Saturday, July 31, 2010

God and Diet ...

You are what you eat, as the saying goes. If true, I must be a pizza, as I began my love affair with them in the form of maternal cravings my mother would get at 3:00 am and my poor father would have to try to accommodate in the late night streets of Los Angeles. Not much has changed in the 4 decades or so since then, other than developing hereditary dairy intolerance at age 30. Unaware of this condition, my solution was to eat even more pizza, you know, to clog me up. BZZZ, but thank you for playing – as anyone with IBS or dairy intolerance can attest, it will have quite the opposite effect. My solution – eat even more pizza. Finally a coworker clued me in on the facts, and with a reduction of dairy, my condition became manageable (for me and anyone in smelling distance). For me, much loved pizza is the dietary equivalent of Drain-o.

Americans have recently become known for being the most obese nation on the planet. With the excess of wealth (comparatively as even our poor are better off than the poor around the world) comes convenience and speed in our diets. Quality, not so much, but speed and low cost, we have in abundance. Our low quality, quick access meals, have led us to become nice and fat. Well at least fat. Apparently only the French are known to be more rude than a traveling American. And despite our condition, the news media is full of stories on how to eat better. Talk shows cover the latest fad diets. Info-commercials go on endlessly about the relative merits of their respective programs. Weight Watchers uses a support group approach with a controlled recommended diet. Everyone has a solution for our obesity, except the hungry guy in the mirror. His idea; more pizza of course.

So amidst all the fray, what does our God have to say on the subject of food, anything? Actually yes, He has quite a lot to say, but let’s begin with His original intentions for our diets. Get ready and hold on to your seats, you’re gonna love this one. Energy. Yup, that is pretty much the summation of God’s original factory made dietary plan. Energy. Not the kind of energy you commonly think about, such as the nourishment that may help you jog longer, or actually get up off the sofa. No, I am talking about converting whatever it is that you eat completely into the minerals, vitamins, electricity, and chemicals your body needs for survival on an infinite time scale with zero waste, and zero by-products. You see, another nasty truth about evil, is the curse to our bodies requiring a waste disposal system. It was not required in our original design, but had to be activated with our introduction to evil. No longer could our bodies be allowed to convert food into pure energy allowing us to live forever, as then evil would live with us forever, and we would know no end to our depravity. Thus food went from pure energy to only a subset of what we need, with plenty of waste that needs to be processed.

With the introduction of evil, came lust, greed, sloth, and depravity. All of these characteristics influenced our dietary habits. Taste became the paramount objective in fulfilling our dietary desires, and health concerns became a long-gone after thought. Decadence in diet was born. Exotic things and rare things became the highly prized and highly desired things. Oysters for example, no one can imagine eating one, until someone does, and now everyone considers them an aphrodisiac. I guess there has to be some reward for eating what looks to me like raw buggers from a child’s nose. The more unusual the food, the more our taste buds were conditioned to think it was “good”. And today, there is no lack of variety in our meat selections, no restrictions in how we prepare our foods, and no limits to the heart attack rates, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes we develop as a result of our choices, and service to our taste buds.

Ever watch someone smoke for the first time. The predictable impulse to cough, is our body trying to defend itself from what it knows will kill us. But with persistence, we can overcome our body’s natural defense mechanisms until lung cancer terminates the process. The same effect happens when someone drinks alcoholic beverages for the first time. The natural inclination for our taste buds is to poo-poo the idea of drinking. But given enough persistence and connoisseurs can tell which red wine deserves to be in the $500 bottle and which one should be served in a box. In short, what we like, is what we condition ourselves to like. And most of the time, like in every other aspect of our lives when not submitted to the will of Christ, what we like is what will inevitably destroy us.

As with every other aspect of evil, the master deceiver paints our addiction to what would destroy us as the last remaining element of “fun” in our lives. To have to give up something we like to eat or drink, becomes tantamount to losing a foot. And so we cling to our dietary desires, fulfilling them with regularity, and suffering the inevitable consequences all the while asking why me, and how could God let this happen. As if God was silent on the matter. No such luck, or perhaps better worded, no such absence of loving guidance. God did not abandon us to our embrace of evil in our dietary world. Instead He setup for us His original modified diet. The first proposal was fruits, grains, and nuts. This is sometimes referred to as the Eden diet plan. It is said the tribe that lives high in the Andes mountains of south America still eats only these foods, and has an average life expectancy of 110. Of course, they have less pollution and a more active lifestyle as well.

Fearing that His simple plan would not be enough to satisfy the cravings our diets would impose, God amended His original simple plan to include vegetables and herbs. This second plan is more commonly known as vegetarianism, or a vegan diet (if you exclude animal by-products such as eggs, milk, and cheese entirely). The inclusion of the second set of ingredients to our diet offers us massive variety in what we can find to eat. But alas, evil was not satisfied with allowing us health, and so suggested that we needed to augment our bodies with the nourishment found in other life forms than plants – namely in animals, or living creatures. And so “meat” was introduced into the human diet. It was not God’s intent that any of His creations should have to die to supply man with food, but He reluctantly allowed the practice to occur with some additional guidelines.

Cannibalism is strictly forbidden, as is impersonating a vampire by trying to drink blood or eat raw fat. Animals were divided into two categories, the clean (of which we could eat) and the unclean (which we were to be forbidden to eat). Most farm animals (short pigs) fell into the clean category. Most exotic animals fell into the unclean. Fish were similarly divided, even insects segregated should anyone get that desperate. The preparation of meat was to remove as much blood and fat as possible, leaving what would be healthiest for us to consume. Jews and Muslims still adhere to these dietary ideals to this day as a matter of religious practice, though Christians have differing ideas on the topic. These distinctions predate Moses, as they were likely told by mouth to Adam and father to son for his descendants. At the flood, the distinction was evident again by how God moved the animals into the ark. Seven of the clean, only two of the unclean went with Noah during the flood. Those who believe this to be advice only for Moses, miss the larger lesson here.

So then, if we are trying to live a healthier lifestyle, and wish not to let our taste buds determine our destiny, there are some God given guidelines we could choose to observe. First, eat way more fruits, grains, and nuts. Second, augment our diet plans with a variety of vegetables. Third, eat clean animal by-products if we feel we must. Fourth, consume meat if there is no other way to obtain our dietary requirements than this source, but keeping only to clean meats, prepared with an effort to minimize blood and fat content. By following these proscribed dietary plans, we would inevitably reduce our health risks, and increase our quality of life. That is not what I call a sacrifice, it is what I call a blessing.

But what about our taste buds, do we have to eat food that tastes like dirt in order to be healthy? No. But remember that we condition our taste buds to like what we want them to like. They rarely act independently from our mental ambitions. As it happens, pizza is a vegetarian dish. It does contain animal byproducts in the cheese (oh how I love mozzarella), but then has tomatoes in the sauce, and I love to put mushrooms and onions as toppings. I spice up the pie with herbs like fresh ground black pepper, garlic, basil, oregano, cayenne pepper, and sometimes I even add sesame seeds for flavor. The crust is bread which comes from grains. So you would think I was eating right off of heaven’s menu. Being a pizza connoisseur I can tell you where the best places are in the country from all my travels. “Cove Pizza” in Stamford CT remains a favorite, “Mellow Mushroom” in northeast Atlanta, “Brother’s Pizza” in west Houston, “Pizzeria Tra Vigne” in Napa CA, and “Papa Anthony’s” in Orlando to name a few. Yet despite being on the “approved” list, this food still does damage to me personally.

While God wishes for us to enjoy our food, He also encourages temperance and balance in how we live including in our diets so that we can fully enjoy our lives. I can in fact, eat pizza, as long as I do not eat it every day. I could choose to eat things on the “non-recommended” list if I chose, but I see no benefit in that. If there is a reason why God segregated food in the first place, then perhaps I should trust His priorities and wisdom on the matter, after all it was He who wrote the owner’s manual so to speak. This is the core of the issue where it comes to dietary practices, do we trust God that all of His advice is for our benefit or not? If we do trust Him, then there should be no expiration date on what He recommends for our health and welfare. We can look forward and realize there will be no “meat” in heaven, so it may not be a good idea to become too dependent on it as a food source, if other choices are available. After all, God only allowed meat in our diets reluctantly, and with a fair degree of restrictions.

But then to know God, is to love God. God did not create our taste buds in order for us to suffer at the loss of excellent tasting food. In fact, quite the opposite. High quality food, tends to take time in the preparation and tends to taste wonderful. The kicker is, it is usually good for us as well. Fresh fruit, organically grown, with natural pesticides, and out of the way of pollution is some of the best fruit one can consume. Marion Berries (a large cousin of the blackberry) grows along the freeways of Portland Oregon and has a taste I have yet to match. But then, I imagine that in heaven the taste of Marion Berry’s will be infinitely better than here on earth as heaven will not suffer the effects of our sin. Everything in heaven will taste so MUCH better than what we can even imagine. Our taste buds are not a result of sin, they have just suffered from it. We will eat in heaven, and the food will not be open for comparison with anything this world has to offer.

I intend to make my own pizza in heaven. I will build a brick oven to cook it in. I will plant the grains to grow the wheat for the crust. I will milk the cows, and create the cheese (hope some bacteria survives). I will plant the mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and herbs I require. I may even open a Pizzeria for free once I get the process down right. I expect my love affair with pizza will find no equal in a place where perfection is the norm. My obesity will no longer be a side effect, and I imagine I will eat only what I need. And best of all, no more dairy intolerance, no more waste disposal, only pure Energy as God originally intended. Until that day, I take my taste buds to the foot of the cross, and ask for Christ to intervene yet again in my life. I ask Him to affect my appetite and my desires for food, to conform to the things He would like me personally to consume. My diet may be different from yours as my health issues are different than yours. But this is the beauty of submission to Christ, He takes that kind of personal interest in us, so as to perfect what we alone require to eat to stay healthy, and not give up an ounce of what we “like” as what we “like” conforms to His will and what we actually need. This is a diet plan I can live with.

Friday, July 23, 2010

God and Money ...

Organized religion is good at one thing – taking your donations. It does not matter which denomination, which belief system, or even which god is being advertised; open yourself a 501-C3 non-profit and you are off and running. Televangelists seem to be known first and foremost for the lavish presentations and pension for offering collection before any other characteristics. One such minister actually claimed God would kill him if he failed to raise one million dollars for his church. He lived. Since Christ has returned to heaven, why would He ask us to give our money to “His” work, could He not provide the funds Himself? Why does God seem to want our money, or does He?

The Bible states … “the cattle on a thousand hills are Mine” - loosely interpreted this passage shows that God considers Himself the rightful creator and owner of this world’s natural resources, beauty, and wealth. So why would He institute systemic giving of our wealth to His ministries or causes? The practice of tithing is first recorded by Abraham who gave ten percent of his increase to a priest of the Lord named Melchizedek. The minor prophet Malachi seems to reaffirm the practice much later in his days not long before the Messiah arrived. When Christ did arrive, it was common practice for the Pharisees and Sadducees to give even more than ten percent of their income towards tithing. They saw this as a business investment counting on God to return their monies with interest accrued, and they were not generally disappointed – despite their motives.

One could argue that since the tribe of Levi was faithful to God during the Mount Sinai incident, He sanctified this tribe as His priesthood. They would get no inheritance in the land of promise, but instead would receive 10 percent of the increase of all the other eleven tribes as their income. 110% if the math holds. But Levitical rights ceased at Calvary, and since then members of the Church have been the messengers of the gospel. Christ never really setup an organized church leadership, as He reserved this role for Himself. Christ said … “I am the shepherd, and you are my sheep.” Despite Catholic claims to the contrary Christ never set any one apostle above another, nor did the early Christian churches act as if He had. Differences and disputes were resolved in councils, sometimes agreeing to disagree. Religious hierarchies then are a creation of man, developed to organize great numbers of believers and increase the efficiency of our missions, but creations of man none the less.

When Israel left Egypt, they took with them the wealth of Egypt as payment for their slavery. Jewelry, golden statues, and other precious stones went with them into the desert and were maintained by the families there. When God gave directions to Moses on how to build a temporary sanctuary, Moses went to the people to ask for donations. The response was overwhelming. People brought so much gold, linen, and stones, that Moses had to ask the people to stop. When was the last time you saw a congregation give this much? And when was the last time you heard any preacher as you to stop giving, that it is more than enough - two things almost never seen in the modern Christian era. One might argue that this was easy for the Israelites to give up, since the items did not really belong to them anyway. They were ill-gotten profits for back pay. But this would not diminish the willingness of the Israelites who went most of their lives in poverty, to shed the little gold they had in service for the sanctuary of God.

And many generations later, David set about to do the same thing. His plans were more ambitious, and would require more of the people’s wealth. And true to form, the Israelites came through again. So much so, that David, like Moses, had to ask the people to cease giving. It was more than enough. Solomon who actually oversaw the construction of the Temple of God did such excellent work that this building became famous around the world. The Queen of Sheba came to visit it. The King Nebuchadnezzar came to raid it a bit, and then came back to destroy it after yet another unsanctioned rebellion by the Jews. But my question remains, why was Israel so willing to part with the golden wealth they had come by in service to God?

At the birth of Christ, Kings gave valuable treasure to His parents. It was this treasure that allowed Joseph and Mary to flee and live in Egypt while Herod sought to kill Jesus. Kings thought it a good idea to bring the best of what they had to offer, to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Later the early Christian church was organized around a communal philosophy that everyone gave everything into a central pot for distribution to those who had need. This was 100% giving of everything, not the 10% tithing we are familiar with today. And early Christians, like the Israelites who preceded them, willingly gave all they had.

Perhaps the secret to the willingness to part with this world’s wealth is found in proximity to Jesus. The closer one grows to Christ, the less gold holds any value at all other than what it can accomplish as a gift. It would appear the opposite is also true, those who are reluctant to give of themselves, tend to be far less Christ oriented than those who do. But perhaps the greatest secret of all was the one God knew, the real treasure of this world is not in its resources but in its people. His children are His greatest treasure, He values them above all else. Not just above all else in this world, but above all else in the entire Universe. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son ...” Immortal words of promise that define the meaning of love to the Universe. God gave it all. More than enough. Everything of greatest value was given to save His erring, obstinate children. There could have been no higher price to pay for our redemption than the one God our Father gave on our behalf. Gold He uses as cement, but your life was worth the torture and death of His only son to redeem you from evil.

So if people are what God values, then why does He continue to ask for our money, which He is not so crazy about? It has to do with building faith and trust. It makes no sense to give money to God, it is not logical, it is financially irresponsible, it probably does not even get used in the way He would really want it to. There are many reasons NOT to give. There is only one TO give; because He asked us to. Despite the lack of logic, despite the unwise usage of our precious funds, despite the suffering our families put at risk in order to give – we are asked to do just that – give Him back 10% of our increase, and then free will offerings over and above that. No emissary from God has yet emerged with a message saying we have given enough. We have simply not been released from this request. So why you ask?

The first reason is that every time you give, God gives back to you so that your needs are met. You do not go hungry. You do not go without housing, clothing, and the things you need. You may believe that giving God His due will cause you to lose all these things, but His blessings prevent it from happening. Over time as you are continually tested with the facts of financial discipline, and then confronted with the miracles of God’s methods – you build faith. You begin to see that God is faithful to every promise He makes us. He does indeed take care of us. He is indeed, the one responsible for if we eat or not. We begin to learn that He is in control, despite what logic may say and despite what accountants may recommend. God cares for us, His children. Now He does not do this BECAUSE we give. But we are able to see it demonstrated BECAUSE we give. We appreciate a bit more the fact we are eating when we know that we should not be, because we should be out of money by now. We appreciate a bit more knowing that God intervenes with us, because we put it to the financial test of His intervention. Demonstration makes faith a reality, not just a concept.

The second reason we are asked to give, is the change that occurs within us when we do. We begin to share God’s secret that the only real wealth in this world, are its people. Giving a dollar to a homeless man despite how he may use it, teaches you charity without judgment. Before long, you begin to realize the pain of the homeless man more acutely and begin to want to do more for him. That is the awakening of Christ within you. It is not natural to sacrifice your own wants, needs, and security to meet the needs of others; especially when they do not seem “deserving” of your help. Yet this is precisely what our Savior does for each of us, and we are ALL undeserving. Giving to meet needs can become an all-consuming passion, and at the same time be the most rewarding fulfilling experience of your life. This change can ONLY occur when you actually follow through and participate in systemic giving.

All the rationalizations, all the excuses, all the valid reasons in the world NOT to give, do nothing but perpetuate your own selfishness. Giving breaks the hold. Giving resets the attitude. Giving is the beginning of a new consciousness the world will not understand. Sometimes, our self-motivation and instincts for self-preservation are so highly developed we are not now willing to give. If this is our lot, we must take our stubbornness to Calvary and ask God to melt our hearts so that we can give. He will answer this prayer. Sometimes our instincts are only to give as a business investment, sure in the knowledge that we cannot out give God. If this is our lot, we must take our greed to Calvary, and let Christ replace our thirst for gain, with a thirst for serving others. Christ is able to give us the proper mindset to see the wisdom of giving. Are we then willing to ask for it?

Remember the next time you write out a tithe check, or give a poor person something of yourself – it is the changes in you that are the first priority of God in what you do. Your benevolence then goes to a place where it is needed, and God watches over how your money is spent and used. This is of less concern to us, as we are not asked to watch how the money is spent, just to give freely. It is in this giving that we become a new person. It is in this giving that the world becomes changed as well. Giving is intended to free us from the bonds of our selfishness. It is the only reason why God still asks us to give him of our money. Giving; is His gift to change us for the better.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Is God a Dictator ...

Since the beginning of the conflict between good and evil, Satan has alleged that God is a dictator. Satan told anyone that would listen that God has His ways, and any other competing ideas are met with death. In effect, Satan alleges that it is God’s way or Non-existence – therefore He cannot be a loving God as He does not tolerate dissent. Atheists are quick to jump on this bandwagon posing the simple question – why do I have to love and worship God or find myself going to hell, is there no third alternative? Christians have often cited the Old Testament as examples of God’s justice and judgment against evil, coincidentally branding all those who refuse to accept Christian ideology as “evil” by default. The result of this conglomeration is a perception that God is a dictator, even if a benevolent one, and must be feared even if He cannot be loved. But is this correct?

Some Christians attempt to divide the Bible into the Old Testament (which becomes referred to as the old covenant), and the New Testament (which becomes the new covenant). Into these two stereo-types they label the old covenant as based on following the law. The new covenant is based on grace alone, as now we are freed from the law. But no-one ever stops to consider what “freed” from the law might actually mean. Since most Christians do not want to destroy morality all together they decide that only the Mosaic laws are no longer applicable – therefore feasting, offerings, dietary laws, etc.. must be the things that disappeared with the crucifixion of Christ. It is those laws we are freed from. What to do about keeping the Sabbath; depends on the Christian you talk to.

Atheists point to the level of blood in the Old Testament and assume that since God cannot change, this is His true nature. The loving Christ of the New Testament is ignored in favor of the blood and guts described in the Old Testament. And when faced with this argument Christians grow strangely silent; or perhaps worse, they interpret the blood shed as justification to implement their own ideas forcibly on our neighbors. There certainly is quite a bit of blood shed laid at the feet of God in the Old Testament. A quick review produces the following … the Flood (as many as 4 billion die), Sodom & Gomorrah (entire cities destroyed), the Plagues of Egypt (untold thousands dead), The Red Sea collapse (entire Egyptian army remaining dies), Earthquakes in camp Israel (those who speak against Moses slaughtered), the Assyrian army (180,000 men die), and Nineveh (entire city wiped out). And these are only the incidents where God personally and miraculously intervened with men dying. There are many other incidents where man was the instrument of God’s directions most of which center around the taking of the Promised Land.

These deaths are facts. And God is directly responsible for them. Is our God then a mass murderer? In order to address these issues one must begin at the beginning. Evil is something that has consistently been demonstrated to self-destruct over time. Therefore as God is infinite we can deduce there is NO evil in Him, anywhere. It is not that He is incapable of evil, as evil is a mere choice. It is that He would never choose to participate in evil as evil hold nothing of value to Him. Everything that is good is God. God is love, life, joy, fulfillment, happiness, etc.. Everything you understand to be desired or good, is what God is like. Therefore to deviate away from God and his plans, government, ideals, and kingdom – is to embrace the alternatives to love, life, and joy. Deviating away from the source of life leads to death. Deviating away from the source of love leads to hate. Deviating away from the source of joy leads to pain. These are simple cause and effect based facts. There is no moral judgment implied in any of them, they just are.

So it was with Lucifer who became Satan. It was not God’s fault that Lucifer chose against Him. Lucifer was created, just like all sentient beings, with the ability to choose to love or not, to trust or not, to obey or not. Lucifer deviated away from God’s perfect plan of serving others, and began exploring what serving self would be like. I am certain God warned him of what would result. But Lucifer continued in stubborn pride imagining that God may not know “everything”. Lucifer thought that different is not necessarily “bad.” But he was wrong. Different from God is bad, by default. This was an unfortunate fact Lucifer could not escape from. Nor did he wish to. Instead he tried to take as many creations with him in his destiny of self-destruction as he could. One third of the angels listened to his idea that different is “better”. And Adam and Eve broke trust with God, and listened to his now refined lies. And so evil entered our world, and our consciousness.

Ironically, Satan’s mere existence PROVES that God is not as arbitrary as he alleged. No, rather God tolerated the existence of evil until all sentient beings had enough time to make the choice to continue trusting in Him, or embracing Satan’s alternatives. No-one knew at first just how bad evil could get until Calvary showed the entire universe, that if allowed, evil would kill the creator Himself. It is only man that remains largely undecided. Once enough time has been allotted, evil itself will meet its destruction in the fires of hell. Evil and death will be forever consumed by those flames, and then the earth will be made new once again, once the flames are no more. Those who remain alive then will know for certainty that God can and should be trusted, and that deviating away from Him is never a good idea. In short, there is no alternatives to good that are worth exploring – this is the lesson of Lucifer.

Satan continues to sell his lie to mankind. He tells Atheists that there is a third alternative where they are in control of their own lives and decisions. He tells men that he does not exist, nor does God, only them – evolved after millions of years. And men eager to gain control over their own fates, believe his lie. They embrace blindly the concept that deviating from good can somehow wind up with a positive result, when in fact it simply cannot. Evil is tolerated by God as an example of His patience, and how firmly He is committed to the concept of free-will. God allows mankind a certain amount of freedom to explore the limits of his wickedness. But at times, enough becomes enough, and as a forecast of the ultimate disposition of all evil in general – a specific example of evil is terminated from the world. The Flood was perhaps the biggest example of this.

One day evil will meet its fate, that is not a threat, but a promise. One day evil will exist no more anywhere, and remain gone by choice. But the entire point of the Bible was not to condemn us with what we deserved. It was to redeem us unto what only He truly deserves. Those who divide the Old Testament from the New Testament under the idea that violence only occurred in the former make a mistake. First take a close look at each example I sited as to God personally invoking destruction in our world. In each instance, BEFORE any destruction occurred, the first priority was the REDEMPTION of mankind. Noah was identified long before the flood occurred, not because he was special, but because he was the last follower of God. God waited 120 years from His initial decision to destroy the world in order to give it time to repent and be saved. But the world would not hear of it. They continued to distrust the word of God through Noah, and so met the fate of all evil.

Before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, Christ himself came to see the city in person. He negotiated with Abraham to spare the city if only 10 righteous people could be found in it. And when only Lot and his family were found, they were saved BEFORE the city was destroyed. Even for the sake of Lot, for just one, God enacted a plan to save him from the destruction that would befall his neighbors – the same way He did for Noah. Lot’s wife and daughters were spared initially despite their apparent “lack of character”, another testament to the love of God for us. Egypt was warned repeatedly before the plagues. The Israelites had constant miraculous signs and the physical presence of God in the camp despite their choice to engage in wickedness. King Sennacherib of the Assyrians knew better than to attack Israel and had been warned. Jonah was sent to Nineveh and it was spared initially due to its repentance. In each account, REDEMPTION was sought FIRST. Only after being saved was no longer an option, came the inevitable destruction of evil – so it will be one more time.

Those who segregate the New Testament from the Old Testament based on violence, also forget the lessons of Ananias and Sapphira. In this case as in earlier times, both were given opportunities to repent of their evil before destruction ensued. God has not changed. He is the same in Old and New, He is completely focused on our redemption from evil. But He gives us the choice of this redemption or not. If we refuse it, we will suffer the fate of all evil, and be consumed with evil ourselves. It will not be because He did not warn us, love us, lure us, and invest great effort in our salvation – it will be because we simply kept on saying NO. This may sound like a hard truth, but it is a truth nonetheless. It does not mean God is a dictator, but rather means He will not suffer evil eternally, and will not allow evil to take all life with it, when it goes.

So then comes the question of obedience - Must we obey or die? Yes; but not because of the threat of the impending doom of evil, but because most of the natural consequences of evil itself are but pain and death. I can choose for example to obey the law and drive within the speed limits set by our government. Or I can choose to drive at twice the legal limit on the same roads. No-one can force me to do either, it is my choice to obey or drive as I choose. But when I drive 110mph in a 55mph zone and miss my left turn, rolling my vehicle into a nearby oak tree, making a pretzel out of my car and me in it – does this make it the governments fault for setting a speed limit in the first place? Or is it my fault for choosing to disobey and put myself at risk? Evil is consistently and inevitable linked with pain and death. They are one, as God is one. You cannot separate them from each other. Sometimes the pain of evil is delayed and when it is, it is usually far worse than immediate consequences. But delayed or not, they are sure to come.

There is another reason to obey besides just avoiding the natural consequences of embracing evil; it is because our God is one of infinite love, consumed with our redemption from evil. God wished only to spare us the pain and death associated with evil. He wants our happiness and hates anything that would harm us. As such, His council to us, ALL of His council to us, is designed to preserve us from evil and put us in a position to enjoy His happiness. God does not arbitrarily restrict us from things we would enjoy, but He does keep us away from things that may appear pleasing, but underneath would gladly see us hurt or killed. God is our shelter, and our protector. But He is less so, when we view His council as something we are to be made free from. We are not “freed” from good advice, and commandments, we are “freed” from the slavery of man to serve evil and himself. We are “freed” TO obey, not “freed” in order to run amuck in evil and pain.

The redemption of man from evil is the uniting principle of the God of BOTH the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is a love letter to man, and a warning cautionary certainty to evil and those that embrace it. The Bible speaks of Satan’s sure destruction as much as it does the certainty of our redemption should we choose to believe in the Savior sent to save us. The Bible judges evil and wickedness, yet does not condemn man, but rather extends to him hope no matter what level of depravity he may have sunken to. Christ is powerful enough to save anyone, anywhere, anytime. He did not design the plan of Salvation so that you could go on living a life of pain and dread, and on your death bed finally renounce the source of all your pain that plagued you every day of your life. Rather He enacted a plan to save you from evil right here and right now, so that every day of your life would be one without the pain of evil and sin. He can change you and free you from your slavery. He is the only Savior God who can.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Prophetic Interpretations ...

The Bible is full of prophesies and contains the keys to interpreting them. This communication from God regarding what was coming was given for more than just its “news” value. It was given to provide evidence that God was the true author behind all the scriptures. The several hundred prophesies regarding the Messiah for instance were used to determine the real one (Jesus Christ) from all the counterfeits who claimed this role in and around the time of Christ. Only Jesus fit and fulfilled every single prophecy written about Him from the Biblical authors who preceded Him. But what about the New Testament prophecies, are there any left that we should be paying attention to? What is the value of prophecy to us?

Information is power. There are those wall-street tycoons who can make you a fortune if you can accurately predict a future event – even if that event is a disaster in nature. People are constantly looking into the future to try to make proper decisions in the present. Yes, we use history as a guideline, but our entire economy is based on a series of leading economic indicators that are closely studied to determine which direction we are heading. But I would argue that economics is more art than science in that no matter how well we think we have it defined, we find ourselves only certain about the past, rarely the present, and almost never the future. The economy is a balancing act, where almost any unknown factor can present itself, and wreck the whole picture.

So the better question to ask about prophecy is why it is given. Man is not designed to have control. It is the most fundamental truth about our Salvation that we need a savior to save us. We are incapable of doing it ourselves. So when prophecy is given it cannot be designed with the idea that man could use it to control events. Many well-meaning Christians look at end-time prophecies regarding Israel and believe our U.S. foreign policy should be designed around these ideas. As if God somehow needed our help in order for a prophecy to be fulfilled – No, but thank you for playing. God does not need our “help”. Most of the time our “help” does little to actually help anything; it more often gets in the way - another truth about the value of human wisdom. So then prophecy is not shared with us, in order for us to help see it get fulfilled, but perhaps to recognize it when it does.

Prophecy is also not a key component of our salvation. We are saved through grace, regardless of what the future brings us. We are saved by grace, regardless of our numbers. The prophecy of the 144,000 of end-time events for instance seems to show a special significance to this many of God’s servants as time draws to a close. However, we would not adjust our entire thinking about salvation just because this numbered group may have a purpose beyond just general salvation. We remain saved by grace. The 144,000 may be miracle workers, a group of pastors or perhaps effective witnesses for God, those that in some special way do His will. But this does not impact “how” we are saved. So then our ultimate disposition has already been decided, regardless of prophecy.

Prophecy may have more than one interpretation, or better stated, more than one reason for being shared as it is. Think about it. The book of Revelations is chock full of symbolism and metaphors. It relies on items we know like candlesticks, crowns, cities, and people – but also on things that are sheer fantasy imagery for us – beasts with differing parts combined into one, dragons, seas from which things emerge, and plagues on a global scale. All of this imagery is NOT required to pass us a fundamental message in clear distinct terms. It would have been just as easy for John the revelator to write that “in the future a new country with the name ‘the United States of America’ will emerge based on democratic principles, that will help the Lord’s church by offering a place where freedom of religion is practiced” than to write … “and the woman was given two great eagles wings … and the earth helped the woman … and the dragon went to make war with the remnant of her seed.” in Revelations chapter 12.

Perhaps this lack of clarity is designed to make us study the prophecies, but also to allow it to have more than one application, perhaps in more than one period of time. For instance, the end-time prophecies regarding the seven churches correspond to seven actual Christian church communities of the day in which John wrote, and could be also applied to time periods of the Christian church from Christ until now. This makes the prophecy relevant in the day of John, as well as relevant in the coming years. The imagery suits both purposes whereas too direct a message from John, might have centered our study only on the historical context of his writings rather than on the current applications.

Perhaps another reason for metaphors and symbolism is to allow for variations we encounter today. Keeping to the example of the seven last churches, even within a denomination of a particular Christian faith, we might find particular churches that seem to emulate Philadelphia for example, or Laodicea, or Thyatira. Or perhaps we may encounter a particular church that carries the best or worst of all these churches counseled by John. Opening our minds to the idea that more than one literal application is possible allows for us to personalize the messages perhaps more than we otherwise would. This too could be a reason why prophecy is shrouded in imagery rather than blanket statements of fact.

Perhaps another reason for imagery is to discuss matters that transcend our ideas of importance but not God’s. For instance, we view the world through the prism of our own lives. We think about things that directly impact us. What are we eating tonight for dinner? What are we going to have to get done tomorrow? Etc.. But God looks at our lives in the context of a great spiritual war that has been waging since before we were born, although hopefully may still conclude in our lifetimes. He may wish to bring to our minds this conflict that is the most important one from His point of view, and impacts us the most from His point of view, into our reality. The prophetic images may be designed to call our attention to ideas beyond our immediate survival, and to our spiritual condition and survival in that context.

It does us no good to have a prophecy we cannot understand, so even within all this imagery are the keys to unlocking its meaning(s). The symbol of a woman is most often interpreted as a church for instance. The timing of a day is most often interpreted as a year in God’s calendar. Beasts with certain traits reveal the character of the beast or attributes they represent – wings for speed, lions for strength, horns for power, etc.. The study of prophecy then is not for the faint of heart. It takes time and discipline to unlock the secrets contained in scripture. But despite the apparent deciphering mechanisms, people can agree about a set of prophecies, and still get it completely WRONG.

This kind of thing usually happens when we ignore a basic truth written in the Bible, in favor of a specific application of prophecy. For instance, Christ says about His second coming return to earth that … “ no man knows the day or the hour except the Father” found in Matthew 24:36. Not even the angels know exactly when our time is up. This is a very clear text, with a very clear meaning, that even a child can understand. Yet it did nothing to stop the Christian Millerite movement of the 1830’s and 1840’s from taking place on a global scale. William Miller along with a good number of fellow contemporary preachers from all around the world began preaching that in October 24th, 1844 that “the sanctuary would be cleansed”. They interpreted this to mean that the earth was the sanctuary and that cleansing it would result in the return of Jesus. Not a bad conclusion, but a wrong one.

The timelines they had constructed were actually accurate. It started with the command to restore and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and ended in October of 1844. This 2300 hundred day prophecy as it was called accurately predicted the coming of the Messiah within it. And so supported by the demonstrations of history that seemed to support the validity of this prophecy, preachers and believers the world over began planning their lives around it. The society of the 1840’s was largely based on farming and many devout followers of this new idea, decided not to plant seed that year. Why bother, Christ would come right in the middle of harvest anyway. People sold lands, gave up vices, told their neighbors what to expect. It was the first world-wide global Christian outreach, all based on an interpretation of prophecy that stood against the text in Matthew written as clear as day. And as we know, universal Christian consensus across denominations did not make this prophetic interpretation correct. They were all wrong.

The aftermath of this worldwide debacle left many who believed losing their faith completely. It is ironic they were likely fulfilling yet another prophecy about a book that was “sweet in the mouth, but bitter in the stomach”. But I cite this example as the current Christian community is not immune from repeating the same basic mistakes in its interpretations of prophecy. The Bible is very clear about the manner in which Christ returns. He will appear in like manner as he left, in full view of his followers in the clouds with angels. Revelations 1:7 says “and every eye shall see Him”. Thessalonians talks about a shout, a trumpet, and the dead rising from the graves to greet Him. This is a worldwide cataclysmic event that believers and non-believers alike are going to witness. Yet despite the preponderance of texts that describe a very visible, and loud second coming. Current thinking believes in the idea of a “secret rapture” where no-one sees Him coming or leaving again. It’s based on a possible interpretation of prophecy, but then it opens up more questions than it answers – how do people get converted after the Holy Spirit is gone from the earth, and the Antichrist is in charge? Why do people get a third chance to believe? Etc. I believe this is just another example where Christian consensus on prophetic interpretation is misguided.

But the value of prophecy may be less in the details and more in the thematic. The fact that Christ is returning to earth to gather His followers is more important than how He returns. The how may help us to recognize Him, but the fact that He returns is what we have all been waiting for. The surety we have that Christ will return has already been substantiated by the several hundred prophesies fulfilled at his first coming as the Messiah. This is not a mere guessing game, where we have to hope that some random prophecy of God will come true. Most already have. Prophecy then, should affirm our faith in God. It should remind us who is in charge of events beyond our comprehension, yet those in which we play a role. It should be studied to find deeper meanings and deeper truths, but always under the leadership of submission to Christ. Our humility can enable us to learn more. Our abandonment of preconceived ideas and notions can dispel traditional myths that develop over time.

Perhaps most importantly, should be our recognition that we need not obsess over end time prophecies. We do not live under threat of a returning angry God; rather we live under the hope and eager anticipation of the source of all love. We do not look forward to facing the flames for our deeds; but rather in humility to finally acknowledge the savior who removes the pain of sin from our daily lives. Plagues that fall are inconsequential. Anti-Christ’s that arise or fall or attempt world domination are inconsequential. Persecution itself is inconsequential. The only thing that matters is to find ourselves nestled in the love of our God. The only thing that matters is to know like little children, that even if Rome is burning, we will be protected from what takes place. Our lives do not center around what we find in front of us today. Our lives are meant for the infinite. Our purpose is meant for eternity. Nothing that comes is meant to scare us, but rather to reassure us that God is in charge and more powerful than the events that we see unfold.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Parables and Stories ...

When does an analogy end and reality begin? Grimm’s fairytales are designed to pass along a moral to each story for children to absorb. Of course the stories are based largely in fantasy and usually only a single point emerges. The Bible is also full of stories, some intended to be real such as Creation, or the flood of Noah’s time; and some intended to be parables like the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, or the King who forgives those who owe him. The New Testament clearly identifies when a parable or story or allegory is being told to make a point. But are the points always singular in nature or should we try to take more from the stories and the symbolism?

I sometimes wonder if we allow our perceptions about the character of God to be colored more by parables in the Bible, than by facts. For instance, the story of the King who forgives a man who owes him much money, and then the man turns around and is harsh with someone who owes him very little. This parable is designed to illustrate how many Christians miss the point of forgiveness and redemption. They eagerly accept mercy for themselves, yet withhold it from those in need. Once saved, the Christian begins looking down on those who are not so blessed, forgetting their own recent condition. The point of the parable was to illustrate that those who have been forgiven much, should be the most willing to forgive, instead of the least willing.

But this is not always the point well-meaning Christians walk away with. They examine the same story and determine that God will NOT forgive those who do NOT forgive others. In this way, they make our forgiveness “conditional” based on our subsequent behavior. This puts our ability to get a pardon back in our own hands again – we must earn it – based on how we treat others. They further reinforce this position using the phrase Christ spoke in the Lord’s prayer … “forgive us as we forgive our debtors.” This phrase too was designed to remind us of the gift of our forgiveness, the humility in which we are to receive it, and the mission to redeem those who continue in wrong doing through forgiveness. But instead the phrase and the story are used to create an atmosphere that forgiveness is based on our actions, not a gift given of God for our salvation.

This idea that salvation or forgiveness can be earned in any way denies the fundamental teachings of the entire message of the Bible. It reduces God’s unconditional love for us, by making it conditional. It says He really does not forgive, UNTIL He sees what we do with it. All of these ideas are perversions of scripture by the evil one. And all share a common theme, they tear down the character of God, making Him arbitrary and not nearly the definition of love that Truth would have us believe. But when someone uses a parable incorrectly, they can easily bring ideas into the story that were not intended by its author to make points that are not based in intentions of the author.

When being led by the Holy Spirit, these kinds of mistakes are all but non-existent. But ironically, those who misinterpret the story of forgiveness are the very ones for whom it was intended. Those with a personal experience with the Lord, those who have experienced the deep forgiveness of the Lord and therefore know His love firsthand, get the point. Those who know about God, and about forgiveness, but have never really taken it to heart – seem to miss the point. The least point of the story one could make centers around the punishment for our evil behavior. As God knows our evil is already our punishment. Forgiveness then is a tangible example of redeeming grace. Forgiveness is not something we deserve, but something we are given freely by our loving King. Forgiveness even though we may owe our lives as collateral for our debt is the point. We are all doomed to die, but forgiveness is designed to relieve our ultimate punishment. This is the point of the Bible and the story of the King.

Other stories are used in an incorrect way to color our perceptions of God’s character. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus found in Luke 16 starting in verse 19 comes to mind. The rich man who lived a life of opulence and indulgence while here on earth dies and finds himself in hell. By contrast, Lazarus who lives a life of relative poverty and sickness dies and finds himself in heaven. The rich man pleads for relief, but is given none. Then the rich man pleads for his family that is still alive on earth, and the answer that comes is that the truth has already been revealed and it is enough for those who choose to believe. If they will not believe Moses and the Prophets they will not believe one who rose from the dead.

The central point of this story was about faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah of God, according to all the writings of Moses and the Prophets. There are in fact several hundred prophesies about the Messiah that Jesus Christ filled in every detail. Yet the stubborn religious leadership of the day, rather than give up power to the true spiritual leader, determined not to believe in Jesus. They held to their beliefs, even though Christ had actually raised Lazarus (brother of Mary and Martha) from the dead. This resurrection was conclusive proof of His divinity, that even the priests could not deny. So rather than accept Him, they determined to kill Him.

Christ, in trying to reach the Pharisees, Sadducees, and priests was reminding them of the testimony of all their scriptures to date, and the actual resurrection of one Lazarus He had performed. The leadership was richly blessed with education, the scrolls, and easy access to the word of God. The poor had no such easy access. Yet the poor found in Christ, the redeemer He was. He was extending redemption to the leaders yet another time. He was reminding them that refusal to accept Him as their Messiah would leave them to the hell of separation from God. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is another attempt to reach a stubborn crowd of religious leaders who thought they knew better than Christ, the mind and intentions of God His Father.

But modern Christians lose this point completely. Like with the story of forgiveness, they focus on the idea of eternal punishment instead of redemption. They conclude that there is a hell of torturing flames that exists for people after they die. All of this without examining why the rich man went to hell in the first place. Which deducting from the story alone was because he was rich. And the poor man went to heaven because he was poor. Neither makes sense with what we know of Salvation. We are not saved by our poverty, or doomed by our affluence. We are saved by grace which is enough to cover the rich and the poor. So determining judgment and punishment could NOT have been the point of the story. Yet we assume it to be so.

In addition, the concept of an eternally burning hell, does not reconcile with the character of a just and loving God. But it did fit well with the Pharisees idea of God’s character. The religious leadership did not follow or preach about a God of infinite love. Rather they followed God in fear, developing lists of things that God would approve and disapprove of. They were devout legalists. They believed that the law was sacred and could save them from evil if they followed it exactly. They understood nothing of forgiveness or repentance and were mystified by the preaching of John the Baptist. Corruption had taken hold of their hearts and much evil was done in the temple of God that profited them personally. They presented themselves as publically holy, and when inwardly they were completely evil. The Pharisees believed firmly in punishment, even the eternal kind, as they could not comprehend grace. So this analogy designed for their redemption would be effective for them.

Yet modern Christians cling to the idea of eternally burning flames, rather than a punishment with eternal consequences. Those who embrace evil and refuse to accept grace, will like the priests who rejected Christ in His day, will find themselves in the lake of fire talked about in Revelations. However, after the appointed amount of punishment, evil will finally be consumed forever. Burnt up, not still burning. And then the world will be made new once again as also prophesied in Revelations. Evil eternally extinguished, and love eternally established. This is the reality of our God. But Christians hold to an idea of eternal flames over eternal sleep, and in so doing make God once again arbitrary and unjust. For at some point even the most evil of us, will have paid in punishment for our crimes. To continue to burn us beyond that point is not an act of love, but one of cruelty that cannot be denied. This false idea taken from a parable destroys the character of God, rather than proves His attempts at redemption of a stubborn few once again.

When we look at scripture to prove our guilt and determine our punishment, we look for the wrong things. Our guilt is easy to establish. What we deserve is easy to determine. The reason why we have a Bible is due to a loving God that is looking to redeem His fallen creation. The point of scripture is not to condemn us, but to offer us hope in Christ, salvation from our evil, and heaven in our future. When we remember that our God is one of infinite love, we can begin to interpret parables as they were intended. We must not let our perceptions of God be colored by ideas that denigrate his love, grace, and efforts to redeem us. Redemption is the goal of our entire communications with our God. Let us look at all the symbolism, analogies, parables, and texts in the light of this truth.