Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Wages of Sin

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

Tomorrow the largest federal tobacco tax increase in history takes effect as the tax on a pack of cigarettes goes from $0.39 to $1.01. This "sin tax" is expected to raise $33 billion towards health care expansion for children. This continues a trend to tax specific products to pay for social programs. Even the state of Nevada was considering taxing prostitution to make up for shortfalls in their budget.

There are three choices to politically curb social vices, legislate/regulate, tax, or use the bully pulpit as a platform for change. Social conservatives have traditionally taken the legislate/regulate route, while taxing is more palatable to social liberals. Sadly, we rarely see anyone use their political power to address vices. Nancy Reagan's campaign to "just say no" is the most obvious, and maybe even the most recent, that I can think of (up until only recently, following the over-hyped "value voter", other issues such as health care, immigration, and so forth have seldom been approached as social ills).

The irony of course, is that while so many cry foul whenever someone tries to pass legislation to curb something like abortion which infringes on a woman's right to choose, few voices are heard when something like cigarettes are excessively taxed. And unless I've missed it, people still have the right to "choose" whether or not to smoke. You could argue that these aren't morally equivalent, but we're not talking morals here- we're talking legal rights.

Not that it matters anyway. Every vice could be taxed to the point of being prohibitively expensive, regulated far beyond mere inconvenience, and outlawed with the strictest penalties and people would still choose to indulge in their favorite sin. It is, after all, in our nature. The only way to effectively curb a social vice is to address it on moral grounds. That cannot be done from the ballot box, but from the pew; not during an election cycle, but every day; not from an elected leader, but from our own Christian example.

Of course we all know the real "sin tax" is the eternal penalty to be paid for our sins. Thanks be to God for our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who paid that tax in advance for us.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sell Out

One of the “tests of fellowship” my sisterhood of churches was infamous for was the call to be “sold out disciples” of Christ. As part of multiple lukewarm campus ministries over the years that sales pitch worked on me. While there is nothing wrong with that call in and of itself, that expectation unfortunately opened the fellowship up to all sorts of abuses. Part of the problem has been some just don't get it. If they're not being told how to be "sold out" they won't be. While there have been many efforts to change parts of that old culture over the past few years I’ve noticed the cost has been “sold outedness”. Brothers and sisters just don’t seem to be motivated to serve and follow Jesus because no one is explicitly telling them to be. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not universal, but is prevalent enough to be noticeable.

I do believe there is a Biblical call to be sold out in our faith. Romans 12 reads, "Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord." (Rom 12:11) At the same time, we can’t be zealous for zealous’ sake. Paul writes to the Galations, "Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It's fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good." (Gal 4:17-18) And Proverbs 19:2 reads, "It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way." That’s what I think hurt our churches in the past- too many were zealous more for their leaders, the latest evangelism drive, etc and not for zealous for Jesus.

I also think this is part of the problem in the American Christian Church (TM). Many are happy to be Sunday morning Christians, give their tithe (sometimes), and be on their way. For many, living as a disciple of Jesus means having a particular political persuasion rather than daily taking up their cross. Or they're proud to be a member of some megachurch led by a best-selling author.

So we could all use a little wake up call. I mentioned before that some just don't get it. Praise God though, some do. Thanks to Jessie at Surrender All and Marcus at Transplant Ministries for bringing these videos to my attention.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

What am I doing here?

Someone posted this on the bulletin board at work and I got a good laugh. It pretty well sums up my efforts at blogging. So why do I do it?

I hinted in my last post, that I relate to David when facing Goliath. He wasn't motivated by the battle (though I have to fight that in my own pride), but he was motivated because Goliath mocked his God. "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" (1 Sam 17:26) I feel like our culture, in the name of political correctness and tolerance, is defying the armies of the living God- his Kingdom on Earth, also known as his Church. Like David asking who will stand against this, I look at American Christianity (TM) and ask the same. But our watered down church has let the world creep in and manipulate the Gospel while our mouths have been shut to preaching the Truth.

I also feel like Jeremiah who said, "his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot." (Jer 20:9) I feel like I have something to say, and I trust that the Spirit is leading me. In fact, that's why I'll go a while without posting- it's not that there isn't anything to blog about, but my spirit doesn't feel moved to do so. I might be the only person who cares what I think, but I cannot "hold it in."

I have to fight my own pride, thinking that I have some special insight. But I do want to share what's on my heart and I don't want to do it for my own benefit. That's why I try to approach this like a ministry with various links (because it isn't all about me) and try to include a scripture with every post (because again, it isn't all about me).

If you're a regular visitor, thank you. If you found this by Googling "nbc kings review," please come back for more.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review of NBC Kings

So I caught the debut of NBC’s Kings last night (A day late and dollar short, but that’s the price of not having cable) and was very impressed. I was sold right out of the gate when King Silas went ahead with his dedication of the new capitol without waiting for his spiritual advisor, the Reverend Samuels in a direct parallel to 1 Samuel 13. Relevant gives a good overview and a couple worthwhile reviews can be found at Hollywood Jesus (gotta pimp my links on the right) and All I Have to Give (new blog I found- very appropriate name).

I wasn’t too put off with the creative license taken with many of the Biblical references: Samuels anointing David by wiping grease off his forehead, Goliath being a tank, and David skillfully playing the piano were the obvious ones. I would’ve liked other subtle references like when David was asked what his mom thought of his service answering along the lines of, “she thinks I’m too small” instead of referencing his fallen father. And I wish he would’ve taken out the tank with some stones instead of a hand grenade, but I’ll take it.

What I didn’t like however was the blatant Social Gospel being preached- painting Silas as a king who feels blessed by God because of the strength of his military-industrial complex at the expense of health care. Though David did get in trouble in the Bible for counting his troops, and Saul was ultimately done in by going to battle without first consulting God. And war is unpleasantly central in the books spanning Judges to 2 Chronicles, so I probably shouldn’t read too much into that. Another pet peeve was Jack’s (the show’s version of Jonathan) homosexuality. Actually, I missed it at first because I was busy cooking dinner and had to rewind. I wish the writers hadn’t gone there, but it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t subject. Either you offend the gay-rights community by removing one of their lynchpin arguments that the Bible doesn’t universally condemn homosexuality, or you offend religious conservatives who look at David and Jonathan’s relationship as purely plutonic. It will be interesting to see if a love triangle develops, but it didn’t appear that David swung that way.

Another pet peeve, that Eric Pasco at All I Have to Give rightly points out, is the absence of God in the story. He’s acknowledged, but nowhere do you get the sense that David is a “man after God’s own heart”. In fact, Samuels seems to anoint him because he’s a nice guy, which would go along with our modern-day watered-down religion. There’s also no motive for taking out Goliath, other than to save the hostages. In the Biblical story, David is motivated by the Philistine’s continued mocking of the God of Israel. That’s always been a rallying point for my faith, and a large motivator for this blog. Hopefully we’ll see more of this develop as the show continues.

I loved Silas’ glare as it became clear David was the Lord’s anointed and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here. While it will no doubt appear as a satire on our country’s politics, interviews with the writer seem to say otherwise. Although I don’t think it’s wrong to look at it that way, after all religion has been used lately to both justify war and to justify social programs in this country. And it’s worth it to look back at the Old Testament to see the inherent socio-political dangers of a theocracy.

Sadly, as much as I loved this premiere, not many tuned in to see it. I think the subtle Biblical references (or easter eggs for us religious fanboys) would be lost on the casual viewer, so it would seem the story has a limited audience. I hope that’s not the case as the writer certainly has a grand vision. I’m praying the show continues despite that “talking about God isn’t popular these days.”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Beyond Belief

It's my favorite time of year! March Madness is heating up. It's Spring Training, which means Opening Day is right around the corner. And this year we're getting an added bonus with the World Baseball Classic. How 'bout those Dutch!

Anyway, I'm way behind in my posting (I have a draft about the nature of "church" that's three weeks old) but I can easily talk about baseball as a filler. Every season I find a baseball-related book to read during the season (ok, I've really only done that a couple of times, but I want it to become a tradition). Last season was Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy about the 1908 season, arguably the best season in the history of baseball. I also posted last season a list of books I want to get to. But I just got my monthly Family Christian catalogue and saw this book about Josh Hamilton.

If you haven't heard of him, he's a phenom for the Texas Rangers who had an incredible season last year and lit up the Home Run Derby. What's so special about that, you ask? Well I said he's a phenom, but he's not young. In fact he's soon to be 28 (middle aged in baseball years). What took him so long to get to The Show was a complete derailment of his life by his addiction to drugs and his subsequent redemption through his faith in Jesus Christ. Given that background, as soon as I saw this it moved right to the top of my must read list. I love this kid and cheer hard for him. Sorry Free Byrd, but you're going to have to wait until next season.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Signs of the Times

"You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times." (Mt 16:3)

It's been a while since I've hit the topic of politics. I've been trying to give our new administration the benefit of the doubt as they are getting settled. But the news yesterday moves me to post my thoughts and feelings. First up was President Obama's presidential order overturning former President Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. This is a divisive issue, even among Christians as this article notes. Despite your theological position on when life begins, this debate is senseless and frustrating. On the one hand it could be argued that the embryos would be destroyed anyway, while on the other hand one could point towards the many advances made without using embryonic stem cells (off the top of my head, I think of the case of growing a jaw bone and stem cells from skin that mimic embryonic cells). Moreso, you could express frustration that one of the pioneers in the field of embryonic stem cell research was a fraud, or that California passed a $3 billion bond for stem cell research helping to precipitate the financial crisis we presently find ourselves in. With those thoughts in mind, this recent move by the President seems nothing more than grandstanding.

Meanwhile, the President is also planning to rescind the previous administration's "conscience clause" which allows doctors, nurses or pharmacists to choose not to participate in procedures that violate their conscience. While this sounds reasonable, this clause has been used as a straw man for everything wrong with the "theocracy" of the Bush Administration. But it just reinforces existing law granting "reasonable accommodation" in the workplace. (This is the law that keeps you from firing someone practicing Islam, for taking breaks during the day to pray towards Mecca.) The intent however, was to solidify that protection with regards to medical procedures. An example of its impact would be a pro-life ultrasound technician being called to assist in an abortion. And it's not as if this would deny anyone the care they're seeking, just that that person would have to receive it from someone else. I don't buy the severity of the examples cited in the linked article above. You can always go to another pharmacy, and there's usually more than one doctor in a hospital. Again, this just appears to be the President playing to the extremes in his base.

I was hoping this president, who ran on the platform of "Change You can Believe In", who claimed to usher in a new era of politics in Washington, is playing politics as usual. There's a consequence, of course. Drawing battle lines on issues sure to divide people on the basis of their religious convictions is asking for trouble (and to be fair, the previous administration was guilty of this as well); it forces people to take a side and not seek a middle ground. That then, usually extends to churches and religious leaders who love to hear themselves talk about the eroding morals of our society. And the layperson is caught in the middle, politics or religion? And with the recent history of how well the Religious Right has fought these battles in recent years, many are turned off of religion all together.

So despite the state of the economy, it's not much of a surprise to see that fewer and fewer are considering themselves religious and that more and more prescribe to no faith in particular. What is sad is that the oft-quoted stat of 85% of Americans who call themselves Christians has dropped to 76%. Have that many turned away from Christ for the sake of politics? I pray not, but the possibility breaks my heart.

This news, this early in the new administration, doesn't fill me with hope. In fact, I don't see the next four years going particularly well for the faithful. It will be that much harder to practice our faith in public, and that much more offensive to proclaim that faith to the non believer.

I didn't read the fine print on the stats above. Apparently although the total number of Christians as a percentage as decreased, the numbers in fundamentalist and evangelical churches have increased. Which I think solidifies my point- this ongoing culture war is either driving a wedge between people and faith or is driving them to the extreme fringes within their faith.

*** update 2***
Here is a very good article from Slate that demonstrates how hard it is to maintain consistency in the pro-life debate. You may not agree with the premise of the argument, but it highlights the validity of the Catholic Church's 'Culture of Life' that is not limited to abortion, but extends to aging, the death penalty, and war.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

I Had a Dream

No, I’m not invoking the great MLK, I literally had a dream last night that I want to share. In the spirit of the Jenkens Lesson, and fueled by my addiction to Lost

A man (John Locke in my dream) dies and finds himself in a subterranean cavern filled with unrecognizable creatures. He is told these creatures are God’s creation (yes, my dream had a narrative) but God was displeased with them. They were all too selfish and never learned to get along with one another. To demonstrate the point, the man is shown a hole in the ceiling of the cavern that leads to Paradise, but is too high for any one man to reach. “See,” the narrator says to the man, “these creatures had every opportunity to leave Hades, but they would not help each other escape. Look,” as the man is directed towards two humans, “here are creatures that understand what it means to love their neighbor.” And the man watches as one person lifts the other up to the hole, into Paradise.

“But there is a flaw in this plan; one person is always left behind,” observed the man. “That is correct,” replied the narrator. “That is why God sent his only son to die. Jesus had to die in order to come here. He is the only one who can leave this place under his own power. And The Christ is the one who lifts us all up to Paradise so that no one is left behind.”

And then I awoke.

Maybe subconsciously I was looking forward to tonight’s episode of Lost and pondering Locke’s fate- falling down into a cavern in order to leave the Island (Hades, or Paradise?), dying, and resurrecting back on the Island- and recognizing the recent religious references (Thomas the doubter, 316, the church being the only place that can find Paradise). Or maybe this was more divinely inspired? I’ll take the latter.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Then again,

it’s easy to indulge in sin when no one else is looking. We can put on our ‘Sunday’s Best’ and smile in the pew and say “Amen” and later retreat to our homes that we can’t really afford and turn on our television bought on credit or log in online and enjoy the limitless supply of filth anonymously, with no accountability. So what’s to stop us from watching what I described before?

I said, “If we’re going to keep calling ourselves a ‘Christian nation’ we need to start acting like it.” I guess the same thing can be said for a ‘Christian state’. I have a lot of respect for the Mormon religion when it comes to their emphasis on family, despite having zero respect for their doctrine. And despite my joy at taking jabs at the state of Utah, this news shocked me. Actually, no it didn’t. Hotel PPV of pornography is one of the largest segments in that economy, and that’s largely due to the Marriott franchise of hotels. But to see that Utah has the highest per capita online porn subscribership, for such an upright (uptight?) culture, really did come as a surprise.

What’s sad though is how the study tried to paint the issue red and blue as if politics has anything to do with pornography. If you look at the graphic both the top 10 and bottom 10 are pretty evenly split between red and blue states. Even the argument of “the scarcity of adult entertainment outside the home” doesn’t hold water when you see Hawaii and Florida also in the top 10 while Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are on the bottom. You can tell the authors of the study are trying really hard to make this a political and religious issue, given the overwhelming support for California’s Proposition 8 out of Utah and the Mormon Church.

I guess no religion is immune from hypocrisy. So while I’m raging against our choice in television shows, it’s only fair to also rage against our choice of Internet browsing. Glad you’re online and that you’re here, but exercise caution with where you go from here.

"And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell" (Mark 9:47)

Won't Somebody Think of the Children!

"It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin." (Luke 17:2)

We are a country of voyeurs, unable to keep from rubber-necking at the latest train wreck. I really try to avoid such headlines, but I am embarrassed to admit I’m a sucker for celebrity gossip, especially given that gossip is a sin. But my personal voyeurism isn’t (usually) a self-righteous schadenfreude, but rather cause for inner reflection and prayer about the sad state of our culture and our American Idol worship. I feel for those caught up in the frenzy of the paparazzi and the sacrifice of personal privacy. I especially feel for innocent bystanders, the families and friends of said celebrity. But honestly some just bring it on themselves.

Take Nadya Suleman, shamefully dubbed by the media as “octomom”. On the one hand, she brought this on herself, but on the other, our culture encouraged it with shows like John and Kate Plus 8 and the altar of Oprah’s couch. The latest I hear is an offer to star in a porn movie. Yeah, that’s dignified and respectful. Thankfully she quickly declined. Newsweek has a good piece on why we care so much and why we should be ashamed of it.

Ironically, from there I clicked a link about the aftermath of The Bachelor, a show I wanted to publicly decry as soon as I heard the premise for this latest season- the bachelor is a single dad. Nothing like hawking your children for fame and fortune. Surprisingly, the bachelor dumped his fiance and went with the runner-up. Actually, it’s not that surprising, I think only one of the bachelors have actually married (or has stayed married) to his televised choice. To quote the article, “his relationship… took a turn for the worse when production ended and they returned to reality. He said the chemistry was off…” Go figure. Sadly, this season’s finale was the highest rated program of the night and highest rated Bachelor finale since 2003. I sure didn’t watch, did you?

Regrettably, the victims in both of these cases are the children. It’s one thing to be the child of a celebrity, but when that celebrity is a function of your very existence… well, you end up like Paris Hilton. I pray that’s not the case and I pray that these children can somehow grow up in a functional home, free from our prying eyes. But this brand of “entertainment” needs to stop. If we’re going to keep calling ourselves a ‘Christian nation’ we need to start acting like it.