Calendars of the Ancient Near East

Access ancient Jewish, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Roman calendars to better understand the Bible

The two primary parameters that shape human thinking, regardless of culture, antiquity, or language, are space and time…spacetime for the physicists among us. It is difficult to understand any communication without a common understanding of these parameters. Such simple phrases as “See you tomorrow” require both parties to have a similar understanding of “tomorrow”.

The Bible records over 4,000 of history, from the earliest human settlements from Mesopotamia to Arabia to the cosmopolitan Roman Empire. It thus covers dozens of cultures, nations, and tribes, each with their own understanding of space and time. The Quran doesn’t do this, and neither do the Vedas, the Tripitaka, or any Sutra. The Bible stands alone – no other book is like it.

However, the vastly different understandings of key concepts in Bible, such as space and time, make it tough to understand. Christians are baffled, and skeptics ridicule us and our Scriptures, calling both “incoherent” or worse. Moderns reading the Bible have to cross a gap of at least 2000 years, multiple languages, and many cultures. Further, the Bible is not written as typical modern history, although its historical accounts are reliable. It hits the highlights. As a result, readers tend to “telescope” events, believing that they occurred over days or weeks when in fact they happened over months or years.

We read about Moses’ law, David’s wars, and Elijah’s miracles, and think that Moses was legislating, David fighting, and Elijah working wonders all of the time. They weren’t. Each man was living life, including the slow, discouraging parts, just like we do. Nehemiah, for example, received the report of Jerusalem’s broken down walls in November but didn’t leave for Judah until the following spring. In the meantime, he prayed to ask God for guidance and prepared. Nehemiah’s trip from Susa to Jerusalem (over 900 miles) took up to two months by caravan. The walls of Jerusalem were begun in July and completed in early September. Ezra’s festivals followed soon after.

The calendars below, taken from AmazingBibleTimeline.com, can help modern Bible readers understand when events occurred in Scripture. Please also see Timeline of Events in the Iron Age and Calendars, Cultures, and Politics.

As We Think

Directing our emotions, our thoughts, our words, and our actions…to be who we were created to be.

The Economist is no fan of Donald Trump. The October 27 to November 2, 2018 issue featured a column by the editor Lexington describing the foreign policy failures and successes of the President. It was accompanied by the picture noted here, which shows Trump as an archer rejoicing over a single bulls-eye while quivers of arrows are far off the mark. He seems to be ignoring his many failures and raising his arms in triumph over one, perhaps random, success. Maybe Lexington sees Trump as an incompetent egomaniac who sometimes gets lucky. Certainly, other people do. While catchy, this illustration is a snowflake in an avalanche of political cartoons criticizing the US leader.

In my primary care medical practice, I encounter dozens of patients every week who, if they were featured in the same picture, would be sad. The context wouldn’t be foreign policy, but might be success at work, a loving family, new hobbies, losing weight, quitting smoking, or any of a hundred other things.  Rather than looking out of the illustration at the reader with upraised arms and a self-satisfied smile, their eyes would be downcast. Their brows would be furrowed and the corners of their mouths drooping. Instead of more than 30 arrows there may only be 10, or 5, or 1, because the person would have given up. He or she might tell a bystander “this is a stupid sport anyway. I have better things to do.” Just below their level of consciousness, they might get a queasy feeling – “why show my failures to the public, and to myself? How much better would it be to stay home alone with my screens, my games, and my programs? That way I cannot fail.”

There is danger in an excessive focus on our successes, but likewise danger in an excessive focus on our failings. The best focus is outside ourselves – at the problem to be solved or the grace to be enjoyed.

A focus on failures is not only a problem for patients, but for all of us. How do we regard each moment of our lives? Do we ruminate on our regrets? Do we marinate in our missteps? Do we refuse to forgive those who hurt us? Do we choose to take offense at the clumsy words and actions of others? Do we reject others for what they are, and reject ourselves for what we are? Do we put ourselves and others in the worst possible light? Do we cut others out of our lives when they don’t consistently meet our expectations and fulfill our wishes? Do we withdraw into a cave of confusion, sit down in den of darkness, and finally lie in a coffin of loneliness?

Conversely, do we bounce back after our blunders? Do we stand up after we fall? When faced with a seemingly impossible task, do we act as the inventors did in The Roses of Success, from Ian Fleming’s children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you’ll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Oh yes!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
(spoken) Yes I know but he wants it to float. It will!
For every big mistake you make be grateful!
Here, here!
That mistake you’ll never make again!
No sir!
Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
Generates the steam for two more tries!
(Oh) There’s magic in the wake of a fiasco!
Correct!
It gives you that chance to second guess!
Oh yes!
Then up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
Disaster didn’t stymie Louis Pasteur!
No sir!
Edison took years to see the light!
Right!
Alexander Graham knew failure well; he took a lot of knocks to ring that
bell!
So when it gets distressing it’s a blessing!
Onward and upward you must press!
Yes, Yes!
Till up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success.
Grow the ro… (continue)

To succeed after failure, we must control our emotions. Years ago a young woman told me of a time when she felt awkward. I replied, “Awkwardness is a choice. If you chose to not feel awkward, you will not feel it.” She paused, a look of realization crept over her face, and she smiled.

Offense, discouragement, and every other emotion is also a choice. We cannot control the initial flush of feeling that we get from any situation, but we can control what we do with that flush of feelings. Emotions roll over us like a wave for the first few seconds, but then we must decide whether and how to redirect the waters.  We can nurture resentment over an injury or to forgive it. We can see any circumstance as a defeat or a victory. We can dwell in the prison of our fears or dance in the pastures of our joys. We can consider that both compliments and criticisms say more about the giver than the receiver.

The Bible tells us again and again to control our thoughts and our emotions and channel them toward success. We are to “Fear not!” (Isaiah 41:10) and “Not let our hearts be troubled (John 14:1).” Day by day success is performing the tasks which He has given to us with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10, Colossians 3:23). Ultimately, success for the Christian is loving, glorifying, and enjoying God.

The Economist probably did not mean to make Donald Trump look good in this illustration. I do not know Trump’s thoughts or his character. However, insofar as the Trump in the picture is rejoicing despite many, many failures, the British newsmagazine may be revealing a secret of his success.  

Bible Lessons

This post is to provide a place for students to find lessons we have had in Sunday School/Bible Fellowship, Worship, or other studies.

A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23

Shepherds have uniquely valuable insights into this most beloved of Bible passages.

It was almost Christmas as my young family and I left for church from our town house in Bad Kissingen, Germany, a few miles north of Schweinfurt. A middle-aged German couple lived next door, and one day I asked the wife if they attend church, and what were their holiday plans. She replied that she and her family had attended services occasionally long ago, and were planning a quiet Christmas. Hoping to encourage her to go back to church, at least for Christmas, I mentioned that the Bible has some wonderful passages and asked her if she had ever heard of the 23rd Psalm. “Der Herr ist mein hirte!” she shot back, “Of course! Germans learn that as children. Do you think we know nothing?” I apologized for my inadvertent insult, but couldn’t help thinking about Psalm 23 as cultural classic versus Psalm 23 as living truth. My neighbor memorized Psalm 23, but showed no sign of living it. Followers of Christ must know it, and live it.

God uses the research, experiences, and insights of other Christians to help us see into the Scriptures. Much of the Bible is written in the language of farmers and herders. The 23rd Psalm is a beautiful, symbolic description of our Father’s care for His people through a shepherd’s eyes. As a professional shepherd and the author of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Philip Keller shares some valuable insights, which I have included here.

I work as a medical doctor, not a veterinarian, which would be handy at times like this, but nonetheless I have added a few thoughts of my own.

The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want

Just as a shepherd does not leave his sheep to fend for themselves, so Christ does not leave us to fend for ourselves. He takes care of us. Darwinian philosophers might argue that the fall of rain, the growth of crops, and other natural processes that produce food have nothing to do with God. Sociologists might object that individual and corporate human effort produces social systems that distribute natural resources to members of society, again excluding God, if there is one. Christians do not deny natural processes or human effort, but understand that an all-powerful, all-loving and utterly sovereign God created and controls these processes. In an inexplicable sense, and while allowing for human responsibility, He controls people too.

As a result, followers of Christ can and should have complete confidence that He will care for us. His children can indeed say, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”

He maketh me to lie down

Sheep cannot lie down unless four requirements are met: They must be free from fear, free from tension with other sheep, free from aggravations (like pests) and free from hunger. The shepherd provides these freedoms by his care of the sheep. There is nothing like Christ’s presence to dispel the fear, the panic, the terror of the unknown. 9/11 brought home to all of us the uncertain life in which we live. “He maketh me to lie down” When we rest in Christ’s presence, we can physically and emotionally rest.

Why are we perpetually in such turmoil? Why do we let worries gray our hair and wrinkle our brow? In brazen disobedience to John 14:1, why do we let our hearts be troubled? Is it because we don’t actually want God to take care of us, lest we relinquish control? Is it because we have not taken the time to remember God’s faithfulness in our lives and in our churches, and so we don’t believe Him?

In green pastures

The land where David wrote the 23rd Psalm is parched. In order for sheep to survive, pastures must be prepared. Animal handlers work long, hard hours to clear land, plow, seed or plant and irrigate. The result is lush, green pastures.

God lead His people from Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey (agricultural terms which denote a land of plenty). He wants abundant lives of joy for His people. Our Father attempts to break up the hard, proud human heart that is set like sun-dried clay. Truly, our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, has prepared lush, green pastures where we can find peace and plenty.

Philip Keller writes that his neighboring rancher was cruel and did not provide for his sheep. The starving animals watched the animals under Philip Keller’s care receive plenty to eat and tried to get through to their property. One day Mr. Keller found several of the sheep collapsed on his property, they had managed to get through. He loaded them in a wheelbarrow and took them back to his neighbor. The neighbor slit their throats on the spot. What a picture of what Satan is anxious to do!

He leadeth me beside the still waters

Sheep need water that is still, deep, and pure. Their sources are dew on the grass, streams and springs, or deep wells, but it is up to the shepherd to find them and to bring his sheep safely there. Philip Keller once watched a flock being led down into enormous hand-hewn caverns. They were like great rooms with ramps running down to the water troughs. Pure water awaited the flock but deep down in the cistern was the shepherd, bailing the water so the sheep could drink. A good shepherd works hard for his sheep, but our Good Shepherd went much farther. He provides natural water for our physical bodies, but also sacrificed his life to bring us the Living Water for which our souls thirst.

He restoreth my soul

What does this have to do with a sheep? These animals can sometimes become ‘cast’ or ‘cast down’. This is an old English shepherd’s term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again. Sheep become “cast down” when they are too fat, when they have too much wool or when they get too comfortable in a resting spot and simply roll over. If the shepherd does not find the sheep which is cast down, and pick it up within a short period of time, it will die.

Christians can become “cast down.” Too much wealth and too many possessions make us spiritually fat and loaded down. Too much ease makes us too comfortable in our lives. The Lord restores us, if we will let him, when things creep into our lives that shouldn’t be there, such as when we become slaves to possessions. As a shepherd talks to his sheep with tenderness and love, and sets them aright, so our Savior does for us.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake

The greatest single safeguard for the shepherd in handling his sheep is to keep them on the move. If left to their own devices, they would graze the same land repeatedly and ravage it. So it is with us.

My wife, five children, and I have moved 13 times in 27 years of marriage. Some of these moves were unwanted, but the Lord moved us anyway. Even when Christians stay in the same geographic location, God wants us moving emotionally, mentally, and spiritually to become more like Him. Hebrews 12 describes the Christian life being like a race, and so it is.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me

A good shepherd takes his flocks to the high summer ranges to graze. There are many dangers along the way. The shortest routes, and also the ones with the best watering places, are through the valleys. The shepherd always prepares by going to the ranges in advance. He finds and moves obstacles along the path. He looks for signs of predators and tries to eliminate their threat. Nonetheless, the shadow of death always looms over the shepherd and his sheep.

We sing a chorus, Touch Me Again Lord, and one verse states “Wherever I’m going, you’ve already been.” The shepherd never takes his flocks to a place where he has not been.

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me

The rod was used for discipline, protection, to count and examine. Any sheep who had ‘passed under the rod’ felt the shepherd’s care. When we obey Him, God searches us with the ‘rod’ of His Word. By reading, studying, memorizing, and meditating on the Bible, our souls gain a Christ-like mind, and protection from the confusions and lies of the world.

The staff represents that which is longsuffering and kind. The staff is used for drawing sheep together, for drawing a sheep close to the shepherd, and for guiding the movements of the flock. Just as safety for sheep is found in staying with the shepherd and the flock, so safety our lives is found in staying with the Lord and the Church. The staff of Christ guides those who follow Him.

Let us remember the words of Ps 143:8, ‘Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in You. Show me the way I should go, for to You I lift up my soul.”

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies

The summer ranges are referred to as tablelands. The Spanish word for table is mesa. What David referred to as a table could have been the summer ranges. The shepherd prepared in advance, making the ranges ready. He would take salts and minerals, determine where camps would be and remove poisonous weeds. Whether in the fold, in the valleys, or on the high ranges, only the shepherd’s constant care and watchfulness protected the sheep from predators. Christ provides for us in the presence of our enemies.

Thou anointest my head with oil

At certain times of the year, shepherds rub the heads of their sheep with a preparation such as linseed oil. This keeps them free from pests and the resulting conditions. The protection wears off after several weeks and must be repeated often. We need to be anointed by the Holy Spirit daily through prayer and Bible study. This keeps us in touch with our Good Shepherd.

My cup runneth over

No other season finds the sheep so strong as autumn; they are refreshed from grazing on the summer ranges and are free from pests. No wonder David wrote ‘My cup runneth over’. At the same time, unexpected blizzards and storms can come up and cause the sheep and shepherd much suffering.

Jesus referred to His agony in Gethsemane and the subsequent trial, scourging, and crucifixion as His cup. The Lord’s cup ran over with the sins of the world, the iniquities of you and me. At His death, Christ’s cup overflowed with his lifeblood, that washed away the wickedness that we had put in it. Jesus’ blood made His cup holy. Otherwise, we would have perished.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life

Pasturing sheep on land enriches the land. They eat weeds and undesirable plants and with their manure richly fertilize the pasture on which they graze. Through good works done for the glory of God, we as children of God leave behind goodness and mercy in every life we cross. Through evil deeds or even indifference, we leave behind turmoil, bitterness, conflict and frustration. Our legacy is our choice.

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever

Sheep that are well-cared for are very contented; they do not look for other pastures. They are happy to dwell in the pastures of their shepherd forever. As Christians, we will dwell in the presence of the Lord forever. How thankful we should be to say, “The Lord is my Shepherd”

A Land Called Married

Isaiah describes the “marriage” between God and His people. Christians can learn much for our marriages as well.

My youngest daughter was fighting a virus that sapped her strength and made her miserable. Good movies brighten her mood, and soon we were enjoying the six-hour British Broadcasting Company (BBC) version of Pride and Prejudice. Based on a classic novel by Jane Austen (1775-1817), Pride and Prejudice mixes romance, social commentary, and morality, detailing the twists and turns of courtship and marriage among the daughters of the aristocratic Bennett family in early 19th century England. The movie poignantly reveals how vastly different society’s view of marriage was two hundred years ago.

In Isaiah 62, the Lord encourages His people, promising them future goodness and glory after their defeat and exile.  God uses the metaphor of Israel as His bride, telling His readers that their land would no longer be called “Desolate” but be called “Married” (v4). Most people in my experience would not juxtapose these two words, partly because “desolate” refers to a place “in bleak and dismal emptiness” and “married” refers to a relationship between two people. Isaiah 62 is not about human marriage per se, but neither is it about the physical land of Israel. Rather, it is about the restored relationship between God and His people. As such, it becomes a model of how human marriage under God can be, and should be.

To restate, Isaiah (740-685 BC) is talking about God’s “marriage” to His people, the Jews and those foreigners who served Jehovah. The prophet is not talking about the Edomites, Moabites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or anyone else who did not belong to Him. Therefore, lessons that we learn from this passage apply to Christians, those who claim the name and live the life of Jesus Christ. Empowered by the Spirit, the Creator’s goodness is showered on His people. Parts of this essay may apply to others, but Isaiah’s words, and my words, are for God’s people.

This work will ask one question: What does it mean to live in right relationship with God and family? Poetically put, what does it mean to “Live in a land called Married?”

To be married is to have a new identity (Isaiah 62:2)

God promised to give His people a new name…a new identity. Israel did not choose it, but God chose it. It was not secret; a source of shame, but open; a source of pride. The people of God would glory in their new name, shouting it from the mountaintops so that all the world would know that they belonged to the Lord. Nations and kings who had hated Israel would now see her glory as the bride of the Almighty. Over the years in their relationship, God’s people become more like Him.

When a man and woman marry, the two unite and become one flesh (Mark 10:7-8). They no longer exist as they did before, as separate individuals, but now exist as one. Both identities change, and to symbolize the change and communicate it to the world, man and wife take the same name. Usually, but not always, the bride takes the name of her groom. The wider world acknowledges the new identity and refers to the couple by their married name. Over the years, husband and wife grew more like each other in personality, in tastes, in speech, in action, in habits, and even in thoughts.

Living in “A Land called Married” produces a new identity.

To be married is to have someone else delight in you, and for you to delight in someone else (Isaiah 62:4-5)

God delighted in His people Israel, just as He delights in His children through Jesus Christ. He loves us faithfully, but He also delights in us. God glories when His son takes two steps of spiritual growth, just like a mother glories when her infant daughter takes two steps. He rejoices in our victories, and thrills when we follow Him. Likewise, our Father wants us to delight in Him (Psalm 37:4).

In the same way, husbands and wives delight in each other. The groom thrills at the sight of his beautiful bride, who has labored to be lovely on their wedding day. She rejoices in his successes at work, and he exalts in her victories in the kitchen, or vice versa, or both, as the case may be. Man and wife know each other’s dreams, and support them. Soon the man and the woman delight in their children, and through the years those children learn to delight in their parents. Though there is work and pain in marriage and family, there is also delight.

The delight engendered by a godly marriage is not limited to family members alone. Friends, neighbors, and even strangers can join in the delight of a happy family. My family and I were traveling into Boston one morning in July via the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). It was crowded, so I sat on one side of the train while Nancy and the kids sat on the other. We talked across the aisle, and though it was not a “quiet car”, few other people looked at each other, much less spoke. I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to me. She was evasive at first, but we ended up having a very pleasant chat about the arts, something near to her heart. It was delightful. As we rose to leave, this woman told me, “At first I hesitated to talk to you, but when I saw your family, I knew it would be OK.” Nancy’s presence convinced her that I was not a predator, and when she saw that our family rejoiced in each other, she was able to join in our delight.

Living in “A Land called Married” helps to bring delight.

To be married is to be secure, and to help make others secure (Isaiah 62: 6-8)

The first step in security is to not be alone. As the Preacher said, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11)? In the ultimate promise of security, God guaranteed that He would always be with His people (Matthew 28:20).

The second step in security is to be defended from the trials, and through the trials, of life. The Lord protected His beloved people from many of the difficulties that plagued neighboring nations, but He also sustained them during tough times. Israel had been ravished by enemies, from the Assyrians to the Babylonians, but now God promised to make her secure. He promised to put “watchmen on the walls” and “never give His beloved’s grain to her enemies (Isaiah 62:6-8).” In the person of Jesus, the Lord purchased our eternal security at the cost of His own death.

Husband and wife help make each other secure. The very presence of another person meets a fundamental human need. Wisely dividing labor between man and woman ensures that money will flow in, that such money will be cleverly spent, and that necessary tasks will be done within the family. The strengths of each partner balance the weaknesses of the other, and the couple together is far more accomplished, more interesting, more stable, and more Christ-like than either of them could be separately. I provide a decent living for Nancy and our children, and she ensures that our physical needs, from lunches to laundry, are met. She makes our lives colorful, beautiful, warm, and precious. Nancy enchants our home, and life would be gray and cold without her.

The extended family adds security to the couple. In many cultures they arrange marriages between compatible young men and women, which despite modern sensibilities, is not only valid but is sometimes even preferable to “love marriages.” Parents provide guidance, resources, and contacts to help the young couple succeed. Among the Eumbo people in Angola, a man’s paternal grandmother or aunt becomes the instructress to his fiancé, helping with the wedding ceremony and teaching her how to be a good wife.[1] Similar things happen in every other culture.

Marriage between a man and a woman also provides long term security, as they can have children. Aging, decay, disease, and death are inevitable – no one can support himself forever. In Judah (8th century BC) and in England (early 19th century AD), there was no social security, no Medicare or Medicaid, and none of the other things that allow us to live alone and imagine that we are independent. The immediate and the extended family, perhaps along with a few friends, were the only support for people in age and in sickness. Naomi had to rely on Ruth, and ultimately Boaz, to care for her in her later years (Ruth 1-4).

Even with these modern tools of government, security is impossible without the family. There are not enough houses or apartments, home nurses or health aides, educators or drivers, to accommodate all of the chronically sick and aged. One of the biggest problems we faced working among the poor in Memphis TN was broken families, and the inability or unwillingness to help each other. Government is not enough.

Living in “A Land called Married” helps to bring security.

To be married is to gain approval, opportunity, and social status (Isaiah 60, 61, 62)

Isaiah uses the metaphor of God and His bride, Israel, throughout his book. The land is characterized as desolate, empty and without people. As a result, it was atypical and inferior to other nations. In Isaiah 60 and 61, God promises Israel that their “sons and daughters would return from afar” and “their offspring would be blessed.” The Lord talks of foreigners flocking to their lands and of nations serving Israel. Jerusalem would be a “praise in the earth (Isaiah 62:7).” All of these blessings would happen only when the relationship between God and His people was restored. The grace of the Almighty would flow when they lived in a land called “married”.

In every major culture in the world throughout all of history, almost all adults have been married. In fact, most cultures expected or even forced their young people to marry, so vital it was to the survival of the clan, the tribe, the village, or even the nation. The Puritans of New England expected all young people to marry and have children. Only in the past century have mores so changed as to make marriage optional, or even discouraged, as it often is now in the West.

Marriage has historically enhanced social status. In Pride and Prejudice, the silly 15-year-old daughter Lydia elopes with Wickham, a scoundrel. After her father and several other men force Wickham to marry her, the new couple visits the Bennett estate. As they enter the house, Lydia steps in front of her older sister and says, “now that I am a married woman, I go in front and you walk behind me.” In The Music Man, the Widow Paroo sings to her daughter Marian “When a woman’s got a husband and you’ve got none, why should she take advice from you?” For most of history, married woman have ranked higher than single ones in their societies.

Living in “A Land called Married” helps to bring opportunity and social status.

To be married is to have children, thus serving your society over more than just your own generation.

The Creator of the World considers children one of His greatest blessings. Therefore, the ability to create children within marriage is one of His greatest gifts. Children are a blessing that He spreads widely among people, even those who do not claim His name. Most every culture considers them a sign of God’s good favor. In the millennia before safe and reliable birth control, married people had little control over the number of children they had. Couples who feared the Lord generally wanted those they got.

  1. Children provided physical security to the family, clan, tribe, village, town, city, region, and nation.
  2. Children contributed to both supply and demand in the economy.
  3. Children created children who created children for succeeding generations.

To be sure, many children died in childbirth or infancy. Some parents did not want many children, so they killed some of their offspring through abortion or exposure. The aged and infirm often suffered a similar fate.

Several years ago I had a single, male, coworker in his mid-fifties. He had never married or had children, and was a little cantankerous. After a spirited discussion, he said, “but I need to be nice to you, as you have five children, and I need them to pay my social security when I retire.” For all of history, married couples provided the workforce to run the economy and the future families that would sustain the nation long into the future.

Living in “A Land called Married” produces children who sustain their society throughout its history.

Objections

My purpose here has been to examine Isaiah’s teachings in chapters 60-62, determine what it means that the “the land of Israel” (the people) are “married to God”, and extrapolate how Christ-filled marriages look today. Everything written above is a generalization. Many marriages between Christians, and even some Christ-filled marriages and Christ-filled people are exceptions.

  1. Couples often do not acknowledge their new identity

It is not that they do not have a new identity – they have it because God gives it – whether they like it or not. Rather, couples sometimes refuse to live in their new identity. They thus negate a marvelous gift from a marvelous Lord.

  1. Married people, even Christians, do not always delight in each other, and children often do not delight in parents.

If we first delight in God, then we will be able to delight in others. If not, we won’t. It takes time and discipline to delight in others, as we are inherently selfish.

  1. Married people, even Christians, do not always feel secure.

Our ultimate security, and our immediate security, is in our Father in Heaven. Every marriage is tense sometimes. Some, even between professing Christians, are dangerous. On the whole, marriage provides security, as God designed.

  1. Some Christians never get married.

The Lord has especially gifted some of His favorites with singleness. Nehemiah and Daniel were probably both court eunuchs, neither marrying nor having children. Nonetheless, they certainly served God mightily. Hildegard of Bingen and thousands of monks and nuns like her have been “married to Christ” and the Lord has blessed them. Isaiah 56 promises that the Lord will give a name “better than sons and daughters” to faithful eunuchs and foreigners (vv 3-5). Our Gracious Father loves all of His children and blesses them in accordance with their faithfulness, but He does not use everyone the same way.

  1. Some Christian couples are unable to have children.

People without children can be a blessing to their world into perpetuity as well. Some of the greatest people of the Bible had no spouse or children. Even in the modern day, childless philanthropists like Milton Hershey have honored thousands of others with their resources.

I freely concede the validity of these objections. Life is complicated, and often heartbreaking. Loving and dedicated people fail in marriage, cannot have children, and struggle in every area of life. Perfection and glory will only come on the other side of the great, dark, river of death. Nonetheless, these exceptions do not invalidate the rule. Isaiah’s words about being “married” to the Lord powerfully apply to Christians today. And for all of our failures, our loving God still works everything for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).

Conclusion

The prophet Isaiah spoke of “A Land called Married” in which the perfect relationship of God and His people would be restored. For human couples who know and love the Lord, “Living in a land called Married” provides a new identity, encourages delight, helps with security, meshes individuals with their greater society, improves their social standing, and supports their nation for generations to come.

[1] Weddings, Dating, and Love Customs of Cultures Worldwide, pp 42-43

 

Will My Dog Go to Heaven?

Gracie - John Niven - cropped 1.jpg

People love their pets, and want to know what will happen after they die. The Bible provides an answer. 

About two weeks ago I saw John at a riverboat party. The general mood was light, but he stood alone in the shadows, his face stained with dry tears. John and his wife, their children long out of the house, had been forced to put their beloved dog, Gracie, to sleep. I listened long and said little as he shared his heart, and soon the party was over. A few days later he approached me at another gathering.

“Mark, you are a minister, right?”

“Yes, I was ordained as a Southern Baptist lay minister.”

“Will Gracie go to heaven? I have heard both – some people say that she will, and others say that since she doesn’t have a soul, she won’t.”

He paused. There was silence as I considered my reply. John was still visibly distressed, and I had to be right, but I equivocated.

“Well, the bottom line is that no one knows for sure.”

John’s face fell.

Scrambling to recover, I said “but I think that the best Biblical answer is that they will.”

His face brightened a little, but I knew that I had lost my chance to comfort and encourage a friend. I dove into a long explanation, ranging from the nature of the soul and the image of God (Imago Dei) to the nature of God and heaven. I enlisted the help of scholars from Moses to C.S. Lewis. I was unsure how much John understood, and even how much he was listening. When I finished, John said “thanks”, mustered a weak smile, and walked away. John did not need an academic discourse – he needed comfort in his pain. But he also needed the truth, so I set out to find it.

The Options After Death

Some people believe that after people, animals, or plants die, they cease to exist. Their organic and inorganic substance returns to the earth and is reused by succeeding generations. It is true that biological material is reused over generations, but these people also hold that no personal, non-material essence, such as a soul or spirit, exists. Nothing endures after death, and there is no immortality – no eternal existence. Atheistic naturalists fall into this category.

Others affirm that people, animals, and plants are reincarnated (reborn) as other people, animals, or plants, in a succession of lives. Eventually, every living entity will escape the cycle of rebirth and enter a state of blissful nothingness. Some who believe in reincarnation, especially Hindus, believe that each individual creature has an immaterial and immortal element. These elements merge into the Universal Spirit. Others such as Buddhists do not.

The Hebrew Tanakh (Torah – “Teaching, the Five Books of Moses”, Nevi’im – “Prophets”, and Ketuvim – “Writings”), the Koran, and the Bible do not support either annihilation or reincarnation. Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian scriptures teach that humans have an immortal, immaterial (spiritual) element that lives on. After death the spirit goes to either a good place (heaven), a bad place (hell), or an intermediate place (purgatory).

Other religious and philosophical traditions fall into one of these three categories, although individual beliefs vary. Those who believe in heaven or hell generally have three criteria to determine if a created being ends up in heaven or hell after death.

  1. The being must have an enduring personal soul/spirit – an immaterial part that survives death.
  2. There must be evidence of that type of being in heaven or in hell. The Bible records that angels, humans, animals, and plants are all seen in heaven, while only angels and humans are seen in hell.
  3. The morally good go to heaven, and the morally bad go to hell.

Creatures with an enduring spirit or soul, with others of their type in heaven, and moral goodness go to heaven. Those that are bad go to hell. Those that don’t meet criteria 1 or 2 may not go anywhere – we cannot know.

Dualism

Christianity is traditionally dualistic, positing the existence of separate but related realms – the physical world and spiritual world. Bible scholars have argued about how strict this separation is, what it actually means, and where it came from, but few doubt that it exists. Jesus Himself said, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).” If the common definition of the soul is “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal,[1]” then Jesus is teaching a form of dualism. John adds “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).” Many other New Testament passages and even a few in the Old Testament (i.e. Daniel 12:2) support the existence of separate but related realms of matter and spirit; a dualistic world view. These and other Scriptures teach that man has an individual soul, just as he has an individual body. Humans, therefore, meet the first criteria for going to heaven or hell.

God breathed life into Adam, thus making him a “living soul (Genesis 2:7).” There is no mention of God “breathing life” into animals or plants, or them becoming a “living soul.” The distinction between “having a living soul” and “being a living soul” can be very large, but is out of the scope of this article. Restated, the progression for humans was “formed”, then “God breathed”, then “became a living soul”. The progression for every other creature was “created”. This is the main reason some people believe that animals do not have a personal, everlasting soul.

However, animals and plants have some kind of life force; otherwise they would not be alive. That life force may be general and impersonal, shared by all non-human living things, similar to “The Force” of Star Wars fame. Or the life force that inhabits plants and animals may be personal – unique to each individual. Native Americans believed that animals, trees, and other creatures had individual spirits, or at least individual manifestations of the “Great Spirit”. Medieval German hunting customs honor the individual spirits of the departed game and thank them for their sacrifice with a Strecke Legen[2] and Letzte Bissen[3] ceremony after each hunt. Ancients from across the globe also believed that plants and animals had individual spirits.

Scientists, trainers, zookeepers, pet owners, and others who work closely with animals recognize that each animal has its own personality. Animals are friendly, nervous, energetic, or fearful in varying degrees, just as humans are. They adapt well, or not so well, to their environment, just as humans do. As a physician who has occasionally cared for animals, a volunteer at the Memphis Zoo, and a pet owner, I see distinct evidence of personality in animals. Some people argue the same for plants.

Since the existence of a “soul” or “spirit” is not measurable with scientific observation in any creature, including humans, science cannot tell us anything about the soul or the spirit. The fact that every living thing has a “life force”, and that animals, and perhaps plants, demonstrate individual personality, provides strong if circumstantial evidence that living creatures besides humans have individual spirits or “souls.”

In his article from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Barrett Duke lists ten things that the Bible clearly teaches about animals[4]:

  1. God communicates with animals (Genesis 7:9, 1 Kings 17:4-6)
  2. God cares about the well-being of animals (Psalm 104, Jonah 4:11, Matthew 10:29-31)
  3. God enjoys animals (Psalm 104)
  4. Animals reveal God’s sovereignty (Job 38-42)
  5. Animals bring glory and praise to God (Psalm 148, 150)
  6. Animals are reasoning creatures (Numbers 22:21-33)
  7. Animals may have a more acute awareness of spiritual reality than we realize (Numbers 22:21-33)
  8. Animals have the capacity to enjoy life (Job 39, 40, Psalm 104)
  9. Animals teach us about the nature of justice (Leviticus 16)
  10. Animals belong to God (Job 41:11; Ps. 50:10-11)

Balaam’s interaction with his donkey suggests that animals have a personal spirit. After all, the donkey was able to see the angel and Balaam was not. She judged the danger and tried to evade the angel for Balaam’s benefit. Then she complained when he beat her. The text said that “God opened her mouth” and then the donkey spoke, suggesting that she had thoughts and a personality (Numbers 22:21-33). This passage reads as straight narrative, not as allegory, so there is no reason to interpret it otherwise.

The presence of a life force, a personality, and human-like characteristics does not prove that animals, much less plants, have a personal, eternal spirit. But such facts certainly increase the likelihood that they do.

Are animals pictured in heaven?

Animals and plants were present in God’s initial creation and in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1 and 2). Furthermore, God stated that the animals and plants were “good”, and even “very good.” In the beginning, our Creator filled His world with a huge variety of beautiful and fascinating creatures – each occupying its place in a complex ecosystem. The Lord never changes, so there is every reason to believe that He will also include plants and animals in His perfect universe.

The Bible records that animals will be in God’s eternal kingdom. Isaiah 11 describes the wolf, the lamb, the leopard, the calf, and the lion living together with people in harmony on God’s holy mountain. The prophet continues “a little boy will lead them.” The context suggests that Isaiah is describing the Lord’s permanent kingdom.

Another question is “are individual animals pictured in heaven?” Humans are – Elijah and Moses appear at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:1-13) and the Rich Man and Lazarus are portrayed in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). Angels are – Satan is shown in heaven (Revelation 12:7-9). But individual animals are not – if Balaam’s donkey was recorded praising God in his own way at the Great White Throne, our problem would be solved. Nonetheless, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because individual animals are not mentioned in heaven does not prove that they are not there.

What about morality?

The Bible teaches that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-31), distinct from animals, plants, and other parts of creation. Because man is made in God’s image, he is the ruler and steward of all creation. Oceans of ink have been spilled on what the Imago Dei (image of God) means. Some hold that the image of God includes intelligence, emotion, and will. If so, that distinguishes humans from animals only by degree, because animals also have intelligence, emotion, and will. Others affirm that the image of God is the ability to reason morally – to know right from wrong. Animal scientists argue that mammals also display rudimentary moral reasoning – a sense of fairness and social obligation. Insofar as this is true, such moral reasoning would only distinguish humans from animals by degree. Neither “intelligence, emotion, and will” nor “moral reasoning” are good candidates for Imago Dei, because the Image of God is something radically different, not just a different level of the same thing.

The Imago Dei is the conscious ability to glorify God and enjoy Him in perfect relationship forever. Humans have this, but there is no evidence that animals do. To restate, man alone is able to bridge the gap between God and the rest of Creation. No giraffe, however tall, or elephant, however wide, can reach up to God and across to his fellow creatures. Only man can. One man, the God-Man Jesus Christ, forms that bridge perfectly. But all men (and of course, women) are called to join Christ in this work. Humans are called to rule the earth because we, and not animals or plants, can know the Creator consciously, intentionally, and under Son of Man, perfectly.

Animals, and perhaps plants, seem to meet the first criteria, having an immortal and individual soul or spirit. They also seem to meet the second criteria. Both animals and plants are pictured in the perfect state – before the Fall of Man and after the restoration of the universe.

It is in the third criteria that the distinction between animals, probably plants, and man becomes clear. Man can disobey God, and we have. Animals cannot. As a result, animals cannot be wicked, but they also cannot be virtuous. Instead, animals are innocent.  Though the entire created world is subject to death and destruction because of human sin (Romans 8:19-22), each animal is individually blameless.

A good and loving God would not send a blameless creature to eternal punishment. Such as act would be against His nature as revealed in Scripture. The Sovereign creator made the animals. God spared “many animals” when He withheld judgment on Nineveh (Jonah 4:11) and God cares for even the sparrow (Matthew 10:29-31). He feeds the animals. Our Lord cares deeply for all of His creation – not just humans.

The Old Testament sacrificial system provides insight into animal morality. The sins of the people were ritually transferred to a blameless animal, who was then sacrificed in lieu of the people. The innocent took the place of the guilty. The glory of Jesus Christ is that a morally perfect man assumed the wickedness of morally responsible men, and then He died for us. The virtuous took the place of the guilty. Restated,

  1. Animals are innocent – they cannot sin.
  2. All humans (except the Messiah) are guilty – we do sin.
  3. Jesus was virtuous – He did not sin.

The penalty for group two (humans) first fell on group one (animals). Ultimately the penalty for our sin fell on Jesus Himself.

Will my dog go to Heaven?

To summarize based on this evidence, animals, and perhaps plants have an individual, enduring immaterial essence…a spirit. Their spirits are different from human spirits in at least one fundamental way – humans (and probably angels) are created in the image of God and other creatures are not. Animals and plants are clearly portrayed in times of perfection, both in the Garden of Eden and in the Final Restoration. Finally, while animals seem to have a rudimentary moral understanding, they are incapable of a conscious, personal relationship with God. Therefore, they cannot sin against God, they are morally innocent, and they do not deserve eternal punishment.   We can reasonably conclude that our pets will be in heaven. The same may be true for insects, plants, etc. Unfortunately, the distance between them and us is great so it is harder to tell.

There are many faithful Christians who would disagree. Some would argue that Genesis proves that animals do not have an immaterial element beyond what they need to survive earthly life. Others would counter that the Bible does not answer this question plainly. Others will have other objections. I am happy to talk with such brothers and sisters in the love and spirit of Christ, and we can learn together.

Conclusion

Gracie is in heaven. She is morally innocent in God’s eyes and has an individual, enduring existence. John himself is a lover and follower of Jesus. Therefore, he will see his beloved dog again. If the Lord gives me another chance to talk to him about this, I will.

 

[1] https://www.bing.com/search?q=soul&form=EDGTCT&qs=PF&cvid=5db77c37dc204078aface0db23480dea&cc=US&setlang=en-US

[2] A strecke legen is a laying out of the animals killed in the hunt, with the Hoch Wild (large or “high” game in the front and the little game in the back.

[3] Letzte bissen is “last bite”, a sprig of oak, fir, pine, or spruce placed in the slain animal’s mouth

[4] 10 biblical truths about animals, https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/10-biblical-truths-about-animals

Whence Identity?

A Christian view on how and where we find and build our identity. 

“To be a Turk is to be a Muslim” our Turkish tour guide announced during our tour of the Seven Churches in Revelation. I asked him why he believed that, and he replied that since Allah made him a Turk, clearly Allah intended for him to be a Muslim. Both his logic and his history were faulty. While the descendants of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks are overwhelmingly Muslim, the modern descendants of the Khazar Turks are largely Jewish. Present-day Gagauz and Chuvash Turks are predominantly Christian.

“I am a doctor” an indignant young woman told us after we had mistaken her for a nurse. We apologized, but that was not enough – she was angry and let us know. Many modern liberals would consider that a microaggression, evidence of inherent bias or even subconscious hatred (presumably conscious hatred would be plain old aggression). Older folk may just consider it a mistake, borne of the observation that even today, most doctors in America are men and the overwhelming majority of nurses are women. One wonders why this woman was offended by being considered a nurse instead of a doctor, as if the former is somehow inferior to the latter, but that is a topic for another article.

A friend and prominent El Paso businessman went with our church on a trip to work with a local Christian congregation in Zambia. When the African pastor asked him to introduce himself, my friend answered as an American would. He told the pastor about his job and company. The pastor listened politely and then said, “Fine, but tell me about the important things – your family and your church.”

A Persian woman used to live with us. She said that in America, her work matters, but in Iran, her family matters. Here she is a (insert occupation) while there is the daughter of (insert name), granddaughter of (insert name), niece of (insert name). Someday she will be the wife of (insert name) and mother of (insert name). In Persia, relationships trump revenue.

How do we define ourselves?

These examples beg the question of identity – how do people define themselves? The Turk’s identity was as an olive skinned, young, single, heterosexual, male, Turkish Muslim. In my many conversations with him, it was clear that being a tour guide was a passing stage; it was not a large part of his identity. The female physician’s identity was as a white, young, single, female, American physician. Being a doctor was crucial to her self-image. My friend used self-identifiers that were important to Americans but nearly meaningless to Africans. Our Persian sister taught us that in many cultures, whose you are matters more than who you are.

People construct their identity differently over the generations. Biblical obituaries are often simple – “and he did right in the sight of the Lord” or “and he did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Character, not position or earthly accomplishments mattered. Obituaries in American newspapers before 1900 have a similar focus on character. On his death in 1788, Rev Josiah Sterns was noted to be “industrious and faithful” with “great and good character.”[1] Dudley Freese was a “kind husband and father… useful church member… and worthy citizen.”[2] By contrast, a quick review of recent obituaries in the Washington Post reveals lots about work and accomplishments, less about family, and little about character. Admittedly, my comparison in this case was not scientific, but was certainly suggestive.

Wealth, education, and socioeconomic status are other areas of division. Stereotypically, the rich and educated look down on the poor and less educated. This is sometimes true. It is also true that the poor and less educated sometimes look down on the rich and educated, or impute bias when none really exists. Contrary to some opinions, every group is capable of bias, arrogance, apathy, and hatred, regardless of how much power they perceive themselves to have. Morality and immorality are universal.

Identity matters. America today is fractured by identity groups X, Y, and Z fighting each other. Though it may be worse than in the past, such animosity is nothing new. In the 1850s, the “Know Nothing” political party opposed immigrants and Catholics. In the 1960s, Tom Lehrer performed the song National Brotherhood Week, mocking the façade of unity between identity groups in America:

Oh, the white folks hate the black folks, And the black folks hate the white folks. To hate all but the right folks Is an old established rule.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week, Lena Horne and Sheriff Clarke are dancing cheek to cheek. It’s fun to eulogize The people you despise, As long as you don’t let ’em in your school.

Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks, And the rich folks hate the poor folks. All of my folks hate all of your folks, It’s American as apple pie.

But during national brotherhood week, national brotherhood week, New Yorkers love the Puerto Ricans ’cause it’s very chic. Step up and shake the hand Of someone you can’t stand. You can tolerate him if you try.

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, And the Catholics hate the Protestants, And the Hindus hate the Muslims, And everybody hates the Jews…

Identity politics and ethnic splintering are not merely an American phenomenon – they are present worldwide. Since the end of the Cold War, many states have splintered – Yugoslavia, Sudan, Iraq, and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – into many independent nations and regions. Conflict, not unity in diversity, has often been the result. In a nuclear world, the foreseeable results are frightening.

How should Christians respond?

Like everyone else, we are a mixture of sex, race, education, religion, national origin, skin color, etc. However, our overwhelming identity must be in Christ. Paul is absolutely clear:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

“Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)

The Apostle goes even further when he rebukes Peter for putting his ethnic identity above his Christian one (Galatians 2:11-14). Finally, Paul in the Holy Scripture tells us that followers of Jesus don’t even live our own lives. Christ does, and he is not divided.

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Christians are not men or women first. We are not rich or poor first. We are not black, white, or another race first. We are not American or another nationality first. We are not any other category first. We are Christians. Every other point of identity is secondary. Jesus Christ is God, and He will let nothing else take first place in the lives of His people. Identity matters and diversity is a good thing, but only if it acknowledges and contributes to the unity of the Church, the body of Christ.

Tom Lehrer also made the point that religion itself can be a source of hatred. But believers in Jesus have nothing to be proud of, and everything to be grateful for. We did not earn our salvation, as is required in other faiths. God gave it to us. Christians are sinners saved by grace; rescued by an amazing God, through no act or virtue of our own. The character that our ancestors celebrated in the obituaries above is evidence of the good work of God. There is no room for hatred of others in those who love Christ.

Conclusion

Believers in Jesus should be involved in righting the wrongs of society, whether poverty, disease, or injustice. But the unity of the Body and the advancement of the Gospel for the glory of God is always the highest goal. As Jesus said:

“That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:

I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” (John 17:21-23)

If the Church is One, if the Body of Christ is united, God will be exalted, and our world will be blessed.

[1] http://www.ryanwadleigh.com/obits1.html

[2] http://www.ryanwadleigh.com/obits1.html

Look What You Made Me Do

158px-Taylor_Swift_-_Look_What_You_Made_Me_Do_(music_video_screenshot) - small
By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55092301

A Christian Perspective on Taylor Swift’s song.

I rarely comment on trends and events in the entertainment world, mostly because I don’t follow it.  I do follow my daughter’s life, however, and she asked me to comment on Taylor Swift’s latest music video, Look What You Made Me Do. So here I write, as a fool rushing in where wise men never go.

Until now, my only exposure to Taylor Swift’s music occurred when our youth choir director included her song Shake it Off (2014) in the choir’s repertoire for our missions trip to Montreal (2015). He wanted to use the familiar music to gather crowds for our Christian concerts. Taylor Swift (1989-) was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Nashville in 2004 for a career in country music. She was successful, transitioned to pop music, and now is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time.

Taylor’s first big hit, Our Song (2007), was about her and a boyfriend. It seems fairly traditional for country music, including a guitar, a fiddle, a porch, a mention of God, and a little naughtiness that “mom don’t know.” You Belong With Me (2009) is about a high school girl who wants a certain boy to realize that she is the right girl for him. Its genre is pop, but it still has a positive tone and a happy ending. Unfortunately, rapper Kanye West interrupted her acceptance speech for the MTV music video award that she won for that song, thus beginning a feud that continues today.

As fame grows, so does trouble. Bad Blood (2014) has none of the sweetness of her earlier songs, focusing on destruction, and revenge. Taylor Swift typically writes songs from her personal life, and some say that Bad Blood was inspired when she was betrayed by a friend. Swift has been criticized for her personal relationships, has been the victim of sexual assault, and has been attacked for her earlier clean image.

Her latest hit, Look What You Made Me Do, from the album Reputation, is dark. It is not clear from the video who made her do what, but one wonders if the title could be Look What You Made Me Become. The theme is the death of her reputation, with her post-mortem self rising as a zombie from the grave, and her current self cutting the wings off an airplane called “Reputation”.

The phrase “Look What You Made Me Do” is passive, with the speaker trying to give up responsibility for what he or she has done. This hope is vain, because in the final reckoning, everyone pays for his or her own sins (Deuteronomy 24:16, Jeremiah 31:30), or lets Jesus take them instead (Isaiah 53:4-6). The album focuses on reputation, how Taylor Swift perceives that she appears in the eyes of people, but says nothing about character, how she perceives that she looks in the eyes of God. The fear of man is a snare (Proverbs 29:25), and she, like most of us, seems to be trapped in it.

Gone is her image of sweetness and innocence, a fact that she recognizes when she sings “But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time” and “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.” Swift summarizes her change with “I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now”, “Why?”, “Oh, ’cause she’s dead!” The song ends with Taylor Swift standing with her alter egos accusing each other of “being a fake”, “playing the victim”, and asking to be “excluded from this narrative.”

Forbes estimated Swift’s net worth at $280 million in 2017, and she has 86 million followers on Twitter. If ever a woman had everything that this world can offer – money, beauty, power, and fame – she has it. Billions of people around the world would probably say that they would love to trade places with her.

But would they? More importantly, would Taylor Swift now trade places with her younger self? She has gained much since her move to Nashville 13 years ago, but she seems to have also lost much. Does getting “harder” make you “smarter?” Is it good to “trust no one” and have “no one trust you?” Taylor’s face is colder in her more recent photographs, and her vocal tone has more edge. Swift once said that her relationship with her fans is the “longest and best relationship she ever had.” If that is true, is that what she wants, or what is best for her? After all, it is not good for man (or woman) to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Has her success been a Faustian bargain? Like Linda Mason in Holiday Inn, has she given up what she really loved for what is phony? If she has, does she realize it?

I do not know her personally, so the only window that I have into her life is through the media; a cloudy glass at best. I am not trying to criticize or demean her at all, for she has faced struggles and temptations that I will never know. Faced with the same, I probably would not have done as well. I have only taken a small sample of her songs – perhaps she has new ones that with the same freshness and playfulness of her earlier work. Perhaps not. We must appreciate her talents, her philanthropy, and acknowledge that her music has influenced millions. We must also understand that everything she has, from her talents to her success, is a gift from God. The same is true for everyone.

Look What You Made Me Do is a sad and angry rap-style song that seems to come from a betrayed and bitter heart. Did the pressures of fame and fortune make her that way? Was it inevitable? Does she want out, as she implies when she asks to be “excluded from this narrative?” Is there a way out? Is she trapped by her prior life, as in Hotel California’s “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave?” Or is this just dark satire, making her happy as more and more millions of dollars roll in?

The Bible tells us that we are all fake – the only completely real person is Jesus Christ. We are all betrayed and betrayers. We are all sad and angry. And yet those who truly follow Jesus have His Spirit living in them. We grow in the fruits of His Spirit every day. Those who truly know Christ continually increase in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  This is a guarantee from the Almighty. Is God’s promise worth $270 million, and 86 million Twitter followers? That is a question for each of us, including Taylor Swift, to decide.

 

 

To Be A Man

An acrostic on being a man, based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

It is Easter weekend, 2017, a time to celebrate the most important event in human history; the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We also consider how the work of Jesus impacts our daily lives. Many of the “powerful” in America in 2017 dislike much of what the Lord taught, and detest who He claimed to be. American Christians, therefore find the Bible at odds with prevailing attitudes in the media, business, government, and entertainment. It can be hard to know what to do, and harder to find strength in tough times. One friend has been unemployed for over a year; another for four months. One is strongly considering leaving his wife. A teenager struggles with what it actually means to be a man, and a recent college graduate faces a wonderful but fearsome task, becoming a husband.  Directly using the word of God, I have described part of what it means to be a man.

To Be A Man –  informed by Scripture and themed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism  

Grow in wisdom and favor with God, and with men who know and love Him (Luke 2:52).

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Matthew 22:37-40).

Obey the Word of God, meditating on it day and night, and being careful to do according to all that is written in it, for then you will be prosperous and have success (Joshua 1:8).

Regard one another as more important than yourself (Philippians 2:3).

Imitate Christ, and imitate those Christians who are themselves imitating Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Forsake not the assembling of yourselves with the Church, and with smaller groups of accountable male friends (Hebrews 10:25).

Yield to the Lord, and to those people that He has put in authority over you (Romans 13:1-4, Hebrews 13:17).

 

Give generously and cheerfully to those who ask of you (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Offer your body as a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable to God, and do not be conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1-2).

Determine to live a quiet life, mind your business, and work with your hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11).

 

Always keep the Sabbath Day holy (Exodus 20:8-11).

Never allow your heart to be troubled (John 14:1).

Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

 

Examine the Scriptures daily to see whether what others say is correct, that you may be approved by God for rightly dividing the word of truth (Acts 17:11, 2 Timothy 2:15).

Never lose faith, and never give up (Habakkuk 3:17-19).

Join with the great cloud of witnesses, past and present, in encouraging and supporting all Christians who are running the race of life. Then eliminating every weight and sin which so easily entangles you, and run with endurance the race that is set before you, fixing your eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Overcome yourself, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. Lose your life for His sake, and then find it in Him (Mark 8:34-35).

Yearn for His kingdom and His righteousness, and everything else will be added to you (Matthew 6:33). Delight yourself in Him and He will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).

 

Honor your father and your mother (Exodus 20:12).

Incline your heart towards your wife, your children, and the rest of your family, teaching them the ways of the Lord (Malachi 4:6, Deuteronomy 6:6-9). Children are a blessing from the Lord, like arrows in an archer’s quiver (Psalms 127:3-5).

Meet the material needs of your family and those that God has entrusted to you (1 Timothy 5:8).

 

Flee the evil desires and the lusts of youth (2 Timothy 2:22).

Order your life to love, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things, and rejoicing in the truth (1 Corinthians 13:6-7)

Rejoice in the wife of your youth, let her breasts satisfy you at all times, and be exhilarated always with her love (Proverbs 5:18-19). Love your wife as Christ loves the Church, and gave Himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25).

Exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Vex yourself about nothing, but in everything with prayer and supplication, let your requests be made known unto God (Philippians 4:6-7).

Exert yourself to make disciples in all nations, teaching them to observe all that Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:19).

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks, do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophetic utterances, examine everything carefully, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).

As we glorify God and enjoy Him forever, Christian men will know how to live, and discover the power to do so.

Conclusion

Tens of thousands of men who rarely attend church will be in the seats of the sanctuary at Eastertime. They will be performing a duty, seeking truth, or trying to appease a nagging parent or spouse. Whether they realize it or not, they will also be seeking answers for the tough questions of life, and strength to sustain them day by day. The Bible tells us what it means to be a man, and the Holy Spirit of God gives us the power to do it.

 

Encountering God

When children are young, their world is little bigger than their neighborhood; their home, their school, their friends’ houses, and their church. When people reach young adulthood, their world expands, perhaps even to encompass the whole globe. Slowly though, muscles weaken and eyes get foggy. Women lose their ability to conceive, and hair grays. At those moments, pensive people begin to truly understand that though the world will not leave them, they will leave the world. While little children anchor themselves in their parents and young adults in career and family, the aged realize that these anchors will not hold.

Thoughtful people realize that no temporal anchor – job, family, wealth – will hold through the storms of old age and death. The only anchor that can hold the ship of a man’s life steady in these tempests is God’s Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). He is the Rock of Ages that can shelter our souls against the storm (Isaiah 26:4). We will find refuge only under His wings (Psalm 91:4).

But how can we know God? We must encounter Him. A lifetime of experiencing His faithfulness will enable us to trust Him for the next life. This article will describe how Christians can encounter God regularly.

Background

Matthew 5-7 highlights one of Jesus’ most famous sermons, the Sermon on the Mount. He begins chapter 5 with the Beatitudes (Blessed are the …), discusses the role of His followers in the world (salt and light), and ends with a discourse on what it means to be perfect in the eyes of the Father. In Chapter 7, the Lord warns His listeners to judge only as God Himself judges, encourages them to good actions, and concludes telling the crowd to build their lives on His teachings as a wise man would build his house upon a rock.

Nestled between is chapter 6, beginning with an admonition against hypocrisy, a lesson on prayer, and a summary of trusting in God. Another look, however, reveals that Matthew 6 tells listeners (and in our case, readers) how to encounter God. Four things about experiencing the Lord are evident from verses 1-18:

  1. We must want to encounter Him.
  2. We must know how to encounter Him.
  3. We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him – physically, personally, and with others.

Keeping these three themes in mind, let us discover how to encounter the God of Creation, the Lover of Our Souls.

We must want to encounter Him.

By nature, man does not want to encounter the real God. We want to find power, knowledge, and beauty, but we are terrified by the blinding purity and the overwhelming holiness of the Lord of the Universe. Our finitude, our mortality, and our love of evil – though we don’t consider our private, favorite sins to be evil – make us afraid and ashamed in His presence. Being face to face with God is a little like being face to face with a deathless angel, a lender to whom we owe millions, and a policeman who has just caught us burning down a house.

Far from being a path to God, most of the religions of the world are attempts to escape the truth about ourselves and our Maker. We pretend that we can put God into our debt by doing good works, when actually every part of our moral nature is corrupt and we are incapable of good works; deeds that share the goodness of God. We pretend that our religious rituals and offerings can force God to act in accordance with our will when in truth our duty is to do His will. We act like we know what is best for ourselves and others, while in reality over the course of our lives, our desires change like the wind. If we finally realize these facts about our nature, we deny that a personal God exists and pretend that we can reach Enlightenment, attaining a state of bliss, by our own efforts.

Jesus described this problem in Matthew 6. The hypocrites (ὑποκριτής hypokritēs – pretender, false face) wanted to convince onlookers that they performed their “good deeds” for God and others, when they actually performed them to glorify themselves before man. They received what they sought – other people were impressed. We do the same thing, both with “religious” and with other actions:

  1. We make money to meet our physical needs, but beyond this we make money to glorify ourselves in the eyes of others (“keeping up with the Joneses”).
  2. We accomplish goals to make money and to do things that we consider “good” for ourselves and others. Often, however, we do so to feel better than our compatriots, to gain their approval, and to “earn ourselves a place in history.
  3. I sometimes make the same mistake. I have a New Testament in English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, and Arabic. Sometimes I read this New Testament to learn languages, not to discover God.

When Jesus says “thy Father will reward thee openly”, He was not talking about money, fame, or power on earth or even “jewels in your crown” in heaven. The Father is the Rewarder and He is also the Reward. God will give more of Himself to those who love and obey Him. To perform any act for any reason other than the glory, enjoyment, and love of God, and secondarily for the benefit of others, is to seek the glory of men. It is also to seek a reward other than the Rewarder. People who do these things do not really want to encounter God, and they will get their wish.

We must know how to encounter Him

Mystics, whether Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, practitioners of Kabbalah, or others, often chant phrases over and over again. These chants do not need to make literary sense in any language, because the mystic hopes that the tone and rhythm will lead to an ecstatic experience; one that overwhelms the body with emotion and a sense of the numinous. The mind, and certainly not reason or logic, is often not involved beyond executing the chant. While there is nothing inherently wrong with chanting, Jesus taught that mere repetition of words does not avail to speak with God. Put another way, chanting, dancing, and other practices can be useful to worship, but vain repetition is not useful. The Lord taught a better way:

  1. Our Father – plural, as if praying in community to the powerful yet close and loving One with authority over us. Note that each member of the community is equal before Him.
  2. Which art in heaven – though He is close to us, He stands in authority over the whole universe.
  3. Hallowed by Thy name – a statement of how we must and will revere Him. It is “your name will be honored” rather than “I hope your name will be honored” or “will your name be honored?”
  4. Thy kingdom come – We want your authority, your protection, your sustenance, and your love upon us on this earth…
  5. Thy will be done – We want your will, not our own, to be done on earth…
  6. On earth as it is in heaven – Your kingdom and will are perfectly in place in heaven, we want them perfectly in place on earth, and they will be perfectly in place on earth.
  7. Give us this day our daily bread – Provide our material and spiritual needs today
  8. And forgive us our debts – We have failed to behave in accordance with your character, and therefore have become morally indebted to You.
  9. As we forgive our debtors – Others have sinned against us, and help us to forgive them as we have graciously been forgiven.
  10. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – Protect us not from hardship but from sin.
  11. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever – not found in many manuscripts, this refers to the overarching glory of God.

Note a few other things about encountering God. The use of plural at the onset suggests that many people are praying together. Jesus’ example showed Him praying alone but also praying with others. Therefore we must strive to encounter God both alone and in groups of other believers. We are to honor God, ask for spiritual and physical needs, and consider the desires of ourselves and others.

We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him

Many Christians have a devotional time of prayer and Bible reading but nothing else. This is good, but to most effectively encounter God, we must do more. Consider what Jesus is telling His disciples to do, and how each act corresponds to a spiritual discipline:

  1. Acknowledge God (worship and celebration)
  2. Give to others (service)
  3. Go alone into a closet, a secret place (solitude and secrecy)
  4. Be silent (silence)
  5. Pray (prayer and meditation)
  6. Let the Word of God inform your prayer (study)
  7. Fast (fasting)
  8. Confess and be forgiven (confession)
  9. Forgive (sacrifice and submission)

The Spiritual Disciplines are traditional practices that Christians since the 1st century have used to discover God. In Matthew 6, Jesus is not only warning His followers against hypocrisy and teaching them to pray, He is describing what believers need to do to encounter God to the fullest.

We have seen how encountering God involves a personal devotional time and also involves others. This passage also suggests a physical component to encountering the Lord. Silence and fasting are both physical. Body position, whether kneeling, lying prostrate, or standing with uplifted arms, is physical. Mystics, charismatics, and others chant, dance, and do other physical actions to better feel God’s presence.

How might this apply to the modern day?

A man gets up early and goes alone with his Bible into his prayer closet (silence, secrecy, and solitude).There he confesses his known sins, receives forgiveness, and forgives others (confession, sacrifice, and service). Once his heart is clean, the man reads the Bible silently and meditates on what he has read (Bible study and meditation). He worships God through the passage and through what He has done for him over the past day, week, month, or year (worship and celebration). The man has fasted since dinner last night, or perhaps even since lunch the day before.

Every weekday morning the man runs or lifts weights alone for exercise. Rather than listening to music, he uses the time to reflect on creation, the person of God, and to seek help with life’s’ troubles. The rhythm of his heart beat, breathing, and foot striking the ground capture his attention. The exertion of exercise hinders linear, logical thought and so he listens better to the world around, his body within, and the Lord above.

Every evening the man assembles his family for prayers. Using lists of family, friends, associates, local, national and global prayer needs, he assigns topics for each person in his family. They discuss the prayer issues as a group and then pray, each person sitting up or kneeling so no one falls asleep.

Conclusion

Life is hard; too hard to be anchored in people, things, or any other temporal creation. God the Son, Jesus Christ, anchors our souls in the stormy seas of existence, and He hides our hearts in the cleft of His rock. To anchor in Him, we must experience Him over and over again. We must want to encounter Him, know how to encounter Him, and encounter Him with our whole self; our bodies, our minds, and those around us. Only then will we anchor ourselves securely forevermore.