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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Where Strength Really Comes From

A while back, my wife asked me to put a clothesline, so she could hang things out to dry in the fresh air. Good for us, without the dryer sheets' chemicals. Good for the environment, using only wind and solar energy. Good for the bank account, using less electricity.

We had the skeletal remains of an old swingset lying behind the storage shed, and I thought that would be the perfect materials. It's thin-walled steel tubing, lightweight but strong, and easy to cut and weld. Within a couple hours I had fabricated two clothesline poles. I dug holes in the ground, set a base of rocks in the bottom, and set the poles in place with concrete. Solid. After the concrete had set, I ran two coated wire lines between the poles. The clothesline has been serving us well for several months now.

We were in for a big freeze, and our grapevines were in a very fragile state, so we covered them with plastic sheets to protect the budding new fruit. After the cold snap, it rained, and the plastic was wet. We laid it over the clotheslines to dry. But that night, another rain came-- a heavy one-- and rainwater collected in the plastic between the lines. It seems there was a weak spot in one of the poles I had made. A small dent that had gone unnoticed, and it was facing toward the lines. As the weight of the rainwater increased, eventually that little dent gave way. The next morning we found the plastic on the ground and the pole bent over.

I could replace the pole, but that would entail a lot of work, pulling the old one out of the ground with its concrete base. Plus it would be a waste of good materials. So rather than replace it, I pulled it straight. Then I bored a hole on the back side about a foot above the bend. Through that hole I filled the pole with concrete.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, "I can do all this through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4.13) That's the New International Version (NIV) translation. A better, more accurate translation of this is from the New American Standard (NAS), "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." There is a subtle but important difference in the wording.

We usually think along the lines of the NIV translation, that God gives us strength, which we then use to do something. That's like my clothesline pole with a dent in it. When I made it, I gave it strength, then let it go.

But a very literal translation of Paul's greek is, "In everything I am strong by the one who strengthens me." The real truth here is like the repaired clothesline pole. The pole is stronger than ever now, because of the concrete inside it. The concrete does not give it strength. No, the concrete strengthens it from within. This isn't a play on words or a word game. It's the truth about what our words actually mean.

It makes my mind Haggard when I hear someone pray for strength. "Please, Lord, make me strong enough to do this or that." God doesn't dole out strength as we need it or ask for it. The big secret mystery of our faith is "Christ in you." Because Jesus Christ lives in you, His strength is always there. Don't ask for it! It's already there, inside you! Rather than ask for strength, give thanks for it. Then move forward by faith.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Myth of Resurrection

Another Easter has come and gone. We joined in our local fellowship in praise and thanksgiving for the life we have through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As often happens, this haggard mind got to wandering during the sermon. The pastor said something that set off a trigger in my brain, which set thoughts off onto tangents all their own.

I got to thinking about this event we remember and celebrate every spring. Well... remember isn't quite the right word. I don't remember it. Do you? Didn't think so. We weren't around then. So we celebrate that Jesus was dead, then he came back to life.

Have you ever seen anything like that happen? Me neither. Closest I ever came involved a racoon that had been killed by a car. It came back to life at a most opportune moment. Like when I was close to it. And man was that 'coon ticked off!

Anyway, that kind of stuff just doesn't happen. None of us have ever seen somebody come back to life after having been dead for three days. But we believe Jesus did it, and we stake our hope on it.

Flash back to 1980. I was in Systematic Theology class in seminary, and my haggard heart was stirring inside. The professor was expounding on how Jesus didn't really have to come out of his grave. How the resurrection "story" was simply a "myth" that explained "the experience of the risen Christ in our hearts."

Now, a myth, according to Webster's, is "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon." In other words, an untrue story that gets passed down over the years in order to justify some irrational belief that people have. So, according to what I was hearing, Jesus did not really come back from the dead. It's just a story that has been told that explains the good feeling we have inside as believers.

Well, I couldn't sit still on that. The professor made the mistake of answering my raised hand, and I proceeded to mess up his lesson plan for the next forty minutes. My basic stance, mixed into lots of great theological arguments, was simple. If Jesus did not come bodily out of that grave, if it's just a mythical story, then I have nothing to believe in. I might as well go back to being a mechanic, and live a good heathen lifestyle.

There are some basic things that I know for a fact about this story. Like how twelve... no, forty... no, hundreds of people suffered horrible tortures and deaths because they insisted they saw and talked to and touched Jesus after he had been killed and buried. There's a simple principal of law that holds to today, "One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." (Deuteronomy 19.15) So in my haggard mind, if a matter is established by hundreds, it must be true.

And that brings me to my point. Our faith is not groundless. My definition of faith: "Faith is when you choose to believe and follow something that your brain says can't be true." In all appearances and experience, people don't come back from the dead.  My brain says it can't be true. But the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ was established by hundreds of eye witnesses. So my brain also says that it MUST be true. So I choose to believe it, and stake my life and hopes and dreams on it.