’s face it: if Rhett Butler had said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot,” the line wouldn’t have gone down in history. And it would have sounded silly.

That being said, I find some scripts insulting. My Good Wife and I recently watched the first episode of an acclaimed new series on a popular streaming service. I doubt we’ll watch any more episodes. They should have called the show “F Troop,” because I think the “F word” occurred more than “the,” “a,” and “is” combined. Very few sentences omitted it, and sometimes a character would use it three or four times in one line. 

It was ridiculous and distracting. It sounded silly. And stupid.

Maybe some of you talk like that. If so, my advice is to undertake a program of radical vocabulary enhancement.

But as bad as that word is—“the mother of all curse words,” as adult Ralphie the narrator says in A Christmas Story—it’s not the profane term that bothers me most to hear an actress or actor utter. I’m most bothered when someone uses the Lord’s name in a curse, which is what we usually think of when we hear the phrase “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

It’s one of the Big 10: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). To take the Lord’s name “in vain” is to treat it as if it is empty or meaningless, so there are ways to do it besides using it in a curse. For example, a professor friend of mine would tell his students that if they asked God to help them on a test they didn’t study for, they were taking the Lord’s name in vain, since they were basically treating the Lord as a rabbit’s foot or a four-leaf clover.

Then there’s praying, speaking, or acting “in Jesus’ name.” 

In the Bible, someone’s name summarized his or her character. So to speak, pray, or act in Jesus’ name is to do so in ways that reflect who Jesus is, what he said, and what he did. If you pray for vengeance on your enemies in the name of the One who said, “Love your enemies,” and who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain. If you, in the name of the One who said that those who will enter the kingdom are the ones who visit the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25) harbor attitudes, speak words, undertake actions, and support policies that hurt the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the stranger, you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC. Around 609, or about two decades before the Babylonians overran Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, the Lord told him to go the temple in Jerusalem and preach a sermon. Here’s some of what he said:

Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

Jeremiah said that the people could go to the temple and call on the Lord all they wanted to, but they needed to understand that truly to speak and act in God’s name meant to “truly act justly with one another” and not to “oppress the alien, the orphan, the widow.” We all know what an “orphan” and a “widow” are. Do we know what an “alien” is?

An “alien” is an immigrant.

So when we hear our leaders invoke the name of the Lord, we might do well to consider that they might be taking that name in vain, and that if we invoke the name of the Lord in supporting them, we might be, too.

After all, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

As for what the Father’s will is—well, see above on widows and orphans.

And aliens …

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Speed of Light

Light travels at 186 thousand miles per second. That means it travels about six trillion miles in a year, so that’s the distance in a light year.

The sun is “only” about 0.000016 of a light year (93 million miles) from Earth; its light reaches us in about eight minutes twenty seconds. After the sun, the next nearest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri, which is about four light years away, so its light takes about four years to reach us.

Light from Polaris (the North Star) travels 680 years before reaching Earth.

That’s about how many years passed between the times in which Isaiah and Jesus preached. Isaiah lived in a time when the darkness of empire—the Assyrian empire, in the case of eighth-century Judah—was creeping into the land. He looked forward to a time when the Lord’s light would drive the darkness away.

Isaiah said,

In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined (9:1b-2).

Matthew says about Jesus,

He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (4:14-17).

Isaiah’s hopes for the coming light were fulfilled in other ways through the years—the people returning from Babylonian exile in the late sixth century no doubt saw that event as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, for example—but for Matthew and the early church, Jesus’ ministry was their most complete fulfillment. In Jesus, the light for which Isaiah looked had come.

Some stars that are visible to the naked eye are as far as two thousand light years away, so it’s taken two thousand years for their light to get to us. Here we are, living two thousand years after Jesus. Do you ever wonder how much of Jesus’ light has made it to us? How can we let our lives be more open to the light of Jesus’ love and grace so it will drive away the darkness of pride and power that sows dissension and disunity?

It didn’t take two thousand years for such issues to develop. Jesus’ original disciples dealt with the darkness that accompanies the quest for power with its accompanying pride and jealousy. And it was only about twenty years after Jesus lived that Paul was imploring the church at Corinth to overcome its divisions (1 Cor 1:10-18). So it’s not surprising that we still have trouble letting the light drive away our darkness.

But light is stubborn. It keeps going. It keeps coming.

Today’s powerful telescopes can detect the light from objects as far as 10-15 billion light years away. When scientists see the light from those objects, they see light that has been traveling for ten to fifteen billion years.

If humans still exist somewhere ten to fifteen billion years from now (it’ll have to be somewhere other than Earth, since our sun will die in around five billion years), God’s light of love and grace, which is most fully revealed in Jesus, will still be trying to reach us ...

This post first appeared in a slightly different form on Coracle, the blog of NextSunday Resources.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Tale of Two Banquets

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell the story about Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand right after telling the story of King Herod’s birthday bash. You can read it all in Mark 6:17-44 and Matthew 14:1-21.

It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting culinary events.

Herod throws himself a birthday party (which makes you wonder if anybody else would have thrown it for him). His yes-men and hangers-on are there, as are the rich and powerful folks. It’s not hard to imagine the opulence and decadence of the celebration. No doubt the food was excellent and the wine abundant.

The party has a backstory. 

Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, whose name was Herodias. John the Baptist had criticized their behavior, and had for his trouble been thrown into prison, which can happen when someone speaks truth to power. During the festivities, Herodias’s daughter dances for Herod and his guests. Herod is so pleased with her performance that he tells her he’ll give her anything she asks for. Prompted by her mother, who was evidently quite unhappy with John’s observations about her and Herod’s ethical practices, she requests that the preacher’s head be served up on a platter (which, thankfully, usually only happens to us figuratively these days).

Herod doesn’t want to do it, but he has promised right out loud to give the girl anything she wants. He has his reputation to consider and his power to maintain. So he gives the order, and the deed is done.

Hearing about John’s death, Jesus wants to go away for a while. So he gets into a boat and sails across the Sea of Galilee to what he expects will be a deserted place. But when he disembarks, a large crowd is waiting for him. Jesus has compassion for them and heals the sick among them.

As evening approaches, the disciples point out that the people will need food. They suggest that Jesus send them away so they can buy some in the nearby towns. When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people themselves, they point out that they have only five loaves of bread and two fish, which isn’t nearly enough to feed the crowd. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to distribute.

After everyone has eaten, twelve baskets full of leftovers are gathered. The Jesus-blessed and disciple-distributed bread has fed five thousand men, plus the women and children who are there.

These two stories offer two different portraits of leadership.

On the one hand is the leadership of Herod, whose desire for power inspires him to share out of his abundance with people who already have more than they need, and whose need for validation leads him to harm someone whose only crime is standing up for what he believes is right.

On the other hand is the leadership of Jesus, whose compassion inspires him to use his power to heal the sick and to feed the hungry.

I reckon each of us has to decide which kind of leadership we think is best. 

I further reckon that we’ll reveal which kind we prefer in the ways we think, choose, talk, and act.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Utopian Christians in a Dystopian World

The Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle is loosely based on a novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick. My Good Wife and I have recently finished watching the second season. It’s a fascinating and troubling show. 

I’m glad there will be a Season 3. I evidently enjoy being fascinated and troubled.

The premise of the series, which is set in 1962, is that the Axis powers won World War II. The Nazis control the Atlantic side of the United States, while the Japanese occupy the Pacific side. A neutral zone in the Rocky Mountains region separates the rival empires. 

The freedoms Americans take for granted no longer exist. Their overlords treat them as second-rate humans. Some Americans collaborate with the occupying forces and some actively resist them, but most just try to survive.

The Man in the High Castle imagines a dystopian future, that is, a future in which things are about as bad as they can be. It’s hardly the first such narrative. Classic dystopian works include George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. More recent examples of the genre include The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin.

When you read or watch dystopian stories, you hope things will get better. You hope that people will become able to pursue life through the exercise of risky freedom, which is the only way to really live.
You also have such hopes when you ponder the possibility of a real, rather than literary or cinematic, dystopian future.

Dystopian works of fiction usually feature people who resist the dehumanization that characterizes their world. They imagine something better and work toward bringing it about. Their efforts always prove costly. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. There’s a lot of nuance to the characters in The Man in the High Castle, but when you get down to it, the resisters are the heroes; the future of the nation, and maybe of the world, lies in their hands.

The opposite of dystopia is utopia. A utopian future is one in which everything is as it should be. The Christian view of the future is utopian. Christians believe that God is working God’s purposes out in creation and history so that, when all is said and done, everything will be renewed through Jesus Christ. The last part of the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, presents a utopian view of the future.

But Revelation recognizes that things aren’t yet what they will be. In fact, it was written to and for Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. The main goal of the book was to encourage them to be faithful in their Christian witness, no matter how bad things were or became. They were to resist the dystopian present by living in light of their utopian future. They were to resist by being faithful to Jesus.

That’s still how Christians resist.

Christians resist dehumanization, division, and despair by practicing grace, faith, hope, mercy, and love. We resist selfish power by thinking of others first and of self last. We resist pride and arrogance by giving ourselves away.

We do all of that because we follow Jesus Christ, whose way is the way of the cross.

Christians believe in the utopian future that God will bring about. We do what we can to make things better now. And as necessary, we subvert dystopian trends and developments through the amazing grace and self-emptying love that are ours in Jesus Christ.