Friday, December 23, 2016

On the Virgin Birth

Recently, a popular evangelical preacher, Andy Stanley, dismissed the importance of the virgin birth by claiming that “Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus.”

Stanley is the founder of North Point Ministries, a network of six churches in and around Atlanta, attended by 30,000 people each week. In a message he gave on December 3, he said:

A lot of people just don’t believe it [i.e., the virgin birth]. And I understand that, and maybe, you know, the thought is, hey, you know, they had to come up with some myth about the birth of Jesus to give him street cred, you know, later on. And maybe that’s where that came from.

He stops short of claiming this as his own view. But he goes on to say something which seems to indicate he believes the position has some plausibility:

It’s interesting because Matthew gives us a version of the birth of Christ; Luke does; but Mark and John, they don’t even mention it. And a lot has been made of that.

Regardless of whether or not he’s suggesting that he finds this reasoning plausible, it’s true that many have argued the case in just this way:  “It’s only Matthew and Luke who mention the virgin birth.”

One wonders how many times, and by how many different people (according to this line of reasoning), God must say a thing before we have a duty to believe it. If twice is insufficient, how about three times? What if, say, Mark had also mentioned it? Would that have been enough? Or must John have done so too? Maybe we wouldn’t be warranted to believe it unless it had been mentioned in all four Gospels plus one or two of Paul’s letters? But then what are to make of the fact that Peter is silent on the subject? Does his failure to weigh in on the matter throw it into doubt?

God forbid! (As a certain apostle might say.) Among men, the testimony of two or three witnesses is necessary to establish a controversial point, but one word from God is enough. He “is not a man that he should lie” (Num. 23:19). If Adam and Eve had thought of it, it would surely have done them no good to plead, “But Lord, you only told us once.”

Stanley continues by discussing what he believes to be the relative importance of Jesus’ birth and his resurrection:

If somebody can predict their own death and then their own resurrection, I’m not all that concerned about how they got into the world, because the whole resurrection thing is so amazing, and in fact…and you should know this…that Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus; it really hinges on the resurrection of Jesus.”

The importance of the resurrection should, of course, never be underestimated; but neither should the importance of the virgin birth. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, but by means of ordinary human reproduction, then he was only a man and we must therefore reject the numerous passages that bear witness to his deity (e.g., Jn. 1:1; Rom. 9:5; Phil 2:6; Col. 2:9). And if he was only a man, then he was a sinful man (Rom. 3:23), and we must reject all those passages that affirm otherwise (e.g., Heb. 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet. 1:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). And if he was a sinful man, then he was doomed to die for his own sins and therefore couldn’t die for ours.

But if by some further convoluted reasoning he is said to have been sinless (even though he was an ordinary man), he would still have been unable to make atonement for our sins because the death of an ordinary human being, even a sinless one, would be of insufficient worth to “take away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). It is the incarnation (God becoming man, Jn. 1:14) that makes our salvation possible. It is our Lord’s humanity that qualifies him, in his death, to act on man’s behalf; and it is his deity that makes his death of infinite worth. If we reject the virgin birth, we reject not only the reality, but the very possibility of our redemption.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

"Why lies he in such mean estate?"

This line from the Christmas carol, What Child is This?, draws attention to the seeming incongruity of the Son of God being laid in a manger. Have you ever considered how the whole narrative of our Lords birth shows us that God delights to do great things by humble means? 

Think, for example, of this prophecy from the book of Micah, delivered some 700 years before the event:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
           who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
           one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
           from ancient days (Micah 5:2)

There are several important truths that can be gleaned from this prophecy, but one that is often overlooked is what it says about Bethlehem itself, namely that it was “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (v. 2a). Literally, it reads, “too little to be among the thousands of Judah.” The tribes of Israel were divided for military purposes into thousands, with a head or a chief over each thousand. These thousands were reckoned according to city and town. But Bethlehem was too little to be reckoned among them. It was a tiny little town; a village, really—and a rather obscure one at that. It had nothing to commend itself as Messiah’s birthplace except that it was the birthplace of the great King David. Only in this did it have any significance. It never was a city of any importance, either before or after David. It wasn’t a commercial center. It wasn’t politically influential. It had no strategic significance. It was a sleepy little farming village.

We might have thought the Messiah should have been born in some great city, Jerusalem perhaps, the center of Israel’s religious life. Jerusalem was known as the city of God. It was home to the temple, the place where God had chosen to put his name. It was the center of Israel’s economic activity, too. It had a market that ranked in the top ten of the Roman Empire. It was the center of Israel’s political life, as well, the place where the Great Sanhedrin met, the place where Herod had his palace and held his court, and where the later procurators would exercise their authority.

One would think, then, that the Messiah would be born in Jerusalem. But God loves to do great things by humble means. Jesus would not be born in a great metropolis, but in a sleepy little village of no significance.

Not only so, but he would be born to a poor virgin, engaged to be married to an ordinary workman, a carpenter. They were nobodies. They were unknown outside their own family and community. The movers and shakers of Jewish society certainly took no notice of them. When the magi came from the east to inquire about the birth of the Messiah, the Jewish leaders were able to determine that he was to be born in Bethlehem, but no one seemed to know to whom he would be born. Joseph and Mary both were descendants of David. But the ancient and once glorious family of David had been cut down to a stump (Isa. 11:1). So much so, that his descendants, even Joseph, the very heir to the throne, was unknown in Israel.

Joseph and Mary’s humble means is amply illustrated in the offering that Mary brought for her cleansing after giving birth. She gave the poor woman’s sacrifice (comp. Lk. 2:22-24 with Lev. 12:6-8). 

God delights to do great things by humble means.

Consider, too, that Jesus was not born in the comforts of a palace, but in the filth and stink of a stable. He was laid in a manger, not in a bed. There were no trained attendants ministering to him and to his mother; they were surrounded by livestock. Not exactly the kind of entrance into the world one might expect for the Son of God. But this is how God would have it. And it’s fitting that it should be so, for it shames and rebukes human pride, the mother of all sin. We put so much stock in pomp and circumstance, in glitz and glamour, in noise and attention. But here, in a remote corner of the Empire, nearly as far from Rome as it was possible to get, in a sleepy little village, in a stable, laid in a manger, was the promised Messiah, who was destined to rule the world.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Christian Mind in the Christian Life

The apostle Paul speaks a great deal about the importance of the mind in the Christian life. For example, he contrasts the mind set on the flesh with one set on the Spirit. The former, he tells us, leads to death, while the latter leads to life and peace (Rom. 8:5-6). He admonishes us not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2). Elsewhere he urges us to set our minds “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2).

The mind is the Christian’s battleground. What we choose to do with it, how we choose to employ it, determines everything. Sin begins first with the suggestion, proceeds to the imagination, from there to desire, then to the deed, then to the habit, and finally to destruction. We must resist at the point of suggestion. We cannot always prevent the suggestion from arising—whether it arises from the world, the flesh, or the devil is immaterial—but we can (by God’s grace) refuse to entertain it, refuse to dwell upon it. A wise old preacher once said, “You can’t prevent a bird from flying over your head, but you can prevent it from building a nest in your hair.”

If we don’t deal with sinful thoughts at the point of suggestion, once we allow them to enter the imagination, they become increasingly difficult to resist. The thing to do is not seek to empty the mind of sinful thoughts, but to fill it with worthy ones. Paul says in yet another place,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8).

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A lesson in logic

I saw this gun control meme the other day. We shall call it the “kid on the playground” argument. It’s meant to be a rebuttal of the gun rights argument, “Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun.” What do you think? Is it a valid rebuttal?

The “kid on the playground argument” is an argument from analogy, comparing one situation to another. But it fails in a number of ways. An argument from analogy is only effective if the two things being compared are similar in their most essential points. But this is not the case with the “kid on the playground” argument and the “good guy with a gun” argument.

First, a kid on the playground throwing rocks is not very similar to a man firing a gun in terms of their effects. We’re comparing cuts and bruises to lethal wounds. This is a fatal flaw in the analogy.

But there is more. In the “good guy with a gun” argument, there is no one analogous to the teacher in the “kid on the playground” argument. There is no one who gives guns to all the good guys. Good guys choose for themselves whether or not to acquire/carry/use a gun (that is, where good guys are not prohibited by law from doing so).

The “kid on the playground argument” also fails because the assertion that “only a good kid with a rock can stop a bad kid with a rock” is false, whereas the assertion that “only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun” is (for the most part) true. Would it not be possible for another kid or group of kids or a teacher to physically restrain the bad kid with a rock with very little risk of injury? But the risk is tremendously high for an unarmed man or group of men to attempt to physically restrain a man with a gun.

The “kid on the playground argument” is thus shown to be a false analogy.

But the argument fails in another way, too. Even though good kids armed with rocks are not the only way to stop a bad kid armed with a rock, it is nevertheless one way to do so. Whether the good kids got their rocks from a teacher or acquired them for themselves, the bad kid would think twice before throwing his rock if he knew there were dozens of other kids on the playground who might pelt him back. Bullies thrive when their victims have no means to defend themselves. So do criminals. And both bullies and criminals are deterred when they know their potential victims are armed with equal or superior force.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

When Self-Description Trumps Reality

We owe Andrej Pejić a debt of gratitude. He has expressed perhaps as succinctly as possible the political end game in the battle over sexual identity.

Pejić, who was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later emigrated to Australia, first made a name for himself as an androgynous male model. Describing himself as “living between genders,” he has at times appeared on the runway in both men’s and women’s clothing in the same show. In 2014, he underwent “sex reassignment surgery” and changed his name from Andrej to Andreja.

In a public statement following his surgery, he said, “To be perceived as what you say you are is a basic human right.” This concise statement is a perfect summary of the goal of the “transgender” movement. But it’s a troubling statement for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is the business of governments to protect and defend basic human rights.[1] If Pejić has a right to be perceived as a woman, what legal obligations does this impose on his perceivers (i.e., the rest of us)? What if some of them do not perceive him to be a woman, but only as a man pretending to be a woman? Will they be punished for their refusal to go along with the pretense? Apparently, in New York they will. And other jurisdictions are likely to follow suit.

There was a time when a man passing himself off as a woman or a woman as a man might have been thought quirky at best, sexually deviant at worst, but at least it was left up to the observer as to what to make of it. That time is no more.

Other questions arise, too. Is this basic human right to be perceived as what you say you are limited only to “transgenders”? If so, on what grounds? Why might the principle not also apply to race? Rachel Dolezal thinks it should. She’s the white woman who for years passed herself off as black, even becoming president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. She admits that she was “biologically born white” but says that she identifies as black. Does she also have a basic human right to be perceived as what she says she is? Many have said no, she is illicitly transferring to race what only properly applies to “gender.” But if one person’s self-description must govern another person’s perception in the matter of gender, why should it not do the same with respect to race?

And then there is the issue of age. A 52 year-old Canadian man identifies as a six-year-old girl, making him—according to the current vernacular—both “transgender” and “trans-age.” If he has a basic human right to be perceived by others as a female (à la Pejić) does he also have a basic human right to be perceived as a child? If not, why not? If so, does this right to be perceived as a child impose an obligation upon the rest of us—his perceivers—to treat him as one? And how consistently does he want us to do so? Must local officials in his case enforce compulsory school attendance laws and age restrictions for working, driving, smoking, and drinking alcohol? If he has sex, would his partner be charged with statutory rape? If he has a right to be perceived as what he says he is, it seems that logical consistency requires us to treat him as a child in all these ways and more.

On the other hand, what if a thirty-year-old identifies as seventy? Does this impose an obligation on the federal government to treat him as a senior, so that he could draw social security and use Medicare? Would restaurants and hotels be required to give him a senior discount or be threatened with a lawsuit for discrimination if they offer the discount to seniors who really are seniors but not to him?

And what about a man who identifies as a dog? Does he have a right to be perceived and treated as such by the rest of us? And if so, we have to ask again about the matter of consistency. Would local leash laws apply? Must he be neutered? Would the law require him to be vaccinated like a dog? If he has sex with a human being would his partner be prosecuted for violating anti-bestiality laws? May he use the fire-hydrant like a dog, or would he be charged with public urination like a man?

What about an able-bodied person who identifies as disabled? Does such a person have a basic human right to be perceived as disabled? And would he be eligible for disability pay?

Perhaps Pejić would say I am taking matters too far. Perhaps he would say that his comments should only be understood with regard to the perception of “gender” and that applying them to race, age, species, and disability is unreasonable. But why is it any more unreasonable than applying them to “gender”?

[1] We can think of the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”

Saturday, May 28, 2016

The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men

In Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes his journey by stages from materialism, to idealism, to theism, and finally to Christianity. The account is too long to reproduce here; but I quote below what I find to be some of his most powerful observations along the way.

The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense. I was going up to Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done (p. 224).

I was allowed to play at philosophy no longer. It might, as I say, still be true that my “Spirit” [i.e., a merely philosophical conception of God] differed in some way from “the God of popular religion.” My Adversary waived the point. It sank into utter unimportance. He would not argue about it. He only said, “I am the Lord”; “I am that I am”; “I am.”

People who are naturally religious find difficulty in understanding the horror of such a revelation. Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about “man’s search for God.” To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat (p. 227).

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed:  perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation (pp. 228-229).

He describes all this as his conversion “to Theism, pure and simple, not to Christianity.”

My conversion involved as yet no belief in a future life. I now number it among my greatest mercies that I was permitted for several months, perhaps for a year, to know God and to attempt obedience without even raising that question… I had been brought up to believe that goodness was goodness only if it were disinterested, and that any hope of reward or fear of punishment contaminated the will. If I was wrong in this (the question is really much more complicated than I then perceived) my error was most tenderly allowed for… God was to be obeyed simply because he was God. Long since, through the gods of Asgard, and later through the notion of the Absolute, He had taught me how a thing can be revered not for what it can do to us but for what it is in itself. That is why, though it was a terror, it was no surprise to learn that God is to be obeyed because of what He is in Himself. If you ask why we should obey God, in the last resort the answer is, “I am” (pp. 231-232).

Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to “Spirit” and from “Spirit” to “God,” had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive. At each step one had less chance “to call one’s soul one’s own.” To accept the Incarnation was a further step in the same direction. It brings God nearer, or near in a new way. And this, I found, was something I had not wanted. But to recognize the ground for my evasion was of course to recognize both its shame and its futility. I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. “Emotional” is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake. And it was, like that moment on top of the bus, ambiguous. Freedom or necessity? Or do they differ at their maximum? (p. 237)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Crown of Creation

I love these observations by Matthew Henry on the creation of Adam and Eve: 
"Creation of Eve"
Wiligelmus*Modena Cathedral
“Yet man being made last of the creatures, as the best and most excellent of all, Eves being made after Adam, and out of him, puts an honour upon that sex, as the glory of the man (1 Co. 11:7). If man is the head, she is the crown, a crown to her husband, the crown of the visible creation. The man was dust refined, but the woman was dust double-refined, one remove further from the earth.... The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Suffering, Affliction, and the Love of God

We find a rather peculiar thing in the eleventh chapter of John’s Gospel. The chapter recounts the incident of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In the first few verses we’re told that Mary and Martha sent messengers to tell Jesus that their brother, who was very dear to him, was ill. And then we read the following:

The Raising of Lazarus
by Juan de Flandes (1465-1519)
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 
John 11:5-6

What a very odd thing to say. We would have expected something quite different. After saying, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” we would have expected John to have said, “So, Jesus hurried off to their home to heal him.” But, no, it says, “He loved them, so he stayed two days longer where he was.”

What’s going on here? Because Jesus loved them, he wanted to teach them something that would prove to be an immeasurable comfort to them (and to us as well), namely, he is the resurrection and the life. Now, he could have merely stated the fact and it would have been no less true; but he wanted this truth to be so deeply impressed upon their minds that it could never be forgotten. He wanted them to experience it. He allowed the illness to take its natural course. He allowed Lazarus to die. He could have healed him, of course. He could have rushed to their home and laid his hand upon him, and the illness would have been immediately healed. Or he could have stayed where he was and simply spoken the word, and the illness would have been healed. Distance was no obstacle to him in such matters (cf. Matt. 8:5-13; Jn. 4:46:53). But instead, he let him die. And he did this because he loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. He loved them too much to heal him when there was another, higher, and more important object to be gained—their knowledge of him as the resurrection and the life.

For some of us, perhaps, this saying carries little power, that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. It’s no more than a pleasant sounding religious platitude. But Jesus wanted them—as he wants us—to understand that the resurrection is a reality that changes our entire outlook on life. 

Jesus allowed those whom he loved to suffer a temporary sorrow in order to teach them a lesson of eternal value. May I suggest to you that this is how we should look upon all of our trials and afflictions? In his great love for us, he sometimes allows us to suffer things we would never have chosen for ourselves, but which are nevertheless for our good. There is some lesson to be learned, some grace of the Spirit, or some character trait to be formed in us; or perhaps some good to be accomplished in someone else by what we suffer, and so he allows us to suffer it. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray—and pray fervently—that we might avoid suffering, or pray to be delivered from suffering; but it does mean that if God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way or in the time we think he should, we should remember that he is nevertheless dealing with us in love. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

"A Perpetual Forge of Idols"

Some wit once observed, “In the beginning God created man in his own image; and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”[1] This is a humorous way of making the point that Calvin made in his Institutes:  “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.”[2]  The advantage the first saying has over the second is the addition of the fact that the idols men forge tend to look an awful lot like their forgers.  

This is true, not only with respect to the false conceptions people have of the Father, but also of the Son. Not finding the real Jesus (the one presented to us in the pages of Scripture) much to their liking, they refashion him into their own image. They don’t like Jesus as he is, and so they imagine him to be what he is not. This imaginary Jesus, not surprisingly, is one who happens to agree with them and endorse their agenda. Thus, we find Jesus re-imagined as a woman, as a homosexual, as an animal rights activist, as a card-carrying Democrat, as a flag-waving Republican, as the original socialist. Sometimes he is re-imagined along racial lines. There is a black Jesus, where the gospel is reinterpreted in terms of black history and culture. There is also a Hispanic Jesus and an Asian Jesus. And lest we feel too indignant about this, let’s recognize that there is also a white Anglo-Saxon Jesus, complete with golden hair and blue eyes that is every bit an idol as any Jesus other than the first century Jewish Jesus, “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1).

The latest effort to re-imagine him comes from the keyboard of one Suzanne DeWitt Hall, who last week wrote a piece for the Huffington Post entitled, Jesus:  The First Transgender Man. She accuses Christians who take the Bible literally of doing nothing of the sort, but rather “imposing their own filters on stories and phrases to fit their particular ideology.” One can only smile and respond, “Physician, heal thyself.” She seems to have a penchant for imposing plenty of filters of her own.

So how does she go about justifying her claim that Jesus was the first transgender man? She sets the stage, strangely enough, by discussing Eve. “The Bible tells us she is the first example of human cloning.” It does no such thing, of course, but this doesn’t seem to bother her. She adds,

If we take the Genesis account in it’s [sic] literal meaning,[3] as conservative Christians demand that we do, she is also the first case of a transgender woman. God reached into Adam, pulled out a bit of rib bone, and grew Eve from that XY DNA into Adam’s companion. She was created genetically male, and yet transformed into woman.

She was created genetically male? The author pulled that one out of thin air. The text neither says this nor implies it.

Let us be clear. A transgender woman is a man—genetically, biologically, functionally, really, a man—who thinks of himself as (or wishes himself to be) a woman. This was not true of Eve. Ever. She was created genetically, biologically, functionally, and really, a woman. There never was a time when she was anything other than a woman. God performed a supernatural act in the creation of Eve and was not limited to the genetic material of Adam. To assert otherwise is to be guilty of the worst form of reductionism.

The author goes on to say,

Then along comes Jesus and the whole pattern is both repeated and reversed… the second act of cloning occurs. The Holy Spirit comes upon the second Eve [Mary], and the child takes flesh from her and is born. Born of her flesh. Born with XX chromosome paring. Born genetically female, and yet trans-formed into man.

Yes, these really are her words. No kidding.

Her error lies in supposing that God was limited in the incarnation to the genetic material of Mary (as she had previously supposed he was limited to Adam’s genetic material in the creation of Eve). Jesus’ rebuke of the Sadducees is appropriate here, as well:  “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). God did something wonderful, something supernatural, something miraculous in preparing a body for Jesus (Heb. 10:5). But it did not involve transforming him from female to male. The author says Jesus was “born genetically female, and yet transformed into man.” We might ask, when exactly did this happen? Presumably, sometime in the eight days between his birth and circumcision?[4]

[1] I have seen this quote, or some variation of it, attributed to Voltaire, Rousseau, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, and some fellow named Anonymous, a very copious writer of quotes.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.11.8, translated by Henry Beveridge.
[3] She has a rather strange notion of what it means to take the Bible literally. Interpreting the Bible literally means interpreting it according to its own particular style of literature (from the Latin litera). We interpret the Bible literally when we interpret poetry as poetry, historical narrative as historical narrative, parable as parable, symbols as symbols, etc. I don’t know of anyone who interprets the Bible literally as she uses the term.
[4] I should add that it is possible to read her post as a reductio ad absurdum argument in the form of a modus tollens:

If P then Q.
Not Q (because Q is absurd).
Therefore not P.  

Thus, “If the Bible is interpreted literally (as so many conservative Christians claim to do), these are the absurd results that follow (Eve would have to be regarded as a transgender woman and Jesus a transgender man). Eve is not a transgender woman and Jesus is not a transgender man. Therefore, the Bible cannot be interpreted literally.” The problem is that it is not clear she’s offering a reductio. From some of her other posts it seems she regards the creation narrative as ahistorical, and so since Eve (in her view) was not a real person in history, she was neither a real woman nor a transgender woman. The author does seem to believe the incarnation to be historical, however, and also to believe that Jesus was a transgender male.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A Graduation Address

Graduates, I very much appreciate being given the opportunity to speak to you today, and I hope that you might be able to find some hope and encouragement in what I have to say.

It is customary for commencement speakers to challenge the graduates to go out and do extraordinary things; to go out and be world-changers; to dream big and aspire to do great things. But I’m going to issue you a challenge that is a bit different. I’m not going to challenge you to do extraordinary things, but rather to do ordinary things in an extra-ordinary way—or to put it somewhat differently, to do common things uncommonly well. This, it seems to me, is what the world needs more than anything else. Far too many people are satisfied with mediocrity. Far too many people are satisfied with doing just enough to get by. Too few strive to do what they do with excellence. But I would suggest to you that if something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well.

Solomon tells us that a commitment to excellence will be rewarded. He mentions this in several of his proverbs, and he expresses it in a variety of ways. Consider, for example, how he puts it in Proverbs 10:4,

A slack hand causes poverty,
but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

Diligent means more than simply hard-working. The dictionary defines the term as meaning “done or pursued with persevering attention; painstaking.”[1] This means doing things with an attention to the details to make sure that they’re done correctly, that they’re done right, that they’re done as they ought to be done. And what is this but an attempt to do things with excellence? Solomon says that there is a reward for this:  the hand of the diligent makes rich. Wealth tends to come to those who pursue excellence. And not only wealth, but power, too. Solomon says,

The hand of the diligent will rule,
          while the slothful will be put to forced labor. 
(Prov. 12:24)

The prophet Daniel is a perfect example of this. We’re told that,

Daniel became distinguished above all the other presidents and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him. And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom (Dan. 6:3)

Daniel was literally outstanding, meaning that he stood out from the others; he was distinguished above the rest of the leaders of Persia because of his excellent spirit. He was noticeably superior to them in how he conducted himself, and how he performed his duties. And so he was raised to a position of greater responsibility and power.

The patriarch Joseph is another example. He was faithful as a son, and was entrusted by his father with oversight over his brothers—which didn’t go too well for him since they were all older than he. In a fit of jealousy, his brothers sold him into slavery and he was taken to Egypt where he was bought by Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. But Joseph served in the house of Potiphar with such care and with such attention to detail, and did what he did so well, that Potiphar “made him overseer in his house and over all that he had” (Gen. 39:5). Then, when he was falsely accused and put in prison, he so distinguished himself that “the keeper of the prison put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners… [and] whatever was done there, he was the one who did it” (Gen. 39:22). And, as you know, he was eventually elevated to a position of great power in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh.

He did ordinary things (first as a son, then as a slave, then as a prisoner), but he did them in an extraordinary way and was rewarded for it.

Excellence has a way of rising to the top. Never forget this. Whatever you do—as a student, as an employee, as an employer, as a tenant, as a landlord, as a husband and father, or wife and mother, as a church member, or a member of your neighborhood or a civic organization—strive to do what you do well.

And not just in the big things, but in the little things, too. In Jesus’ parable the master tells his servant, “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much” (Lk. 16:10). Think about it. If you are not faithful, not diligent, and don’t strive for excellence in the little things, why should anyone trust with greater responsibility? Why should anyone give you a raise or a promotion? Those who prove faithful in the little things will gain for themselves a good testimony from both God and man.

I want to challenge you, then, not so much to seek to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things in an extra-ordinary way, to do common things uncommonly well.

And I would like to suggest a few ways in which this might be done—certain attitudes and habits to practice, and others to avoid if you wish to be successful in this endeavor called life.

Some Things to Avoid
First, some things to avoid, and first among these:  never allow yourself to develop a mentality of entitlement. This is the mentality that some people seem to have that the world owes them something. The world owes them an education. The world owes them a job. The world owes them a big house and a nice car.

Another way in which this idea of entitlement is often expressed is in terms of desert…and I don’t mean that yummy sweetness that comes after the meat and potatoes. I mean “that which is deserved.” You will often hear people say things like, “I deserve this or that; I deserve a good-paying job; I deserve a big house; I deserve a nice car. I deserve…whatever.” This is very much akin to the notion of entitlement. People who think this way seem to think they’re God’s gift to the world, and that by their mere presence in it, they ought to be rewarded.

But listen to me very carefully because you need to know this:  the world doesn’t owe you anything. And I’d be hard-pressed to find any circumstances in which anyone could rightfully claim that they deserve any of these things.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with desiring a good-paying job, driving a nice car and living in a big home; and if you should be so fortunate so as to obtain these things for yourself, good for you! I mean this very sincerely, good for you! But you never will attain them if you sit around waiting for the world to give them to you because you think you deserve them or feel yourself entitled to them. No, dreams become reality by the dint of hard work, by smart work, by thrift, by wise planning. Don’t expect others to give you or do for you what you ought to do for yourself. Don’t think yourself entitled to anything other than what you earn for yourself by your own diligence.

Very closely related to what we have just said, never allow yourself to develop a grievance mentality. There are those whom I like to call “the perpetually aggrieved.” These are people who are quick to take offense, slow to be reconciled, and people for whom nothing is ever good enough. They’re constantly complaining, always whining, and ever eager to play upon your sympathy. These are really difficult people to be around. Don’t be one of these people!

And right along with this, avoid playing the part of a victim. You’re going to find that sometimes life is hard, and sometimes people will do you wrong, and you will seem to have more than your fair share of trials and sorrows. You might find yourself in a set of life-circumstances that you would never have chosen for yourself:  a financial set-back, the loss of a job, a diagnosis of a terrible disease, an act of betrayal by a friend or family member. The first thing to remember is that, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Don’t expect life to be all rosy. There are going to be many good times, to be sure. But there are also going to be some hard times along the way. This is true for everyone; it will be true for you, too. But don’t wallow in self-pity. Don’t play the part of a victim.

I once knew two old women, both of them shut-ins, who had both suffered more than the ordinary number of hardships and tragedies of life. One had grown bitter and seemed to think that the world itself had conspired against her. But the other woman was as joyful as she could be. She knew that life wasn’t always fair and that trials and troubles don’t always come in equal measure to everyone, but she didn’t let her troubles get her down. She was a joy to visit. I’m sad to say that it was a bit of a chore to visit the other one.

The old adage is true that it’s not what happens to you in life that matters, but how you react to what happens. You can become bitter, or you can become better. You can allow your trials and afflictions to refine you and make you a better person, or you can allow them to destroy you and turn you into a crank. Don’t be a crank!

Next, don’t make excuses for your failures but own up to them and learn from them. Some of you are going on to college and it may happen that you do poorly on a test or that you fail a class. Maybe someday you’ll start a business venture that goes under. Maybe you’ll have a relationship that ends up going south. Maybe you will be overcome in a moral failure. The thing is, take responsibility for your actions. Don’t blame others for things that are clearly your fault. You might remember that it didn’t go too well for our first parents when they tried to pass the buck. The Lord confronted Adam and said, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” Adam said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” He was passing off the responsibility of his misbehavior onto his wife. Actually, it was even worse than this. He is implicitly blaming God:  “…the woman whom you gave to be with me…” The Lord then spoke to Eve, “What is this that you have done?” And she said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The blame game originates with the fall. Don’t blame others for your failures. Admit them. Admit them to yourself; admit them to God; and admit them to those whom you may have let down or sinned against. Then, do what you can to make amends for them. And then learn from them and move on.

Some things to Practice
Enough of what to avoid. How about some attitudes and behaviors to embrace and practice?

First, be hard on yourself and soft on others. As we said before, demand a lot from yourself; commit yourself to excellence. But be patient and forgiving of other people’s failures. Maybe they’ve let you down and disappointed you. Maybe they have wronged you. Be patient and forgiving. Don’t be too eager to write them off. Give them time to grow; give them an opportunity to redeem themselves. Treat them with the same kindness and consideration that you would hope to receive if you were the one who had failed.

Next, always treat people courteously. We live in a society that seems to be becoming increasingly rude and uncivil, and where cursing and invective and vulgarity have become commonplace. But things like courtesy and good manners and saying please and thank you and choosing to speak about what is good and praiseworthy in our neighbors rather than their faults; things like deferring to others by opening the door and letting your neighbor enter before you, or letting the person sitting at the table next to you have the larger of the last two pieces of pie; giving compliments rather than insults; all these things (and a thousand others besides) are ways of paying them respect as fellow bearers of the image of God. These are all aspects of what in a former generation was called being a lady or a gentleman. And a real test of character comes in whether we are ladies and gentleman to the least among us, those who can do the least for us in return.

Next, treat people as individuals, and not as members of a group. We often misjudge people when we do otherwise. Isn’t it the essence of racism, for example, to assume that because one is a member of a particular race that he or she partakes of the worst elements associated with it? Because some blacks are guilty of crimes, some whites think no blacks can be trusted. Because some whites are racist, some blacks assume all are. Because some cops have abused their power, some people conclude all cops are corrupt. The truth is:  most blacks are good people; most whites are not racist; and most cops are doing their best at a very difficult job.

Treat people as individuals, not as members of a group. Get to know them at a personal level. A person is a human being, before he is anything else. Before he is white or black, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, he is a human being, made in the image and likeness of God. Never forget this.

Next, make a commitment never to stop learning. Your formal schooling may soon come to an end. Perhaps for some of you it already has; maybe high school is the end of the road for you, as far as school goes. But learning should be a lifetime endeavor. When you stop learning, you begin to die; you begin to die intellectually, and I would even make the case that you begin to die morally and spiritually, as well. You become less capable of exercising wisdom and of having empathy for others. God has created us to be thinking beings; this is one of the most important things that distinguishes us from the world of animals. The 17th century Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal said, “All our dignity lies in thought; let us strive, then, to think well.” Never cease to learn.

Finally, let me say that I remember very well when I was your age and being quite uncertain as to what I was to do with my life. It seemed like an enormous decision, and I didn’t know how in the world to go about making it. I started out, like you, a bit tentative, a bit unsure of myself. But over time I discovered that I didn’t have to see the end from the beginning. Only God can do that. I could only take one step at a time in the direction I thought best at the moment and simply trust that the Lord would direct my way. And he has.

One of the things that has often comforted me in times of uncertainty has been just this:  we don’t know the future, but we know the One who holds the future. It sounds very cliché-ish, and I suppose it is; but it’s true. And as we seek to be faithful to God from moment to moment and from day to day, he has a way of directing our steps and making his plan for us clearer and clearer. And make no mistake, the Lord does have a plan and purpose for your life. He has had his hand upon you from the very beginning; he has his hand upon you now; and he will have his hand upon you forever. And you can be sure that he will direct you into the plan that he has for you.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
          and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
          and he will make your paths straight (Prov. 3:5-6)

One of the things that has impressed me along these lines is how Jesus gave the apostles a general commission. He said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel. Make disciples of all the nations.” That’s a pretty daunting task. How in the world were they to accomplish it? Well, they began right where they were, in Jerusalem. And little by little, as they were faithful day by day, the Lord began to direct them—to give them more specific guidance, to go here or to go there. There is an interesting passage in this regard in the sixteenth chapter of Acts.

And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:6-10).

The point is, you don’t need to see the end from the beginning. All you need to do is to be faithful to the Lord, trust in him, find whatever it is you need to do in the present moment, do it with all your might for the sake of his glory, and he will direct your steps.

I would never have imagined when I was your age that I would be doing what I’m doing today and loving it as much as I do. Nor would I ever have imagined that I could ever be so confident that God had a very specific purpose for my life. But I am confident, and confident that I am doing what I was created to do.

Always look to God, consecrate yourself to him in all you do (school, work, recreation, in your relationships, etc.), and simply trust him to direct your way. He will. He will make it clear to you.

The path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,
          which shines brighter and brighter until the full day 
(Prov. 4:18)

I charge you, then, graduates, to rise to the challenge of doing ordinary things in an extra-ordinary way, to do common things uncommonly well for the glory of Jesus Christ our King, who was faithful in all the things, great and small, that the Father gave him to do. Amen.

The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.
— G.K. Chesterton —