Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lunatic Fringe

A couple of weeks ago, Glenn Beck made a splash stating "social justice" is a codeword for communism and Nazism. While his words generated a flurry of responses from Christians, he was going somewhere with his train of thought even if it wasn't articulated well. On the left extreme of the political spectrum is communism, where the government controls most everything. On the right extreme of the political spectrum is anarchism, where the government has no control. Interestingly, Nazism is towards the far right extreme, so Mr. Beck was self-contradictory. Obviously, most people fall somewhere in between.

Churches follow the same pattern. Many churches on the extreme of the Social Gospel feel it is the government's responsibility to take care of the "alien, widow and orphan." While most who subscribe to the Social Gospel stress that individuals and churches are responsible for this, falling left of center, but far from the extreme Glenn Beck describes. On the other side are anarchists, racists, and "Christian militias" like the one that made headlines yesterday.

The Muslim community is often criticised for not speaking out against radical Islam and terrorism. I would appreciate if Mr. Beck aimed his critical eye at radical Christianity also. Just like the argument that radical Islam does not represent the Muslim faith, Christian militias also do not represent the teachings of Christ.

The reality, which isn't as attention grabbing as Glenn Beck's comments, is that most churches are in between. We don't get headlines for serving the poor, or leading others to Christ. Yet we are tempted to lean on our government to make the social changes we cannot (abortion, gay-marriage) instead of leaning on Christ and seeking his will. We'll never get headlines that way, but I'd rather shine the light of Jesus to those immediately around me than bury that light by making the news doing something foolish.

"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3:1-3)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fast

I fasted yesterday. I don’t say that to boast, but rather to note that I don’t do it often. Maybe not often enough. But yesterday was too important not to. Some friends of ours had a court date over the custody of their adopted nine month-old daughter.

Since she was only two days old, this couple with two older boys, also adopted, has been the only family she’s known. Her birth mother had no objection to giving her up for adoption (having lost custody before to other children). And the birth father was unaware the mother was even pregnant. But that was then. Once the father did find out, he wanted to be involved, and has been fighting ever since. I don’t know anything about either parent other than that. But I do know the family that is on the verge of being ripped apart.

There’s nothing special about this court date. They’ve had others and they’ll likely have more. But our friends are tired. The weight of legal fees is multiplied by the economy reducing his hours and cutting her job. Tuesday they put their house on the market, unable to bear that additional weight. So my wife and I fasted yesterday. Only God knows what is best for this precious girl. But the prayer is for this just to be over.

My wife and I are especially sensitive to this. Both of us were adopted. Both under very different circumstances. In addition to these friends of ours, other couples we’re close to have adopted from China and have even adopted embryos. One of our good friends is a social worker for the Department of Child and Family Services. My wife teaches half-time in an “alternative” school, a PC way of saying her school is one step away from Juvie. She teaches the other half at an “urban” school (inner-city wouldn’t accurately describe it because of geography, but urban certainly describes its demographics) that will permanently close its doors at the end of the school year. So you might say we’re on the front lines of this battle for the health and welfare of these children.

It is the children who are at stake. I pray this baby girl has no recollection of this tug-of-war ever happening. I pray she never has to know. But I also pray that the bonding that has happened over the past year, that is so important developmentally, is not all for naught.

It is the children who are at stake. Tuesday I wrote about the faithfulness of God in context of the infidelity we see too frequently in our headlines. In each of these cases, Jesse James, Tiger Woods, John Edwards, children are sired and then transformed into gotcha headlines or publicity stunts. The media creates permanent memorials that will haunt these children the rest of their lives.

It is the children who are at stake. Every day a child is given up, either with the hope of a better life or out of despair of present circumstance, opposite sides to the same coin. Every day a child is born into a single-parent home. Boys raised without any father figures other than elder leadership in the neighborhood gang. Girls raised without the bonding they need to value their bodies so they spend the rest of their lives seeking that affirmation in any and every way.

It is the children who are at stake. The decisions we make. The relationships we have. The love we either share or willfully withhold. Abuse, either physical or verbal, and neglect or unavailability leave scars that do not heal.

It is the children who are at stake. Thank you JoAnne Bennett and Jeff Jordon for your battles to remind us. Thank you Lord for hearing our prayers. Thank you El Roi for seeing the need and answering our prayers by giving us clear instruction of what we must do to stop this cycle from repeating as it has for countless generations.

Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tabloid Christianity

While not intentional, this week’s blog carnival topic, faithfulness, is timely and appropriate. You cannot even say the word without images of Tiger Woods or Sandra Bullock filling your mind. Sadly it’s become impossible to define the word without invoking its opposite. What should be the norm is overshadowed by tawdry headlines and tell-all confessions. I say “should” because faithfulness is God’s design. He instituted the sanctity of the marriage covenant to reflect his covenant to his nation, Israel. In fact, if you’re looking for headline-grabbers, look no further than the 28th book of the Bible. There you will see a scandalous relationship as an object lesson for why faithfulness is so important to God.

Like Hosea, we can learn from our own current events. Does it surprise anyone anymore to learn about a Hollywood celebrity having an affair with their co-star while shooting their latest blockbuster? If it does, it shouldn’t. What do you expect when you pull someone from their family, isolate them on location, and then reenact scene after scene of passionate words, warm embraces, and… well you know the rest of the story. It shouldn’t be a surprise when we see the same headlines for our favorite sports stars. They too, are on the road away from their families a majority of their season. It’s not “addiction” or some kind of god-complex that comes with being a celebrity that enables them to think they can get whatever they want. If it was, why isn’t every movie star and athlete an adulterer? Instead, it is the lack of keeping their roots deeply embedded in their homes and their families.

Just as adultery is anathema to God’s faithfulness, the root-causes can also apply to our own spirituality. Should we be surprised to stumble and fall when we’re not firmly rooted in God’s own word? When we spend days, if not weeks, months or years away from God, shouldn’t it follow that we’d have a love affair with the world? That is what’s so tragic about “Sunday Christianity.” A couple of hours a week cannot be expected to compete against a 40 hour work-week. A visit to church on holidays cannot stand against the hours of polluting our eyes and our ears with the filth that comes through our media. So we become unfaithful to our Lord. We have our affair. We have no regrets. Until it all comes crashing down. Then the paparazzi get their pictures, your face is on the front page, you lose sponsorships, you lose custody. Inexplicably your spouse takes you back. He cries over you. He caresses you. He forgives you. The Lord takes you back.

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. (Revelation 2:4)

For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations. (Psalm 100:5)

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:20)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Counterintuitive

Today's the big day. No, not the first day of spring (that was yesterday) or the last day of the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. Today is the day we'll know whether or not our Federal Government will overhaul health care. I'm not going to use this space to pontificate one side or the other, though I do have strong opinions about it. In fact, it's important to note here that those strong opinions are are independent of my faith. I have yet to understand why there is such emphasis by some religious organizations (I call out the American Center for Law and Justice specifically because they have been polluting my airwaves on this issue for months now) that this debate is a religious issue.

Oh, wait. I do understand. It's all about abortions, the prime religious wedge-issue in politics. Even this issue though, I struggle to get up in arms over. I've talked about this before, argue that it is not a political issue, and note how it breaks my heart how this issue can drive people to the worst extremes. But now this wedge has grown so large as to scuttle any health care reform whatsoever. Yet as Christians, we should worry about the root-causes of abortions and some argue that passing health care reform would actually reduce this demand, despite whether there is government funding or not. A compelling case that reflects what should be our Christian attitude towards abortion.

But that is not the ends of the health care reform means. This is a complex issue and is about much, much more than abortions. I have family members who would benefit from this reform just as I have family members who would be hurt. There is no winner in this debate, I fear. As such, the appropriate response as Christians is not to fret over abortion, but to offer up prayers of wisdom for our elected officials at this critical time and remember that our purpose on this earth as Christians is not politics, but to "do the will of him who sent me".

"I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim 2:1-4)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Today Everyone is Irish

I'm a red head. And I was raised Catholic. It only seemed natural growing up to assume I was Irish. Being adopted added to my fantasy. I took a lot of pride in my Irish heritage, even to the point of working at Irish pubs for my two stints in the restaurant biz while in college.

Growing up, one of my best friends was of British heritage. And was Episcopalian. We would joke that if we lived in Northern Ireland, we would be bitter enemies. We would play war; I would be in the IRA while he would represent the Orange Order.

Turns out I'm not an Irish Catholic after all and the fantasy was left to childhood games. I have yet to go to the Emerald Isle while I'm grateful to live in a country of unprecedented religious freedom.

"From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us." (Acts 17:26-27)

Who knows what my life would be like now if these fantasies were true? Would I have hated my best friend? I know my family would be very different. My relationship with God would likely be vastly different as well.

Today we all get to pretend we're Irish. Even if we don't look the part. So while it's fun to pretend what is not, we should not forget to be grateful for what is.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Goodness Gracious!

Sorry, no Blog Carnival post for me this week. Check out Bridget's blog for a whole grip of folks blogging on the topic of goodness.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Best Picture(s)

Tonight is the Academy Awards and we're all anxious to see who comes out on top for Best Picture, Actor, Actress and Director. Because you know, we can't face our day tomorrow without being told what movies and stars are the best. (/cynicism) I don't really care too much. I don't make it to too many movies in the theater, so I'm still watching last year's nominees from my Netflix queue (just watched Julie and Julia Friday night, for example). So I can't say I'm invested.

Instead a couple of days ago, the Arts and Faith online group released their list of Top 100 films. Moviefone has a great writeup reminding us that movies don't have to be hyper-religious to be spiritual. The Bible Films blog notes that not too many are Bible-based and he hasn't seen as many of the movies as past lists. Relevant has an article questioning why we watch movies? While, if you're still interested in the Oscars, Hollywood Jesus lists the best Best Pictures. (Waiting to hear something on this list from Gareth Higgins, whose book How Movies Saved My Soul, offers a deeper look at movies we may take for granted.) Enjoy reading as you're trudging through the boredom of best sound mixing tonight. (At least we have Steve Martin to look forward to)

Back to the list, I wholeheartedly agree with the choices of The Apostle and Magnolia. Personally I would add To End All Wars, Life As a House, and Tombstone (believe it or not, there are many lessons on character to be gleaned from that movie). And I admit, I have a domestic bias, but I do have on my "to see" list Jesus of Montreal and The Gospel of St Matthew and I may have to add some of these to my list as well.

As for tonight, it will be interesting to see how The Blind Side does as a not-really-but-really-Christian movie. Regardless, I agree with moviefone, that a movie doesn't have to star Kirk Cameron or Stephen Baldwin to be edifying.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Converter


My wife and I have been fortunate in the last couple of weeks to baptize a couple of our friends into Christ. Leading up to the first baptism, I was telling someone I was with that I needed to leave for a Bible study. When asked what about, I stumbled for an answer and said, "conversion." (wrongly thinking that the arbitrary titles given to our studies are meaningless unless you're in them) Naturally, that answer raised an eyebrow. The word conversion has negative connotations bringing images of the Crusades, cliches like converting the heathens, and highlights one of the most common negative images of Christianity in our culture- that we're right and everyone else is wrong.


The book unChristian uses several surveys, many by Barna Research, to identify preconceptions and misconceptions of "outsiders" and Christians, respectively. (I share the author's hesitancy in using the term "outsiders" because it is a loaded term, but is most illustrative of the purpose behind the study) A chapter titled, Get Saved!, brings the attitudes towards conversion to light. A telling number, emblematic of the disconnect between Christianity and our culture, is that "only one-third of young outsiders believe that Christians genuinely care about them." While, "64 percent of Christians... believe that outsiders would perceive their efforts as genuine."


Love-bombing visitors then dropping them like bad habits once they become full-fledged members of the church is all too common and only adds to this stereotype. The attitude of "I'm right and you're wrong, so therefore you're going to Hell" that is portrayed when we try and share our faith doesn't help this image any either. Add to that the infighting and competition for numbers within and between churches and you begin to see why outsiders would have a polar opposite opinion of our intentions.


While the word conversion may sound holier-than-thou, it shouldn't. Think of the word. Conversion means change. You need a power converter when traveling overseas so that you can use your hair-dryer (120 V) in foreign wall sockets (220 V). You need to convert electricity from alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC) to use most electronics. In both of these cases, the electricity is changed into something useful. It is still electricity, but is put in a form that we can use.


Religious conversion is really the same thing. It's not about "I'm right, you're wrong." It is about being changed into something useful to God. Jesus told Nicodemus, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." (John 3:3) Being born again implies a new creation, i.e. change. Ironically, Barna defines a "born-again Christian" as one who has only "accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior." The term "Evangelical" narrows down this definition by adding the conditions of "1) saying their faith is very important in their life today; 2)believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; 3) believing that Satan exists; 4) believing their eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; 5) believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; 6)asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; 7) describing God as the all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today." Neither of these definitions say anything about change, even though Jesus said, "unless..."


Paul instructs us to "be transformed" (Romans 12:2) and reminds us that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17). That is conversion. That's why I so appreciate the ministry of Paul Washer (Heartcry Missionary Society- see link on the sidebar). His emphasis is that simply praying the Sinner's Prayer doesn't convert you. Without evidence of change brought about by the Holy Spirit, can you really argue that you've been converted? I always joke that praying Jesus into your heart works. It's just that once Jesus is there, he's hanging out asking "now what?"


So when I share my faith, of course I want to convert them. But that doesn't mean I want them to conform to my way of thinking, or my personal theology/doctrine/denominationalism. It means I want to see the Holy Spirit come into their lives and change them. Maybe that is still judgemental, thinking that they even need change. But I see addiction, abuse, selfishness, and pride on a daily basis. Our media drowns us with greed and lust. I see no evidence in the world-at-large to make me believe that others don't need change. I can't do it. I can only offer it. I'm nothing special. But Jesus Christ is.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Reading is Fundamental


Today is National Read Across America Day. Celebrated on the birthday of Dr. Seuss, events are held all around the country to "motivate children to read." A worthwhile event and a noble goal.

The American Christian Church needs something like this. Maybe not your priest/pastor/evangelist dressing up as the Cat In The Hat for the Sunday sermon. But something needs to be done in the Body of Christ to encourage reading and studying. Charles "Tremendous" Jones has often been quoted saying, "You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read." Reading was so important to the Apostle Paul that he asked Timothy to "come to [him] quickly" and bring his "scrolls, especially the parchments" while he was believed to have been in prison (2 Tim 4:9,13) While this most likely at least included Scripture, it was just as likely it included Rabbinic teachings given Paul's education. Paul also taught that the Bible is "useful... so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17)
Our reading shouldn't be limited to the Bible however, though as a Body we sadly fall short in this area. The number of Christian books are limitless, some of course better than others. I encourage you to find a niche that appeals most to you- history, biographies, theology, apologetics, etc and dig in. Sally Stuart's Christian Writers' Market Guide lists 166 different categories of books. If you can't find something you like, well you're not really trying. It is important to remember though, that books should compliment, not supplement, your Bible study. This is a lesson I have had to learn the hard way a year ago as I felt myself spiritually withering away even though I was reading about a book a month. I was convicted listening to a lesson that reminded me that spiritual books should never take the place of the Word of God. So I have recommitted myself to my Bible study and any book I read is intentionally tied to a specific Bible study.

Not only do we have Read Across America, but it is also almost exactly a month before Easter. If you observe Lenten fasts, you may have given up chocolate or Facebook. Some also add spiritual disciplines to their fasts. If you're taking this season to dig deeper into your Bible study or read that spiritual book gathering dust on your bookshelf, amen! If not, don't fret because there's plenty of time. Many devotionals are written for a month's worth of study so now is a perfect time leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
With that in mind, here are some recommendations keeping to the theme of Easter: Calvary Road by Roy Hession, He Chose the Nails by Max Lucado, The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey, Praying the Names of Jesus by Ann Spangler, Thirty Days at the Foot of the Cross edited by Tom and Sheila Jones, and Your Jesus is Too Safe by Jared C Wilson.
Happy reading!