Wednesday, September 27, 2006

As We Forgive

“As we forgive those who sin against us” – that is part of our daily prayers as a Christian; we call for mercy only in the same breath as we forgive others. Forgiveness can be such a struggle. Often, it is beyond me and I need help. As I endure malice from others, often malice forms inside me in reaction. Poison. Where does help come from? How can I love better and think better?

My pastor taught me to look at the Lord’s Prayer as the prayer I would pray wholeheartedly if my soul were what it should be, grown fully to the image of God in Christ. So I turn to it for help. The other petitions show me how I can forgive. That is not to say that is their purpose; but it is to say that they give me more strength and wisdom than is my own and show me more of God's mind than I yet possess.

How can I forgive? I can't do it for myself but I can do it for our Father. I does not serve my honor but the honor of God’s name. Forgiving does not establish myself as above over the other, but it does work for the coming of His kingdom, for His will on earth, not just in heaven. I have to remember that I am a sinner too. It removing the temptation to bitterness and hatred, and delivers us both from the Evil One.

And if that only quiets my self-righteousness some – because my unforgivingness is too often only self-righteousness – then I try again.

Some people would see forgiveness as wrong, as pretending sin is right. It is not that; that confuses “forgiving” and “excusing” – if it were right, it would not need forgiving. Forgiveness only applies to what is truly wrong, make no mistake. But I want to let God alone have credit as the righteous one and the holy one. I want to keep myself far from taking advantage of someone else’s failings to claim superiority over them.

Then I can really pray, "Lord have mercy on me, a sinner."

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Doug's Practical Evangelism

Doug shares some practical experience evangelizing people of Jewish faith based on his stay in Israel. Like many real-life evangelism efforts, he notes that there's no substitute for being devoted to God and living it, and no substitute for actually knowing and caring about the people in your life.

He's making a series of it, watch for updates:
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Teenage Sunday School does Genesis 1-2

Anybody looking for a teenage Sunday School curriculum? I'm having to build one as I go. I'm putting this particular post into the public domain; in general I retain rights on these posts unless I specifically say otherwise. For this post, I'm specifically saying otherwise: this one is in the public domain.

I've got early teenagers, mostly boys, full of questions and at different levels of Bible knowledge. My goal is that they look at the text and understand the "big picture" questions behind it, always with an eye on this question: Is God faithful and good? So for awhile my weekend post will probably be, as often as not, the Sunday School lesson for the day, in case it becomes useful for anyone else. As you read, don't expect the most high-level analysis in the world, but it's where these teenagers are at the moment.

Creation: Who is God?
Read Genesis 1:15-2:1
(By this age they have heard the account of creation often enough that we don't have to belabor the details, so we picked up in the middle.)

Discussion questions:
  1. What do we know about God only from the text we've read? That is, if what we've just read were the only thing you had ever heard about God, what would you know about God?

    The class got that God is:
    • powerful
    • creative
    • likes making things
    • makes good things
    • if he makes good things, he must be good
    • blessed the world
    • looks at the world and evaluates the world / is aware and makes decisions

  2. Compare and contrast: "God" v. "The Force" (Star Wars had come up in discussions in class)

    We divided the board down the middle with "God" on one side and "The Force" on the other, and reviewed the things we had listed for God.

    The class decided that while God can be described in all of the things they listed above, that "The Force" was at best powerful and (possibly) good.

    Looking more closely at the things God has which "The Force" doesn't, anything that needs a mind, thought, or love was possible for God but not for "The Force". We talked briefly about how some of the Far Eastern religions had a concept of the divine that was somewhat like "The Force", and that the Bible taught God as deliberate, purposeful, mindful, and loving in contrast to this.

    At the end, they decided that having mind and having love were two of the main things distinguishing God from The Force.

Creation: Who is Man?
Re-read Genesis 1:26-28

Discussion questions:
  1. What is the main thing we know about mankind at this point?

    We know that we're in the "image of God."

  2. Review the things we know about God at this point (back to the list we made on the board above). If man is "in God's image", which ones apply to man? Do any of these not apply to man?

    The class got that mankind is:
    • powerful, but not anything close to as powerful as God
    • creative
    • likes making things
    • looks at the world and evaluates the world / is aware and makes decisions

    They decided mankind's mind and love were also some of the important ways in which mankind is in the image of God.

  3. What things in creation have some of God's characteristics?
    Ooh, out of time. We'll have to pick up there next week, right before the fall.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Explaining Jesus to Muslims: Jesus as the Second Adam

The Qur'an records this comment in Sirat Al-Imran (3:59):
The similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him: "Be": and he was.

The Bible records this about Jesus (I Corinthians 15:20-22, 42-45):
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man [Adam], the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man [Jesus]. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. ... The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam [Christ], a life-giving spirit.

The world around us is corrupt and dying. It needs to be re-created, and whatever is not re-created will be lost. As the first sign of the re-creation to come, Christ was created by an act of God when he blessed Mary, still a virgin, to be the mother of the Messiah. Jesus is the only human in history honored with this honor since the days of the first man created by God. Since the world was first made, there has not been something new made by the command of God, until the day when Christ was made within Mary. Christ's purity and sinlessness is a sign that he came directly from God's mind and spirit. It is a sign of the new creation to come, when all the world will be re-created and restored to purity, because the whole world will be born anew of God's mind, his word, his spirit. The second sign that Christ is of the new creation was when God raised him from the dead never to die again. Jesus is the first human in history honored with this honor. It also shows God's faithfulness to his creation: he has given us a sign and a promise of the new creation to come, when we shall all be raised in Christ, just as Christ was raised: imperishable and in glory. In this way Christ is the firstborn from the dead. Christ is God's promise to us of the new creation that will come, as God said through the prophet John, "Behold, I am making all things new." Jesus is the beginning of the new creation.

Explaining Jesus to Muslims: Jesus As the Word of God

The Qur'an records this comment in Surat an-Nisa’ (4:171):
The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a Spirit from Him.
The Bible records this in the beginning of John's account of the Gospel (John 1:1-3, 14):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was with God in the beginning. Through (the Word) all things were made; nothing which was made was made apart from (the Word). ... The Word became flesh and camped among us, full of grace and truth.
Both teachings refer to Jesus, one from the Qur'an and one from the Bible. Both call Jesus the Word of God. But the Bible shows what it means to be the Word of God.

What is the Word of God? Does it begin at a certain time or place, or is it as eternal as God himself? Whenever a mind has thoughts that take shape and have form, that is what we call "Word". As long as God has existed, for all ages, God has had thought and wisdom, so God's Word must be eternal.

Is the Word of God less holy than God, or is the Word of God holy because it is purely from God? And if the Word of God is eternal and Holy, then does God have an associate or equal? No, not at all. God's Word is not something separate from God. God's Word is something right from God's very being, the shape of his wisdom, the act of his love. It cannot be separated from God, or understood apart from God; neither can God be understood apart from His Word.

But is God rightly understood from a book alone? Isn't his word living and active? Doesn't his word have power to teach, to heal, to create, to make clean? So when God sent his Word, in many ages he was content to send words to the prophets. But with Jesus, he did not send a book, and the Gospel (Injil, to a Muslim) in its first sense is not a book, but a person: Jesus. The Qur'an affirms that Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus did not simply bring the Word of God or receive the Word of God as the prophets did before him, but he was himself the Word of God, the eternal Word of God's eternal wisdom and love, especially formed into flesh at a certain time and place in history so that the world should see God and know God.

Then does God have an associate or equal? No, not at all. God's Word is not something separate from God. God's Word is something right from God's very being. It cannot be separated from God, or understood apart from God; neither can God be understood apart from His Word, which is incarnate and made flesh in Jesus.

Jesus brought proof that He was God's Living Word: he lived the Word of God perfectly and without sin, as none has before or since. It is impossible to know God fully without knowing God's word: God made the Word to live among us, full of grace and truth. Many have brought laws, but only Jesus brought God's grace.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Explaining Jesus to Muslims: Jesus as the Qibla

Many earnest Muslims think they already know Jesus because they know he is a prophet. To know Jesus as a prophet is to know him only in a small way, a partial way. One way to explain how Jesus is more than a prophet is to explain that he is the Qibla, the place where we expect to meet God when we direct our prayers. While the Muslims now pray towards Mecca, they once prayed towards Jerusalem towards the ruins of the Temple. The shrine in Mecca now holds the same place in their mind that Jerusalem's Temple holds for the Jews: they direct their prayers there. But Jesus said that the Temple would not be replaced by some other earthly place such as Mecca, but that he himself replaced the Temple. He is where we go to meet God, he is the direction towards which we pray, he is where we expect miracles and the presence of the Holy One. In the same way that Muslims are aware that bowing to Mecca to pray is not idolatry towards Mecca, in the same way Christians bowing and praying to God through Christ is not idolatry, but simply meeting God where he can be found.

Of course, Christ is far greater than that, but you have to start a conversation somewhere.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Europe: Requiem or Renaissance?

As anyone watching current events will have noticed, Europe is at a crossroads. It was never that distinct by its geography; Europe was defined somewhat by its ethnic identity, but largely by its culture, and that culture was largely Christian. Lately Europe has distanced itself from both its ethnic and cultural heritages; in some places it has nearly disowned them. It is no longer what it once was, and Europe is faced with the question whether it will retain an identity. That is to say, 100 years from now, will "Europe" mean anything outside of history books?

The intellectuals of Europe have had things to say about the decline of Europe. But, disturbingly, they tend to wear black and write eulogies; they are preparing for a funeral. But for all the preparations and dirges, Europe is not without life. Britain has produced a steady stream of the world's greatest writers; Germany has often produced great theologians. I wonder, but cannot answer, for how much drain on creativity is from the commercialization of art, academics, and publishing, and all that commercialization brings in the way of mass-production, standardization, reduction to interchangeable parts. I cannot answer for how much Europe is still shocked that it is capable of the type of wars which repeatedly rocked the world last century. But whatever the causes, Europe seems to be reeling, lost, and searching for direction. Multiculturalism, the view that no particular direction is better than any other, is inherently incapable of providing direction. But the message of Christ speaks directly and clearly to devastation and rebuilding, to forgiveness and healing, to excellence and kindness, to hope from hopelessness: in a word, to redemption. The secret to a renaissance, rather than a replacement, of Europe is to reach within her own resources to heal and restore, to desire to continue to thrive.

Which is why I will take Dickens or Tolkien over anyone writing a dirge.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

God's Word: "Fear Not"

I have noticed, sometimes, worry and fear about the world around us. Sometimes war seems nearer and sometimes farther. Right now, of course, it seems nearer. Sometimes those who give themselves over to evil rage -- proving that they are enemies of God -- seem more murderous and their murderous rage seems to grow. The only message I have about the times is the one we have been given for all times: Watch and be ready. But there is another message that God brings at all kinds of times: Fear not.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. (Psalm 46:1-2)

Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness. (Isaiah 41:10)

But now says the LORD who created you, O Jacob, and who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name; you are mine." (Isaiah 43:1)

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psalm 27:1)

The LORD is on my side. I will not fear. What can man do to me? (Psalm 118:6)

You drew near in the day that I called on you: you said, "Fear not." (Lamentations 3:57)

Didn't God tell Abraham, "Fear not, for I am your shield and your very great reward"? (Genesis 15:1) Didn't God tell Hagar, "Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is"? (Genesis 21:17) Didn't God tell Isaac, "Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you, and multiply your seed for my servant Abraham's sake"? (Genesis 26:24) Didn't God tell Jacob, "Fear not to go down into Egypt, for there I will make of you a great nation"? (Genesis 46:3)

How often did God say to Moses, and to his people through Moses, not to fear their enemies, but to fear only Him, to wait and see the salvation that God would work for them? Didn't the angel tell Daniel, even while he was in captivity and a slave in a foreign land, not to fear? Didn't Daniel take heart that his service and devotion to God was known in heaven? (Daniel 10:12-19) When the exiles rebuilt what was destroyed after their return, didn't God remind them of his love and his faithfulness, and tell them not to fear? (Haggai 2:5)

When Christ came, didn't the angels announce to Mary, to Joseph, and to the shepherds not to fear? When Christ came, didn't he tell us not to fear those who destroy the body, but cannot destroy the soul? Didn't he tell us to fear only God? Christ did not promise that we should have no trouble. Instead, he promised that in this world we would have trouble, but that he had overcome the world.

It is possible that we may face more serious persecution in our times for the name of Christ. When the disciples had trouble and persecutions, didn't they celebrate that they were accounted worthy of such a thing? And can you name one hero of the faith who was accounted an especially worthy servant without trials or sufferings? Didn't the greatest lay down their lives for God, not fearing man but only the LORD?

I would like to think the current storms that threaten us would pass, even if that seems unlikely some days. But in a time like this, we will show whether we trust God and hope in him by what we allow to frighten us. Is anyone else in the place of God, that we should fear them?

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. (Psalm 46:1-2)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Christian Carnival #138

Christian Carnival #138 is up at Thoughts of a Gyrovague.

My favorites of the week (in the order in which I happened to find them again):

Sunday, September 10, 2006

God's Love in Action: Another One-Man Startup Reaches the World

Don Schoendorfer was a mechanical engineer, an inventor in high-tech southern California. He slowly came to realize that his money-oriented life was not helping the world very much. He was struck by a memory of a visit to a third-world country where a disabled woman without a wheelchair was dragging herself across the road. He set out to develop the least expensive way to mass-produce wheelchairs so he could give them away for free. Bicycle tires and lawn chairs became some of the essential components of his rig for his Free Wheelchair Mission. These wheelchairs can be produced for $41 U.S. each. His goal? To give away 20 million free wheelchairs over the next few years. He has given away well over one hundred thousand wheelchairs already, concentrating on nations where wheelchairs are simply not available for the disabled poor.

I first became aware of his work through a write-up in Reader's Digest some time back. Again, he challenges me to look ever harder for my niche to serve. Like others, he takes the question, "What can one person do?" and answers with his life.

Previous in the God's Love in Action series:
3A Bereavement Foundation
Houston's border angel and his "paper houses" ministry
Society of St. Andrew's gleaning network

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ethics and Violence: Just, Unjust, and Christ's Words to his Disciples

One thing about discussing violence is that it is wearing. After enough violence-talk, a nice contemplative moment or meditation starts sounding really good. It's not that I've fully explored the topic, but I think it's had enough of my blog space for now. So this will be the last post in the series before I move on to other topics. It is a necessary subject but a necessarily ugly one. In this post I will begin with the U.T. Tower (August 1, 1966), look at a few angles of Just War and Unjust War, and then go back to the words of Christ.

Is violence ever justified? A real-world test case.

It was 40 years ago last month that a man named Charles Whitman went to the top of the tower at the University of Texas at Austin and opened fire. From that height he had a commanding view of the campus and nearby city streets. He was a crack shot, making one hit from over 500 yards away; he was also insane. (His autopsy revealed a brain tumor. It is debated how much that contributed to his insanity; the examination did not prove that the tumor was in such a position as to cause the insanity.) Over the course of more than an hour and a half, he shot 43 people, 15 of whom died. I'm not sure whether the fatality count includes the baby lost when he shot the abdomen of a woman 8 months pregnant; many of the others were shot in the chest. As time wore on, he shot an ambulance driver trying to take one of his victims to the hospital. He shot a policeman trying to get in position to return fire. He shot a reporter accompanying other policemen. He shot at the civilians trying to help those who were down, so that help could not come and the wounded were left on blistering-hot August-in-Texas pavement, slowly bleeding out and acquiring up to second-degree burns from the pavement until the sniper could be stopped. At the time, police did not yet have SWAT units; the nationwide move to form and train SWAT units was spurred on by incidents such as this.

Ramiro Martinez of the Austin Police Department was off duty. He called in during the long ordeal to see how he could help and was told to go direct traffic. But the traffic was already being directed by the time he arrived at the U.T. campus. Instead, he made his way up the tower -- stepping over and around victims' bodies and accidentally disturbing the hiding place of a man who was half-crazed with fear and grief after seeing two of his relatives killed by the sniper. Martinez got to the observation deck of the tower with help from a fellow officer and from a brave civilian. He then emptied his gun into the sniper -- and borrowed the next officer's shotgun for one more shot to make sure the sniper was dead. And the large number of people in hiding came out of hiding. And the dozens lying wounded were finally taken to the hospital.

There is such a thing as unreasoning violence. It's not possible to reason with unreasoning violence. "Armed and dangerous" was a bit of an understatement for Whitman. If Martinez had not killed Whitman, the casualty count very likely would have been higher, even if simply from the people already shot who could not be safely taken to the hospital with a sniper shooting at ambulance drivers. Given the layout of the tower and the resources available, there was no sure way for an officer to take out the sniper without killing the sniper. There, from all I can see, was a justified killing. Regrettable? Yes, it is regrettable that it came to that. And because of incidents like that, we have made sure that resources are available so that we have more options. In itself, that speaks to whether we are convinced it was ideal. But at that time and in that place, I don't see that there was another available way to restore safety and to clear the way to get timely help to those dozens who were injured, a number of them with life-threatening wounds. Regrettable, but regrettably necessary.

As a case study, the U.T. sniper can help us think through moral equivalence and non-equivalence. On the U.T. tower, was Martinez just as bad as Whitman because they both killed to get what they wanted, or do we consider the intent of the killing? What about the content of what they wanted? How did killing become part of the agenda for each one? For whom was killing a regrettable necessity to restoring safety, and for whom was causing mayhem the original intent? Were the two sides equally likely to help clean up the mess and restore order after they had won? But the Whitman case is far plainer than a war, which is rarely quite that simple.

Just War and Unjust War

When I hear "Just War", it strikes me almost the same way as when people say "brutally honest". We've gotten used to those phrases; maybe too used to them. Sure, it's possible for honesty to be brutal, but it's often just brutality trying to use honesty as a pretext. I wouldn't want to discuss "brutal honesty" without discussing "gracious honesty". And I wouldn't want to discuss "Just War" without also discussing "Unjust War"; and ideally we'd also discuss peace, though realistically peace is only possible if all parties decide not to fight; it is not in the hands of one side alone. Everybody who wants a war thinks it's just; they're not always right. Simply because someone uses the phrase "Just War" does not make it so. Just to cover all the bases, just because someone uses the phrase "Unjust War" does not make it so either.

Why did I start this post with an insane man on a killing spree? I would argue that, just as the occasional person becomes insane, there are times when cultures become insane. This does not mean every individual in it is insane; let me explain. How would we recognize a culture as insane? To reach back in history, how about a culture that insists on imprisoning and killing multitudes of people who have never taken up arms against them and pose no military threat? Or how about one that deliberately, knowingly produces as many killers as possible to create as much destruction and mayhem as possible in as many places as possible? There is such a thing as cultural insanity; there is such a thing as a culture that is as homicidal in its way as Mr. Whitman on the top of the U.T. tower.

In the face of such a danger, should we try reasoning first? First, last, and continuously in between, provided that there is evidence that the other person is considering change and not simply taking advantage of the time to set up or carry out the next attack. When we reason in times of war, we have to reason with more than just the aggressor; we also have to reason what alternatives are right if the aggressor is unwilling to listen. One fact of life that is unpleasant, but demonstrably true, is that sometimes people are not interested in reason. When reason fails, force prevails -- and force can go either way. So it's in the general interest to make sure the aggressor isn't the best-armed or best-trained, and to make sure that people are willing and able to defend themselves.

A Brief Detour: The Current War On Terror

My main interest is not the current war on terror, but it is bound to be on everyone's minds (mine included) at a time like this. So, speaking of just and unjust war, some have said that the U.S. has become a culture that is insane and homicidal, with Afghanistan and Iraq as evidence. Iraq in particular has drawn much skepticism about motives. Pre-emptive aggression (for example, intending to take out weapons of mass destruction before a possible future aggression) is always going to make a weaker case for Just War than intervening when there is active ongoing aggression. For example, if the U.S. had intervened in Iraq while the Kurds were being gassed, that would have made a stronger case for Just War than intervening years later and citing a future threat. Based on Saddam Hussein's record, a future threat was likely enough to raise a legitimate question whether a pre-emptive strike was justified. And we need to discuss what, exactly, would make a pre-emptive strike justified until we have reached a more thorough agreement than we have now. The question whether an action is just or unjust is one that any decent and thoughtful society will insist on examining. And, in a democracy, both those who favor more peaceful solutions and those who favor more active solutions have a right to be heard; we all have to live with the decision.

There is no nation in the world whose record is pure and spotless. And I have not seen any political party that has never been in the wrong. Aggressors and counter-aggressors often come in shades of gray, and so do wars. But it's too easy to become daunted by shades of gray. There are some shades of gray that are lighter (even if not completely clean), and other shades of gray that are darker (even if not at the utter depths of evil). And a solid commitment to good demands that we address both the problems on our own side and the threats from others, not just one or the other. Addressing issues from both sides does not make them equally severe or equally threatening; it simply shows that we are consistently committed to addressing wrong. Seeing the darkness of the other side does not rid us of the need to address the problems on our own side; in fact, being our own problems, we are in a position to address them more thoroughly and on a deeper level than the other side. Likewise, addressing our own problems does not negate the need to keep an eye out for serious dangers coming from others.

Just War/Unjust War also has a related study, Justice In War/Injustice In War, which looks at a slightly different question. While Just War/Unjust War is the debate over whether military action is justified in the first place, Justice In War/Injustice In War considers the morality of actions in the context of war that is already in progress. This matter deserves consideration also. If you take a good hard look at the current war in Iraq as the U.S. tries to train Iraqi personnel for basic government services and build infrastructure for basic health and economy (e.g. electricity), you will no doubt see the human universals of corruption and incompetence along with some outbreaks of willful evil. But that does not change the fact that the actions are aimed to restore order, build stability, and return control to the Iraqis; the general thrust of the actions is intended to be constructive, by design. On the other side of the war on terror, the terrorists are not going to London or New York to build electrical infrastructure for the benefit of their enemies. They're going to destroy infrastructure to drag down as many as they can. No terrorist has ever gone to New York or Madrid or London or the Kashmere region to build infrastructure for the benefit of Christians, Jews, atheists, Hindus, and so forth. If the U.S. had been content to destroy Iraq and capture Hussein, we would be done by now. But we never wanted to destroy Iraq in the first place, which is why we are staying to help rebuild. (I'll resist the temptation to take more blog space to second-guess our tactics and approach in restoring peace; the point is that the intent is constructive even if not particularly well-informed about the cultural background and therefore, in places, floundering.) Do both sides help rebuild if they destroyed? Does that make any comment about whether destruction was the original intent? Do both sides have the same regrets in case of innocent losses? Are such differences relevant in evaluating conduct during a war? Has the question been seriously raised on both sides as to whether the war is just? Do both sides permit peace demonstrations, and does that say anything about the relative willingness to use force? Do both sides hold their governments accountable to the highest moral standards, and does that say anything about whether each side is equally interested in those standards, or whether the governments are equally tolerant of being held accountable for their own actions? I believe that those who draw a likeness between the U.S. and the terrorists are not reasoning objectively about the situation. Given that everyone is in shades of gray, that does not amount to the same shade of gray or moral equivalence. I am not wishing to grant the U.S. a free pass; it is regrettable that the best we can say is "purer hands" and not "pure hands", and that needs addressing. But I hope we can try to keep ourselves as pure as possible -- and address the very real problems -- without becoming confused into believing that there is no basic difference between the terrorists and those who oppose them.

Opposing Evil: Holding Both Sides Accountable

Complaints against evil are commonly one-sided. Ironically, they are commonly one-sided against the less dangerous, less evil side, and for very practical reasons, some of them even reasonable ones. At best, we tend to criticize the more peaceable party because they are more likely to be reasonable, to listen, and to value peace. At worst, we are more likely to criticize the more peaceable party because they are less likely to attack or kill us for criticizing them. While no balanced approach to evil would lead us to protest mainly against the party less likely to kill us (i.e. the less dangerous and less evil party), that is still often how it works out. If we have not confronted evil on both sides, despite the risks, then we have not done our part in consistently standing up for what is good and right.

Following Christ

Christ provided very little instruction for armed conflict compared to the founders of some other religions; this in itself speaks volumes of his intent for his followers to be characterized by peacefulness. His advice for dealing with our enemies was to love them, pray for them, bless them. I am only aware of one occasion on which Christ ordered his followers to go armed.

The night in which Christ was betrayed ...
"But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." ...
The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two sowrds."
"That is enough," he replied. ...
"He (Judas) approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, "Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?"
When Jesus' followers saw what was going to happen, they said, "Lord, should we strike with our swords?" And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
But Jesus answered, "No more of this!" And he touched the man's ear and healed him. (From Luke's account of the night Jesus was betrayed.)
Matthew's account also records Jesus saying here, "Put your sword back into its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword." The fourth gospel's account records the saying to put the sword back into its sheath and also records the names: the swordsman was none other than the apostle Peter; the high priest's servant's name (the man who was injured) was Malchus.

Why would Jesus tell the disciples to make sure they had swords, but then rebuke them for the use to which the swords were put? Were the swords simply a deterrent? Was the timing wrong, since this was not some random lynching and Christ had accepted "the cup his father gave him"? Was the complaint against attacking a slave (likely unarmed), or was it against any bloodshed at all? It's unlikely that Jesus meant only to block with the sword; a shield would be more fitting if that were the case. But it's clear that Jesus was not having his disciples shed blood for his sake. Was it for their own sakes, to make sure they weren't arrested and killed at that time? The fourth gospel hints that the disciples were in danger, recording that Jesus asked those arresting him that they should let his disciples go free, that he was the one they were looking for (John 18:8-9). While Jesus did tell his disciples to bring swords, even sell their property to buy one if needed, Jesus' comments about drawing the sword (no matter how noble the cause) were not very encouraging: Those who draw the sword will die by it. He does not exactly condemn those who die in battle, but it does seem that battle is not the best way to spend your life (or death, as the case may be). He also gives no indication that he encourages or even accepts battle on his behalf as service to him. Nice touch on healing the servant's ear: reversing the bloodshed that an over-zealous follower did for his sake, showing his power and showing his disapproval of the attack, teaching his disciples, and at the same time showing love for his enemies. He did all this fully knowing that his enemies intended to kill him. (According to the Talmud, they had not exactly made a secret of that fact that they intended to kill him, but had been publicly announcing their intent to bring capital charges against him for forty days.)

For all the talk about violence, and that sometimes it may be justified, or (in defending the lives of those we love) can even be an obligation, we cannot forget that it is a thing of a fallen world, likely to consume those who use it even with good intentions. While Christ encouraged his disciples to be armed that night when going into a dangerous situation, we cannot forget that Christ did not accept violence on his behalf. The "sword" we are allowed to take up on his behalf is the message of what he has said and done. That is far likelier to change our enemies than any military action. When we gauge our actions for right and wrong, we gauge them against Christ's words. Imagine if we kept fast to them as we know we should; imagine if our enemies also knew them and tried to keep to them.
Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Are you a church member?

Dr. Pursiful has some refreshingly honest comments about church membership when he reviews something he was sorely tempted to say when a woman called him to determine whether she was still a church member:
"I can have our church clerk examine the membership roll and determine whether your name is present, but theologically I can tell you that in no meaningful sense are you a part of this church family. I have been the pastor here for several months. I did not recognize your name and you did not know mine. By your own admission you have not attended here in quite a while, and you are not on our list of homebound members. No, Mrs. _____. Biblically speaking, you are not a member of this church, regardless of what our official rolls may say.”
I'm with him in not knowing whether it would have been the right thing or the wrong thing to say to the woman at the time, but he does have a point. That one left me laughing.

Afterthoughts ...
I wonder if church membership rolls should have a "lost sheep" category ...

God's Love in Action: Help in time of bereavement

Some ministries are too small or too local to have bothered with a website. 3A Bereavement Foundation is among these. One-time funeral care worker Michele Lara saw how many families had trouble paying for the expenses involved with burying their loved ones. So she began the 3A Bereavement Foundation to provide counseling and financial aid to families who needed help with burial expenses. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle (article published December 5, 2004) she stated that "the Lord led me to this once I saw the need." She has been providing financial assistance and counseling to the bereaved since 1997. Being the only organization of the type in this area of the state of Texas, the organization has even received some government funding under a victim care initiative to assist families of homicide victims in Fort Bend County and Harris County Texas (which includes Houston, fourth largest city in the U.S., for those not familiar with those counties).

One more time, some of the more impressive instances of God's love in action come from individuals who see a need and will not be stopped in their drive to help.

Previous in the God's love in action series:
Houston's border angel and his "paper houses" ministry
Society of St. Andrew's gleaning network