Must I Really Change the World?

It’s been a long break as I had to focus on my current project, working title: Lost Mission. Thanks, Kay, for that post encouraging me to keep blogging. I certainly intend to do so, but only when I have something to say that seems worth saying. Some people have fascinating everyday lives; I’m pretty much a bump on a log. So there’ll be none of those daily musings on doing the laundry or walking the dog here. Also, I can only write here when I have some spare creative energy from my day job as a novelist. Unlike a few other writers (Angie Hunt and Robin Lee Hatcher come to mind) I can’t seem to juggle lots of writing projects all at once. For me, blogging steals creative thunder from the novel writing process, especially during the first draft. But that stage is almost finished now; I can see the ending clearly, so it’s possible to widen up my focus just a bit.

This new novel asks the question, “Are Christians supposed to change the world?” It may surprise some people, but my answer is . . . no, not really.

To explain, I need to define “the world”. It means the whole thing: believers, unbelievers, nature, everything that is lost and broken. In other words, Lost Mission asks the question, what is our responsibility to this world which was broken by the Fall? Hospitals, orphanages, and humanitarian initiatives of every kind throughout history testify to the Christian drive to fight against this fallen world’s corruption. But consider this:

Our own the scriptures say we cannot save this world. The Bible says this world will become progressively more corrupt until the end of days, when God will replace it altogether with a “new heaven and new earth”. If we read only those prophesies, it would seem pointless to try to resist the inevitably worsening corruption by concerning ourselves with earthly problems. God does not mean to save this world. He means to replace it.

However, the Bible is also filled with commandments for believers to engage in acts of love and compassion in spite of the coming destruction. In fact, one place tells us we will be rewarded or punished at the end of days in accordance with our response to those commands. (See Matthew 25:31-46) So basically, we are commanded to do love while also being told our loving acts will not hold back the ever-growing corruption of the world. It's a paradox. Why does the Bible call for loving social action in the face of certain failure?

There are two reasons, I think. First, Jesus says whenever we love the ill, the imprisoned, the poor, etc., we are really loving Him. (See the Matthew quote above.) Social action—loving our neighbor—is one of the main ways God wants to receive our love. Who knows why? You might as well ask why your lover wants flowers. It’s what our Father wants, and anyone who loves Him will long to give him what He wants. (John 14:23) Second, Jesus says we should do good acts so others will see and praise the Father, in other words, for evangelical reasons. (Matthew 5:16) The explanation for this is much more obvious: God loves our neighbor just as he loves us, so He does not want anyone to perish. (2 Peter 3:9)

Where we get into trouble is when we forget these underlying reasons for our work on earth, when we start thinking the work itself is the main thing, rather than seeing it purely as an extension of our love for God, and God’s love for us. That leads directly to the kind of superficial, hypocritical or judgmental behavior we evangelical Christians have unfortunately become stereotyped for. Every Christian who fits that stereotype (and there are many, sadly) believes he or she is living righteously. Inevitably, such Christians still feel a strong desire to change the world, but they have forgotten why it matters.

Here is my prayer for today:

Lord, teach me to love all of your creation from the deepest places in the ocean to the tallest mountaintop. Let me yearn to heal its wounds. Teach me to love my neighbor sacrificially, as I love myself. But above all else Lord, show me how to love you with my entire heart and soul and mind and strength, because unless I love you first like that, all my other loves are bound to fail.

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives…” (2 Peter 3:10-12)

I’ll share more thoughts that I've been playing with in Lost Mission soon. It’s good to be back!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:20 AM 16 comments  

The Secret Name of God

I am still amazed by something a friend emailed to me yesterday, a quote from a devotional called Behold and Be Held, the Memorial Name of God, by Aaron Rabin. I can't find this devotional on the web, or I would link to it. I won't quote the whole thing here, lest I infringe on Mr. Rabin's copyright. So I'll just get to the bottom line.

In the devotional, Mr. Rabin refers to the tetragrammaton, YHVH. This is the most holy name of God, given to Moses at the burning bush, the one that most English translations render as “I AM”. The Hebrew letters sound like "Yud Hey Vav Hey". YHVH is also the "forgotten" name of God, which Jews say has a meaning and a pronunciation that was lost because their ancestors have refused to speak it aloud since about a generation before the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. (To learn more about this, visit this site, and scroll down to "The Name".) Today YHVH is most often rendered as "Yahweh" when written or spoken by Christians and others. It is still never pronounced aloud by Orthodox Jews. “Jehovah” is an older, less accurate rendition. YHVH is also the name most often printed as the LORD (all caps) in English Bibles. (Sometimes "Adonai" is translated that way as well.)

Anyway, in his devotional Mr. Rabin refers to a conversation he had with an Orthodox rabbi, which drove him to question his Christian faith. Here is a quote:

"As I spoke to the Orthodox rabbi and used the Scriptures to support my faith, I felt like a child in a highchair trying to explain the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein. He called me an apostate Jew, accusing me not of finding Messiah but of embracing a pagan religion. He wielded the Scriptures like a sharp sword, slicing my faith - and my heart - into smaller and smaller pieces.

"My testimony, which had always been to me like a beautiful stained glass window that I could gaze at to see the power of God's saving grace, now seemed like a pile of broken glass. My faith was in crisis. I knelt and pleaded with God to restore the joy of His salvation in me."

This is very like the crisis I felt myself after spending years studying the Torah with several rabbis in my home town. (You can read about it here.) Like me, Mr. Rabin turned to the Lord and to the Bible. In the midst of his search for truth, he says the Holy Spirit led him to the story of the burning bush, and the secret name of God, YHVH.

Mr. Rabin investigated the ideographic meaning of the Hebrew letters Yud Hey Vav Hey. An ideogram is a symbol that represents an idea, like those little male and female shaped signs you see on the outside of public restroom doors. This is similar--but not identical--to the Chinese written system, or ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Hebrew letters have had ideographic meanings since ancient times. (Learn more here). I knew this, but I never thought to check the tetragrammaton against those meanings as Mr. Rabin did. When I verified his assertion here, here and here, I was amazed. There are several ideographic meanings for each of the letters. Hey, for example can mean both "window", and "look" or "behold". Vav can mean "hook", "peg", or "nail". But in each case the ideas represented by the letters are closely related. With all of this in mind, using the ideographic meanings of Yud Hey Vav Hey most commonly accepted by Jewish scholars throughout the centuries, I found they absolutely match Rabin's translation.

Symbolically speaking, the most holy name of God, YHVH, can indeed be translated as:

"Behold, the hand. Behold, the nail."

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:07 AM 15 comments  

The Easter Equation

Strange, but with Easter coming up tomorrow I find myself thinking about people I don’t know, the Spitzer family in New York to be exact, and most especially, Governor Spitzer’s wife. Why on earth is she still there, standing beside that man? There’s no way to know for certain without knowing her, of course. Maybe she hasn’t left him yet because she is in shock. Maybe she’s only staying from longstanding habit. Even Mrs. Spitzer might not fully understand her reasons. But there’s always the possibility of forgiveness, and with Easter morning just a few hours away, it seems appropriate to think about forgiveness, and repentance, and the reason for the cross and empty tomb.

When a hateful thing is done, the first question we must ask is, “Do I care enough about this person to continue the relationship?” For a Christian, there should be one answer only. Jesus made it clear that we must pick up a cross and follow him, and the cross means reconciliation. Consider this:

Reconciliation = Repentance + Forgiveness

There is a missing portion of this formula which I will add, one last thing that makes it worth the effort, but first I want to point out that this equation means no one person can repair a broken relationship. It takes two, and hard things are required of both.

Maybe Mrs. Spitzer is standing there because she’s willing to do her part. If so, I salute her. Very few people seem to have that kind of courage these days. As a Bible teacher, whenever my classes get to passages dealing with forgiveness I like to bring up marital unfaithfulness because for most of us adultery is one place where the rubber really meets the road. It’s interesting how almost everyone will agree that people who do wrong ought to repent, period, and no excuses, but when it comes to the forgiveness part of the equation we feel free to apply conditions and equivocations. While all of us can easily imagine ourselves in the position of the wronged party, it’s a sad reminder of the fallen human condition that so much effort is required to put ourselves in the shoes of the wrongdoer. Any Christian who says, “I could never sin as horribly as Mr. Spitzer did,” has failed to learn a basic Bible fact. Remember Moses, the murderer. Remember David, the adulterer and murderer. Remember Peter, the betrayer. Heaven forbid I should ever see myself as less of a sinner than any of them, because such pride does indeed go before a fall. In fact, such pride is a fall. If I went around thinking, “I’d never sin that badly,” I would be sinning then and there. Jesus had a special anger in his heart for hypocrites.

Also, as a Christian I don’t get to say, “You’re only sorry because you got caught.” Being a Christian doesn’t mean I have to be naïve, so of course I’d be crazy not to watch for signs of that kind of insincerity, but in the meantime when someone comes to me and says “I hurt you and I have no excuse and I’m truly sorry and I hope you will forgive me,” then as a Christian bound to lift his cross, I have to say, “Okay, I forgive you.” Often, forgiveness is the very cross we have to bear. Only God can look into a person’s heart and know if they are insincere. The Bible does not speak of a spiritual gift of “discernment,” if by that we mean the ability to read minds. Prophesy, knowledge and wisdom, yes; mind reading, no. After all, if a person had discernment enough to know a confession is insincere, there would be no need for the confession, because such a mind reader could not have been betrayed in the first place. Of course a person with the gifts of knowledge and wisdom might say, “Most people are not totally sincere about repenting under these circumstances, so the odds are this guy doesn’t really mean what he says.” But a truly wise and knowledgeable person would also have to add, “‘Most people’ does not mean ‘all people,’ and no person can know for sure if an apparently heartfelt expression of repentance is sincere. Only the passage of time could reveal that truth.”

This is precisely why Jesus commands us to “turn the other cheek.” Being God, he did not pick his metaphors lightly. He meant we cannot read each other’s minds, so we must be willing to risk another slap. He also meant we must be willing to stand within slapping range. If that were not his meaning, he would have used a different metaphor. Again, he is God, and says just what he means. “Forgiveness” from a distance to avoid a second round of pain is not forgiveness, at least not by Jesus’ definition. When someone hurts me horribly, then they come and say, “I hurt you and I have no excuse and I’m truly sorry and I hope you will forgive me,” as a Christian, I not only have to say I forgive them; I have to prove it. I have to step close to them, to be with them, to re-engage with them. Although I may have done nothing wrong, I must risk another slap. This is not always a literal requirement. For example, I don't believe the Lord expects an abused wife to endure her husband's blows. But it is possible to get distance on one level while remaining within arm's length on another. Forgiveness exists for the sake of reconciliation, and reconciliation means relationship.

This kind of engaged forgiveness is very hard, but it must be remembered that the same is true of real repentance. True repentance is humiliating. Very humiliating. In a case like Governor Spitzer’s it means being willing to hang around a person who knows what a louse you’ve been, and never being able to deny it, or escape it, or downplay it. For someone who does not really believe they did a horrible thing, or someone who does not care, this is fairly easy. You hang on to your foolish pride through foolish denial. But for a truly repentant person, for someone who truly understands, accepts and mourns the depth of harm they did, it is misery to have to face your failed reflection in a loved one’s wounded eyes. How much easier to simply walk away, to get the emotional distance you need to at least pretend you are a decent person. How brave it is to stay there in plain sight, humiliated daily for the sake of the relationship.

How can any Christian turn away from that second slap? How can any Christian chose pride above the humiliation of sincere repentance? To endure a punishment not deserved, to endure the humiliation of a wrongdoer, are these not the very things Christ did for us upon the cross? Can any authentic follower of Jesus do less?

Yet if I was part of the Spitzer family this Easter weekend, I would wonder how any mortal could possibly carry such a cross.

The answer lies within the question. We can carry a cross because we follow the Cross. The example Jesus set is itself the Way to live by the example. Sacrificial forgiveness and repentance are required by God, and possible through God. He stoops down to make us great. And if he stoops for your sake and for mine, who are we to stand before each other when he humbly bids us kneel? God is love, which explains the rest of that formula, the part that makes it worth the effort:

Reconciliation = Repentance + Forgiveness = Love.

Humiliation for the sake of love. Sorrow for the sake of love. Suffering for the sake of love. This is what Christ did for you and me on the cross and in the empty tomb. This is also what he asks of you and me. So on tomorrow’s Easter morning, search your heart for bitterness and pride, and then confess, repent, forgive and above all, love, because he first loved you. This is the Easter equation, the only thing that adds up to a life worth living.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 3:45 PM 4 comments  

Being David

Running for his life seems to be a theme of David’s in the Psalms we’ve been studying at my church during this Lenten season. So far we’ve heard sermons on Psalms 59, 56, 34, 52, 54, 7 and 57. All of them have at least this in common: David is in trouble. Consider these quotes from the titles (NIV):

“When Saul had sent men to watch David's house in order to kill him.”

“When the Philistines had seized him in Gath.”

“When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.”

“When Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: ‘David has gone to the house of Ahimelech.’”
(This man “Doeg” then murdered David’s allies and their families.)

“When the Ziphites had gone to Saul and said, ‘Is not David hiding among us?’” (Another betrayal.)

“Concerning Cush, a Benjamite.”
(We don’t know what this “Cush” did to David, but from David’s words in Psalms 7 it is clearly very bad.)

“When he had fled from Saul into the cave.”
(Imagine being “the Lord’s anointed,” yet having to hide in caves.)

We have seven preachers in a weekly rotation at our church, and those wise men have offered many excellent life lessons from David’s experiences. For example, although David has God’s promise that he will be the king, as a private citizen David never takes justice into his own hands by attacking Saul, because he knows that would be usurping God’s authority. Instead, David waits on God’s justice, in God’s time. The message is for us is to do the same. Justice is not our job; it is God’s. Wait for it.

A few other things our preachers have not mentioned keep leaping off the page at me:

First, one word for Christians who believe being "anointed" by the Holy Spirit means an easy life: nonsense. Look at all the years David had to live on the run, harassed and threatened by a powerful enemy, forced to live with strangers, cowering in caves. We have no promise whatsoever that the Jesus Way will be comfortable or easy, no promise of earthly rewards, no reason to assume we will get any blessings in this life except the only one that matters: peace with God. On the contrary, the Jesus Way leads to some kind of a cross for every one of us.

I also noticed David usually begins these kinds of Psalms with pleas for mercy and help against his enemies. He then follows with a proclamation of his own righteousness. His bold ability to tell God, “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness” is a little startling to me, since I am always conscious that “all have sinned and fall short,” and I see the sin in myself most of all. But I have begun to find comfort in David’s example, because upon reflection I realize he is right to proclaim his innocence.

Here's the thing: I have accepted the free gift of Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins on the cross, and that means God no longer sees me as a sinner. Like David, I am now guilt-free, or “righteous” in God’s sight. David’s Psalms inspire me to remember this when I approach the Lord in prayer. I used to come as a prodigal son, a beggar on my knees. Now, thanks to David’s example, I have learned to stand before the Lord with confidence, knowing I will be received with a proud father’s unconditional love. I sense a much stronger connection with my Father when I go to Him this way.

I’ve noticed something else. David starts these Psalms with pleas for mercy and professions of innocence, often calling upon God to defend him from his enemies, then, at some point in almost all of these Psalms, one way or another he behaves as if God has already answered his prayer. Consider (NIV):

For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life. (Psalms 56:13)

I will praise you forever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good. I will praise you in the presence of your saints.
(Psalms 52:9)

I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you; I will praise your name, O LORD, for it is good. For he has delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.
(Psalms 54:6-7)

I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High.
(Psalms 7:17)

They spread a net for my feet — I was bowed down in distress. They dug a pit in my path
but they have fallen into it themselves.
(Psalms 57:6)

In all of these cases David assumes—even as he’s asking—that his request has already been granted. He begins by asking for things to be given in the future, and ends by saying things like, “you have delivered me,” and “I will praise you forever for what you have done.” At first I read those kinds of words and thought, “But God hasn’t done it yet!” Then I realized this is the complete assurance of a man who knows he is his Father’s righteous son. Obviously, I can’t live rebelliously and expect this kind of confidence, but if I love the Lord with all of my heart and soul and mind as David did, when I ask, I too will receive.

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” (Matthew 7:7-10 NIV)

So does Jesus mean I can ask for a new car and I will get it? Again, that's nonsense! When I love myself first, I will want certain things, even if I don't need them, even if they are ultimately bad for me. I will believe some fool of a preacher when he speaks of God's "anointing" as if it's guaranteed to lead to earthly gain. But when I love the Lord with all my heart and soul and mind, I will want different things. God’s desires become my deepest hope as well, including whatever cross He has for me to bear. Does this mean I must resign myself to endless suffering, a cross to bear that leaves me miserable? Not at all! I must and will accept whatever may come in this life, but because God loves me completely, whatever He has planned is what is best for me in the long run, even if it's hard to bear right now.

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the LORD, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile." (Jeremiah 29:11-14 NIV)

David, as the Lord’s anointed king, knew God wanted him to take command of Israel after Saul was no longer king. Secure in that assurance, David could afford to celebrate God’s plan many years before it came about. Although he was still living in caves like a hunted animal, David was so certain of his Father’s love he praised God for the future as if it was the present. In the same way, I know if I begin my prayers as David did, begging for the very things God wants for me, for my neighbors and for the world, I can end my prayers in praise and thanksgiving, because the perfect things I have requested are as good as done.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:51 AM 4 comments  

Lent Among the Folds

Beginning with the end in mind
I pondered the empty tomb on this first day of Lent. I remembered an email someone forwarded to me recently, one of those sentimental legends people pass around the Internet. It starts with one verse from the Apostle John’s eyewitness description of Jesus’ empty tomb: “He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.” (John 20:6-7) Focusing on that last detail, the folded cloth, the email says:

“In order to understand the significance of the folded napkin, you have to understand a little bit about Hebrew tradition of that day. The folded napkin had to do with the Master and Servant, and every Jewish boy knew this tradition. When the servant set the dinner table for the master, he made sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted it. The table was furnished perfectly, and then the servant would wait, just out of sight, until the master had finished eating, and the servant would not dare touch that table, until the master was finished. Now if the master was done eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers, his mouth, and clean his beard, and would wad up that napkin and toss it onto the table. The servant would then know to clear the table. For in those days, the wadded napkin meant, "I'm done". But if the master got up from the table, and folded his napkin, and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table, because… The folded napkin meant, ‘I'm coming back!’”

It is a nice little story, but I’ve made something of a study of Judaism, including Jewish traditions and cultural practices at the time of Jesus, and never have I heard of such a tradition. So at first I was skeptical. We Christians often try to read too much symbolism into Jewish practices. For example, you will hear it solemnly pronounced at churches around Easter time that the baked brown stripes and rows of little holes in those unleavened wafers Jews use in their Pesach seder (a Passover supper, or service) symbolize the wounds on Jesus’ body when he was crucified. But those stripes and holes only came about in modern times when people started baking matzo mass-production style in factories. Unleavened bread in Jesus’ time would have had neither stripes, nor holes. So we need to use some common sense when we read or hear these kinds of quasi-Messianic theories about Judeo/Christian symbolism.

Still . . . the little story did get me thinking about the folded cloth in the empty tomb, and a certain ancient Jewish dinner table. Since at least the time of Jesus many Jewish families have used a folded napkin in the Pesach seder to hide the afikomen, which is a broken piece of unleavened bread hidden away until the end of the meal, when it is “found” and eaten. We know it was this last piece of bread—the broken afikomen quite possibly retrieved from a hiding place within the napkin folds—that Jesus held aloft and said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” We know this because the next words in the Last Supper account are, “After the supper…” and the Talmud tells us this broken piece of bread was the last food eaten in the seder.

Only three days separated the empty tomb from the moment the disciples witnessed Jesus comparing his own broken body to the afikomen taken from the napkin folds. It makes sense that the folded cloth in the empty tomb would symbolize what Jesus had just accomplished, his broken body risen from the folds of the earth, rather than evoking a second coming thousands of years in the future as the little story above would have us believe. Foremost on Jesus’ mind as he folded his burial cloth would have been the disciples, the people for whom he had just risen from the dead, the people who must now be taught the meaning of the cross and empty tomb. If the gesture of that folded cloth was connected with a dinner table tradition at all, it was not just any Jewish master’s supper, but the Master of all Master’s own Last Supper. Jesus was not thinking of his second coming; he was reminding his disciples to “take, eat, and remember me.” Or so I thought.

Then I remembered the Lord never does just one thing at a time.

It is a sign of God’s omniscience that He accomplishes countless good things with a single word. And in perfect keeping with this fact, God’s “word,” the Bible, often speaks of many things at once. So I began to wonder if that folded cloth might be about both of those Jewish dinner table traditions, the Pesach seder / Last Supper, and a typical Jewish master’s signal to his servant. With that in mind, I remembered this: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26) There they are together in one verse: the gospel and the second coming, and both of them connected with the Last Supper. If the bread and wine proclaim the Christ’s death in our place until he comes again, perhaps the folded cloth does the same, pointing to the meaning of the Gospel and to the promise Jesus will come again.

My Lenten meditation was producing fruit. I began to ponder other possibilities, and of course, the Bible being an endless divine self-revelation, several came to mind.

I have not read Sigmund Brouwer’s book, The Carpenter’s Cloth, but I understand it says carpenters and other manual laborers in first century Palestine, as today, kept a cloth handy to wipe away their perspiration as they worked. Being illiterate for the most part, they could not leave an invoice or a note to their customer when a project was finished, so it was a common tradition to signify a completed contract by leaving that cloth on or near the work, neatly folded. It was a tactful way of saying, “I’ve completed the work.” Jesus was a carpenter after all, so the folded cloth might have come naturally to him as a fitting gesture that his Passion was complete. This ties in nicely with the fact that the afikomen was the final piece of bread, and with Jesus’ own words on the cross, “It is finished.” But when the workman sends that signal, he also sends another. The workman’s folded cloth also asks for something. It tells the one for whom the work was done, “I’ve finished my part, now it’s your turn to deliver payment.” We can never repay Jesus for giving his life in place of ours, nor does he expect it. But he does expect our faith to lead to Christian love—to righteous action—otherwise we have no faith at all. Jesus was very clear on this: “If you love me, you will obey what I command,” (John 14:15), and of course we have James writing these famous words on the same subject: “Faith without works is dead,” (James 2:26).

Once I really started looking, I kept finding more. John tells us the head covering was neatly folded while the rest of the linen that covered Jesus’ body was only “lying there.” If that means only the cloth around the head was folded, signifying completion, while the cloth from around the body was wadded or disheveled, it might relate to these words, which Paul wrote about the very moment when Jesus rose from the dead: “[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead….” Might the contrast between that neatly folded head cloth beside the disheveled body cloth signify that Christ’s “body” on earth, the church, must respond to what the head has done? While for Jesus “it is finished,” we still have work to do on earth. Surely Jesus knew his followers in later years would cherish Paul’s abiding metaphor for the church as his body. Surely Jesus also knew that some of us would look back on those two cloths in the empty tomb and connect them with Paul’s metaphor, and be reminded in yet one more way that “Faith without works is dead.”

I found another, more mundane explanation in Adam Clarke’s great old commentary: “The providence of God ordered these very little matters, so that they became the fullest proofs against the lie of the chief priests, that the body had been stolen away by the disciples. If the body had been stolen away, those who took it would not have stopped to strip the clothes from it, and to wrap them up, and lay them by in separate places.” Matthew Henry agrees with Clarke: “Any one would rather choose to carry a dead body in its clothes than naked. Or, if those that were supposed to have stolen it would have left the grave-clothes behind, yet it cannot be supposed they should find leisure to fold up the linen.” In other words, that folded head cloth might have been Jesus’ way of saying, “No one stole me away. On the contrary, I rose up alone. I walked out alone. I alone did this, for I alone could do it. I am Almighty God.”

Still meditating on the layers in the folded cloth, I realized John has some kind of fascination with cloths and clothing. In an earlier part of John’s gospel, he writes of the resurrection of Lazarus, using language very similar to his description of the cloths that Jesus left behind. He tells us of Lazarus’s face cloth and the “strips [note the plural] of linen” that Lazarus had upon his body. When John gets to the crucifixion, again he writes of a cloth that covered Jesus. Strangely, out of all the details he might have mentioned at the outset of this all-important portion of his story, John chooses to begin with soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ underclothes. He takes pains to tell us the garment was “seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.” It is as if he wants us to compare Jesus’ clothes in a before-and-after kind of way. He wants us to notice that Jesus wore one seamless cloth before his death, and many pieces after. But why? Why should this “disciple whom Jesus loved” describe Jesus' underwear of all things, instead of starting the crucifixion scene with his dying rabbi’s suffering? Why take the trouble to tell us very specifically Jesus wore something “seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom” before the crucifixion, but left behind many separate pieces afterwards?

Before Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the tabernacle / temple was the site of countless animal sacrifices for the sins of God’s chosen people. This sacrificial process was overseen by a high priest. The first century Jewish historian Josephus tells us this high priest wore an undergarment that was “…not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back." (See Antiquities of the Jews, book 3, chapter 7, sentence 4.) In other words, the Jewish high priest wore something seamless, woven in one piece. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews tells us the tabernacle (which later became the temple in Jerusalem) symbolized God’s dwelling place in heaven, the animal sacrifices were symbols of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the high priest symbolized Jesus, the ultimate priest, who entered God’s actual dwelling place in heaven to offer himself as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. The rituals at the Jewish tabernacle and temple were living prophesies, intended to prepare the Jewish people to recognize their Messiah when he came. Hebrews also tells us Jesus’ sacrifice was perfect and final, unlike those of the high priests. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is no more need for Messianic prophesies, because the real thing has been done. So the contrast between the single, seamless garment Jesus wore closest to his skin as he offered the final sacrifice, and the many cloths he left behind afterwards, symbolizes the fact that there is no more need for the temple, or the sacrifices, or the high priests, or the seamless garments they wore. The ultimate high priest has offered the ultimate sacrifice, which is all anyone will ever need from now on, and forevermore.

In close relation to that, yet another possibility occurred to me. I remembered Numbers 4:5-15 where the Bible says whenever the tabernacle was moved, all of the mysterious, prophetic items within it from the Ark of the Covenant to the Bread of the Presence were to be covered from sight with some kind of cloth. Only when the tabernacle was set up again and those items were again out of sight behind curtains could the covering cloths be removed. We know the main purpose of the tabernacle from God’s own words in Exodus 25:8: "Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” It was built for prophetic symbolism as I already mentioned, but the purpose of the symbolized Messiah was to establish intimate fellowship between us and God. We know this, because John used the very words of Exodus to describe Jesus’ mission: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” But look at the next thing John says of Jesus in that same verse: “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

To see the glory of the One and Only, the Lord Most High . . . what an extraordinary claim.

Any Jewish student of the Torah will tell you it's impossible. The purpose of the cloths in tabernacle days was to hide even the symbols of the Lord from unclean human eyes, lest the people be literally consumed by God’s perfect holiness like moths flying too close to a purifying fire (as were Nadab and Abihu). There was a time, as the Lord told Moses, when no one could see His face and live, but Jesus came to change that, and Jesus did change that, as John says very clearly: “we have seen his glory.” There was a moment when John saw a hint of Jesus’ glory. But I don’t think that’s what John meant. The glory John described as “the One and Only” was not just the risen Christ, but also the fearfully holy Creator of Everything, somehow (we can never know how) made visible and touchable. Remembering his warnings to Moses thousands of years before (“cover the Ark”, “you must not see my face”) the God who was Jesus took time to fold that face cloth so those who knew his Torah would notice it, and think about it, and perhaps come to understand some small portion of the wonderful fact that it was no longer necessary.

I enter Lent this year acutely aware that I once hid from God instinctively. But the need for coverings between God and me is over. Jesus died, and the temple curtain hiding the Ark of the Covenant was split from top to bottom (another covering cloth divided, of course). Jesus rose again, with his holy face uncovered. And Jesus can lift away all the other barriers between me and my Creator, if I will just believe.

Just as there is no end to God, so everything Jesus said and did means more than I can ever fully know. In fact, I’m still far from understanding everything there is to know about even one detail: that little folded cloth. But beginning with the end in mind on this first day of forty in the wilderness of Lent, I have come to see the empty tomb as far from empty. It is filled to overflowing with eternal riches, so it is not the end I had in mind at all, but the best of all beginnings.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:58 AM 9 comments  


Alone behind a mule in a stranger’s black-dirt field, the sweating boy used all his strength to lift the plow and start another furrow.

Something happened then that changed your life forever.

The mule shifted, the harness tugged, the boy slipped, the plow blade fell and the boy’s foot was sliced in half from front to back. Medicine was crude in East Texas during the Depression. They saved the foot somehow, but only at the cost of missing bones and toes piled up together. The boy’s plowing days were over. He stayed at home and did his best not to be a burden to his mother and his sisters. While his share-cropping father and brothers labored in other men’s fields, the boy read and learned. Unable to make his living behind a mule, he harnessed words and set them to work. He became a smooth-talking salesman and ended up making more money for the family than his father and his brothers combined. Then, twenty-eight years after he split his foot with a plow, he himself became a father. He taught his son to love words. And eighty years after that plow fell in that East Texas field the boy’s son wrote the very words you are now reading, words which have already changed you, however slightly.

How have you changed? Well, now you know a little something that you did not know before, and because you know about that poor boy and his plow and foot and words, you will think of some things just the slightest bit differently from now on. That small difference will influence someone else, however slightly, and they in turn will touch still other lives, and so on and on forever. Everything we do has an aftereffect.

Sometimes when I think these big thoughts, I get melancholy. Thankfully, it’s too late for a mid-life crisis, but after living more than half a century I do wonder sometimes if my living was worthwhile. There are so many things I could have done better, or should have done, or should not have done. I think of great men who built nations or cured diseases or led multitudes to faith, and realize I have lived a mediocre life by comparison. I have dwelt too long on trivialities. I have wasted months and years on naps, complaints, pulp fiction and television. It is too late now for so many things I might have done: so many wonderful, glorious, important things.

And yet there is still hope, because my father dropped a plow some eighty years ago, therefore you are reading this.

If I step outside my door today, and speak kindly to a stranger at just the proper moment, might that minor kindness have a similar long-term effect? Might a small act of forgiveness, a moment’s pause to help, or a little unexpected gift send ripples through eternity? Who knows the aftereffects of everyday behavior? Only God could know it all, of course. But such things will have some effect on others, for better or for worse, and as long as people influence people even slightly, the aftereffects will ripple on and on.

Think of a man and woman eating forbidden fruit, and the immediate effect: "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” At the dawn of human history came forbidden fruit, and then the curse, and then countless other aftereffects until a sweating boy in painful toil slipped and dropped a plow. Now here you are, reading this, and changing.

How wonderful this is! It means anyone at all can leave a splendid legacy. We may be getting old. We may have wasted half a life or more. We may be lame and crippled. But it takes countless little acts of love rippling through time to shape and mold the ones who will build nations, cure diseases and lead multitudes to faith. A piece of stolen fruit, a curse for countless years, a boy who made the best of things, a son who wrote a few words on the Internet, and now it’s down to you. You are not insignificant. Even your smallest acts are everlasting.

Let love be your aftereffect.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:20 AM 2 comments  

"Dog" is "God" Spelled Backwards

They warned me about California before I left Texas. They told me all the crazy things you hear about these people out here are true. And at first I thought they might be right, when I encountered “laughter therapy” on the beach, and a bearded man in a furniture store wearing a sun dress. He was also wearing sandals, and his toenails were painted black. His beard was rather gray. And the strangest thing of all . . . no one else in the store gave the man a second look.

There was other weirdness everywhere, but after a couple of months I got used to it. Then came church last Sunday.

I sat in a pew about halfway down on the right. The pastor was speaking up front, making the usual weekly announcements about church activities, when a woman in the pew behind me started whispering. It sounded like she was trying to calm her baby. “There, there,” she whispered. When she continued talking during a prayer, I turned around to look. On the pew beside her, peering from her massive purse, was a brown and white Chihuahua.

Immediately, I faced forward again. I felt embarrassed, as if I’d accidentally witnessed someone doing something intimate, or shameful. Then I felt a growing sense of outrage. It was shameful to bring a dog into that holy place! But before my outrage had a chance to grow to action, I heard the woman speaking to a person sitting next to her.

“Excuse me please, I see my family up front. I need to go sit with them.”

She rose while all the rest of us were seated, and as the pastor spoke up front she passed along the crowded pew behind me, whispering, “Excuse me. Excuse me,” and she walked up the church aisle with her little dog in her arms. Then the woman repeated the process in reverse, entering another pew, whispering her excuses, until at last she reached the place where she wanted to be, and sat down again.

Suddenly I was not outraged anymore.

The woman’s utter lack of awareness of her inappropriate behavior had reminded me of a movie I saw recently, The Year of the Dog. (Spoiler alert!) It's about a woman whose deepest relationship is with her pet beagle. When the beagle dies, the woman is shattered. She copes by becoming involved in animal rescue work, ends up with about 50 dogs running amuck in her house, loses her job when she forges corporate checks to animal rights groups, and loses her family’s trust when she destroys her sister-in-law’s expensive fur coats and traumatizes her little niece by taking her to an animal processing center. Through it all, there is a nice young man in the background, and one hopes she will eventually transfer her affections to him, but he is not interested in anything but dogs. In the end, she rides off on a bus filled with other animal activists, intent on making the world a better place for animals, and utterly alone in the crowd. This was supposed to be a comedy, believe it or not. I almost cried.

So there I was in real life—or as close to real life as one can get in Southern California—and this woman walked the aisle in the middle of a worship service with a Chihuahua in her arms, and I remembered the character from The Year of the Dog, and suddenly I realized the woman had no idea there was anything wrong with bringing her little pet to a worship service because her dog was her best friend . . . perhaps her only friend. I almost cried.

“Dogs are man’s best friend.” I tried to imagine how shallow life would be if that were really true. Don’t get me wrong; I think dogs are one of God’s very best ideas. But a dog’s love is bread and water compared to the lavish banquet Jesus offers.

“If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:10-12)

I understood that woman perfectly. She had brought her imitation Jesus in her arms, just as I had so often brought mine in my heart. We were much the same: both of us settling for far too little. Puppy love is not enough, just as love of money, sex, career, or even family is not enough. Only God’s love is enough, because only “God is love.”

Call me just another crazy Californian, but I hope the woman comes back to church again this Sunday, and I hope she brings her dog. At least she’s being honest about how lonely she really is, which is more than most of us can say. Naïve honesty like that gives God something He can work with. It means there’s real hope for that poor woman. And as far as I’m concerned, it means she, and her dog, have come to the right place.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 8:06 AM 4 comments  

Huckaplan For Foreign Policy

For some reason people like to say Mike Huckabee is weak on foreign policy. I’d like to know who is stronger. Among all the congressmen, senators and ex-senators, ex-governors, and ex-mayors in the running, no one exactly has the resume of a diplomat. None of them has even been on a congressional foreign affairs committee as far as I know. Governor Huckabee is every bit as qualified as any one of them, and he is definitely a man with a good plan. Want proof? I can’t convince you with a sound bite. If you have an hour to spare, you can hear his strategy for yourself, in a recent speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Or you can read a 24 page transcript of his speech. Or you can read the following summary, which is longer than my usual blog but still a lot shorter than his speech.

Since “foreign policy” these days mostly means dealing with the Middle East, here’s a crash course on Mike Huckabee’s plan to defeat terrorism:

Open lines of communication with Iran. Always leave the military option on the table. (Huckabee: “There is no way Iran will acquire nuclear weapons on my watch.”) However, acknowledge that 30 years of avoiding diplomatic relations with Iran has accomplished nothing constructive. Meanwhile, many people on the streets in Iran have no problem with the US. After 9/11, when the Palestinians celebrated, there were spontaneous candlelight vigils in Tehran. Iran’s government offered to provide boots-on-the-ground intelligence during our invasion of Afghanistan, but the Bush administration refused this offer, and announced they were part of an “axis of evil.” If we had parlayed their offer into open diplomatic relations, there is an excellent chance we would have known the truth about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction before invading. We should be talking to Iran about everything, not just nuclear weapons. Here’s a Huckaquote: “We should always put the protection of our citizens above our own pride and being bullheaded by saying we’re not going to have any conversations with these people.”

Assert ourselves militarily in Pakistan if necessary. While Iran has national interests we can understand and exploit, al Qaeda is a stateless enemy that can only be destroyed. Our failure to destroy al Qaeda’s leaders in Afghanistan led them straight to a “perfect base of operations” in the Pakistani no-man’s-land along the border. (Al Qaeda means “the base.”) Immediately after 9/11, Musharraf promised us full military access to this lawless region to destroy al Qaeda. The Bush administration later allowed him to go back on that promise, even though we have had “high confidence” intelligence reports on the exact locations of al Qaeda leaders there, and Navy Seal prepared to attack the area. Now Pakistan says they will fight the terrorists, while simultaneously saying they can’t fight them because they don’t control their own territory. Narrowly averted terrorist plots on the order of 9/11 have been directly linked to planning by al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan. Huckaquote: “If al Qaeda attacks [the USA] tomorrow, it will be postmarked ‘Pakistan.’ Pakistan has become the new Afghanistan.” Pakistan cannot or will not attack al Qaeda’s leaders. We must do it ourselves, or suffer the inevitable consequences.

Be wisely benevolent. If religion provides the spark for terrorism, poverty provides the tinder—yet the USA devotes only 0.25% of its national budget to foreign aid. In most Muslim countries, massive wealth is held by a few dictatorial rulers, while most people live in poverty. In Pakistan, for example, 25% of the national budget goes to the military, while less than 3% goes to social, health and educational programs. The USA has given over $10 billion in foreign aid to Pakistan since 9/11. Less than $1 billion of it reached the Pakistani people as direct aid. Meanwhile, like all forms of tyranny, terrorism flourishes whenever there is a wide gap between the upper and lower classes, with little or no middle class to function as a buffer. The USA cannot always export democracy, because sometimes too much political freedom too soon only allows violent extremists to win elections. But we can and must export socioeconomic reforms (a free press, fair courts, and functional economy), which gives real hope to the citizens of other countries, reducing their desire to support terrorism. Thus, our strategic security concerns coincide with our moral obligations as a rich neighbor. Using foreign aid wisely will generate good will with the Middle Eastern people and simultaneously remove the poverty and ignorance that inspires suicide bombers.

Finish the job in Iraq. Look at the map. Iraq is the physical buffer zone between the Persians, Kurds, and Arabs; a barricade between the Sunnis (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt) and the Shiites (Iran, Syria). Huckaquote: “Iraq is the crossroads where these cultures meet. If it is nor a peaceful buffer, it will be a tinderbox. Al Qaeda sees its central location as the perfect place to create anarchy and have it spread.” The USA upset this balance and opened up the possibilities for al Qaeda when we removed Saddam Hussein. To leave now, before balance is restored, would open us to serious security risks, especially with the looming prospect of nuclear weapons in Israel and in Iran. Fortunately, by all objective standards, the surge is working. While politicians in Bagdad and Washington fumble and bluster, there is a true bottom-up revolution taking place in the peaceful moments created by the surge, with Iraqis on the street stepping in to make a difference. We must remain in place until the Iraqi people are able to complete their transition to a stable nation. To do otherwise would not only leave Iraqi men, women and children in horrific danger from insurgents like al Qaeda, but would also leave us with the prospect of regional war, perhaps even world war, with Iraq’s many neighbors stepping into the vacuum to protect their interests.

Follow the “Powell Doctrine” of overwhelming force. From a foreign policy standpoint, overwhelming force aids diplomacy because it means less chance we will actually have to use the military option. It allows us to, as Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” And in the event of military action, it means fewer American lives lost. When the former Yugoslavia was liberated under President Clinton, for example, peace was maintained by 20 soldiers for every 1,000 civilians with virtually no civil unrest or military casualties. We have less than one quarter of that ratio of soldiers-to-civilians in Iraq, and that’s after the build-up for the surge. This explains in part why we have lost over 3,700 men and women since President Bush gave his “Mission Accomplished” speech. We spend 3.9% of our budget on the military today, compared to 6% under President Regan during peace time. Meanwhile, our national guard and reserve troops are being asked to give far more than they signed up for, with our military strained to the breaking point. We are at war. We need to get closer to the 6% figure. If we faced another military situation elsewhere in the world at this time, then as Governor Huckabee said, “God help us.”

Become energy independent…now. Our own money spent for Middle Eastern oil is being used to fund the very terrorists who want to kill us, Our dependence on oil also means we have to pander to state sponsors of terrorism, instead of, as Governor Huckabee puts it, “dealing with the Saudis like we would the Swedes.” Of course, all the other candidates would agree so far, but only Huckabee seems willing to give this the sense of urgency it deserves. Consider the governor’s words: “Energy independence really is a matter of urgent national security and ought to be addressed not with the attitude of, ‘Well, maybe someone will come up with it in 20 years.’ Look, this is the country that had the technology of bottle rockets in 1961 and John Kennedy said we’re going to put a man on the moon and come home in a decade. Eight years later Neil Armstrong had his feet on the lunar surface. It requires that kind of commitment and I’m convinced this country has the capacity and innovative quality to be able to pull it off.”

Start acting like a nation at war. Since the American people are in a war, we ought to behave like a people at war. On this one, I’ll just quote the Governor from a question and answer session after the speech: “…after 9/11…essentially the instructions the American people got to fight global terrorism was, ‘Go back and live normally.’ …we were not called upon to have some ownership of the fight against terror…I think history will reveal [that] was the single greatest mistake that we made. Because what should have happened was what happened after every other international crisis America has been involved in. Everyone’s got to pull together. I can remember it didn’t take us long to go from Democrats and Republicans linking arms on the Capital steps and singing God Bless America, and every house sporting an American flag out front to—within a few months—there was the same kind of partisan bickering and complete isolation that we’ve seen happen in this town [Washington, D.C.]—total polarization, total paralysis, and the result has been just incredibly detrimental. If we’re going to fight this war…we all have to have some skin in the game…there ought to be a greater sense of shared sacrifice and participation.”

There you have the basics of Governor Huckabee’s speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies on foreign policy, and terrorism in particular. In the full speech the governor gives a brief but masterful analysis of the various historical and cultural forces at work in the Middle East, but this is his basic plan. It makes perfect sense to me, and I hope and pray he will get a chance to put it into action.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 4:49 PM 3 comments