Monday, March 7, 2016

How Decline Happens

In the early tenth century B.C.(E.), David expanded the nation of Israel into an empire with subject kingdoms spread across the Levant. His son Solomon did not extend Israel's reach militarily or politically, but he greatly increased its economic leverage and cultural prestige, which made Israel still more dominant—a Near Eastern superpower in the making.

Then in a span of about five years—from ca. 931 to ca. 925—Solomon's son Rehoboam presided over the contraction of the dominion of the House of David from a Levantine empire to a tiny (though wealthy) tributary of Egypt. The Davidic monarch went from emperor to client-king almost overnight.

 Conquest list of Pharaoh Shoshenq I (Shishak) (credit Olaf Tausch)

You can read about how this happened in 1 Kings 11:1-12:24; 14:21-31 and 2 Chronicles 10-12. Here are some lessons derived from it about how and why decline from supremacy happens. Apply to your church, organization, or nation as they pertain:
  • Decline begins while things are greater than ever—especially as to quantifiable measurables—but cracks in the edifice are beginning to show.
  • Decline follows unresolved (possibly smothered) internal strife over the stresses put on people to resource greatness.
  • Related strife comes from the inequitable sharing of the benefits of greatness—i.e., the concentration of privileges and resources in the tightening circle of those connected to power, into which others cannot break. (Note: Those in the circle are typically oblivious that there even is a circle and even more so about the arbitrariness of their privileges.)
  • Decline also follows compromise of the reason (purpose) that brought about greatness—the uniqueness, the mission—so that greatness becomes the end unto itself and does not serve anything outside itself.
  • Greatness brought about by God for his long-range purpose is forfeited when people cease to be humble and obedient and in awe of God alone.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Why Was Jesus Killed? 149 Reasons

Rembrandt van Rijn, Raising of the Cross (1633)

I looked in the New Testament to get answers about why Jesus was killed. I thought I'd find a few. I found a lot.

Granted, among the reasons for Jesus' death listed below, there is much overlap. But the list still shows the startling complexity of why Jesus was executed in Jerusalem, nearly all New Testament authors' keen interest in the subject, and their stubbornly repetitious insistence on substitutionary atonement (notwithstanding many other important, complementary reasons).

Please note: Whenever "we"/"us"/"our" is used below, in context it nearly always refers to people who have placed their trust in Jesus and his death as the source of their salvation.

Why was Jesus killed?

  • Matt. 2:2-3, 13—he was born the king of the Jews
  • Matt. 10:21-28—the Pharisees believed he was the devil incarnate
  • Matt. 12:14—he demolished the Pharisees’ criticism of his Sabbath activity with irrefutable reasoning from Scripture and assertion of his own authority
  • Matt. 16:21-23—it was God’s plan
  • Matt. 17:12—the authorities did not recognize him
  • Matt. 20:28—he gave his life as a ransom for many
  • Matt. 21:45-46; 22:15—he publicly alleged that the chief priests and Pharisees rejected God, and the people held him to be a prophet
  • Matt. 26:14-16—Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve disciples, betrayed him
  • Matt. 26:28—his blood sealed a covenant and was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins
  • Matt. 26:39—his Father wanted it
  • Matt. 26:54—it fulfilled the Scriptures
  • Matt. 26:59-66—the chief priests and the Council seized on Jesus’ quotation of Ps. 110:1 and Dan. 7:13 as the crime of blasphemy
  • Matt. 27:18—the chief priests and elders envied him
  • Matt. 27:20—the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas’ release instead of Jesus’
  • Matt. 27:24—Pilate wanted to prevent a riot
  • Matt. 27:37—he was claimed to be the king of the Jews
  • Matt. 27:46—he was forsaken by God like David was (Ps. 22:1)
  • Mark 3:6—the Pharisees/scribes believed him to blaspheme by forgiving sins on his own authority and to eat and drink in unholy ways, and he healed on the Sabbath
  • Mark 8:31-33—it was God’s plan
  • Mark 10:45—he gave his life as a ransom for many
  • Mark 11:18—he accused the chief priests and scribes of turning the temple into a robbers’ den, and the crowd was amazed at his teaching
  • Mark 12:12—he claimed to be the son of God (the Messiah) whom the chief priests, scribes, and elders rejected
  • Mark 14:10-11—Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve disciples, betrayed him
  • Mark 14:24—his blood sealed a covenant and was poured out for many
  • Mark 14:36—his Father wanted it
  • Mark 13:49—it fulfilled the Scriptures
  • Mark 14:61-64—Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah and quotation of Ps. 110:1 and Dan. 7:13 were construed by the chief priests and the Council as blasphemy
  • Mark 15:10—the chief priests envied him
  • Mark 15:15—Pilate wished to satisfy the crowd, which had been incited by the chief priests, by releasing the insurrectionist and murderer Barabbas instead of Jesus
  • Mark 15:26—he was claimed to be the king of the Jews
  • Mark 15:34—he was forsaken by God like David was (Ps. 22:1)
  • Luke 2:34-35—he was appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel and for a sign to be opposed
  • Luke 4:22-30—no prophet is welcome in his home town
  • Luke 6:11—he ignored and exploded the scribes and Pharisees' purity standards
  • Luke 11:53-54—he blasted the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy
  • Luke 18:31-33—the prophets foretold it
  • Luke 19:47-48; 20:19, 26—he denounced the authorities in Jerusalem, and the people loved it
  • Luke 22:3-6—Satan entered Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve disciples, and led him to betray Jesus
  • Luke 22:20—his blood sealed a new covenant
  • Luke 22:37—he was counted among the criminals in order to fulfill Scripture (Isa. 53:12)
  • Luke 22:42—his Father wanted it
  • Luke 22:53—the people who wanted to seize him were granted the moment to do it and the power of darkness to execute it
  • Luke 22:70-71—the Council seized on his noncommittal response to their question as self-incrimination
  • Luke 23:24—Pilate conceded to the crowd’s demand that insurrectionist and murderer Barabbas be released instead of Jesus
  • Luke 23:34—his killers did not know what they were doing
  • Luke 23:38—he was claimed to be the king of the Jews
  • Luke 23:46—he committed his spirit to his Father’s hands, like David did (Ps. 31:5)
  • Luke 24:25-27, 46—Moses and the prophets said that the Messiah had to suffer what he suffered
  • John 1:29—he was God’s offering to himself to take away the sin of the world
  • John 5:16-18—he enraged the Jewish authorities by healing on the Sabbath and calling God his own Father, thus claiming to be equal with God
  • John 7:7, 19—he asserted that people did not obey God’s law and that their deeds were evil
  • John 7:25-26, 30-32, 44-52—the chief priests and Pharisees in Jerusalem did not recognize that he was the Messiah and disbelieved his claim to be sent from God
  • John 8:20—he alleged that the Pharisees did not know God, his Father
  • John 8:37, 40, 44—his true message did not find a place in the authorities because, like their father the devil, they hated the truth and wanted to murder those who tell it
  • John 8:59—he claimed to be eternal God
  • John 10:10, 15-18—he laid down his life of his own accord so that his “sheep” would have life according to his Father’s command
  • John 10:30-39—he enraged the Jewish authorities by claiming to be one God with the Father
  • John 11:48-53—the chief priests and Pharisees were afraid that if everyone believed in him, the Romans would depose them and annihilate the Jews as a nation, but that if Jesus died then diaspora Jews would return to Judea
  • John 12:32-33—he intended to draw all people to himself
  • John 15:13—he laid down his life for his friends, his disciples
  • John 15:18-20—the world hated him
  • John 15:21-24—the world did not know the Father and hated him too
  • John 15:25—the cries of David in the Psalms about being hated without a cause had to be fulfilled
  • John 16:2-3—his killers thought they were doing a service to God
  • John 18:11—his Father wanted it
  • John 18:33-34; 19:19-21—he was accused by the chief priests of pretending to be the king of the Jews
  • John 18:40—the chief priests demanded that Barabbas, a robber, be released instead of Jesus
  • John 19:7—he violated the Law of Moses by making himself out to be the Son of God (more than just the Messiah)
  • John 19:10-11—Pilate was given authority over Jesus by God
  • John 19:12—Pilate protected himself from the chief priests’ allegation that he was disloyal to Caesar
  • John 19:14-16—Pilate used him as a way to wrest a confession of allegiance to Caesar from the chief priests
  • John 19:19-22—Pilate was sending a message to the Jews that Rome would crush anyone who claimed to be their king
  • Acts 2:23—God knew it and planned it in advance
  • Acts 3:13-14—the people of Jerusalem disowned him in Pilate’s presence in exchange for a murderer when Pilate wanted to release him
  • Acts 3:17—both the rulers and the people acted in ignorance
  • Acts 3:18—God announced it beforehand by the prophets
  • Acts 4:28—God’s hand and purpose predestined it
  • Acts 7:51—the Council was stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, resisting the Holy Spirit just like their fathers
  • Acts 7:53—the Council received the Law of Moses as ordained by angels but did not keep it
  • Acts 7:32-35—he fulfilled Isaiah 53:7-8
  • Acts 13:27—the residents and rulers of Jerusalem did not recognize him or the prophecies written about him that are read every Sabbath, which they fulfilled by condemning him
  • Acts 26:22-23—Moses and the prophets said that the Messiah had to be subjected to suffering
  • Rom. 3:25—God displayed him as a propitiation that justified God’s merciful disregard of sins committed up to that point and God’s acquittal of those linked to Jesus through faith
  • Rom. 4:25—he was delivered up because of our crimes
  • Rom. 5:6-9—God demonstrated his love for us helpless, ungodly sinners by acquitting us and saving us from his wrath through Jesus’ blood
  • Rom. 5:10—it reconciled us to God while we were God’s enemies
  • Rom. 5:19—it was an act of obedience that designated many to be righteous
  • Rom. 6:6—our old self with its sin-corrupted body was crucified with him so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin
  • Rom. 6:7, 11—by baptism into Jesus’ death, we are dead to sin and held innocent of it
  • Rom. 7:4-11—through it we died to and thus were released from the Law that exacerbates our guilt by illuminating it and exciting our rebelliousness
  • Rom. 8:3-4—God did what the Law could not do: condemn sin in the likeness of sin-degraded humanity without condemning us, so that the requirement of the Law could be met in us
  • Rom. 14:9—it made Jesus Lord even over those who have died
1 Corinthians
  • 1 Cor. 1:18-25—God wisely planned to expose worldly wisdom’s inadequacy for finding God by using the foolishness of the cross to save those who believe it
  • 1 Cor. 2:7-8—none of the rulers of this age understood the secret truth of God’s wise, predestined plan
  • 1 Cor. 5:7—he is our sacrificed Passover lamb whose blood protects us from the deadly wrath of God
  • 1 Cor. 11:25—his blood sealed the new covenant
  • 1 Cor. 15:3—he died for our sins, in accord with what the Hebrew Scriptures said
2 Corinthians
  • 2 Cor. 5:21—God made him to embody sin in our place, even though he knew no sin, so that by him we would embody God’s righteousness
  • 2 Cor. 13:4—he was weak
  • Gal. 1:4—he gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, as God the Father wanted
  • Gal. 2:21—it was the necessary means for us to gain righteousness by God’s grace, because the Law does not deliver it
  • Gal. 3:13-14—he redeemed us from the curse embedded in the Law by embodying that curse on our behalf, so that Gentiles might receive the blessing given to Abraham and Jews and Gentiles might receive the promised Holy Spirit
  • Gal. 6:14—his cross makes his followers despised and as good as dead in the world’s eyes but also makes the world despised and dead to them
  • Eph. 1:7—it redeemed us and made possible the forgiveness of our crimes according to God’s rich grace
  • Eph. 2:13-16—it made made peace between Jews and Gentiles, uniting them in one body, by annulling the commandments of the Law that divided them, and it reconciled them to God as one
  • Eph. 5:26-32—he intended to make his church holy and clean in order to present it to himself as his wife, glorious and flawless, with whom he will become one
  • Phil. 2:8—he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death
  • Col. 2:19-20—it was God’s desire to make peace between himself and all things through the blood of Jesus’ cross
  • Col. 2:22—it reconciled us with God in order to present us holy, blameless, and beyond reproach before himself (provided we continue in the faith)
  • Col. 2:11-12—we are buried with him through baptism, which is Jesus’ means to remove our sin-corrupted bodies from us as a non-physical circumcision
  • Col. 2:14—in his crucifixion our unmet obligations were crucified too
  • Col. 2:20—it enabled us to die with him with respect to the elementary principles of the world
1 Thessalonians
  • 1 Thess. 4:14—it enabled those who die through him to rise as he did
1 Timothy
  • 1 Tim. 2:6—he gave himself as a ransom for us all, which was a timely testimony
2 Timothy
  • 2 Tim. 2:11—if we die with him, we will also live with him
  • Tit. 2:14—he gave himself for us in order to redeem us from every lawless deed and to purify for himself a people for his own possession that is zealous for good deeds
  • Heb. 2:9—he tasted death on behalf of everyone
  • Heb. 2:10; 5:9—it made him complete as the inaugurator of our eternal salvation
  • Heb. 2:14-15—by it he incapacitated the devil, who had the power of death, and delivered us who were enslaved through fear of death all our lives
  • Heb. 2:17; 5:1—it conformed him to his human brothers and sisters in all ways so that he could propitiate God for our sins as our high priest
  • Heb. 2:18; 5:2—it enabled him to help gently those who are tested at the point of death, because he was also
  • Heb. 5:8—it taught him obedience
  • Heb. 7:27—he offered up a once-for-all sacrifice to God when he offered up himself
  • Heb. 9:12—his blood enabled him to enter the heavenly holy place as high priest once for all because it obtained eternal redemption
  • Heb. 9:13-14; 10:10; 13:12—it was an unblemished offering that Jesus gave to God through the eternal Spirit that cleanses the consciences of defiled people from dead activities to serve the living God as holy people
  • Heb. 9:15-16—it redeemed the crimes committed under the first covenant and is the means by which Jesus mediated a new covenant, so that those who have been called to participate in it may obtain the promise of an eternal inheritance
  • Heb. 9:22—it made forgiveness possible
  • Heb. 9:23—it cleansed the accoutrements of the heavenly holy place to inaugurate their use
  • Heb. 9:28—he bore the sins of many
  • Heb. 10:10-18—by it he obtained single, complete, eternal, final forgiveness for all those who have been designated as holy by his death
  • Heb. 10:19-22—it gives us confidence to draw near to God in the heavenly holy place even now with a clean conscience
  • Heb. 12:2—he was motivated by the joyous prospect of ascension
  • Heb. 13:20—it enabled God to raise him from the dead
1 Peter
  • 1 Pet. 1:2—it cleanses us and ties us to God in a covenant
  • 1 Pet. 1:11—it was predicted by the Spirit of the Messiah through the prophets
  • 1 Pet. 1:18-19—it redeemed us (Gentiles) from the futile way of life handed down to us by our forefathers
  • 1 Pet. 2:21—his suffering for us left us an example to follow in our own unjust suffering
  • 1 Pet. 2:24—he carried our sins in his body so that we might die with respect to sin and live with respect to righteousness
  • 1 Pet. 2:24—by his wounds we were healed
  • 1 Pet. 3:18—he died for the sins of the unjust in order to bring us to God
1 John
  • 1 John 1:7—his blood cleanses us from all sin
  • 1 John 2:2—he himself is the propitiation for our sins and those of the whole world
  • 1 John 3:16—he showed us what love is by laying down his life for us
  • 1 John 4:10—God loved us and sent his own Son to be the propitiation for our sins
  • Rev. 1:5—he released us from our sins by his blood
  • Rev. 5:9—it made him worthy to unleash judgment on the evil world
  • Rev. 5:9—it bought people from every tribe, language, people, and nation for God
  • Rev. 7:14—it purifies those who endure the great tribulation
  • Rev. 12:11—it enables us to overcome the devil when we testify about Jesus

Wednesday, December 2, 2015


The English word "success" is interesting because of its dual meaning. A "success" is an object—a great achievement (or the acclaim it gets). A "success" is also a subject—a person who achieves something great.

What follows is not completely thought out and validated, but consider how success applies to a person who is in Christ.

In the flesh (temporarily) and in the view of the world, I am partly a success—that is, a successful person—and partly a failure. Almost everyone is; some are more one than the other depending on the standards by which the world is measuring.

In the flesh (temporarily) and in the view of God, I am not a success at all; I am an utter failure. Sin is failure, and I am full of sin.

In the Spirit (eternally) and in the view of God, I am a complete success, but objectively, not subjectively. Subjectively, I am neither success nor failure—I have achieved nothing, and I have committed no sin. Objectively, however, I am a success: I am Christ's success. My salvation, sanctification, and glorification are his accomplishment, his triumph. I am his trophy.

I am going to experiment with thinking about myself according to the Spirit, neither a success nor a failure myself, but as Christ's success.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Miracles Happen Suddenly, and They Take a Long Time

In the famous miracle story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding, it is easy to miss the details about where the water came from before Jesus transformed it:
Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washing, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus told the servants, "Fill the water jars with water." So they filled them to the very top [John 2:6-7].
Six jars at twenty to thirty gallons apiece is 120 to 180 gallons total capacity. Do not overlook that they were unfilled and may have been completely empty, and the servants filled them to the brim.

To fill the water jars, the servants needed to draw water—a lot of it—from a well. Let's say they used a three-gallon bucket or two. If so, they may have lowered, drawn, and poured as many as sixty times to fulfill Jesus' request.

That did not happen all at once. There was a fairly lengthy amount of standing around and ongoing embarrassment for the groom and the headwaiter who did not know that Jesus and the servants were doing anything about it. Jesus changed the water to wine in an instant, but significant preparation was required before that happened.

This makes sense. This was the first miraculous sign Jesus performed, and he did it at about the age of thirty. To get to that point he needed to survive the diseases that probably claimed the lives of about 40% of the people born in Palestine the year he was born before they reached that age. (Of course, God would make sure that Jesus would survive that long, but the people around him did not know that.)

Jesus' conception itself was miraculous, of course, but centuries of prophecy passed before it came about. "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son" (Gal. 4:4 NASB).

This pattern happens aplenty in the Bible. The water jars remind me of Elijah's confrontation of the prophets of Baal. Elijah waited for most of the day while Baal's prophets failed to get their god to strike their sacrifice with lightning ("fire from heaven"). Then Elijah had to build a big altar out of found stone, then dig a ditch around it, then get firewood to put on top of it, then kill a bull and heave it on top of it. Then he had people fill four water jars—and since they were in the middle of a roughly two-year drought, they may have had to walk down seven hundred feet to the Mediterranean Sea to get that much water and then up again to bring it back—and pour the water on top of the altar. Then he made them do it two more times. Then he prayed. Then God incinerated the whole thing.

After this, Elijah prayed for the drought to end—seven times. (Unless you have prayed for the same thing in front of someone else seven times in a row, you do not know how uncomfortable this is.) Then a tiny cloud appeared on the horizon, and then a bit after that the downpour fell.

Miracles happen suddenly, but miracles take a long time.

Friday, November 20, 2015

All Truth Is Relative

Americus: That's true for you, but it isn't true for me.

Socrates: I'm sorry—what did you say?

Americus: I said, "That's true for you, but it isn't true for me."

Socrates: How could something be true for you but not be true for me? I mean, you are sitting at a table at Joe's, and I am sitting at the same table at Joe's. That's true for us both. If I said, "I am not sitting at Table 7 at Joe's at thus-and-such address," I would be wrong.

Americus: Well, maybe you would be wrong and maybe you wouldn't. Maybe the word "table" means something different to you than it does to me. But in any event, I wouldn't judge you as wrong if you said that you weren't sitting at Table 7. From your perspective, that might be true, and who am I to judge?

Socrates: Just to be clear, I'm not talking about you judging me or me judging you. I'm talking about judging whether a statement that I make or that you make is true or false.

Americus: Whatever. If that's a distinction you want to make, fine. But again, that's true for you, not for me. That's your perspective, not mine.

Socrates: What does my perspective have to do with it?

Americus: Everything is a matter of perspective. You see what you see based on where you are; you know what you know based on your view of things. No one else sees exactly what you see with exactly the same eyes from exactly the same angle with exactly the same experience backlog and exactly the same way and terms of categorizing and defining and making sense of what you see. It is totally individual, totally unique to you. And mine is totally unique to me. So how I could I possibly pass judgment on what you see? I can never see it as you. The only reasonable thing is for me to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is, in fact, true for you, just as what I see is, in fact, true for me.

Socrates: Well, whether that's the only reasonable thing or not, I'm not sure. But you can't really mean that you can't see the same things as I see. Look at that car out there. Now, if I got up, and you moved over to my seat in the booth and sat down where I sat, and you looked at that car, wouldn't we both agree that there is a car there? Wouldn't we both see the same car?

Americus: We might, or we might not. What you mean by "car" I might not describe as a car. I might describe it as an automobile.

Socrates: But those are the same thing!

Americus: Are they? Maybe they are the same to you, but they might not be the same to me. Who can say?

Socrates: The Oxford English Dictionary, US Edition?

Americus: That's collective opinion, but it does not describe what I see and the words I use. But I'm just messing with you. To tell you the truth, yes, I would agree that that is a car, and it is there out the window. But it is just coincidence that you and I think the same thing. I'm not saying that we can never agree about anything or that our perspectives never align. That would be ridiculous. What I'm saying is that just because multiple individuals' perspectives happen to align and agree, that does not mean that there is One True Perspective. All truth is relative.

Socrates: What's that now? All truth is relative?

Americus: Yes. I mean that whatever you perceive to be true is based on where you are standing, so to speak. And there are as many truths as places to stand. So for example, if I'm standing on one side of a river and looking at the river, I would say, "The river is flowing from left to right." And if you are on the opposite side of the river, you would say, "The river is flowing from right to left." These statements are contradictory, right? But we know that they are both true, because it depends on where you are standing. Everything is like this.

Socrates: Everything? I don't deny that some things are like that. But even in your example, we share a common definition of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." Those things are absolutes by which we sort out how our different truths, so to speak, are relative.

Americus: Are they really absolute? Aren't they just conventional? You and I happen to agree on the meanings of "right," "left," "flowing," and "river." But that is coincidence. What if we did not? What if we didn't agree on the meaning of the words or spoke completely different languages? We would still both be true, or at least we should still each presume that the other is true and not pass judgment. Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view.

Socrates: Okay, but by your own assertion, that statement you just made—"Everything is equally valid so long as it conforms to one's own authentic point of view"—is only true for you. You can't assert it on me or reject my assertion that some things are valid for everyone.

Americus: Now you're getting it.


Americus: Seriously, you're getting it. My belief that every belief is true provided it corresponds to one's own perspective is true for me. Your belief that some beliefs are true if they correspond to a universal absolute is true for you.

Socrates: But if I believed that my belief in a universal absolute is only true for me, then that contradicts my belief in a universal absolute.

Americus: Yes, that is true for you too.

Socrates: (sigh) Okay, you win.

Americus: It's not about me winning. You didn't lose.

Socrates: Well, however you want to say it, what I mean is that I acknowledge that what you see to be true for you is true for you, and what I see to be true is true for me. Whether you meant to or not, you convinced me. Far be it from me to assert a universal truth and impose my own perspective on you.

Americus: That's remarkably gracious of you. I don't think I've ever seen someone think this sort of thing through and be so willing to change their mind.

Socrates: That's kind of you to say. But it's really a tribute to you making your point so well. But I want to ask you something else. Are you a gambling man?

Americus: Am I a gambling man? Not much. Every once in a while I go to the casino with friends and play a little blackjack, but it's not a big thing to me.

Socrates: Well I am a gambling man.

Americus: Really? You? That surprises me; I would not have guessed.

Socrates: It's true. Now, to be honest, I never gamble with money in a straightforward, gaming way. I've never put down money in a casino; I've never bet on sporting events or anything like that. But I take big risks based on my guesses about the future. My whole life is a big gamble.

Americus: I see what you mean. I never thought of it that way.

Socrates: Well today I want to do something that's out of the ordinary for me. I want to make a wager with you. The wager is about whether at some point tomorrow you will sit in this very booth at this very Denny's.

Americus: Which side are you going to take?

Socrates: That's up to you. If you bet that you will sit here sometime tomorrow, I'll bet you won't, and vice versa.

Americus: You know, I could be clever and two days from now claim that it was true for me that I came in here and sat down whether I believe that I actually did it or not.

Socrates: I hoped you would mention that. I'll actually spot you that. I will allow you to be the judge, from your perspective, of whether you sit here tomorrow or not. In fact, I'll rephrase the bet. My bet is that you will (or won't, depending on which side you choose) sit down at this table tomorrow from your perspective. And if you tell me the following day that it was true for you that you did or didn't sit down here, I'll take your word for it and pay my bet. Deal?

Americus: That's a really risky bet on your part! You're going to bet against what I say I'm going to do, which is risky enough, and then you're leaving it entirely to me to judge whether I did it?

Socrates: You got it. So which side are you taking?


Socrates: I'm serious! You can trust me.

Americus: Okay. I'll bet you that I will not come and sit at this booth tomorrow.

Socrates: All right. I'll bet you that you will sit at this booth tomorrow, and that that will be true for you whether or not it is true for me. Twenty dollars?

Americus: Fine. Twenty dollars.

Socrates: Excellent. Let's shake on it. Now, why did you bet that you will not sit here tomorrow?

Americus: Well, I could give you all sorts of reasons. I could say that it is easier for me not to come here than to come here; I would have to be intentional about coming here, but if I go about my usual routine for tomorrow then I will not. I could tell you that I hate going to the same restaurant two days in a row and never do it. I could tell you that I don't even particularly care for this restaurant and would never choose it myself and am only here because you asked me to come. And all of those things would be true. But I actually have an even bigger reason in this case, because tonight I am driving to Baltimore to stay in a hotel there to take a flight to Europe early the next morning, so I won't be anywhere near here all day tomorrow.

Socrates: Wow. When you lay out all the evidence for what is going to be true for you tomorrow, it makes my side of the bet look pretty bad! So I guess it's safe to say that even if you are scrupulously honest in two days, and what you tell me is true for you is honestly what you know from your perspective, there is almost no possible way that you are going to tell me that you sat in this booth anytime tomorrow.

Americus: It looks that way to me.

Socrates: Me too. So then, I want to redeem myself by making another bet.

Americus: Oh my God, are you kidding me? What is this?

Socrates: Hear me out. I bet you that at some point in the future, it will be true for you, from your perspective, that you will be standing before Jesus, the Son of God, to be judged by him for the deeds you've done and whether you accepted his forgiveness in this life.

Americus: What?

Socrates: You heard me. I'm betting that at some point in the future you will be judged by Jesus. And everybody else who has ever lived will too, but that's not the focus of my bet. My bet is about you.

Americus: Come on, man. I already told you that what you believe about God and Jesus and sin and judgment and stuff is true for you but it's not true for me.

Socrates: Oh, I know; I totally agree. I don't presume at all to make what is true for me true for you. I know it isn't true for you today. That's not my bet. I'm betting that it will be true for you at some point in the future. I'm saying that at some point in the future, you yourself, as an individual, from your own perspective, will believe it to be true of yourself that you are being judged by Jesus the Messiah for your present life. That's my bet.

Americus: Look, even if I agreed to that bet, it's a bet that I can never collect on. "At some point in the future"? If I ever claim to win, you'll just say, "It hasn't happened yet."

Socrates: That's true, but look at the other side—if I win, I won't be able to collect, because you'll have nothing to pay me, and I won't be able to do anything with anything you gave me anyway. But I'll make it easier on you. We'll make this bet inheritable by our descendants so that they are obligated. And I'll put a limit of, I don't know, a hundred thousand years. And I'll tie your judgment to universal judgment. So if in a hundred thousand years universal judgment by Jesus Christ has not occurred, my descendant will pay your descendant whatever we agree on today, if that makes any sense then.

Americus: I still think it's a stupid bet.

Socrates: Well, I think you're right, though maybe not for the same reason. So let's just make it an imaginary bet then, not one we're actually going to make. Let's pretend that we could actually collect from each other at some point. Would you take that bet? Would you bet that it will never be true from your perspective that you will be judged by Jesus?

Americus: I don't know. I don't know how what is going to be true for me in the future.

Socrates: Hold on now. Don't be so quick to doubt yourself. You were very certain a few minutes ago that it will not be true for you tomorrow that you will sit in this booth. How could you be so sure about what will be true for you tomorrow but you have no idea what will be true for you at some other point in the future?

Americus: Because I have good reason to believe what my life is going to look like tomorrow. I have good reason to know what I'm going to be doing then.

Socrates: Exactly. You have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you tomorrow. And I have good reasons for betting on what will be true for you at some other point in the future. This isn't about what is true for me. It's about what is true for you. I think that what will be true for you in the future, from your perspective, is not the same as what is true for you today, and I think I know what your perspective will be at that future point. Want to hear the reasons?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Three Striking Thoughts…

…from one Bible sentence I forgot: "With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

(1) This is very blunt about final judgment with eternal consequences commonly (though somewhat imprecisely) known as "hell." Multiple speakers in the Bible, especially Jesus, are blunt about this. In my preaching I do not talk about this often enough not-in-code.

Some say that presenting the gospel as "turn or burn" is insensitive to and therefore ineffective in our culture. They make a good point. But on the other hand, our culture's abhorrence of the idea is exactly the reason people need to hear it. If it is true, then it is highly important, and people are unlikely to stumble onto this truth by accident.

(2) Yesterday I walked through part of my town praying for the people who live in the houses and apartments I was passing and for their status as the last judgment. I'm sure most of them believe in God. They don't know that the devil does too but it's not helping him much.

Paul says that people "who do not know God" are in danger. That might be a useful element in a  conversation about spiritual things. "I believe in the President of the United States in the sense that I believe that there is such a person. But I don't know him. Even if I studied and learned a ton about him, I still wouldn't know him. Do you think it's possible to actually know God?"

(3) In those homes I passed, I also suspect that most of them believe "the gospel of our Lord Jesus." In my town there's better than 50% odds that if I asked a random person, "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died and rose again, that your badness can be forgiven and that you can have eternal life because of him?", that person would agree.

But not nearly as many people in those homes obey the gospel. They do not live differently because they believe those principles than if they did not. This is another valuable element in a spiritual conversation: "If we don't obey the message about Jesus, we are still in danger."

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Only Repeatable Event from History

Why learn history? Why does it matter? The adage that whoever is ignorant of history is doomed to repeat it—ignoring at present what precisely the statement means and whether it is true—implies at the very least that historical knowledge is worth acquiring as a necessary ingredient for shaping our future into a desirable outcome. Why should we have any confidence that historical knowledge can (indeed, must) help us to do this?

The proverb cited above assumes the negative: the situation in the past was bad because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do otherwise; if we do otherwise, we will not end up in the same bad situation that they did. Maybe, maybe not. But I would like to look at a positive rendition of the same principle. Let’s assume that the situation in the past was good because of what people did; if we learn what they did, we may choose to do it too; if we do, then we will end up in the same good situation that they did.

Take for example your friend who says to you, “I went to Joe’s Restaurant, and boy, was it ever good!” You think, “I’d like a dining experience that makes me as happy as my friend is. If I do what my friend did, I’ll get what he has.” So you ask him questions—when are they open? where are they located? and so forth. And you take his advice: you do what he tells you to do.

Seems reasonable, right? We do it all the time, every day, every time we take anyone’s advice to do anything.

This might, in principle, apply to historical knowledge about situations of greater impact on comfort or pain, for more people than the individual, with wisdom gathered from longer ago and further afield, than the case of your friend who went to Joe’s. However, when we try to apply it we run into some problems.

First, is there any experience in the past that we truly want to repeat? We can find features of almost any place, time, and culture that we would like to experience in our near future. But in those same situations there are invariably features that we do not at all wish to experience. But can the features we desire exist apart from the whole complex of the situation of that place, time, and culture? To use an analogy, can we take one gene out of the whole strand and splice it into the present for the desired outcome without the undesirable parts of the strand and without harmful side effects? Maybe we can, maybe we can’t; maybe with some things but not with others. But it seems dubious.

Second, even those conditions in the past that we think we want, would we actually like them once we had them? Maybe, maybe not. In the case of the friend who went to Joe’s Restaurant, he might have very different tastes from us. We might go to Joe’s and have the same experience objectively but experience it very differently subjectively if we don’t like the same foods that our friend does. And what if we don’t have the same experience? What if service is inconsistent? What if our friend is prone to exaggerate?

On the other hand, the better we know our friend, the more we could trust him. We might have experience that shows that we do like the same things that he likes and that he does not exaggerate. But how do we do the same character vetting, so to speak, with people who lived in the past? How do we know that we would like what they thought was good? And that leads to still another problem—very often, probably most of the time, people in the past (like people in the present) did not focus on what was so good about their situation but what was bad. We might look back and say that they had it pretty good in one respect, but they generally do not testify to it being so good. What if our hopes are too high?

Third, how do we know how to get what they had? Assuming that people who experienced our desired situation in the past were conscious of it and did enjoy it, did they have a prescription for how to arrive at it? Did it come about by their effort or the effort of previous generations? Or did they sort of fall into it by dumb luck? And even if they did have a prescription that they would give us if they could, how much faith do we have that they are correct? For example, a group in the past might say that they were so prosperous because of their faithfulness to tradition, but is that really the reason for their prosperity? Another group might say their prosperity came because of their devotion to individual liberty, but is that so? In other words, can we trust that people living in any given time know enough about how they got where they were to be able to give an account of its causes?

Fourth, if we knew the causes if past success, if we believed the prescription of the ancients, could we possibly replicate it? The causes may have been—probably were—complex and/or enormous. To use an analogy, we might know that strong winds cause big waves, but that does not mean we can move the air.

So there is much reason for skepticism—or at least some major hurdles to overcome—in order to restore what we like from the past. But there is one past situation, and probably only one, in which this hope is fulfilled: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

This is not because Jesus’ resurrection gets a special pass to evade the rules that apply to all other past situations. To the contrary, it is because the event of his resurrection is uniquely competent to pass all the tests.

First, do we want to repeat Jesus’ resurrection? I certainly do. There is no complaint here about wanting one aspect of it and not another. It is not as though I want my body to be raised but my mind to be elsewhere or vice versa. It is not as though I want to be raised from the dead but with a different sort of body than he had or suited to different purposes. The totality of eternal life—not just perpetual living, but a qualitatively different life that extends perpetually—is plenty appealing to me. I want what he’s having, and don’t change a thing.

Second, would I actually like it once I had it? This is the trust issue—can I trust that what Jesus found desirable and what his followers who knew him and saw him raised found desirable is what I too would desire? It is possible that I might be deceived, yes. But I do not think so. I cannot imagine how a self that is impervious to death, weakness, pain, and attack, that is radiantly glorious and exudes peace and joy, could have any downside—or at least any downside comparable to the downside of life as we know it. In other words, if I got it, I might not care for it, but it seems well worth the risk.

Moreover, Jesus himself seems to be a trustworthy individual. His life and his death reveal a sharp contrast between himself and the humans around him. He seems, quite simply, to be a much better person, perhaps immeasurably so, than any other human in his world or in mine. If I can trust some people around me to however limited a degree, I ought to be able to trust Jesus too.

Third, do I know how to get what he has? Again, the answer is yes. Jesus taught extensively, and his followers who spent the most time with him did too, about how to achieve the eternal life that he gained. Did they know what they were talking about? This is where the magnitude and the uniqueness of the desirable condition that Jesus exhibits play critical roles. If Jesus truly did rise from the dead this way, to which so many witnesses attest, then he achieved something that is absolutely unequalled. There is nothing to compare it to. That strongly suggests that there is nothing to compare him to. Where did the power come from to raise him from the dead? He says it was his Father, God. It certainly came from somewhere. No one else has an alternative explanation. If there was an alternative explanation, that would be one thing, but without that alternative it seems wise to trust the one person who experienced it and to do what he says.

Fourth, can I do what he says? Indeed I can, because Jesus’ prescription is limited only in part by large historical trends affecting masses of humans. For the most part, it just applies to me. Yes, I need to hear the story and the prescription, and that is outside my control. But once I do hear, then it is up to me what I do with it, and no external forces can violate or interrupt that (though they may be affirming or hostile toward it). And his prescription is astonishingly doable. He simply wants me to renounce my life—the thing I want to exchange anyway—and trust him that he will get me what he has that I want if I want him to. Every other instruction that he gives is simply the most rudimentary actings-out of what it is like to have the thing that I say that I want in the first place.

Is it possible for any person from any time, place, and culture to reach back and have access to that life of Jesus? Can the outcome be produced in our future wherever we find ourselves? It can indeed, because Jesus not only rose from the dead but ascended into heaven, as itself was observed by human witnesses and explained by angelic ones (who in turn can be trusted, because their announcements about Jesus’ resurrection were proven valid by the human witnesses later). By ascending into heaven, the life that Jesus has that I desire is located beyond the vicissitudes of change in this world. He took that human life into a realm that cannot be violated and that is equally accessible to all places and times. Furthermore, he said that that realm is coming here to replace this one in some form—all of this world, all places, times, and cultures.

The resurrection of Jesus is the one truly and uniquely replicatable event, the one historical situation that we may desire with confidence, being sure that our choices in the present may reproduce it for ourselves.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

How God Wants You to Complain

Nobody likes whiners. Most of the time, in most of the ways that people whine, God doesn't like them either. There are multiple examples in the biblical Book of Numbers where God's patience after decades of providing for the needs of his people, the Israelites, is finally exhausted. Their repeated complaining provokes him to kill some of them off now and again to drive home the message that their ingratitude is a very bad idea. In fact, it's a heinous sin.

So it is surprising that in some parts of the Bible God welcomes and even encourages complaining to him. One example is Psalm 89. It's pretty remarkable that God's Spirit moved a man to take him to task in a pungently accusatory way.

The psalm does not start out that way, however. In fact, it begins with praise with a special (and crucial) focus on God's faithfulness:
I will sing continually about the LORD’s faithful deeds;
to future generations I will proclaim your faithfulness [v. 1].
Then the psalmist further tips off where he's going to go with this psalm by quoting God as saying,
"I have made a covenant with my chosen one;
I have made a promise on oath to David, my servant:
'I will give you an eternal dynasty
and establish your throne throughout future generations' " [vv. 3-4].
 Then the psalmist swings back to extended, magnificent, picturesque praise:
O LORD, sovereign God!
Who is strong like you, O LORD?
Your faithfulness surrounds you. . . .
Equity and justice are the foundation of your throne.
Loyal love and faithfulness characterize your rule [vv. 8, 14].
Having thoroughly established his profound regard for God's faithfulness, the psalmist poetically retells the story told in 2 Samuel 7 (and 1 Chronicles 17) of how God made an everlasting promise to support, defend, and prosper King David and all his royal offspring. In the psalmist's words, God said,
"I will always extend my loyal love to him,
and my covenant with him is secure.
I will give him an eternal dynasty,
and make his throne as enduring as the skies above" [vv. 28–29].
What if David's descendants act wickedly and prove themselves unworthy of this promise? God asserts that this contingency may have short-term negative consequences, but it in no way nullifies his promise—he will, on the whole, make David's line succeed no matter what they do:
"I will punish their rebellion by beating them with a club,
their sin by inflicting them with bruises.
But I will not remove my loyal love from him,
nor be unfaithful to my promise.
I will not break my covenant
or go back on what I promised" [vv. 32–34].
Then suddenly the psalmist grinds the gears. The psalm shrieks,
But you have spurned and rejected him;
you are angry with your chosen king.
You have repudiated your covenant with your servant;
you have thrown his crown to the ground [vv. 38–39].
He's just getting started. The psalmist says "you have [done]" or "you are" thirteen times. He is accusing God of blatantly violating his agreement. The disasters that have struck Israel are not random occurrences or the sole fault of surrounding nations. These are God's fault.

This is the substance of a "covenant lawsuit," as modern scholars call the ancient phenomenon. When things go bad in Israel, other biblical laments express contrition, acknowledging that God justly brings calamity because Israel has sinfully violated its covenant with God. That is because the covenant between God and Israel made through the mediation of Moses entailed voluminous responsibilities on Israel that the people did not keep.

But the covenant God made to David and his line is different. In that covenant David had no obligations. God took on all the obligations. So despite the sin of Israel and even the sin of David's descendants who reigned wickedly on his throne, the psalmist has no compunction about laying all the blame at God's feet. God never gave himself a way out of keeping his promise. In fact, he specifically detailed his expectation that David's sons would act badly. His promise is entirely independent of that fact. Therefore, in the eyes of the psalmist, God has failed in his duties.

This psalm may be written after the return from exile—which demonstrated that Israel was forgiven for its sins—but with the Davidic monarchy still unrestored. In any case, it is startling that God would inspire a man to write an infallible accusation against God's faithfulness!

Or is it? The psalmist went on at length about how faithful God is. And that may be the indicator of a godly complaint.

When the Israelites of the exodus generation complained it came from a position of doubt. They doubted whether God was able to help them. They doubted whether God wanted to help them. They doubted whether God would keep his promises even while God was in the very act of making good on those promises.

The author of Psalm 89 is exactly the opposite. He complains from a position of faith. He believes wholeheartedly that God is faithful. He believes that God made a promise to David. His complaint presumes that God is acting in contradiction to his words and in contradiction with his very nature. Far from denying God's word, the psalmist calls God back to it. This is who you are, God! he says. This is what you said! But the present circumstances don't line up!

This is the complaint that God welcomes. It's griping and moaning over the fact that circumstances do not square with God's character and his revelation about himself and his intentions. God delights in us indignantly badgering him to get with his own program. It shows that we believe that he and his program are for real—that messed-up circumstances need to turn upside down while God simply needs to be who he is.

Friday, June 19, 2015

"How Long, O Lord?": Grieving for the Martyrs of Emanuel AME Church

It is becoming apparent that the massacre of nine members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC during their Bible study was a hate crime. The disturbed (at best), evil (at worst) murderer explicitly intended to ignite a race war that he was convinced blacks would lose, resulting in apartheid or (one must suppose) their extermination from American soil.

Reports indicate that the gunman, Dylann Roof, shot up the members of the Bible study because they were black. No evidence has been publicized that he killed them because they were Christians.

Nevertheless, their fellow Christians of all colors and ethnicities have good reason for viewing the fallen as martyrs for Jesus Christ.

The word martyr comes from the Greek word for "witness." It acquired a technical meaning in the ancient church for those who died for their faith, because when threatened with death they publicly bore witness that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead and was a Lord superior to Caesar. They chose their confession over their lives.

The existence and history of the Black Church in America is suffused with believers great and small who followed Jesus Christ at great personal risk.

Some slave preachers learned to read so they could learn and preach the Bible even when it was illegal and would have resulted in horrific punishment.

Slaves and freedpeople formed their own churches outside of white control (like Emanuel) so they could be free to worship God with abandon and proclaim the whole message of the Bible—including parts that their masters wanted them to avoid, like the exodus of Israel from slavery.

During Reconstruction, churches formed the social engine of black uplift and the institutional home of former slaves who demanded equality with whites. A century before the Civil Rights Movement, churches successfully taught their members to combine faith in their dignity as God's image-bearers with peaceableness. Black Christians extended astounding forgiveness toward the whites who oppressed them as slaves and continued (often viciously) to resist their claim to full humanity with its civil and social implications.

The core of the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century consisted of black Christians who concluded that to approve of white supremacy tacitly by accommodating it was to bow the knee to a racist idol. They peacefully chose to stop cooperating with that demonic system in order to live as citizens of the kingdom of God.

The members of Emanuel A.M.E. Church were slain while reading God's word. Whether the murder thought about it or not, there was a certain odd fitness to his act. Satan hates justice and the equality of the human family and true freedom, and all of those principles are contained in the word of God and arise from the word of God.

Even the large number of religiously apathetic people today who support such principles are the unwitting heirs of a centuries-long liberal heritage with roots in Christianity. Much of that heritage and many of its adherents have rejected Christianity, but not the members of Emanuel.

They know that justice, equality, and freedom belong to the kingdom of God and are found in Christ. They know that the Bible is more subversive of oppression and more supportive of justice than any other literature. They know that Christ is King and that their voices will never be silenced.
Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been [Rev. 6:9–11].
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven saying,

“The salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the ruling authority of his Christ, have now come,
because the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
the one who accuses them day and night before our God,
has been thrown down.
But they overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony,
and they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die” [Rev. 12:10–11]

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Few Things God Is Looking For . . . and Why Occupation Probably Isn't One of Them

A few months ago I finished a doctoral thesis on a man named Mansfield French. In the nineteenth century, mostly in Ohio, New York, and South Carolina, French was an educator who founded and served institutions of higher learning; a pastor and traveling revivalistic evangelist; a leading magazine publisher in what is called the Holiness Movement; and an abolitionist who ministered among former slaves as a missionary supervisor, army chaplain, and Freedmen's Bureau officer, lobbied the federal government on their behalf, and ran for U.S. Senate. I called French "a model of multivocational ministry," and I examined what enabled him to engage in such a diverse array of activities over a single ministry career.

Because of this study, vocation has been on mind a good deal in the past year. There are a good many people, including a good many Christians, who think nothing of the meaning and implications of what they do for work. I should note that this neglect is not always bad—it is much better to be godly at work and never think about what you're doing than it is to think much about vocation but not actually to be godly. But for some of us, Christian and otherwise, we just can't help thinking about it. The question, "What am I supposed to be doing?" is an itch that does not go away (unless we can confidently answer, "What I'm doing right now," as some of us can at times), so we keep trying to scratch it.

This restlessness also is not always bad, in particular if it drives us to listen to God and get to know him with persistence, patience, and humility. But it is worthwhile to keep this vocational question in proper perspective.

For some of us, the question of "What am I supposed to be doing?" (or "How much?" or "Where and with whom?") can loom over us with what seems like epic significance. We might be very afraid of making the wrong choice (of occupation, workplace, college major, etc.) that will doom us to frustration, failure, and/or meaninglessness. Or we might continually be roiled within where we are currently planted, unsure if we are missing out on what we are supposed to do or instead frustrated at the closed doors in the direction that we think we are supposed to go. We think that if we are not set right then we will get to the end of our life having wasted it uselessly with nothing to show for it.

That right there is the problem hidden under the surface of our yearning to do the right work, even if that yearning is mostly genuine, mostly composed of love for God and people and not of lust for self. The stakes seem enormously high because of our faithlessness. Deep down, we do not really believe in the age to come. Like any worldly person (most consistently a physicalist) we believe that this life is all there is: we really only have one shot at it.

If we are truly Christians, however, we know that this is not all there is. While most Christians (would that it be all of them) recognize that what we do in this life is terribly important because of its ramifications for the world to come, not only for ourselves but for all those around us, we still must be careful not to blow certain details out of proportion. For some of us, occupation may be one of those details.

I understand this by means of my one and only experience as an athletic coach, when I coached my son's teeball team of four- and five-year-olds. I did not stop coaching because it was a bad experience—far from it. In fact, it taught me a valuable lesson: God is really not expecting much from us.

When I say that God is not expecting much, I do not mean that God has low standards. I mean that he has very high standards about only a very small number of very basic things. Other than those few things, I don't believe that he is terribly concerned.

Coaching four- and five-year-olds in teeball requires one to teach extremely rudimentary things, because, by and large, they know NOTHING. A number of my players literally could not throw a ball, period. That's not to mention knowing how to catch a ball and how to swing a bat (and how and where to stand when swinging a bat). And then the rules of the game itself and what to do in what situation in the middle of play (for example, after you hit the ball, RUN—no, THAT WAY)—that was as obscure as quantum mechanics to these kids.

So imagine yourself in your first-ever coaching experience, and you're with a group of four- and five-year-olds, and you're beginning to figure out what you've gotten yourself into. What are you looking for? What do you want from these kids?

Only a few simple things. Will they do what I say? Will they do it when I say it? Will they have a good attitude when they aren't allowed to do what they want to do? When told to do something they can't do, will they try? Will they learn?

Notice that athletic talent is not on this list. At this point, at this level, it does not matter. At this level, no one is keeping score. There are no wins and losses. (Who would watch it if there were?) Also, these kids are small—they are going to grow a great deal before they are really playing at a high level, and we cannot tell now who will be a good athlete then.

Consider further that the things that you tell the kids to do and how they respond in that first practice have no bearing on what position any of these kids will be playing when they are eighteen or twenty or twenty-five, if they are still playing at all. Moreover, these kids do not even know what baseball is, not really. Even if you told them, "When you're in varsity, you'll be a shortstop," they would have no idea what that means. (They might ask, "What's 'varsity'?")

Now imagine that on this teeball team, the first practice is actually a tryout. At the end of practice, there will be a cut—some will continue on to play baseball for many, many years, while others will never play again. Now you are beginning to grasp what this life is in comparison to the world to come.

This entire life that we live in these bodies, however many years that we have, is no more than the first teeball practice of a group of four- and five-year-olds. It is the beginning of a series of practices and games that lead eventually to a major-league-caliber season that never ends. All God has been looking for for these thousands of years of human existence is who really wants to play. I can only come up with five simple questions that he is asking, five things that he is looking for in people:
  • Do they recognize me?
  • Do they want me?
  • Do they love what I love and hate what I hate?
  • Do they trust me?
  • Will they do what I say?
Each of these questions is profound and the manifestations of them in our lives are enormously complex. I do not mean to offer a reductionistic, half-inch-deep view of religion. I merely assert that at root, these things are the few that God wants from people. Anything and everything else, any other command or instruction, derives from them.

Notice that what we do for a living is not on the list. Not directly, anyway—it can be strongly affected by loving what God loves and hating what God hates and even by doing what he says. My point, however, is that if God has us spend this whole practice throwing a ball against a wall, it does not mean that we will be a pitcher in the major leagues. We might end up a designated hitter instead (except that in eternity there will only be the National League, so forget I said that).

If you are privileged to look back on your life one trillion years from now, your profession today, no matter how important for God's kingdom even, will not be what you see. You will be serving then in a vocation that is absolutely incomprehensible to you right now, and far more important as well. All you will see is what God is looking at today: can he coach you?

I should also point out that the default answer to each of God's questions for each person on earth is "No." Fortunately, God is not satisfied with that answer, so he intervenes to alter people's dispositions so that the answer might be "Yes." Are you altered? If you want to be, it may already be happening. Make sure.