Thursday, December 31, 2015

Forgiveness for Things That One Cannot Entirely Help

I write a lot on this blog about forgiveness and unforgiveness.  A lot of the posts say basically the same thing: God is unfair and unloving to condition his forgiveness of me on my forgiveness of others; I am only human; what exactly counts as forgiveness, anyway?  Blah, blah, blah.  Occasionally, some light breaks through, and I make progress in arriving at a fruitful understanding of forgiveness and unforgiveness, or what the Bible says about these concepts.

A topic that has been on my mind lately has been forgiveness of people for things that they cannot entirely help.  In the past, I have been reluctant to apologize to God for things that I cannot entirely help.  I cannot always turn off an angry or a bad mood, for example, or thoughts of hatred for specific people.  In these cases, I have said to God: “Lord, I am not necessarily asking for forgiveness for these angry thoughts, for they are not exactly thoughts that I chose; rather, I ask that you spiritually cleanse me of them. Replace my anger with your joy.”

Nowadays, though, I do tend to ask for God’s forgiveness when I am in a hateful, bitter, resentful mood.  Why?  Well, my mind goes back to those Bible verses about forgiveness that have given me problems: the verses that say that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:26).  As much of a problem as I may have with those verses, I think that God allowed them to be in the Bible for a reason.  I believe that God wants us to think both about God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others, and to see those things as somehow in parallel.

In the case of forgiving things that people cannot entirely help, I reflect that there are attitudes that people have towards me that I resent.  A person may dislike me, or find me annoying, or look at me with contempt.  I resent that.  At the same time, can these people really help what they feel towards me?  I want God to cut me some slack about my feelings.  Shouldn’t I do the same for others?

One can then ask if the logical conclusion of what I am saying is that people should not have to apologize for what they feel.  I would not go that far.  If a person treats me with contempt, I would like an apology from that person, even if the person cannot help his or her feelings.  If a person is boiling with anger and lashes out at someone, that person should apologize.  I place that in parallel with my own negative feelings, which is why I apologize to God for them.

Maybe these things are apples and oranges.  Feelings, after all, are different from actions that proceed from those feelings.  If a person regards me with contempt but does not manifestly show it, do I expect an apology from that person?  Not really.  Actually, I would be offended if a person did apologize to me for that, for her doing so would inform me of her contempt for me.  My point is that this approach (i.e., repenting about and forgiving things that cannot entirely be helped) has helped me somewhat in terms of my attitude towards God and other people: it has helped me to be more merciful.

I think of two ideas from the history of Christian thought.  First, there is Jonathan Edwards’ defense of the doctrine of original sin.  Jonathan Edwards believed that human beings were born with a sinful nature, a propensity towards sin.  Edwards dealt with an excellent question from detractors: How can God send people to hell over something that they cannot help, a sinful condition that they did not ask for?  Edwards’ response was that we, as human beings, tend to demonize people whose bad deeds proceed from their corrupt nature.  If we know of a person who has a corrupt nature, that makes us think less of that person, not more.  We ourselves do not excuse a corrupt person by saying that he cannot help his corruption and is simply being who he is.  For Edwards, the same is true of God: God judges people for their corrupt natures.

Second, there is something that E.W. Bullinger said in a book that I read in high school: The Great Cloud of Witnesses.  Bullinger said that sin is not so much about what we do, but about what we are.  We should repent about what we are.  We are sinners, people with a sinful nature.

I do not exactly choose to dwell on the punitive nature of these ideas, for I doubt that can lead anywhere productive, for me.  But these ideas are relevant, maybe indirectly relevant, to the importance of showing mercy to others in their imperfections, as we would like for God to be merciful to us in our imperfections.  These ideas also relate to asking forgiveness and being responsible for things that we cannot entirely help.

I would have an extreme amount of difficulty, however, with forgiving something that someone can help.  If I had a wife or a girlfriend, for example, and some Don Juan slept with her just to show that he could, I would not be able to forgive that person.  That person did not have to do that.  He had a choice.  Sure, he may have had a propensity to do things like that, but he could have controlled his actions.  I would need extra strength from God to forgive, in that case, and, even then, it would be a daily internal battle.

Some of my thoughts in this post can be taken in negative directions.  For example, an abused woman should not shrug off abuse from her husband or boyfriend because she thinks that he cannot help being as he is.  She needs to protect herself.  There are situations in which justice is necessary.  At the same time, I do believe in cutting people some slack when it comes to their baggage, for we all have baggage.  And yet, people are responsible for how they deal with their baggage.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Stone of Ebenezer

Susan Van Volkenburgh.  The Stone of Ebenezer.  Bloomington: Westbow Press, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

The Stone of Ebenezer is a novelization of the biblical story in I Samuel 4-7.  In that story, Israel’s priesthood is corrupt, and the Philistines are waging war against Israel.  The Israelites bring the Ark of the Covenant into battle in the hope that this will make them victorious against the Philistines.  What happens instead is that the Philistines defeat Israel and take the Ark for themselves.  This does not exactly help the Philistines, however, for the Ark (or God’s presence with the Ark) knocks over the Philistine god Dagon and smites the Philistines with a plague.  The Philistines find a way to return the Ark to Israel.  Under the leadership of Samuel, Israel repudiates idolatry.  God then smites the Philistines, and the Israelites pursue them.

Susan Van Volkenburgh’s prose in this book is beautiful.  It is deep, yet it still manages to convey a realistic view of the characters and a clear, vivid picture of the events.  She intersperses Hebrew words throughout the book and provides a glossary of those terms in the back.  She portrays the Philistines as real people: not as sympathetic as the Israelites, mind you, but still as people with hopes, friends, and loved ones.  She did historical research in writing this novel, particularly on Canaanite religion and mythology. The scenes in which the Philistines are worshiping their gods and attempting to account theologically for their misfortunes are powerful.

There are some things that could be nitpicked, in terms of her research. She draws a lot from the 1915 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, when she should have used the more recent one.  Yet, to her credit, she also draws from research from the last two decades.  In giving the pronunciation of Hebrew words, she is not very consistent.  For some words, she tells us how they sound in Hebrew.  For other words, she gives us the conventional English pronunciation.

My main problem is not with this book’s research, however.  The research is rather impressive.  My struggle is trying to identify what makes this book different from other works of biblical fiction I have read, particularly the works of Lynn Austin and Roberta Kells Dorr.  The novels of Austin and Dorr are superior to Volkenburgh’s novel, in certain respects.  I think that the difference is that Austin and Dorr focus a lot on characterization and the story that they themselves created (apart from the biblical story).  Yes, the biblical story is there, but there is also a focus on other things: the characters’ thoughts, feelings, motivations, and relationships.  In Volkenburgh’s novel, by contrast, the biblical story loomed much larger; Volkenburgh’s story was filler for the biblical story.  Reviewers who criticize Dorr for straying too far from the Bible would probably prefer Volkenburgh’s book.  One can legitimately respond that Volkenburgh did talk about the thoughts, feelings, and histories of her characters.  She did, but the characters in the works by Austin and Dorr are more rounded, more complex, more dynamic.

I am vacillating between giving this book a 3 and a 4.  I will give it a 4 because I did enjoy reading it.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Scattered Ramblings on God's Glory for Our Benefit

I was reading a comment about a debate this morning.  The debate was between biblical scholars Douglas Moo and Douglas Campbell.  It was about the definition of Pauline justification.

I have not watched the debate yet.  The commenter, though, was highlighting what she believed was an area of difference between the two debaters: one was presenting God’s glory as God’s main goal, whereas the other was saying that God’s goal is a relationship with human beings.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Moo and Campbell themselves may not believe that they are mutually exclusive.  What I often heard in an evangelical Bible study group that I was in years ago was that God glorifies himself for our benefit.  We get the privilege of worshiping God.  It satisfies us to admire God’s beauty.  In short, God glorifies Godself in pursuit of a relationship with human beings.  The group was drawing this insight from some of C.S. Lewis’ reflections, particularly Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms.

This needs to be developed further.  In the Bible, God does act in the world as a way to make Godself known, in God’s justice, power, and mercy.  In many cases, part of God’s goal is to exalt Godself against God’s earthly enemies.  The question would then be, “Why?”  Is God pursuing a relationship with those enemies?  Is God exalting Godself over God’s enemies in order to encourage Israel to worship and find strength in God?  Is God trying to attract a third party to the worship of God?

Some prophets in the Hebrew Bible are more inclusive of Gentiles than other prophets.  But there are inclusive prophets who forecast Gentiles coming to Jerusalem or Israel to worship God.  Again, the question I would ask is “Why?”  Is that out of love for these Gentiles?  Is that God’s way of feeling superior to the Gentiles and manifesting final dominance over them?  Is it God’s way of encouraging Israel that her god is the best, and now everyone sees (and acknowledges, perhaps grudgingly) that her god is the best?

There is also the question of whether the Bible has a concept of a “relationship with God,” at least in terms of how many evangelical Christians may understand it.  Granted, the biblical writings do present a relationship with God.  In the Hebrew Bible, a person offers a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God.  A person gives God what is God’s due.  But do the biblical writings manifest a concept of people adoring God, and God filling them and meeting their deepest psychological needs?  I do not rule that out.  Perhaps the case can be made that such a concept is there, at least implicitly.  I just wonder, though: When we read the biblical prophets and see Gentiles coming to worship God, are they necessarily enjoying God, in a John Piper sense?  Maybe they are simply giving God God’s due.

There is what the Bible says.  And there are the things that people read into the Bible.  What people believe are God’s motivations, in my opinion, often fall into the latter category.  I am reading John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology.  Frame essentially believes that autonomous human reasoning ultimately leads nowhere, and that philosophical and theological problems can be solved if people believe in the Bible.  I do not rule that out entirely, but I also doubt that believing the Bible resolves everything.  Texts can be ambiguous.  Not only is there the struggle to understand what specific words mean, but there is also the struggle to understand what God’s motivations were.

Many Christians may say that we should look to Jesus as the revelation of God, and interpret the rest of the Bible in light of that, or at least prioritize Jesus’ revelation.  Perhaps that can work.  We can look at Jesus’ act of love in sacrificing himself on the cross, and allow that to inform our understanding of God’s motivations.  I am not necessarily against that.  I am against looking down on people who have a different understanding, however.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Book Write-Up: Milestones to Emmaus

Warren Austin Gage and Leah Grace Gage.  Milestones to Emmaus: The Third Day Resurrection in the Old Testament.  Fort Lauderdale: St. Andrews House, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

The title of this book alludes to a story in Luke 24.  Two disciples of Jesus are walking to Emmaus three days after Jesus’ death.  A stranger joins them, and they all three talk about Jesus.  The two disciples express disappointment that Jesus, the one they had hoped would redeem Israel, had been put to death.  The stranger then shows them from the Scriptures that this was supposed to happen.  The stranger turns out to be Jesus.

According to that story in Luke 24, Jesus’ death and resurrection were predicted in the Hebrew Bible.  Similarly, the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-4 states that he received the tradition that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection on the third day were in accordance with the Scriptures.

Are they, though?  Is there any place in the Hebrew Bible that explicitly says that a coming Messiah would die for people’s sins and rise from the dead on the third day?  Not really.  Many critical scholars, including evangelical critical scholars, would answer “no” to that question.  Why, then, is there a belief within the New Testament that Christ’s death and resurrection on the third day were in accordance with the Scriptures?  On what basis would the New Testament authors make such a claim?  Did they have specific passages of the Hebrew Bible in mind?

Warren Austin Gage and Leah Grace Gage tackle this question by exploring the use of the third day and three days within the Hebrew Bible.  They also consider passages in which “three days ago” is an idiom for “ago.”  The Gages find that something significant often happens on the third day: exaltation, the completion of the Temple, punishment, satisfaction of one’s needs, deliverance from impending death, etc.  Not only is this the case in the Hebrew Bible, but such usage of the three-days motif is also present in the New Testament (in addition to the passages about Jesus’ resurrection on the third day).

The Gages’ approach to the Hebrew Bible is largely typological.  That means that they believe that stories in the Hebrew Bible foreshadow the ministry, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ.  These Hebrew Bible stories contain themes that resemble Christian themes about Jesus.  For example, many Christians believe that Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac in Genesis 22 foreshadows God sending his Son Jesus Christ to die for our sins.

There is not always a perfect fit between type and antetype.  Sometimes, the Gages believe that the antetype has a more positive outcome than the type.  In some cases, common themes may exist between the type and the antetype, but there are also differences.  Jonah is thrown overboard so that God will preserve the people on his ship, and King David offers to die in place of Jerusalem.  That resembles Jesus dying to save others.  The difference, as the Gages note, is that Jonah and David were sinners, whereas Jesus was not.  In Genesis 40, Joseph predicts (under divine inspiration) that Pharaoh’s baker will be hanged in three days, whereas the butler will be restored to his previous position.  For the Gages, this foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus, and Jesus’ exaltation after his resurrection.

I have not always been a fan of typology.  It strikes me as rather arbitrary.  The smug attitude of some Christians who use it has long been a turn-off to me: “Oh, why can’t those Jews see these clear references to Jesus in the Old Testament?”  (The Gages do not say that, but I have heard Christians say that.)  I prefer the historical-critical method of reading the Bible: interpret a passage in light of what it meant to its original audience.

At the same time, I did find the Gages’ use of typology to be impressive and somewhat compelling.  Can one account for these parallels between Old Testament and New Testament stories from a non-Christian perspective?  Perhaps.  One can say that New Testament authors modeled their stories after Old Testament stories and themes.  One can say that such themes are present in all sorts of literature—-suffering, exaltation, powerful enemies, dying to save others, injustice, etc.—-so it is not particularly remarkable that they appear in both the Old and the New Testaments.  Even if typology does increase the likelihood that the Hebrew Bible is a divinely-inspired document that foreshadows Christ, there are still compelling arguments to the contrary.  And yet, one can ask: Did the New Testament authors interpret the Hebrew Bible as the Gages do, particularly when the New Testament authors claimed that Jesus’ resurrection on the third day fulfilled the Scriptures?  Quite possibly.

The Gages also have sections about other topics, such as the good and bad trees in the Hebrew Bible.  In one place in the book, they make connections between the Passover and biblical Flood chronology, which I found particularly interesting.  The Gages also make the interesting point that Jesus escaped corruption (a la Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27, 31) by rising on the third day, since corruption of corpses occurred on the fourth day (John 11:39).

In terms of criticisms, I was hoping that the book would be more scholarly.  Warren Gage has a Ph.D. in philosophy and literature from the University of Dallas, and he teaches Old Testament at Knox Theological Seminary.  Leah Grace Gage has an M.T.S. in Hebrew Bible-Old Testament from Harvard.  Bruce Waltke, a renowned Hebrew Bible scholar, recommends this book.  In light of all that, it would have been nice to have seen more references to secondary literature, more discussion of Second Temple biblical exegesis, more interaction with contrary ideas.  The book is a helpful encyclopedia of the use of the three-days motif in Scripture, but I could have heard a lot of its ideas in an evangelical Bible study.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ramblings on the Firstborn

At church this morning, the pastor preached about Luke 2:25-38.  Simeon and Anna are at the Temple, and they bless the child Jesus.  They believe that Jesus will bring about the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem.

In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph pay the redemption of the firstborn at the Temple.  The pastor was saying that ancient Judaism associated the firstborn male with the redemption of Israel.  The firstborn male was educated to be literate and studied God’s laws.  If the Levites could not minister at the Temple, the Israelite firstborn males would do so.  Families that had a firstborn male considered themselves blessed.

According to the pastor, Simeon recognized when he saw Jesus that he was not just dealing with any firstborn male.  Rather, he was seeing the Messiah, the one who would console oppressed Israel.  The pastor taught us the lesson of desiring the well-being of communities, not just ourselves and our families.

Is my pastor correct on the significance of the firstborn in ancient Judaism?  In the Torah, the Israelite firstborn male was supposed to belong to God, but Israelite firstborn males were supplanted by the tribe of Levi for the priestly role after the Golden Calf incident (Numbers 3:12).  Interestingly, wikipedia cites Sefer Or Torah, Parashas Mikaitz and Sefer Halikutim Beis (page 305), which state that the firstborn would resume the priestly role in the future Messianic Temple.  Were Israelite firstborn males educated in God’s laws?  Josephus in Against Apion 1.60 and 2.204 says that Israelite children were taught God’s laws, and he may mean children in general.  Other than inheritance rights, I do not know in what respect the Israelite male firstborn was considered significant: if he was believed to bring blessing on the family, or to fulfill some spiritual role.  I remember reading Martin Luther’s commentaries on Genesis, and Luther seemed to regard the firstborn in the Genesis stories as the priest of the family.  Where Luther was drawing that idea, I do not know.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Book Write-Up: Searching for Jesus, by Robert J. Hutchinson

Robert J. Hutchinson.  Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth—-And How They Confirm the Gospel Accounts.  Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

Every Christmas and Easter season, sensationalist documentaries come out claiming or implying that the biblical Gospels are historically unreliable in their depiction of Jesus.  Some of what they say is also stated by professors in secular colleges and universities.  Robert J. Hutchinson, who has a graduate degree in New Testament from Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that such claims are based on outdated scholarship, and that newer research is consistent with the historicity of the Gospel accounts.

I was initially hesitant to read this book, thinking that it was yet another work of Christian apologetics repeating the same old Christian apologetic arguments.  But I saw on the book’s Amazon page that it is recommended by biblical scholars as diverse as N.T. Wright, James Crossley, and James Tabor, so I decided to read it.

The book covers different topics.  Do the biblical Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony?  How can we be sure that the Gospels in front of us reflect what was originally written down?  Did Jesus’ alleged hometown of Nazareth even exist in the first century C.E.?  Did the early Christians invent the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die as a way to cope with their disappointment about Jesus’ death?  Do Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees reflect what happened historically, or did early Christians project their own disputes with Jewish leaders onto the time of Jesus?  Do the so-called Gnostic Gospels, which are different from the biblical Gospels, contain historically reliable information about Jesus, or at least demonstrate that early Christianity was diverse and that the “orthodox” view was only one Christian view among others?  Is there evidence that Jesus rose from the dead?  Was Jesus a violent revolutionary?  Just how early was “high Christology,” the view that Jesus was divine?  Was high Christology due to Greco-Roman influence on Christianity, or could it have been present among Jesus’ early Jewish followers, and even in Jesus’ own self-conception?

The book does draw from scholars who would be considered conservative, such as Richard Bauckham, Daniel Wallace, and Larry Hurtado.  William Lane Craig is a philosopher and an apologist rather than a biblical scholar, but Craig has argued that Jesus rose from the dead, and Hutchinson refers to his arguments.  But Hutchinson also appeals to scholars and thinkers who are not Christian.  James Crossley is agnostic, and he argues that the Gospel of Mark could have been written in the mid-30s C.E., which is soon after Jesus’ death, and which is earlier than many scholars have dated it.  Israel Knohl is Jewish, and he argues that the idea of a suffering Messiah existed in Judaism before Jesus.  Shmuley Boteach is a rabbi, and he maintains that Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees in the Gospels could have happened historically.  Daniel Boyarin is Jewish, and he argues that there were views about God within Second Temple Judaism that could have set the stage for Jesus being seen as divine or semi-divine.  Hutchinson also interacts with liberal scholars whose views he does not share, such as Bart Ehrman.

There were chapters in this book that were conservative, and some of these chapters were better than others.  The chapter on Nazareth was informative in that it explained why there have been scholars who have been skeptical about Nazareth’s existence in the first century, presented possible archaeological evidence to the contrary, and sought to account for Nazareth’s absence from non-Christian first century sources.  Hutchinson did not always explain how more liberal scholars arrived at their conclusions, however.  Hutchinson expressed disagreement with the view that Jesus envisioned an imminent end of the world, but he did not really interact with the texts or arguments that lead many scholars to conclude that (or he did not do so adequately).  Hutchinson argued against Bart Ehrman’s skepticism (at least in Ehrman’s popular books) about the Gospels reflecting what was originally written, but Hutchinson did not adequately address Ehrman’s argument that ancient Christians altered the text for theological purposes.

Hutchinson name-drops liberal scholars who agree with his conclusions.  But one can ask why, if these conclusions support the truth of Christianity, these liberal scholars remain liberal scholars rather than becoming conservative Christians.  James Crossley obviously has no problem believing that the Gospel of Mark is early, while also rejecting conservative Christianity.  Why?  Does the Gospel of Mark being early necessarily mean that conservative Christianity is true?

One can legitimately ask if Hutchinson’s conclusions necessarily make a case for Christianity being true.  Many Christian apologists and conservative scholars, after all, have made arguments that are different from the ones that Hutchinson makes, in their own attempts to support the truth of Christianity.  Hutchinson argues that Jesus seeing himself as divine was consistent with Second Temple Judaism.  C.S. Lewis argued, however, that Jesus was who he said he was because, otherwise, Jesus would have been a liar or a madman: Lewis’ premise was that a man claiming to be God in a first century Jewish environment would have been radical, that Jesus’ claim to be God could be compared to a man claiming to be a poached egg.  Hutchinson argues that the idea of a suffering Messiah predated Jesus and Christianity.  N.T. Wright, however, argued that Jesus rose from the dead, and one reason is that Messianic movements generally folded after the death of their leader, whereas the Jesus movement went on.  Is Christianity true because Jesus was a revolutionary figure in his time, or is it true because there were Jewish precedents to what Jesus said and did, or what early Christians claimed about Jesus?  All sorts of arguments can be made for and against the truth of Christianity.  What is interesting is that contradictory arguments can be found within both sides, which (in my mind) calls into question whether the arguments truly accomplish what they are intended to accomplish.   (I suppose that some skeptical arguments are more damaging than others, and that Hutchinson at least tries to neutralize or discredit the damaging ones.)

There was also at least one occasion in which Hutchinson’s methodology was inconsistent.  Hutchinson seemed to maintain that the Babylonian Talmud’s reference to Jesus was historically accurate, even though the Babylonian Talmud is much later than the historical Jesus.  Later, however, Hutchinson discusses how Second Temple sources offer a more accurate picture of the Judaism of Jesus’ time than rabbinic sources.  Hutchinson compares looking to late rabbinic sources to understand the first century to future historians trying to understand the 1700s by reading people’s tweets (excellent analogy)!

I am still giving this book five stars, however, for three reasons.  First, there are many places in which the book fairly and judiciously summarizes different perspectives.  The section about the Taipot tomb (where James Tabor says Jesus was buried) was especially good, in this regard.  Second, the book is informative in discussing trends within scholarship and in pointing readers to resources.  Third, the book is not always conservative.  Some conservatives try to make Jesus look superior to his Jewish context, but Hutchinson does not appear to go that route, as Hutchinson favorably summarizes Amy-Jill Levine’s work.  Hutchinson dates the Book of Daniel to the second century B.C.E. rather than the sixth century B.C.E., which is when many conservative scholars date it.  Hutchinson seems to wrestle with the substitutionary atonement, noting that Jesus forgave and accepted people before his death.  Hutchinson does not treat the “evidence” for Jesus’ resurrection as conclusive or fully persuasive, but he does believe that there is something to it.  In his Epilogue, Hutchinson refers to the apparent problems with Luke 2:22, namely, the question of whether it accords with the Torah.  Hutchinson cites manuscripts in this discussion.  Hutchinson does not strike me as a strict inerrantist when it comes to the Bible, but rather as one who sees the Gospels as generally reliable, in a historical sense.  Overall, Hutchinson came across as rather conservative, but also as one who is open to different ideas.  That is why I enjoyed the book.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh

In Matthew 2, magi from the east present the child Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Why did they give Jesus those particular gifts?

Here are three items.  The first two items draw from Tim Widowfield’s post on Vridar, “Why Did Matthew’s Nativity Story Have References to Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh?” The third item is from my reading of the fifth-ninth century C.E. Christian work, “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan.”

A.  Matthew 2 could be alluding to Isaiah 60:6, which states: “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD” (KJV).

Isaiah 60:6 is about what will occur after God glorifies Israel: Gentiles will bring Israel gold and incense.  According to biblical scholar John Nolland, Matthew’s allusion to Isaiah 60:6 depicts “Israel being glorified in the person of the messiah by the wealth of the nations” (page 117 of Nolland’s 2005 book, The Gospel of Matthew).

There are various things to consider:

First, Isaiah 60:6 is part of Third Isaiah, which may not even have Messianism.  At least I agree with biblical scholar Paul Hanson that it does not, for the idea of a Davidic king is absent from Third Isaiah.  At the same time, Matthew most likely was unaware of the different ideologies within the Book of Isaiah.  Matthew could have interpreted Isaiah 60:6 messianically, even if that was contrary to Third Isaiah’s ideology.

Second, were Midian, Ephah, and Sheba located east of Israel, which is where the magi were from?  Sheba was probably located to the south of Israel.  Midianites could have been located southeast of Israel, however, in southern Transjordan (Numbers 22; 25; 31; I Kings 11:18).

Third, were there magi in Midian?  Well, the sorcerer Balaam in the Book of Numbers served the Midianites, who were mixed with the Moabites.  Could Matthew 2 be positing a reversal of the Balaam story: magicians from the east are not trying to subvert Israel, as Balaam did, but are honoring her Messiah with gifts?  Perhaps.  Yet, the first century Jewish philosopher Philo praises magi who were in Persia (Special Laws 3.100-101; Every Good Man Is Free 74).  Not surprisingly, many have maintained that the magi who visited Jesus (in real life, in the story, or in both) were from Persia.

B.  Tim Widowfield’s post on Vridar draws from controversial scholar Margaret Barker’s book, Christmas, the Original Story.  Barker maintains that the magi’s gifts relate to the anointing of the Messiah and the eschatological Temple.  Myrrh was used for anointing.  Frankincense was used in the worship at the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:34).  Josephus in Antiquities 8:4 states that a lot of incense was burned when Solomon was consecrating his Temple.  There were Jewish traditions about the Messiah building a new Temple, different from the inadequate and (according to some) corrupt Second Temple.  Could the magi’s gifts relate to that?

C.  Gold, frankincense, and myrrh feature prominently in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan.”  They are present in Book I, Chapters 30-31, and Book II, Chapter 8, verses 17-19.
Adam and Eve are trying to adjust to their rough life after they have been exiled from the Garden of Eden.  God gives them incense and myrrh from the Garden of Eden, and golden rods from the Indian sea, to comfort them.

Adam at first does not find these gifts too comforting.  He thinks that they serve to remind him of the glory that he lost in Eden: that the gold symbolizes the Kingdom of God in the Garden, the incense recalls the bright light that was once a part of Adam’s nature, and the myrrh concerns Adam’s present sorrow.
God, however, tells Adam that these gifts are intended to comfort him, both symbolically and functionally.  God says that kings will bring God these gifts when God comes in the flesh.  The gold represents God’s kingdom.  The incense represents Christ’s divinity.  The myrrh is a token of Christ’s suffering and death, which will save humanity, including Adam.

The gifts also have a practical function.  The gold is a sort of nightlight for Adam and Eve when they sleep in the cave at night.  Adam and Eve are having difficulty becoming accustomed to the darkness of night, especially after leaving Eden, a place where there is no night.  The incense provides a sweet smell, and the myrrh can comfort Adam and Eve in their sorrow.  Adam and Eve place these gifts around their cave, which is their home, a place of prayer, and, eventually, a place of burial for the righteous.

Later, Adam on his deathbed is exhorting his righteous son, Seth.  Adam instructs Seth to preserve the gold, incense, and myrrh, for they are a sign from God.  They symbolize the same things that God told Adam earlier, but Adam also presents an alternative symbolism: the gold symbolizes Christ’s defeat of Satan; the incense symbolizes Christ’s resurrection and exaltation above all things; and the myrrh symbolizes the bitter gall that Christ will drink as well as the torment that Christ will suffer in hell from Satan.

Adam says that the gifts are to be taken aboard the Ark during the Flood, along with Adam’s corpse, and they are to be buried with Adam.  A long time afterwards, Israel will be conquered and spoiled, and these gifts will be taken to another land.  These gifts will last for centuries, until kings will bring them to the Christ child.  The idea seems to be that this gold, incense, and myrrh end up in Persia after Israel is exiled, and the Persian magi later bring them to the child Jesus.

How do these items symbolize what they symbolize?  Gold probably had royal associations, so that could be why it symbolized God’s kingdom.  Incense may have symbolized Christ’s divinity in the sense that incense is sweet, and Christ’s divinity sweetened his humanity.  It may have symbolized Christ’s resurrection because the sweet smell of incense rises, as Christ rose to heaven.  Christ, according to many Christians, was a sweet offering to God: Christ righteously obeyed God and pleased God in so doing, and Christ’s sacrifice was an atonement for sinners that God accepted.  The myrrh may have symbolized Christ’s passion because of its bitter taste; at the same time, Christ on the cross refused to drink wine mingled with myrrh, which could have alleviated his pain (Mark 15:23).  Perhaps the myrrh in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” recalled that scene at the passion.

Merry Christmas, for those who celebrate it.  For those who do not, have a good day.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Movie Write-Up: Christmas with a Capital C

Christmas with a Capital C is a 2010 Christian movie produced by Pure Flix Entertainment.  It was on TBN last night.

The movie is about a lawyer, Mitch Bright (played by Baldwin brother Daniel Baldwin), who returns to his hometown of Trapper Falls, Alaska.  Mitch and the mayor of the town, Dan Reed, were rivals when they were growing up.  The competed about everything—-sports, clubs, and Kristen (played by Nancy Stafford of Matlock), who would become Dan’s wife.

Mitch is an atheist, and he legally challenges the town’s display of a nativity scene on public property.  He also encourages local businesses to say “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Mitch decides to run against Dan for the mayor’s office.  Dan wonders why Mitch has returned after all these years, and why he is launching a war on Christmas.

You may be thinking to yourself that this is a typical Christian movie about the Christmas wars: oh, woe are we Christians, for we are persecuted because people wish us “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” and we can’t display our nativity scene on publicly-owned property, even though we are allowed to display it on our church’s lawn!  And, yes, the movie did have some of that Christian conservative rhetoric.  It particularly came from Dan’s brother Greg, who is played by conservative comedian Brad Stine.

But the movie was not your typical Christian movie about the Christmas wars or the separation of church and state, for three reasons.

First of all, there was some recognition on the movie’s part about legal nuances in Establishment Clause cases.  The law allows Christians to display nativity scenes, as long as it is not on taxpayer-supported property.  Under the prevalent interpretation of the Establishment Clause, the government cannot promote a particular religion, but private individuals and groups can.

Second, there was some acknowledgment in the movie that this is all right.  After all, Jesus is still Lord, and Christmas is still about him, whether or not there is a nativity scene on the public lawn.  Kristen and the pastor propose that Christians in the town make Christmas about love and service rather than making a big stink about an atheist taking away their “rights.”  The movie alternates between this meeting and Greg telling the Christmas story to his niece, nephew, and his nephew’s girlfriend: Israel expected a political messiah, but Jesus would be a messiah who would show love one person at a time.

Third, the atheist is not exactly demonized.  Mitch thinks he is too sophisticated for Christianity and is upset at the hypocrisy and smug attitude of Christians he has known.  He is also lonely, has no family, and has had financial setbacks, notwithstanding the prosperous image he tries to project.  Mitch has also helped people in the past.  Granted, a Christian movie will depict the atheist as deficient, in some sense, but this movie’s portrayal was not entirely negative.

The movie was still cheesy.  The singing was bad.  The dialogue was predictable, in places.  Greg came across to me as a Robin Williams wannabe, as endearing as his character was.  And, yes, the movie has been compared to How the Grinch Stole Christmas.  Still, for a Christian movie about the Christmas wars, it was refreshing to watch.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Can God Command Feelings?

I am reading John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology.  I received a complimentary review copy through NetGalley.

An issue that came up in my reading a few days ago is whether God can legitimately command people to believe or to feel a certain way.

In a footnote, Frame said that people can choose what they believe.  According to Romans 1, Frame says, people choose to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.  They choose to believe what is pleasing to them as opposed to the truth.

In another footnote, Frame was referring to Hegel’s problem with God commanding people to feel a certain way.  Frame specifically mentioned Hegel’s problem with the command in Philippians 4:6: do not be anxious.  Hegel wondered how anxious people can obey this command.  Can they truly help how they feel?

In yet another footnote, Frame discussed the tendency of certain philosophers to treat law and love as dichotomous.  Their assumption is that law pertains to outward actions, whereas love concerns feelings and motives.  Frame responded that God’s law also can concern feelings and motives.  Jesus, after all, prohibited hate in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-22).

I often have the same frustration as Hegel.  I wonder if God is fair to command us to feel or not feel a certain way.  I deal with anxiety and unforgiveness.  There are times when I have difficulty turning these things off.  And biblical passages about the fearful having a place in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:8) and God not forgiving those who do not forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25-26) do not help matters.

Would I prefer for God to judge me by my actions, not by my thoughts?  Well, yes and no.  On the one hand, I do not actively take revenge on people I may hate in my heart.  I reason to myself that perhaps this may count as forgiveness before God.  I hope that it does, even though, to be honest, there are a lot of factors limiting any revenge I might want to take against people: laws, a concern for my reputation, etc.

On the other hand, as an introvert, I would prefer to focus on what goes on inside of me as opposed to what I actually do.  If I have a benevolent feeling for a person, I want that to count as love.  Some may tell me that this is not enough: that I actually have to show a person love concretely.  But certainly God is interested in my attitude, right?  The attitude defines the sort of person one is, correct?  Not surprisingly, as an introvert, I tend to prefer Christian teaching that tries to influence my attitude and perspective towards God, life, and other people.  If my attitude and perspective are all right, I reason, then that will favorably influence how I interact with other people.

That is pretty contradictory, I know.  Yet, there is some wisdom in both approaches.  I may hate a person in my heart, but I only hurt the person if I act on that hatred.  That means there is some love within me, right?  Yet, attitudes and perspectives are important, for thoughts can influence actions.

I do think that people have some say-so in what they feel.  I cannot turn off how I feel, and sometimes, as I have said before, simply telling myself to feel or not to feel a certain way does not really solve anything.  But I can choose to go to God in prayer.  I can breathe and meditate.  I can read about people who have the same struggles that I do (which can be a double-edged sword).  I can go to church, or therapy.  Many people take medication.

Interestingly, the passage that troubled Hegel, Philippians 4:6, does not just tell people not to be anxious.  It also tells people to make their requests to God with thanksgiving.  V 7 goes on to say that, then, the peace of God will keep one’s heart and mind through Christ Jesus.  Action can influence attitude.  Plus, God plays a significant role in helping a person out.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ramblings on WWJD and Jesus Being Superior to Us

I was flipping through channels last week and came across the Catholic channel, EWTN.  Mother Angelica was discussing theology with some kids, probably sometime during the 1980s.

Mother Angelica was trying to highlight how wonderful the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ really was.  She said that we may love people and feel sorry for them when they encounter misfortune.  We may even desire for their situation to turn around for the better, and we may pray for that to happen in their lives.  But very few, if any, of us would voluntarily take those people’s pain and suffer it ourselves.  We may feel sorry for a person with cancer, she said, but we ourselves would not want to suffer that cancer.  She said that her assessment of how human beings are is true of herself, and probably the kids in the audience.

Her goal was to contrast how we are with how God is.  God did not just feel sorry for us, she said.  Rather, God assumed the human condition.  God the Son as Jesus Christ suffered what human beings suffer.  Jesus even suffered and died on the cross.

That got me thinking about an apparent tension within Christianity (apparent to me, at least).  On the one hand, Christianity wants to present God or Jesus as morally superior to human beings.  When we see how God is superior to us, we are encouraged to worship him.  On the other hand, Christians are also told that they are supposed to be like Jesus in how they behave.  “WWJD” was on bracelets that Christians wore in the 1990s: we were encouraged to ask ourselves “What would Jesus do?” when making moral decisions.  The thing is, as Mother Angelica said, we do not do what Jesus did.  Even a spiritually mature nun like Mother Angelica admits that she does not!  That is what makes Jesus so remarkable and admirable: he is vastly superior to us.

We see something similar in the Bible.  Paul in Romans 5:7-8 contrasts God and Christ with human beings.  Human beings, Paul says, would rarely die for somebody else, even if that person were righteous.  Christ, however, died for us while we were still sinners.  God’s love is superior to ours, which can enhance our appreciation of God.

At the same time, there does seem to be some notion in the Bible that Christians should imitate Christ.  There are many such passages, but let me quote just one of them.  I John 3:16 states: “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (KJV).
Are we expected to lay down our lives for others?  Are we supposed to be assuming other people’s pain and burdens?  Obviously, I cannot suffer cancer for somebody else.  But should a Christian, say, assume somebody else’s debt?  It may be a nice gesture on his or her part, but does God require that of Christians as part of the obedience that God demands?

There are passages in Scripture that appear level-headed on how to help, and when to help, other people.  The Book of Proverbs often advises against becoming surety for somebody else’s debt (Proverbs 6:1; 11:15; 17:18), for that goes against a person’s self-interest.  The book of Galatians talks about bearing one another’s burdens, but also about each person bearing his or her own load (Galatians 6:2, 5).  I Timothy 5 specifies which widows the church should be helping.

It would be tempting for me to walk away from these passages with a selfish attitude, thinking that I am justified in not giving to others.  But one cannot escape that giving is a prominent theme in Scripture.  The same Book of Proverbs that is against surety promotes giving to people, especially people in need (Proverbs 11:25; 19:17; 22:9; etc.).  I Timothy 5:10 speaks highly of the widows who lodge strangers and help the afflicted.  There are passages in the Bible about the importance of work, and perhaps one can walk away from those passages thinking that he or she can tell the poor to “Get a job!” and not help them out.  But one passage about the importance of work is Ephesians 4:28, which states that people should work with their hands so that they have enough to share with those in need.

I suspect that, on the whole, the Bible (from a Christian perspective) is rather realistic about how we are to imitate Christ.  Let’s go back to I John 3:16, which tells Christians to lay down their lives for the brethren.  Obviously, Christians cannot do this on a regular basis, for they only have one life to lay down.  But what does the next verse say?  “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (KJV).  I John 3 is about not hating others, but helping the needy when one has the means to do so.  That seems to be what imitating Christ is about.

This does not close the door on the subject.  Some may feel called to put themselves in dangerous situations for the well being of others.  There is also the question of how much to give.  Plus, as individuals, we cannot help every single person who needs help.  We may justifiably feel reluctant even to help every single person we know who needs help, since, if we do that, there will not be anything left for ourselves (unless God truly does provide, in such cases)!

Something that I was thinking about when watching Mother Angelica was that I have long assumed that Christianity requires me to have deep love for everyone.  I figured that I am not only expected to have the sort of love that suffers towards someone I actually do love; I am expected to have that same sort of love for someone I barely know.  I doubt that God places this heavy burden on my shoulders.  But God does want me to respect the humanity of someone I barely know, and maybe even to help.

I believe that God is superior to us, and that is all right.  We can glory in God, while allowing our own limitations to enhance this worship.  We are free to be human, each day.  But I also believe that we are also called to become better, to think about others, and (in some cases) to help.  Some may even be called to saintly acts.  Of course, people can use this insight to justify their comfortable middle class lifestyle, and, in those cases, people should probably wrestle with whether they are giving enough, or doing enough.  We cannot be totally like Jesus, but we can try to be more like him.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Write-Up: Solomon's Song, by Roberta Kells Dorr

Roberta Kells Dorr.  Solomon’s Song.  Chicago: River North, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

Solomon’s Song is the third novel by Roberta Kells Dorr that I have read.  The other two books that I read are Abraham and Sarah and Sons of IsaacSolomon’s Song is a reprint of Dorr’s 1989 novel, Shulamit.  Shulamit is the female protagonist in the biblical Song of Solomon.

I have had questions whenever I have read the biblical Song of Solomon, and I was curious about how Solomon’s Song would address them.  The Song of Solomon is about a romance between a man and a woman.  People in the woman’s family try to hinder that romance.  The man in the book appears to be in a state of vulnerability.  The main questions in my mind have been: How could this man be Solomon?  Would anyone be able to hinder Solomon, a powerful king?  Why would Solomon have to sneak around to see a woman he loved?

Of course, there are other ways to interpret the Song of Solomon.  Some say that the Song of Solomon is about a woman and a shepherd, and the woman chooses to be with the shepherd rather than the glorious Solomon.  Others may say that the Song of Solomon was simply a poem about love (a wasf), and it was later attributed to Solomon.  There are others who view it as an allegory of God’s love for Israel, or God’s love of the church.  I am still curious about how one can interpret the man in the Song of Solomon to be Solomon.  And, since I enjoyed the previous two Dorr novels that I read (especially Abraham and Sarah), I decided to read Solomon’s Song to see how she approached this issue.

Essentially, Dorr in Solomon’s Song conflates three Bible stories.  First, of course, there is the Song of Solomon.  Second, there is the story in II Samuel 21 about the Gibeonites and the hanging of Saul’s sons.  There has been a famine in Israel for three years, and King David learns from God that this is because David’s predecessor, Saul, killed Gibeonites in his zeal.  This violated an oath that Israel swore to Gibeon (Joshua 9).  The Gibeonites ask David for permission to hang seven of Saul’s sons, and David lets them do so.  The mother of two of these sons, Rizpah, protects Saul’s hanging sons from the birds and the beasts.  When David learns of Rizpah’s act, David gathers the bones of Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan, as well as the bones of those who were hanged, and he buries them in Benjamin, in the grave of Kish, Saul’s father.  V 14 says: “And after that God was intreated for the land” (KJV).

The third Bible story is in I Kings 1-2.  David is old, and his servants decide that he needs a young virgin to keep him warm.  They search the coasts of Israel and find Abishag the Shunammite.  Abishag serves the king and keeps him warm, but they never have sexual intercourse.  Meanwhile, David’s son, Adonijah, is plotting to take over the throne, even though God (II Samuel 7) and David promised that David’s son Solomon would be king.  Adonijah is gaining powerful allies.  David anoints Solomon king, and Adonijah fears for his life.  Solomon spares Adonijah, but Adonijah later goes to David’s favorite wife, Bathsheba, and asks to marry Abishag.  That is a power play on Adonijah’s part, and Solomon has Adonijah put to death.

In Solomon’s Song, David’s servants look for a woman so that King David can sleep with her and thereby end the famine, since there is a Canaanite belief that the fecundity of the land depends on the sexual virility of the king.  Bathsheba leads the search, and Adonijah and Solomon accompany her.  They go to Northern Israel, where there is a rich shepherd.  The shepherd hides his daughter, Shulamit, since he does not want to lose her.  Adonijah wears his royal apparel, but Solomon dresses as a lowly shepherd.  Solomon meets Shulamit, and they develop a rapport.  Shulamit takes Solomon to see the cave where Saul met with the witch of Endor (I Samuel 28).  Shulamit is not yet aware that Solomon is a prince.

Bathsheba decides that Shulamit will be the one who will marry King David.  Shulamit is known as Abishag by her brothers, because they see her as their father’s mistake: their father’s favorite wife had only a girl, but no sons.  (In terms of the Hebrew, “Abi” means “my father,” and the verb sh-g-g and sh-g-h can relate to an error.)  Shulamit’s father agrees to let her go, in exchange for a piece of Solomon’s vineyard, which is in the north.

Shulamit is initially enamored with Adonijah on account of his royal prestige, but she comes to dislike him due to his conniving character.  She loves Solomon, and King David agrees not to sleep with her on account of this.  Bathsheba is not particularly happy about the bond between Solomon and Shulamit.  Bathsheba wants for Solomon to marry a princess, since that would give Solomon more credentials for the throne.  Solomon marries the Ammonite princess Naamah (who would later be the mother of Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam; I Kings 14:21).  Solomon thinks this is a wise decision, since then the Ammonites would allow Israel to use the king’s highway, an important trading route, rather than forming an alliance to block Israel’s use of it.

How does the plot in Solomon’s Song mesh, or not mesh, with the biblical Song of Solomon?  Solomon and Shulamit are cut off from each other, due to misunderstandings and Solomon’s desire to fulfill his mother’s expectations.  That is how Dorr accounts for the times in the Song of Solomon when the man leaves the woman, or the woman searches for the man.  Solomon initially dresses as a shepherd, and that is how Dorr accounts for Solomon being the lowly man in the Song of Solomon.  Adonijah forms an alliance with Shulamit’s seven brothers, which could be Dorr’s way of explaining how the seven brothers were trying to inhibit the relationship between the man and the woman.

Solomon’s Song also adds political intrigue (or political considerations) to the story in II Samuel 21 about Saul’s sons and the Gibeonites.  Saul killed the Gibeonites so that he could establish God’s sanctuary in Gibeon, which is where the Tabernacle came to be (I Chronicles 21:29).  Adonijah supports executing Saul’s sons because that could eliminate competition for the throne.  The problem is that this alienated the Benjamites, so God told David to bury Saul, Jonathan, and Saul’s sons as a way to appease them.

I did like Dorr’s approach of trying different biblical themes together.  Dorr also explored a theme that appeared in her other two books that I read: how does one know that the God of Israel is the true God, whereas the gods of other nations are false?  On the negative side, I found the romance between Shulamite and Solomon to be a bit shallow.  It could have been executed a lot better than it was, but, as it stood, it did not really tug on my heartstrings.  I did not entirely understand Bathsheba’s problem, since Solomon could have easily married Shulamit and a princess, a point that is acknowledged in the book.  The book was somewhat scattered, and the characterization was not always as consistent as I would have liked.

Dorr’s epilogue was interesting, though, because she was offering her own ideas about the Song of Solomon.  She speculated that Solomon may have married the hundreds of women whom he married because he was trying, in vain, to replace Shulamit.  She also speculated that Solomon may have written the Song of Songs as a way to unite the north and the south.  Many scholars say that the Hebrew style of the Song of Songs is later than the Hebrew of the time of Solomon.  Still, perhaps there is a reason that a romantic story set in the north became a sacred book in ancient Israel.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Ramblings on Grace, Life, and Theology, in Light of This Morning's Sermon

At church this morning, the pastor made five points that especially stood out to me.

A.  The pastor said that God has shown us love through Jesus Christ, and now it’s on us.  God has done all that God can do to show us God’s love.  It is now up to us to decide what to do in response to that.  We can disregard God’s grace and throw it to the side.  Or we can accept it and let it change us.

B.  The pastor said that God may be surprised by how we act.  God is surprised that we reject God’s love and grace.  To do so makes no sense.

C.  The pastor was talking about the Christmas card and the barn.  Both of these are literal, yet also symbolic.  The Christmas card represents the warm feelings that people have on Christmas.  Pictures on Christmas cards, even pictures that make no sense (such as a church surrounded by snow with no path to get to it), encourage a sense of warmth within people who see them.  The barn, on the other hand, represents the less pleasant aspects of life.  Mary had her baby in a barn, a place that was smelly and was not particularly clean or comfortable.  The pastor talked about the importance of balance: the Christmas card without the barn is problematic, but so is the barn without the Christmas card.  According to him, Mary and Joseph went through stressful and uncomfortable times as Mary was pregnant and having her baby, but they eventually arrived at some sense of calm, purpose, and warmth.

D.  Does God truly have free choice?  The pastor said that God is loving by nature—-as if God cannot help but love us.  Yet, the pastor was saying that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ even though God did not have to do so.  God expressly chose this path of identification with the human race.  The pastor also talked about the tension within Jesus’ will in the Garden of Gethsemane: Jesus did not want to die on the cross, but he voluntarily submitted to God.

E.  The pastor was presenting a definition or a conceptualization of God’s love, and it included God liking us.

Now, I’d like to offer my brief reactions to each point.

A.  I have often felt that God could do more to show his love for me concretely, to show me that he is and that he knows my address and loves me.  I am also skeptical about the idea so pervasive in evangelical circles that accepting and believing in God’s love can automatically transform a person, making that person more loving to others and more accepting.  Often, at least speaking for myself personally, there is a disconnect between head and heart, or between head and actions.  Even what I tell my head may not permeate it.  Plus, I struggle with whether the Bible and Christianity actually portray a God of unconditional love.  They do present God’s love, on some level, but they also seem to attach a lot of conditions!  But I need some foundation on which to build, and seeing God as loving is more constructive than not seeing God as loving.  Seeing God as loving is consistent with the Bible’s portrayal of God, for God in the Bible sent Jesus Christ to suffer and die for us, plus God patiently put up with people’s sins.

B.  Is God surprised by how we act?  On the one hand, there does seem to be bafflement on the part of God and Jesus.  In Micah 6:3-4, God asks sinful Israel how exactly God has burdened her, and he refers to the good things that God has done for Israel: the Exodus and sending Israel leaders.  God appears to be perplexed by how Israel is acting, especially after God’s benevolence and kindness towards her.  In Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34, Jesus laments that Jerusalem has stoned God’s messengers and has rejected Jesus’ offer (or God’s offer) to gather her as a hen gathers her chickens beneath her wings.

On the other hand, there are indications that Jesus was not particularly surprised by how people were receiving him.  Jesus even had an idea about why people were rejecting him.  In John 3:19-20, Jesus said that people were not coming to the light because their deeds were evil.

I know that I am afraid of coming to the light because my attitudes are evil.  I am afraid that people would judge me as petty, selfish, and unloving, or that I would feel compelled to do things that I cannot do, or may not even want to do.  The context in which one places that thought in John 3:19-20 is important and makes all the difference: one can put that within the context of God telling us that we suck, or one can put that within the context of God’s love.  Humans, including many Christians, will often do the former, at least when it comes to how they view other people’s sins: so-and-so is afraid of the light because that person sucks and is deficient in character, and that’s basically it!  Hopefully that is not how God approaches the situation!

C.  I do not have much to say about “C,” but it is a good insight.  I need the bad times to appreciate the good times.  Plus, I should not rest in my own good times while ignoring other people’s bad times.  Bad times may or may not be a part of God’s perfect will, but they are there.  They are a part of real life.  They should be acknowledged, but hope should be part of the equation somewhere in a person’s attitude.

D.  I have been reading John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (and I received a review copy through NetGalley, just to make that clear).  Frame talks about how different thinkers interacted with the question of whether God has free will.  Some believed that God did what was rational and could do no other.  Others thought that God’s choices are not determined by rationality and that God could do all sorts of things: that God could have done other than what God did.

I cannot say that I have arrived at a solution to this that satisfies me entirely.  That latter option, in which God has libertarian free will, does not set right for me because I cannot envision a choice having no basis in at least something.  I believe that, when God makes a decision, there is a reason for it, and God’s decision is not arbitrary, nor does it just pop into existence out of nowhere; it is motivated by something.  At the same time, I do believe that God can select among a variety of righteous options, that there is not just one righteous or rational path that God by nature has to follow.

E.  I know that I often try to justify myself, from a Christian or ethical standpoint, by saying: “I love so-and-so, but I do not like so-and-so.”  Often, I say that even though I cannot stand so-and-so and my stomach churns when I think about so-and-so!  Some well-meaning Christians—-the ones who do not tell me that I suck—-may try to reassure me by saying that God loves everyone, but God does not like everyone.  There may be something to that.  Personally speaking, I would not feel good if God loved me but did not like me.  Can I view others as I would like God to view me?  Not really.  I can try to see the good in other people, but, again, the head does not always reach the heart.  What I tell the head does not even penetrate the head!  What can I do but go to God in prayer about this?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Transubstantiation and Sabbatarianism in "The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan"

I am still reading “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan.”  This is a Christian work that dates anywhere from the fifth century C.E. to the ninth century C.E.  It was written originally in Arabic and was translated into Ethiopic.

In this post, I would like to highlight two issues: transubstantiation and the Sabbath.  I will be using the translation that is in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.

A.  Transubstantiation states that the bread and the wine in the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Christ.  This belief is arguably attested in Christianity as early as the second century.  See here for patristic references that appear to lean in that direction.  (Matthew E. Ferris in Evangelicals Adrift, however, argues that patristic sources manifest more of a symbolic approach to the bread and the wine.)

Transubstantiation appears in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan”, Book I, Chapter 69, verse 12.  In that chapter, Adam and Eve use corn to make an oblation to God.  God tells Adam and Eve:

“Since ye have made this oblation and have offered it to Me, I shall make it My flesh, when I come down upon earth to save you; and I shall cause it to be offered continually upon an altar, for forgiveness and for mercy, unto those who partake of it duly.”

This is saying that corn will be made into the flesh of Christ.  It also says that this corn will be offered continually on an altar and will bring forgiveness and mercy to partakers.  This sounds like transubstantiation occurring at the Eucharist, which is a sort of sacrifice.

B.  I grew up in and long associated with churches that observed the Sabbath on Saturday, the seventh day of the week.  Many Christians who go the church on Sunday and do not keep the seventh-day Sabbath argue that God only gave the Sabbath to the people of Israel, not to all human beings.  Christians who observe the seventh-day Sabbath, by contrast, tend to argue that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance for all human beings.  They say that the Sabbath originated when God rested on the seventh day after creation and blessed and hallowed the seventh day (Genesis 2).  According to this view, Adam and Eve kept the Sabbath.  Non-Sabbatarians have countered that God may have kept the Sabbath at creation, but that does not mean that human beings did so until God revealed the Sabbath to Israel.

Which view does “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” go with?  In Book I, Chapter 56, the Word of God (who would become Jesus Christ) is contrasting the good things that God has done for Adam with the bad things that Satan has done.  The goal is to encourage Adam to follow God, not Satan.  In v 6, the Word of God lists a day of rest among the good things that God has given to Adam.  The implication here is that Adam observed the Sabbath.

Yet, Chapter 68, verse 20 complicates things.  There, Adam and Eve resolve to give God an offering three times a week: on Wednesday, on Friday the preparation day, and on the Sabbath Sunday.  There, the Sabbath is not identified as Saturday, which is when Jews observe it, in accordance with their interpretation of the seventh day of the week.  Rather, it is identified as Sunday.

The passage is odd, for there still does seem to be an acknowledgement in the text that Saturday is the seventh day of the week.  Friday, after all, is called the preparation day.  Jews regarded Friday as the preparation day for the Sabbath, which was on Saturday, the following day.  Plus, the day of rest in Genesis 2 is on the seventh day of the week.  Certainly the author of “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” knew that!

Could some Christian have inserted “Sunday” into the text at a later point to make the text accord with Sunday being the Sabbath?  Could the text have originally been presenting Adam and Eve observing the Sabbath on Saturday?  I do not rule that out.  “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” does, on some level, depict Adam and Eve doing things that God would later command Israel to do under the Torah: offering sacrifices, for instance.  It is not inconceivable that the text could depict them as observing the seventh-day Sabbath, as well.

Consider also the statements by Athanasius (fourth century C.E.) and the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles (possibly fourth century C.E.) that the seventh-day Sabbath commemorates creation (Athanasius, Sabbath and Circumcision 3; Apostolic Constitutions 7.23; 8.33).  Maybe “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” believes that Adam and Eve observed the seventh-day Sabbath to honor God as creator, but that Christians do not have to observe the seventh-day Sabbath because they were part of the new creation, which began with Christ’s coming, and which Sunday supposedly commemorates.

On the other hand, maybe the text does hold that Adam and Eve observed the Sabbath on Sunday.  Justin Martyr, in chapter 67 of his First Apology, says that one reason that Christians honor Sunday is that God began the process of making the world on that day.  Could the author of “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” have believed that Adam and Eve observed Sunday as the Sabbath to honor the day that God began to create?

Also noteworthy is the Didache, which may date to the first century C.E.  Didache 8:1 says that its Christian audience fasts on the fourth day and on preparation day.  Didache 14:1 affirms that they gather, break bread, and offer thanksgiving after confessing their sins every Lord’s day, which is probably the first day of the week.  That sounds similar with what is in “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan”: Adam and Eve honor the fourth day (Wednesday), preparation day (Friday), and Sunday.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars and Christianity: Pro and Con

I want to share three links about Star Wars and Christianity.  All three are by Christians.  Two of the links are rather pro-Star Wars and believe that it has themes that overlap with Christianity.  The third link, not so much!

Rachel in Review: A Lutheran View of Star Wars.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens—-A Christian Perspective. (Warning: This post has spoilers about the latest movie.)

Star Wars and the Ancient Religion.  (The author of this article is Peter Jones, and I will be reviewing one of his books in the near future.  I should also mention that I was informed about this article on Eric Chabot’s blog.)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Write-Up: The 5 Secrets of Social Success with Biblical Principles

Dr. Lina W. Liken with Cali Blalock.  The 5 Secrets to Social Success with Biblical Principles.  Bloomington: Westbow Press, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I can use guidance on how to interact with people.  So can a lot of people, even those who are not on the autism spectrum.  Many young people today are so used to texting and Facebook, that they may need guidance on how to interact face-to-face.  As one of the book’s recommenders said, there are people with substance abuse problems who may need help with social interaction.

The 5 Secrets to Social Success with Biblical Principles offers some good advice.  It talks about eye contact and why it is important.  It also talks about the importance of listening to others.  It offers biblical prooftexts, some of which are relevant, and some of which are connected rather tenuously with the point at hand.

I was rather ambivalent about some of its advice.  For example, it says that, if we offend someone else in a disagreement, we should say to the person that we are sorry that we hurt his or her feelings.  I doubt that the other person would receive that very well.  The offended person may think that we are treating him or her as a little kid, or that we are implying that he or she is the one with the problem.  Maybe a better thing to say would be: “I am sorry if I said what I said in an offensive manner.”  At least the book got me thinking about this issue and shed light on where I may have gone wrong in the past.

The book offered advice on what is not good material for conversation, and there is wisdom in what it said.  Granted, gossip can create bonds between people, but there is a downside to it.  Not only is it unloving, but what will happen if the person you’re talking about overhears your gossip, or somehow learns about it?
The book could have offered more advice, however, on how to have an appropriate conversation.  What is acceptable humor to use?  What are some good ice-breakers?

The book did present two examples of conversation, one that contains idle talk, and the other which exemplifies what the book is advocating.  The former conversation looked realistic to me.  The latter conversation, in which people were formally quoting Bible verses to each other, did not so much.  At the same time, the latter conversation did make a good point: that maybe we should think of ways to help others as opposed to shredding them behind their backs.

The book may be helpful in a small-group setting.  There, people can get into the specifics of what to do and what not to do.  By itself, the book makes good points, but it is inadequate.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Write-Up: Absolute Love, by R.I. Willroth

R.I. Willroth.  Absolute Love.  Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2011.  See here to buy the book.

The message of this book is one that you will find in a number of Christian books: that God is love, and only in a relationship with God can one find the security, the perspective, and the inner transformation that he or she needs to love others truly.  Some Christian books express this idea in a shallow, simple manner.  Some Christian books are more sophisticated.  Absolute Love leans more in the latter direction.

The book quotes a variety of thinkers and authors: J.I. Packer, John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, C.S. Lewis, M. Scott Peck, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Francis Schaeffer, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Koran, and the list goes on.  If I were to guess, I would say that R.I. Willroth leans towards a Reformed Christian perspective.  The resources that he recommends at the end of the book are largely Reformed.

The book was a bit rambling, but it was an edifying read.  Willroth picks some great quotes.  Sometimes, the quotes overshadow his own voice, but the quotes are still good.  I think of Francis Schaeffer’s statement that Christianity helps us to value others as equals to ourselves, which is why we should try to make things right with people when we sin against them (a perspective that, oddly enough, actually resonates with me as an introvert).  There is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s critique of how human love is often self-interested, whereas divine love values all people rather than seeking to manipulate or exploit them, and that divine love enables people to leave others to Christ (another perspective on interaction that resonates with me as an introvert).  M. Scott Peck presents a compelling picture of letting go of pretense and self-justification, which can open people up to others.  There is C.S. Lewis’ statement that rebelling against God can set the stage for seeing why sin is wrong, and another person’s statement that God is an abundant stream who gives, not a dry well desperate for us to provide its needs.  While Willroth does not believe that God is a dry well who needs our adoration, Willroth still maintains that God punishes people out of love, since God must oppose injustice, which threatens order and well-being.

Willroth did have some good things of his own to say.  His discussion of various attributes—-love, loyalty, etc.—-promoted a poise, security, and an outlook of purpose that I would like to have.

I did struggle with a few things in reading the book.  Of course, drawing on Christian thinkers, Willroth presents non-belief as a fallen, deficient, dark state, whereas belief is when the light goes on inside of a person, enabling him or her to love others truly.  I have my doubts that things are that simple, for there are non-believers who seem to be good people, and believers who are not-so-good in the moral quality of their lives.  Willroth also critiques the view that people can become more loving by being inside of an unconditionally accepting community, saying that confrontation is loving, and appealing to the prophet Amos.  (Either Willroth says this, or the person he’s quoting says it.  I do not remember offhand.)  I do not entirely disagree with Willroth here, for I think that both elements are important: people modeling and showing unconditional love, and people getting shaken out of their complacency.  I struggle, primarily, on account of the abuses that can occur in the name of Christian confrontation.

Reading this book can be an act of worship.  I am not sure if I learned anything dramatically new from it, but I was edified as Willroth and the people he quoted explored and celebrated God’s love, and the importance of love in general.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book Write-Up: Socialism, by Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington.  Socialism.  New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.  See here to buy the book.

Michael Harrington was an American democratic socialist.  Some have argued that his book about American poverty, The Other America, helped inspire the Great Society in the 1960s.  I read The Other America in 1996.  I was a conservative at the time, and I read Marvin Orlasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, which some have claimed was an inspiration for President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives policy.  I read The Other America to get a left-leaning perspective on poverty.

I recently learned about Harrington’s book Socialism from a commenter on my blogger blog.  In 2013, I blogged through W.A. Swanberg’s award-winning biography of six-time Socialist Presidential candidate Norman Thomas.  Some of these posts have gotten a lot of views lately, and the reason may be that Bernie Sanders’ Presidential candidacy has made people curious about socialism.  I was struggling in reading Swanberg’s book to understand what exactly socialism was.  For example, is it totally against private property?  Many of the European countries labeled “socialist” have private industries.  Plus, even American socialist platforms have seemed to presume that, under the society that they advocated, people would own things.  The commenter mentioned Michael Harrington’s book on socialism.  Harrington dedicated his book to Norman Thomas.

A key point that comes out in Michael Harrington’s book on socialism is this: left-wing ideology is far from monolithic, and Michael Harrington is not entirely happy with how it has been implemented.  In prominent cases, Harrington notes, it has led to the oppression and exploitation of people by the government.  This is the case with many Communist regimes, and Harrington argues that these regimes actually violate the teachings of Karl Marx, who, Harrington argues, had more of a peaceful, democratic view of revolution and society than many might think.  In a number of cases, Harrington argues, socialism, social democracy, or left-wing policies have left in place the class system.  The result has been that society, including the leftist ideas as implemented, continue to benefit the wealthy, the powerful, and the well-connected rather than (or more than) the people who need help.  This has been the case with the nationalization of industries and the welfare state.

Harrington tries to diagnose what has gone wrong and offers suggestions on what may work.  According to Harrington, a reason that Communism has not worked well is that many countries in embracing it have skipped a key stage of Marx’s historical scenario: capitalism.  Although Marx believed that capitalism would self-collapse, he thought that it would generate abundance, and then the abundance would be equitably distributed under Communism.  For the proletariat to control the means of production and use them for society’s benefit, in short, there need to be means of production.  But a number of countries that embraced Communism did not really have a capitalist stage of economic development: they had many peasants, but not a lot of producers.  Some, such as the Soviet Union, tried to make up for that, and they did not exactly do so nicely or efficiently.  Harrington supports socialism in prosperous countries such as the U.S. and Europe.  Moreover, he wants to include the Third World in the world economy in a non-exploitative manner.  For example, he is critical of imposing high tariffs on products from the Third World.

Harrington believes that socialism can work.  He points to the Tennessee Valley Authority as an example of socialism at its best: it makes money that it uses for its capital, and it provides low-cost electricity to people.  Harrington states at one point that the TVA is a better socialistic model than the post office!  Harrington also is not so naive as to believe that the U.S. can transition to socialism cold-turkey, but he maintains that feasible steps can be taken in that direction.  Steps can be taken so that businesses answer more to people and communities than their shareholders.  The tax system can be structured so that money is redistributed more equitably.  Harrington responds to the Wall Street Journal‘s argument that such proposals stifle innovation, invention, and job creation by contending that a number of investors profit parasitically rather than contributing to the well-being of people and society.

Harrington mentions Dostoevsky’s statement that socialism is too idealistic and disregards human nature.  Harrington states that Westerners perhaps are as they are because they have been conditioned by capitalism for years.  Harrington notes what he considers to be steps in the right direction, such as young people living in communes and rejecting materialism.  Harrington is critical of the totalitarian Communist regimes that tried to re-educate people from their capitalist assumptions, but he still seems to think that re-education may need to occur.  Perhaps he thinks that it can occur peacefully.

This book was published in 1972, and it is interesting to see what was on people’s radar then, and to compare that with what is on people’s radar now.  Income inequality and the struggles of the middle class were issues then, as they are now.  Harrington also mentions global warming, which he says may result in floods in 2070.  Knowing the outcome of what Harrington mentions was also interesting.  Harrington states that we will have to see how Salvador Allende’s Chile turns out.  This was written before Pinochet took over in a coup.

This is a worthwhile book to read.  I appreciated Harrington’s honest critique of how socialism and left-wing policies have been implemented.  I am not a libertarian myself, but the libertarian argument that government intervention has its drawbacks does resonate with me, and some of what Harrington was saying spoke to the part of me that feels that way.  I do believe that socialism is rather idealistic, that people need a reward to create and produce.  At the same time, I also think that successful models can be implemented that benefit people and society.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Uncontrolling Love of God, by Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord.  The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

If there is a loving, omnipotent God, why is there evil in the world?  Theologian Thomas Jay Oord finds many proposed answers to this question to be inadequate, or to be non-answers.  Some solutions posit that God sometimes interferes to stop evil, which invites the question of why God does not do so at all times.  Some solutions inadvertently trivialize evil by suggesting that God has a righteous purpose for permitting it; I agree with Oord, however, that it would have been better had certain human evils not occurred.  Then there is the appeal to mystery, which does not really advance the discussion.

Oord steps to the plate and offers his own solution, which is essentially a version of the free-will defense.  For Oord, God, out of the love that is a part of God’s nature, cannot compel or violate free will.  God can seek to persuade people and can call people to try to stop a problem, however.  Oord takes a similar approach towards natural evil: that God established regularities and randomness in nature, and that God lovingly allows things to unfold rather than seeking to compel.  Oord attempts to deal with the issue of miracles, and he presents a model of miracles that is reconcilable with his view of God’s loving non-compulsion.

Oord does provide food for thought.  Obviously, the problem of evil is a troubling issue for many who believe in God.  If God is loving and can step in to stop or prevent evil, and even does so on occasion, why does evil so often occur?  Some, such as Harold Kushner and, in a sense, Thomas Jay Oord go the route of saying that God cannot directly stop or prevent evil.  They would prefer to believe in a God who is limited in power, than to believe that God can stop evil and chooses not to do so.  This is understandable.  In addition, Oord’s model may resonate with those who would like to believe in God and evolution at the same time, since one can take Oord’s insight in the direction of saying that God allows evolution to unfold rather than micromanaging.

Oord’s model does not make God look that much better than the models that Oord rejects, however.  Why would it be loving for God to prioritize free will or freedom over safety and shalom?  I also question whether Oord’s model makes the problem of evil go away.  Oord believes that God can call people to step in and stop incidents of evil.  Does God consistently do this?  Does God do all that God can do to stop evil, within the parameters of the limitations in which Oord believes?  If a crime is being committed, for example, does God inform someone about this so that he or she can go to the scene and stop it?  I suppose that one can say that God may act in ways that we cannot see, but that does not sound too different from the appeal to mystery that Oord criticizes.  (I am open to saying that God’s approach is to educate people about why a crime is wrong and to encourage people and society to try to stop crime in general, as opposed to stepping in and trying to put out individual fires.  This may be where Oord is going, but that was not entirely clear.)

Oord’s interaction with Scripture has positives and negatives.  Oord argues that certain passages of Scripture make sense in light of open theism, the view that God does not know the future.  Oord presents examples in Scripture of God loving God’s enemies and cooperating with people rather than resorting to compulsion.  Oord’s serious wrestling with the issue of miracles also deserves favorable note: Oord notes examples in the Gospels in which people’s faith or lack thereof plays a role in whether miracles occur, which favors a model of cooperation rather than compulsion.  Oord also wrestles with nature miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, and his effort does deserve commendation, whether or not one finds his argument convincing.

In terms of negatives, Oord does not wrestle with some of the passages that appear to contradict his position, passages that suggest that God takes a more active role in influencing events or in shaping people’s decisions.  Oord is aware of these passages because he refers to them in summarizing and critiquing various theistic views on God’s providence, free will, and the problem of evil.  Unfortunately, he does not present a way of interpreting them that accords with his model.  Oord also should have addressed how his model accords with heaven, or eschatology.  If God permits evil because God cannot do otherwise, does that mean that God will never step in to stop or prevent evil?  How would one reconcile that with biblical passages about God’s punishment of people and nations, either historically or in the eschaton?  Does God respecting free will or autonomy mean that evil has to exist, or can it be consistent with the existence of a perfect place that is free from evil, such as heaven?  Fruitful discussions about this can occur, so, even if I am not entirely satisfied with Oord’s solutions, I do respect what he says as a starting point.

There were also apparent contradictions in Oord’s book.  Is God intimately involved in nature, or does God maintain a hands-off approach and let nature unfold?  Does the non-human natural world have the agency to respond to God?  Oord seemed to go both ways on these questions.

I have been wrestling with how many stars to give this book, wavering between three and four.  I am settling on four because Oord does raise profound possibilities that can serve as a foundation for future discussion.  Plus, even if I do not treat Oord’s model as an absolute, there may be some truth in what he is saying.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Problems and Struggles

There have been floods, mudslides, and tornadoes in the Washington state area.  At church this morning, during the part of the service in which people share their joys and concerns for prayer, a lady was talking about her husband interacting with people at work who have lost their homes.  They are impatient and they do not know how exactly to move on, she said.  I’d be the same way if that happened to me.

During the sermon, the pastor was talking about a homeless lady he met this week.  She and her children live in a minivan.  She called the pastor and asked for $25 to fill up her minivan.  The pastor went to fill it up and noticed that she was continually smiling.  She said that she was smiling for herself and her children.  I have never been in that sort of situation, but I can identify.  I doubt that I myself would be able to be happy and to show happiness in that sort of situation, but I would be grateful if others tried to keep hope alive.  That would make the situation a little more bearable.

The pastor was talking about privilege and how he is tempted to take refuge in the privileges that come from his job and who he is (I presume he meant a white male).  I think that it is important for me to hear about people’s problems and struggles.  Of course, social privilege does not stop every problem—-floods, mudslides, tornadoes, disease.  Maybe it helps people cope with them a little better.  I recently got an e-mail from the pastor of the Presbyterian church that I attended in upstate New York.  Someone in the church there is raising money for a family whose home burned down.  They did not have insurance because, notwithstanding their hard work, they could not afford the premiums.

Hearing these sorts of stories should make me more sensitive to people’s needs.  I have helped some people through donations, and some people I have not helped because I have been busy.  I know that I cannot help everyone.  I should be willing to help at least someone.

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