Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sitka Spruce

The soundboard of most acoustic guitars is made of softwood, generally spruce or cedar. Every once in a while you will see a redwood top, and I've heard of builders using koa (a Hawaiian hardwood) or mahogany. These are unique instruments in that the top, back, and sides are all made from the same wood.

The formula for 99% of the acoustic guitars made is softwood for the top, hardwood for the back and sides, and hardwood (generally mahogany or maple) for the neck.

By far the most popular softwood for a steel string acoustic is Sitka Spruce (picea sitchensis), which is found in the coldest regions of North America. It has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any softwood i.e. it is both light and strong, properties that are crucial in a guitar top. If a top is too heavy, it won't vibrate, and in order to get it to vibrate you will have to thin it past the point of structural integrity. A guitar top has to be light enough to vibrate and create air movement, yet strong enough to withstand the app. 170 lbs. of pull from the strings.

Few woods can pull this off. Sitka Spruce shines.

Clark's guitar will be made of Sitka, with a twist: his top w
ill include a type of figure called "bearclaw" in which the grain unpredictably "squiggles", creating a striking effect. Especially under a finish, the bearclaw figure causes light to reflect differently so that the bearclaw almost shimmers. You have to see it to appreciate it. Here's a picture of Clark's Sitka top:

I've enlarged the picture to give you a better view of the figure. Although it's a little faint, if you look closely, especially at the top of the pieces, you can see that it looks like a bear has clawed the wood. Like I said, under a finish this figure shimmers almost like a jewel.

No one knows what causes this effect, and it doesn't happen in all Sitka. It does make the boards stiffer, so they can be thinned a little more than with a regular Sitka top and still be strong.

This has the potential to be a very beautiful guitar. I better not mess it up!

Letting God Be God

In the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve committed the original sin—they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In other words, they wanted to be able to judge what is right and what is wrong for themselves.

The story of Cain and Abel takes that original sin up a notch: Cain decided not just what was good or evil but who was good and who was evil.

We just don’t seem to be able to learn, do we?

I’m talking about people in general, just to make it clear that no one group of people have cornered the market on this one. But having said that, it sure seems like religious people are striving for a greater market share than anyone else.

If some people can seem wishy-washy when it comes to relativizing ethics, religious people err the opposite way. They not only claim that there are absolutes but that they absolutely know what they are. Just ask them.

Jesus once told a parable about this. He said that a man sowed his seed with good seed, but during the night an enemy snuck into the field and sowed weed seed amongst the good seed. So when the good grain started growing, there was a bunch of weeds all mixed up with them. The farmer’s workers asked him if he wanted them to go out and pull up all the weeds, but he said no. The weeds were so intermingled that they would pull up the roots of the good plants when they were pulled out of the ground. “Wait until the harvest,” he said, “and then it will be easy and safe to separate them.”

We need to listen to Jesus on this one. He’s telling us a number of things. First, we aren’t so good at telling the wheat from the weeds, the good from the bad. In fact, we’re pretty bad at it. It’s not so easy to say, “We’re the good, they are the bad.” (Notice, no one says, “We’re evil, and they’re good.” However we decide where the line between good and evil is, we’re always on the good side of the line.) Sometimes—most of the time—only God can distinguish. We ought to let God be God, and stick to the things we can do well.

Second, in the Kingdom of God collateral damage is not accepted. When humans wage war against each other, the number of non-combatant civilian casualties is extraordinarily high—it’s almost a 1:1 ratio. How can that be at all acceptable? (If you don’t believe me, Google “WWII Civilian Casualties” and see what you come up with.) When we try to root out evil violently, we end up rooting out much that is good and innocent as well, and this is unacceptable in the Kingdom of God.

Third, the line between good and evil is hard for humans to distinguish, not the least because it runs through each of us. There aren’t good people and bad people. The image of God still lives in the worst of us, and the sin of Cain lives in the best of us. Only God can see where the line truly runs. Once again, can we be content to let God be God?

Let me try out a radical statement: maybe the whole idea of destroying evil is misguided. In creating light, God defined darkness; you can’t have one without the other. Declare something to be good (love) is to automatically declare what is not good (hate, apathy, cruelty). Maybe Jesus didn’t come to destroy evil as much as to expose it, transcend it and render it impotent.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. led that crowd of 600 civil rights marchers across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, which led to a bloody beating of many of the marchers at the hands of the Selma, AL police, he exposed the evil forces behind the racism in this country. By not meeting force with force, violence with violence, he transcended it. And when a nation watched in horror and disgust the images that played on their TV’s, he rendered it impotent.

This is among the many things that Jesus accomplished on the cross. He exposed the evil of the political and religious forces of his day, he transcended them, and rendered them impotent. Once his followers understood what he was doing and followed suit, albeit after the resurrection, the Roman Empire couldn’t stop them, not even by throwing them to the lions. That’s the power of truly following Jesus.

We may not be good at deciding if someone else is wheat or weed, but that’s not our job. Our job is to follow Jesus. If you’re wheat, that’s you job. The rest is God’s responsibility. Let God be God.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Microberlina Brazzavillensis

The back and sides of Clark's guitar are going to be Zebrawood (microberlina brazzavillensis), a very boldly striped hardwood from west Africa. Here's a picture of the back and sides of what will be Clark's guitar:

The back, top, and sides are all bookmatched pieces of wood i.e. when the wood is sawn, instead of sliding the second piece over on top of the first, the second piece is flipped over onto the top. When you then open the two pieces like a book, the grain of each piece matches the other from the outside in (or vice versa). This is important not only for appearance but also for structural reasons.

This is some very beautiful wood. I've never seen a guitar or anything for that matter made out of it. It is supposed to be about the same density, have the same workability and resonance as East Indian Rosewood, which is what the majority of guitars are made out of. And it cost about the same, so Clark is going to have a very distinctive looking guitar. I can't wait to see what it looks like under a finish.

Planning it Out

Guitar #3 is going to be an OM-style body. This is a Martin Guitar style originally called Orchestra Model but now just referred to as OM. It's a smaller body than they typical dreadnought that is very popular. It has a narrower waist and the body is not as deep, but the scale length (the length of the string from the nut to the saddle--the two white things at the top and the bottom where the strings cross) is the same as with a dreadnought, 25.4 inches.

An OM is typically not as loud or as bassy as a dreadnought, and tends to be preferred by fingerstyle guitarists more than bluegrass players who do a lot of strumming and need to emphasis the bass notes.

Like in many things, designing the guitar is the first step. Since this is a custom guitar, the OM serves as the basis, but there is a lot of freedom to change things. We're not going to deviate from the basic OM design, but Clark wants a cutaway, and the OM plans don't include the shape of the cutaway. I could have drawn the cutaway freehand like I did the last guitar, but this time I decided to go with a tried and true design. Not having access to a cutaway OM so I could trace the shape, I borrowed Chip's cutaway Taylor Guitar, traced the body shape onto poster board, and then transferred the cutaway to the OM design.

Here's the OM body shape in plexiglass. The lines show the bracing pattern that will go under the soundboard (also called the top.)

Traced that onto posterboard, then added the Taylor cutaway and cut the whole thing out. Here's the shape that Clark's guitar is going to have (the perspective is off a little because of the angle of the camera. The lower bout will be more round than it looks in the picture):

There's a friendly rivalry between Martin players and Taylor players, so this mixing of elements from both may be sacriligious to some, but, hey, I'm all about bringing people together, you know?

Since this guitar will have the same scale length as the last one I didn't have to design a new fretboard. I'll simply use the same posterboard template. The left side starts at the nut and ends where the saddle will be. You can see the bridge template that is also attached.

I'll work off of these templates throughout the process, referring often to the OM plans:

Monday, April 27, 2009

Starting Guitar #3

The weather has turned warm, which means the garage is once again inhabitable, and I've finished the winter honey-do list (except for painting the den, which is a big job which I will not be doing alone, and besides, my honey has yet to pick out the color scheme) so it's time to start another guitar!

This one is for Clark Briggs, a church member who said something to me about building him a guitar the first Sunday I returned from sabbatical in 2006. Mike Jensen had already put in dibs for the #2, which was delivered last New Years Eve. Now it's Clark's turn.

A good guitar starts with good planning. For this one that involved more than wood choice, body style, and decisions about bindings and rosette.

I needed to re-do my garage workshop.

When we moved here in 1995, the garage had a solid workbench made of 2 x4's, and it was great for storing things, but totally unacceptable for any kind of woodworking. For one thing, it was too deep, so hanging tools on the wall was possible but not very practical. But the bigger issue was that it was too high. A good workbench will come up to the top of the hip; much higher and you get shoulder fatigue because you are working more horizontally than vertically. You can't use your weight as much to provide power; your arms have to do all the work. The original workbench was much too high, so I had to build another one. That's two workbenches, which is one too many.

I used the old one to mount small 9" benchtop bandsaw as well as a vice, and for storing tools, but that's a waste of valuable floor space. Here's a picture of the top of the old bench, and you can see how it was difficult to keep it uncluttered.

Well, with some Christmas money I was able to buy a 14" floor standing bandsaw, which was the only reasonable justification for keeping the bench. So I got rid of it.

I was able to push my other workbench into the corner, which gives it stability on two sides. I bought some cheap shelving, and was able to hang a lot of my hand tools on some peg board.

Here are some pictures of the new, improved workspace:


Feeling crowded is not conducive to good workmanship. This is the kind of space that is conducive to guitar-building.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

More Than T-Shirts

I’m not one to wear Christian t-shirts. Let me move past the fact that t-shirts can’t be Christians. (“Would you like to be clean of the dirt and filth that makes up your life?”) That is another subject altogether. And I’m also going to move past the fact that messages of many Christian-themed t-shirts are boastful, self-aggrandizing, and subtle put-downs to those who aren’t Christians. Actually, I’m not going to move past it too quickly, for it is a big reason why I don’t wear Christian-themed t-shirts.

But the main reason I don’t wear Christian-themed t-shirts was captured by the one Christian-themed t-shirt I might actually wear. I saw it on the youth pastor at the Church at Severn Run, and it said, “They will know we are Christians by our t-shirts.” I love it. I would actually wear that shirt.

Of course this is a take-off on the old 70’s era youth group song, “They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love.” At issue here is the difference between our identification as Christians and our influence as Christians.

Christianity is not a membership-only society in which, after you join, you get to wear the secret decoder ring, funny hat, and other exterior signs of membership, and that is what identifies you as being a part of this elite group of “not-perfect-just-forgiven people” (to use another “Christian” slogan I detest).

I believe our identification as Christians needs to be linked to our influence as Christians, and people are not influenced by our t-shirts, our bumper stickers, or our jewelry.

As the song says, they are influenced by our love. An early Christian writer named Tertullian quoted a pagan official who said about the Christians: "look at how much they love each other!" Jesus said: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Unfortunately, I think people are more influenced by the lack of love that Christians often show toward one another than they are by our unity. They expect the latter, but the former says to people that there is something seriously wrong with our faith. Love for one another is the bottom line for the Christian; if we don’t have that, nothing else we say or do will have much influence.

I would argue that a more powerful influence is our love for those who are not followers of Jesus. In fact, our love for people should be so strong that there is not any appreciable difference between our love for other Christians and our love for anyone else. The categories should disappear. No more “Christian” and “non-Christian,” not in regard of our love for and treatment of people. There are just people, and we are to love people just as Christ, who was no respecter of persons, loved them. Inasmuch as we show love, respect and care for those who are outside of our faith—even those whom we would consider hostile to our faith—then we show the character of our God who loved us while we were yet sinners—while we were in fact hostile to the ways of God. (Col. 1:21)

There is one more thing that is needed if we are going to be a positive influence on people. It’s possible to remain in our holy enclaves and love people, and as long as we remain in our church buildings, we’ll have no influence. Influence requires our presence. Love isn’t a feeling or an abstract concept; love must be demonstrated, and that requires presence. We can’t remain in here and expect to be an influence, we have to be out there, being the presence of Christ in people’s lives.

In a way, I really don't care if they know I am a Christian. I really just care that they know that God loves them.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Importance of Knowing About Jesus

If you’ve been listening to me for while, you’ve heard me say that it is not enough to know about Jesus; you must know Jesus. This speaks to the personal relationship that is such a crucial part of the spiritual life in Christ. We often speak of head knowledge and heart knowledge: with head knowledge we know facts about Jesus, but with heart knowledge we know Jesus on a personal level, and it is this personal level that brings salvation.

We pastors say this kind of thing because we assume that there is a large number of people out there who know facts about Jesus but who don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that we are wrong.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of people out there who really know a lot about Jesus. The Jesus a lot of people believe in—and the Jesus a lot of people have rejected—bears only a passing resemblance to the Jesus that we read about in the Bible. And that’s a problem.

Before anyone can have a relationship with Jesus, they have to learn about Jesus. If it seemed that we pastors dismissed a head knowledge of Jesus as somehow misguided, then we erred in conveying our meaning. A head knowledge of Jesus may be insufficient, but it is still important. Head knowledge comes first, and heart knowledge follows. More importantly, heart knowledge is based on head knowledge. If your head knowledge is incorrect, then you are basing your heart knowledge—your relationship—on view of Jesus that never existed.

So, if your head knowledge of Jesus is that he was merely a teacher of timeless truths who came to address the problem of our personal sins, then that is the person with whom you will have a relationship. You will look to him for guidance for everyday problems, particularly issues with any bad habits you might have developed. Your thought life might not be pure (whose is?) and so you ask him to forgive your wayward thoughts and help you overcome any future ones. You may have a tendency with anger toward your spouse, so you ask him to forgive you and seek his aid in helping you to be more patient.

Now, I have no doubt but that our world would be a better place if people’s thoughts were pure and if people never got angry with their spouses, but, seriously, are those really the big problems that plague our world? Were they the problems that plagued Jesus’ world in the 1st century? Isn’t focusing on things like this like vacuuming the carpet when the house is on fire? I mean, I’ve seen some dirty carpets, but…

The Jesus I read about in Scripture dealt with heavy stuff. Violence, war, rebellion, injustice. He confronted religion that oppressed the poor rather than addressed poverty, that sought power and influence rather than pain and suffering, that sought a false peace with the principalities and powers rather than a confrontation that might lead to a cross. If this more accurately describes the real Jesus found in the gospels—and I submit that it does—then our personal relationship with this Jesus is going to be a whole lot different than the one described above. A whole lot more uncomfortable. Dangerous, even.

We need to spend a lot more time learning about Jesus. Otherwise, he’ll show up one day and we won’t recognize him. (Luke 9:44; Matthew 25:44-45)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Human Eraser

In the summer between 8th and 9th grade, I went to Camp Ramblewood Basketball Camp. The year before I had gone to Lefty Driesell's camp at the University of Maryland. Dad said he'd pay for half of the camp fee if I came up with the other half, so I mowed lawns all summer. Turns out that a friend and teammate who lived around the corner from me, Mike Beck, was planning to go also, so we made sure we roomed together. We got to sleep in one of the dorms, got to eat at the dorm cafeterias, and, best of all, got to play basketball at Cole Field House and be coached by Lefty Driesell.

I tell you that to provide context for the next statement: Camp Ramblewood was a dump. It really was a camp out in the woods. We slept in cabins with 12 guys. We ate camp food in a dining hall. The inside basketball court was old, dingy, and dark. The outside courts were actually tennis courts with goals around the perimeter. There were no famous basketball players or professional players there, and not a single pretty coed. Morgan Wooten, the legendary high school coach at DeMatha, came up for an afternoon session with a couple of his players, but they left immediately.

Coach Wooten didn't want to stay at Camp Ramblewood.

The only reason I went was because our jr. high coach was working at the camp and 3/4 of the team was going and I didn't want to be left out. Even Mike was leaving Lefty.

We were bused to the camp, which is in Harford County near Havre de Grace. All the campers and some of the counselors from the D.C. area met at a school parking lot to board the buses. I was talking to my best friend Maurice while waiting to board when we noticed the tallest person we had ever seen in our lives standing near one of the buses. We were trying to guess his height but had no idea, so we came up with a plan. I ambled over to him, just minding my own business, until I was standing next to him. Didn't look at him, didn't try to talk to him. Just stood there for a minute, then walked over to Maurice.

"Larry, he was about a foot taller than you!" I was about six feet at the time, so that meant we were getting our first look at a seven-foot person. Back then, about the only seven-footers anyone heard of were Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.

His name was Marvin Webster, he was from Baltimore and was entering his junior year at Morgan State University, a Division II school. And he was 7' 1''.

At Ramblewood we were put on teams and assigned coaches, and Marvin was the coach of my team. He was a lot of fun, and we really enjoyed playing for him. Our team wasn't very good; we were probably a .500 team, I don't really remember. But I remember one time Marvin was trying to motivate us for an upcoming game, so we made him promise us that he would dunk five times for us if we won. (Back then dunking wasn't allowed in college, so it was actually a rare treat to watch someone dunk. Hard to believe now that dunking is commonplace.)

We won, and we had to sneak to an out-of-the-way court for Marvin to fulfill his promise, because dunking wasn't allowed at Ramblewood. This was before breakaway rims, and Ramblewood couldn't afford for these college guys to be bending their rims.

Marvin dunked one-handed, two-handed. We told him to do it behind his head, and he did. With each dunk we all laughed and slapped skin. He could have gotten in trouble, but a promise is a promise.

Playing at a small school, nobody had heard much about Marvin Webster, but the next year he averaged 8 blocks a game (the NCAA Division I leader last year averaged 5.3) and led Morgan State to the NCAA Division II championship. I remember reading an article in Sports Illustrated about "The Human Eraser," and there was a picture of my coach, swatting some poor fool's shot away.

He was the 3rd pick in the 1975 NBA draft, but signed with the ABA Denver Nuggets. The next year the ABA merged with the NBA and the Nuggets were one of the teams that survived. He played with them for nine years before being traded to Seattle. That was his best pro year as he led the Supersonics to the 1978 NBA finals against the Bullets. I went to one of those games and had to root against my old coach's team--but not against my old coach. The Bullets won the championship in seven games, and the next year Marvin signed a then unprecedented $3 million contract with the New York Knicks which landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Unfortunately, knee problems and a serious case of hepatitis which caused him to miss two full seasons limited his play, and he never was able to reach the heights with the Knicks that he had with the Sonics or even the Nuggets. He finished his career with the Bucks in 1986-87.

Marvin died the other night in Tulsa. He was found in a hotel bathtub. Fortunately, this isn't the story of some former star who couldn't deal with life outside of sports and died penniless of a drug overdose in some back alley dive.

It seems that the hepatitis and coronary heart disease just caught up with him.

The papers all say that he was a gentle, jolly giant.

Yes, he was. That's how I will always remember him.

Easter Proof

I’m not one of those who say, in asserting the truth of the resurrection, that no one would die for a lie. The line of reasoning goes like this: the disciples, clearly afraid of dying with Jesus the week before, are transformed by the His resurrection and become extremely devoted advocates of Jesus as messiah and Lord such that each of them eventually dies a martyr’s death. If, as some claim, they had stolen the body and made up this business about Jesus rising from the dead, they might have done a lot of the things they did, but they would have stopped short of dying for something they had just simply made up. No one dies for a lie.

At the risk of sounding like the fictional T.V. doctor Gregory House, whose mantra is “Everybody lies,” it’s been my observation that not only do people lie but they will do a lot to cover up their lies. Last fall there was a high school football player who told a little white lie, that he was being recruited by some pretty serious Division I universities when in fact he wasn’t. The lie spun out of control, and pretty soon it was too big for him to deny, so he had to carry on with the charade, going so far as to participate in a big signing ceremony where he announced his choice of college. If officials at that university hadn’t told reporters that they had never even recruited him much less sign him, who knows how far he would have taken it. He probably would have packed up and moved out there, and then make up some chronic injury to explain why he never played.

Yeah, I know, this falls short of dying, but it shows the length that people will go to save face. And what’s the saying, tell a lie often enough and you will begin to believe it. So, yeah, I can believe a scenario in which Jesus’ disciples might have stolen his body, lied about his resurrection, then watched as a Jewish cult quickly grew into a large movement in which others, passionately believing the lie, sacrifice their lives. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that a person would rather die than to have to admit that you stood by and watched innocent believers die for something you knew you had made up. Who knows, maybe by this time they believed it themselves.

But that’s not what I think happened. I believe the resurrection is a historical reality. Jesus’ body was transformed, it took on a different physicality, but it was still a physicality. It wasn’t just that his spirit had been released from his body so that he could go live in heaven with the rest of the Trinity. The disciples experienced a physical Jesus who walked with them and talked with them. They could touch him. They gave him food and he ate it. (Luke 24:41-43)

It’s tempting to point to the resurrection as proof that Christianity is true, but to a skeptic there is circularity to that claim: Christians believe in the resurrection because we believe Christianity is true, and we know Christianity is true because the resurrection is proof.

It’s also tempting to then say that the statement “Jesus rose from the dead” is a faith statement that is not subject to empirical investigation. But that sounds an awful lot like, “I believe in the resurrection because, well, I just do, and nothing you can say will change that.”

Surely we’ve got more than that.

Our modern Western Enlightenment worldview says that the only kind of truth is empirical truth, but that’s not true. There is another kind of truth that we all know is real even if it cannot be subjected to empirical methods, and that is relational truth. The things that go on between my wife and me—our love for one another, our faith in each other, our hurts that we have inflicted on each other as well as the ways we bring out the best in each other—these things are all real. They are true. And only Pam and I really know them. We can try to explain them, but ultimately words fall short. And if you want to be skeptical, you can say that it’s not really love that we are experiencing but “enlightened self interest,” and there is probably nothing we could say or do that could convince you otherwise. But we know. We know.

Theologian Marcus Borg says, “The central meaning of the Easter experience or the resurrection of Jesus is that His followers continue to experience Him as a living reality, a living presence after His death.” Yes, and not just a spiritual presence. The relationship they had with him before his death continued after his death, albeit in a different form, a different physicality. Following Jesus isn’t primarily about believing a set of doctrinal statements about him, it’s about a relationship with him that is real. When you are in that relationship, there is no doubting that it is real, that it is true, and that it is more than just wishful thinking. It is something you know.

Jesus is alive. It’s a relational statement. And I know it's true.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

O's 7, Evil Empire 5

I won't do this all season, I promise.

But it's the Yankees. I know, it's early.

But it's the Yankees.

So, for the season: Orioles 2, Evil Empire 0.

Yeah, so just let me enjoy it while I can.

Ungrammatical Caps

There's an article in today's Baltimore Sun by Laura Vozella that notes that the apostrophe in the Orioles alterntate caps that they wear once or twice a week is not actually an apostrophe, it's a comma. Or an upside-down apostrophe. Or whatever, it's wrong. As an apostrophe, the round part goes up with the tail going down, while with a comma it's the opposite.

Seems there's a big discussion about the Orioles not being able to even get the punctuation on their caps right.

So I have to clear it up.

It's not an apostrophe; it's a tear drop from all the seasons of futility.

I say keep it like it is until the Orioles have a winning season. Then replace it with a smiley face. :)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Orioles 10, Evil Empire 5

This may be the highlight of what will probably end up being a very long season.

But it was Opening Day, when all hope springs eternal. O's are in first place, and the Evil Empire, aka Yankees, are in last.

So let me enjoy it.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Breaking the Cycle

(This is part 5 of a discussion that began with "Freedom and Forgiveness." If you haven't read the previous parts you will want to scroll down to catch up.)

When Jesus came announcing, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” he was invoking at once all of the expectations that a 1st century Jew had for the end of the Exile. His hearers would have understood that he was announcing that Yahweh had forgiven Israel of her sins—notice the collective sense of this--that messiah was coming and with him Yahweh was returning to rule, the nations who had oppressed Israel would be judged, and Israel would be restored.
But there was a twist. If this new kingdom was truly to be an eternal kingdom, then God had to do something about this addiction to sin that was afflicting his people—indeed, all peoples. Something needed to be done to break the power that sin had over the people, otherwise this kingdom would end like all the others, with Israel once again becoming unfaithful. Then God would have to judge or at least threaten of judgment, then the people would repent and he would forgive, and the cycle would continue.

So Jesus, the messiah, went up against the forces of sin, but he refused to play by their rules. He refused to establish his kingdom the way that the empires of this world establish their kingdoms—through violence, fear, oppression, and subjugation. As he told Pilate, “If my kingdom were from this world (this age, this aeon) my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” (John 18:36) They were ready to fight, but he wouldn’t let them. And when you go up against the principalities and powers of this world and aren’t willing to pick up a sword, they are going to kill you.

And they did. They crucified him as a rebel leader, between two other rebels. To the followers of Jesus, to those who believed that he was the messiah, that the Exile really was ending and the Kingdom of God really was coming, this was the end. Nothing had changed. God hadn’t forgiven Israel. The messiah hadn’t arrived. Rome (and its gods) was still in charge.

And then the resurrection. The resurrection was the vindication of Jesus and of his way of being Israel. He really was the messiah and his way really could be trusted. And his way was the way of the cross. Only through the cross could humanity’s addiction to sin and violence be broken.
The resurrection vindicated the cross. In the cross all of Israel’s hopes found their fulfillment—their hopes for forgiveness and restoration, specifically, but with an added bonus: the cross ended their slavery to sin.

That’s why Jesus could speak of forgiveness in the past tense or in the present tense as a continuous state of being: because Yahweh had forgiven Israel and was setting in motion events leading to the Kingdom of God.

© 2009 by Larry L. Eubanks

The Exile: Would it Ever End?

(This is part 4 of the essay, "Freedom and Forgiveness." If you've not read the previous posts, scroll down so you can catch up.)

Israel's repeated unfaithfulness to their covenant with Yahweh led to its demise. The nation was utterly destroyed, it's major cities and institutions torn down, it's people deported.

Yahweh had promised David, however, that there would always be one of his descendants on the throne. And the prophets who announced the judgment to come frequently spoke of a “remnant” who would return and reconstitute a new nation, a new Israel upon whose hearts the Law of Yahweh would be written. “The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down. On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness.” (Isaiah 10:19-22) In these verses we see both the determination of Yahweh to destroy Israel regardless of whatever they might or might not do to prevent it, but also the inability of Yahweh to finally and ultimately give up on his people. This more than anything speaks to the compassion of Yahweh. Though they deserve it, he just can't finally bring himself to utterly destroy them. He'll eventually give them another chance.

So, Israel was destroyed and the people sent away in exile, yet there remains a hope: Yahweh would not always hold Israel’s sin against her, but would eventually forgive them and restore the kingdom. It would be a different kingdom, one in which Yahweh ruled through his Anointed One, the descendent of David who would be a righteous king and would not forsake the ways of Yahweh. The coming of the Anointed One—messiah in Hebrew, christus in Greek—would be a sign that Yahweh had forgiven Israel and was ready to end the Exile and restore his kingdom. When that happened, Israel would be free from foreign oppression, and the Kingdom of God would be established forever.

In the 1st century, no Jew would have claimed that this had happened yet. Though the remnant had indeed returned to Israel about 50 years after Jerusalem was destroyed in order to rebuild, this was done with the permission of and under the vassalage of the Persians, who replaced the Babylonians as the ruling empire of the area. After the Persians came the Greeks, who occupied Israel and forced their culture on the Jews. There was a brief period of independence when the Maccabee family led a successful rebellion against the Greeks, but this could not have signified the end of the Exile because there was no descendant of David to take over the throne, and because it didn’t last. In 63 B.C.E the Romans conquered and occupied the land of the Jews.

So here’s what every Jew in the 1st century who still looked forward to the end of the Exile and the establishment of Yahweh’s kingdom understood needed to happen for that to be true: Yahweh had to forgive Israel of the sins that had led to the Exile; he had to send the messiah to be their king; and the kingdom had to be restored, not the least of which involved full and final independence from Rome. These events would put an end to the age of the Exile and would usher in a new age—“the age to come” that Jesus and others referred to—in which all the world would recognize that the God of Israel was just and merciful and compassionate and forgiving.

This hadn't happened yet, but it was into this worldview and set of expectations that Jesus of Nazareth was born.

© 2009 by Larry L. Eubanks

The Exile: Yahweh's Irresistible Judgment

(This is part 3 of a discussion that began with "Freedom and Forgiveness." If you haven't read the previous parts you will want to scroll down to catch up.)

The book of Judges records a series of stories that follow a certain pattern: Israel would be unfaithful to their covenant with Yahweh, and judgment would follow, usually in the form of defeat and oppression at the hands of another nation. God would raise up a charismatic leader (a judge) who would remind Israel of the need to be faithful to Yahweh, they would repent, God would forgive, and the nation would be restored after a military victory over their oppressors. This cycle of sin/judgment, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration, repeats itself six times in the book of Judges; however, it is not confined to the period of the judges. This pattern actually defined the relationship between Israel and Yahweh. When Israel was faithful, they prospered; when they were unfaithful, things went bad for them until they repented. Whenever they repented, God forgave and restored them. Always. It was something they counted on. Sometimes God would send prophets to the Israelites to warn them of the judgment and give them time to repent. And if they repented, he always forgave them and withheld the judgment.

Until Yahweh got tired of it. The Israelites always counted on repentance leading to forgiveness and restoration. In fact, they counted on it so much that they took it for granted that Yahweh would always forgive and restore. And they needed it, because their unfaithfulness became habitual. It was like there was something in their DNA that had a power over them such that they almost couldn’t help themselves. They were addicted to unfaithfulness, and any addiction exerts a power over the addict such that they aren’t free, and can’t free themselves.

Eventually Yahweh had had enough. He decided that no matter how much they repented, how much they begged, how much they brought their sacrifices and tithes to the temple, he was going to punish them, and this time there was no turning back.

God calls Isaiah and tells him, “And he [Yahweh] said, ‘Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.' Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.’ Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said: ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.’ The holy seed is its stump.” (Isaiah 6:9-13)

Yahweh has decided that judgment had to come, and no amount of praying and repenting, sackcloth and ashes, fasting and sacrificing, would make him change his mind. In fact, he didn’t want to hear their empty promises anymore. It just made him sick. “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.” (Amos 5:21-23)

So the judgment came. First the Assyrians came in 722 B.C.E. and attacked the northern kingdom (called Israel), overrunning all the Israelite lands in Galilee and the Transjordan, deporting parts of the population to exile in Assyria, and totally destroying numerous cities. Judah, the southern kingdom of Israelites, was able to hold out a bit, becoming a vassal state to Assyria. When Hezekiah was king of Judah he rebelled against the Assyrians and was able to withstand a siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, so that Judah somewhat maintained her independence. But all that changed when a new empire, the Babylonians, supplanted the Assyrians as the power in the region. Judah held out as long as it could, but in 586 B.C.E. Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple, and deporting a large portion of the population.

There was nothing left. David’s kingdom was gone. The Israel of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was gone. This was Yahweh’s judgment.

And it lasted for over 500 years.

© 2009 by Larry L. Eubanks

Freedom and Forgiveness Pt. 2: Forgiveness from the Lips of Jesus

“Jesus came announcing that the Kingdom of God was at hand, i.e. that God had forgiven Israel of her sins and that he was returning to be her King and her God.”

Someone asked me to provide the scriptural basis for that, particularly for the “God had forgiven Israel of her sins” part, which is fair. It’s just not simple; to understand that statement requires us to delve into the full sweep of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh recorded in the Old Testament. But that's what we're here for, so let's give it a shot.

First of all, that statement refers to collective sin, collective judgment, and collective forgiveness, and that is not a concept that we as Americans understand very well. With our individualist mindsets, we understand sin as something the individual commits, and forgiveness as something the individual must seek and receive.

There is such a thing, however, as national sin and national judgment. Lincoln referred to it in his second inaugural address: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

What is interesting is how little Jesus speaks of forgiveness in the gospels, particularly with regard to God forgiving people of their sins. There are the two incidents I mentioned in the last post, the healing of the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8 Luke 5:17-26; Mark 2:1-12) and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), where Jesus says to them both, “Your sins are forgiven.” There is Jesus statement about the unavailability of forgiveness for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10). There is Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Supper, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:27-28) Interestingly, Matthew is the only gospel writer who has the words about forgiveness; in Mark and Luke Jesus simply says that it is the blood of the covenant poured out for you (Luke) or for many (Mark.) Paul also does not include the words “for the forgiveness of sins” but simply echoes Mark’s wording (or the other way around, since Paul was probably already martyred before Mark was written). There is Jesus’ prayer on the cross found in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” There is Jesus’ statement in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others”, found in basically the same form in both Matthew and Luke. Matthew adds, however, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” tying our forgiveness from God with our willingness to forgive others. The rest of the times we see Jesus speaking about forgiveness, it is about the need for us to forgive one another, and he often links God’s forgiveness to our willingness to forgive others (Matt. 18-21-35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37).

You will notice that I’ve not referenced John’s gospel; that is because in John Jesus speaks of forgiveness only once, in 20:23, in a post-resurrection appearance to the disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

There are a couple of other passages where forgiveness is either implied or assumed without the word being used: Matthew 18:15: "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one”; and John 8:24: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he."

But that’s it. That’s all that Jesus had to say about God’s forgiveness. He only spoke about it seven times. The rest of the times he speaks about forgiveness it’s in reference to forgiving one another.

So, if the forgiveness of humanity’s sins by God was such a big part of Jesus’ mission, one is forced to ask why he spoke of it so seldom. Well, as I indicated in my opening statement, I think it was included in the many things that Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God would have meant for a 1st century Jew. And to understand that you need a big-picture understanding of the Old Testament.

© 2009 by Larry L. Eubanks