Sunday, January 25, 2009

Something's Missing

"And I don't know how to fix it" -John Mayer, Something's Missing

Earlier this month, the British Humanist Association launched a campaign with banners on the side of buses saying "There's Probably No God. So Stop Worrying and Enjoy Life" implying that a life of faith can't be enjoyed. The numbers support this I guess. According to the speech kicking off the campaign, polls show 30-40% of people in the UK and 60-65% of youth are "non-religious" again implying that 60-70% of everyone else and 35-40% of their kids must be miserable. Of course that's not their message. Much like the statement in the Washington State capital during Christmas, the message is that it's ok to not be religious.

But it's the implication of a miserable existence for the religious that really gets me. We don't do any favors by projecting an image of super-piety by planting hedges around our convictions. Perhaps you can relate to some of these: no dancing, women can't wear pants and skirts have to be a certain length, rock and roll is from the devil, et cetera, et cetera. My favorite example of this is the character of Ned Flanders in The Simpsons. He's about as religious as anyone can be and while he's far from miserable (okely-dokely!), the lifestyle he portrays is far from attractive to a non-believer. In one episode, he offers the Simpson kids "nachos, Flanders style!" which consist of Ritz crackers, cottage cheese, and a slice of cucumber. He doesn't carry insurance because he considers it a form of gambling.

Is Ned Flanders an accurate depiction of a Christian? In some circles, sadly he is. But I don't think this is what Jesus intended. "I came that they may have life, and have it to the full." (Jn 10:10) Earlier in the Gospel of John we're told this about Jesus, "from the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another." (Jn 1:16) Peter wrote that, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness." (2 Pt 1:3) Psalm 103 reminds us that the LORD "satisfies your desires with good things." (Ps 103:5) The psalmist also tells us that if you "delight yourself in the LORD, he will give you the desires of your heart." (Ps 37:4)

That all sounds nice, but what does it look like in our lives? I believe what Paul wrote of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 describes what this should look like. "[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (Gal 5:22-23) Love, joy peace, patience, kindness... does that sound like a miserable life to you? Isn't this the life that Jesus promised us when he set us free from the slavery of our sinful nature? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. From this list, is there anything missing that you'd want more?

No, if you reject God you can't relax and "enjoy life" because you can't have the above without Him. And without the sacrifice of Jesus as God's only Son, both human and divine, not only can we not have those fruits of the Spirit but we are also destined to a life enslaved to sin. And that is worth worrying about.

Friday, January 23, 2009

High Hopes

'cause he had high hopes, he had high hopes
He had high apple pie, in the sky hopes

All problems just a toy balloon
They'll be bursted soon
They're just bound to go pop
Oops, there goes another problem kerplop

-Frank Sinatra, High Hopes

Did you take Tuesday off or skip away to a TV to watch the inauguration? My local paper was filled with stories of people gathering in homes, barbershops, and churches to watch this historical event. Many were described to be in tears. There was even an interview with the granddaughter of a former slave about how she thought she'd never see this day.

The significance of this new administration with regards to our racist past, America's melting-pot multiculturalism, and the saying that anyone in this country could become president finally being proven true is valid and worth reflecting upon. But there was another reason so many were tuned in Tuesday- an end to the policies of the past eight years in the face of global crises we face. Barak Obama was elected on a platform of change. His biggest supporters spoke frequently of hope. So with this new administration, expectations are high as crises abound. He faces war, a collapsing economy, a divided electorate, and an incompetent legislature. It may be too much for one man, let alone two terms.

Deep down in our hearts, we all want to change the world for the better (or to better us). President Obama is no different. But we must be cautious of too much hope. After all, ‘hope springs eternal in the human breast. Man never is, but always to be blessed.’ The first part is quoted often and gives a sense of warm-fuzzies. But when you include the second sentence the poem takes on a different meaning. We always hope because we never ever can get what it is we’re hoping for. Change? Keep hoping. The political establishment is well defined, there will always be wars over land, resources and power, there will always be someone in need, and people will never agree on everything.

It helps to have hope aimed in the right direction. "In his name the nations will put their hope." (Mt 12:21) "And again, Isaiah says, 'The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; the Gentiles will hope in him.'" (Rom 15:12) Jesus is our hope and our salvation. Everything here is just a mist.

To keep things in perspective consider:

The poor you will always have with you... (Mt 26:11)
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed... (Mk 13:7)
My kingdom in not of this world... (Jn 18:36)

Are you optimistic about this new administration? Elated, encouraged or excited? Or are you skeptical? Discouraged, disgruntled, or disappointed? Whichever side of the isle you’re on, whatever color your state, whatever direction your political winds blow remember the words of Jesus above. Obama is only a person with a title, in a position created by people as flawed as we are. Our hope is in Christ alone.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

Today is a momentous event, the United States of America is swearing in its first Black president. I'm not going to get all political, pro or con, nor am I going to drone on about history changing and the world suddenly becoming a better place. I was going to try and dissect Obama's choice of preachers to give invocations and lead prayer services. I was going to try and read too much into his choice of Rick Warren. While I think he's more marketable than inspiring, I don't feel as negatively as some towards him. I was even thinking of debating if the oath of office, on a Bible, closing with 'so help me God' violates the separation of church and state.

But I won't. I'll leave that to the talking heads linked above. Instead I encourage you to just sit back and enjoy the moment. I will be.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Spirit of MLK

I've asked before where is our modern-day Martin Luther King and heard crickets in response. While hope in a presidential candidate for change brought out the likes of Rev Wright, a preacher in the mold of MLK, but lacking the spirit of humility. I've heard a good description of Rev. King- that he held the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other, respecting the Separation of Church and State but more so respecting the call of God and His sovereignty over any nation or government. His cause was a social justice, rooted in scriptural morals. His struggle was not only against flesh and blood, but also against the rulers of the day. In order to bring about moral change in society, he had to take on the laws that ruled that society.

So here we are today, with lines boldly drawn along the moral/cultural divide, with entire denominations picking sides based on politics rather than the word of God. Today, religious leaders are less likely to preach with the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other and more likely to hold member rolls in one with political contributions in the other. So I do not depend on religious "leaders" to rise up in the spirit of Martin Luther King. Instead, I rely on the lay-person, the congregant, the Public Christian to boldly proclaim the Word of God in the face of moral decay in our society.

Right now I'm reading about Gabriel's visit to Mary to tell her she was going to give birth to the Son of God. I think of all that could have gone wrong for her by saying yes. Not only would she have a child out of wedlock, but she would claim that that child was the long-awaited Messiah. Imagine the ridicule, the rejection, the suffering she could face. She could be outcast from society, rejected by her fiance, called "crazy" by the religious leaders. There were a lot of reasons to say no, but one large reason to say yes. It was the will of God.

What do we face for speaking out in the name of Jesus? Ridicule, rejection, suffering? Do you risk rejection for society, family, and even your religion for "speaking the truth in love?" If not, then you're not a Public Christian but likely a Sunday-pew-filler. I'm not going to say what issues we need to be speaking out on, or what institutions we need to face up against. There are plenty, and too many regrettably have been hijacked for the sake of politics. But what about closer to home? Is there a false doctrine being preached in your church that you're too afraid to speak up about? Is there a local need that you have a vision to minister to but are uncertain how? Is there a neighbor or co-worker that you know has a spiritual need that only you can meet? If so, answer like Mary and say, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." (Luke 1:38)

I leave you with some excerpts from Martin Luther King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963:

So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?..

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

God and Sports: Are winners more blessed?

I'm a total sports nut, and I've had draft after draft of blog posts dedicated to this subject, but I never seem to get around to posting them. Well, here's my overdue post on the role of God in sports, motivated courtesy of Mark Kriegel and Foxsports. (My friend Krazywakfunky just pm'ed me that Jime Rome and Dan Patrick also talked about this on their radio programs this week)

This is a hot topic right now because of the building media hype leading up to the Super Bowl, magnified by Tony Dungy's retirement and Tim Tebow winning yet another BC$ Championship. If you're not as much of a nerd as me, let me give you a quick rundown. Kurt Warner, the blue-collar come-from-nowhere Super Bowl Champion quarterback is back with a new team and another shot at glory. He isn't shy about the role his faith has played in motivating him through tough times, of which he's had many. Tony Dungy is retiring from coaching the Indianapolis Colts, whom he led to the 2007 Super Bowl. A well-respected and regarded coach with high expectations, he too would give credit where credit was due and was criticized following his Super Bowl win by boasting that he and his opposing coach, Lovie Smith, were the first to "d0 it the right way" supposedly by not cussing and being religious, implying that the other 30 coaches in the NFL do it the wrong way. (This is not meant as a knock on Dungy at all, just the way the media responded. In fact, I have a great deal of respect for him and would cheer for the Colts because of him. He is definitely a fine example to follow as summarized in this article from the Praying Fields at OnFaith.) Finally, Tim Tebow is a a phenom-quarterback at the University of Florida who not only thanks God for his accomplishments (only a couple of championships and Heisman trophies but who's counting?), but even goes on mission trips.

Of course it's no surprise that these outward displays of faith make others like Kriegel uncomfortable. If God has no place in our government or our public square, then certainly God has no place in sports, right? Faith is even harder to reconcile in sports, where there is a clear winner and loser. Who's to say God favored one over the other? Does God really care who wins a championship? (If he did, the Cubs would've won it all last year, but I digress) Some denominations recognize this and even go so far as prohibiting sports because not only does competition bring out the worst of us (just go watch your church's local softball team) but it also puts God in a box, forcing Him to choose a favorite. Of course, the Bible tells us over and over that God doesn't play favorites, so this would be a sin on our part.

The rivalry game between the University of Utah and BYU is called the Holy War (really, only recently so when both teams have been good enough to generate national attention). Does God really care who wins that game? What if Baylor (a Baptist school) plays Notre Dame? Does God care if the baseball player that crosses himself before his at bat strikes out or hits a home run?

Of course, most Christians in sports treat this humbly by crediting God for their talents and their health. They don't pray to win, they pray to glorify God and for there to be no injuries. It's usually the fans (and some knucklehead players with misinformed theology, see below) who take it overboard. But even crediting God for talents and opportunities makes others uncomfortable. Look no further than critics of President Bush who never did understand what he meant when he claimed that he believed God chose him to be president. This wasn't a boast, but a humble reference to Romans 13:1. We can joke that Obama is the 'chosen one' but again, referencing Romans and conceding that God has a hand in all things, he really is. But then we're back to the problem with sports- was Florida 'chosen'? If so, where's free will?

So there's a danger in all of this. There's no problem with thanking God, for that's what the Bible commands us to do "in everything" (Phil 4:6) and "in all circumstances" (1 Thes 5:18). But we need to draw a line between divine providence (opportunity and talent) and divine intervention. This is where some fans and athletes cross the line. I mentioned BYU earlier and I'm not shy in saying that I absolutely hate them. But last year, there was a "miracle catch" to beat Utah as time expired and later a "miracle block" to beat UCLA in their bowl game. Their receiver, after this miracle catch was quoted as saying, "Obviously, if you do what's right on and off the field, I think the Lord steps in and plays a part in it. Magic happens." But what about the thugs and cheats that permeate professional sports who are successful? See where this theology leads? (this is also a problem with Prosperity Doctrine, but that's another post for another day)

This isn't a new problem. Look at how David lamented on the success of the wicked in the Psalms. Solomon did the same in Ecclesiastes. Or even the apostles who wondered why a man was born blind. Righteous living does not equate success in this life despite what our favorite athletes might say. We need to look no further than Jesus' reply to reconcile our faith with prosperity, or in our case victory: "[T]his happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." (John 9:3)

The "his" above could be "us" or "them" with regards to our own success or that of our favorite (or least favorite even) team. Give God the glory. Give him thanks. And humbly recognize that whether you win or lose, God is in control.

(For entertainment, check out this article from a year ago that gives a list of sports colliding with faith. See if you can tell the difference between most of the quotes- the most obvious exception being the boxer- and what the BYU player said.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In Memorium: Father Neuhaus

I should do a better job keeping up on headlines, though I'm surprised this didn't turn up as I browsed my typical blog roll. But Father Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things, author, spiritual advisor to the President, and possibly one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the last century passed away January 8 at the full age of 72.

I regret to know little about him other than reputation. I also regret that I never did add First Things to my links, though I often meant to. Father Neuhaus was always good for a quote, and the Christian blogosphere could count on his wisdom on social and political issues. The obituary in Newsweek gives a better description than I ever could. In fact, I pray that some of the same can be said of me when I shuffle off this mortal coil.

But in the spirit of this blog, I want to pull some quotes from the article that we all can and should apply to our lives as Public Christians.

To begin with, he was a thoroughgoing Christian radical, meaning that he believed that the truth of Christian faith was not just truth-for-Christians, but the truth of the world, period. As with his hero, John Paul II (and contrary to the conventional wisdom on "tolerance"), that conviction opened him up to serious conversation with others, rather than shutting down the argument. Yet his basic theological and philosophical convictions, and the intellectual sophistication he brought to their defense, had resonances far beyond the boundaries of the religious world...

Neuhaus's position was that the two pieces of the First Amendment's provisions on religious freedom were in fact one "religion clause," in which "no establishment" of religion served the "free exercise" of religion. There was to be no established national church, precisely in order to create the free space for the robust exchange of religious ideas and the free expression of religious practices. In making this case, Neuhaus changed the terms of the contemporary American church-state debate, arguing that the Supreme Court had been getting things wrong for more than half a century by pitting "no establishment" against "free exercise," with the latter increasingly being forced into the constitutional back seat...

Neuhaus's convictions about the meaning of religious freedom in America also reflected his consistent defense of popular piety and the religious sensibilities of those whom others might consider "simple" or "uninformed." If 90 percent of the American people professed belief in the God of the Bible, he argued, then there was something profoundly undemocratic about denying those people—a super-majority if ever there was one—the right to bring the sources of their deepest moral convictions into public debate, even if they sometimes did so in clumsy ways...

[T]hese Big Ideas... intersected in what Richard Neuhaus, public intellectual, thought of as his life's project: the creation of a "religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty," as he frequently put it. (emphasis mine)

I couldn't think of a better description or better example of Public Christianity in America today. But his theology wasn't half-bad either. I'll close with this quote, from his book Death on a Friday Afternoon (courtesy of internet monk).

When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers throughout my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of justification by faith alone,” although I will thank God that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misunderstood formulation was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways—these and all other gifts I have received I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone.

Then I hope to hear him say, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” as I hope with all my being—because, although looking to him alone, I am not alone—he will say to all.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Simple Faith

I was listening to Mighty to Save recently (I'm repenting of my prejudice against Christian music) and a line jumped out at me and I've been thinking of it ever since. The bridge, "Shine your light and, let the whole world see. We're singing, for the Glory, of the risen King." The risen King. It's too early for Easter (I still have my Christmas lights up outside), but that truth resonates with me. It reminds me of a time of simpler faith, when the image of "the risen King" was inspiring instead of cynical.

We will sometimes talk about how our Jesus isn't the Jesus in Sunday school pictures- handsome, surrounded by children, holding a lamb. Instead, our Jesus challenged authority, was rugged, wasn't afraid to call someone out on their sin. But both can be true. That's what's so amazing about Jesus, he is a theological and philosophical paradox- God and man, fierce and gentle, loved and feared. And the image of the risen King is the same- how could the ruler of the coming kingdom be victorious in a brutal public death?

When I heard this line I thought of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The king who was slain in order to save his people. To me, that's a childish image. But it shouldn't be. Jesus is my king, and there's nothing childish about that. It's encouraging to know that the King of the Universe cares enough about little ole me to save me and give me a seat next to him in his kingdom.

But while this line inspired me, I was saddened by how cynical my faith has become. Maybe I'm too logical? If you've read more than one of my posts, maybe you've come to the same conclusion. Instead, I should be more like Jesus himself instructed:

"I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 18:3-4)

So this has inspired me to simplify my faith and get back to the basics. Jesus is Lord. So who is Jesus? I plan on starting the year digging deep into Jesus' life, and instead of trying to overthink everything and come up with some deep theology, reflect instead of his life and how he saved mine. Corny? Maybe. But sometimes we need a simple faith.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Culture War Never Ends

I didn't get as far as I wanted with my 'Culture War' posts. There are still a lot of topics still to be covered, but instead of regurgitating a stream of posts in a mad dash to meet a deadline I'll post those when I get the chance. I'm going to start using labels for my posts too, so topics can easily be found.

That said, the Culture War isn't over just because Christmas is. Sure, there were the typical battles over public Nativity scenes, vandalized decorations, and so on. In the Washington State Capitol, for example, atheists placed a proclamation against organized religion and belief in God in general next to their Nativity. What rubs me wrong the most, is how the atheist argument relies on belittling the religious by claiming that “reason” comes to the conclusion that there is no God. In other words, faith in God is unreasonable. But I prefer this instead, “A fool says in his heart, 'there is no God'” (Psalm 14:1)

That argument is repeated in a series of billboards that are beginning to spring up, intentionally coinciding with the holidays.
But like I said, just because Christmas is over doesn't mean that the Culture War is over. Michael Newdow (you might remember him for suing to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance) is suing over the oath to be taken by President-elect Barak Obama, which will be taken with a Bible closing with the words "so help me God". This is his third lawsuit over the presidential inauguration so the lawsuit isn't taken very seriously. Neither the ACLU nor the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ, known from the radio show Jay Sekulow Live) make any mention of this suit on their home pages (follow the links on the right).
What's interesting though, is the motivation for the suit. As quoted from the article:
Newdow and other plaintiffs say they want to watch the inaugural either in person or on television. As atheists, they contend, having to watch a ceremony with religious components will make them feel excluded and stigmatized.

"Plaintiffs are placed in the untenable position of having to choose between not watching the presidential inauguration or being forced to countenance endorsements of purely religious notions that they expressly deny," according to the lawsuit.
I'm a recovering addict, so should I sue the Super Bowl for their Budweiser ads because I feel stigmatized? Or as a Christian, don't I feel excluded by most television programming that espouses worldly values contrary to my own? Should I sue NBC or the FCC?
It was debated after Obama's victory whether that would embolden the far-left. I don't think that's necessarily the case. The past administration has done plenty to invigorate that base. But there is in increasing hostility towards religion that if it continues unchecked, could result in our own rights being curbed for the sake of Political Correctness.