Theological Reflections


The Greek word translated as hospitality in the New Testament is philoxenia, which literally means “love of the other” or “love of the stranger.” So the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews challenges us to love people who seem strange to us (Heb. 13:2).

In ancient times, people learned about the world beyond their community by inviting travelers to stay with them. They “brought news (and stories!) of the wider world and broke open one’s little provincial world” (Erik Heen, “Preach This Week,” Sept. 1, 2013). So it was when three strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18) and told the elderly couple God would give them a child a year later. The same strangers visited Abraham’s nephew Lot in the city of Sodom, where lewd fellows demanded he turn them over for sexual abuse.

We worry about the risks that strange travelers pose to us, but they undertake risks just as great (perhaps greater) when they accept our hospitality. Yet God’s people believe the rewards of hospitality are well worth the risks.

A distinctive mark of the church for this time is hospitality (philoxenia) because we live in an era of  xenophobia (“fear of the stranger”). We desperately need to practice this gracious art, not only toward strangers but also toward members of our own family. In their book, Hospitality: Life in a Time of Fear, Steve Clapp and Fred Bernhard give these guidelines for practicing hospitality within our families:

  1. Hospitality recognizes that children are gifts from God, not properties to rule over.
  2. Seeing our children as guests reminds us that we are not responsible for everything they do.
  3. Practicing hospitality with our children means doing our best and then trusting the result to God, who is the parent of us all.
  4. Hospitality means taking seriously our responsibility for the children God has entrusted to our care (pp. 109-13).

They go on to say this:

  1.  Hospitality means that we see our spouse as a cherished gift of God, not as a person to be controlled.
  2. Hospitality means sharing equally in decisions about money, sex, children, and other vital areas of life together.
  3. Hospitality means treating one’s partner better than anyone else, not worse (pp. 116-17).

Hospitality is a tall order anytime, but especially when national leaders urge us to treat strangers with suspicion, hostility, and fear. At such a time, Christianity is truly counter-cultural.

A blast of Arctic wind blew us into a service station one night last week. The stop wasn’t essential, but we liked the idea of being able to warm our stiff bodies by the fireplace if the winter storm marooned us. I decided to buy three bundles of firewood.

Hobbling on a foot brace and steadied by a cane, I made my way to the cashier’s window. Another fellow paid for a bag of salt to treat his driveway, then asked if I wanted help loading my purchase. I thanked him but said my wife would take care of that. His gaze fastened on my foot brace and he offered again to help. I declined again. But by the time I reached the car, he was cheerfully heaving the bundles of wood into our trunk.

I’m trying to get used to this—letting other people help me, I mean. All my life, I’ve been able to care for myself. A couple of times after surgery, I had to let someone else carry my groceries or scrape ice off my windshield, but those were exceptions. I let someone help me in those situations because I knew I’d soon recover and be able to assert my independence again. That’s no longer true. I’m nearing the age of seventy, my bones don’t heal as they used to, and some concessions to my frailty (the cane and brace, for example) will be with me the rest of my life.

It’s a helpless feeling, quite literally. Jesus described it this way: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).

I’ve not yet been taken somewhere against my will, but I imagine that day is coming. Then the humiliation will be complete.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that an exhausted person will say, “I’m done for.” When strength fails and our muscles no longer respond, we know we need someone else to “do for” us. That dependency may seem like a sign of decline, but eventually, we realize it’s a sign of growth. To be humble enough to let someone else load our firewood or pick up our mail is a virtue that few of us come by naturally.

The gospel of Luke narrates the story of Jesus’ birth in greater detail than any other gospel, and it includes the account of Jesus’ parents presenting him at the Temple to be dedicated to God’s service (Lk 2:22-24), as was customary for the firstborn son of a Jewish family. Luke says they brought two turtledoves for this sacrifice.

That reference immediately reminds a modern reader of the traditional Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which says that two turtledoves are the second day’s gift. Might there be a historical connection between the scripture and the song?

Church historian Hugh D. McKellar believes there is.[1] The song didn’t appear in print until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, but McKellar has found anecdotal evidence that it was a traditional Catholic folksong in northern England well before that. He believes Catholic parents used it to teach the catechism to their children while Catholicism was banned (1559-1829). This is an intriguing possibility.

We don’t have conclusive proof of the song’s provenance, but McKellar’s explanation is consistent with the way parents use holiday symbols to anchor biblical content in the minds of their children. Christmas gifts from our parents illustrate how we receive generous gifts from our heavenly Father. Advent candles remind us that Jesus came as the light of God’s love in an otherwise dark, forbidding world. And each gift of the Twelve Days of Christmas remind us of an aspect of Jesus’ life (see McKellar’s article).

While we enjoy the pageantry and playfulness of the Christmas season, let’s be alert to the eternal truths behind it.

[1] https://www.scribd.com/document/74456918/Twelve-Days-of-Christmas

Was Jesus of Nazareth the unique physical incarnation of God? Does he now reign over creation alongside God the Father? And will he be the ultimate Judge of all humanity?

These questions frame a controversy that rages among seminary students and pastors today. It is not simply a matter of theoretical speculation, but a genuine inquiry into the core beliefs of Christianity. What we believe about Jesus is the essence of our Christian faith, so the debate isn’t merely trying to determine whether a particular position is logically sound or historically consistent. Rather, the goal is to discern what position is authentically Christian.

Even that question isn’t as simple as it seems. Christianity underwent tectonic plate shifts in the first three centuries after Jesus’ ministry, so at what point did it become what most of us would recognize as authentic Christianity?

The Gospels were written decades after Jesus spoke, so they express the beliefs of a second-century church. Shall we call that authentic Christianity? The whole New Testament canon was finalized in the fourth century; did that make it a more accurate expression of what Jesus taught? If not, which pieces of the New Testament express the original teachings of Jesus and which pieces express later teachings? (This is the central question of the Jesus Seminar.)

Western Christianity has long held that historic creeds are reliable touchstones of orthodox Christian belief. The Western church anchors its belief and practice in those creeds. (This is even true of Restorationist groups which disavow the authority of  “manmade” statements of faith.)

So when we deal with questions about the divinity of Jesus, it’s appropriate to ask what  the creeds say as well as what the New Testament says. It’s also appropriate to ask how church leaders have interpreted these biblical and creedal statements in successive generations. While we cannot know what Jesus himself said, we can know what the church has said about him. This was the faith entrusted to the Christians of past generations and now to us (see Jude 1:3).

Beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth formed the church as it is today and guided the lives of our Christian forebears. This long tradition of living our Christian convictions and earnestly attempting to articulate them is what constitutes authentic Christianity. It moves beyond what we can rationalize or speculate about God to encompass what we experience with wondering hearts.

This year has brought me a series of medical setbacks so that I have great difficulty walking, and recurring pain keeps me awake at night. Strangers blithely say this sort of thing is to be expected since I’m in my late sixties, but friends try to be more encouraging. They often say they’re praying for a miracle.

So what is a miracle? And do I expect one in my situation?

Our word miracle comes from the Latin mirari, which means “to marvel” or “to be awed,” so a miracle is literally an occurrence that fills us with awe. A solar eclipse is a miracle. The migration of Monarch butterflies is a miracle. The birth of a child is a miracle.

So make no mistake: If I am relieved from pain after all these months of suffering, that will be a miracle. If I’m able to walk without a cane and climb stairs again, that will be a miracle. Regardless of whether it happens suddenly or gradually, whether physicians can explain it or not, I will be awed by the recovery. My friends will be, too. That alone will make it a bona fide miracle, and it’s well worth praying for.

However, I don’t think that a miracle is a supernatural phenomenon, in which God interrupts the normal course of events to favor chosen persons. Although the Bible describes examples of this (the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, etc.), we need to remember that the Bible is not simply a book of objective history  but also a book of faith stories and ethnic legends. I believe these stories of dramatic divine intervention belong to those latter categories.

Why? If God literally suspended the laws of nature to demonstrate love for certain persons, it would make the rest of what the Bible tells us about God a lie. God then would be a “respecter of persons” (contra Acts 10:34).

Such statements will annoy you if you read the Bible literally. But if you walk prayerfully with God, you know these things are true. You know what George Croly called “the patience of unanswered prayer.” When an illness or disability lingers, you know that God loves you nonetheless.

shutterstock_238020544Friends and I who are now called “seniors” take two distinctly different approaches to risk. Some of us feel more willing than ever to try new things. Our motto might be, “What have I got to lose?” Others are so fearful of making foolish decisions that they live in a state of paralysis. If they ever dare to entertain the question, “What have I got to lose?” their immediate response is, “Everything!

These two views largely determine the outcome of our decisions, as well as the level of angst we experience when we make decisions.

I’ve seen some friends spend their “golden years” trying to save enough, insure enough, and hedge enough bets to reduce their risk to zero. By the time they cover every conceivable contingency, life has passed them by. I feel a deep sadness when I peer into their coffins.

We need to admit that risk a fact of life, even at the end of it. So let’s keep a few essential realities in mind when we make decisions now:

  • Physical death is a sure thing. Physical life is not.
  • Financial failure can be guaranteed. Financial success cannot.
  • Sorrow will come looking for you. Happiness will not.
  • Do nothing risky and you will receive the inevitable rewards of inaction.
  • But act with faith in the providence of God and–while you may lose things familiar and secure–the rewards can be far greater.

Worth remembering on this day when financial markets are in turmoil and the Dow Jones has fallen more than 600 points.

 

 

Sarcasm is corrosive, like acid rain falling downwind of a power plant that burns high-sulfur coal. It seems benign and gentle, as raindrops rolling off the marble statue of a revered hero in the city square, yet it sculpts the identity of its victim into a grotesque caricature whose character is no longer recognizable.

I have seen what sarcasm can do. I watched the marriages of two couples, close to my heart at the beginning, melt under the constant dripping of sarcasm. Eventually, I could recognize neither partner in these matches. Neither could they. So they went their separate ways, feeling deeply wronged and bitter.

American political discourse has become a simmering vat of sarcasm. Supporters align with the politician they feel has the sharpest wit or inflicts a more poisonous sting than her opponents. They vote for the candidate who handles himself most adroitly in the arena of character assassins. (I wonder, does this mean we will choose the most deadly character assassin as our next President?)

Whether it’s a deceptively gentle drip or a roiling vat of concentrated acid, sarcasm can destroy us all. We may be better prepared to deal with it if we recognize some common patterns of a sarcastic relationship:

  • The person who feels at the greatest disadvantage is often the first to use sarcasm in a relationship. This person hopes to take refuge behind its apparent humor. If the dominant individual strikes back, a sarcastic wit can say,”I was only kidding!”
  • At first, the other person is not likely to “fight fire with fire” but be perplexed or bemused by the sarcasm. The first response may be silence.
  • When the sarcasm cuts deeply enough into the victim’s self-esteem, a sarcastic response is often made. Then the tit-for-tat escalates until both individuals have a relationship of mutual disdain. Sniping becomes their normal way of communicating with one another.

If a person’s poor self-image precipitates sarcasm toward others, how might we stop this corrosive cycle after it has begun? How could God’s high esteem for an individual change this situation?

 

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