Friday, July 29, 2005

A Response to Mr. Wright

I found this touching post at Wright off the Bat with a tip of the hat to Monday Morning Insight.

A letter to God:

God. I love you. You know that. But sometimes I have questions that seem to almost border on disrespect. May I ask one of them now? Why do you give some people harder assignments than others? Why do some people who serve you seem to get a "harder lot" in life? Why are there some ministers who live in shacks for houses and labor tirelessly for rewards that are eternal while their stomachs are starved for food? Why are some called to labor among the poor, the wretched, drug dealers and prostitutes while others serve in the comforts of suburbia, far from crime and gangs? Why do some suffer heart break, loss, anxiety attacks and bodily harm while others have luxury cars, million dollar houses and hefty bank accounts? Why do some endure ghastly pain, perilous nights and sullen days while others see victory after victory? I know that all people who truly serve you suffer in some way. There is joy in suffering when it is done in Your name. But some people seem to suffer a lot more than others. There is a disconnect going on here God that I am not quite understanding. Why do some preach in tailored suits behind oak pulpits while others cover themselves in rags before mounting a wooden crate beneath an oak tree? Who decides who gets to pastor the mega churches and who plants the church in the inner city surrounded by gang warfare? This is not a matter of jealousy God; this is a matter of life and death. I just want to know why some of your servants will toil for the rest of their lives in what seems like mundane futility while others will see substantial fruit yielded day after day. I know that all true rewards are eternal and perhaps this is the part of me talking that is all too human. I'll take whatever mission you give me not because I am a cold foot soldier merely taking orders but rather because I love you deeply. But please answer me this; why do some people get harder assignments than others? Amen.

My response:

God gifts us for what we are called to do. The small church pastor may not be able to handle a mega-church. The mega-church pastor may not be able to truly love a small congregation. Some are called to plant, others to water, still others to kill weeds, but God provides the increase and He decides if we are there to see it happen.

This isn't a new question. I ask the "why" question when I look at my three beautiful kids and compare them to the families who struggle with rebellious and prodigal children, and to the couples desperately wanting to have children like mine only to have biology get in the way. "Why am I so blessed, Lord?"

I ask the "why" question when I look around at all the material blessings of my life -- a couple of vehicles, a nice house, a computer with DSL -- and compare that to the family down the street who struggle to come up with money for electricity, or the majority of the African continent who would see my lower-middle class income as incredible wealth. "Why am I so blessed, Lord?"

I ask the "why" question when I realize that all the health issues in my family are but minor inconveniences, but the woman at church has gone through three cancer operations, two rounds of chemo and is currently in the middle of radiation treatments and the doctor is hoping just for 5 more years cancer-free. "Why am I so blessed, Lord?"

I ask the "why" question when I read about the problems that so many pastors have within their congregations while I don't have to deal with the degree of trechery and stubbornness they do. "Why am I so blessed, Lord?"

I ask the "why" question every stinking day. And while sometimes I ask it like Job, floored by his sufferings, most of the time I ask it like the mother who watched Jesus raise her daughter from the dead -- overcome by the incredible grace of Almighty God.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

... so I decided to go for a swim.

It was a beautiful day today. It got a little warm, but fortunately we have a swimmin' hole to take away the heat. It's not really a hole, it's a pond. The pond was built for swimming with a sand bottom and beach. I know that sounds a bit bizarre to some of you city folk, but it's true. One can swim in a body of water without chlorine and cement walls. The water isn't crystal clear, but it serves it's purpose. The pond is in the back corner of the yard with decorative rock along the shorelines reaching up to the grass around it. There is a man-made hill behind the water giving the area a beautiful background. And we have fun in it.

Anyway, after I ran some errands today, I came home to finish mowing the lawn. My wife ran out of daylight last night, so I decided to finish up behind the kids' swing set, under the apple trees and around the pond. My rider mower has held up fairly well over the past seven years, but it has it's problems. One of the current problems is a tire with a slow leak. So before I start up the mower, I have to push it up to the air compressor to reinflate the flat tire. The easiest way to do this is by using the steering wheel, but I try to avoid that, thinking I'll break the wheel off the steering column one of these days.

Today as I started mowing, the steering wheel began to act up. It was as if the wheel occasionally wouldn't catch the steering mechanism. As a result, a couple of times when I turned the wheel, the mower didn't turn right away. It took an extra 1/2 revolution of the steering wheel to actually get the mower to turn.

"Great!" I told myself, "One more thing to try to fix today. I'll wait until I finish and then see if there's something loose in the steering."

I really didn't need something else to fix today. The morning was busy and I had to be gone later in the afternoon. But I put that off and tried to get the mowing done. Mowing around the pond took a little extra care since the steering wasn't always very trustworthy. There was just one more pass to do, so I turned to the right away from the hill. Then the mower decided that it liked turning right. I tugged left on the steering, but it didn't catch. I knew it would though. I had all confidence that the machine would turn back to the left. But it kept veering to the right. And now I could see where I would end up if that steering never did catch -- the water.

From that point it was kind of like a slow-motion effect. It was almost like Wile E. Coyote had discarded one of those giant Acme magnets in the bottom of the pond, pulling the mower and myself right toward it. I was still cranking the wheel to the left waiting for the inevitable catch, when the right front tire ran onto the decorator rocks around the water's edge. I leaned left, but to no avail. The steering never did correct and the lawn tractor tipped and hit the water on it's right side.

As we went in, I realized two things: first, that I didn't want to let the tractor come down on top of me and second, I didn't want to be anywhere near spinning mower blades as they were turned up and over. So as I tipped, I reached down and turned the key, shutting off the engine and blades. Then I pushed myself off the seat as I fell in, away from the sinking mower. When my head resurfaced, I looked behind me. There was no sign of the mower. It figured that I'd drive it into the deep end of the pond!

I swam to shore doing a mental inventory of all the things that had just been messed up; besides the damage to the pond and the mower, that is. I got my wallet out of my back pocket and set it in the sun to dry. My keys were gritty and sticky from the Altoids tin which had filled and seeped sugary fluid all over the contents of my right front pocket. Then a few minutes later I realized that I still had my cell phone in my left front pocket! I'm still working on drying that out. But no problems with me, aside from a small scratch on my finger that likely had happened as I continued to try to turn that blasted wheel.

I went to the house to let my wife know what had happened. I think it took a few minutes before it all really sunk in (if you'll pardon the expression). Then the next piece of work was to figure out how to get the mower out of our pond. Luckily I found a guy from church with a chain and a 4-wheel drive pickup. I played Police Crime Scene Diver and found the mower sitting on it's headlights about six or seven feet down. After a few dives, I managed to hook a chain around the rear axle and we pulled the thing out with the pickup.

Right now it sits in the backyard where we took the chain from around its axle. There are a few chunks of muck from the pond bottom in the vents, but other than that it doesn't look too bad. I'll try to dry it out and see if I can salvage it.

Oh yeah, I checked the steering mechanism when we got it out of the pond... now it works!

I was very blessed not to have suffered any injuries in all this, and I am extremely grateful that God was watching out for me. The rest of the lawn can wait until Monday!

The Problem with Education

I remember a few things about high school. I remember being the guy who read the announcements over the school public address system many mornings, trying to liven up the proceedings.

"May I have your attention please. Please, may I have your attention. (dramatic pause) Thank you. I just love attention."

I remember sneaking into the darkened school auditorium with my girlfriend for a little kissing. (That was it. Honest.) I remember our high school tennis team practicing without a coach. Not knowing what to do, and not actually wanting to play tennis, we improvised a giant game of Gnip Gnop with the object of the game being to hit all the tennis balls we could find over the tall chainlink fence. And I remember being served mashed potatoes and turkey gravy in the lunchroom which stuck to the tray even when I held it upside down for over 15 minutes. Yum yum!

But you know what I don't remember? I don't remember that semester of Spanish I took as a freshman. I don't have any idea how to solve a quadratic equation. I am at a loss when it comes to diagramming sentences. That's what I don't remember -- the education. You know, the reason I went to school in the first place.

Now I realize that there are many school lessons that I have absorbed and are a big part of my life. I learned to type in high school, and I have never taken a more useful class. I played trombone in the band, and I still know the notes, although the tone of the horn just isn't the same. And I've always had an interest in history. I've learned more since high school, but it was there that the foundation for a love of history was laid. But so much of what I read, learned and was tested over has long since fallen from my memory banks.

As I think about the whole education process, I see two glaring problems. Maybe they are more like weaknesses, but they are two ideas we must keep in mind. First, let's be honest... we don't retain knowledge very well. For some reason, every year my age increases by one and my memory is cut in half. At least it seems that way as I remember it. But I'll often find myself midway through a chapter of a book only to realize that I have no idea what was in the last two paragraphs I supposedly just read moments earlier. It's really scary when it happens while driving. ("When did I get on highway 20?") Unless we actually try (gasp!) to pay attention and remember things, we likely will forget. This is how the folks who make the "Hello, my name is..." nametags make money -- we must be continually reminded what we are supposed to already know.

The second problem with education is that we often don't understand things to begin with. However, since we are supposed to impress people with our brain power or need to get a good grade on this exam, we fake it. You know it's true. You cram just enough into your short term memory so that you don't fall on your face. That's how I got through school. Was I really supposed to remember all that stuff? We consider most information virutally unimportant, except to get the promotion or the good grade or the good impression.

Since we are saddled by these two problems in education, we should be aware of this when discipling another believer. Foolishly, I have taught a discipleship class brimming with great information and instruction. Yet I know that much of what was taught has been forgotten -- even by the best students in the class. Even with the best of intentions, a student taking discipleship training is not going to pick up everything from a course. Yet that same information is really needed to get a new convert (or an old convert who has never spiritually matured) to the point of spiritual maturity -- or at least to the point of being able to recognize that the Jehovah's Witness at the door isn't really peddling Christianity.

Still, outside of my own church, I see churches large and small teaching discipleship classes -- many as qualification for membership. These classes certainly have to deal with the two problems or weaknesses I outlined above. So what's missing?

As much as I hate to say it, there's got to be more human interaction than a classroom setting can provide. There must be some sort of mentoring relationship with accountability through the process. Even though a class of twelve is a tall mentoring order for one person, this relationship must be built into the program. In my own classes, it's been a suggestion or a voluntary decision. But it fights against a person's desire for privacy, not to mention the demand on one's time. There is no way most people will follow through. Why do I hate to say this? Because it seems like an insurmountable task. Good thing I have a mighty God, huh?

Perhaps this is where some other churches have problems with immature believers living on milk instead of solid food, yet holding positions of responsibility within the church? I'd say that's happened in my church, although I'm not calling the character of anyone into question. They just don't see the benefits of anything more than a classroom setting.

Stuff for me to chew on...

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Storm Front Coming

As I sit typing this evening, the lights are occasionally flickering and the thunder is almost constantly rumbling. Storms don't scare me. This one is, in fact, a welcome sight. You see, for the past few weeks the heat has been very uncomfortable. It was so hot that outdoor activities just haven't been as fun as they should be. Today the humidity made the air feel thick. Sweat dripped into places I didn't know I had. My shirt wouldn't even dry from all the moisture in the air. The weather has caused a lot of discomfort and sleepless nights.

But the storm front is coming. And now it's here.

Storms aren't usually pleasant experiences. I know people who suffered property damage last night due to a storm. Some people are terrified of the lightning and the high winds. A few have ridden out hurricanes and tornadoes and have bad memories. Storms are not what we usually look forward to.

But after weeks of heat and humidity; day upon day of 93 degrees and 95% humidity, the storm front has arrived. Tomorrow's forecast calls for a high temperature of 72 degrees. The heat wave is broken. The long string of suffering through the heat has ended.

But it took a storm to change it.

Now, you supply the application to your own life.

Don't Tell My Wife

Please don't tell my wife that my blog is the #9 hit on a google search for "control freak wife." How do I get myself into these situations?

By the way, Christian Carnival is being hosted by DaddyPundit this week. Submissions are due by Tuesday night at midnight. It is a pleasure each week to have one of my posts included in such esteemed company.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Fooling Ourselves

It was only weeks ago that reality hit Mike Tyson. The man who built his reputation and his persona by hitting others was decked -- once by his ring opponent, once by the sudden realization that he wasn't what he thought he was. Tyson had been told for years that he was still the "baddest man on the planet" by his handlers and fight promoters and he had bought into the hype. Even a couple of defeats and a stint in a penatentury didn't dissuade the former heavyweight champion. With the help of various yes-men and hangers-on, Mike Tyson had fooled himself. It took an embarrassing defeat for the truth to become clear to him -- it had become clear to sports fans years ago.

We have seen a ton of sports stars fool themselves into thinking that the effects of age didn't apply to them. There were the Michael Jordan retirement fiascos, when MJ fooled himself into thinking he was a major league caliber baseball player, and later that he could transform the Washington Wizards into a great team. Some analysts see the same thing happening today with slugger Barry Bonds, whose body is wracked by injury, but whose ego won't allow him to say he's done playing baseball.

But fooling oneself is not simply a problem for the sports hero. I submit that by and large, the Church is fooling itself into thinking it is making a big difference in the world.

It seems that over and over again the truth keeps coming to me. How would you like to hear this question like Shane at Wesley Blog had aimed at him from a teenage Christian a couple of weeks ago: "What's the difference between them [Mormons] and us, besides the fact that they seem to be more serious about living out their faith?" Read the whole post for a little more context. It isn't always obvious to those of us inside the church walls, but many people, including a great number outside of the church, are not looking through stained-glass glasses.

Kevin at Short Attention Span wrote a post called Lessons from a Church in Decline concerning what we can learn from the rise of secularism in Great Britain. But the focus is upon the current situation of churches in America (and elsewhere) where the Church is not seeking to honor and worship and glorify God anymore. Here is the horrible truth packed into a few short sentences:
There is a widespread perception among Americans that church should cater to them rather than help them deny self, take up their cross and follow Christ. Even some of the most solidly “Bible-believing” evangelical churches in America have their own pet subjects –prophecy or “faith”, for example– rather than engaging in broad-based teaching that equips people with biblical perspectives on all of life’s issues. To put it another way, there is sometimes a lack of relevance. There are also “Bible-believing” churches that are not communities but places where individuals gather for an hour or two on Sunday morning and perhaps during the week, where shared goals are a substitute for fellowship. Evangelical churches in America take great pride in being “Bible-believing”, but underneath the claim of believing the Bible is a lack of commitment to discover and apply biblical teaching practically. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, believing is as believing does, ma’am.


Take up our cross or get my own way... teach on end times every Sunday or learn the "boring" stuff too... study the Bible or actually do what I've been studying... the choices are painfully obvious to us. We know what we should do. And far too often we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we're doing it while the reality of the situation is just the opposite. James put it best when he wrote, "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." And it doesn't help that we often try to impress others with our spirituality, or our church membership and attendance numbers, or the new program at the church, or the new building expansion. And it really doesn't help when others are impressed by that. God is to be the One who we are looking to please. So why do we keep trying to show off for man's approval?

Lately I've been convicted. God has impressed upon me over and over that He alone is the focus of our worship, yet it it so tempting for a Sunday morning service to be about pleasing man instead of God. It's not intentional. But I can spend time and mental effort making sure the attendance and the offering is counted, looking for approval from congregants and changing a sermon to appease those who are offended by something I might say, all the while fooling myself into thinking that God is the audience and the focus of our attention during the service. And if I as a pastor can be drawn away from worshiping God on Sunday morning, it's got to be easy for the folks in the pews to do the same thing. I don't want anything to compromise our worship of God or even shortchanges God. In short, I don't want us to fool ourselves any longer.

We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that Christian responsibility is simply a matter of showing up to socialize on Sunday morning. We cannot con ourselves with the claim that a church's goal is simply larger attendance and black ink on the budget. We cannot continually tell ourselves that living the Christian life is done by making things more convenient and comfortable for us. We mustn't live like a washed-up boxer thinking we are really champs. We must be honest with our failings -- even when it makes us uncomfortable. Especially when it makes us uncomfortable.

"Lord, show me the areas of my life and my worship where I've fooled myself into thinking I am honoring you. I don't want to live like that any more."

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Geritol... More Geritol!

Getting old.

This weekend, I'll be attending the wedding of the flower girl from my wedding. In two weeks, I'll be attending my 25th high school reunion. Any day now I need to get some reading glasses (or else install spotlights on my temples so I can see all that dark stuff on the page.)

I need a nap.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The OnStar Button

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To some, the whole existance of a global positioning satellite (GPS) and all the technology which goes with it is an assault on our freedom. Imagine if the government actually kept track of where each person is at every minute of the day and how that would make you feel. Speaking for myself, the word "creepy" comes to mind -- George Orwell's vision of Big Brother come to life. We protect our privacy with a vengeance. After all, there are some things which are nobody else's business. GPS makes it possible for our privacy to be stripped away.

While flipping through the channels last week, I stumbled across a third-rate reality show (is there really a first-rate reality show?) called Hogan Knows Best, which followed the family of former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. The Hulkster, his wife and two kids have agreed to have their lives videotaped in the interest of filling up broadcast time on cable TV. But in the episode I saw, Daddy Hulk was tracking daughter Brooke via a secretly-installed GPS system in her car. While the 16 year-old was flirting with her date, Big Daddy and his biceps were following the car's every turn on the family's home computer. Sure you could call it an invasion of privacy, but are YOU going to go tell the nearly 7 foot, 350 pound Hulk Hogan to stop? GPS at it's paranoia-inciting worst.

Yet, car GPS systems are being advertised and purchased every day. Since I listen to a lot of radio, I hear the commercials a lot:

"Hello, OnStar"

"Help me, I've hit a tree!"

"I'll contact emergency services. Stay right there." (As if the victim were thinking of going for pizza right then.)

OnStar is marketed as a convenience because with a subscription to the service, the representatives will contact police or an ambulance in an emergency, tell you why the "Service Engine Soon" light has just lit up on your dashboard and even unlock your car doors when you've locked yourself out. All you have to do is hit the OnStar button. Please don't ask how you hit the OnStar button on the dash when you are locked out of your car. I'm still working on that.

Anyway, Big Brother is being sold and advertised because he is a "nice" big brother. Forget that he could beat you up, flatten your bicycle tires and coat your underwear with itching powder, this big brother can also beat up the neighborhood bully and bring you a cold drink when you're thirsty. In other words, you might not like the idea of someone tracking every turn you make in the ol' Buick, but you'll allow it as long as you have an emergency hotline at the press of a button.

There are times when I wish I had complete privacy. There are times when I don't see the words of the psalmist as a comfort:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

The main times I wish I could flee from God's presence are the times when I have rejected His direction. I don't like the idea of God's eyes upon me when I am wallowing in anger or greed. I'd love to be able to escape His notice, just for a while. And at my convenience, of course. When things are going badly, I'd sure be to make sure I was waving my arms so He could see.

But isn't it strange that our relationship with God could be so similar to having OnStar in the car? We may not like the spying eyes watching us sin, but we sure relish the loving God giving us strength and hope and hearing us when we pray. We love having a God who is there for our comfort and for our convenience. How incredibly selfish of us.

God is more than Someone who is there only when we want Him to be -- whether we like it or not. For us to treat Him as a God-at-the-push-of-a-button is just plain disrespectful. Like OnStar, God is there whether we want Him or not. Perhaps if we remember that, with the strength of the Holy Spirit we will be able to fight the temptation to wallow in our selfishness, comfort and convenience.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

More Harry Stuff

I've appreciated the comments and discussion about my Harry Potter post. I added an update featuring a Bible study based on HP to the original post. Now here's another HP post at Out in the Sticks with a few quotes from each side of the argument. Toss in a good synopsis from Jollyblogger, some thoughts from Gad(d)about and the other side of the coin from Cerulean Sanctum and you should be about all Harry-ed out. If not, Theology Thursday at Joe Missionary features HP and I was reminded that Jennifer's post earlier this week "The Puritans Return" at Idle Rambling Thoughts... was a HP post (and a good one) but it describes another "occultic" situation.

Oh, and this week's Christian Carnival will be a day late (and possibly a dollar short), but it rolls into town Thursday over at ChristWeb.

Dangerous Smorgasbord

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They each had one of those "Dad must be a space alien" looks on their faces.

"What do you mean three?"

"That's right, guys. ABC, CBS and NBC. That was it."

"What about ESPN and Fox"

"Yeah, and CNN and CMT and. . ."

"Just three channels. And when the President spoke, you actually had to watch him."


It took my sons a while before they understood that the world didn't always have 100 channels. At least, I think they finally got it. It may be one of those concepts that the mind of a modern child can't quite grasp, I don't know. But the memories are still quite vivid in my mind, trying to find something worth watching on one of the three networks. Of course today I can sit on the sofa, flicking through over 100 channels, and still not find anything worth my time. But I sure do have a lot of choices.

It works that way with a lot of things. We used to have just a few choices. Now we have around 3 ka-jillion things from which to choose. The three or four radio stations we could hear beneath the static used to be enough for us to get by. Now I have satellite radio with over 120 stations on the dial. There used to be a handful of magazines available in newsstands. Today there is a magazine for almost any interest. Trying to stock them all would mean the neighborhood newsstand would look like a shopping mall. Today we face a vast number of choices in most everything.

Working in retail, I've watched some people trying to make a decision. Give a person three possibilities and the choice could take three minutes. Give a person 75 choices and the clerk is allowed at least two coffee breaks during the wait. Choices are difficult because there's always the thought that you made the wrong decision. Then there's the temptation to try all the choices. Obviously that doesn't work well while shopping, but...

In How Shall We Worship, Marva J. Dawn writes:
We live in a society of choices, often to our own befuddlement. We have innumerable choices of breakfast food, countless possibilities for entertainment, more options than we can intelligently manage for purchasing technological gadgets and tools, more alternatives for spending our time than we have time to decide. Too many choices is one of many reasons that Christianity is declining in North America -- there are far too many supposedly better things to do on Sunday mornings and far too many other possibilities for making sense of our lives.

That paragraph got me thinking. Are the myriad choices offered in this world really pulling people away from Jesus Christ and from the church? I think there may be something to it. There are a ton of other things I could do on Sunday mornings -- sleep late for one. Get the lawn mowed and the basement cleaned out for two and three. And if I really put my mind to it, I could get a few hundred more.

And to someone who is wanting some sort of "spirituality" in life, Christianity is but one choice. And it's not the cool choice. There's New Age and Buddhism and Islam and Jehovah's Witnesses and plenty more. The mindset that Christianity is too exclusive gets people picking up Dianetics, considering becoming Tom Cruise's spiritual kin.

But the natural extension is that there aren't just a couple of dozen choices for entertainment or something to do or spirituality -- you can manufacture your own schedule or your own belief system by picking your beliefs from the Spirituality Smorgasbord. Pick up a plate and fill it up any way you like. Take a little from Hinduism, a dollop of astrology and a big scoop of Shirley McLaine-ism. Throw a little Jesus on the side for desert, and the unsuspecting diner thinks he has a well balanced Christian dinner. But he doesn't.

There are theological debates within Christianity to be sure, but replacing biblical teaching with something picked up in yoga class is like throwing a little garlic in the banana pudding. It doesn't go with the other ingredients. But people, especially in America, have developed a "Have It Your Way!" mentality that applies to everything in their lives. You hear it from people who start sentences with the phrase, "Well, the God I worship would never..." This is as if our preferences actually determine God's character. What a crock.

The existance and the acceptance of a spiritual smorgasbord makes it especially dangerous territory out there. The reincarnation smells appetizing. The God-who-says-homosexuality-is-just-fine looks so inviting. And my, but the universalism is fresh today! Yet we know that the buffet is full of choices which are spiritual poison. Christianity straight from the menu is the way to go.

We must never compromise our faith by substituting the world's side dishes for the real meat of Christianity. God isn't about "Have It Your Way" -- He commands us to do things His way. Even Jesus Christ said to His Heavenly Father in the garden, "Thy will be done." Even with a smorgasbord of choices, should we choose any differently?

Monday, July 18, 2005

The ol' Two Gods Theory

Over at Evangelical Update, the discussion is focused on what I call the ol' Two Gods Theory. Due to a Haloscan hiccup the first day's worth of comments are lost somewhere in a back closet of Al Gore's Internet. So I decided to recreate my contributions here instead of tempting Haloscan Fate.

The original post itself also takes on the idea of apparent contradictions in Scripture, but I'll let that one alone for now since none were specifically singled out. Instead I'll focus on the opening paragraph:
There is a division in the Christian Bible: Old Testament and New Testament.It seems that those who want to challenge Christians can easily begin by pointing out that the angry, vengeful God of the Old Testament (plagues, floods, Joshua slaughtering an entire city) conflicts with Jesus' peaceful message (turn the other cheek, love your enemy) in the New Testament. Since Christians believe that Jesus IS God, how are the two conflicting portrayals reconciled?

There are a few points which must be addressed. First of all the Old Testament and New Testament have different approaches. The OT is mostly about God's dealings with His chosen people -- a very stubborn and disobedient clan. Like a parent dealing with a problem child, much time has to be spent is discipline and punishment. Meanwhile the New Testament deals with the gift of Jesus Christ as atonement for our sins and what that means to our lives when we accept Him. It's like two different roads with the same destination. Of course it's going to look a bit different. I look a lot different disciplining one of my kids than I do helping a little old lady across the street, but I'm not two different people.

But let's look closer at that "peaceful message" of Jesus Christ. In the post, Alice cites turning the other cheek and loving your enemy, but she stopped there. She missed where Jesus says, "But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Also omitted was Jesus telling the people that He came to divide families, how we should fear the One who could destroy body and soul in hell, how one who opposed a child would be better off being thrown in the sea with a millstone tied around his neck, and the parable ending with the owner of the house telling people, "Away from me, all you evildoers." More than a cursory examination of Scripture reveals that Jesus' message was not simply one of peace and love, but also one of condemnation for all who reject Him.

Calling the New Testament God a God of peace and love misses a few other items more reminiscent of the God of vengeance. There are Ananias and Saphira in the book of Acts. (Yes, that's in the New Testament.) A husband and a wife were struck down by that God of peace and love. They might argue the OT-NT differences with you! So might anyone who reads the final book of the New Testament as well. Revelation contains a good bit of judgment.

Now let's go back to the Old Testament. Sure there are plagues and floods and massacres. But we also see that God of peace and love rearing His head. Read David's psalms about how much he is loved by God. Read about a murderer named Moses who had been protected by God as a baby and called by God as an old man, and then became the leader of God's people and was called God's friend. Or you can check out the passage about a disheartened Elijah who was looked after with food and drink, not to mention encouragement. Then there's Rahab, a prostitute who seeks after the true God and that OT God shows her mercy and love in the midst of Joshua slaughtering an entire city. For that matter, what about the foreign city-state of Ninevah? They were so wicked it was disgusting, but God sent Jonah to call the people to repent to avoid destruction even though Ninevah certainly didn't deserve it. Of course we remember Abraham, who was called for no apparent reason aside from God's own pleasure and was shown incredible love by the Old Testament God.

I could go on like this for pages. But the point is clear. There is no distinction between the God of the OT and the God of the NT. In fact, the love of God includes the need for justice to be done. Paul writes in Romans, "Consider, therefore, the kindness and sternness of God; sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you will be cut off." Whoops! There's that sternness showing up in the New Testament again! Anyway, God's love certainly includes the need for judgment. We get back to the idea of a parent disciplining a child here. Disciplining is done because of love. I correct my own kids because I love them. The kids who run unchecked through stores and restaurants are not being shown love, they are being shown disinterest. Discipline is a part of love.

Beyond that, judgment is upon all of us. God, because He so loved the world, offers us a way out of that judgment -- Jesus Christ. Yet He allows us to accept Christ or to reject Him. But those who reject Him do so facing their own consequences. After all, He gave us one way out of paying for our own sins. If we reject that way, why would we think we deserve a different method of atonement? And unless you have the word "perfect" etched into your character assessment, you have judgment waiting for you. But the same God who enforces ultimate judgment loves us enough to provide us a way out of that judgment. The Two Gods are indeed One.

Evangelicalism in Crisis?

A lot of blog chatter about Phil Johnson's post called, "The Worst of Times: Evangelicalism in Critical Condition." In the post we see comparisons between today's church and the Roman Catholic Church just before the Protestant Reformation. Plenty of response to this post around the blogosphere. Try Challies and Blogotional for starters. I'll add more when I get a chance.

It's an important discussion to be sure, but I'm still trying to digest it all. Any thoughts?

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Trying To Get a Handle on Potter

The new book is out. Time for the renewed debate/accusations/defenses/calls for people to be burned at the stake. It's Harry Potter time, and I'm still sitting in the chair marked "I don't get it".

Shrill voices from one part of Christendom call for the Harry Potter books to be rejected, ignored and worse. We Christian parents are warned to keep our sons and daughters away from the books, citing the use of witchcraft and spells a la demon worship. Then from the other side of the faith comes those who read, enjoy and encourage others to read the Potter series. They claim that no other books aimed at a teen reader contains so much action and unexpected plot twisting. The magic is incidental to the storyline, they say.

I'll say upfront that I haven't read one of those piles of pages by J. K. Rowling. Don't have the desire to read one. Don't have the time either. Then again, I'm hardly a teenager. I did see the first Potter movie on video. It was alright, I guess. Nothing spectacular, but I figure the movie is never as good as the book anyway. So when I look at the whole Harry Potter flap, I like to think I'm coming into it without any real bias. I'm probably biased one way or another, but I'm not perceptive enough to figure out which way I'm leaning.

I'm not one to discount the demonic. I believe in Satan. And I don't pretend that there aren't people who try to worship the Prince of Darkness or try to use evil powers. Just last month, a friend of mine was approached by a teenage girl who was looking to buy spices for some magic spells she had copied from a book. So I know it's out there. And it is something Christians must be aware of.

On the other hand, I'm old enough to have grown up watching Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. I've watched the countless Disney movies featuring magically-poisoned apples, dancing brooms, talking animals and flying carpets. I've read countless science-fiction stories, not to mention The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. This is nothing new. A bit more intense, perhaps. But new? No. So what's the fuss?

The arguments I've heard have which have moved beyond the existance of magic in the story have focused upon the ultimate character issues of the characters. They claim that Harry isn't much of a hero and that his use of magic isn't for ultimate good, as other spell-chanting protagonists have been. I really can't speak to that without reading the books, but it seems to me that all the magic Samantha Stevens performed on Bewitched was for the betterment of herself and husband Darrin, not for world peace or anything. And the current trend in literature tends to show a hero "warts and all," not simply as a knight in shining armor. But then again, my favorite book shows it's heros as having flaws. A righteous ship-builder with a penchant for wine, a patriarch who makes up stories that his wife is really his sister, a king who call fall in lust with a woman taking a bath within view of the palace, a disciple who ignores new friends so that his old friends won't get mad -- all these anti-heroes and more are running amok between Genesis and Revelation. So is this an issue to take seriously?

In my thinking on this whole issue, I've wondered if the Harry Potter books are possible tools which we can use with our kids. As I've proven, magic stories are not new. What is it that I understood about The Wicked Witch of the West and Glenda the Good Witch that kept me from looking to boil herbs and animal parts in a big cauldron under a full moon? Maybe it was the opportunity for me to distinguish between fantasy and reality; between proper behavior and improper; between good spirits and bad. Most of us have wanted, at one time or another, to twitch our noses, hear a tinka-tinka-tee and see all of our work completed in the blink of an eye. But we knew that wasn't going to happen. And we weren't going to sell our souls to make it happen. We knew better. Perhaps the best use of the Harry Potter books is to help our kids and grandkids and nieces and nephews and any other kid under our care to understand those same distinctions.

I'm willing to listen to other points of view. Like I said, I haven't read these books. Maybe there are some real problems within the pages. But for now, I still don't have a handle on the controversy.

UPDATE: On the topic of using HP to help kids understand, here is The Gospel According to Harry Potter group study! Although it was blasted by Slice of Laodicea on principle, isn't this the type of approach to get kids to deal realistically with things they can't ignore? Maybe not in the church, but how about in the home? Thoughts?

Friday, July 15, 2005

Slow To Anger

Mark Looper was one of those guys who was an expert at everything. I know he was an expert because he told me so. Aside from that claim, I'd have had no idea he was so good at so many things -- especially after watching him do those things. The truth is, Mark was full of hot air. And that bag of hot air was the third baseman on my school baseball team. The rest of us guys in the dugout realized that Mark was all talk, especially when he told the team exactly what they were doing wrong.

"Brett, you're dipping your shoulder when you swing. Don't do that."

"Bill, you've got to plant your left foot before you throw, like I do."

"Ralph, you need to slide on your left leg, not your right."

Needless to say, those comments got old really quick. Especially when we watched Mark dip his shoulder, forget to plant his foot, slide on whichever leg he fell on, and generally play less than mediocre baseball.

For me, it hit the fan during a game when his ineptitude affected me. I was playing first base when a baserunner decided to test my arm. He took off from second to third when the ball was thrown to me. I didn't get the opportunity to throw out runners very often, so I made sure of the throw, firing a bullet to Mark Looper at third base. The throw was right on the money. It hit Looper right in the mitt, two steps in front of the runner. But the expert-at-everything third baseman dropped the ball! "Mr. Perfect" let a picture-perfect throw fall from his glove!

I was livid. I had heard too many "Looperisms" to be anything but mad beyond belief. Here was the guy who told everyone else about their mistakes making yet another big mistake. I took off my mitt and slammed it hard against the ground. How dare Looper ruin my perfect throw! I stomped the dirt and kicked at my glove. My temper was doing it's best volcano impression; saliva flying about like lava. It wasn't pretty. But I didn't care. I was mad.

I would like to say it was the only time I lost my temper like that. I would like to tell you that I never threw my tennis racket across the court after a passing shot hit the net. I would love to proclaim that my 5-iron never ended up stuck in a tree after an errant approach shot. I would really, really like to say all those things, but I can't. Back in those days, when I got frustrated my anger was faster than a speeding bullet. I threw my mitt down in disgust on more than a couple occasions. My tennis racket still bears the scars of a zillion skids across the backcourt. I once buried my putter twelve inches deep in a soft green. I was a mess.

I'm so grateful that I've learned that a bad putt or a dropped ball doesn't mean I need to explode. I've mellowed with age, perhaps. But I believe I have a truer perspective on what is important. The trivialities of life don't cause me to go off like they did back in high school and college. I'm not perfect by any means. I still get angry -- often over stupid things. But I'm not like I once was. And I'm glad.

There are all kinds of stereotypes about quick tempers. Redheads are supposed to have short fuses. Same with drunks, and various nationalities. Some people use the stereotype as an excuse not to use any self-control. But what really strikes me about a quick temper is the immediate cause of the outburst. It seems to me that a sudden display of anger is usually in reaction to the most unimportant things. I know it works that way with me. If I suddenly find myself getting mad, the cause is most often something which really doesn't matter. My wife telling me to do something, a car pulling out into my lane of traffic then doing 10 mph under the speed limit. . . all reminiscent of the fits after missing a putt or missing an overhand smash. I suppose that's because there would be no slow-building anger over something so trivial.

Perhaps that's the big lesson behind Scripture's urging us to be "slow to anger." If we are legitimately angry after a few minutes, then it's probably more important than the stuff we have "flare-ups" over.

I don't see a prohibition on anger in the Bible. After all, Jesus probably wasn't whistling a happy tune with a whip made of cords in one hand and turning over money tables with the other. Jesus was angered over things of eternal significance, not over the minute details of the day. But it's so tempting to throw a fit when the fast food place forgets an order of fries in your drive-thru order. Mercifully. God gives us the strength to overcome the urge to lash out in anger, or even to keep that anger bottled up inside.

That strength will also mercifully keep you from looking like an idiot, throwing tennis rackets and baseball mitts and burying putters on a manicured green. Funny how it works out for our good, huh?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Ramblin', Gamblin' Man

Instead of clogging up Ron's comments at Northern 'burbs blog, I decided to take on the topic here. Please see the original post here and get some background on the comments. I won't try to recap everything so I am sure not to misrepresent anyone. But here's my opinion...

I remember taking membership classes many years ago to join a church. The pastor was highlighting the beliefs of the local church and the denomination. One of the points concerned gambling, and that the church didn't want any of it's members involved in gambling. My immediate question was simply, "What is the definition of gambling?" I told him that I was a businessman, and that I was considering opening a store in a town I was unfamiliar with. Wasn't that gambling?

The pastor handled the question well. His answer was that gambling was trying to gain monetary advantage without working at it. In other words, it was a gamble to open a new store, but I would in fact be working. To his mind, gambling involved trying to win instead of trying to succeed. I've always liked that distinction. So my opinion of gambling is colored by that backdrop.

From that point, let me look at the question, "Is gambling a sin?" To me, sin is basically a matter of the heart. So we come back to the idea of why a person gambles. Back in college, the guys on my dorm floor would gather occasionally for a poker game. Everyone had a cup or a bucket or a beer mug or something full of pennies. I brought my piggy bank, and we'd play into the early morning and have a great time. The most I ever won was likely $2.00. The most I ever lost was probably about the same amount. It wasn't about the money, it was about the game. I think that may be the case for some folks who travel to the casino to have fun. If they lose $40 on the night, then that's no worse than a decent meal at a restaurant. If that is the true motivation, then I don't have a problem with it -- to a point. (More on that later.)

Where I see problems is where the heart seeks after greed. Or more to the point, when a person is trying to win rather than trying to succeed. Spending a dollar on a lottery ticket is one thing, but making plans on how to win the lottery is something else entirely. I've stood behind plenty of these people while waiting to pay for my gas. These are the folks who sink $100 into lottery tickets so they stand a better chance of that multi-million dollar payday. Those people are gambling. Certainly the casinos are full of people who are trying to better themselves, not just have an enjoyable evening. How can you tell the difference? Aside from having a divine view of the heart, you might see if the gambler is still smiling after losing $75 for a clue.

But the issue goes beyond the heart. As Christians, we must be concerned with our behavior in front of others. If our good time with a scratch-off ticket (and I really don't understand how that can be fun) causes a weaker brother to stumble, then it should be off-limits for us. If our poker game is a problem for another Christian, it's not that important for us to ante up.

But wait, there's more! The other part of this whole issue is a Christian's support of gambling institutions. Should we be doing business in an industry which causes so much heartache and poverty? Should we put money into a casino knowing that it's presence is a call to so many who cannot turn away from it's siren call?

Most states are in the gambling business. Whether through lotteries or state-regulated casinos and gambling boats, our government is a part of the industry. They show no regard for the weak and succeptible. So we as Christians, what is our response?

My opinion is that most gambling isn't worth the potential trouble it could cause. Like Paul eating meat sacrificed to idols, the potential of harm is greater than the possible good. But the key is the heart, then it's a matter of our witness. Maybe you agree. Maybe you don't. Feel free to comment here, but make sure you stop by and let Ron know as well.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Congratulate me!

Taking time out here to announce that congratulations are in order! I found out that Attention Span is the number one site when you google the phrase "Al Gore's Aunt Pentecost"!!! Why someone googled that, I really don't know, but I'm going to take any number one I can get! Even google-ing "attention span" I'm only number six!

Anyway, it's a baseball-themed Christian Carnival over at a ticking time blog. Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack and head over for some good reading.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Kid's Challenge

I just got back from my regional denominational conference. I'll admit, I'm one of those people who really enjoys this conference. For one, it's only two days long and for two, I always seem to get a spiritual recharge from attending. I know a few people who really dread going. I can understand that to a degree -- I hate having two days tied up too -- but still I always feel like I've been in God's presence after I get home. Whether the speaker is fantastic or barely mediocre, God uses the words spoken to soften my heart like a meat tenderizer.

This year was shaking out the same way. The devotionals were really getting my mind rolling over things I needed to work on in my life and my ministry. The music was especially touching. I should mention that my church, as a singing entity, is... um... not professional quality. Yeah, that's it. Not professional quality. So when I get into a group of people who can really sing, God talks the shivers into running wind sprints up and down my nervous system. It was that way again today. I even got to sing some harmony -- something I don't try at my church too often. So it was all coming together for me.

Conference was supposed to end just after noon today. And it was great. Music. Preaching. Seeing friends. Just like normal. Then a little over an hour from the scheduled end of the conference, this kid stands up to address the delegates. I say "kid" partially because of his age(although he's only 15 years younger than me), partially because he's fairly new to our region and partially because he stepped on the way we "old folks" have always done things. You see, this kid got up while I was feeling good about the conference and talked about how badly he was feeling about what had been happening! How dare he! Why was he precipitating on my parade? Honestly, his words were not well chosen. He sounded confused at times. But the convicting Spirit of God was present.

The kid's point was simple: after a rousing service Sunday night, attendance at the early morning prayer gatherings were miniscule. To his reasoning, this meant that all the exhortations and urgings given on Sunday evening, which met with rousing amens, were not being taken seriously. To his mind, a message urging us to do things Jesus' way would mean that we'd all be jamming the prayer gathering room the next morning. His logic may be faulty (any meeting held first thing in the morning is not going to be the most attended session of the day), but the main message was not. We conference veterans were used to hearing what we need to do, agreeing to do it, then going home and forgetting about it. Right there he nailed me, and I know I wasn't alone. We like the sound of what we hear, but apparently not enough to change our lives and our churches and our ministries.

How do I know he nailed others besides me? Because I see the same phenomenon happen with church every week. Worshipers file into the pews for a one hour spiritual recharge like fat people gathering for a buffet. Yet does anything really change in their lives, in their Christian walks Monday through Saturday? The charge to "take it to the Lord in prayer" is written down, believed, and heartily sung while in the sanctuary, but ignored once the fanny hits the car seat on the way home. The encouragement to "love your neighbor as yourself" gets heads nodding and loud amens, but when it comes to dealing with real live neighbors the words of Jesus become quaint, pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. It's not a matter of disagreement. It's a matter of action. We believe it, but we just don't do it. Or we just don't want to believe it applies to us.

And so the kid's message which so rudely slapped us back to reality this morning is a charge not simply for the pastors and laypersons coming home from conference. It's a challenge for everyone who say all the right things on Sunday, but put Christ in the shadowy background during the week. It's a test for those who love God, but love their own lifestyle more. It's a reminder for all of us that as James said, "Faith without works is dead," and if we don't love Jesus enough to conform our life to His words then we should examine how much we really love Him in the first place.

When we say "Amen!" do we mean it enough to change?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A few quick links

First the Anchoress has been given some hard news. Read her post as she deals with the burden of suffering. (HT: Worship Naked)

Then read how an angry and confused person who is losing his faith looks at the church and it's many problems. (HT: Monday Morning Insight) I may be delving into a few of these complaints/insights in the next couple of weeks.

Finally, if you're familiar with the so-called "Toronto Blessing" then you will probably be interested in this bit of commentary from Andrew Strom quoted on the blog Totem To Temple. (HT: Ceruleum Sanctum)

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Why Do We Count?

I ran across this interesting post and string of comments at The Thinklings. In a discussion about church membership and why so many members who no longer attend remain on the rolls, commenter MC Hendrick blurted out, "Why do the churches even count how many attend a service." That struck a C Major chord with me.

My denomination has it's regional meeting next week. This week I got all the paperwork. Some of this is interesting reading. Other pages are dull and bland. But one section I can't miss is the statistical reports of all the churches in this region. Membership, attendance, income, missions giving, church debt. . . all kinds of numbers. And I do what I assume most other pastors do -- compare. Is my church doing better than other churches?

What an odd attitude that is! It's not that I don't "root" for other churches to do well. I just like to see that my congregation isn't the worst, I guess. It's a self-validation thing. I know we're not number one; I just don't want us to be last.

But MC Hendrick's question remains. Why do we even bother to count heads at a worship service? In my denomination, church attendance determines the number of delegates eligible to vote at conference. Aside from that I really don't see attendance being used for anything else. Well, maybe for two things.

First, we use attendance for comparison purposes. Some denominations will "reward" a pastor by sending him to a larger congregation. A church with more people is assumed to be better -- bigger is better, right? Without a count of attendees every Sunday, how are we going to know if we're a small church, a big church or somewhere in between? Somehow church attendance determines our church identity to many people.

But beyond that, church attendance is the statistic we tend to rely on to determine church health.

"How are things at your church?"

"Well, our attendance is over xxx now."

"That's great! Your church is doing well."

Is that right? Is our only call as a local church to put more backsides in the pews? Certainly not, although more bodies on Sunday morning is probably going to be a by-product of a healthy church ministry. And the Great Commission tells us to go and bring in more people. But Jesus says to make disciples, not just dunk 'em in the water and get 'em to show up every weekend. And what about the Great Commandment. You know: Love God with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself. (Loose paraphrase, I grant you.) Where is the evaluation for loving? Do we take some quiz out of Cosmopolitan magazine to see how well we love one another? Is there some kind of spiritual thermometer to show our love for God?

I'm not advocating a refusal to take attendance in worship. But I'd like to point out that this one statistic has been given much more importance than it deserves. What about a church of 500 with 450 coming from other churches? Is that church healthier than a church of 200 new believers?

So why do we bother to count? Does church attendance indicate spirituality? Does church attendance show obedience to Christ? Is a head count worth anything in terms of evaluation? I think there is a usefulness in tracking attendance, but there is also a danger -- a danger of missing the Gospel while we're busy keeping the pews full.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Air Force's "Religion" Issues

I decided to catch up on my newspaper reading. For those of you too young to remember, a newspaper is a hard copy of writing which is delivered on a daily basis to a box outside of your house. Yes, you have to physically get up, go outside and get it. Call it old school. But I find some things in the paper that I miss on the worldwide web. Like an opinion piece by syndicated columnist Tad Bartimus about religious bigotry in the Air Force. I can't find a copy of it online, so I'll try to provide a summary.

According to Ms. Bartimus, the Air Force is rife with religious discrimination BY "evangelical fundamentalism" which "is putting down deep roots at the highest levels." Yes, that's right. Apparently this woman is claiming that the Christians run the Air Force Academy and are discriminating against those who don't share their faith.

Now I should point out that in my search for an Internet copy of this column, I ran across several other columns by Ms. Bartimus critical of various military branches. Apparently military issues are a pet peeve for her. But in the column she seems to equate problems with sexual harassment with the existance of "Protestant service featuring stridently evangelical themes" at the academy. GASP! What a threat it must be to have someone conducting a service glorifying Jesus Christ! And that's the opinion of not only Ms. Bartimus, but also Gen. John Jumper, the top officer of the Air Force. According to the column, Gen. Jumper issued a statement:
"explaining that religion can interfere with teamwork in the military. And he acknowledged that the Air Force still needs to recognize that any faith can be a source of spirituality."
So apparently spirituality is good, but religion is bad. Interesting.

I wonder exactly how religion can mess up military teamwork. Do people still see evangelical Christians as people who say to a co-worker, "I'm not working on this project with that Jew!"? Or, "I can't be expected to share an office with a. . . homosexual!"? I realize there are a few of those Christians out there, but anyone with more than a passing interest in the teachings of Jesus Christ would realize that His followers are to love those who disagree with them. Didn't the Master Himself pray for his crucifiers while hanging on the old rugged cross? I would hope that any Christian should be willing to work with another member of his or her Air Force unit regardless of religious differences. Perhaps the religious aspect which messes up military teamwork is from the non-Christian, nervous about behavior around a Christian? Just a thought.

While I would agree that a religious service with required attendance is not a good idea for military personnel, the existance of a Protestant service with evangelical themes for those who wish to attend is hardly cause for presidential interaction Nor is it on a par with sexual harassment. In fact, Pentagon investigators looking into the charges of abuses against women found that there may have been some religious "insensitivity" but there was no overt religious discrimination.

I am constantly amazed at the way we Christians are perceived as a threat. I hold no to religious bigotry. Would I like to see everyone accept Christ? You bet. Am I going to beat people over the head to do it? No, that pretty much defeats the purpose. I can offer the Good News, but I cannot force anyone to receive it. Yet even offering the Gospel infringes upon the Freedom From Religion which is both craved and celebrated by many.

Sure the Gospel is an offense to those who do not believe. But a Christian walk or worship or even evangelism is not a threat to anyone's "spirituality." Unless, of course, it triggers a person's conscience.

"Lord, strengthen me to live a life which makes others see a lacking in their own life. And let me continue to see the lacking in my life as well."

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Predestination, Free Will and Murder

I was a little shocked at the statement. After all, Harold had grown up in the church. Shouldn't he know better?

I suppose you need the background on this one. You see, Harold's best friend Arthur had recently been convicted of murder. Arthur had grown up in the church too, but he had a problem with authority. One evening Arthur shot another man multiple times and left him on the side of the road, dead. He was captured by the police the next day and a few months later, Arthur was sent to prison for life.

Harold was left to try to make sense out of all this. He knew that Arthur liked guns, but he never dreamed that this hobby would tempt his friend to kill someone in cold blood. So I suppose it was inevitable that Harold would find an explanation that would absolve Arthur of any real wrongdoing.

"Arthur had to kill that guy. Everything we do is predetermined. Arthur just did what he was supposed to do. There was no way he couldn't have done it."

Harold had it all worked out. But hearing that he really believed this gave me pause.

There is no quicker way to get into a theological argument than to bring up predestination and free will. (Well, maybe the rapture and the millenium, but we'll save that for another day!) We see two extremes on a continuum and assume that we must pick an end and hold on. Stereotypically, if you stand for the sovereignty of God, then the idea of free will becomes downplayed. Or if you believe in human freedom, then the doctrine of predestination must be ignored. And somehow I don't see it either way. Yet I see it both ways.

Harold's assertion was that his friend Arthur was so predestined that he had absolutely no free will. Yet that seems to mitigate against what we observe about people and what we believe about God. Certainly God would not predestine Arthur to become a cold-blooded killer. And certainly Arthur would be able to make his own decisions about taking a human life. On the other hand, if Arthur can make those decisions on his own, then what does that mean to God's sovereignty? Isn't God the Almighty One? Doesn't He hold all the cards? Make all the decisions? Determine the rising and falling of each nation?

My question is this: why would humans having free will take anything away from God's sovereignty? Is not that freedom given by a sovereign God?

Scripturally, I hear the argument from Exodus about God hardening Pharoah's heart. If this is so, then it is proof that God is sovereign. But I don't discount that. Instead, I point out that before God hardened Pharoah's heart, Pharoah hardened his own heart. He made the decision to torment the Israelites on his own. After a couple of times, God didn't let Pharoah go back on his word. If anything, this actually shows God honoring Pharoah's free will, up until the point where God stepped into the ruler's heart.

One thing we must remember is that God has foreknowledge. He knows what will happen because He has perfect knowledge of the past, present and the future. But simply because God knows what we will choose does not mean He forces our choice. God knew before the creation of the world that I would have a taco tonight. Yet I freely made that choice when I decided to stop in and watch part of a girl's softball game and saw a sign at the concession stand advertising tacos. My choice was free, but it was God who gave me the opportunity to choose. I do not deny that God has the right to interact in this world in whatever way He sees fit. However, God's sovereignty and human freedom are not mutually exclusive.

Now certainly this is a much more complicated issue than I have laid out here. There are plenty of verses to dissect and ideas to consider. But Harold illustrated to me how easy it is to deny our responsibility by claiming God's sovereignty. And I know the same danger exists when we embrace our free will to the extent that we put ourselves on a level with God. When we do not consider how God's sovereignty and human free choice work together, we rob ourselves of a clearer understanding of the incredible way God works in our lives.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Interesting Developments

First we had the story of a blogger who was fired for a post on his blog. I mentioned Lance from Ragged Edges last week. Go check the posts since then and see a whole lot of backbiting and accusations leveled from "anonymous" commenters. How sad to see people act like this. Continue to pray for Lance and his family as they prepare to move and look for work.

Next we find a blogger ending his blog because of fears that his opinions will keep him from advancing in his career. D. Mobley is taking down A Physicist's Perspective. Go read some of the archives of this very good blogger.

A shout out to new blogger Donnie at Parable of the Net, who interacted with my Star Spangled Idol post and gave it a beautiful real-life extension.

And don't neglect the latest Star Wars-flavored edition of Christian Carnival over at The Bible Archive. I can't wait to dig into some of those features.

Now I'm off to finish picking up discarded bottle rockets from the backyard...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Without Access

After a busy weekend, I come back to find I have no Internet access. Now I wasn't going to type out long theological tretises or exceding witty prose -- just wanted to check the email before I fell into bed. But I couldn't do it. And it bugged me. It wasn't so much that there was something I had to see on the web, as it was the fact that I couldn't do it if I did want to.

The problem is fixed now. I can finally check on my blog and everybody else's blog and google whatever I want this evening. But it was a weird feeling not being able to get on line from a location where I usually have no trouble.

Some friends told me about an experience they had at a racetrack. These guys have passes that let them go just about anywhere for all events except for one. At that event, they were shut out of places where they usually were welcomed with open arms. They were not happy about the whole affair. "It was like not being welcome in your own home," they told me.

Jesus told the story of the prodigal, or lost son. That young man realized his mistake and longed to be back where he belonged. There his father stood with open arms, waiting for the boy's return. Can you imagine what it would have been like if the father had turned the boy away without access to the places he used to go? Sure he would have deserved it, but that's not an accurate picture of our Heavenly Father. Jesus wanted to illustrate that the forgiveness of God is based on nothing more than our repentance. We are not cut off without access from our Father's grace.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Star Spangled Idol

It's Independence Day weekend and I'm about to start trouble. I started this post a few months ago, but it's taken this long to get the words out.

One of the first things I did when I started as pastor at our church eight years ago was to move two items out of the front of the sanctuary. I'm not sure that many people have even noticed in that time, but there used to be a Christian flag and an American flag in each front corner behind the pulpit. I imagine they had stood there undisturbed for years. The situation certainly wasn't unusual. I remember as a child, going to the Methodist Church with my grandmother and seeing the two flags there at the front of the choir loft. I'd bet they sit that way in numerous churches around the Midwest today. As a child, and even as a young adult, I never gave them much thought.

But the more I thought about the flags, the less I liked them. Don't get me wrong. I'm a proud American. I love my country. And I'm a proud Christian -- proud in a Christian kind of way. I love my God. So this isn't an issue with either my patriotism or my Christianity. But I see far too much of a union between church and state. Or if you don't like that phrase, how about between love of country and love of God?

David at Jollyblogger had a wonderful post this week about calling America a "Christian nation" and how that moniker was inappropriate and incorrect. We as Americans have freely wrapped our country in Christian rhetoric while we as Christians have bonded our faith with our patriotism, and frankly it's a poor relationship. Christ and America are nowhere near interchangeable, nor are they synonymous, but too many in the pews see no difference. Some people have gone too far the other way, like these folks. Nice idea, but too extreme.

After having dealt with the flags in the sanctuary, I found myself a few years later watching as the church trustees erected a new sign with space for a Christian flag and an American flag. Once again, I had to play out the difficulties that this marriage causes. Federal Law prohibits any other flag from flying above the flag of the United States. But exactly how scriptural is it to fly a Christian flag below the Stars and Stripes? It's not scriptural. And it paints a pretty poor picture of where our loyalties as followers of Christ are supposed to be. The Bible tells us often that our first loyalty is not to our earthly government but to our Heavenly Father. Christ says that if we love our own family more than Him, we are not worthy of Him. How much more is this true if we love our country to that extent?

And what about flying the flags side by side? Are we then making the two equal, or are we simply admitting that we belong to each institution at the same time? I've got to admit that I wrestle with this one. I had no problem taking the flags out of the sanctuary since I don't want anyone thinking that we are there to worship America. I've resisted the urge to tear the "patriotic" section from the hymnals thus far, but I don't use them in a worship service. That all seems pretty clear. But outside my church flies an American flag and a Christian flag on separate poles, the same distance from the ground. Is that wrong? As I said, I'm still wrestling.

What encourages me is that God is looking upon our hearts. I know in my heart that my country, although I love it, is not my first priority. And I consistently teach that we are to be obedient Americans only as long as we do not place a star spangled idol before our allegience to God Almighty. This is the key. God is God, and no matter how good a person George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or John Hancock really was, those men were not. They certainly did not construct a country or a governing document which nears the plain occupied by our Creator and Savior. As long as we keep that straight in our minds, and in our hearts, then we can celebrate the weekend as Christians first and as Americans second.