De Los Muertos

Ye are the children of the LORD your God: ye shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.
~ Deuteronomy 14:1

… and other oddities

November 1 is the well-known Mexican holiday, The Day of the Dead. Customs may vary throughout Mexico, but generally it is a celebration of the dead. People build ofrendas in their homes to place pictures or some possessions of their deceased relatives. They may have flowers or burn candles on these altars. People gather around the graves of their deceased and eat meals featuring the favorite foods and drinks of the departed, and leave portions for them as well. They pray to and for their dead, dance in the streets, and calaveras are everywhere.

The holiday is typically associated with the Catholic holidays, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. However, the Catholic influence on such practices is more come lately, as the roots these observances go back much further to the pre-hispanic, indigenous peoples of Mexico. Odd beliefs, customs, and practices concerning the dead go even further back in the roots of paganism.

Pagan Roots and Fruits

We first encounter observances pertaining to the dead in the Bible among the Canaanites. The old covenant law gave specific warnings to Israel, forbidding them from taking up the pagan practices of the nations around them (Leviticus 19:26-31; 21:5; Deuteronomy 14:1; 18:9-14; 26:12-15). We find there prohibitions against such as making offerings to or for the dead, body modifications for the dead, eating the blood to gain power of the dead, and consulting with diviners and such to communicate with the dead in order to learn the future or gain special knowledge outside of God’s natural revelation in creation or special revelation in his word.

Of course, the Jews of Israel were not impervious to these cultic practices concerning the dead. A perusal of the prophets finds the nation condemned for such things as offering their children in the fire and seeking commune with the dead (2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Isaiah 47:12; Jeremiah 7:31-32; Ezekiel 23:37-39). By the time of the intertestamental period post-exile, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be offerings for the dead and prayers to and for the dead in Israel. The inclusion of such things is one of the reasons early churches rejected the intertestamental books as apocryphal, not including them in the canon of Scripture.

Various adaptations of pagan practices concerning the dead have persisted in church history. The practice of prayers to and for the dead eventually gave rise to the doctrine of purgatory and the idea of post-mortem atonement or absolution of sins. I hope that evangelical Christians can see all these things as the abominable pagan practices they are, regardless of the sanctified language, historied traditions, good intentions, or imaginative reasoning used to support them.

A Rose of Another Name

It is good to have such hope I suppose, but Christians really seem to struggle to get a handle on paganism. We can’t seem to figure out what it is exactly. For some, all you have to do is label something as pagan and that roundly condemns all instances of it and everyone within a fifty mile radius of it. You better steer clear of any twice-removed cousins who know a guy that has a friend who might have seen it or heard of it before. Of course, that is not any species of scriptural reasoning at all. It is more like the reasoning of a sweating fundamentalist evangelist at a southern summer campmeeting. He can preach agin’ anything. All he has to do is label it worldly and then quote a verse about not loving the world, and, boom, he’s got “bible” for preaching the devil out of y’all.

Calling something pagan or claiming it has pagan roots doesn’t accomplish anything. For instance, pagans have hunted and farmed as long as pagans have existed. They typically pray to their gods before and after their harvests. Does that mean farming and hunting are pagan practices? When a Christian engages in these activities and prays to the true and only God before after the harvests, is he committing paganism?

A pagan cuts down a tree, builds a fire to warm himself and bake bread, and with the rest he makes idols to worship (Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:2-5)? Pagans go outside and cut flowers or other greenery to bring into their homes. They may do so with observing certain rites and believing they are inviting the spirits of their ancestors into their homes to bring them favor. When a Christian cuts down a tree, builds a fire, warms himself, or bakes bread, is he practicing paganism? When a Christian man brings home a bouquet of beautiful flowers to his wife and she puts them in a vase on the dining room table, or they otherwise adorn their home with plants of God’s creation, have they committed abominations?

Paul would say, No (1 Timothy 4:3-5). The creation of God is good and is to be received and enjoyed with thanksgiving. All things are made by God and rightly belong to him (Psalms 24:1). Paul actually quoted that verse in 1 Corinthians 10:26 where in chapters 8-10 he is showing that meat sacrificed to idols is not tainted or inherently sinful. Paul wrote that those who have true knowledge understand that and that an idol is nothing in the world (1 Corinthians 8:4). Those chapters certainly help us sort out paganism for what it is. Paganism doesn’t create or own anything. Paganism perverts and corrupts what God has created and owns to use for abominable practices. But, pagan misuse doesn’t nullify a proper use.

Secret Sauce

Getting back to praying for the dead and other such odd practices, what should we make of it? Some may be tempted to apply Paul’s argument about meat sacrificed to idols and say, “Oh, we aren’t praying for the dead like that. We are not praying like pagans do. We don’t believe in purgatory or post-death atonement. We are merely praying retroactively, knowing that God has all power and time is nothing to him.” I’m tempted to ask, What then are you praying for? What are you asking God to do, or what you asking for to happen? Stripped back to the essence, this argument claims that pagans misuse prayers for the dead and these Christians are making a right use of prayers for the dead.

That argument fails and twists Scripture. We have already considered references where such practices for the dead are condemned as pagan abominations. God doesn’t give alternatives to those practices as if there were a right way to do it. No, he says don’t do it at all because you are “the children of the LORD your God,” and you are “an holy people unto the LORD thy God” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2). When it comes to plowing a field, there is a way to plow in sin (Proverbs 21:4) and a way to plow in faith (1 Corinthians 9:10). The plowing itself is neither sinful nor righteous. Paul said the same thing about eating the meat. But, praying for the dead is only sinful. There is no right way and wrong way to do it. The whole practice is abominable.

The various strange practices for the dead are all linked by the attempt to converse with a realm that is forbidden to us living people. When Moses gave Israel the law, he made clear that the source of knowledge for them and the source of requirements for them was not hidden or secreted away is some unreachable realm so that they would have to resort to unusual means to find it out (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). What God wants us to know is given to us in his written word (Deuteronomy 29:29). To pray for the dead is to meddle with God’s domain that is his alone. Our prayers are to be made to God alone and not after the manner of pagans (Matthew 6:5-13), and they are to be made for the people living in our time (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Well, Actually

We all struggle at times to distinguish wrong from right. When it comes to oraciones por los muertos, prayers for the dead, no struggle is required. It’s actually pagan. It’s actually wrong.

No Confidence in Identity

LORD, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! or the son of man, that thou makest account of him! ~ Psalm 144:3

LORD, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! or the son of man, that thou makest account of him! ~ Psalm 144:3

Since expulsion from the Garden of Eden man has pondered the question: Who am I? Of course it is the result of being made a living soul, which distinguishes man from the rest of creation, that even enables him to think such a thing. So, who are we really?

Certain Objective Biological and Physical Realities

God created the first human being during the creation week (Genesis 1:26-28). He was a human male named Adam and he was distinct from all the rest of creation and its plant and animal life. God’s design and command to the man was to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with other human beings. However, throughout the entire creation there was nothing compatible or complementary to the man with which he could fulfill his purpose so God made a woman, a female counterpart to the male, and brought her to the man that the two could be joined together and bring forth children (Genesis 2:7, 15-25).

The most basic aspect of our human identity is being made male or female after the image of God. More personally, God is at work in forming each one of us in the womb (Psalm 139:13-16). We are conceived either male or female according to the purpose of God and formed with other physical and genetic traits to be born into the world.

All these are objective realities and not something anyone can choose or change. We’ve all probably thought at one time or another that we would like to be taller, older, or younger but these things cannot be changed by thoughts or actions (Matthew 6:27). The prophet Jeremiah asked if the Ethiopian could change his skin (Jeremiah 13:23). The answer is no, he cannot. One might suggest that he could undergo medical procedures to perhaps lighten his skin over time, but he hasn’t really changed it, only deformed and disfigured it.

Other Aspects of Identity

Being made male or female is the most fundamental human identity but there are other aspects that contribute to our identity as well. We have a nationality or ethnicity, a birthplace, a native tongue (Acts 2:5-11). All these things contribute to our identity and are objective realities no one can choose or change.

Beyond this we can add some things to our identity by pursuing education or training or being accomplished in some skill. While those things can contribute to our identity, they cannot fundamentally alter it. Whether we ourselves or others view our identity as good or bad, it is not something we should put any hope in.

The discussion of identity today revolves mostly around someone unhappy with their identity and wanting to change it. Paul gives us a different perspective in Philippians 3:3-11. He was born with a stellar identity and rejoiced in it for part of his life. He was born a male of Israel into the tribe of Benjamin. He was circumcised on the eighth day and brought up in observation of the law. He later added to his identity through training to become a Pharisee. He considered himself a Hebrew of the Hebrews. If anyone should have reason to have confidence in their identity, Saul of Tarsus had reason.

Though Paul was very proud and happy with his human identity, he learned it was not enough. He considered his identity as rubbish that he might have a new identity in Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:7-11). When it comes to eternal life in Christ, neither a good human identity nor a bad human identity can avail us anything. We must be made a new creation in Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:15). Nothing in our identity commends us or gives advantage with God (Galatians 3:28). In fact, all who come to Christ are given a new identity in Him (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 2:20).

What is Our Human Identity?

We are human beings made in the image of God, male or female according His eternal purpose and will. We are broken through sin that comes to us by nature through our forefather Adam and our mother Eve. That brokenness is manifested within us and without us in thousands of ways and often making us uncomfortable in our own skin. Whether we are discontent or unhappy with some fact of our identity, we cannot change it. We can only deform it. What we need is not surgical, chemical, or psychiatric modification, but rather to be made a new creation in Christ destined for full glorification and everlasting life in wholeness with our Creator and Savior. That identity, that life, is only had through repentance and faith in God’s Son.

Mint . . . Pepper that is

Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed. ~ 2 Corinthians 6:3

Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed. ~ 2 Corinthians 6:3

A curiously strong tip for preachers.

You probably recognize those little white mints. You probably also think I am going to say something about fresh breath. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.

Here are three blessed benefits of those curiously strong peppermints.

  1. Fresh breath. The preacher will be engaged in many conversations before and after a service. Out of a desire to “give none offence” even in this small matter, a small peppermint will make the conversations more pleasant for everyone involved.
  2. Helps dry throat. Preaching tends to dry out the throat and mouth. This leads to the strong and near irresistible desire to cough. However, in a crowded foyer, a cough may be difficult or impolite to execute. Some would choose a cough drop to soothe the throat. An admirable choice, particularly if the flavor is honey lemon or black cherry. Cough drops tend to smell overwhelmingly medicinal, so a peppermint is an better choice in this situation.
  3. Soothes a nervous stomach. Ah, the little known power of the peppermint. It does have the ability to comfort an upset stomach. It is probably not going to help much if you are actually sick. But, if you have a little case of the jitters, peppermint can help. For this to work, you need strong peppermint and the less like candy, the better. Not that I know anything about nervous stomachs.

But, what are the drawbacks? I see primarily two.

  1. Noisy. When that little tin is about half full, it makes a lot of noise when you are walking. In the preacher’s pocket, it can beat out quite a cadence while you are walking to the pulpit. Add to this the fact that the crowd is generally quiet while waiting on you to ascend, and the noise can be amusing or embarrassing depending on your temperament.
  2. Numbing. Too many mints too close to fellowship mealtime and you are not going to be tasting your food well. I suppose this could be a blessing depending on where you are.

A little lighter post than usual, but a practical tip nonetheless.

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