I don’t generally attend the Saturday morning teachings offered by the monks. In the past I have found them to be a bit too “theoretical” and amorphous for use in daily life. Sometimes there was even far more reference to extra-biblical sources than the Bible itself which I tend to question when the teachings seem “non-traditional”. However, a newer monk named Brother Carlos, who had only been around for about 20 years, gave the introduction Friday evening. He really caught my interest so I decided to attend the teaching the next day.
I appreciated that he shared a bit of his own life in his teachings and stories. I also appreciated that he had some very practical advice about both life and how to spend the time in retreat. He encouraged us not to dwell on all of our past failings. These, he said, were the sign of a chaotic heart and we should be here to quiet our hearts. He also discouraged creating resolutions while we are here for the simple reason that what seems like a good idea in the quiet of solitude doesn’t necessarily work out when you hit the world again.
Another topic he touched on was tenderness. He pointed out that we often see tenderness as a sign of weakness but that, in fact, it is a sign of great strength. He shared a story of when he was watching a group of sumo wrestlers get off a train in the presence of many fans in Japan (Brother Carlos apparently gets around). A woman broke free from the crowd and “shoved” her baby in the face of one of the wrestlers. He smiled, took the baby in his huge arms and cradled it lovingly, much to the glee of the baby. That is how Brother Carlos asked us to think about tenderness, as great strength that gives comfort, security, and joy to the receiver. Isn’t that exactly how Christ is toward us? Isn’t He all-powerful and yet comforts us when we are weak?
As a side note, when we entered the room there were some notes on the whiteboard which apparently had been from someone else giving the same lesson at some other time. There was a part of the notes that, while I couldn’t be sure of the context, seemed wrong and out of place to me. As Brother Carlos was going through the teaching and using the notes already on the board he noticed this extra part, stopped, and said “I disagree with that, I’m going to remove that”, and continued on with his teaching. So, of course I like him, we had something we disagreed with in common and how uniting is that?
The Catholic Bible
There was a Catholic Bible on my desk this time and I noticed it said “The Revised Standard Version Catholic Bible”. The name intrigued me because it sounded not far off of the kinds of names I hear for Protestant bibles. I read the introduction and it was a very interesting history about why the Catholic Bible has more books than the Protestant Bible (called the Apocrypha). It also mentioned a hope that a single Bible based on critical translation principles of the oldest original texts could help bring together the various denominations and reduce the amount of misconception and prejudice between the Churches.
I decided to read the Apocrypha. They were Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Macabees. Sirach felt kind of weird and out of place but the others seemed to fit in well. Not that I would know how to determine something like that. I also appreciated that the Macabees helped fill in some history closer to Christ’s coming.
The Catholic Explanatory Notes
I was reading the “Explanatory Notes” section in the Appendix, which appears to be a bit of a watered down version of the notes found in a Study Bible. In there I found a few things that concerned me and would like to expound on some of those.
While I have no problem with the statement that the Bible isn’t meant to present a scientific picture of the creation of the universe, I do object to the fact that this often, as is the case in the notes on Genesis 2:4, turns into a statement that this does not exclude the evolution hypothesis.
However, we see constantly throughout the Bible the theme that sin brings death. God clearly wants to get this point across to us. Before “the fall” (or sin), animals and humans ate plants, not meat. There is no indication of death in human or animal. After the original sin, death came to creation. Creation was changed so that there were thorns and thistles. God himself killed the first animal for clothing Adam and Eve. Now, scientifically, evolution states that life evolved from a primitive single-cell organism to eventually mutate over millions of years into the wide variety of creatures we see today (I won’t even start with the purely scientific problems with that). If you believe that, then death existed long before even the concept of sin. At what point in human evolution did God reveal himself to mankind then? Were Adam and Eve Homo Erectus or Homo Sapien? Or, is it just a fairy tale with a moral to the story?
Here’s why it matters spiritually. If sin does not cause death then we don’t need to be forgiven for our sins. If sin does not cause death then when we die either we really are just dead (as the atheists believe) or God gives everyone everlasting life and “everyone goes to heaven” (as many “progressive” churches try to claim). But neither of these beliefs hold up to the rest of scripture. All of scripture from Genesis to Revelation points the believer to the fact that a Holy God has defined “sin” and that the consequence of sin is death. However, God is also merciful, so He sent His Son to live a sinless life in our place and to take His wrath in our place that we may have eternal life with the Father. Who is “we”? We are those who God has pre-ordained to receive the Holy Spirit and believe.
This is a hard truth because it feels “unfair” to the human mind. Why doesn’t God choose to save everyone? For that matter, why does he save any of us? But God is the creator of the entire universe and everything in it. He knows each and every one of us and made each of us in His image. He gets to set the rules and everything He does is to reveal His attributes. But all of this hinges on whether or not it is sin that leads to death or if death is just a tool God used to turn us into people over millions of years and is really no big deal.
While I’m on my soap box, let’s talk about manna. The “Explanatory Notes” state that “The mysterious manna may have been a substance secreted by the tamarisk or perhaps by an insect that feeds on its leaves and is edible.” OK, so, if you want to try to make this all scientific then let’s be realistic. According to the rest of the story this fed an entire nation just the right amount of food 5 days a week and then doubled up once a week and stopped once a week. Also, these bugs or this substance just happened to be all over the desert as they wandered for 40 years and was able to feed the entire nation of Israel which likely numbered in the hundreds of thousands of people (conservatively). Then there is the term “Manna” itself as well as the description. The word “manna” suggests it was something they had never seen before (and the fact that the first thing the people asked was “What is it?”) and the description has not matched anything in the region before or after. This was clearly something completely unique created by God to sustain his people. If you struggle with that as a believer then I must presume you also don’t believe Christ’s miraculous provision of food to the masses.
The Name of God
One more rant before I get off my soapbox. In the Catholic Notes regarding Exodus 3:14 where Moses asks the name of God and God replies “I AM that I AM”, the notes say that “The translation is uncertain; it is, therefore, difficult to decide whether this is a refusal to disclose the name or an explanation of the divine title Yahweh revealed immediately afterward.” OK, so, you aren’t sure if God refused to give His name, and then changed His mind in the next breath. Whenever God doesn’t answer us the way we think He should we get all freaked out. I’m not certain why the translation is uncertain. There could certainly be something that got goofed up in different copies that is causing confusion (that I am unaware of). The KJV/Strong Concordance combo I used to study this seems pretty clear.
הָיָה אֲשֶׁר הָיָה
haw-yaw’ (Strong’s H 1961) / ash-er’ (Strong’s H 834) / haw-yaw'(Strong’s H 1961)
Now, admittedly, haw-yaw(1961) is a pretty generic term. It’s a single word that is used for the English words: is, was, be… You see a tonne of it throughout scripture for obvious reasons. So I can get where we, as humans, might not fully understand the implications of what God was saying. (If you wanted to be silly you could translate it “I is what I is”) But in the very next sentence He uses his covenantal name “יְהֹוָה” (yeh-ho-vaw’ – Strong’s H3068). I’m not sure how it’s not clear He was saying something profound about his existence and then “dumbing down” the conversation (because clearly we weren’t going to get it).
Do you believe?
Reading more through the “Explanatory Notes” I find a distressing pattern. God’s miracles are washed over and one seems to be encouraged to “take it with a grain of salt”. In reference to Joshua 6 and the fall of Jericho the “Notes” simply state “Here, as elsewhere, the history has been worked over in accordance with certain theological ideas.” Seriously, I would expect that from an atheist, not a believer. I get that the chronologies often skip generations and that numbers in Hebrew writing are often have more meaning than merit. However, if you can look at direct specific quoted conversation and basically just say “Yeah, someone probably just threw that in because it sounded good” then you can’t trust what’s in the Bible. If you can’t trust the Word of God then you can’t trust God and so, by definition, you don’t believe and you aren’t a believer.
And that’s OK. I’m not saying all of this to bash anyone. Either you believe the Word of God or you don’t. Either you have hope in your salvation through Jesus Christ or you don’t. But if you don’t believe the Word of God passed down through millennia and you don’t rest in the forgiveness of your sins through Christ’s work on the cross, please stop calling yourself a Christian. As I look at the world around me it’s clear that it is going to stop being “cool” to be a Christian in Western countries pretty soon anyway. You know, like how it’s not so cool to be called Christian in some places in the Middle East and Africa where you can be publicly executed for it. So please, stop checking the little box that says “Christian” when someone asks.
What is a Christian?
A Christian isn’t someone that thinks the fairy tales about a guy named Jesus Christ have some good ideas worth taking or leaving. A Christian is someone who, by the grace of God, believes that the God of the Hebrews, the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac, has judged all of mankind and found every one of us guilty of sinning against a Holy and Righteous God. A Christian believes that God, in his Mercy, sent his Spirit to Mary and she gave birth to Jesus Christ who was, in fact, a part of God humbling Himself to be born into flesh in order to live a sinless life as a human. A Christian believes that Jesus came for the sole purpose of being crucified on the cross as a physical representation of the wrath of God that He took in our place for our sins so that we could be forgiven. A Christian believes that 3 days later Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared physically in a real, working, (mostly) healed body to be a sign for all believers that they can share in His resurrection through faith in His works. A Christian believes that eternal life and forgiveness of sins can only come through faith in this truth. This is why Christians preach the Gospel whenever and wherever they can. If you truly believed this was the only way to save mankind from God’s wrath, wouldn’t you?
This is perhaps the real reason for the divisions in the Church. It’s not just about translations and inconsistencies. It’s about intentionally taking texts out of context. It’s about looking at a single verse instead of the Bible as a whole (which presumes you have even read it). It’s about not believing that God can and did get His message passed down to us over millennia despite using fallible humans. It’s about placing traditions over the authoritative word of God. It’s about teaching heresy in the name of Christ. That’s where the divisions between believers are created. And quite frankly, we saw some of the beginnings of this in the letters from the Apostles so we shouldn’t be so surprised that it exists today.
What is Human Life?
The Bible says God breathed life into mankind (Genesis 2:7). Science says human life is defined by DNA markings that are only slightly different than that of other animals (and even plants). The Bible says that God knew Jeremiah before He formed him in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5). That would indicate that a soul was prepared for the womb and that God forms us in the womb. Science would say you are a composition of the DNA strands that begin reproducing after the sperm fertilizes the egg. In fact, much medical research and technology is going into the science of reading that information so that diseases and other attributes of the person being born can be determined before birth.
I would argue both are true. It’s probably one of the few arenas where science and theology are more or less saying the same thing. So, if this is true, how can one argue that the fertilized egg is not, in fact, a human being? And if the unborn child is a human being, does it not have the same rights and protections under the law as a newborn, whether prematurely born or delivered via cesarean section, or otherwise? Obviously, I would argue yes. In that case, then intentionally cutting the human life short is murder.
So what then about abortion? How can we, as a civilized nation condone murder? Well, let’s consider the “actions” of the infant. At some point the child will come to term and need to be born. There are certainly medical issues that cause a very real risk of death or severe injury to the mother. Those are very vague terms which could lead to a large grey area. But is that a scenario where the right to health and safety are awarded to the mother over those of the child?
What of instances of rape? A woman has already been horribly assaulted and will already keep the emotional scars for life. Does the mother have the right to end the life of the child to avoid the trauma of giving birth to a child that is a constant reminder of her assault? But then, isn’t it also fair to ask about the trauma inflicted through abortion? It seems to me that this is a truly horrible position to be put in. There has already been one traumatic experience and now a woman (or child) is put in the position of choosing between two different traumatic experiences (one arguably shorter than the other but not necessarily less traumatic). But in all of this, what of the rights of the living human being? Who is his/her advocate?
Then what of “oopses”. What of the use of abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy because contraceptives failed (which happens a lot). The mother may or may not be married or have a committed partner. The mother be a professional and unwilling to give it up for motherhood yet. The mother may simply not desire children at all. So, one might argue (weakly) that it’s not the mother’s “fault” and that she has the right to “fix” the problem. However, this argument against the rights of another human being to live seem to pale in comparison.
Again, it’s not that I am looking to judge or say what is right. These are very difficult questions. However, I do believe the discussion around this issue is fraught with the “dehumanization” of the child in question when by both scientific and Biblical standards the unborn child is unquestionably a human being. Now whether or not the legal system wants to acknowledge the rights of a person not yet born is a whole other issue. At this point in the discussion, the law does not. So long as that is true, there is absolutely no legal protection for an unborn child and it has no right to life unless the mother says so. An interesting legal question to me would be, how long after a living child leaves the womb must it live to count as a person under the law? I ask this because that clarification might at least conceivably make the process of killing abortion procedure survivors illegal. Right now, I don’t believe it is.
We continue to try to put God into a box we can understand. We want to be able to explain how He does what He does. We want to make Him more like us. This is all understandable. The idea of a God who can by His Word change the laws of physics, create a new element that doesn’t exist, or even change the constant of the speed of light and knows every thought we are thinking even before we think it is an awesome and frightening concept, as it should be. So we fear God and want to feel like we can control Him and manipulate Him. Well, that only works if He thinks and reasons like we do. So we imagine He is like us and can be tricked or bribed or that He likes the same things we like. But as Isaiah wrote:
Isaiah 55:8-9 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
So He’s way smarter than us, morally perfect, all powerful, and scariest of all, He’s actively involved in our lives. Some people find peace in the hope that if there is a creator He’s off doing His own thing and ignoring us. But millennia of records state just the opposite. So where does that leave us? Well, as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. Although I am imperfect, petty, jealous, and sinful, I will serve my Lord with as much Faith as He has given me and constantly ask forgiveness for my sins even as I battle against them to live a holy life. I don’t do this to earn anything, but out of love and gratitude for the saving changes He has made in my heart and His promises for what is yet to come.