Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fun questions -- two more OT themes that muddy the waters

Thank you to everyone who's participated in the comments section so far in this series of posts on atonement, grace and other biblical themes. The questions alone have given me enough material to study and write much more sometime. For now, here's a quick look at two more interesting themes that jump out as you read through the Old Testament:

1) The result of obeying God was to be blessed on earth (family wealth, national military strength, eras of peace, etc...). The afterlife is a concept completely absent from the Old Testament.
2) The relationship with God was a national thing, not a personal thing. The consequences of following or not following God (#1) brought consequences that affected everybody.

I purposely tried to phrase those things positively, but I could just as easily state them another way:

1) It wasn't about heaven
2) It wasn't about the individual

And yet in most churches today, what do we hear?

1) It's all about heaven
2) It's all about your personal relationship with Jesus/God

I'm not going to cite lots of scripture for this one, since it's almost impossible to choose. The entire OT is full of these two themes -- divine principles play out right here and now, and we all share in the results.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

For Debby

Short detour from my current series on biblical themes.

Debby, a frequent commenter and dear digital friend (a.k.a. one of the coolest ladies I've never met), had her last day of chemo today! She has been sharing all the ups and downs of cancer, chemo, unemployment, family, holidays... pretty much her life as an open book on the blog. It's been an honor to read it.

She will soon be headed to visit her son and her friends for some days and nights of family, jokes and laughing.

So in the spirit of family and comedy, here are some things from our household over the past couple of weeks:


Jack: Daddy, what are those white things on your chin?
Me: ...hairs, son...


Mid-morning on Monday (a holiday for me) Jack and I stopped by Samantha's school to drop something off. When we walked into her classroom, the teacher warmly welcomed us:

Teacher: Hello, Samantha's daddy! Hello, Jack! Everybody say hi to Jack!
Class: Helloooooo, Jack!
Jack: (Raises hands dramatically) DON'T LISTEN TO ME!!! I'M CRAZY!!!!


Last night I was getting the bath ready for the kids. They were playing in Jack's room and were supposed to be getting "naykee".

Samantha: Oh Jack, I'm so, so sorry.
Me: What happened? Is he hurt?
Samantha: No. I pooped on his floor.
Me: Huh?
Samantha: Don't worry (she got a kleenex, picked up the nugget, and took it to the bathroom.
Me: What just happened?
Samantha: That's what happens when you take your panties off and then laugh really, really hard.

Then Samantha dropped this one on me:

Samantha: Daddy, why do good people sometimes get killed for doing good things?
Me: Why do you ask, sugar? (In my head: "WHAT? ALREADY? I'M NOT READY FOR THIS CONVERSATION!")
Samantha: Because of Martin Luther King. He was good. But he got killed.
Me: Hmmm... you're right. And you know what? (SHE'S ONLY SIX!)
Samantha: What?
Me: When he got killed, it kinda woke people up to how wrong that was. He would talk about how we all need to love each other, no matter what color our skin is. But some people thought he was complaining too much, and it wasn't really a problem. When he got killed, though, everybody realized that the problem was real. It woke them up. And now today we treat each other better. (EXHALE)
Samantha: Even The Rock Obama has brown skin, and he's our President!
Me: Exactly!

So you see, even in the midst of toddler craziness and kingergarten humor, poignant moments of clarity and importance emerge from the chaos.

Life's funny like that.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Atonement -- not so simple

So last time I wrote about grace, and how it is actually a theme that is encountered (and countered with justice) all throughout the bible, both Old and New Testaments. Tonight I write about another theme, atonement, and once again it is one that is much more complicated than it might appear on the surface.

Let's start with the Old Testament. When I think of atonement in the Old Testament, I usually think of animal sacrifice. This practice begins immediately in the bible narrative, right after Adam and Eve's ejection from the Garden of Eden. It begins with their sons, Cain and Abel:

"Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock." (Genesis 4)

So right away animals are being presented as an offering to God. Noah did it right after the great flood (Genesis 8), Abraham is recorded often as building altars and providing "burnt offerings" on them to God, and Moses did the same. And once Moses inherits "the law", we see right away in the first chapter of Leviticus that God handed down specific instructions on burnt offerings, with specifics from the type of animal (male, without defect) to the style of preparation (skinning the animal, where to place the head on the altar, etc...). That chapter also details how to prepare birds or even grains as a burnt offering, instead of animals. Later, in Leviticus 16, God provides details of how to prepare and kill animals for sacrifices on the "Day of Atonement" a special worship and celebration outside of regular sacrifices. The bottom line is that these offerings, whether spontaneous or command-based, were an important part of their relationship with God.

This is the foundational practice of achieving/receiving atonement. Since I keep mentioning the word, and it's the title of this post, we might as well define it!

I've looked up the word "atonement" in many dictionaries and concordances, and just like with any other topic, there's no agreement. Welcome to biblical study, my friends. But the general tone is something like this:

Atonement: when something has happened so that God can forgive sin

Interesting. The basic picture here is that God is willing, even eager, to forgive, but it's not a unilateral move. He waits for a person to respond, then provides the forgiveness.

So I guess that's it, then. See you next time!

Okay, I'm kidding. Obviously it's not that simple. First let's work through some logic, then we'll look at a few more bible passages.

Logically, what is it about animal blood, bird carcasses or grains that opens up the doorway to forgiveness? Is it something physically present in the flesh or grain? I can't say for sure, but that seems doubtful. This appears more like something God simply chose, because it was an easily-available form of sacrifice for the people. Something that did come with a price, but not too much. He's looking for the gesture itself -- the details are irrelevant (although there sure are a lot of details in Leviticus).

In that case, then, let's look at the bible and see how this plays out. If offerings bring atonement, and enable God to forgive sin, then without offerings there may not be atonement, right? I mean, God laid out the rules pretty clearly. Now we return to Isaiah:

"Yet you have not called upon me, O Jacob, you have not wearied yourselves for me, O Israel. You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with grain offerings nor wearied you with demands for incense. You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses." (Isaiah 43:22-28)

Ouch. Surely this won't go well. But wait:

"But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen. This is what the Lord says -- he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams." (Isaiah 44:1-5)

Whoa! So maybe sacrifices aren't the only way to atonement? You readers who are long-time church attendees are probably thinking of this passage by now:

"You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51)

There were whole years, even decades, when the Israelites were not able or not willing to follow specific divine commands. They skipped the Year of Jubilee more than they followed it, they intermarried with idolatrous cultures, they spared enemies they were supposed to kill and killed enemies they were supposed to spare. And they missed sacrifices. Sacrifices for atonement. For forgiveness. Yet God always forgave them anyway, which is powerfully apparent when reading books like Isaiah.

I guess that is the meaning of grace.

I'm running short on time again, and have so far still to go. So let's close with the most fun part -- the hard questions:

-- If God could forgive without sacrifice, then why ask for sacrifice in the first place? It's obviously not for God, or to "enable" God's forgiveness through atonement. He's God. He built the universe; he can forgive whom and when he wants. Is it possible that the demand for sacrifice was for the people? For them to put some skin in the game, come together as a culture, and spend time processing the big picture of what they'd done and how they would improve?

-- If God could forgive without sacrifice, does this put any possible holes in the view of Jesus' death as a necessary part of penal substitution (his perfect self killed so that we imperfect people could be saved)?

-- If "yes" to the above, what other reasons could there be for the life, and death, of Jesus?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Grace in the OT?

A few weeks ago Jamie and I had a Friday date night and went to an exhibit at our local museum called "Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story". It had some amazing pieces of pottery, tools, art and other items from the time Jesus was alive. They even had a piece of Jerusalem's temple, plus several sections of scrolls from early copies of what we now know as the bible. They had a section of Luke dated around 200 A.D., I believe. The text still stood out clearly on the parchment but it was all Greek to me.

Another section of text there was from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. I wish I could tell you if it was a Greek translation or if it was in the original Hebrew, but I don't remember, because I was fascinated by the English translation posted above the text. What we now know as chapters 43 and 44 of the book tell of the great disobedience of the Israelite people, and how far they've wandered from God. Then Isaiah writes this, as a prophet speaking for God:

"Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloub, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.

Sing for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel."

Many times Christians think of the Old Testament as portraying the judgment/ruler side of God, while the New Testatment emphasizes the grace/servant side of God. But things are never so simple. We see plenty of harshness, judgment and even anger from Jesus in the New Testatment. And sometimes pieces of pure grace pour from the pages of the Old Testament, just like this part of Isaiah.

The word for "redeem" in the bolded section above is almost surely not talking about heaven -- it's a reference to the restoration of the nation of Israel, and their freedom from bondage. When Isaiah was writing this (~700 B.C.), his nation was starting to weaken under Assyrian forces, and soon many of his people would be slaves. The book of Isaiah is full of warnings of this impending occupation, and links their military weakness to the preceding cultural, social and spiritual weakness. He basically sees his country falling apart from the inside-out.

Yet peppered throughout the book are frequent passages of amazing optimism and beauty, like the one cited above. And almost every one of them is bookended by long lists of the heinous acts the people have commited. The pattern is like this, as spoken by God:

1) You screwed up
2) Wow, you screwed up big time
3) I love you
4) I have saved you. You are mine.
5) Please come back. You will be so much better for it.
6) You're coming back!
7) Wait... there you go again...
8) Back to #1

Notice the order of #4 and #5, just like in the bolded text. First God saves, then he asks his people to come back to him. The people's strength as a nation is dependent on their strength of heart, because this is a natural consequence of cultures. You can't build a lasting superpower on a foundation of deceit and greed. That's still a good lesson for today, wouldn't you say?

But their status with God didn't depend on their obedience. God chose them anyway, and made them his people. Not because they were awesome. But because he's God, and he said so. The same reason that 7,000 Israelites didn't bow before idols during the time of Elijah (1 Kings 19) -- God reserved them. The original text doesn't give any indication that those 7,000 used their free will to stand strong. It appears God just decided they wouldn't bow to idols, so they didn't.

But like I said earlier, themes of the bible are never quite so simple. There are instances of God's confusing wrath and seeming injustice (Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6, anyone?) and instances of God's confusing grace and seeming softheartedness (criminal on the cross in Luke 23?).

But the confusing moments of grace certainly aren't confined to the New Testament. How odd that because of one man, Abraham, God decided to take millions under his wing, protecting them, building them up as a nation, and telling them they would always be his, no matter how far they strayed. All that forgiveness and blessing over thousands of years, just because God liked the guy who came before them.

That is a theme that surfaces again...

So I stood in the museum, seeing an exhibit linking Judaism and Christianity, being reminded once again that our story truly is the same. And if you read chapters 9 through 11 of Romans, you get an incredibly positive and uplifting picture of the future of the Jews. That's a future I'd be proud to share.

I'm not done yet, but I'm done for tonight. :)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

10-year anniversary trip, part 2

So last Friday night, after spending the day at San Diego's Wild Animal Park, we drove up the coast to eat at The Brigantine in Del Mar. Our table overlooked part of the beach, the ocean and the side-by-side racetracks nearby (one for dogs and one for horses, I presume). The food was terrific, of course. I had sea bass and Jamie had an alfredo pasta dish with oysters, shrimp, scallops and goat cheese.

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Then on the way back to the hotel we stopped at the grocery store and bought some chocolates. They were on sale because they weren't in a fancy Valentine's box like the others on display, ha! So we ate an expensive dinner and finished up with cheap dessert, and thus everything was balanced.

Saturday we checked out of the "Plan B" hotel and drove to San Diego to hit the Midway aircraft carrier, now turned into a museum. It was one of our favorite parts of the trip. It was built in the mid-1940s and was the biggest ship in the world for over a decade after its completion. It was activated in multiple conflicts, saved many refugees and was still our flagship for Desert Storm! It was finally decommissioned a few years ago and has been transitioned into a tourist attraction.

It's massive. We spent a few hours doing through all the levels and rooms. We talked to lots of people. Several former shipmates are now guides on the ship, so we got to hear about the galley/mess from a former Midway head cook (1973-74) and we learned about the steam engines from a former engineer on the ship (1960s). We learned that the ship had four engines, each with more than 52,000 horsepower. They served more than 13,000 meals every single day.
And it wasn't just statistics -- the pictures, stories and physical reality of the ship itself really transported us to another place and time. It was a stark reminder of war for a happy couple who has never experienced it firsthand.

In the hangar and on the flightdeck were more than 40 aircraft, all of which at some point actually flew from the Midway on active duty. Did I mention the ship was big?

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Then we checked into the Hotel Salomar right in the heart of San Diego, and our friend Roland (he often comments on the blog) drove down from L.A. to see us. Thus beginneth our #1 favorite part of the trip -- Torrey Pines with me, Jamie and Roland.

We started out on the beach and walked it for a while, then we went up into the hills and hiked the trails. Just sunshine and conversation. I like that we didn't just go to California and retreat into ourselves. We made some connections: Mrs. Nugent, Roland, a couple at the animal park from Osage Beach, MO, etc... A good reminder that "we" is bigger than just the two of us, and that everybody has a story worth hearing.

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After all that walking, the donger need food (movie reference) so we headed back to the hotel to park Roland's car and walk the area for a good restaurant. We settled on Mexican food, followed by dessert at Ghirardelli Chocolate. Yes, they have stores, and I'm lucky enough that this is the second one I've been to (the other was in Las Vegas). I later discovered that they have thirteen locations nationwide, and that eight of them are in California. What a state!

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We came home relaxed and refreshed, ready for another 10 years.

There's a lot going on right now, so I'm not sure what to blog next. I'm not promising that all of the following will ever get posted, but here are some ideas I'm throwing around:

-- Book reviews of "The Spontaneous Healing Power of Belief" and "13 Things That Don't Make Sense"
-- The sad and strangely humorous (in a dark way) story of when I had to put our neighbor's cat down for him recently. With a shovel.
-- How prejudice is actually overcome (hint: not through articles or debates)
-- Oh yeah, Jamie's pregnant. :)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Our 10-year anniversary trip -- part 1

In January Jamie and I celebrated 10 years of marriage, and to mark the occasion we planned a 4-day, 3-night excursion to San Diego. Just the two of us. Neither of us had ever been to California before and we were ready to have an adventure!

My mom flew down from Kansas City to take care of the kids and did an amazing job. Seriously, our family schedules exhaust me all the time and at least I know the lay of the land around here -- where the restaurants, schools and parks are located, how to do the bedtime routines, reminding Jack to go potty, etc... She didn't have the benefit of knowing all our family rituals and household details, yet came down to our turf and managed everything beautifully. Big award to RoRo (her nickname)!

So with her taking care of things at home, Jamie and I flew out last Thursday morning. Our plan was to spend the first two nights at a cabin on Lake Henshaw, about 80 miles north of San Diego. It would be a quiet, nature-filled and private retreat for us. The place we were staying said it had a cabin "nestled in the hill" on the lake. We envisioned just that, complete with crisp mornings with birds singing, and clear nights of stargazing next to the fire we'd build.

More on that later. First, we needed to get to the lake. Our flight was smooth and we hopped in our rental car and headed north from San Diego. We stopped in a small community/suburb called Scripps and had lunch at an awesome family-owned seafood restaurant (AJ, the food references are especially in your honor). It was called Nugent's Fishgrille, and Mrs. Nugent herself was our hostess. Jamie got the cajun tuna sandwich (with what looked like a 14-oz. filet) and I had the sliders. Awesome. And Mrs. Nugent visited with us a while and mentioned that if we liked the hiking, we had to go to Torrey Pines and do it there. Later on we loved her for that.

And then we arrived, and this was the view out our cabin door:

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We were nestled in a hill, alright. A paved hill, right smack in the middle of a big parking lot that included a bar/grill and about five other cabins mere feet from our own. And we had to cross the parking lot, the highway, and some other property to get to the lake, which in Texas terms was a respectable puddle. No fire pits, either. The cabin walls were thin and there were no curtains on the windows, giving us as much privacy as a glass house, basically.

We're not usually very picky, and we certainly weren't looking for luxury. All we wanted was a private place out in nature, but once that wasn't working we turned in our key, got in the car and continued the adventure! First we stopped near the town of Julian for some of their famous apple pie. We had the dutch apple pie, hot, with cinnamon ice cream. Then back in the car on the beautiful California roads (amazing hill country, vineyards, fruit fields, ostrich farms, etc...) to figure out where we'd be spending the night.

We ended up at a hotel not more than 100 yards from the restaurant where we'd eaten lunch! But it was perfect. The staff upgraded us to a jacuzzi room with a king bed for dirt cheap, and we couldn't have been happier.

We woke up Friday morning and drove to the Wild Animal Park. It's like a zoo, but with a much more open setting. Here are some pics and captions, and then tomorrow I'll bring you part 2 to finish the recap of our trip:

Here's a look at how open the terrain is. Giraffes, antelope, rhinos... all together in a more natural habitat.
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These female gorillas were having a showdown. The one on the right didn't want her blankie stolen. They were quite entertaining.Image Hosted by

Okay, maybe not a totally natural habitat, but Land Rovers sure are comfy.Image Hosted by

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--The beach
--Hiking at Torrey Pines
--Touring the Midway aircraft carrier
--More food!
--Hotel Salomar and the gaslamp quarter of San Diego