Independence

It’s Independence Day weekend, 2014, as this is being written.  It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in America.  The Supreme Court handed down three decisions that have caused quite a stir.  One of them, related to the free exercise of religion, probably has caused the most public outcry.

The case, if you’re not aware off it, relates to the relatively new federal government mandate that businesses of a certain size must provide contraception under their health insurance offerings, without a copay.

A few privately-held businesses run by Christians–most notably craft store chain Hobby Lobby–pushed back.  Out of 20 contraceptives mandated by the federal government, four of them can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus.  The Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, consider that abortion and didn’t want to provide those particular contraceptives as a matter of religious conviction and conscience.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, sided with Hobby Lobby.

Many of those who disagreed with the ruling went from complaining about the ruling and the Court to attacking the Green family personally.  I suspect that is an emotional reaction to feeling helpless, like their world is out of their control.  Trolling around on social media, I even saw one person say that the ruling had ruined his holiday weekend.

Interestingly, the very same “Roberts Court” made a related decision only two years ago, also in a 5-4 split.  In that case in 2012, the Affordable Care Act, sometimes referred to as “Obamacare”, was upheld.  The folks upset now were dancing in the streets then.

If you follow politics, then you know this is par for the course.  Every two years, or four years, or eight years, fortunes change for both sides.  The political tide ebbs, and it flows, and sometimes floods.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been making my way through one of the Great Courses–recordings of college courses by excellent professors.  This one is about the history of freedom.  The course starts in 490 BC, at the Battle of Marathon.  From there, the lecturer takes the listener to the society of ancient Greece–which seemed to have many of our same problems and applied some of our same solutions (or perhaps more accurately, we apply some of their solutions).

My take-away?  Nearly 2500 years later, we still can’t get it right.  The world is still a mess.  American culture is still rife with strife.

For the Christian, we realize we are citizens of two kingdoms–an earthly one and an eternal one.  The earthly one will not last.  That fact matters, because it can lead us to a healthier perspective.

It reminds us to ensure we’re not investing in this earthly one too much–though we are called, for sure, to invest in it some.  For example, we care for the poor and fight for justice not because it’s our innate political drive, but because God says to (e.g., Psalm 41:1; Proverbs 19:17, 22:22; Romans 15:26; Galatians 2:10).  We are not called to keep our faith out of the public forum–we are called to apply our faith in public and not hide that we do it (Matthew 5:16).

But we also remember that Jesus says wars will continue, nations will continue to fight one another, and natural disasters will come (Matthew 24:6-14).

What then is our hope?  It is our faith, though not in a religious movement, but in the One who saves us, who sustains us.  Jesus is the way to salvation (John 14:6).  He gives us his Word to guide us in this age and into the one to come.  He sends us the Holy Spirit to teach us and to empower us to live in this age.

And, we are reminded that this age will terminate.  One day, there will be a good government.  But it won’t be a human one.  It will be led by Jesus (Matthew 25:31-32; Revelation 11:15-18).

Jesus reminds us to look to him:  “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Christ is a fixed point in a world that never stops changing.  As the old hymn goes,

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

His oath, His covenant, and blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When every earthly prop gives way,
He then is all my Hope and Stay.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

That is true independence.

Donald Miller and the Church

Over the last week or so, well-known Christian author and blogger Donald Miller got himself into hot water by revealing in a blog post that he doesn’t attend church regularly.  As of this writing, there are 451 comments to that particular post.  It caused Miller to write a much longer post to discuss further.  Both are worth reading, though I think Miller’s thinking is a bit muddied.

Miller’s original post reveals a certain self-centeredness, something that popped up recently in a CNN article by another well-known blogger, Rachel Held Evans with regard to what Millennials are looking for in church (see my response to her).

Both talk about what church gives them.  Isn’t there more to church than being fed or having my needs met?

I can write about this because I’ve held that attitude in the past.  How easy it is to sit in the pew (or chair), be entertained with good music, and then get a great sermon and feel like “I’ve done church”.  I get empowered a bit, can check off that box for the week and get on with things.

There have been times in my life when I was in a spiritual valley and needed that–I honestly wasn’t capable of much more.  I have found, though, that as I’ve matured as a Christian–and spent time around many strong believers–that my attitude has changed.

Here then are my reasons for attending church:

We are commanded to come together in fellowship, for a reason.  The writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament says, “[L]et us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (chapter 10, verses 24 and 25).  Meeting regularly is a way to encourage our brothers and sisters–it is a way to serve our fellow believers.

It is dedicated time to worship God. I find that I need to make time for things that are important, and it’s helpful to do it in a dedicated place.  Much of my profession could be done at home, but I find I’m far more efficient in my office–I’m better able to give my company what they’re paying me for.  Similarly, I find that I am better able to give God the honor he deserves if I clear my schedule for him.

It is dedicated time to serve seekers.  At least in America, churches aren’t just places where believers gather.  Seekers come, too.  Attending church is an opportunity to serve seekers and to point them to Christ.  That opportunity is a big deal.  If someone is interested enough to get out of bed and sit among strangers, it’s important to be there for them.

Of course, we must not see the church as the only place for these activities.  At my previous job, I worked around several other Christians, and in many ways I felt coming to work was like going to church.  As we worked our secular job we encouraged one another, shared Bible verses and most importantly had the (invited) opportunity to share our faith with interested co-workers.  We can (and must) engage the world and not wait for them to come to us.  Nevertheless, church ought to be the launchpad for every week.

Donald Miller is brave for sharing his opinion with the world–and taking flak for it.  Hopefully, he’ll reconsider and visit church more often.

That God May Be Glorified

As I write this, a hot-button topic in America, perhaps as never before, is same-sex marriage.  The larger issue of acceptance of homosexuality has bubbled to the surface of public discourse.  President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to endorse gay marriage.  Perhaps as a result of his leadership, a seismic shift in public opinion has occurred over the last year, with polls showing that a majority of Americans now support gay marriage.

The fire continues to be stoked.  Recently Phil Robertson, patriarch of the family in the television series Duck Dynasty, made some coarse but direct statements about homosexuality.  As of this writing, the network airing the program has “suspended” Robertson over the comments and the future of the show is in question.

For the Christian who accepts the entirety of God’s Word as inspired, homosexual behavior is clearly condemned.  It is not really fair, though, to isolate this form of sexuality; God’s Word condemns every other form of sexual activity outside the bounds of one man – one woman marriage.

Most are aware of the of the clear prohibitions against the various forms of sexual sin that are spelled out in almost humorous detail in Leviticus in the Old Testament.  There is no ambiguity in the New Testament, either.  First, Jesus only supported one man – one woman marriage:

Have you not read that he [God] who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”?  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matthew 19:4-6)

This devastates the argument by same-sex marriage supporters that Jesus was silent on the issue of gay marriage.  He didn’t need to directly comment on any aberrant form of marriage; he affirmed the only acceptable form of biblical marriage.  All else was implicitly prohibited and unsupported.

Further implicit evidence is offered by Paul in describing the qualifications of those who lead the church.  Speaking of elders (or bishops) and deacons, they are to be men who are husbands of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6).  Clearly, they are not husbands of another husband or wives of another wife.

Perhaps most importantly, Paul writes that marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church (Ephesians 5:28-33).  In the context of this passage, marriage is again presented as between one man and one woman.  Marriage has a deeper meaning beyond the day to day physical–or legal–relationship.

With the issue of same-sex marriage so clearly put to rest, a glaring question still remains:  what about the gay people?  Are they born that way?  I don’t know.  But frankly, that is not the issue.

We all face struggles of some kind.  Is it really any different for a man to be drawn to another man than for a man to be drawn to a woman who is not his wife*?  Both these men must decide if they are to follow their own physical passions or if they are to follow God.  They are to decide if their own glory takes precedence over the glory of God.  Jesus says,

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  (Matthew 16:24)

We should not concern ourselves with what a celebrity thinks about our sexual lives, or more broadly, our morality.  We should not care what a television network thinks, nor should we fret over the opinions of talking heads in media outlets.  No, we should care what God thinks.  He is sovereign, not them.  He is the one whom we will see when we pass away.  He is the Judge.

I urge my fellow Christians to be unafraid to state the exceptionally clear biblical truth that God only endorses one man – one woman marriage.  But in that process let us not forget that the core issue is to love and glorify God.  Let us live our lives, and encourage others to live theirs, so that God may be glorified.

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* Interestingly, in Old Testament Israel, the punishment for both adultery and homosexuality was death (Leviticus 20:10,13).  In the New Testament Paul writes that, among others, neither adulterers nor homosexuals will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).  Sexual sin is not limited to homosexuality; there’s plenty of room for heterosexual sin as well.

Millennials, Rachel Held Evans, and the Church

Within the last week, author and blogger Rachel Held Evans has written two pieces that appeared on CNN.com.  In the first, she wrote about why she thinks Millennials are leaving the Church.  In the second, she wrote about why she thinks Millennials need the Church.

In case you don’t know, the term “Millennial” refers to people born from roughly the early 1980’s through the early 2000’s.

I encourage you to read both pieces.  I’ll briefly summarize how I took them, and then offer what I think is a very crucial point that she missed.

In the first article,  she somewhat sideways describes how the church doesn’t fit in with modern thinking.  She writes,

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  I point to research that shows young evangelicals often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.

The fact is, given the ground that politics and faith cover, it is not really possible to totally separate the two. Frankly, I can identify with this struggle:  I maintain a separate blog about politics. I would hate for someone to not hear my faith views because they don’t agree with my politics, or vice versa. Nevertheless, both areas touch on so many common issues–the role of authority, how to deal with the poor, how to address sexual issues in society–that if we constructed one of those old Venn diagrams from junior high with faith as one circle and politics as the other, they might well almost look like a single circle rather than two distinct ones.

Though she raises some good points here, I think she’s being somewhat disingenuous complaining about politics mixed in with faith. She refers multiple times to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues. She uses what have become political code words like “science”, which generally refers to evolution or global climate change.  She talks about another political term, “social justice”. I think what is really going on here is that she’s struggling to find some of her political views reflected in what she’s hearing in church.

In the second article, she provides what is predominantly a list of religious activities, and says that Millennials can only get those in church.  She writes,

The astute reader will notice that each of these points corresponds loosely with a sacrament—baptism, confession, the anointing of the sick, holy orders, communion, confirmation and marriage.  Some would say there are many others. We could speak of the sacrament of the Word or the washing of feet. But even where they are not formally observed, these sacraments are present in some form in nearly every group of people who gather together in the name of Jesus. They connect us to our faith through things we can eat, touch, smell and feel. And they connect us with one another.

Perhaps more to the point is a statement she makes at the beginning of the article.

[W]hen I left the church, it was Communion I craved the most.

I appreciate her willingness to bare her soul to the world in both these articles. I do the same–though I have a far, far, far lower readership than she does. It is sometimes scary to do this. Well, every time I write about either faith or politics it is scary. But I do it because I feel I should, and I expect she does it for similar reasons.

I also appreciate the latter article. I’m happy for anyone to encourage others to go to church.

But there is a something quite large, quite crucial missing from both these articles.

If her description of the Millennial generation is accurate, then perhaps they are the second “Me Generation,” because most of what she writes is about what meets her needs in church. I think church certainly can do that, but if that is her foundation, it is sand rather than stone. Or to identify it with another parable of Jesus, it is rocky ground, not good soil.

I think the root of true faith must lie in this fact:  there is a Holy God, and only one Holy God. That is why I go to church. I go there in submission to Him, to worship Him, to learn more about Him, to be with other of His people.

Because if I wanted rituals, I could join my pagan friend who blogs constantly about the rituals he engages in.

Because if I wanted like-minded people, I could go to a local meeting of my political party.

Because if I wanted good friends, I could find them among my many atheist, Muslim, and Hindu ones.

But years ago, I came to a realization that there is a Holy God, and that I needed to respond to Him, I needed to recognize Him. And when I do that, all the natural longings He gives me find their proper place in the order He has set. After all, Jesus did not instruct us to pray “My kingdom come, my will be done,” but rather “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

I truly hope Millennials won’t walk away from church. But I do hope they understand that it’s about God, and when He is first, everything else will be as it should be.

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and Jesus

As I write this, it is not yet 24 hours since a jury of six women in Sanford Florida pronounced George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder. Zimmerman is, of course, the (now 29-year-old) man who fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Martin was African-American; George Zimmerman self-describes as Hispanic (white father, Peruvian mother).

For the last year and a half, the case has served as a focal point of racial tension in the United States. It has been an ongoing topic of discussion and even had the President of the United States commenting on it.

I didn’t watch the trial and so I cannot comment on whether the jury chose wisely or not. My own feelings are mixed. It seems to me a case of cascading tragedies and one can quickly fall down a rabbit hole of “what ifs”. What is clear is that one young man is dead and another man might as well be.

The case has larger implications for the United States. It has shown that there is still racial strife and pain in our country. It’s not surprising; the national sins of slavery and discrimination may forever stain the United States.  I used to think we were much further along in racial reconciliation and healing in our nation; I’m no longer confident of that.

As I consider the case in light of my faith, I reach two conclusions.

First, for those of us who are Christians, we must cling to faith in Jesus. That faith soothes our own fears, anxiety, pain and frustration.  Second, that faith ought to direct us to action.

In times of trouble I recall the account of Peter walking on the water to meet Jesus.  We often focus on the act itself but forget the context of the act.

The disciples were in a boat, absent Jesus, on the Sea of Galilee. It was night. Tremendously strong winds were knocking their boat around. As Matthew 14:22-33 reports, Jesus came walking across the water to meet the disciples in the boat. At first they thought he was a ghost, but Jesus called out to them.  Peter stepped out of the boat and himself began walking on water, toward his teacher.  But as soon as he took his focus off of Jesus and remembered the storm they were caught in, Peter began to sink into the sea.

How does this relate to the Zimmerman case?  I find myself discouraged as I look at this personal, political and cultural storm. I can sink into despair about the future so long as I focus on it.  But when I remember my faith in Christ, I gain strength–and hope.  It’s hard to do much without hope of some kind.  But I can do all things in Christ, which strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).

But feeling good ourselves is not enough–it’s only a starting point.

We must stop looking at each other with suspicion. It cannot be that a young black man in a hoodie is just assumed to be a hoodlum. Nor can it be assumed that all whites are secret racists (or even not-so-secret racists).  I’ve heard both sentiments.  We all need to go out of our way to put those stereotypes to rest–and this needs to be an active effort.

For Christians, this is not something that is foreign to us.  We believe in a common ancestry of all people through both Adam and Noah.  We are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27).  As the old hymn goes,

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white, they’re all precious in His sight

Every color every race, all are covered by His grace
Jesus loves the little children of the world

Parable after parable from Jesus illustrates the necessity of seeing all people as God’s children–the Good Samaritan comes to mind, but there are many others.  Paul wrote that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  There is no room for racism or division of any sort in the house of God.

We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more complete union, must find some way to reconcile with one another.  As a Christian, I can tell you the avenue is faith in Christ.  The longer I consider it the more I realize that many of the “political” problems we face have spiritual cores and therefore need spiritual solutions.  Certainly racism will cease to be a problem if we love and respect God and recognize all our fellow humans as our brothers and sisters, created in His image just as we are.

Why It’s a Good Friday

Today is Good Friday.  It’s an odd name for this day, in a way.  We Christians pause to remember and honor Jesus’ crucifixion, a gruesome, violent event.  Over the last few years I’ve noted that some critics of Christianity try to use this event as a wedge.  They ask, who wants to follow a religion with such things in it?  The reason is that the crucifixion was a gate of sorts, a passage, a bridge.  It is a path from darkness to light, a trail that only Jesus could blaze.  Jesus’ sacrifice–once for all, for all humanity–is a gift. Consider the following:

Jesus paid our way to heaven–all we must do is believe in Him (and that belief will lead to obedience to all he commands, if it is true belief). (John 1:12-13; John 3:14-18; John 5:24; John 6:40; John 6:47; John 10:27-29; John 11:25-26)

Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit upon belief in Him, to reside in us and to help us to live the Christian life. (John 7:38-39; John 14:16-17; John 14:26; John 16:7-8; John 16:12-14; Romans 8:11; Romans 8:26; Galatians 5:22-23)

Jesus gives us peace, even in the midst of this dark age. (John 16:33; Philippians 4:6-7)

Jesus will return for His own. (John 14:1-3)

Those who trust in Jesus will be with him in heaven, a place of incomparable beauty, a place without suffering. (Revelation 21:4)

All who live in this world have experienced God’s goodness (Matthew 5:44-45). This goodness should lead us to trust God, and he gives each of us a lifetime to make the decision to follow him or to reject him.

I praise Jesus for entering the world, for living the same life I must live, for suffering as I suffer and more, for leaving us with instructions for this life and a way to follow him into eternity.  Thank you, Lord, for living, suffering, dying, and rising again that I too may rise one day.

Lord, There is None Like You

I cannot escape Jesus.  He captivates me.  No other faith system has what the follower of Christ has.  Consider the following:

Were you born under bad circumstances? Jesus was born in a cave.  His first crib was an animal feeding trough. The only attendants to his birth besides Mary and Joseph were smelly animals and smelly shepherds. (Luke 2:7-16)

Did you have a rough beginning? Jesus’ life was threatened as a child by the ruler of his world–the murderous Herod–and his family had to move to save Jesus from death. (Matthew 2:13-17)

Ashamed of where you grew up? Jesus grew up in Nazareth, which apparently was despised by the people of his time. (Luke 2:39-40; John 1:45-46)

Mistreated by your family? Jesus’ own family mocked him and did not believe he was the Christ. (John 7:3-5)

Are/were your parents absent when you needed them the most? Though it’s not explicitly stated, it’s likely that Jesus’ earthly father Joseph was dead during Jesus’ ministry. This was probably the most difficult time of Jesus’ life. He could only turn to God the Father, which he did continually. (John 19:25-27)

Are you without a spouse or having other romantic problems? Jesus never married, and even by his mid-thirties, when he was crucified, he had never experienced the romantic love of a woman.

Have few friends, or none you feel you can count on? Jesus’ own followers wouldn’t keep watch as he prayed and sweated blood.  They denied knowing Jesus when he was in the custody of the Jewish authorities. And, of course, it was one closest to Jesus–Peter–who betrayed him. (Matthew 26:37-46; Matthew 26:69-75; Matthew 26:49-50)

Disheartened by the suffering in the world, and afraid of suffering yourself? Jesus was captured by his enemies, made to be naked and mocked, spat upon and beaten, and nailed to a tree. (Matthew 27:28-30; Luke 23:33)

Disappointed in the government? Jesus was accused falsely of treason against the Roman Empire by his own people, the Jews, and was executed by the government. (Luke 23:1-2; John 19:13-16)

Feel like God is not to be found? Jesus felt the presence of the Father leave him while he was on the Cross, and he was in spiritual agony because of it. (Matthew 27:46)

Jesus claimed a one-to-one correspondence with God the Father (John 8:58, John 10:30-33).  That means our God has walked a few miles in our shoes.  He’s not distant, unfeeling and uncaring.  He knows what we feel.  He’s been there.

Lord, there is none like You.