All aboard for Tarshish!

26 08 2020

Some days are sloppy. Like yesterday.

I tried to concentrate on some Bible reflection and came to the end of the book of Jonah. He was operating under the “great commission” of his era which promised that Abram’s lineage would be blessed so as to be a blessing to every other nation (Genesis 12:1-4).

But Jonah could not imagine God really wanting to bless the Ninevites — those ruthless, godless barbarians, with their arrogant kings and imperialistic intentions. There was no way Jonah was going to go out of his way to show mercy to people who didn’t deserve or desire it. So he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish.

We don’t know exactly where Tarshish was, but we know precisely what it represented: “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).

Tarshish is any place other than where God calls you to go.

Skip to the end of the Jonah chronicle. Clearly, Jonah’s direction was changed by a great fish, but even after a great revival in Nineveh, the prophet’s heart had not changed.

Even after Nineveh repented, Jonah “re-pouted.” He told God: This is why I fled to Tarshish, “for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness” (Jonah 4:2).

If you are like me, there are some people more deserving of punishment than mercy. Like Jonah, we have a hard time thinking kindly of them.

Do you recall how God responded to Jonah? “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Sure is, said Jonah, “it is right for me to be angry, even to death” (4:9).

To which God replied, “should I not pity Nineveh?”

In other words, God has the right to show mercy to whomever He chooses, whether we like it or not.

Like Jonah, I lack mercy. I sometimes feel it my right to be angry at what some people do and say. I can’t understand how God puts up with their thinking!

Yesterday, while I was pondering this story, I got a video call from my friend who lives in the Middle East with his family. He works with a Christian ministry in a Muslim country. He and the local director had visited the Minister of Culture and Youth to request permission to distribute Christian literature in a refugee camp. My friend was really excited to meet cabinet officers. The press and photographers were on hand to document the occasion for the newspapers. I rejoiced with my friend over their successful day.

Then I said to him: “This is crazy, and a bit convicting. I can walk down my street and give Christian literature to anyone I meet. I can make friends with someone from the Muslim country you live in, and can actually read the Bible with them. And I don’t need approval from a cabinet minister to do so.”

Then last night Aimee and I took a stroll around our neighborhood as we occasionally do. We took two encouragement cards to neighbors going through hard times. Then we walked over to the apartments nearby where people from several nations live. We stopped and talked to some kids. Said hello to a cluster of women wearing burkas. But none of the adults we’ve met before were outdoors. So we returned home, having left behind a few smiles, waves, and our presence.

This reflection doesn’t really have a clear theme. But I understand Jonah’s urge to flee to Tarshish. I identify with the desire to stay on the couch rather than cross over to the other neighborhood.

And I see that God pays attention even on sloppy days.

Global business of humanitarian aid

16 01 2017

I am watching a program on Netflix called POVERTY, INC. This excellent documentary seeks to demonstrate how the humanitarian aid industry has, in effect, become a global business which benefits the donor who possesses the power, while stripping motivation from the people who grow dependent on aid from outside. I recommend you view this program.

At minute 42, the show describes a “ladder” out of poverty, the steps of which empower people locked in poverty to gain the confidence to climb out of chronic poverty. These “steps” are:

  1. Legal protection from theft and violence
  2. Justice in the courts
  3. Legal title to one’s land
  4. Freedom to start and register a business
  5. Links to wider circles of exchange

The program argues that the successful effort to strengthen Europe after World War II (called the Marshall Plan) has not had this strengthening effect in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Needed aid after natural disasters has turned into “unnatural disasters” wherein aid agencies overstay the crisis and create dependency. Why work hard to develop local initiatives when the market is flooded with foods and goods from outside for free?

What is needed, purports POVERTY,INC., is for outside groups to help reconstruct the ladder. I recall hearing John Perkins comment on the oft-repeated analogy of the fishing pole. He said that it is better to teach a man to fish with his own pole than to continually give the man fish. But, Perkins added, he must also have access to the pond.

Are their agencies which, rather than perpetually handing out aid, are empowering local people by building the ladder?

What can one person do to contribute toward a solution instead of ignorantly perpetuating the problem?

(photocredit: WPphotosmart.

Poverty, Inc. website

A real hope for racial equality

15 01 2017

In light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I write out of my burden for our wounded nation. For my African-American friends who I believe when they tell me of their experiences with institutional racism, and for those in the privileged class who are prone to hear but not listen, look but not perceive the plight of so many of our fellow citizens.  So I write briefly to hopefully add light and a challenge:

1. “Racial equality” will never happen across the United States.

2. Cultural and economic interdependence is embedded in the true church.

Let me seek to prove these statements:

First, “Racial equality” will never happen across the United States.

Dr. King, who is a person in American history I deeply admire, invoked Biblical themes in his blend of Christian ministry and social action. One only need read the brilliant and beautiful “I have a dream” speech to hear the echoes of the prophet Isaiah (in chapter 40) who foresaw mountains being leveled and valleys lifted. Isaiah’s forecast referred to making a highway for a visiting king, the Lord.

That hints at the reason I say racial equality will never happen across the U.S., because America is not equivalent to the people of God. I wish it were different, but a secular state like America can never muster the selflessness and compassion needed to bring racial equality. As much as I believe that the sacred and the spiritual should not be separated, this is one case where the distinction is necessary. 

The greed, love of power, clinging to comfort and privilege are too embedded in our secular country to expect that which only a sacred people can effect. Government will not bring equality. A movement of citizens will not bring justice.  This leads to a word of hope.

Second, Cultural and economic interdependence is embedded in the true church.

I have sought to choose my words carefully. When I say that racial equality will never happen “across the United States,” I refer to the kind of broad scale transformation which some seem to demand when they speak of America changing completely. Evil forces which divide and destroy will not let this happen.

However, the true church of Jesus Christ offers hope of supplying enclaves of interdependence between people of all ethnicites, cultures, and social standings. Many scriptures support this truth, and I will here cite just one. The Apostle Paul writes about the “body of Christ,” i.e. all those, everywhere, who have placed their faith in the saving work of Christ alone (His sacrificial death, His burial, and His bodily resurrection). In calling this massive host of people a “body,” Paul says that we are inseparable from one another and cannot live out our purpose without each other. We are spiritually and practically interdependent.

The chapter containing this teaching (1 Corinthians 12) primarily refers to the interdependence of Christians with regard to “spiritual gifts” such as teaching, healing, and administration. But there is a reference to social issues embedded in this teaching that is easily overlooked and therefore ignored:

“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free–and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:13 New King James Version)

All genuine believers in Jesus Christ, no matter what their descent or language, whether they are privileged or trapped in cycles of obligatory service, are dependent on each other. The love of Christ, and our love for Christ, is expected by the sacred writings to so dominate our way of life that the divisiveness of society is eradicated by the oneness of our faith. Conformity to the character of Jesus is to create in His followers a “new man” that reflects Him (Col. 3:10-11).

I do not say that it is pointless to work for justice and equality in society at large.  My plea is that we who truly know Christ intentionally demonstrate that the only true way to bring hope to the hopeless and strength to the weak is by realizing our interdependence on each other in the body of Christ. We are incomplete without each other. The new community in Christ can only reflect Christ when we intentionally love those whom the world expects us to hate.

Photocredit: WPImageSmart

Letter to the Privileged – 2

16 10 2015

[In continuation of my first post on this topic.] Why do we need to study Romans 1-4 with new eyes?  Paul spends these chapters seeking to break the grip of privilege from the grasp of the Jews — the insiders of his day — to help them see that the gospel is given expressly for the Gentiles (the outsiders) just as fully as the Jews. Those privileged with lineage, heritage, possession of scripture (their law), a rite of identification (their circumcision) are wrong to see these as basis for acceptance by God. None are worthy. None inherit salvation from fathers. All are unworthy. Only faith in the finished work of Christ brings inclusion.

The Jews believed that Abraham, the father of their nation, gave them an inside track with God, but Paul says that even Abraham received righteousness by faith, not works. Anyone — anyone — can have Abraham as their father if they share his faith in God through Jesus Christ.

Generally, the church today has succumbed to the same error as first century Jews. We are content to believe that, by God’s grace, we have been shown the light of the gospel while others lie outside the scope of God’s saving love. This troubles us, but we have grown theologically resigned to it.

In a way, we have our own reliance on a kind of circumcision. The word has the idea of cutting around in a circle. Those so cut are marked for inclusion. Everyone else is uncut, or excluded from the circle of belonging.

Why is this important for us? Wherever we are content to enjoy inclusion for ourselves, even feeling entitled to it, we repeat the prideful judgmentalism which Paul exposed. The result is exclusion of those who are as much beloved by God as ourselves, whether by omission or commission. I believe this condition is pandemic in the church today, a life-threatening virus which spreads unchecked in the comfortable climate of ignorance and unrepentance.

And bad theology produces bad activity. That is why in these articles I make a claim that convicts me personally:

The single greatest impediment to the advance of the Christian faith among all peoples is the prideful entitlement of those who already believe — an attitude which results not only in apathy but judgmental exclusion of those whom God loves.

The good news is for those who have received bad news.  As all people, even Jews, have sinned, all people, even Gentiles, can believe and be saved. Or to paraphrase Paul’s point: As all people, even privileged believers, have sinned, all people, even despicable unbelievers, can believe and be saved.

For “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

So what must we do?

First, we must re-frame our understanding to correspond to Paul’s teaching of “Jews” and “Gentiles” and apply that truth to our current context.

Typically we see the Jew-Gentile contrast as past history which has long ago been settled and laid to rest. We figure that the gospel has come to us (the Gentiles) so Paul’s expose is now academic in its cultural and social implication. We admit it must have been a radical teaching in the first century A.D. but has less direct application now that the gospel has gone far beyond its Jewish roots.

However, we must apply the sin of exclusiveness to our day by seeing that now, we who rest contentedly in our faith without a passion for lost people fill the role of “Jews” in Romans one through four. The “Gentiles,” by application, are the likes of Arabs, “terrorists” posing as refugees, the undocumented immigrants, the atheistic evolutionists, and those of an alternate lifestyle whom we have assigned a place outside the circle of favor and inclusion.

I will reserve three more recommendations for the next post….

Letter to the Privileged – 1

14 10 2014

In Romans 5:1-11 the Apostle Paul describes a glorious spiritual life. Here are the highlights:

…justified by faith, peace with God through Christ, access by faith into His grace, rejoicing in hope of the glory of God, glory in tribulations, love of God poured in our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us, God’s love demonstrated toward us while we were yet sinners, now having been justified we shall be saved from wrath, rejoicing in God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

My question to you is this: Who is this glorious life for?

Most of us would answer: We who believe.  But the fact that nearly everyone of us in the church give this wrong answer is perhaps the main reason thousands of people are not discovering salvation in Jesus Christ. As I read the first chapters of Romans, I believe the best answer is: The kind of sinners who don’t deserve it.

The assertion I want to make in this article is this:

The single greatest impediment to the advance of the Christian faith among all peoples is the prideful entitlement of those who already believe — an attitude which results not only in apathy but judgmental exclusion of those whom God loves.

I realize that is a very bold statement, one which I hope to prove. Immediately preceding Paul’s glorious description of life in Christ in Romans 5:1-11, he has laid down four chapters confronting his Jewish readers about their presumption of an inside track on God’s favor. To this group of Jewish insiders, the “Gentiles” or “Greeks” were undeserving outsiders.  Paul warns them of this dangerous thinking, correctly teaching that the gospel is for all. The climax in chapter five is that the blessed life in Christ is expressly intended for those who once were outsiders, and whom insiders even to this hour consider unworthy, uninterested, and  unreachable.

I cannot speak about the church globally, but my opinion is that the church in America has fallen prey to the mistaken notion of our entitlement just as had first century Jews. We have come to consider ourselves as the insiders and relegated as outsiders a variety of people, such as Arabs, Muslims, lower class, undocumented, gays, disabled, prisoners, refugees, elderly, demented, trafficked and traffickers.

Romans chapters one through four must be studied with new eyes, and must lead us, who consider ourselves to be insiders, to sorrow that leads to repentance. Imagine the joy in the heart of God in these results…

The Arab justified by faith,
the Muslim at peace with God through Christ,
the poor man having access by faith into His grace,
the undocumented rejoicing in hope of the glory of God!

I believe this is the kind of fruit that God desires and Paul wrote about.  But we will not see much of this harvest unless we confront our sense of entitlement.

But how do we do that? I will continue this discussion in a future post…..