Thursday, August 17, 2017

"“Betrayed and Denied: The Aftermath of Charlottesville”

            As I watched the footage from Charlottesville, my heart broke and I felt betrayed and denied.  Betrayed by a city that at one time was ranked the number one place to live in the US.  Betrayed because the man Charlottesville chose as their vice-mayor was a man who between 2009 and 2014 tweeted numerous racist, sexist, and gay slurs, and also lewd comments about female genitalia[i].  (But I guess those kinds of tweets are popular these days—Republican and Democrat.)  Betrayed by a city that I love, that permitted protests like those on August 12 to happen, without providing enough police presence to keep the violence from taking place.  Watching the footage, I said to myself, “My kids and I played in that park.  We ate ice cream cones there at the Downtown Mall,” where a white-supremacist car smashed into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring 19 and killing one.  To see such violence in a place of such peace makes me say as Caesar did, “Et tu, Charlottesville?”

            This all took place in the city of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Yes, Jefferson’s town allowed this—denying the very truths written by its founding father.  In the shadow of Monticello, people who deny that all people are created equal assaulted and slew others who stood in protest against the notion that some are better than others.  Yes—I feel stabbed in the back.  All Virginians should feel stabbed in the back that in what’s probably the most educated, forward-thinking town in our Commonwealth, such a thing could take place.
            Perhaps you have been betrayed like this as well—stabbed in the back, not with literal knives but with words and deeds of people who profess to love you.  John 13:18-38 tells the story of two disciples who stab Jesus in the back, before He is ever pierced by nails.  In these verses, Jesus predicts that Judas will betray Him, and that Peter will deny Him.  Understanding these two characters will help us come to terms with the people whose emotional daggers pierce our own hearts.
            Many people vilify the character of Judas, double-damning him both for the sin of betraying Christ, and for the unforgivable sin (according to Catholic tradition) of suicide.  In retribution for their crimes, Dante’s Inferno has the trio of Caesars assassins Brutus and Cassius, along with Judas eternally devoured by the devil in the lowest level of hell. 

            In contrast, recent scholarship has been asking whether Judas might have gotten a bum rap.  Certainly, saying “it was all part of God’s plan” does not excuse Judas, but at the same time, Jesus chose him as a disciple with complete foreknowledge of what he would do.  There seems to be an intimate friendship between Judas and Jesus.  In the fourth century Gospel of Judas (which we recognize as non-canonical), the Lord asks Judas to perform this difficult task of betrayal.  While I personally don’t believe this to be fact, it is evidence that a certain community within the fourth century believed that Judas had been wrongfully blamed.  Alternately, many scholars regard Judas as a patriot who did not intend to betray Jesus, but merely wanted to force the Messiah to reveal Himself and save the nation.  However we understand Judas, we must recognize that the narrative reports that he hanged himself, indicating his remorse.

                Though Judas’ suicide is probably the worst thing he can do to express his repentance, it does indicate the severity of his contrition.  Perhaps he can’t imagine how to face the disciples, or maybe he can’t bear to live with himself after what he’s done.  Judas becomes his own judge, jury, and executioner, and creates a permanent solution to a temporary problem.  How different would the story have been if he had only, like Peter, only gone away, “weeping bitterly (Matthew 26:74; Luke 22:62)”?  Peter similarly regrets his denial of Jesus, but he takes no rash action like Judas, and so gets to witness the resurrection three days later.  How much better if Judas had likewise waited—he would no doubt have been restored even as Peter was.  In John 21:15-17, Jesus forgives and restores Peter three times—once for each time the disciple denied Him.  Surely the Master who taught us to forgive our enemies would have done the same with Judas! 

            So here are these two characters, Peter and Jesus.  We like to exonerate one and damn the other.  We like to declare who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are in any story.  Because, by doing so, we make ourselves superior and able to judge both.  But sandwiched in between these two narratives of Jesus predicting Judas’ betrayal, and Jesus forecasting Peter’s denial, we find Jesus’ words of hope for both situations.  In John 13:34-35, Jesus says, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”  Jesus reminds them to love unconditionally, even as He loves without reservation.  Though Peter denied Him, Jesus restored.  And He would have restored Judas, too, had that disciple not taken his own life.  Because “God does not play favorites (Romans 2:11).”  And neither should we.  So we should love Peter—but we should love Judas, too.

Keep in mind that if someone has betrayed, denied, and stabbed you in the back, that doesn’t mean you need to remain in a vulnerable position of trust—but it does mean you should get yourself to a safe place, and from that position of safety, learn to forgive.  Loving and forgiving your enemies doesn’t mean you become their victim over and over.  It simply means you choose to trust God for your healing, and that you also trust God to deal with that person instead of you.  So whether that person is an abusive spouse, malicious co-worker, or vocal bigot, the love of Jesus should overflow from Christians onto others who are hard to love.

            So often, we choose to give Peter grace for his sin, yet condemn Judas for his crime.  God, on the other hand, is not as fickle or capricious as we are.  God loves us absolutely, and calls us to do the same.  Have you been betrayed by one you love?  Denied by one who is close to you?  Have you ever received bigoted and hateful language from people who don’t even know you?  Have you been tempted to return wound for wound, hatred for hatred?  Instead, do as Jesus did—love without condition.  Receive the Judas kiss—and even give love in return.  Love—and forgive—as Jesus does, for your love will prove to the world that you are His disciples.

            When the torch smoke clears from Charlottesville, it will be self-evident who acted with hatred in their hearts, asserting that some people are better than others—and who gathered to insist on equality for all.  It will also be proven who violated the law, and who did not.  But let’s be careful that we don’t do what we do so often, and that we don’t label some human beings as evil and others as righteous.  The same Jesus died for them all, and the same Jesus calls us to love our enemies as well as our friends.  Jesus gives a new command to every Christian who follows Him.  “Love each other.”  Now let’s see if we can do just that.

[i]Higgins,Anna and Dodson, Tim.  “Homophobic, sexist, anti-white language abundant in Charlottesville vice mayor's tweetsThe Cavalier Daily.:” November 28, 2016.  August 12, 2017.
Suarez, Chris.  “Tweets from Charlottesville councilman cause some to call for his removal. “  Richmond Times-Dispatch.  November 28, 2016.  August 12.

"The Great Reversal"

One of the great citizens of France during the 1300s was Nicolas Flamel.  A great philanthropist, Flamel was also known as a scientist and mystic.  The particular brand of work he did was the ancient art of alchemy.  Legend had it that alchemists could take base metals and turn them into gold.  For thousands of years, alchemists from Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and other parts of Europe endeavored to perform this transmutation.  Somewhat like Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, alchemy was something that lay in that shadowy place between myth and science.  Nicolas Flannel, however, just may have accomplished this tremendous feat.  Though there were no witnesses aside from Flamel’s wife, history records that his wealth increased suddenly, and he enjoyed good fortune and serenity for the rest of his life.
          Flamel was a scribe.  Among the many books that he copied there were many alchemical texts.  One that he acquired was not printed on paper, but on tree bark.  With the aid of this book and the advice of a Jewish doctor he met while on a pilgrimage to Spain, Flamel discovered, as he says, the secret to transmutation.  He used a special red stone that he called the Philosopher’s Stone, along with other scientific-type equipment in his work where he allegedly turned mercury into gold.  He repeated this several times, until he was able to use this gold in his philanthropic works.  Nicolas and Perenell Flamel founded and endowed with revenues fourteen hospitals, three chapels, and seven churches in Paris.  Flamel continues in his writing, "We have also accomplished in Boulogne about as much as we have in Paris, not to speak of the charitable acts which we both performed, specially with regard to widows and orphans."  In an archway that he had built in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents a mural still exists today, which depicts his wondrous work of transmutation.
          In the world of ancient wonders, many people have striven to transform that which is base into that which is extraordinary.  Alchemists attempted to rearrange the molecular structure of ordinary metals and turn them into gold.  Likewise today, the human need for transformation cries out for fulfillment.
          In the upper room of Jesus' last supper, our Lord announced the greatest alchemy of all.  He took something base and transformed it into something sublime.  Taking bread, he blessed it and said, "This is my body."  Pouring a cup of wine, Jesus said, "This is my blood."  There can be no greater alchemy than that:  the transmutation of simple elements into sacred objects of holy ordinance or sacrament.
          Now, there are many Christian denominations that debate what happens mystically, to the elements of Communion.  The Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation says that the bread and wine become the actual physical body and blood of Jesus in the mouth of the communicant.  In contrast, the Protestant teaching of Consubstantiation says that Christ is present in and through the elements.  Some reject both of these, favoring the belief that Communion is simply a re-creation of the Lord's last meal with his disciples.  What is really at issue here is the question, "What is actually being transformed in Communion?"
          Regardless of what happens to Communion bread, the body of Christ is transformed when the Church takes Christ into itself and becomes His body.  No matter what it believes about wine, the Church is transformed when it abides in the vine and is filled with Christ’s life-energy that we call His blood.  Theologians may argue over what happens to the physical elements of Communion, but there can be no doubt that a greater change is taking place here.  More than body and blood, the real transmutation takes place in the heart of the one who receives the Lord's Feast.
          Alchemy is the transformation of base metals into gold.  Modern scientists don't believe any real alchemy ever took place, and modern alchemists talk far more about inner spiritual transformation than they do about mercury and gold.  Alchemy is about being changed from within, and this kind of change was just what Jesus was getting at when he said, "This is my body and blood."
In John's gospel, just before Jesus gave them the sacrament of Communion, he washed the disciples' feet.  He transformed his role from leader to servant, and asked them to do the same.  Rather than debating the issues of transubstantiation and consubstantiation, we need to focus on the real thing that needs to be transformed:  ourselves.  Jesus allowed himself to be transformed from the Lord of Glory into a tiny baby.  He allowed himself to be transformed from Master and Teacher, to that of a humble servant who washed his disciples’ feet.  He allowed his body to be transformed even to the point of brokenness and death—so that we might be transformed as well.
Jesus asks his disciples—he asks us—to be transformed.  Become a servant.  Give up yourselves, as I have done, Christ says to us.
          According to the ancient legends, the first step to alchemy is slaying a dragon.  This is actually a metaphor for putrefying the mercury out of a lump of metal.  Modern alchemists say that the metal is really a secondary metaphor, an allegory for what must first happen in human transformation.  If we base people are going to be refined and turned into gold, we must first slay the dragon that is within us.  Paul said we must put to death the old person and the deeds of the flesh.  This is the first step in alchemy, and also the first step in the spiritual transformation that Jesus brings.
           Romans 12:2 says, "Do not be conformed anymore to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind."  2 Cor 5:17 tells us, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new is come."  The real question of Communion is whether you will be transformed today.
           In the old Latin masses, the priest would say, "Hoc est corpus meum," which means "This is my body."  People who didn’t understand the Latin interpreted this sacred sentence as the magical phrase "Hocus pocus."  But really there are no arcane words, and there is no magical enchantment in the alchemy of Christ.  There are simply souls transformed, turned into living gold.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

"Hardened Hearts"

            In an article entitled, Does God Harden Hearts?, Dr. Bob Barrier writes about sharing his faith with an old man who had been exposed to Christian witnesses all his life.  “With chilling finality he responded: ‘I've said ‘no’ to Jesus for so many years that I don't think that I could become a Christian even if I wanted to.’"  Then Barrier concludes, “Now, it is possible to say ‘No’ to the gospel of Christ so many times that God finally says, ‘OK, if that is the way you want it, I'll harden your heart and I'll never ask you again.’"[i]

            When I read this article, something sat wrong in my spirit.  I know that there are several places in the Bible that say God hardened certain people’s hearts, but the concept seems hard for me to grasp.  Are there actually people who couldn’t become Christians, even if they want to?  John 12:37-41[ii] addresses this issue.  Quoting Isaiah 53:1 and 6:10, John writes:

But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:

“Lord, who has believed our message?
    To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”

But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,

“The Lord has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
    and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
    and have me heal them.”

Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory.

            The Bible speaks of God blinding the eyes or hardening the hearts of unbelievers in several places.  Exodus 7:3 and 8:15 speak of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t let the Israelites go.  1 Timothy 4:2 says, “These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead [seared].”  Romans 1:24 says, “So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired.”  So with a cursory reading it seems there are people who are so wicked that God says, “Fine, then!  Be that way!”  And God writes them off.

But can we blame God for disbelief when the Bible also says people harden their own hearts?  Hebrews 3:15 quotes Psalm 95:7-8 as imploring the listener not to turn God off like a light switch: “Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled.”  Ephesians 4:18 says of rebellious people, “Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him.”  So just as there are passages that support the idea that God hardens people’s hearts, there are others that say people harden their own.

In Isaiah 63:17, the people’s seeming repentance is overshadowed by the fact that they blame God for their own pig-headedness: “Lord, why have you allowed us to turn from your path? Why have you given us stubborn hearts so we no longer fear you?”  So, does God give anyone stubborn hearts so they can’t follow Him?  Jesus says in Matthew 18:14 that it is not God’s will than any should perish.  In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 16:11-32), the father never writes off his son because he strayed just a little too far.  Instead, he waits eagerly for the son’s return.  The merciful heart of God wants all to come to repentance.

Rather than blaming God for the unbelief of lost people, the Bible says that “Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).”  In Luke 8:11-12, Jesus explains the parable of the scattered seed: “The seed is God’s word. The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved.”  In his blog, Evangelist Jesse Morrell explains it this way:

To interpret John 12 to mean that it was God’s will for these men not to believe because God doesn’t want them to be saved, is accuse God of doing that which the Bible elsewhere blames the devil for. And if it is blasphemy to credit to the devil the work of God, then it is equally blasphemy to credit to God the work of the devil. It is the devil that exerts energy and influence to keep men from salvation, not God. God is the one who is exerting His energy and influence to save as many as He possibly can, in consistency with the freedom He has granted to the universe.[iii]

Personally, I don’t believe that there’s anybody who’s beyond the point of salvation.  Yes, some people seem to have their hearts hardened from the outside, and sometimes people harden their own hearts.  Instead of making salvation impossible for them, this hardening simply makes it harder.  In Matthew 19:23-26, Jesus presents a seemingly impossible scenario, saying:

“I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I’ll say it again—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”

The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.

So how do we understand these different kinds of hardenings?  I look at it this way:  When I was in school, I did very poorly in math.  I used to joke that I suffered from “numeric dyslexia.”  Recently, I found out that that’s a real thing—the tendency to transpose digits is called dyscalculia.  So, when I was doing math, I’d see a 51 and write 15.  Most kids who have difficulty with math simply need to learn certain math principles and they’re ok.  Being bad at math might represent one kind of hardening, where a person has a simple struggle with, or tendency toward sin.  Dyscalculia then represents that some people have magnified issues with sin, that may be based on their internal makeup—say, a tendency toward addiction.  Then, there was another problem that I had.  Once I realized I had a problem with math, and that I had this tendency toward reversing digits, I got the notion in my head that I couldn’t do it—and that created a third kind of hardening.  Instead of pushing myself to overcome the issue, I just gave in and decided I couldn’t do math.  In the same way, some people with extreme spiritual dyslexia might throw their hands up and say, “I don't think that I could become a Christian even if I wanted to."

Another issue that I had in math is that because of my bad grades, I got it in my head that my teacher didn’t like me.  So I’d say, “The teacher is too strict!”  A lot of people feel that way about God.  That’s why Jesus says in John 12:47-48, “I will not judge those who hear me but don’t obey me, for I have come to save the world and not to judge it.  But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken.”  It’s not the teacher who judges whether I’m right or wrong—it’s MATH that decides.  It’s not Jesus who judges, but the TRUTH that decides.  Just as the teacher simply sheds light on math, Jesus simply illuminates the truth.  It’s up to me to overcome whatever mental blocks, excuses, and spiritual hardenings I may have.  I do this through the exercise of faith. 

All the while I was struggling with math, telling myself, “I can’t,” God was saying, that nothing shall be impossible with God.  Even when I was blaming God for making me bad at math, blaming my own inabilities or my dyscalculia, or declaring that the teacher didn’t like me, God was still for me.  Even though we harden our hearts in sin, or decide there’s no hope for us—even when we blame God or the devil or some other source for the hardening of our hearts—God refuses to write us off.  To those who despair of ever finding faith, Jesus says, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”  He extends his arms to everyone, not a select few, that anyone who desires may come (Revelation 22:17).

[i] Barrier, Roger.  “Does God Harden Hearts?”  June 29, 2017.
[ii] Scripture quotations are taken from the NLT.
[iii]While I can’t endorse all his theology and methods, Jesse Morrell explains quite nicely how attributing this hardening to God is tantamount to the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  “Does God Blind The Eyes and Harden the Hearts of Unbelievers? Is this Predestination?”  Posted on July 31, 2013.  June 29, 2017.