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Don’t call me beautiful.

Tonight, Anderson Cooper featured some of the moms from “Toddlers and Tiaras” on his Ridiculist. Granted… that’s a pretty easy call. I wonder how these folks can stand to watch themselves on TV. I’m kinda embarassed for them, even tho I doubt that they’re embarassed by much of anything, considering that they signed a release to show the world how they treat their kids… all so that someone else will call their kid “beautiful.”

And while the Ridiculist was still playing, I happened to click through to a blog post from a pastor who says that women need to hear the words “You Are Beautiful” every day.

Really?

Now, in that pastor’s defense, he wasn’t just talking about beauty pageant beauty, but the inner beauty that everyone has because they were created in God’s image. But honestly… I can live a very happy life without ever hearing the words “You Are Beautiful.” Partly, that’s because “you are beautiful” is a trite and often insincere statement from folks who think they are supposed to say it, or (worse) from folks who hope to gain something from you by saying it. And I realize that’s not always the case: I go to a church where every male leader takes every possible opportunity to publically call his wife beautiful from the pulpit, and I’m sure they’re sincere & say it as a high compliment.

But don’t call me beautiful.

“Beautiful” has nothing to do with who I am, my character, my creativity, my intelligence, my integrity, my abilities. We praise men for these characteristics, things that are more than just skin deep. That’s what I want. That’s what I can’t live without. If you’re going to praise me, praise me for the same things that the Proverbs 31 woman is praised for: trustworthiness, business skills and savvy, productivity, generosity, humor, and wisdom (to name a few).

Don’t call me beautiful. Beauty is vain. But a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

Jeremiah 29:11

I have a confession to make: I cringe a little when folks quote Jeremiah 29:11.

I can understand why it’s such a favorite — after all, who wouldn’t want that kind of promise for themselves? Here it is in the NIV:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

But taken alone (which it almost always is), it seems to mean something that the author never intended.

I can hardly read it, even today, without the mental image of a Word of Faith/Prosperity preacher, beads of sweat on his brow, a look of intensity on his face, dramatically pointing at people and quoting this verse, his booming voice lingering for effect on the words “prosper”, “hope” and “future.” And the message is that God wants to bless you, prosper you, great things are going to happen for YOU! Your future is bright and full of the promise of happiness, financial success, and health! You are chosen! God has big plans for your life!

The problem is, if you take the verse in context, that’s not really what Jeremiah was saying.

This verse is most often quoted and applied to specific individuals — but Jeremiah is talking to the Jewish people as a whole. This isn’t a promise to every specific individual; it’s a promise to preserve a nation. Yes, it’s still a positive message — but not a prosperity message. It’s not a “God has Big Plans for YOU” message. Not the kind of spiritual “instant gratification” that seems so popular today.

“Prosper” is probably not the best translation of the Hebrew here. In fact, the word that is most often used when speaking of material prosperity, tsalach, is not the word used in this verse. It’s shalom… and while shalom can mean many things, it’s the word we most often associate with the English word “peace.” Here’s the same verse in the NASB:

“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.”

If this verse really meant what some modern preachers would like us to believe, then why didn’t Jeremiah’s audience react the way modern audiences do? Jeremiah wasn’t received as a hero. He was ultimately imprisoned because he did NOT preach a feel-good message. So why do we feel at liberty to take it as a feel-good message today?

Jeremiah was writing a message of consolation, not celebration. He wasn’t giving his audience hope for immediate or or near-term blessings. In fact, when we read this verse in context, we see that Jeremiah was bringing comfort to people who would most likely be dead before these words were fulfilled. He was not promising an absence of calamity — the exile itself was a hardship that would have to be endured, and Jeremiah promised even MORE calamity for those who hadn’t been carried off into exile. We only have to go back to verse 10 to see that the promise of verse 11 would come only after 70 years of captivity had passed. There was an awful lot of time and hardship standing between the exiles and the fulfillment of this verse.

If we go back even further, to Chapter 28, we’ll see that Jeremiah was in conflict with another self-proclaimed prophet, whose message was much more in line with the “instant gratification” message of today. Jeremiah was telling the people that they would be in captivity for 70 years and they needed to pray for their captors and make the best of it. Hananiah was telling them that within two years, they’d be out of captivity and everything would be restored. Can’t help but wonder, which prophet would the modern church embrace?

It’s not the end of the world…

Several months ago, I started seeing the billboards:

It was easy to dismiss this sort of thing as yet another false alarm in a long series of failed doomsday predictions. I made dinner reservations for May 22, planned trips throughout the summer, and pre-registered for school in the fall. Suffice it to say… I was never worried, and I certainly wasn’t hanging my hopes or fears on any man’s predictions. (I did consider leaving a set of clothes on the couch where I usually sit, with the TV and lights on, so my roommate would come home to find me “gone”… but I decided against it :P)

And I’m sure over the next few days there will be a LOT of Harold Camping bashing going on… and frankly, it won’t be entirely undeserved. After all, by his own definition he has now become a false prophet. But there is a little twinge of a personal connection to this story for me…

Back in the 1980s, during my pre-teen-to-early-teen years in the pre-Internet era, I was living in the New York metro area. I didn’t have a television in my bedroom, but I had a boom box! And I used it. One day, I hit the dial on my radio and accidentally found a Christian radio station that was right next to one of the most popular rock-n-roll stations of that time. That station was part of Family Radio — WFME. The music was almost intolerable to my young ears, but the teaching fascinated me… and it created a hunger in me to find out more about protestant Christianity. Late at night, when I was supposed to be asleep, I’d tune in to Harold Camping’s Open Forum program. I never called, but I always listened. I can still remember the theme music and his deep, authoritative voice. Most of the questions he fielded back then had to do with charismatic issues (which he was against), salvation issues (he did not believe that anyone could really have assurance of salvation), or end times issues (but at that point, he wasn’t pushing a particular date).

I was impressed by his knowledge of the Bible and his total commitment to inerrancy. I can still hear some of his “taglines” rolling around in my brain… things like “The Bible is its own interpreter” and “The Bible alone, and in its entirety, is the Word of God.” I was young and impressionable… but those weren’t such bad impressions to be left with! I even wrote letters to Family Radio back then. The responses I received were (obviously) form letters, but I was honored to get any direct communication from them at all. I understood that Camping was extremely conservative and in a minority within the Church at large (and at that point, he was still attending a church), and even after I quit listening to him, I still remembered him with respect.

By the early 90s, I was in NYC and part of the charismatic/Pentecostal “renewal movement,” so I missed the whole 1994 end time prediction. And even tho those early days listening to the radio had an impact on my life, I really didn’t think about Harold Camping or Family Radio much after that, even after I left the charismatic/Pentecostal movement. Then the May 21st thing came up. It’s disturbing enough when folks make predictions and admit that they’re not 100% certain… but it seems like you’d have to have quite an ego to make predictions and proclaim that the Bible guarantees it! It was hard to believe that someone whom I remembered as so conservative and so hesitant to accept anything that wasn’t clearly in Scripture could wind up going off into tangential numerical stuff like that. The Family Radio website has been unreachable most of the day, but I managed to get to one of their audio archive pages and started listening to some Open Forum recordings from earlier this week. Camping’s voice has changed… he sounds older, more tired, more extreme, and far less patient than I remember him. Or maybe  maybe we just always look favorably on the memories of our youth.

As May 21 draws to a close without the major earthquakes, without the rapture, and without any visible indication of the Judgment Day that he so confidently proclaimed… I can’t help but feel sorry for Harold Camping and his followers. I don’t even want to think about what these folks might do next. Will there be a revised prediction? Will there be suicides? What will happen to the faith of his followers? What will become of the newly disillusioned?

But I was “newly disillusioned” once too… and painful as it was, God used that experience in my life. So I can only hope that their disappointment won’t drive them away from God, but humble them and give them a desire to go “back to basics” – not afraid to question what was God’s Word and what was merely a man’s.

“Hokey” Miracles

One of the blogs I enjoy reading comes from Phil Cooke. Recently, he posted a link to this video and asked for comments.

This one had me shaking my head… but not because I was doing the hokey pokey. And it was hard to watch start-to-finish, because I know that there are very sincere folks involved. This happened a church/ministry that I have visited… a place where I still have some really good friends who are truly doing some really great things for God.

The hokey pokey… it’s hokey. It’s silly. But there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun at church, acting silly and child-like, loosening up a bit. I believe that there’s a time for a little levity, even as a part of worship.

But these clips (originally edited together this way by the church that held the meeting — so it was not edited by critics to make it look bad) also bother me, and I’d like to try to articulate that a little bit.

I have a hard time with on-the-spot miracle testimonies. We have no idea who these people are. We don’t know their history. We don’t know if they really had a medical problem in the first place. We are expected to take their testimonies at face value. If we dare question, we are being mean and judgmental. We have a critical spirit. Questioning is frowned upon. Asking for proof is considered insulting.

But this isn’t how we operate in real life.

In real life, when we’re being asked to make a decision that has a significant bearing on our lives, we are expected to weigh the evidence, look at the options, do research, and make an informed decision. Anything less would be considered foolish. If I was going to buy a house, and I didn’t have it inspected, but just chose to believe the seller’s report… I have no recourse later on if I get burned in the transaction. The seller is motivated to make the house look good, not to give me a good deal. That doesn’t make the seller evil; but it means that I have to take an active responsibility for what I choose to buy.

When we go to a church or conference, we’re essentially being asked to buy something. I’m not talking about the book table — I’m talking about the philosophical buy-in, the choice to believe. In certain circles, it is deemed more noble to NOT do your homework, to trust that the preacher has pure motives and a direct line to God. To simply take it on faith that everything is exactly how it is claimed to be. That’s dangerous.

The sellers are not necessarily motivated to be fair and balanced. The preacher wants his ministry to grow. He may have wonderful reasons why he wants his ministry to grow — noble things that he hopes to accomplish — but he is motivated none the less. He is going to talk about the successes much more than the failures. (And when he talks about the failures, usually he’s going to turn that around into a success story too.)

The person giving the testimony of being healed can also be motivated by something other than honesty. Some people desire attention, and this is seen as an acceptable way to get it. Some people are so committed to a church or a ministry that they will exaggerate or even fabricate in order to make that ministry look good. Some get caught up in the moment, and the emotion or the adrenaline might actually make them believe that something happened when it actually didn’t. And some people have been trained to believe that lying is actually a form of faith — say what you WANT to be true, not what is true. Therefore, if I WANT to be healed, I’ll get up and say that I am healed.

There are also sociological and psychological forces at play. If I tell you that I was stuck in traffic for an hour, you might feel compelled to share about the time when you were stuck in traffic for two hours. And that might motivate someone else to talk about being stuck in traffic for 4 hours. There’s a very real human tendency for one-up-manship. So, for a mixture of reasons, and a mixture of motivations, what we hear from the platform at testimony time might not really be true.

But for a moment, lets lay all of that aside. Let’s assume that real miracles are happening in a place where really weird things are being done. Does a miracle validate a specific practice – is it an endorsement, a sign that the practice should be repeated and continued? If a miracle appears to be connected to something, does it turn that “something” into a sacred, untouchable thing?

In the Old Testament, when Isreal had sinned and a plague was spreading through the population, God chose an unusual means to heal the people: a bronze serpent. Anyone who looked at the bronze serpent was healed. This was a pretty straight-forward case. God told the people to do something, they did it, and they were healed. God used that means at that moment. It was definitely and unquestionably a “God-thing” – it’s in the Bible! But fast forward a few centuries, and we find that the bronze serpent has become an idol, something that the people worship instead of worshiping God. It had to be destroyed. And destroying it was also a “God-thing.”

When a surgeon removes a tumor, we don’t build a shrine around the scalpel. The scalpel can’t heal without the surgeon’s skill. One of my favorite programs growing up was M*A*S*H. Often, those surgeons were working in conditions that were less than ideal, and sometimes they had to improvise when the proper instruments were not available. I remember one particular episode where the chaplain did a tracheotomy on a soldier in the field using a pen, while one of the surgeons talked him through the process on the radio. And it worked! We praise the chaplain, but apart from the surgeon he couldn’t have done it. And even as we marvel at the flexibility and teamwork of the M*A*S*H team, we understand that this is not the preferred method to do a tracheotomy. If someone needs a tracheotomy, we’re not going to go looking for a chaplain on the side of a road.

But too often, that’s exactly what we do in the church.

At the beginning of this video, you hear the speaker explaining that they had done this “Holy Ghost hokey pokey” before and folks were healed, so they were going to do it again and see what happens.

Sounds a lot like a bronze serpent to me…