Oh, The Things We May Do

I like to sing.  This is a good thing, I suppose, since I have been serving as the song leader for a small congregation for several years.  I am not a great singer by any means, but I have at least a modicum of ability, passed down from my father, who appears to have received that gift from his mother.

Singing is both a joy and a point of contention among members of my faith heritage, the branch of the Stone-Campbell Movement known as the churches of Christ.  Of course, that would be the a cappella branch, of the churches of Christ, to distinguish us from the instrumental group, and more specifically, the non-institutional a cappella churches of Christ, to distinguish us from the majority who accept the concept of congregational cooperation and supporting various institutions from church funds.  My particular segment can be further delineated by its acceptance of multiple cups in the Lord’s Supper, the use of non-fermented juice, the acceptance of Sunday school/Bible classes, the rejection of kitchens, the rejection of required head coverings for women, the acceptance of located and paid preachers…if the truth be known, a dichotomous key of the churches of Christ could probably be written that identifies members down to the very pew on which they sit in the assembly.  I am not here to debate these issues, but merely to reflect on the irony of being a part of a church that had its recent historical roots in a movement to “…unite the Christians in all the sects” now being required to define itself with multiple descriptors detailing its pedigree and specific marks of distinction.  There are numerous other denominations with similar fracture patterns, but none to my knowledge so finely focused as the churches of Christ.

There are two things that a person says when he or she discovers my religious affiliation: “You people don’t have music in church,” and “You think you’re the only people going to Heaven.”  I consider both of those to be erroneous impressions.  We do have music, and depending on the size of the congregation and the skills of the singers, a cappella worship can be some of the most beautiful and moving experiences one can have this side of Heaven.  As for the latter assertion, well, some do earnestly believe that.  But not all members in all of the various wings of the churches of Christ hold such a narrow view, and prefer to reserve such decisions for the Almighty.

Another irony that I have reflected on is how the non-institutional acappella churches of Christ have essentially been isolationist in practice, even down to having nothing to do with other wings of the same heritage, and yet perhaps out of necessity, we have adopted and embraced “denominational” writings in the form of the hymns we sing.  For example, we sing Catholic/Lutheran Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress,” and Anglican/Methodist Charles Wesley’s “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.”  The old standard, “In the Garden” was composed by Methodist Charles Austin Miles.  The very fact that we accept these songs makes a powerful statement that some among my faith heritage may likely heartily dispute: the churches of Christ do not have a corner on all truth.  I say this because I have heard some of our people paint preachers and members of various denominations as maliciously conspiring to contort truth to their own nefarious ends.  I do not believe this to be the case.

Even more interesting is that while we reject the direct, vocal involvement of women leading any segment of public worship, we accept and embrace the same “voices” in our selection of some of the most favorite and often used hymns.  Fanny Crosby, who probably wrote more of the traditional hymns in church of Christ song books than anyone else, described herself as a “Primitive Presbyterian,” with Puritan/Congregationalist roots, and was influenced by the Wesleyan holiness movement.  She is most closely associated with the American Methodist Episcopal Church.

Another beautiful hymn written by a woman and sung frequently in our services is (Presbyterian) Lizzie Dearmond’s, “Oh The Things We May Do.”  Carefully read the words of the hymn.

Oh, The Things We May Do

(Lyrics by Lizzie Dearmond, Music by J.M. Hagan)

Have you lifted a stone

from your brother’s way,

As he struggled along life’s road?

Have you lovingly touched

some frail, toil worn hand.

Shared with someone his heavy load?

(Chorus)

Oh, the things we may do,

you and I, you and I;

Oh the love we can give if we try;

Just a word or a song as we’re passing along,

They will count in the great by and by.

Have you spoken a word

full of hope and cheer?

Have you walked with a slower pace?

‘Till the weary of heart

who were stumbling on,

Took new courage to run the race?

(Chorus)

Have you held up your light

through the shadows dark,

So that somebody else might see?

Have you lived with the

Christ thru the long, long day,

Gaining many a victory?

(Chorus)

The theme of loving your neighbor, caring for the needy, helping the weak—these are all repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments.  The Prophets repeated their calls to the erring people of Israel over and over “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8).  This song encapsulates that theme, which is not narrowly a “church of Christ theme,” but a “Christ theme.”  In Matthew 25, as Jesus is discussing the final Judgment with his disciples, the criteria he focuses on for being counted among the sheep are not doctrinal, but practical.  The irony of that situation was that those who have selflessly served their fellow man have served Christ as he expects all to do, yet these are the people who least recognize it.  Why?  Perhaps it is because they are focused on just doing good because it’s the right thing to do.

I love to sing “Oh, The Things We May Do,” even though it sometimes brings something of a guilty pang to my stomach.  It gently reminds me that there are more things that I could do to help more people, more love I could give if I try.  Despite those guilty twinges, I realize that it is a good thing.  Music should stir us to action, not just please our sense of aesthetics.  Paul tells us that we should teach and admonish one another in wisdom, and speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness to God (Colossians 3.16).  The carefully crafted lyrics of a song embedded in a pleasing rhythm and melody do indeed have a greater ability to remain in our minds.  I sometimes reflect on the idea that God knew what he was doing when he made music a part of our religious curriculum if not our lives.  That may just be something to sing about.

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What Gospel Did Jesus Preach? Reflections on the Kingdom and the Church

I just ran across a challenging question:  “What is the gospel that Jesus preached?”  I immediately thought of Paul’s gospel, of “Christ and him crucified.”  I thought of the “amended” gospel that we hear so often today involving every inferred rule and stipulation that must be met judiciously if we are to have any hope of salvation.  But really, what was the gospel that Jesus preached?   

Of course, mention of Jesus preaching a gospel usually has attached to it the idea of the “kingdom of heaven” or “Kingdom of God” being “at hand.”  And our traditional view has been that the Kingdom of heaven equals the church.  I saw an article just yesterday that made that bold, unequivocal proclamation.  But is that truly an indisputable fact? 

So, I started thinking about that more.  I began with the beginning.  At least of the New Testament.  Matthew is the only writer of a synoptic gospel that uses the term “kingdom of heaven,” and he uses it liberally—over 30 times.  This is a very Jewish sort of phrase, and Matthew’s history was written expressly for the Jewish audience.  The writing is well-nuanced with Jewish details like a detailed listing of Jesus’s earthly ancestry.  As such, it is quite enlightening to people who are not of Jewish origin, but it would also be very significant to Jews.

For ages, I have heard that “the kingdom is the church.”  Full stop.  End of transmission.  In fact, on many occasions I recall being told that we must not pray the so-called “Lord’s Prayer” or model prayer, because we can’t authentically pray for God’s kingdom to come since it’s already here.  This doctrine has been preached with such authority that I worried that reciting this prayer would be a damnable offense.  I’ve wondered about that many times.  How can a prayer condemn you? 

Perhaps the most often appealed to passage in the New Testament that relates kingdom with church is in Matthew 16.19 : “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  In verse 18, Jesus had made his pronouncement of the intent to establish his “church”, ekklesia, or perhaps better understood as a “community of followers or believers.”  Verse 18 is the first appearance of the word “church” in the New Testament.

While I am not a great linguistic scholar, I can read and I can determine what makes sense.  And while I am not a great fan of overly intense word study—you know the kind where the message gets lost in the grammar—it is sometimes quite important to dig deeper to understand the sense in the original written language.  (I say written because Jesus, as a son of the dusty hills, plains and shores of Judaea, spoke the language of his people, which at that point in time was Aramaic).  Why should we do this?  Because translation was done by committees of men, who were influenced by tradition.  If we accept the translation without question, we may be missing the true sense of the idea being communicated. 

The Greek words translated by the English phrase, “kingdom of heaven” are “basileia ton ouranos.”   Basileia, is translated as “kingdom”, which according to Strong’s Dictionary is “properly royalty, that is, (abstractly) rule, or (concretely) a realm (literally or figuratively): – kingdom, + reign.”  Reign may imply a “royal authority,” as well as “dominion.”   

Of ouranos, Strong says, “Perhaps from the same as [oros, a hill or mountain] (through the idea of elevation); the sky; by extension heaven (as the abode of God); by implication happiness, power, eternity; specifically the Gospel (Christianity): – air, heaven ([-ly]), sky.” 

So, here are some possible senses of the phrase, “kingdom of heaven”.  First, if basileia is taken as Strong calls “properly,”, i.e. as “royalty,” the sense becomes:   “kingship of heaven”;  “kingship of air”; “kingship of sky”; “kingship of happiness”;  kingship of power”; “kingship of eternity”.  From this, the sense is strained, and it appears that the most direct meaning is not quite the intent. 

Next, with “kingdom” as “realm” in the sense of “a place under rule”, we would see: “realm of heaven”;  “realm of air”; “realm of sky”; “realm of happiness”;  “realm of power”; “realm of eternity”.  It seems that the geographic sense may be better, but it does not quite work, because the “realm of heaven” had been long-established, and Jesus was looking into the future in Matthew 16.19.  Certainly, this could also be taken as the “dominion over” the geographic space, in which case, the sense actually becomes more like the following cases.

Now, let’s see what happens when we use the idea of a “rule” or a “reign.”  If “kingdom/basileia” is taken to mean “reign,” the sense becomes:   “reign of heaven”;  “reign of air”; “reign of sky”; “reign of happiness”;  “reign of power”; “reign of eternity”.  Now, the idea begins to make more sense: whereas humanity had been floundering without accepting or recognizing a proper authority, Jesus would give the apostles the authority (keys) to lead people into the “reign of heaven”; the community of called out believers (the church) would be under a benevolent “reign of power”, and that will be a “reign of eternity.”  The rudderless drifting in the unhappy realm of the world without God would be alleviated under such a “reign of happiness.” 

But, let’s take this a couple of steps farther back.  Basileia probably has its roots in basileus, which connotes a “foundation of power.”  Strong points out that either abstractly, relatively or figuratively, this refers to a “sovereign” or “king.”  Basileus probably arises from the root word, “basis,” from the Greek, “baino”, “to walk, and thereby implies “the foot.”  So, this appears to further support the concept of “kingdom” as a “foundation” or “basis” of or for a “rule” or “reign.”   

In the broader scope, the Jews were waiting for a Messiah who would rise up and throw off the shackles of Roman tyranny.  They had been a people in captivity.  They were now an occupied nation.  They were looking for a charismatic figure to vindicate their nationalism.  They longed for the freedom of self-determination.  A Messiah who would rally the people to freedom would obviously result in the restoration of a country with firm and defended geo-political borders.  Jesus didn’t offer that.  Instead, his liberty was that of the soul.  If people submit to his rule, reign, or authority, they would have freedom that transcends the physical.  With the advent of Christianity, the emphasis became less on physical geography and politics and more on the institutional concept of an organized body with definite form and function.  The view that the “kingdom” is the “church” is very strongly entrenched in the collective Christian psyche.  It is what we have been taught from the early days of the church, and indeed, it would make sense as the leadership of the church became more and more centralized.  In a very real sense, it carries over the idea that the Jews of Jesus’s day held.  

But still, we wrestle with our preachers and teachers embracing and pushing the idea that the “kingdom” as mentioned in Matthew is manifested solely in the organized structure of the institution we call the “church.”  If this is true, then it should be able to stand up to some rather simple analytical scrutiny: If the “kingdom of heaven” is the same thing as the “church,” wouldn’t substituting “church” in each instance retain the same sense?  Let’s find out.  I’ve put “church” in brackets “[ ]” every place that “kingdom of heaven” appears in the verses in Matthew.  Is the sense the same?

Mat 3.2  “Repent, for the [church] is at hand.”

Mat 4.17  From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the [church] is at hand.”

Mat 5.3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the [church].

Mat 5.10  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the [church].

Mat 5.19  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the [church], but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the [church].

Mat 5.20  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the [church].

Mat 7.21  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the [church], but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Mat 8.11  I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the [church],

Mat 10.7  And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The [church] is at hand.’

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [church].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [church].

Mat 11.11  Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the [church] is greater than he.

Mat 11.12  From the days of John the Baptist until now the [church]  has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

Mat 13.11  And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the [church], but to them it has not been given.

Mat 13.33  He told them another parable. “The [church] is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Mat 13.44  “The [church] is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Mat 13.52  And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the [church]  is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Mat 16.19  I will give you the keys of the [church], and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Mat 18.1  At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the [church]?”

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [church].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [church].

Mat 18.23  “Therefore the [church] may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

Mat 19.12  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the [church]. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Mat 19.14  but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the [church].”

Mat 20.1  “For the [church] is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

Mat 22.2  “The [church] may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,

Mat 23.13  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the [church] in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.

Mat 25.1  “Then the [church] will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

 

So again, is the sense the same?  Turns out, it isn’t.  In some places, it doesn’t even come close.

But what happens if we replace “kingdom of heaven” with “rule/reign/authority/dominion of heaven/power/eternity”?

 

Mat 3.2  “Repent, for the [dominion of heaven] is at hand.”

Mat 4.17  From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the [dominion of heaven] is at hand.”

Mat 5.3  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 5.10  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 5.19  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the [dominion of heaven], but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 5.20  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 7.21  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the [reign of heaven], but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Mat 8.11  I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the [reign of heaven],

Mat 10.7  And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The [dominion of heaven] is at hand.’

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 11.11  Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the [reign of heaven] is greater than he.

Mat 11.12  From the days of John the Baptist until now the [authority of heaven]  has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.

Mat 13.11  And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the [dominion of eternity], but to them it has not been given.

Mat 13.33  He told them another parable. “The [dominion of heaven] is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Mat 13.44  “The [dominion of heaven] is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Mat 13.52  And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the [authority of heaven]  is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Mat 16.19  I will give you the keys of the [authority of power], and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Mat 18.1  At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the [dominion of heaven]?”

Mat 18.3  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 18.4  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the [dominion of heaven].

Mat 18.23  “Therefore the [rule of power] may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

Mat 19.12  For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the [reign of heaven]. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

Mat 19.14  but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the [dominion of heaven].”

Mat 20.1  “For the [reign of heaven] is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

Mat 22.2  “The [authority of heaven] may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son,

Mat 23.13  “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the [dominion of heaven] in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.

Mat 25.1  “Then the [reign of heaven] will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.

Granted, the sense is strained in a couple of places, but I have tried to be consistent and objective in the presentation.  Some instances would need a change of preposition, for example.   But in many places, the idea of “rule,” “reign,” or “dominion” makes far more sense.  For example, Matthew 11.12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  If the “kingdom” is the “church,” when was the church established?  According to standard church doctrine, that happened on Pentecost.  Either Jesus didn’t know what he was talking about or the kingdom is not the church in this instance.  Similarly, Jesus is speaking in the present tense in Matthew 23.13: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.”  Again, if the “kingdom” is the “church,” when was the church established?  How could the Pharisees that Jesus addressed have been at that time preventing others from entering the “church” when it was not yet in existence? 

If we take “kingdom” to mean “rule,” the sense is far more understandable.  So where Matthew 11.12 says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the [reign/rule/authority of heaven] has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”  This connotes the idea of usurpation of power.  The violent have tried to subvert the reign of heaven by violent force.  In Matthew 7.21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  Just because you say the words does not mean you truly submit to heaven’s authority.  In Matthew 8.11, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven….”  Here, those who submit to heaven’s rule are in good company, that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, three of the great heroes of faith, who in their time and in their way submitted to heaven’s authority.  They could not be made to enter the “church” as we have institutionalized it.  But they could be seen as part of the “universal community of believers.”

That idea, that the church is composed of people, is a point that many preachers in the churches of Christ are swift to make.  But in the same breath practically, they fully embrace and teach the institutional concept of the church by continuing to insist that the “kingdom” is the “church.”  If “church” refers to the organizational entity that is comprised of believers, then perhaps the sense holds in some cases.  However, by insisting that the “church” is people, or the collective of believers, the institutional view of “church” as organization makes less sense.    

So, how can we bring these ideas together?  Well, we can think of the “church” as one manifestation or perhaps more aptly, a consequence of the “reign of heaven.”  Those who submit to that reign will be gathered into the church.  I believe that is what is meant in Acts 2.47, where “…the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  Those who submitted to the authority of heaven were added to the community of believers, which are the “called-out people”, ekklesia, or as we know it, the church.

I realize this has been a lengthy and somewhat repetitious sort of rambling mental exercise.  (If you have made it this far with me, congratulations.)  This whole project began with the question, “What gospel did Jesus preach?”  The most succinct answer is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4.17)  This calls people to change their lives and repent of the obvious sins that they overtly, covertly, or habitually committed.  But Jesus was calling them to much more.  He was calling them to repentance for the shambles they had made of religion.  The Law of Moses was detailed enough, that keeping it well would take concentration and attention to detail.  The rabbis had added multiplied scores of their own laws on top of the Mosaic code.  Jesus wanted them to get back to basics.  Learn and practice the two greatest commandments, to free themselves of the burden they could never bear.

But the reason Jesus gave for that repentance was because “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Now, that could mean a temporal proximity, to be sure, in the sense of “soon.”  On the other hand, as he was— or rather his disciples were— already baptizing disciples, how much more “at hand” could the kingdom be?  It was already there and waiting for willing followers if they did what he asked.  If they would submit to the “reign of heaven,” they would be under a new world order.  But if “kingdom” equals “church,” then why did Jesus tell the scribe in Mark 12.34, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”?  Was he just teasing him?  “Wait a few weeks or months or years and the “church” will be opened up for you.”  No, the new economy of the “reign of heaven” had begun.  It was available for the penitent believer.

And it is available now.  When we willingly submit to the authority of God, we will do what is asked of us—that’s what submission is.  We will be under that authority as a citizen of the kingdom.  We will then be welcomed into the church, the community of believers, the followers of the Way.  We will function as a family, the adopted sons and daughters of one Father.  We will help each other and make the world better, doing what we can to mitigate the effects of sin in the world, especially for those in the family of God, but for any and all in need.  In showing that love for neighbors, we channel the love God has for his creation.  There is no down-side to defecting to this “kingdom of heaven.” 

As the father of two children, I am frustrated and even angry when those two resolutely disobey me, or when they refuse to try to accomplish something and just give up and quit.  But I am so proud when they do their best, no matter what that best may be.  And with God as our Father, who is so much greater in his capacity for patience, and for love and understanding than I can ever imagine achieving, we can rest easy, knowing that when we have done our best, we will have made him proud.  That’s a reign of happy, loving power.  That’s the good news that my Brother, my Teacher, my Lord and my Friend, Jesus brought to this world.  And it is a far, far better place for it.

The Lord Giveth, But Lowly Man Taketh Away

I am not a patient man, although I wish it were not so.  I see things like injustice and inflexibility and I want them to change, not some day – now.  I hate suffering.  I hate oppression.  I hate ignorance and the willful perpetuation of misunderstanding.  On the one hand, these realizations spur me on to action.  I look for ways to make things better.  But I run into the possibility of relying too much on my own devices. That is something of a danger, because then I am more likely to claim credit where I don’t deserve it, or more likely still, I will make stupid mistakes.  Knowing my limitations, I redouble my efforts to stay on track.

I enjoy a challenge.  I would like to think that I am not so set in my ways that I am unwilling to explore any concept from different angles and views.  I want to know that what I believe I believe because I truly believe it, not because someone told me that I have to.  This, I believe is the spirit of the noble Bereans in Acts 17, who searched their scriptures to determine if what Paul taught them was indeed true.  We must be willing to do this if we are to avoid being led into a faith more founded on tradition and interpretation than truth.

But this invariably leads to conflict because not everyone is willing to think.  Oh, they may say they are, but when the chips are down, many seek only to reinforce their pre-existing dogmas, and are quite unwilling to do anything to rock the boat.  But therein lies the problem: if we are content to sit quietly on a mirror-still sea, we are not moving, either forward or back.  There are only two ways to get anywhere: the winds will blow us one way or the other, or we will have to row.  Chances are, we will eventually, even periodically, be affected one way or the other by the wind, and then we may have to make corrections, never losing sight of our lode star or the goal we set just at the edge of the horizon.

In matters of religion, change is never easy.  We may view change as patently wrong because it violates our cherished orthodoxy, or we are just too comfortable with the status quo to consider any alternative.  I am not in any way suggesting change for the sake of change, or change because we think it is a good idea.  I am talking about change that places us in closer alignment with God’s own will.

There are so many things in religion that we do, not because we have specific authority to do them, but because of tradition.  As churches evolve, as a movement speciates from its ancestral sect or denomination, it naturally distinguishes itself with some sort of novel or perhaps reconstituted practice or doctrine.  If there is no difference, why break away in the first place?  Thus, some changes are implemented while there are many things that are essentially left intact from its predecessors. Within the Stone-Campbell Movement, the prevailing hermeneutic has been to establish religious authority by direct command, apostolically approved example, and inferring commands from examples, or allowing expedients that provide support for the works we are commanded to do, or that have been exemplified.  This was not new with the SCM, but was passed down from elements of Presbyterianism and is evident in some form in different Protestant groups.  There is much good that can be gleaned from this sort of practice.  On one level, it encourages study, which is always good.  But when we draw conclusions that are not necessary from the data, we actually commit error.  In logic or statistics, this is called a Type I error, or a false positive, which suggests to us that a relationship or correlation exists that actually does not.  When we place the method of interpretation on such a level that it is viewed as actually being of divine origin, we have essentially edited the scriptures by adding something that is not there.  Jesus may have interpreted scriptures for his audience, and he may have inferred conclusions, which are both logical assumptions.  However, he never gave commands as to how to interpret scripture.  No apostle ever enumerated the three methods of establishing authority.  Search as you might, they’re not there.  Oh, keeping commandments is certainly mentioned, as is following examples.  But one thing to remember here is that when Paul told his readers to imitate him, he directed them to imitate him as he imitated Christ, which is the gist of his directive in both I Corinthians 4 and I Corinthians 11.

There have been many changes of varying degree that have been made over the centuries by accident or by direct choice.  Indeed, the catalog of evolving practices is a work in progress.  We typically think of any such change as being an addition to scripture.  But what if we have actually accepted a practice that has taken away from the original intent?  Are we willing to restore what has been lost?  This is a genuine test of the purported fidelity to an original form.

What can we possibly have lost from the original intent of the structure of the church?  Perhaps one of the most glaring issues I have found is the elimination of the recognition of women who are designated specifically as servants or deacons (diakonon) of the church, as Phoebe was in Romans 16.  The same word is used in I Timothy 3, where the listing of the qualifications of deacons is interrupted by a clause that describes the characteristics or qualifications of women who would be designated to serve.  How we translate the Greek word gunaikas, here, makes a tremendous difference: the Greek word may mean either wives or women.  The tradition of translation has been to render this as “their wives,” referring to the spouses of the male candidates for the office of deacon.  However, there is no possessive pronoun modifying the Greek word to indicate that this distinctly refers to the deacons’ wives.  And, as it has been pointed out over and over by anyone who has honestly and carefully studied the passage, there is no parallel discussion of requirements for bishops’ wives.  The simplest solution to this issue–which according to the logical dictum of Occam’s Razor is usually the best— is that this extended the general qualifications of servants to women as well as men.

But what would these women have been responsible for?  Ample evidence from the early church writers after the apostolic period supports the work of a woman as deacon in terms of serving women who may be ill, serving the communion to home-bound women, assisting with the baptism of women, caring for orphan children and serving those who were in prison.  According to some writers from the middle ages, the office of the female deacon was abandoned because some were apparently over-extending their circle of power and influence (not unlike male bishops and preachers), and because of issues such as women being of “inferior intelligence” and “weaker” than men, and of course, their “impurity” associated with the natural progress of female physiology.  This rather misogynistic view apparently coincided with the decline of the necessity for women to attend adult female candidates for baptism, since the emphasis had shifted from adult believer baptism to infant baptism.  So, the adoption of the extra-scriptural doctrine of inherited sin “necessitating” the well-meaning (but not scripturally supported) institution of infant baptism may have contributed to the abolition of a divinely appointed, apostolically instituted office.  In essence, two wrongs made a third wrong, not a right.

What worries me about this sort of an issue is that we have accepted this legacy of error, born of erroneous doctrine and the prejudicial translation of early texts to support the status quo inherited from the androcentric hierarchy of medieval Catholicism.  The straw man argument will be made today that if we accept that women may serve as officially appointed deacons, then they will soon be allowed to serve as elders, then preachers, and on and on.  It’s that old “slippery slope” all over.  (I’d actually love to see this slippery slope that some are always worried about.  It sounds about as wide and steep as the wall of the Grand Canyon.)  If we are truly dedicated to maintaining fidelity to the early church constitution, however, we will not go beyond what is evident.  However, we will carefully and prayerfully appoint women to take on these grave responsibilities.  By not recognizing the role of women as designated servants with specific responsibilities, we are equally in error.

As I ponder these sorts of issues, I know that some will immediately and without a moment’s consideration take exception, because as of the mid-20th century, we have achieved perfection in our reconstruction of the primitive church.  And while I may be the target of the accusation that I am trying to add to scripture, I am not in any way advocating anything of the sort.  I would like to see us embrace an essential and valuable dimension of our spiritual heritage.  I would just like to see us “…hold true to what we have attained.” (Phil 3.16)  But we cannot hold true to what we have not striven to attain.  Don’t take my word for anything I have written here.  Seek out the truth.  Consult the early manuscripts.  Consider the early histories.  An excellent synopsis of the early history of the role of women as deacons can be accessed at https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2008/07/the-ministry-of-the-deaconess-through-history.html.  Bobby Valentine, who I find to be a very conscientious and accessible scholar, has an excellent article quoting from the published views of many of the formative leaders of the Stone-Campbell Movement regarding the role of women as deacons.  It was interesting to see that so many of the most influential men in our history—men like Alexander Campbell, Moses Lard, J.W. McGarvey, Walter Scott, Tolbert Fanning and C.R. Nichol – essentially assumed that women would be selected to serve, not because of a human desire for it, but because it is so plainly evident from scripture. His article can be accessed at http://stoned-campbelldisciple.blogspot.com/2011/09/voices-on-female-deacons-in-stoned.html.  Valentine points out that the only person specifically identified as a deacon in the New Testament is Phoebe in Romans 16.  The significance of that cannot be underestimated. (The “Seven,” including Stephen and Philip, selected to “serve” in Acts 6 are not specifically called “deacons.”)

When I find myself becoming anxious over our self-satisfied inertia, leaving us sitting motionless on that glassy sea, I need to remember the words of  I Peter 5,  “6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”  So, there.  It is God’s to deal with.  But if we can be the instruments through which his will may be done, are we not obligated to act?  Ultimately, God will judge.  He reminds us through the heart of the poet to “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46.10)  Yet sometimes, being still is hard.  Especially if you are an impatient man who wants to see justice and liberty bringing the freedom for all to serve God to their fullest capacity as God ordained, nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

File This One Under “Isn’t It Interesting?”: Thoughts on Music and the Sacred

After listening to a choral performance of a high school group performing the old spiritual, “Give Me Jesus,” I found myself wiping my eyes.  Just moments ago, while viewing a university choir’s performance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” tears streamed down my face as I wept at the sheer beauty of it.  These instances, and as I reflect, numerous others have made me come to an interesting observation along with a question:  not much in life is as emotionally charged and deeply satisfying as well-trained human voices, singing beautiful music in apparently effortless harmony.  I think about the beautiful music that has been so perfectly crafted by human hearts, and so lovingly performed by human voices, and how the most beautiful of these pieces and performances are almost without exception sacred in nature, as if the spirit responds to rhythm and tone with a different set of rules.  Such an observation is not original, I’m sure, and the question it sparked is almost certainly not original, either, that being, “With so much beauty linked to the sacred, why are there no great pieces that celebrate and elevate atheism?”

A cursory search for “music and atheism” provides no examples.  One atheist site celebrates the great composers who were apparently disenchanted with religion, refusing last rites, or embracing pantheism or some other issue.  It is a matter of record that these sorts of things occurred.  However, that does not take away from the beauty of the music that was inspired in celebration of faith and the sacred.  Of course, there was the commercial element:  a composer has to eat, and therefore accepts the commission from a patron to compose a mass or some such piece.  But even so, there must have been some appreciation of the holy, or else the music would be nothing but a lackluster attempt at commercial mediocrity.  Had they, like Balaam, set forth to curse the faithful, but only blessings flowed from their pens?  I wonder….

When you consider the many genres of music that are distinctly connected to faith and the practice of religion, it is indeed mind-boggling.  Hymns are of course, foremost in the count of sacred music. There are so many beautiful hymns.  But none is more recognized and loved that John Newton’s “Amazing Grace.”  Many know of Newton’s connection to the slave trade and his later conversion to Christianity.  According to one account describing his earlier sea-faring days, “Newton gained notoriety for being one of the most profane men the captain had ever met….Newton was admonished several times for not only using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.”  His poem, written to accentuate the sermon he would deliver on New Year’s Day, 1773, has been described by some as his spiritual autobiography.  It is nothing short of amazing that a man could rise from the depths of such depravity as the most profane man a ship’s captain had known to pen words of such divine beauty and universal appreciation.  Whether sung a cappella, as solo or as a choir, or accompanied by the skirl of a lone bagpipe or a battalion of bagpipes, the music and words are so ingrained in the human soul after two and a half centuries that I wonder why anyone would question the joyful wonder of grace.

The old Negro spirituals are beautiful in their simplicity and sincerity.  The first time I heard “Give Me Jesus,” I was sitting at a university graduation, and I thought that it was rather inappropriate to bring the sacred to such a secular event.  I later heard other versions, choral arrangements, and I grew to truly and deeply admire the song.  Simple, heart-felt, and unimposing, spirituals were songs of hope and comfort sung by an oppressed people.

There are conflicting stories regarding the order of composition, but whether the spiritual song, “Going Home,” was the basis for the Largo in D from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 or vice versa, it is of little consequence.  Dvorak admitted the influence of African American and Native American music on his work, and suggested that such could be the foundation of a new, uniquely American school of composition.  The Largo in D is one of the most beautiful and moving pieces I have ever encountered.

For years, I was skeptical of the whole genre of contemporary Christian music.  But over the last few years, I have come to appreciate the warmth and encouragement of spiritual themes set to music that 21st century people can identify with.  I know many people would not enjoy this type of music, and I must admit that I don’t care for some of it, but I respect the artists who have met the challenge of bringing morality and faith to a style that speaks to people who may not otherwise listen to anything religious.  Music has power.  If music can open the door, the message of faith and hope may be able to take hold and change a life.  For example, Tenth Avenue North has a song titled “You Are More,” the refrain of which offers the assurance to a girl who has made some bad choices that “You are more than the choices that you’ve made, / You are more than the sum of your past mistakes, / You are more than the problems you create, / You’ve been remade.”  Such a positive message could give hope to hurting people.  That is so much richer than what most music has to offer.

Not to be left out, the classical world has produced many beautiful pieces with sacred themes.  Perhaps none of them is more recognized or celebrated than Handel’s great masterpiece of the oratorio, “The Messiah.”  This ambitious work chronicles the prophecy, birth, and passion of Jesus along with a musical meditation on the “aftermath” of Jesus’s crucifixion.  My favorite parts of this work are probably the Aria from part I, “Every Valley Shall Be Exalted,” and the unmistakable majesty of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Part II.

When I scanned the list of prominent atheist musicians and composers, so many listed were of the punk rock genre or heavy metal.  Both of these types of music seem to have a cynical view of life, so it is no wonder that people with no hope are drawn to music that feeds their dismal outlook.  Perhaps the best known of the atheistic music luminaries that I saw listed were John Lennon and Billy Joel.  Of course, there are many more, and this was just a brief survey.

For the sake of a mental discussion, let’s consider what may be the ultimate popular expression of religious skepticism, John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  He opens the song with imagining that there is neither heaven nor hell, that this reality is composed of only the physical.  Then, in the second verse, he notes that a world without countries would be a world without conflict, and without religion, there would be even more peace.  In the third verse, he notes that greed and hunger would disappear with the advent of the “brotherhood of man.”  All of these sentiments are set to a dreamy melody, and are somewhat hypnotic.

In response to Mr. Lennon, I will accept that many of the world’s problems have originated from, and many great atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of religion.  However, a totally secular world is no better.  Stalin’s purges in the early 20th century and countless other attempts of atheistic communism to eradicate religion are ample proof that extremism from the religious right or the secular left is no different in result.

Will religion lead to a utopian heaven on earth?  That is a ridiculous assertion.  We know from history that we are incapable of such things.  We are weak, and succumb to the temptations of greed and power.  It is human nature to be drawn to such vices—they are next door to the survival instinct.  However, the beauty of a true experience of Christianity is the opposite of that attraction to power and expression of avarice.  It turns the heart’s outlook outward to seek the good of all.  The connection of music with the sacred is deep and strong, and may just be the anchor that holds us in a gathering storm.  While the howling winds of this culture may rail like banshees against God and anything spiritual, and may seek to break our souls, “Amazing Grace” may lead us home.

A Meditation on “This Is My Father’s World”

Being the son of a preacher, I remember going to church a lot when I was growing up.  I remember a hot summer gospel meeting held by a congregation out in the country.  The benches (I would hesitate to call them pews) were composed of a board to sit on, and a board several inches higher to rest your back uncomfortably on.  There was no air conditioning.  The heat continued well into the night, as did the guest preacher.  He spoke for what seemed like hours–over two, as I recall, maybe closer to three–but maybe not as long as Paul’s discussion until midnight in Acts 20.

There are certainly plenty of those kinds of memories.  But the memories I enjoy most of church attendance in my youth are of the singing.  I love music.  It is, therefore, indeed a happy coincidence that God loves it, too.  The greatest king of Israel, King David, was also a shepherd, a warrior, a singer and song-writer.  The words of his Psalms are among the most beautiful ever written in any language.  But there have been thousands of exceptionally beautiful pieces of sacred music written for voice or instrument in the scores of centuries since David put pen to parchment.

One of my favorite hymns of all time was written by a Presbyterian minister, Maltbie D. Babcock.  Babcock was a fine athlete, an accomplished musician, and a preacher that connected well with his audience, owing to his ability to present spiritual truths in a way that people could relate to them, with freshness and a dynamic delivery.  He was in demand as a speaker at colleges throughout America.

It is said that Babcock enjoyed hiking in a rough area near Lockport, NY, a forested escarpment, the height of which provided a magnificent view of the countryside.  He would announce his intention of adventure by saying, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world.”  That sentiment became the title of his wonderful hymn, “This Is My Father’s World,” set to the music of an old English melody, “Terra Beata.”

From an early age, I enjoyed nature.  It is no wonder, then that this song spoke directly to me.  While the old song books we used failed to preserve all of Babcock’s verses, the ones there were enough to bring me nearly to tears whenever I heard it.

Here are the words to Babcock’s masterpiece.

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

This is my Father’s world, dreaming, I see His face.
I ope my eyes, and in glad surprise cry, “The Lord is in this place.”
This is my Father’s world, from the shining courts above,
The Beloved One, His Only Son,
Came—a pledge of deathless love.

This is my Father’s world, should my heart be ever sad?
The lord is King—let the heavens ring. God reigns—let the earth be glad.
This is my Father’s world. Now closer to Heaven bound,
For dear to God is the earth Christ trod.
No place but is holy ground.

This is my Father’s world. I walk a desert lone.
In a bush ablaze to my wondering gaze God makes His glory known.
This is my Father’s world, a wanderer I may roam
Whate’er my lot, it matters not,
My heart is still at home.

These words are so beautiful, so heart-felt, so deeply reverential.  The thing I notice most is the blending of the natural world with the spiritual, the nexus of two realms.  The words stuck with me: as a boy, I would listen for God in that rustling grass.  I wanted to see if the song was true.  Of course it is true.  I have heard him in a cloudless, star-jeweled night sky, and in the resolute confidence of a ground pine peeking through the winter snow on a frozen January ridgetop.  I have experienced him in the hush of footfalls in a cedar-carpeted glade, and in the salt spray of a barrier island.  I have listened to him in a high alpine meadow and a flooded bottomland forest.  I have listened to him from the depth of a cavern’s darkness and in the brightness of a drought-scorched desert.  He speaks to us in so many ways.

The title of the song, which was published by his wife after Babcock’s untimely death, echoes David’s exclamation in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein….”  As I read the full set of lyrics, I feel cheated to have been denied the beauty of the fifth and sixth stanzas, in particular.  The exclamation at the realization that “The Lord is in this place” is genuine, and stands in contrast to the mere dream of seeing God.  He is everywhere, as he continues in the fifth verse, “…should my heart be ever sad? /The Lord is King—let the heavens ring.  God reigns—let the earth be glad.”

He continues, “Now closer to Heaven bound, /For dear to God is the earth Christ trod. / No place but is holy ground.”  God said of his creation that it was “very good.”  Mankind has a way of spoiling things, but as we draw closer to the purpose Heaven has set for us, the greater appreciation we shall have of the glory that is this world.  Why would God set the earth in motion if he were not interested in it?  No, the earth itself is dear to him, as are we.

Babcock’s closing thought reminds me of Paul’s meditation on contentment in Philippians 4:11-13. “(11)  Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. (12) I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (13) I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”  The poet’s expression, “…a wanderer I may roam/ Whate’er my lot, it matters not, My heart is still at home,” speaks of a deep connection to God through the beauty of the earth.  As long as he could enjoy the view, he could be content with whatever life had in store for him.  That last bit is a hard thing to implement.  It takes faith.  A lot of it. Maybe more than many may even possess.

After all these years, I still delight in hearing the song and in its singing, participating in its beauty.  What a wonderful song.  It is like a walk in the majestic forest-cathedral of God’s own design.  It appreciates the physical especially in that the physical supports the spiritual.  We cannot divorce those two aspects of our nature, as some may promote.  If we neglect the physical, with its beauty and witness to God’s greatness, we tread only in a realm of shadows that we are not quite ready to view, like a baby born prematurely, with eyes that cannot yet focus and appreciate the world beyond that first cradle.  We also risk losing sight of the needs of the physical, and grow to neglect such needs that we may see in others.  I once heard it said that someone was so heavenly minded that he was of no earthly good.  The earth is good, and there is no great virtue in denying that.  There is virtue in celebrating it for the splendor of God’s gracious gifts, not the least of which is a wonderful world in which to live.

“This is my Father’s world” is a simple acknowledgement of ownership.  If we accept that, we also know that like Adam in the garden, we are stewards of this creation.  Every time I have heard the song, that sentiment wells up within me, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously, but it is there all the same.  It reiterates the trust that God has given us to dress and keep this world.  It is a sacred trust and grave responsibility.  To destroy the owner’s property is to dishonor the owner, and we would have nothing to offer in restitution.  Indeed, “This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget….”

There Are Hypocrites, and Then There Are Hypocrites

I was thinking a while ago about the whole concept of hypocrisy.  One of the most prevalent reasons people give for not being religious is that churches are full of hypocrites.  An article I quickly perused suggested that the term “hypocrite” was not necessarily a bad thing in its early usage, carrying with it the connotation of an actor, or perhaps an understudy to an actor.  The image of acting involves a depiction of scenes and events that are a fiction, whether the play is purely imagined or based on reality.  Accomplished actors will be able to make you believe that the story is true, that they have experienced the emotions, the conflicts, and elations of the characters they are portraying.  As I was once pointedly reminded, “perception becomes reality”: If we perceive the character’s truth, then that truth, although a fiction, becomes true, at least to the audience.

The more current use of the term, “hypocrite”, lacks that classier sort of connotation.  It takes the actor and places him in the real world, where the part he plays is not to entertain or inform, but to mislead and confute.  Here, the hypocrite is not so much an object of respect and admiration as an object of repugnance and disgust.

But what is it that makes the hypocrite hypocritical?  How can you tell a hypocrite when you see one?  Why is hypocrisy so dangerous?  These are all questions that come to mind when thinking about hypocrisy.

To address the first question, it is fairly easy to see what makes for hypocrisy: the attitude of pretense to being better, more righteous than one truly is is a good summary of the hypocritical condition.  The opposite is rarely true, that one would try to make herself look less righteous than she truly may be.  Indeed, the act of deceiving in such way would defeat the purpose, for in perpetrating such a deception, the former righteous state has already been forfeited.  What is interesting to note is that this attitude recognizes a deficiency, yet rather than doing the obvious thing to correct that deficiency—straightening up and flying right—the hypocrite will take measures to avoid that difficult, yet safer path.  Everyone has heard expressions like, “Sam would rather climb a tree to tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth.”  So it is with the hypocrite.

The best field guide to religious hypocrisy is found in Jesus’s pronouncement of the seven woes in Matthew 23.  From the start of this particular teaching, Jesus had the scribes and Pharisees in his sights.  In verse 2, he set the stage by saying they had the authority to interpret the law, but in verse 3, they failed to practice what they preached.  In verse 4, they frequently laid more burdens on the backs of the people, burdens that they themselves refused to lift or carry.  Verses 5-7 reveal a particularly succinct image of the Pharisaical hypocrite, “(5) They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, (6)  and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues (7)  and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”  Everything they do is for show, calling attention to their storefront righteousness.  Verses 8-12 reveal the antithesis of their hypocrisy, which may be summed up in one word: humility.

Beginning in verse 13, he launches into a repetitive denouncement of their hypocritical ways, addressing them each time with “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”  They were condemned for preventing people from entering the kingdom of heaven, and for failing to summon the humility to enter themselves.  Their proselytes, converts to their twisted, cultic practice of law-keeping, were doubly condemned.  Following a scathing rebuke for inconsistency and splitting hairs with regard to when it was acceptable to break an oath, he rebuked them for failing to observe the weightier matters of the law–justice, mercy, and faithfulness–while still meeting the requirements of tithing.  The attention to outward appearances is aptly depicted in verse 27 with the image of whitewashed tombs, so orderly on the outside, but filled with decay and corruption inside.  In verse 30, he quotes their self-righteous pronouncement that they would never have engaged in the heinous acts of murdering the prophets God had sent to call their ancestors to repentance.  Jesus met their challenge in verses 34 and 35, where he says that more prophets and holy men would be sent to teach them, but they would be just like their forebears, murdering the innocent to salve their guilt.

In verse 37, Jesus breaks off his harsh but well deserved attack by offering up a deeply heart-felt lament: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  He had taught them over and over, revealed to them his identity as the promised Messiah, shown them how he had fulfilled prophecy, and performed miraculous wonders that no natural man would have been able to conjure.  And they rejected him.

Each of these woes was a hallmark of hypocrisy: they professed lip-service to God, but failed to keep the most important commands.  They worried about the minutiae, and failed at the fundamental concepts.  They staked their entire religious experience on appearances of righteousness, and lacked the moral fortitude to support the superficial exercise of their “faith.”

Jesus knew a lot of hypocrites.  Were he to walk among us today right here in the United States, he would notice that people are no different 21 centuries removed from his walk in Galilee and Judaea.  He would instantly be able to size us up and know our hearts.  I wonder if he would have at least as many woes to deliver to us.  It is of no consequence, since he already told us what to look for.  And by knowing those things, we can work to eliminate them in our own lives and help others purge the incipient attitudes before they can lead to eternal loss.

And they can lead to eternal loss.  In Matthew 23:33, he says, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”  That question serves to warn that hypocrisy on the scale of the Pharisees would condemn, but also suggests that there is escape from that potential fate.

Why is hypocrisy so dangerous?  The crux of hypocrisy is reassurance in a false sense and expression of righteousness.  Consider the case of the Apostle Peter.  In Galatians 2, Paul relates his encounter with Peter over the thorny issue of the need for Christians to observe the Law of Moses.  Peter, one of the twelve, part of Jesus’s own inner circle, had felt threatened by the actions of a group of Judaizers, alleged Christians that Paul condemned as leading the people from Jesus’s fresh air of liberty to the stifling chains of legalistic slavery.  In verses 11-13, Paul wrote, “(11) But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  (12) For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.  (13) And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”  Peter was led astray by hypocrisy; other converts from the Jewish heritage were led astray by hypocrisy; even Paul’s old traveling companion, Barnabas, was taken in.  If Peter stood condemned for this wavering, surely the others were as well.

Peter apparently learned from the experience of being taken to task by Paul.  In I Peter 2:1-3, he wrote, “(1) So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.  (2) Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— (3) if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”  Everyone who is truly converted, who is a true disciple has tasted that the Lord is good.  The sweet water of redemption refreshes, the pure spiritual milk builds and strengthens.  Peter knew these things, both from his service at Jesus’s side, and through his career as an Apostle and evangelist after Jesus’s departure.  He was reacquainted with that joy of salvation when he repented of his denial of Jesus, and when he repented of his hypocrisy that kept him from treating all Christians as God saw them: equals.

If the truth were known, we are all potential victims and perpetrators of hypocrisy.  The insidious nature of hypocrisy is such that we may never consciously sit down and plan a campaign in its dubious honor.  It is a creeping sort of malady, a cancer of the soul that gives a false sense of well-being.  But anyone who has witnessed the excruciating last days of a loved one knows that they may rally for a moment before the end.  The height of hypocrisy is that rally, that ultimate false realization that “I am the standard for others to live by, and no other is worthy to be my peer.”

Peter learned the cure for a soul ravaged by self-righteous hypocrisy.  In I Peter 5:5b-7, he said, “(5b) Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  (6) Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, (7) casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”  The reward for humility before God is his grace, the intangible treasure of inestimable worth.  That grace will lead to exaltation, but in God’s time, not ours.  In the meantime, we have the assurance that we have a solution for all of our fears, cares, and insecurities:  a caring Father who will never fail in providing what we need.

Are churches full of hypocrites?  I’d be lying if I said there are none.  There will be some in any congregation.  They can change, if they have the will, if they have the encouragement, and if they can see the beauty of a life lived in, of and for truth.  But shunning a church because it is populated by hypocrites is really only a reflection of that same sin.  It says, “I’m at least as righteous if not more so than those church-going hypocrites with their self-serving religion.”  Jesus said it best, when he suggested that it’s hard to see with a plank in your eye.  If we take care of our own issues of self-righteousness, if we acknowledge our failings and humbly seek to do what is right, we will break the enchantment of hypocrisy.  I’d rather have God’s approval and wrap myself in his grace than to keep donning the same old threadbare coat of my own self-righteous making.  After all, God has had more experience dealing with people, whether hypocrite or humble.  He’s better at it, too.

Turning the Heart to Come ‘Round Right

Repentance is one of the most difficult concepts in all of the religious world.  This notion of changing, turning away from past sins and indiscretions, and correcting one’s path is easier said than done.  Consider the case of one king of Israel, that being the inimitable David.  Described as a man after God’s own heart, David had his reckless, prideful side, and he exercised it on several occasions.

Perhaps the most scandalous of David’s exploits was his infamous affair with Bathsheba.  As the story unfolds,   in II Samuel 11, David saw Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, as she was bathing, and decided he must have her.  He had her brought to the palace and, as powerful men are wont to do, had his way with her.  She became pregnant, and in order to cover his feckless behavior, he called her husband back from battle to sleep with her, but Uriah’s sense of honor and duty did not permit him to enjoy himself while his comrades were fighting and dying.  David even stooped to getting him drunk, but Uriah still didn’t cooperate.  David had to save face, so he wrote a letter to his army’s commander, Joab, and told Joab to put Uriah in the thickest fighting, then withdraw and allow Uriah to die.  The ultimate insult to the brave and honorable Uriah was that he had to carry his own death warrant to the general.  The plan went well.  Uriah died, but so did a number of other valiant men, all to serve the King’s misplaced sense of propriety.

In II Samuel 12, Nathan the prophet visited David and spun for him the allegory of the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb.  David was rightly indignant over the injustice, and while he noted that the perpetrator deserved to die, he would at least be required to repay the loss four-fold.  It would have been interesting to see David’s expression when the prophet’s stratagem was revealed with the four words, “You are the man.”  Surprise, confusion, guilt, regret.  They all likely played across his face in rapid succession.

David’s remorse is recounted in Psalm 51.  It is a powerful expression of sorrow.  He begs for mercy, and confesses, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” (v. 4).  Now, I think I would have to differ with David on that count.  Far be it from me to judge, but I think David missed a few victims of his selfish sin: Bathsheba, Uriah, the valiant men that died to cover David’s wanton indiscretion, even the child of David’s illegitimate union with Bathsheba—these are only the obvious ones that he failed to acknowledge.

But while David’s penitence was narrowly focused, his grief and regret were genuine enough.  He prays for mercy (v.1.), washing (vv.2, 7), blotting away of his sins (v. 9), (re)creation of a clean heart and a renewal of a right spirit (v. 10), and a restoration of the joy God’s salvation (v. 12).  Despite his sins recounted here, as well as his prideful, unauthorized transport of the Ark of the Covenant, and other violations of God’s will, he was a man who understood the need for repentance, and that brought him back into God’s favor.  He remained a man after God’s own heart.

Repentance stands as an important theme throughout both Testaments.  The prophets preached repentance to the erring nation of Israel, whose errant behavior led them to captivity.  Jonah preached repentance to the city of Nineveh.  Repentance was the central theme of John’s message as he prepared the way for Jesus.  Jesus then took up the message and preached repentance as a prerequisite to entry into the kingdom of heaven.  Luke seems to have placed a fine point on the concept of repentance by recounting the atrocity Pilate had wrought on the Galileans whose blood was mingled with sacrifices, as well as the 18 people who died in a tower collapse at Siloam (Luke 13).  In each case, he asked if those unfortunates had been any worse than the general populace, with the not so subtle intimation that they were not.  Without repentance, his listeners’ fates would be equally as tragic.

Luke also tells some very significant stories and relates some parables and teaching not found in other gospels.  In Chapter 7, he told the story of Jesus’s invitation to dine with a Pharisee.  He was not welcomed as convention of the day and culture would require.  In fact, it appears the invitation may have been little more than an inspection and an inquisition of sorts.  At any rate, a sinful woman—likely a prostitute—heard that Jesus was in the Pharisee’s household, invited herself in, and proceeded to perform one of the most menial and humble of tasks: she washed his still dusty feet with her own tears, dried them with her hair, and broke open an alabaster bottle of costly ointment to anoint his feet.  The Pharisee spoke to himself, deriding the woman for her sinfulness and Jesus, too, for even allowing her to touch him.  Jesus knew the Pharisee’s heart and set him straight with the direct comparison of his lack of hospitality to her humble act of service, love and esteem.  He also presented a parable dealing with debtors forgiven of different amounts: the one forgiven of the greater amount would love more than the one forgiven little.

Both the host and his unbidden guest were in need of repentance.  The difference between the two was that she embraced it and he denied it.  The account of this sinful, yet penitent woman, is a brilliant example of actions speaking far louder than words. It’s an easy thing to say you’re sorry for your past wrong-doing. Words are cheap. But her tears were her confession that spoke of genuine sorrow for a less than perfect past, the humility of her action spoke of deep sincerity, and her sacrifice of the expensive ointment—worth months or years of income to the common laborer—spoke of commitment. These are three attitudes that are among the most essential requirements of true repentance.

The Pharisee was true to his station in life.  He had carefully observed the Law and had staked his righteousness on the perfection of his performance.  The inevitable conclusion a Pharisee would draw from such flawless adherence would be the absolute certainty of his own “rightness”, which is actually the gateway to pride, and a portal to a whole new world of sin just waiting to be explored.  In a way, pride is the most insidious of sins, in that it speaks the comforting lie that says, “I’m alright,” or “I deserve God’s congratulation.”  Perhaps this man had been present when some Pharisees had looked down their noses at Jesus’s disciples and complained, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Luke 5:30) “And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  (vv. 31-32)  The irony is that Jesus was probably telling them that they were all sick, and they all needed a doctor. Sadly, their prideful condition did not allow them to see that. This is the same scenario in virtually every scene involving the Pharisees, who over and over proved themselves to be the quintessence of self-righteous prigs.  Law-keeping on the scale to which the Pharisees took it required constant attention to human-imposed details on top of the commands provided by God.  There were multiplied volumes of commands and inferences layered on top of those commands, like spackle over a patch in a damaged wall.  Like nearsighted plowmen, they were unable to fix their eyes on any true goal or prize, and their straight furrows were running askew.  Theirs was a life of tunnel-vision as they walked a tightrope with nothing to catch them should they fall, no net, no grace, and no appreciation for the broader vista of life.

The sinful woman, on the other hand, mustered her faith and acted on it. She could have watched Jesus from the gallery of observers as he taught, she could have said to herself that she believed that he could forgive her, and then done no more. But she humbled herself in that act of utter contrition, and gave her burden to Jesus, which he took from her with four simple words, in our reading of the account: “Your sins are forgiven.”  Her active, resolute faith had saved her.  Jesus’s final instruction to her was simply to “Go in peace.”

In Luke 15, there are three parables of loss and return, fall and redemption, failure and repentance.  In the story of the shepherd and his sheep, as with the story of the woman and her coins, there was joy on recovery of that which was lost.  In both cases, there was action involved in getting back the lost possession: the shepherd searched, the woman swept, and there was joy in the return.

In the third and most famous of the trio, one of two sons asked his father for his inheritance, left home, lived riotously, then suffered the indignity of a reversal of fortune, compounded by a withering famine. This led to the humiliating scene of this once proud young man who, starving, coveted the husks fed to the hogs in his charge.  In one of the best descriptions in all of scripture, or perhaps all of written history and literature, Jesus says the young man “…came to himself.”  He woke up.  He realized his condition, and resolved to return home, not expecting to return to his place as a member of the family, but rather to be well-supplied as a servant.  Like the sinful woman in chapter 7, he demonstrated those essential attitudes of repentance: he was sorry for the way he had squandered the inheritance, a gift from his father; he was willing to accept the humble station of a servant; and he committed to his repentance by his arduous journey home.  Upon his return, the wonderful, forgiving father welcomed him with open arms: this lost boy was found, and was rewarded with the joy of the restoration of his place in the family, even as David had prayed for the restoration of the joy of God’s salvation.

The older brother was furious, accusing the gracious father of cruelty and unfairness.  After all, he had been the righteous one, staying where he was supposed to, taking care of business as he should.  This older brother was the type of person that Jesus referred to in the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20 who signed on early for a set wage, and grumbled when those who came late were paid the same one denarius, but with less work.  Self-righteousness carries with it its own particular brand of abject bitterness, and a deep-seated anger that refuses to examine or admit one’s own faults.  It is steeped in pride, framed by suspicion, and leads to a joyless existence.  The self-righteous are wretched and pitiable creatures, but their hubris-tinted lenses prevent them from seeing themselves as they truly are.  And so it was with the older brother.

The wise father let his son go, knowing that to refuse would engender nothing but anger and discord.  He also welcomed his return.  He let him make his own choices and mistakes.  In keeping with that benevolent character, this man didn’t rebuke the older brother for his outburst of jealousy.  He gently reminded him that he had nothing to be jealous about, that he never lacked for anything as a member of the household.  I feel a catch in my throat and a tear in my eye when I read his words to this jealous son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”  An honest person will likely identify with the younger, errant, and then penitent son.  A self-righteous person will likely find no fault in the older brother.  But anyone should see the goodness of God in the loving father.

Repenting is one of the hardest things a person can do.  It requires brutal honesty with one’s self, and like Paul, a willingness to buffet one’s body to keep it in subjection.  Over the years, I have seen people repeatedly make public confessions and pledge their repentance every week or two.  They were courageous for taking those steps, but they, too, failed to understand the meaning of true repentance.  It takes more than an expression of guilt: it takes commitment, vigilance, and strength of will to make the repentance stand the test of further temptation.  How do I know?  Because I’m human, and I know how my life is filled with temptations leading to stumbles, and not a few falls.  Confession is recognizing when you have fallen, and is necessary before asking for forgiveness.  Repentance is the will to get back up, put the past behind you and keep moving forward.  Crossing the finish line is going to require both.

True repentance is essential to true righteousness.  Self-righteousness sees no need for repentance.  But even for the most self-righteous people of the Bible, there was hope.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee who by honest investigation apparently became a follower of Jesus, trading his own self-righteousness for God’s righteousness.  Joseph of Arimathea, who was likely to have been a Pharisee as he was a member of the Sanhedrin, was a disciple of Jesus.  But the ultimate example of the triumph of true righteousness was the conversion of the self-professed Hebrew of Hebrews, the devout Saul the Pharisee who became Paul the Apostle.  Based on these examples, along with that of the eminently fallible yet penitent David, the sinful woman and the lost son, anyone can change.  The question that remains is, “Do we have what it takes to make it happen?”