Swimming Exam

lifepreserverThere was a young man who took a swimming class in college, many years ago. The swimming coach was excellent and knew his course material and his students’ abilities. He gave them fair warning when it came time for the written final exam:

“Men: There is one question on the exam that you must get right, or I will flunk you. Even if you get all the other questions correct. Even if you excel at your skills and performance tests. One question. I will not tell you what it is. If you can’t tell what it is, you deserve to come back and retake the test until you get it right, and pass. So don’t leave until I have all the test papers and have checked that one answer on all of them.”

Every student but that one young man failed the exam.

The coach didn’t flinch about telling them they would all — but one — have to come back and retake the written final. 

“I won’t embarrass him by naming who won’t need to come back.”

And he recommended that they all get their heads together fast, because the semester was closing soon.

The key question was this: “How long do you keep applying artificial respiration to a rescued drowning victim?”

Students reasoned all kinds of answers, based on what they knew about anoxia and brain death and circulation of blood and body temperature.

But there was only one correct answer:

“Until the patient revives
or until help arrives.”

It’s an important question. A life is at stake. And as long as air is being breathed into lungs and blood is being pumped through veins and arteries, life is still possible. Recovery may still happen.

Those young men got to the singular question and its correct answer pretty quickly … which is another whole story about teamwork and reasoning and motivation.

But the lesson that this young man took away that day was this:

You. Do. Not. Give. Up. On. People.

Even if you’re breathing for them. Even if you’re pumping bood for them. Even if you’re thinking for them because they can no longer think for themselves; trying on their behalf because they can’t try anymore; loving life for them because they’re not capable or even conscious of it anymore; living for them when they’re no longer actually alive.

You.

Do.

NOT.

Give.

Up.

On.

People.

Because, one day, you just might be one of those people whom life itself has given up on.

And you will need someone who knows and cares enough not to give up on you.

A Nod to Cain’s Wife

So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. ~ Genesis 4:16-17

Where did Cain’s wife come from?

It’s a fair question, one that’s been asked and debated for a long, long time — even, as I understand it, figuring into the testimony of the Scopes “monkey” trial and a mention in the plotline of Carl Sagan’s Contact.

Genesis 1:1-2:3 tells an epic story of creation, culminating with the forming of mankind, male and female, and God resting on that note of triumph.

Genesis 2:4ff, I believe, backs up to the third day of creation, when God formed a first man, a specific man, Adam – with the purpose of caring for the plants and animals of a garden He had planted east of Eden. When Adam yearned for companionship, He formed Eve from Adam’s rib (containing his perfect DNA and all the potential for great diversity — a guess on my part, given the reported age of many of those early patriarchs).

The sad story of what happened next — well, I’ve blogged about that before, and I’ve explained there why I believe this part of the story takes place beginning at that third day: because scripture takes great care to explain the conditions present. Nothing is said about animals at that point, so in the days that come, they are added: birds and fish on the fourth day; creatures that crawl on the earth the fifth.

Then four days after Adam’s creation — on the sixth day — God created many more people, mankind, and told them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

But Adam and Eve had a specific task and calling: to make a choice between obeying and disobeying God. Possibly He created more people — “mankind,” as some versions of the Bible render the word — because that perfect DNA given Adam and Eve had been corrupted by the fruit of disobedience and the genes for death … and could no longer provide the diversity needed to sustain the species.

Mankind was given the task of reproduction, providing progeny.

And this is where I give a nod to Cain and his wife, who hailed from among the people of the land of Nod. Perhaps those people were some of the “mankind” God created.

Those who told the story generations later would likely have had the same distaste for incest that we do. (Think about the dishonorable context of the account of Lot and his daughters later in Genesis.) That — in addition to the possibility of DNA damaged by sin and its byproduct death — makes it unlikely that Cain’s wife would have been his sister; another child of Adam and Eve. (And peculiarly, no one ever asks where Seth procured a wife, though he had a son named Enosh. I’m betting he didn’t bear the child himself.)

Immediate scripture doesn’t say anything about another child of theirs beyond Seth — which doesn’t preclude the possibility that she was theirs, but still seems odd. Genesis 5:4 does says that they were parents of “sons and daughters,” but does not make a connection to the spouses of their named sons.

As a story, I find the entire Genesis account consistent within itself, rather than two separate inconsistent accounts. The inconsistency, I’m persuaded, is our misreading the timing and identity of the characters and their days of inception: Adam on the third day and possibly Eve soon after; mankind on the seventh.

I know that a good number of well-intentioned people have predicated the answer that Cain’s wife was his sister or near-kin from the conclusion that all people descended from Adam and Eve. But that is a conclusion, and not something that scripture specifically says. We are of one blood (the NIV inaccurately translates Acts 17:26 as saying “of one man”), but that does not necessarily imply a single common ancestral pair.

In fact, to draw upon the consistency of the story, it could be argued that the bloodlines of “mankind” were destroyed in the flood in which Noah — a descendant of Adam and Eve — and his family were saved. And it may be that the “sons of God” referred to in Genesis 6:4 refer to the descendants of that special Adamic bloodline.

Once again, I must post a disclaimer that third-day Adamic creation is a theory; it is speculation; it has its strong and weak points. But after years of pondering it, this possibility makes more sense than the others I have read to explain some of the difficulties in the creation narrative of the Bible, and continues to refute the criticisms that there inconsistencies which render its story invalid.

The Bible doesn’t fill in the details of everything we want to know. It does, however, often hint at answers that we can seek to discern and discuss, and grow spiritually by doing so.

A Short Post About Hell

I can’t really wade into a long, deep discussion about hell, because my theological hip boots don’t go high enough.

The Bible doesn’t say a lot about hell, and in it, Jesus says more than anybody else.

That’s kind of how I’d like to leave it. Hell isn’t for everybody, we can be sure, and it doesn’t seem to have been designed for any of us mortals – but rather for the devil and his angels: An eternal place of punishment for eternally rebellious beings. That doesn’t describe us mortals whatever amount of rebellion we display; among us, one day, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess and rebellion will end. And for those whose rebellion would not end any other way: destruction.

To date, the most persuasive item I’ve read about hell is Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes, and I understand that a more comprehensive edition has been released since the second edition that I read. Even so, it was more about hell than I wanted to read – and somehow, in high school, I struggled through Dante’s Inferno!

I tend to agree with his thinking, and did before I read his book, for I had already come to the same conclusion: Eternal punishment for temporal sin does not make sense as justice, human or divine. Scripture speaks of those who are rebellious as being destroyed, an adjective that in every other use in scripture implies a definite end.

For mortals, hell is a short though agonizing stop on the road to oblivion. It is nevermore in a nutshell. It is goodbye.

Going into the deep waters of that premise, Edward Fudge can employ a soteriological scuba suit, however — compared to my little yellow galoshes — and that suits me just fine.

Paraphrasing Karl Barth, I’ve often said that my theology rarely goes deeper than “Jesus loves me; this I know” … and it rarely needs to.

Which brings me to my point, since I said in the title that I’d try to be short.

I don’t like to think about hell. I don’t want it to ever become a motivator for my good behavior.

I want to go back to the childlike innocence that I had when (I can still remember) fighting back tears before the very first smack of a spanking or harsh word of reproval reached me because I knew I had disobeyed – and disappointed – someone I loved and respected.

I don’t want to even have to imagine looking up into the big eyes of the big God who loves and gives Himself for me – even to death on a cross – and knowing even for an instant that I’ve turned my back on that love and walked away; gone my own way instead of His; hurt people I love and whom He loves more.

I want that singular, hopefully microsecond of unfathomable regret to be hell enough for me, and forever enough for anyone.

So I’ll keep talking about what Jesus talked about, far more than hell or sin or failure or remorse: a Father in heaven who loves without ceasing and gives without measure and forgives without a second thought or the slightest capacity to hold a grudge.

I’ll keep on describing the God who gives His Son, His Word, and His very own Spirit to help us understand how good He is … and how good it is to give until you are nearly emptied of self and filled with His nature and character.

I’ll go on talking about the God who runs to the returning prodigal, shoulders the cross, receives the nails and breathes His last surrender to what we desperately need the most.

And I will also go on talking about hell, hopefully to the same degree and in exactly the same way that the Savior did. Why?

There may indeed be people who are at least temporarily beyond the reach of love, and must first be drained empty of self by the evil that is sucking life out of the world around us.

There may be people who need to understand the ultimate consequence of evil and insist on having the reality of sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath rubbed in their own eyes and faces by their own hands until they have seen enough hell on earth to want no atom of it in eternity.

There may even be some who, to their dying breath, would echo Milton’s consummately selfish motto for Satan: “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”

But I sure don’t want to be one of them.

The Customary Time of Prayer

I’ve been sending out a little Twitter/Facebook reminder fairly faithfully at 3:00 p.m. (in whatever time zone I live) to call the faithful to prayer, apparently for about four years now. Someone sent me a kind response of appreciation today — which has happened many times before, from different folks.

But their message of encouragement got me to wondering: Why isn’t this the customary time of prayer for believers today?

Especially believers in my tribe, the churches of Christ, who pride themselves on restoring New Testament Christianity through detailed observance of what the church of the first century did?

Does the idea of having a time of prayer at some point or points in the day sound too Catholic (or, God help us, too Muslim) for us to observe in detail?

Or is the real reason that it’s an inconvenient time, and like the dying custom of giving thanks at the dinner table even when dining out, it embarrasses us in public (the reason) and might possibly offend some (the excuse)? Because I’ll admit there are days when my reminder doesn’t get sent because I am in a meeting and it’s perceived as impolite to fool with your iPhone in the middle of a meeting.

Or is it interpretational? Do we see this as a merely Jewish custom (Lord, forgive us if we did anything that Jewish folks might do, too) that the apostles participated in for merely cultural reasons?

Because it IS right there in scripture, Acts 3:1:

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon.

And if we claim to do what the early church did, that’s more precedent for us doing it than we have for a lot of other things we do.

So if it’s disregardable because it is a cultural phenomenon, what are the parameters for declaring a practice in the New Testament church binding for all time or cultural-and-therefore-optional-or-even-forbidden?

No, really. I’m asking.

We in churches of Christ generally make a big deal about celebrating the Lord’s supper every Sunday because of a singular example of it being done (or it being intended to be done) on a Sunday (Acts 20:7ff). So it’s not because this time of prayer was only mentioned once. Right?

And how does it work for fasting, which the disciples certainly practiced frequently, and certainly in times of great concentration on seeking God’s will and favor. Cultural? Disposable? Or should we be imitating the example of those believers much, much more often?

You see, this is my whole problem with viewing the scriptures through an exclusive lens of CENI — command, example, necessary inference — as if the only thing of value God wanted to communicate to us was what we’d better daggum well do, or else.

But let’s just go with it for the sake of argument. These are examples that could be followed, and there are lots more, whether believers buy into CENI as a hermeneutic for all scripture or not, or whether they value the Restoration Movement principle of mimicking the early church in every detail or not.

What makes some of these examples-of-church-practice and even some commands/instructions (greeting others with a holy kiss, for example) discardable, but others binding-or-else-hellfire-and-damnation?

And — please take a moment to read this soberly and slowly, and let it sink in — doesn’t pursuit of an answer to that question just put us right back into the mode of being led by the letter of the law to the extent that we’ll even write it ourselves, whether it’s what God has scripture saying to us or not?

Won’t we have to start making rules and categories about when and by whom and how each one is permissible, appropriate, divisive, binding, optional, beneficial?

Is that what we’re called to do? Write rule books where the Bible is silent?

Shouldn’t we rather be led by the Spirit to observe great examples out of the yearning of our hearts and the joy of experiencing what believers of Century One experienced, and ministering to the Lord and to others in ways that we’ve read and understood were tremendous blessings to the saints of old?

I don’t know why a customary time of prayer, and customs like fasting, and practices such as greeting each other with intimate affection have never caught on in a big way among churches of all kinds, and all over the world. I know there are pockets where they are as common as sand in the desert.

I do know that for the believers in those pockets, they are as great a blessing as God Himself can give.

And that’s reason enough for me to keep posting my little reminders when my iCalendar buzzes me at 2:45 each day.

Maybe even when I’m in meetings.

Commandments, Gifts and Choices

I know this is picking nits, but when the Gospel Advocate tweets something kinda off-the-mark, the ornery part of me wants to say something:

“@gospeladvocate: The Son of God came and commanded that all are to believe and be baptized in order to be saved (Mark 16:16)”

I don’t even have to go to Mark 16:15-16 (but I will) to know that what Jesus asked His followers to do was to go and teach the good news about Him:

“Mark 16:15-16: He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.’ “

Believing and being baptized are what people choose to do (or not) after they are taught. Being saved is what Jesus does for them. His promise is that they will be saved if they do. His warning is that they will not be saved if they don’t believe.

I can understand why someone who does not believe would not choose to be baptized. I have trouble understanding why someone who believes would not want to be baptized. (After all, Jesus Himself was – because it was fully the right thing to do; His followers practiced it and thousands who believed in those days experienced it.)

But I’m afraid I can sympathize a little when these two verses are interpreted only as commands, giving the impression that the One who died for all was in the habit of issuing ultimatums rather than bringing the best news ever about grace and forgiveness, as well as the all-but-priceless gift of choosing to accept it.

As I recall, He emphasized two commandments from the old law, then rolled them into one at the Passover table before He was arrested: To love one another as He had loved us.

He called it a commandment.

But it really doesn’t sound like one to me.

It sounds like the last request of a man about to die.

So I’ll get off my soapbox now.

I can’t apologize for my tribe of faith, but if someone from it has tried to intimidate you into obeying a command to be saved, I hope you’ll forgive them. And reconsider, looking at what the text actually says … and the nature and circumstances surrounding the One who said it … and the fact that being saved is a response of love to inimitable divine love, sharing a message of that love and an opportunity to choose it for life that not only lasts, but is actually worth living.

I am a Change Agent

There’s really no point in denying it.

I want to be changed. Transformed. Broken down and ground up into powder and mixed with water and remolded and reshaped into the image of Jesus, the Christ. Then fired in the kiln so I won’t shape-shift again. If that’s what it takes.

And that’s always what it takes.

I want that for everyone.

I won’t lie about how much it hurts to give up self and dreams and what-I-want. I’ve been experiencing the long slow process of it for the better part of fifty years now. Trust me on this. It hurts.

Still I want it for everyone.

Because the life it leads to is so much richer than the one with all the “me” stuff. The one that ends with having and achieving and compiling and dying.

And I want to be an agent for as many who are willing to make that change along with me.

So I will run into opposition from those who don’t want to change. Those who know better than me. Who already have everything right and whose churches have everything right. Who don’t need to reconsider anything because there’s no possibility that they’ve been wrong about anything.

But that’s all just silly.

Change is what becoming a follower of Jesus is all about.

What do they think “repent” means?

Change doesn’t happen all at once. It isn’t over when the confession of sin and Jesus’ lordship leaves our lips. It isn’t complete when the last droplet of baptismal water evaporates from the skin. It’s a lifetime of growth, learning, seeking, finding, studying, questioning, reasoning, praying, meditating, listening, loving, living, forgiving, acting, doing, trying, failing, and trying again. Then dying to self. Then really, really living.

Part of that process is traveling with others, conversing, sharing, challenging, being challenged, agreeing, disagreeing, being accountable to, confessing, needling, prodding — and being willing to accept all of that.

It’s treating everyone with respect, cherishing equality, acting justly, loving mercy, walking with humility, loving deeply, trying very hard not to judge, seeing a father God in the faces of everyone you meet, refusing to discriminate because of anything different from self. Anything.

So that’s what I try to do.

Failing frequently, but still determined to try.

That makes me a change agent.

And that’s okay with me.

Sunday Morning in a Garden, II

As Roadie and I walked a few minutes ago, we passed little Webster Methodist Church across the street from my house. There, in the tiny garden beside it, congregants had gathered in a circle inside the perimeter of its white picket fence. They had gathered for a sunrise service, but no sunrise was in evidence. Standing in their pastels with sweaters and jackets against the chilly fog, they were singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” in unison, with increasing volume at each verse. Inside, a piano plinked away the harmony through open windows.

I wanted to pull out my phone and take a picture, but it was too sacred a moment to capture in a photo or a vine.

“Christ hath opened paradise!” they sang, and awakening songbirds joined in.

Roadie alerted and mumbled as if he would like to join in, too.

At the center of the tulip-graced garden is a path in the shape of a cross, lined with timbers and paved with wood chips. From it, there is really no place to go but up.

No miracle happened. The sun did not break out of the clouds. The chill did not give way to warmth. All over town, graves remained closed.

But they sang a song of faith that sometime, all that will change.

And it will.