Think before you make a promise…

Jephthah's Vow I am reading through the book of Judges and once again ran across the account of Jephthah (ch. 10, 11), which has often been misunderstood. I am reposting an updated version of something I wrote several years ago to help clarify this fascinating story.

Jephthah lived in the area of Israel called Gilead. Though he grew up in a large and important family, Jephthah was never accepted. This wasn’t something he imagined; his rejection was very real. You see, he was born as the result of his father’s sin. His mother was a prostitute and Jephthah was such an embarrassment to his family that they disowned him. In fact, he was considered such a misfit that the entire town rejected him.

He ran away to a barren land and started hanging around with other rejects. They actually became a gang and made Jephthah their leader, and they probably made their living by robbing traders and fighting as mercenaries.

In those days Israel was made up of a loose confederation of tribes with no central government or army. When attacked or abused by a more powerful nation-state, God would raise up a leader (Judge) who would be the means of rescue and protection. Gilead’s nemesis was the Ammonite nation just across its boarder to the east, which had just declared war on Israel.

The Elders of Gilead were desperate and so they sent a request that Jephthah and his little army come and help them. “Why do you come running to me after you didn’t lift a finger to help when I got kicked out of my family?” Jephthah said. “OK, we screwed up. We are sorry that we didn’t do the right thing. Hey, we’re eating humble pie here by asking you to come and help us,” the Elders replied. Jephthah agreed on condition that they take him back into the community and allow him to lead the entire army against the Ammonites. They agreed.

This was Jephthah’s chance to start over and he grabbed it. He moved his family back to his home town and was thankful to God for the opportunity to regain his honor and establish a heritage for himself when his beloved daughter (his only child) was old enough to marry and bear him sons.

Like a wise leader, he negotiated with the Ammonites trying to clear up some historical baggage between them and Israel. However, the Ammonite king was hell-bent on revenge and nixed the peace negotiations. He basically said what we hear from a lot of politicians, “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”

Jephthah had no other recourse except the sword. He gathered his troops and prepared to march toward the enemy. Before he left, he made a vow to the Lord that “if you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph will be the Lord’s or/and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31).

This was not a bargain, but a vow of gratitude and devotion. Leviticus 27 describes this kind of vow in detail. There was a redemption factor built into most vows so that one could buy back a vowed item by paying a certain value set by the priest. However, if someone dedicated another person in the family (1 Sam. 1:11), animal or family property, these could not be redeemed because they became holy (set apart) to the Lord.

So, when Jephthah returned and saw that it was his beloved daughter who first came out of his house to meet him, he was horrified. Was it because he had to kill her as a burnt offering to the Lord? Here we need to interpret Scripture by Scripture; human sacrifice was an abomination to the Lord and was forbidden because Israel was not to be like the surrounding nations (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10).

Instead, Jephthah was horrified because he had to sacrifice his only hope for a lineage that would come through the marriage of his daughter. Instead she would now live perpetually as a virgin, as one of the women who ministered to the Lord at the Tabernacle (Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22). This is why she mourned her virginity; not because she was going to die, but because she would never have children.

The rashness of Jephthah’s vow was not because it condemned his daughter to death, but because it sacrificed her future. It also dashed his hopes; of a family he never had and a dignity that he had never experienced. “Do not be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before the Lord…It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay” (Eccles. 5:2-5).

So, think before you make a vow to the Lord! Just a thought…

Addicted to Attention?

I remember reading a story in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago about a pro-life blogger known as “April’s Mom” or “B.” Maybe some of you remember  it as well. She posted the tragic news of the death of her newborn daughter, whom she had carried to term though diagnosed with a terminal case of Trisomy 13 and HPE.

This came at the end of a nine-month pregnancy which she shared with the internet world. She wrote about her Christian faith and pro-life values often quoting Bible verses and Christian music. People responded with prayers, gifts, and pro-life bloggers rallied around the cause. Twenty-six year old Rebecca Beuschausen could have ended there, but she decided to post a picture of the baby. The picture was identified by some readers as a toy doll. Things unraveled and Beuschausen admitted her deception.

Why did she do it? She told the Tribune, “I’ve always liked writing. It was addictive to find out I had a voice that people wanted to hear. Soon I was getting 100,000 hits a week, and it just got out of hand. I didn’t know how to stop. . . . One lie led to another.”

The name Beuschausen sounds a lot like Munchausen doesn’t it? Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymous von Munchausen lived in the eighteenth century and he was known for his tall tales and exaggerations. In fact, Rudolph Raspe compiled a collection of his apocryphal stories in 1785. There is a disorder called Munchausen Syndrome which describes a troubled person who will fabricate illness or injury in order to gain attention or sympathy through treatment. In reality it is just a fancy name for lying.

Munchausen was a liar, a fabricator, and so was Beuschausen. Her main problem (and ours) was not her addiction to attention, but her sinful human nature which acted against what she knew to be true.

Let’s face it, there is a Munchausen/Beuschausen in all of us: our fibs, white lies, tall tales, and exaggerations (yes, and maybe some of our blogs and selfies) are designed to make ourselves look or feel better. Let us be humble people who love to tell the truth more than we want to escape our pain. Just a thought…

“Stinking Thinking”

I watched a program on the Animal Channel that I cannot get it out of my mind, so I’ll write about it. A group of five people were sailing on the ocean and their boat capsized by a storm. They ended up floating in a rubber raft for five days without food or water.

One of the women was injured and her wounds drew sharks- hundreds of them. Two of the men became so thirsty that they started to drink from the ocean. It did not take long for the effects of the salt water to produce a type of mental illness characterized by a state of altered consciousness and hallucination. One of the guys was convinced he saw a Seven-Eleven and stepped out of the raft to get some food. CHOMP! He became shark bait. The other guy saw his car parked just over yonder, stepped out of the raft and WHOMP! I

I think that following our own sinful desires is like drinking salt water. The more we drink the thirstier we become, and the thirstier we become the more we desire the things that do not satisfy. We begin to imagine the things that are not and ignore the reality of the things that are. It is like “the god of this world has blinded our minds” (2 Cor.4:4).

Alcoholics’ Anonymous has a phrase called “stinking thinking behind the drinking.” It is used to describe the fact that bad behavior begins in the mind; and when we start thinking wrong, we will start living wrong. I think Paul would agree because most of his letters are divided into two major parts: doctrinal and practical. Right thinking precedes right living.

We are all creatures of our culture, but we must be careful, brothers and sisters, not to drink the waters of this world and allow “stinking thinking” into our lives. (I’m thinking here not only of addiction, but also of the politics of hate that seem to accompany every cultural issue.) We have been made new creations in Christ and our conformity to his image rests in the renewal of our minds. (Rom. 12:2)

We are to no longer to think of others from a worldly point of view, but strive to be agents of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:16)  We are to drink in the pure water of God’s Word and to think like him; whatever is true, noble, right, pure and lovely. (Phil. 4:8)

If you are struggling with “stinking thinking,” do not go it alone; get some help from the community of faith. Send me a note and I’ll pray for you. Just a thought….

“Addiction is a Disease and Not a Moral Failure”

I just heard that quote from the Surgeon General in an advertisement for a rehabilitation program touting itself to be a place of mercy and compassion and not one of judgment. They likened addiction to the disease of diabetes which caught my attention because I have diabetes.

The disease model of addiction has definitely become the prevalent paradigm by which our culture understands the subject. It is also the basis of a $36 billion rehab industry in this country which must show a medical model in order to receive health insurance payments for treatment. Certainly the influence of genetics and the biological and physiological components of addiction need to be recognized for effective treatment.

In a similar way, Diabetes (type 2) has a hereditary link (but no gene for diabetes) which makes a person more susceptible to the disease. However, genetics does not guarantee its inevitability. There are other life-style factors that come into play with diabetes; age, obesity, high blood pressure, lack of exercise, etc.

Unlike diabetics, most recovering addicts that I have spoken with have recognized far deeper issues than a disease model can explain.  They remembered days of being out of control; when they reached the point when “the drink (or drug) made the choice” and not them. Yet, when they sobered up for any length of time they recognized the need to take responsibility for their powerless condition and to realize they were not helpless; though they felt out of control, they still had choices to make. One person said that her alcoholism was a “disease of the free-will”. While genetics and biology may predispose to addiction, they cannot an addict make. There is a vast difference between predisposing and determining.

God created us with physical needs and desires which when kept within the boundaries of our love and obedience to Him can lead to pleasure and joy. However, sinful human nature is curved in upon itself and wants to consume these cravings upon itself without the limits of restraint. These cravings become our idols and we worship them so they will give us what we want. Edward Welch in his helpful book Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave writes: “The purpose of all idolatry is to manipulate the idol for our own benefit. This means we don’t want to be ruled by idols. Instead, we want to use them. For example, when Elijah confronted the Baal worshippers on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18), the prophets of Baal slashed themselves and did everything they could to manipulate Baal to do their will. Idolaters want nothing above themselves, including their idols. Their fabricated gods are intended to be mere puppet kings, means to an end.”

Bottom line: We do not want to be ruled by God. Every addiction breaks the command “You shall have no other gods before me.” We also do not want to be ruled by our cravings. No one wants to be a sex addict, a gambler, an alcoholic. We just want to be happy and to satisfy our hearts with our “drug of choice” without any consequences. Our selfish hearts want to construct a world in which we can live as we please and have everyone else live for our benefit and under our control. (I think Hitler tried that.)

However, our idols do not cooperate (Welch). Instead of allowing us to manipulate them for our benefit, they begin to control us. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” (Matt.6:24) In the context Jesus was talking about money, but it should be noted that there is a deeper significance here. Jesus implied that we are never the master, but always the slave. Paul said the same thing; “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey; either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.” (Rom. 6:16) So much for being in control!

How could sticks and stones enslave Old Testament Israel? How can simple substances or lifeless objects or harmless images enslave us? Certainly they hook some of us who have emotional vulnerabilities or trust issues because of our dysfunctional backgrounds, while others of us are captured biologically or physiologically. All of this is explained by the disease model. However, there is a deeper spiritual struggle that rages in every form of idolatry. First, there is desire to run from the worship of the true God, and run to those gods who will help us cope, give us pleasure, and ask nothing in return (so we think). Second, behind every idol of addiction there is a world of the demonic and we expose ourselves to the power behind “not-the-god.”

Thus we do not struggle in our addictions “against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) This is why we need a power greater than ourselves not only to restore us to sanity (a new mind), but to help us turn our lives and wills over to God (a new heart). This comes through the gospel.

Any treatment program that is going to have the maximum effect must be based upon more than a disease model. Our addictions may have morphed into a disease, but our healing will always begin with the spiritual. As Christians, we believe it must begin with the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. From there we must learn to be people who are responsible for the choices we make. Then, we must  learn to make those choices daily to deal with the biological, physiological, and social components that have  intertwined to make our lives “insane.” This will take a lifetime; we will not be driven by the fear of slipping back, but by trusting in God’s grace to grow up and move on.

A Job or A Calling?

I used to think there wasn’t much of a difference between a job, a career, and a calling. I bet you didn’t know that my first job was in an orange juice factory, but I got canned. I just couldn’t concentrate. Then I went up north and worked as a lumberjack, but honestly I couldn’t cut it so they gave me the axe. Finally I tried an inside job and was trained as a tailor, but it soon became obvious that I wasn’t suited for it. (You know I’m kidding, don’t you?) I did have other “real” jobs like working at Burger King, being a lifeguard at the ocean, and on the maintenance crew at a hospital. None of these had my heart, but they paid the bills while I was in seminary.

Unfortunately, it does sound like a familiar scenario for many who go from job to job trying to find something that suits (oops) them. This is very confusing to many men in our culture (and a growing number of women) who tend to define themselves by their occupation. We need to cut through this confusion and first establish our “calling.”

Dr. Timothy Butler of the Harvard Business School acknowledges this: “There are three words that tend to be used interchangeably- and shouldn’t be. They are “vocation,” “career,” and “job.” Vocation is the most profound of the three because it has to do with your calling. It is what you are doing in life that makes a difference for you, that builds meaning for you, that you can look back on in your later years to see the impact you’ve made on the world. A calling is something you have to listen for.”

I would define a job as something you do to pay the bills. I think that a career is also working for the paycheck, but there are usually more opportunities for advancement and training in your field that bring a longer term vision for a professional future.

A calling, however, is where your skill, passion, and gift-mix are so interconnected that you may feel you could make a difference in this world. One of my friends, Paul Sweas, gave me a quote that I think is terrific: “A job/career is what you are paid for. A calling is what you are made for.” What have you been made for? I think that is more important than asking yourself what you would like to do for a living.

There are some for whom a job (and even a career) not only pays the bills, but enables them to fulfill their calling in another area. Many have called it “tent making,” replicating the Apostle Paul who literally made tents to support himself while doing ministry. For others, their calling also translates into a job and a career, like it has for me after 47 years in pastoral ministry. But what really matters is our calling.

This will be my last semester of having “a job”. I will be stepping down as Chaplain of Wheaton College Graduate School. What will I do in “retirement”?  I have no idea. But there is one thing I know that will not change — my calling, as a Pastor. How that will be played out in the future is my next great adventure. Who knows, maybe I’ll be a chaplain in an orange juice factory– this time I’ll concentrate!

Clever Quips, Quotes, and Smore…

I like to collect clever quips, quotes, and statistics. Here are some for your enjoyment:

“USA Today has come out with a new survey – apparently, three out of every four people make up 75% of the population.” (David Letterman) “The trouble with a rat race is that even when you win, you’re still a rat.” (Lily Tomlin) “Committee – a group of people who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done.” (Fred Allen) “When the path ahead of you is uphill, surrounded by rough spots, hazards and obstacles: use a pitching wedge.” (Lee Brachen) “If pro is opposite of con, then what is the opposite of progress?” (think about that and say Amen!)

“It is believed that Shakespeare was 46 around the time that the King James Version of the Bible was written. In Psalm 46, the 46th word from the first word is “shake”and the 46th word from the last word is spear.” (hmm) “A child can go only so far in life without potty training. It is not mere coincidence that six of the last seven presidents were potty trained, not to mention nearly half of the nation’s state legislators.” (Dave Berry, on how statistics can be used to prove anything)

“I know statistically if you don’t get married, you’re less likely to get divorced.” (Craig Ferguson) “If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.” (unknown)Isn’t Disney World just a people trap operated by a mouse?” (anonymous) “If 75% of all accidents happen within 5 miles of home, why not move 10 miles away?” (anonymous)

“I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” (Woody Allen) “I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll make an exception.” (Groucho Marx) “We need a 12-step group for compulsive talkers. They could call it On Anon Anon. (Paula Poundstone) “What do you do when you see an endangered animal eating an endangered plant?” (George Carlin)

Finally some anonymous ones:

“The last thing I want to do is insult you. But it IS on the list.” “Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.” “Treat each day as your last; one day you will be right.” “Help stamp out, eliminate, and abolish redundancy”! “Jesus loves you, it’s everyone else who thinks your an idiot.” “Why did the chicken go to the seance? To get to the other side.” “How do you make a tissue dance? Put a little boogie in it.” “Sometimes I just want to go to IKEA, hide in a wardrobe, and wait for someone to open it and yell ‘Welcome to Narnia!'”

Finally (this time I mean it), in honor of Valentines Day:

“I looked in my wallet and it was empty. I looked in my pockets and they were empty. Then I looked in my heart and found you, and realized that you had taken all my money.” “People say you can’t live without love. But I think oxygen is more important.” “Isn’t it ironic that we have Valentines Day at the height of flu season?”  “Will you be my Valentine? That was a rhetorical question, you have no choice- we’re married.”  “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jesus) “We love because he first loved us.” (St John)

 

 

 

 

What God cannot do (2)

While we believe that God is All-Powerful, we also believe that there are some things that God cannot do. That statement may come as a surprise, but skeptics and atheists alike love to propose such things, so let’s beat them to the punch.

We have already mentioned in a previous post that God is limited by things that are illogical. The questions whether God could make a rock so big that he could not lift it or make a snowball so big he could not roll it are illogical – not even logical contradictions. Why in the world would anyone (let alone God) want to do these things in the first place? Such questions remind me of the character Herod in the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He wanted to meet Jesus so he could ask him to walk across his swimming pool. And just as Herod’s interview was met with silence by Jesus, so questions like these do not merit serious consideration.

There is another more serious consideration, however, that is often used to question the All Powerfulness of God. Since most of the evil in this world comes from other humans, and if God created humanity as free moral beings, why could he not have created them free but without the ability to abuse that freedom? Another form of the question might be to ask why God allows people do such terrible things without stepping in to prevent those things from happening?

These questions are not merely exercises in intellectual gymnastics. They often come from an honest response to tragedy and pain that has been inflicted by wrong-headed or wrong-hearted people. Why did God allow this holocaust, this abuse, this injustice to take place? We are not struggling with why God created us free moral beings and not robots, but with why God allows the evil to exist that flows from the exercise of that freedom.

I think we already know the answer. If we are free in our choices, then implicit in that freedom is the ability to choose evil. CS Lewis said “…God is good; that He made all things good and for the sake of of their goodness; … one of the good things He made, namely, the free will of rational creatures, by its very nature included the possibility of evil; and that creatures , availing themselves of that possibility, have become evil” (The Problem of Pain, 69).

We like the idea of being free to live and choose as we please, but then we hold God responsible when he doesn’t stop people from doing terrible things that are consequent of that freedom. What do we then expect God to do when people freely act in an evil way? Do we expect a club to turn into spaghetti, a knife into a cucumber, a bullet into a paintball before they strike and do harm? If he did these things would we really be free, and how evil would the deed have to be before he intervened? After all, shouldn’t we be allowed to live as we please just as long as we don’t hurt others?

To sum up: God cannot grant us freedom and withhold freedom at the same time; create human beings free without giving them the ability to abuse that freedom. It is a logical impossibility, much like making a surface that is both smooth and rough at the same time. (JonTal Murphy)

Someday, in God’s heavenly kingdom, we will be recreated to always freely choose to do good – just like Jesus. However, he did not create us that way originally. We were created as free moral beings with sinless natures, with the potential of using that freedom to choose good or evil. We chose evil, and our natures have become corrupted.

We can continue to argue with how God made the world, but we cannot blame him for the evil we freely do to one another. We can also marvel at how his Sovereign power can restrain evil (Job 1:12; 2:6; Rom 8:20-23); how, in his Providence, he can make good come out of evil (Gen 50:20; Rom 8:28, 29); and how he dealt a fatal blow to evil through Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:50-57; Col 2:15, 16).

But there is one more thing that God cannot do…next blog.