Thursday, February 26, 2015

Benjamin Franklin and Christian Faith

I recently came across a letter from one of our nation’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin.  It was written to the President of Yale College, Ezra Stiles.  Stiles was quite a fan of Franklin, especially as a scientist, and Franklin had given the college some scientific equipment and a few antiquities.   I’m not enough of a Franklin expert to know if it was his last letter, but it would certainly be among the last.  Dated March 9, 1790, Franklin would be dead within six weeks.

In fact, Franklin seems all too aware to his approaching finitude, cautioning Stiles, who wanted to honor Franklin at Yale with a portrait:

You have an excellent Artist lately arrived. If he will undertake to make one for you, I shall chearfully pay the Expence: But he must not long delay setting about it, or I may slip thro' his Fingers, for I am now in my 85th Year's and very infirm.

In the letter Franklin makes two statements I wish to comment upon.  The first:

“You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it.

I had to wonder whether Franklin was accurate in his memory or whether previous inquires went forgotten.  Franklin is now 85 years of age.  Is this really the first time he has been questioned about his religion?  What a tragic reproach upon Christians.  I realize Christians of the colonial era, were not, for the most part, highly evangelistic and much too intellectual.  I know there were  exceptions like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards.  Still, no one had taken Franklin to task about what we believe is the most important part of man—his eternal soul?

And Ezra Stiles?  He was a Congregational minister and a New Englander (Connecticut and Rhode Island) who may never have meet the Pennsylvanian Franklin in person.  Yet, they clearly had many correspondences.  At least Stiles finally got around to asking the key question. 

So maybe we modern evangelicals can walk away with two lessons here.   First, make sure our values match our priorities.  If we really value the souls of mankind, let’s have that conversation before we talk about contemporary events.  Sports, weather, hobbies, and families all make for enriching  and non-threatening conversations, but we shouldn’t be treating faith as an after-thought.  Second, it’s never too late to have that conversation with people in our lives.  I know ‘religion’ makes people uncomfortable and I like putting people at ease, so it’s easy to avoid it.  But I, and millions of other evangelicals, need to get over it.  Have that conversation with the people in your life.  Today.

The second statement Franklin made in his letter was about Jesus:

 As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

Again, where were Franklin’s spiritual friends, elevating the need for him to “busy” himself with thoughts of Jesus?  Why did they let him get away with so casually dismissing the need to contemplate Jesus.  Franklin had previously stated he believed in God.  But his belief in God promoted only a moralism…a doing good to others.  He never saw himself as one who was a sinner…a rebel against the holiness of God in desperate need of the saving work of Jesus.  In Franklin’s view, Jesus was a good teacher and he didn’t need to take the time to figure out if that was all Jesus was.

Benjamin Franklin.  Patriot.  Founder. Witty and brilliant; wise and helpful;  inquisitive and experimental.  He left the world a better place.  But he never properly answered life’s singularly most important question—Who is Jesus?

Have you?


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

God in Pursuit of Us

Luke 15 is probably my favorite parabolic passage.  I’ll be honest.  I’m a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to appreciating the parables of Jesus.  You know, those “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”.  I’ve always been drawn to the doctrine of the epistles or the compassion of Jesus and His redemptive acts in the Gospels.  I love the prophets of the OT.  But those stories of Jesus?  It’s taken me awhile to really appreciate them.  But I have long been drawn to this passage.  Who could not be?  Three parables in one really.  Three stories teaching the same theme.  And the thunderous message that comes from them is that God is relentless in searching for what is lost.

Jesus’s first story is that of a shepherd.  He has 100 sheep and discovers that one is lost.  He leaves the 99 and searches for the lost one.  The second story is of a woman who has 10 silver pieces and discovers one is lost.  She searches every corner of her house until it is found.  The last story is of a Father who has two sons.  One rebels, leaves and spoils his life.  The Father waits and hopes for his son to return. 
That last story is the more famous of the three, and the one that seems to throw a monkey wrench into everything.  In the previous two, the shepherd and the woman are both active in finding what is lost.  But here, the father seems a bit passive.  I said he “seems” passive.  But it only seems so to 21st century readers…people immersed in Amber Alerts, FBI Missing Persons Bureau, bounty hunters, credit card searches, cell phone pings, GPS, Facebook and social media.  But even then, if we’ll just pause a moment, we would realize a parent cannot force a rebellious child back home.  There is wisdom in waiting until the rebel is ready to receive reconciliation.  But that notwithstanding, in reading the passage in its 1st century context, you will notice the father was anything BUT passive. 

But when he [the prodigal son] was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him [Luke 15:20 KJV].
This is truly the story of the Bible.  Our God is pursuing us.  His love is relentless.  It is hesed—to use the Hebrew word.  Faithful, steadfast, enduring love.  The love God spoke of in Isaiah 54:10,  “Though the mountains move and the hills shake, My love will not be removed from you and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,” says your compassionate LORD (HCSB). 

Bible scholar John Oswalt remarks on such a loving, pursuing God.

The word hesed…[is] the descriptor par excellence of God in the Old Testament. The word speaks of a completely undeserved kindness and generosity done by a person who is in a position of power. This was the Israelites’ experience of God. He revealed himself to them when they were not looking for him, and he kept his covenant with them long after their persistent breaking of it had destroyed any reason for his continued keeping of it. …Unlike humans, this deity was not fickle, undependable, self-serving, and grasping. Instead he was faithful, true, upright, and generous—always.                                                                           
The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 71.
The Scottish bard, Thomas Carlyle is supposed to have said “God sit in Heaven and does nothing.”  But he doesn’t reflect most of humanity’s assessment.  Christians and non-believers alike have a sense of God’s tenacious love…and His unrelenting pursuit of us as objects of His love.  It is central to Christian doctrine:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus]; that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  Long before we ever even thought about asking God for help with our alienated relationship, the Father launched a plan of love to send His Son.  So there we were.  Drowning in a quagmire of sin, when Jesus left His throne, laid aside His glory and searched for us—dead to God and all things holy—until He found us.

And this pursuing love is central to human experience.  For every bitter, jaded poet there are dozens of others who sense the presence of God in their lives and realites.  Robert Frost, the true bard of Scotland, would urge:

      Tend flowers that God has given
       And keep the pathway open
      That leads you on to heaven.”

But it is probably Francis Thompson’s late 19th century poem, The Hound of Heaven, that is remembered for capturing the thought of God’s relentless search of wayward people.
       From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
       But with unhurrying chase,
      And unperturbed pace,
      Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
      They beat—and a Voice beat
      More instant than the Feet—
      “All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

God pursues us.  He loves you.  Will you not stop your running and let His love capture you?