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Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Fallacy of Assumptions

The fantasy novel Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson, is interesting on several levels. One of the most fascinating themes concerns the development of the character Hrathen, a religious functionary who has jurisdiction over the priests of the community. He has been sent there by the emperor to convert the surrounding nations to the worship of their God Jaddeth. The emperor’s message to him is clear and simple: They will either convert and become worshippers of Jaddeth or they will perish. In his previous assignment Hrathen was responsible for undermining the government, resulting in that country’s complete destruction. In his new assignment, he has the mandate of converting the people in one month before the emperor’s army descends upon the nation. At the beginning of the book he is a very dislikable figure – cold, calculating and manipulative. With the results of his last mission in his head, he takes on his new assignment with zeal, hoping to avoid another catastrophe, but willing to accept it if they don’t convert. He connives to overthrow the king and the princess who has recently married the king’s son. But as things don’t go quite as planned, he finds himself questioning many of his long held assumptions. At the end of the book he rescues the princess, even though it costs him his own life. He comes to realize that things were not always what they seemed. His total change indicated a conversion of sorts.

As we go through life we find ourselves very much like Hrathen. We constantly experience things that shake up our assumptions. Are we open or closed to change or new ideas? Hopefully open. Growing up in rural Wisconsin, my only contact with blacks was viewing them out of the car window when visiting relatives in Milwaukee. My first contact with a black person was in my freshman year in college. An older student who was mentoring me in my faith had a black roommate whom I got to know. I discovered he was really no different than I was. During my formative years I attended a church that was decidedly anti Catholic, considering Catholics to be pagan and the Pope to be the Antichrist. Several years later I met several people who were solid Christians. They had a sincere faith, grounded in daily reading of scripture, meditation and prayer. They seriously sought to follow Christ in living out their daily lives. As I got to know them, I found out they were Catholics. Likewise, my first introduction to Charismatics was very negative. While attending seminary, I came to highly respect one of my fellow students. In our third year of studies together I discovered he was charismatic. These experiences shook up my previously held assumptions that Catholics were pagans, Charismatics were weird and Blacks were different. Fortunately I was willing to abandon my previously held assumptions, resulting in developing many rich relationships with fellow Christians, both black and white, over the years.

We find ourselves dealing with assumptions every day. They may be based on a person’s race, ethnicity, cultural or economic status. They may have religious or political overtones. They may be based on a person’s job status or educational level. Will we discount others before even having a chance to get to know them based upon our preconceived notions? Are we willing to abandon stereotyping others based on externals before even taking the time to develop a relationship with them? Perhaps a paraphrase is in order: “Make assumptions about others as you would have them make assumptions about you.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Allure of Temptation

In Jesus’ first temptation he is tempted to turn stones into bread at the end of his forty day fast in the wilderness. Satan tries to get him to miraculously satisfy his hunger. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his book On The Way To Christ says the following about this temptation. “Where God is viewed as something secondary, which can be set aside temporarily or altogether for the sake of more important things, then precisely these supposedly more important things fail.” He goes on to say “In this world we must oppose the deception of false philosophies and recognize that we do not live on bread alone but, first and foremost, on obedience to God’s Word. And only when this obedience is put into practice does the attitude develop that is also capable of providing bread for all.”

In our daily lives we face the same temptations that Jesus did. How often do we temporarily set God aside when critical issues face us? How many times do we set aside our moral and ethical principles in our business lives? How many times do we compromise and rationalize “just this once.” This was the major temptation Jesus faced. “Just this one time turn stones into bread to satisfy your hunger. One time won’t hurt you at all.” But such bread would have left a hollow emptiness inside. Satan then tells him “Worship me just this once and I will give you the entire world. One time won’t hurt you. You will then have the power to do whatever you want.” But the quick fix Satan offered to rule the world would have ultimately been a hollow victory. Again Satan tells Jesus to throw himself off the temple wall so that everyone can see God’s angels protecting him. He asks Jesus to become part of the “now” generation. “Do it now! Take matters into your own hand!” But God had a different plan, so that for Jesus to have declared himself early would have placed him outside of God’s will for his life. In each of these three temptations Satan focuses upon the glamour of selfish desire.

Satan uses the same allures with us. He tells us that it won’t hurt for us to take one look at pornography, or cheat on our taxes one time. He entices us to compromise our morals to get ahead. He tells us to do what it takes because we deserve power and status. He encourages us to seek the quick fix. He attempts to persuade us that one little lie won’t hurt anyone. But when we take a hard look, we see that in each of his attempts, he seeks for us to put something else ahead of God. Like his attempts with Jesus, many times the allure he offers us is for our own self gratification. Grab what we want, when we want it, and don’t worry that God’s plan may be different. But he conveniently ignores telling us that the one time event he often glamorously dangles in front of us has a barbed hook that will ultimately snag us in his clutches. Once he has us hooked, we will find it extremely difficult to become untangled from his hold upon us. We will have placed ourselves above God.

As Ratzinger states, it is essential for us to be listening to and obeying the voice of God found in his word. We must actively resist setting God off to the side. Otherwise we may easily succumb to Satan’s temptations. Whose voice are you listening to, God’s or Satan’s?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Golden Calf Country

Eugene Peterson, in his book Subversive Spirituality speaks of our living in golden-calf country. In golden-calf country people have a deep and insatiable hunger for God without having a deep desire for him. Peterson says “What we really want is to be our own gods and to have whatever other gods that are around help us in this work.” He later concludes “Mostly they want to be their own god and stay in control, but have ancillary divine assistance for the hard parts.” The gods of golden-calf country affect both Christians as well as non-Christians. Most of the golden calves we worship are self oriented. They are centered around questions containing the word “I”. What do I get out of it? How can I maximize my potential? How can I be happy? and so on.

In the end we become very practiced in being religious without submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ. We become much like the ancient Israelites described in the book of Judges. They were perfectly content to live a religious life that didn’t include God until the going got rough. Only then would they cry out to him for assistance. But in their callousness, it often took decades of oppression before they would truly cry out to God.

In our world we tend to worship the golden calves of prosperity and power. This is as true in secular society as it is in the church. Some people follow the prosperity gospel, believing that by following God they will be materially blessed. Others look to success as the sign of God’s blessing. But these can easily become idols if they become more important than God.

The other gods which are often worshipped in golden calf country are politics and science. We look to them to solve all of our problems. But they never seem to quite satisfy. With all of the medical advances we have made, we still haven’t conquered disease. Trusting in governments to solve every need has proved to be illusionary. Philip Yancy, writing in an essay in Christianity Today noted that “Christ exposed as false gods the very powers in which men and women take most pride and invest most hope.” They always fail to ultimately satisfy.

Living in the now generation where we tend to want things instantaneously, we may call upon God more quickly. But we have the same problem the ancient Israelites had. We are perfectly comfortable bowing down to our own self-made idols. We place our faith in the centers of power and influence. Instead of being in the center of our lives, God is placed on the margins, to be called upon when needed. We become adept at praying “God if you will do such and such, I will ….” We can even become like an ancient Babylonian man, who upset with how his life was going, offered the following prayer to his god. “If you don’t start treating me better I’ll stop sacrificing to you, and then where will you be?” Like the ancient Israelites, we can become adept at ignoring God when things are going well and then complain to him when they aren’t. Like the ancient Babylonian, whose religion centered upon himself, we can worship a similar golden calf. The songwriter, Bob Dylan, wrote in one of his songs that everyone has “got to serve somebody”. It will either be God or a golden calf. But we will serve somebody. Are you worshiping the Lord or are you in danger of worshiping a golden calf?