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Archive for June, 2010

I dislike predictions about when the world will end. Since the dawn of Christianity, people have been claiming Christ will return in a few years, or the church is about to enter a time of great persecution and suffering. Since many of these people have been proven wrong, I offer the following prediction with the greatest trepidation and humility:

The church’s preferential treatment in America is coming to an end.

The latest indication that this prediction is coming true came in the form of a news story about the Supreme Court’s ruling against a chapter of a college group, the Christian Legal Society (You can read a CNN article about it here or read a previous post about it here.) The society chapter had sued UC Hastings College of the Law because the school denied the group official recognition. The school withheld recognition because CLS forbade practicing homosexuals from holding leadership positions within the group.

If you read the comments attached to the CNN article, you will find one particularly insightful note from Bloke: “It’s amazing that on some other sites people are saying this requires Christian groups to accept all. It does no such thing. It simply makes it clear that if your University has a non-discrimination policy in effect to qualify for funds you either agree to it or you get no funds.”

Bloke’s comment points toward an expectation many Christians in America have: we expect the government to take our side. For so many years, America was predominantly Christian, so our faith got special treatment. Courts had people swear on Bibles, politicians endorsed Christian morals (sometimes out of true conviction, sometimes for votes), and schools even encouraged a Godly piety. Even as recently as the late 1990s and early into 2000, my high school had a picture of Christ on the cross hanging in a hallway (It may still be there fore all I know.) No other religions were represented in the school’s decor.

Should we, however, expect this treatment? The arguments about the intent of the founding fathers is irrelevant, because the work they left to us states clearly that the government shall not endorse any religion. Nowhere does the Constitution require our leaders to consult a Bible, pray for guidance, or even acknowledge the existence of God. Simply put, we were not founded with the requirement to be a Christian nation, but a democratic one.

And right now, democratic principles are not in our favor.  A recent Gallup poll found that 43.1 percent of Americans claimed they attended church about once a week (You can see a breakdown of the poll here.). This number is actually an increase from 2009’s 42.8 percent, but is still far from a voting majority. Even if this number is true, there is no guarantee that all of these church-goers will vote or agree on the issues.

This illusion that we are a Christian nation causes some of the faithful to misdirect their energy. Too much time and energy is spent trying to make us look like a Christian nation, to regain the preferential treatment we formerly enjoyed. Groups have attempted to force the government to allow us to deliver Christian prayers at government functions, to use the word “God,” and I am sure some other equally superfluous issues. Superfluous because even if the Christians won these fights, nothing would change. If the government uses “God” in all of its documents, it will not compel anyone to believe in a god, let alone the God. If Christians cannot in good conscience deliver a prayer without mentioning Christ at a government function, and the government objects, perhaps we should excuse ourselves.

Instead of pursuing the privilege, we need to acknowledge our equal, but democratically inferior, status. If we think of this as a non-Christian nation, and us as merely residents required to care for those outside God’s kingdom, then perhaps our efforts will be focused less on the trappings of government sponsorship and more toward taking over the government one voter at a time. When the people serve God, then we won’t need any laws about our faith.

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How we respond to sin seems to be modeled on how we hope God will respond to our own. This is only natural, since Jesus told us to pray for the forgiveness of “our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Lk. 11:4 NRSV). When you consider it from this perspective, it is no wonder that many Christians adopt a very forgiving attitude toward other sinners, since we shall be forgiven if we forgive (Lk. 6:37-38).

I’m beginning to realize, however, that there is a danger to interpreting these verses in such a fashion. This subject came to mind after hearing a sermon this morning about homosexuality. The pastor, a man whom I believe to be very well intentioned, told a story about a homosexual couple he knew in Florida. After being friends with them for years, the couple came to him to ask for a blessing ceremony. With a heavy heart, and what sounded like an almost apologetic tone, he told the couple that Scripture and the Presbyterian tradition would not allow him to perform the ceremony. It was a very nice story, and indicative of how effective a loving personality can be for spreading the Gospel, but it bothered me that he almost seemed sorry for his conscientious inability to perform the ceremony. In fact, at the end of the sermon, he apologized to anyone he had offended.

Should we be sorry that we cannot participate in sin? This approach to sin seems to be common when dealing with homosexuality in particular. While indicting homosexuality, Christians have recognized that homosexuals take this issue personally. To call homosexuality a sin is interpreted as an attack of the person’s character. Not wanting to cause offense, Christians take the most roundabout and light-footed approach to condemning this particular sin, if we condemn it at all.

This difficulty is easy to understand and empathize with; no one wants to tell a loved one that they are acting outside of God’s kingdom. No one wants to see a relationship destroyed by their own actions. Besides, it is easy to justify this approach. Jesus said to be forgiving.

The problem is that if we are to be imitators of Christ (1Cor. 11:1), then we must imitate Christ in context. Jesus was very forgiving of sinners who came to him in humility, seeking forgiveness, but he was very harsh with those seeking to justify themselves. This arrogance is the very point of the parable involving the Pharisee, who goes to the Temple and informs God that he is a great person, but the tax collector goes to the Temple and confesses how evil he is and comes away forgiven in the Lord’s sight (Lk. 18:9-14). This parable, in combination with Jesus’ very blunt and harsh attitude with the Pharisees, indicates one thing to me: God is not kind toward sin.

Moreover, our “we’re sorry we cannot help you sin” attitude does not help the person whom we believe to be wrong. If our attitude is apologetic and remorseful, does that not imply to the world that we are “ashamed of the Gospel” (Rom. 1:16)? Why would anyone believe and repent if they see that we do not want to believe the Gospel? Rather, those outside of God’s kingdom will try to convert us, urging us to give up the beliefs that seem to cause us so much pain and become more accepting.

The tightrope we must walk involves us demonstrating both love and justice, kindness and condemnation. Our concern and our love should be showered on all, but we should not accept their sin, not regret that we cannot participate in it. If condemning sin offends someone, then we should offend them. This the example of the prophets of old, of Jesus’s life, and should be the paradigm we use to confront sin in the church at all times. In this way, we might offend someone today, and save them from the Devil’s kingdom (1Cor. 5:5) tomorrow.

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McDonald’s has been sued for a number of odd ones over the years: making coffee too hot, making people fat, and even for a man getting in a vehicular accident because he chose to drink a milkshake while driving. Now, the Center for Science in the Public Interest may add to the list: the group is threatening to sue McDonald’s for providing toys in Happy Meals (you can read one of the numerous stories about this here).

Whether you disagree or agree with the suit, their basic logic is unassailable–offering a toy makes a kid want the meal. In The Huffington Post, the CSPI’s executive director, Michael Jacobson, contends that this practice is “unfair and deceptive.” Children, he argues, cannot understand the concept of marketing and so are particularly vulnerable to corporate influence. Parents, however, cannot be counted upon to protect their children. In a piece by NPR, Jacobson says parents become “worn down” by the pleas of their children: “They don’t always want to be saying no to their children. We feel like an awful lot of parents would be relieved if this one pressure was removed from them.”

This case essentially boils down to who should practice discipline. The CSPI wants the government to take over some of the responsibilities of parenting. Some people, however, would rather keep the ability and not penalize McDonald’s for providing a choice.

While I do not have kids, I know that if I did, I would not want the government’s help in this regard. I feel perfectly capable of telling my hypothetical children they cannot have a high-calorie meal, except on rare occasions as a reward. If they pester me, my wife and I should have the courage and strength to punish them for that. I don’t see a high-calorie, high-fat meal as necessarily evil, since I myself will occasionally eat one, but something to be taken in moderation. That moderation is what I want to teach my children.

Besides, how far should this go? Should charities stop taking donations, instead receiving government hand-outs from a special charity tax? Should I not help my neighbor jump-start her car, but pay the government for a roving jumper van that helps out those who leave their car’s lights on?

As much as I dislike the idea of this lawsuit, I do realize there is another side to it. If Happy Meals are considered too dangerous, then the government may have the obligation to address this evil (Although, if Happy Meals are as terrible as the CSPI claims, why don’t they try to ban them?). The government already does this to some extent by banning products deemed harmful (such as certain medicines, foods, etc.). While I may want the ability to provide a possible future child of mine with a toy-laden Happy Meal, I certainly do want the government to stop a company from releasing a defective flu vaccine for children.

So, I open this up to the readers. Do you think the government should exercise discipline for us? Is this a poor lawsuit? Or, are Happy Meals especially dangerous and should be kept from children?

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The Paradox of God’s Love

There was a beautiful moment at church the other day:  a disabled, wheel-chair bound person, brought to the church by a volunteer servant to the infirm,  gave the church a Bible she owned for over 40 years.  She said she received a Children’s Bible as a gift when she was young, but never used it herself due to her disability.  Because of the way the church had showed her love, and because she wanted someone to benefit from the Bible, she gave it to the church to be read during the worship service.  We read from it that day for Children’s Sunday.

This was a beautiful moment because it reminded us how God elevates the weak, sick, and infirm, promoting them to a special place in the community as a demonstration of the unique character of his love.  Sure, God reveals his special love to marginal peoples through the charitable work of the church, but few in the church would expect to receive God’s love from those on the margins who  have so little to give.  It’s a remarkable paradox–God promotes his power and love through those who seem so powerless to love.

This is why the triune God and his church are so good:  we, all of whom are weak, experience God’s love through the miracle of his healing, in which the Spirit empowers his children to give whatever they have for the benefit of others.  In the church, it’s not just the strong that give;  God makes it so the “weak” are made strong through their gracious gifts to others.

It’s a beautiful thing to observe.

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My secret hobby is to peruse the reader comments attached to online news stories.

Why is it a dirty secret? It is a kind of voyeurism: watch people on the Internet and you will see the shocking and horrifyingly interesting acts of rudeness and pettiness. For example, in response to one individual’s criticism of the Tea Party movement, a reader on CNN wrote, in part: “You lose. Yawn. You look silly. … Oh, and Wes, …..you still lost. Big time bud. Bigger yawn.” (You can read the story and the comments here.)

More disturbing than this are the Christian comments. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ have decided to fulfill the Great Commission by commenting on every news story that uses the word “religion.” While many of these Christians may be sincere, God-fearing men and women who simply wish to proclaim the good news, many of them look like idiots when they post. On a CNN article about President Barack Obama’s religious tolerance (click here), one commenter told everyone that Jesus is the Way and closed his comment with, “All religions, like aspirin are not alike.”

(By the way, generic drugs are now required to have the same active ingredients as their name-brand counterparts. While I am not a pharmacist, a pharmacist told me that most generics are virtually the same as their name-brand counterparts–which would include aspirin.)

I am always hesitant to criticize anyone who proclaims the Word of God in a public forum. Such tactics, while not the ones I prefer to use, are the favorite of many of the blessed prophets of Israel. Still, in this instance, I think I am justified in offering the following advice: Don’t make us look silly!

It is not silly to proclaim the Word of God, but it does seem silly to enter into an argument and insert Bible verses that have almost nothing to do with the discussion and do not address the questions of others. If someone has doubts about the validity of the Bible, do we show respect to them and their concerns if we simply quote a verse of the book they doubt? Christians for 2,000 years have been answering critics with a combination of rational thinking and biblical quotations; perhaps we should do the same.

While there is a time and place for simply declaring the Word and judgment of God, Paul’s journeys in Acts clearly show someone who is concerned about addressing people in language that will reach them–arguments that consider the person’s background. Rather than taking the easy way out, Internet Christians, take the hard road and try to understand our critics.

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In the Fall 2009  issue of the Center for Theology, I wrote that a good theology is characterized by 1) the marriage our heart and mind; 2) its service to the church; and 3) the constant translation and application of God’s revelation to the particularity of our contexts.

I recently had a new thought regarding what makes theology “good” in relation to something Francis Shaeffer said about the nature of mysticism. He said, “Mysticism is nothing more than a faith contrary to rationality, deprived of content and incapable of
communication. You can bear witness to but you cannot describe it.”

Reading this quote, from an evangelical mystic par excellence, made me think of the value of theology in providing a common witness of the faith. While theology must be fueled and informed by mystical practices such as prayer, meditation, and reflection, it cannot rely solely on things that are “contrary to rationality, deprived of content and incapable of communication.”  Rather, theology must engage reason, content, and communication in order to provide the church with a common language to bind its members together.

Mysticism alone could not produce such statements as “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”  And so, I think another way to measure  good theology is the way in which it captures the mysteries of God in a universal, common language that helps me recognize my brother and sister in Christ. Without a good theology, I’d be afraid a church service would simply be a lot of voiceless, independent, isolated people communing with God without any tools to share their experiences.  A good theology provides us the tools (such as the Creeds, the liturgy, and the Bible itself) to bind our mystical experiences into a common experience that communicates the faith as recognizably Christian.

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While reading an old news story about the Supreme Court, I realized the push to have no discrimination takes the fun out of life.

The story on Christianity Today described a case before the Supreme Court involving the University of California law school and the local chapter of the Christian Legal Society. The law school claims that the group’s policy prohibiting all but Christians to occupy leadership positions within the society violates the school’s non-discrimination policy. Being lawyers, the Christian society decided to resist.

What made me realize the extent to which non-discrimination will take the fun out of life was a comment made by the defense’s lawyer, Michael McConnell. He noted that the school’s rules do allow organizations to restrict membership based on attendance and competitive contests to qualify for the group. Many people would say, “That’s silly,” but McConnell merely pointed out the ultimate conclusion of this extreme form of inclusiveness: we will not be able to have fun.

The long-running show Jeopardy will have to be cancelled: it discriminates against the less intelligent. Football players will no longer need pads, because the games will be decided by a group hug that lasts for four quarters in order to include the physically unfit (and no instant replay will be allowed). Ladies, the next time a guy asks you out, be sure to have your lawyer on speed-dial if you turn him down.

Diversity, and the freedom to use that diversity, add a lot of fun to life. The NFL should not be forced to let me play quarterback (and thus ruin the chances of the New England Patriots), because the games will be a lot more interesting for fans and players alike. Also, all of the women who turned me down for dates were not necessarily evil for doing so. I am not qualified to participate in the NFL, and maybe I wasn’t right for those women (but seriously, did so many of you have to reject me before I found my wife?).

Obviously there are evil forms of discrimination that should be avoided; however, the kind of inclusiveness that this law school advocates may be as evil. Will my church be forced to hire a Buddhist during the next pastoral call, despite the fact that none of the congregants believe in that Asian religion? Will I be allowed to form a club that meets to play only chess and reject people who only want to play checkers? Can we give prizes to reward those who work hard, or would that discriminate against the lazy? It is ironic, but this extreme form of inclusiveness seems poised to eliminate the very diversity it claims to protect.

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