Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Third Commandment

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Exodus 20:7 (NKJV)

The New Living Translation is clearer. It says,

“You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.”

This is one interesting commandment and one that is often misinterpreted and yet, seldom followed even in the right frame of reference. Most scholars of all flavors generally interpret this passage from a legal standpoint likening the claim of perjury upon those who misuse God’s name in court or personal use. False swearing has serious civil ramifications that include those who offer false witness, testimony, and perjury. And, as is often the case with those who are condemned by false testimony, they are the ones to whom cry out to God for justice and freedom from captivity.

While this particular commandment doesn’t actually speak to cussing—it is often associated with it. If you were to utter the big GD in conversation, you might be referred back to this commandment because it “appears” to address one’s chosen words. However, this is a misdirection—surely there are enough verses and passages in the New Testament where the choice of one’s words are encouraged to be reflective of God’s grace and temperament. In this place in the Old Testament, however, misusing God’s name or using it in vain has far more serious implications.

On the surface, one only has to think of all the wars fought in God’s name. God is on our side and not your side. Think of the persecutions after Christians were themselves persecuted who decided that perhaps they ought to do it too—and many did with vigor. Think of the Salem witch trials. Think of the genocides across the globe when one race thinks another race is inferior and needs to be extinguished. All of these incidents, where one rids the world of evil through violence as justified in God’s name. Turning on the T.V. and seeing the likes of fundamentalist Christians like Fred Phelps who justify and condone acts of violence against gays and lesbians while doing so using God’s name. Anyone who misuses God’s name and takes it in vain is breaking this commandment.

A person also breaks this commandment when promises are made using God’s name to vindicate its use and are then broken. When we promise to care for our citizens but then pursue self-interest at the expense of other citizens, we are using God’s name in vain. If a president of a country or municipality (for example) promises by God’s hand to uphold the law and protect its citizens, but then seeks through self-interest to take advantage of their office, then he or she is using God’s name in vain.

The examples can continue and I am sure you can think of other examples—my point is this: If we use God or the church or the Christian faith to either get what we want or pursue an agenda of selfishness and crime, rather than doing good, seeking justice, and glorifying God, then we are only using religion and people’s fear of it to manipulate others. This is what breaks the second commandment. Words, regardless of the cussing involved can be painful—and disrespectful for sure. But the action that betrays our words is the sin of taking God’s name in vain and it is to that sin that a person will be unable to escape God’s concern.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Living Virtuously

To help illustrate the importance of virtues, this past Sunday, we played an interesting game during the worship service. The game is called Life Boat. The most well known version of the Life Boat game appeared as a classroom exercise in the 1972 book Values Clarification: A Handbook of Practical Strategies for Teachers and Students by Sidney B. Simon, Leland W. Howe, Howard Kirschenbaum.

These teachers based the game from a true life experience dating back to the 19th century when a member of the crew of the ship William Brown was tried for voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of several passengers. When the ship (bound for Philadelphia from Liverpool) hit an iceberg and sank off Newfoundland, 80 people tried to get into 2 lifeboats. 30 people (mostly children) didn't make it. 42 were in the longboat, 8 were in the jolly boat. The jolly boat, having sails, was rescued quickly. But bad weather threatened the longboat. Not only overloaded, with waves coming over the side, but it was leaking too. When the mate shouted to lighten the load, Holmes and another sailor starting tossing people over the side: six men and two women. The next day, two more men. After the ship was picked up near France, the survivors urged that the sailors be prosecuted for murder. Holmes happened to be the only in town when the Philadelphia grand jury brought an indictment. In court, Holmes offered a necessity defense. He was found guilty, sentenced to six months and a $20 fine. He served his time but was pardoned by President John Tyler, and thus did not have to pay the fine.

How comfortable are you determining the fates of others? Having and understanding what informs our ultimate decisions is one of the goals of living virtuously.

If you missed the game on Sunday, you can play it now.


A passenger liner is wrecked at sea and these 15 people find themselves together in a lifeboat. The lifeboat however, can only support 9 people. If six are not eliminated everyone will die. You cannot make up your own rules and must follow the rules of this game. If you were in command of the lifeboat, whom would you choose to survive?

You are required in-groups of 2 to reach a joint decision as to which passengers will be eliminated.

1. A general practitioner doctor. He is addicted to drugs, and very nervous, Aged 60

2. A black Minister, Protestant, Age 27

3. A prostitute, no parents. She is an excellent nurse. Has already saved a drowning child. Aged 36

4. A male criminal. Charged with murder. He is the only one capable of navigating the boat. Aged 37

5. A man mentally disturbed, who carries important government secrets in his head, aged 41

6. A salesman. He sells automatic washing machines. Member of the local Rotary Club. Aged 51.

7. A crippled boy, paralyzed since birth. He cannot use his hands, or do anything for himself, so must be fed by others. Aged 8.

8. A married couple. He is a construction worker, who drinks a lot. Aged 27. She is a housewife with two children at home. Aged 23

9. A Jewish restaurant owner married with three children at home, Aged 40.

10. A teacher considered one of the best in Bergen County! Aged 32.

11. A Catholic Nun. Supervisor of a girl’s school, Aged 46.

12. An unemployed man, formerly a professor of literature. He has a great sense of humor, showed courage in the last war, and was in a concentration camp for three years, Aged 53.

13. A married couple deeply in love, but no children yet. Both Irish. He is studying to be a pharmacist. Aged 24. She is a housewife, helps with a playgroup. Aged 21.

Please write down the 9 who will survive and why you chose them.

If you missed the sermon that followed this game, you can find it by navigating your browser to

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Second Commandment

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” – Exodus 20:4-6 (NKJV)

The Second Commandment offers us both what we shouldn’t do and why we shouldn’t do it—and then, it is followed by a divine threat of sorts. In the first part, we are forbidden to make or fashion any sort of idol and, once it’s created, to venerate it in any way. An idol is something we create to be an image of a god or deity that then serves as a representative of that god. An idol isn’t particularly a god; it is a representative. Contrastingly, an icon, which is a representative image of Judeo-Christianity (or other “approved of religion”), is meant to serve as only a reminder but it isn’t meant to require particular veneration. Of course, it might be difficult to know when we’re doing it when one may be encouraged to pray to a statue of Mary or rub the feet of a beloved Saint in hopes that doing so might enable a miracle to occur.

It was common in the time of Moses for practitioners of various cults and religions to create and carve images of deities and gods to have in one’s possession. These idols served to remind the followers of their responsibilities to the gods they represented. They were also required to venerate, or honor with a ritual act of devotion, them. Often in homes, the idols would be placed in a place where candles and incense would surround the idols and fill the homes with the aromas and remind the senses of the gods.

To the Jewish followers, Yahweh was a different sort of god. Looking at Yahweh in a monotheistic sense, meaning that there is no other god that exists but Yahweh, then having an idol meant that the follower was admitting that there were other gods and thereby circumventing one of the major tenets of the uniqueness of the Jewish theology.

Yahweh also wanted the Israelites to understand that not only were there to be no graven images of other gods, but that they weren’t even to have graven images of Yahweh. Modern scholars and biblical archaeologists note that even to this day that no idols of Yahweh have ever been found or excavated.

The second part of this commandment explains to the followers an anthropomorphic reason as to why Yahweh didn’t want the Israelites worshiping other gods. Yahweh was a jealous God. Jealousy typically refers to the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that occur when a person believes a valued relationship is being threatened by a rival. In simple terms, jealousy is a feeling of protective resentment towards one who threatens a relationship. In our post-modernity or evolved faith tradition, it is tough to see God as being threatened or so insecure as to be jealous—and yet, it isn’t hard to rationalize that if the Israelites had more than one God to worship, then a person’s commitment would be compromised.

The third part of this commandment offers us an even greater reason to follow this commandment: if you do it, God will not only punish you but will continue to do so both to you, to your children and even their children. This is one powerful threat as well as a way to understand just how important this commandment is to God.

So then, given the seriousness of this commandment, why does the church have graven (or painted or statued) images in the church? Here is a case in point. During the First Council of Nicea in 325, it was determined that Jesus was not just a part of God but was wholly God and wholly man. If Jesus is indeed God (and I do believe he is), then having any image of him would be breaking the 2nd Commandment, wouldn’t it? I do not want to disparage my Catholic brothers and sisters on this point, but would having a crucifix be breaking the commandment as well? In the basement of the church here, we have what I call our “Sammy Davis Jesus” due to the uncanny resemblance of the late crooner Sammy Davis, Jr. We all love that portrait.

What about all the stained glass there are in churches across the country with Jesus in them standing at the door knocking? We have several stained glass images adorning our windows all around the church. Is having Jesus merely in them breaking this commandment?

We can justify a lot of things and I do believe we have done so in this regard. In this respect, I don’t know of anyone who actually venerates the stained glass or prays to it. They are simply illustrations. One can look in the Old Testament where even Moses himself sanctioned the angelic cherubic above the mercy seat. What many of our churches do and what folks in the Old Testament did was simply make illustrations. This is how the describe what Michelangelo did when painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. What the commandment forbade was the worship of God under a material form. Or at least, this is the justification for why we do what we do. If we are to have no images of God and no images of angels or animals or anything as described in the Decalogue, then are we violating this commandment? Before I answer this, I’d like to offer one more example.

Let me ask you a question. When we make a representation of something we value and then honor that something in ways that may supersede how we venerate God, then would that be breaking the second commandment? As I look around, the one representative something that we hold such high honor to is none other than the American flag. Ol’ Glory. The Red, White, and Blue. Stars and Stripes. To us, it represents all the good of USAmerica as well as all the sacrifices that have been made to ensure our particular freedoms. To most Americans, the American flag represents anyone and everyone who has given their lives defending our country (or invading others).

We honor our American flag so highly that laws have been created to manage its care and, God forbid, should it ever touch the ground (even by accident) it is to be destroyed. We have been taught since childhood to pay homage to it with our hands over our hearts (or saluting, for those in the military) while reciting a promise of allegiance to it and our country. The Pledge of Allegiance has been altered a few times since it was first used in 1892. Then, the pledge simply said,

I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty, and Justice for all.

In 1954, the allegiance came to its final form with these words:

I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

Our patriotism, ingrained early in our lives (and me having spent 12 years in the USAF) might ask, “Who in their right mind can say anything against this pledge?” Well, what is a pledge? Is it not a promise and a veneration? Is this veneration of something made with human hands not breaking the Second Commandment? Does this pledge not only venerate the flag but also our country? And our pursuit of liberty and justice for all?

One thing that makes me wonder about our veneration of the American flag and our patriotism can be revealed when we look at those who are not citizens of USAmerica and how we treat immigrants from such places as Mexico or Asia. I have read and heard some of the most mean-spirited and compassionless exclamations directed towards those who want medical care or to use our public schools for their children. And the justification for this attitude is often reflected by a person’s devotion and patriotism (as well as the fear that our resources might be used to help anyone other than ourselves).

I have often spoken with friends when we ask how an immigrant might feel coming into our churches and seeing the American flag standing or waving in our sanctuaries. One friend even captured a photograph on the Internet of it waving over the entrance to the church. Have we so embraced our patriotism that it has become an icon or idol in our churches? When one thinks of Christianity, does one also think of America and the soldiers who’ve died to make us free? Check your hymnal, do you have hymns that are seeped in American patriotism?

Contrast our American flag in our church with the Christian flag that is often displayed next to, in the opposite corner, or the other side of the church. Do we venerate that flag with the same pledges of allegiance? Do we look at it and think of what it represents? Does it honor all the martyrs and saints of heaven who've died defending the Cross of Christ? Not hardly.

Personally, and so as to not stir too much ire, I believe I am very patriotic. I have served my country well and honorably as my father did before me. I served in support of the Gulf War and the Bosnian Conflict. I have many ribbons and medals. When I made rank, I made it swiftly and deliberately. Event today, whenever I hear the national anthem, I come to a stop, I put my hand over my heart, and often I my eyes water up at the climax to the song. I know what the song and my patriotism represent and I am proud to have both served my country and to continue to support and defend my country, if only intellectually, financially, and spiritually.

And yet, I also know that there comes a place where my patriotism needs to stop short of. It cannot impinge upon my faith, nor can it keep me from engaging and participating in Jesus’ kingdom. My faith is about reaching out and helping the oppressed, the helpless, the marginalized, and the faithful. When my country and its leaders tell me or threaten me not to do what Jesus tells me to do, then my patriotism ends and my faith takes over.

When, I ask you, does one’s veneration of an object or an ideal break the Second Commandment? I think we’ve broken it more often than we’ve admitted or realize. And, this is one more example that while we may say we believe and follow the Ten Commandments, in reality many of us simply do not or, more probable, we have justified our actions so as to deceive ourselves into thinking we don’t break them when in reality we do it all the time.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

1. You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me.

Aaron Krager reported on his blog Faithfully Liberal a comment from an Assemblies of God pastor that illustrates for me how many of us understand the Ten Commandments. The comment stated,
“Morality is the No. 1 issue with me,” said Ken Rogers, 62, of Altoona, a member of Central Assembly of God Church in Des Moines. “If a person can’t live by the Ten Commandments, how can he lead the nation?”

Krager's point was to ask how is it that we go about defining our values. He explains that given all of our moral failings, is anyone actually certified to serve anywhere. But for me, Roger's statement seems to reflect what many people think should be the minimum values that everyone in USAmerica considers as a set of collective values. But you know, I cannot help but wonder if Rogers and the rest of USAmerica really understand what they are asking for.

I also wonder if this conversation is more about an ideal and verbal assent or if most folks really believe, that the USAmerica as ever followed these commandments to begin with. Politics is an interesting institution—we pursue ideologies as if they were truth while neglecting them as a matter of practice. And, I might even add that we have purposefully neglected them, but that is a judgment call that perhaps I shouldn't be making. On the surface however, I am inclined to believe that we have made our governmental institution into a Trojan horse when it comes to faith and practice.

And so, I thought it best to begin a series on the Ten Commandments and to take each commandment, one by one, and see if we're really practicing what we tell others we're practicing or, if we've simply made it a litmus test of politicos of choice and have no intention of make the Decalogue into anything more than a value of wishful thinking.

If you haven't read the Ten Commandments for awhile, you can go to Exodus 20:2-17 and to Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Both list the Ten Commandments and both are slightly different, but not so different to change the meaning. I love the Deuteronomy passage best but for the sake of our understanding, I'll keep to the Exodus passage and reference the Deuteronomy one when appropriate. And, I'll be using the New King James Version because for the most part, it'll be reflective of what we think we remember it says.

  1. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.”

This commandment appropriately begins the rules that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. We are to worship only Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God and no others. And, we're to do so because God has done for us a great thing (our ancestors were brought out of the land of Egypt and from the bounds of slavery). Therefore, because God did such a great thing for us and if we are to follow after God, then we obey God's commandment both out of appreciation and respect.

But one might find themselves asking, “Umm.. what other gods?” Perhaps you have heard a sermon or two, or a declaration, that we Americans have turned our money and our thirst for power into a god. These two things, money and power, are often explained in such a way that a thirst for either is akin to turning said pursuit into a god. While I don't believe either are gods, I do find that some folks do value money and power more than they value God. But is that pursuit really turning either of those pursuits into a god?

To put this into perspective, I would like to give a brief and perhaps crude history lesson on the time and era of Moses and what religion looked like around 1445 BCE. While Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and liberal folks cannot really find a consensus on the date this actually happened, I am going to just pick 1445 because that is a, the date historians had originally thought it probably happened and b, it isn't of primary concern for this post. What is of primary concern is that during this time a plethora of religious deities, gods, and idols existed. It seems everyone had their own little god or, some had their national gods, and others had their age old gods. The Persian God Mithra perhaps the most famous, was an extension of Zoroastrianism known as Mehr.

During Moses time, the god Baal was quite popular, so popular in fact that while Moses was on Sinai getting the Ten Commandments from God, the Israelites grew impatient with Moses' return and began to fashion gold to make an idol to worship. Even the Israelites had their gods and became one of the primary reasons so many of them had to be punished (read: killed) because they continually went back to worshiping idols.

To worship another god or idol, a person bowed down to them, displayed the idols in their homes, and followed the rituals and commandments of the differing religions. Most notably among the devotees of Baal were the fertility rituals that promised a good harvest for the farmers. Baal worship would continue to plague the Israelites long after entrance into the Promised Land. Such fertility rituals involved fun parties of alcohol (what fun parties exist without alcohol, right?) and sex with many—and we all know how much everyone loves to do that!

In modernity (or post-modernity), when we think of our idols, do we really mean that there are those who “worship” money and power? In a strict literal sense, I would think not. However, if we were to define worshiping an idol in terms of one person placing the pursuit of money and power above all else, and obeying whatever rules we set up to achieve more money and power, then perhaps we might change our mind. We can probably correlate the display of money or power as an idol in the home by those who either display their possessions or even their stock certificates. Sure, this is a stretch—but there are several similarities to how we have created our own god-like deities in place of putting our trust in God.

As a nation, we can see other similarities to other “things” we place in a category of more importance than we do with God. And, depending on your particular perspective, we might discover more than we feel comfortable admitting: as an immigrant, how would patriotism or, a more negative word, nationalism, be seen in their eyes? Do we value our Americanism more than we value God? When we seek to limit the benefits of our resources from those we deem inferior to us, are we not elevating ourselves above others? And in that elevation, do we value our self-interest as a nation or even ourselves, more than we value other humans? Maybe this is a crude example—but you get the idea. While we may not worship idols per say, we sure act like we do. And when we act like it, it is tough to wonder if we're disobeying the first commandment or not. If we cannot make that distinction with certainty, I'd imagine that God wouldn't be altogether happy about it.