Thursday, October 13, 2016

Does the Bible Guide Us about Marijuana Use?[1]

Today one hardly hears anything from the church or larger Christian community against the dangers of marijuana. This was not the case during the Jesus revival in the 1970s when marijuana first became popular.  We found constant statements against marijuana in the Jesus people newspapers. For example, “Veteran of over 200 Trips says: “I had to do something always because I didn’t want to be bored…,” a Baptist youth whose drug use left him “almost dead, physically and mentally.”[2]  The same issue included “An Open Letter to Timothy Leary,” from an “ex-follower,” responding to the ex-college professor drug pundit who became a poster child for the ‘60s drug movement, asking: “Oh, Dr. Tim, where have you gone? You and all your false prophets. You started a psychedelic revolution—a religious renaissance, or so you called it. You set yourself up as our great high priest….Where are all your prophets now? Now, when I need help?...I just wanted to tell you that your new religion of Tuning-in, Turning-on, and Dropping-out isn’t doing it for me….I’m losing a lot of my friends. They say I don’t communicate—in fact, they tell me I don’t do much of anything anymore. Do you still have any friends, Dr. Tim? Don’t bother writing me, Dr. Tim. A lot of my friends are turning-on to Jesus and I’ve been watching them carefully. They’ve got something that you or I don’t have, Dr. Tim. They’re full on the inside and they say that Jesus is with them all the time making them feel like that….They say they are resting in God thru Jesus Christ.”

Where is the church’s voice now?


The apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians challenges them to walk wisely and use their time well. Being filled with the Holy Spirit helps a believer understand God’s will. But becoming intoxicated with alcohol or marijuana is not the way to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

For this reason, we encourage you not to support the use nor legalization of marijuana.

The reason drunkenness and use of any mind-altering substance is wrong is because the ability to be filled with the Holy Spirit in users decreases, the ability to understand God’s will decreases, the ability to do God’s will decreases, with the result that ‘wild living” or “lawlessness” increases (Eph 5:16-18). “Wild living” (asotia, also translated “debauchery”) also occurs in 1 Peter 4:4. There Peter exhorts his Christian readers not to act as they did as unconverted Gentiles who live in “licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing, and lawless idolatry” (1 Pet 4:3). He called these actions “excesses of dissipation” which cause blasphemy. Paul also warns elders they should strive to have “a faithful child,” not one “wild” or outside of their control (Titus 1:6). Drs. Janice Phelps and Alan Nourse explain in The Hidden Addiction and How to Get Free that within 15-30 minutes the person stoned on pot loosens inhibitions and loses awareness of time. There is definite loss of memory of the immediate past so that a person who starts expressing an idea gets halfway through a sentence and then can’t remember what he or she started to say.[3]

In effect, marijuana and alcohol reverse the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:19-25). The addicting substance overpowers the human will and excludes the Holy Spirit who genuinely frees the human will. Drs. Phelps and Nourse describe a dinner gathering where marijuana is produced. They observe that within 30 minutes the previous interesting conversations all disintegrated. People began talking with no one listening. Eventually, everyone gave up on conversation.[4] How can you love anyone if you cannot even listen? Joy and self-control decrease.

Finally, marijuana can become an idol. I remember one young man who had been a phenomenal evangelist but who never fully stopped smoking marijuana (“he could stop anytime,” he said) becoming so addicted that he revolved his whole life on its obtaining and consumption. He told us: “I love everything about it—the way it looks, the way it smells, the way it feels.” As Drs. Phelps and Nourse observe, he had arranged his whole life to fulfill his addictive needs, and “absolutely nothing—pride, economics, health, or relative values—was allowed to get in their way, ever”.[5] Marijuana slowly results in less and less desire to please God. The person appears more and more self-centered, but in reality increasingly focuses on centering his or her whole life on using marijuana like “communion.” Marijuana users become a new “church.” Instead of the body of Christ bearing more and more fruits of the Spirit---love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control -- the body of Cannabis bears more and more works of the flesh: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, use of drugs, hatred, strife, anger, quarrels, drunkenness, carousing (Gal 5:19-22). For example, Gil Kerlikowske, the White House director of national drug control policy, said a study by his office showed a strong link between drug use and crime. Marijuana was the most commonly detected drug found in 54% of those arrested. Marijuana was the most popular drug used by men who’d been arrested in New York, Denver, Atlanta, and Chicago.[6] The Apostle Peter describes such people as “those who indulge their flesh in polluting desires, and scorn authority” (2 Pet 2:10). They are “waterless springs and mists being driven by hurricanes” (2 Pet 2:17). The drug precipitates a “hurricane,” a powerfully controlling wild force making the human will in contrast a “mist”—a weak and insubstantial breeze. Peter observes “those who scarcely have escaped living in error, being slaves themselves of corruption, are promising so-called freedom. However, the freedom is actually slavery because one is enslaved to what one succumbs (2 Pet 2:18-19). Therefore, use of such a harmful drug is specifically included as a work of the flesh along with idolatry and hatred and other actions which, if kept up and never changed, according to Galatians, can keep us from inheriting God’s kingdom (Gal 5:21). Behind this and other drugs enters an unwanted guest, the Evil One.

The Apostle Paul specifically tells the Galatians not to use drugs. Pharmakeia in 5:20 is often translated “witchcraft” or “sorcery,” but Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon defines it first as “use of drugs” then as “poisoning or witchcraft.” Pharmakeia is not Wicca per se, rather it is ancient witchcraft, especially Satanism, that would use drugs to poison or induce altered mental states.

What can you do to erode away the magnificent calling we have from God? Take marijuana or become drunk. Then the Holy Spirit can no longer fill you up with good fruits, you will lose the ability to use your time well or to understand and do God’s will, slowly poisoning your body so the Evil One can slip in and become a controlling hurricane, your free will becoming merely a mist, your life wild, directed by forces other than God. 

Is this what we want to promote in others? Is this what we want America to become? As Christians, we should be a positive influence in our society. We can at least use our vote responsibly. Our ultimate goal should be to restore transgressors in a spirit of gentleness, as Paul explains in Galatians: “brothers and sisters, if even someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you, the spiritual ones, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, looking to yourself lest you also be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens and thus fulfill Christ’s law” (6:1-2).  To “restore” is to repair such a person back into the fabric of Christianity. “Restore” is also used in ancient times for mending fish nets (Matt 4:21). People addicted to alcohol or marijuana do not have a fully free will or a real sense of reality. Reasons may not work with them. Rev. Joseph Kellermann says: “It is not true that an alcoholic cannot be helped until he wants help.[7] To save a life, restoration may include mandating addicts into an in-house program until their will is free. (Massachusetts has a chapter 35 law that helps family members do this.) Do not simply criticize someone wallowing in their weakness. Help them out— consistently -- trying to respect their wills, but gently. At the same time, be careful that you yourself do not become tempted. The Miracle Grow treatment is God’s power, which is ours through prayer and a loving Christian community. For example, over 75% of Adult and Teen Challenge graduates remain drug-free permanently, versus 4% of non-Christian program graduates. Christian programs are effective because they create environments where people are encouraged to be filled with the Spirit and be guided by the Spirit. We have a great resource in our God, but let us do what we can that is preventative so that many people do not get trapped. That is what our ability to vote against legalizing marijuana will help ensure.

Aida & Bill

[1] Image is taken from images google: accessed 5 October 2016.
[2] Mark Lindley, “Veteran Of Over 200 Trips says: ‘I had to do something always because I didn’t want to be bored,” Hollywood Free Paper (vol 3: Issue 7, 1971), p.3. “An Open Letter to Timothy Leary,” p. 4.
[3] Janice Keller Phelps and Alan E. Nourse, The Hidden Addiction and How to Get Free (Boston: Little, Brown, 1986), 151-54.
[4] Phelps and Nourse, Hidden Addiction, 147.
[5] Phelps and Nourse, Hidden Addiction, 23.
[7] Alcoholism: A Merry Go-Round Named Denial, brochure. See also letter to the editor in the Hamilton-Wenham Chronicle, 12 October 11, 2016.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Queen of Katwe Wins

It is not often we stop at a theater service desk and thank them for a movie. But we loved the movie Queen of Katwe that much! It deserves an Oscar! We recommend you go see this movie while it is still around.

Jesus’s brother James told his listeners that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27 NRSV). Queen of Katwe is about Phiona Mutesi, the daughter of a poor widow, who is coached by Robert Katende, an orphan who himself has worked hard to become an engineer in Uganda. However, not having familial connections, he is working for a Christian ministry as he waits for a position. In this ministry, he serves children they call “The Pioneers.” We are pleasantly delighted to see the group and individuals regularly praying. The widow Harriet is a strong woman who remains poor because she chooses to be moral. A poor woman, she is urged to seek a man who becomes (temporarily) her “Sugar Daddy” or else she will have to continue to persevere in a life of great difficulties. Although her oldest daughter succumbs, the widow steadfastly maintains her ethical standards in her worst of times, and eventually forgives her daughter who has fallen. In contrast to her sister, Phiona is able to rise past her circumstances by excelling in chess. Chess strategy becomes an archetype for life strategies: teaching one to plan ahead, not give up too soon, learn how a small person can become significant, and not be intimidated by opponents. God has gifted Phiona. As a result, the Pioneers’ ministry supports her determination and hard work, thus, in the end, enabling Phiona’s success. The message the ministry and her chess prowess underscores is she belonged not in poverty, but where her capabilities could take her. This is a woman’s empowerment movie that will also be enjoyed by men. Queen of Katwe is a magnificent and truly encouraging movie and is based on a true story.

For Aida, it was also a memory journey back to her early years in the Dominican Republic. Although she has never been to Uganda, she recognized many of the practices in the movie from 60 years ago in the Dominican Republic, apparently having come from the African context: poor houses with tin roofs and dirt floors, deep gullies by the sidewalk to allow passage of sudden heavy rains, women carrying food to sell on their heads, outside markets with sellers of fruits and vegetables, vendors coming to car doors. For a few hours, the viewer enters into a different but intriguing world (without having to pay thousands of dollars for airfare and hotel and then merely seeing tourist sites in the guide’s places adapted for tourists). We are reminded that visiting orphans and widows may be a costly cross-cultural enterprise, as it was for the coach. The poor orphan and widow may be living in another environment than their wealthier Christian sister or brother. But, without entering this other world we cannot practice a worship that is pure and undefiled. This movie helps us see that truth.

Aida and Bill

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Devotion on the Great Commission Matthew 28:16-20

The following is a guest blog written by hospice chaplain Paul Bricker
One of the most famous passages in the Bible is the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:16-20.  I want to share a few thoughts about it, passage by passage.
It begins with verses 16-17:“But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.  And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but some were doubtful.”[1]
This passage shows the two types of Christians that should do the Great Commission.   The first are Christians who worship Jesus.  This is what one would expect.  Christians who worship Jesus should share the Gospel with others.  However, there is another type of Christian who should obey the Great Commission.  The second type of Christians who should obey the Great Commission are those Christians who doubt.  The Scripture clearly shows that the apostles who are given the Great Commission consist of those who worship the Lord Jesus and those who doubt.  The eleven were like this even though they had spent three years with Jesus and seen Him do mighty acts.  They saw Him crucified and they now see Him raised from the dead. Still some doubted.  They were acting like “Gomer Pyle” Christians:  “G-o-l-l-y, we are at this mountain that Jesus told us to come to. G-o-l-l-y, I wonder if this is really Jesus in front of us…”
What this means is that every Christian should share the Gospel.  All of us are either worshippers of Jesus or doubters of Jesus or some kind of combination of the two. The Lord Jesus commands us to “pray at all times and faint not” (Luke 18:1).  This is the same teaching.  We are either praying or fainting or some combination of the two.  The Lord Jesus is like a mother bird.  The baby birds might not enjoy leaving the nest.  The mother bird “encourages” them to fly.  The Lord Jesus is “encouraging” his disciples to share the gospel.
What this means is, no matter how tranquil one’s heart is, or how pressing life’s concerns are, or how sorrowful one is, or how sick one is, one needs to share the Gospel.  At one point I was house-bound with Lyme disease.  I could not get out to share the Gospel.  What I did was pray that God would have the right telemarketer to call.  When they called, I answered the phone by saying:  “I have been waiting for your phone call because I want to share with you what Jesus has done for me.”  I spoke with people all over the United States.  I had prayer with people who would share their burdens with me.  I did not feel like doing it, but I did it.
Verse18 explains:  “And after Jesus came up, he spoke to them saying: ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth’….”
This is the Great Assurance.  We battle personal powers, economic powers, political powers, spiritual powers.  In spite of these powers against us, we have a Savior who has all power.  When we are facing powers that look like they are going to do us in, we have a Savior who has all power.  This is a great assurance.
Verse 19a commands:  “Therefore, as you go, make disciples of all nations…”
Here we find the Great Commission.  The commandment is to make disciples of all nations.  The commandment is not simply “Go.”  This is not to say that missionaries are not to go.  What this passage is stating is that “As you go in life, you are to be making disciples….”  When you go to the dentist (try that with four hands in your mouth—I do), when you go grocery shopping (it is okay to buy groceries for the single mother who is ahead of you in line), when ….
When I went for my first mortgage, the broker asked me:  “Do you have any judgments against you?”  I looked him straight in the eye and quoted Romans 8:1:  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  When I have talked to financial planners, they have asked me:  “Have you planned for your future?”  I have answered him by quoting John 3:16:  “For God in this manner loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Then I looked the financial planner in the eye and I asked:  “Have you planned your future?”
Verses 19b-20a say:  “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Here we find two participial phrases which describe how to make a disciple of the Lord Jesus.  The first is “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  I do not have extended classes before the baptism.  Teaching classes are included under the second participial phrase:  “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” However, I do explain the basics. I explain Romans 10:9-10 with a person who wants to become a Christian. I ask: “Can you confess with your lips: ‘Jesus is Lord’? Do you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead?” I also share that baptism is a sacrament which does not save you, but is a sign of being cleansed from sin: “You are being baptized because you have been cleansed from your sins.” Moreover, I share that they are being baptized not in the names (plural) of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but in the name (singular) of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is who God is. God is Father and Son and Holy Spirit, three Persons in one being. I share:  “You have become a Christian.  You need to show to the whole world that you belong to Christ.  Come Sunday and share with the whole world that you belong to Christ and invite your friends and be baptized.”  Baptize them as soon as possible.  Do not teach them that Christianity is a “sit down” religion.  It is an action religion.  It is a use-your-spiritual-gift religion.
The second participial phrase is:  “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  This is very specific.  Teach a new believer what Jesus has commanded the apostles. Many Protestants have a canon within a canon.  They think that the real teaching is in the letters of the New Testament.  Often times Protestants hurry up and read the Gospels and Acts so that one can start reading the real teaching--the letters.  In this passage we find that we should teach new believers the commandments that Jesus gave to the disciples.  Make a list of Jesus’ commandments and study them.
Verse 20b concludes:  “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”
This is the Great Assurance #2.  The Lord Jesus is with us and meets with us when we share the gospel. Earlier I shared how the Great Commission is given to those Christians who worship the Lord and for those Christians who doubt the Lord.  Often I am full of doubt.  I have a troubled heart.  I am fainting and not praying.  I am often that “Gomer Pyle Christian.” I have little internal consolation.  I do not worry one bit about such a condition.  I go and share the Gospel anyway.  When I share the Gospel under such lack of internal consolation, something happens.  I fellowship with Jesus.  I go to share the Gospel and this part of the passage comes alive to me.  I experience His presence.  I experience “I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”
Now go share the Gospel.

[1] My translation of Matt. 28:16-20.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Does Tarzan Believe in God? A Review of The Legend of Tarzan

The 2016 film The Legend of Tarzan presents one of the most satisfactory portrayals of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s iconic figure we have yet seen.   Burroughs himself was reported to have preferred the seminal interpretation by Elmo Lincoln in the first silent version of Tarzan of the Apes as his favorite to communicate the brutish quality of this child reared by the great apes (a mythical species Burroughs created) after the death of this human baby’s parents, but missing was the urbane overlay that came with Tarzan’s introduction to civilization.  Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who became the definitive Tarzan to many of us, and stuntman Lex Barker to others, stylized and emphasized the character’s jungle origins with their variations of “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” while other actors like Mike Henry (the James Bond of the Tarzan set) and Jock Mahoney (Tarzan the social worker), highlighted his “Lord Greystoke”’s urbanity.  The Legend of Greystoke movie tried to balance both, but gave us a Tarzan who definitely needed counseling to reconcile his two natures.   But The Legend of Tarzan, the latest Tarzan saga at this writing, presents, to my mind, the most successful portrayal yet in balancing the two sides of the ape-man, along with providing adept cinematography and excellent special effects gracing the film with beautiful visuals, interesting camera angles, and convincing feats of the ape-man and his fellow warriors.
Story-wise, there are residual elements of the original tale in this complete rewrite of the actual story.  But there are also many changes.  Tarzan now befriends the alpha male ape of his tribe of rearing (instead of killing him as in the original book, Tarzan of the Apes [A.C. McClurg, 1914], p. 139), gets beaten up by an ape “brother,” a counterpart non-existent in the original story (rather than his usual m.o. of always killing or otherwise incapacitating any bull apes who dare to challenge him), and now the ape-man casually fits into African tribes as a friend as well as a legend (rather than simply taking over leadership of whomever he meets in Africa, apes or Waziri, his faithful tribe of followers, as well as anybody else he chooses to rule).  
Likewise, the figure of Jane has a transformation.   Reared in Africa, instead of arriving marooned as an adult (c. nineteen years old, see Tarzan of the Apes: 163), she is in many details different, but, again, captured is the ethos of the heroic Jane (a courage and familiarity with jungle life already in place and not developing as happens as the books progress).  Maureen O’Sullivan traditionally has been considered the definitive movie Jane, strong, definitive, winsome, and lovely, but the new portrayal in The Legend of Tarzan takes its place beside her, matching her appeal.   Burroughs, himself, of course, was a strong supporter of women in all his work.  For two examples, the heroine of his Venus series, where he consciously wrote against type, is a consummate character, and his 1927 play You Lucky Girl!  (Donald M. Grant: 1999), intended as a star vehicle for his daughter, Joan, is built around a number of strong female characters who drive the plot and bring about its successful conclusion.
While the details in the present The Legend of Tarzan movie change, the characters in the tension between their primeval and their modern instincts and their enduring loyalty to one another and to bringing about the good (an action that happens once Tarzan’s consciousness is raised in the original stories) is captured in a most successful and attractive fashion.   I call all of Burroughs’ s work the fiction of evolution.  He builds his various series on this framework (check out the Earth’s Core/Pellucidar and The Land that Time Forgot sagas for overt examples, but this premise is endemic throughout all his work) and, even in single books (like The Cave Girl).   Readers continually see the struggle to progress from cave dweller to modern (a progress sometimes rejected, as in his short story, “The Resurrection of Jimber-Jaw” (originally “Elmer,” see Patrick H. Adkins, “Introduction” to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Forgotten Tales of Love and Murder [Guidry and Adkins, 2001], pp. 12-13).
But the main element I see missing in the present movie is the presence of God as an aid to self-reliance, which is theme pervasive through Burroughs’s writing.  Instead, The Legend of Tarzan appears to contain a certain implicit hostility to the spiritual dimension, awkwardly pervasive throughout the movie.  From his earliest writing, Burroughs was indeed a critic of false religion versus true religion.   An early short story “Jonathan’s Patience” (c. 1904, available in Forgotten Tales of Love and Murder) portrayed a religious hypocrite shaking down his church in the name of false piety.  The Gods of Mars shows hero John Carter exposing Mars’s false religion, and The Return of Tarzan Jane contrasting her own devotion to the benevolent Creator God to the cruel, sacrificing sun-worship of Opar.  These exposures are due to a grounded and endemic belief in a benevolent God, whose intentions, even when providing food for predators (“The flowers and trees were good and beautiful.  God had made them. He made the other creatures, too, that each might have food upon which to live”), are always seen as providing good to someone (Jungle Tales of Tarzan [A.C. McClurg, 1919], pp. 98-99).  Taking out this element leaves only a bleak tale of a world struggling aimlessly against the survival of the fittest (i.e., why shouldn’t the villain enslave others, if he can pull it off?).  It is as if the present writers had to submit their script to a panel of new atheists for reworking, who, when they’d finished mucking with it, had turned the Tarzan story into a pointless moral tale with a drive-by attack on the Church in general.   From the opening scenes on, the main villain fingers a rosary like a set of worry beads and turns it into a lethal weapon whenever he chooses to do so.   The implication is that our villain was a victim of a molesting priest who gave him the rosary and it now serves as a reminder of his victimization, blighting his life, and creating the means for him to wreak havoc on countless others as he institutes a slave state to please a distant king and, thereby, achieve fame and immortality for himself (the idea adapted from the original task of investigation that brought Tarzan’s own parents from England to Africa, see Tarzan of the Apes: pp. 2-3).  Nothing is wrong with this plot device in and of itself.  It is a fact of life that sexual abuse by clergy does happen, but victims don’t necessarily turn into homicidal maniacs.  So many of these victims struggle as adults with putting positive lives together to extend the grace and mercy they did not receive to others that the film is a disservice to them, if there is no counterpart.  In fiction, we need moral poles to keep from simply demonizing values along with villains.  Without a counterpart of a positive piety in the good characters (reflecting that of the original books), the heroes now appear to be recast as seculars, clueless that a spiritual dimension exists and providing no reason for their great efforts to assist others.  This aspect of this otherwise fine film degenerates it into another case of sweeping generalization (religion is bad), as well as blaming the victims: you get molested, you are now amoral yourself and probably should be terminated, possibly by an alligator.  The problem with it is simple: all positive religious overtones in Burroughs story have been eliminated and need to be restored to make sense of the change in Tarzan from beast to human.
Burroughs is careful to explain that Tarzan discovered God early, when, as a young man, he taught himself to read from the books in his deceased parents’ little cabin.  Burroughs’s 1919 collection of stories that fill in the gaps of the Tarzan legend, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, explains that he encountered the word “God…Supreme Deity, Creator or Upholder of the Universe” and realized “this must be a very important word indeed, he would have to look into it, and he did, though it still baffled him after many months of thought and study.  However, Tarzan counted no time wasted which he devoted to these strange hunting expeditions into the game preserves of knowledge” (“The God of Tarzan,” p. 73).  As it begins to dawn on the young man “that God was mightier than Tarzan – a point which Tarzan of the Apes, who acknowledged no equal in the jungle, was loath to concede…he found much to confirm his belief that God was a great, an all-powerful individual.  He saw places where God was worshiped; but never any sign of God.  Finally he began to wonder if God were not of a different form than he, and at last he determined to set out in search of Him” (p. 74).
Tarzan’s search takes him first to a wise female ape for counsel and then he is directed by another ape to consider the moon as “the power that made the lightning and the rain and the thunder” (p. 74).  Tarzan questions the moon and decides, “You are not the king of the jungle folk” (p. 77).  Next, he interrogates a witch doctor and fights with the chief of the village, who both come out all the worse for their encounter with this questing and lethal savage ape-man, until Tarzan discovers something new: pity which stays his hand from his usual murderous course (p. 91).   Puzzled, “Tarzan sought for an explanation of the strange power which had stayed his hand and prevented him from slaying” (p. 91).  Now his eyes are opened to the imprint of the work of the Creator all around him.  He contemplates an opening orchid and asks, “What made the flower open? What made it grow from a tiny bud to a full-blown bloom?  Why was it at all?  Why was he?” and he raises question after question about the intentionality of the One who has the power “to cause to come into existence; to form out of nothing” (pp. 92-93).  Then, galvanized into action by sudden wailing and snarling, he rescues a tiny ape baby and his mother from a boa constrictor and, reflecting on these actions, wonders about the heroism of the ape mother, risking her life as she “placed herself within the folds of the horrid monster.  Why had she done it?  Why, indeed, had he?   Teeka did not belong to him, nor did Teeka’s balu [baby].  They were both Tang’s.  Why then had he done this thing?” (p. 97).  Realizing “no reason in the world why he should have done the thing he did” (p. 97), sparing the village chief and rescuing the mother and baby, “almost involuntarily,” he comes to a realization from what theologians call “common grace,” the witness of the creation to its Creator:  “‘All powerful,’ thought Tarzan.  ‘The little bugs [words on the page] say God is all-powerful.  It must be that God made me do these things, for I never did them by myself…And the flowers – who made them grow?  Ah, now it was all explained – the flowers, the trees, the moon, the sun, himself, every living creature in the jungle – they were all made by God of nothing.  And what was God?  What did God look like?  Of that he had no conception; but he was sure that everything good came from God…Yes, Tarzan had found God” (pp. 98-99).  Throughout the series, both Tarzan and Jane pray from time to time, particularly when in danger (which is constant), as, for example, Jane does when her sacrifice seems imminent on the bloody altar of the lost city of Opar, when she “sent up a silent prayer to the Maker she was so soon to face” (Return of Tarzan [A.C. McClurg, 1915], p.338), and Jane is rescued.    Tarzan also receives answers when he needs them, for example, sudden guidance to an incapacitating hold, ensuring his triumph in battle over his ferocious enemy, the ape Terkoz: “divine reason showed him in an instant the value of the thing he had discovered.  It was the difference to him between life and death.” And Tarzan responds with mercy, sparing the ape’s life, to the shock of all the ape tribe (Tarzan of the Apes: p. 150).   Jane and Tarzan express their gratitude to God, when Jane, after her rescue from Opar, slowly regaining consciousness in Tarzan’s arms muses, “‘If this be death,’ she murmured, ‘thank God that I am dead,” but Tarzan, awakens her fully, crying out his gratitude, “Thank God!” (The Return of Tarzan: p. 349).   And both he and Jane kneel before God at the deathbed of his predecessor William Clayton, Lord Greystoke, Jane’s “lips moving in silent prayer” (p. 356).
I, for one, am ready for the sequel, The Legend of Tarzan II, for more exquisite visuals, grand adventure. and further character development.  On the last, I hope that this team that has brought us this visual feast would follow the books and reveal that Tarzan and Jane’s dedication to morality and the triumph of the good is not simply hung in an inexplicable vacuum.  It is consciously driven by their reliance on a good and benevolent Supreme Being before whom Tarzan, even while puzzling over the existence of evil, is overwhelmed with gratitude, so that he “spent the whole day in attributing to Him all of the good and beautiful things of nature” (Jungle Tales of Tarzan: p. 99).  Tarzan, the former bestial killer, and Jane, the daughter of a scientist, are both good by choice as a response to their worship of God their and our Creator.  It is the missing explanatory piece of their constant heroism and makes sense of the great lengths they will go to bring justice to the lives of the oppressed.
Dr. William David Spencer, Distinguished Professor of Theology and the Arts at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston Campus, has been, since the age of 10, a reader and collector of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s works.  He has also written his own novels: the award-winning Name in the Papers and the brand new Wrestling Two Worlds.   

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


One of the most terrifying passages in the entire Bible is Hebrews 6:4-6a, which states:
“For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away” (NRSV).
What a frightening prospect!  Could we lose our salvation so utterly that we could search across the whole world and never find it again?
 And, if so, is there any way we can buy a passport to heaven that we can stick in the bank, or under our mattress, in safe keeping, something we can pull out on the Day of Judgment and show the Lord to get a pass?   
In the year 1095, Pope Urban II thought he’d figured out a way to offer just that: a passport to heaven.    You see, he had a problem confronting him.   He was also well aware of the people’s fear of being carelessly lost and going to hell irrevocably or, short of that, suffering long punishment before getting into heaven, and he figured that calming the people’s fears might also help him solve his problem.
What was his dilemma?
By 1095, a militant religion called “Obedience” or “Submission” (in Arabic, the word is Islam), established by a man named Mohammed (who lived some 500 years earlier, from A.D.  570-632), had swept over northern Africa and even across the Mediterranean Sea into Europe and had come up through Spain and across the near east as far as Palestine, where it captured the city of Jerusalem.
To Christian leaders, this was a deplorable state for the holy land to be in, so Pope Urban II sought to talk wealthy land owners into financing and leading military expeditions to recapture Jerusalem from the Moslems (who were then being called the Saracens).  But few of the aristocrats he talked to wanted to go.
The trip was long and treacherous and costly and, for business people, the long absences left the field open for their competitors to corner the market on sales and – frankly - who cared who controlled Jerusalem:  Jews or Moslems?  After all, none of them were Christians, they reasoned.
What to do?
So Pope Urban II remembered a passage in one of those historical books that were written between the end of the Old Testament and the time of the New where the great Jewish warrior, Judas Maccabeus, in one of his many battles to keep Israel from being overrun by its enemies, discovered after a battle, to his horror, that some of his slain soldiers had been hiding idols under their coats.
The General went right to the Temple in Jerusalem and paid 2,000 drachmas as a sin offering (a drachma was about a day’s wage – so it’s a lot of money – about 6 years worth of pay).  He paid this great sum on behalf of his dead soldiers, since, we are told, “he was mindful of the resurrection, for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous to pray for the dead” (2 Maccabees 12:43-44).
Adapting this idea, Pope Urban II offered all who were willing to go and fight in Jerusalem out of pure devotion in the First Crusade that they could “count that journey in lieu of all penance,”  just as Judas Maccabeus sought to pay for God’s clemency in the afterlife cleansing of his dead warriors.
The result for Pope Urban II was such a smashing success that, by the time of the late Middle Ages, a full blown practice of paying off the punishing of sins in the afterlife was in play.  What these payments were buying came to be called “indulgences.” 
The theory they were operating on was that Jesus’ death on the cross bought you a place in heaven, but, if you sinned on earth, after you took advantage of Jesus’ death for you, then you still needed to be cleansed from that new post-conversion sin.  
At the same time, since Jesus and the saints had done so many good deeds, it was reasoned, there was extra merit hanging around.  So you could buy some of that as an indulgence for yourself, or a dead loved one, and shorten your time in a place that was theorized between earth and heaven called Purgatory, where the dead were sent to get purged so they could enter heaven.  But purging was a very painful process.
To avoid that purging, a good work, like making a donation of money to a worthy cause, would cancel out a bad spiritual debt.  But, friends, this is cheap grace to the max!  The discount store bin version of buying temporary grace on the installment plan.
Still, back in the Middle Ages, this was a fundraiser par excellence! Priests even made up slogans to sell the idea among us common people, like: “Another coin clinks in the chest, another soul finds peace and rest!”
And the way they got that point across was to send preachers out to the various towns of Christendom and literally scare the florins out of people.
But, is this what Hebrews 6 is talking about?  Are these verses placed in the Bible to terrify us, or to make us pay a whole lot of money to try to make things right with God - - or worst of all – are they telling us we could actually become so careless that we could lose our salvation so utterly that even an indulgence couldn’t buy it back for us?
What on earth is this scary passage all about?
Well, if you begin reading with Hebrews 5:14-6:3, you’ll notice that the context has several parts that all relate to one another.    The writer of Hebrews tells us readers it’s time to explore the deep issues and not just stop with the basics.
Our goal is to become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect, as Jesus counseled in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:48), a goal we start on earth and finish up in heaven.
How do we do this? 
We don’t keep trying to get saved over and over again.
When I was a small child, we used to have altar calls in my birth church, along with stern warnings about hell and comforting urgings to come forward.  I remember certain boys who would go forward again and again, trying to make sure they were saved.
But, the writer of Hebrews tells us that’s not necessary.
When we’re building a house, we don’t build the foundation again and again.  How many basements do we need?  We just need to build the foundation once – then we get on with the rest of the building.
Our foundation of faith is repenting from our sins (called here our “dead works”), declaring our faith in God, getting baptized once, having the elders’ hands laid on us to encourage our calling and spiritual gifts, confessing that we believe in Christ’s resurrection (as Paul teaches in Romans 10:9-10, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”). And, we stay mindful that someday we will be judged by what we do for – or to – our neighbors, those who share the planet with us, but even with the judgment still ahead, we who are serving Jesus as Lord – or boss – of our lives are already saved. 
We don’t need to do it over and over again.
It’s in this context of assurance that the writer of Hebrews tackles the tough question that was plaguing the Jewish readers who were the target of the letter to “The Hebrews.”  Can this salvation we have  been given by God ever be misplaced, or ever be lost like a set of car keys that fall through a hole in your pocket or you put down somewhere and just can’t find again?  Or, perhaps, misplaced like a precious coin you drop on the floor that rolls under the floor boards and you sweep everywhere, but it just doesn’t come to light (which is what troubles the woman in Jesus’ parable of the lost coin.  And, by the way, Jesus told his hearers in Luke 15:10 that “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  So, God is not trying to have us lose our salvation, but all of heaven rejoices when we are retrieved! ).  
So, in this light, we can see what this puzzling passage of Hebrews 6:4-8 is actually saying. 
Here is a literal rendering of what the writer of Hebrews set down in these verses:
“For it is not possible for those who once and for all have been enlightened also, who after they tasted (or experienced, or have eaten) the heavenly gift and have come to share in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the good word of God and the powers (or supernatural strength, or miracles, or abilities or capacities) of the future age and [then] have committed apostasy (or a religious revolt, called falling away), again to restore into repentance (or conversion, or turning about), again they are themselves crucifying and exposing to public ridicule the Son of God“ (Heb 16:4-6).
And then an illustration follows - literally: “For earth (soil) having  rain come upon her many times and having yielded a crop useful for those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God, but having yielded thorn plants and thistles, it is worthless and close to cursed, its end will be burning” (Heb 6:7-8).[i]
One thinks with these illustrations of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:13, as his own cautionary illustration to his disciples to be fruitful for God’s Kingdom, or his warning that by people’s fruits (that is, their actions) you know them (Matt 7:16-20), or his parable of the Sower, whose seeds fall on rich soil and on shallow soil in Matthew 13.
What the unforgiveable sin appears to be in this passage is not somehow misplacing one’s salvation by carelessness or neglect or even sin.  This is about rebelling against God in open apostasy.  The passage is not telling us to point fingers at others, but to warn ourselves.
Since we began with an illustration from Reformation times, I thought it might be helpful to see how the great Reformer John Calvin understood this passage and I discovered that he drew the same conclusion that I did.  Calvin writes,
“All sins are so many failings.  But the Apostle speaks not here of theft, or perjury, or murder, or drunkenness, or adultery; but he refers to a total defection of falling away from the Gospel, when a sinner offends not God in some one thing, but entirely renounces his grace.”[ii] 
The way Hebrews 6:6 explains it is that it is crucifying Christ again – killing him off so utterly in our lives that we hold him up once again in contempt as he was murdered and scorned so long ago.  He is dead to us and so we have made ourselves dead to him.
What kind of examples might describe such an extreme action?   Would it be former Christians creating a false religion in order to turn people from Christ to something or someone else, often being themselves?
My Korean students have suggested someone like the self-styled “Lord of the Second Advent,” who had been a Korean Presbyterian but who created a syncretized faith between Christianity and Eastern Religion, identifying himself as superseding Jesus and making many demands on his followers, including a ritual called “blood separation,” where he demanded women who joined his movement have sex with him in order to be “purged” from their sin, as he assured them that was what was happening.  
Christians in our church’s bordering town Salem, Massachusetts, posit it might be a high Satanic Priest who was an ordained Christian priest or minister who left the faith and went into Satanism, helping wreak all its abuse and perversion. 
On the other hand, for years, I “reasoned” with Rastafarians, 90% of whom were born into Christian churches but who became confused and began to worship Haile Selassie as the second coming of Jêsus, as they call Christ.  But after Haile Selassie carefully explained that he was not Jesus but he himself worshiped Jesus, the entire 12 Tribes of Israel, the group that Bob Marley had belonged to, in 1997 switched allegiance, declaring their faith in Jêsus, alone, as God-Among-Us.  So, we should not be too hasty to point out anyone and conclude they have committed the unforgiveable sin.  After all, the Holy Spirit inspired this passage in Hebrews and only God knows in whose heart Christ has been irrevocably slaughtered, scorned, and vilified. 
In short, what we can conclude is that those who have never become Christians are not the kind of people this passage is talking about.  It is talking about those who have been active Christians, but have thrown salvation back into God’s face.  In their speech and action, Hebrews 6:6 says, they throw public ridicule on Jesus, shaming him again the same way he had been shamed on the cross when he was on earth.
 Quintilian, who was born in the probable year of Jesus’ execution, A.D. 30, points out in his Declarations, that being made a public spectacle was a prelude to crucifixion; it’s about shaming someone by nailing them up on a public road to disgrace them[iii], and, indeed, Hebrews 6:6 says they are crucifying the Lord all over again in what they say and do.
But if we love God and have tasted the blessings of heaven, why would any of us do that?  All of us can fall into sin, but not the kind of sin that mocks God and rejects God’s gift of salvation.
And that’s why verses 9-10 in the next section of Hebrews 6 hasten to add words of comfort for dismayed readers, assuring us that those who persevere to the end, as both John Calvin and James Arminius explained, will be saved.
Why?  Because, verse 10 tells us, God is not unjust and God takes all of our work for the gospel into account.   So, Hebrews 6:11 and 12 urge us we should persist in doing good deeds and sharing the gospel and pleasing God, who has given us such a great gift of salvation.
And then the chapter ends with another illustration, this one underscoring the faithfulness of God’s promise to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. 
When God makes a promise, “it is impossible that God would prove false,” verse 18 assures us.   We can all “anchor” our “souls” on that fact.  And we are reminded of one more fact that should comfort us:  If we do sin, falling short and missing the mark of what God intends we do, we have a high priest who pleads for us in heaven: Our Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, God sets up the way of salvation so we won’t fail in following it.  But, if once we have enjoyed God’s blessing and have seen God work marvelously in our life and then throw that back in God’s face and strike out against God, shaming Christ again, that’s not God’s fault!  Then the passage tells us we have decided to choose death over life.  And God respects our choice.
But, again, if we want to love and obey God and are seeking to continue in God’s grace, even if, in our weakness, we still stumble and fail, we have an advocate who pleads for us, Jesus Christ, God-Among-Us himself, and his once and for all gift of forgiveness will help the willing heart to persevere.   And that’s a message of joy.       


[i] This blog is adapted from a sermon I preached on Hebrews chapter 6 (centering on verses 4-8), on October 27, 2013 at the church I helped plant and at which I still volunteer as pastor of encouragement, Pilgrim Church of Beverly, Massachusetts. All Literal translations are by the present author, otherwise NRSV and TNIV.
[ii] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Ephesians-Jude (Wilmington, DE: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.), 2348.
[iii] This information I acquired from  Ben Witherington, Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James & Jude (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007),  274.