Friday, June 1, 2012

Doing the Snake Watusi

Note: I just finished writing this blog, and as I read through it I realize that I’m coming across as seriously peeved. Reason is that I am. So, let this serve both as my apology and my fair warning.

Funny thing happened on my way to the blog this afternoon. I had a nice piece all planned out, then I made the mistake of detouring to Drudge. Once there, I spotted a story about a snake-handling preacher who died after being bitten by a rattler ( Intrigued, I clicked and read.

Turns out the story was more about the angst of the photojournalist who watched Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford die following a chomp on the thigh by a rattlesnake. She wrestled with her guilt at not doing something, and the story seemed to be part of a cathartic justification process. For me, though, her emotional/spiritual/professional struggle was much less of a concern, than was the fact that this guy died a ridiculously stupid death.

George Went Hensley
In Mark 16:15-18 (part of a much-disputed portion of the Gospel that most likely either was never in the original or was added later to fill in for a portion that was lost), Jesus is commissioning the disciples. “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.’ ”

Somewhere around 1910, George Went Hensley, a rural Tennessee pastor, read these words and got it in his twisted mind that God wanted him to start dancing with snakes – thereby ignoring the passage’s historical context, cultural context, literary context, immediate biblical context, broader biblical context, and Just-using-the-brain-God-put-in-your-head-Common-sensical-Don’t-put-the-Lord-to-the-test-Them-things’ve-got-fangs-Really?-I-mean-really? context. And once Pastor George started doing the snake watusi, a number of other Pentecostal churches said, “Whoa, that looks like fun. Where can I get me some snakes?”

The purpose of this “act of worship” is to prove one’s deep faith through obedience to one of Jesus’ most risky commands. The problem with the obedience tack is that Jesus never commanded anyone to pick up snakes. In fact, looking at the Greek tells us that the only command in the whole passage is to preach the good news. Accidentally picking up snakes without harm is simply a sign of God’s protection over them, as Paul proved on the island of Malta (an incident that still gives me the heebies whenever I read it).

Now, my purpose in this post is not to convince any of you not to pick up snakes – my guess is that most of you are firmly in the non-shake-rattler-and-roll camp (and I’m quite aware that I’ve been woefully remiss at tapping the Appalachian blog-reader market). What concerns me in all this is just how twisted we can get as the result of bad hermeneutics, i.e., principles for interpreting the Bible.

Pastor Randy "Mack" Wolford
As Pastor Wolford’s life slowly drained, his congregants stood by praying and waiting for God to heal him. His own mother, who had lost her husband to the same insanity thirty years earlier, stroked his feet as he passed. She said, “It’s still the Word, and I want to go on doing what the Word says.”

But it’s not what the Word says!

Wolford’s sister said, “His faith is what took him home.” And I want to scream, “No! It was ignorance! It was bad theology! It was deception! It was the toxic venom of crotalus horridus! Whatever it was, it wasn’t faith – and it certainly wasn’t God!” I commend their deep faith, but faith in a lie gets you nowhere. I can have faith that my mini-Schnauzer is going to start gakking up gold bars, but if I quit my job and wait for it to happen, then I have no one to blame but myself when the bank comes and takes my home.

Please don’t get me wrong – I hurt for Wolford’s family. They’ve lost a loved one. No two ways about it. But it didn’t have to happen. When we take Scripture out of context, we can end up using it to justify anything we want – dancing with snakes, baptizing for the dead, confessing through a priest, creating a Melchizedek priesthood, keeping women quiet in the church, beating the snot out of our kids, picketing the funerals of servicemen, picketing the funerals of gays. Hey, you got a cause? I’ve got a verse.

Pray for the Wolford family. They’re dealing with a huge, painful loss right now, and chances are it won’t be the last hole that unnecessarily gets drilled into their hearts. Pray for the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia, and others like it. Ask God to let them see the truth of His Word.

Finally, pray for yourself. Ask the Lord to protect you from deceptions, to keep you near His truth. Commit to yourself and to Him that anytime you hear something new, exciting, strange, or hinky, anytime you get tempted to walk a different direction from the one the Holy Spirit set you on at conversion, you’ll check it out deeper, you’ll seek some wise counsel, you’ll pray long and hard before you leap.

Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s two posts in a row I’ve gotten preachy. I am now officially stepping off my soapbox – but I’m still keeping it close by, just in case.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

St. Peter the Weasel

Okay, I realize that the title of this blog might be slightly inflammatory. And, I will readily admit that this descriptor of Peter is not my first choice. Unfortunately, that particular first choice would have greatly offended most of my Yiddish, etymologically-wary readers (of whom I have a groys kibets), and was probably even more inflammatory than “weasel”.

However, as controversial as that title is, the reasoning behind my assigning this appellation to the guy Jesus decided to build His church upon is sound. Bear with me – you just might end up agreeing with me.

This morning at Men’s Bible Study we were finishing up the Gospel of John. This meant that we were coming to what I believe is one of the most awkward passages of the Bible. The resurrected Christ is on the shore. Peter, realizing the guy who just scored them a 153 fish catch was Jesus, immediately dove into the lake and swam to shore (one of the reasons it's hard not to love the weasel).

After a fish dinner, Jesus and Peter have a confab. And here’s where things get a wee bit uncomfortable. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him, and three times Peter answers “Yeah.” Now, before I lose you folks who are saying, “Oh, Steve’s just going to do the Greek agape (true, sacrificial, you-first love) vs. phileo (brotherly, fond of, groovy kind of love) thing again”, don’t bail yet. Stick with me at least until my a-ha moment, then feel free take a powder if you so desire.

The way it reads in the Greek, and thus in our translations, has Jesus asking Peter if he agapes him and Peter finding himself utterly unable to speak that word in return. Seriously, it’s worse than watching Fonzie try to force out the words “I’m sorry”.

Jesus: Peter, do you agape me?

Peter: Yes, Lord, I aga-ga-aga-agaga-phileo you.

Two times we have to witness this awkward scene, as we squirm in our pews. I want to scream out, “Dude, just say the stinkin’ word! You can work out the existential details later!”

Finally, Jesus, tiring of the whole scene, asks Peter if he phileos Him. Peter, excited that Jesus is finally speaking his language, quickly answers in the affirmative.

Now, this is the way I have always preached this. And this is the way I have always heard it preached – Jesus fast-balling agape, and Peter the weasel bunting back phileo. Then, this morning, I had one of those moments that was half inspiration and half duh. And it got me thinking; maybe Peter isn’t such a weasel after all.

When we read our NIVs or NASBs or NLTs or whatever version du jour you prefer, we are reading a translation from the original Greek. The problem is that Peter and Jesus were not speaking Greek. They were speaking Aramaic – a Hebrew derivative that was the common language of Israel. Now, I’m no Aramaic expert, but I do know how to Google. And from what I’ve read today, there appears to be only one primary word for “love” in the Aramaic language, and certainly nothing as finely differentiated as agape vs. phileo.

Thus, that after-dinner parley most likely sounded something like this:

Jesus: Peter, do you love me?

Peter: Yes, Lord, I love you.

In other words, it was just like my English translation told me before I learned enough Greek to mess it up. Peter is getting less and less weaselly by the minute.

The next obvious question is, “Then, what’s up with the Greek version of the events? Was John just stirring up trouble?” Peter himself puts the kibosh on that thought when he writes in 2 Peter 1:20-21, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” These words aren’t John’s; they are the Lord’s.

While the Aramaic word Jesus and Peter used was the same, the Holy Spirit is using the Greek to give us a look into the inner workings of Peter’s heart. Jesus asked him if he loved Him – meaning with a true, sacrificial kind of love. Peter confidently replied that he did love Jesus  a very true statement. But the Spirit lets us know that they’re talking about two different things. Peter’s love wasn’t to the depth that it needed to be. He wasn’t quite ready yet to lay it all on the line for Christ. He only had that phileo-level love.

Now, if I’m going to point my finger at Peter for telling Jesus that he loved Him with a love short of complete sacrifice, then I better be sure to have another finger pointing back at myself. How many Sunday mornings do I sing songs of praise, pledging my undying and completely devoted love to Christ, while in truth my heart falls far short of that mark? How many times have I prayed, fully offering myself to Christ, only to reflect back a week later and realize my spiritual batting average should have landed me on the first bus back to the minors?

So, was Peter a weasel? Yeah. But no more so than I am or any of us are. The beauty of it all, though, is that Jesus loves the little weasels, all the weasels of the world. And He died for us. And He rose again. And He offers us weasels a free gift of a heavenly eternity with Him, where we will be able to finally love Him with a pure, righteous, utterly non-weaselly love.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Surprising Prayer

Just been doing some reading this afternoon in Destiny of the Republic, a book about the assassination of President James Garfield (half the blog readership is saying, “Wow, you really are a dork,”; one quarter is saying, “Wow, that actually sounds kinda cool,”; and one quarter is saying, “Garfield was assassinated? Betcha dollars to donuts that Odie was behind it.”). In the background, I had the preliminaries to the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race on.

As I read, I heard something that forced me to put my book down. Darrell Waltrip was giving an invocation (i.e., prayer). I was blown away as they panned across the crowds. Tens of thousands of people standing quietly, respectfully, hats off, eyes closed, as the Lord’s blessing was asked upon a sporting event. When Waltrip finished, a bagpipe quartet launched into an emotional Amazing Grace. As I watched, two thoughts kept going through my mind: “This is so cool!” and “This is on national TV?”
The opening ceremonies were concluded by a 21-gun salute followed by Taps, an excellent rendition of the National Anthem by a Blowfishless Hootie, and an awe-inspiring flyover by a B-52. Truly, one of the greatest intros to a sporting event that I’ve seen in quite a while.

I’m not sure why this all caught me so off-guard. I guess I’ve simply realized how sad it is that I should be this surprised over a prayer on TV. It just seems so non-televisiony – like it’s violating some law governing the separation between Church and Tube. Church belongs to God; television (except for the obligatory Sunday morning services and the very rare TBN show that does not worship the twin gods, Clairol and Maybelline) belongs to the other guy.

I’m old enough to remember the Billy Graham Crusades on TV (not that I really appreciated them interrupting my latest update on the happenings in the Cunningham family). I also remember the Waltons praying over their meals, something I have a hard time picturing the Kardashians or the Griffins doing. I know that it’s possible to have non-buffoon, non-bigotted, loving, caring Christians portrayed on the little screen.
Now, before I start sounding too much like a bitter, curmudgeonly old man (“Yeah, back in my day we only had three stations and they all showed the Jerry Lewis Telethon straight through the entire Labor Day weekend…and we liked it!” [said in bitter, curmudgeonly old man voice]), I realize that times have changed, that culture has changed, and that the Christian gray area has greatly expanded. I guess I’d just like to give an internet fist bump to NASCAR and Fox for reminding the nation that this is Sunday, that God still matters, and that people do still pray.

Oh, gotta go. Fox is showing a promo for their awesome new dating show “Take Me Out” where 30 ladies get to choose between various eligible bachelors. Looks fascinating. Wonder who’s giving their invocation?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Stop All This Living!

Been spending a little time this morning reading through stories on the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website ( in preparation for Sunday. Talk about highs and lows of emotion. The stories of complete sacrifice by these men (and one woman – Dr. Mary Walker from the Battles of Bull Run, Chickamauga, and Atlanta) read like scenes from the best war-thriller novels – storming bunkers, jumping on grenades, carrying out wounded comrades, charging lines.

What’s different about these stories, however, is that right in the middle of reading about a soldier running ahead despite being mortally wounded, reality hits. These aren’t characters in a novel. These are real people. This really happened. Because of this man’s sacrifice, many actual families would have a chance to see their loved ones again. Because of this man’s sacrifice, his actual family wouldn’t.

I am so soft – so comfortable. Here are these men who sacrificed their own lives to help save someone else’s life. Yet here I am struggling with the willpower to get myself off the couch in order to go across my quiet, suburban street to help save someone’s soul.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than to lay down their life for a friend.” Now, unless I’m way off base on my eschatological interpretations, I’m figuring that the chances are remote that I’ll ever be called on to do this (besides that, I’m much too old for the military to want me, and, with the Great Red Menace gone the way of month-old borscht, my dreams of becoming one of the Wolverines are out the window, too). So, if I’m not going to be called on to physically lay down my life for another, how else can I lay it down?

I am so soft – so comfortable. Yet Christ calls me to something more. Galatians 2:20 says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” I’m doing way too much living. How can I lay down my life? By laying down my ease, laying down my comfort, laying down my hobbies, laying down my time, laying down my remote.

I don’t typically like to write this heavy, but this is where my study today has left me. Thinking. Mulling. Wondering just what all I need to change, so that along with Paul I can stop doing all this living and, finally, really start doing some living.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

God in a Box

A good buddy of mine came over to fix my sprinklers yesterday. A couple weeks ago, when I had turned my outside water back on, things started happening that were not necessarily supposed to be happening. The fact that there was a problem was quite apparent; what that problem was, however, was far beyond where my limited expertise in sprinklerology could take me. So, Mick came over, quickly diagnosed it as a dual problem – stuck valve and bad sprinkler head – and said, “Let me go to my truck and get my plumbing box.”

Now, to someone like me who has a/one/uno box (sparsely populated with various orphaned sockets, a random assortment of screwdrivers, a hammer, and a long spool of heavy gauge wire which must have spontaneously generated in that dark, murky environ since I can think of no situation in which I would have actually purchased, let alone used, such an item), the fact that Mick has a box specific just to plumbing issues causes a bit of envy and no small amount of awe. You got a problem? Mick’s got just the box to fix it!

That put me in mind of a story I read a few days ago out of 1 Samuel 4. The Israelites and the Philistines were tussling again. A battle took place at Ebenezer, and the Israelites got the wood taken to them. After licking their wounds, they realize they’re faced with a situation – how do they defeat a Philistine army that is bigger, stronger, and better armed than they are.

Then, somebody spoke up, “Uh…don’t we have a box for that?”

And they did. They had the God-box – that fancy little Ark of the Covenant thing that pretty much just sat around Shiloh gathering dust while the Israelites did the hand-jive with Baal and Ashtoreth. Next thing you know, the Israelite army is lined up again ready to go – their God of Surpassing Crateness leading the way, attended by Eli the High Priest’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas (two guys who could give Charlie Sheen a lesson or two on “Winning”).

You’ve probably figured out the rest. Armies meet, Israel crumbles like a bunch of broccoli, the ark is captured, Hophni and Phinehas are killed (and all God’s people said…), and Eli, upon hearing the news of the captured ark, dies in such a way so as to have every teacher in every school in every nation crying out, “See, I told you so!”

Now, jumping 3,000 years forward, it’s easy for us to say, “Silly Israelites, you should know you can’t put God in a box.” However, I think I’ll hold off a minute before I condescendingly pat them on their theologically ignorant little heads and send them on their way. Because as I do a 20/20 hindsight over my life, I’m a bit ashamed to see how many boxes I’ve tried to stuff God into.

My most recent attempts centered on the comfortable staff position I had at my previous church and my steadily growing retirement nest egg. As long as I had those two things, I was confident I could weather most storms that came my way. Then God took away my first little box, which ultimately resulted in my second little box doing a disappearing act. It took me losing everything before I could finally realize that my everything was really nothing. God wasn’t in those boxes. And if that’s what I was counting on for my peace and security, my hope was empty.

We all walk around with our little deity cartons. They may be in the shape of our wallet, our job, our retirement, our marriage, our kids, our church, our friends, our education – anything that we put our trust in other than God Himself. Problem is every one of these things can let us down or be taken from us, just ask Job (who lost everything but at least kept his wife and friends, which is somewhat akin to saying that Katniss Everdeen lost everything but at least kept President Coin and the leadership of District 13 [yeah, we’ll score that one Culturally Relevant Steve – 1 / Middle-Aged, Sore-Jointed, Bifocal-Wearing Father Who’s Still Mourning Steve Perry’s Departure From Journey Steve – 0]).

In Psalm 20:7, David writes, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” And when we put our trust in the true God – not the God we try to stuff in our little boxes – we know we are in safe hands that will never let us down.