Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Last Few Days Before Christmas

This post is aimed at practicing Christians. I ask you simply to ponder some things during these few remaining days before Christmas. I don't expect you to agree with what I write, but I do ask you to think about these truths and consider doing something about our approach to this Holy Season.

First, while most of us think of this time as "Christmas," we are still in Advent. There are only three days of Advent left. Yet I doubt that most Christians have given much thought to the spiritual implications of this season which is quickly passing.

Most of us have been so deep into “Christmas” that Advent has gone by with only a passing nod. And I am talking about how Christians celebrate this Holy Season, not about how others approach it.

The purpose of Advent is to prepare Christians spiritually for the coming of Christ. But, unfortunately, most Christians have for weeks now been swept up into “Christmas” Madison Avenue style. The reality of our lives is that the culture has us trained to skip Advent. And, even in the Church we have bowed to much of that pressure.

By the time Christmas actually gets here we are worn out with Christmas, and have been involved in precious little spiritual preparation. And, because we are totally worn out - and unprepared spiritually - Christmas Day, as a religious holiday, is a flop. Most churches in America don’t even have a worship service on Christmas Day. We end “Christmas” on Christmas Eve, which is, of course, still in Advent.

And “Christmas Time,” that time from December 25 to January 6, is essentially ignored in many churches, although it is an official time on the Church calendar and has been for over 1500 years. The “twelve days of Christmas” are remembered in an old song, but seldom in our lives.

By the time evening of the first day of Christmas arrives, we are spent. We have already sung all the carols, opened all the presents, eaten ourselves into a stupor, are worried about getting the tree down and putting away the decorations; and, far too often, are also worrying about how we are going to pay for all that we charged to our credit cards for “Christmas.”

I have never been able to change how we celebrate Advent and Christmas in any local church I have served -- because members would not tolerate it. I may have wanted to do it, but wanting is one thing, and doing is quite another.

But I do think that we need to know that, when we are caught up in the consumerist myth of Christmas as a grand spree of planning, decorating, spending and gluttony, we are giving up something that, until the last half of the last century, was a precious part of celebrating the birth of Christ throughout the entire history of the Church: And that is simply waiting for Christmas.

Advent is the time of waiting for Christmas; the God-given chance to wait and ponder and wonder; to pray and hope and anticipate and marvel; the time to look forward spiritually to what Christians believe is one of the greatest events of all time: the Birth of the Messiah.

And then, after that birth, the Church has always said that we are to celebrate a glorious time of joy and peace called “Christmas Time;” a time that does not end until January 6th ; that is, until the Day of the Epiphany: the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles, and the traditional day that the magi are said to have arrived in Bethlehem.

Can we change all this and put a true Advent and a true Christmas season back into our church life? Theoretically we could try; but I seriously doubt we could do it. The chances are that we are incapable of turning the tide of the culturally controlled, commercialized Christmas, which has now so pervasively invaded our homes and, it is painfully obvious to me, the Church.

The truth is that most Christians like things in their local churches just the way they are. And it is equally true that most of us like to celebrate Christmas the way we have always celebrated it.

But, even if we Christians don’t change our habits within our faith communities, some of us could do something individually, if what I am saying rings a bell with a few of you. And that something is, each in our own way, in our own families, in our own hearts, remember to celebrate Advent in Advent and Christmas at Christmas.

Sue and I do this, and we believe that we have a more spiritually rewarding Holy Season than we did before we started paying attention to the distinctions between Advent and Christmas. We have found that it is actually possible to slow down, take a deep breath, and sit in wondrous anticipation of the miracle that is about to unfold before us. And, having gotten some personal perspective on Advent, we can wait for Christmas to come.

Perhaps it is too much to ask of others this year, but Advent and Christmas come to us every year. And it is never to late to learn what they truly were designed to be. I honestly believe that Christians could move forward spiritually were we only to go back to the intended purpose of these Holy Days for our faith, and then plan our lives according to a spiritual calendar and not a secular one.

To get us pointed in that direction I want to share with you two beautiful yet simple writings by two of the most spirit filled Christian writers of the last half century. First, something Henry Nouwen wrote about this Holy Season. It’s very short.

Listen to what he has to say about this marvelous season of Advent/Christmas.

“Our salvation comes from something small, tender, and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, who is the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness, and hiddenness. I find this a hopeful message. Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God’s saving power; but over and over again I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them and made blind to the “shoot that shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.”

Only one who understands the spiritual waiting and expectation that is Advent could write that.

And finally, let me share with you an Advent prayer of hopeful intercession, a prayer that is a call to Christ to come to us once more. A prayer that could only be written to one who has lived Advent in true anticipation of the coming of the Lord. This Christian prayer is by Frederick Buechner.

“Thou Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, be born again into our world. Wherever there is war in this world, wherever there is pain, wherever there is loneliness, wherever there is no hope — come, thou long-expected one, with healing in thy wings.
Holy Child, whom the shepherds and the kings and the dumb beasts adored, be born again. Wherever there is boredom, wherever there is fear of failure, wherever there is temptation too strong to resist, wherever there is bitterness of heart, — come thou blessed one, with healing in thy wings.
Savior, be born in each of us who raises his face to thy face, not knowing fully who he is or who thou are, knowing only that thy love is beyond his knowing, and that no other has the power to make him whole. Come, Lord Jesus, to each who longs for thee -- even though he has forgotten thy name. Come quickly.


My prayer for each Christian is that we will make room in our hearts for the few remaining days of Advent, and for the glorious coming of the Savior at Christmas. And for all of my dear friends, both those who do and those who do not share my particular faith, I pray that you will find peace and blessings in your lives now and in the new year that comes swiftly upon us.

God bless you all.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Thou Shalt Not Kill"

DECEMBER 11, 2009 3:02PM


The previous essays in this series can be accessed through the links in the left hand column of this post.

This essay covers the Sixth Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," one of the most difficult of the Ten to apply in modern day life. Please remember that, while many try to apply the Commandments to all members of society, they, in fact, apply only to practicing Jews and Christians. Much of the angry debate in the US about the Commandments originates in making the erroneous attempt to apply them to all people.

Please understand also that what I am writing about here is first a discussion of the meaning of the Sixth Commandment in the context of its original meaning for those who first heard it, then, second, in the context of today's world, and finally, third, some personal opinions used as examples of the application of this Commandment. Please do not confuse my analysis of the meaning of the commandment with my personal thoughts on it.

I need to warn you that if you are looking for simple, clear cut, answers about applying the Sixth Commandment in your lives, you aren't going to get them here. They don't exist. But, if you read carefully, you will get some sound guidance on what the Sixth Commandment is really about, and how you can use that knowledge to help you come to your own conclusions about using this Commandment in your life.

The first thing about the Sixth Commandment that you might notice is that I titled this essay, "Thou shalt not kill," which is how it is translated in the King James Version of the Bible. But most modern translations, translate the Hebrew as "You shall not murder." There is a big difference in most people's eyes between "killing" and "murder".

In our culture, killing is often justified. That is we, not necessarily God, often justify killing. But, by definition, "murder" is never justified. Murder is unjustified killing. So the modern translations would seem to take some of the confusion out of the Commandment by changing "Do not kill" to "Do not murder."

The trouble is, however, that it is not clear that the modern translations are correct. The Sixth Commandment in the Hebrew Bible is only two words. The first word translates "No" and the second word translates "killing." "No killing." That's it. That's the whole commandment: "No killing!"

Therefore, it is not clear that God only means "Do not murder." Nor do the more detailed clarifications of the Commandments in so called Covenant Codes found in Exodus Chapters 21 through 24 help much. If you recall those Codes were written to apply the Commandments to the Israelite nation.

In Chapter 21, verses 12-14, there is a distinction between "planned", or "premeditated" killing and "unplanned," or accidental killing. There God is seen as less strict with unplanned killing, saying He will provide a refuge to which the killer can flee. However, the premeditated killer is to be "put to death."

This brings us to a second point, which can be confusing. Having clearly told us not to kill, over and over again in the Old Testament as handed down, edited and redacted from oral stories, God often instructs us to kill. In Chapter 21 we are told that we are to put to death a premeditated killer, and, a couple of verses later, we are told to "put to death" anyone who strikes or even curses his mother or father! The word in Hebrew for "put to death" is a different word in Hebrew than the word for "kill," so obviously the author believed that God intended a distinction.

The distinction is this. The Old Testament says that, at his instruction, we may "put to death" someone, because we are acting for God. And there is another side to that coin. The best example of that is in First Samuel where God deals harshly with King Saul, stripping him of his kingdom, because he did not put all of the Amalkites: men, women and children, and their animals, to death.

Saul was well meaning, showing mercy to the Amalkite king and saving the best animals for a sacrifice to God. But, in the story, God would have nothing of Saul's argument. God had instructed him to kill every living person and their livestock, and when Saul did not, Saul was stripped of his crown! So the conclusion we get from the story is that we may kill if we are acting for God; and if we are told to kill by God we may not chose not to kill! That is how that Commandment was interpreted in ancient Israel.

So, it seems obvious that, if our only source of moral guidance is what the Old Testament tells us God did in the ancient world of the Israelites, God can tell us to kill, and when he does, we are justified in doing it. In fact, some of the most vile, vicious and disgusting acts recorded in the Bible are said to be done so at God's explicit direction. Massive slaughters of men, women, children, of "every living thing" are often ordered by God in the Old Testament.

Just so you'll know where I personally stand on this idea, let me say this. The God I worship would not issue such instructions; so I have never understood it; and if you ask me on my death bed, I still won't understand it. The God described in these stories is a God utterly different than the God that Jesus describes as his Heavenly Father. I seriously doubt that God issued such instructions which were written,redacted,edited and translated to what we read today. I do not accept those kinds of instructions as applicable today. But that is my belief and need not necessarily be yours.

But regardless of how I feel about those gruesome Biblical descriptions of God's orders, it does highlight the most important point about this Commandment. However you translate the Commandment: as "You shall not murder," or "Thou shalt not kill," the fact is that the Commandment is telling us that the only one who has the right to kill is God. God can kill. We cannot, unless we are acting for God, in God's interests, not ours.

That is a key to understanding the Sixth Commandment. The Sixth Commandment is designed to make clear that all life belongs to God who is the Creator of it.

In Genesis 4:10 God is appalled that Cain killed Abel. "And the Lord said, 'What have you done? Listen! Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed...!'"

And in Genesis 9:5-6 God tells Noah: "For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. 6 Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind."

The Bible is clear about one key theological issue. God gives life and God can take it away. But nowhere does it say that man can take life unless he does so when acting for God. Now I know that it doesn't often work the way God intends, but humans are never to kill on their own authority. They are to kill only as agents of God. If you understand that you are a long way toward understanding the Sixth Commandment.

So, we understand now that the Old Testament teaches that God says that there are legitimate and illegitimate killings. Any killing that God allows is legitimate and therefore justified, in spite of the Sixth Commandment. But any killing that God disallows is covered by the Sixth Commandment and is prohibited. And, ironically, the penalty for violation of the Sixth Commandment is to be "put to death."

I know that this is not easy to understand. And you may have to read the last two paragraphs slowly and carefully a few times to be straight on it. Even when you understand the principle enunciated here, it is not clear as to exactly how it is to be applied. Nor is it clear when to apply it and to whom.

So lets just jump into some hot water together here and see if we can swim out of it or if we will just get boiled. Lets get more specific as to its application in real life today. The Sixth Commandment is both cited and ignored by both sides, depending on where the side wants to come out, in discussions of many major social issues facing this nation.

Think about it. Abortion, war, including the preemptive strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued US presence in both countries, capital punishment, suicide, euthanasia, self-defense, stem cell research, and many other issues in this country all can be discussed in view of the Sixth Commandment. Is abortion killing? Is it murder? Is it ever justified? Capital punishment is killing. Is it, as many claim, only state sponsored murder? Or is it justified because the government is acting on behalf of God? Is war justified? If so, when? In war who can you kill? Does it matter how they are killed? These are but a few of the questions that people have related to the injunction of the Sixth Commandment.

On every one of these terribly difficult and emotionally laden issues someone is citing the Sixth Commandment as the answer. For example, the same people who are against capital punishment cite the Sixth Commandment as prohibiting capitol punishment, but ignore it when marching in "pro-choice" rallies.

And citing the Sixth Commandment in arguments about such things is somehow "acceptable" to many Christians even though the Commandment only applies to practicing believers! The simple implication of that, of course, is that they think that the Commandments either do apply to all people, when they clearly do not, or that they "should" apply to all people, even though that was never God's intention.

Now we are not going to resolve these debates here. In fact, none of them will ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. But believing Jews and Christians are arguing on shaky ground every time we ignore the Sixth Commandment unless we have logical proof that our actions supporting killing are, in fact, instructed by, or allowed by, God. And God has given us little guidance to know when that is the case.

Let me give you two examples. I will share with you my personal positions on these issues. Please do not focus on my positions, that is not the point here; but focus on how the Sixth Commandment comes into play. I will not argue with anyone about whether I am right or wrong. And I may change my mind later anyway. Just try to see how the Sixth Commandment comes into my thinking process as an example of how it does influence me in my own decisions.

Example number one. It is clear to me that the Old Testament, in spite of the Sixth Commandment allows capital punishment; and in many cases, instructs it. However, I do not support capital punishment. I base my position not on the Sixth Commandment, but on Jesus' words and actions.

For Christians, Jesus' words and actions supercede conflicting information in the Old Testament. And, for example, Jesus interfered with the stoning to death of the woman caught in adultery, which was a mode of capital punishment in that day. He said that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. Since I am not without sin, I will not cast the first stone.

Others argue that the Bible not only allows, but instructs, capital punishment. And that is also true. But that instruction was to the ancient Israelites and I do not think that it is applicable to us today, in the light of the teachings of Jesus.

And I doubt seriously that those same people who support capital punishment would choose to apply capital punishment to someone who curses his or her parents, or would apply it to many of the other offenses listed in the Old Testament as punishable by death, many of which we would consider trivial, and often bizarre, today.

Example number two. In the same vein, because I believe that a fetus is a living human being, I oppose abortion in most cases. Notice I said "most cases," because I have known cases where the mother would die if she tried to carry the fetus to term, and the fetus had to be taken to save the mother. Some would chose otherwise and let the mother die.

In the case of abortion I use the Sixth Commandment to help guide me to my overall position on the issue. But, interestingly, I am also what is called "Pro Choice." While I am against abortion in most situations, I also strongly believe that the government should keep out of that decision. I believe that is a decision to be made by the woman, hopefully in consultation with her family and doctors. But in no way do I think that my religious belief should be enforced by the government.

The point of giving you these two examples is not for you to judge whether my positions on them are right or wrong. The point is to show that that these are not easy questions, and sincere people can come down differently on them. And, in spite of what the zealots on both sides of most of difficult issues involving life and death say, there are no easy answers.

So I hope we have learned that the Sixth Commandment does not provide anything like detailed guidance which would allow believers to say "yes" or "no" in specific cases. And God did not intend it to. He intends us to wrestle with difficult issues, all the while being aware of the great principle behind the Sixth Commandment: That all life belongs to God.

In sum, the Six Commandment states a non-negotiable principal: people should not kill. Killing is God's prerogative. Believers should not casually support killing just because we want to, or because it is easy, or because it offers a way of revenge, or even because we think it is right to do so.

When believers do kill or support killing, they had best be sure that they are doing it consistent with the reverence for life that God has, and with the knowledge that only God gives life and can take it away.

I believe that it is incumbent upon practicing Jews and Christians to act in these matters with utmost caution, and with genuine humility. We are not God, and it can be a terrible thing if we delude ourselves into thinking that we have God's authority when we do not.

God bless.

Next: You Shall Not Commit Adultery.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Honor Your Father and Your Mother

Commandment Five


As we move toward the end of our series on Exodus and the Decalogue, we now look at the first of the Commandments which relate to our relationship with others.

The Fifth Commandment, which is verse 12 of Chapter 20, reads: Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

You will have noticed by now that, as much as we might wish that the Ten Commandments were a "recipe book for moral living," the truth is that they are all necessarily subject to interpretation. This is especially true of the commandments concerning how we relate to others. In other words, they do not provide the clear-cut guidance that so many people think that they do.

Much of what I write about the remaining commandments will be interpretation. But, while the Commandments do require interpretation, they are not just random thoughts on how we should live. They are instruction, teaching, as to how God wants believers in him to live. That much is clear.

But what is not so clear is just how we are to obey these instructions. The how of obeying the Commandments is a matter for continuous reflection by the community of faith. It is never to be only the opinion of one self-righteous individual, out to set the world straight according to his or her own preferences. And that goes for theologians, priests, pastors and church leaders.

The first thing you need to know about the Fifth Commandment, Honor your father and your mother, is that it is not primarily about how minor children are to relate to their parents.

I remember statements from my Mother like, "As long as you live under this roof, you are going to do what I say, young man! Remember, the Bible says you are to obey me!" But, "honor" does not necessarily mean "obey." That was a convenient "interpretation" by my mother and by many parents. And it was mostly wrong. Minor children are supposed to "honor" their parents, but that obedience is only a tiny part of the Commandment.

When you are young, obedience is certainly one way to honor your parents. And a disobedient child does not honor his parents. But, nowhere does it say that the Commandment, or the Bible for that matter, is to be used as a club to beat kids into obedience.

This provides us with a good example of having to interpret the meaning of the text. "Honor" in Hebrew means a whole lot of things, and obedience is way down the list when translating the word into English.

Other English words and phrases capture the idea better, for example: respect, esteem, appreciate, be considerate toward, have regard for, have concern for, show affection to. All of these words and phrases capture the flavor of "honor" better than "obey." And there is one more English phrase that captures the essence of the Hebrew word most often translated as "honor." That phrase is "give weight to."

The Hebrew word for "honor" is "kabed" and literally means "to be heavy," or "to give weight to." That is, we are to give weight to our fathers and mothers and their ideas. That is not the same as saying that we are to be subservient to them, obeying their every whim. But it does mean that we are to take them seriously, and to treat them and their ideas with appropriate seriousness and respect.

Thus this Commandment clearly deals with the age old struggle between generations. On the one hand the older generation wants to cling to "the way we were," and their response to almost everything can often be, "No. We've never done it that way before!" On the other hand, the younger generation often says, essentially, that "Nothing important ever happened on earth until I got here!" And, "Frankly, Dad, you just don't get it."

But the assumption of this Commandment is that what our parents have to say does mean something, and, that our parents do "get it." The Bible is here teaching us the not so popular idea that our parents, by virtue of knowledge and wisdom they have gained through the years have acquired a certain "practical wisdom" that is actually valuable to us.

In the original setting of this commandment, it was assumed that parents know things about God, and how to relate to God that children do not. We'll come back in a little while to just how realistic that assumption is in today's world. But first we should look at why this was so vitally important at the time the Commandments were given.

To the Israelites this loyalty of a new generation to the world view of the last generation was a key to survival as a nation. It was emphasized over and over to the Israelites that they were to remember what God has done for them, to write it on their foreheads, and on their door posts, and to pass on that remembrance to their children, and to their children's children!

Accepting that instruction is precisely how Israelite children, both minor and adult children, were to "honor" their fathers and their mothers, In turn, they were to pass on that word of God to their children in an unbroken line of succession within the faith community.

By respecting, by giving weight to, by taking seriously, the religious teachings of the parents, Israelite children inherited the blessing, the instruction (Torah), and the promises of God. This is precisely why the Fifth Commandment does not stop with "Honor your father and your mother," but goes on to explain "so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you."

Only by honoring the teachings of the parents, and by honoring the parents themselves, could the next generation inherit the land and prosper in it. The phrase "so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you," was seen as less of a "carrot" to get the children to honor their parents, and more of a statement of fact.

That is, if they honored their parents then this would, in fact, happen. Why? Because, by honoring them, and by listening to and living by the religious precepts they teach the Israelites would be living according to God's will.

The irony of that original setting when the Commandment was handed down is that it was the generation of the original Israelites who decided not to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, and thus God commanded the Israelites to wander in the desert until that generation was dead and a new generation would then have the courage to enter the Promised Land.

But while the first generation did not have the courage to cross over the Jordan that generation did teach their children the Shema and the Commandments so that the second generation knew what was at stake when they did cross over.

One final thing before we talk about how realistic all of this is in the modern day. The second phrase of this Commandment, "so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you," was not written to apply to individuals.

That is, one individual could not honor his parents and then assume that he, personally, would live a good and long life in the Promised Land even if no other Israelite did. The "you" here means "you all." "All of you Israelites, are to honor your mothers and fathers. And if you do, good things will happen to you all."

I point this out only because we have a very strong tendency in this country to see the Commandments as having to do only with individual morality, when they, in reality, are much more concerned with how the entire faith community behaves. In this case, the commandment is concerned that all of Israel inherit the Promised Land!

So, having discussed the meaning of "honor" and the application of the Commandment to the original generation of Israelites, the question remains: "How does it apply today?"

Let's start by admitting the obvious. Many of us Jewish and Christian believers are going to run into all sorts of problems trying to live by it. Lots of people have truly terrible parents; or have one really good parent and another parent who is just pond scum! We read in the paper every day about dead-beat dads, child abuse, molestation, and neglect. We read about drunken or stoned mothers, some carrying babies while on crack or heroin.

And, even if you have parents that are quite fine, if you were born in the last 25 years, the fact is that many parents have absolutely no clue about religion or the moral values that stem from religious teaching.

In fact, most of those parents will be unchurched. If you doubt that consider that most of the members of a typical Protestant congregation don't go to worship, or, if they do, they may go on Christmas and Easter. I'm talking about church members. And in this country most people today don't go to church at all.

For those who are not practicing believers the Commandments do not apply to them unless they accept them as something they intend to practice.

But they do apply to practicing Jews and Christians. So, for example, just how is a Christian child, minor or adult, supposed to receive religious blessings and instruction from parents who purport to be Christian but in reality are nowhere close to practicing the faith? The truth is that many will not. And it is also true for Jewish children of non-practicing parents.

But if a Jewish or Christian child, minor or adult, receives religious instruction via the Church or Synagogue then they should understand the Commandments and seek to apply them in their own lives, with or without practicing parents.

And now we come to a difficult, unpopular topic which all believers, Jewish and Christian, should view through the lens of our faith. We must understand that all issues have at least two sides. And on the other side of the parenting coin is the fact that parents are not the only people in a family who can be ignorant, willful, inconsiderate, selfish, prideful, and mean.

Let me start this discussion looking at a common problem between parents and adult children. What do we do with our parents when they get too old and frail to care for themselves?

I have a lot of personal experience with that question and some of the not so charitable truth about how it is often handled by children. It was particularly hard for me as a pastor to visit parents of adult children in nursing homes and to know that I saw those parents far more often than did their children. In fact, many children never once visited their parent in a nursing home.

Many was the time when I sat vigil with nursing homes with parents as they waited to go to their Lord and I was the only person who did so. That is a sad commentary on too many children whose parents were, in fact, practicing Christians.

One of the reasons a Pastor should always visit with nursing home residents and at-home shut-ins is so that s/he can be aware of the level and consistency of care by the family, and follow up with the children when they neglect their parents. One would think that there would be good reasons for the lack of visitations but I seldom heard any. Some lived far away from the parent and it was understandable that they could not visit frequently. Others had no such an excuse.

Part of the original purpose of the Fifth Commandment was to ensure that the children not kick out the parents when they became too old to work, and were therefore a "burden" on the children.

Today most of us would not "kick out" our parents in that way. But many of us do remove them from our immediate care. When the burden becomes too great, when we literally can't provide the care, and, sometimes when we just don't want to provide the care, mom or dad ends up in a nursing home.

I understand that sometimes that is actually best for everyone. As much as we don't like to admit it, too much of the elder abuse that is reported in the United States comes not from dead-beat children who won't try to take care of mom or dad, but from good children who snap after trying to do too much for too long. It starts with yelling, escalates to slapping and worse. And we are talking about people who would never think that they would do such a thing to an older person, let alone to their own parent.

It should be clear that this issue of elder care is not a simple issue, A simple recital of the Fifth Commandment provides little guidance beyond that the burden of proof falls upon those who decide not to be available to their aged parents.

There is no "one size fits all" solution to these problems. There are no good, clean, "easy" answers. At times there is no real choice but a nursing home if we cannot adequately provide for our parents. But that should never be an excuse to place a parent in a nursing home, walk away and never come back.

We deal with our elderly parents today far differently than when I was growing up. Nursing homes were not really an option then. And families took care of aged parents at home. But with Medicaid and Medicare those options are now available to most of us. And the government sets standards of care that shift some of the obligation of "honoring" our parents to the nursing homes.

But we would do well to ask ourselves if our parents are truly being "honored" by the elder care system to which we have entrusted them, and by our involvement with our parents who are in such care. I can't see how we are going to know how our parents who are in institutionalized settings are doing unless we stay actively involved in their lives.

Next: "Thou shall not kill?" What can that possibly mean? How can it possibly be applied?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Remembering JFK: It Only Takes One: Inviting Violence

NOVEMBER 23, 2009 4:11PM

I wanted to post this yesterday, but was unable to do so. This is a repost of my first OS post, October 21, 2008. Almost nobody read it.

But the fear that I experienced as a very young man working in the Executive Office of the President on that November 22, 1963, the fear I felt for the then candidate and now President Obama last October is only intensified as the loonies are on the loose and few are calling them out on their vile propaganda.

People are legally carrying assult rifles to Presidential rallies, promoting and making thinly veiled death threats; and not subtle metaphors for the death of this President are the norm in the ranks of the fringe right. We are not, as a nation, safer than a year ago. And the President is not safer either.

What follows is a true account of one young, naive and grief stricken person's experience on the day President Kennedy was killed.

OCTOBER 21, 2008 10:12PM

I moved to Washington DC in July, 1963. A bright eyed and anxious 23 year old, I was nearly overcome by my good fortune to be invited to work in the Executive Office of the President, Bureau of the Budget.

I was the low guy on the totem pole and often got the duty of covering the phones when others went out to eat, or to work at the agencies we reviewed for budget and legislative consistency with the President's goals.

One day in late November I was half listening to some elevator music playing on the radio when an announcement interrupted to say, "The President has been shot!" I was of course stunned, and decided that I had to tell someone so I ran down to the Division Director's Office. He wasn't there, so I ran down the long hall in the Old Executive Office Building, up the stairs and barged into the Office of the Director of the Budget Bureau.

There was a meeting going on in the conference room and I, out of breath and likely hyperventilating, shouted, "The President has been shot!"

Two of the White House political staff were there as was the Budget Director, the Deputy and several Division Directors. The Deputy Director, Elmer Staats, who knew me, looked at me with disgust and said, "Monte, that is not funny. How could you even think to say something like that?"

While that was going on, someone turned on a TV that was in the room and the fact was confirmed. About the same time the two White House staffers were calling across the alley to the West Wing to confirm.

There are certain times when the world turns inside out; times when we will remember where we were and what we were doing when a major event happens. For much younger people than me, and most are, a day that is sealed in their memories, and mine, is September 11, 2001.

Unfortunately, by the time the '60s were over those of us who lived through those years would add the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, and the June 5, 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

Those years were years of great political division in this nation, and until now, we have seen nothing like the kind of bitter, hateful rant that fueled the hatred then, and fanned the flames of intolerance.

We would all like to think that we have, as a nation, gotten past all of that. And, had we not been witnessing the fanning of the flames, the desperate acts of spinning a great lie about Barack Obama; a lie about his "otherness," "Un-American," "Socialist," and, today, "Communist" leanings.

These purveyors of hate continue to foment the unrest and play to the prejudices of race and class warfare. The litany of false descriptors piles up, lie upon lie: "Palling around with Terrorists," "Terrorist," and "Traitor."

Mainstream media, even the so-called liberal left media, allow such words to go unchallenged saying such things as, "Well. Its all that McCain has left to do." As if that makes it OK to scream "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

We have succumbed to something we would tell ourselves to our dying day that we do not believe: "that the end justifies the means." In a stupefying attempt to be "fair" we have turned our heads and allowed the intolerant rants of hate to be "tolerated."

If I had not lived through the short few years when three leaders of my hope for our nation were destroyed, when I, and the rest of the nation, had to grow up and realize that there is evil in this world, perhaps I would not feel so uneasy, and could just let it go as "Well, its just the politics of desperation."

Unfortunately, it only takes one nut, one crazy who is sent over the edge by the talk of terrorists, traitors, socialists, communists and the questioning of patriotism, to destroy the best hopes of us all.

It only takes one.

The Decalogue: Commandment Four: Remember the Sabbath & Keep it Holy

NOVEMBER 19, 2009 1:54PM


This is the 10th of a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. This and all remaining essays will deal with the Decalogue. Links to the prior essays can be found in the left hand column of this post under My Links: "Essays on the Exodus and the Ten Commandments."

To make it easier to understand this essay and to reference the relevant Biblical passages I am including here the passage that most closely relates to this essay.

From Exodus 20

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (NRSV)

Commandment #4, "Remember the Sabbath," forms the bridge between the first three Commandments relating to God, and the last six Commandments, which are about relating to one another. The 4th Commandment is often viewed as the last of the four Commandments about how we relate to God. And it is. But it also involves how we relate to one another because believers are to keep the Commandment together in obedience to his instruction.

Let's start with a technical detail that has, through the centuries, caused a lot of heartburn for some Christians, including some of the members of churches I have served in the past.

Because most Christians take our Sabbath rest on Sunday, instead of Saturday, does that mean that we Christians do not obey this Commandment? The short answer to that question is "No". However, some Christians do make a big deal of which day the Sabbath should be observed.

One the one hand, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Seventh Day Baptists, and a few other smaller Christian denominations and sects insist that the Jewish Sabbath, which is celebrated on the "Seventh Day," which we call "Saturday," is the proper day of worship for Christians.

On the other hand, the vast majority of Christian denominations set aside Sunday, the "First Day" of the week, as the proper day of Christian worship because it is said to represent the the day on which Christ was raised.

Who is "right?" Well, its not clear cut. If you want to say that the traditional Jewish understanding of the last day of the week is correct, then the "Sabbath" is from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown. For them, that is the "Seventh Day." So, if you want to worship on the "Sabbath" then you should have your weekly worship service during that period, like the Jews and the Adventists do.

Or, if you want to worship on a day that is particularly symbolic for the Christian faith, there is no better day to worship than on the day when Christ was raised from the grave. Most Christians do just that. But, by worshiping on Sunday do those Christians violate the 4th Commandment?

Two points need to be considered before we decide that worshiping on Sunday is a violation of the Sabbath. First, the Sabbath Commandment relates to rest, and says nothing about worship. Certainly worship would be appropriate on the holy Sabbath Day, but worship is not in any way part of the Sabbath Commandment.

Tradition added worship to the Sabbath, and that is reasonable. But it is not a commandment of God that the day of rest be combined with a special day of worship. There is certainly nothing wrong with worshiping God on Saturday, but there is also nothing wrong with worshiping God any day of the week.

Second, the Sabbath day rest is based on the story of the Creation as recorded in Genesis, which says nothing at all about how to set up a calendar. Calendars were a hodge-podge of differing lengths of time, ways to divide the year into months, etc., right up through the time of Christ.

For example, the Jewish Calendar at the time most of the Old Testament was written consisted of ten months, not twelve. Weeks, however, from the time of Moses were seven days to honor the story of creation in Genesis. But, from God's point of view, who is to say that the day we later chose to call Saturday was in fact the seventh, last, day of creation?

What if the later calendar makers, who named some days of the week in English after pagan gods, had decided that the first day in the week was Thursday?

Luckily for both Jewish and Christian tradition Constantine converted to Christianity and decided that the calendar would be set up with traditional Jewish seven day weeks with the Sabbath day being the last day of the seven.

But there have been both longer and shorter weeks in other cultures. Some of those line up more closely with either the Lunar or Solar cycles. As recently as the last century at least one major nation recognized 5 and 6 day weeks. And historically weeks have varied in different cultures from 5 to 20 days.

The point is that what God was trying to tell us is that he rested on the seventh day of the week of creation - whatever day that may be: and so should we. We should rest one day out of seven, whatever that day may be in our modern calendar. Whether or not that is also our day of worship is something that he left up to us.

The issue of the Sabbath is not about what day of the week it falls on, but that we remember it. And do not think that "remember" means "think about it." The Hebrew word for remember means "to observe" it; i.e.: do something about it!

For example, a husband should "remember" his wife's birthday and their wedding anniversary. Visualize this conversation. You come home from work, spend the evening in front of the TV watching Monday Night Football, and, as she storms off to bed at the end of the first half, your wife says in tears: "You don't even remember what day this is!" And you reply, "Sure, I remember, its our 20th wedding anniversary!" How well do you think that would go over? She expected you to do something about your anniversary, not just "remember" it! Just so, God expects us to do something about the Sabbath, not just "remember" that it exists!

What is that something we are to do? The answer, in this so-called "positive" Commandment is negative: we are not supposed to work!

Verse 10: 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

Notice too that it applies to the entire household, to servants and foreigners who reside in your country. Basically it applies to everyone. You are not to go off to play golf and leave the wife and kids home to do the wash and yard work! It applies to every creature that works, including servants, alien residents, even animals!

What God is saying is that he built into the very Creation a divine rhythm of work and rest. And when his creatures honor that rhythm within the created order that is how it is supposed to be. When we honor the Sabbath rest we honor God by imitating his actions at the beginning of Creation.

I do not want to get into some Pharasic argument about what specific things we can and cannot do on our day of rest. That depends, it seems to me, on how each individual defines "rest" and "recreation."

I do not think, for example, that riding around on my lawn tractor on a Sunday afternoon mowing the lawn is "work." I enjoy it. But I can remember a number of irritated parishioners of churches I have served, those who were self-appointed guardians of my moral conduct, who thought that to ride a lawn tractor on Sunday was a terrible sin! That is one of the joys of living in parsonages. An amazing number of church members think that they should tell you how to behave.

More to the point is that we may think that our busy-ness is not chaotic, but we actually know better. We may try to convince ourselves that the rat race we have gotten sucked into is "normal," but it is not normal to God. God did not create man or animals to work all the time.

Notice that the Sabbath rest is a great equalizer, applying to the rich and the poor, the oppressed and the oppressor. God is saying that he rested on the seventh day, and so should all of his Creation. God's argument to the believer is that the Sabbath rest is the way he designed things to be. So when believers violate that rest, we violate how God intends us to be, and how he intends the Creation to be!

So, here's the question for those who choose to obey the commandments in faithful response to God. Do some believers violate the Sabbath because we worship on Sunday and not Saturday, or do we violate the Sabbath because we are caught up in the web of constant work; of striving for success?

We are taught from the cradle that everything of value in this life comes from hard work. Sadly we believe that we get our identities from our work: from what we do, not from who we are! That is, we are told, the American Way.

But it is not God's way. God's way says we, all of God's creatures, need to slow down once a week, take time to smell the roses, to refresh ourselves, to recreate. Think about that innocent little word "recreate." Break it down a little differently than we normally pronounce it: "RE-create." We are to take time to "Re-create" ourselves.

That is God's way. It may not put a smile on the face of your boss who believes he owns you body and soul, and that your time is his to do with as he pleases. But, if you are a faithful believer, at least for one day a week, your time belongs to God! And God wants you to rest on that day!

So, believers have to choose. Do we choose to live God's way, in accordance to the way God would have us live? Or do we choose to live the way that modern society says we must live to be "successful?"

God says, "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." He is telling us that the Sabbath day, whatever day of the week we choose to make it, is his day, not ours, and we are to act like the creatures that we are and to observe the Sabbath rest that is built into the ordering of the Creation.

Next: Commandment # 5: Honor thy father and mother.

God bless.

The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) -- Do They Apply To You?

NOVEMBER 16, 2009


This is the 9th of a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. This and all remaining essays will deal with the Decalogue. Links to the prior essays can be found in the left hand column of this post under My Links: "Essays on the Exodus and the Ten Commandments."

To make it easier to understand this essay and to reference the relevant Biblical passages as I did in the last essay I am including here those passages that most closely relate to this essay.

From Exodus 20
1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,
6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Jews and Christians, inheritors of the faith of the Israelites, are taught to keep the commandments of God. But it is for us in this generation to see how ancient instructions, written over 2500 years ago, apply in modern times. This is a difficult question whenever we look at the Bible. What portions of it were intended for application only to the time, people and place about which they were written or spoken? And what portions have more universal application, to all generations of the faithful?

In the case of the Ten Commandments most commentators, including the vast majority of Christian scholars, believe that the words of God that comprise the Decalogue have a timeless quality, and were intended for all generations. I agree with that assessment. I believe that they are applicable to this generation of believers.

But, notice carefully that I said "this generation of believers." I did not say that they apply to everyone in this generation. Both Judaism and Christianity have always said that the beliefs of those religions are freely open to others to use if they choose to use them.

Neither faith is a private cult that has argued that no one but the members can know the mysterious codes of the faithful. In fact, every time some group has tried to turn the faith into a mystery cult that group has been denounced as anathema to orthodox faith.

But the opposite of that, believing that they apply to all persons irrespective of their faith, has been abused far too often, mostly by Christians who think that what they believe is what everyone else should believe - even if it has to be forced upon others by governmental decree.

Even though far too many Christians try to apply the Decalogue to all people in this generation, it is abundantly clear that we should not do that. Yet some Christians think that it is a good idea to tack up the 10 Commandments in all sorts of public places, and to hold all people to its precepts. That is not even remotely good theology.

The Bible is clear that the 10 Commandments were never intended to be applied to all people, and certainly not against their will. They were, by definition, given as a gift to those who follow Yahweh. They were the instructions by which those people of faith were to live their lives together.

In other words, the most accurate thing that we can say about the Ten Commandments is that God was, and is, applying them to faithful Jews and Christians, and to nobody else. Unless you are a Jew or a Christian who is in a faithful relationship with God, they do not apply to you. I cannot think of any way to more clearly make this obvious, and obviously often ignored, point.

So, if, for example, your batty, unchurched Aunt Mabel's has declared herself to be a worshiper of frogs, and has set up an altar to the Frog God and prays to the Frog God, your telling her that she is breaking the First Commandment just isn't true. She may be crazy, and she may be a pagan. But she isn't breaking the First Commandment, because it doesn't apply to her.

Just so the 10 Commandments do not apply to non-practicing, non-Christians or non-Jews who would come before a judge in a civil court room where you have just insisted the 10 Commandments be tacked up on the wall.

If Christians feel such a great need to tack them on some wall, we would be much better served if we tacked them to the walls of our own houses, and actually sought to practice them ourselves. We would find that doing that was hard enough without trying to impose them on others and judging others by their failure to comply with our beliefs.

But they do apply to those of us, Jews and Christians, who practice our faith. When God says "You shall have no other gods before me," he means you and me, if we practice the faith. And when He says, "You shall not make for yourself an idol," and when He says, "you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God," well, God does mean all of those things.

When we believers accept that they do apply to us, a question still remains. How do the apply to us? Or, put another way, What do they mean for us today, in this generation? Let's look at that more closely.

When God says "You shall have no other gods before me," as I told you in the last essay, he was speaking to a people who believed that there were, literally, many gods. Today, of course, Christians and Jews believe no such thing. So, since believing Jews and Christians don't believe that there are other gods, does that mean that this 1st Commandment is not applicable to us? Or that we automatically meet its requirements?

Not at all. I wish it were that easy. But it is not because, while we may not literally worship other entities that we believe are gods, we can, and often do, worship other things as more important than Yahweh, the God of Israel. We may not intend to, but it is easy to worship the god known as money, or sex, or power, or even "our own time;" things and activities which keep us from worship, prayer and Bible study.

Now, when we take the time we should be focusing on God, and use that time on some thing or activity, we effectively substitute that thing or activity for worshiping Yahweh, our God. Whether or not this breaks the 1st Commandment, against worshiping other gods, or the 2nd, against worshiping an idol, is a mere technicality. Whether money or power, say, is a "god" to you, or is merely an "idol" that you worship is irrelevant.

The whole point is that when a thing, person or activity becomes more important to you than God then you break one or both of the first two Commandments. Any activity, thing or person that you "idolize" can become every bit as much an "idol" as is a physical object. The minute that any thing, person or activity actually influences our lives more than God influences our lives, we have given our faith to that thing and taken it from God.

The 2nd Commandment also applies to not making an idol or an image of God himself. Many of us do not realize that; but the Bible is clear on it. When the people, later in Exodus, made an idol in the form of a Golden Calf, they thought that they were making an idol of Yahweh. And God was furious. God forbids idols of himself! The reason is simple. God has no intention of being confused with anything that is man-made. He has no intention with being confined within any object.

So, if Christians have pictures of Jesus (most of which probably are totally off base, because we have no clue what Jesus looked like) or perhaps a crucifix, or any other representation of Christ or God, the Father, or of the Holy Spirit, for that matter, we need to avoid falling into a pattern of "worshiping" those things.

If you find, for instance, that you can only pray when you are before a picture, a crucifix or a statue of Jesus, ask yourself if you are praying to Jesus or to a representation of him. Don't let yourself get trapped into thinking that there is some special power present in pictures, symbols, or statues. There isn't. Jesus is not in a statue or picture or crucifix -- and you can't put him there.

Likewise, don't get trapped into worshiping the Bible. That sin even has a name: Bibliolatry. The Bible is the witness to the Word of God, who Christians believe is Jesus Christ. Christians, especially conservative Christians, often use a kind of short-hand and say that the Bible is the "word of God." But the Bible tells us that it contains the revealed word of God. It tells us that it is good for instruction in the ways of God. But it never claims to be God. And it is not. Do not fall into the trap of worshiping a book, a thing. Worship instead the One that it reveals!

The third commandment, "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God," is a rather straightforward commandment that we have somehow tended to narrow its meaning to its least important aspects. Mostly we connect it with not swearing. Sometimes we connect it with not invoking God's name in magic or divination, like Simon the Magician did, and occasionally we think it applies to not swearing falsely in God's name.

Now, it does apply to those things, so we are not wrong when we think that. But something far more important is at stake here, and that is maintaining the integrity of God's name. What this Commandment intends to do is to protect the name of God from being used to further our own agendas, draping them in the name of God.

Walter Harrelson suggests that this Commandment's intent is to keep us from using God's name "for mischief." I love that phrase, because it is so easy to invoke the power of God to get what we want, and not necessarily what God wants. And that certainly is using God's name for mischief! We may try to convince ourselves that they are the same thing, all the while knowing that they are not.

Some pastors and many televangelists are notorious for invoking the name of God in order to get what they want and often not necessarily what God would ever want. Beware of so-called Christians leaders who tell you that God told them to tell you to do this or that: like give them your money!

In other words, beware of those who invoke the name of God in the service of some purpose or cause other than God's. The last half of the Commandment makes it clear that God takes this quite seriously, telling us that God "will not acquit anyone who misuses His name."

Next: we'll look at the 4th commandment about keeping the Sabbath - which "technically" most Christians do not do.

God bless.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Decalogue: The Ten Commandments


This is the 8th of a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments. This and all remaining essays will deal with what we call The Decalogue or Ten Commandments. Links to the prior essays can be found in the left hand column of this post under My Links: "Essays on the Exodus and the Ten Commandments."

To make it easier to understand this essay and to reference the relevant Biblical passages I am including here at the beginning those passages that most closely relate to this essay.

From Exodus 20

1 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,
6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

One of the first things you notice is that modern Bibles break the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, into 17 verses. The breakout is not entirely arbitrary, but it is not well thought out either. And it came about centuries ago, when it was decided that the Bible would be easier to read if it were broken into books, chapters and verses. Sometimes it is easier. But other times it is just more confusing. And here, at the Decalogue, it is confusing.

Since we often see the Ten Commandments on statements, brochures, signs and elsewhere there is an assumption that we know what each commandment is, what its number is, and which verse contains it in the Bible. But that is not quite so.

The vast majority of the signs we see of the Decalogue are shorthand phrases of longer phrases in the Bible. It can get pretty confusing trying to walk through that maze. So I am going to walk us through a bit of that fog today. So just hang on, and we will make it to the other side unscathed.

Here is the first important thing to know in order to help you understand how the Decalogue is arranged. The first FOUR commandments are about our relationship with God, with the 4th commandment acting as a bridge to the remainder of the commandments. The SIX remaining commandments deal with how we relate to one another. Thus, ALL of the commandments deal with relationships: God with us and we with one another.

Now for a bit of maze walking. What is the first commandment?

It clearly is not verse 1: "Then God spoke all these words:"

But is it verse 2? "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;"

Or is it verse 3? "You shall have no other gods before me."

Well, Jewish tradition says verse 2 is the first commandment. But Christians say verse 3 is the first commandment, with verse two being just a preamble.

However, verse two is far more than a preamble. It is the basis of the "Shema," the holiest of Jewish prayers. Many of you know it, if not by that name. The Shema says, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."

Christians may remember that Jesus assumed that everyone knew the first sentence of the Shema and recited only the second, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might." And then he said that the "second" commandment was "like it," saying, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." He then said that on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. In other words everything else in the Bible rests on keeping these two "commandments."

Now, clearly, neither of these two great religious statements, which Jesus called "commandments" is one of what we think of as the Ten Commandments. But both the Shema and the first and greatest commandment which Jesus recites derive from the proclamation of Yahweh the he and he alone is "the Lord your God." So Jewish tradition should make sense to both Jews and Christians. I will come back to that in a bit.

But, first, I want to show a bit more of the complication here before we move on. If you are a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran chances are that you have been taught that the first commandment is ALL of verses 3 through 6, which have to do with "having no other gods." In other words, verse four which says not to make idols, and verse 5, which says not to worship such idols, are seen as elaborations, details explaining verse 3.

So, in order to come up with TEN commandments you have to split verse 17, which deals with not coveting, into commandments which deal with different aspects of "coveting."

Most Protestant Christians say that verse 3 is the First Commandment, that verses 4 through 6 is the 2nd Commandment, and verse 7 is the 3rd Commandment. That way you can come up with a total of ten commandments without splitting verse 17.

I have actually seen it proposed that one could logically keep verse 2 as the first commandment as Jewish tradition does, split verse 5 into 2 parts, split verse 17 into 7 parts and so forth and come up with from 11 to 19 Commandments, depending on how you separate phrases.

And, that would be just as logical as saying there are ten commandments. In fact, ten is not a particularly "holy" number and numerologists would no doubt rather have the Twelve Commandments, given the twelve tribes of Israel and the holiness thought by some to be attached to that number.

My guess is that about now God is shaking his head and laughing at the absurdity of worrying about this, let alone fighting to have the Ten Commandments put up in public places, where they have no business being, but that discussion comes later in the series so I will not belabor it here.

My own feeling is that God is a whole lot less concerned with how we count than God is with what we do about obeying or living by the spirit of those commandments. If we must have 10 rather than 19 that is fine with me. But we are clearly not going to agree on how to split up the text to arrive at ten.

Keep in mind that this is no more problematic than trying to figure out the exact names of the original disciples of Jesus or trying to figure out who exactly were the twelve disciples, and coming to the conclusion that there were no more than twelve tribes of Israel. We can not be certain about those figures either.

Because I am a liberal Protestant theologian and am comfortable with what I was taught early on, I will go by the majority of Protestant positions on the Decalogue. This is not because it is better or "more right" than the other ways the Decalogue can be split up, but it is the way I can talk about it comfortably.

Accordingly, and no drum roll please, the FIRST commandment is Verse 3: "You shall have no other gods before me."

The SECOND commandment is Verses 4 through 6 with Verses 5 and 6 elaborations on verse 4. "You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." The shorthand version of commandment #2 is simply, "You shall not make for yourself an idol."

The THIRD commandment in this counting scheme is Verse 7. "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name." Again, the shorthand version of the third commandment is the first phrase of the commandment, "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God."

Now, having settled that to no ones satisfaction except a few uptight Protestants who really care about these things for reasons that elude me, I want to come back, as I said I would, to Verse 2 and explain why the Jews are in the most fundamental theological sense right.

Their tradition says that the 1st commandment should be the statement of who Yahweh is, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." This bothers those who are literalistic in their understanding of English since it is a statement of "fact," and not strictly a command to do something when viewed literally in English.

But, if it is a "fact" it is a fact that almost no one else knew at the time the Decalogue was spoken, and one that you know, simply from reading this series, the Israelites themselves challenged more than once.

But here, in stark clarity, Yahweh tells the people the He and He alone is the only God that they need, and they must remember that he is bound to this people by holy covenant. Keep in mind that in those days most people believed in many gods. Many of the Israelites believed that there were more than one god and to be safe several should be prayed to and appeased. Here Yahweh does not try to disabuse them of that belief. Remember that Yahweh has just proven that he could defeat the "gods of the Egyptians." Rather, here Yahweh makes the simple point that this Yahweh is the God who saves THEM.

It will only be much later in the development of the theology of Israel when Israel will come to believe that there are no other gods, period. That is, they will come to believe that no other gods even EXIST.

For now it is only necessary that the Israelites believe that Yahweh is the one with the proven track record: This Yahweh is the God who saves, delivers and redeems them from the dreaded 400 year captivity within Egypt. It is this special and specific God who has chosen this special and specific people to be the ones he loves, holds close and protects. And it is this God that the people must learn to worship and obey in gratitude for that love and protection.

If what comes next sounds familiar it is because I have walked you by this point before. But it cannot be overstated if you are to understand the place of the Decalogue within the context of salvation history. The conditions of the covenant, the details of the Torah, and all the minor and detailed laws that spring from interpretations of it, are the result first of God's deliverance of the people, saving them from bondage in Egypt.

He can make the demands he makes of the people in following the commandments of the Decalogue precisely because of the GRACE that he has ALREADY given to them. This Torah, this instruction for living, is not to be seen as another form of bondage, but as the GIFT of a redeeming God, the GIFT of the instruction as to how to live a full and holy life under this one God, Yahweh.

If we cannot see the so-called "Law" of the Ten Commandments in this light then we miss the entire ebb and flow of our relationship with God. For God always provides the pure grace of deliverance, redemption and salvation before any guidelines for living are promulgated. And by so doing we can respond to the Instruction for Living, the Torah, in gratitude. If we miss this point we might conceive of Torah as another form of servitude, something not even remotely true theologically.

Think of it this way. The "Law" is not given to them so that, IF they obey it they will be God's people. The Israelites are already God's people. Thus the Law or Torah can never been seen as a means of salvation. God saves, delivers, heals and redeems because he loves us, not because we follow some set of instructions, as important as those instructions may be.

Thoughtful Jews never consider Torah as a unique vessel for salvation. They know that they were saved from bondage in Egypt before the Torah came alone. Rather they see the Torah, what Christians too often call narrowly as "Law," as teaching or instruction regarding how to live a redeemed life day to day under the guidance of the LORD.

Here in the beginning of the Decalogue God is affirming WHO HE IS and he does that on moral grounds. This God of Israel, our God, is defined not in vague philosophical or theological propositions, but is defined by the very nature of the moral imperatives He will place upon the people. He is a HOLY GOD and he will insist that HIS PEOPLE BE HOLY.

It is no accident that Jewish tradition sees verse two as the First Commandment. Verse 2 defines "who they are" by telling them WHO THEIR GOD IS. Logically, it would be of little help to tell them that they should "have no other gods before me," if the people had little or no idea who the God that they were to honor in that way was and is. They could have no respect for such a God because that God would have shown no love, care and protection to them. Yahweh did and still does show that today.

Speaking of now, how much respect do we have for God? Do we really know who God is? Does each of us, individually, have a concrete idea, a firm belief, that in some way relevant to our individual lives the God we worship is the one who redeems, delivers, heals and saves us?

Perhaps that sounds too easy. But it is not. It is precisely at times when we forget that the grace of God precedes anything we must do in thanksgiving for that grace that we chafe at God's rules, and often break them.

But, my friends, a strong argument can be made that if we really believed that God is God and that God has our well being first in his heart, we would not chafe at the rules for living and would instead obey and trust God in thanksgiving for his grace.

The Torah, both written and spoken, is at the heart of Jewish morality. And I know some Christians who would like to see it as not applying to us. But that is totally anathema to orthodox Christian teaching.

Besides that, if we Christians truly believe that God is God and we are grateful for our personal salvation as Christians the promulgation of rules for living is standard Christian instruction. You can pick up just about any book in the New Testament, say, the letters of Peter, Paul or John and you will be told over and over and over that believing Christians ARE saved, ARE holy, and ARE sanctified. In fact that we ARE God's own saints.

And yet, even while knowing that, every one of the great apostles shook his head not only at our inability to avoid sinning, but at their own. Even the greatest of the apostles could not meet the tests that they clearly say that we have ALREADY MET because of faith in Christ.

So, for Christians, the big question is how can we possibly be holy, sanctified, and saved if we sin all the time? And it is a good question.

The truth is that we cannot save ourselves. Writers like Peter, Paul, John and the writer of Hebrews stress heavily that we cannot save ourselves, that only Jesus can do that. Paul says it best. I will paraphrase. We are saved not by our merits, not by our good works, not even by our holiness, but because when we believe in Jesus, the Christ. Once we believe in God's Son, God considers us ("reckons us") to be righteous for the sake of his Son, through the sacrifice he made for us on the Cross.

So, just as the Israelites were already saved from bondage in Egypt by the grace of Yahweh BEFORE they received the Torah, and were already God's chosen people bound by covenant to Yahweh even before he spoke the Ten Commandments, so too, Christians like me believe that they are saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ.

I believe that it is important to try to live up to the Torah and the instructions for living that apply to Christians and Jews. But if we cannot we have a remedy at hand within both faiths which is to admit our sin and be cleansed once more to be vicars of God. That is good news for Jews and Christians alike. In fact it is Amazing Grace!

God bless,


Next: Snares and pitfalls in applying the Decalogue. And just who do these commandments apply to anyway?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thank you! My First Open Salon Anniversary

Who knew an internet site could make all the difference?

I am hopeless when it comes to remembering things like birthdays, anniversaries, and grocery lists. So it comes as no surprise to me that my first anniversary of being a member of Open Salon passed last Wednesday, October 21st, without me remembering it.

Perhaps being here a year should invoke nothing in particular but in my case I have to remember where I was psychologically when I first got here and compare it to how I am today. I am much stronger and have far better coping skills than I did then.

I owe so much to OS. I thank God that this platform was available to me when I needed it, even though at the time I did not know that I did. And I owe much of my getting back on my emotional feet to my friends in this internet community. I am not going to name names because the list is long and I would feel enormous guilt if I left someone out. But I was in a dark and depressing place last October when I joined this group.

In March, 2008 I developed vasculitis over my entire body. I looked like someone had poked me with a million needles that made me bleed underneath the skin. That was followed in a couple of months by the vasculitis concentrating in my feet, which developed large, deep blue blood blisters. In turn the bilateral neuropathy I had for about three years got much worse and I had enormous pain on the surface of my feet while the rest of the feet were mostly numb.

Shortly thereafter I started experiencing massive redness and swelling in my feet with accompanying unbelievable burning, shooting, stinging, shocking pain that is hard to describe. The only relief for this is to elevate the feet and keep them cool. Soon there was no "normal." Either they were red hot, swollen and painful, or they were ice cold. Meanwhile I had to give up being a pastor because I could not stand or even keep my feet down for a short while without causing a excruciating flare up which lasts for hours.

My doctors did not know the cause and it just got worse. I finally did enough research on the internet to diagnose myself as having erythromelalgia, in addition to vasculitis and bilateral neuropathy. With that my internist sent me to the Cleveland Clinic in July, 2008.

The Cleveland Clinic Rheumatology Department was one of the few places in the USA that knew anything about this rare disease for which there is no cure and for which remissions are rare. So mostly they started trying various combinations of drugs for the pain, steroids for the vasculitis, and doing incessant blood work and other tests because erythromelalgia can be a precursor to life threatening myeloproliferative diseases. So far nothing like that is manifest.

By October I had thousands of dollars worth of often painful tests and been off and on many drug combinations. I was emotionally strung out, to say the least. I was pretty much confined to the house, by the air conditioner, in a Lazy Boy with another chair to keep my feet elevated and a fan blowing on my bare feet. Some, but not much, of that has changed. That still describes an average day.

I was desperately trying to keep my spirits up by reading Scripture and praying, and my brain occupied by reading four or five novels a week, reading newspapers on the internet, and getting acquainted with online magazines, including Salon. Plus I had become an election junkie and had been one of Obama's early supporters, remembering him from his speech at the 2004 convention. A laptop computer I bought made much of that possible.

I was very miffed with Salon.com when it started running an ad that you had to click through to get to the Salon home page. For about a week I would click through this ad for "Open Salon," irritated beyond rationality. Finally I decided to click on the damned thing and see what this aggravating interruption was all about.

I have not been able to stay away from Open Salon since.

My first post, "It Only Takes One: Inviting Violence" was on October 21, 2008. It garnered a whopping five ratings and four comments. After a month I had about 6 mutual "Friends." Today we officially do not have "Friends" anymore. We have "Favorites." Not me. I still have friends. Mutual friends. About 200 now. Sure, they are my favorites too. But for me having mutual friendships means much more than having favorites.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I believe that the most important thing about OS is that it is a community. There has always been a talk of a split in OS over which to emphasize: "community" or "writers,/artists colony." I have always thought that the split was, and is, artificial.

Some of my best friends are some of the best writers on OS. There are, of course, some very good writers who are not my friends. But that is not for lack of trying to ferret them out. OS is just too big now to read everybody let alone get to know them well enough, and vice versa, to become mutual friends. But I manage to add a few each month, which is a privilege.

What I remember most about my early days here is how closed I was about telling anybody who I really am. I was all pinched in on myself and my pain, and I was worn out emotionally. It didn't help that I was much older than most of the people here. On top of that I come from a generation in which men were not supposed to tell much about who they were, and absolutely nothing about how they feel. But I guess you can't hide the hurt very well from people here on OS. They quickly read between the lines and they opened me up, little by little.

I started by writing political, motorcycling and memoir posts. Writing the "WWII Romance" memoir series of how my Mom met and married my step Dad opened me even further and I felt emotions I had long buried and no longer remembered I had. The strong positive response to that series encouraged me to continue exploring who I am and what I was doing on OS.

After about six weeks I started writing some posts on faith. A month or two after that, mostly in response to my posts on faith and the fact that I have been a counselor for many years, a number of people began to send me PMs to explore with me this or that problem they had; and, little by little, I gained the honor and privilege of being there for them during some of the rough stretches in their lives. That honor has grown in the ensuing months. I do not think that would be possible outside of a community of caring people.

So, dear friends, OS gave me you. And, if you ask Sue, the one who had to live with my depression before I found OS, she will tell you that OS helped give me myself back as well.

It is a joy to be part of this wonderful place, a place where we can write and share our experiences, our joys, our pains, our art, our talent, our craft, our hopes, our dreams and our fears. We all come here for our own reasons. No two are exactly alike in either talent or dreams.

But if we are open to it we can find friendship, caring, love and support here. And more importantly, we can offer those same things to one another. My faith is the essence of who I am. But I am keenly aware that we too easily forget that God most often comes to us in unspectacular ways. And mostly God works through people. People just like you good folk here on Open Salon.

If we miss sharing with others that love that we each have within us then we miss the most important thing that God asks of each of us, which is to love one another. It has been my privilege to be the recipient of that gentle love from you.

Here is a song that expresses how I feel about you.

Spend all your time waiting
For that second chance
For a break that would make it OK
There's always one reason
To feel not good enough
And it's hard at the end of the day

I need some distraction ooh beautiful release
Memory seeps from my veins
Let me be empty and weightless and maybe
I'll find some peace tonight

In the arms of an angel
Fly away from here
From this dark cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you feel
You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie
You're in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here

So tired of the straight line
And everywhere you turn
There are vultures and thieves at your back
And the storm keeps on twisting
You keep on building the lie
That you make up for all that you lack
It wont make no difference
Escaping one last time
It's easier to believe in this sweet madness oh
This glorious sadness that brings me to my knees

You're in the arms of an angel
May you find some comfort here
Some comfort here

God bless you all.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Mosaic Covenant: Its Origin and Conditions


This is the 6th of a series of essays that cover the origin of the Israelite nation and conclude with a discussion of the Ten Commandments. Links to the prior essays can be found in the left hand column of this post under Blog Archives.

We are ready to understand God's Covenant with Moses and the people that will lay the foundation of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. Without this Covenant there would be no Chosen People. There would be no Israelite nation. There would be no Ten Commandments. It all comes down to this event that we are going to discuss now.

Camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites wait as Moses goes up the mountain to God, who proposes to change the very nature of his relationship with the Israelites. God does this in two carefully distinct stages. First God tells Moses, "Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself."

Notice how God recites what He has done as the basis of everything that is to follow: how He saved them from the Egyptians, and "bore them on eagles' wings," protecting them, watching over them, as an eagle watches over its young.

This image, of God raising us up as on eagles' wings, has become one of the most beloved and treasured symbols of faith. Moses, in his farewell speech at the end of Deuteronomy, elaborates on God's theme, when, speaking of "Jacob", another name for the Israelites, Moses said to the Israelites, "He shielded him [meaning Jacob, the Israelites], cared for him, guarded him as the apple of His eye. As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him, no foreign god was with him."

And, most importantly, God tells Moses to tell the people that God alone, "brought you to myself." Here we get, for the first time, a glimpse of God's plan, of His overall intention: to bring this chosen people to Himself.

The flight from Egypt and all the hardship that they endured, all the times God intervened on their behalf, the miracles God performed to keep them alive, all this was not simply so that they might be free from bondage, or to bring them to the Holy Mountain, or even to have a better land to live in. Actually, the Promised Land will prove to be nothing like as fertile and productive as Egypt, which has the Nile river.

But the destination of the Israelites turns out not to be a place at all: the destination turns out to be God. "I brought them to me." All that God has done for them, He did that they might become his own beloved people.

We must understand that this grace, this deliverance, precedes any idea of establishing the Torah. God intends that the Israelites clearly understand what He has done for them before He makes any demands on them. And He will make demands upon them only if they understand and appreciate the enormity of God's love for, and commitment to, them. This point is critical in understanding the origin of and the intent of the Ten Commandments.

God has a plan; but it will be revealed to them only in stages, because that plan will succeed only with their cooperation. They must willingly understand all that God has done, and be grateful for it. And they must trust Him to provide in the future, as he has in the past.

This relationship is not to be founded on some theological abstraction. This relationship is to be based on God's deeds in the past and God's promises for the future. God has saved them for himself. They should now know that unequivocally. And Moses is to tell them. But the larger question remains, "Having saved them, what will God do with them?"

The answer is that God proposes to enter into a covenant with them. "Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation."

There are several critical things that we need to understand about this invitation to covenant.

First, it comes only after God's grace, God's gift of deliverance.

Second, it is conditional. "If" you do this, "then" you shall be.... God's love for them is not conditional. But their particular, chosen, relationship to him is. He loves them, that is clear. After all, He wishes them to be his " treasured possession out of all the peoples". Yet God also makes it clear that this special, covenantal relationship is conditional: While all the earth is his, and all the people in it, the Israelites alone shall have this special relationship with God -- If.

Third, "obeying God's voice" comes before keeping the covenant; and before the Torah. Already, in the desert, God has tested the Israelites to see if they would obey him. Some did. Some did not. But the point is not whether the Israelites obeyed or failed, but that to obey the voice of God entails something more than simply obeying the Torah that will be given to them shortly. To obey the voice of God requires more than simply abiding by the rules.

To obey God's voice is an act of the heart. It starts with our intentions to listen for and be alert to what God is saying to us, and to act accordingly. To obey in love, and with love toward others, is an even greater obligation than keeping the Law. Remember, first, God says, "obey my voice." Only then, second, does God say, "and keep my covenant."

If they do this God tells Moses that the Israelites "shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation." Now we are not going to go into great detail about what that means in this essay. For now, just remember that to be a "priestly" nation is to be one who mediates between God and others. Because the earth, all of it, is God's, Israel's role will be that of mediator, intercessor, between the rest of the world and God. It is to function in the world as a priest would function in a religious community.

More importantly, it is to be "a holy nation," that is, one which embodies God's own purposes in the world. To be "holy" is to be set apart for God's purposes. Israel is to reflect God's light to the world; to set an example, to show the world what it is like to live the good life under God. All this goes back to the original covenant with Abraham some 400 years prior, where God told Abram, "...In you all the nations of the world shall be blessed."

We are ready for the big question: "How will Israel respond?" Knowing the story to date, and being aware of what will happen in the future, one should be surprised to know that, after Moses reported all this to the people, the Bible tells us, simply, "The people all answered as one: 'Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.'"

What is amazing about this response is that it is totally uncharacteristic of what has preceded this encounter. Up to now they had whined and complained and tried to get around God's tests in the desert. They have hardly been ideal candidates for holiness!

And we already know that the rest of the Hebrew Bible is as much the story of their disobedience as it is of their obedience. And we will learn soon enough that their disobedience starts up again immediately! We also know that their disobedience results in them wandering in the desert for forty years rather than two.

But now, at this critical juncture in the history of the world, they say "Yes!" And, with that "yes" everything changes. Nothing will be the same from this time forward.

Let us not be hard on the Israelites for their disobedience. After all, we all know something about "good intentions," don't we? I can not even begin to count the times I have told God that I intend to do what he wants. Nor can I begin to count the times that I have failed. But that is the nature of the human condition. We even have a name for it. It's called sin.

Thankfully, the nature of God is something else entirely. God's nature is love and that love is manifest in forgiveness. It should not surprise us that a God who loves us so much, who forgives our sins, will do everything in his power to keep the covenant going, in spite of every error the Israelites - or we - might commit.

Do not look down you nose at "good intentions." God looks upon the heart. What you "intend" to do is far more important to God than what you actually are able to accomplish.

The Israelites intended to obey God. And that was enough for him. Today, we believers intend to obey God. And God will forgive us when we do not. That much has not changed.

Likewise, when we intend NOT to obey Him, but only go through the motions trying to convince others that we are in obedience, we are only fooling ourselves. God is not fooled, because God knows our intentions.

My advice to those of faith who want to try to please God is to keep having "good intentions." They have been important to God since before the foundation of the earth.

Next: we'll look at the rest of Chapter 19 and then it will be time to really take a hard look at the Ten Commandments.

God bless.