Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Piety of the Pious

            The words “piety” and “pious” are not always the most appreciated in our world today because in many persons’ eyes they are often associated with hypocrisy and otherworldliness.  The pious person is often considered to be uninterested in this world, to be prudish and one who seeks to seclude himself from society.  Piety, because it has an introspective aspect to it, appears to be somewhat selfish in orientation.  Thus the pious person is seen as having little interest in the plight of people around him, taking a passive approach to issues and problems.  His time and energy is spent focusing on his own personal relationship with God.  He is sometimes described as being so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.  This is unfortunate since the description above describes false piety.  In reality, the true pious person is just the opposite.  He is one who is in tune with and listens to the voice of God, responding accordingly.  Rabbi Abraham Heschel, in his essay on piety included in his collected essays “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity” notes that “The pious man’s main interest is concern for the will of God, which thus becomes the driving force controlling the course of his actions and decisions, molding his aspirations and behavior.”  Since God is vitally interested in the affairs of mankind, the pious person has similar interests.  Heschel adds “Further, piety is an attitude toward reality in its entirely.  It is alert to the dignity of every human being, and to those bearing upon the spiritual value which even inanimate things inalienably possess.  The pious man, being able to sense the relations of things to transcendent values, will be incapable of disparaging any of them by enslaving them to his own service.”
            True piety greatly affects one’s worldview and interaction with the world.  Far from being other worldly and passive, the pious person is actively involved in this world precisely because he is in tune with God.  He is vitally interested in this world because God is interested in it.  He stands against oppression and brokenness because God stands against them.  He affirms human dignity because God does.  He engages his culture as did the pious men of old, such as the Old Testament prophets, who affirmed what was God pleasing in their society and condemned what wasn’t.  He promotes the responsible use of resources, believing that the creation mandate is one of stewardship, not dominion; one of replenishment and restoration, not of misuse and neglect.  Instead of being selfish, he selflessly serves others using the gifts God has so graciously given him.  His thoughts, his actions, his very being are in tune with God.  Piety is a mode of living whereby we gravitate towards God.  As such it is related to holiness.
            It is precisely because a pious person is so consumed with the will of God that he steps out in faith to engage his broken world.  Everything he says and does is evaluated reverently through the lens of God’s eyes.  To him, his interests and desires are less important than is God’s will.   The attainments of the world and its beautiful trappings are rejected if they are based on injustice and greed.  His love of God fuels compassion for the lost, the dispossessed, the poor and the disenfranchised, allowing him to reach out to them with his time, treasures and talents.  He is willing to share the resources at his disposal, believing that everything he has is a gift from God.  May we all be known for being pious!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Other Big Fish Story

The Old Testament book of Jonah is of interest for several reasons.  The story of Jonah and the whale is a popular Sunday School story.  It is the story of a reluctant missionary who has to get straightened out by God.  It is also a story that has messianic overtones, as Jesus’ time in the grave is compared to Jonah’s time in the whale.  But there is one element, often overlooked, in the story of Jonah that is important for us living in the twenty-first century.
            Jonah’s preaching was successful and the people living in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh repented.  As a result the city was spared, much to Jonah’s consternation.  But as Jeremiah and Nahum point out in their prophecies one hundred plus years later, Assyria was to be judged for their evil ways.  Approximately one hundred fifty years after Jonah, Nineveh was destroyed. 
            Some scholars believe that Jonah came to Nineveh shortly after there had been three events the people would have considered as omens of impending divine wrath.  Within a six year span Nineveh had experienced two major plagues and a total eclipse of the sun.  When Jonah appeared, they were willing to listen to his message and repent.
How long their repentance lasted is uncertain.  The prophecy of Nahum, one hundred years later, pictures Nineveh as being exceedingly morally corrupt and wicked.  He calls it a contemptible, bloody city full of lies and pillage.
There are two lessons to be learned from Nineveh’s demise: Their conversion and repentance appear to be only skin deep.  From Jeremiah and Nahum it appears the city returned to its evil ways.  They may have changed their ways for a time, but their repentant lifestyle had little impact on future generations.  Within one hundred years they were the same or worse than they had been in Jonah’s day.
Much is spoken today of a need in our country to return to biblical principles.  But just as with Nineveh, a return, without full-scale repentance, will have no lasting effect.  It will merely put salve on the moral iniquity of our times.  We will get through the immediate crisis only to fall back into the same old patterns of behavior.
Before we judge America or the Ninevites too quickly, it is wise to look at ourselves.  What attitude do we take towards the sin in our lives?  What is the character of our repentance?  Are we doing any better than they did in inculcating the faith into our children?  Do they see us actively living out the faith we claim to follow?
How easy is it for us, like the Ninevites, to repent when things are rough, and go back to normal once the crisis has been resolved.  It happened time and again in the book of Judges.  We see it today in accounts of battered spouses, where the abuser repents of his or her abuse, only to repeat the abuse shortly after being forgiven.  It occurs in the vows we make: “God, I will do such and such if You will only get me through this crisis”, only to soon forget we ever said them.  In effect, each is a lie spoken only to get us out of trouble, quickly forgotten when things settle down.  When we do so, we are effectively standing up and lying to the face of the Creator of the universe.  We can not get away with it anymore than Nineveh did.  What characterizes our relationship with God?  Do our children see us as godly men and women, and desire to follow our faith walk?

The Sounds of Silence

Over the past few weeks, following the Benghazi attack, there has been much in the media, the veracity of which is suspect, of a u-tube video as the cause of the outbreak of violence.  Whether or not that video was the sparkplug, the mere fact that it has been accused as being the cause points to the seriousness with which Muslims consider an affront to Allah.  We can ask ourselves why Christians do not take similar action as our faith is bombarded almost on a daily basis by the media and the Hollywood elite.  For the most part, we remain strangely silent.
There may be several reasons for this, some of which point to our having a weakened faith; others to having a robust and active faith.  Some will remain silent because they do not want to get involved.  They could really care less about what others say about God as long as they are, for the most part, left alone.  After all, just because they attend church, it doesn’t mean that they are much different than their non Christian neighbors.  They don’t want to be identified with those reactionary “Christian” nuts, and so remain silent.
Others don’t see God as active in today’s world.  To them, he is more of a feeble retired grandfather who never-the-less cares for them as a loving grandfather does his grandchildren.  Since God is no longer active, it’s best to not make waves, keeping quiet.  After all, if they get into trouble for speaking out He won’t be able to help them.
The third group takes a strong stand regarding the ranting against Christianity.  Unfortunately, at times they can be as obnoxious as their opponents.  Just like the Muslim radicals, they regard anything spoken against God as heresy.  It almost seems that they must come to the defense of God, only not quite as violently as the Muslim radicals often do.  Like the preceding group, they don’t really believe that God is very active in the world today and needs their help.  The famous debate held in Ann Arbor, Michigan during the 1960s between the death of God theologian Thomas Altizer and John Warwick Montgomery is a case in point.  Montgomery, treating Altizer as a heretic, totally destroyed him in the debate. But the sympathy of the crowd was with Altizer.  There was no love shown.
A fourth group sees God as very active in today’s world.  He doesn’t need our participation to defend Himself.  Since He is fully capable of defending Himself, they remain silent.  Those holding this view would do well to remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah when he decided to stop speaking the Word of the Lord because of all the trouble it brought him.  He concluded that he had to speak up because not to do so was like having a fire gnawing at his bones, thus he had to speak out, and did so.
The final group speaks up out of the conviction of a sincere and robust faith.  Like the fourth group, they have a strong faith that God is in control of history, guiding it to His ends. But how they speak up is vital.  Their speech is seasoned with love.  The more they are ridiculed, the more love they show.  They exemplify the song “They will know we are Christians by our Love
As we look at our own lives, we likely find ourselves emulating one of these positions.  We can be silent, speak out rudely, or speak out in the context of demonstrating God’s love to those against us.  Which will it be?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Pray When You Can Worry?

We live in times when apprehension is in the air.  The direction of our country, high unemployment, the state of our economy, the mortgage meltdown, the volatility of the stock market and whether we will have enough income to sustain us through our retirement years all cause us concern.  Added to these are concerns about the global economy, turmoil in the Middle East and global terrorism.  As parents, we are concerned about our children.  Will they turn out ok, will they be successful in life, and will they continue to follow God, etc?  In our present job market, those with jobs wonder if they might lose their jobs, and those without wonder will they ever obtain one again.  It seems that we live in a fragile world.  It is no wonder that people living in today’s world are apprehensive.
            We face the danger at such times that our concerns will be transformed into worry.  There is a vast difference between the two, especially from a spiritual dimension.  Concern leads us to call out to God, believing that he is in control and is directing the purpose of the world for his own glory and purpose.  It leads us to prayer.  Worry implies that he is an impotent God, unable to control the human events that we see marching across the panorama of the world’s stage.  It takes us away from prayer.  Concern leads us to faith, worry to doubt.  A chapel talk I once heard, titled “Why pray when you can worry?” dealt with this issue. 
            Excessive worry is dysfunctional as it can become an anxiety disorder where a person’s fears become crippling.  Both imply a total lack of faith in God.  Without faith, prayer becomes futile, as though merely talking to a blank wall.  Why go thought the motion of attempting to talk to a God who is powerless?  Active prayer requires an active faith in an active God.  The Apostle Paul deals with this in his letter to the church at Philippi which was experiencing suffering for the sake of the gospel.  He tells them that prayer will lead to a peace that, though difficult to understand, is the opposite of anxiety.
            Reading through the Psalms and Old Testament prophets points out that they had many concerns that they wrestled and struggled with.  Despite the deplorable situations they experienced and wrote about, things we could hardly even imagine ever happening to us, they never lost faith.  Their concerns and heart felt angst were genuine.  Even when questioning God, their faith that he was in control seldom wavered.  Even when not understanding him, they still confidently followed him. 
At issue is our view of God.  Is he big enough to be able to control the outcome of events or are we left on our own to struggle along as best we can.  Worry implies that he is not.  We then live by the rule of “Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be.  The future’s not ours to see. Que Sera Sera.”   The hopelessness and despair found in worry are faith killers.  They rob us of our intimate relationship with God.  Bit by bit our trust in him is diminished until we no longer believe in his capabilities.  Our claims of faith are belied by our actions.  While from time to time we all worry, it is its continual pattern that is most destructive to our life of faith.  In the times we do worry it is worthwhile examining our prayer life.  Are we going to God with our concerns, confident in him, or are we paralyzed with fear? 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why We Shouldn't Pray

Why We Shouldn’t Pray

            There are many books on prayer.  A book search on prayer on Amazon brings up a large number of them, from how to books to the value of prayer.  They range from intercessory prayer for others to the more personal aspect of how prayer affects us.  Some speak of prayer as a power source, others focus on piety.  It seems that whatever aspect anyone desires to seek about prayer, it is available.  They all seem to focus on prayer as something we do.  But I wonder if this current emphasis on prayer may not be detrimental to our spiritual lives, for it suggests that prayer is something that is outside of ourselves.
            Many people find prayer intimidating, especially public prayer.  As a young man, I felt very inadequate praying in prayer meetings, especially if the person who prayed before me delivered a very eloquent prayer.  He knew how to pray and I didn’t   Unfortunately, in such situations prayer can become a kind of showmanship – who is the better prayer.  We can become more concerned with how our prayers measure up than in being in touch with God. In so doing, we lose the essence of what prayer is – an intimate personal relationship with the living God.
In an interview reproduced in his book Subversive Spirituality Eugene Peterson has an interesting comment on prayer.  As a young teenager, he asked an elderly missionary who was staying with his family while on sabbatical how he prayed.  The elderly man told him “I haven’t prayed in forty years!”  Holding this missionary in high esteem, Peterson was quite confused.  He said it took him several years to understand the wisdom of what had been told him. He concluded “You see, anything he had told me I would have imitated.  I would have done what he said he did and thought that what’s prayer is.  He risked something to teach me what prayer was, and I’m glad he did..  Prayer wasn’t something he did – it was something he was.  He lived a life of prayer.”  Peterson came to realize that there was more to prayer than technique.  It is not something we do from time to time.  It is who we are.  It is part of our spiritual DNA. 
Looking at prayer in this light helps us understand St Paul’s statement that we are to pray without ceasing, and the Psalmist’s that we are to meditate day and night.  Neither is suggesting that we stop all other activities to live a kind of “holier than thou” life of prayer.  Both view prayer as part of ordinary living that is carried on throughout the day.  Whether we are at church or at home, at work or at play, prayer should be a part of our life, for it is through prayer that we are in constant communion with God.
Behind the viewpoint that prayer is something we do is the assumption that these are the times we are in touch with God and that there are other times when we are not.  When not at prayer we are living on our own, as though our spiritual cell phone has no signal.  Living out of touch with God leads to many of the condemnations of the church as being hypocritical.
God desires that we be in constant communion with him.  An attitude of prayer should pervade our lives.  Prayer should define who we are. It should be part of the essence of our being.   It is worthwhile examining our thoughts on prayer. Are we too concerned with technique?   Is it something we do or something we are living?  

Monday, May 28, 2012

I'm Sorry Mr. President, But I'm Busy

A recent article in the Jerusalem Post described the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reinstituting a Bible study circle that included his family along with several biblical scholars and rabbis.  This was a practice begun by former Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and continued under Prime Minister Begin.  As the planned hour long meeting expanded to two hours upon his urging, Netanyahu stated that this was better than what he usually had to deal with.  He noted that “Ben-Gurion and Begin believed that the Bible should be the heritage of the entire nation – secular and religious, young and old, men and women.  The Bible is the foundation of our existence.”  He added that the Bible also serves as a map and a compass.  The journalist writing the article noted the difficulty Netanyahu has in trying to break away from the everyday concerns to study the Bible.  He then recalled an incident occurring when Begin was prime minister. While in the midst of one of their studies, Begin received a message that President Carter was on the phone.  He purportedly replied that he was in the middle of studying verses from Deuteronomy and that the President should call back in a couple of hours.  His reply speaks volumes about what he felt was important in his life.

We can glean several applicable messages from this account.  As Netanyahu states, the Bible is also our map and compass which explains why it is so important for us to study it.  We would not think of taking a trip to an unfamiliar place without having a map or GPS with us.  Do we take the same attitude regarding the Bible?  A spiritual GPS is even more important as we travel on our road through life.  It helps us stay on the right course. As Christians the Bible is also the foundation of our existence, not only as the people of God, but also of our nation which was birthed on Christian principles.  But the foremost message which is applicable to us concerns its importance in our lives.  Prime Minister Begin had a clear sense of priorities.  For him the Scriptures were of highest importance.  Its study was not to be interrupted.  While there were things which were very important in his life, such as calls from US presidents, there were other things even more important, such as studying the Bible.  On this he refused to compromise.

It is worthwhile looking at our own lives in comparison.  Our lives are filled with busyness and important things – long days at work, lengthy commutes, transporting children to various events, worthwhile meetings to attend, and constant interruptions to our schedules.  Does this drive us to spend more time with God, as John Wesley did arising three hours earlier to pray because of the hectic day ahead of him, or less?  What do we drop when we find ourselves overextended?  I fear that all too often it is the study of the Scriptures, at least I find it so in my life.  It is much too easy to rationalize, with good intentions, “I will read it later”, and then find that the later opportune time never seems to arrive.  Unfortunately this says more about what my true priorities are than I would like to admit.  It says I have not actively made it a priority.  Instead I will try to fit it into my schedule.  It raises the question: “Which is more important, God or my schedule?”  How important is the Bible in your life?  As you examine your own priorities, whom do you find yourself identifying with, Prime Minister Begin or me?  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Hypocrisy of False Logic

It has come to my attention that the actions of many individuals and organizations in our world today are totally opposite to their philosophical worldviews.  For instance, it escapes reason why an ardent evolutionist would be concerned at all with the threatened extinction of a particular species.  After all, if humans and animals are merely the outcome of evolutionary processes, there is no basis for our concern for other species.  If, in the history of the world, survival of the fittest reigns, then a concerted attempt to protect an endangered species flies in the face of the Law of the Survival of the Fittest. Attempted manipulation of the natural order is uncalled for.  On the basis of evolution, there is no reason to be concerned about the threatened demise of any species.

The same can be said for the organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), one of whose founders said regarding humans “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”  If, as she says, humans are just another mammal, there is no basis for us to have any more ethical concerns for other animals than they do for us.  After all, in the eyes of PETA, being mere animals, our attitude towards them should be no different than that of the lion in his concern for the wellbeing of an ill wildebeest that he has cornered.  Life is nothing more than kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.  Yet they condemn others for how they treat animals.

Since people holding these views still have concerns for the safety and well being of members of the animal kingdom, there must be something beyond evolution in our makeup.  We did not just happen by chance.  The fact that we humans have moral and ethical concerns shows our distinctiveness from the rest of the animal kingdom.  Having been created by a moral and ethical God, he has imbued us with a moral nature.  This nature instills in our heart a concern for others, including animals.

 Unfortunately, being fallen humans, we find ourselves at times demonstrating as much hypocrisy as do the ardent evolutionists and members of PETA.  We don’t live up to the standards and values of the positions we hold.  We claim to be children of God, yet don’t live out our lives as he expects his children to live.  We claim that we are all created in the image of God, yet often treat others as if they aren’t.  We can find ourselves lying and cheating if it is to our own advantage, irregardless of their effect upon others.  A recent news article suggested that waiters and waitresses most dread the Sunday afternoon churchgoing crowd due to the unchristian attitudes they display.

Hypocrisy is never attractive.  It questions our truthfulness regarding the values we proclaim to hold and discredits our integrity.  It destroys our relationships with others.  It destroys our credibility and our witness, with the result that everything we say and do is discounted and our motives questioned.  It puts us in the position of being untrustworthy.

How we treat and act toward others should be a mirror image of our attitude towards God.  He calls us to know and love him.  Our love towards God should impact our love of neighbor as the summary of the Ten Commandments suggests.  We are to love both God and neighbor.  It is worth asking ourselves once in awhile: “Is the love I show God the same as the love I show my neighbor?”  Hopefully the answer is “Yes”!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sensational Lies

Sensationalism sells.  We all enjoy a little of it from time to time, for it can break up the mundane daily grind which we so often experience as we go through life.    Sensationalism often approaches us through curiosity.  It is the curiosity factor of headlines like “Woman Gives Birth to Three Headed Baby” which keeps the tabloids selling in the grocery store checkout lanes.  Our curiosity fuels the paparazzi’s drive to provide us with tidbits on the latest doings of the Hollywood stars and starlets.  The sensational headlines arrest our wandering attention.

Sensationalism also gives us news, particularly of catastrophic and other noteworthy events.  But too often, as in the case of the earliest reports of the Trayvon Martin case, they take great liberties with the truth.  I experienced this during my college years in the 1960s while attending a small college located in a rural community who’s Main Street, about four blocks long, dead-ended at one end of town and ran twenty miles out in the country at the other end. On the first warm evening of spring the power to both the college and the town was knocked out.  Students swarmed out of their dorms, eventually ending up at an intersection at the edge of town where a few minor skirmishes occurred.  The following day rumors were running rampant that the students were going to riot downtown that evening, smashing all the storefronts.  As a result county patrolmen from the surrounding sheriff’s departments were brought in to quell any disturbances.  That evening a crowd of people gathered in the downtown area.  Half of them were townspeople curious as to what might happen, the other half students, also curious as to what would happen.  And then there were a dozen drunken students standing at an intersection, where traffic was directed by a county sheriff, located one-half block downhill from where my friends and I were standing.  When the sheriff stopped traffic to let the cross traffic proceed, these students threw up their hands, yelled and crossed the street.  After a few times of doing this, one of them yelled “I dropped my glasses” and they all started milling around in the street.  The sheriff, with three squirts of mace, broke it up, and the “riot” was over.  As we talked with him afterwards (one of my friends was his nephew) he indicated the entire situation hadn’t amounted to much.  The headlines of the paper the following day read “1500 Students Test Riot Police”.  We gathered clippings from all the newspapers in a 150 mile radius, reading them out loud that night amidst gales of laughter.  The all carried sensational headlines.  From this I learned to avoid taking news accounts at face value.  They are written to sell papers more than providing truth.  When reading sensational headlines it is very easy to jump to false conclusions.

It is unfortunate that in the church we can find ourselves guilty of the same. It most often takes the form of gossip.  Gossip is exciting and we can’t wait to share it with someone else.  It also feeds on curiosity.  We hear something about another person and pass it on to others as gospel truth, without checking up on the facts.  In so doing, we can destroy relationships and even lives.  Once it is spread it can’t be controlled.  We can’t take it back.  Therefore it is important for us to avoid succumbing to the sensationalism bug.  If we have, we need to repent and ask forgiveness.  Have you ever been bitten by this bug?  Is it still biting you?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The War on Words

            We live in an era of an advanced war on words.  The meaning of words is constantly being redefined.  We live in a world where the exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty over the meaning of words occurs daily.  
           "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone. "It means just what I choose it   
           to mean - neither more or less."
          "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
          "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is master - that's all."
Common usage of words is no longer the master.  In such a world it is important to reclaim the meaning of words before they have no meaning at all.  But too often they pass by us without comment.

Ann Furedi, head of the pro-abortion British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said in a debate last year "There is nothing magical about passing through the birth canal that transforms it from a fetus into a person."  If one accepts her definition of "fetus", who knows that the definition of "baby" becomes, for it is in the actual process of birth that the fetus becomes a baby.  Such redefinitions place us on a slippery slope as to the impact of meanings.  "Pro-choice" has come to mean "anti-choice" as most of its advocates adamantly oppose allowing mothers-to-be to have all available options before them.

The biggest battle going on today is over the definition of the freedom of religion which is protected in the Bill or Rights.  Some have attempted to make the statement plural, allowing for freedom of religions.  This changes the meaning of freedom of religion to "I have the freedom to be a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Buddhist, etc."  It takes the concept of pro-choice in its true meaning, the ability to choose among competing options.

There are also many today who are attempting to redefine freedom of religion as freedom of worship, claiming that they are the same.  But there is a vast gulf between them.  Freedom of worship gives us the right to freely attend the place of worship of our choice for one hour a week.  I can express my religious vies in church, but someone else can tell me what should influence my life and beliefs the rest of the week.  It offers no protection during the remaining 167 hours of the week.  My religious values and conscientious stance can be negated once I am outside the confines of the church building.  Using the analogy of clothing for religious values, it would be like having to strip at the church doors and walk out into the parking lot naked, remaining that way until reentering the church the following Sunday.  Effectively this is what the redefinition of religious freedom to be freedom of worship does.

Freedom of religion, on the other hand, is concerned with the living of all of life based on religious convictions and moral values.  It affects all areas of our lives, day in and day out.  It allows us to make choices based upon our religious convictions without fearing consequences.

It is unfortunate that in the latter half of the twentieth century many Christians acted more as if they had freedom of worship, with their religious life having a negligible impact of their daily lives.  If we continue to live this way, the attempted redefinition will become the new definition.  Those who base their lives on religious convictions will then suffer the most.  It is time to actively pursue what we want.  Is it freedom of worship or freedom of religion?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Cost of the Loss of Dignity

 The Jewish rabbi and moral philosopher, Abraham Heschel, speaking of mankind notes that
 “The cardinal problem is not the survival of religion, but the survival of man.  What is required is a continuous effort to overcome hardness of heart, callousness, and above all to inspire the world with the biblical image of man, not to forget that man without God is a torso, to prevent the dehumanization of man.  For the opposite of human is not the animal.  The opposite of human is the demonic.” 
Having escaped Warsaw, Poland just six weeks before the Nazis began their extermination of the European Jews, he mused that “I am a brand plucked from the fire of an altar of Satan on which millions of human lives were exterminated to evil’s greater glory…”  Nazism continued the process begun with the Enlightenment to exterminate Judaism, Christianity and the Bible from society.  Although it ultimately failed, the process continues today in academia’s, the media’s and Hollywood’s portrayal of Christianity as laughable, something to be scorned and done away with.  The derision and scorn heaped upon Tim Tebow during the Denver Bronco’s somewhat miraculous 2011 season point to how much Christianity is despised in media circles.  Bill Maher was quoted in Newsweek stating “Plain fact is, religion must die for mankind to live. The hour is getting very late to be able to indulge in having key decisions made by religious people.”  He likens the decisions made by religious people to the reading of entrails.

The loss of religion in decision making inevitably leads to depersonalization.  Mankind is seen as merely a cog in a great social machine.  His value is tied to his worth.  People without worth, such as the elderly, those with special needs, etc. have no value and can be cast aside.

Those who discount Christianity, have also done away with the Christian worldview of the nature of man.  Though fallen, there still remains in mankind the vestigial image of God.  Though a poor reflection of what was originally intended, it still remains.  This gives all people, whatever their race, creed, status, age or condition, dignity which must be affirmed and preserved.  One of the churches’ Mission should be to see that everyone’s dignity is affirmed.  As our modern world turns away from human dignity, this may prove to be the place where Christianity will see its greatest opportunity for advance in the twenty-first century.

 Heschel’s assertion that the loss of human dignity ushers in the demonic is worthy of consideration.  Satan’s goal is to destroy the image which God has placed in us.  His continual attempts to persuade us that we are mere animals through the view that we are merely an evolutionary by-product, through the callousness of abortion, through the utilitarian viewpoint that the aged and disabled are expendable, causes modern man’s view of dignity to fade over time.  Dignity is further lessened as relationships are destroyed, for dignity requires being in relationship with both God and our fellow man.  This loss of relationship is seen in the tragedies of divorce, particularly when women and their children are left destitute, and in spousal abandonment.  In each case relationships are destroyed and the persons cast off are left questioning their own worth.
God desires that we be in relationship with Him and each other.  He created us for that purpose, giving us dignity.  But for many, living in this disruptive, squalid world, dignity has been lost.  Part of the restoration with God involves the restoration of the  human person.  Are you willing to fight for human dignity?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Picking up the gauntlet

The recent edict by the Health and Human Services Department regarding the effects of the health care law on religious organizations should be of great concern to all Christians.  It narrowly interprets which religious institutions can avoid having to include services such as sterilization, contraceptives and abortion causing drugs at no cost in the health care plans offered to their employees.  Only those religious institutions (i.e. churches) whose purpose is to inculcate their moral values to their own members and primarily only employ and serve their members can quality for an exemption to the law.  The schools, hospitals and social programs run by religious organizations are not exempt and must follow the ruling.  While its provisions are most onerous to and have the greatest impact on Catholic churches and institutions who prohibit such practices in their moral teaching, the mandate has the great potential of negatively impacting all Christian organizations, Catholic and Protestant who serve the public.  This has dire consequences particularly on those who minister to others though social programs, such as food and clothing banks, homeless shelters, tutoring or counseling programs, etc. and who desire to avoid providing such health care benefits as a matter or conscience.  In effect, any church which has any type of outreach program which employs people for that purpose could come under the hegemony of the federal health care law and be forced to either drop their health care plans and pay hefty fines to the government, or provide for these health care services.  The administration’s opposition to the recent Supreme Court decision which guaranteed that church organizations alone can decide whom to hire and fire raises further questions as to how the government will further interpret the HHS ruling.  This matter is of grave concern since at its heart, Christianity is concerned with evangelism and missions. The Benedictine Belmont Abbey College has already indicated that it may close its doors rather than comply with the law if it doesn’t receive a waiver.  Several religious adoption agencies have closed their doors rather than adopt to same sex couples.   How many religious hospitals and schools will follow suit?  It has been noted that under these narrow guidelines for exemptions not even the ministry of Jesus and his disciples would qualify for an exemption of the law.
The administration’s decision to deny the constitutional rights of deeply held convictions and religious liberty requires one of two responses.  We can acquiesce to the new mandate, deciding to do nothing.  But if we do so, we must ask ourselves the disturbing questions “What’s next?  Where do I draw the line, if not here?”  For it is likely that we will soon face another challenge to our faith.  Or we can join those who for reasons of conscience are fighting the effects of the edict, taking a firm stand of solidarity with them in their efforts to overturn this attack upon religious institutions.  The Lutheran theologian Martin Niemöller, reflecting on the Nazi purging of various groups within Germany spoke the following:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out -- 
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -- 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out –
Because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

The gauntlet has been thrown down.  Who will pick it up?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Spiritual Tranquilizer

Thomas Merton, reflecting on the 1958 Christmas Address of Pope John XXIII noted that
 “Christ our Lord did not come to bring peace to the world as a kind of spiritual tranquilizer.  He brought to His disciples a vocation and a task, to struggle in the world of violence to establish His peace, not only in their own hearts but in society itself.  This was to be done not by wishing and fair words but by a total interior revolution in which we abandoned the human prudence that is subordinated to the quest for power, and followed the higher wisdom of love and of the Cross.” 
Although his words were written during the height of the Cold War, they are as relevant today as they were then.  We are still living in a world of violence.  We see the effects of terrorism all around the world.  We still seek to obtain power, whether as religious right or left, as conservative or liberal, or Republican or Democrat.  We still find comfort in pursuing a tranquilizing peace that never quite solves the problems we face.  It doesn’t appear that much has changed in the past fifty years.

            The role of a tranquilizer is to soothe over issues and reduce tension.  While it covers over problems, it never solves the basic issues.  Merton’s statement leads us to a probing question. To what extent do we seek peace as a spiritual tranquilizer?  If we do, we will find ourselves eventually willing to accept “peace at any price”.  And this leads us down the slippery slope which ends up in a compromise with error and evil.  Unfortunately it is all too easy to justify this in the name of peace.  The Old Testament prophets excoriated the religious leaders who preached “peace, peace when there was no peace”.  We saw what occurred when world leaders sought to appease Hitler during the 1930s.  Many church leaders of his day also fell under his charismatic leadership, refusing to take a stand against the Third Reich as it became more and more evil.

            But true Christianity never makes compromise with evil in order to achieve peace.  We see this in the life of Jesus.  Many of the teachings of the religious leaders of his day had distorted God’s intent.  Even though it eventually cost him his life, Jesus refused to go along with them in order to have peace.  We see the same in the lives of his disciples when they declared “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.” (Acts 4:19).  And we also see it in the lives of the Christian martyrs as they faced the wild animals and gladiators in the arenas before the taunting on-looking crowds   Refusing to worship the emperor and live in peace, they gladly accepted death. 

            In the spiritual realm, peaceful coexistence never seems to work.  Those on the side of evil will almost always come out ahead in the exchange.  Despite our vain attempts to coexist with the world, Satan will never play fair, always manipulating things to his advantage.  He simply cannot be trusted.

            As Merton eloquently notes, God requires an interior revolution or transformation that totally changes our character and our lives. This alone brings true peace, for it is an interior peace that only comes from a total allegiance to and complete trust in God.  It relies upon complete dependence on him.  It requires us to be Christians in action, not just in name.  What kind of peace are you willing to live with?