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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Challenge the High Places

Lately I have been re-reading the records of the kings of Israel and Judah, which make up the majority of the second book of Kings in the Bible.  This makes for some interesting reading, but there is very little in there that I feel is directly applicable to my readers' needs or the message of this blog.

However, there is one detail, frequently repeated, that I have given a lot of thought.  Frequently, the Bible records, "[Fill in a king's name] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and walked in all the ways of his father, David," but later the recorder notes, "but the high places were not removed."

Just what was a high place?  An ancient "high place" was a shrine, often with an altar, that was built at the top of a hill or mountain.  There, people gathered to have pagan, riotous festivals and make sacrifices to idols, or to the sun, moon, or stars.  There are still "high places" today in many parts of the world.  See my previous post that goes into greater detail on this subject.

I perceive this editorial note as a complaint, on the part of the one writing it down, and really on God's behalf, that the King in question had failed to fully execute his job as leader.  Each king who had this written about him knew God and had obeyed God.  He had personally gone against the pressure of peers and the "fashionable" practices of idolatry in his time.  However, each of these kings had refused to take a strong stance against idolatry where those outside of his household were concerned.  They had followed God faithfully, but they had never challenged others about what they were doing, and God had a problem with this.

Bringing it Home: Our Own High Places

First, before I explain my point, I have to make it clear that I am not suggesting that Christians today should react violently against the non-Christian religious influences in the society around us.  This is illegal, and the Bible instructs us to "submit [ourselves] to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established" (Romans 13: 1-3 NIV).  I just want to summarily state that I do not want to promote that kind of behavior with this blog.

In fact, this is the key difference between modern Christians and ancient kings.  The kings of Israel and Judah were leaders, and they had both the power and the mandate to set the religious tone of their nations.  We, on the other hand, have not been given that kind of a mandate.  Our mission is the spoken message (Matthew 28: 18-20).  That is our job, and like the kings of old, we ought to do it, so that it does not stand as a mark against us when history is being written.

It is still legal, and is not shameful, to say "I disagree," or "what you say offends me," or even add, "I am not joining you because...."  These few little words are immensely powerful.  They challenge the existence of every "high place" in the world.  In fact, the effects of these words last longer, and have a clearer intent, than any law or action against another religion, because they challenge the "high places" in the heart, and not just on the hill.  As the Bible records, "Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone" (Proverbs 25: 15 NIV).

 King David, who was the pattern for later kings, wrote, "I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation.  I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly"(Psalm 40: 10 NIV).  David thought it was important to share his relationship with God with everyone; he was both a model for them, and a leader of them.  He made a point to tell others about what he thought, and I take this verse as a clear challenge to "the great assembly" to follow his example.  This is something that his descendants did not appear to continue.  I read little proof, even "between the lines," that they spoke out against the prophets of Baal and all the other deities.  There seems to be more proof that they had a tolerant attitude, even a kind of openness, toward everything that was happening.  The spiritual welfare of the nation around them suffered during their reigns.  Could this be a contributing factor?

At this point, I cannot say anything more about the king's silence on the "high places" issue without jumping into pure speculation.  I can, however, say that I take this charge against the righteous kings very personally, and I can see proof outside those passages that God does not approve of the way they looked the other way in their day.

I see the complaint about the "high places" as a challenge to Christians today to speak out against the overly-tolerant attitude we have been taught to have these days.  We know some things are wrong; we know God and we know nonsense.  Now is the time to share what is between our ears with the rest of the world.  God has made us accountable, because we know what is right, and He will take it up with us if we stay silent.

This charge has been written against us, "When I say to the wicked, 'O wicked man, you will surely die,' and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood," (Ezekiel 33: 8 NIV).  Therefore, I must speak.  I am bound to speak out.  The "high places," whether on hill tops or in a sinner's heart, are no laughing matter.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files: Confession and Repentance

Lately I've been getting a little off-topic on this blog, and that's something I wanted to change today.  So I asked myself last night, "Christians in the world today need to know __________."  This post is the result of that thought.

I have noticed a problem lately with the confusion of two common concepts in the Christian doctrine: confession and repentance.  Have you ever noticed this?  The problem is that they describe two separate activities, and they aren't interchangeable.


-- Defined as, "openly to acknowledge the truth in concede or allow" according to the 1987 edition of The New International Dictionary of the Bible.  There are two key aspects of confession: openness and accountability, and the truth that risks something.
  1. On the first point, if you confess only in your heart, you have really taken no action whatsoever.  It isn't confession unless someone else hears what you have said/believed/known in your own mind.
  2. On the second point, it isn't confession unless you are telling the real, unvarnished truth.  This is the hard part about confession.  You have to stick your neck out and tell the truth, even though not everyone will appreciate the gesture.  Some might even hate you for it.  In effect, because confession is about telling the truth and not "softening" that truth to make it more palatable to yourself or others, confession makes you lose something.  At the least, confession makes you risk something.  It is not true confession if it is not risky or costly to tell the truth about something.


--The New International Dictionary of the Bible defines it as, "the process of changing one's mind...human repentance is a change for the better and is a conscious turning from evil or disobedience or sin or idolatry to the living God."  There are two aspects to this concept, as well: an attitude change, and the positive nature and aim of that change.
  1. On the first point, repentance is a change in attitude.  If there is no real change in a person, that person has not repented, according to the definition of the word.  Repentance is an action, a turning away from something, and it requires a commitment to maintain this new attitude.
  2. On the second point, it isn't repentance if it isn't a positive change toward seeking out good (that is, the living God and His nature and approval), and a conscious rejection of evil.  If someone changes, but it is away from what is good, that is rebellion and disobedience.  Furthermore, if someone changes (turns away from) their lifestyle of blatant disobedience and rebellion toward a more subtle disobedience, that is not repentance, either.  A change from really bad to less-bad is not a conscious rejection of evil; it's actually a conscious attempt to perpetuate evil by veiling it under the evil of a lie.
When we really break it down, we see that confession only goes so far as to acknowledge a fact and risk a little bit of disapproval or rejection from others.  Once something is publicly acknowledged, the entire act of confession is over.  In the case of repentance, however, something has to be done about what has been acknowledged; a change, requiring a long-term commitment, has to take place.  It does more than cause a little discomfort for a little while; it requires permanent disruption of a pattern or routine. 

We cannot have repentance without confession, because how can a person change from one attitude toward another if no one knows about it (no accountability)?  Further, how can a repentant attitude be permanent if there is nothing risked or lost, or any other reason to turn away from a path?

On the other hand, true confession cannot exist without repentance.  It makes no sense to acknowledge that something is wrong and yet have no desire to make it right again.  If a person confesses something and yet holds onto it anyway, it becomes obvious that the confessor is justifying an indefensible point.  This situation cannot exist indefinitely; ultimately, confession results in a second action, that is, a decision to repent or to rebel.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Carpe Diem vs. Redeeming the Time

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is.--Ephesians 5: 15-17 NIV

The Passage of Time
Too often we read the above passage as basically a "Christianized" alternative phrasing for the Epicurean phrase, "seize the day," but are we just skimming over the differences between carpe diem and "redeeming the time" (KJV)?  Today I felt God directing me to delve into it and I thought I'd share my thoughts here.

God's Will vs. My Will

The ancient Epicureans, including Horace, who first penned the phrase carpe diem (seize the day), rejected supernatural or prophetic beliefs and opted to pursue "the simple life," a life lived only in the present.  They didn't look toward the future, but rather focused on creating virtue and peace within themselves, and avoiding pain.

The Epicureans guided their lives with their own perception of what was wisdom, that is, they saw the wise choice as the one that allowed them to avoid pain and instability in their individual lives.  This seemed right, based on the idea that it is better for our health and happiness if we stay out of every kind of trouble.  Isn't that what most people are looking for, today--a life without pain or too much drama, but rather full of peace, stability, and comfort?  It certainly sounds good, but is this the life the Bible instructs us to pursue?

Paul certainly emphasized the fact that we need wisdom to guide our lives and help us to "be very careful how [we] live."  Is this the self-oriented wisdom of the Epicureans?  The Bible says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (Proverbs 14: 12 NIV).  Biblical wisdom is not based on what "seems right."  It begins with an awe and reverence of God (Psalm 111: 10). If we truly fear the Lord, we want to know what He thinks is right so that we can do that.  And when we come to know God, we see that it is wisdom to take His advice and discipline (Proverbs 1:7).

If we seek to avoid anything that makes us uncomfortable, we will never get that kind of wisdom.  I would be lying if I told you that discipline doesn't hurt, or that learning to obey God and not yourself does not cause distress. However, there is a deeper reward. When we submit our plans to God for approval, and when we accept His direction and correction, we will never have to worry that we "did the wrong thing" or "somehow missed a turn back there somewhere."  As Solomon put it, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and he will make your paths straight" (Proverbs 3: 5, 6 NIV).   Beyond just making the path ahead clear, God's judgment calls help us avoid deadly traps that our own judgment cannot see in our futures (Proverbs 6: 23 NIV).

When we read Ephesians 5: 15-17 again, we see that when Paul cautions us to "be [we] live," he doesn't mean that we should make judgments of what is right, based solely upon what looks safe to us.  Paul was saying that we should be careful to know and follow God's will, even if it means following God through great trouble.

Redeem the Time

In Ephesians chapter five, verse fourteen, we are instructed to "redeem the time" (KJV), that is, to "[make] the most of every opportunity" (NIV) in regards to our lives and the way we live.  This often translates into Carpe diem, that is, seize the day and use it completely; fill it up and enjoy yourself before you run out of time.

Remember that the Epicureans did not believe in a future or an afterlife; they lived in today, and gave no thought to what their decisions today could do to their life tomorrow.
On the Road of Life

When Paul wrote about time and our lives, he did not share their perspective.  If life were only about having fun and avoiding pain, why would Jesus warn us that if we follow Him, we will have trouble (John 16: 33), and men would hate us (Matthew 10: 22) because we know Him?  From his Christian viewpoint, all of our actions have eternal consequences; therefore, life is not about pursuing peace and happiness for ourselves, but rather it is about pleasing and obeying God.

Here, the concept of redemption really comes into play.  In a biblical sense, redemption means to pay the price for something or someone to bring it back from death, loss, or destruction, often by offering a blood sacrifice.  So if we are "redeeming the time" as the King James Version translated it, we are not just being opportunists or filling up our time with things that seem worthy.  In essence, we are translating our days from time spent on things that will perish, to time spent on things that will last.  Paul explains this concept metaphorically in 1 Corinthians 3: 10-15:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work.  If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (NIV)
It is important to note that if we have the correct foundation in our lives, that is, Jesus Christ, we can still escape destruction, even if all of our deeds were considered worthless in the end.  However, it is much better not to barely scrape by.

Am I saying that God insists that we only go through life doing "holy" and "serious" things, i. e. never get to have any fun?  I don't see proof of that in the Bible.  However, I think its clear from all of this analysis of Ephesians 5: 15-17 that we are not here on earth just to advance our own purposes, i.e. carpe diem.  We have important work to do, glorifying God in our own lives and teaching others about Him.

Despite what the Epicureans believed, we have a responsibility for the future, too.  At that time we will have to account for how we spent our time, especially since time is running out on this world, "because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5: 14).  The question is not, "have we enjoyed our lives," because we know that our future is filled with joy, so that there is no need to look back longingly. Instead, the question we should ask is, "Have we heeded the message, which is life?" 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files: Meaningless

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!" --Ecclesiastes 12: 8

I've lately wondered if I am boring my readers with all my academic talk. I don't want to make anyone feel shut out of a discussion, or in some way belittled or minimized by my so-called superior knowledge.  The fact is, I know a lot of things, but they are mostly trivia, and this only reinforces Solomon's statement above--education, too, is meaningless.

That said, even the tiniest bit of education, if used properly, can point you toward true meaning.  I wanted to talk about that today.

For whatever reason, I found myself thinking about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis earlier.  This is one of those egg-headed topics that applies to everyone, but no one but a linguist really cares.  Go ahead, you can laugh, but I'm actually going to explain how this useless piece of trivia (for most) actually glorifies God and teaches us what the world doesn't want us to know.

Okay, so in a nutshell (I have no time to teach the finer points) the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that every language both encapsulates the perspective a society has of the world, and dictates, to a lesser or greater extent, the way a speaker of that language views the world or even how he or she thinks.  To simplify even further, Sapir and Whorf were saying that language is thought and meaning to each of us, and we can know nothing that is outside the grasp of our language; therefore, speakers of different languages think and understand things differently, and there are no absolutes that reach across language boundaries.

This often is used by postmodernists to teach that there are no absolutes, and, therefore, that Christianity is wrong.  They go as far as saying that it is equally wrong to say that Christianity is better than other religions or that others need to become Christians.  I don't agree.

If it is true that language encapsulates all that we know, then understanding all the languages in the world would give us the advantage of knowing everything, right?  But it is impossible for one person to be fluent in all of the literally millions of languages and dialects, both living (still in use) or dead (no native speakers).  Well, that is, except God.  If God has this advantage, what does that say about God and meaning in this world?

The Bible says that God created this "linguistic relativity" when He "confused the languages" of all the people at the tower of Babel so they could no longer work together on their project (Genesis 11: 1-9).  This is almost like the story of the blind men and the elephant.  Suddenly, everything that could be known, according to Sapir and Whorf, was not shared by everyone in the world.  No one could understand everything, and all knowledge was only held by one individual, that is, God.

Man ceaselessly searches for the truth, as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body" (Ecclesiastes 12: 12 NIV).  Education is good for a few things, but if you are using it to find truth, you are going about it the wrong way. If you want to understand, if you want to find something truly meaningful in this whole universe, you have to look to God, and fear Him.  God both knows and embodies all truth and meaning, so that those who know Him can know everything that needs to be known--even if we don't have a massive education or a multi-lingual vocabulary.  This is even reinforced in the opening words of the book of John, when he wrote:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1: 1, 14 NIV)
If you want an end of meaninglessness, you have to turn to the one full of truth, that is, Jesus Christ.  Those who know Jesus are not all-knowing for the connection, but through Him all things are laid bare for us to learn.  God reveals the truth and the meaning of life to those who listen to him, and all meaning comes from Him (Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14).

Now it's your turn to share.  Apart from the Sapir-Whorf principle, is there anything in your particular area of experience or education, or even within your language, which reinforces to you something about the nature of God that others wouldn't know about? This could be anything from a mathematical, musical, or scientific concept, to an ethnic belief, etc. If possible, could you explain it to us in the comments section?  I'd like to see if I can get enough responses together to showcase them in a post on this topic, so please spread the word by emailing this post, mentioning it to a friend, or whatever.  Just don't spam your friends with this if they aren't interested!  I am looking forward to your comments.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Big Fish Story

We've all heard the story of the old man who went fishing alone and caught something that he didn't manage to bring home with him.  He tells the story of his adventure over and over, and eventually it becomes a tale of epic proportions--he hooked a whale, which took him on a ride or pulled him from his boat before the line snapped.  Was the old man telling the truth, since no one else witnessed this "catch of a lifetime"?  Did he really catch anything, or was it just a submerged log that took his fishing lure?  Was he just trying to make himself sound like a hero?

In situations like these, when no one else was there, it is very easy to "embellish" the truth to fit some purpose.  Other people will never know exactly what happened, but they can be certain of one thing: something did happen.  The old man did go fishing, and he did lose his fishing lure.

The party game of "Telephone" works much the same way.  We all know that someone said something to the first person, but we cannot know, while the game is being played, if the message hasn't changed as it is passed from one person to the next.

This is, in my opinion, the way all myths are formed.  They begin with a kernel of truth, but are so embellished and elaborated upon, they become outright lies by the end of the process.  People who were not there at the beginning feel they have no other choice than to believe what they have been told, and so it moves from a campfire story to a matter of respecting the elders, and from there, it becomes a religion.  If you want to study myths, do so with care; they are full of embellishments that can lead a person astray if the wrong thing is taken for the truth.

Why Study Myth?

This past Friday I felt God leading me to study information on Baal, the pagan god of a religion early Israel was soundly punished for following.  I did so, and found out something that just reconfirmed what I already knew, and really expected to find.  I stopped at writing the post, though, because I couldn't think how any of that really fit in with the theme of this blog.  I mean, how would knowing about a defunct religion help anyone be more spiritually perceptive or better equipped to serve the Living God today?

After mulling it over for a weekend and talking to others about it, I decided that I was just thinking about this topic from the wrong perspective.  Of course, as a Christian I disapprove of other religions, because I believe they are false--this spoken from a scholar's point of view as well. I don't want to talk about anything that might lead another person into a false belief system.  I also don't want to waste anyone's time relating useless facts that are only needed on a television broadcast of Jeopardy! or some other game show.

The simple truth is, we don't study myth to learn about God or to strengthen our faith; we study myths to understand fallen man.  That is very useful, even today, even if we're talking about an ancient, defunct, religion.  Do you understand why you act the way you do?  Do you know what goes through the mind of the man who takes the train with you every morning?  If you could trace back through all the layers of embellishments in a myth, you could understand the man, and the motive, behind the first "big fish story," and if you look carefully enough, you might learn something about all people in general.

Getting at That Kernel of Truth

I looked up Baal and tried to learn something about the religion that drew in and destroyed so many Israelites through the centuries.  I discovered that it was an ancient Phoenician (Sidonian) religion, and that Baal meant "lord."  His "wife," or shall we just say, "mate,"  was called Astarte, or Ashteroth (which is actually a combination of her name and the Hebrew word for "abomination," like a slur of her name).  We don't really need to know the details of the worship of these deities to know they were evil (Deuteronomy 12:30).  In fact, I intentionally learned little about their religious rites, only that they included child sacrifice and wanton behaviors.

The Bible dictionary I was using made a couple of points that clarified for me the reason why I was studying it at all.  These two deities were, according to archeologists, similar to and possibly the origin of Zeus and Hera (the top god of the Greek pantheon and his wife) and their equivalent in the Roman pantheon, Jupiter and Juno, as well as the religious practices of the pre-historic residents of Britain.  The name Jupiter linked me to information on the Indian pantheon and the "sky father" and "earth mother," Dyaus Pita (Dyauspitr) and Prithvi Mata.  So, we see that this ancient Baal worship was not nearly as isolated or as unusual as we might think from reading about it in the Bible; in fact, most of the ancient world (if not all of it) worshiped some version of these two characters.

There was one other weird similarity, before I get to the culmination of my research: virtually all the myths I linked to Baal and Ashteroth also included something about a sacred cow, sometimes being the progeny of these two, sometimes being the nurturer of one or the other.

I kept digging, and found a final connection between the characters of Baal and Ashteroth and two characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh (the Epic of Gilgamesh is a Sumerian myth that was written down in the time of Abraham).  A college professor of mine had linked these two Epic of Gilgamesh characters to Adam and Eve in the Bible, since the Sumerian myth said that he was the first man, and she was made from his rib (by the way, for the curious, there are very few other similarities between the Epic and the Bible).  At this point, I found myself saying "Adam and Eve are Baal and Ashteroth?!?"

Now, I'm not an expert on this subject, but I can put together the findings of others and speculate about them.  I've got to wonder if there are any theories out there about why these similarities in religious figures exist.  The only workable explanation I have is that they all hearken back to a time when all people remembered a common origin story.  Could it be that these deities were all corrupted stories of the original couple?  In that case, through a lot of research, archeologists have uncovered the biggest "big fish" story in the history of mankind--in fact, deeply buried, it is the history of mankind!

Ah, but you have to believe, first, that there was only one original couple.  In all of these stories, the "first man" and "first woman" were only the father and mother of the nation that spoke of them in myth.  In other words, all creation stories other than the Bible, to the best of my knowledge, speak of their own nation as being the first,  from which all others came.  This is not the way the Bible tells the story.  In fact, we don't even read about the first Jewish person until rather far into the book of Genesis (chapter 11, to be exact).  The nation of Israel doesn't claim Adam and Eve as being their forefathers, exclusively, and this is the fairest treatment of Adam and Eve that I have encountered in my brief forays into myth.

I won't try, in this post, to argue the feasibility of the Bible or whether the Genesis creation account came first before all myths.  It would take too long to cover all of that ground in one post, and I'm sure I'm not qualified to do it, either.  I am going to just assume, for the sake of this post, that my readers agree with me that the biblical creation story is the true one.  I can say, in light of my research findings, that if the first man and woman (Adam and Eve, not Jupiter and Juno, etc.) inspired all of these myths, the mythology itself means that they got their wish.  Adam and Eve aspired to be "like God," (Genesis 3: 5, 6 NIV), and later their offspring worshiped them as gods, and went with them into the slavery and banishment of sin.  So much for godhood and ultimate wisdom!

As for the constant presence of the cow, I can only guess that it might have something to do with the skin that God used to make a covering for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3: 21), or perhaps the animal sacrifice that Abel observed (Genesis 4: 3-7).  On the other hand, this may just be one of the earliest embellishments of the story.

I don't go into all of this to try to shake other people's faith in the Living God, or to make them doubt the truth of the Scriptures. I'm actually suggesting, like I always have, that the truth that we are searching for is only found in God, as revealed through the Bible, though no one has ever truly been "ignorant" of the reality of God.  Paul explained this process masterfully in Romans 1: 18-25, and I think the last verse really sums up my point in this matter: "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen" (Romans 1: 25 NIV).  Mankind has somehow always known deep inside, of the reality of God, but very few have sought Him out.  Big fish stories seem entertaining, and I guess that makes them easier to believe.

Studying myths only reconfirms another thing that I have often said on here, that the modern humanist's obsession with individual freedoms and rights is too often rooted in Adam and Eve's ancient aspiration to become "like God," that is, to make themselves into gods.  That is where the application to modern life comes in.  Most of Western civilization, and to some lesser degree, Eastern civilization, has been shaped by this humanistic desire which was in turn shaped by interest in Greek and Roman mythology.  The idea that human beings have "unalienable rights" and could contend with the gods inspired some politicians, and the end of that thinking has not yet been seen.

Now it's your turn to weigh in on this topic.  What do you think of my "big fish" explanation of mythology?  Do you have any information that you could add that would either support or defeat my theory?  Can you think of other things that the Baal and Ashteroth story might reveal about human beings?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files: Double Portion

This morning I re-read the request that Elisha made of Elijah--namely, that he would receive a "double portion of Elijah's spirit" when his friend and master (he was Elijah's personal servant, if you remember) was gone.  After Elijah was taken away, Elisha picked up just where his former master had left off.  As usual, I find myself comparing the lives of these two men, and again I have arrived at the conclusion that, while both were great men of God, Elisha had greater faith, and it was because of this huge, unshakable faith that God rewarded him with a "double portion" of anointing. 

Don't believe me?  I find the basis for this in the difference in how the two men reacted to intense persecution.  Whereas Elijah ran from Jezebel and had to get reassurance from God that he was not the last one on earth to believe in God (1 Kings 19), Elisha coolly accepted that the army of the Arameans had surrounded his home, because he was certain he and his servant were not alone--God was with them (2 Kings 6: 16).

When Elisha asked for a "double portion," I don't get any indication that he was asking for more faith than his master Elijah.  He already had that faith, and the certainty that he would get what he asked for was what kept him with Elijah until the very end.  His was a dogged faith that even the apostles lacked (at least in the beginning), because they fell asleep while their Master prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26: 36-46).

What Elisha wanted was not greatness among men, but rather to see the greatness of God generously meted out through his life.  His request proves that two ways.  First, by asking for more than his master had, Elisha demonstrated that he wanted nothing of human origin.  It is within a man's power to teach his apprentice all that he knows.  It is beyond a man's power to pass on more than what he has.  Secondly, Elisha wanted more than just what he had seen of God in Elijah's life.  He wanted what he hadn't seen yet, that second measure of God's presence, the part that was beyond the limits that even Elijah, in his weaker faith, had put on God.

Today, I've got to ask, do we have the faith of Elisha?  I don't mean the faith that gives us the power to work miracles, although those are wonderful.  I mean, do we have the faith that believes that God's power is without limit?  As the days grow more evil, will we know for certain that God is greater than our enemy?  Will we have the faith to stand and wait for God to deliver us?  We need that double portion!  I pray that we will seek it.

Monday, September 6, 2010

God of the Mountains and the Valleys

"He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth—the Lord God Almighty is his name." (Amos 4: 13 NIV)

Have you ever climbed to the summit of a tall mountain?  If you have, you can agree with me that a "mountain top experience" is actually quite humbling.

When I was small, my parents took me on vacation to Colorado, and we rode the tramway to the summit of Pikes Peak, a mountain in the U. S. Rockies that is over 14, 000 feet above sea level.  I still remember the awe I felt when a park ranger explained to us that clear day that we could see parts of several states from where we were standing.  Whole cities looked like ants from that perspective.  I didn't get the "high" of a mountain climber, reveling in the accomplishment of looking down at the whole world (well, at least a big piece of it). Actually, I stood at the railing, studying vast washes of gray, white, and greens, and all the mirror-like lakes I knew were quite large at their level, and I thought about how small and frail I really was compared to it all.

Mountain Symbolism in World Religions

I realize now, having taken a lot of humanities classes in college, that I'm not the only person who "waxed religious" when I saw a mountain or looked down from the summit of it.  Mountains are a common symbol in many cultural beliefs, from the ancient Greeks who revered Mt. Olympus to modern-day Armenians who live in the shadow of Mt. Ararat.  Frequently mountains show up as the "residence of the gods" or as a place to offer sacrifices to them (see Deuteronomy 12: 2, for instance).  They also frequently appear symbolically represented in the shape of important buildings around the world, from Sumerian ziggurats in Iran, to ancient Mycenaean and Etruscan tombs and homes, to ancient Buddist stupas in southern and eastern Asia.

Now, I'm not an archaeologist or a certified scholar of ancient cultures, so maybe my interpretation of this shouldn't be taken too seriously.  However, I find the common association of mountains with superior or divine power to be a revealing commentary on humanity.  Perhaps my opinion is shaped by my own "mountain top experience," but I think mountains humble us and remind us that we aren't the gods we'd like to think we are.  They also remind us of our distance from God and His greatness.  Down in the valley, we see each other at the same level, and contend with people whose strength is matched with ours, but from the top of a mountain, one gains an advantage over another.  The way I see it, people have always tried to acquire some of the power associated with the "high ground," sometimes venerating that power and other times trying to use it as a step stool to rise to the level of a distant god or gods, so that the problems of man could be heard.

I theorize that mountains hold this power because they make us look small, and draw the human mind to contemplate the power that raised that mountain.  This Divine Personality is revealed through this natural wonder to be not only larger than us, but more powerful.  Many assume that Divinity with this much power must also be very far away and unable (or unwilling) to see and hear all that goes on in the valleys far below.

Mountains and God in the Bible

Mountains show up in the symbolism of the Bible as well.  Many secular scholars use this (among other vague similarities) to place the Bible on the same level as any other religion.  However, there's something distinctively different about God's Holy Mountain (Psalm 43: 3, Isaiah 57: 13).  Do you know it?

Though God is often described as dwelling on the mountain, He frequently invites man to join Him where He is.  God spoke to Abraham and Moses on the mountain tops, giving and affirming His covenant with them.  He also was pleased to dwell in a temple built by Solomon on Mount Moriah.  God didn't use mountains to distance Himself from people below; rather, they were a step to reach down to the level of the people He had made.  Take, for instance, this dialog between God and Moses at Moses' calling:
"Then [God] said, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The Lord said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land..." (Exodus 3: 6-8 NIV)
 This is an image repeated many times in the Bible.  God is not distant from us, nor does the heights at which He dwells prevent Him from hearing and seeing all that is going on below.  I'm here to say that God is not merely a God of the mountain tops, but also a God of the valleys (1Kings 20: 23-28).  God was powerful enough to raise the mountains, so why should we think that He isn't powerful enough to come down from them? 

But, there is something further.  Remember when I said earlier, "Down in the valley, we see each other at the same level, and contend with people whose strength is matched with ours, but from the top of a mountain, one gains an advantage over another"?  God doesn't use the great heights on which He dwells to dominate or bully us.  He is near to us, even reaching out to us at our level, so that the whole world can know Him and praise Him (Deuteronomy 30: 11-14).  This was revealed to us in the character of Christ, who humbly walked among us but was in His very nature, God.

Because of Jesus, I look at the mountains with a different kind of awe.  All the other so-called or self-made gods may dwell on mountains, dominating the people who serve them and enjoying the power their stations hold, but my God was not satisfied with this.  He loved me enough to seek me out in the valleys, because I was too small to reach Him.  He humbled me, so that in the end, He could raise me up to join Him on His mountaintop.  Because of this, I praise Him!  Do you know Him?  This is what He says to you today:

"Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.  So be earnest, and repent.  Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.  To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne." (Revelation 3: 19: 21 NIV).

Friday, September 3, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files: Degrees of Badness

You may have noticed at some point that every culture in the world, and practically all of the world religions have some sort of "hierarchy of badness" in place--that is, some offenses that are considered worse than others.  For example, murder is viewed as an almost universal evil, but lying is usually considered to be a pretty mild transgression.

Again, speaking in generalities, these "degrees of wrong" are usually assigned different levels of punishments, and can often be reversed using another system of "levels of merit."  In this way, lying to your neighbor or the judge are less wrong, and more easily "worked off," than, say, burning your neighbor's barn or killing a child.

All of this tends to contribute to the notion that we have some leeway when we sin, depending on how bad it was or how easily reversible it is.

Christianity is different, because (despite what some churches teach), the Bible makes no distinction between different kinds of sin or their punishments.  In fact, we read the dreadful verdict, "There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Romans 3: 22b-23 NIV).  There is no hierarchy of badness and goodness here, because all are measured by the same measure, and none are above reproach.  By this measure, lying and murder are equally abominable, because they are both transgressions that testify against us and come against the very nature and glory of God (see Jeremiah 14: 7; Isaiah 59: 2, 12-14).  There are no levels of sin; all receive the same punishment, which is the curse of death (Romans 5: 12).

The story of Adam and Eve's fall even backs this up.  The first sins were not murder or some other "extreme" kind of sin, it was simple disobedience, followed by lying.  Adam and Eve both lied, shifting the blame for what they had done onto someone else, and at the same time, implying that their disobedience was somehow less grave than the sin the other had done (Adam: "I ate it, but she ate it first." Eve: "I ate it, but the snake tricked me first").  God didn't treat the sin of lying with any less harshness than the sin of murder that their son later committed (see Genesis 4: 10-16); both sins resulted in banishment from God and from all that they knew--this is just a foreshadowing of what death would be.

There are no degrees of badness, and we are all judged by the same standard, so no one can look down upon another for having done a "worse sin."  As Christians, we know that without Jesus' sacrifice to take away the reproach of sin, we would all be going to the same end. Because of this, we should all be honest about ourselves, and be humbled before God, so that He can exalt us.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
 "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18: 9-14 NIV)