Monday, April 30, 2012

The Little Church That Could


I have been privileged to serve as the Ambassador for the Olympic Baptist Association for the past year and a half and Moderator the two years prior to that.  My favorite part of those jobs has been the opportunity to get out and visit the churches of the association on a periodic basis.  With 18 churches to visit, we do not get to any of them very often, other than our home church.  But we do make it out often enough to be able to start to get to know the individual churches and some of their members.

All of our churches are different, with different worship styles, reaching a wide range of demographics, and of differing size and ministry opportunities.  But all of them give every indication to me that they are committed to representing Christ in the community they are in, and that they enjoy being together as a church.

This past Sunday Sue and I visited with what is arguably the smallest church in the association; and one that many would call the weakest and most insignificant.  This is a church that was on the verge of closing a year ago, deep in debt, with only a handful of members, and on the verge of losing their pastor.  Many people had written them off, giving them no chance of survival.

Today they are still very small, pastorless and weak, at least from a human perspective, and they may always be so.  But their transformation has been truly amazing to me.  In the past year they have taken stock of who they are, and what their purpose is in the Kingdom of God and their community.  They have taken ownership and responsibility for doing what needs to be done to become a church that makes a difference in their community.  The individual members have begun to reach outside of their comfort zones and dare to let God use them in new ways.  And I would venture to say that they are making much more of an impact in their community than most churches many times their size.

If you had been with them for the first time this past Sunday your reaction might have been dismissive; it’s obvious that they don’t know how to ‘do church’.  But, in my opinion, you would be dead wrong.  Because people are moving around and talking a lot, there are kids running around and dancing, because it is very informal and without a great deal of prior preparation, does not mean that they are not gathering as the body of Christ to worship and grow.  Their worship works for them, it appeals to the poor, the needy, and the unchurched in their community, and, most importantly, I believe that God is pleased and takes joy in their gatherings.

I am excited about what is happening in this little insignificant church, a church that like Philadelphia in Revelation 3:8 has little strength, but with an open door of ministry opportunity that they are marching through.  So, to Dave, Katy, Rose, Misty, Victor, and to all the other members of this blessed body, I encourage you to stay true to your calling, and to continue to show the rest of us how to ‘do church’.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Was Hitler A Christian?

In the past few years I have seen this question raised frequently and have entered into the debate about it more than once; most recently this past week on Facebook.  Many will think “Who knows”, and “What difference does it make?”  And to some extent that is true.  God alone knows a person’s heart and relationship with him.
But in the realm of apologetics this question does have significant consequences.  One side of the argument says that Hitler was a Christian and that he used Christianity to support and promote his evil.  The implication being that if Hitler was not a Christian, or generally religious, that he would not have pursued the agenda that he did, and the world would never have experienced the Holocaust or World War 2.  This side of the argument generally will throw Hitler into the face of Christians as an example of the evils in the world caused by religion in general, and Christianity in particular.
Those on the other side of the debate will claim that Hitler, in spite of his claims, was not a Christian, and that his actions were not the result of his Christian faith.  Rather he only pretended to be a Christian in order to maintain the support of Germany’s Christian churches.  And Hitler’s actions came from his own person and merely used Christianity as an excuse.

By Their Fruit

Indeed, Hitler called himself a Christian, and he attributed much of his actions to his own brand of Christianity.  But is a person a Christian simply because they apply the label to themselves.  Or because they wrap themselves up in Christian rhetoric or activities?  Or is there more to being a Christian than that?
In Matthew 7:15-23 Jesus says
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
In this passage Jesus tells us that there will be those who will come pretending to be something that they are not.  A prophet is one who delivers a message from God to the people.  These people that Jesus refers to here are claiming to have a message from God; but Jesus warns us to look beyond the words and to examine their actions.  What kind of fruit are they producing?  Is it consistent with what Jesus is telling us?  Or is it contrary to his message to us, as well as that of his apostles.
For sure, I cannot know another person’s heart.  But I can compare their actions with those of Jesus; and their words with the words of Jesus.  And if the two do not line up, then it should be pretty clear that person is not a Christian, a Christ follower.  It is not enough to call Jesus Lord.  If you do not live in obedience to him, he will deny knowledge of you and cast you out, at least according to his words recorded in Matthew 7.
In this passage Jesus tells us that we can, and should, look at a person’s actions to determine if they truly are following him or not.  So what about Hitler?  Could you see him fitting in among Jesus other disciples?  How well did his life line up with Jesus teachings in the Sermon on the Mount?  Is there any evidence to support his claims to being a Christian, apart from those claims?

Masquerading as a Christ Follower

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.  – 2 Corinthians 11:13-15
Paul makes an interesting claim here.  It seems like there are servants of Satan who masquerade as servants of righteousness, as Christ followers.  Just because someone stands up and proclaims themselves as being a follower of Christ, as one who has a message from God, as one who claims to know the will of God, does not make it so.
So how would one determine that one claiming to be a messenger of God is really a messenger of Satan?  Look back at the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew as he tells us to look at the fruit produced, at their actions.  Are they doing what Jesus tells us to do, or something else altogether?  Is the message, or direction, they claim to be bringing from God in line with the message and direction from Jesus and his apostles?  Does the one delivering the message take center stage, or does he point to the giver of the message?
I don’t see any evidence that Hitler, as a messenger, sought to focus attention on Jesus.  Nor do I know of any actions on his part that were consistent with Jesus teachings.  Publicly it appears that Hitler was in-line with much of German Christianity at the time, but I do not believe that changes the need to compare him, as an individual, with the standard, Jesus.  Just because you are traveling with the herd, doesn't mean you are going in the right direction.
Privately, it appears like Hitler had no real personal belief but was simply using the beliefs common in Germany at the time to advance his cause. The following excerpt from Wikipedia illustrates what may have been his true feelings about religion.
In 1985 the Austrian author WilfriedDaim published a photograph of an alleged document signed by Hitler in 1943, which proposed the:"Immediate and unconditional abolition of all religions after the final victory ('Endsieg') not only for the territory of Greater Germany but also for all released, occupied and annexed countries ..., proclaiming at the same time Hitler as the new messiah. Out of political considerations the Muslim, Buddhist and Shintoist religion will be spared for the present. The 'F├╝hrer' has to be presented as an intermediate between a redeemer and a liberator, yet surely as one sent by God, who has to get godly honour. The existing churches, chapels, temples and cult places of the different religions have to be changed into 'Adolf-Hitler-consecration places'. The theological faculties of the universities have to be transformed into the new faith. Special emphasis has to be laid on the education of missionaries and wandering preachers, who have to proclaim the teaching in Greater Germany and in the rest of the world and have to form religious bodies, which can be used as centres for further extension. (With this the problems with the abolition of monogamy will disappear, because polygamy can be included into the new teaching as one of the statements of faith.)”
 If this quote is to be believed, then Hitler was only pretending to be a Christian in order to support his on-going goals.  And once his goals were accomplished he would drop the guise of Christianity, creating a new religion centered on himself.

Conclusion

Was Hitler a Christian like he claimed, or only masquerading as one?  I personally see no reason to suppose that Hitler truly had a relationship with God as a disciple of Jesus.  And by associating himself with Christianity, I believe Hitler did a great deal of harm to the cause of Christ, both in his day and on into our current time.
I believe Hitler was a man who used the religion of his people to accomplish his goals, rather than a man who defined his goals based upon his religion and then carried them out because of his faith.  And in that respect he is not much different than many quite respectable people of our day, for whom Christianity, or religion in general, is more a matter of convenience, or furthering their own agenda, than a matter of personal faith.
It is unfortunate that Christians the world over find themselves judged by the actions of pretenders.  It does make it more important that we who do profess his name do our best to emulate our Lord and give no reason for unbelievers to speak ill of Christ because of our own lives.

Discussion

To discuss this topic, or express an opinion, please tune into the Hitler post on Rational Christianity.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Joys of Being a Slumlord


When we bought our house 24 years ago it came with an attached Mother-in-law apartment.  We have kept this apartment rented out with only brief periods of vacancy between tenants.  It has generally been a nice extra source of income with a minimal amount of work; an occasional stopped up sink being the most common maintenance.

But occasionally we get to do some more extensive remodeling.  I have replaced the bathroom sink and cabinet, added a washer & dryer, retiled the bathroom and kitchen/dining room, refinished the hardwood floor in the bedroom, put up a ceiling fan (twice) in the bedroom, had all the windows replaced, put up new blinds on most of the windows, replaced an exterior door and painted several times.  Sounds like a lot, but stretched over 24 years it has not been too bad.

The apartment is currently open and we decided it’s time for some more improvements to the place.  The living room carpet was old when we bought the place, and the tile I put in is showing its age.  So we decided to get them replaced and called in a couple of companies to give us bids for the work.  And, while they were at it, to get bids for the kitchen and bathroom in our house.  And, we might as well paint the place again while it is setting open.

I hate to paint, so my lovely assistant has done the bulk of the painting so far.  This time around we have given up on the stained wood trim around windows and doors and everything is going to be antique white.  Not the most exciting color, but it is easier to be able to just slap the same color on the whole house.  Unfortunately the place has about a bazillion cabinets and drawers, making it very time consuming to pull off hardware and cut in all the corners.

I did venture to wield a paint brush one day.  I repainted the front porch and then decided to get all of the kitchen cabinet doors out onto the driveway and get them primed.  And I did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself.  But apparently the painter half of the marriage didn't think that much of the job I had done and ran over the doors with the car.  It was actually a relief to me because it absolved me of any responsibility for painting anything else.  I actually thought tire tracks across the doors was kind of classy, but, alas, they are all painted over now.

The most exciting part of this maintenance period is going to be the new floors in both the apartment and in the house.  We are moving appliances today and the installers come tomorrow.  It’ll be fun to watch, instead of do, and see what a difference it will make in both places.  By the time they are finished the apartment should bear little resemblance to what it was 24 years ago, other than the same shape and most of the cabinetry. And hopefully the wife will quit pestering me about replacing the linoleum in our kitchen and bathroom.

And then it will be time to get it all put back together, back on the market, and begin the slow process of recouping our expenses.  Anyone looking for a one bedroom apartment?

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Beatitudes

I was reading through Matthew again and came to the 5th chapter and what is commonly known as the Beatitudes.  I am sure I have read this passage hundreds of times and have always taken it to say that being 'poor in spirit', or mourning, or meek, etc. where attributes that would be rewarded and thence something that we should strive for.

But this past time through it, something triggered in the gray matter and got me to rethinking what Jesus is saying here.  Could it be that this is not a call to become like those who are called blessed here.  After all, Jesus says nothing negative about those who are not these things.  There is no contrast here at all between poor and rich, mourning and happy, or persecuted and not persecuted.

Could it be that Jesus is talking to people who where characterized by these things, and he is telling them that the state they are in is only temporary; that better things are coming?  That rather than be discouraged when difficult times come, that one should endure and see the Lord's blessing that will come in the end.

My time in this tent is short.  And sometimes the rains come, sometimes the bears steal my food, sometimes the trail is rocky and steep.  Don't be discouraged, don't give in to despair, don't give up the fight.  Instead, be happy because the tent will be replaced with a permanent dwelling, the rain will bring beauty, the trail will end at the mountain top.  Stick it out and see what the Lord has prepared for those who love him and who have walked with him.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Copying the New Testament Texts


It is a fact that we do not have any of the original documents for the writings that compose the New Testament.  Nor do we have any 1st or 2nd generation copies of these texts.  So just how faithful to the original are the current copies we have today?  Is it true that there are thousands of errors in the text and that it bears no resemblance to the original?  Or has it come through this process relatively unscathed?  Or somewhere in between?

This is really an issue for every manuscript that comes to us from antiquity.  All of them are hand copied; usually many generations worth.  This issue really has little to do with the inspiration or inerrancy of the original texts.  It has more to do with the reliability of human scribes and the ability to reconstruct ancient texts from the copies we have today.

Copying Ancient Texts

In the days before the printing press, any time you wanted to make a copy of a document, whether it be a short note, a letter or a book, the copying was done by hand; a time consuming task with a great deal of opportunity for error.  There were two primary ways that the copying occurred.  You might have a solitary scribe who would have the book to copy open in front of him, along with a blank scroll.  He would read a section from the one and then write it to the other until the copy was complete.  The other method was for one person to read aloud the text to be copied and have one or more scribes writing down what they heard.

I imagine that most folks have actually participated in both of these copy methods.  You might have copied a recipe, a short quote from a book, or someone else’s notes on a lecture.  You might have also written down a verbally given phone number or email address.  And just how accurate was your copy?

It can hardly be helped; copying large sections of text will introduce changes in the text.  Seldom will the original and the copy be identical, at least if they are of any significant length.  Misspellings, transposing words, skipping or duplicating sections are all common copying errors.  Reading back over the copy and comparing it to the original will catch a lot of the errors, but generally not all of them.

Errors, once introduced into the text, will generally propagate through subsequent copies.  Some errors, like spelling, may be corrected when found, although it may be corrected to the wrong word.  As a document goes through multiple generations of copying, the number of copy errors will increase.  How many copy errors have occurred in the New Testament over the years?  That is really impossible to say, although you may have heard figures as large as 400,000.  But that number is very deceiving.  Since there are thousands of manuscripts that are used to accumulate that number, it wouldn’t take more than a handful of errors in each one to come up with a pretty big number.  And the vast majority of those errors are simple spelling or transposition errors.

Fixing Errors

Textual criticism is a bad word for some folks, although I suspect that is mostly because they do not know what it does.  In essence it is the process of comparing the existing ancient manuscripts with each other to work toward producing something that is as close as possible to the original work.  This is used on all ancient documents and has become pretty refined over the last few decades.  The output of this process, at least for the New Testament, is a Greek edition of the texts that is as close to the original as they are able to get it.  And then this Greek edition is used to produce our modern translations in a variety of languages.  Generally this Greek edition will include any alternate readings that might be in question, and many modern translations include these alternates in their footnotes.  Perusing one of the modern translations, like the NIV, you can see how many places where it was not clear what the original probably looked like.  And you would discover that there are actually not that many of them, and none that really have any doctrinal significance.

So, thanks to the work of scholars using textual criticism, we have in our possession today English versions of the New Testament that are very similar to what was written by the original authors.  But wait; is it not possible that significant changes were made early on, prior to the manuscripts that have been preserved?  While that is certainly possible, the odds are really against it.

Pick any New Testament book, say Romans.  Paul writes this letter while in Corinth and sends it on to Rome.  It is not long until individuals and groups want a copy of this letter for their own use.  So, over the next few years a number of copies are made of this letter.  And as each of these copies is dispersed geographically, additional copies are made from those original copies.  And as time and dispersions continue even more copies are made.  Now, nearly 2000 years later we collect all of the copies of this letter we can find, and discover that there are no substantial differences in any of them.  Interesting!

But what if an early copier made significant changes to the original? What would it take for all of the copies that we have today to have been made from that changed copy?  If the only copies ever made from the original had the change, then that is all we would see.  But if unchanged copies were also made then we would end up with two distinct versions of the original, each itself being copied and passed down through the generations.  And we should see both of these ‘versions’ in the manuscripts we have available today.  But we don’t.  The only way to avoid that would be if the proponents of one version managed to eradicate all competing versions; itself a monumental task if the competitors had gained much traction.

The best evidence we have today is that our New Testament is essentially the same thing as was written during the middle of the first century.  That in itself does not make it any truer than the Iliad or the Odyssey.  But it is a powerful argument against those who claim that the New Testament is the product of the 4th century, written to promote the agenda of the Roman church.  I can have confidence that what I read today is what Paul and the other New Testament authors wrote 2000 years ago.

Discussion

If you have any comments, questions or discussion on this topic please go to the Rational Christianity discussion group and let your voice be heard.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Cure for Cramps

I started having cramps in my calves when running a few months ago.  Initially they would be more common when I was running hard, but eventually all I had to do was run easy for a mile or two.  I learned real quick that when one started to come on that it was time to stop and walk back home.  But it was really getting frustrating. I had signed up for a couple of half marathons in the coming months and it was starting to look like I would not be able to participate in them.

I spent some time reading about muscle cramps on a number of web sites and found that they were not terrible uncommon for runners.  But most of what I read said that no one really knew what caused them, although there are several things that seemed to be contributing factors.  As a result there is no cure all solution for cramps, although there are a number of things that one could try.

Dehydration is one of the more common causes believed to cause cramps.  But I drink plenty of liquids, even if not all water.  I tried to up the fluid levels some but that seemed to have no impact, other than having to get up more often during the night.

Muscle fatigue is another possibility.  But I have run much less the past few months than in the past few years.  Granted that was largely because of a bad cold and the cramps.  But still, muscle fatigue seemed unlikely.

Staying well stretched is a solution that some offered.  Stretching, using a roller stick, or a foam roller all are touted as the way to go.  I stretch a lot and have tried the stick and foam roller to no effect.

Finally I found an article on potassium that seemed to offer some possibilities.  A pair of quotes from this article really stuck out.
Potassium plays an important role in muscle contraction and nerve transmission. Many of our muscle and nerve cells have specialized channels for moving potassium in and out of the cell. Sometimes potassium moves freely in and out, and sometimes a special energy-driven pump is required. When the movement of potassium is blocked, or when potassium is deficient in the diet, activity of both muscles and nerves can become compromised.
Potassium is involved in the storage of carbohydrates for use by muscles as fuel. It is also important in maintaining the body's proper electrolyte and acid-base (pH) balance. Potassium may also counteract the increased urinary calcium loss caused by the high-salt diets typical of most Americans, thus helping to prevent bones from thinning out at a fast rate.
Low levels of potassium can hinder the proper functioning of muscles and nerves as well as the storage of carbohydrates used as muscle fuel.  The results are weakened muscles and muscle fatigue.  I don't recall this article addressing cramps specifically, although other articles did draw a connection between the two.

We get most of our daily allocation of potassium from our diet, in particular from fresh fruits and vegetables.  As I read that it suddenly struck me that my intake of fresh fruits and veggies had declined dramatically when I quit going into the office, just a couple of months before the cramps started.  I had been taking a container of melon, or other fruit, along with another container of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots, all good sources of potassium.  Now, working from home, I was eating frozen prepared foods for lunch, and seldom got fresh fruits and veggies.

Could it be that just starting to eat the healthier foods would cure the cramps?  It was worth a try, so I immediately started eating a quarter of a cantaloupe and a banana for breakfast as well as eating a cup of raw cauliflower at lunch.  While it has only been a week and a half, I have had no cramps since then, although I could still feel an occasional twinge initially.  But now even that is gone.  I am once again able to run full out without any sign of cramping up.

Who would have known that the cure for cramps, at least for me, was as simple as eating healthier.  And now my half marathons are back on track.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rooted and Established In Love


Ephesians really gives us a look into Paul’s prayer life, at least concerning the churches he was worked with.  In Ephesians 1:15-23 Paul expresses his prayer for this church.  And now in chapter 3, verses 14-21, he continues that prayer.  Here the prayer appears to have two parts; that the vessel be prepared, and then that it be filled.

The vessel that Paul refers to here is my inner being, or my spirit.  When I come to Christ, it is a spiritual rebirth; and my spirit is weak and puny.  God has a treasure he wants to pour into the vessel of my spirit, but it is incapable of holding it.  It would be like putting an elephant into a cage designed to hold a chicken; it just would not work.  So Paul prays that God would, out of the riches available to him, strengthen my spirit to the point that it would be adequate for the task.  You might think of this as an episode of This Old House.  The Holy Spirit shows up with all the right tools and materials and transforms the shack that was there into a mansion that is suitable as a dwelling place for God.

As the vessel of my spirit is prepared, Christ will make his home within.  To be clear, Christ will live within from the moment of my salvation; he does not wait until the new house is fully completed before moving in.  But as the house is remodeled, expanded and strengthened, Christ’s presence and ability to effectively work within me will grow.  Rather than a strict two step process, this is more of an iterative process, or journey, that we are engaged in.  As I surrender more and more in faith to him, he works to remodel the house, making it more useful, which in turn encourages me to respond with greater faith, which produces more change and effectiveness ….

As Paul goes on from here he seems to shift metaphors a bit, but I believe he is still building on the strengthened and indwelled vessel.  Being rooted and established is very much an agricultural term.  I planted some rose bushes a month ago.  Right now I could walk out into the rose bed and yank up one of these new roses with no effort at all; they have not yet established a good root system.  To make way for these roses I had to pull a couple of older plants that were not what we really wanted.  One of these old rooted and established roses was nearly impossible for me to pull and required some pretty significant labor and heavy tools.  Paul’s prayer is that, like my roses were rooted in the soil of the rose bed, so I would be rooted and established in Christ’s love, unshakable and unmovable.

As the vessel of my inner man is strengthened, and Christ fills it more and more, resulting in my becoming rooted and established in his love, the next step is to work at understanding the scope of Christ’s love.  To know how wide, long, high and deep something is to understand what its limits are.    So what are the limits of Christ’s love?  Obviously there are none; except maybe for that person who cut me off in traffic this morning.  And maybe those dirty stinky guys in robes shooting at our soldiers in Afghanistan.  And maybe those Democratic (or Republican) leaders who are destroying our country.  And maybe the guy who killed 77 children in Norway.  And maybe …

Christ’s love reaches out to destroy the walls or barriers that separate people; that keep us from sharing the good news of Jesus with other people in this world.  And the more his love fills my life, the more I should understand that his love is for everyone.  An unwillingness to take Christ’s love to some person, or class of person is a sign of immaturity in my walk with Christ.  Allowing my roots to sink deeper into his love will open me more to the extent of his love and help to tear down those barriers I have erected.

Another benefit to being rooted and established in love is that you can know the unknowable.  The love of Christ is beyond my ability to completely comprehend; it surpasses knowledge.  But it is not beyond my ability to experience, or to know.  The deeper my roots sink down, the more I experience his love in my own life.  Take root in Christ’s love and allow it to become your life.

And the more I experience the unknowable love of Christ, the more I am filled with God.  Paul brings us back to the metaphor of the strengthened vessel; a vessel that has been made adequate to hold all of God’s fullness.  This is a task that is beyond me.  But God is able to remodel this old house to make it suitable as a dwelling for himself, a house that is filled with the love of Christ.

Friday, April 13, 2012

About the Gospels


Jesus of Nazareth is the central figure in Christianity, the single most important person ever to have lived, according to Christian belief.  While there is some information about Jesus that can be gleaned from other Christian sources, including Paul, and a small handful of obscure secular references, the four New Testament gospel accounts provide the bulk of what we know about him.  And thus the reliability of these accounts is very important to Christians and to Christianity.  So what do we know about their authorship and when they were written?  Actually not nearly as much as we might like.

It would be really great if we could find a copy of the Gospel of John with a copyright page included that listed the author and date of the first printing.  Unfortunately those kinds of clues are missing from the writings of that time.  It would also be convenient if other writers in the first couple of centuries had believed in providing references for their quotes.  There are plenty of short passages used in other writings that appear to come from one of the gospels, but they could just as easily come from another source.  As a result we have to use some more indirect methods to try and ascertain the dating and authorship of the gospels.

I have read from a variety of sources concerning the gospels, some claiming that the authors knew the geography of Israel as well as customs and titles common to the first half of the first century.  And other sources make just the opposite claim.  It is difficult for me to know just how to evaluate those conflicting claims, and so I generally ignore them.

The Destruction of Jerusalem

To me the most significant evidence for the dating of the gospels concerns the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Three of the gospels seem to directly refer to this event while the fourth indirectly does.  Matthew, Mark and Luke all refer to this event as if it were something yet to occur and Jesus was foretelling the destruction.  But did it really happen that way, or did the gospel writers, writing after the fact, put the predictive words into Jesus mouth?

Your response to that question is likely dependent on who you believe Jesus is.  If he was indeed God in human form, then to know the future would be no big deal; and his predicting it before his death, and having it written down prior to 70 AD would be no big deal.  But if you believe Jesus was a best an interesting teacher whose legend was expanded in the decades following his death, then the gospels must be written after 70 AD, and in such a way as to appear as unfulfilled prophecy.

Of course a third possibility is that Jesus did indeed foretell the fall of Jerusalem but the accounts we have today were not written until after the event.  The difficulty with that, at least to me, is that all three of the authors referring to the prediction refrained from using the event to prove that Jesus actually did forecast the fall of Jerusalem.  And how tempting that would have been, to say "Jesus said it, and it happened just like he said".

Another interesting issue concerning this forecast is that it appears to only be partially fulfilled.  If you read the 24th chapter of Matthew, the longest and most detailed account, you will see some things that could easily relate to the events of 70 AD, but other parts of it are clearly targeted at the end of the world.  The interesting part of this to me is what it says about the dating.  If these accounts were invented to show Jesus predictive power, they really could have done a much better job of it.  And if the prediction was indeed from Jesus but recorded later, it would have been awful tempting to edit the account to make it better jive with actual events, and not scramble it up with end of the world stuff; especially since you would be writing from after the end of the world.

So it seems most logical to me to date at least the Synoptic Gospels prior to 70 AD.  And even the gospel of John, in John 5:2, refers to the Pool of Bethesda as something that had current existence.  But that pool was destroyed in 70 AD.

The Death of Paul

The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are claimed to be written by the same author; and I know of no serious objection to that.  The author of Acts also appears to be a sometimes traveling companion of Paul.  There are three small sections in the latter part of Acts with the narrative changes from second and third person to a first person plural, indicating that the author had joined Paul on one of his trips.  The later half of the book of Acts is almost exclusively about the travels of Paul as he takes the gospel through the north-east corner of the Mediterranean.  And the account ends with Paul spending two years under Roman house arrest in Rome.   Paul seems to have been killed around 65 AD, yet Luke makes no reference to his death.  Why?  It would seem reasonable to me to assume that Paul was still alive when Acts was written, putting its date prior to 65 AD.  And Luke precedes Acts by probably a couple of years, putting it into the early 60's.

And that would put Mark, which appears to be a common source for Matthew and Luke even earlier.

Dates and Authors

Mark is likely the earliest gospel written, and a date in the late 50's would not be unreasonable.  This gospel in anonymous, although early tradition attributes it to John Mark, relative of Barnabas and one time companion of Paul.  It is said that he listened to the stories of Peter while in Rome and then crafted this account.  The curious reference in Mark 14:51-52 could well be Mark saying "I was there".

Luke and Acts are likely written in the early 60's, or possibly late 50's.  These accounts are also anonymous but appear to have been written by someone who spent at least some time with Paul.  The author also claims that at the time of his writing there were already a number of accounts of the life of Jesus and that he researched his account striving for accuracy.  By tradition the author of this set is Luke.

Matthew is likely written sometime in the 60's and like Mark and Luke is anonymous.  Tradition attributes this gospel to Matthew, the tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus.  But I do not think that likely.  If so, why would he draw so heavily from Mark rather than his own recollections?

John is traditionally dated to the end of the first century, but it seems more likely to me to also come prior to 70 AD and the fall of Jerusalem.  The author of John is not identified by name, but John 21:24 seems to indicate that it is written by one of Jesus disciples, likely John.

Two resources will provide an example of the datings that have been assigned to these 5 books.  The first of these is from the web site, Errant Skeptics (http://www.errantskeptics.org/Dating-New-Testament-Books.htm), which provides a listing of the dates given by a variety of scholars, both liberal and conservative, for the writing of the New Testament books.  The dates given below discard both the oldest and most recent estimates.  The second is from the book ‘Redating the New Testament’ by John A. T. Robinson, an often quoted book, although not universally accepted.

Errant SkepticsRedating the New Testament
Matthew49-90c. 40-60+
Mark45-73c. 45-60
Luke53-85-57-60+
John70-95-40-65+
Acts62-90-57-62+

Some Other Thoughts

There are those who will argue that the gospels were written long after Jesus death, and did not actually come into their finished form until the 4th century and were the product of much editing and revision over the preceding centuries.  And those are generally the same folks who will claim that the gospels are filled with contradictions and inconsistencies.  But is that not really a contradiction in itself?  Think about it; if the gospels were edited for 200 to 300 years before reaching their final state, wouldn't it seem like all of the inconsistencies and contradictions would have been edited out?  I know I would have at least done something about the genealogies of Jesus presented in Matthew and Luke.

If, on the other hand, the gospels were held as sacred from the beginning, and any editing strongly discouraged, then it really would not be strange to see four accounts of Jesus ministry with different focuses, with events in different orders and an inconsistency in the numbers of people in some events.

Discussion

If you have any comments, questions or discussion on this topic please go to the Rational Christianity discussion group and let your voice be heard.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How Much Government Is Enough?


Why do we need government, and what role should it play in our lives?  Your answer to that will likely determine how you feel about your government, the US for me, and your response to those who are seeking a place within government, from the President down to the local dog catcher.

I believe most people probably recognize the need for some kind of government.  But there seems little agreement after that.  Should government be small and limited in scope, or is a big government that is involved in every area of life to be preferred?  Should our government protect us from harm; from each other; regulate morality; manage health care and welfare; protect the environment; intercede in conflicts in other countries; be involved in international relief efforts; etc?

And of course I have my own opinion about all this.  I do believe that the primary role of any government is the protection of its people.  There are some ways that this is done that are pretty obvious; protection from outside invaders or aggressors and from criminal activity within our borders.  While there are certainly some who would like to see our military and police forces eliminated, I doubt they would actually like to live with the result.

Once I get beyond these two things the role of government in protecting me becomes a bit more challenging.  Should the government be involved in regulating our industries?  In keeping banks from robbing us blind?  Preventing retailers from engaging in deceptive practices? Keeping industrial plants from destroying the environment?  I do indeed want there to be some control over these things, but not to the point that it becomes difficult and extremely expensive for them to do business.  After all, I know who pays the price for that, twice over; in my tax burden and in the resultant cost of services.  In generally I agree that the government should be involved here, but probably not to as great an extent as the US is.

One of the challenging issues for me is the ‘social safety net’ that we provide to our citizens and other residents.  In principal I agree that we should care for the most vulnerable among us; those who for one reason or another cannot take care of themselves.  But I believe we have gone way overboard with this and have created a growing social class that expects to be supported from the government dole.  I find that really hard to accept.  Why should I work to support someone else who feels entitled to a living off the efforts of folks like myself without contributing anything to society.  I do believe we are long overdue for welfare reform.  Yes, support the helpless.  But as for the others, if they are unwilling to get out and work and contribute to society, then let them starve.

Another hot button topic for me concerns government attempts at regulating morality.  There is a lot that goes on in our world that I find distasteful and even morally repugnant.  But if it is not hurting anyone else, why should our government get involved to regulate those practices?  Not only does that seem to be outside of the government’s mandate, but it also seems like a slippery slope that could lead to something like Islam’s Shari Law, currently imposed in some countries.  It might be OK so long as I agreed with all of the morality laws; but what if I don’t?  And what if those laws were contrary to my own moral standard?

In regards to foreign affairs, I believe that as wealthy and strong as the US is, that there is also a moral obligation to offer assistance to others in our world who are less fortunate than we are.  I am all in favor of offering assistance to victims of famine, earthquakes and other natural disasters.  I applaud efforts to work cooperatively with other nations for the good of all.  I am less enthused about getting involved in places where we are not wanted and are unwelcome, just because we can.

There are so many other areas that our government likes to get involved in; sometimes to the good, and more often not.  In general my rule of thumb, apart from issue of protecting the citizenry, is less is better.  And when it comes time to vote for president, and others, this year, that will be my guiding principal.  While I care about a candidate’s character, I care more about their philosophy of government.  What is their vision for the role of government in my life and in our nation as a whole?  Do they have a track record that supports a government focused on its primary purpose rather than expanding its influence?  Are they willing to accept that more government is not the answer to all the ills of the world, or our country?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Rational Christianity

Is Christianity rational?  I have debated this point with lots of folks over the past few years.  And there is a wide divergence of opinion as to whether it is or not.  The dictionary defines rational as "agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible".  It also defines reason as "to think or argue in a logical manner.  to form conclusions, judgments or inferences from facts or premises."  Christianity is rational if it is based on facts, makes sense, and is coherent.

So is Christianity rational?  I believe that it is.  That it is based on reality, it is internally coherent and that it is a superior world view to any other.  Some of you reading this will agree with my assessment.  And others are laughing at what they view as the absurdity of the claim.

For those of you on either side of the debate, as well as those who are searching for an answer to this question, I would like to invite you to join with me in discussing this question, and related ones, on Rational Christianity.  Rational Christianity is a discussion forum that is open to anything related to Christianity.  This is actually a second start for the forum.  Some of the original content has been retained, but it is mostly a fresh start.

You will have to join the group to be able to participate, although you can freely read anything posted without joining.  Feel free to start new topics or participate in existing topics.  Ask questions, make supportable claims, challenge a position, or defend a position.  Or just read and learn.

Any viewpoint is welcome, whether it comes from a Christian background, atheist or something else all together.  The only requirement is that you be respectful in your presentation and not vulgar.  Posts that are insulting, use profanity or not related to the debate will be removed.  The intent of this is to keep the debate on topic and non-threatening to all who choose to participate.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

He Is Risen Indeed

Today is Easter, the day that Christians all over the world celebrate our risen Lord.  Jesus, put to death on a Roman cross and buried in a tomb, rose to life again on the third day.

I celebrate Easter because it reminds me that I serve a Lord who is alive, who has conquered death.  And because he conquered death, I can have assurance that death is not the final act for me either.  Someday this body I wear will cease to function.  But the hope I have in the resurrection persuades me that my life does not end with the passing of this body.  But I will live and walk with Him through eternity.

Today is a good day to remember what Jesus has done for us.  Take the time to meditate on his death and resurrection, and what it means, or can mean, for you.  And take the time to celebrate, along with me, a risen and living Lord.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Sample Gear List

This is part 7 of a multi-part series on backpacking equipment
  1. Portable Backcountry Shelters
  2. Staying Warm At Night In the Woods
  3. Fueling the Furnace
  4. Dressing Appropriately
  5. All the Other Stuff We Like To Pack
  6. And, Finally, What To Put It All In
  7. A Sample Gear List
The first six articles in this series have looked at the wide range of backpacking gear that is available and discussed the pros and cons of much of it.  To close out this series I want to detail out a gear list. This is what I am currently planning on using for multiday trips in the Olympics as well as this years PCT section hike through Oregon, but is subject to some change yet.  It is a moderately lightweight gear list.  Of course if the weather is expected to be very cold or wet some additional clothes will be added.  All weights are in pounds and ounces


What I Am Wearing

Pants0, 12ExOfficio with zip off legs and built-in mesh briefs
Shirt0, 6 3/4Seattle Marathon long sleeve performance tee
Shoes1, 7 3/8Brooks Pure Grit trail runners (size 14)
Socks0, 1 1/4Cool Mesh II
Gaiters0, 1 3/8Dirty Girl 
Hat0, 3 1/8Columbia wide brim floppy hat
Watch0, 2 1/8Casio Pathfinder
Trekking Poles1, 5 5/8Black Diamond
Total4, 7 5/8

Belly Bag

Belly Bag0, 4with ID and keys
Maps0, 3/4For 1 Green Trails topo in a zip lock bag.  This weight will actually go up for the PCT and the maps will move into a side pocket on the pack.
Compass0, 5/8
Reading Glasses0, 1 1/2Small reading glasses in metal case
Nail Clippers0, 3/4
Multi-tool0, 2 3/8
Whistle0, 1/8Fox40 Micro
Notebook & Pen0, 4Used for note taking along the way.  Otherwise I'll forget something I want to relate to the wife when I get home.
Chap Stick0, 1/4SPF 15
Anti-bacterial hand cleaner0, 1Travel size
Total0, 15 3/8

Sleeping, Shelter & Pack

Pack2, 4 3/4ULA Circuit without internal pockets
Dry Bag0, 4OR Medium
Hammock2, 11 3/8Warbonnet BlackBird 1.1 dbl with 14' straps and woopie slings
Tarp1, 4MacCat Deluxe SpinnUL with ridge line, tie outs and stakes
Top Quilt1, 6 1/2JRB No Sniveller
Bottom Quilt1, 5 5/8JRB Mt Washington 3
Pillow0, 4 7/8REI self inflating 
Total9, 9 1/8

Clothing

Coat0, 12 3/8Westcomb Specter LT Hoody
Long Sleeve Shirt0, 9Heavy running shirt
Short Sleeve Shirt0, 4Performance tee
Silk Pants0, 3 3/8REI
Possum Down Socks0, 2 3/4Very warm sleeping socks
Skull Cap0, 1 3/4Smart Wool beanie
Gloves0, 3 3/8Running gloves with mitten covers
Socks0, 2 1/22 pair Cool Mesh II
Total2, 7 1/8

Toiletries

Toothbrush and Toothpaste0, 1 3/8Toob - contains a small refillable tube of toothpast in the handle.
TP0, 3/4Pulled from a big roll and put in a small zip lock bag
Wet Wipes0, 2Travel Pack
Cortaid0, 1Travel size anti-itch cream
Insect Repellent0, 3Ultrathon - 34.34% deet
Sun Screen0, 4Banana Boat SPF 30
Total0, 12 1/8

Food and Water

Water Filter & Bag 0, 3 1/2Sawyer Squeeze filter with 2 qt bag
Chlorine Dioxide0, 1/810 pills in foil
UrSack and OP Sack0, 9
Spoon0, 1/8Cheap plastic spoon
Gatorade Bottles0, 3 1/22-32 oz bottles.
Total1, 1/4

Electronics

Phone0, 5 1/2Droid Bionic.  Biggest reason to take is to mate with SPOT.
Camera0, 9Sony CyperShot with a generic case
SPOT0, 4 7/8Communicator mates with the phone.  Not really necessary but goes along for my wife's benefit.
Headlamp0, 2 3/4Mammut
Spare Batteries0, 3For the phone and SPOT
iPod & earbuds0, 1 1/8iPod Nano
Total1, 10 1/4

Other Stuff

Stuff Sacks0, 1 3/43 small bags
Sun Glasses0, 1Chear sun glasses in a lightweight bag
Headnet0, 7/8Sea to Summit Insect Shield
Bandanna0, 118" square cotton
Towel0, 1 3/4MSRUltralite Packtowl
First Aid Kit0, 5 3/8Tape, cream & bandages in a Medical Kit .5 bag
Tyvek0, 1 1/82 foot square chunk of tyvek 
Total0, 12 7/8

Totals

Worn4, 7 5/8
Belly Bag0, 15 3/8


Sleeping, Shelter & Pack9, 9 1/8
Clothes2, 7 1/8
Toiletries0, 12 1/8
Food & water1, 1/4
Electronics1, 10 1/4
Other0, 12 7/8


Total Carried in Pack16, 3 3/4
Grand Total (Carried & Worn)21, 10 3/4

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

2012 OBA Men's Retreat

The OBA Men's Retreat was this past weekend at the Island Lake camp north of Bremerton.  There were about 35 of us in attendance this year and we were treated to a great weekend.  Those who did not make it missed out.  The camp can easily hold two to three times as many guys and is as centrally located as anyplace in the association.

Dr Mark Bradley, director of the Northwest campus of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary was our speaker.  Dr Bradley led us through a four part study entitled "The Pursuit of Christ", dealing with Christ's pursuit of us and the response we should make to that pursuit.  The last couple of sessions were especially meaningful to me as it moved into the practical arena of our daily lives, where the rubber meets the road.  Dr Bradley was a very good communicator and not afraid to deal with the issues men face.  I enjoyed the opportunity to visit with him a couple of times between sessions.

The worship team this year was outstanding.  I thought they had been together for some time, but apparently they had only had a single rehearsal before the retreat.  But the four very accomplished musicians worked well together and led us in at least 30 minutes of worship in music to open each of the four sessions.  I think they would be well worth inviting to your church for a concert sometime.

There were several recreational opportunities available, although I did not personally take advantage of them.  Those who did though seemed really to enjoy the experience.  There was an organized 'High Ropes Challenge', and a MotoX course that several of the guys participated in Friday afternoon.  There was also time for ping pong, basketball and disk golf, or just sitting around visiting and getting to know new people.

The Island Lake camp is a nice facility.  It is quite scenic and sits on a lake.  It was close enough to home that I spent both nights in my own bed, but the mattresses there seemed soft enough.  The dining experience was family style with more than enough food, and while not gourmet quality, it was more than good enough.  The staff was attentive and eager to help.

All in all it was a good experience.  My thanks to Michael Koontz for organizing and leading the event this year.  Hopefully this will go on next year as well.  Plan on coming then and joining us for a relaxing but spiritually challenging weekend.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Mystery of Christ

I suspect that most people like a good mystery, be it a book, a movie, or some anticipated surprise in life.  At least we like them so long as the mystery is solved by the end of the book, movie or in a short period of time.  There are a number of things that make for a good mystery including: a story line that misdirects the reader/viewer; an occasional clue to keep the audience guessing and engaged, although the clues could be misleading; and at least a partial insight into the mystery by the end.

In Ephesians 3:1-13, Paul refers, for the second time in this letter, to a mystery that God has now made known to us.  In Ephesians 1:9-10 he did not tell us what it was, only that it had now been revealed.  But in this passage Paul goes a step further and briefly tells us what that revealed mystery is.

But before we unveil the mystery it is only proper to get the context, to know what the rest of the story has been about.  So try and forget everything you know about the Bible and begin to read it from the beginning.  You will find that parts of it are interesting, parts of it are downright boring, some part seem pretty straight forward, and other parts are very confusing.  But by the time you have finished the Old Testament you may think you have started to figure out what God is doing.  But you would be wrong (remember you have forgotten what happens in the New Testament).

What you may have determined is that God has, seemingly at random, picked out an individual and some portion of his descendants and has elevated them to a position of privilege.  So long as they follow the rules he has given to them all will be well and ultimately they will rule the world.  Assuming of course they ever get their act together.  As for everyone else, oh well!

You should also have noticed that there is a class of priests.  The role of the priest is to act as an intermediary between the people and God.  The priests are involved in bringing the sacrifices of the people to God as well as speaking to the people for God.  While there are notable exceptions, most people in the Old Testament have no direct access to God.

As you read on into the Gospels you may not find a lot that will change your assumptions, other than a modification of the expectations; God doesn't seem as harsh and there is more emphasis on the internal life rather than external.  But it is still a Jewish thing and only the occasional outsider seems to be included.

It is when you get into Acts that the picture you earlier built starts to come apart.  Remember those outcasts from the Old Testament.  Suddenly they are playing a big part in what God is doing.  It is no longer God's chosen few standing against the rest of the world.  Now, all who believe are a part of God's plan.

And then we get to Ephesians and discover what God's intent has been all along; the mystery that has kept us guessing for 44 plus books, covering a couple thousand years of history, is now unveiled.  The unveiled mystery is that "through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus".  God has invited all people, Gentiles as well as Jews, to join together as the body of Christ, looking forward to a future together in Christ.  Ancestry doesn't matter.  Culture doesn't matter.  Legalistic zeal doesn't matter.  What does matter is God's grace and our faith response to his grace.  This was a very radical idea and unanticipated by any of the Old Testament Jews.

But that had been God's plan all along: "which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets".  Peter, in 1 Peter 1:10-12, also tells us that the clues had been there long ago, but the prophets who provided the clues to the world, try as they might, could not understand where they were pointing.  And apparently not even the angels above could grasp what God was doing with his creation. Amazing!

Paul seems to reference the same thing concerning the angels in verse 10 saying "His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord."  In the gospel of Christ, the wisdom of God is made known to those in the heavenly realms.  They seem to have been in the dark concerning God's purpose in creation and what it was leading to.  But now, somehow, through the church (not as an organization but as the body of believers), the wisdom of God is demonstrated to those in the heavenly realm.

But just who are these in the heavenly realm that God's wisdom was hidden from, these rulers and authorities?  In Ephesians 6:12, at the beginning of the passage concerning the armor of God, Paul says, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." In this passage at least, the rulers and authorities, along with the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil, are adversaries that we are struggling against.  They are spiritual beings that are in conflict with God's purpose in his creation.  We are at war with them.  Paul tells us little about them other than they are our enemies, and that God equips us to be able to successfully do battle against them.

While I do not claim to fully understand this verse, I do find it interesting that the church is a demonstration of God's wisdom to his enemies.  That God is able to produce a people who are of one heart and mind out of the squabbling and contentious people that we are by nature, and encouraged to be by the rulers and authorities, is proof to them of their doom and that God is victorious.  It is somewhat reminiscent of God's discussion with Satan concerning Job.

And the mystery is not only that the barrier that separated Jews from Gentiles has been eliminated.  But also that the need for a priestly intermediary has been removed.  All believers now also serve as priests and each have direct access to the throne of God.

As I read through this passage I cannot help but note the sense of wonder and unworthiness that Paul feels, having been chosen to share this revealed mystery with the Gentiles.  He has been entrusted with what to him is an exciting and earth shattering message to deliver to people who were thought to be outside of God's concern: God loves you!

2000 years later, we, as Christians, often take this unveiled mystery for granted.  Yet I'm not sure that even yet we fully appreciate what it really means.  After all, if we really understood that God is calling everyone, not just folks like ourselves, would we not be much less selective in who we reach out to with the gospel?  Would we not embrace all members of the body of Christ as brothers and sisters?  Would we not be spending more time in God's presence?