Thursday, April 10, 2014

A spiritual good-luck charm?

Yesterday yet another mass attack took place in an American high school, this time a stabbing in a well-to-do suburb about a half-hour drive from where I live. Already a number of people are saying that it happened because “we took God out of the public schools.”

And that’s inaccurate, on a number of levels. For openers, you simply cannot take God out of schools because, on an eternal level, He’s not only always around but still in control.

But what about prayer being banned in the early 1960s? There’s more to that than people remember. What was declared unconstitutional — in my view, properly — were Protestant-oriented prayer exercises sponsored and led by agents of the state, specifically public-school teachers and administrators, which really would challenge the idea that the state shouldn’t actively promote one religion over another. (Catholics formed their own schools for this very reason.)

Ironically, most of the complainers are evangelical Christians, and I sometimes wonder how they would react if another religion were similarly supported by a school district. Check that — we kind of already know, witness the outrage about stories (false or overblown) about schoolchildren being indoctrinated in Islam.

More to the point, however, it smacks of a desire for social control rather than a real desire for folks to know God and then to make Him known. No one will deny that we live in a world that’s full of evil, and assuming God will simply “take care of things” were people — especially schoolchildren — to “turn to Him” is the height of naïveté. Believers are not exempt from the troubles of the world; Christians die in accidents, get cancer, suffer from divorce and undergo other tragedies.

The church I attended in 1991 was full the Sunday after the war in Iraq broke out; the same thing happened at a different assembly, where I am now, right after 9/11. In neither scenario, however, did I suspect that things would last, and true to form, within a month attendance had reverted to normal. I was fine with that, because God is not to be used as a good-luck charm.

As Jesus Himself said in John 6:44, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws them.”

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Conservatism: A mental disorder?

The truth be told, I don't really believe that.

Now, I do believe that many conservatives get their basic facts wrong, misread history and maintain a worldview that's out of touch with reality. But are they "sick" people in a general sense? No.

That being said, the recent conservative meme "Liberalism is a mental disorder," which I've heard many times, most recently last week from two conservatives I know, is becoming tiresome. It's very hard for me to take seriously a mentality that refuses to engage folks that don't agree with them.

The clause is what's known in psychology as a "thought-stopper," meant to end conversation. "We know what we know what we know ... " without bothering to consider alternative views or explanations.

Do liberals criticize conservatives? Sure they do but based on how conservatives behave, not on what they believe. In fact, it could be said that how you behave is a reflection of what you believe. (Which is why more and more "liberals" are disdaining conservatism.)

Recent complaints about President Obama -- that he's "weak" and/or a "tyrant" -- only inflame, never inform. Worse, they're never specific as to what he does except for the Affordable Care Act (which is law, by the way), his use of executive orders and his lack of what they see as a credible response to the situation in Ukraine. What would you do? they should be asking themselves. But that's beside the point.

Really, those who subscribe to that view ought to think -- think -- about what they believe and not assume that they alone know the right answers. Such arrogance buttressed by fear is what's causing the dysfunction in American political discourse.

"But we need to combat Marxist/communists/socialists ... " No, you don't, because if you knew what they really believed you might realize that they could be right. So stop slinging mud and start talking to people who don't support your ideology; you might learn something.

Monday, March 3, 2014

'You don't know God'

I was at a Bible study on Saturday, and one of the readings was one of many confrontations that Jesus had with the Pharisees.

Keep in mind that these boys had memorized the Scriptures to an extent that many of us will, but Jesus had something unpleasant, even insulting, to say to them -- essentially, "You don't know God."

And that should be sobering. I've studied a lot of theology over the years -- coming from a Reformed background, I really didn't have much choice -- but realize that "theology" can take you only so far. People have to experience God for themselves, and we need to remember that He wants to be known.

An illustration: Some years ago a close female friend and I attended a New Year's Eve party, and we ended up playing one of those "Mars and Venus"-type games. When it came to the questions, she got every single one right about me and I got every single one right about her. Yes, we apparently knew each other that well.

And it's not by mere "study" or even participation in religious exercises or church activity but also a day-to-day life with God that demonstrates whether someone knows Him. Of course obedience is paramount, but with the wrong attitude it doesn't matter.

My friend gave me a book "Finding the Groove: Composing a Jazz-Shaped Faith" that made reference to the classic John Coltrane album "A Love Supreme." I didn't know until reading that book that Coltrane was referring to God -- in 1957 he had had a four-day encounter during which he heard the "sound of God" and that caused him to abandon drugs.

The author, Robert Gelinas, said that Coltrane never became a Christian as we understand that. Problem? Perhaps. But he understood that mere "religion" won't cut it; he had to find God for himself.

I think that's why Jesus was so well-received by the religious non-elite of His day; He related to people and didn't preach at them (although he did talk about sin). They felt that they were in the very presence of God, and He wasn't threatening, but the Pharisees missed that. And Him.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Another blow in the culture war

You are probably aware that Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona recently vetoed a law passed in the legislature that would have allowed what some have called discrimination against gays for religious reasons. The law was inspired by a situation in neighboring New Mexico where a gay couple sued because the management of a bakery refused to make a cake for their wedding because of its Christian commitment.

The veto, however, proved surprisingly popular. Economic interests opposed the bill, feeling -- justifiably -- that a potential economic boycott would result and hurt business. Next year's Super Bowl will be held in suburban Phoenix, and the National Football League likely has a lot of pull. Even Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012 and a leader in the notoriously conservative Church of Jesus Church of Latter-Day Saints, came out against it.

So what do folks who oppose same-gender matrimony do? I'm not sure that's the right question.

I think a number of us have forgotten that we live in a fallen world, one that never was really "safe" for Christians despite many of our values becoming an unquestioned and, to a certain extent, essential part of American culture. But while our culture may adopt our values, it will never know the God Who gave them, so when folks turn on us we should not be surprised.

It may be coming to the point where we may need to sacrifice to maintain what we believe to be clear Biblical teaching. Of course that's not a popular word.

According to the late Chuck Colson's book "Kingdoms in Conflict," repackaged as "God and Government," the city of New York passed a law several decades ago that banned discrimination against gays in entities that had contracts with the city. That was problematic for the Salvation Army, the Catholic archdiocese and a conservative Jewish synagogue, which had contracts to provide certain services. What did the religious groups do?

They cancelled the contracts. (And that was a good move.)

But how do we make money? you might ask. Never mind -- if you really trust God He will make a way. He's far bigger than this dying culture, and we're under no obligation to cooperate with it, nor can we always bend it to our will.

Monday, February 3, 2014

More random thoughts ...

Nobody asked me, but ...

-- You probably heard about the controversies concerning last week’s Grammy Awards ceremonies, which Christian singer Natalie Grant, up for two awards, walked out of because of what some may call a glorification of Satan, and also due to a mass gay wedding. Such situations might understandably upset some Christians, and I for one certainly don’t support gay marriage. (I did watch the show for a time, largely because I wanted to see the band Chicago, my all-time favorite pop-rock act.)

I hope we understand, however, that this is the world we live in and a secular show might very well contain such themes these days. Are they doing so to persecute Christians? I don’t believe so; at best, it’s a shot at culture-warriors intent on forcing their values down everyone’s throats so that they can live in this world and avoid spiritual warfare. Sorry, but that ain’t gonna happen and we need to get used to that.

-- You probably heard the recent conservative meme about the hypocrisy of feminists supporting President Bill Clinton back in the day despite allegations of sexual harassment; the truth, however, is that he never really was. Monica Lewinsky, his dalliance with whom triggered his impeachment, made advances toward him — in fact, Linda Tripp, the White House aide and anti-Clinton conspiracy point person indicted in Maryland on wiretapping charges, was recorded as saying, “She’s had affairs with married men before.” And as for Paula Jones, she went to court only because her first name had been dropped, inadvertently, in a story written by then-American Spectator writer David Brock, who mentioned later in a book that she was possibly interested in a relationship with him; her original legal team quit because it recognized that she had no case.

Let’s be honest as to what this is really about: Another pre-emptive strike against Hillary Clinton, who remains the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. While she hasn’t officially announced, it’s well-accepted that if she does run she’ll not only win handily but, due to her coattails thanks to Bill’s popularity, possibly even destroy the Republican Party as we know it today — and the GOP has to know this. Recall that Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment right during his Supreme Court hearings, those charges corroborated by three other women mentioned by ABC News Nightline had they testified. “Well, that was really about politics,” you might say. True, perhaps — no different than today.

-- Scholar and writer Dinesh D’Souza has complained that President Obama is going after him because of his film “Obama’s America: 2016” that was released just before the presidential election of 2012; recall that he’s being indicted for election fraud for illegally funding a Congressional candidate; I notice, however, that few conservative Republicans, none of any stature, are supporting him. That tells me one of two possibly related things: 1) They did the same thing, perhaps being involved themselves; or 2) They know that that the charge against him is legitimate.

-- I was rooting for the Seattle Seahawks during last night’s Super Bowl, primarily because they would have won their first championship. (In fact I would have done so the previous time they made the game except for one thing: They were playing the Steelers.) I didn’t expect, however, a complete meltdown from the Denver Broncos.

Monday, January 27, 2014

In case you do need to leave a church ...

Earlier today I read an article giving five bad reasons to leave a church, and for the most part the article was right on. Most of the excuses were in fact focused on personal taste and "what's in it for me?" rather than on theology and service -- that is, the worship of God and doing whatever small part people can do to make him known.

That said, of course, there are legitimate reasons to leave having nothing to do with selfishness; in fact, leaving a particular assembly may be necessary for continued spiritual growth and in fact charitable. Here are some:

1) Theological infidelity. If someone stands up in the pulpit and rejects the counsel of Scripture or suggests that knowing Jesus isn't all that important -- that he or she doesn't believe in the supremacy of Christ or that the Bible represents ultimate truth -- run, don't just walk, away.

2) Moral failure in leadership. I'm talking about not just pastors, either; if even lay leadership uses its position in the church for its own benefit the members will reflect that, and no one grows as a result. Inappropriate sexual conduct and misuse of money represent only examples of such.

3) A focus on "traditions." There's nothing wrong with traditions in and of themselves; however, they become a problem when God wants to move away from them, which is His perfect right. I know of at least one church that shut down completely and another that's still limping along because they simply wouldn't -- or couldn't -- move with the Spirit of God.

4) Ministry opportunities. You may be very satisfied where you attend, but God may call you out to do something different (such as a plant or even a foreign mission). In that case, staying in your church represents disobedience.

And even if you do leave, make sure you do so graciously, with malice toward none and, if any of the first three apply, even with tears -- because if you truly love the church you're exiting you will need to grieve. But on the other hand, God will reward your obedience with something better.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Margaret Sanger – pro-life icon?

On this 41st (or, for that matter, any) anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision that stripped states of regulating most abortions, people tend to hyperventilate.

Of course, one particular woman stands out as a villain – the late Margaret Sanger, founder of what’s known today as Planned Parenthood, which I understand is the largest abortion provider in the country. Four years ago a pastor preached a message that she was a racist baby-killer who sympathized with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany.

I decided to check her out – and do you know what? Nothing could be farther from the truth; she simply wasn’t the monster she’s been made out to be.

Next thing you’re going to tell me is that she was against abortion, you might say.

And you’d be right – because, it turns out, she was.

(You don’t have to take my word for it; just check out her Wikipedia entry. It’s all there.)

Sanger was a public health nurse in New York City in the early 20th Century and witnessed first-hand the squalid and overcrowded conditions in which many of her clients lived – she noted that many of their children didn’t survive infancy or toddlerhood. Perhaps for this reason she came up with the idea that they needed to find a way to limit the number of children. But for her, the “disgrace to civilization” that she called abortion, which in her day was illegal though common, and infanticide just weren’t options.

Was she a eugenicist? Sure, but so were a lot of people in that day, and she didn’t believe in eugenics as policy – it was always, always to be carried out voluntarily and – important – never for racial or ethnic reasons. She even expressed horror at the treatment of Jews in Germany at the hands of the Nazis in the early 1940s. (So much for her being a Nazi sympathizer.)

Didn’t she speak to the Ku Klux Klan? Not exactly – to a women’s auxiliary, and according to her autobiography, she was “unnerved” by the experience.

Though I have always opposed abortion, I think this is one situation where those of us who are “pro-life” have allowed our hearts to get ahead of our heads. I don’t pretend to know when or why PP began providing abortion services – Sanger died in 1966, six years before Roe – but demonizing her doesn’t help our cause. I would even think that we might have some things in common.