Monday, April 25, 2011

Lessons from Baseball #1

Anyone who knows me well these days will know that I am not much of a sports fan. I’ll watch a golf tournament on TV occasionally; and once or twice during the regular season, I’ll watch a college football or basketball game. If a team I have some association with is playing in a bowl game, a championship tournament, or some other kind of post-season game, I might even watch most of a game. By and large, however, my interest in sports has been in a long decline.

Remarkably, my mind for some reason has been turning back recently to my personal experiences with baseball. Surprisingly I have recalled a number of great lessons that I gained from a rather minor engagement with that sport. I had no deep dedication to the sport that created longings for a major league baseball career, but I learned some valuable lessons from the game.

My first experience with baseball actually began when I was eleven years old living in Homewood, Alabama, a suburb on the south side of Birmingham. That year a Little League program was being formed in our community; and the local newspaper announced that try-outs would be held on an upcoming Saturday morning. Tommy Richardson, a third cousin of mine, invited me to go with him to the tryouts. Though Tommy was a couple of years younger than I was, he already knew a whole lot more about baseball than I did. When we showed up for the tryouts, each of us was told to go to a position in the field that we would be interested in playing. Tommy knew that he wanted to be a pitcher, so he immediately left for the pitcher’s mound. I had no idea where I wanted to play. The group that was gathering at second base looked like the smallest group, so I made my way over there to try out as a second baseman.

The tryouts consisted in one of the coaches hitting three or four grounders to each candidate. The candidate fielded the ball and threw it to first base. I obviously showed no great skill at this; for when the time came to go home from the tryouts, I had not been chosen for any of the teams. Tommy, however, had been a quick choice for the manager of the Pels (named after the then New Orleans Pelicans). A gifted nine-year-old pitcher seemed to be a prized candidate. As we walked home, Tommy expressed surprise that I had not been chosen. He said he knew that his team still had some openings, and he suggested that I go with him to his team’s first practice that afternoon. I decided to give it another try.

The coach of the Pels didn’t seem to mind when I showed up with Tommy for the practice. He put me at third base while the team practiced. Frankly, I made several outstanding plays during the practice (I even surprised myself); and the coach decided to put me on the team’s roster. He seemed especially glad that I was eleven years old, because each team could only have a certain number of slots for twelve-year-olds and he already had his full roster of twelve-year-olds. [More about this in a later post.] So I became a Pel.

I guess the lessons here are pretty obvious:
• Don’t be afraid of trying something new—something that you have never done before.
• If at first you don’t succeed, try again. (You knew that, right?)
• Drawing the attention of others to your particular gifts and skills is not always easy, especially when your confidence is low and your self-esteem is meager. Most of us are not flashy, but we often can make up in persistence for what we lack in pizzazz.
• Don’t turn down the encouragement of others. They may open doors for you unexpectedly.
• Managers, employers, and others often have hidden agendas in what they are looking for. Often you will not know why you were or were not chosen for a position. Don’t over-analyze the situation or assume that you know everything about the expectations. Often something unexpected will prove to be the main reason you were chosen rather than someone else.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

“But Some Doubted” (Matthew 28:17)

In the midst of Matthew’s dramatic account of Jesus’ resurrection, one particularly puzzling statement in verse 17 continues to cause consternation. When “the eleven disciples …saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful” (Matt. 28:16-17, NASB). Why in the midst of this amazing confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection did Matthew mention the doubt of some of Jesus’ closest followers? The very event that was intended to both proclaim Jesus’ resurrection and set forth Jesus’ “Great Commission” seems compromised by this intrusive statement about doubt among the eleven closest disciples.

Earlier in the account an angel had told the women at the tomb to go and tell Jesus’ disciples that (1) Jesus had been raised from the dead, (2) he was going ahead of them to Galilee, and (3) the disciples would see him there (v. 7). Before they could carry out the angel’s commission, the resurrected Jesus met them as they rushed along the way from the tomb—verifying that he had been raised from the dead. The women approached Jesus, “took hold of His feet” (v. 9; an act of tangible contact that hints to the physicality of the resurrection) and “worshiped Him” (v. 9; an act of faith and adoration and the first hint in Matthew to the new status of Jesus as the Risen Lord). Jesus repeated the angel’s message: (1) the disciples were to “leave for Galilee” and (2) “there they will see Me” (v. 10).

As instructed, the disciples proceeded to Galilee; but verse 16 adds a new piece of information. The disciples went to a mountain in Galilee that Jesus evidently at some point in the past had “designated” (NASB) to them. Immediately after reference to this mountain, the Greek text literally states, “and when they saw him, they worshiped; but some doubted. And approaching, Jesus spoke to them” (vv. 17-18a). Obvious something seems wrong with the sequence here. The disciples seem already to have been at the mountain that Jesus designated (the Greek aorist tense is used throughout this passage, designating an action completed at a point in the past); but how could they possibly have doubted after seeing Jesus and worshiping him?

To me, the troubling issue arises in verse 18. It appears at this point that Jesus first approached the disciples after they already have seen him and worshiped him (note in the NASB that the italicized “him” is not found in the Greek text after “worshiped”). The only solution I can see to this dilemma is a slight amending of the Greek text, which most scholars are hesitant to do. If no evidence of an alternate reading can be found among all the Greek manuscripts, scholars generally try to stick with the text as given. The alteration of one Greek letter, however, makes this whole sequence understandable. Let me explain.

In verse 17, the “Him” in “when they saw Him” is the Greek third person masculine pronoun auton, which obviously refers to Jesus. The readers are expecting the disciples to see Jesus because both the angel and the resurrected Jesus had told the women that the disciples would see Jesus in Galilee. The puzzling introduction of the “mountain” in verse 16, however, opens a possible channel of explanation. If the auton referring to Jesus in verse 17 were amended to auto, the neuter pronoun “it,” verses 17-18 would read, “When they saw it [i.e., the mountain], they worshiped; but some doubted. And [then] Jesus came up and spoke to them . . . .” In this scenario, the doubt is an issue after they arrive at the appointed place and worship but before they actually see Jesus.

My contention is that the scribes who transmitted this text were so anticipating that the disciples would see Jesus when they arrived at the mountain, that they altered the original text. They created a situation where the disciples “see” and “worship” Jesus before he “came up and spoke to them.” In reality, I think that the disciples arrived at the designated place and worshiped. In the lag time between their arrival and Jesus’ arrival at the site, some of the disciples began to doubt that Jesus was actually going to show up. The resurrection was not yet an established fact for them—it was the “gossip” of a couple of women who had claimed to see Jesus and had sent them on a wild goose chase to Galilee. But then Jesus appeared. The doubt vanished. The Great Commission was given—not to some doubting disciples, but to disciples who had seen the risen Lord on the designated mountain in Galilee, just as the angel and Jesus had told the women.

Maybe this explains how one small Greek letter can create possible misunderstandings when the text is transmitted by believing scribes anticipating the climax before it actually comes.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

“Whence This Nostalgia?”

I’m not picking on any one individual, but I see posts on Facebook from time to time that follow this formula:

“If you grew up on home-cooked meals, you rode a bike with no helmet, your parents’ house was not ‘child-proof,’ you got a whippin' when you misbehaved, had 3 TV channels you got up to change or went outside to turn the antenna, school started with the Pledge of Allegiance, stores were closed on Sunday, you drank water out of a water hose and still turned out okay, re-post this.”

OK. Here are my comments.

1. Are “home-cooked meals” really better for you than meals prepared in other places and other ways? I grew up in the South where a common ingredient of “home-cooked meals” was lard. Now that’s healthy, right? I also note that a large portion of the American population is obese today. I’m sure eating away from home at “all-you-can-eat buffets” contributes to that condition, but I suspect that most of the bad eating habits begin and end with home-cooked meals consumed in extra-large portions. Quite frankly, I long more for families sitting down at the table and praying together, eating balanced meals together, and talking over the day’s events than I care about how or where their food was prepared.

2. I had many a bicycle accident in my time; and by the grace of God I didn’t end up with a brain injury; but why should I feel nostalgic about preserving a tradition that exposes someone else to that possibility if the possibility might be lowered by wearing a protective helmet? I guess those who are opposed to mandated helmets on bicycles and motorcycles or mandated seatbelts in vehicles won’t expect my health insurance company (or God forbid the government) to pick up the expenses for their injuries, their prolonged unconsciousness, their rehabilitation, and their long-term care when they are mostly brain-dead. I’m all for every protective device that helps to prevent concussions, brain injuries, broken bones, or any other physical (or emotional) injury that is preventable.

3. Let me be honest. I love my children and my grandchildren. I want my house to be as child-proofed as possible. I will do whatever I can to protect the people I love. I’ll cover exposed electrical outlets, put dangerous objects out of reach, remove toxic chemicals from under the kitchen and bathroom sink, and do whatever else I can to ensure the safety of my dear ones. Please don’t tell me that you think child-proofing is some kind of conspiracy to destroy our children!

4. I’m not an outright opponent of all corporal punishment, but neither do I take pride in it. Quite frankly, I once spanked one of my daughters and left a couple of bruises on her hind-side. I never laid a hand on any of my children after that. I realized that anger was in control and that brute force does not produce discipline. In today’s world, if a teacher saw bruises like that, the parent would be in real trouble. I also remember the last time I was spanked by my mother. She used a foot-ruler and I laughed. I guess she realized that the time for corporal punishment had passed and she had better depend on the good judgment she had instilled in me rather than the switch. The good judgment hasn’t always won, but I think it has done better than corporal punishment in most respects.

5. I’m not especially impressed by how many channels I have on my television. In fact, if all I had access to today were the three or four major network channels, I would probably be turning the TV off after Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy. I probably watch less than 10% of the available channels anyway, and I can only watch one at a time (well, I guess I could use the picture within a picture feature, but I’m not inclined toward that). I do hunger for real news, but the latest Hollywood shenanigans seem to be more newsworthy than the substantive issues of the day. I don’t think that my physical conditioning has deteriorated because I use a remote control and have cable service rather than an adjustable antenna. Then again, I suspect all of us would be better off if we turned the TV off altogether and read the New York Times and the Bible instead.

6. You know, I actually remember when we said the Pledge of Allegiance in school when “under God” wasn’t part of the Pledge. Hey, and I’m not THAT OLD! We tend to fixate on certain symbols and want to make them sacred (like my previous comment about the New York Times and the Bible). As far as I know, schools still use the Pledge of Allegiance; but I honestly can’t see that things have gotten better since we added “under God” to it. In fact, we seem to fight more over which God we are pledging allegiance to and which political party is in control under divine providence. We have lost the sense that we are “one nation” made up of immigrants from many nations who displaced the original native citizenry; so we want to bar the door to the current expression of the former and keep the latter on reservations where they can operate casinos controlled by the mob without government interference. I’ll stop on that one.

7. I think professional sports has done more to destroy a sense of Sabbath than having stores open on Sunday, which isn’t the Sabbath anyway; but by this time, who is still reading and cares what I think.

8. Drinking from the water hose in days of yore probably was safer that drinking from most water sources today. That was back before we polluted our streams, over-fertilized and over-pesticided our farms, dumped toxic chemicals in our land-fills, put everything in plastic containers, used a gazillion gallons of petroleum products to get around, and fracted good old Mother Earth to extract natural gas.

In reality, I’m not sure we are “turning out OK” today; and we probably wouldn’t be in the fix we are in if we had turned out OK in the past. I find it hard not to be an optimist and a pessimist at the same time. We are still in as much need of redemption as we were when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, when Noah entered the ark, when children of Israel worshiped the golden calf, and when Jesus died on the cross. Nostalgia doesn’t foster prospects for the future. Predictions and prognostications don’t change the future. Only the present moment counts, and I guess we all had better take this present moment seriously—or else someone in 2061 will be reflecting with nostalgia on the good old days of 2011.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Joseph’s Spiritual Journey (Part 2)

Almost anyone who has studied the Old Testament with any thoroughness is familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis, which holds that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) draws from four major but anonymous sources. The sources often are labeled J (associated with the German spelling of Yahweh, the holy name of Israel’s God, that is used by this source document), E (associated with Elohim, another frequently employed name for God that is used in this source document), D (from the Deuteronomist, the source that supplied the Book of Deuteronomy), and P (for a source that had Priestly interests). The hypothesis is beyond the scope of our current concern, but one aspect of it has some relevance in our probe of Joseph’s spiritual journey. I am not focusing on the sources of the patriarch’s narratives but the aspects of the patriarchs’ encounters with God that might give some insight into their spiritual development.

The God of the covenant established with Abraham and Isaac is Yahweh. In this sense, Yahweh is the dynamic God of personal encounters and covenants. The narrative accounts of Jacob’s encounters with God employ both Yahweh and Elohim. Yahweh is mostly absent from the story of Joseph (with one exception), even though Yahweh is associated with the derivation of the name “Joseph” itself (Gen. 30:24, “May the LORD add to me another son”).

The one exception is that Yahweh is given credit for Joseph’s early successes in Egypt (Gen. 39:2,3,5,21,23); but the holy name is employed only by the narrator, and not by Joseph himself. Yahweh is totally absent in Genesis 40—47, although an abbreviated form of another name for God (Adonai) is used with references to Pharaoh as Lord of the land and, interestingly enough, to Joseph in his role as a ruler (Lord) over Egypt. Joseph’s brothers use this term to address Joseph in chapters 42—47, both before and after he discloses his relationship with them.

The Genesis narrative restricts Joseph’s own expressions about God to the divine name Elohim. The dominant usages of Elohim in Genesis are found in the creation account in Genesis 1:1—2:3 and in the pre-Joseph narratives in Genesis 21, 28, 30, 31, and 35. Elohim is the cosmic Creator God who speaks the cosmos into being (as opposed to the Genesis 2:4-25 account where the Lord forms humanity out of dust); and the unusual plural form of the Hebrew word for the one and only God of the Hebrews seems to expand the scope to all nations. Joseph’s experience with God clearly stands in the Elohist tradition.

Am I reading too much into this distinction? Maybe so; but I think we see in Joseph another dimension of faith that is more providential than personal, more circumstantial than revelatory, more sophisticated than forged out of spiritual encounters. Joseph was a moral and principled man. He was gifted, competent, and patient. He was magnanimous and forgiving. He saw God’s hand at work in the broad sweep of his life (Gen 45:8), but he seems not to have had the first-hand, intensive encounters with God experienced by his father, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather.

If we expect all disciples to have a Saul-on-the-Damascus-Road type of experience, we will be disappointed. If we expect every spiritual experience to involve wrestling with God, seeing God in the clouds of Sinai, or seeing some kind of transfiguration experience, we will be disappointed. God works with us in many different ways. We cannot program faith, discipleship, commitment, or devotion. But in many and various ways, God makes known to us a Presence, a Guide, a Comforter, a Friend, a Redeemer. We may not have visions of holiness or a thorn-in-the flesh burden, but each of us must find our way to God—our own way!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

This Is a Vacation?

Evelyn and I departed after the youth choir’s spaghetti dinner at church Sunday for a quick vacation trip with my sister and brother-in-law in Virginia. Here’s a brief account.

We departed about 1:00 p.m. on Sunday and arrived in Massanutten, VA about 7:30 p.m. We settled in for the first night.

I awoke about 4:00 a.m. Monday morning with tightness in my chest that reminded me way too much of the atrial fibrillation episodes I had last May and again in January. About 4:30 a.m. I took two tablets of the beta blocker that I have been carrying around with me since the first episode last May. I waited about 30 minutes and took two more tablets following my doctor’s instructions, after which I was supposed to go to the emergency room if the symptoms didn’t disappear. Since the January episode had taken just a little longer for the medication to kick in and stop the atrial fibrillation, I decided to wait a while longer before awakening the rest of our group. Meanwhile, I researched the location of the nearest emergency room, which turned out to be Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg.

I awoke Evelyn about 5:30, and we began to get dressed to go to the emergency room. We awoke my sister and brother-in-law as we were ready to depart (my brother-in-law, by the way, is a physician; and although he is a GI specialist, it was good to have him around).

We arrived at the address given in the phone book for the hospital and discovered it was a clinic that was not open yet. Fortunately a nurse was arriving for work, and she directed us to the new hospital that just opened last summer.

A very efficient emergency room staff took us immediately into a room and began to work on me. For the rest of Monday, the staff tried to get my blood pressure down, hoping to get my heart back into sinus rhythm. Controlling the blood pressure was easy, and frankly I worried that it was getting too low. Around 5:00 p.m., the doctors decided to give me another round of beta blockers; and if that didn’t work by 6:30, they would give me an anti-arrhythmia medication. About 7:30, I sent Evelyn back to the resort for the night and told her I would call to let her know about the outcome. Shortly before 9:00, I called to tell her that nothing had changed. I broke off the call when the nurse came in. He informed me that my heart had “converted” to sinus rhythm about five minutes earlier. I called Evelyn back with the good news.

I had a very restless night Monday night. The hospital bed was uncomfortable; I was awakened frequently for monitoring my blood pressure, drawing blood, replacing IVs, etc. By Tuesday morning I was exhausted, but at least my heart was back in rhythm. The rest of the day the doctors tried to decide what to do about my condition. We finally decided that a heart catheterization was called for to see if the cause of the trouble could be located. That procedure was conducted mid-afternoon on Tuesday and also revealed no cause for the problem. Around 6:00 p.m. I was released from the hospital with two prescriptions in hand. One is for the same beta blocker medication that I have been carrying around with me for most of the last year. The other is for the anti-arrhythmia medication that was used to get my heart back in rhythm.

Many of us who live in Jefferson County, Tennessee, are very proud of the Jefferson Memorial—St. Mary’s Hospital, which has been rated in the top 100 hospitals in the nation for the last three years. I want to tell you that Rockingham Memorial Hospital was equally exceptional in every way. They have a new facility that opened last July, which is wonderful. The doctors, nurses, and all the staff were genuinely concerned, focused, and dedicated to making the situation as comfortable as possible for me. I felt like I was being cared for by family and friends. And speaking of family, I could never say enough about my wife and the care and support she gives me constantly. Thanks also to my sister and brother-in-law, Kathy and Jerry Spenney. They are the best!

The Lord has watched over me, with my being in a good place at an appropriate time. I’m back to feeling “normal” today, so now the vacation can begin—but with my “emergency” medications in my pocket, of course!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Joseph’s Spiritual Journey

Every spiritual journey begins in a context of time, place, and family. Joseph’s journey is no exception; but in many ways, his context is extremely complicated. Joseph’s immediate male ancestors were all men who had experienced dramatic encounters with God. Abraham had experienced an explicit call from God that initiated a special covenant that was passed down to his descendants. The Lord appeared to Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 17:1; 18:1), spoke to him, guided and protected him in his travels, and gave him a son of the covenant in his old age. Abraham secured from among his own people a wife for his son Isaac, who shared in experiencing appearances of the Lord (26:2, 24) and a renewal of the covenant made with Abraham. Isaac (through a deceitful manipulation by his wife) passed on the blessing of the covenant to his younger son, Jacob, who also experienced appearances of the Lord (28:13; 35:1,9). In establishing the covenant with Jacob, God changed Jacob’s name to “Israel” (32:28). Jacob named the location of his encounter with God “Peniel,” which means “the face of God,” “for,” as Jacob said, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (32:30).

In the place of face-to-face encounters with God, Joseph had dreams (37:5,9). His brothers called him “the dreamer” (37:19). Joseph also possessed the gift of interpreting dream (Gen. 40—41). As to a highly charged personal encounter with God, Joseph would seem to be lacking. References to the covenant with God in the book of Genesis die out at Genesis 17:21). Joseph’s faith experience is vastly different from the experiences of his forefathers.

Joseph’s experience foreshadows some of the significant problems that we face in spiritual development. The fervency of faith seems to decline in subsequent generations. I guess most every family looks at the family they birthed and sense that their own faith in some degree has been watered down in the generations of their children and grandchildren. The highly personal experience of faith shifts to a more social and moral context, and the vitality of personal experience seems to decline. This is not a fixed outcome, for exceptions surely exist; but Joseph’s less-personal experience with God is more the rule than the exception.

The biblical history is not an encouraging one in many ways. Long periods of decline seem to be integral parts of the biblical story. Think of the periods from Joseph to Moses, from Moses to the judges, from David and Solomon to the divided kingdom, from the fall of Israel to the Babylonian exile, from the rebuilding of the temple to the Roman-dominated setting into which Jesus was born. Faith survived all of these transitions; but it was not the triumphal, socially dominating kind of faith that many of us hope for and wish for.

I am not implying that a family’s emphasis on having their children attend church and participate in religious activities is a bad or hopeless thing; but the reality is that at some point faith must escape the family, church, and social traditions and become a personal experience. That personal experience will not be a carbon copy of the parents’ faith experiences. In some sense, because faith is primarily a personal experience, we cannot and should not expect the faith of the next generation to be exactly like our own. We must try to provide an environment in which our children will have opportunities to experience God in their own unique and personal ways.

Joseph’s faith was not a matter of parental failure, even though his father’s favoritism certainly was a poisoning influence in the family. Joseph’s faith experience was different from that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We’ll explore more about Joseph’s faith experience in future postings.