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Paul, by Frederick Buechner

He wasn’t much to look at. “Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose.” Years after his death that’s the way the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes him, and Paul himself quotes somebody who had actually seen him: “His letters are strong, but his bodily presence is weak” (2 Corinthians 10:10). It was no wonder.

“Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one,” he wrote. “Three times I have been beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked. A night and a day I have been adrift at sea. In danger from rivers… robbers… my own people… Gentiles. In toil and hardship, in hunger and thirst . . . in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). He also was sick off and on all his life and speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” that God gave him “to keep me from being too elated” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Epilepsy? Hysteria? Who knows? The wonder of it is that he was able to get around at all.

But get around he did. Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Galatia, Colossae, not to mention side trips to Jerusalem, Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Athens, Syracuse, Rome-there was hardly a whistle-stop in the Mediterranean world that he didn’t make it to eventually, and sightseeing was the least of it. He planted churches the way Johnny Appleseed planted trees. And whenever he had ten minutes to spare he wrote letters. He bullied. He coaxed. He comforted. He cursed. He bared his soul. He reminisced. He complained. He theologized. He inspired. He exulted. Punch-drunk and Christ-drunk, he kept in touch with everybody. The postage alone must have cost him a fortune, not counting the energy and time. And where did it all start? On the road, as you might expect. He was still in charge of a Pharisee goon squad in those days and was hell-bent for Damascus to round up some troublemaking Christians and bring them to justice. And then it happened.

It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. “Saul,” it said, and then again “Saul. Why are you out to get me?” and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, “I’m Jesus of Nazareth, the one you’re out to get.” We’re not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the ax to fall. Only it wasn’t an ax that fell. “Those boys in Damascus,” Jesus said. “Don’t fight them. Join them. I want you on my side,” and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterward, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world (Acts 9:1-6; 22:4-16; 26:9-18).

Everything he ever said or wrote or did from that day forward was an attempt to bowl over the human race as he’d been bowledover himself while he lay there with dust in his mouth and road apples down the front of his shirt: “Don’t fight them, join them. He wants you on his side.” You, of all people. Me. Who in the world, who in the solar system, the galaxy, could ever have expected it? He knew it was a wild and crazy business-“the folly of what we preach,” he said-but he preached it anyway. “A fool for Christ’s sake” he called himself as well as weak in his bodily presence, but he knew that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). There were times he got so carried away that his language went all out of whack. Infinitives split like atoms, syntax exploded, participles were left dangling.

“By grace you have been saved,” he wrote to the Ephesians, and grace was his key word. Grace. Salvation was free, gratis. There was nothing you had to do to earn it and nothing you could do to earn it. “This is not your own doing, it is the gift of god-not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” and God knows he’d worked, himself, and boasted too-worked as a Pharisee, boasting about the high marks he’d racked up in heaven till the sweat ran down and Christian heretics dropped like flies-only to find en route to Damascus that he’d been barking up the wrong tree from the start, trying to beat and kick his way through a door that had stood wide open the whole time. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” he wrote; in other words, good works were part of it, all right, but after the fact, not before (Ephesians 2:8-10).

paul

Little by little the forgiven person became a forgiving person, the person who found he or she was loved became capable of love, the slob that God had had faith in anyway became de-slobbed, faithful, and good works blossomed from his branches, from her branches, like fruit from a well-watered tree. What fruit? Love, Paul wrote the boys and girls in Galatia. Love was the sweetest and tenderest. And then “joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” till his typewriter ribbon was in tatters and he had to take to a pencil instead (Galatians 5:22-23).

And Christ was his other key word, of course. Christ-the key to the key. He never forgot how he’d called him by name-twice, to make sure it got through-and “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” he wrote out for the Romans (Romans 5:6) and for the Galatians again, “I have been crucified with Christ”-all that was dried up in him, full of hate and self-hating, self-serving and sick, all of it behind him now, dead as a doornail-so that ” it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And then, to the Philippians by registered mail, return receipt requested: “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21), and to the Ephesians, for fear they’d feel neglected if the mail carrier came empty-handed, “You he made alive when you were dead” (Ephesians 2:1). Alive like him.

But there were other times too. Sometimes the depression was so great he could hardly move the pencil across the page. “I don’t understand my own actions,” he said. “For I don’t do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I can’t do it. For I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do… For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He sat there by himself, aiming his awful question at the plaster peeling off his walls, and maybe it was only ten minutes or maybe it was ten years before he had the heart to scratch out the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” he said (Romans 7:15-25).

It got him going again, and on the next page he was back in his old stride with a new question. “If God is for us, who is against us?” He worked on that one for a minute or two and then gave it another try. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” It was the story of his life, needless to say, and at last he’d laid the groundwork for an answer he could get his back into. “No!” he wrote, the tip of his pencil point breaking off, he bore down so hard. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39). He sat there, with his cauliflower ear and a lump on his forehead the size of an egg from the last time the boys had worked him over, and when he reached for the drawer to get out an envelope, he found that his hand was shaking so badly he could hardly open it. The ups and the downs.

The fights with his enemies and the fights with his friends. The endless trips with a fever and diarrhea. Keeping one jump ahead of the sheriff. Giving his spiel on windy street corners with nobody much to hear him most of the time except some underfed kids and a few old women and some yokels who didn’t even know the language. Where was it all going to get him in the end? Where was it all going to get all of them, any of them, in the end? When you came right down to it, what was God up to, for God’s sweet sake, sending them all out-prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, the whole tattered bunch-to beat their gums and work themselves into an early grave?

God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body anymore, so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he or she might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was someplace where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe not all that innocent bystander and got that person to go and be Christ in that place for lack of anybody better.

And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all “come to maturity,” as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we’re like him, he said-“to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that.

Nobody’s sure whether he ever got to Spain the way he’d planned or not, but either before he went or soon after he got back, he had his final run-in with the authorities, and the story is that they took him to a spot about three miles out of Rome and right there on the road, where he’d spent most of his life including what was in a way the beginning of his life, they lopped off his head.

At the end of its less than flattering description of his personal appearance, the Acts of Paul and Thecla says that “at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of an angel.” If there is a God in heaven, as even in his blackest moments Paul never doubted there was, then bald-headed and bowlegged as he was, with those eyebrows that met and that oversized nose, it was with angel eyes that he exchanged a last long glance with his executioners.

~originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

Enoch

Elijah is not the only person in the Bible who does not die. Enoch was a very early figure. In fact, he was Noah’s great-grandfather. Enocho walked in righteousness before God, and he was apparently taken somewhere by God while he still lived. (Genesis 5:21-24) The King James Version called this action “translation”: “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him.” (Hebrews 11:5)

The Greek word used in Hebrews, “metatithemi”, is like many Greek words unfortunately capable of more than one translation, as the preposition “meta” and thus the prefix “meta-” support a variety of meanings.  BDAG gives both definitions: 1) “to convey from one place to another”, and 2) “to effect a change in state or condition”. (3d ed. at 642)

The KJV and others take the view that Enoch was somehow changed or altered when God removed him, and the syntax supports their view. On the other hand, some modern translations say simply that Enoch was “transported”, also a defensible translation and much less laden with theological implication. God simply put Enoch somewhere else, one can reasonably claim, and this is all we know.

What is not defensible is the decision by the most illustrious recent translations to refer back to Genesis and say that God “took” Enoch. This is, indeed, what Genesis says.  But the author of Hebrews was inspired, and if he added meaning by choosing to add some information about Enoch, anyone crediting the New Testament with inspired status must honor the Greek of Hebrews as a verse different from the Hebrew of Genesis 5:21-24. One cannot call the verse in Hebrews a “misquotation” of Genesis, consistent with a claim of inspiration for the New Testament.

Moreover, the simple denotative verb in Genesis does not support the enormous connotations of “was taken by God” in modern English, set in the context of the New Testament.  Do we not have enough nonsense about heaven without the editors of the ESV, NIV, and – of all people! – the NASB, intentionally mistranslating “metatithemi”?

This post is meant as additional information to the Commentary for the Daily Devotion of August 11, 2014.

The Bestseller of 2013

120Many people might guess that the Bible is the best selling book in history. But only a few would know that the Bible was, in fact, the best-selling book in 2012, in the United States and in the world. And it will be the best-selling book of 2013. But best-seller lists do not count the Bible, because it’s unfair competition. According to an article in the New Yorker, “a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles.” The low end estimates for worldwide sales are 100 million annually, and the Gideon society reports that another 60 million are given away for free.

The kinky sex novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, has sold perhaps 30 million copies worldwide since it was published in June, 2011, with another 40 million copies sold of the two sequels. Various media call this a “sensation”; yet, it is a fraction of Bible sales.

In all likelihood, the Bible has been the best-selling book almost every year since the printing press was invented (seeing as how the first book ever printed by Herr Gutenberg was a Bible). I say almost, because it might have been beaten out by Mao’s Little Red Book for a couple of years in the late 1960s. And there might be years in which Koran sales exceed it; however, we must remember that ownership of these two books was (or is still) mandatory in many countries. I don’t think not owning a Bible has ever been a crime, even in Puritan New England. In fact, it was once forbidden in Europe and is today a crime to own one  in many countries.

So, do you want to guess how many Bible have been published in history? Hold onto your hat — estimates for the total number of Bibles ever published generally run around 6 billion.

This does not count, of course, spinoffs. How many books about the Bible are sold every year, I have no idea; but it is a lot.

The Wedding of St. George

 

Rossetti_The_Wedding_of_Saint_George_and_the_Princess_SabraThe Wedding of Saint George by Gabriel Dante Rossetti, ca. 1860. After slaying the dragon, St. George gets the girl! A bittersweet tribute to the beauty of marriage, in a time when it was revered, as a young flower girl hands him a white flower of chastity. On the left, a saintly figure beckons to an earthy couple cutting grapes, to cross the wall and join them.
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The United States is too optimistic about Middle East democracy

Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have given many countries, formerly nominal or actual dictatorships, the opportunity to move towards freedom. The United States’ reaction is that democracy will equal individual liberty. I’m not blaming Obama necessarily; this has been the naive attitude of the U.S. for decades.

A democratically elected government can be just as oppressive to some individuals as a dictatorship. This is why the United States adopted the Fourteenth Amendment. It requires equal protection under the law to all people. Lacking such protection, we can guess who the first groups to be oppressed under a Muslim democracy will be: Christians (also Jews and women). The United States, as part of its support for the budding regimes in the Middle East, must emphasize a strong provision to guarantee the rights of freedom of religion and equal protection for all people within these countries’ borders. Without a specific constitutional clause, Christianity will continue to suffer oppression. Even where official state policy is such freedom, countries can wink at mobs harassing Christians and Jews, and the imposition of extreme oppression to women.

Egypt, which is the farthest along in creating a new government, has adopted “Sharia”. Sharia requires the national governement to follow Islamic law, both civil and criminal. It regulates both the actions of individuals, the use of Islamic (rather than impartial) courts, etc.

Let’s be realistic. Retaining Sharia as official government policy guarantees harsh treatment of Christians, Jews, and women. The hazy term “democracy”, so touted by the United States, ignores this reality. For example, while the U.S. expects a “fierce contest for power” in the Middle East, it ignores the likelihood that the winners of the contest will want to hold onto their power, including the oppression of Christianity that many individuals in Muslim states believe to be the will of Allah. Already, the strongest unified political party in Egypt is the “Muslim Brotherhood”, a fairly fundamentalist Islamic organization.

Egypt Muslim Brotherhood

Muslim Brotherhood Poster

Have the recent governments of the U.S. completely forgotten what happened in Iran, after the revolution in 1979? Moderate forces, after helping to depose the Shah, were cast aside in favor of an Ayatollah who rid Iran of all dissent against fundamentalist principles. Egypt is not Iran; however, we must always be mindful of the possibilities of militarism, religious oppression, and destruction of personal freedom that is possible in these circumstances.

The United States has a history of naivete when it comes to foreign affairs, and the blind optimism we have shown to Arab politics reflects this Pollyanna state of mind. The current government seems to think that the death of Bin-Laden, which did hurt Al-Qaeda, means the necessary death of Islamic extremism. But even Bin Laden’s death may work against us, providing a martyr for extremists to hold up and drive a wedge between the concept of individual freedom — a Western concept — against their local values of Christian repression.

This is not to condemn all Muslims. There are many, in Egypt and elsewhere, who value individual freedom and are willing to let Christians (and Jews) worship in peace. But what we have seen is the burning of Coptic Christian churches, the beating, arrest and even of their adherents, and attacks on women not wearing the stifling clothing demanded by the more fundamentalist citizens. Although much has been made of the public sexual attack on Lara Logan, similar treatment of Egyptian women has gone almost completely unreported.

We must not make the mistake of thinking the Mideastern revolutions are headed by Mahatma Gandhi. Where we are headed, currently, is towards support of “democracies” that are hardly better than the dictatorships they replace.

Daily Devotional

Islam Gets More “Freedom of Religion” than Christianity

“Burning the Koran is Worse than Burning the Bible”

If you think that Christians are not still being persecuted in the U.S. and Europe, you only have to look at the hypocrisy of the news media when it comes to religious freedom.  Christianity is a second-rate religion and does not rate the same degree of freedom as Islam, according to some of the media and even government officials.

For example, in a published interview between Bobby Ghosh of Time magazine and NBC Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd, they agreed that burning the Koran is “worse” than burning the Bible.  Their reason? The Koran is the word of God, whereas the Bible is not!

Bobby Ghosh (Time Magazine): The thing to keep in mind that’s very important here is that the Koran to Muslims, it is not — it is not the same as the Bible to Christians. The Bible is a book written by men. It is acknowledged by Christians that it is written by men. It’s the story of Jesus.

Chuck Todd (NBC Chief White House Correspondent): Yes.

Ghosh: But the Koran, if you are a believer, if you’re a Muslim, the Koran is directly the word of God, not written by man. It is transcribed, is directly the word of God. That makes it sacred in a way that it’s hard to understand if you’re not Muslim. So the act of burning a Koran is much more — potentially much, much more inflammatory than —

Todd: Directly attacking — directly attacking God.

Ghosh: — than if you were to burn a — burn a Bible.

And this phenomenon is not limited to the U.S. As stated by David Simpson, a member of the British (UK) Parliament:

In the United Kingdom, the policy seems to be that people can do whatever they like against Christianity – criticise it or blaspheme the name of Christ – as long as they do not insult Islam.

The UK controversy arose when a public employer, who allowed Muslims to keep religious artifacts on the dashboards of their vans. When a Christian driver, however, put a small cross on the dashboard of a van, he was threatened with termination if he did not remove it, because it might insult Muslims.

I hate to point out the obvious to these people: Muslims, in the name of Islam, are murdering the citizens of your countries. Of course, this does not apply to all Muslims, but to “extremists”. Unfortunately, these extremists appear to be in charge of a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East, where Christians are regularly arrested for “blasphemy” and, in some cases, murdered.

One can only wonder what our Founding Fathers, who wrote the First Amendment, would think about this.

(April 4, 2011, from a story copyright by MSNBC.)

Pray for Our Brothers and Sisters in Iran

The word of Christ, which extends all over the world, is alive in Iran.  Even the repression of the fundamentalist regime has not destroyed the faith of Christians who live in an atmosphere of state-sanctioned repression.

During the past year, over 250 Iranian Christians were subjected to arrest and incarceration.  Many of them spent months in prison, suffering deprivations that included sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, lack of medical treatment and unsanitary conditions.  Some reported outright physical and psychological torture, to obtain confessions of crimes and information about others who share our faith.

Photograph of a man lashed by Iranian police for having a Bible in his car

Currently there are many converted Christians in Iran and people convert to Christianity on a daily basis, but there are no exact statistics about the population of this new emerged Christians.  Estimates of the Christian population of Iran range from 7,000 to 300,000.

At least one, Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani, has been sentenced to death for “apostasy”.  In the past, a number of Christians have been murdered, forced to leave the country, or suffered in smaller ways such as beatings or the confiscation of property.

All of us should remember to pray for Christians who are suffering persecution in Iran and throughout the Muslim world, and also in the few remaining Communist regimes, such as Cuba and North Korea.

And let us hope and pray that the recent revolutions in many Islamic states in North Africa and the Middle East will not lead to further persecution of Christians.  The Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic faction, currently seems to hold the upper hand in Egypt.