Thursday, March 13, 2014


John 3:1-17

Nicodemus was embarrassed. Obviously.

I mean, he waited until it was dark to talk to Jesus, who Nico's fellow Pharisees thought was a dangerous heretic.

And Nico's first words to Jesus implied he was impressed by the Nazarene but unsure who he really was.

“Rabbi,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus sounds like someone who doesn’t know what he’s thinking until he says words and then examines them to see what he thinks about them.

Very likely, he’s hoping Jesus’ response will cut through his fog and tell him exactly who he is.

“You got it, Nic,” Jesus could have said. “I have come from God. In fact, I AM God. Get it? I AM.”

But that’s not the way the conversation goes. Brushing aside Nicodemus’ tentative words, Jesus abruptly declares that Nicodemus doesn’t have a clue and will never have a clue until he is born again. Or, in other translations, born from above.

Either way, Nicodemus’ doubts are not assuaged. He has come to Jesus an agnostic, and – unable to interpret Jesus’ puzzling aphorisms – departs an agnostic.

This inability to fully believe something must have been unsettling for a Pharisee, who made his living by following clear-cut rules and fully accepting the tiniest esoterica of the law.

We have tended to deride Nicodemus at this stage of his faith development because he cannot grasp what Jesus is telling him. We know, of course, what Jesus means by “born again,” and we chuckle behind Nicodemus’ back because he doesn’t know.

But if we think about it more charitably, perhaps Nicodemus can be forgiven his agnosticism.

“The trouble with the world,” said Bertrand Russell, one of the great agnostics of the 20th century, “is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Christians and other persons of faith have not always agreed with Dr. Russell, but we can certainly affirm the truth of that. Just about everyone we know – at family reunions, in class, at the office, in church – is either stupidly cocksure or intelligently full of doubt.

Yet for Christians, doubt is such an opprobrium. Doubt implies spiritual weakness. Doubt implies disrespect for God. Doubt is – well, it’s downright embarrassing.

Be that as it may, doubt is not only common among us – it is universal.

Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian scholar and pastor, puts it this way:

An agnostic is somebody who doesn't know for sure whether there really is a God. That is some people all of the time and all people some of the time.There are some agnostics who don't know simply because they've never taken pains to try to find out—like the bear who didn't know what was on the other side of the mountain.There are other agnostics who have taken many pains. They have climbed over the mountain, and what do you think they saw? Only the other side of the mountain. At least that was all they could be sure of. That faint glimmer on the far horizon could have been just Disneyland.
Agnostics generally fall on both sides of the Bertrand Russell divide. Some are cocksure and never bother to think about God while others work hard to rationalize their doubts.

Having been in that latter category myself, off and on throughout my life, I tend to admire those who keep coming back to reexamine their doubts. 

Like many Baptists, my faith was at its pinnacle when I went forward during an evangelical service to be born again. My doubts were few when I was re-baptized by immersion at the age of 20. I have felt God’s presence, powerfully and palpably, on many occasions, especially when I sat beside my dying mother’s bed to read the 23rd Psalm to her.

But these moments did not seal my faith and on other occasions I wonder if God is a figment of my imagination. An unexpected life crisis, the inexplicable death of a precious friend who had much to live for, or unspeakable tragedies such as the shooting deaths of 26 innocents at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, make one wonder if there is a God in charge. Or is the universe random and ungoverned?

It is entirely capricious that mountain top moments of unequivocal faith are balanced throughout our lives in dark valleys of doubt.

One of my early mentors was a Roman Catholic priest from Detroit, an Air Force chaplain named Dick Kucharski. Most of the airmen called him Father Kuch, and he was a man of deep faith and a superb spiritual leader. Masses overflowed with single airmen who responded to his compassion and charisma.

But as his assistant, I saw Father Kuch in his moments of doubt. His lowest moments were carnal, as is the case with most of us. And when he watched a particularly beautiful woman pass by, you could feel his pain – and his doubts. “If there’s no heaven,” he whispered to me on one such occasion, “I am so screwed.”

Years later I heard Father Kuch resigned from the Air Force, left the priesthood, and got married in Detroit. I remember thinking at the time that this career change probably salved his doubts and saved his soul.

If I learned anything from Father Kuch, it was that the detritus of doubt clutters our path to salvation, and faith is a constant struggle.

I confess that is one reason I have never favored the evangelical approach that presents faith as a simple certainty, or warns that a failure to invite Jesus into one’s heart may result in eternal damnation. 

That kind of cocksure sales approach is a manipulative ruse, and ignores Paul’s plea to the church at Philippi to continue working out their salvation “with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)

The main problem with being cocksure about something is that you never have to reexamine it. You never get the opportunity to reflect on whether you’re right or wrong. 

We may feel justified in declaring  “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Certainly it saves time spent in thought. But too often, the declaration prevents you from going back to God to make sure you’re right. 

Doubt, on the other hand, requires you to continually reexamine your faith, clarifying it, improving it, certifying it.

Jesus talked to Nicodemus about the distinctions between the flesh and the spirit, and the Pharisee was befuddled by doubt. “How can these things be?” he asked.

Jesus responded, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:10-12)

The point Jesus is leading up to, of course, is the one we quote at each other all the time:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

In fact, it is precisely that statement that we tend not to think about. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

But for Nicodemus, the conversation with Jesus was the beginning of a profound mental struggle that called into question all of his Pharisaical assumptions and legalistic faith.

Unlike most other Pharisees, who were cocksure they were right and Jesus was wrong, Nicodemus continued to nurse his doubts.

In the end, he was rewarded with a revelation that was impossible for his cocksure brethren. That revelation was a sudden understanding that God had indeed sent his only son into the world, and faith in that son was the foundation of salvation.

Soon, Nicodemus was risking the ridicule of the chief priests and Pharisees by defending Jesus in their councils.

And when Jesus’ own disciples fled from him at the time of his crucifixion, Nicodemus was present to arrange for his burial. (John 19:39)

Doubt had brought Nicodemus a long way.

No doubt he, like all of us, continued to struggle with his doubts.

But it is always the struggle that tests our faith, affirms it, and strengthens it in the end.

In a world that is divided between the cocksure and the doubters, it seems obvious:

The place to enjoy the highest quality interaction with God is with the doubters.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Old Scratch

Matthew 4:1-11. Jesus is tempted by the devil in the Wilderness.

Back in the day, before YouTube and DVDs, Christian educators provided Sunday schools with bible comic books. When a child’s imagination failed, a comic book artist provided images of Jesus.

The comic book Jesus I recall imitated traditional images of Salman’s Head of Christ. Comic book Jesus’ long hair and beard were India ink black, and he walked around with a finger evocatively crooked to emphasize the points of his sermons.

Other than Jesus, the most easily recognized character in the comics was the Devil. 

Satan was drawn with a pointy goatee and horns, and his face was frozen in a seductive leer. He was too scary looking to convince anyone of the joys of sinning. But we never doubted that the real Satan looked just like the villain in the comics.

At some point in our psychological maturing, just after we imagined Satan as a horned imp with hoofs and just before we concluded there was no such thing as a real devil, we had to wonder. What does Satan look like?

In the 2000 Coen brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou?  three white escaped convicts pick up a black hitchhiker. In 1930s Alabama, this is an act of unusual largess, but the convicts are endearingly eccentric.

The hitchhiker is carrying a guitar, and the convicts ask him what he has been up to. The young man admits he has just sold his soul to the devil.

“What’d the devil give you for your soul, Tommy?” asks one of the convicts.

“Well, he taught me to play this here guitar real good.”

The convicts are appalled.

“Oh son, for that you sold your everlasting soul?”

The hitchhiker shrugs sadly. “Well, I wasn’t usin’ it.”

But the convicts want to know more.

“I’ve always wondered,” asked one. “What's the devil look like?”

One of the convicts, a pseudo-intellectual played by George Clooney, offers an opinion:

“Well, there are all manner of lesser imps and demons … but the great Satan hisself is red and scaly with a bifurcated tail, and he carries a hay fork.”

The hitchhiker demurs.

“Oh, no. No, sir. He's white, as white as you folks, with empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He likes to travel around with a mean old hound.”

How many of you think the devil is white? If you do, you wouldn't be alone. In A Black Theology of Liberation, African American theologian James Cone rejects a God who loves white oppressors as much as he loves their victims. Cone preferred the more aggressive activism of Malcolm X, who initially thought of white people as devils, and discounted the non-violent movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

But if the devil is not white, what does he look like?
Most of us grew with a looming image of Satan in “Night on Bald Mountain,” an excerpt in Walt Disney’s pre-psychedelic animated feature Fantasia. The winged devil elevates himself to a great and menacing height in the darkness.   If Disney’s sinister animation and dark strains of Mussorgsky’s music don’t give you the creeps, nothing will.

Another great cinematic images of Satan was provided by Robert DeNiro. This is not surprising because DeNiro has been equally convincing as a deranged taxi driver, charming mobsters, brutal boxers, and even Frankenstein’s monster. In the 1987 film noir Angel Heart, DeNiro plays Louis Cyphre, which translates to Lucifer. His nom de guerre seems too obvious but the other characters don’t recognize who he really is until the end of the film. And he has chosen “Louis Cyphre,” DeNiro’s character explains, because “Mephistopheles is such a mouthful.” 

Louis Cyphre has shoulder-length black hair. He has long, delicately manicured fingernails, and an unctious charm that is at once reassuring and threatening. In Cyphre’s most disquieting scene, he slowly and meticulously cracks the shell of a hardboiled egg, noting “You know, some religions think that the egg is the symbol of the soul.” 

The thing all these devils have in common is that they are easy to identify. Most of us would recognize these devils in the wilderness. Only blind fools would succumb to their wiles.

But what if the devil came to us not in the desert, but in our homes, on the Internet, on television, or in the mall? 

And what if he were not so easy to recognize?

When God created each of us, God had unique plans for us: plans for the way we would look and plans for how we would use our special gifts to serve God. Our bone structure, height, weight, genetic disposition, personality, and talents are all gifts of God. And any external pressure to get us to change those gifts may be demonic.

Do you see Satan in the pages of a magazine, or in television advertising?

Consider the effect these media have on most of us, especially adolescent girls. They place before us an unrealistic and generally unnatural ideal of beauty that convinces most of us we are woefully inadequate.

According to one study, the average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 140 pounds. The average model is 5 feet 11 inches and weighs 120 pounds.

And 5 feet 11 inches is a reasonably healthy weight. Many models are pressed to diet themselves into skeletal specters. 

Some, including 19-year-old Bethaney Wallace and 28 year-old Isabelle Caro, died of anorexia while they were still modeling. Caro weighed 60 pounds when she posed, reclining and staring balefully over her right shoulder, for an advertising campaign for the Italian fashion label Nolita in 2007. She was 5 feet 4 inches tall.

As tragic as these stories are, it is even sadder that uncounted thousands of young girls believe these models present essential standards of beauty. These girls believe they are too short, too fat, and not pretty enough. 

If this is not succumbing to satanic temptation, what is? 

When children of God disregard the beauty God has given them to pursue an unnatural standard of beauty, and whenever they discard their God-given talents to obsess about this unnatural beauty, it’s the work of the devil.

The problem is, it doesn’t look like the devil. It looks like creative media advertising. 

According to reports, nearly all magazine cover photos of female celebrities have been altered to make them appear younger, prettier, and skinnier than they actually are. 

Only a handful of women – BeyoncĂ© and Kate Winslet to name two – have told this Satan to get behind them. “My legs are not that skinny,” Winslet told one magazine publisher. “I like my legs the way they are.”

Human nature being what it is, it’s doubtful we will learn to be grateful for the bodies, faces, and – yes – male pattern baldness God has given us, or to truly believe that if this is the way God has made us, we must be beautiful. 

And the reason for that, perhaps, is that we don’t quite believe a poor self-image is a trick of the devil.

There are so many other devils who beguile us without our full recognition of who we are dealing with.

Sports heroes may be compelling models for kids who aspire to the playing field, and we can name scores of athletes who set high standards. But when the athletes are found to be using steroidal shortcuts to sinewy superiority, it’s probable the devil made them do it.

Most of the time we allow the devil to slink into our lives because he is an attractive sort who we’d like to know better. Most often, he’s a hot specimen of the opposite sex. 

Almost as often, he’s a special friend at the office who convinces you the bosses will never notice if you “borrow” a few offices supplies. 

He’s a likable peer at school who convinces you everyone is snorting a few lines of cocaine, or teaches you how to lift a few items from Kohl’s. 

He’s a charismatic politician who fuels your resentment toward members of the community who are not like you.

And – and this is important to note – he’s a preacher quoting scripture. 

Jesus easily deflected the devil’s scriptural assaults in the wilderness, but that never stopped the devil from using scripture to justify his godless schemes.

Ever since the encounter in the wilderness, the devil and his minions have been quoting scripture to make the most transparent evil seem to be God’s holy will.

Scripture quoting preachers sent bloody crusades into the Holy Land to slaughter Muslims in the name of Jesus.

Scripture quoting preachers justified hideous tortures of so-called heretics who confessed the same Lord they did.

Scripture quoting preachers justify declarations of war by one Christian nation against another.

Scripture quoting preachers justify human slavery.

Scripture quoting preachers justify the exclusion of women from leadership in the church.

Scripture quoting preachers justify the exclusion and persecution of gays and lesbians in the church and throughout society. 

Often scripture quoting preachers hope to disguise their true colors. But whenever you hear someone declaring, “God hates Muslims,” or “God hates fags,” you can be sure they are preaching Satan’s sermon.

In most other cases, however, it’s not easy to recognize Satan. And if he isn’t presenting himself with horns and a tail, how will we know it’s him?

Jesus gave us a clue to that when he sent Satan on his way in the wilderness.

“Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Those who worship the Lord in spirit and in truth have discovered something very distinctive about our God.
Our God is love.

The God of love does not ask you to hate or exclude other members of the human race, or to seek their destruction, or to despise them because they are different, or to minimize their significance because of their gender. 

Nor does the God of love urge you to despise yourself because you don’t think you are pretty enough, or skinny enough, or popular enough.

Whenever these kinds of thoughts get into your head, you can be sure they are not from God, or from Jesus who told you the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbors as you love yourself.

Any attempt to confuse you on these points is from the devil. That is why he is called the deceiver, the adversary, the enemy, and the father of lies.

And sometimes it’s very hard to recognize old Scratch when he appears at your door. 

But he will always give himself away by his inability to steer you in the direction of God’s unconditional love, for one another and for yourself.