Actually— Sort of a Missions Sermon

I don’t preach missions sermons very often. Why? Well… as bad as many (most?) churches are in terms of missions, I rarely feel that that is the topic that is needed on Sunday. However, I am in the US right now, and preached this Sermon at one church, and will preach this same sermon three times this Sunday. So I may as well share it here.


Good Morning, We will be in Acts chapter 8 today, but I would like to start with a story. The story is called “The Three Little Pigs.” This is not the more common version of the story, with the house of straw, the house of sticks, and the house of bricks. It is more like a follow-on to the story.

In this story, the three little pigs are now wiser. They each have their own solid brick houses. One day the first little pig returns home after work. He opens his front door… and discovers that his house is now filled up with manure. Perhaps the family of the big bad wolf had done this as a malicious trick. Even though the three little pigs were… pigs… they did not really want to live in messy homes. They liked things tidy.

The first little pig was angry and unhappy but outside of griping never did anything about it. Every day he would come home to his filthy home that smelled worse each day. He would take pictures, put them on Instagram and complain about how this is proof that the country is falling apart.

The second little pig also returned home one day. He too found his house fool of manure. After thinking about it a bit… he rolled up his pig sleeves and got his pig shovel and pig mop, and began cleaning and cleaning and cleaning. He filled up a big dumpster and a truck came and hauled all of the manure away, Soon he was able to return to a clean house— as good as new.

The third little pig also came home to his own house and found it full of manure. He thought about it and thought about it and then got to work. Rolling up his pig sleeves and getting out his pig shovel and pig mop, He cleaned the whole house from top to bottom. As he did, he spread the manure on his garden. Soon he had a clean house and the best vegetables and flowers in the land.

Hold onto that story and please open your Bibles to Acts 8.

At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.

This is a bad situation… a real problem. There is persecution. Perhaps you are like me and don’t like to use that term. So many have watered down the term so much that almost anyone can claim to be persecuted for almost anything. But this was real persectution. People were breaking into the homes of Christians and throwing them in jail. Stephen was actually killed, and certainly more might be added to that list. Things were so bad that those who were not yet in prision felt the need to escape the city. Many went into the surrounding villages in Judea. Some went into the villages of Samaria.

Things seemed so good in the first four chapters of the book of Acts.— almost perfect. It seemed so good that 2000 years later we will still talk about trying to recapture the spirit of the first century church. But I don’t think God wants the church today to embrace some unhealthy nostalgia of the past. After all, God inspired the writer of Ecclesiastes to warn people not to embrace the foolish notion that things were better in the past than they are now. So God through Luke showed the church in Chapters 1 through 4 as almost perfect, but then clarifies things in Chapters 5 through 8 showing that things were far from perfect.

Chapters 1 through 4 showed the church of Jerusalem growing in leaps and bounds. Chapter 8 shows the church of Jerusalem shrinking back to almost nothing. Chapter 4 shows generous selfless giving. Chapter 5 shows giving that was selfish and deceptive. Chapter 2 shows a joyous church praising God. Chapter 5 shows a fearful church, Chapter 2 showed a church receiving the favor of their neighbors. Chapter 8 shows a church hunted by their neighbors. Chapter 4 shows a united church. Chapter 6 shows a divided church. Chapter 1 shows a church started by resurrection and miracles. Chapter 7 shows a church suffering its first murder— its first martyr.

In many ways, the church of the book of Acts is like the church of today. A mixture of good and bad. Of great highs and great lows.

The wording of this passage suggests that the only ones still in Jerusalem (outside of those locked up in prison) are the Apostles— the Twelve. The rest of the church went to Judea and Samaria

But as we move to verse 4… we discover, surprisingly, that this is good news, not bad.

4 Therefore those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. 5 Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. 6 And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed. 8 And there was great joy in that city.

Now we need to look at the story from this new angle. The trials going on in Jerusalem were not destroying the church. Rather those trials were like a gust of wind hitting a dandelion seed ball. Whoosh… seeds scatter everywhere to start new plants wherever the wind sets them. The stronger the wind the further they go. Those who were scattered went everywhere preaching the word. These were not necessarily professional ministers. These were most likely pretty ordinarily people. They preached God’s message of hope to those around them. Where? Wherever they were taken as they were fleeing the city.

And then we learn about Philip. He was one of the 7, like Stephen who died. Stephen’s death did not destroy the witness of these 7. As one went down another rose up. Philip goes to Samaria. Jesus told His disciples that they would be His witnesses even to the ends of the earth. That is an awful lot of places. He specifically mentioned Samaria as one of the places to be a witness. Philip went to Samaria. Samaria is close to Jerusalem. However, Samaritans were very unpopular with the Jews. Samaritans were like the neighbors that we ignore, or wish would move away. But sometimes those are the very neighbors who were placed there for a reason. Or maybe we were placed next to them for a reason.

Philip did not wait for the Samaritans to come to him. He went deep into the heart of Samaria… and began preaching and healing. And they responded to the message and there was great joy.

I won’t keep going through this passage verse by verse for the sake of brevity. But word gets back to the Apostles in Jerusalem that something big is going on in Samaria… so they hurry up there. Persecution would not make them leave Jerusalem— but the excitement of seeing the Spirit of God do amazing things? Yes. They must see that. And they WERE amazed by what they saw. People were praising God and the Holy Spirit confirmed that they were God’s own. It says that Peter and John who had hurried up there… well, they then returned to Jerusalem. But on the way back they did not hurry. Rather they preached along the way in Samaritan villages.

That is pretty shocking. Consider John, for a moment. Only a few years prior John asked Jesus if He would give himself and James permission to call down fire on a Samaritan village that had not welcomed them in. That tells you a lot about the disciple’s view of Samaritans, I think. Jesus and the disciples were rejected in many Jewish villages, but there is no record of them asking Jesus permission to call down fire on them. God did not bring down the fire of judgment on the Samaritans. Instead, here in Acts, He brought down the fire of the Holy Spirit. Now John, as well as Peter, is caught up in the excitement of what God is doing.

So what are some lessons we might take from this.

Let’s return to the story of the three pigs. All three pigs had a bad thing come into their life. Each was in a bad situation… a problem… something that ruined their day. All three were given problems.

The first pig embraced a strategy I would call, “Resignation.” He resigned himself to the situation. In the Philippines, we use the expression, “Bahala na.” Hard to translate into English but something like. “It is fate… so you may as well accept it.” One may complain… but ultimately one does nothing substantive about it. The problem remained and grew.

I would say that the second pig embraced a strategy I would call “Restoration.” It means to restore… or bring back to normal. It is like a TV sitcom. Things are doing well. A problem springs up… craziness ensues. Eventually, someone comes up with a solution and everything returns back as they were at the beginning of the episode… all ready for a new situation next week. The second pig did this. He undid the problem. The problem is now gone. Things are back to normal. No worse, but also no better.

This seems like a pretty good strategy. It is the strategy of the fixit-man. Find problem. Fix problem. Not bad… but in the Bible, I think we find a better way. And that way is the strategy of the third pig.

I would call this strategy, the the strategy of Redemption. Redemption means saving or returning value to something ruined or broken. Usually it implies making things better than they were before. Can a problem be turned into a benefit. We often speak of God’s salvation in terms of redemption. When I was young, I was taught the memory aid for Justification— “Just as if I never sinned.” It is a good memory aid, but still inadequate. That is because, in God’s saving work, we get more… we get… “More than if I never sinned.” We are not just returned to the Garden— literal hedged-in place— called Eden… we are a part of a whole new creation… as joint heirs of this creation with Christ. We are not just receiving visits from God, strolling with Him in the cool of the morning. We will be dwelling with Him… Heaven and Earth joined.

The churchmembers of Jerusalem were certainly fearful and probably angry… and they could have simply embraced those feelings… effectively doing nothing. But this is not what they did.

Perhaps they could have aimed for the Second Strategy. Restoration. Perhaps they could have tried to work against the problems in Jerusalem and get everyone back into the city with the church as it was before.

But they went to the Third Strategy. Redemption. They did not do nothing. They did not simply reverse the problem. They embraced the problem. Under persecution they spread out over the land. The church was not crushed by hate, attacks, persecution. It grew— outward. Did they understand that they were carrying out Jesus’ plan to be witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and even the ends of the world. I don’t know. Whether they understood it or not, God led them into that situation and they responded. Philip was only one of them.

Persecution does not automatically lead to good things. I teach missions history… and history is complicated in this area. In the first three centuries of the church, persecution appears to have fueled its growth. However, in 7th and 8th century in North Africa, the church disappeared under persecution. In other places like in Lebanon and Egypt, the church has not grown or dissolved under persection, but has faithfully endured. But even today, God has used persecution to grow His church. In modern-day China and Iran, persecution has led to great growth of the church. Why do some places grow and others wither under persecution? I don’t really know. And I think it is better to admit ignorance than to claim knowledge I don’t have. But I have to think that how one responds to it… must be part of it. The people fled Jerusalem, but they did not see themselves as fleeing from God. They understood that God was with them in persecution and they were bringing Christ and His message wherever they went. It is not wrong to run… it just depends on where and what one is running to.

Maybe that is something we can gain from the first century church. We live in a time of pandemic. We live in a time of nuclear, chemical, biological, and cyber weaponry. We live in a time of scary technology and environmental disasters. We live in a time of great suffering and immorality. Most of these things we cannot fix. The problems are too big, and we are too small. But we are not called to fix things… undo the problem.

We are called upon to redeem. To open our minds and hearts to God’s plan to transform… bringing hope and salvation to a broken world.

As a church, don’t look back at the first century church and say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church… perfect, and growing in leaps and bounds.” That was not the whole story. Rather, maybe we could say, “Oh we want to be like the 1st century church that responded faithfully to trials and tribulations and transformed what was evil for good… and in the process turned the world upside down.”We want to be like the church that embraced problems as potentially… good.

You have supported Celia and myself in serving God in the Philippines, training up Christians in Asia and Africa to serve God. These Asian and African Christians as we train them, often serve in places of great persecution. Sometimes as missionaries, sometimes as pastors, chaplains, or pastoral counselors. We thank you for your support and prayers, and pray that those we train will serve God fearlessly in dangerous places serving redemptively, flowers for ashes,… embracing the heart of Joseph who told his brothers who sold him into slavery— “What you meant for evil, God used it for good.”

Quote on Myth

‘The myths of primitive society are merely the result of an endeavour to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’ —Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (as noted by E.O. James in ‘The Nature and Function of Myth’ in Folklore, 1957).

There is nothing wrong with the quote. But I still want to play with it. My first point is that the term “primitive” is completely unnecessary in the quote. All societies have myths that support the dominant perspective and idealization in it. And since we are talking about removing words, let’s get rid of “merely” as well. There is nothing trivial about this role in a society. We can also get rid of the first “of society” since the only myths I am concerned about are one’s that are embraced by society. Oh yeah, we may as well get rid of the first “The” as well. That gives us:

‘Myths are the result of an endeavour to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’

This is pretty good, but I am not British, so I would like to avoid the term “endeavour,” regardless of how it is spelled. So maybe I would go with.

‘Myths are an attempt to express certain ways of thinking and feeling about the facts of life which are brought into existence by the manner in which life is regulated in society.’

I don’t know, I think it works. A society is regulated partly through certain cultural values. However, these are very abstract, and so symbols, metaphors, stories are created or embraced that reinforce or express these values.

I recall years ago talking to missionaries who worked with a tribe that dwell in the Amazon basin. They had actually made a picture book out of one of the central stories of this tribe. The story seemed to be a bit nonsensical. The missionaries, however, noted that it was less nonsensical than the other stories they had heard in the tribe. But my suspicion is that it made good sense within their culture. The story had lots of animals doing strange things, but I would assume that the animals mean something within the culture. By knowing the values of the people, and what the animals symbolize PROBABLY would make the story clear. I could be wrong, of course. However, if you watch a movie like “Spirited Away” you see a great example of story that can be extremely confusing if one does not understand the symbols from Japanese/Shinto culture.

If a myth doesn’t make sense, one of two things may have happened. One, it may have lost relevance in the culture. As such, it may be called a myth still, but lacks that function in a society. Two, one is too much of an outsider (etic perspective) to understand its significance.

Man of the Sun

Man of the Sun. That was his name— ironic that he

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Lovis Corinth – Der geblendete Simson

had not seen the sun in many months, and would never see it again. A cruel joke of a name. But there were many cruel jokes.

People would listen to his every word with deep reverence. Now he was a laughingstock.

His fabled strength was only matched by his many weaknesses.

He was favored by God— gifted beyond his peers. Born to lead a nation, but now he had to be led by a child.

He embraced freedom that few of his time could dream of, but now was in chains.

He was so clever– none dare disagree. But now the cleverness is gone. He was established to be “the man of the sun,” but he could not bring light or life… only death.

And so all he could do, a final offering to the One who made him, was destruction— a sad yet fitting end.

 

 

Subverting the Tropes in Christian Missions

The following is an excerpt from my new little book, “Missions in Samaria.” This section seeks to look at one principle for missions that can be drawn from the history of missions work in Samaria and with Samaritans. This one is about Subverting the Tropes.

Missions in Samaria

Subvert the Tropes. Jesus did this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The story could have followed a classic structure maintaining a mythic role supporting cultural values and prejudices. Consider the following story:

One day a Gentile had business in Jericho and so started the windy arduous road down to that village from Jerusalem. At one of the blind turns of this road he was accosted by highwaymen who stole everything he had and left him for dead.

As he was lying there bleading, a tax collector came upon him. However, the tax collector did not even slow down but hurried on past. “No profit here for me,” he thought, “and whoever attacked him may be waiting for me as well.” Soon another man came along the trail– a Samaritan. “Better him than me.” He also hurried onto his destination.

After awhile, a poor Jew came by. He saw the Gentile and had pity on his plight. He thought to himself, “The Law says that I must show hospitality to all, including aliens and strangers. I certainly cannot just leave this man here.” So the poor Jew cleansed and bandaged the Gentile’s wounds and clothed him as best he could, and put him on his donkey and brought him to Jericho where he tended to the man until he was able to care for himself.

This story fulfills the common tropes of the time with tax collectors being too concerned with self and with money to provide help, and Samaritans being bigoted, selfish, and not obeying the Mosaic Law. The poor Jew, however, piously does what is right in honor to his faith and to his God.

As you know, I am sure, Jesus did not do this. The unmerciful ones were not only Jews, but they were Jewish religious leaders. The merciful one, the hero, was the Samaritan.

By learning the stories, tropes, prejudices that exist driving communities apart, we have the tools for subverting them. Stories that challenge the status quo and the preconceived notions of a culture have a parabolic role– serve in the role of a parable. Jesus did that a lot. His stories would often subvert commonly-held values. The one most precious is the one that wandered away. Divine love is most clearly visible when it is given to those who seem to deserve it the least. The most weak or seemingly insignificant things are often what matters most. The wealthy may not only NOT be closer to God, but the wealth may actually be a hindrance to their being righteous in God’s sight.

A second way to change the narratve is to Change the Focus. Consider the old trope of the silent era (lampooned in the cartoon shorts of “Dudley Doright”) of a love triangle of a rejected ugly bad man, a beautiful but helpless young woman, and a handsome noble hero. Ultimately and predictably, the hero overcomes the bad man and wins the heart of the ‘fair maiden.’ There are many options to subvert this story, such as making the woman heroic and capable rather than helpless. However, the narrative also changes when one changes the focus. In this classic example, the focus is on how the hero resolves the conflict by “saving the day.” But one can also focus on the woman who lives in a world of objectification, or on the bad man, driven to hate and revenge for reasons that could be fascinating to explore.

In the story of the ten lepers we see a change of focus from the norm. Jesus tells ten lepers who are seeking to be healed to go to the priest to be declared clean (a requirement in the Mosaic quarantine laws). On their way, they discover themselves healed. Nine of them joyfully continue their journey to be legally declared clean. One however, turned back to express thanks to Jesus. The story specially notes that the man who thanked Jesus was a Samaritan. The story could be presented as many other stories in the Gospels with Jesus as the focus. In this one, however, the focus is not on Jesus primarily. It is also not primarily on the lepers as a whole, but is rather on the Samaritan who returned to express gratitude.

Sometimes we need to change focus. A few years ago in the United States there was a movement called “Black Lives Matter.” It was a response to some questionable shootings of African-American men by police officers. In many of those cases the police were exhonerated by the justice system, often despite pretty damning evidence against them. Some people, including many Christians, responded negatively to the Black Lives Matter movement suggesting that it is better to say “All Lives Matter.” In a sense they are right— All Lives do in fact Matter. However, when there has been a strong amount of discrimination and marginalization in a society, it needs to be responded to with focus, not with generalities.

During this pandemic, there are people, again including some Christians, who are making the argument that the elderly should be given lesser priority. Some see it as a “thinning of the herd”– a surprisingly Darwinian attitude. For others, it appears to be driven by a higher value on economics than of human life. If one would seek to counter this attitude, saying “All Lives Matter” would be inadequate. We would may need to say that “All Elderly Lives Matter,” or “All Medically Under-insured Lives Matter.”

Taking this same example into first century Judea, saying that one must love one’s neighbor, or one must love everyone, may be true but is too general to hit home. Focus is needed to make the message hit home. You must love your enemy. You must love Samaritans. You must love the poor. You must love Gentiles. You must love tax collectors and prostitutes. And you must demonstrate that love not only through words but through action. This leads to the second point.

Jonah– a parable

photo of driftwood on seashore
Photo by Javon Swaby on Pexels.com

The Woodcarver saw it on the beach.  It was much larger than the normal pieces he would take to be turn into wooden utensils, statues, and a variety of tchotchkes for tourists. He liked pieces of wood that had character to them— gnarled branches, hollow logs, and even stumps with roots. But this big one caught his attention. Perhaps it is a bad choice. He could tell it would be a stubborn wood, difficult to work, dulling his tools. It also had knots in awkward places. But the Woodcarver saw something in it.

 

The Woodcarver saw a man. Maybe no one else did but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. The wood just needs to be dried, carved, and post-treated. The end result will be a man. He may not look like the original wood, but it is the same substance, with the unnecessary parts carefully cut away. It may take a while, but vision and patience are key qualities of the Woodcarver. He could see the man in the piece of wood trying to get out. It will be done one day, but never sold. The Woodcarver never sold His best work.

It will be worth it… you just wait and see.

Rizpah– A Short Reflection

She stayed when others ran away. She stayed while others mocked and derided. She stayed while others (filled with shame perhaps?) stayed on the periphery and then snuck off. A man hung above her… and he was not alone. Her son did no wrong. He died because of the sins of others. He died because of political expediency. He died because of what he represented, not for what he did.

And the man was not alone. 0x0_10756834There were others with the condemned man. Were they innocent or were they guilty? It is not really for us to say. But even if they were guilty of wrongdoing, that hardly allows those directly or indirectly  involved with their executions to walk away hands washed of all responsibility.

She stays there… the mother. She will be faithful when no one else is. She will honor as others heap dishonor. One day she, whose own past behavior was questioned,  will be vindicated. This woman of low estate will bring even the mighty to self-doubt.

And one day, she will be honored in a manner that few have. But she did not do it because of that. Her actions came from a mother’s love— and because it was right.

-II Samuel 21:1-14

An additional website that relates to this story, and speaks of the Jewish practice of “shmirah,” is “Rizpah, Guardian of the Dead

Solomon’s 2nd Dream (a Speculative Story)

The following might be considered a “midrash aggadah.” While these can vary, they are often stories built on a Biblical narrative. Sometimes they essentially serve as a running commentary. Other times, they can be quite speculative, leading hopefully to interesting discussions.

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In Gibeon Solomon had his first dream. As he slept, God appeared to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon replied, “… Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

God was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. He replied, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, not have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart.” God also promised him riches and honor.

Solomon rapidly grew in wisdom, not only gaining understanding of governance,  but also the ability to discern the true nature of matters that he had to deal with. And he was successful— wildly successful.   But in his personal reflections, he was confused. God granted wisdom. But Solomon also knew that wisdom was inseparably linked to obedience to the will of God. Yet he still found himself commonly disobeying God and doing things that benefit himself. Surely, that is not wise. To disobey God is to be the fool.  Could one be wise and a fool at the same time?

Solomon dwelt on this matter a long time. One day, many years into his reign he was sitting in his palace, the only building in all the land more opulent than the Great Temple of Yahweh, he felt that he now understood the matter. He called out to God… but God did not answer. Many days he called out to God, but with no response. One night, however, close to giving up God returned to him in a dream.

God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon responded, “O Lord my God. Your humble servant has served as king over Your people. You granted me wisdom, and I have sought to lead with wisdom and discernment. Yet I find failings in me. I believe I know what I should do for the good of the people, but far too often I find that what I do is guided more by what will give me pleasure, wealth, and honor. I now see that a wise man can still disobey You, and thus makes himself the fool. So as Your humble servant, I ask for strength of character, a disciplined heart and mind, to live and act wisely, not just be wise.”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon asked for this. He replied, “You have asked for something great… much greater than wisdom. It is also a much more difficult thing. A man’s character is like a boat— it moves easily as the current and the wind drive it. But to move against the wind and the water takes great labor”

God continued. “I do not grant character any more than do I make a waterfall flow upward. But if you truly desire good character, this is what I will do. I will give you suffering. I will take away what gives you pleasure, and what I leave you will not bring you satisfaction. I will give you dishonor, and grant your honor to fools.  I will scatter your wealth to those who did not earn it. It is a difficult path, and very few choose it voluntarily, but it is out of the seeds of suffering that discipline can slowly grow, and out of this growth, character  may bear fruit. Think on this.”

Solomon awoke, and meditated on his dream for many days, each day becoming more disconsolate. Finally, he called his scribe and began to speak,

“With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

Three Clean Fingers– A Mystery

This short story is based on a real event. But the mystery remains unanswered.

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Ed went to Oliver’s house shortly after lunch. Both of them were dairy farmers, and Oliver asked for some help in cutting and splitting some locustwood for new posts to repair fencing in his cow pasture. They often helped each other as most people in their community did.

Ed called out, “Hey Ollie. You there?” Ollie responded by walking out of his barn slowly. His hands and clothes were covered with mud and manure. Hardly surprising — one can’t dairy farm without getting dirty. 

Oliver responded. “I was just going in to have a bitta lunch. You are welcome to come in and join me if ya want.” Ed had already had lunch, so he declined. Ed thought it best if he just got to work on the locust while Oliver had his lunch. Oliver shrugged and said he would be out soon to join him.

Ed got to work on the posts. It wasn’t long before Ollie was done and joined him. Ed stifled a bit of surprise. His friend came out of his house with two fingers and one thumb on his right hand perfectly clean while the rest of him was as filthy as ever.

There was no way Ed would consider asking his friend about this. They did not talk much while working. Their favorite talk was about weather and farming, not things that are particularly personal.

Still, as they worked Ed got thinking. Why would Ollie have three digits clean while the rest unchanged. He tried to imagine how this could be.

He pictured Ollie going into the house. He doesn’t clean up but immediately goes to the icebox to perhaps grab a sandwich put together by his wife before going off to a church function, and maybe an apple. As he ate, using his right hand, holding his food with his dirty thumb and two fingers, perhaps they became clean as he ate.

The thought made Ed sick.

But then Ed had a different thought. He pictured Ollie going into the house and walking over the kitchen sink and carefully washed his right hand so that only the thumb and two fingers were clean. At first that was a more comfortable thought.  But then he reconsidered. In the first scenario, Ollie is way too comfortable with mud and manure getting into his mouth. But in the second scenario, it would be so strange to clean his right hand in such a way to make sure that most of his right hand, and all of his left hand remained unclean. It would actually take more effort to do it that way than to simply wash both hands.

Upon further reflection, Ed realized it would have  bothered him less if Ollie came out of his house with fully dirty hands. At least then he could imagine that Ollie wore gloves while he ate, or maybe was especially skilled with using spoon and fork without defiling his food. Or maybe Ollie decided not to eat.

Ed could not figure out which story was correct, but he would never ask. It must remain a mystery.

I don’t know the answer, but the story does remind me of the passage in Matthew 23:23-25.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…”

There are differences, but it occurs to me that there are similarities to the story. The pharisees and scribes were described as people who clean the trivial and missed what was more important.

It sounds a bit like the first scenario…. swallowing a camel as they drank, like Ollie being defiled by his dirty hands. In this sense, their “piety” actually defiles themselves.

It also sounds a bit like the second scenario. Picture the hyperbole– carefully cleaning the outside of a cup while a camel is overflowing the inside of the cup. The behavior is then obeying the details of the law while ignoring the spirit (true substance) of the law, One could argue that it may actually be hard to pick and choose one’s piety to address trivial matters while ignoring issues of true love and justice.

One might imagine Jesus being more comfortable with a person who lives without a fastidious hypocrisy much like Ed preferring that Ollie had come out with dirty hands.

So the mystery remains, but maybe the story is not as strange as it first seems.

 

Willy Wonka and the Advent

Well I do love the 1971 movie, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” I did enjoy the book it was based on (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). but it has been over three decades since I read it and its sequel, so I would rather base the story on that movie not the book. The revisioning of the story by Tim Burton could have, should have perhaps, been better, but ultimately wasn’t.

In the 1971 movie, what was the reason for the “advent” of Willie Wonka, the breaking of years of mysterious absence? A few options could be suggested:

  • To give out several golden tickets.

    image-Bathroom-Pass-Meme-Willy-Wonka-willy-wonka-memes-and-meme-acrylic-painting-willywonka-wonkameme-wonkapaining-willy-Bathroom-Pass-Meme-Willy
    Let’s Not Be Meme
  • To give an amazing tour of the chocolate factory
  • To find a mentor to be trained to be his replacement as the head of the chocolate factory
  • To sell more chocolate
  • To deal with dangerous candy manufacturing competitors.

The fifth option was shown to be a red herring at the end of the movie, but the first four have more potential. At the end of the movie, the “real reason” given was to seek a mentor. However, the methodology of getting there was quite poor. The plot has two major sections that point towards the first two options— the search for the golden tickets and tour of the factory. However, the search for the tickets was more of a means, rather than an end of itself,  and the tour is joined by the participants all with very different motives.

Perhaps the only option that really makes sense is the fourth one. Willy Wonka opened the doors of his factory to sell more chocolate. It alone justifies the awkward method of seeking a mentor, and justifies putting tickets into the wrapping of chocolate bars that must be purchased.

And yet, that is unsatisfying. The movie is not just a business strategy, it is a story. That story depended on the entire plot, not just reduction to a single purpose or plot device. The story would not exist without the golden tickets or the tour. As part of the plot, they have more value than seeking a mentor or selling more chocolate, regardless of their centrality to the “purpose” of the story.

And then, you really can’t overlook Charlie either. His role as poor child, who cares for others, (the ultimate underdog) must be considered if one seeks an overall moral to the story.

So what does this have to do with the “Advent” of Christ?

A bit of a “Twitterstorm” started some days ago when Tim Keller put up the following Tweet:

“Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.”

I was quite surprised at the ruckus this fairly straightforward statement made. I do remember being a bit uncomfortable with it. I don’t like reductionism, and I wish Evangelicals weren’t so fascinated by “bumper sticker theology.”  Of course, some of the concern hinges on what one means by “primarily.” After all, if primarily means the one main central reason, presumably God could have come up with a method of forgiveness that was a bit more… direct. Other reasons could also be given:

  • Demonstration of God’s love. This comes, in part, from John 3:16. One might make the argument that it demonstrates God’s love because the incarnation provides the means for forgiving sins. But that is quite reductionistic. The method itself says much about God’s love, as God chose to humble Himself, and identify Himself with His creation.
  • To bless all peoples. The Abrahamic Covenant sees itself fulfilled, in part, by the Advent of Christ. This blessing has a universal quality to it that transcends issues of salvation, election, free will, and atonement.
  • To be the anointed one. Our Bibles are not just the Epistles. They are also the Gospels and the Old Testament. One could probably just as accurately say that Jesus came, primarily, to fulfil God’s promise for the anointed liberator of God’s people.
  • To provide a way. While we often focus on forgiveness coming from faith, faith is generally described in terms of a path. In Jesus we have not just the life and the truth, but also the way. Jesus came as a prophetic teacher, to provide revolutionary ethics in how we are to live. It is hard to see how that can be seen as secondary.
  • To give ultimate victory in spiritual battle. While many like to reify the spiritual war metaphor,this seems much less than a primary purpose for the advent. God is not in some uncertain struggle with the devil. Much like with Willy Wonka, the struggle with competition is more of a red herring.
  • To inaugurate the Kingdom of God. The reign of God has implications with regards economic, political, and social problems. I guess that is the reason that I struggle with Keller’s quote. Can one say that the inauguration of the Kingdom of God is secondary to the establishing a means for forgiveness? I’m not sure.
  • To reveal Himself. Much like in the above movie where Charlie is character is part of the purpose of the story, so is Jesus in the advent. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. He is the revelation of God “in these last days.” Presumably, God could have come up with a way to forgive that maintained His own personal splendor and transcendence. Islam, for example, prefers a merciful God that lacks the messy self-involvement of identification and incarnation. But in the Christian faith, how could one place this below the strategy of the atonement?

In the end, the Advent of Christ is a story. I believe it is ill-advised to suggest that elements of the story are subordinate to others.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was not primarily about a business strategy, it was not primarily about selling chocolate, it was not primarily about finding a golden ticket. and it wasn’t primarily about a tour of the factory. They were all critical elements. Willy Wonka could find a successor in a more efficient manner, and sell chocolate with thousands of different strategies. In a story, the method is still part of the story. And so are the primary characters.

Is Jesus primary reason for coming to provide a method to forgive sins (the “golden ticket” purpose)? Maybe, but if it is primary, that doesn’t make the other reasons secondary, nor is the method secondary, nor Himself secondary.

I like a lot of what Tim Keller says even though our theology is different in some ways (Frankly, I feel good that I would fail the TGC litmus test),  His tweet isn’t bad, even if I would struggle to agree wholeheartedly. Maybe his biggest error is to try to speak broadly on the Advent of Christ in 280 characters.

 

Christmas and “The Gift of Garigolli”

This is a follow-on of my previous post on the Golden Rule and how it is affected in cross-cultural situations. If you haven’t yet, you can read the post HERE.

An interesting story that points this out is “The Gift of Garigolli” by Cyril M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl. It can be found in an anthology “Critical Mass,” published in 1977, among other places. It is science fiction, but in doing so it takes to an extreme case a difference of cultures making it (nearly) impossible to apply The Golden Rule, or The Great Commandment, in a way that is teleologically or contextually ethical.

It has been years since I read the story. However, the story is about microscopic aliens that have come to earth for research, I believe. However, part of their protocol is to do more than the National Park Service concept of “Please take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.” In their culture, since they benefited from their hosts, they must leave behind a gift. A good cultural value. The problem was, being microscopic, that were unable to communicate with humans, and could not figure out what these giant creatures (us) would appreciate. The aliens understood that a gift was not really a gift unless it was recognized as a boon to the recipient.  Early attempts were a failure as humans failed to even notice the attempts of gift-giving. Humans were in fact totally unaware that they were sharing space with extraterrestrials.

Eventually, through some experimenting and a bit of dumb luck, the aliens made something that humans recognized as a wonderful thing. The aliens satisfied the requirements of their culture and they were finally able to leave.

It is still under copyright, I am pretty sure, so I can’t point you to a webpage to read it. Too bad, but I don’t want to spoil the story. It also has an interesting second “parable” of sorts regarding a plastics manufacturing executive and how his ethics and aesthetics are driven by economics. I don’t think his perspective is uncommon.

Anyway, it will be Christmas in three days. It is a time of giving and receiving gifts. It is a time to remember God’s great gift to us. It is also a time, I believe, to remember that a gift has failed to be a gift until it is recognizably a blessing to the recipient.

If Jesus born over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem, Judea, is a gift for all people, how can we help people understand that it is indeed a gift?

If we are supposed to express God’s love to others, and yet fail to do so in a way that people can recognize and appreciate, have we truly expressed God’s love?