Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ted Kennedy & King Manasseh: A Comparison

This is not a political blog; for one, I prefer to keep my political views largely to myself. For another, there are any number of bloggers who do that for a living, and whose insightsare most likely much more profound than mine would be. Having added that little disclaimer, I noticed on one of the sites I frequent a reference to the recent death of Sen. Ted Kennedy. To my surprise, several of the initial comments were so full of hatred and vitriol that I could scarcely believe what I was reading.

Now, I can't say that I approved of Sen. Kennedy's political leanings, nor many aspects of his personal life, but far be it from me to judge the contents of his heart and speculate on where he will be spending eternity.

It reminded me of the the life of Manasseh, King of Judah, told in 2 Kings 21:1-18 and later in 2 Chronicles 33:1-20.

King Manasseh “reigned in Jerusalem 55 years” (longer than Kennedy!), and “did evil in the eyes of the LORD,” even going so far as to sacrifice his own son in the fire, as an offering to the god Molech. 2 Kings 21:16 tells us that “moreover, Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end.” In addition to this, the king engaged in numerous forms of idolatry; worshiping the stars, practicing divination, sorcery and witchcraft, and even building altars to other gods in the temple of the Lord.

2 Chronicles 33 continues this unholy narrative by telling us that Manasseh “did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, provoking him to anger,” and that “[he] led Judah and the people of Jerusalem astray so that they did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites.”

As a result of this, the Lord brought about his capture by the Assyrians, who “took [him] prisoner, put a hook in his nose, bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon.” I suppose if the narrative stopped there, or ended with a story of his gruesome death at the hands of his captors, we might feel some sense of divine justice for the evil perpetrated by this wicked man, right?

But surprisingly, the account abruptly changes course. We read in vv. 12-13 that “In his distress he sought the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. And when he prayed to him, the LORD was moved by his entreaty and listened to his plea; so He brought him back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD is God.”

I won’t claim to know all that was in Ted Kennedy’s heart. But I will say that it is indeed possible that in his waning days he “sought the favor of the LORD,” as many are wont to do in the hour of their distress. And if he did, then I believe that God heard his prayers and reassured him of His great love for him.

How grateful I am that God’s love is so limitless – that He loves me abundantly and without measure, and that He pours out this love to all His sons and daughters, whether they acknowledge Him or not. For if God were as petty and capricious as I am in extending love and offering grace and mercy, what a wretched world this would be, and with what fear and trepidation would I contemplate death and eternity!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rachel's visit to Disneyland

We took our daughter to Disneyland this past weekend for her sixth birthday, and let me tell you, it was quite an experience. Even if you've been before (which I have), it's a whole different ballgame when you bring a young child on their first visit to this magical place.

First of all, I have to say that I think we made the right decision in waiting until now to take her there. Six seems about the right age for a child's first visit - they're tall enough to ride most of the rides, and old enough to not be scared of the full-size characters or the skeletons/pirates that some of the rides contain. Most importantly, they can walk - which means they don't have to be pushed or carried by mom or dad all day long.

Thanks to "Disney's Salute to the Military," we got quite a deal on our tickets and hotel room. Normally, the three-day passes would cost $179 each, but I was able to get a free ticket for myself and up to five others for only $93 apiece. We also received a 50% discount on our hotel room, which was quite nice. And being close to the monorail definitely was worth the extra bucks, as it saved us a ton of time and energy walking back and forth from the park to our hotel over two days.

Here's Rachel during the "Celebrate!" street party where she got to dance with the Disney characters. I think the look on her face says it all.

During our two-day visit, there were of course a number of memorable moments. But two stand out in my mind that pretty well summarize my daughter's character. The first occurred as we were walking around Sleeping Beauty's castle in the center of the park. I spied a character dressed as the evil queen from Snow White and asked Rachel if she wanted get her picture taken with her. She said yes so we got in line to wait our turn. When she got up there and got her picture, she turned to the queen and asked, "Is the reason you're so mean because no one gives you hugs?" The queen replied, "That could be part of it." Without hesitation, Rachel then stepped up and gave her a big hug before waving goodbye and skipping off. How cute is that?

The second memory that stands out in my mind was when we went to ride Space Mountain, Disneyland's fastest, scariest roller coaster which zips and zooms in complete darkness, save for some scattered points of light that are meant to represent stars. Ever the cautious mother, Tamara wasn't at all sure that it was a good idea, but I thought it would be okay. We loaded into our "rocket ships" with Rachel sitting next to me and Tamara behind us. As we crept up the first big hill with all the flashing lights preparing us for takeoff, Rachel could barely contain her excitement. The next moment we were plunged into darkness, spinning round and round, up and down with no clue as to what was coming next. I felt her hand squeezing mine tightly, but because of the darkness I couldn't see the expression on her face. At that point, I became a bit worried. Maybe this was too much for her. Maybe she was getting scared, or worse - nauseous. What had I done to my little girl? All my fears evaporated as we slowed down and came back into the station. With a look of pure joy, Rachel beamed up at me and exclaimed, "THAT WAS AWESOME!" So it appears that I'm not the only adrenaline junkie in the family...

Of course, one can't visit a place like Disneyland with a small child and not spend a small fortune on candy, snacks, drinks, etc. And we were no exception. Normally, like most responsible parents, we try to limit our kids' sugar intake and provide healthy alternatives - like fruit (especially strawberries & blueberries, which she loves) to satisfy the ever-present sweet tooth. Well, we made an exception this time, and I think me must've tried most of the sweet stuff they had to offer - from cotton candy to Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream bars. Here's Rachel inside the giant sweet shop on Main St. looking like, well, a kid in a candy store. I can't remember what we bought in there, but obviously it made her very, very happy!

So that's about it. Obviously, there's much, much more to tell - princesses and fairies and Mickey and Goofy and pirates and castles... but suffice it to say that it was without a doubt her best birthday yet and Disneyland still lives up to its name as "The Happiest Place on Earth" - at least in the mind of one particular six-year-old!
Happy 6th Birthday, Rachel!
We love you!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sex in the Bible

I don't think I've ever done "book review" before, but in this case I'll make an exception. You see, I'm doing a paper for a seminary class on sex and marriage in the Old Testament and as part of my research I've been reading a book titled Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration by J. Harold Ellens. According to his biography, Dr. Ellens is "a retired Presbyterian theologian, an ordained minister, a retired U.S. Army colonel (chaplain), and a retired professor of philosophy, theology, and psychology." One would think that a person with such an impressive resume would have some worthwhile things to say on a number of theological issues, right? At least, that's what I thought - until I read his book.

Ellens' main purpose in writing this book is to point out that many Christian assumptions regarding sexuality are misguided, misunderstood or misinterpreted. He attempts to "set the record straight" on such topics as polygamy, homosexuality, adultery, and morality. So far, so good. In fact, such a work would be a welcome addition as an attempt to integrate one's faith in daily living. But Ellens goes far beyond that noble goal by injecting his own brand of morality, making assumptions that lack biblical support or evidence, and by sexualizing biblical passages that strain the credulity of any astute reader. Allow me to quote some passages from the book:

"The most interesting thing about sex in the Bible is the fact that the Bible does not moralize sex. It simply takes a matter-of-fact view of sex as a central human reality, like eating, sleeping, hunting, gathering, building, and worshipping. That is, the Bible thinks of sexuality as a common form of human creative expression. You could even say that the Bible simply thinks of sex as a valuable form of human communication and connection, and that is all there is to it."

"The Bible... assumes that sexual communion between consenting adults who have a meaningful friendship is a natural, normal, and desirable form of communication and sharing."

"The Bible... is aggressively against... promiscuous sex, incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, adultery, homosexual behavior by heterosexual persons, and rape. It almost never mentions all other kinds of sexual behavior and assumes they are being practiced by humankind, universally, and are essential to life of God's Shalom: peace and prosperity. These would include sexual union within marriage, sexual communion between unmarried consenting adults within a meaningful friendship, and premarital sexuality between persons exploring the possibility of, or engaged in a potential marriage contract."

"The Bible says nothing about sexual relationship between two unmarried adults who have a meaningful friendship but do not intend engagement or marriage. The Bible assumes it is taking place in that it is normal; as natural a thing for humans to do as are any other forms of intimate communication."

The problem with these statements is that Ellens never qualifies them. That is, he never gives any biblical (or other) rationale for why he believes these things to be true - he just puts them out there and I guess we're all supposed to be persuaded by the weight of his many degrees and life experience. I will concede that the Bible does appear to be silent on the issue of premarital sex - at least in the New Testament, since the definition of "fornication" can be debated - but this hardly means that one can just "assume" that God is in favor of it. In the OT, premarital sex was analogous to marriage; that is, if you had sex with a virgin, you were obligated to marry her (Ex. 22:16, Deut. 22:28-29). There was an implied commitment with sleeping together that assumes that lifelong marriage is intended. Indeed, for a woman to be found not to be a virgin at the time of her wedding was grounds for her stoning (Deut. 22:1321), since such promiscuity was seen to be a disgraceful thing.

By contrast, Ellens seems to adopt the "silence is consent" method of morality - that is, unless something is expressly forbidden, it must be okay. He seems to conveniently overlook the fact that many of the modern moral dilemmas faced by us today have no mention in Scripture simply because such things as in-vitro fertilization, cloning, euthanasia, etc. were not envisioned by biblical writers. Other issues such as masturbation and abortion are not expressly mentioned either. This doesn't mean we can't uncover moral guidelines that pertain to these issues, but we don't necessarily look to the Bible to address them specifically. Ellens neatly sidesteps the moral quandary he may find himself in by simply referring to a lack of explicit biblical criticism, then shrugging his shoulders as if to say, "It must not matter then." As to where he gets this whole "meaningful relationship" thing - and what that means exactly - I have no idea.

One of the most preposterous statements made by Ellens is his claim that "obviously...heaven is a setting of holy promiscuity, where we shall enjoy total union with everyone who really delights us." He reaches this conclusion by recounting the story in Mark 12:18-27 where the Sadducees came to Jesus with the story about the widow and her seven husbands, asking whose wife she would be at the resurrection. Jesus replied, "when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven." Call me unenlightened, but this doesn't seem to be an "obvious" conclusion to make in this case.

I won't go into his whole chapter on homosexuality, but one claim he makes at the outset is quite telling. He says that "Recent brain tissue studies persuade us that sexual orientation is inborn and preset at conception." Since one of the key arguments in favor of legitimizing homosexuality has long been that they were merely "born that way," it is obviously in their favor to find some evidence to support this assertion. But in Ellens' case, of course, he cites no particular study to buttress this argument - he just throws it out there and hopes (again) that no one will notice his lack of scholarly support.

In case it isn't immediately obvious by now, I found this whole book to be an exercise in frustration. No doubt there are some good and healthy views to be gleaned from its pages, but they are overshadowed (in my view) by the specious claims of the author whose effort, if not his intent, is to make Christian sexuality no different from the ambiguous morality of the surrounding culture.

Thanks, but no thanks.