Too Much Cross?

In the aftermath of Easter, as any number of white lilies start to turn brown in our homes and jelly beans are half off at Walgreen, I find myself getting contemplative about the matters commemorated over the weekend just past. Is it possible that the whole Christian–and especially Evangelical–focus on the cross of Jesus is misguided? Could it be that the moving demonstration we made at our church on Palm Sunday, nailing notes inscribed with our sins to crosses around the worship center, was a colossal waste of time that could have been better spent redeeming creation somehow?

Elizabeth A. Johnson seems to think so. This theologian’s latest book, Creation and the Cross argues that Christianity has made far too much of a deal about the atonement and satisfaction of God’s wrath at the cross. Don’t take my word for it:

Over time, however, a powerful current emerged in Western theology that favored a focus on sin and the cross. This was a juridical or legal way of thinking that interpreted sin as breaking a divine law. The work of redemption was a free and gracious act that nevertheless required something by way of penalty or recompense on the part of the law-breakers . . . Such was offered by the death of Jesus, his body broken and his blood poured out for us.

Johnson lays the blame for this thought at the feet of Anselm, the eleventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury who wrote an influential text on the topic. She argues that Anselm’s book, Cur Deus Homo, was really just an outgrowth of the Medieval and feudal justice system. She never seems to consider the possibility that the Medieval justice system might have been an outgrowth of the biblical view instead.

Johnson really wants us to focus on the groaning of creation. By the second paragraph of the text, she’s declaring “a time of advancing ecological devastation.” Apparently, we should spend less time talking about the cross and more time recycling.

Of course, if the cross-justice view of Anselm is really just a product of his day and age, then shouldn’t Johnson be fair enough to admit that her theories might just be a product of her day and age?

The reality, however, is that Anselm didn’t start anything. If anything, Paul started this view:

But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world.–Galatians 6:14

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.–1 Corinthians 2:2

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin,–Romans 6:6

And the reality is also that the redemption of Creation will never be effected without the victory over sin. Good hearted people have tried to clean the air, protect the water, defend the species, and restore balance. All they’ve managed to achieve is to improve one disaster as another one emerges. Yes, Creation groans. It groans because of sin and the answer for that sin is not the warm thoughts of the NPR set but the meaningful application of the blood of Jesus to our hearts and an openness to all of the inconvenient life changes that application might provoke.

Do we talk too little about Creation? I think we do, but we cannot remedy that by talking less about the cross of Christ.


What Has God Wrought?

It was the summer of 1969 and I rode around in a cavernous Chevy station wagon. We completely ignored the seatbelts and my mother mostly ignored the radio that was always on. That summer we listened as Zager and Evans sang:

In the year 2525, if man is still alive
If woman can survive, they may find
In the year 3535
Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie
Everything you think, do and say
Is in the pill you took today

That song, which is now stuck in your head for the next several hours if you’ve heard it before, kept jumping ahead, mostly by 1,010-year increments, and eventually made its way to 9510. It was profound–or so it seemed in the backseat of that station wagon.

The Nebraska duo who sang the song had a huge hit with it and then never had any other musical success. Still, they could always count on a big response when they launched into the song during live performance. People would recognize it and cheer, perhaps singing along. They had to stand there and think, “I did something good. I made this song.”

But did they? Yes, these guys, especially songwriter Rick Evans, created the text and melody. They joined with a few others, including the Odessa, Texas Symphony Orchestra, to record it. And then they appeared on various radio and TV programs during the summer and fall of 1969 to lip-sync it.

But maybe they only tapped into the zeitgeist, that sense of dread and disillusionment that came two years after the “summer of love.” Maybe this song could have been as big a dud as their followup “Mr. Turnkey.” Maybe if it had been recorded in 1965, it wouldn’t have been Beatles enough or in 1975 it wouldn’t have been Led Zeppelin enough. Who can say? Maybe the times had as much to do in making it as Evans and Zager.

But not so with the making in Psalm 118:24.

This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

That verb, “has made,” is in the Hebrew qal perfect. Basically that means that it is straightforward and utterly done. It would be wrong to translate this as the day God “is making” or “was making.” We could say it’s the day God “made,” but the addition of “has” emphasizes that the making is finished. It was God that made it and he did all the making.

“In the Year 2525” continues to be made, in a manner of speaking, when people hear it and think about it and use it in other settings, but this day has been made. The making is complete. Our actions within and around that day are still fluid, which is where the second clause of the verse will take us. The song touches on that idea.

In the year 8510
God is gonna shake His mighty head
He’ll either say I’m pleased where man has been
Or tear it down, and start again.

That’s Rick Evans’ take on theology at least. Happily he didn’t make much of that.

More Powerful than a Nuclear Missile

There was once a nuclear missile pointed at Pilot Grove, Missouri, a tiny little town in the middle of the state. I say that the Soviets had such a missile, but I have no firsthand knowledge. What I do know is that about a mile north of town on Route 135, you’ll see the tell-tale arrangement of stout fencing that marks the former location of one of Whiteman Air Force Base’s old Minuteman missile silos. Since the U.S. had a missile there, it’s a fair bet that the other guys had this spot on a target list.

Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 12.10.09 PMDriving up Route 135 yesterday, I got to thinking about that artifact of the cold war. In the image here, you’ll find the missile site to the left of the main road where apparently somebody is now storing hay. Glance up to the top left of the photo and you’ll see the former right-of-way of the MKT Railroad, which is now Missouri’s Katy Trail. The town of Pilot Grove would be off the screen, down and to the left, probably about where your monitor ends.

This town was founded in 1872. Some of my ancestors lived in the area as far back as 1820, but no town popped up until the railroad came through. Now, less than 150 years later, the railroad is long gone, converted to a lovely bike trail. The nuclear missiles began to be deployed around Whiteman AFB in 1963 and were decommissioned in 1995. Therefore, in one map image we can see the remnants of two technologies that came to this part of the country, left their mark in fairly dramatic manner, and then became obsolete.

At the same time, with the nukes and the railroad gone, many of the things that brought my ancestors to this part of the country remain a powerful draw. Animals still graze on the Missouri hillsides, and hay, now baled into a giant round bales, still gets those beasts through the winter. The farms are larger and raise different crops, but they still involve quality soil, plowing, harvesting, and the like.

The creations of man are temporary. They can mark the land in long-lasting ways, but they are not nearly as permanent as we think them to be at the moment. The creations of God, however, endure. People can damage those creations, but in most cases, the forces of nature, left to their own devices, will push things back toward where they began. Barring something drastic happening, the trees will still lift their branches to the sky and the rivers will continue to flow to the sea. As much as we like to think otherwise, it is God in control rather than man. It is God, rather than man, who provides for life.

He causes grass to grow for the livestock
and provides crops for man to cultivate,
producing food from the earth.–Psalm 104:14

Is there still a nuclear missile aimed at Pilot Grove, Missouri? That I can’t answer, but a look at the countryside suggests that we should fear not cataclysmic weapons or hurtling technology. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Perhaps we should truly begin.

Pre-positioned Miracles

Bo the poodle and I went for our customary morning Diet Dr. Pepper run this morning, heading to the QuikTrip nearest our house. As we drove–I drove, Bo was in the back–I found myself irritated by the yellow circle of the sun, just above the horizon, blasting into my eyes. There sat the sun, almost perfectly in front of me as I tried to see the road before me. Then I thought about the matter a bit.

Thirty-ninth Street in my hometown runs down the middle of section 22 in the 19th-century division of lands: township, range, and section. Two streets, 35th and 43rd, mark the north and south boundaries of that section (and all of the mile-square, 640-acre sections) in the area. All of these numbered streets run, for all practical purposes, perfectly east and west. Therefore, as I drove on 39th Street this morning at about 7:30 a.m., four days before the vernal equinox, I drove straight east. Looking more carefully, I realized that the sun was actually just a tiny bit to the left of straight ahead and just a hair above the horizon. In other words, I expect, on Wednesday, the so-called “first day of spring,” the rising sun will be perfectly above 39th Street should I drive at that hour.

Anyone who understands some basic astronomy will read these words and look unbelieving at me. It’s as if I breathlessly announced that a pot of water, left on the stove indefinitely, would eventually turn into a gas we call steam. Certainly I cannot call the mechanical operations of the solar system a miracle, can I?

The beginning of Psalm 19 suggests that, if not a miracle, that orderly operation of the heavens, the predictability of sun, moon, and seasons does proclaim the presence and greatness of God:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour out speech;
night after night they communicate knowledge.
There is no speech; there are no words;
their voice is not heard.
Their message has gone out to the whole earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.

Far from being annoying, the sun in my eyes this morning declares the glory of God and proclaims the work of his hands. Isaac Newton’s second law of thermodynamics tells us that the natural way of systems is that they move from order to entropy, from design to chaos. If that held true here, then we might never know when or where to expect sunrise.

But God has pre-positioned miracles in our midst. These miracles hold the universe together. They allow creatures to pass genetic information from one generation to the next. They provide for human respiration and plant photosynthesis.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” the traditional “Doxology,” sings. Sometimes those blessings pop up in the form of a healing or a fortuitous discovery, but most of the time they have been placed into the world from the foundation of the earth. That’s some praiseworthy foresight!

An Astronomer’s Kind of Vision

There was a day in the past when people–understandably, I think–believed that the earth stood at the center of the universe. In that cosmology, all of the planets, the sun, and the moon revolved around the earth. The stars inhabited a single sphere that marked the outer edge of the created realm. It was a magnificent model, however flawed.

Today, we see things far larger and far smaller. The development of telescopes and other tools for astronomical research have revealed galaxies upon galaxies, while the discoveries of chemistry and biology have shown us DNA and the staggeringly complex biochemistry necessary to keep our bodies working.

While some use these discoveries to argue for the necessity of a creator, I’d like to go a different direction. Once we assume that a creator exists, the revelations of the very large and the very small demonstrate more and more the greatness of God. If God was amazing when Ptolemy described the model above, how much greater can He be seen to be when we realize the vast complexity of the universe? How much more remarkable will God be shown when we understand still more of His creation?

I see that greatness and I claim to believe it. So why is it that I don’t behave as if I believe?

  • Why would the God who can create over 6,000 of species of toads have any trouble seeing me through life if I take the rather feeble step of tithing on my income?
  • Why would the God who designed and deployed human brains with 100 trillion synapses not be able to move upon one of those brains either to give me words to speak (Luke 12:12) or move upon my listener for persuasion (John 6:44)?
  • Why would the God who gave the Israelites food enough to come out of their nostrils (Numbers 11:19-20) have any trouble feeding a wealthy nation like the United States without us needing to pollute our land and waters so badly?

When Moses, after all he had seen, has his doubts about the ability of God to provide meat, God’s response is quick and forceful: “Is the Lord’s arm weak? Now you will see whether or not what I have promised will happen to you” (Numbers 11:23).

Why do we, who supposedly believe in the limitless power of God, box Him in by living as if we thought Him limited? If God can only do so much in our world, doesn’t it stand to reason that He can only save so much? Or so many? Maybe He can only partially forgive sins.

The God who can keep the cosmos arranged and the electrons orbiting can easily handle anything that I need. That’s the truth. Now I just need to live like I believe it.

Everything’s Changing: Bruce Jenner Edition

changesI do not read minds nor do I have the expertise to say what is going on in Bruce Jenner’s brain. “I am a woman,” he says. Since he’s undergoing some pretty radical alterations to back up that feeling, I’ll take the man at his word that he honestly believes this. Hollywood types will do some pretty extreme things as publicity stunts, but surely this one isn’t a gimmick.

My flippant side wants to listen to Bruce and say, “Oh, that’s nice. Well, I am a giraffe inside. I’ll be undergoing surgery soon to make my outer self match my inner self.” Since it would be insensitive, I probably shouldn’t say it, so I won’t. I also won’t suggest that Jenner’s main motivation is his declining golf game and a desire to use the women’s tees.

What does it feel like to “be a woman” on the inside? I don’t know. What does it feel like to be an inner man? I assume it feels like what I feel like, but I really can’t say that with any certainty. Maybe what I’ve felt for all these years is really feeling like a woman. How would I know? It’s kind of like that old bit of navel gazing that asks, “What if what we both call blue looks like blue to me and red to you?” In the end, all I can say with certainty is “I feel like me.” Presumably, Jenner’s “me” doesn’t feel good.

Today, we have people indulging kids who want to “transition,” boys who want to be treated as girls or girls who want to be treated as boys. When my youngest daughter was about five, she would have jumped at the chance to be treated like a schnauzer, but we somehow suppressed her inner dog and probably led to all manner of psychological damage.

I find it ironic that some of the same people who would argue that gender is a completely social construct, that little girls like to play with dolls and be nurturing simply because we give them dolls to nurture, are the same who applaud Bruce Jenner’s decision to embrace his inner (socially constructed) gender identity.  If it is socially constructed, how can he really “be a woman” in a way that would require surgery? Similarly, some of the people who will man the barricades to defend Jenner’s right to transition are the same people who would gladly stand with pitchforks and torches around mental health practitioners who help homosexuals become heterosexual. Apparently it is okay to make your body match your perceptions but not to make your perceptions match your body.

God created Bruce Jenner with the hardware to be identified as a male. In 1976, Bruce stood on a podium as “the world’s greatest athlete,” proving himself as a physically exemplary male. At some point in his youth, he saw a goal and desired to make himself into the athlete that he wasn’t yet. Over those early years, Bruce must have said, “I am a champion.” Then he worked hard to make it a reality.

Where did this “I am a woman” thought come from? That I don’t know. Most of us want to be something that we aren’t.  If your dream requires radical surgeries and rounds of pharmaceuticals, then perhaps it’s not such a healthy one. If your dream involves others working on you rather than you (with God’s help) working on yourself, then I would argue that it is dehumanizing.

I wish Jenner the best. But I feel pretty confident in saying that Bruce won’t find the end of all his misgivings when the final hormones are administered and surgeries are finished.

The Master Builder (Hebrews 3:4-5)

For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future.
(Hebrews 3:4-5)

Penny and I drove from Tulsa to Kansas City today. Along the way, we enjoyed the sights, such as they were. We delighted to (but did not stop in at) the McDonald’s bridging I-44. We oohed and ahhed at the fifteen-foot morel mushroom somewhere north of Joplin. But mostly we admired barns in various states of repair.

One barn that I always enjoy is a large masonry structure just outside Harrisonville, Missouri. Back in my childhood, some clever wag tagged that building’s wall with “Draft beer, not our boys.” Today, that sentiment is, like the draft, long gone, but the barn still stands, apparently unused, in a similarly unused pasture.

Somebody spent a good deal of time and money building that barn. They built it to last. Since it looked to be old and unused forty years ago, my surmise is that its builder has long ago gone to his reward. If he were still doddering about, he could certainly look with satisfaction upon his handiwork.

Some buildings seem designed for the long haul. The Tower of London is approaching its 1,000th birthday. The Great Pyramid is many thousands of years old. But by and large, the buildings erected by human hands crumble back to earth within a relatively brief span of years, especially if they’re not carefully maintained.

Compare that with the “building” of God. Besides being almost infinitely larger and more complex, God’s handiwork not only endures but replenishes itself. According to the scientists, the Sun will one day burn itself out, but within reasonable time spans, God’s creation, left to its own devices, will just keep on humming, presumably for millions of years.

We sometimes have to remind ourselves that the building is not the Church. In Moses’ day, the Tabernacle was neither the entire creation or the Creator. Neither the tent nor its successor building could contain that Creator.

I wouldn’t want to serve a God who could be fully contained or fully comprehended.

The First Artist (Hebrews 3:3)

Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. (Hebrews 3:3)

I recently read G.K. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission. In this volume, Beale examines the importance of the Hebrew tabernacle and temple, finding them to be symbolic representations of God’s creation and the Garden of Eden. By ministering in the temple, the priests symbolically set right what was damaged in Eden, just as Jesus would ultimately set that problem right for all who call on him.

As I read today’s verse, I’m initially mystified. Obviously the maker of a thing, a house, is greater than the thing itself. It’s part of the old “You have to have more molasses than you pour out of the jar” thought. There was more to the Israelite craftsman Belazel than he put into the Tabernacle. That much of the verse seems crystal clear, but I’m left with one simple little thing. Jesus did not build the Temple or the Tabernacle before it. And for that matter, Moses was not the same as the Tabernacle, which is what the comparison seems to suggest. If you’re hazy on this, let me do the math.

Jesus’ honor > Moses’ honor
Builder’s honor > House’s honor, and so…
Jesus = Builder and Moses = House.

Was our writer simply being sloppy, or have I missed something? I go back to Beale’s book. Jesus didn’t build the Tabernacle. No, he did far more. Jesus built the Creation that the Tabernacle symbolized. How much more honor does that deserve than what we’d give to Moses or Belazel or Stephen Spielberg or Leonardo DaVinci. Lest we forget, Jesus is, among all his other aspects, the ultimate artist, the creator of mediums, the author of canvasses and palettes alike. All we can do is paint with his colors.


The Final Answer (Hebrews 1:2)

but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.
(Hebrews 1:2, again)

Not too far from my home, you’ll find the foundation of an old house. Recently, I met a man whose uncle formerly lived in that house. I’m not sure who first built it, but I do know that people farmed our property beginning in about 1840. Today, less than 200 years later, nature is reclaiming everything that hasn’t been maintained over those years. The fencing around that old foundation has rusted and will be fragmented in a few more decades. Human use of the land, it seems, is a temporary thing. Once our stewardship over it relaxes, the cedar trees and vines begin the succession that will culminate in towering oak trees. Nature, it would seem, prevailed here long before humans arrived and will reclaim anything that the humans relinquish.

But there is something that predates nature and that will survive its reign. We could easily slide over the words in the second half of today’s verse, missing their incredible import. To avoid such a mistake, though, I thought it necessary to dwell on this verse once more.

Who is this Son of whom the author of Hebrews speaks? Of course, it is Jesus, and we learn valuable things about Jesus from these dependent clauses. We learn that God created the universe through Jesus. What precisely does that mean? Does that make Jesus the general contractor? Somehow I don’t think that’s answer. Many would point to the powerful speech of God in Genesis 1 and then the equating of Jesus and the Word and God in John 1. In reality, I’m not sure that such connections truly get us a great deal closer to understanding God creating the universe through Jesus.

Similarly, I’m not entirely sure what it means for Jesus to be the heir of all things. I do understand inheritance from a human standpoint, but how do you inherit the universe that you’ve had a hand in creating? I don’t really understand that either.

What I do understand, however, is that nature was not here first. Nature will not be the ultimate victor over my farm or any other place. By aligning myself with Christ, I align myself with the first and the last, I allow God to make me a joint heir. That ‘s enough for me to understand for today.


Same Words; Different View (Psalm 8:9)

LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
(Psalm 8:9)

“Tell them what you’re going to say. Tell them. Tell them what you said.” A speech teacher shared that old saw with me in college. In short, she wanted us to give speeches that left no doubt about what our point might be. David begins and ends Psalm 8 with these words. Literary analysts would call this an inclusio, a sort of set of parentheses that set off whatever appears within. A traditionalist composition teacher would call this sentence a thesis statement.

I can’t disagree with either of these comments, but I’d like to suggest looking at this closing statement of the psalm in a different manner.

Twenty-eight years ago, when I became a parent, I thought that being a parent was a pretty astounding thing. Today, having watched that daughter grow into a fine young woman and the mother of four children, I still believe that being a parent is a pretty astounding thing.

I could have made the same statement about the astoundingness of parenthood in 1983 or today. The words might be exactly the same, but the meaning behind those words would differ. Having experienced parenting more fully, I can comment on it more profoundly. I have no doubt that another twenty-eight years will cause me to look at the matter differently yet. Again, the words will remain the same, but the passing of time and experience will alter their meanings.

David starts off Psalm 8 with what might be considered a hollow and easy praise of God. Lest we think him shallow, though, he proceeds to explore that idea of the majesty of God’s name. He takes it with him and proceeds through a tour of creation. Everywhere, we hear that majesty echoing. Everywhere, we come to understand the message more clearly.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. Having watched a butterfly emerge from a cocoon and spread its wings, having tasted redbud blossoms, and having watched my children exercise their marvelous gifts in various ways, I can speak those words more meaningfully today than just a few days ago.

Life is rich, Lord, and you are the richness of it.