Wednesday, January 31, 2007

My Friend, The Cult Leader (and Follower)

Today is the birthday of a friend I’ve known for many years.

While attending Lutheran high school, I had a class in which we examined the beliefs and practices of cults. Some of the cultish practices included charismatic leadership, “love bombing” (treating the inductee with abundant affection, creating attachment to the cult), sleep deprivation, etc.

Andy read over my notes and said, “I’m charismatic… I love myself… I deprive myself of sleep… I’m a cult unto myself!”

A memorable quotation from a friend who made me laugh throughout the 1980’s. Happy Birthday, Andy!

American Idols

The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see;
they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them!
(Psalm 135:15-18)

This psalm is written by a Jewish traveler in the era before Christ, who was contrasting faith in the true God with the creatively fashioned idols of other nations. These idols were physical creations: they had shape, weight, and could sit on a shelf. If they were unearthed today, they would be quickly transferred to a museum and lauded as works of art.

Are the idols in our society the works of our hands?

I heard Pastor Mark Driscoll speak on the subject of idolatry recently. He said that some people had visited a foreign country where there were shrines to idols in every living room – it seemed unbelievable and so “old world.” Driscoll commented, “Did the idols have a remote?” In other words, Driscoll said, we quickly notice the idols in other cultures – but hardly realize those in our own.

Look around… what do you see?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Playing Favorites

Posting my two favorite verses on a whim the other day got me thinking. Surely it seems impious to speak about a “favorite verse” of the Bible, when the entire Book is meant to be treasured. The reason certain verses are favorites, however, is simply that they made an early impression on me in my walk with God. The two I cited – Isaiah 26:3 and Jeremiah 9:23-24 – both concern the privilege of knowing God.

When I gave further thought to my favorite chapters of the Bible, I found that this also led me to the prophets. Two that jump immediately to mind are Jeremiah 23 and 1 Kings 13, which both concern true and false prophecy: one a divine indictment, the other a curious (and even humorous) story. Growing up spiritually in a California megachurch provoked much thought concerning the authentic word of God, for the word written was sometimes neglected in favor of the word felt or imagined. These were formative passages indeed.

I have read the prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, less frequently in the past several years. My focus has been the gospels: the life, words, actions of Jesus Christ (to whom both Isaiah and Jeremiah direct us). Incidentally, next to Jeremiah, my favorite book of the Bible is probably the Gospel of Matthew. Yet this thought process reminds me to turn to the Old Testament prophets more often. Their words are both penetrating and poetic, lending themselves well to contemplation and re-reading.

Now then, next to Jesus Christ, who would be my favorite Bible character? Well, it turns out that would also be Jeremiah too! He beats out the Apostle Peter by a hair. If you peek into Jeremiah 1 and Jeremiah 15 you will see a young man called by God, who was promised great difficulty and disappointment. He needed God’s encouragement, and it was given; but God never allowed him to be released from his difficult task. He lived a long and difficult life. When his tragic prophecies were fulfilled and Jerusalem was destroyed by its enemies, he did not gloat – he wept. Yet even then, he expressed some of the greatest words of faith ever written.

Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:4)

“O Lord, you know;
remember me and visit me,
and take vengeance for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance take me not away;
know that for your sake I bear reproach.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart,
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.”
(Jeremiah 15:15-16)

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.”
(Lamentations 3:22-27,
written by Jeremiah)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Two From the Prophets

These are my two favorite short passages of all time. They both are from major prophets:

You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.
Isaiah 26:3

Thus says the Lord: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord."
Jeremiah 9:23-24

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ten Thousand Bucks

"The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces."
Psalm 119:72

If I had those gold and silver pieces, I would be happy to give the silver ones to charity. The gold ones alone would be a great help - I could accomplish my desires for my life much better. I'm sure you feel the same way.

Yet to do God's will should be not only our greatest priority but our greatest delight. This can be done with $10 or $10,000.

Jesus said, "One's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." Our fundamental attitude should be "what does God desire of me today?" We should never think that we need something more in order to do God's will -- whether money, additional possessions, or anything else.

It is not wrong to seek financial stability, to provide for one's family, or anything like that. It is not wrong to desire other good gifts from God such as a spouse or a fulfilling career. Yet while seeking such things - and hopefully for the right reasons - we need to realize that God nevertheless gives us what we need to do his will today.

So let's do it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Longest Day

As a pastor, I should be reading the Bible all the time, right? Right. My duties call me to continual biblical reflection. For example, I am currently studying 1 Peter for an evening series (hey, if you’re in New Jersey, come join us). My nose is in the Book for preparations for Sunday Scripture readings, Sunday school classes, and so forth.

Yet I am a Christian first, and a minister second. So although I’m utilizing the Bible throughout the week as the tool of my trade, I find it most important to read God’s word each day in a personal, or devotional, manner. Like any other Christian, I need accountability to keep me on track; so a friend and I read through books of the Bible at the same pace. For a while now, we’ve been in the psalms.
The other day our reading was Psalm 117. This is the shortest psalm in the Bible, at two verses. You can read it here.

Today’s reading is Psalm 119. This still holds the Guinness World Record for Longest Psalm, at 176 verses. We’ve decided to read this psalm over the course of seven days. If you think you can beat that, you can try your hand here.

But is it really that hard to read 176 verses?

As I’ve said before, we don’t grow by simply reading God’s word – we grow by meditating on God’s word. Psalm 119 could easily be read in the space of 30 minutes if it weren’t for the fact that it requires so much contemplation. It could be read, but not rightly. It could be read and forgotten!

In fact, Psalm 119 celebrates the benefits of reflecting on, memorizing, keeping, and loving God’s word:

“My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (119:25)

“I will run in the way of your commandments
when you enlarge my heart.” (119:32)

“Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.” (119:105)

“I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.” (119:99)

That doesn’t take very long to read, does it?

But anyone can read. Even a demon. But not everyone can love God's word; this takes a rebirth of the heart.

I hope you are learning to enjoy and embrace God’s word. I hope that I am, too.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

God's Hand in Our Lives

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father;
We are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are the work of you hand.” (Isaiah 64:8)

The potter and the clay: a familiar picture for theologians, not to mention actual potters.

In declaring that we are “clay,” the Bible does not intend to strip us of our human qualities – e.g., dignity, volition, emotions, and so forth. In fact, a glance at the original context of this passage shows that the writer, the prophet, took comfort in being “clay” – he knew that he and his nation needed God’s hand in their lives.

It is the privilege of the Christian to know that God’s hand is in his (or her) life. But isn’t it true that we often acknowledge only his hand of blessing? When we perceive that he is answering a prayer, giving a gift, showing us the way to go – we are glad his hand is in our life.

But what about times of difficulty? Even then, God’s hand is in our life, shaping us.

However, if we are to be shaped into something beautiful and not misshapen, we need to accept what comes from God’s hand – both smooth and rough. As I said above, the illustration of “potter and clay” is not intended to remove our humanity: we still need to respond to God rightly. The verse I cited above begins “you are our Father.” While God will always have his way with us, this trusting relationship is what confirms that the potter's end product will be appealing.

As I write this, a new version of Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” is playing on my iPod. The words to this famous song of worship are, “Blessed be your name when the sun’s shining down on me / when the world’s all as it should be… Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering / Though there’s pain in the offering, blessed be your name.”

These are the words spoken by one for whom God is both “potter” and “Father.”

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Could this be the least known psalm in the Bible?

Psalm 114

When Israel went out from Egypt,
the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
Judah became his sanctuary,
Israel his dominion.

The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.

What ails you, O sea, that you flee?
O Jordan, that you turn back?
O mountains, that you skip like rams?
O hills, like lambs?

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,

at the presence of the God of Jacob,
who turns the rock into a pool of water,
the flint into a spring of water.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Jesus People

"You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." Matthew 1:21

So just who are "his people"? Who belongs to Jesus and is, therefore, saved?

Believe it or not, this is actually a subject we hear about quite a bit in the media. Take for example this fake news story from a turn-of-the-century edition of The Onion:

Christian Right Ascends To Heaven

TULSA, OK -- At the stroke of midnight, Jan. 1, 2000, the clouds opened above the Bible Belt and a golden staircase appeared for all born-again Christians who do not bear the Mark of the Beast to ascend into Heaven and enjoy Everlasting Salvation.

Night turned to day as Jesus Christ appeared at the top of the staircase in a blinding white sun-beam to select only 1,000 believers for ascension into Heaven, as outlined in the Book of Revelation.

"Follow Me," the bearded, unkempt Jew told His assembled flock as He unrolled a papyrus scroll bearing a list of names. The list was a veritable Who's Who of the Christian Right. "Pat Buchanan, Bob Dornan, Jerry Falwell, Fred Phelps, Ralph Reed, Trent Lott..." Jesus read on, as those named followed Him into the clouds.

Millionaire cable-TV executive and right-wing politician Pat Robertson smiled gleefully as he slowly climbed the stairs. "I've been waiting for this moment all my life," he said, his three-piece suit shimmering in the beatific glare.

"I am going to a place where everybody is like me, filled with Christian love and understanding," said conservative talk-show host and two-time presidential candidate Buchanan. "There will also be a shared hatred of gays."

(for rest of story click here)

While I don't necessarily share The Onion's animosity toward some of these figures, this satirical story raises a significant question: What's the connection between a first century (bearded, unkempt) Jew and 20th century (well dressed, polished) political conservatives?

In other words, just who are Jesus' people?

The beginning of the answer to this question is found in the verse cited above: "You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." Those who belong to Jesus are those who need to have their sins forgiven. They are sinners.

In fact, Matthew himself (the writer of the gospel) was a despised sinner - a tax collector. When Jesus saved him, he gave this famed explanation: "I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." See Matthew 9 for more details.

If there is one thing that Jesus' followers should not be known for, it's self-righteousness. When they are perceived as self-righteous, that's when the culture realizes something funny is going on:

"Remember, Jesus loves you," said Christ, waving from atop the golden staircase, flanked by Robertson, Buchanan and Falwell, who also waved down to the damned. "So long, suckers!" Falwell exclaimed.

This does not mean that Jesus' people remain sinners. Yes, they will sin. But sin no longer defines them, sin no longer enslaves them. After all, they are now Jesus' people.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Anniversary Party

Bible in the Basement turns 1 year old today!

It all began with this post and was followed by 161 more.

Like The Twilight Zone, it is difficult to describe exactly what is the theme of this blog. It is a mixture of devotional material, theological reflection, and social commentary. What links the varied posts together is my desire that each would provoke reflection on the Bible's implications for our lives or society. My hope is that those who read also stop to reflect.

I learned early on that most readers do not leave comments, though comments are always enjoyable. Yet I have been encouraged on an as-needed basis through emails or personal run-ins with readers. So for those who read, thanks for stopping by!

Oh, and make sure to visit the many fine sites linked from here!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Another Year of...

"Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
whom he has redeemed from trouble."
(Psalm 107:1-2)

The next 41 verses of this psalm celebrate the diverse ways in which God delivers those who call on his name. (Read it here.)

What's amazing is that these words were written some 2500 years ago. Today, as one who has experienced the grace of God, I enjoy the promises contained here. It seems that the word "forever" in this psalm is not mere hyperbole.

In the year of our Lord 2007, call on his name - and experience his enduring, steadfast love.


Lots of talk in the news this past week concerning the late Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. Most of the TV opinion class seem to think it was a good idea - in fact, a courageous one. But in one opinion piece that swims upstream, Slate commentator Timothy Noah expresses his disdain for the pardon.

You can read the whole piece here, but first check out this paragraph:

"Why was Ford wrong to pardon Nixon? Mainly because it set a bad precedent. Nixon had not yet been indicted, let alone convicted, of any crime. It's never a good idea to pardon somebody without at least finding out first what you're pardoning him for. How can you possibly weigh the quality of mercy against considerations of justice?"

Boy, this sure is fodder for a preacher! Apparently the idea of justice and mercy is alive and well in the American mind. And based on the above quotation, if we are going to understand God's mercy, we need to first stand trial and understand our guilt.

As the New Testament tells us:

"Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God." (Romans 3:19)

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

PS: Makeshift, is this another answer to your question from Friday's post?