August 22, 2017

Losers Who Just Keep Walking

Triumphalism is a terrible thing.

I heard an unexpected sermon yesterday from a guest preacher in a church we visited. The church is a traditional old Midwest Protestant congregation, not known, at least in recent memory, for their religious enthusiasm or expressiveness. Sunday’s speaker was from a quite different ecclesiastical milieu. The congregation seemed to enjoy the change of pace, the humor and the gregariousness of the man at the pulpit. He was likable and knew how to connect with an audience.

However, I’m sorry to report, I found what he had to say a long, long way from the actual nature of the biblical story and the mind of Christ.

I am sure, whatever the exact nature of his background, that he comes from the “Continualist” wing of Christianity, which is now usually described as having three “waves” — Pentecostalism, the Charismatic renewal, and the Third Wave of signs and wonders. Today, some also speak of a “Fourth Wave,”  which is characterized by such groups as the “New Apostolic Reformation” and “Independent Network Charismatic” movements.

Now, I don’t dismiss or denigrate these movements lightly. As Ed Setzer observes in his posts on continualism, “it is the fastest-growing movement in the history of world Christianity.” Nor am I a traditional “discernment” blogger, intent on preserving the purity of the faith once delivered. There are countless facets to the Christian faith that others see and appreciate more clearly than I. So, I don’t take it upon myself to declare these sisters and brothers heretics and condemn them.

But what I heard Sunday morning is problematic.

The basic point of the sermon was fine: God’s people need not fear because we have a great God who is bigger than all the things that make us afraid.

However, he then went on to develop this thought by saying that God does not want us to be afraid because when we fear, we are unable to “operate in faith.” This opened the door into another realm of ideas. Now we were encouraged to think about how God has given Christians a special power called faith. He defined faith as “having power and authority with God” that was strong enough to dramatically influence even the rulers and nations of this world.

Included in this power is a unique access to the mysteries of God. He also called this “an inside track to the heart of the Father.”

For his biblical example, he chose the story of Daniel, who was given insight into Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, and whose faith facilitated a great change of heart in the fearsome ruler.

What’s wrong with this picture?

In the end, the message I heard in worship Sunday is triumphalism. It puts forward a binary choice: fear or faith. It says if we have enough faith, if we operate in faith, if we surrender our fears and make use of the power of faith, we will triumph and come out on top. If God’s people do this faithfully enough, the whole world, all evil rulers, and every nation will change. We are God’s army and our chief weapon is faith. This gives us exclusive access to the very mysteries of God and a voice of authority and power before God in prayer and through working miracles to transform the world.

We will win. But — and here’s the key point — we will win by winning.

That is why Sunday’s preacher was so enthusiastic. Everyone loves to win and win big. We love the raucous pep rally that cheers our team on to victory. We love to get motivated, energized, and fired up. This is why so much of Christian worship is what it is today. No longer the simple, sacred duty of a grateful people, it is now, more often than not, a spectacle of positivity and stimulation.

Not so fast.

The nature of the Bible argues against this “win by winning” perspective. For example, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is one of the rare instances in human experience where history was written by the losers.

The Hebrew Bible was compiled, composed, edited, and brought into its final form by people from a nation that was no longer. Rather, they were exiles. And then post-exilic puppets to other, stronger nations. Whatever the Hebrew scriptures teach about faith and “winning” is written from the fringes, from subjugated people living in an outback crossroads where the more powerful trampled their way to conquest and victory routinely. The Jewish people were strangers to the centers of power, and whatever “victories” they may have experienced in their long journey, the outcome found them still under the pile.

I think it’s hard for Americans, in particular, to grasp how different the perspective of the Bible is from our own view of the world. We see ourselves firmly on top, we have been on top for a long time, and our freedom, prosperity, and might forms us to have a proud and fierce mindset. We are winners!

But the Hebrew Bible is the story of a small nation of obscure losers who wrestled with God (Israel) through a long and tumultuous history that did not end well. It ended so badly, in fact, and created such a theological crisis, that Israel’s religious leaders put together a massive book of stories, laws, poems, and prophecies to try and strengthen the fallen nation and give her future hope.

Then we come to the New Testament, the subsequent story of how God fulfilled his promises to Israel and brought her (and the whole world) out of exile by sending her Messiah. Story of victory and conquest? In one sense, yes, of course. In another sense, the most curious story of triumph ever written.

To be clear: Jesus didn’t win by winning. “Therefore,” the Apostle Paul writes, “God exalted him” (Philippians 2). What’s the “therefore” there for? Jesus was exalted because he poured himself out, took on humanity, made slavery his vocation, and endured a criminal’s execution.

Instead of conducting triumphalistic pep rallies, we should be doing what a missionary couple Damaris once told me about did. As they prepared to go to Africa, they fashioned furniture that could double as caskets because they knew the likelihood of surviving and returning home was small. As they went forth, they prepared themselves to die.

Were they afraid? I’d be willing to bet that their inner beings were filled with such a mixture of fear and faith that the two were virtually indistinguishable. But faith won out in the simple act of going to live among the poor. No binary choice — faith that empowers or fear that disables — but faith (trust) that follows Jesus while trembling with fear.

Faith is not some special power. Christians have no special authority. There are no spiritual “secrets” or technologies that blow the enemy away, leaving us to raise the flag of victory. We have Jesus, the Savior who won by losing. The Savior who said to us, “If you want to follow me, get ready to lose too.”

I don’t think he had any illusions that those who took him up on his offer would be free of fear. I don’t think he offered them any special emergency kit of tools like “faith” that will automatically banish our butterflies and give us the win. I think he just said, “Come on, let’s go lay down our lives together for our neighbors. I’m sure you’re afraid. That’s okay, I’m with you.”

God wins, we win, the world wins when we love like that; like losers who just keep walking.

10th Sunday after Trinity: Pic & Cantata of the Week

Apocalyptic Skies (2016)

(Click on picture for larger image)

• • •

Apparently, this time of year is a season in which apocalyptic themes take hold. With this year’s solar eclipse, our minds are focused on these themes as well, and Bach gives us music by which to meditate on the upheavals that shake our universe and cause us to turn our eyes heavenward.

Today’s cantata, BWV 46, “Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei,” (Behold and see, if there be any sorrow), like all those J.S. Bach wrote for the tenth Sunday after Trinity, responds to the Gospel text from Luke 19 about the impending destruction of Jerusalem:

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41-44)

Craig Smith talks about one of the most striking movements in this work, the bass aria that describes the coming storm of judgment.

The stunning, stormy bass aria with trumpet and strings is one of the most dramatic things in all of Bach. Trumpet fanfares vie and play in canon with the bass voice and the repeated notes of the strings. The igniting of the lightning of vengeance is palpable in the roaring of the orchestral texture. The cracks of lightning can be heard in the precipitous stops and starts in the rhythmic continuity.

The storm you have deserved comes on you from afar,
and now its flash bursts upon you
and it must be unendurable for you
since the overflowing heap of your sins
kindles lightning in revenge
and brings about your downfall

The IM Saturday Brunch: August 19, 2017 (Joel 2:31 Edition)


”It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

The sun will be turned to darkness…before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.

• Joel 2:31

• • •

As if the news over the past couple of weeks hasn’t been apocalyptic enough, this coming Monday will provide a solar eclipse to further darken the land. This will be one of those rare solar eclipses that will be viewable all across North America.

By now, I’m sure the path is well-known to you.

Over the course of history and still today, there have been many theories, myths, superstitions, and predictions put forward regarding the meaning and significance of solar eclipses. Here are a few:

This article talks about the possible appearance of the famous Lizard Man during the eclipse, or perhaps “Moss Man, a 6-to-8-foot tall species with no neck and large, blazing-red eyes.” Also:

Re-emerging once again is the theory the planet Nibiru will collide with earth and destroy us all shortly after the eclipse. This belief, promoted by Christian numerologist and doomsayer David Meade, is based on numerology (the number 33) and biblical passages. Put simply, Meade believes Earth’s destruction will occur on Sept. 23, 33 days after the eclipse.

Oh, and one more:

Some in Kentucky, meanwhile, tie the eclipse to the extraterrestrial. Monday marks 62 years to the day when some say locals engaged in a Cowboys & Aliens-style battle with Galactic outsiders.

Early on the morning of Aug. 21, 1955, a man saw a bright object shoot across the Kentucky sky before the aliens crashed a party at a farmhouse. The aliens — with large heads and eyes, long arms and claw-like hands — caused partygoers to fire at the creatures with rifles and shotguns.

It’s remembered as the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter, which influenced the making of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

WDRB 41 Louisville News

• • •

Then there’s this article, that describes myths from around the world and across time about eclipses. For example

Many cultures explain eclipses, both solar and lunar, as a time when demons or animals consume the sun or the moon, said Krupp.

“The Vikings saw a pair of sky wolves chasing the sun or the moon,” said the Griffith Observatory astronomer. “When one of the wolves caught either of the shining orbs, an eclipse would result. In Vietnam, a frog or a toad [eats] the moon or the sun,” Krupp added, while people of the Kwakiutl tribe on the western coast of Canada believe that the mouth of heaven consumes the sun or the moon during an eclipse. In fact, the earliest word for eclipse in Chinese, shih, means “to eat,” he said.

• • •

Ever wondered how people who think the earth is flat explain a solar eclipse? This article will tell you that…

Some believe the sun and the moon are simply holograms projected in the sky, to convince the masses that we are part of the universe which we are led to believe we are in.

• • •

This article explores 8 theories about the eclipse based on a prediction of Nostradamus, which says: “When the eclipse of the Sun will then be, The monster will be seen in full day: Quite otherwise will one interpret it, High price unguarded: none will have foreseen it.”

What do people make of this? The solar eclipse and the monster it will reveal could indicate, according to these prognosticators:

  • Putin will be revealed as the Antichrist.
  • Putin will launch a missile attack against the U.S. and start WWIII.
  • Genghis Khan’s tomb will be found and he will be “reborn.”
  • An asteroid will collide with earth, causing a tidal wave.
  • Aliens will invade earth.
  • A mysterious planet will hit earth and wipe out all of humanity.
  • It will be the beginning of one of the 10 plagues in the Bible.
  • Destruction will continue until 2024 – or the second solar eclipse.

• • •

Evangelicals have certainly put forward their theories, as in this article, in which Anne Graham Lotz says:

A few years ago I was teaching through the book of Joel when the ancient words of his prophecy came up off the page. I knew with hair-raising certainty that God’s severe judgment was coming on America! I have taught Joel several times since.  Each time has served to confirm with deep conviction that God is warning America of impending disaster and destruction.

In light of Ezekiel 33:1-6 that commands a watchman to be faithful to warn others of the danger coming against the land, I feel compelled to issue the warning once again. The warning is triggered by the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, nicknamed America’s Eclipse. For the first time in almost 100 years, a total solar eclipse will be seen from coast to coast in our nation.  People are preparing to mark this significant event with viewing parties at exclusive prime sites. The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.  While Belshazzar and his friends partied, they were oblivious to the impending danger.  Belshazzar wound up dead the next day, and the Babylonian empire was destroyed.

• • •

What are your eclipse plans?

Where will you be?

Will you be viewing or photographing the eclipse?

How many of you will be in a place where a total eclipse will be viewable?

• • •

Here’s a solar eclipse playlist of 30 songs from NPR, including this classic from one of rock’s greatest albums:

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