Myth or Miracle?

Is the resurrection of Jesus a myth or a miracle? Did Jesus really die and then come back to life never to die again? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became fashionable in certain theological circles to talk about the resurrection of Jesus as an example Christian mythology – a fiction created by believing disciples to celebrate their fallen hero.

Myths about dying-and-rising gods were a dime a dozen in the ancient world. They calmed both the fear of dying and the fear of crop failure, which are really the same fear, because crops failure leads to hunger, famine, and death.

Tammuz, the Babylonian god of vegetation and harvest, was wildly popular in the ancient world. He had the misfortune of falling in love with Ishtar, the fickle goddess of love and fertility. And just as sure as crops die every year, their relationship led to his death. Tammuz descended to the underworld. Devastated, Ishtar mourned him pitifully. The worshipers of Tammuz followed Ishtar’s example and took part in a mourning ritual each fall after the harvest ended. Ishtar managed to go to the underworld and secure his release on the condition that he return to the dark abode six months of every year. For the Babylonians this myth was comforting. It explained the cycle of seasons, giving them assurance that spring would come every year. The Bible even mentions Tammuz in the book of Ezekiel (8:14-15).

Tammuz wasn’t the only dying-and-rising god. There was the Egyptian god Osiris, the Roman god Adonis, and the Canaanite god Baal, who makes frequent appearances in the Old Testament. These are just a few of many dying-and-rising gods in the ancient world.

But the story of Jesus’s resurrection is different. For one thing, there’s no story of the resurrection anywhere in the New Testament. The canonical Gospels give details of Jesus’s trial, execution, and death. Sometimes the details are so vivid they make us uncomfortable. After Jesus was buried there are stories of the empty tomb and Jesus’s postmortem appearances to the disciples and to others. But what transpired inside the tomb remains a mystery. There’s no account anywhere in the Bible about what happened inside the tomb. There is no story of the resurrection event itself. If it’s mythology, it’s mythology without a myth! The New Testament doesn’t present the resurrection of Jesus as a story to be told and retold, but as a fact to be believed.

Before his death Jesus predicted his resurrection. He said, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body” (John 2:18-21). On another occasion Jesus said, “Just as Jonah was three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Jesus used these metaphors to teach a literal truth about his resurrection. Skeptical theologians turn the literal truth of the resurrection into a metaphor.

St. Paul believed in the resurrection. In fact, he said Christianity is bunk without it: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).

Belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ is the main tenant of our faith, the lynchpin of all we believe. Read through the book of Acts and you’ll find that it’s the central theme of all the apostles’ teaching. It’s what roughly a billion people on the planet believe. It’s what the church has believed for two thousand years. It’s what Christian martyrs believed and gave their lives for. It’s what I believe. The resurrection of Jesus is a miracle, not a myth.

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Taste and See

vachon_fruit_standI grew up in Florida but I’ve never tasted an orange. At least not a real one. I thought I had until I recently read a portion of John McPhee’s book Oranges. It describes Indian River citrus – grown in the coastal areas of East Florida near Cape Canaveral – and tells why it’s better than fruit grown elsewhere, including the interior of Florida, an area citrus growers call “the Ridge.” McPhee explains that “Indian River oranges have about twenty-five per cent more sugar in them than oranges grown on the Ridge, and they contain more juice as well.” That’s because unlike the sandy soil in most of the Sunshine State, the soil on the coast “holds nutrients and moisture better, and it grows a better tree.” As a child growing up on the Ridge, I saw Indian River Fruit advertised on billboards at the ubiquitous roadside stands and tourist shops along the main north-south highways that claw their way down the peninsula like a rake. I thought it was a bunch of hooey. Just an advertising gimmick used to pick the pockets of unsuspecting Yankees. I figured the citrus grown around my hometown of Ocala was as good as the over-priced Indian River fruit shipped all over the country by the truckload. Now I suspect that I was wrong and have been missing out all these years.

I experienced something similar with avocados. As a boy I never liked them. My cigar-chewing grandpa grew avocados in his backyard and after each family visit we’d be obliged to take home with us a paper grocery bag full of the dark green fruit. They looked like someone stretched alligator skin over a fat pear. I found their flesh hard, slimy, and flavorless. But after I moved to California as an adult and sampled a native avocado – Shazam! – it was love at first bite. Unlike the east coast fruit, the west coast variety is creamy and delicious. It was as if I had never tasted an avocado before.

I had another where-has-this-been-all-my-life experience with Christianity. I grew up in a Christian home, was baptized and confirmed in a Christian church, attended Vacation Bible School every year and Sunday School every week, could sing the hymns, and thought I was a Christian. Then I met Jesus. There was no bright light or voice booming from heaven, but I tasted something I had never tasted before. The Bible says, “Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). I was fourteen when I realized that I had just experienced real Christianity for the first time.

I suspect there are other people who are a lot like I was: good, church-going people who experience a flavorless Christianity that makes little difference in their lives. They think they know Jesus and what it means to be his disciple, but they’ve never met the real Jesus. There’s been no Aha! moment. No new birth. No conversion. Therefore it’s no wonder many have drifted away from church over the years. My first goal during the coming year is to tell them that there’s something better, something sweeter, something that makes it worth giving church another try. My other goal is to eat a real orange from the Indian River.

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Psalter Bread

Bay_Psalm_Book_LoCA copy of the Bay Psalter, a historic Bible and the first book published in what is now the United States, sold this week for a record breaking $14.2 million. It was purchased by businessman David Rubenstein who plans to loan it out to libraries across the country. The sale says something important about our American society today, only I’m not sure what exactly. Our love of firsts? Our obsession with big-ticket items? Our generous philanthropy? Maybe the answer is (d) – all of the above. But I don’t think it means that we value the Word of God highly. I can pick up as many copies as I want from Goodwill for fifty cents each.

The sale of the Bay Psalter got me thinking about my own values. With my enthusiastic approval, the church I serve recently paid a hefty sum to have our 1840s Bible restored while Boston’s Old South Church sold their pricey 1640 Book of Psalms to finance their ministries to the homeless and people with AIDS. Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten rid of one copy if they hadn’t owned two. Perhaps the church saw no other way to fund its programs because it’s fallen on hard financial times. I don’t know. Still, whatever the circumstances, it took courage and compassion to give up a precious relic to care for those who are often considered to have little worth. With this decision, the people of Boston’s OSC showed that their values are different from the world’s. The world says, “Use people and value things.” But our faith teaches us to use things and value people.

Where did the Christians in Boston get such a radical idea? Maybe they read the Bay Psalter where it says, “See ye do defend the poor, also the fatherless: unto the needy justice do, and [to them] that are in distress. The wasted poor and those that are needy deliver ye; and them redeem out of the of the hand of such as wicked be” (Psalm 82:3-4).

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Thankful for Fleas

HookeFlea01What are you grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day? Family? Health? Faith? How about … fleas?

In The Hiding Place, author Corrie ten Boom tells the story of her survival in a Nazi concentration camp with her sister Betsie after they were caught hiding Jews.  They lived in miserable, overcrowded, flea-infested barracks. A Bible smuggled into the prison encouraged the two Christian sisters to be thankful for everything, even their enemies, so they thanked God for their captors. But when Betsie thanked God for the fleas, her sister Corrie objected, “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”

Despite tight security, the sisters began holding worship services. Corrie later recalled, “They were services like no others, these times in Barracks 28.” A growing circle of women gathered at the back of the dormitory as one of the ten Booms read from the Bible illuminated by a tiny light bulb. They were amazed that the vigilant guards never broke up their meetings or ever entered the room. Later they learned why. “It was the fleas!” Betsie declared to her sister in triumph. The fleas were guardian angels who kept the guards away.

This Thanksgiving give thanks for both the good things God sends your way and the bad, because even a flea can be a blessing in disguise.

“In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

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Pastor and Commander

Moger USS Arlington

I serve as a chaplain in the US Navy Reserve, and my military duty takes me to Norfolk, Virginia once a month where I am the deputy force chaplain for Naval Surface Forces Atlantic, comprising 78 ships and 25,000 sailors.

USS ArlingtonThis year I have gone to sea twice aboard the USS Arlington, a brand new 684-foot San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock with 385 sailors. In July I sailed out for a week while its crew tested the ship’s defensive armaments: two 30mm guns and two air-defense missile launchers. They passed with flying colors. My purpose, however, was more peaceful. While on board I preached in the ship’s chapel and led a daily Bible study. Every evening I put the sailors to bed by saying the evening prayer over the intercom just before taps at ten. Instead of just a prayer I always give a prayer and a story, usually a clean joke or parable that leads into my prayer for the evening.

In November, I embarked aboard the same warship for three days to conduct a burial at sea for five veterans, including three who served during World War II. Sailors wearing their dress blue “Cracker Jack” uniforms brought urns with the cremains to the ship’s rail and scattered the ashes in the sea, while I said the words of committal. A rifle detail fired off a 21-gun salute, then taps was played as the ship gently rocked on the ocean waves. Finally, a flag was presented in honor of the departed. The families, who were not on board for the ceremony, will each receive a letter of condolence from the ship’s captain, a CD with pictures, a chart marking the location of the burial, and a flag that was flown from the ship’s mast. The ship returned to port just before the Veterans Day weekend. By Sunday I was back in the pulpit of my church. I am proud to serve my country in uniform, especially as a chaplain. Herman Melville wrote that a “chaplain is the minister of peace serving in the host of the God of War.”

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Two Down, One to Go

I’ll admit it: I’m a blog slacker. How did I fall off the wagon? It’s a little thing called a book publishing deadline. Here’s one of my favorite quotes on the topic: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by” (Douglas Adams). Like a batter caught staring at a fastball, I watched helplessly as my first deadline flew past. But I managed to make my final book submission on time, barely. I felt like an undergrad who submits his term paper at a minute before midnight on the day it’s due.

I’m nearing the end of a long and cathartic process. (I blogged about the completion of my doctoral dissertation here.) What was born as a thesis has grown into an academic but readable history book, coming out in March 2014. The work is truly international: researched in Germany, written in the US, and published in Britain. And like many imported goods it’s pricey: £60 or $99 per copy. If you want to read it but don’t want to shell out a hundred clams, you can always take advantage of interlibrary loan at your local public library.

According to ancient wisdom, every man should father a son, write a book, and plant a tree. Two down, one to go!

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Golden Ticket

golden-ticket-lrg

I received an official letter last Friday from the Bureau of Naval Personnel in a generic looking manila envelope. I opened it and found that I’ve hit an important milestone. I’ve completed 20 “good” years toward a retirement from the Navy Reserves. I’m now “golden,” or in civilian parlance, vested. Unlike my active duty counterparts, however, I can’t begin drawing a pension as soon as I retire. I must wait until I’m 60. Still, it’s an important milestone, like turning 21, which my oldest daughter did last Friday as well.

For many years I’ve said, I’d stay in the Navy as long as it’s still fun and I keep getting promoted. Last week, as part of my monthly reserve drill, I got to go aboard a brand spanking new Navy ship to meet the commanding officer and some of the crew. Currently there’s no chaplain assigned, so next month I will embark and get underway for a week as the acting ship’s chaplain. There’s nothing like being “haze gray and underway” aboard a US Navy vessel. To me that’s about as much fun as one can have as a chaplain short of getting dirty with infantry Marines. (I mean “dirty” in the clean sense of the word, of course.)

My new milestone reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 6:9: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we will reap, if we faint not.” The ultimate retirement plan that I’m longing for involves “a mansion just over the hilltop” where the streets are paved with gold and there’s no more sorrow or tears. How about you? What are you looking forward to?

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