You've reached the shared blog of Michael Mckay and Todd Frederick. Two friends who have worked together in ministry and labored in similar educational endeavors. Please join us as we consider the interaction of Christianity with modern culture...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

An Inn on the Roman's Road

In the first century, the Roman roads were a technological advancement that encouraged travel, commerce, and communication. There were often inns on these roads that were intended to provide rest to travelers, but which often were places for bed-bugs and thievery. I have been reading again Paul's letter to the Romans and have appreciated anew chapter 8. Contrary to ancient inns on the ancient Roman roads, Romans 8 is an incredible place of rest within Paul's entire argument (which can often feel like an extended road trip because of the complexity of his arguments!).
It struck me the other day that there are several statements in the chapter which should cause believers to reevaluate their interpretation of events occurring around them and to them. For example, Rom 8:31b (TNIV) says "...If God is for us, who can be against us?" It is a powerful truth to know that God is actually for his children. He is not against us. How often do we think that the negative or stressful events occurring around us daily are a sign that God has neglected us or is against us? And yet, here we find evidence to the contrary; a different way of interpreting those events.
Here is another example, Rom 8:32 (TNIV) "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" Here is another powerful perspective changer: If God has already given his Son for us, then He will not be stingy in giving us all things. This is an argument from the greater to the lesser. In other words since God has given the greater "thing", then all other lesser "things" are not a problem. However, since we all don't have everything we want, there must be good reasons for God withholding something from us. Most likely it is because God will never put us in a situation where we do not have to trust in Him.
Even if we only meditate on these two of many illustrations from this chapter, we can already see how they cause us to step back from the details of our lives and see a generous God who is for us. Thus, we can and should trust Him in the midst of whatever is going on, because we know His character and His attitude towards us. This chapter is full of these perspective changers. They are like five star resorts as we travel the Roman's road.

Friday, January 11, 2013

To kill or not to kill: the zombie dilemma.

I have a guilty confession: I like zombies. I know, I know… it’s horrible and gross, but it does bring about some important ethical questions related to desperate circumstances. If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, a horrible virus has turned the majority of the population into zombies. The zombie has an unbelievable hunger to kill other humans and seriously diminished intellectual capacities. It’s impossible to reason with a zombie, and it wants to eat you. Worldwide authority structures have collapsed, and there is no apparent cure for the condition, thus the world is now kill or be… gulp… eaten. 

From a Christian perspective, this creates an interesting thought experiment. At what level is the zombie still human? How should we treat someone (or is it something?) who is afflicted as a zombie? Well, one might say, the zombies have already died once as part of the zombification process, so they are not really human. One might further argue that a zombie’s diminished capacities for reason or love render it non-human and thus ‘disposable.’ Not to mention that they want to consume the flesh of the living. Not so fast, another may counter, during normal times, we don’t regard the disabled as less than human, so what’s really changed? A person who is born with a disability may have a reduced capacity for reason or emotion, yet we do not prematurely end their lives. Someone who attempts to harm another human being, and is ignorant of the consequences of their actions is considered mentally ill, and yet we do not destroy such persons. We don’t kill other people who have diminished capacities because we recognize, explicitly or implicitly that it’s morally wrong. We don’t kill such people because we shouldn’t. 

Christianity teaches that God created mankind in His image (Gen. 1:26-27) and because of this, humanity is worthy of respect and care (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9-10). Does this change in the zombie apocalypse? Our answer to the zombie problem reveals something important about how we handle real people here in the real world. When we are pushed to the wall in desperate circumstances, retaining our humanity means that we accept an ethical standard that is beyond our current problem. We treat people humanely because God created us in His image. Even though someone may have a reduced set of capabilities (and who doesn’t), that person bears His image and is worthy of dignity, respect and fair treatment. 

I might be persuaded otherwise with regard to actual zombies, should that situation ever actually arise. Until they, stay human. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Original Sin

My second pleasure read of the winter break was Alan Jacob’s Original Sin which chronicles the importance and near ubiquity of the doctrine of original sin. You remember original sin, right? That’s the belief that people are born into a state of separation from God, with a bent toward rebellion against Him, and His moral standards for us. Upon our initial entry into this world, we’re already broken.
I think the best evidence, apart from the Biblical witness to the doctrine, is day care. Yep, one child on his or her own is precious and sweet, but put a few of them in a room together and you’ve unleashed hell itself. The conflict comes when our little darlings want something that conflicts with the other little darlings in the room. And what conflict! Have you ever seen the rage on a child’s face when you tell them: ‘no, you cannot have it?’ I recall a story from when my own children were very young. We had placed one child in day care, even though a little younger than the rest of the children. We were shocked (mostly) when the teacher called and reported that our precious little munchkin had been, well, biting the other kids. When we asked who had been bitten, we were told that it would be easier to identify the children who had not been munched on by our little monster.
I’m sure we could identify all sorts of social maladies that we believe contribute to the lack of ethical commitment on the part of our children. The plain and simple truth is that no child is born sweet and innocent, but all are born sinful and in need of correction and discipline. It’s a hard truth, but true nonetheless. Jacob’s book is a worthwhile read: it isn’t preachy, nor is it theologically burdensome. If you’re looking for something to read on a cold day at home, send your kids to day care and dig in.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Warning in Worship

This past semester was a fantastic one for my academic career. My doctoral seminars directly related to one another, and have helped me to come to a research interest for my dissertation. Hopefully, the all elusive dissertation topic has been discovered! Part of the research was in Psalm 95.

NIV Psalm 95:
1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. 
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.  
3 For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods.  
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.  
5 The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.  
6 Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;  
7 for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you hear his voice,  
8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the desert,  
9 where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did.  
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways."  
11 So I declared on oath in my anger, "They shall never enter my rest." 

Psalm 95 is an interesting psalm for several reasons: we do not know who wrote it, nor when it was written, nor any specific historical event wherein it was used. The Greek Old Testament has a caption which points to David as the author, and several scholars posit that the psalm was used somehow in the Temple worship or maybe by pilgrims coming to the Temple. Most scholarship divides the psalm in half at verse 7 (i.e. 1-7a and 7b-11), however this divides a sentence in half that should most likely be kept together.

I think the psalm should be divided into three parts based on the fact that there are three imperatives (i.e. commands) in the text which are placed at the front of each of their sentences for emphasis. These are the command to "Come!" in verse 1 and verse 6, and the command "Do not harden your hearts!" in verse 8.

The first command to "Come!" in verse 1 invites worshipers to the Temple. If pilgrims were singing this on their way to the Temple, then one can imagine them singing praises to God as the Creator God who is over all other gods.

The second command to "Come!" in verse 6 is a different Hebrew word from that used in verse 1 and can be translated as "Enter!" This seems to shift attention from moving to the Temple to entering inside the Temple and bowing down in worship. Now God is worshiped not only because of his authority as creator, but also because the worshipers are God's people. It is debatable that the period in the middle of verse 7 should be there. Most likely it should go at the end of the sentence and then the sentence should read, "For He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care, if today you hear to His voice." Hearing the voice of God is a round about way of saying "obeying" God's voice. Thus, the psalmist is saying that those who are God's flock are those who obey the voice of God.

The final command really changes the tone of the psalm by including a stern warning: "Do not harden your hearts..." The warning points to the events at Meribah and Massah where God provided water to Israel after they complained to Him. Moses was to strike the rock at the first one and then speak to the rock at the second one. However, he struck both times and was disqualified from entering the Promised Land of God - from entering into "rest". However, for the psalmist and his audience they are already in the Promised Land, so the "rest" here must be something different from conquering the Land.

We can save discussion of what "rest" refers to for another post. The central point I want to bring out here is the warning that accompanies worship. As God's people come to the Temple and enter the Temple, they are warned that going through the motions is no replacement for a tender heart which trusts God. Worship of God is incomplete if the heart is stubborn towards him, i.e. if it is "hard". How easy it is to slip into behaviorism and routine all the while having an independent heart. Hopefully the applications of this psalm to our own tendencies are easy to see. The warning is a great challenge to worship with the correct heart so that we will not forfeit opportunity to enter into God's rest.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Missed metaphors

Don’t you just hate using a metaphor and then having to explain it? Imagine a world where we took all metaphorical speech literally: “man, I’m beat.” Wait, who beat you? “That girl is a fish!” What! You’ve discovered a mermaid! “I feel like the dog’s breakfast.” You feel like small crunchy bits of kibble? That doesn’t make sense... Exactly. We use metaphors all the time to make speech interesting and communicate a literal truth using figurative language. The comic takes a metaphor and intentionally misses the meaning. The birth of a child refers to Jesus and the flesh and blood refers to communion, which is the ceremony that memorializes the meaning of his death. In communion, the participants eat a wafer of unleavened bread and drink a small cup of wine or grape juice. The elements of communion bring people into the symbolically dense world of the Bible, which not only refers to Jesus’ death, but also the Old Testament sacrifices which anticipate his death. To unpack all the meaning here would take, well, it would take the majority of the Bible. The comic ends with an allusion to cannibalism, which Christians also faced as early as the second century (100’s a.d.). I’m pretty sure that most Christians don’t practice cannibalism. 

               Personally, I think the comic is funny and illustrates a problem between Christianity and folks who live outside our shared assumptions and stories. How should a Christian connect with people who know little or nothing about Christianity? Our culture has its own language that we should not assume in our conversation with those folks who don’t share our view of the world. This happens often when we ‘evangelize’ people who are not familiar with Christianity.

               Perhaps the most egregious form of culturally insensitive evangelism is the drive-by. This is when a Christian meets a person for the sole purpose of presenting an opportunity to become a Christian (see: Jim Gaffigan, Beyond the Pale, Jesus). Within just a few minutes, a stranger gets hijacked and interrogated about their fundamental theological commitments. This happened to me as I ran into a convenience store to grab something. As I’m in the checkout line, a friendly gent asked how I was doing and I replied in a similar friendly manner. Immediately (and inconveniently), he jumped right to Jesus, probing my faith commitments. I was flabbergasted… and I’m a Christian! Imagine what someone outside Christianity would think about such an approach. In our time and culture it seems that such techniques create rather than solve problems. There are some folks who can do such a ministry and not seem like Amway salesmen, but I’m not one of them. I much prefer getting to know people and presenting the stories and metaphors of Christianity in a way that helps one make an informed and intelligent decision about Christianity. 

               You should certainly share the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but you must also present it in a way that the hearer understands and can make a clear decision about their faith. It does little good to ‘ask Jesus into your heart’ if you don’t know who He is and what He’s done for you.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The very small and the very large...

              For about the last two years, we’ve been doing church at home. Weird, right? Well, yes and no. It’s certainly different than a ‘big’ church. Our regular meetings include four to six adults and three to five children. We’ve spent our time walking slowly through the history of ancient Israel and are currently half-way through the book of John. There are things you can do in home church that you just can’t do in a formal church setting. If you’re running late, that’s fine, we won’t start without you. You can stop and ask a question, even one that’s not related to the topic at hand. You can answer your phone, it’s okay. We’ll wait. Your kids can go get something from the fridge if they’re hungry and of course they can eat it during the meeting. Would you like to stay for lunch? There’s plenty, and you really are a welcome guest. The dogs will sometimes be obnoxious and want some attention, but it’s a home and a church. Over the course of the past couple of years, we’ve been able to see growth in understanding, salvation and increasing trust in God and wonder at His Word. There are liabilities as well, because it’s certainly different than big church. 

               One big difference is the music. There isn’t really a music program to speak of in home church. We’ve done a little singing and my wife has tested her skills on the piano with us. In big church, there’s often a choir full of talented people. Another difference is anonymity. You can slip into and out of many churches without much more than a handshake and a nervous smile. You can’t be anonymous in a room with ten people. There are comforting rituals in big church that get a little lost in translation at home, particularly around the seasons of the Christian calendar. It’s hard to develop the mysteries of Easter (not the bunny) with folks who haven’t heard the full story yet. By God’s grace, this coming Easter will be the first time we can rehearse the story of our risen Lord as a redeemed community. Unlike big church, there’s no nursery (no need), nor are there special programs for children, though we often play games at the close of our meeting times together. 

               Which one is better? I suppose that’s a very subjective question. Some folks would strongly prefer the formality and services of a big church and I can respect that. On the other hand, our home church wasn’t born from a desire to be identical to the form of church, but to its substance. Any church succeeds by helping people grow in their relationship to God and to each other. We just do it quite a bit smaller. You’re always welcome to drop by… be forewarned, you won’t be able to stay anonymous.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Why it's a tragedy.

               I’m about three-quarters done with my first pleasure read of the winter break (The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse) and it brings out some really important ideas about how public conversation dances around the idea of God, without ever bringing Him into the discussion in a meaningful way.
               Everyone acknowledges that Sandy Hook is a national tragedy. The murder of innocent children is perhaps the most heinous, vicious and unforgivable act any person could ever do. Language stretches to encompass our pain and sadness; we all weep for the living faced with the sudden absence of their loved ones. While everyone acknowledges the wrongness of the murder of innocents, very few discuss why it’s such a crime.
               Every worldview has to give reasons for moral prescriptions. You may not steal. But… why? The modern secular conception of ethics relies on community standards or a vague notion of harm. It is wrong to harm another person. But what does harm mean? How is the harm principle applied? How can you define wrong in an ethical situation without recourse to God? These are important and difficult questions. It is wrong to steal from another person because it harms them, and harming another person is wrong. But what about usurious interest rates; isn’t that harmful? Or what about punitive taxation? We can readily agree that theft is wrong, but start poking at the rules and you need something bigger. The Christian worldview asserts that God sets the moral standards for humanity, and that the foundation for moral prescriptions is based on a fundamental fact of human creation: God created man in His image. Thus the violation of that image by theft, or even worse, by murder is a crime against man and against God.
               Look again at the tragedy of Sandy Hook. From a secular perspective, the crime is against humanity: we, the human race agree that the murder of innocents is wrong. From a theistic perspective, it’s a whole different situation: the murder of those innocent children is a crime against God Himself, because He made mankind in His image and He prohibits the violation of His image by illicit life-taking. This doesn’t diminish man, but raises him up to a level of honor and respect. It helps us define the tragedy of the murder of those innocent children, but it also helps us define the tragic lack of care for the killer, because he, too, is created in God’s image. Even though his acts were heinous, society has a responsibility to properly deal with people who are a danger to themselves or others because they are created in God’s image. This applies whether he was mentally ill and thus in need of treatment, or morally depraved and thus should be handled by incarceration or some combination of the two. We fall short as a society precisely because we have excluded God from our discussion of what’s wrong with our country, and, more importantly, why it’s wrong.