Archive for February, 2008

Fighting The Wrong Fight

I am confused at our approach to life and the spiritual battles that make up our lives.  How is it that we expend so much energy demanding that people change their outward lives, but seldom give any time to helping people change their inner man?  One of the examples is the Christian right’s approach to homosexuality.

Now, I must state from the beginning, that I think the Bible is clear that homosexuality is wrong.  It is equally clear that being judgmental is wrong.  It is clear that drunkenness is wrong, adultery is wrong, lust is wrong, covetousness is wrong.  Yet we spend little time fretting that uncontrolled lust will destroy our world.

There is a classic example to support my questions.  To the exclusion of most everything else there are groups, ministries if you will, who have dedicated their professional lives to fighting against homosexuality and its supposed agenda.  While this might well be a worthwhile battle to wage I believe these groups are making a key mistake.

Regardless of their heart in the fight, they are, at the very least, failing to show a heart of compassion.  They are not merely hating the sin; they are for all appearances hating the sinner as well.

Jesus stands alone in history for his lack of judgment toward sinners.  He hung out with sinners to the point of being seen as a sinner or at least a friend to sinners.  He did not lead the Coalition to End Sinners.  Rather, He led the Coalition to Die without Judging That Others Might Find Eternal Life.

Maybe we should follow His lead, instead of supporting the work of men and women who have forgotten to distinguish between the sin and the sinner.

Here is how we approach the fight, thoughtlessly doing whatever raises funding:

 If we battle same-sex marriage in America and even in Europe, but do not battle anything else in Europe, then we are wasting our time.  Perhaps a better way to end same-sex marriage would be to simply wait for the Muslims to finish their conquest.  Then homosexuality will be illegal.  That is basically what we are doing when we do not step up and provide broad religious liberties protections in Europe like we have done in America.

It is a waste of time to fight on one front, because it offends our personal and inner religious sensibilities, while ignoring the real fight that is facing us.  We no longer have time to sit back and enjoy our big houses, big salaries, and big cars. 

Jesus had no place to lay his head.

How is the temperature in your backyard swimming pool?


The World As We Knew It, Part Two: Leadership Reflecting The General Public

There are other signs that the world we thought we were living in has changed.  In recent articles about the memoirs of ex-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder the thought patterns of modern, post Christian Europe are revealed.  Schroeder told Der Spiegel magazine that he was alarmed by Bush’s talk of God.

“What worried me, despite a relaxed atmosphere to our talks, and to a certain degree what made me skeptical was how much it came through that this president saw himself as ‘God-fearing’ and saw that as the highest authority.”

The most terrifying thing about this statement is that a government official in “Christian” Europe would publicly declare that he does not see God as the highest authority.  Now the problem is multiplied when we consider that it does not make logical sense to believe in the concept of God and not credit God as the highest authority.  Germany of all states should understand the value of having a higher authority to answer to.  The concept that government officials, if they are the highest authority, or even if the Constitution or the administrative laws are considered the highest authority, leaves very little comfort to the rest of the world.

If we accept the concept that God exists, how can we then declare that he is not the highest authority for rules and regulations guiding the interaction of people on the planet?  Schroeder’s comments are further proof that Europe has continued to drift further from the faith of the Catholic Church and the Reformation, both the strongest arms of the Christian faith.

He goes on to state that “Quite rightly we criticize that in most Islamic states the role of religion in society and the secular character of the legal system are not clearly separated. But we haven’t taken note as readily of the U.S. Christian fundamentalists and their interpretation of the bible that show similar tendencies.  There is thus little scope for peaceful resolutions if both sides claim to have a monopoly on the only truth.”

The statement further exemplifies the problem.  Europeans, for the past decade and a half at least, have begun to equate Bible believing Christians with Muslim extremist.  The language has changed.  Now, secular humanists in Europe talk about “fundamentalists” as if the concept of fundamentalism was the most evil thing alive.  As long as our faith does not affect our lives we are free to believe.  As soon as our faith intersects the world we live in we are fundamentalist and should be treated with suspicion or completely disregarded.

Perhaps the saddest point of all is that statements like these from Schroeder do not gain traction in Europe or America.  It might be that the value of faith to Americans is already so low that such statements do not seem to contradict what we already believe and practice as a people.

The World As We Knew It, Part One: Changing Views In The General Public

Talking to campus ministers and others I have noticed a change in the outlook our young people have regarding life and morality.  Foundations and points of view that we have taken for granted our entire lives have suddenly vanished from the conversation.  Beliefs that were shared by the generations of America, religious or not, have suddenly disappeared from view.

A recent encounter with students at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia left a friend of mine confused at the turn in these members of an institute of higher learning.  My friend has been preaching on the campus for a number of years.  On a recent Sunday night he began a bible study with interested students.  To increase the interest, the study was held at a pizza parlor near the campus.  The first group of students included three Catholic students, a Baptist student, and a self-proclaimed agnostic.

These students began with one question:  “Who gave you the authority to tell us that we are sinners?”  The heart of the question goes to the concept that none of us has the right to declare something good or something bad.  It even goes deeper than that by silently declaring that nothing about God is definite.  We cannot say what is sin or what is acceptable behavior.  That is judgment and not what they consider love.  They have grown up in a society where everything is acceptable as long as you feel good about yourself.

Herein lies the danger.  Labeling any speech inappropriate simply because we do not like the message helps create the problem.  That is why I am a pure free speech advocate.  To pick and choose what is acceptable is intellectually dishonest to me.  Thus, I believe in the right to a public debate on God—by those who believe he exists and those who know he never existed.

The interesting dynamic here is that at the same time we are finding speech limited because it might be offensive—i.e. calling sin sin and sinners sinners—we are finding ourselves faced with violence, nudity, and profanity on our televisions and radios in the name of free speech.  This means that if you get paid to speak you have free speech that cannot be censored in any way.  If you make your speech for free, in public, it is no longer free and you are subject to censorship.

Hollywood and the music industry shove down our throats that artists have an uncensorable right to express themselves.  Then, they go further by claiming that we do not have the right to question their positions or call for boycotts of their work when we disagree with their viewpoint.  So, we have to accept their speech or risk being black balled by them.

Yet, when we in turn begin a public debate about what we consider important we find ourselves being mocked and ridiculed publicly.  The tolerant moral less students on our college campuses are tolerant of all speech and ideas—unless it is speech of ideas with which they disagree.  Then we become bigots or hypocrites or fear mongers or too judgmental.

We must ask ourselves which is more judgmental, the idea that all men and women have sinned and need a way out of sin or that sin is too harsh a word and everyone is basically good, as long as everyone agrees with us?

In the name of free speech, we are finding our freedom to speak limited without good cause.

We must once again agree to disagree, in public without violence or disruption.

Jesus, Saints and Sinners

            Jesus is often blamed for our lack of love for humanity.  How many times have we said, “I was just speaking the truth?”  We only fail by leaving out the remainder of our faith—with love.  How many times have we yelled judgment at sinners and used Jesus in the temple to justify our actions?  How many times have we hidden our judgment behind, “I am a prophet so I only see black and white, there is no gray?”  Somehow we fail to remember that the spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet.  The answer to these questions is too many, too often, and too easily!

            We fail to really dissect the Gospel message of Jesus, and the theme of the Bible.  One of the most important pieces of information when interpreting any speech or written communication is—who is the audience, who is the speaker, or writer trying to reach?  When we fail to ask this question we put ourselves in a position to misunderstand everything we read in the Bible.

            The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus speaking the truth in love.  They are full of Jesus coming into contact with saints and sinners.  The interesting study is a dissection of His responses to each group.  This is important because Jesus tempered His message to meet His audience.  Just as we talk differently to an adult than we do to a child, Jesus responded differently to the sinners than He did to the saints.  His expectations were greater for the saints.  His judgments were harsher for the saints.  His patience was shorter for the saints.

            To confuse this is to confuse the entire nature of Jesus’ ministry.  It is no accident that He responded differently to saints and sinners. It appears to be one of the most deliberate things He ever did.  He responded differently because each group required a different approach.  His intention was the same for both groups—to bring them into true fellowship with the Father.  Yet, He realized the end result would only be achieved through radically different approaches.  He was the ultimate minister of the Gospel.  And He was the Gospel.

            Scripture is clear that God does not respect man in the same way we do.  He looks to the heart and judges a man based on his heart.  More than that, God understands the futility of financial gain and the things that we consider powerful.  As a result, He is not impressed with our riches and the trappings of our power.

            Jesus understood this during His earthly ministry.  It is reflected in the way He approached people. He was not intimidated by the rich and the famous of His day.  He stood before the powerful rulers and explained the origins of their power.  He told the ruler of Israel, Pontius Pilate, that He had no power that was not given to him by God.  Jesus also understood this when He approached the poor and humble of society.  When He sat with the drunkards and the prostitutes He knew where true power came from.  He understood what really mattered and confirmed His ministry to the form necessary to convert these people.

            We, on the other hand, use Jesus angry in the temple, turning over tables, as a justification to tell the world the good news that they are going to hell.  We use Jesus, talking to the Scribes and Pharisees, or the saints of His day, roughly as an excuse to blast the sin in the world around us.

            What we fail to comprehend is that Jesus is not angry with sinners.  His anger was expressed toward those who claimed to know the truth and did not do it.  He expressed anger at those who had been shown mercy, but had failed to show mercy when confronted with sin.

            Paul was practicing this very approach when he said that he would become all things to all men that he might win some.  He was concerned with meeting people where they were.  He did not approach the lost of his day as if they should already be living a life of holiness.  At the same time, he did not approach those who professed to be believers as if they were excused from being holy.  He required of each person what each person should be giving according to their place in life.

            Sinners who sin are doing what they do.  It is not their job to merely turn to God.  It is our job to show them the truth of our faith and help them make a decision to turn to God.  Condemnation does lead to salvation.  Grace is what brought us in, why don’t we try giving it the rest of the lost?

Brad Pitt, Jesus, and Celebrity

             History is an interesting thing.  We spend a lot of time in school studying the events of the past.  Yet, we still must ask ourselves if we have properly evaluated matters of the past.  Some events and people become so engrained in our personal and cultural psyche that we cannot see them accurately. 

              There are a couple of people in particular of which this is true.  Typically it becomes more accurate the further we get away from a person’s time on earth.  As long as there are people who can remember the historical figure it is difficult to expand the memory too far beyond reality to create this phenomenon.

             Two figures that this is true about are Jesus and Hitler.  Both are larger than life.  Both are far enough removed from the present that we have lost most if not all of those who had any real contact with them.  Both, in historical perspective, were polarizing figures.  My purpose is not to evaluate the historical realities of Hilter.  He is here only to prove a point.

             We all have personal beliefs about Jesus.  C.S. Lewis rightly declared that Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or exactly who He said He was.  Those are the only options as to His true identity.

             Unfortunately for us, that is no longer enough.  Even if we believe that Jesus was who He said He was we have more filters to evaluate Him through that we must examine.  One of the most critical filters we must get rid of is the filter of celebrity[1].

             By celebrity it is my intention to deal primarily with the American celebrity concept.  The American version of celebrity is taking root around the world, yet at this time it is still primarily an American phenomenon.

             We Americans have created a celebrity cult that surpasses anything found in history.  This celebrity cult has great influence on our worldview, at least as it pertains to certain people.

             We must start by defining the idea of celebrity.  A celebrity is a famous or well known person.  That seems simple enough.  If it were that simple we might not need this discussion.

             In our modern, media driven world celebrity is so much more than merely being famous.  It is about becoming larger than life.  It is about achieving a special status.  We give more credibility to celebrity opinions.  Otherwise why would we care who Oprah is supporting in the Presidential Primaries.  Without our modern sense of celebrity we do not care that Brad Pitt is spending some of his free time, his energy, and a small amount of his millions of dollars to build some homes in New Orleans.

             Celebrity, in our America, gives a person the best of everything.  That might be okay if there were some achievement that had to be mastered to become a celebrity.  Unfortunately for us, the advent of reality television and the explosion of the Internet have taken away the qualifiers that used to exist on celebrity.

             Celebrities in America come into our home and change how we view life.  Even if we approach life with a strong moral code, we permit celebrities to life according to a lower moral code or no moral code at all.  Celebrity divorce has led the way to a weakening of marriage in America.  Celebrity drug use has led to a dropping of our belief that chemically altered states are bad.

             We want our celebrities to live a life not worth living–partying, carousing, the worse the better as far as we are concerned.  We watch with passion the life styles of the rich and famous.  We dream of being allowed into the club.  Celebrity fascinates us.  Given a choice between rich and famous most of us would choose famous.  Of course, if we are smart enough we will turn famous into rich so it is not really any choice.

             For the sake of our discussion, none of this is a particular problem.  The problem is seen when we look at how celebrity affects how we approach people.  I personally do not care if Brad Pitt does not marry Angelina until same-sex marriage is legal in America.  I do care that Brad’s adultery and fornication are looked at as the high moral ground in the sexual revolution that is still moving through the country.

             Because of the international fame that now accompanies celebrity we find that people who used to live a sheltered life in private now live a sheltered life in public.  We view their homes on television.  We see them coming out of restaurants and clubs at two and three in the morning.  We see them climbing onto and off of private jets, retreating into their private mansions.

             We long to live the same life.  In addition, there is a certain amount of authority that is created by fame.  We assume famous people have a greater understanding of the world.  Add to that the ego that is required to achieve fame and we have a group of people we want to believe are smarter than us.  And based on their egos these people agree that they are smarter.

              They then tell us what to believe.  They then tell us how we should live.  Flying their private jets that burn hundreds of gallons of fuel every minute, riding in limousines and SUVs that burn more fuel than any other vehicles, they tell us that we must conserve fuel—it is our moral duty to the earth.

              I am all for saving fuel and protecting the earth.  I do not need the worst abusers in the world trying to make me feel guilty for my abuses.

             And that is the worst of celebrity.  Celebrities are not required to live by the same rules the rest of us are required to live by.  Celebrities get a pass on everything—moral failings, financial failings, legal failings, etc.

            Again, this is well and good, until we apply it to our religion.  Part of the problem we have today is that Jesus is a celebrity.  He is so famous that even those who do not know what He really believed, what He really said, who He really was, use His name in indifference or profanity.

             I am not concerned with this misuse of Jesus.  Sinners will be sinners.  We should expect it.  We should not demand that sinners act like saints—that is part of the problem we have in the church today.

[1] Other filters like family teachings, cultural teachings, pet theories or theologies, or church teachings are important filters.  They could each warrant their own lengthy discussion which is not the purpose of this particular writing.

Wouldn’t It Be Strange, Thank you Charlie Peacock

I have to give credit where credit is due; this title is from a Charlie Peacock song.  It is a thought-provoking song that leads us to some of the key truths of our faith. We have drifted so far from the reality of who Jesus was that we would most likely fail to recognize Him if He showed up in our town.

Christianity has become the power religion of the west.  What does that mean?  It means that to have power in America and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Europe a person has to have some manner of Christianity in his or her worldview.  You do not have to let it be a life changing manner, any manner will do. 

A quick visit through the beatitudes found in the Gospel of Matthew will illustrate the point.  You KJV people might want to skip this next part.  Also, even though these are quotes from Jesus I have not put them in red.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of me.”

Even when we hear these words preached from our pulpits they are lost in the image we have created God in.  We are no longer His creation; God has become our creation.

I could continue to say it, but Charlie Peacock said it so much better:  “Wouldn’t it be strange if power made you weak, victory came to those who turned the other cheek.  Wouldn’t it be strange if you welcomed your defeat, wouldn’t it be strange if Jesus came again?”

I think it is fair to say that most of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, would indeed find it strange.

Called To Live In The Land We Occupy

            We have often heard that Christians are just passing through the planet.  We are not citizens of this earth; rather we are citizens of heaven.  While I believe this is true, we are still called to a higher calling than that of mere occupiers who care nothing for the life we now live.  We believe that life is precious.  We understand that we were created by a marvelous creator and that we were created in his image.  Yet, we fail to value that creation to its fullest extent.

            As Americans we have been given the gift of being born into a culture where there is very little we cannot have.  We are experiencing prosperity like never before. We have good jobs, good health, and the hope for a tomorrow better than today.  What we fail to realize is that we have these things not because we deserve them, but because, for some reason, god has chosen to bless us.  It is our responsibility to take that blessing and help it to grow so that the rest of the world can enjoy the blessing.

            I am not talking about taking the American dream and force feeding it to the world.  I am talking about something much deeper.  I am not talking about taking the American version of Christianity and spreading it casually throughout the world.  I am talking about something much deeper.

            I am taking about looking at what we really have and turning our attention to the God of the Universe in thanks for everything we have.  We have built our kingdoms on the things of God, but we have seldom kept the God of the things in the things of God.  We have turned God’s truths into magic spells that bring blessings if we say the right things or do the right things.

            We have made the same mistake as a lot of people throughout history.  We have assumed that the blessing of God on our lives and our Churches is a sign that God is pleased with us.  We have forgotten that God causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.

            It is not our goodness that has brought about our prosperity.  It is God’s goodness that has brought about prosperity.  All of our righteousness is as filthy rags.

            So, what do we do?  We must get back to the basics of the faith.  We must get back to living as one community, seeing to the needs of each.  We must learn to live int eh world we are born in—a world that is so small that suddenly every man is our neighbor.  When we hoard what we have we become guilty of not being the people God called us to be.

            We must use our well-being to further the well-being of the entire planet.  We must learn to live in the world as citizens of the world rather than pretending that because America is so good everyone should come here to experience the best.  If they are not here they are not our problem.

            We can no longer justify hiding behind our oceans and blindly ignoring the pain of most of the world.  This means that we must become the eyes, and hands, and feet of Jesus.  We must be the leading voice of compassion around the world.  We should shame when a secular groups shows more compassion than our Churches.

            What a disgrace that secular organizations lead the charge in the fight against AIDS.  What a disgrace that secular organizations equal or better our work to feed the hungry.  What a disgrace that secular organizations lead the fight for human rights.

            We have so much to give and give so little.  To whom much is given, much is required.  If we are truly stewards of all that God has given us why do we keep it so close?  Who are we to decide that God’s blessings are for Americans and Americans alone?

            We are the greatest nation in the world and we are the most disgraceful nation in the world.  We export more missionaries than any other country.  We send more money to help the world’s needy.  At the same time we send more filth abroad than any other nation on the planet.

            The message of the Gospel is lost in the American version of Christianity.  It is help for the helpless.  It is justice.  It is peace.  It is not wealth and health.  It is a tender hand to the lost and dying around us.

            We can no longer define our neighbors as those with whom we agree.  We must see that our neighbors are everyone on the entire planet.

            Part of the problem is our view of the world.  We often think that this world does not matter because the next world is the heaven we are all looking for.  This leaves us destroying the planet and coming too late to the game of helping the sick and downtrodden.  This leaves us thinking that the sick and poor of the world deserve to be sick and poor.

            What must we do?

            Dr. Thomas Schirrmacker, in his book Hope for Europe, offers insight into how we must approach the world we live in.  He tells us that “God command[ed] the Israelites to seek the well-being of Babylon, for even though the city is heathen, its fate is the fate of God’s people.  ‘Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.’ (Jer. 29:7).  In the New Testament, Paul bids the church to pray for the government.  ‘I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.  This is good, and pleases God our Savior.”  (I Ti. 2:1-3).  For the political policies and the state of society also determines the life of the Church.”  Hope For Europe, Dr. Thomas Schirrmaker, Verlag für Theologie und Relgionwissenshaft, Page 46.

            The world around us, the entire world, is where the fate of God’s people lies.  We can no longer coast through the world living in our own little space.  We must become citizens for the entire planet.

            How do we do that?

            We can begin by praying.  For those of faith everything must begin with prayer.  It is not just praying that matters.  We must learn to pray that god will show us how he looks at the world everyday.

            We must learn to have the same compassion that Jesus had—compassion that caused him to be willing to lay down his life for us.  Not knowing that we would be redeemed; taking it on faith that we would follow; he left the world with a small band of followers.  None of them were Americans.  None of them had the intellectual prowess to run the world.  None of them was wealthy.  Yet, he gave everything because he cared.

            How can we do any less?

Books Worth Reading

C.S. LEWIS--Mere Christianity; CLAIRE BERLINSKI--Menace in Europe: Why the Continent's Crisis is America's Crisis, Too; BRUCE BAWER--While Europe Slept: How Radical islam is Destroying the West from Within; DAVID LEVERING LEWIS--God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215; THOMAS SCHIRRMACHER--The Persecution of Christians Concerns Us All; PHILIP JENKINS--God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis

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