How can an alternative reading of Ezra-Nehemiah help us relate to the world in a way more in line with what God wants?

I read the last chapter of Ezra the other day & I must admit it’s stuck with me since then. This passage has always raised a lot of questions, the most important being its connection to missions. My seminary Old Testament professor, Dr. Vernon Steiner, taught us that when looking at the canonical structure of the OT, Ezra should be the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, because it’s always better to end on a high note, the editors/compilers put Chronicles last. Having said that, how do we interpret the events that happened in Jerusalem so many years ago in light of the Great Commissioning? Are there limits to going into all the world?

If you are unfamiliar with the story, here is the basic outline. The people have returned to Jerusalem after many years of captivity in Babylon. When they return it becomes obvious that a lot of people have intermarried with surrounding nations – something that was seemingly forbidden under Mosaic Law. When this sin is realised, Ezra makes a call for repentance. Those who had married non-Jewish women divorced them and sent them away, including any kids born as a result of the union. The passage only mentions four people who opposed this action but provides no further commentary on the rightness or wrongness of this action.

Something seems right about this, doesn’t it? God hates sin and wants us to stay away from it as much as possible, doesn’t he? God wants us to maintain the purity of our faith, doesn’t he? God wants us to be separated from evil, doesn’t he? That’s why we have often just glossed over these parts as necessary evils as we keep on reading.

However, even though on some level this seems right, on another level what happens doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of Scripture. If it’s true that God “hates divorce,” how could Ezra’s actions be right? If it’s true that God loved “the world” how does can this mass rejection of the world — via both the wall in Nehemiah and the mass divorce in Ezra — be right?

Before we continue I need to clarify something. Divorce is one of those words that has a lot of baggage. One way to misunderstand this word is to apply our own 21st-century legal understandings of the concept to our discussion. We won’t get into all of those issues here and in fact this post isn’t as much about divorce per se as it is about automatically rejecting people from God’s kingdom merely because of their ethnic heritage.

Over the past couple of years, while stuck in Canada because of COVID-19 lockdowns, I have been privileged to join a men’s bible study at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Saskatoon, SK. One of the books we studied was Ezra-Nehemiah and as a result of our discussions I gained new insights into the book. In our discussions we tried to understand the book and came across a couple of resources that provided some alternative answers to what we were used to. The Bible Project has a great video overview of Ezra-Nehemiah. Tim Mackie, a key player at the Bible Project, has also done some other work on the books. Ray Lubeck, in his 2010 ETS presentationEzra-Nehemiah Reconsidered: Aiming the canon at Godly leaders,” makes some rather suprising comments about Ezra-Nehemiah that challenge the very foundation of what we like about the books. These books, and in particular Nehemiah, have been used as examples of Godly leadership in times of hardship. It’s certainly not hard to see that Nehemiah faced countless difficulties when building his wall.

However, Lubeck posits that Nehemiah’s intense focus on building the wall was in fact misplaced. He looks at how Zechariah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel all talk about the importance of the Gentiles in God’s Kingdom. He then says, “Since these passages precede Nehemiah and his ministry, he should have known that Yahweh’s plans for the gentiles did not exclude them, but offered them full participation into the worshipping community of faith. Indeed, walls meant to exclude are the antithesis to the Isaianic vision of Jerusalem following the captivity.” All of this is interesting, especially given our love for seeing the leadership skills that Nehemiah exhibits in the book.

What of the mass divorce that takes place at the end of Ezra? Is this action to be lauded or condemned? It’s commonly assumed that God’s command to not marry outside of Israel is behind the mass divorce. The problem is that God’s command not to intermarry is specific to those peoples found in the Promised Land when Joshua and the 12 tribes invaded. This is a list of seven specific peoples, namely Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (Deuteronomy 7:1-3). Later on (Deuteronomy 23:3) Ammonites and Moabites down to the tenth generation as well as Edomites and Egyptians for three generations are added to the list. What is interesting is that in Deuteronomy 20:10-18 Israel was allowed to take as wives the women of some of the cities they attacked and in Numbers 15 we read that aliens are allowed into the community and can relate to Yahweh. It’s clear that while some specific groups may, for a time, unsuitable marriage partners, the vast majority of foreigners are perfectly acceptable.

It’s also important to realise that marriages with outsiders — or foreigners — are key in the Bible. These include Joseph and the Egyptian Asenath, Moses and the Midianite Zipporah, Salmon and the Canaanite Rahab, Boaz and the Moabite Ruth, Bathsheba and the Hittite Uriah, and Esther and the Persian Xerxes.

When we get to Ezra and Nehemiah we see how these commands were modified by the people to include “all who were of foreign descent” (Nehemiah 13:1) who “mingled the holy race” (Ezra 9:1-2).

In the end, Lubeck makes six key points, a few of which are relevant to our discussion. Ezra-Nehemiah “exposes how very wrong it is when God’s people seek to hoard his grace as if they own it, refusing to share it with ‘outsiders;'” “teaches us that misguided religious fervor and zeal cannot compensate for misusing God’s Word;” and “teaches us to prioritize family commitment and fidelity;”

What I found interesting was Lubeck’s final comment:

“As a sobering reminder of the gravity of these lessons above, we should note that the Pharisees, whom we know so well from our New Testament, consider Ezra to be the founding father of their movement. Did they pray? Read Scripture? Fast? Take their faith seriously? Expect others to conform to their standards? Assiduously work at keeping every command? Exclude all outsiders? Deem themselves as better than others? Add their own rules to God’s commands? Were they sincere? The answer to all these questions is, of course, yes, just like we find in Ezra-Nehemiah. And rather than seeking to replicate this kind of “godly leadership,” we should seek our positive role models for spiritual leadership elsewhere.”

What are your thoughts on Ezra-Nehemiah? Do you think we need to change our interpretive focus when it comes to these books? Do you think that they represent poor examples of how to do ministry?

Please leave your comments in the box below.

Remember sharing is what friends do!

Image by Steve Johnson on Unsplash.

What can my great-grandfather, Gerhard J. Fast, teach us about living out our convictions in the face of opposition?

Gerhard & Katarina Fast on their wedding day.

There has been a lot of talk of late about how people can live out their convictions in the face of government opposition. My great grandfather, Gerhard Johann Fast (1888-1974), lived quite an interesting life and on more than one occasion was confronted with what to do in the face of government opposition. Gerhard was a Mennonite who was born and raised in present-day Ukraine. The Mennonites have a long history of migration due to conflicts with the government. Beginning in the Netherlands, they initially moved to Prussia and then on to the Ukraine partly because as pacifists they refused to join the military. But they came to a mutual understanding with the various governments they interacted with.

For example, when Gerhard was still single he served as an NCO in the Anatol Forestry Camp for three years. The Mennonites developed, managed, and partially funded a series of Forestry Camps throughout the South Russia that served as the compulsory service for Mennonites instead of military service. The trees that Gerhard planted can still be seen today in central Ukraine!

After Gerhard’s marriage to Katharina (1888-1966), WWI began and he went off to serve in the medical corps of the Russian army, another form of alternative compulsory service. After the Russian Revolution, their communities were confronted with lawlessness and economic persecution that ultimately led them to migrate to Canada with their family.

What lessons can we learn?

First of all, convictions are important but it’s also important to know where your boundaries are. Gerhard was opposed to participating in the military but was not opposed to serving his country. So he found two different ways to serve his country.

Secondly, when faced with persecution it’s always best to continue to dialogue — who knows? You might come up with a mutually beneficial solution.

Finally, sometimes a new normal is a big change. Gerhard and Katharina started out as well-to-do farmers who lived on an estate. They ended up living a very different life in a place 7700 km away. But that new life didn’t take away their deep faith in God nor their deep love for one another.

What advice do you have for living out your convictions in the face of opposition? Please leave your story in the comments section below.

Remember, sharing is what friends do.

This post first appeared on my personal Facebook page in 2021.

Oh no, Canada: Reflections on Canada on Canada Day

Reflection is good for the soul because it causes us to look back on events that we normally view on default and look at them with new eyes. Canada Day is one of these things, especially in light of a recent push to reconcile history with the past. Even using the term “default” is actually problematic because what may be default thinking for me is different for someone else. The history that I read may be different from the history someone else reads. My understanding of the past is also almost certainly different from the actual past.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the residential school system as a form of cultural genocide. What we are beginning to realise is that some form of physical genocide may also have been happening. Certainly the past was a lot more dangerous than the present, with diseases like TB and the influenza pandemic of 1918 taking many lives, but there are also documented cases of abuse and death at the very hands of those entrusted with the care of these young First Nations children. What makes things worse is that it doesn’t seem to be merely a government issue (and governments do tend to be animal-like), but also a church issue. This is because churches were an integral part of the Residential School system.

Because of these issues there have been calls to rethink Canada Day. After all, why celebrate the country when the country is built on such shameful actions that has made some many mistakes? Some communities are cancelling Canada Day celebrations, while others are planning alternative events to help incorporate victims of Residential Schools into Canada’s story.

So what is the answer? I think it lies in the concepts of Truth, reconciliation, and repentance.

Truth. This is the debate between history and the past (that I have discussed elsewhere). In a nutshell, history is “texts” about the past from a certain perspective. Texts can include writing of course but can also include any aspect of society (citation) including statues, memorials, and events like Canada Day. The past is the actual events that have happened and are being interpreted when doing history. History changes all the time as new perspectives create new interpretations but the past remains the same.

Reconciliation, or restoring relationships, is supposed to be a major part of the church. After all, God has given the church the “ministry of reconciliation.” Relationships need to be restored people and God but relationships between people and other people also need restoration. The church has emphasised the first aspect throughout the years — and in many ways this emphasis may have led to the residential school disaster by ignoring God’s command to love our neighbour as we love ourselves — but hasn’t worked as hard on the restoration of interpersonal relationships. We haven’t been as good at this part as we could have been.

“What about forgiveness?” some may ask. Forgiveness does need to happen, as Matt Stovall, writing from a First Nations’ perspective, points out in his great FB post on this. However, forgiveness works best when it is coupled with repentance, which means the church, as the offending party, needs to repent and ask forgiveness.

So what needs to be reflected upon this Canada Day? Where does reconciliation need to happen? Where does truth need to be reevaluated? How can I ask forgiveness?

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on Canada and repent of our sins. Our eyes are finally opening to the our ugly past. How will we make a better future? Listen to someone’s stories of their residential experience. Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report. Read Dr. Peter Bryce’s 1907 Report on the Indian schools of Manitoba and the North-West Territories. Read about residential schools, reconciliation and the experience of Indigenous peoples.

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on the church and repent of our sins. It’s quite simple. For church insiders there is a wide range of church types and theologies, that are unknown and even meaningless to church outsiders. The specific churches involved in the Residential School System cannot be separated in people’s minds from the idea of “church.” As I have said elsewhere, “even if we weren’t physically present during these atrocities, we are still complicit in them because people bearing Jesus’ name did these things. Don’t we also bear Jesus name?” So as churches we need to seek ways to ask forgiveness. We need to reflect on the theologies that we hold that led to the whole Residential School system. We need to find ways to connect with First Nations People. We need to reflect on what repentance looks like for you and me.

On Canada Day, let’s reflect on Truth and repent of the untruths and half-truths we have believed instead. I have written elsewhere on truth. Suffice it to say, none of us has a complete understanding of absolute truth. Don’t get me wrong— I do believe in absolute truth but at best I can say we are approaching absolute truth. That means that part of the way forward includes reflecting on the truths that I know and how those truths coincide with the truths that others know and changing our truths so the future is better than the past.

Feedback is always welcome!

Image by Derek Thomson on Unsplash.

I Claim this place in the name of …

New Chinese passport map of disputed area.

New Chinese passport. The dotted line in the lower right corner shows the disputed area that China is claiming.

Have you ever thought about the idea of laying claim. I remember as a child looking at pictures of early European explorers visiting “new” lands and, after planting a cross or a flag, claiming that place in the name of the king (or queen or whoever). Now before you get offended remember that I share both European and First Nations blood 🙂

Recently you may have read one of the following articles regarding China’s new passports. Apparently the show a map that includes disputed portions of the “South China Sea” as being a part of China. As you can guess, various countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the USA have made their opinions known. That’s because they also have claims in the area. It is a problem that has been brewing over many years but has recently come to a head. Time will tell how this will be resolved.

I began to think about the church and about missions. Do we lay claim to things that don’t belong to us? I wonder what people in the 10/40 Window think about all the maps of their countries that have been distributed over the years? I wonder what “Manila Ben” or whoever Saddleback named their target audience thinks when s/he sees the various effigies of who they are and how to “reach” them?

The concept of “claiming” implies concepts like good and bad, right and wrong, good and evil. Those doing the claiming always come out on the good side, while those who are claimed are always on the wrong side. But is this really the way missions works? Can any of us claim to be perfectly and totally connected to God? Aren’t we all on a journey?

Are we making unfair claims upon the people of the world? Do we have any other choice? Do those people then have the right to make a similar claim upon us?

What do you think?

What is the Good News? Certainly not this!

I first came across Bill’s story quite by chance doing some surfing through Wikipedia. It interested me a little but not enough to research any furhter. Then I came across this post on Anthony Bradley’s blog and got another perspective.

Reading this made me emotional. I was sad as I read Bill’s story. But when I got to his description of his parents’ religion I got angry. Let’s see what you think:

 

If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, my parents are fundamentalist Christians who kicked me out of their house and cut me off financially when I was 19 because I refused to attend seven hours of church a week.

They live in a black and white reality they’ve constructed for themselves. They partition the world into good and evil and survive by hating everything they fear or misunderstand and calling it love. They don’t understand that good and decent people exist all around us, “saved” or not, and that evil and cruel people occupy a large percentage of their church. They take advantage of people looking for hope by teaching them to practice the same hatred they practice.

A random example:

“I am personally convinced that if a Muslim truly believes and obeys the Koran, he will be a terrorist.” – George Zeller, August 24, 2010.

If you choose to follow a religion where, for example, devout Catholics who are trying to be good people are all going to Hell but child molestors go to Heaven (as long as they were “saved” at some point), that’s your choice, but it’s fucked up. Maybe a God who operates by those rules does exist. If so, fuck Him.

Their church was always more important than the members of their family and they happily sacrificed whatever necessary in order to satisfy their contrived beliefs about who they should be.

I grew up in a house where love was proxied through a God I could never believe in. A house where the love of music with any sort of a beat was literally beaten out of me. A house full of hatred and intolerance, run by two people who were experts at appearing kind and warm when others were around. Parents who tell an eight year old that his grandmother is going to Hell because she’s Catholic. Parents who claim not to be racist but then talk about the horrors of miscegenation. I could list hundreds of other examples, but it’s tiring.

 

What right do these people have in calling themselves followers of Jesus? Then I was reminded of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day who seemed to get it really wrong even though they so badly thought they (and only they) were getting it right. How does the good news get messed up so badly?

Here is the post in full over at Anthony Bradley’s blog:

Bill Zeller’s Painful Suicide Note–Sexual Abuse & PTSD + A Conservative Christian Home = Suicide – The Institute.

It does lead me to ask myself, however: How am I getting it wrong in my presentation of the good news? What are you doing right?

Anthony Bradley’s Functional church made practical –> On “loving the city” long-term

Functional church anyone? This guy (Anthony Bradley) has got the idea right. But not just the idea, the practice that goes with it! He doesn’t care about forms and appearances but is solely concerned with church engaging society. I like it a lot (even if it is scary).

A functional church really has to get down to this level — the behind-the-scenes-not-pretty-but-really-where-the-problem-is kind of stuff.

It’s one thing to set up a place to get together and talk but it is quite another to take a stand and try to root out some really issues.

Here is the link to the article:

On “loving the city” long-term (in contrast to well-intentioned hipster, neo-paternalistic versions) – The Institute.

What things would you add to the list?

Villar, Politics, & the Church

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in welcoming the President of the Senate of the Republic of the Philippines, Senator Manny Villar.” It was strange to hear those words coming out of my mouth. In fact the whole situation was a little bit of a surprise for me. As the producer for this year’s Baptist Conference of the Philippines Biennial Assembly, it was my job to ensure the program ran smoothly. I spent the time running back and forth making sure everything was working well. The first night, as expected, we had a few program changes, due in part to the anticipated late arrival of the keynote speaker, the aforementioned Senator Villar. Rev. Gary Harrison, VP of BGC-US, another of our speakers, graciously agreed to preach his message early, just to accommodate the Senator’s busy schedule. Of course, as the producer, the big question for me was, “When the Senator arrives, do we get him to wait or do somehow signal the other speaker to wrap things up so that the Senator could have his shot?”

A variety of discussions ensued with a variety of participant’s. In the back of my mind I was thinking that we shouldn’t be to eager to stop the preacher just for a politician to take his place. Others shared the same viewpoint and so the Senator waited for about 15 minutes. Of course, as my colleague Rene pointed out, “Politicians never show disappointment in public.”

So it was up to me. I should point out that my role at the Assembly did not include any public role. In fact, I was just wearing jeans and a t-shirt when the message came to introduce the Senator!

I must admit I was impressed with the Senator’s speech (although for the life of me I couldn’t get the image of him dressed in his leather suit, singing, “Manny Villar para sa Senador” to the tune of an old Tom Jones song, out of my head.). Either he or his speechwriter understood the issues of Transformation enough so that he said all the right things in the right order. Perhaps much more boldly than I might but then that is not a bad thing.

Afterward it was very interesting. As he was leaving he began (as politicians do) to shake hands with the assembled host. I have in my mind this image of pastors scrambling down to the aisle just so they could shake his hand.

Having said all of that, this phenomena brings several questions and or observations to my mind:

Firstly, it seems to me that in situations like this, the question running through everyone’s mind is, “How can he help us.” There is, as Rene once again pointed out, a certain star quality to having a famous politician grace our circles, even circles as politically neutral as a church gathering (said with my tongue firmly in my cheek!) We all want to meet the famous person and more importantly perhaps have them join our church. But to what end?

The second thing it makes me ask is, “Why isn’t it the same way with the political world?” Why are our leaders not as rabidly excited when we are given the opportunity to speak in the public arena? Why are they not beating down our doors looking for our support so that they can craft their programs accordingly?

Could it be that we have become so rabidly anti-political in our churches, scared to say even the slightest world in support of one candidate or another? Could it be that when issues come up, we as a church have either ignored it or over-spiritualised it so that our answers become meaningless? Case in point, a local Baptist minister in Canada saying, when asked about a horrible child-abuse ring that had just been uncovered in his town, “I think they are demon possessed!” How is that answer relevent to the issue facing that town – namely that of pain, betrayal, distrust, anger, cries for justice?

The church needs to get its voice back! We need to speak out on the issues that are shaping our societies. We need to bring not only the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ into the world, but also the message of the truth of who God is and how he wants us to act.

Mike Fast welcomes feedback on any of the articles he writes. Please leave your comments below.

what is the truth?

What is the truth? In the Jim Carrey movie, Liar Liar, a lying attorney is faced with the issue of having to tell the truth all the time. Of course, in typical Jim-Carrey fashion, the story is a little outrageous, but it does raise an interesting question in each of our minds: Am I a truth-teller or just another liar?

Of course, I feel this in the greatest way with my kids. How many times have I promised, “I’ll play with you when I’m done” but then started something new? Or set a standard for their behaviour that I then went on to ignore in my own life.

When I was a child our family had a rule: No TV shows about murder for the kids. One night I realised that my parents were watching a show that featured a murder. The next morning I said that it seemed unfair for us to not be able to watch but ok for them. Do you know what they did? They agreed and subjected themselves to their own rule. As I type I am asking myself if I would do the same thing in my own family? (Do I have to answer that?)

Actually if truth be told, we did face this in our family just the other day. In our family, we have decided that it is improper to use the s-word (not that s-word! This one has 6 letters and refers to a person’s intellectual capacity or lack thereof). My assumption was that it was the kids who couldn’t use it but I – being the father – could use whatever word I want. Of course, they called me on it. So now I have agreed that the rule applies to me also.

As a church leader I find it difficult to know how much of a truth-teller I should be. It may sound strange, but it’s true. There are so many factors to take into account: What is my relationship to the person I need to confront with the truth? Am I the best person to do the confronting or is there someone else? If I confront someone with the truth today, will our relationship ever be the same again? Is it really all that bad, whatever it is they are doing? Going beyond the basic relationships I may have from day-to-day, how about those things that I see in our society that are wrong? How do I confront them? Do I really have a say in the corruption of our nation? Do I really have a say in how various government agencies operate? Can I really do anything about a system that pervades every family home? How effective is my truthfulness when I drive? Isn’t it bad to impose my own cultural values on someone else?

I guess it comes down to how much I believe the truth. Have I been truly convinced of the need to extend my personal views of truth into the marketplace?

Mike Fast welcomes feedback on any of the articles he writes. Please leave your comments below.

you have to work twice as hard when it’s honest

how much impact has your belief made on your life?

in the classic movie “gone in 60 seconds,” sway (played by angelina
jolie), when asked why she has two jobs, says, “i found you have to work
twice as hard when it’s honest.”

that got me thinking this morning as i was taking the kids to school.
while on the jeepney i saw an advertisement from a local motel. motels
where we live are places to have sex. sometimes you bring your own
partner (rarely your spouse) and sometimes a partner is provided for
you. rooms are available by the hour. it is really a big issue here–our
area of quezon city has several such motels.

but the question arises, what if one of these motel owners becomes a
christian? how does that affect his business?

the advertisement i saw was for the kabayan hotel, which used to be a
typical motel. then the owner became a christian and realised that he
could no longer, in good conscience, maintain that type of business. he
realised he had two choices:

choice #1. sell the motel to someone else. in his way of thinking this
was not an option since the new owner would simply start up his/her own
version of the same kind of business and the sin would continue. the
problem would not be solved.

choice #2: transform that business into something that would positively
influence the local community. he decide to remarket the motel as a
place for families. couples are not allowed to check in together without
a valid marriage certificate. the top floors have been designated as
prayer floors, with little cubicles where one can stay and pray for as
long as they want.

how has that choice affected business? profits are way down. honesty
doesn’t always reap financial rewards.

how has the choice affected the community? the impact on the community
is great. the hotel and its owner are being held up as an examples of
morality and integrity.

how much impact has your belief made on your life?