Saturday, October 29, 2016

Halloween for the Christian

Can God redeem anything? The bible shows how Christ took back for himself the symbol of the snake, demon-possessed people, actions meant for evil, meat sacrificed to idols, and the alter the Greek’s made to an unknown god. 

But there are also some things that God commits to destruction because their wickedness is too great: the world at the time of the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the inhabitance of Canaan, the alters to Baal and Asherah, and people who committed certain crimes. 

In the new testament we are told to put to death the deeds of the flesh: lust, greed, malice, envy, hypocrisy, slander, deceit. Sins aren’t worth keeping. The sinner is redeemable up to a certain point, but they will probably have to sacrifice certain activities or pastimes to stay far away from the sins that so easily ensnare them.

So how do we know if something can be used for good or if it should be committed to destruction? Certainly it will be different for every person. One man will refuse to even walk into a bar in order to stay away alcohol. Others may have no problem having a glass of wine every night. One woman may have to keep herself off facebook to avoid gossip and slander while another woman may have no troubles there. Some have no issue with contemplating gore and death; while for others, this leads to depression and fears. 

Events or avenues or objects may seem wicked, but God may call certain people to enter into these thickets of wickedness for a certain purpose. Gang towns, cannibal tribes,  Hollywood, politics, Mormonism, even marriage to a prostitute—although that was certainly an extreme case for Hosea. God would never ask us to sin, but he may ask us to enter places where sin is rampant in order to be his light in the darkness.

Now comes the question that can only be answered by each believing Christian through his or her own communion with God and fellowship with believers. Can Halloween be used for good? Has the day become so wicked that believers must put it to death like they would the deeds of the flesh or is this the place where God would want them to be a light in the darkness?

We can look at the origins of Halloween, but that will not help us make a decision. Christmas after all was the Christians’ solution to the feast of Saturnalias, a week celebration of drunkenness, rape, destruction of property, and human sacrifice in the time of the Roman Empire. We can also consider the atrocious crimes committed and the heightened demonic activity on Halloween, but this only tells us how some decide to celebrate this day, not how we ought to celebrate. Rather, we must ask ourselves, how am I bringing glory to Christ through Halloween?

If the day is a source of fear and anger for us, then perhaps it is best to lock the door, turn off the porch light, and spend some time in prayer and in the word. If God must be ignored in order for us to celebrate Halloween as we wish, then we know we’re joining into the world’s form of self-destruction. If we see the costumes, candy, and pumpkins as merely children’s games, perhaps this is our chance to use those seemingly simple symbols to point others to Christ. 

But let us be clear, no action—eating, drinking, waking, sleeping—is neutral. All our efforts are either dedicated to the glory of God or are bringing about the further corruption and decay of our soul.

How does Christ’s power manifest itself in you on Halloween?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tales of Central Park

The usual assortment of people were at Central Park today. The hispanic nannies, the lovers making-out beneath the trees, the homeless fellows sleeping next to their chihuahuas, the engaged dad holding a fairy wand while chasing his daughter across the lawn, the mentally handicap man with bright orange hair with his completely functional son, the lanky little girl missing two front teeth and talking to her imaginary pink dog, the threesome of boys and one highly flirtatious girl trying to engage both admirers but always leaving one rather bored and depressed.

Lee and Rose were playing with the big kids on the play structure. A group of three boys around six or seven years old gathered around the base of the play fort. Lee had climbed up inside and was scaling the walls of the fort using the pretend windows as footholds. He popped his head over the top and looked down at the big boys below.

"You're too small to do that," said one of the boys.

"Yeah," joined his friends. "How old are you?"

"I am four," said Lee.

"Oh, four is too little to do that. You might fall and crack open your head, and your brains might fall out." They told him. "Then your mom and your dad and your grandpa and your grandma and your brother and your sister are all gonna cry for you."

Lee starred down at them with an emotionless expression. "That's okay I do that," he said. "My mommy doesn't worry I climb up here."

Regardless, eventually Lee climbed down and then the boys attempted to climb up the same spot from the outside of the fort. Lee watched them from within. "I'm going to climb up over here," he said, pointing at the other side of the fort.

Then Rose entered the fort. She waltzed right over to where the older boys were trying to climb and stuck her arms through the holes.

"Uh oh," the boys said jumping back. "It's a girl!"

"You're too little to climb up there," the boys tried on her. "How old are you?"

Rose didn't answer. The boys starred, then squealed. "Ew, she looked at me funny." They screamed and ran away only to circle back.

In the meantime Rose climbed onto the fort window and stuck her feet through the lattice holes.

"How old are you?" the boys asked again.

Rose showed them two fingers.

"She's two!" the boys said.

"She likes you," they joked to each other.

"She's going to be your girlfriend."

"Hey, let's take off her shoes."

Lee heard that. "No! Don't take off Rosie's shoes. You can't do that!" he shouted down at them, pointing a finger.

One of the bunch must've had a sister too because he approached Rose respectfully and asked her if she could get off the fort so they could climb it.

"No. You can go up the ladder," Rose replied pointing at the ladder.

"She can talk!" the boy shouted to his friends. They all giggled, and then Lee decided to chase the boys around the play structure. They were a head taller than him but they ran away anyway yelling in a good natured kind of way.

I was riding the tractor on springs while all this was going on, and beaming rather proudly.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Dragged Out of the Mud

Dang! I’m not as perfect as I thought I was. Wait! What am I saying? I mean everything is fine. Nothing to see here. Just move along. Yes, if you were in my shoes, you might discover you were a raging monster too.

Dustballs in the corners, toys and un-toys strewn across the house, continuous nagging, defiant rebellion, screaming and crying and the long-past sleepless nights have all burned away a layer of goodness that I was sure I had. That’s what a good trial will do to you: show you what’s beneath. And this “trial” is merely the common experience of motherhood. I have it quite easy, which is probably why I’ve been able to continue believing myself rather good for so long.

I suppose it is the curse of the rich. We can keep our darker selves at bay with tasty food, trendy clothes, luxurious homes, and lengthy insurance policies. And here I thought that low income people could behave themselves if only they tried harder. Yes, if I were in their shoes, I might discover I was a raging monster too. Wait a second. I already am.

When things are under control—little people are getting along relatively well and the house is somewhat tidy—I find myself slipping back into the old way of thinking. “Okay, I’ve got this together. I’m doing pretty well. I haven’t yelled at anyone today. I have good thoughts about my husband. I must be an asset to God today.”

But when things fall apart, I find myself wallowing in the mud. “I’m a failure. I just brooded all evening about my husband. And I spanked the children out of anger, and I hate our neighbors, and this stupid house needs new flooring. God must be ashamed of me. I’m a useless corrupt Christian.”

I look back on the days before kids when I thought I was a gift to the world, and I see now that I was actually selfish and ungrateful. I just didn’t know it yet. Perhaps in the future I will look back on these days and think how self-righteous I was. And perhaps in heaven I will look back on this entire life and say, “What a silly goose I was!”

Because it's all a waddling through the mud. The days that I think I'm pretty good are just a waddling through the mud towards God. And the days that I think I’m a disgrace are also just a waddling through the mud towards God. Is any deed untainted? All this effort and splashing and falling facedown? Is this my spiritual offering, holy and acceptable to God? Is this the new creation?

I think there must be a missing piece here. For certainly my "successes" and "failures" at living like Christ are different than an atheist's attempts at goodness. Indeed, we are both in the mud making quite a mess, but God has lassoed me with his lifeline and is reeling me in towards himself. Yes, and all my attempts at goodness, tainted and selfish as they may be, are in fact moving me towards God because of that rope around my waist and the irresistible pull beaconing me on. 

Without the lasso all my attempts towards God would simply sink me further down in the mud. But with the rope around me and my life-dependent grip on it, I'm really getting somewhere. Muddy, yes. It's all mud. And someone might look at me and say that I am just as muddy as a pagan, but it wouldn't matter. I'm being reeled in, and my knuckles are turning white as I grip this rope harder now than ever. Looking at the grassy bank ahead of me. Looking at my savior who is pulling me ever so hard.

And when I reach that grassy bank and leave behind this mud hole, God will ironically say, "Well done, good and faithful servant. Here are clean clothes. Let us leap on the hillsides and move unhindered like I made you to move."

"If you are a good worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don't call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it's something only God can do, and you trust him to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift." (Romans 4:4-5 MSG)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Strange Genesis Stories

Genesis has some peculiar stories. Random stories. Stories that seem to completely interrupt the plot. I'd like to share how two of these stories make much more sense to me after reading John Walton's NIV Application Commentary Genesis. The placement of these stories isn't accidental, and their themes are not disjointed.

Take the rape of Dinah. This story comes towards the end of Jacob's conflict with his brother Esau, which was a result of Jacob stealing Esau's birthright. Jacob has moved back home and after wrestling with God and making peace with Esau, Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped by the Shechemites. When Jacob's oldest sons, Simeon and Levi, hear of this, they slaughter the Shechemites. But what's that got to to do with anything? Does it simply show the sorry state of Jacob's family or explain how third-born Judah became a tribe of leaders and kings? Well, yes, but it does much more.

Backtrack a few chapters to when Jacob is first fleeing his father's house. After his ladder dream, Jacob makes a vow to God, "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's household, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth." (Genesis 28:20-22)

God comes through. With great wealth Jacob returns to his homeland safely. And what does Jacob do? Nothing. He doesn't fulfill his vow to God. So here we have this story of Dinah inserted into the book. It ends with Jacob scolding his sons for making themselves a stench to the surrounding people. Simeon and Levi respond to their father with a question, "Should he (Shechem) have treated our sister like a prostitute?"

Immediately following this episode, God has to tell Jacob to fulfill his vow by returning to Bethel and building an alter there. Thus, Dinah's story might be seen as God saying, "Jacob, will you use me as a prostitute to get what you want? You are treating me no better than Shechem treated Dinah. Fulfill your vow!" It might also be seen as a future warning to the Israelites post-Exodus to whom this book was first presented. Don't treat God in this way either or worse will befall you than what befell the Shechemites.

How's that for context? God using rape and violence as a warning of what has happened and what will happen. It reminds me of that pictures of a sunken ship from The caption reads, "It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others." While we have no way of knowing if Dinah's rape was ONLY used as a warning, it seems the bible is using it primarily in this way. We don't have windows into Dinah, Simeon, or Levi's character development. Certainly this episode altered them in some way too. We do, however, see how it altered Jacob. He moves back to Bethel, gets ride of all his household's foreign gods, and makes an alter to God.

Throughout Genesis God goes to great lengths to make sure his people have a correct view of himself because to assign false traits to God might be equivalent to not worshiping God at all. I think that's why God caused the flood to happen—because people thought God didn't care about justice—and why God scattered the people building the tower of Babel—they believed if they met God's needs, then he wouldn't hurt them.

Let's look at another story, the weird one about Judah's daughter-in-law Tamar. That story is put right into the middle of Joseph's narrative. What gives? Judah has just convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph, but instead to sell him into slavery. His brothers follow his leadership and return home to tell their father, Jacob, that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. Before we find out what happens to Joseph in Egypt, we get this strange story about how Judah married a Canaanite woman and had wicked sons through her. Because of their wickedness, God puts them to death, leaving behind Tamar, their widow who has yet to bear children. This is a big deal to anyone reading Genesis because Judah becomes the tribe of leaders and kings. The line mustn't end here. King David and Jesus Christ come from this line, after all.

So Judah promises Tamar to give her his last and youngest son as soon as the boy is of age, but Judah doesn't keep his word. Probably because he's afraid Tamar has been putting death hexes on his sons. So, what does Tamar do but trick her father-in-law into getting herself pregnant: an interesting ruse involving disguises and prostitution. In the end Judah confesses that he's wronged Tamar and that she was more righteous than himself. And that's that.

Aside from this being an interesting insight into Judah's history and Jesus' genealogy, the story proves that Judah has had a change of heart since selling Joseph into slavery. In order for Judah to say that his deceiving, prostituting daughter-in-law is more righteous than himself is to believe himself rather low. Judah is now ready to take the leadership role over his brothers.

The ruse involving Tamar also serves as a foreshadowing of the tests that Joseph will give to his brothers in Egypt to see if they've had a change of heart. In Egypt the brothers don't recognize Joseph, just as Judah didn't recognize Tamar disguised as a prostitute. In Egypt the brothers receive their food without having to pay for it because Joseph puts all their money back in their bags. Judah promises a young goat to Tamar for sleeping with him, but the goat never gets delivered. In Egypt Joseph hides a silver cup in Benjamin's grain bag to identify him as a thief. Similarly, Tamar takes Judah's seal, chord and staff to identify the man who's impregnated her.

Such treatment from Joseph to his brothers was done to see if the brothers had truly changed. Would they willingly sell their brother Benjamin into slavery to save their own necks? No. They wouldn't. In fact Judah would rather sell himself into slavery than give up his brother Benjamin. And Tamar's trick to her father-in-law, shows how Judah is now no longer willing to rob Tamar of the offspring that she desires.

What a web of intricate parallels and character development! And all this time, I'd thought Genesis was just weird and random.