Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Zombie Mythology and Hints of Truth

My mama told me at times to NOT do things that I ended up doing. Every time I disobeyed her, I suffered consequences of divine providence. She told me NOT to ride my neighbor's motorcycle and I crashed it under a chain link fence with the barbs ruining new jeans and peppering my leg with some puncture scars that I hid from her.

She told me to not go see the 1978 movie, "Dawn of the Dead" but I did it anyway.  And that was my first film exposure to the idea of "zombies" and again, the nightmares and gross images were consequences enough!

It took me by surprise, mainly because my early experiences  with monster genre was the old "Monsters of Hollywood" magazine that was part of my weird kid experience growing up.

This magazine covered the original cinema explorations of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the werewolf. These were the now iconic figures made famous by Bela Lagosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Cheney Jr.

Looking back, I'm not sure what drew me to those motifs. They weren't scary and the story lines weren't compelling. It may be the same draw one feels at a circus sideshow, more curiosity than care.

A quick side note, I finally read Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, many years later and found it to be a fascinating account. That story has amazing depth and analysis of life, creation, our relationship with the creator, and elements of psychological fear and love.

But back to the zombie dramas and the common elements that make these stories a draw to many followers.

Wikipedia lists 567 films 'zombie' movies, but IMDB lists over 7900. 

The basic premise of any zombie movie is an apocalyptic account of reanimated corpses who prey on human flesh. The cause of the  reanimation is by many different means including: voodoo, radiation, parasites, bacteria, and fungi. The wikipedia article on the etymology of zombie is quite interesting.

Popular portrayals like "The Walking Dead" carry on the mainstream ideas that these zombies animate after death by means of some mysterious infection with an insatiable need for blood and guts. They are slow moving creatures who overwhelm by numbers and their bites spread the contagion.

 I have friends and a few family members who have seen the newest version of this myth in the HBO series, 'The Last of Us' but I am not up on the details except these zombies have connection by way of fungal vines and they can run (I have always counted on outrunning them- so that stinks).

In the end, a zombie film is another type of science fiction where alternate realities explore issues of current society and human nature. 

Human beings making choices within the pressures of life and death circumstances leaves no shortages of storylines. The complexities of relationships, attitudes, emotions, and actions are many times predictable  but also have the wildcard moments of irrational or unexpected turns. Kind of like me and whether I listened to my mama or not.

In zombie mythology, human beings turn out to be much more dangerous than the 'walkers'. 

The hints of truth in these myths and connection to real life human nature is what 'sells' us on the story lines even more than the suspenseful horror or action sequences. The meaning is there though we often pass by without giving it much thought.

It's just a movie or show.... right? But what does tie us into following the narrative?

Why do we not care if a zombie gets whacked but grieve over a main character going down?

What hints make us 'trust' some of the human beings it the story but are skeptical of the motives of others?

What makes us label some characters as heroes but others as villains?

What makes us accept that characters can change in virtue of vice?

What gives us plausible acceptance when a characters acts contrary to their base nature? Why does a 'good' man do a 'bad' thing or vice versa?

In reality, the 'last of us' is just like the 'rest of us'.

As we encounter the many facets of life, we have to consider if there is actually a true narrative that allows all of the others to finally connect in a way that begs our attention and plays the various chords of emotions and responses we have as humans.

Is there one? Which one?

If you ever have time, I encourage you to read the many accounts of the famous conversation between C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on Sept 19, 1931.

The two men with another friend, Hugo Dyson, took a stroll along 'Addison's Walk' in Oxford. Lewis found Tolkien likable but strange. How could a man of such great intellect still cling to something like old religious myths?

In the famous conversation, Lewis actually mentioned how much he loved 'myth', though he knew ultimately they were based on lies.

Tolkien countered Lewis by exploring the yearning men have for meaning and redemption. He also argued that many myths in global story-telling actually parallel Biblical accounts. Could the love we have for these stories actually point to something true?

If Jesus Christ was real in space, time, and history.. could there be something more in play here than just another mythological tale?

Lewis recounts that one conversation led to a later acceptance of the truth of the gospel after a motorcycle ride through the countryside where he pondered these points.

Here is how C.S. Lewis says it himself  in God in the Dock (emphasis mine)

“Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”

“God is more than a god, not less; Christ is more than Balder, not less. We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘pagan Christs’: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic—and is not the sky itself a myth—shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.”

So think about these things the next time you have your popcorn and streaming service. The desire to live, the ability to laugh, the horror of atrocity, the longings for significance and love.... they have a common source and a common Creator. And sinful actions always have tragic consequences.

Because of this reality, the 'Common Creator' did a very uncommon thing.

We too have an infection that will re-animate us upon death. 

But there is a promise of mercy through healing blood..... why not ponder that a bit.

There are many pilgrims today who take that same stroll down Addison's Walk, like C.S. Lewis did, and think about these things. We walk to places everyday without even noting the birds singing or the sun shining. 

I pretend it is a zombies walk, limping and blood thirsty without Christ.

But with Christ.... it is a joyous, though arduous climb to glory.

Which walk do you desire?

Friday, February 24, 2023

What Can the 'Burned Out' Learn from the 'Burned Over'? Summary and Applications

I have truly been mesmerized during this study. It is an area I wanted to learn about and provoked surprising reactions.

Sometimes, when we read scholarly research on social trends and historical observations, we can get hypnotized by simple rationality and still miss personal applications. Predicting the weather isn't 100%, observing the weather is realistic, but describing the weather yesterday often goes beyond the facts- Yes it was 92F, but how did the heat impact your feelings, attitudes, choices, or actions? Were you prepared or unprepared, acclimated or not? Do you like hot weather? Did you stay in all day? Yes? So really your day was 75F.

In reading the rapid change of ultraism, perfectionism, revivalism, utopianism, communism, spiritualism in the western New York region in the early and mid 19th century we can state the facts but miss some important applications.

More and more, my study kept being categorized by Whitney R. Cross's book, The Burned Over District written in 1950. I was also surprised how many more recent scholars openly criticize this book. One commentator said that the subject needs to be refreshed by more recent and relevant attitudes. Another critic spent time bemoaning the 'clumsy writing style'. This is always my fear when we hear of 'new discoveries' about history.

One of my favorite quotes by Dr Calhoun was when he said Charles Hodge celebrated the fact that Princeton was pleased to announce meticulous studies of God's Word had produced "no new discoveries".

And this summary of my study isn't an attempt to revise history, I'm not even saying it is completely accurate.

But it is fair to say that the political, economic, social, and religious elements all seemed to produce a very unusual cultural phenomenon in a vey short span of time.

Cross says in chapter 16 of his book, "Religious ultraism reached its peak about 1836. Then it quite suddenly collapsed."

Later, he writes "Both the nature of ultraism itself and the pressure of external circumstances helped to bring about its disintegration."

Chapter 20: 'The evolving religious emotionalism of western New York carried some people along with it, but left at each stage an inheritance of individuals, or even descendants, whose ability to adjust to further novelty stopped at that given point."

Later: "Apparently, religious extravagances and sensationalism made enemies as well as friends and finally bred sore disillusionment among advocates."

As I have written earlier, we all have remnants of these times and practices in our midst. Mormonism, Advent Churches, Spiritualism, tent revivals, utopian cults.... all of these have roots in the burned over district.

What few sociologists are able to document however is the excellent corrective nature of the Bible when handled correctly and with care. They are also in most cases unable to show that there is a true, historic, and sacred stream of consistent gospel proclamation and discipleship found in the victorious, invisible Church. There is a true faith in the midst of error and imposters. There is a sacred canopy that stands despite taking blow after blow of dissent and accusations.

What have I leaned?

1) There can be a lot of danger and possible damage by one person left alone with just a Bible, concordance...even with good intentions. It is so important that we get good training and connection with those who seek to be 'ministers'

2) We always have to hold the entire Bible as preeminent and let it shape our doctrines. John Calvin is often quoted as saying God limits our knowledge to keep us humble and make sure that we have dealings with our fellows.

3) Rapid visible growth may not indicate Biblical accuracy. God's kingdom is better indicated by perseverance over time rather than momentary trends.

4) Incorrect doctrine and heresy has tragic and hurtful results. The extreme disillusionment when these faulty ideas crumble is bad enough, but sadly, there were some sad and tragic consequences on people as well.

When someone twists the Scriptures to rationalize improper boundaries... be they too strict or too loose; it causes harm.

I think it is vey important for Christians to always stay in the marketplace of ideas and compete for the supremacy of Scripture.... the whole counsel of God. We need to engage rigorous debate in a spirit that honors Christ.

Sometimes we seek to win arguments, but lose souls in the process. We win battles but lose the war.

I want to close with an example of this that may seem controversial:

Recently, on Fox News, Martha MacCallum interviewed the Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan about the possible revival breaking out in Kentucky. Instead of doing to sectarian divide, Dolan applauded all that is good about this movement.

He went on to celebrate the 1st Great Awakening, mentioning Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield and saw it historically as a time when we truly became Americans.

Are there major theological issues at play here, especially around authority and salvation? ABSOLUTELY

Does it keep us from having discussions and finding common ground on issues that pertain to service and initiatives for the common good?  ABSOLUTELY NOT

You can see the interview here:


As our culture gets darker, more isolated, and less haunted by the Christian voices of old, we must continue to find common ground and civil disagreements while still leaving breadcrumbs to the reality of God and the beauty of the gospel message.

We have to engage, lead, and make promise keeping/ peace making a high priority.

If we find hard hearts and doubters along the way, we can't lose hope- we have to be the ones who patiently love, honestly confess, and stubbornly give testimony to God's goodness and His grace.

I finally saw the recent movie called "Jesus Revolution" about the California Jesus People movement in the 1970's. I appreciated the complexity and issues that the directors included in the narrative. God's movements are messy and sin is always in the mix. My favorite line in the movie was "truth is quiet and lies are loud".

I think it is fair to critique the movie in terms of what it didn't cover (Lonnie Frisbee's lifestyle and issues) but it is hard to determine where to go in the time limits of a single movie.

When Smith and Frisbee split, it was interesting to me that it was a theological divide over the role of the Holy Spirit. Smith was later quoted as love should be the highest manifestation of the Spirit, not signs and wonders.

The movie is told more through the story of Greg Laurie, but in many ways, Frisbee is more applicable to my reading on the burned over district... Frisbee is the burned over district personified- a rambling complexity of seeking, experimentation, frailty, inconsistency, and misunderstanding.

We need to see God move, I need it as well. Growing older has a sense of growing colder that seems to go along with it.

If you feel 'burned out' it is OK- tell someone... seek the Lord in prayer,  and wait on Him.

But if we want it to be clean and organized- it won't be..... if we are going to be hyper-critical and skeptical- it won't happen.... if we don't make allowances for humanity- we are not living in reality of the human condition..... If we don't get humble, pray, and love then we aren't going to help the true seed grow in good soil.

Final update: The Asbury Revival was technically ended on Feb. 25-
( February 8, 2023 through February 25, 2023- 18 days)

I watched the opening chapel service that started it on youtube and I also appreciate the statement from Asbury's president: 

I have been asked if Asbury is “stopping” this outpouring of God’s Spirit and the stirring of human hearts. I have responded by pointing out that we cannot stop something we did not start. This was never planned. Over the last few weeks, we have been honored to steward and host services and the guests who have traveled far and wide to attend them. The trajectory of renewal meetings is always outward—and that is beginning to occur. We continue to hear inspiring stories of hungry hearts setting aside daily routines and seeking Christ at schools, churches, and communities in the US and abroad.

In spite of this, many in my corner of theological pontificators have slammed and mocked the movement with skepticism and criticism- and I am sad to say that it is a mistake. We often shoot our own wounded and that hurts my heart. :(

But, overall personally this has been an incredible study for me- thanks for reading and love to hear your feedback-

Lord- we want to see you move... we are waiting!

Maybe someone reading this one day  - possibly all alone and discouraged, will once again pick up God's Word and cry out for mercy.... and that is all I ever hope for... until He returns!

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The LORD is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

his understanding is unsearchable.

[29] He gives power to the faint,

and to him who has no might he increases strength.

[30] Even youths shall faint and be weary,

and young men shall fall exhausted;

[31] but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;

they shall mount up with wings like eagles;

they shall run and not be weary;

they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28–31 ESV)

Saturday, February 18, 2023

What Can the 'Burned Out' Learn from the 'Burned Over'? Finney and the Anxious Bench

“Remember not the former things,

nor consider the things of old.

Behold, I am doing a new thing;

now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18–19 ESV)

These posts are going to get hard to write because I am going to attempt to thread a needle where misunderstanding can quickly arise.

We are generations removed from the rise of what has been called 'the new measures' of the mid-19th century preachers and evangelists. This was the fire that eventually burned up the burned over district.

And we are going to see issues from these techniques that will bring into question some of our all-time famous preachers. Billy Graham, Billy Sunday, and MANY churches throughout our lifetime will have some similarities to these practices. And so much of this can apply to the rise of televangelists and celebrity pastors as well.

And there is a balance here... one that will create dividing lines. It may even sound contradictory to applaud the work of Billy Graham but write hard things about Charles Finney, but I do see differences even though we ALL inherit expectations and procedures... don't we?

This topic is so on point right now with various reports surfacing about a revival at Asbury in Kentucky and an early report coning from Samford University. I am prayerful, hopeful, and Lord please don't make me so skeptical that we miss supporting YOUR work!

I have issues with Finney and some of the mechanics of the 2nd Great Awakening... a lot of it is purely on doctrinal grounds, but it is up to the Lord to be the final judge.

 Charles Finney looked like a man who cared. One commentator mentioned that his appearance exuded a "guileless, honest, frank heart".

As a hard charging lawyer, Finney described himself as 'worldly' and "decadent', in his pre-conversion  days though in Whitney Cross's book, there was a minister who is quoted saying, Finney "had a good respect for people and institutes of religion".

But it wasn't long before a dramatic conversion, a zealous devotion to his faith, and an impressive skill set of oratory and persuasiveness began the fire that finally consumed the burned over district in what historian later called "the 2nd Great Awakening". Finney was a 'man's man' and exhibited excellent skill on horseback, marksmanship, and social interaction. From those experiences, he pulled together stories and illustrations that resonated with the pioneers.

This was no show of pretense, Finney wasn't a hypocrite or con man, but motives and intentions may still not fulfill the call to the great commission. Finney devoted himself to hours of prayer and Bible study. In his mind, he was simply following the Spirit in the tradition as old as Acts. Finney did not originate revivalism in Western New York in the mid-19th century, but his zeal and efforts pounced upon the opportunities in some of the most  favorable circumstances one could imagine.

The problem is that zeal without knowledge can lead to a condition we call "ultraism", defined as "the holding of extreme opinions". Is ultraism a sin? If the extreme position is Biblical... then NO. But we all must live with a healthy skepticism of our opinions. We can be so right, we become dead right! 

It wasn't long until calls rang across the countryside for Finney and his team. And his time in Rochester, NY has birthed legendary tales of supernatural fires. Finney held service after service and kept the audiences spellbound for days on end.

I have read and watched numerous books and on-line videos on Finney, and it isn't surprising to learn that the support and criticism of his style, theology, and ministry is varied and controversial.

The changes widely employed in the formal process and procedure to conversion was greatly impacted by how Finney operated and we see the influence even today.

For the sake of time and space, I am going to deal with the issues I have struggled with in terms of giving Finney a voice of support in spite of his zeal and intentions.

The biggest issue was some important theological problems around the nature of salvation. If salvation can be obtained merely by the will and efforts of the human soul, then there can be a dangerous temptation to employ techniques that can manipulate a person in the process.

I stumbled upon some excellent resources on this subject during my reading a research. There was actually a book written all the way back in the 1840's that correctly articulated many of these issues that surrounded Finney's ministry.

John Nevin was the Professor of Theology at Mercersburg Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. This was the Seminary of the German Reformed Church in America. In 1843, he published the first edition of The Anxious Bench. It has been called the most probing critique of Finneyism ever written.

The book has a number of interesting arguments, here is a summary of some of these I found in various journals online:

 "The use of the anxious bench (reserved seats at the front of the meeting house where people anxious over their souls were implored to come and sit with counselors) cannot be justified either by its popularity, or its apparent success in converting sinners, taking for granted that some/many of the the conversions are genuine. But, we must be EXTREMELY careful- 'It is marvelous credulity to take every excitement in the name of religion for the work of God’s Spirit.' Further, God in His sovereignty may sometimes choose to make use of a bad method to effect a real conversion – but that does not justify us in using bad methods. 'We must not do wrong even to gain a soul for heaven.' If  the success of the anxious bench can be accounted for by purely natural factors. No clear spiritual preaching of the truth is necessary, only an ability to stir up and manipulate the emotions of the vulnerable."

"If Christianity exists primarily as a divine and supernatural organism in the church, then Finney’s whole understanding of religion is negated. Finney sees religion in natural, not supernatural terms, as merely the right exercise of natural human faculties. Not so, says Nevin: that would make religion stand in Adam instead of in Christ. Religion is a supernatural life that flows from God’s recreation of fallen humanity in the Second Adam. It is Finney’s failure to see this that makes his whole concept of religion into a man-centred system of self-salvation by natural free-will."

I also wrote some quips that I stumbled across:

Finney's tent revivals fit right along with the optimistic, mechanical explosion in the region. His 'new measures' could be described as the 'cotton gin of the soul'.

Though we cannot say the converts of the 'new measures' were true or sincere, many critics of the day seemed to find ammunition in the reality that a lot of souls who walked the sawdust trail eventually seemed to fall away when the mood was gone.

There was a populist vibe attached to this movement as well and it is interesting to study the overall societal impact of this... one commentator mentions the mid-19th century as the time 'when power changed from the snobs to the mobs".

"Finney employed all the techniques that work in sales" and he was rewarded "when using ingenuity to provide new sensations."

"So what’s the theology behind these “new measures”? Finney denied the teaching of a human, sinful nature. He declared the notion of original sin to be “anti-scriptural and nonsensical dogma.”Similarly, he rejects the doctrine of supernatural regeneration. He didn’t deny that the Holy Spirit exerts some moral influence on the believer, but “the actual turning . . . is the sinner’s own act.” He doesn’t even seem to try to conceal his Pelagianism—the most frequently condemned heresy of all time—which is evident in the mere title of his most famous sermon, “Sinners Bound To Change Their Own Hearts. ' "

But there were two other issues that concerned me about Finney and, to be honest, will still rile me up today. One was how mean spirited and toxic he was from the pulpit toward other ministers and churches. We do have disagreements, but we must be careful about sarcasm and mockery. These are holy things and we should handle with great care!

Whitney Cross quotes Finney as praying "Lord wake up these stupid sleeping ministers; else they wake up in hell".

The other issue seems to be ample evidence that Finney and others pre-planted congregants to come forward to the anxious benches to promote the movement. In the leaders eyes, these were just the counselors coming forward, but the technique can't escape the charge of manipulation.

A final summary of the issue at hand?

"The revival engineers had to exercise increasing ingenuity to find even more sensational means to replace those worn out by overuse..... the (new) measures themselves grew more and more intense, until the increasing zeal boiled up inside of orthodoxy and overflowed into heresy. (Cross pg. 184)"

My early experience with Christian conversion had some of these elements... though they were tempered in time and, I believe, held in check by Bible exposition.

My introduction to Christianity was sporadic attendance at Ruhama Baptist Church in Birmingham. I have to acknowledge the important ministry of Mr. Jack Rutledge (father of Gary and Jeff) in my life. He was the first man to press me to make a decision for Christ. I resisted him at an 'anxious bench' moment during a revival as he put his arm around me and whispered, 'Don't you want to go forward and accept Jesus and was sad that I disappointed him with a firm NO.  But I was still drawn to Sunday School to look at Sugar Bowl watches and hear Alabama football stories. Mr. Rutledge even took us to Tuscaloosa to see an Alabama Spring practice. (On that day Steadman Shealy tore his ACL and we got to meet Coach Bryant.)

My first experience with my personal salvation was around the age of 10 (I think in an earlier version I said 8, but I think I was mistaken about that). It was during a revival (just months after resisting the altar call and Mr. Rutledge) and, this time, I felt like I was supposed to go down the aisle. A lot of it was just doing what a friend of mine was doing. I remember a Pastor meeting with my mother and me. During this meeting, he showed me a Good News Bible and pointed to a picture of a shepherd. I just shook my head “yes”.

The baptismal ceremony was performed in freezing cold water because the water heater was broken. It took my breath away as I went under. In later years I laughed that this was a little humor from the Lord about my “cold” baptism.

I tried to be a good boy for about 2 weeks but eventually regressed to being the same ole me.

In 8th or 9th grade, I remember a Sunday School teacher explaining the gospel in a way that I actually understood it. My sin was real and Jesus’ sacrifice made complete sense in bridging the separation I had with God.

I vividly remember thinking “I’ve already been baptized, so I can’t tell anyone that I’m not a real Christian” And I lived in conflict off and on for a long time. I knew I wasn’t living for God and I believed that I was going to hell. It disturbed me whenever I thought about it.

I was playing a video game in the mall one day and a little girl came up with a gospel tract. I treated her very rudely, but inside I still felt condemned.

Another time a girl I knew well told me that I couldn’t be a Christian because of my behavior. I told her that I had been baptized. She said that baptized or not, I lived like I was going to hell. Deep in my heart, I knew she was right.

I wanted to write a little about the outstanding Christian education I received at Ruhama Baptist. Vacation Bible School, Bible sword drills, and the teaching in Sunday School gave me a very solid Biblical foundation. I remember memorizing Psalm 100 and singing in the choirs.

Getting to high school actually provided distractions from God and found that I was hardening to the idea that I was not a believer. Sports were a great diversion and offered some reward as an idol. I received recognition and relationships and I experienced a lot of success.

I also ended my attendance at Ruhama. I really don’t know why, but I never went to Sunday School once high school started for me. At high school, I was an honors student (based on the enrichment program I attended in grades 5-8) and a basic ‘good guy’. The role models for athletics had me living the ‘All-American’ image pretty well.

My realization about eternity abruptly came back up in the summer before my junior year. An acquaintance of mine was tragically killed while robbing a convenience store. He was with a group who was doing it just for the thrill.

I remember receiving this news from my mom as I was coming home from Sunday School. I don’t know why I went to church that day and remember nothing from the visit.

All of the students were grief stricken and I was confronted once again with the idea of death.

We had a student gathering at a home and I was very impressed by the message. It was my first experience with Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. A minister, Tom Caradine, gave a clear gospel presentation along with Biblical answers for grief and loss. I was stirred immensely.

After the meeting, a college student who had been an athletic role model for me, Benny Parks, found me and shared a gospel tract with me. The tract had a drawing of two lives and I knew that my life was not being directed by Christ.

I went home and re-read the tract and knew it was time to make a choice. I got on my knees and prayed that God would forgive me and take me back. At the time, I thought I was re-dedicating my life to Christ. I now know from thinking through Scripture that this was my actual conversion. The earlier experiences were valid and God used all of them to prepare me for this time of being born again.

And that is where I want to leave Finney and the new measures.... experiences with God that God will use to call His children.. in His way.. and in His time.

We must not fall into the temptation to manipulate these moments. Sadly, I feel like I did that at times in my ministry to kids... Lord, please forgive me for those times.

Usually, it is about wanting ME to look successful. Evangelism is not an athletics contest. It is living under God's direction, taking time to initiate conversations, praying at all times, and trusting the Holy Spirit to move as He may.

But this has also shaped some of my feelings about ministry as well.

Less topical sermons and more expository preaching.

I worry that topical approaches get out of Biblical balance in a hurry. Let the Spirit apply the Word and educate believers about the entire counsel of Scripture.

At every point in public or private, explain the gospel.

I know I heard the gospel thousands of times before I finally responded as a work of God's grace in my heart.

Love others and be patient with others.

I especially implore folks who work with teens. Be patient. We often expect the sanctification of a 40 year old from a 16 year old. Don't fall apart when people sin... it shouldn't surprise us. Love, teach, correct, restore, forgive.

Finally, play the long game. God works like yeast, not like dynamite.

And as we a burned out... we need that yeast in a desperate way!

Lord, send a true revival in our day... and come quickly!

Thursday, February 16, 2023

What Can the 'Burned Out' Learn from the 'Burned Over'? Perfectionist Movements

One thing that is unique in the burned over district in New York in early to mid 1800's is how quickly some ideas and tastes found common ground and deep roots. You can't help but wonder if the beauty of the land, the youthful optimism of progress, the proof of product East, and the Erie Canal west lent itself to  predictable but unintentional consequences,

And there were some unifying causes that helped as well, both positive and negative. Though post-millenium views had dominated the early theology of the Princetonians, there was a growing pre-millenial view among some denominations that had more secular, socio- religious applications and  discussions about Revelation 20:1-10.

“It can be stated without fear of contradiction that the postmil position was the historic position of Princeton Theological Seminary.” J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1971)

And we have to note that these terms had slightly different definitions than we use them today.

"However, the term amillennialism, as we will see, was not used in the nineteenth century, and the origin of the term is shrouded in mystery. Accordingly, Gaffin asks the poignant question in this regard, “Who coined the term amillennial?” The problem is that apparently there is not a clear-cut defining moment when the term amillennial comes into standard usage and the position is recognized as something quite distinct from postmillennialism." Kim Riddlebarger, Princeton and the Millennium A Study of American Postmillennialism.

The growing optimism of progress, combined with a surge of religious enthusiasm and revivalism pressed the ideas on an early arrival of Christ to inaugurate the thousand year reign on earth before the 2nd coming and the end of the world.

And once these ideas took root, it didn't take long for some to want to codify holy living through civil law.

There is a great irony of human nature here. I spend many days pondering this amazing observation of Whitney Cross in his famous analysis of the burned over district.

"The whole tribe of Yorkers exhibited a trait which bears on the nature of the burned over district 'credulity'. Against the 'holy enterprise of minding other people's business' which produced a marked community mindedness these folks balanced a stubborn introspection in the fashioning of personal beliefs, which recognized no authority this side of heaven. Frank curiosity, pride in independent thinking, a feeling that action should be should be motivated by sound logic and never by whimsy, a profound skepticism  of any rationalization looking to less than the supposed good of society, and, once arrived at, an overwhelming confidence in one's own good judgement- ALL these attitudes differently demonstrate the same trait. The mores of the community must definitely be observed when established and agreed upon."

These human characteristics led to pressure to insist upon perfectionist laws but also indirectly lead to heretical reactions....

Whitney finished the thought- "but in practice they (mores of the community) remained open to challenge and subject to revision. No apology was required for unorthodoxy dictated by conscience in conference with Scripture; rather any difference from custom created a compelling obligation for the individual to press toward conformity with his own new light."

The effect of this 'spasmodic' individual  incoherence was pressing blue laws and temperance notions on one hand and granting momentum toward abolition and women's issues on the other.

The ultimate impact was a splintering of orthodoxy and open doorways to heresy.

Another mitigating factor was the rapid rise of printed materials. Almost every town had its own news sheet. Whitney commented again on this factor by noting, "these people had an original predilection for justifying themselves in public." 

I don't know if I have ever found a better definition for twitter!

Ideas though, do have consequences and the mixture of anti-Mason passions, pressure to codify morality in law, rural/urban rivalries, and tangible (even muscular ) shows of faith sowed seeds that birthed crusades, some of these were commendable but some were also problematic.

I personally find empathy for the struggling Presbyterian church in this moment. They found themselves constantly on the frontlines of these battles. There were concerns about getting credentialed pastors to the frontier, theological wars against growing liberal tendencies, Bible and tract circulation (the existence of tracts was controversial as well), Sabbath observance campaigns, calls for anti-Masonry, strange new 'isms' of faith, and the growing temperance ideas that would eventually lead to the 18th amendment  in 1920.

A dominant voice at this time in America, the Presbyterian church became more and more subject to criticisms of oppression and intolerance. These pressures resulted in numerous fractures and divisions and the voice of authority waned both in public and the private meetings of social engineers.

We find similar times and elements today as well.

I think the most  important takeaway from studying the pressures of so called perfectionist movements is that once you drift from of the Scriptures as authoritative and gospel proclamation/discipleship as the primary mission of the church, you can get swept away in an ocean of dissension, controversy, and fragmentation. A lot of great pastors and churches finally give in to the temptation of becoming culture warriors (with good intentions and good reason) but in the end there are too many windmills to tilt toward and the backlash is brutal. Railing against sin and even the pressures to use law to change hearts and minds is actually counter-productive. I have always said we need to be hard toward our own sin and gentle to others. This doesn't mean we don't warn about the consequences of sin, but we need to deal with it factually, clinically, and take the emotion out of it. Let the Holy Spirit convict the masses when He may.

 It is good to practice discipline within the body of a church but even here, the tools and procedures are found within the principles of Matthew 18 which is small, localized, and sandwiched between a lot of love and forgiveness. The goal is restoration and reconciliation.

We have to always be wary that a natural human disposition is to make everyone behave like we want them to. In a way, it makes us want to be the king of their heart and the judge of their lives. Fervent pressure to force people to live a certain way is fraught with dangers. I get it, we want especially our loved ones to avoid the fruit of wayward living- but prayer is the best pressure. It puts it on God and keeps us from having to be the Holy Spirit.

I grew up in an environment where it was impressed on us that real Christians were those who didn't cuss, drink, smoke, or listen to rock music. My early understanding of sanctification was living clean. As I began to read Scripture I soon realized that my deep sins of selfishness, apathy, idolatry, and lack of love for others were as deadly as any vice.

I'm not saying we promote sinful behavior... I'm saying we don't treat them like checklists where some sins are worse than others. 

These are not easy issues... but culture wars never win. It is the love of a new affection that drives out the darkness.

We can get burned out and bloody when we start swinging fists. And the results create burned over, lifeless, and disinterested souls.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

What Can the 'Burned Out' Learn from the 'Burned Over'? Money Matters


The series continues.... post #3. As I get older, I don't know if I am more realistic or more pessimistic. Life and time can erode youthful idealism and we all fight becoming jaded. But it could also be I am wise enough to realize that if you want to follow patterns and movements, you need to start with the money trail.

And in the early 19th century, Yankee money was finally flowing west and supporting missionaries, ministers, and movements. Kenneth Scott Latourette's famous "History of Christianity" notes that early frontier preachers worked in the fields 6 days a week and took up preaching on Sundays.

But between 1801 and 1830, there was enough New England capital to fund important organizations dedicated to achieving grand goals. The Plan of Union formed in 1801 was an early harbinger to these movements but sadly ended up in a schism between the "Old School' and "New School" Presbyterians.

In 1816, the American Bible Society formed to put a Bible in every house in both the cities and the frontier. In 1825, the American tract Society desired to place religious literature in 'every destitute family in the nation'. The American Sunday School Union wanted their 'programmes in every community west of the Alleghenies' and in 1826 the American Home Missionary Society (AHMS) was zealously pushing for evangelism to sweep the new regions.

It takes money and resources to support these initiatives and "Yankee Benevolence" was surging!

There were some unexpected obstacles. A lot of monetary support was coming from the educated or so called 'elites' and often the common frontiersman did not register with the language or theological heavy messaging of the highly educated ministers.

If a preacher seemed more common, they seemed to reach the more common.

The best funded new churches tended to consist of a better educated congregation, but the numbers were limited and continued to place them in the minority.

I also mentioned in my last post that the benefactors often received news of their investment with reports designed to keep the support going. These reports were often publicized and contained criticisms of the lifestyles of the targeted mission fields and rival sects competing for the same 'sheep'.

These pitfalls remain today for even sincere people called to full time ministry.

Have you ever tried fundraising for Christian causes? 


And I have never been great at it. I was shielded from this for a long time, but early in my role as a fund raiser (both football coach and AD) I just did not seem to  have the right skill set to make some high level donors feel compelled to give or valued.

It is hard asking for support, and early on, I was often been turned off by the expectations, boasting, or sometimes bullying of the donor class. It is hard to receive gifts without an exchange of expectations.  Also, I come from a blue collar background and I often didn't mix well with the upper crust. A lot of successful fundraisers mix well with that clientele. What is the old saying?... it takes money to make money.

I grew more accustomed to the routine over time and I got better. Primarily I had to work on MY attitude and shortcomings.

I had to come to grips with the fact that I believed in my cause and I was willing to tell the story and let the chips fall where they may. I began to trust God more as the caretaker and stopped judging others. I had to learn to accept the natural hindrances and the reality of human nature. I had to learn to love people regardless of their actions or decisions.

For example, in athletics, donations are often parents giving for their  own children and it puts a squeeze on the time table of big projects. 

Every now and then, I would find a generous donor who TRULY wants to stay in the shadows... but it was rare.

In the early 1980's, charitable giving began to change significantly in the rise of organizations like NCF (National Christian Foundation) where donors could give large sums of money to the organization and have it spread out over a multitude of 501c3s.

Fundraising became even harder at that point because the counsel was to never give anyone a large amount of money. An unintended result of this trend was to create 'charity competition' among a lot of worthy causes.

As large donors look at many options on lists to give, certain charities look better or maybe 'feel better' and some worthwhile endeavors get left out.

Some successful charities actually spend money to get more money, but it can create a starvation cycle where a rise in donations may net out productivity losses.

The Burned over District in the 19th century suffered from the same  dynamics. Christian educational institutions found that they could soften some dogmatic views and donations would grow. Money can sometimes mean mission drift. 

I found it quite interesting that in the long run, what caused Harvard and Yale to turn so quickly was more about money than mission. And even Princeton began to suffer as they saw capital flowing in the wrong direction.

The lesson to learn? Money matters. It is imperative to fuel the mission but in the end, can't drive it.

We need to guard against benefactor burn out.

IF God is in it... He will fund it. But His help is rarely early though never late.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

What Can the 'Burned Out' Learn from the 'Burned Over'? The Wayward, Westward, Wanderer


Methodist Circuit Riders

"The lad who emigrated... was perhaps not himself a convert, though he had always gone to church. He awaited the day when the Holy Spirit would marvelously elect him to church membership. In the new country he might temporarily violate the Sabbath, swear, or drink too heartily, but he always expected another revival to change his ways."
Whitney Cross, The Burned Over District pg. 8

There were literally thousands of converging factors that created the atmosphere of  religious movements in western, NY in the early to mid 1800's. New England was maturing nicely, Boston was stubbornly settled, and a beautiful, rich land called young men west with promise and adventure.

The building and completion of the Erie Canal along with investment from the east inspired a number of players when it came to religious expansion and gospel proclamation. The region was rich with Methodist Circuit Riders, thousands of printed religious tracts, journals, newsletters, and magazines as well as missionary movements; all well funded and full of promise.

In the literature of the day, the religious attitude was described by a number of phrases: 'fervent revivalism', 'emotionalism', 'moral intensity', 'enthusiastic religion', 'waves of seasonal enthusiasm', 'strenuous evangelism', 'religious fervor', with fewer and fewer settling with 'intellectual theology".

There were a vast number of differences in methodology and theology, though many seemed to find common ground in debates against freemasons  and for abolition, women's suffrage, and premillennial expectations. 

Also, most movements have constant foils which help to actually inspire the progress. In the case of the Burnt over District, this proved to be the Universalists. 

Regardless, through many efforts, endless capital, in the new cities and towns of opportunity, progress was measured by a need to see "exhibitions of zeal". And though the motives may seem pure, needing to 'see' a faithful heart to God can lead to premonitions and problems. Visionary speculation and pioneer living produced heresies and errors both minor and major.

And it didn't take long to see conflict as much as zeal:

"All protestant churches united in condemning Catholics. Evangelicals united against Universalists and Unitarians. Baptista and Presbyterians opposed the Disciples of Christ, Methodists, and Free Will Baptists and each denomination suffered rivalries between enthusiasts and conservatives in their own rank." (Cross)

It didn't help that many of these different sects shared facilities. It was common to hear a sermon in the gathering space that demanded a response from the next preacher. I was a 19th century version of rival cable news networks!

And of course, there is always politics in the soup! When William Morgan was kidnapped in 1826 and subsequently disappeared forever after an attempt to tell and sell masonic secrets it became even more clear that masons held many offices across authoritarian power in government and church.

These concerns were just pieces of the coalition of the growing Whig party and dislike of the Jacksonian policies. In fact, the politics of the day resembled the fragmented church in the district to the point that few knew who to blame in the Panic of 1837 where speculative lending, decline in cotton prices, no central bank, and a subsequent run on those assets produced a 7 year recession and massive unemployment. Sound familiar?

This purpose of this post is not to suggest solutions to the problems presented in this spasmodic soup of factors and factions. I hope that will come in later posts.

I want to set a stage or setting to understand the movement and explore efforts we should make when faced with some of the same circumstances.

We live in a spasmodic soup ourselves.

Fast moving, free flowing, fire burning, frenzied schedules is the primary factor in our cultural burnout.

This makes us susceptible to variations of thought and practices that have no true Biblical basis. And sadly, we can become hardened or dull to potential corrections.

Years ago, I read a commentary on Isaiah by Dr. Ray Ortlund, Jr. I have never forgotten a statement he made early in his analysis:

"Every time you hear the word of God preached, you come away from that exposure either a little closer to God or a little hardened, but you are not the same.

The same message that is enliving you to Christ is hardening someone else. James 1:21 'Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your soul'

As we consider the impact of the burned out culture may be having on our lives, let's never forget there is a God who is in control and a grace that covers our ineptitudes:

“If your heart does not leap at God’s grace in Christ, what you need is more grace. Nothing can save us from our own deadness. We should fear the hardness of our heart more than anything else. Beware of rigidity, beware of a demanding spirit, beware of an unmelted heart that is NEVER satisfied, beware of a mind that that looks for excuses to not believe, beware of the impulse that always finds a reason to delay a response, beware of thinking how a sermon applies to someone else."

Over the next few posts we are going to have to deal more with problems than solutions, but in the final post of the series I hope to propose specific attitudes, actions, and principles that will help us be part of a solution.

We want a land of sincere hearts, full of God's grace and in service to others. We don't want a land of wayward wanderers who have closed their hearts and minds to the glory of the gospel. And we don't need a land of discord, rivalry, and dissension.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

What Can the 'Burned Out' Learn from the 'Burned Over'? (Introduction)

According to AmericaHistoryUSA.com,  the "Burned-over District" refers to the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and the formation of new religious movements of the Second Great Awakening took place.

The term was coined by Charles Grandison Finney, who in his 1876 book Autobiography of Charles G. Finney, referred to a "burnt district" to denote an area in central and western New York State during the Second Great Awakening. He felt that the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no "fuel" (unconverted population) left over to "burn" (convert).

I first encountered references to this phrase in my church history classes in seminary. But unfortunately, I was going through a spell of "young man sorry attitude" and called my seminary classes, "Cemetery Classes" and there is no need to guess to where that lead. SO MUCH of my early education was wasted on my youth!

My first INTEREST in the 'burned over district' was peaked in a trip I had the privilege to take in 2008 to Princeton University as part of a group we had established called the 'Reformation Men's Club (RMC).
We traveled with Covenant Seminary Professor, Dr. David Calhoun. The theme of the weekend retreat was "Grace to Eternity: A History and Vision of Service to Christ's Kingdom."

Dr. Calhoun had authored a two- volume history of the University and Seminary. I had DEVOURED those books and continue to be enamored with the Princetonians to this day. Dr. Calhoun writes, “From 1812 – 1929, Princeton Theological Seminary presented a coherent, continual effort to teach and practice what the Princetonians believed was historic Reformed Christianity. In this they were, in my opinion, successful. They taught theology as they found it in the Bible and it honored the faith and findings of Augustine, Calvin, and the Westminster Standards. They not only taught it, they lived it. They may have made mistakes, but they stood squarely in the great stream of historic Christianity and orthodox Calvinism.”

Our group of 15 men stayed at the historic Nassau Inn in the heart of Palmer’s Square and enjoyed ‘the best spring day of the entire year’ according to a local shop owner. The Cherry trees were in full bloom and showered the campus with snow.

Dr Calhoun began Saturday morning with a history of Princeton before leading the group on a campus tour. This tour included an inspiring lecture in the famous “Oratory” of Alexander Hall. The group also had a pleasant and unscheduled encounter with Dr. Bill Frist, a Princeton Alum and current guest teacher.

In his lecture at Alexander Hall, Dr Calhoun made a few references to the "2nd Great Awakening" and it wasn't in as positive a light as his references to the 1st Great Awakening. I didn't know enough about the topic to understand him.

I had a chance to ask him about it when we toured the Princeton Cemetery that afternoon, on our way to a campus baseball game. 

We spoke of Finney, the origin of Mormonism, and many other 'isms' that all came out of that relatively small region of New York state.

And then, the topic drifted away for many years.

Right after Covid struck, I took a little time to read about and pray about revivals. If I am honest, not only do we NEED a revival... I selfishly want my children and grandchildren to SEE what a revival looks like.

As I prayed about this this, I was reminded of God’s glory and His sovereignty. “Revival is a work of God where He enlivens His people by accelerating and intensifying His work in individual’s lives” (Jonathan Edwards). If enough people have this personal renewal at any one time and in any one place, then the reality of God’s presence is demonstrated in spiritual sensitivity and a community pursuit of holiness.

Do we really desire this? Is there not a sense of fear that God would actually do this? Is there not a subtle secret doubt that God actually can or will do this anymore?

J.I. Packer often taught about the history of revivals. He made some interesting points about the nature of revival that come from his study of the theology and thoughts of Jonathan Edwards.

#1 Revival is more about holy living than new conversions.

#2 We cannot pray revival down – we cannot force God’s hand. It happens in His timing.

#3 Revival will not solve all of the churches problems. It can even create more!

#4 Revival is tied up in a deep desire to glorify God.

#5 Revival causes a deep repentance, responding in holy living, which draws outsiders in.

But here is where we have to be VERY CAREFUL! A.W. Tozer argued that "a revival of the current Christianity would be a tragedy which would set the church back a hundred years".

SO I wanted to take some time to fast, pray, and reflect on the societal elements that contributed to the environment of the 'burned over district" and see how it parallels our current day.

The visible church of God is hurting and our young people especially are suffering the consequences of
a moral darkness, sort of an eclipse of God. He IS still shining, just like the sun continues to shine during a solar eclipse, He is hidden, or maybe a better term; 'blocked'. Our people seem to just be gazing at the earth.

All of this can lead us toward a feeling of being burned out.

In David Lyons book on postmodernity, "Jesus in Disneyland", he outlined over two decades ago what would be the results of the rapid, consumer based lifestyle that was quickly taking over culture. He anticipated the war between  Church Authority and  Cyberspace Authority. He predicted that anarchy would threaten Continuity and Instant Fluidity would hurt the foundations of  Community.  Do you see it? I do- Individuality over Wholeness ....Fragmentation over  Purpose .The destabilization of the post modern movement has put an incredible strain on our society and is paying horrible dividends to our youth. Can anyone but me hear the creaking of broken foundations and fear the weight of sin? If we do not move back to the Church side of this equation, what hope is there for long term success?

What foul dust is going to be left in the wake of the collapse without a massive movement of God's Spirit?
There is no discernible difference inside the American church and outside the American church today. We are guilty of loving the world. We have the same consumerist tendencies, we have the same divorce rate,  we have the same pattern of addiction and cynicism. Our lips love Jesus, but our hearts love the world.

Part of the problem stems from a lack of seeing sin as serious. When God commands us to hate sin, He isn't robbing us of fun... He is trying to rescue us from hardship and tragedy!

We also have preached the watered down gospel. To quote Niebur, "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross." 

We also stand as the most biblically illiterate generation in America. 

And here is the weird part ..... this is ALL a VERY similar parallel to some of the problems found in the early days of westward expansion at the beginning of the 19th century. The "old" settlements of New England (LOL) were struggling to keep pace with the frontier needs of the west (New York.. another LOL).

There will be differences of course.. but what is the sweet spot that promotes a healthy revival toward God but prevents us from tipping into prohibition and cultism? How do we avoid the ditches of license on the left and legalism on the right? 

So, as we dive into this over the next few posts... what can we learn from those days that allow us to embrace the best of times of revival but avoid the trappings as well.

Without prayer and God's grace, we don't have a chance!

Friday, February 10, 2023

Dysfunction with Direction: Readings in Genesis- Final Post

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of inspired holy living among the patriarchal families. The tangled web of sin and deceit leaves a foul wake and yes, it can almost be discouraging.

Genesis has all of the elements of sinful human nature.... absolutely nothing is left out.

Are any of the sons of Abraham heroic? Not really. All of them show growth in the direction of trusting God but not without many failings and shortcomings. The hero is God. How He puts up with us is unbelievable!

I do want to credit Marty Solomon of the Bema podcast for a fascinating intellectual and stimulating analysis of the chiasms and parallel elements of these passages in Genesis. It is so interesting to see the depth and complexity of the Word of God.

The last stories in Genesis are even more concerning... is this family ever going to realize the covenant promise of God to Abraham?

Genesis 37:18–22 They saw (Joseph) from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. [19] They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. [20] Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” [21] But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” [22] And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. (ESV)

Then, for some reason, Reuben leaves the others and while away, the brothers change plans and sell him to the Ishmaelites. I don't have any idea WHY Reuben left, but the family is splintering right before our eyes.

It could be he leaves to let the brothers do as they wish or he is trying to have plausible deniability. The bottom line is that this family still lives lives of deceit, deception, and manipulation.

.Genesis 37:25–27 [25] Then they sat down to eat. And looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. [26] Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? [27] Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. (ESV)

Genesis 37:29–34 [29] When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes [30] and returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I, where shall I go?” [31] Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. [32] And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” [33] And he identified ( 'nakar' ) it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” [34] Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days. (ESV)

Genesis 38 continues this sad, broken, mess of a family. The narrative leaves Joseph for a chapter and adds a new account on Judah. 

Judah was one of Leah’s sons, and Leah was the wife that Jacob didn’t love. Judah was also the patriarch of the lineage of King David and Jesus. 

We need to know the cultural background to understand the story. Levirate marriage (a custom of the ancient Hebrews and other peoples by which a man may be obliged to marry his brother's widow) was a practice in the ancient Near East that was later codified in Deuteronomy 25 as part of the Mosaic law. Basically, it meant that if a man died before he had a child, his brother had to marry his wife, and their first child would carry on the first (dead) brother’s name and place in the lineage.

Judah had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married a woman named Tamar, and Er was so evil that he died. Onan married Tamar, but didn’t want to preserve his brother’s place in the lineage, and so he did not impregnate Tamar, and was killed for that sin. Judah had seen both of his sons die after marrying Tamar, so he hid Shelah away and kept him from Tamar. And I am leaving out a lot of strange and perverted information in the text!

Tamar, the widow who had the right to bear Judah’s eldest son’s child and continue the family line, develops a twisted plan of her own. She dresses as a prostitute and tempts Judah.

When Judah saw her (Tamar), he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. [16] He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” [17] He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” [18] He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” (The pledge for the  payment for prostitution) She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. [19] Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

[24] About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” [25] As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify  whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” [26] Then Judah identified ( 'nakar' ) them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. (ESV)

This moment eerily parallels the presentation of the bloody coat to Jacob years earlier. Now, the presentation of the cord and signet makes Judah recognize that no one escapes the sovereign reach of God. Thus the Lord coordinates these moments to correct His wayward children. 

He corrects in consequences at times, He corrects in blessings at times. He is God and His plan and ways are beyond our comprehension. But until we (Nakar) identify the problems and recognize the situation, we will be lost!

God is in the mess, He directs the mess, He loves us in the mess, He rebukes the mess, and He is moving everything (eventually) beyond the mess.

The family always gets moved by God toward forgiveness.... but it is not the natural inclination.
The family always gets moved by God toward trust in God.... but it is not the natural inclination.

I used to think that Joseph was better, but not so.  But the later Abraham is better than the earlier version. The later Isaac is better, the later Jacob is better, the later Joseph is better. But none are good enough to stand on their own record of righteousness.

But as discouraging these stories can be (even though they are VERY interesting) the last chapter of Genesis comes to a culminating victorious restoration. 

 But Joseph said to them (the dysfunctional family), “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? [20] As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. [21] So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19–21 ESV)

What about your family and mine? We dress up nicely, we go to church, we smile for instagram pictures, and we publicize our goodness.

But the sin and dysfunction is everywhere.

The great escape is to embrace the promises of God. HE is in control, He is there and He cares. He LOVES! Do you believe that?

He is moving all of us beyond the mess! But is it a messy journey of failings and mis-steps.

[3] If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,

O Lord, who could stand?

[4] But with you there is forgiveness,

that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3–4 ESV)

I close Genesis with a powerful message from Peter:

 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, [4] by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. (2 Peter 1:3–4 ESV)

May we not drown in a sea of sin and shame.... we are who we are... but we can also be moving towards what He wants us to be.

We have to learn to forgive, to love, to understand, to accept, and to trust that God is the sovereign King.

And we have to be partakers of His nature to have even a sliver of a chance to make it.

Thank you God for grace!

Genesis wore me out and delivered a lot of sleepless nights, but it is one amazing book!