Category Archives: apologetics

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Peace. John 14

Hope for Israel: Ezekiel 34-37

New King, New Hearts, New Hope: Ezekiel 34-37

By Their Fruits

Toxic Theology

There is much talk these days of toxic masculinity, toxic relationships, and toxic workplaces, all of which exist, and all of which create problems and pain. As is the case with any organization, churches can be toxic workplaces where people are manipulated, abused, or disrespected.

Behind and under much of the toxicity are toxic ideas, beliefs, or dogma. White supremacy is a toxic philosophy. Jingoism is a toxic ideology that leads to xenophobia. 

I was not raised with a church background. 

When I was 17, or thereabouts, I cried out in desperation into the unknown, only hoping that there was an Intelligence in the universe that would hear me. God flooded me with light and love. Jesus became my Lord and King. 

For a couple of years, it was kind of just Jesus and me. I happily read books (including the Bible), took every religiously oriented class I could find in college, joyfully engaged in mentoring inner-city kids, and went through my days in running conversation with God.

I got married at a very young age and by the time I was 20, had a son. That’s when I started going to church, and from there, I was introduced to home Bible studies, prayer meetings, and a gamut of large charismatic meetings. (Those were the days of the Jesus Movement.) Much of that was glorious – enthusiasm, heart-pumping songs of joy and praise, prayers for healing, inspiring messages, a huge ecumenical community of faith. I loved it.

But danger crouched at the door. Imperceptibly, toxic theology crept in. It was toxic because it produced poison Kool-Aid. I drank heartedly.

My Kool-Aid was a mixed drink, consisting of:

  • Wooden literalism.I was taught a flat Bible, by which I mean every verse was seen as dictated directly by God, without mistakes or errors of any kind, and carrying equal weight with every other verse. One could then overlook the Sermon on the Mount by quoting something out of 1 Kings.  (It turns out, there is nothing at all wrong with the Bible – only with the way we were interpreting it.) 
  • Young Earth Creationism. Wooden literalism led us to throw science out the window and promote nonsense. We became like those who insisted, based on scripture, that the earth was flat. Educated people laughed. 
  • Patriarchy.The Bible was interpreted to keep men, especially white men, squarely in control, bosses of their families, churches, businesses, and countries. 
  • Racism. Not the blatant overt racism of the KKK, but a subtler ignoring of voices of color. 
  • Nationalism. One of my primary Bible teachers made of point of telling us that Native Americans were savage pagans. Their genocide and stolen land was God’s judgment. They were like the Amalekites of old. America was the new Israel. God took the land from the pagans and gave it to “his people” – white, “Christian,” Europeans. 
  • Christendom.Church and state wed; the church serves as chaplain to empires that do what empires always do – brutalize and dominate. The cross and basin were replaced by the flag and a gun. 
  • Militarism. Somewhere along the line, everything Jesus taught about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies was tossed out the proverbial window and replaced with the glories of war and the virtues of killing. Christian military generals were given standing ovations as worship bands played war anthems. 
  • Zionism. Based on faulty eschatology, I came to support ultra-right-wing militaristic Israeli governments that most Israelis did not support, and reject and condemn Palestinians, many of whom are Christian. 
  • Pretribulation rapture. We true believers would soon be snatched away. The earth was destined to burn. Unbelievers were destined to torture and death and hell. No need to save the planet. Environmentalism was a waste of time and energy. The only thing that mattered was “getting people saved.” We were escapist. 
  • Eschatology. The apocalyptic portions of scripture (much of Daniel, some of Ezekiel, some of Isaiah, Zechariah, the Olivet Discourse, and Revelation) were interpreted to reinforce militarism, divine judgment, eternal torture, national exceptionalism, anti-environmentalism, and escapism. Apocalyptic portions of the Bible were used to feed conspiracy theories. The world was going to end in 1980, 1988, and 2000. Donald Trump incarnates Cyrus the Great. 
  • Infernalism. An overly literalistic interpretation of the Bible led me to believe that the God who is Perfect Love planned to eternally torture the majority of humankind in everlasting fire. I was mostly fine with that.
  • Prosperity. Other portions of scripture were twisted to promote opulence, income disparity, and hedonism. 
  • Homophobia. The Bible was regularly used to bludgeon and condemn the LGBTQ community.
  • A Truncated Pro-lifeview became associated only with anti-abortion. One could be “pro-life,” yet support capital punishment, war, anti-immigration policies, and police brutality. 
  • Theocracy. The task at hand for American Christians became political power that could then be used to impose a particular understanding of ethics and morality on the general public. “Christian” became identified with ultra-conservative Republican. Christians could wholeheartedly support the most immoral and dishonest president in the history of the United States.  

Having drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid, I woke up one day and found myself a racist, homophobic, nationalist, flag-waving, violence-promoting, misogynist ordained pastor-teacher.

Then, I took along, hard look at Jesus. With God’s help, I came back to my first love, to the Prince of peace who embodies perfect, self-sacrificial, cruciform, loving service to the marginalized. 

Though the Mountains Be Shaken

Though the Mountains Be Shaken

Collectively, we humans have thousands of fears – fear of loss, harm, abandonment, failure, darkness, monsters under the bed. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve had them all. Fears are the water in which we swim. Fear has ushered many a tyrant into power. 

Although one cannot legitimately extrapolate from personal experience to universal applications, for me, the fear of death undergirds all other fears. To be more specific, it is a fear of nonexistence. Fears of abandonment, rejection, failure, and loss of control are the offspring of existential meaninglessness. 

Lesser fears cluster in tight groups under the fear of nonexistence. Those clusters spin in circles. Worry leads to self-blame, which leads to shame, which leads to anxiety, which produces more worry. Round and round I go, spiraling downward into depression. 

Existential angst, the terror of annihilation and nonexistence, has power by virtue of the fact that, if true, annihilation renders life meaningless. The thought is not original. Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche all went there. Death as the end of all seems to be the default philosophy of the intelligentsia. Bravely facing the darkness and busying oneself with useful projects gives them purpose and meaning. That has never worked for me. I find no joy in either stoicism or hedonism. As far back as I can remember there has been an ache within me – a yearning to experientially know Truth.

Truth corresponds to an external reality. We’ve all heard the parable of the four blind persons approaching the elephant – each reaching their own opinion of reality – the elephant it likened to a rope, a huge snake, a tree trunk, and a leathery wall because one blind person handled the tail, another the trunk, a third a leg, and the last the animal’s side. Each has their own “reality” because none bothered to collaborate with the others or invite outsiders to expand their knowledge. Regardless, an elephant is an elephant. 

Truth is not my opinion, nor my perspective. Truth is not superimposed dogma. Although I never have the complete picture, there is nevertheless an external reality that exists regardless of what I believe. 

Whatever my personal beliefs about God, God exists. I need not try to prove that to anyone. The evidence is overwhelming when I consider the beauty of the intricate mathematical equations that describe the universe, when I consider the logical improbability of quarks flying from a hot big bang producing rational beings without a prime mover, or when I know in my gut that love is more than psychobiology. 

Since God is, it is not surprising that God has made Godself knowable. Galileo argued (in his 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess Christina) that God has written two books – the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, which do not, because they cannot, contradict one another, having come from the same Mind, the Ground of Being. There are contradictions between interpretations of the Bible and the natural sciences, but none between the Bible and science. 

It is not surprising that a Prime Mover capable of imaging a universe of quantum theory and soul-stirring symphonies is not fully discoverable. I would not want it otherwise. There is joyous energy is the discovery. Both books are amaranthine ceaseless mines of wonder. It is not only about the destination. There is joy and purpose in the journey. 

The Apostle Paul was neither the despicable misogynist, the ivory-tower intellectual, nor the religious fanatic imagined by some. He was a man. He had all the same emotions and problems common to humanity. At one point in his life, he was so deeply depressed he despaired of life itself. 

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NIV)

By “Asia,” Paul is referring to modern Turkey. Two things seem to have collided in his life to produce despair – persecution and hardship in Asia Minor, and news that the community of faith he founded in Corinth had disintegrated into bickering and division. It would seem that Paul felt that his life was useless, that he might die having accomplished nothing. Purposelessness. Meaninglessness. Worthlessness. Existential angst. 

What lifted Paul from the “slough of despond” (to borrow John Bunyan’s phrase) to a life – not a life of grim Nietzscheandefiance, not a life of narcissistic indulgence, nor of coercive political power – but to a life of interior freedom, true joy, and eternal purpose, was learning to rely on “the God who raises the dead.”

All of Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ. Either Jesus was raised from the dead or he was not. The evidence is again overwhelming:

  • A cruel Roman crucifixion
  • A certain death
  • A sealed and guarded tomb
  • Terrified disciples
  • A huge entry stone lifted out to reveal an already empty tomb
  • Grave clothes wound as if still around a body
  • A turban neatly folded
  • Bodily appearances to hundreds of people in many different places and under many different circumstances
  • Thousands attesting to the reality of the resurrection
  • None of them recanting in the face of torture and death
  • A faith that exploded across the Neareast, Africa, Asia, and Europe
  • Millions of radically changed lives over the next 2 millennia

God raises the dead. God conquers the essential fear. Death, where is your sting? Annihilation, nonexistence is an illusion. Life has purpose. Life continues forever. All of the lesser fears that cluster in bundles under the fear of nonexistence dissipate in light of the God who raises the dead. 

In the new covenant, there is but one negative commandment and but one positive commandment:

  • Do not be afraid
  • Love one another

“To me this is like the days of Noah,
    when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
    never to rebuke you again.
Though the mountains be shaken
    and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
    nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

(Isaiah 54:9-10 NIV)

A Weird One Man Play Starring Ezekiel (chapters 4-11)

A Prophet on Acid: Ezekiel chapters 1-3

CONFESSION IS NOT REPENTANCE

I’ve been in the habit of confusing confession with repentance. They go together, but they are not the same thing.

Not only did I confuse confession and repentance, I left out lament. All three are vital and necessary to effect change.

Neither confession, nor lament, nor repentance has to do with shame. Shame is the belief that one is unlovable, beyond the reach of love. Shame is toxic, demonic. 

Confession is admitting that what we’ve done is wrong. Not only admitting what I personally chose to do or say, but what the systems I’m a part of have chosen to do and say. I am not an island. I’m a part of an immediate family, a family of origin, a culture, a society, a nation, and a world. At various times in my life, I am a part of institutions, neighborhoods, friendship groups, work teams, and so on. 

I’ve done and said things that are wrong, unethical, immoral, or just not nice. The systems of which I am a part – those nations, neighborhoods, family groupings, and workplaces – have also done or promoted things that are wrong, unethical, immoral, or simply not very nice.

Confession means I honestly admit that. No sugarcoating; no excuses. To whom do I confess? God and those I have hurt. I confess to God and those hurt by the systems of which I am a part. Confession means apologizing to my wife when I’m inattentive, to my colleague when I’m overly critical, to the Black community for the racism of my privileged station, to Native Americans for the genocide of ancestors, and to the LGBTQ community for the vitriol of my faith community.

Confession is essential because it allows us to realize the harm we have caused. It opens the door for empathy and understanding. It is not meant to leave us down on ourselves, guilty, or ashamed; but instead, kindhearted, understanding, and sympathetic.

Lament is the expression of grief. Lament creates space to grieve the harm caused by neglect, selfishness, greed, bigotry, unforgiveness, or social injustice. If I truly enter into confession, it will produce empathy for the victimized, whether individual or collective, and empathy will express itself in lament.

Confession is not repentance. Lament is not repentance. Confession allows me to realize the harm done; lament allows me to express grief over the harm done. 

Repentance repairs the harm down.

As much as is possible, repentance undoes the harm. It aims to make amends, restore, repay, rebuild, reconcile, set things to rights. 

While talking heads scream at one another, while dueling protestors shout insults and hurl bottles, while guns are brandished and lies are repeated, we who seek to follow Jesus are called to confess, lament, and repent in order that love, peace, and justice may rain down upon us all. 

DENIAL DOESN’T CHANGE REALITY

In my work as a hospital chaplain, it is not unusual to come across family members of a dying loved one who insist death is not imminent. Nor is it unusual for people to disallow symptoms of disease until it is too late. They are in denial. 

On the other hand, hope is essential. As believers, we hold realistic hope in an eventual cure, a beating of the odds, and, even if death comes, we grieve in hope, knowing our loved one is safe with Jesus and we will eventually be reunited. 

Christian hope embraces reality. It neither ignores nor disavows the truth of the matter. 

America is very sick. Without proper treatment, it will die. How do I know? Watch the news. 

Nations die in various ways. Occasionally, one is violently crushed out of existence. More often, its relevance fades until it becomes ancillary. World War I destroyed the Ottoman Empire. The British Empire gradually shriveled to a fraction of its size and influence. 

Like all nations, like all empires, America will inevitably eventually die. Perhaps that time is imminent. Perhaps it is a ways off. Our choice. Will we accept the cure prescribed by the Great Physician, or persist in denial and anger until America is dead? 

The United States of America is in the ICU on life-support. 

Like ancient Israel, idolatry has led to injustice in these United States.  

America is not “one nation under God.” It never has been. America worships Mars, Mammon, and Caesar, but drapes its idolatry in Christianeze. Idolatry results in national sin.

But, there is a cure. Death is not inevitable. The cure involves confession, lament and repentance.

Honest confession (without excuses) to God and to those the nation has hurt, followed by lamentation that enables us to empathize with the victimized, and capped by the kind of repentance that actually and practically sets things to rights – this is the three-fold divine cure. 

Our national sins include:

  • Invasion by imperialist Europeans
  • Genocide of indigenous nations
  • Land owned for 10,000 years stolen from Native Americans
  • Forced relocation of indigenous people
  • Slavery 
  • Jim Crow segregation
  • Systemic racism
  • Voter suppression
  • Convict leasing
  • Militarism
  • Redemptive violence
  • Myths of righteous wars
  • Abortion as a form of birth control
  • Patriarchalism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ
  • Environmental pollution
  • Greed, exploitation
  • Nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment 

National sins have led to injustice:

  • The reëmergence of white supremacy
  • Mass incarceration
  • Intergenerational poverty
  • Hatred, greed, environmentally induced illness
  • Violence, killing, wars, crime, police brutality
  • Late term abortions
  • Riots and unrest
  • Political lies, corruption, avarice, immorality
  • Unsavory foreign alignments
  • Lack of civil discourse
  • Disastrous response to pandemic
  • Income disparity

Why should I confess, lament over, and repent of things I personally did not do? After all, I never owned slaves. The simple answer is that I need to confess, lament, and repent because I am an America. I am part of the whole. E pluribus unum. 

America has been in denial for many years. Insisting we are not a racist society, reimaging a history without redlining and mass incarceration, responding to police brutality with “blue lives matter,” calling for a return to a nonexistent idyllic past, thinking the election of an African American president proves a post-racial society, failing to recognize that “Make America Great Again” has always meant “Make America White Again” – all signs of denial.

I am sad because I’m an American and I love America. Majestic mountains, crashing waves, towering sequoia, coral reefs, grazing pronghorn antelope, spewing fumaroles, mist rising from a tropical cascade – so much beauty. Colorful cultures, Mexican dances, African drums, lederhosen, ethnic foods – diversity enriching us all. Education, opportunity, and equality (at least in principle) – founding ideals of liberty and justice. There is much to love about America.

I’m also sad because America doesn’t have to die. As with Israel of old, the healing arms of the Great Physician are outstretched. Will we accept the cure, or, like ancient Judah, spurn the truth until the nation is dead? 

America can go one of three ways:

  • Blame all the problems on whichever political party we don’t like and naïvely imagine all is well if our tribe runs the show. Racism is our zeitgeist, the water in which we swim. If we imagine we have fixed things by swapping out some politicians, we deceive ourselves. Our nation will die.
  • Continue denying we are anything other than great and near perfect. Our nation will die.

“The United States has often been called a land of contradictions, and to be sure, it’s failings sit along side some notable achievements  — a New Deal for many Americans in the 1930s, the defeat of fascism abroad in the 1940s. But on racial matters, the U.S. could just as accurately be described as a land in denial. It has been a massacring nation that said it cherished life, a slaveholding nation in the claimed it valued liberty, a hierarchal nation the declared it valued equality, a disenfranchising nation that branded itself a democracy, a segregated nation that styled itself separate but equal, an excluding nation that boasted of equality for all. A nation is what it does, not what it originally claimed it would be. Often, a nation is precisely what it denies itself to be.”[1]

  • Repent, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. As with ancient Israel, there is hope.

21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
    to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke
    while he is young.

28 Let him sit alone in silence,
    for the Lord has laid it on him.
29 Let him bury his face in the dust—
    there may yet be hope.
30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
    and let him be filled with disgrace.

31 For no one is cast off
    by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
    so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
    or grief to anyone.[2]

Will we take the cure or continue our denial until the nation is dead?


[1]The End of Denial by Ibram X. Kendi, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and Director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research (The Atlantic, September 2020, p. 54)

[2]Lamentations 3:21-33; Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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