Saturday, September 24, 2016

Taking a stand against hatred in the public square

Remember that 'art' exhibit of Christ submerged in urine?

If works of art in general are free speech, this is hate speech.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Spiritual health checklist - Moving forward

As I have written before, I have wanted to create a spiritual health checklist, mostly for the purposes of keeping myself honest and challenging myself to grow. This is a first draft where I try to give shape to the specific items to check. (Not all of these are positive things; some of them identify negatives.) All questions and feedback are welcome.
I have too much stuff.
I take good care of my things.
I manage my finances well.
I feel satisfaction and gratitude for what I have.

I have habits that disrupt my life, that I have trouble controlling.
I am easily upset.
I end up eating, drinking, or spending more than I want.
I can stick to a schedule or a budget.

When someone criticizes me or my work, I go on the offense.
I often find myself in situations where I feel righteous anger.
When I joke around, I sometimes go too far. I make comments about other people that I would prefer to keep private.

Many people don't live up to my standards.
When someone is rude or unkind to me, it bothers me for a long time. 

I can find the right thing to say.
I am on peaceful terms with the people in my family.

I avoid social situations because I feel awkward.
I'm glad when someone joins me for lunch.
I invite people to my home or to eat with me.

I admire the best achievements or traits in many people.
I am willing to lead if asked.
I am willing to serve if asked.
Am I more comfortable with, or enthusiastic about, leading or following?

I am my own worst critic. 
When someone criticizes me or my work, I become defensive.
If someone compliments me, I accept it graciously. 

Some of the virtues, or spiritual strengths that are on my mind:
I'd be glad for any comments, suggestions, or insights.

* A checklist based on the Rudyard Kipling poem, "If"

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Moses: Two Ways of Resisting Oppression

In the book of Exodus we read about the life of Moses. He was troubled by the injustice in Egypt and how his own people were oppressed. At different times in his life, he took two very different approaches to confronting the evil.

In his earlier days, when he saw an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew, he attacked and killed the Egyptian. No good came to his people, no good came to him, no good came to the name of God or the cause of righteousness. He fled Egypt as a refugee, a criminal and a wanted man. His violence had helped nothing.  His fleeing had helped nothing. 

He came back to Egypt when God sent him. Moses still cared that his people suffered; now he knew that God cared too. And nothing changed without the power of God. The Egyptians could not blame the Israelites for their calamities, because the calamities did not come from their hands. It took the power of God to free his people without the people resorting to bloodshed. God accomplished Israel's freedom through the power of the word, through signs and through wonders -- but not through Moses' attack.

There are different ways of resisting oppression. Evil must be resisted, but there are ways of resisting that only increase the evil. Without a devotion to what is right -- and with blood staining the hands of those who rise up -- the fall of one oppressor is followed by the rise of another. When a leader has seen God, and knows his unworthiness, and will lead to Sinai -- when the people will become a godly people -- then there is hope.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Leadership and Top Cover

top cover (noun): combat airplanes flying at high altitude to protect a military force from air attack, especially from other airplanes flying at a lower altitude (adapted from Merriam-Webster, rephrased for readability) 

In much the western world, Christianity has been has been stripped of top cover. The seminaries and high level church leadership no longer take a public stand against the constant attacks against Christianity. In many cases, the counter arguments against atheists and other anti Christians are often made in a disorganized way at the lowest level where individual church members take leadership. The pastors and church leaders no longer write editorials to newspapers to set the record straight on the Christian position or appeal for peaceful behavior in a crisis, as a survey of newspapers from older times will show was once normal. The individual churches no longer expect and insist that their people stay clear of drugs, excess alcohol, and non marital sex. This leads to a lower quality of life for the people they are supposedly serving. 

It often seems that the Christian leadership is more interested in other things than providing top cover to Christians. Those on the right seem more interested in revisiting arguments with other Christian groups than in leading their flocks and through the current round of attacks. Those on the left often seem more interested in proving they are not like those on the right. And as always, there are some few more interested in their own reputations than in Christ's. "The people are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." That says something about the shepherds. Here are some areas where Christians could truly benefit from top cover:
  1. The idea that “nothing is really wrong” is morally bankrupt. It is against all human experience and leaves us with no way to condemn obvious wrongs such as the slave trade or the holocaust.
  2. The Bible contains much that is good for all cultures, places, and times. Besides things that are specific to the cultures where the books of Bible were written, there are human universals that need to be considered.
  3. No man is an island. For culture to work together, either it shares values or it resorts to coercion. I think most people would agree it is better to work for shared values.
  4. Modern culture’s rejection of the traditional family has led directly to modern high levels of poverty for women and children. It creates a cycle in which the children are at higher risk of all kinds of harm during childhood, experience lower chances of success throughout their own lives, and often repeat that cycle for another generation. The current poverty-and-welfare model of the single mother family does not benefit the mother, the child, or the father.
  5. As long as children continue to be born, it will be best for the children if their father and mother are together and learn to live in peace. As long as raising children costs money and takes work, it will be best for the father and mother to be a team that learns to work together well and treat each other with respect.
  6. Marriage is more than a piece of paper. The stable family model continues to benefit the parents into their old age, when they do not have to face their declining years alone. Simple and routine daily tasks can be shared, someone else can help look after the home and health, and such a simple thing as a ride to the doctor’s office can be more manageable as part of a team.
Dear pastors, seminary professors, and church leaders: whenever you see someone struggling, and that struggle could have been prevented by living in a less broken society, hear the call to step up and provide top cover.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Across the divide: Are there benefits in private confession?

When we look at divisions in the church, what do we think of? For me, it's easy to focus on areas where I would want other groups to see the advantages of my own point of view. (Do we want others to see the errors of their ways because it confirms that we are right?) But what if I looked at the other side? What if there are advantages to someone else's point of view?

With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at the practice of Confession. Some people may not belong to groups that practice confession at all. So consider what happens to us -- or to someone we love -- after doing something truly inexcusably wrong.

If a wrong is defended, it becomes a living part of us.
If a wrong is excused, it is accepted and will be repeated.
If a wrong is ignored, it stays with us.
If a wrong is rejected, only then does it leave us.

We would do well to forgive ourselves only after we have rejected the wrong, not before. 

While some Protestant groups have confession, it is unusual for it to be private confession. It is more often a public confession in which common sins are discussed at a common level. That is to say, it's awfully generic -- possibly too generic for us to receive the full benefits of actually confessing and rejecting our own particular faults. The Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox still commonly have private confession.

So, what are the benefits of private confession? It allows us to see -- more, confronts us with -- the realities of our own character. We gain in both honesty and humility. We lose arrogance and gain perspective. It builds our compassion for others, renews our relationships and directs us towards healing and reconciliation. And if there is a confessor -- someone who hears our confessions -- that person can hold us accountable in the future. With forgiveness, there is cleansing and renewal. We cannot "come clean" without acknowledging that we were wrong.

"If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

On the other side of the divides in our churches, there are things we can learn from each other.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

How should we disciple others?

Martin LaBar posted earlier this month, giving guidelines on discipling others. There's a worthy read. He invites suggestions and so I'd like to offer mine here. I think he begins in an excellent place:
The most important guideline is to be an example of Christlikeness.
As I picture "making disciples", I wonder where to start, and here is a draft which could surely use improvement. For most items I simply list them, but on a few I've added some explanation that I hope is helpful:
  1. Cultivate love of God.
  2. Cultivate love of neighbor.
  3. Cultivate a desire to understand.
  4. Cultivate humility. Recognition of our own faults leads to compassion towards others' faults. An honest examination of our own faults is healthy -- not to cultivate guilt or shame but to cultivate humility, appreciation for others' kindness and for their insights. Knowing our own shortcomings helps to cultivate humility towards others, towards "enemies", towards the Bible's teachings, and towards people whose views we do not understand.
  5. Cultivate a love of righteousness. Along with it, cultivate an understanding of righteousness: that it is not for exalting ourselves, but for uplifting others, for safeguarding their peace and well-being.
  6. Cultivate a delight in the word of God, and in His righteousness.
  7. Cultivate a love of wisdom. Build the understanding that knowledge without love is incomplete.
  8. Cultivate gratitude. Gratitude is an intentional appreciation of our blessings that enriches our spiritual lives and strengthens our love of God and others. It gives the most blessings when practiced continually and habitually. Gratitude towards God will strengthen both love of God and faith in God, and these in turn will strengthen our hope. Gratitude towards our family, friends, and other people in our lives will bless both them and ourselves.
  9. Cultivate fellowship. Look at the lost as our own brothers or sisters, as the prodigal's father reminded the brother, "Your brother was lost". Look at the found as our own brothers and sisters, too.
  10. Cultivate gentleness and respect, without which we cannot answer anyone rightly.
  11. Encourage them to have 'heroes of the faith' among the Biblical figures such as Abraham and Ruth, or heroes of spiritual excellence outside the Bible. The examples inspire us, and the act of appreciating others is itself healthy. I'm convinced that our hearts and minds grow in proportion to the number of people we honestly admire.
  12. Encourage them to consider how their own life's work will be a blessing, through means such as friendship, honesty, and compassion.
And then I didn't find a handy heading for these, which might come under several of the other items above: 
In our thoughts, do not rehearse grievances but how to resolve them. In our words, do not rehearse insults or comebacks but praise and blessings. Become adept at graceful words and satisfying phrases of recognition. Learn how to apologize sincerely and humbly in a way that repairs the original insult or injury with suitable recognition that is due. Ready your arsenal -- or first aid kit -- of apt words to meet the challenges you know you will face. Aim for mastery at peacemaking and fellowship. Never intentionally meet enemies -- or people in a strained relationship with you -- without first praying for their good.

I was edified by the exercise that Martin suggested; I miss the old "meme" days of the blogosphere when it would be handy to tag people and invite a lot of participation. I'd encourage people to try to organize their own thoughts on how we should disciple others. It helps the focus.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The worries of this world

... The worries of this world, and the deceitfulness of wealth, choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful ... (Matthew 13:22)
"Worry" is one of the acceptable vices. It can come from honest care, from love, from concern. When worry comes, it does not seem like a temptation. Instead, refraining from worry seems like indifference or coldness. And then so many noble causes promote themselves through fear: fear of some impending apocalypse if we do (or don't) vote for a certain candidate, or promote a certain cause. (And some causes claim to be noble by promoting fear. After all, saving us from catastrophe must be noble.) Every day we hear it implied, "Every good person ought to be worried!" 

And lately I have had personal reasons to struggle with worry, as one relative struggles with COPD, another with addiction, another having been deployed to an area that is not exactly as safe as back home.

Worry is based on fear and helplessness. It drains our energy without accomplishing anything. Worry takes my focus off of the things that I can control, off of my own responsibilities. It makes things more unmanageable by adding exhaustion, tension, and fear to our cares. And if it is a thing under my control -- I could plan or act instead of worrying.

Would it be better to do nothing than to worry? At least, at the end, I would not have drained myself. Worry is marked by how unproductive it is: we come to the same worries over again, and there is no end to the worries because the worry did not improve anything. If there is something I can or should do, let me do that instead of worrying. If there is nothing that I can do, let me voice my cares to one who is in control, and let it go.