Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When Bad Things Happen

Hurricane Sandy has hit the shore and the damage it caused may be worse than was predicted. Property damage is now estimated to be in the billions; human suffering will be more difficult to measure. When a natural disaster such as this occurs, many thinking Christians will ask, “Why did God allow this?” The question assumes that God is essentially benevolent and loving, and therefore can’t or shouldn’t allow such bad things to happen. That they do, on an almost weekly basis somewhere, is disturbing to many Christian and non-Christian people.

In 1944, the Reverend Leslie D. Weatherhead, a British Methodist pastor and theologian, wrote a small book titled The Will of God. In this book, he set out to help Christians understand what is meant by the phrase, “God’s will” or “the will of God.” He believed that the problem was that the phrase is ambiguous and almost can’t help but create confusion. He used this example to make his point.

When a dear one dies, we call it "the will of God," though the measures we used to prevent death could hardly be called fighting against the will of God, and if they had been successful we should have thanked God with deep feeling that in the recovery of that dear one his will had been done.  Similarly, when sadness, disease, and calamity overtake men they sometimes say with resignation, "God's will be done," when the opposite of his will has been done.  When Jesus healed men's bodies and gladdened men's lives in Palestine, he was doing the will of God, not undoing or defeating it.

To help make sense of this term which can be used so differently, he posited that we could speak of God’s will in three different ways.

The intentional will of God is God’s ideal plan for his creation. God’s ideal plan would be that those who heard Jesus calling them into the Kingdom would respond and the Kingdom would be realized. “If the nation had understood and received his message, repented of its sins, and realized the Kingdom, the history of the world would be very different. Those who say that the crucifixion was the will of God should remember that it was the will of evil” people. Only in that circumstance was the cross the will of God. Since God’s ideal had not be realized, that is, creation’s redemption through Jesus’ life, then to assure redemption still was possible—God intent--the cross became necessary.

The circumstantial will of God is God’s plan within the framework of certain circumstances. Let’s suppose, Weatherhead suggests, that a father and son are planning the son’s career. Both are agreed the son will become an architect, a profession both believe will be fulfilling and give the son a sense of peace about his vocation. But, suppose a national crisis, such as a global war breaks out. The son determines he will join the military; the father, under these circumstances, is willing to support the son’s decision. He supports the decision because his son’s military service is something the son must do to feel fulfilled and at peace within the circumstances. The rejection of Jesus by the Jews of his time forcing the cross is another example. In both cases, however, the ultimate will of both father’s is done. So what is God’s ultimate will?

The ultimate will of God is the final realization of his purposes. “The Christian minister is continually confronted,[when visiting the sick] by the question as to whether the onset of disease is the will of God.  The important answer is no.  The will of God for [humankind] is perfect health.  Other things being equal, God can use a body free from disease more effectively than a diseased body,” argues Weatherhead. So, why disease? It is the broken, natural order of things that existence isn’t perfect. Until the Kingdom is fully realized, this will continue to be so.

Weatherhead, at the end of Chapter 2 writes, “One final thought.  If you say, ‘Well, it's a bit casual of God to allow  these things to happen if they are not his intention,’ I agree that there is mystery there.  It would be foolish to speak as if all the ways of God to [us] were clear.  I should not like to give the impression that I could make a glib answer to any specific case of suffering that was brought to my notice.”  He goes on to write that if a suffering child who is too young to put into words what he or she is feeling emotionally could think beyond his or years, the child might think, “There is much I don’t understand, but I know that my father both loves and cares.”  In the same way, he writes, “There is much I cannot understand.  There must be much that I cannot be made to understand until I have passed out of ‘childhood's’ stage.  But because I know[God] through other means, and especially as revealed in Jesus, I know that although I cannot understand the answer to my questions, there is an answer, and in that I can rest content.”

Weatherhead offers this summary,

“If we can only trust where we cannot see, walking in the light we have--which is often very much like hanging on in the dark--if we do faithfully that which we see to be the will of God in the circumstances which evil thrusts upon us, we can rest our minds in the assurance that circumstances which God allows, reacted to in faith and trust and courage, can never defeat purposes which God ultimately wills.  So doing, we shall wrest from life something big and splendid.  We shall find peace in our own hearts.  We shall achieve integrating in our own minds.  We shall be able to serve our fellows with courage and joy.

Hope this offers some little help in facing this and other difficult situations where so much harm comes to God’s people. BTW, the book is still in print. A little dated, but worth a read.

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

All Saints?

In a few days, most of the non-religious in our country will join the religious in a frenzy of fun, pumpkins, scary music, ghosts and goblins and way too much candy. For weeks now, Party City has been sending out flyers to entice us to buy costumes to wear to our parties. Walgreens and Kroger have had displays of bags of candy for us to give away to the little spooks who will be ringing our doorbells. Halloween is upon us!

This celebration of the day before or eve of a major feast day (from a Christian perspective) ranks near the madness of our celebration of the night before Christmas. Far more energy gets expended in preparing for All Hallow’s Eve and Christmas Eve than in observing the day following: All Saints Day and Christmas Day respectively. Perhaps that’s because for most Christians and non-religious, the next day isn’t nearly as much fun as the night before. And perhaps the meaning of the following day has been diluted.

Let’s take All Saints Day. No gifts are exchanged. No big meal planned. In most non-liturgical churches, there won’t be a special worship service. The origin of the marking 31 October in some special way, predates Christianity. I won’t go into that here. After Christianity was legalized and then made the state religion, pagan festivals were banned. There went the fun of 31 October.  In the 6th century, the Church acquired the Pantheon in Rome. It had been used by pagans as a place to pray for their dead. But Pope Boniface IV, consecrated it to Mary and the Christian martyrs and praying for Christian dead became commonplace.

There had been a day set apart to remember saints, that is, martyrs, but it was in May. But, in its wisdom the Church moved the date of the celebration of All Hallows’ Day to--guess when--1 November, neatly substituting the pagan day to pray for the dead with the Christian day.

Before any of this happened, and not long after the first Christian died for the faith, local communities began to remember them on the anniversary of their death—their feast day. Quite often churches were built on or near the site of the martyrdom and named for the martyr. There was no master list being kept anywhere and most communities knew of their saints and perhaps a few nearby community saints, but it was clear not all martyrs were being honored. To remedy this, All Saint’s Day was created. For centuries the practice of remember them all on a single day was standard. Then some Church leader worried we might not be remembering all of them and 2 November was set aside as All Soul’s Day. All Souls Day was the day the Church remembered all the departed, including any saint that had been forgotten. These days these two feasts tend to blur together in our worship.

So, the bottom line, like Christmas, this is a religious festival which our culture had coopted and turned into a reason to indulge in fun, food, and games. I’m okay with that to the degree they would also remember the origins of the Christian reason for the day. Not likely to happen unless people such as you, gentle Christian reader, tell the story to your kids.

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


I heard a story long ago that I find worth sharing now and then. One cold winter evening after a light snow fall during the day, an older man walks slowly down the sidewalk, his cane tapping out the rhythm of his cadence. The sidewalks have been either shoveled, swept or just trampled leaving the concrete clear, but creating small piles of snow on either side of the path. As he walks, pools of light from the evenly spaced streetlights offer little sparkling oases on the walk, punctuating the darkness. Coming to one of these pools of light glittering on the snow, the old man stops.  Looking both right and left and seeing no one, he gingerly steps into the small mound of snow near the a lamppost with his left foot. Removing it, he then steps into the snow with his right foot. Finally, he punches a small hole with his can near the right footprint. Satisfied he’s left his mark, he continues slowly along the sidewalk toward a destination known only to him.

The need to feel as if we’ve made a mark, made a difference in some way, is apparently a pretty widespread need. The wealthy have college halls named after then, hospital wings, airports, even highway names mark the passage of those who’ve come before us. For most of us, only our gravestones will have our name engraved. Most of us won’t be able to leave a financial legacy, but all of us can leave a legacy of a different kind.

Those who were with Jesus during his ministry helped as they were able. Mary Magdalene and other women assisted Jesus’ work by providing financial support. The apostle and disciples of Jesus who were with him in the final year of his life believed Jesus’ legacy had to be proclaimed. Some wrote Gospels, some traveled to distant cities, even distant countries to tell and retell the story of the Son of God. Paul devoted his life to such travels and proclamation. Many more who spread this Good News are not remembered by name. Yet, each person who supported Jesus, who shared what they had or what they had experienced, left a legacy—a legacy that those of us alive today have inherited.

It’s that time again. A time when each of us can decide what our legacy will be. When we decide to offer our means, our abilities, our time to the work of Jesus. We don’t do this for ourselves; it’s not about this generation. We do this to assure the work of all those who’ve gone before us isn’t wasted. As the number of Christians in our land shrink, as our Protestant heritage becomes a minority voice, now is the time to consider very carefully our responsibility to unborn generations.

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Number 52

Today marks the 52nd one of these posts. That’s every week for a year, in sickness and health, for better or worse. Most weeks it’s pretty easy to find a topic. Other weeks, I’m up against my self-imposed deadline of “sometime Wednesday.” By a stroke of good fortune, or by the grace of God, depending on your world view, the topic for this week’s blog just sort of presented itself. Wednesday the 10th of October is the feast day of one of the earliest Christian theologians: Ignatius of Antioch. Fitting, don’t you think, for a blog called Theological Musings?

Ignatius was bishop in Antioch, Syria around the year 50 AD and died in Rome somewhere between 98 and 117 A, depending on whose report you believe. One interesting legend about him was that he was one of the children Jesus picked up as described in Mark 9:35. Another, more credible story, is that his good friend and mentor Polycarp, another early martyr, knew John the Evangelist. Since we think John’s Gospel was written around 90 to 100 AD, this is very possible. His major writings are letters that address the nature and structure of the Church (ecclesiology), the sacraments, and the role of bishops. These letters were written after he was taken captive and was on the way to Rome to be martyred. They are apparently written hurriedly showing no particular plan and some inattention to good grammar.

Ignatius was the first bishop to present the idea that there should be a single bishop in each city or diocese and that his work should be supported by presbyters (priests or elders) and deacons. Earlier writings by others give the impression of more than one bishop per congregation. Ignatius’ idea became the model of the Christian Church until the Protestant Reformation attacked the idea of bishops even being necessary.

Ignatius was one of the first bishops to have taught the deity of Christ. There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.” This idea was the stuff of several of the first Church Councils which spanned hundreds of years.

Here is a quick summary of his other ideas, largely new for his time:

  • His view of the Eucharist was that it was the “medicine of immortality.” He believed it was the    “flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins.” 

  • He desired martyrdom, and discouraging those who sought to rescue him, because he believed with salvation came an end to the fear of death.

  • He argued in support of replacing the Jewish Sabbath with the Christian Lord’s Day in the face of some Christians who were still trying to incorporate Judaism into Christianity.

  • He was very probably the first to apply the Greek word katholikos, meaning “universal” or  “complete” to describe the Church. He wrote, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.” Some suggest he wasn’t the first to use the word “catholic” but was simply using something he’d heard used. The evidence is skimpy, however.

So there you have it; an early theologian who helped set the pattern followed for centuries. Any chance my musings will do that? None. But, it’s still fun to write them.

Peace, Jerry

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Single Life

Ever wonder how important one life can be to the Church and to the work of Christ? Here’s a story you should know.

Saturday 6 October is the Feast Day of William Tyndale, an English priest in the Catholic Church, but much influenced by the Reformation in Germany. Tyndale was the first person to translate large portions of the Bible directly from Hebrew and Greek texts into English. It was also the first Bible to benefit from the invention of the printing press and so became the first “mass produced” Bible. Wait! There’s more! His translation was used by many of the English translations that followed with about 90% of the King James Version from Tyndale’s work and one third of his text being quoted word for word.

Tyndale used “thou” rather than “you” a usage continued in other translations including KJV. What’s important about this is that the word was almost obscure in his time and when it had been used, was used with a sense of familiarity or even disrespect. He, of course, gave it a more majestic tone, which many revere to the present.

What many don’t know about Tyndale is that his translation challenged Catholic teaching. One example that became very important for reformers, and especially the English Puritans, was his translation of the Greek word ekklesia as “congregation” rather than “church.” The importance of this was to support reformers who were arguing that the church was a visible body of believers including clergy rather than setting clergy apart as somehow essential to the structure. One outcome was the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches, both of which eliminated bishops and changed the role of deacon radically.

He also translated the word presbuteros as “elder” rather than “priest.” Reformers held that the people could elect elders who then offered guidance to the congregation and that the Church didn’t need a priest to offer sacrifices. In short, his translation undercut Catholic authority, especially that of the clergy who had considerable power since they alone could administer the sacraments.

One other example of his dramatic impact was his translation of metanoeite  as “repent” rather than, as the Catholic Bible did, “do penance.” This undercut the sacrament of penance and, again the power of priests. On authority of the Bible, people were to be able to confess directly to God, rather than a priestly intermediary.

There were other issues as well, but perhaps the biggest contribution he made was to make an English text of the Bible available to everyone. No longer did the Church control the Bible and its interpretation. Tyndale famously said his purpose in doing the translation was to “cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more scripture” than the clergy of the day.

Tyndale’s work was not well accepted by the English clergy, still being Catholic. Henry VIII was opposed to the translation being available in England, but it was smuggled into the country in huge numbers—he couldn’t staunch the flow. Henry had Tyndale executed in 1536; he was strangled and then burned at the stake. His dying request was that Henry’s eyes would be opened to the need for this translation. Two years later, Henry authorized The Great Bible which was based largely on Tyndale’s work. His version was also the backbone of the Geneva Bible that went to Jamestown in 1607 and in 1620 on the Mayflower.

There’s actually a lot more to be said about this remarkable man who gave his life for the principle of access to God’s Word. He was writing on the continent because of the bounty on his head. A friend betrayed him. Giving your all can be costly. Ask Jesus about that.

Peace, Jerry