Totally Religious But Skeptical

Be Bold Challenge With Lion Face

There is a fine point between cynicism and skepticism.  It is like fine point between going forward in a faith community with an engaged mind with critical thinking like the Drive gear and being too passive with ones mind on Neutral.  Neutral could mean that even a weak thing can push me around.  God, who is good, does not mind honest questions.  Thomas Jefferson addressed this saying, “Sit wisdom firmly in her seat.  Question with boldness even the existence of God.  For if there is a God, he must want honest questions rather than blindfolded fear”.

True spiritual seeking is not an objective experience. It is fully informed Christian is engaging all of the person.  If someone sells you Christianity allows no questioning, run!

There once was a man who grew up in a spiritual community that did not allow members to even read materials critical of their faith.  He started seeing holes in their doctrine and their history not adding up so he confided to someone to listen to his many struggles in faith.  Days later he was disfellowshipped and no one could speak to him. Supposedly, “blind folded fear” would be better with a focus on that group alone.

Below we see Jesus having a healthy attitude to skepticism and expanding the conversation to how “God so loved the world……” (John 3:16).  Too often those on spiritual journeys overlook the value of questions though Jesus does not.

The next day he decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” And he said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-51).

Phillip was dedicated to Jesus by the time he approaches Nathaniel.  When he approaches him he communicates on what they knew were their signs of hope in what Moses and the prophets said.  He uses a common faith related shorthand to communicate the historical context and momentum that is realized in Jesus.  This is an informed faith and culture perspective.

But Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  He hears the deposit of faith context, yet the name of a backwater town seems too simple for any far reaching consequence.  He was likely a spiritual seeker to begin with or Philip would not have approached him right away.  His emphasis was on how God would bring out greatness from what is already impressive in the Old Testament history.

But my above statement rings true in how there can be subjectivity, a bias, that the seeker brings in applying the critical mind to a spiritual picture.  But the beauty of the pattern of Jesus is he dwelled among us.  He had a footprint without a flashiness or faith would be too easy.  When faith comes too easy it leaves easy.

This is why skepticism is valuable.  Skepticism is a way to look at the merits of something with honest questions.  For example, Mary asked Gabriel how she could be pregnant since “I know not a man”?  She was not punished for it since she was staying in touch with that which was revealed truth up to that point.  Skepticism is healthy because it protects the good.

Using skepticism is also good for one obtaining a personal ownership on the matter. An example is of two personality types in a cancer study.  They examined two personality types of men in their mid-fifties with the same cancer.  One was skeptical and wanted to know all of the process.  The other was passive with whatever the authority says.  Of the two, the passive had lower survival rates. Likewise too much passivity in the spiritual life with ones reason leads to spiritual death.  There, ownership saves.

Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him—- This is a turning point.  Jesus respect Nathanael’s response even in his error.  A true Israelite would highlights of salvation history engrained and Nazareth was not in one of them.  Though there is presumption or conjecture in Nathanael’s doubt there is a single-mindedness on the God of his understanding having continuity with earlier works.  Jesus sees him as a glass half full and is able to work with him. Jesus is open here to the hard questions of honest inquiry and compliments Nathaniel for that. For a future apostle who would pass on the faith, he sets the table for a refined balance of faith and reason.  “To believe is nothing other than to think with assent… Believers are also thinkers: in believing, they think and in thinking, they believe… If faith does not think, it is nothing” (Saint Augustine, De Praedestinatione Sanctorum, 2, 5: PL 44, 963).

You will see greater things than this—- Jesus honors the tenacity of Nathaniel.  In that, Jesus explains how and why his supernatural knowledge of the spiritual and physical location of Nathanael is a fragment for kingdom perspective.  By speaking of angels Jesus makes reference to something even larger than Israel since being the “King of Israel” is not the limit for Jesus because he was also the king of spiritual Israel to come.  This reference of angels ascending and descending goes to a transcendent nature of God’s kingdom.  Jesus makes a  vague reference to the life of Jacob that points to both that and how even more expansive the grace of God will be shown.

Then he had a dream: a stairway rested on the ground, with its top reaching to the heavens; and God’s angels were going up and down on it. And there was the Lord standing beside him and saying: I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and through them you will spread to the west and the east, to the north and the south. In you and your descendants all the families of the earth will find blessing (Genesis 28: 12-14).

Jesus relates to Nathanael in the Old Testament reference, knowing his bias, and emphasizes how individual journeys have meaning partly in God’s grace to everyone and, sometimes, through humble beginnings.  Personal conversions should add up to God’s agenda for the world that engages God’s grace to humanity.

Philip was only extending the invitation of Jesus.  Jesus promised in the context of making disciples and baptizing them in the Trinitarian formula (Matthew 28:20) that he would be with us to the end of the age.  How deeply he will do that is up to us, as we ask honest questions but open to the fullness of Jesus.

 

History Unlearned and Repeated

Worship Through The Ages

It has been a while since I have posted any of my homework.  The assignment asked me to write about the lessons among the people of Israel God did from Joshua to Maccabees and what was revealed about his character.  I welcome any comments or questions.

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The people then nation of Israel had a recurring pattern of gaining and losing ground in proportion to their faithfulness to the successive covenants of God through the Old Testament.  Particular foci discussed in this paper will be right worship and fidelity of worship to God.  Through the events of the latter part of the Old Testament God prepared his people through miraculous signs, discipline, prophecy and restoration in respective eras.

Period of Conquest and Judges

From Joshua through the Judges period God was showing of His character that he was purposeful in covenant by kinship.  They had kinship with God through his covenant with Abraham which included the land of Canaan.  His character is displayed by going before them in helping make the victories happen.  Just as we see how God “sevens” himself when he swore by himself to Abraham, he has them circle Jericho seven times before the victory blast of trumpets happen and the walls that stood against covenant blessings came down.  God shows in here as a shadow of things to come that his kingdom is to be advancing and not be static.

A misconception that could be made regarding this period would be that things were alright with God in not having a central authority since this period went on for a long time.  In a western, individualistic society where the “personal” of faith or “spiritual but not religious” is overemphasized then the societal structure here would seem to be a good norm.  However, if one reads the recurring phrase in Judges “everyone did right in their own eyes” then one sees it is in the context of many kinds of sins.

Period of the Jewish Monarchy

In this period God is preparing the kingdom for the ultimate King of Kings in Jesus.  The essential elements of God’s character here of intimacy and holiness with an elevated liturgical worship. Through the temple of Solomon his presence in the cloud inaugurates with those of holy orders and laity present.

In how God is preparing Israel for latter parts to salvation history it is in how the temple that stands as a witness to the nations.  There is both an outer court instituted for the gentiles as well as a partnership with kings like Hiram so that they are a part of what God was doing.

A misconception that could happen for this period is kingship as central authority is a great end in itself for a nation and especially one appointed by God.  But in the actual text with Saul and Solomon there was much exploitation of workers and oppressive taxation.  Power can corrupt and for that God chooses Jereboam to split off with a northern kingdom.

Period of the Divided Kingdom

Right worship with true fidelity is an important other feature of God’s character and preparation.  The spiritual revivals that happen with the kings of Judah who come back to God had at least some levels of repentance in refurbishing the temple and/or demolishing the Ashtoreth poles in the high places.  God’s zeal for worship was a virtue

towards his preparatory ways for the New Covenant when the true worshipers would “worship in spirit and truth” (John 4) in Christ.

But the lessons along that way would be discipline, true to the boundaries he expressed in Deuteronomy 28, as part of the curses of the covenant.  God has healthy boundaries as a character and discipline through the increasing incursions by the gentiles not despite his hesed, covenant love, but because of it.

A misconception could be that any breaking from the standards of right worship is inherently good.  Though Israel, as the northern kingdom was called, broke from oppression they did not carry on right worship with a valid priesthood and were more vulnerable to infidelity with other gods.  They were the first of the kingdoms of the promised land to be conquered.

Period of the Exile

This period was a rebuilding time for God’s people spiritually so they would later be ready for a return to their land. In this period a major means of preparing his people was through the prophecies of reversing the exile back to their land and also for coming Messiah which built on that which was prophesied by the pre-exilic prophets.

God’s character that was unveiled was largely a combination of his jealousy for being betrayed by Israel like an unfaithful wife (e.g. Ezekiel 23) but also his compassion and promise to restore them, again, due to his covenant to their fathers.

A misconception would be that salvation history was paused since they were not in their land.  This can be countered by the fact that the prophetic words were spoken to give hope but also in miracles like the three faithful Jews in the fire and Daniel in the lion’s den being preserved.  In a sense, contrary to a pause, it was another means of discipline and edification for Israel as a people of faith.

Period of the Return

This period was a time for restoration and perseverance.  In this way God is showing something of his character that is a balance between thankfulness for what one has but holding on to hope and “hunkering down” (Ryan, personal conversation, 2015) while under persecution like with the Maccabean era.

Holiness as a part of God’s character is also depicted here in the return where the non-Jewish wives had to be put aside because the covenantal faithfulness of the Jewish husbands was compromised.  In this there is a preparation to be in the world but not of it since they would not see a Davidic line king ruling their land again.

A misconception could be that God was not faithful to his covenant to Abraham since the Jewish people did not reclaim complete autonomy.  This can be countered with the fact that God’s promise to Abraham was that all the nations would be blessed through his seed giving the promise an international fulfillment.

An anchoring point of this blessing starts in Maccabees with the alliance the Jews made with Rome. We see the beginnings of their next oppressor: The Roman Empire.  But if one can see how pivotal a role this future oppressor has in salvation history we see again that God does indeed “write straight through crooked lines” and prepares Israel and the world for the “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church” in Rome which is the new Israel.

Conclusion

The pattern in the scriptures as described above is one with a recurrent tension of grace, free will of man that God respects and natural consequences in a covenantal context.  Particularly the emphasis of right and fidelity of worship to God has merit for Christian application because this issue is a tie that binds God in relationship with his people throughout salvation history. This can be seen from Abraham to the new Israel of the Body of Christ today.

Growing Old Gracefully

rabbi

For people of great or low stature, there tends to be a drive that their lives matter.  Some people have moments that encapsulate that sense of meaning that their interaction with this world has meaning above themselves.  For some, they peak early.  Others have that moment way later.  For those with a low, burning fire of spirituality going on that sense of meaning or interconnectedness stays beyond a moment but through much of their life span.

One man who had a sense of meaning was Simeon.  Here is his story and how it connects to living life.

 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go

in peace, according to your word,

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and glory for your people Israel.”

(Luke 2:25-33).

a man—- This is loaded if we think about it right.  Typically when someone thinks of Bible characters they think of pomp and circumstance as kings, fighters or wise people.  The first key here is that God wants to use normal people.  “A man” like him shows that “normal people” can have an encounter with the divine.

righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the holy Spirit was upon him—- This is also loaded in meaning.  He had that low burn in keeping and seeking a relationship with God and engaging his faith into God’s restorative agenda for Israel.  With the amount of revelation he had he was faithful to the jist of where the Old Testament points to.  The key point is that he centered on God’s agenda beyond his own interests.  With that, the Holy Spirit was on him.

It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit—  this was key in the sense that such a life would meet with a meeting point of wholeness that is not only a pass off gift of God but that of personal presence of God.  The Old Testament was pointing to an anointing by the Holy Spirit that would write God’s law in people’s hearts.  The Messiah to come would bring it all together but relationally.

He came in the Spirit into the temple… he took him into his arms and blessed God

This is beautiful.  Simeon in the first place is able to recognize Jesus for who he is because he engaged in his understanding in the ways of God as matter of spirit.  Much later Jesus explained to a racially marginalized woman that the coming true worshippers would worship the Father in spirit and truth.

he took him into his arms and blessed God

Although it was a point of contact with what he prayed for, the beauty of Simeon’s response was in true worship to God.

Now, Master, you may let your servant go

    in peace

Simeon finds that his greatest treasure to attain is that grace from heaven would be realized on earth before he leaves it.  Somehow Simeon knows that this grace of the Father in the Messiah is for the world beyond Israel.  I can only guess that Simeon, true to the Hebrew meaning of his name, was “one who hears”.  In hearing God through a lens of sustaining grace it is made known to him that the true light has come that the light of creation is only a glimmer of.

Also it is worth noting that Simeon does not see that the universal application of the Messiah is at the detriment of Israel.  Simeon may likely have known that the successive covenants of the Old Testament increased in the number of people they effected (family, tribe, nation, kingdom).  Simeon saw the day of Jesus meaning salvation to the Gentiles and he embraced it.

One more thing I see in this passage is that in addition to Simeon seeing God’s grace beyond bigotry was that he turns in a moment to the next generation.  I heard once from a former pastor of mine named Jess Strickland that often the vision God brings to his people are not for their generation but the next.  He is ready to die in peace and pass something on in joy to Joseph, Mary and the newborn Jesus.  In other words we see that Simeon was  man who, like the twilight of the Old Testament, that grew old gracefully.

As I write this I ponder that I am a 45-year old man.  I am not at the end of my life as far as I know but I pray that I can cherish Jesus in all he is.  And pass on the knowledge of him in any way I can to my next generation.  What is stopping you or I from being “ righteous and devout”?  Only our own self-centeredness.