Saturday, January 26, 2008

Q4H: Unrestricted prayer power?

My wife Amy and I have had some interesting discussions as of late regarding certain beliefs held by some friends of ours about some of the more supernatural aspects of Christianity. I'll not go into all those things in this post, but one axiom, if you will, of those beliefs leaves me with some questions. The axiom is simply this: if you ask anything in Jesus' name, believing that you'll receive it, you'll get it. That's all there is to it.

The reading schedule that I and others are using to read through the Bible in its entirety this year employs the following pattern: weekdays take us sequentially through the Old Testament (minus Psalms) and with a sprinkle of Proverbs; Saturdays through the New Testament (with more Proverbs); and Sunday through Psalms. So today's reading had us in Matthew, and coincidentally covered two different instances of Jesus stating this very axiom. In Matthew 18:19-20, he says, "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them." And then later in Matthew 21:22, Jesus tells his disciples (who are wondering how it was that he was able to cause a fig tree to instantly wither), "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." Presumably, it is on these promises that many stand when they seek to perform Jesus-like signs and wonders (faith healing, exorcism, etc.). And why not? As written, those are some serious promises! But as presented by our gospel authors, are they, in fact, complete and true? Shouldn't there be a clause in there that limits the promise to only those things that align with God's will? For some folks, no.

I recall a conversation I had about this with one of our friends who claimed this promise as-is without the "will of God" qualifier. And many folks do, believing that they can actually bend the will of God through prayer. I'm skeptical about such a seemingly wide open promise, though, and my skepticism actually began to turn into a bit of anger. I was compelled to ask why, if so many people believed exactly as she did — that anything asked for in Jesus' name would be granted to those that believe — no one had stepped up to organize a group prayer to end hunger and famine and war worldwide once and for all time. I mean, shame on anyone who lays claim to power of that magnitude and fails to use it to do good! Unfortunately I can't remember her response now. Perhaps her "out" was that the askers don't meet the faith requirement of the promise — that they don't really think these worldwide problems can end.

This actually runs right alongside some of the statements made recently by Michael Shermer — the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine — who was curious about the apparent limitations of miracles. In a recent debate with Dinesh D'Souza, and referring to soldiers returning from war today missing arms and legs, he asks (as you can see at about 5 minutes into this video clip), "Why does nobody pray for them to grow a new limb? Why can't God grow a new limb? A salamander can do it! Surely the creator of the universe can do it."

Again, maybe we just lack the faith to get it done. Or maybe God has decided that these days He'd prefer to do only the second class of miracles described by Dinesh later in the debate — using natural means, but driving them in ways they wouldn't naturally go themselves, to accomplish the supernatural. Or, given the staggering improbability that all the physical laws and forces and constants and such would turn out just right to support our Universe and our life in it, perhaps everything we know is just one giant miracle. Maybe those who need "to see it to believe it" are just out of luck, as the seeing requires belief.

Or maybe my friend has tunnel-vision, and is ignoring other Scriptures which indicate that there is a must-comply-with-God's-will clause. We read in I John 5:14-15 that "if we ask anything according to [God's] will, He hears us." The Lord's Prayer (or Model Prayer) even demonstrates humility to God's will with the phrase "[God's] will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). Finally, we can examine Jesus' own prayer life. Could there be a more faith-filled, more believing, more humble, more likely-to-bend-God's-will person than Jesus Christ? And yet what was his prayer in his time of greatest need? Luke 22:42 records Jesus as praying just prior to his arrest and crucifixion, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."

Friday, January 11, 2008

Q4H: Didn't Esau's mama tell him there'd be girls like that?

The Bible is so full of interesting little nuggets. Today's reading took me through Genesis 26:34-35, where we see only the very tip of what is surely a fascinating story.

When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.

A "source a grief" to the in-laws? Sounds like the beginnings of a television sitcom! This seems to be Judith's only appearance in the Bible; Basemath gets named elsewhere only in genealogy listings. Wouldn't you just love to know the rest of that story? I sure would. Why didn't Esau do the arranged marriage thing? It seemed to work out pretty well for his dad.

I don't know why I'm interested in this. Maybe it's because the situation is so foreign to me: my parents adore my wife, perhaps more so even than they adore me!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Q4H: Why all the confusion?

I've long been taught that way back in the day, a bunch of folks — who, at the time, all spoke the same language — got together at a place called Babel and decided to build themselves a huge tower that would reach to Heaven to show off how great they were. As the story goes, God is disgusted by this display of arrogance, and decides to frustrate their efforts by causing them all to speak different languages. Unable to effectively communicate, their building project fails and the people scatter.

Today's reading covered the section of the Bible that tells this tale (Genesis 11:1-9), but the details don't match the story told to me as a child. Yes, we have people trying to build a huge tower (using an apparently novel brick-making technique instead of stone-hewing, the text tells us). But the target altitude of this thing appears only to be "the heavens", not Heaven proper. The goal is a selfish one, but appears to be mere self-preservation instead of something sinister such as exalting oneself above God. But most importantly, the text never says that God's actions were intended as punishment for man's impure motives; it reads as though God simply didn't like the fact that man, absent communication barriers, was destined for success in all that he put his mind to.

Why cause the confusion? Man is certainly no threat to God, His will, or His work.

I have a theory, though admittedly one that I'm forming as I type this (and is probably a bit "out there"). We read early in Genesis that man is created vegetarian (Genesis 1:29). After Adam and Eve sin in the Garden, God curses them. Part of Adam's curse is that his farming job will no longer be easy (Genesis 3:17-18). Man must now depend on God, as the Designer and Ruler of Nature, to permit harvests. In fact, there are no shortage of cultures in times past and present that believed exactly this — that the gods must be begged for sufficiently productive harvests so that societies and civilizations don't die of starvation.

Anyway, we move on in history to Noah and the famous flood. After the flood waters recede, Noah and his family are tasked with repopulating the earth. But there's a dietary change here — in Genesis 9:3 God tells Noah he gets to eat meat. (Yes, I say "gets to" — you'll find no vegetarian sympathies here, folks!) But what, then, does this mean for Adam's curse? The primary physical payload of the curse on Man is that the earth will no longer give up her fruits readily for us to eat. However, post-Noah man is given another food source to draw from anyway. Maybe, just maybe, God — having recognized that His goal with the original curse (to draw Man to a dependence on Himself) is being undermined by this meat-eating loophole — acts in what seems like a spiteful manner at Babel to amend the original curse and draw Man back into dependence.

Now that's how rumors — and entirely new false religions — get started.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Q4H: Does the Tree of Life still exist?

I'm going to try to read the Bible through this year, following the reading schedule published by a local radio station (New Life 91.9 WRCM). If the whole year goes like my first day did, I'm going to have a whooooole bunch of outstanding "questions for heaven" (Q4H). Some of them I'll toss up here for armchair Bible scholars to weigh in on. What follows is my first question.

In Genesis 1:8-9, God builds Himself a garden in Eden, and plants two trees in it: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (which bore one of the most famous fruits of all time), and the tree of life. Implied in Genesis 3:22-24, after the fall of man, is the fact that had Adam and Eve been able to outrun God to the tree of life and partake of its fruit, they would have gained immortality (though, presumably it would have been a life of eternal shame). Well, I suppose the reading also supports the alternative idea that perhaps the tree of life's fruit gave life for some period of time, renewable by further consumption — that's not really a key piece of my question, though.

My question is simple — does the tree of life still grow somewhere in the Middle East today? Do angels still guard the entrance to this garden?