Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Integrity of the Game

On Thursday Major League Baseball released the results of "The Mitchell Report" detailing steroid use in baseball. Don't worry, this isn't another Barry Bonds rant. Instead, what catches my attention is how strongly and quickly the players deny every detail. Honestly, I don't care who did or who didn't use, I just want someone, anyone, to stand up and say, "I did it, and I take responsibility." And I really don't care about any records or asterisks, either. I just care about the "integrity of the game." That phrase is tossed around a lot, but what does that mean, anyway?

Well, The American Heritage Dictionary defines integrity as "Steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code." And follows that definition up with "honesty." I like this definition from Proverbs myself, "A truthful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies." (Pr 12:17) To me, integrity is letting your "yes be yes and your no, no." (Mt 5:37, Js 5:12)

In this case, it means that all those players who do the Sign of the Cross, thank God for their accomplishments, and face the world when a microphone is shoved in their faces tell the honest to God truth. And athletes aren't the only ones I wish this for. How many religious leaders who claim to speak for God have been brought low by scandal that was denied for who knows how long before the truth could no longer be hidden. I think of the Catholic priests, the Ted Haggards, the Bob Jones Jrs, and on and on. Why is it so hard in this world to find someone who you can trust to tell the truth?

But instead we live in a fallen world being led by sinners just like you and me. I know I'm not honest all the time. We've all told that "white lie" to protect our self interest. But at the same time, I'm not thanking God for something I should really be thanking a chemist for. It's one thing to lie to save face or to stay out of trouble (not that I'm excusing that either), but it's another thing to credit God for your accomplishments that you attained by any and every means necessary.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Jesus, the Savior of the rejected

So I'm still grappling with what happened in Colorado and what would motivate someone to do such a thing. And I think about the kid in Omaha too and many, many others who turned their personal demons into another's hell. Quite common with nonsensical shootings like these are that the shooter is overwhelmed with a feeling of rejection.

Sunday morning, before seeing the news, I taught Sunday School to a group of 3rd graders. My lesson juxtaposed the sinful woman caught in adultery in John 8 with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus in Luke 7. When I present lessons from the Bible to this age group, I need to emphasize why the story I'm telling them is important. In this case, the lesson was how Jesus accepts anyone and everyone despite their sin and despite what religious leaders might say about it. A lesson certainly applicable today. There are a lot of religious leaders, Pharisees of this day and age, who are quick to condemn, quick to judge. But not Jesus. Jesus accepts. Jesus forgives.

I think about the modern parable (an oft-forwarded email, actually) of a young man in ratty clothes, long hair, piercings and tattoos who walks late into a Catholic Mass. The church is full and he can't find a seat and even where there is a seat available the looks from the parishioners made it clear he wasn't welcome. So without any other seats, he sat down right in the middle of the center isle. Of course, the priest had yet to come down the isle himself and everyone in the church was breathless with anticipation to see what he would do when he came to the young man. The organ stated the opening hymn as the priest and altar boys began down the isle. But no one sang along. All eyes were on the priest to see what he would do next. Noticing everyone's stares, the priest looked at the young man and...

sat down with him.

Maybe the young men involved in these shootings could relate to this young man. Maybe they could relate to the women described in the Gospels above. Maybe they never understood that Jesus would sit right down next to them, even if no one else would.

What makes this even more sad is that I know of ministries in and around Denver whose sole purpose is to reach out to the unaccepted, the rejected. The one that I think of first is Scum of the Earth. Yeah, you read that right. The name comes from 1 Corinthians 4:11-13, "To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world." They say Matthew Murray came from a very religious family, so maybe he had no interest in finding a community that would accept him. But sources also say that he was once part of Youth with a Mission and was looking at enrolling in Colorado Christian College. So somewhere in his heart and soul there was a desire to reach out to God.

Now some will say it's arrogant for a Christian to say, "well, he just needed Jesus and this would've never happened." To that I can respond based on experience in ministering to addicts, that while Jesus forgives us there's no promise that he'll heal us. No doubt he can, but there will always be scars. We need to face and deal with the baggage we carry and lay it at the foot of the cross. If he "had Jesus" would this have been prevented? There's really no way of knowing. Did he "need Jesus"? Well, only Jesus knows the answer to that.

Instead of worrying about the arrogance of us Christians having all the answers, or of the eternal fate of the shooter, the focus should be on the victims. And to follow Jesus' example and forgive.

Monday, December 10, 2007

making sense of tragedy

There are a lot of headlines that I wanted to tackle over the weekend but didn’t get to. They’ll be up here eventually, but I can’t post another word without acknowledging the tragedies that happened over the weekend in Colorado. First and foremost, I want to echo the prayer of Michael Sheridan, Bishop of the Diocese of Colorado Springs.

This hits pretty close to home as it wasn’t far from the first shooting that I took some very early steps in my Christian walk. And although it’s been years since I lived in an apartment a few miles north on Wads, I still have the feeling of, “I can’t believe it happened here.” I feel the same way about the other recent shooting in Omaha. That one hit close too as I was there just the day before. So it’s hard to sort out all these feelings and try to form a coherent thought.

As of the time I’m writing this, the shooter has been identified although no motive as yet been disclosed. I fully plan to update this if/when that happens. It also looks like both the shooting in Arvada and in Colorado Springs are related. (Update: It’s been confirmed the shootings are related and that the shooter, “hated Christians” and was thrown out of Youth with a Mission three years ago.)

There is a lot of speculation as to why and how something like this could happen. As expected there are many messages posted on the Denver Post website placing the blame on the churches themselves or even Christianity as a whole. I prayed at length about this this morning and I still can’t comprehend how anyone can equate a doctrine or polity to the murder of the innocent. Regardless of any single person’s belief on any of the hot topics of the day, or what that person might hear from the pulpit, or the name above the door to the church they attend, no one deserves to be killed indiscriminately. Yet there are many (I hope and pray, only a very vocal minority) who flat out hate anyone who claims Jesus as their savior without knowing their personal creed.

But this is a very broad brush used to paint a very narrow (singular, really) issue. Let me state as clearly as I can, the Jesus I follow does not condone hate. The Good News is that he died for the forgiveness of our sins, no matter what sins those may be. And that the greatest love anyone can have is to lay down our life for another.

Now, I can’t think of any Christian who would disagree with any of those. Can anyone find any fault in what I just wrote that could excuse senseless killing? Yes, there are churches that emphasize some sins as being worse than others. But, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) Does it matter what our sin is if we all fall short? Don’t we all need to repent of the sins that keep us from having a fulfilling relationship with God? At the same time, we cannot excuse sin. And it doesn’t matter what that sin is. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Rom 6:1-2)

But there are some that believe that since the Bible condemns their lifestyle that Christians “hate” them. That they can’t follow a God who is so arrogant to condemn anyone who disagrees with him. If we preach that Jesus is the only way to salvation, then that means we hate anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus. The thing is, the exact opposite is true. If we really hated someone and thought we had the only golden ticket to heaven, would we bother telling them? Would we, really? For someone to say that they’re not surprised someone opened fire at a church because of current-event politics is absurd, it insults my faith and is contrary to everything Jesus lived and taught.

One more thing before I get off my soapbox. When I first read the AP version of this story yesterday, there weren’t a lot of details yet. So I guess to fill column length, they felt the need to point out that New Life Church was started by Ted Haggard and then proceeded to spend a couple of paragraphs reminding us of his scandal. As if that has anything to do with this. I don’t know though. As sick and twisted as the hate that some people have towards Christians, maybe it does. (Update: the updated AP story still references Haggard, but doesn’t describe his personal scandal. And while the shooter has a link to the Youth with a Mission school, there doesn’t yet appear to be any connection between the shooter and New Life. So the motive for targeting that specific church is still unknown.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Politics and the Word of God, notes from tonight's debate

So I turned in to tonight's YouTube debate just in time to see the candidates questioned if they believe the words in the Bible. That's a pretty loaded question, in fact it was prefaced with, "how you answer this question will tell us everything we need to know about you." Not only is it loaded, but it's also misleading. Many people wrongly equate believing that the Bible is the Word of God and believing that every word is true. At the same time, believing that the Bible is the Word of God also isn't the same as believing that every word applies to you. But that's a nuance that is often ignored in the public debate about the influence of Christianity on many political issues, namely evolution and homosexuality. The way the argument goes is that if you believe the Bible is the Word of God then therefore you believe every word is true and you are a strict creationist. At the same time, you also therefore believe that every word applies to us today and thus are homophobic based on the Levitical Law calling homosexuality an "abomination." See how suddenly by being "prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Pt 3:15) now has painted you into a corner on two very hot political topics? Like the questioner said, "how you answer this question will tell us everything you need to know about you."

But that's just not true. Just because I believe the Bible is the Word of God doesn't mean I take every word literally. It's obvious that some is poetry and some is allegorical. And I admit that my faith isn't strong enough to take a literal view of creation. When it comes to homosexuality, unfortunately many christians (intentional little c) quote Leviticus to condemn homosexuality. I sure hope they don't eat shrimp because that too, is an abomination according to Levitical Law. And since Jesus died "once for all" (Heb 10:10) and established a "new covenant" (Lk 22:20) and "fulfill[ed] them [the law]" (Mt 5:17) the Levitical Law no longer applies to us today. (After all, where's our temple?)

But it's intentional to not ask the specific questions regarding these issues. Instead the question is framed to require candidates to dance around their faith. So how did the candidates do tonight? Well, Mayor Giuliani answered the question pretty much like I did. Governor Romney answered it directly saying he believed the Bible is the Word of God but then tripped all over himself to expand on that. And Governor Huckabee hit it out of the park. I'll paraphrase: "Yes, I believe the Bible is God's revelation to his people. And there are parts that are up to interpretation that are the center of debates. But there are parts that are so clear that everyone can agree on them, 'love your neighbor' and 'what you've done for the least of these, you've done to me'. I think we can all agree in these principles. But we get too distracted by the other debates that we don't live out what we do agree on." (for direct quote, go here) Of course, would we expect any less from a minister?

Huckabee's answer was honest and direct. And unlike either Giuliani or Romney, you could tell from his body language, his tone, and the words themselves, that he really meant it. And I have to respect that. I saw him on "Real Time with Bill Maher" and he held up pretty well against attacks on his creationist stance. He said point blank that it doesn't matter what he thinks about that issue because it doesn't affect how he would govern. And Bill Maher couldn't say anything against that, other than going off on a rant against Christianity as a whole.

While this entry might look like a political endorsement, it's not. Instead, it's a lesson on exactly how we, as Ambassadors of Christ, should "be prepared to give an answer... with gentleness and respect."

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

And I can say that with a clear conscience without fear of the PC police... for now anyway.

Thanksgiving is easily my favorite holiday. I grew up in retail so Christmas wasn't the least bit fun. But Thanksgiving (with Black Friday after of course) was a chance to close shop for a day and spend the time with family. We would often host a big feast at our church with family from out of town, our employees, our neighbors, and the close friends of the family that were, really, family. The advantage of growing up in a small town, I guess. I can't imagine doing something like that today. But I do pray that someday my family can host a Thanksgiving like I remember growing up.

Thanksgiving, to me, isn't the least bit religious. There's no doctrine behind it like the birth or resurrection of my Savior. It's simply a time to stop the world for a moment and enjoy the blessings in our lives, wherever we believe they originated from. And even though the folklore is rooted in Puritan religious tradition, the symbols of the holiday are turkeys, cornucopias, gourds, and leaves in all the fall colors. Anyone can celebrate this holiday. And it's not just Christians who celebrate it.

But yet, there are some who feel that there is a War on Thanksgiving like there is a War on Christmas, with bumper stickers that say "remember to thank HIM". If it was me, I'd play off the slogan of "Keep Christ in Christmas" with something like "Keep the Thanks in Thanksgiving." I don't think there's a reason for the Christian Right to be paranoid about the religious roots of Thanksgiving eroding in the name of Political Correctness. But I do think it's right to remind everyone why we celebrate this holiday. We are blessed in this country. The poorest among us are rich compared to much of the world. We celebrate freedoms that few others share. And despite how screwed up our country can seem at times, thousands still come to this country regularly to seek a better life.

Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863. It is worth it to look to his words to remind us why we celebrate this holiday today.

No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great
things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with
us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set
apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving
and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. (full text here)

And while we are called to give thanks for our blessings, we are also called to remember those less fortunate:

And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to
him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble
penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender
care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers...

Today, let's remember to Keep the Thanks in Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

If there's a separation of Church and State, where's the line?

On Tuesday, the Governor of Georgia held an all-faith rally to pray for rain. If you haven't heard, Georgia is suffering an unprecedented drought and a call for everyone in the state to pray for relief wouldn't be unheard of. But to hold it on the capitol steps? Is that going too far? Like my title says, if there really is a separation of Church and State, where's the line? Was it crossed when Congressmen and women sang God Bless America on the steps of the US Capitol following September 11? Is it crossed when the president suggests we pray for the victims of a natural disaster?

There were a few protesters, but not as substantial as I would've expected. But there was an online debate on one of the message boards I frequent over whether this sets a bad precedent (of course, in order for that to be the case this would have to be the first time something like this has ever happened). The person who started the thread, about halfway through the debate, stated that he was afraid of what this country will look like in 20 years if such violations of the First Amendment are allowed to continue. I hate to break it to him, but there was a nationwide vigil when the Apollo 13 mission failed. And that was more than 20 years ago. Have we been sliding down the slippery slope ever since? Of course not. That wasn't the first such event and it certainly wasn't the last. I already mentioned 9/11. And while that spike of patriotism and religion might have alarmed the most paranoid Church/State activists, a majority of those who rushed to their churches to pray, hold vigil, donate blood, or just take communion for the first time in years have since dropped back out into the world of sleeping in on Sundays or staying home to watch football.

But were the prayers effective? Well, it did rain believe it or not. Although the weather service did predict rain. But this whole event reminds me of a common anecdote of the girl who, when her town gathered to pray for rain to end a drought, was the only one who brought an umbrella. Relate this to Mark 11:24, "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." So I wonder, of all the people who showed up, did anyone think to bring an umbrella?

Friday, November 09, 2007

For president I endorse...

So Pat Robertson endorsed Rudy Giuliani the other day. To quote Adam Sandler in one of my all-time favorite movies, "Well, whoopidee dooo!" Meanwhile, Sen Sam Brownback, I guess the standard bearer for Christianity in the Senate, has endorsed John McCain. Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, has endorsed Mike Huckabee (so did Chuck Norris FWIW). And a couple of weeks ago, Bob Jones endorsed Mitt Romney. All that while Dr. James Dobson and other evangelical leaders threaten to endorse a third party if the Republicans fail to nominate a pro-life candidate (see this post below). Do these differing opinions mean anything? Is it a harbinger of the collapse of the Religious Right?

Not really. It's really more reflective of a reality of Christians overlooked by political "experts." Remember, there are hundreds of different denominations split over things as important as whether or not you have Sunday School. Do you honestly think if Christians can't be united under Jesus that some politician can unite them? And this is a good thing, really. I'd rather have a fractured "christian" political base than one united on only one or two issues. I'd rather not be shoe-horned into a political party just because of my faith. And I especially don't want dishonest politicians pandering to me in the name of my Lord with the aim to be elected to office, not to bring Him glory.

There are a lot of people surprised by Pat Robertson's endorsement. After all, Rudy doesn't have the most conservative record when it comes to abortion and gay rights. However, this isn't an indication of Robertson becoming less narrow minded. Instead, it represents his strong and very public stance on the Global War on Terror. As much as it seems he says some ridiculous things like Hurricane Katrina being about homosexuality, he talks much more frequently and more firmly about terrorism. So this news shouldn't be taken as an encouraging sign of the Christian Right, but instead an endorsement of a 21st Century Crusade.

But again, these figureheads don't speak for me. And I don't pledge allegiance to any doctrine based on their words, but on God's alone. There is some discussion online that this endorsement will drive moderates away from Giuliani. I don't think so. I just think reality is finally exposing the mythology of the "value voter". And I'm not the only one who thinks so. (For a counter argument on the state of the evangelical voter, see this article)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Forwarded e-mails

I love these, I really do. Especially when they take a Christian theme and end with something like, "if you really love God, you'll forward this to 500 people. I won't know if you forward it or not, but God will." But seriously, they are usually encouraging (at least until that last sentence) or are pontificating on an issue or issues I somewhat agree with. In fact, because I often agree in principle with many of these emails I tried to start one several years ago citing statistics about the number of so-called Christians in this country versus the number who read their Bible or attend church regularly, the numbers of teen-pregnancies and abortions, and the percentage of the population who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. I was curious to see if I'd ever get it back and what transformations it would take before it got back to me. But it never did. Perhaps it hit too close to home. Or perhaps I failed to attribute my rant to a celebrity.

I just got one of these. Maybe you've seen it. It's titled, "Paul Harvey on Prayer." I'm always suspicious whenever I see one of these credited to someone famous. So I checked it out on Snopes and sure enough, it's not true. It is a real article, but not by Paul Harvey.

What gets my goat, is that even though I agree with the thoughts contained therein and the desire to forward it to the whole world, at some point some well-intended Christian flat out lied when he or she originated this email. And for all the times it's been forwarded, how many Christians have actually checked to see if what is written is true or if it is credited to the right author? In fact, this particular email dates back to 2000. So just think about how many times it's been forwarded, or how many times it's shown up in your inbox, in those seven years!

Here's my email in all it's glory (minus the Meg-or-so of graphics that came with):

Keep this going around the it and forward every time you receive it. We can't give up on this issue.
Paul Harvey and Prayer

Paul Harvey says:
I don't believe in Santa Claus, but I'm not going to sue somebody for singing a Ho-Ho-Ho song in December. I don't agree with Darwin, but I didn't go out and hire a lawyer when my high school teacher taught his Theory of Evolution

Life, liberty or your pursuit of happiness will not be endangered because someone says a 30-second prayer before a football game.

So what's the big deal? It's not like somebody is up there reading the entire book of Acts. They're just talking to a God they believe in and asking him to grant safety to the players on the field and the fans going home from the game.

But it's a Christian prayer, some will argue.
Yes, and this is the United States of America, a country founded on Christian principles. According to our very own phone book, Christian churches outnumber all others better than 200-to-1. So what would you expect -- somebody chanting Hare Krishna?

If I went to a football game in Jerusalem, I would expect to hear a Jewish prayer.

If I went to a soccer game in Baghdad, I would expect to hear a Muslim prayer.

If I went to a ping pong match in China, I would expect to hear someone pray to Buddha.

And I wouldn't be offended. It wouldn't bother me one bit. When in Rome ...

But what about the atheists? is another argument.
What about them? Nobody is asking them to be baptized. We're not going to pass the collection plate. Just humor us for 30 seconds. If that's asking too much, bring a Walkman or a pair of ear plugs. Go to the bathroom. Visit the concession stand. Call your lawyer!
Unfortunately, one or two will make that call. One or two will tell thousands what they can and cannot do. I don't think a short prayer at a football game is going to shake the world's foundations.

Christians are just sick and tired of turning the other cheek while our courts strip us of all our rights. Our parents and grandparents taught us to pray before eating; to pray before we go to sleep.

Our Bible tells us to pray without ceasing. Now a handful of people and their lawyers are telling us to cease praying.
God, help us. And if that last sentence offends you, well . .. just sue me.

Credited to Nick Gholson, sports writer for the Witchita Falls, Texas Times Record News.

And the rest of the email, not written by either Gholson or Harvey, but by some Christian somewhere who lied about its authorship...

The silent majority has been silent too long.. It's time we let that one or two who scream loud enough to be heard that the vast majority don't care what they want. It is time the majority rules! It's time we tell them, you don't have to pray; you don't have to say the pledge of allegiance; you don't have to believe in God or attend services that honor Him. That is your right, and we will honor your right ... But by golly, you are no longer going to take our rights away. We are fighting back ... and we WILL WIN!

God bless us one and all ... especially those who denounce Him , God bless America, despite all her faults. She is still the greatest nation of all.

God bless our service men who are fighting to protect our right to pray and worship God.

May 2007 be the year the silent majority is heard and we put God back as the foundation of our families and institutions.
Keep looking up.

If you agree with this, please pass it on. If not delete it.

And now you know, the rest of the story!

And one last nitpick while I'm here. It mentions that Christian churches outnumber all others by 200-1. For that to really mean anything that would imply that only 1 out of 200 Americans are not Christians. Or in other words, 99.5% of the population are Christians. You and I both know that's not anywhere close to the truth. The reason there are 200 Christian churches for every one of some other is because there are 200 takes on "one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Eph 4:4-6) If we were really following just Jesus and not some historical theologian or church leader, there would only be one church and that would be that.

Now forward that last paragraph to everyone in your address book. I won't know if you forward it or not, but God will.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Two's Company, Three's a Crowd

Last week it was reported that leaders on the Christian right agreed that if either party fails to nominate a pro-life candidate, they would throw their support behind a third party. The biggest problem I have with this stance (and the Christian right movement in general) is that it draws a line in the sand relative to only two, very narrow, issues with the attitude of you're either with us or against us. In two interviews I saw with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, he painted these issues as, "non-negotiable" and, "black and white." These two issues? Abortion and gay-marriage of course.

The problem with taking a stand on a platform of two issues, is that it considerably narrows your base, rendering it ineffective. In a more plural government, where there are many parties such as the Green Party, Communist Party, Labour Party, etc, that is fine because they often form coalitions on issues outside of their platform. But the American government is a two party system, and with good reason. The public frequently complains about the extremes of each party and how Congress is unable to compromise in the middle. This is the point of a two party system. The framers of the Constitution didn't want extremists an opportunity to seize control over any branch of the government. They provided a system where there will always be a dissenting voice. When it comes to issues near and dear to a particular party, it requires compromise in order to receive favor from the opposition party. The complaint that nothing ever happens in Congress is actually a good thing. We don't want Congress doing a lot. If our Senators and Representatives can't reach a compromise on an issue, that is better than approving something on the fringes of either side. Now I admit that lately there seems to be an overwhelming unwillingness to compromise and meet in the middle with many issues, most visibly immigration reform. But the lack of compromise keeps the debate going.

By narrowing all you care about to two issues and giving an ultimatum to the major parties eliminates any possibility for each side to meet in the middle. And a majority of Americans are in the middle on most, if not all, issues. Many Christians, I would argue, oppose abortion but aren't necessarily in favor of Roe v Wade being overturned. Similarly, I would argue that most Christians oppose gay-marriage, but wouldn't support a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting it.

So a two-issue party isn't the answer. History shows that in the two-plus decades conservative Christian voters have been rallying around the pro-life banner, there has been little to show for it on a national scale. The issue has created the "litmus test" for judges and political candidates. It is the first question asked of any Republican running for president or really just about any other office. And it is what is keeping the "Christian Right" from supporting either Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney. And what has that gotten us? Not much. And the reason is that the issue isn't a political one. Even when a candidate is chosen based on who they would nominate to the Supreme Court, that judge still has to be approved by a divided Congress. So how much power does a President or a single Congressperson really have? The Constitution intended for not a lot.

On the issue of gay-marriage, that's even stickier. That's why some would favor a Constitutional Amendment. Because that's the only way an all-out prohibition would stick without being overturned by the courts. There needs to be a compelling public interest in limiting the legal right to marry. Such is the case for polygamy, pedophilia, and common-law marriage. And despite your personal views on the issue, such a case has not yet been made when it comes to gay-marriage.

So no matter a candidate's view on any single issue, he or she will always face political opposition, the separation of powers, and constitutionality. That's why I could care less about a candidate's view on those two issues. In the end, they really can't make that much difference.

I believe the battle for the "culture of life" is not a political one, but a spiritual one and is therefore not fought in Washington, but in the heart and soul of the common individual. And the way it is fought is by preaching and living the Gospel and, "watch[ing] your life and doctrine closely. Persever[ing] in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers."

As for a third party, I admit that part of me longs for a legitimate "Christian" party with a tent big enough to include both the social gospel and the culture of life. One that is beyond only two issues, but also addresses poverty, the importance of family, the culture of greed so evident in this country, sex permeating our culture and influencing our children, and on and on. Yet, there's a reason we still have, after over 200 years, only two parties. We need the debate. And we need to prevent radicals on all sides from gaining too much political power.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

What is a "True" Christian?

Well, what do you think? Is it the means by which you believe you are saved? Whether your doctrine is based on sola scriptura or apostolic tradition? Do you speak where the Bible speaks and silent where the Bible is silent, or is it the other way around? If you're faith-alone, grace-alone, Calvinist, Swedenborgian, or Arminian? Are you premillennial, postmillennial, or

Or is it how you vote? Your stance on the "big two" wedge issues, abortion and gay marriage? Whether you subscribe to the social gospel or the culture of life?

Do you need the Ten Commandments hanging somewhere in your house or a crucifix instead? Do you have a family Bible, or one held together by duct-tape that you read every day? Do you pray with your head down or hands raised? Are you sold-out, evangelistic, and fruitful?

There are literally thousands of Christian denominations out there divided over issues such as these and some even more mundane like whether or not your church building has a kitchen. This is despite Paul's admonishment to, "3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Eph 4:3-6) Count the "ones" in this passage and compare that to the cafeteria of choices we have when it comes to choosing a church.

Yet Jesus was very clear in telling us what is really important when asked, 36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Mt 22:36-40)

So what is a "true" Christian? I would argue one who loves God with all their hearts, mind, soul and strength, and who love their neighbors as themselves. I couldn't tell you if someone I pass by on the street loves God with all their heart. Or even the person I sit next to at church every Sunday. Only God knows the answer to that one. But loving your neighbor as yourself is more evident in the way we live our lives.

My wife gave birth to our second child and first daughter a week ago today. Since then there's been a deluge of visits, phone calls, gifts and prayers from brothers and sisters in our church. Not to mention a steady diet of home cooked food prepared out of the goodness of someone else's heart. (Honestly if not for that, we'd be living off of fast food as we're too much of zombies to do much else.) Many of those who have brought us their specialty dish we're not necessarily close to. But they are loving their neighbor nonetheless. This is despite the fact that a couple of our best friends gave birth to their firstborn four days prior and they have been the recipients of the same warmth and service. It's not as if our church is full of people with the means to do this on a regular basis. And it's not as if this level of love and selflessness is apparent on a weekly basis when I see their faces on Sunday. Yet I know that when I step into church tomorrow I will be greeted warmly with many congratulations, hearty hugs, and sincere smiles. I will feel at home and I will feel surrounded by genuine Christians who truly love their neighbors as themselves.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Give to Caesar what is Caesar's

As an ironic headline to follow up my last post, the IRS has officially dropped its investigation of a Pasadena Episcopal church while the church wants a formal apology. What was the IRS investigating? A sermon a couple of weeks before the 2004 election that was against the war in Iraq. Huh? The IRS investigating a church about a political sermon, how does that work?

A little background on what this is about. Churches file with the IRS as 501(c)(3) organizations, or a "tax-exempt non-profits." This designation prohibits churches, and other non-profit groups, from explicitly participating in political campaigns or implicitly endorsing one particular candidate over another. This rule stems from Lyndon B Johnson's 1954 Senate campaign that was facing opposition from non-profit groups. At the time, churches were already tax-exempt and this amendment to the tax code wasn't directed towards churches but rather politically active non-profit groups (think the historical equivalent of Swift Boat Veterans For Truth or Yet because churches fell under the same tax code as those groups the political restriction applied to them as well. But, despite the growing entanglement between churches and politics, rarely does the IRS actually cite a particular church. But while one could quickly side with a church, regardless of the topic preached, it is a little known fact that a church does not have to file as a 501(c)(3). The only real impact not having "non profit" status would have would be that parishioners wouldn't be able to deduct church contributions on their tax forms. For megachurches with very large incomes, it would also be a significant tax burden. But for a local church, it wouldn't make much difference.

Despite this, there was a bit of an uproar when this investigation first became public. And the sermon in question was a hot topic: The Iraq War. It did seem like the IRS came at this from out of the blue with a biased political agenda, despite being a non-partisan government bureaucracy. So I do think the IRS was poking its head where it didn't belong.

On the other hand, I question whether such preaching is really edifying. Does preaching on political issues build up "unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God [to] become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13)? In other words, would preaching about the Iraq war help someone in attendance to become more Christlike if already a Christian or lead one to Christ if not? Not to mention that the purpose of meeting as an assembly of believers is to worship. Is this worship, or is it just grandstanding?

As for the topic itself, there are two main camps with most people falling somewhere in between. One camp is across the board pacifist, not just opposing war but also opposing military service. That side can look back in history to Roman soldiers who were required to serve in the Roman army but would not pledge allegiance to Caesar. Some would refuse to be crowned with laurels, a homage to Ares, the god of war. The other camp looks at what is happening in the Middle East and reads Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation and concludes that war, especially in the Middle East, will hasten Jesus' return. Never mind that the same was preached up to two decades ago about Russia. Nevertheless, I was quite nervous when Syria and Israel were trading rockets a year ago and one of the regions affected was Megiddo (where we get the word "Armageddon").

So what would be acceptable? To me, a sermon on the above differences in opinion, with scriptures to support both, would certainly be relevant to a church service. But pontificating on an increasingly unpopular war on the other hand, would not. We need to be careful as Christ's body to use our worship to encourage one another, grow in faith, become more Christlike and to glorify God. Our religion should inform our politics, not the other way around.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

What was old is new again

Ok, it's been another three-ish weeks since my last post. At least I'm consistent. The problem I run into is that I see a headline or something comes to me and the wheels in my head start turning. I spend a lot of time doing research, I get distracted, I don't get online for a long time, and when I finally do get a minute either I've forgotten what had me so riled up in the first place or the headline that caught my attention is no longer relevant. And then here we are, three weeks later.

Most recently, I was wanting to post about Elvira Arellano and the use of churches as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. I was studying my Bible about the role of sanctuary cities and a word study on refuge. Then time flies, and while the illegal immigration debate is still going on (and likely will so long as it continues to be politicized without any desire from either side for a real solution) this story kinda went away. Well, other than the president of Mexico offering to send her to the US to be an ambassador and would therefore be afforded all the rights and privileges of a Mexican citizen in the United States. But the post wasn't going to be about her, but about what role should our churches play in this debate? And that issue has come up again.

This week, the city of Simi Valley sent a bill of $40,000.00 to a local church for the police required to keep order during a protest outside their doors. The protest wasn't organized by them, wasn't planned by them, and really wasn't even participated in by them. But the rationale was that since their actions, by allowing an illegal immigrant to seek refuge in their church, they incited the protest and that they should be the ones held responsible. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

If this holds up, it sets a dangerous precedent for the church. Would a church be held financially responsible if there's a protest on their stance against homosexuality? Or what if a synagogue is vandalized with anti-Semitic tagging, would you hold them responsible? Fortunately, from what I've read most agree that this is an infringement on that church's First Amendment right and a ploy to passive-aggressively stake their ground on the illegal immigration debate.

But that's not really the point of this either. Is this something we, the church, Christ's ambassadors, should be getting involved in? There's no legal standard for a church being a sanctuary for fugitives. Rather it's an unwritten rule, kinda like fighting on Holy Ground in Highlander. But what's the history behind it? Obviously our country began as a refuge for many seeking religious freedom. The motivation behind the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment was to keep the government from dictating a state religion so any faith could be practiced freely. Churches were central as sanctuaries pre-abolition just as they were involved during the Civil Rights Movement. So there's historical precedent. But is there Biblical precedent?

When settling in Israel, the refugees from Egypt were given instructions by God to set aside "sanctuary cities". These were cities where one could flee if accused of murder so that their case could be heard by the elders before they were killed in revenge. The fine print though, was that they had to be innocent. Romans instructs us that we should obey the law of the land because every authority on Earth is there but for the grace of God. So is it right for a church to be a sanctuary for someone breaking the law, even if we don't agree with that law?

Another refugee from authorities wrote many Psalms about God being his only refuge. David was being hunted down and though he lived in caves and some towns let him hide, he knew that his only refuge was God Almighty.

But we are also commanded not to "oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9) And let's not forget about the Good Samaritan, a foreigner. We also read in James, "15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

So what should we do? Where's the line between giving to a "foreigner" in need and giving them employment? Where's the line between being sympathetic to illegal immigrants and offering your church as a sanctuary? First, we need to heed to existing laws. Second, we need to reach out to meet the needs of those who are here illegally. They're here for a reason, after all; the economy in Mexico is an absolute mess. Finally third, we need to be careful not to skate on the thin ice of the hot political topic de jour. We need to let our lights shine, be the salt of the earth, and represent Christ in all we do. My question for all those "safe churches", are you doing everything you can to enable the immigrant you're harboring to get on a path to citizenship? What are the circumstances of him or her facing deportation (immigration officers have their hands too full to want to deport someone 'just because')? Are you just seeking headlines?

Yes, families are affected and depending on where you live, chances are there's someone in your congregation who is here illegally. But the church as an institution exists to meet the needs of its parishioners. In this case, that means helping them gain citizenship, legally. Sanctuary in the Bible requires innocence, and unfortunately none of us on either side of this debate are wholly innocent.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hi, my name is Michael Vick and I've found Jesus

Today was the anticipated plea bargain for Michael Vick. There's an endless debate online on whether he'll ever play again, if the media firestorm is race-related, will the public forgive him, and on and on. So I won't go down that road. But in the following press conference, which appeared genuine and sincere, it stood out to me that "through this situation," he found Jesus, asked for forgiveness, and turned his life over to God because he (and this is my favorite part), "think[s] that's the right thing to do as of right now."

My question is, when is it not the right thing to do? Turning to God is an easy PR scapegoat when we get our hands caught in the cookie jar. Either that, or rehab. Now don't get me wrong, I'm sure God appreciates being "turned to" and I know Jesus appreciates being "found" whenever we actually get around to doing it. After all God, "wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:4) And we know that trials build our faith (James 1, 1 Peter 1). But it's awfully convenient when one's repentance is made so public.

On a related note, I finally caught an episode of "Saving Grace" on TNT. If you haven't seen it, it's a story of a cop who makes a desperate cry to God for help and help comes in the form of a tobacco chewing, beer drinking angel named Earl. Ok, it sounds hokey and borderline blasphemous, but it follows a similar mold as "Highway to Heaven", "Touched by an Angel" and "Joan of Arcadia" where an angel comes to prove God's existence to a skeptic while at the same time saving the day before the hour episode is up. This show isn't much different, except it's much grittier and I was surprised to hear cussing on TNT. I like how the show seems to be structured, the angel is helping Grace with one part of her very flawed character per episode, in tonight's case it was lying. But I had a hard time being drawn into the story because the grounded storyline, investigating the brutal beating and murder of a woman, didn't reflect the larger lesson Grace was supposed to learn. Now I admit to being pretty cynical while watching it and I also admit that my short attention span didn't allow me to actually finish the episode (it was against MNF afterall). But I was intrigued just enough to want to see more.

What does this have to do with Michael Vick? Well, it perpetuates in the media the notion that repentance is easy and God is right there on-call whenever we have a crisis of faith. But if the goings not tough, we can forget about God for a while knowing fully well that he'll be there when we really need him, as though we don't always need him. Look, I hope Vick's new found faith takes him down the same road as Reggie White. (Not meaning to link any of this scandal to anything done by White, but rather as an example of a professional football player who was also a minister) Just as I hope that people who see "Saving Grace" are moved to take a deeper look at their own faith and relationship with God, or lack thereof. But Hollywood has made me too cynical. However, my faith in God, and the ability of his word to be so sharp as to "divide soul and spirit" should cut through those chains of cynicism. Let's hope so.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

My Barry Bonds Rant

What? You were expecting something else after three-ish weeks off? Well, I've got a lot in my head, but it's all stuck behind this, so bear with me. I'm a baseball nut, I can't help it.

Back when we were anticipating the dawn of the Millennium, everybody and their dog had a list of the Top Whatever of the Century. ESPN had the Top 100 Baseball Players of the Century and there was a lot of debate on who should be on top. I remember debating with friends then, the merit of Barry Bonds. I would have had him in my all time outfield, and this was before he hit 73. Most of my friends thought I was on crack for thinking so, but you couldn't deny the numbers. He was a 400-400 man. He was a pretty good fielder (at the time). And he hit lights out. He was like Tony Gwynn or Kirby Puckett with a lot of power. You couldn't get a ball by him. And I was looking forward to watching him and Ken Griffey Jr. chase each other for the Big One. 755. Hammerin' Hank Aaron. But history took a different turn.

I remember there being a lot of debate on the inflated numbers of home runs in the league at the time, but little discussion of steroids. I argued that smaller parks, expansion and therefore thin pitching staffs, smaller strike zones, and a stupid rule on hitting batters that pretty much prevented any pitcher from pitching inside were to blame. Oh yeah, and then there was the "juiced ball." But then came BALCO, and Canseco, and Game of Shadows, and that all changed. Never mind Brady Anderson hitting 50 one season only to never really be heard from again. Never mind (much to our shame) the downward spiral Ken Camenitti's (forgive my spelling) life took before it prematurely came to an end. It was now all about Bonds and his inevitable trajectory to 755.

I rooted against him. I prayed to the Baseball Gods (can I blaspheme on a blog about Christianity?) that something would keep him from it. I begged and pleaded that he'd just come clean, because face it, none of us would've cared if he would've come out when the firestorm began. Be contrite. Respect the fans and respect the game, and we'll cheer you to 800 of that's where you take us. But it wasn't to be. Here's a guy born into baseball with a silver bat in one hand and a golden glove on the other. And he knew it. And he wore body armor and hovered over the plate daring anyone to come near him with a pitch. And he hit home run after home run after home run.

I wanted to find a reason to root against him. He was limping to the record. Aaron never took all those days off, I'd rationalize. But then I'd remember how Ruth was an embarrassment to himself at the end. So the golden number really should've been something like 690 instead of 714.

But there I was, hoping for some baseball poetry a week ago to see if it would happen against Hank's own team, the Atlanta Braves. This had some significance for me as well. My mom is from Atlanta and despite my allegiance to the Cubbies, I've easily been to more Braves games than all other teams combined. So it felt right to be there. And it was only right for the Baseball Gods to see to it that the game before went 13 innings so Bonds would sit that day. Go figure. I met up with my sister to see if we could see Swingin' Sammy hit any onto Waveland in that milestone year of 98. He went 0-fer both days we were there. So it's only fair that he'd tie the record on the road against the Padres, where I couldn't see it, while I was distracted doing something else.

This isn't about race either. I found an article online on how if Bonds' record is tainted by steroids, all these old records are tainted because the players from the Golden Age of baseball didn't play against black competition. I was only able to read half the essay (about 10 pages) before my blood was boiling too much to continue. Not because I'm some racist. But because anyone who makes that argument isn't a baseball fan. I hear it a lot on sports-talk radio, and poll numbers back it up, that whites are much more opposed to Bonds breaking the record than blacks. But why then, do we care so much that he's passing another black player in Aaron? One who came out of a segregated and impoverished Mobile, Alabama? My other counter argument is that if that's the case, then Aaron's record should be considered tainted as well because he didn't play against the Japanese. After all, the professional record isn't Aaron's, but Sadaharo Oh, a Japanese player. And soon, the all time record for hits in professional baseball will be held by a Japanese player--Ichiro. So do all those records not count?

We revere the records because they stand the test of time, not because of the era that produced them. We respect them because so many seasons come and go without anyone even approaching them. And the names that are spoken of with awe are regarded by history not by the numbers they put up but by the legends that surround them. Shoeless Joe Jackson is a great example of this. Despite the numbers put up by Charlie Hustle, his legend is sealed by his gambling. And regrettably, Barry Bonds' legend will be forever tied to steroids. And it's a shame too, because he's one of the best to ever swing a stick.

I guess you could file this under Off Topic. But to tie it in, I recommend this book, "The Faith of 50 Million" on baseball and religion and baseball as religion. It's pretty dense as an academic book, and I haven't finished it yet myself, but it really puts into perspective why we'd root against someone like Bonds and for someone like A-Rod. It also puts baseball in a role as a cultural religion with living parables and endless moral lessons. So maybe this isn't as off topic as you'd think.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Week in review: Jl 8-14

Ok, so the week isn't done yet, but tomorrow is my wife's birthday and I plan on spending it on a beach, not blogging here. I hope you forgive me.

First a couple of headlines that are good follow-ups to my last post. A couple of days ago the Pew Research Center released a study showing more working mothers would prefer to work part time so they could be home with their children. The number that would prefer to stay home full-time has stayed pretty much the same. I'm a fan of the part-time option myself. As a personal testimony, my wife, a special education teacher, took a year off after our son was born. A year later, she didn't want to work full time. She changed districts hoping for a part-time opportunity. She had her doubts, I encouraged her to pray about it, and we prayed together. She went in to interview and was told right off that there weren't any part time positions available. Then one of the interviewers said, "wait you said you're special ed?" Then, "whisper, whisper, whisper" to the other interviewers. Then, "we do have this one opportunity if you're interested..." I'm confident God knows what is best for us. We need to trust him for the right opportunity and sometimes that means going out on a limb.

Today, I read that fewer teens are having sex and there are fewer teenage pregnancies. This is credited to safer sex, but that doesn't explain that fewer are having sex to begin with. I think both safe-sex education and abstinence education go hand in hand in this good news. Despite these programs though, we need to remember that the best place for our children to learn about sex is in our homes. And we, as parents, need to be open and frank with risks and consequences as well as realistic with the topic of contraception.

Finally, yesterday's session of the Senate opened in a Hindu prayer and a couple of protesters were thrown out of the gallery. I want to first call attention to a quote from Barry Lynn (Americans United for Separation of Church and State) that the protest, "shows the intolerance of many religious right activists. They say they want more religion in the public square, but it's clear they mean only their religion." I seldom agree with him, but he has a point. The Senate can open up in any prayer they want. What ruffles my feathers is the focus of the prayer, opening, "We meditate on the transcendental glory of the Deity Supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds." I don't mind non-denomonational prayers, Hindu prayers, Muslim prayers, ecumenical prayers, and on and on. But this prayer was instead a proclamation of faith. Very different than something like, "God bless this Senate and the United States of America" which is vague, can apply to any God and/or any faith. It can be argued that Christians can pray publicly in schools or in government if they left out "in Jesus' name we pray, Amen." But to call on a deity, describe him/her, and then ask for him/her to be glorified on the floor of the Senate seemed like nothing more than grandstanding. Contrast this with the memorial for the victims at Virginia Tech. Every minister of every faith called on the name of their own deity, except for the Christian minister. Religious political correctness has neutered even preachers of the Gospel. And that is sad. So instead of protesting a Hindu prayer, we need to more boldly proclaim the Gospel. Instead of being afraid of being politically correct, we need to pray with faith to our God, in the name of Jesus.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do.
Girls become lovers, who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters, too.
-John Mayer, "Daughters"

If you haven't heard, the wife of Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa filed for divorce recently over an affair the mayor has had ongoing with a Telemundo newscaster. This may not sound like news, a politician caught in adultery, after all several of the Republican candidates for president can relate. But one of the local LA papers on Sunday had a very powerful editorial on the consequence this has on his family and how this is a microcosm of a common plight among minority communities. In summary, there are too many youth growing up without fathers. And it's not just minorities either. Even very-white pop-star John Mayer understands the importance of a strong male role model in the family.

Broken homes, absent parents, workaholic parents, and so on create a generation of latch-key kids that are likely to follow the same cycle. Many teenage parents that I know are children of teenage parents. Getting a divorce? Odds are, your parents did too. And that's just in the family. I've added a link in "resources" for Focus on the Family. I didn't want to when I first started this blog because I don't agree with their politics. However, I agree with their message and I understand why they take the political stands they do. Dr. Dobson understands clearly that our current culture is a threat to Christian families. I've read two books of his and they are full of statistics that should scare any parent.

But it's not just a risk to the traditional family structure. It's also a risk to our communities at-large because fatherless boys are more likely to be involved in violent crimes, drop out of school, abuse alcohol or drugs, and just about every other malady you can think of. Why join a gang? To be accepted by older males who act as role models and to have your masculinity affirmed. To do the job of a father. So what are Christian churches to do? Why, loudly proclaim how gay marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage, of course. Wha, huh?

But some churches are beginning to figure it out. The biggest threat to our families and the "sanctity of marriage" is ourselves. Divorce is just as common if not moreso in Christian churches than in the world at-large. Of course adultery, pornography, alcoholism, and drug addiction can be found throughout our congregations if for no better reason than that we are all sinners. But it's too easy to focus on the speck in others' eyes and ignore the plank in our own. Too many churches are afraid to call sin, sin and expect repentance in their congregations. Why you can't have expectations or accountability of your church members, that would make you a cult. But I digress. Like I said, some churches are turning inward to rid themselves of their splinter-filled plank.

In Chicago recently, the National Baptist Convention met and were challenged to "reduce by 25 percent the rate of black divorce, teen pregnancy, illiteracy, murder and HIV infection by 2012." Black churches are leading the charge, and it's about time they do. I'm personally not a fan of segregated congregations. After all, there is neither Greek nor Jew in Christ. But traditional black churches are in a unique position to tackle issues that if someone else, anyone else, were to address they'd be labeled as racist. Other church leaders could learn from this example. In Los Angeles, the ministers and pastors embraced by the local black community are often found in the limelight throwing stones at the police or local politicians but seldom seem to care about the issues within their own walls (First AME Church, I'm looking at you).

I hope and pray this creates ripples in our culture so that we, as Christians, can hold up the value of family and not look like a bunch of hypocrites. That church leaders can expect morality in their congregations without being labelled as legalistic. That a new generation of children can be raised in homes with loving and available parents (note the s) present throughout their lives. Only then can we affect the world around us, with the example of Christ in our homes and with his bride, the Church.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

4th of July, pt 2

After a day celebrating the Fourth at a WWII memorial fundraiser at our local cemetery, watching Transformers, going over to a friend's for swimming and now waiting for the fireworks to follow a Single-A baseball game down the street, I think it's safe to say I've had a full day. And it was much better than the typical "beer, bbq, and blowing things up" that so many associate with this holiday. Actually taking the time to remember what this holiday is for. I wish more would.

So on to part 2. This is what I first prepared for my communion last Sunday. It's incomplete because I changed the theme midstream to what you read in part 1. But it's still worth reflecting on.

Wednesday is the 4th of July. A day to celebrate the birth of our country and the freedoms we have. Most of us have the day off. Many of us have plans we’ve been looking forward to for weeks. This is “the” summer holiday. But it only comes once a year. Once a year to wave a flag, sing the star spangled banner, go to a parade. Do we forget our freedoms the rest of the year? Do we go about our day to day forgetting our freedoms and living like we have none? Living like slaves? Living with the yoke of oppression? Of course not. Our freedoms allow us to live our lives the way we want. For life liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Every day, whether we think about or not, celebrate it or not.

But those freedoms would mean nothing if not for the sacrifice of Jesus. For what good is freedom in the world if we are enslaved to sin? Our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness would be for selfish gain, no matter the cost, no matter who is hurt. Christ died to give us freedom. A different freedom from what we have in this country. A freedom from the shackles of sin, the influence of the world, and eternal condemnation. This is a freedom that I hope we celebrate more than just once a year. This is why we celebrate communion this morning, and continue to do so every week.

But just as with the freedoms we have in this country, when we go about our regular routine, do we give thought to the freedoms we have in Christ? Sadly, many of us do live as though we’re still slaves to our sinful nature, deceived by the world, hopeless of our futures. We carry a weight we don’t need to. We feel like our lives can never change, never get better. The sin we’ve struggled with for as long as we can remember, we face every day. We look around and like David, see wicked men prosper while righteous men are downtrodden. This isn’t the freedom Jesus gave us when he died on the cross. This isn’t how we are supposed to live in Christ. John 10:10 reads, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Also, in Matthew 11 beginning in verse 28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

This is the freedom worth celebrating daily, not reserved for a holiday once a year. Celebrating with transformed lives and renewed hearts, not fireworks and bbq’s. Celebrate the freedom we have in Jesus. Live as we are free. Give thanks to God.

Amen. Happy 4th of July.

4th of July, pt 1

Last Sunday I shared about freedom and what that means to us as Christians during our communion service. I have two versions of what I prepared. I changed it up after talking with one of my friends who was concerned about the lack of "true worship" in our church and reminded me that God freed the Israelites from Egypt specifically so that they could worship him. So freedom and worship go hand in hand. The wheels in my head started turning and out came this: (I'll post my original version later today)

Wednesday is the fourth of July. A day to celebrate the birth of our country and the freedoms we have. But how does that relate to us, this morning, as we’re gathered to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? First of all, we’ve heard from this podium before, in fact I’m sure I’ve even said it myself from up here, that we should be grateful to God that we have the freedom to gather together to worship him without fear of death, injury, or persecution. We are guaranteed the freedom to worship publicly. But we’re also given the freedom to worship as we choose. And that’s a part that I think is often forgotten. If you look at the history of this country many of those who first settled here did so so that they could worship they way they wanted to: Quakers, Puritans, Catholics, and others all came to this land because they were required to worship a certain way where they came from and were persecuted for not doing so. So today we have the freedom to worship however we want to. This freedom enabled the different Great Awakening periods as well as the Restoration Movement that we owe our history to. So without this part of our freedom, we may have been able to worship publicly, but it’s unlikely we’d be worshiping in this church.

But this isn’t a patriotic rant or an historical lesson. I’m here worship our Lord through communion. Remembering the sacrifice of Jesus. And that’s where I want to turn our attention. God has consistently used the freedom of his people for worship. Mishach, Shadrach, and Abendigo were thrown in the fire for not worshiping how they were told. And then saved so that they could freely worship the one true God. The Jews in exile with both Ezra and Nehemiah were freed so that they could worship God in Jerusalem by rebuilding the temple and then rebuilding the wall. And probably most explicitly, God freed the Jews in Egypt so they could worship him freely. In Exodus 7:16, when Moses was confronting Pharaoh, God instructed Moses to say, “The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert.” And that reason did not change as Moses continued to confront him through all the plagues.

It is no different for us today, following Jesus. Jesus died so that we would be freed from the slavery of our sin. But he also died to free us from the religious tradition that ruled his day. Just because our country allows us to worship however we like, doesn’t mean we should. Paul said not to use our freedom as an excuse to indulge in sin. In the same way, we can’t use our freedom to worship as an excuse to make up our own traditions, our own rules, or bind old traditions to others arbitrarily. Please turn to John 4. Starting in verse 19, we read…

19"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."
21Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."
25The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us."
26Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he."

To worship in spirit and in truth. That’s what Jesus died for and what we need to reflect upon when we celebrate our freedom. Are we worshiping in spirit and in truth? With the hundreds of denominations that exist today, I’d argue that we’re not. With the countless traditions, expectations, and doctrines that continue to divide, I’m certain that we’re not. This morning I want to call us to a higher standard, to worship our Lord in Spirit and in Truth.

So I left it hanging. What does it mean to worship in Spirit and Truth? Does it mean ecumenism, seeker-friendly services, Power Point slides, instrumental music or a-capella, emerging churches, speaking in tongues, etc, etc? I'll leave it to you the reader to search this out for yourself. Let me know what you find.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I almost forgot

A couple of posts back I said I was going to give you my reading list to prep for next year's election, so here 'tis. Of course, at some point I need to read the requisite "God's Politics: Why the Right Got it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It" by Jim Wallis, but that seems cliche' to start. Browsing the shelves at my local B&N, I found these: "The Politics of Jesus" by Obery Hendricks (If the title doesn't grab you, then you're reading the wrong blog. But reviews are left leaning and I'm hoping it's even handed.), "Washington's God" by Michael and Jana Novak (Leaning more to the right to balance us out.), "God and Government" by Charles Colson (I admit to being a Chuck Colson fan, after all he's lived all sides of this debate.) and "Finding God at Harvard" by Kelly Monroe Kullberg (This one is more to the overall theme of this blog and less to do with politics, but many of our current political elite come from these "liberal" institutes of higher learning.).

But before I get there, I have some other reading to do. The Religious Right longs for the halcyon days of the '50s when religion was practiced openly, children prayed in school, the Ten Commandments were posted on their walls, and everyone lived a Norman Rockwell perfect life. Well a while back at an antique store I found this magazine:

LIFE Special Issue, dated December, 1955 about Christianity in America. I figure let's go right to the source and see how the past compares to our idealization of it. I'll get to reading that soon and I'll post comments here.

And because yesterday's post probably drove away anyone half interested in this blog, I want to entice you to come back tomorrow when I'll post what I shared for Communion on Sunday related to the 4th of July.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Week in review: Jn 24-30

There's not a whole lot over the past week that I felt strongly compelled to post about. There were a couple of reviews of "Evan Almighty" that I'll expand on once I see the movie. My fear is that either the movie panders too much to the religious crowd or it over the top mocks religion to its face. I'll reserve judgment until I see it. I hope it proves me wrong like its predecessor, "Bruce Almighty" did.

I also have some updating of links I want to do that I'll probably use my day off on the 4th to work on. I'm still learning when it comes to formatting and such and I don't want to make this too busy but at the same time I want certain sites to be a click away whether or not they're specifically relevant to my blog.

The big news of the week was the Supreme Court handing down 5-4 decisions in three cases relevant to our lives as public Christians. One of my roadblocks to blogging regularly is that I want to do enough research on issues that I don't make a complete fool of myself in what I write. The consequence of course, is that by the time I get around to doing that whatever I was going to post about to begin with is old news and there's a new topic worth tackling. That was the case with these decisions. I'm no legal scholar and I wanted to know more than what I was reading in the news. But the more I read the more confused I got and the opinions I was going to post started to change in ways I didn't like. So I'm going to keep it simple, both for your sake and mine.

The first case concerned a student who held a banner reading, "Bong hits 4 Jesus." The argument was that schools are legally drug-free zones and that while students have free speech when it comes to politics or religion, they do not have the right to promote illegal activities. This makes sense as schools are allowed to adjust dress codes to address gang-related fashion for example. A student can't go to school wearing a t-shirt with a gun on it, or with a naked woman. The risk of this decision however, is that it explicitly calls out speech that promotes illegal activities. If you've followed the news the last year or so, there are efforts out there making religious speech, specifically with regard to homosexuality, "hate speech." If these laws were to pass, then this ruling would extend to such speech. Not necessarily a bad thing, because few things make my blood boil more than people who call themselves Christians yet will hold signs saying, "God hates fags." But there are many on the left who feel that any religious expression, especially in a taxpayer-funded school, is illegal and some district-level courts have agreed. If it goes that far then Bible clubs, group prayer outside of the classroom, evens such as "Meet Me at the Pole." could then be curbed at the whim of a particular school's administration. To take this further, this could also then apply to Muslim women wearing head-coverings as another example. I'm not sure I agree with the decision on these grounds. But for now, the Bill of Rights still protects the free expression of religion despite the mythical separation of church and state.

Speaking of the separation of church and state, another decision was 5-4 against an atheist group suing the present administration over advocating faith-based initiatives. I'll concede that President Bush's goal to promote faith-based programs treads a very fine line, but I believe that the intentions are honorable and not a ploy to promote a particular religion. In context, AA was formed with a strong religious foundation and many will drop coins for the Salvation Army bell ringers at Christmas time without considering that the Salvation Army is actually a church denomination. But I digress. The ruling stated that the administration's action did not cause harm to the taxpayer and they had no legal standing to bring the case forward. An example of what this means would be an anti-war group suing the government over defense spending. The reason this particular case got as far as it did was a previous ruling in a case called Flast vs Cohen that made an exception for religious spending. Yet this ruling limited Flast to "earmarks" or spending on specific programs promoting religion. President Bush speaking at a church encouraging applying for federal grants is not an appropriation bill authorizing that x-number of dollars goes to y-specific church. On that, I agree with their ruling. In one of the discussions I read on this case, they worry that the exception I noted differentiating between an appropriation by Congress and an endorsement by the Executive branch sets a dangerous precedent that the Executive branch isn't held to as strict a standard as Congress. To this I disagree (without wholly understanding the opinions by the Justices) because like I said, President Bush (or anyone in his staff) never told Congress to authorize spending on a particular church or even a particular program. If a president wants to speak in a church, it should be his right.

The last ruling involves spending on "issue ads" prior to an election. These are ads that are not sponsored by a particular candidate or party, but rather special interest groups. Therefore they don't explicitly fall under efforts to reform campaign finance. Why this is relevant is the ad in question was by a pro-life group and never said to vote against a particular candidate, but rather called to account his voting record on that subject. Personally, I prefer these ads to the mud slinging candidates throw at each other. I'd rather see an ad describing someones views and voting records rather than something obscure they did 30 years ago. The risk of this decision however is it opens a door for a lot of corruption. What's to define an "issue"? Would the Swift Boat ads count as an "issue ad?" Not to mention the choke-hold special interest groups (the dissenting opinion calls out unions and corporations specifically) have on politics. Since money is spent on these ads, it should be able to be regulated as commerce. If someone wants freedom of speech in campaigning, write a letter to the editor, or an op-ed piece. Or for that matter, start a blog and you'll get lots of attention. (See the recent defeat of anything resembling immigration reform) So I'm on the fence on this one. It will be up to future Courts and future decisions to make this more clear.

So if you're not completely bored by now, let me sum up. We as Christians need to follow what goes on in our government. Not just by our elected officials, but also our courts. We need to be aware of what could infringe on our ability to express our faith publicly. For these three cases, with the same split in the decisions, on the surface it looks like a shift to the right for the Supreme Court. But on closer examination, at least one if not two, of the decisions run the risk of biting the Religious Right in the behind after making such a big deal in the last presidential election over court appointees. I guess it goes to show, be careful what you wish for.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Remember Me?

I’m back! Did you miss me? I have to say thank you to whoever responded to my last post by saying, “DUDE! Update your blog!” I'm glad at least one other person has visited this site. And since I listen to advise, here I am. Eight months later. Can that be right? Wow, I’m lazy! I’ve been struggling with wanting to keep up this blog. Few days go by where I don’t read something in the news, or watch a movie, or talk with someone and think to myself, I need to share this! News that I’ve missed: the passing away of Jerry Falwell and Ruth Graham, President Bush vetoing (again) stem-cell funding, Rev. Al Sharpton showing up on the news just about every day to say something I feel I need to refute, the release of “The Color of the Cross,” and “Jesus Camp,” Veggie Tales editing out religious content for NBC, myself reading two books by Dr. James Dobson and actually agreeing with what he says, and on and on. So I figured instead of trying to rehash all that, I’d start fresh with a mission statement of some sort. Background on why I’m writing what I’m writing. And so on. But then I actually visit my blog to start writing and I read my last entry and realize I already did that. Kinda. It’s incomplete in a lot of ways, but I think that will sort itself out as I post in the future. And don’t worry. I’m typing on a shiny new laptop that I plan to talk to Starbucks frequently to keep this puppy fresh and hip and all that. I might even be ambitious enough to put some videos from YouTube, because that’s what everyone else is doing and that makes it cool! But not today. Today I need to stay on point and chart a direction for the future of this thing called a “blog”. Web-log. I guess it’s better than calling it a “webl”.

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog since the last presidential election when I observed an unhealthy connection between faith and politics. Contrary to a lot of people’s opinions, I didn’t see it in the candidates themselves, but in the talking heads—the newscasters, the commentators, the freelance writers, the talk-show hosts, and on and on. I remember hearing everyone gasp at President Bush when he claimed he believed it was God’s will for him to be president. I have news for you. He won, therefore it was. If you don’t believe me, read Romans. That when asked if he ever went to his father for advice, he answered that there was a higher father he turned to. Wait, he can’t say that! He’s president! OMGICBHJDT! He was held up as everything wrong with religion and politics and the separation of church and state. Because of this, he was asked during one of the last presidential debates what role his faith plays in his life. He answered that he prays every day that he does the right thing, that he trusts that God will get him through hard times, and that he gets encouragement and strength knowing others pray for him. That holy roller! That Bible thumper! How dare he! Then the question was posed to Sen. Kerry. His response? That he believes the Bible spells out how he should live and how that should direct his politics. He then laid out the standard “social Gospel.” No one beat an eye. That’s when I knew something was wrong. What violates the infamous separation of Church and State more, praying every day and trusting God, or getting your politics from the Bible? Yet the line was already drawn. The sides were already chosen. And the public at large were force fed a doctrine inconsistent with both reality and the Bible. And ever since, every politician has tried to capture the “Christian” vote.

So here we, gearing up for ’08 while the talking heads are saying that neither Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, nor John McCain can get the Republican nomination because the “Religious Right” will never back them. Wow, I didn’t realize I had that much power! These talking heads are falling all over themselves for Sen. Fred Thompson, reflected by him shooting up in the polls. So what am I to do? Obviously my mind must already be made up, since that’s who I’m being told is the only candidate that can appeal to me as a Christian. Nope. Not going to buy it. I’m not here to endorse, I’m here to inform. And not only that, but it’s too dog-gone early! So my goal between now and the elections for this blog, is to spell out how I think our convictions as Christians should relate to our politics. How our faith should be lived in the public square in the context of political debate. And maybe drop a book recommendation or two. I’m building up a reading list to prep for the final election. I’ll share that next time. I’m open to recommendations, although Amazon helps. Just type in one of the recent best sellers and I’m told that people who bought this also bought that, that I might also be interested in this, and what other people thought of that book. If I read all those recommendations, I won’t have time to sleep, much less go to work, take care of the family, or do anything fun. So I probably won’t get through everything, especially since I need to balance it with what I’m reading for my own spiritual growth. But hopefully, I won’t run out of things to post and I’ll actually keep up with this blog. Come back again. There should be something new to read.