The Icy Waters of Moral Decline

ice-rescue-two-img_0848In 1987, Robert Bork, a Reagan nominee for a Supreme Court Justice and who was not confirmed by the Senate (some say, “he was borked”,) wrote a book about our culture’s decline entitled, “Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and America’s Decline.” I am going to use another metaphor. This week the Supreme Court heard arguments against the constitutionality of two issues: 1) California Proposition 8, which says that marriage is to be between a man and a woman; 2) the Defense of Marriage Act, which withholds federal recognition and benefits to couples in same sex relationships and was overwhelmingly passed by Congress in 1996 to “express moral disapproval of homosexuality.”

The Court will vote today (Friday) and the outcome will be pivotal to our culture’s entire value system not to mention its understanding of marriage, which has from our nation’s inception been based upon the biblical mandate of Creation. Although this day has been coming for decades (and is already here in some states), it is sobering to see the direction in which the Supreme Court is leaning. And it will be the height of irony that the very constitution which provides us with freedom to worship the God of the Bible will at the same time render unconstitutional His very definition of marriage. It should be acknowledged that this is not an issue for the theologically liberal Protestant who believes that God is still speaking, and this new understanding of marriage is part of Her/His message.

Our culture has clearly broken through the ice of God’s protective care and is now struggling for survival in the icy waters of its own moral decline. Eradicating gender from the marriage equation is the tipping point to more confusion. Mark my word, the “polyamorous” relationships of today will cry out for constitutional freedom and equality and will produce the polygamous marriages of tomorrow—and so on. This culture cannot rescue itself; it needs the Church which has been marginalized and viewed as “out of step.” What an opportunity to have an impact and be the salt and light described by Jesus! The Church in every age should be out of step with its culture and increasingly so as the culture suppresses what it intuitively knows to be true about God (Rom. 1:18, 19). However, the American Church has no footing or place to stand in order to stage a rescue. Its own moral track record has given it little credibility with which to speak to the sins of the culture or to show the higher road of following the commands of Scripture.

Its own performance within the arena of marriage and family has been slip-shod. The Church matches the culture in its divorce rate and probably in the numbers of people addicted to pornography, not to mention other sexual abuses. It has more of a reputation for toxic church-splits than for being a loving and cohesive community. We have failed not only to do justly and love mercy, but to walk humbly with our God. Our dying culture has little reason to believe that we can offer much of an alternative. Every time the Church tries to pull the culture out (through political activism, culture wars, or legalism), the ice cracks underfoot and the Church itself is in danger of also slipping into the water.

The only hope of rescuing someone who has fallen through the ice is for the rescuer to get face down on the ice and move toward the helpless victim. The only way the Church can rescue the culture is by getting face down before God in repentance and moving humbly and slowly toward the helplessness of our culture. “If my people…” You know the verse I mean in 2 Chron. 7:14. It is as the people of God humble themselves, pray, and seek the face of God; it is then that their sins will be forgiven and their land will be healed. For when we are humble, the ice won’t crack beneath the weight of our own sin and we can go out onto thin ice and extend our hand to those who are slowly freezing to death in the icy waters of moral decline.

While we still have a voice…

I just received a time-sensitive letter from Leith Anderson, the President of the National Association of Evangelicals. I want to share a portion with you:

The United States Senate may vote Friday afternoon on several pro-life amendments to the Budget Resolution. Please consider calling your Senators through the Capitol Switchboard: 202-224-3121 to express your support for these efforts to protect the unborn.

1. Senator Lee’s District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act Summary: This amendment expresses the Sense of the Senate regarding the abortion of pain-capable unborn children in the District of Columbia. As you may know, the DC Council repealed all limits on abortion, therefore making abortion legal for any reason to the moment of birth. The amendment states that abortion should be unlawful past 20 weeks fetal age (also referred to as 20 weeks post-fertilization age), except if necessary to save the life of the mother.

2. Senator Rubio’s Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act Summary: This amendment expresses the Sense of the Senate that legislation should be enacted to require that an abortionist, before performing an abortion on a minor from a different state, must first notify one parent, unless the minor is the victim of sexual abuse or faces a life-endangering emergency, or has received permission from a court. Further, it says that legislation should be enacted to make it a federal crime to transport a minor across a state line in circumvention of a state law requiring parental involvement in the minor’s abortion.

3. Senator Vitter’s Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act Summary: This amendment expresses the Sense of the Senate that legislation should be enacted to ban sex-selection abortions in the United States. There are now four studies from … academic institutions proving sex-selection in the U.S.: U.C. Berkeley, U. of Texas, U. of Connecticut, and Columbia University, whose 2008 report found that there is “strong son bias” within selected American communities as revealed in census data and “clear evidence of sex-selection, most likely at the prenatal stage.” The victims of sex-selection abortion are overwhelmingly female, and most sex-selection abortions are grisly, later-term abortions, likely occurring after the child becomes “pain-capable.” The United States is believed to be the only advanced country that does not restrict sex-selection through law. Sex-selection abortion bans consistently poll between 86% and 93% positively, making this initiative the most widely supported of all pro-life efforts.

One final thing: Next week the Supreme Court will hear two important cases concerning the legal status of marriage in our country. The Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has prepared an excellent guide to prayer, which can be accessed here: I will be making some hard copies of this prayer guide available on Sunday at our services. Please join in praying for the these important decisions.

Thank you for your efforts to safeguard the sanctity of human life and to protect and strengthen marriage by using our rights as free citizens. We do not take this privilege for granted.

Easter Revisited…

Easter LilyLast week I wrote an article about certain Christians questioning the validity of other Christians celebrating Easter because of the claim that Easter has its origins in paganism. (Maybe you should take another look at that blog just to refresh your memory.) The main thrust of my argument centered on the freedom that we have to contextualize the gospel in ways that our target culture will understand. Thus the fact that we use an Easter egg hunt as an outreach to the community so we can share the gospel of the Resurrected Christ is a case in point. Our intent is to share the gospel not to celebrate paganism.

The issue of intent raised a few red flags with some of my readers, so I want to revisit that. In the Chicago Tribune yesterday there was an article about gun-rights advocates calling Mark Kelly (the husband of Gabrielle Giffords) a hypocrite for buying a AR-15 assault weapon in Arizona. As you remember, since Giffords was shot and nearly killed she and Kelly have engaged in a high profile campaign to curb military-style weapon ownership. His intent in buying the weapon was to show how easy it was to obtain one with a minimal background check. So, is the charge of hypocrisy accurate given his intent? Even in Old Testament, Israel recognized the difference between murder and manslaughter as one of intent. Also, the key to the sacrificial system was not the bulls and goats, but the heart (the intent) of the worshipper. There is a very interesting example of intent in 1 Kings 5:18, 19. A converted Naaman asked Elisha if he would be forgiven when he had to accompany his king to the temple of Rimmon and there help the old man bow in worship, “and [consequently] I bow there also.” Elisha, usually very sensitive to idolatry, simply told him to “go in peace.” Elisha knew Naaman’s action of bowing, even in pagan temple, did not carry with it the intent of worship.

As well-reasoned as I think my arguments are, I know they will not be sufficient to convince those who have a strong conviction to the contrary. In the same way, they could not produce sufficient data on Easter and paganism to change my mind either. OK, so we have a standoff. Let’s solve the disagreement the good old fashioned American-Christian way; break fellowship and go start your own church. I think the tragedy in all of this is that in our attempt to love the Lord Jesus and to be faithful to His Word, we end up not loving each other and, therefore, being unfaithful to His Word. If we really desire to be biblical in our approach to dealing with disagreements on non-essentials (things not having to do with the centrality of the gospel), then we need to read Romans 14. “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.”

This entire passage deals with disagreements between Christians in the church at Rome who were going after each other because of “disputable matters.” Luther called them “pebble in the shoe” issues; annoying disputes which cannot be settled because each person is convinced in their own conscience that they hold the correct position. There were those whose consciences were “strong” and were convinced that they had the freedom to eat the meat sold at the temple meat-market (the only one in town), even though the animals from which the meat came were first sacrificed to a pagan deity. There were others in the church, however, who became vegetarians because they had a “weak” conscience— they believed that eating meat sacrificed to idols would make them participants in the pagan worship from which they had been converted. Although Paul identified more with the carnivores, he believed they were both right as long as they were acting according to their conscience. Where they were wrong, however, were in their attitudes toward each another. “The one who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him… Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another… Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification… So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.”

According to the Scripture, then, being right about Easter and paganism takes a back seat to the love and unity which should be displayed by those who are in disagreement over the issue. If someone is fully convinced in his own mind on a disputable matter, even if we do not share that conviction, then God forbid that s/he should go against that conscience. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7).

Is Easter a Pagan Celebration?

home-easter-eggsThere are those who claim that Easter* should not be celebrated because of its pagan origin. Unfortunately, such teaching is not only semi-historical but creates division in the Church. The basic presupposition of such a view is that anything that is connected with paganism should be eschewed because God wants his people to be separate from the world’s thinking and practices. While this may have especially been true of ancient Israel living among the Canaanites, it does not seem to accurately represent the New Testament’s portrayal of infiltrating the world with the gospel.

What mattered most to the New Testament writers, especially the Apostle Paul, was the issue of intent. Paul used the method of contextualization in his ministry, especially in taking the gospel to the Gentiles. Some of his critics thought he was wishy-washy and inconsistent, but he believed he was exercising the freedom he had in Christ to frame the gospel in an understandable way to his hearers in order to win as many as possible. “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… To those not under the law I became like one not having the law…, so as to win those not having the law… I have become all things to all men so that I might by all possible means save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:19-23). Paul had the freedom to do or not to do because his intent was to preach the gospel and save some.

There is certainly a danger that Christians can over- accommodate with culture to the extent that they lose their distinctiveness. In missiological circles this is called syncretism; when the gospel loses its integrity and message because it has been blended into the practices of the dominant culture. Paul warned the Colossians against syncretism because they were being tempted to follow the elementary principles and deceptive philosophy (“Stoicheia”) of their culture rather than Christ (2:8). “If you have died to the elementary principles of the world, why do you submit to their decrees?” (2:20)

When it comes to Easter, the New Testament portrays it as the occasion for celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The time of Christ’s Resurrection is clearly shown in the New Testament to be the Sunday following the Jewish Passover. The fact that in previous and subsequent centuries the celebrations of other pagan spring rites, along with bunnies and eggs, have made their way into our culture’s understanding of Easter in no way makes Easter a pagan event for the Christian. Again, the issue is one of intent. Easter can (and has for many) become idolatrous because the gospel has been pushed into the background. Should our response be to do away with the bunnies and the eggs or should we proclaim the gospel of the Resurrection?

I believe that Christians have the freedom to color eggs and hide baskets of candy for their kids, as long as it is their intent to have fun and not to substitute these activities for the real meaning of Easter. I also believe that we have the freedom to contextualize the gospel by using an Easter Egg Hunt as a way to invite our community to our church so that they can also have fun and hear the message of Jesus.

In summary, since you can find pagan roots in just about everything we do, the issue for us is one of intent. In other words, I am not participating in a pagan ritual just because I use the calendar, even though the months of the year and even some of our days are named after Roman gods. Nor am I a syncretist just because I celebrate birthdays, even though such celebrations find their roots in ancient astrology. We should always be concerned about the danger of becoming like the world and losing our integrity as Christians to the culture. However, I think our materialism, divorce rate, and our divisions pose a greater threat to our distinctiveness than the Easter Bunny.

*”It would seem from the translations of Luther and Tyndale that by 1500, the word oster/ester simply referred to the time of the Passover feast and had no association with the pagan goddess Eostre. Even if the word had an origin in her name, the usage had changed to such a degree that Luther was comfortable referring to Christ as the Osterlamm…. “Resurrection lamb.” Likewise, Tyndale was comfortable referring to Christ as the esterlambe. To suggest these men thought of their Savior in terms of the sacrificial offering of a pagan goddess is quite absurd in light of their writings and translations of other portions of Scripture. Even the translators of the KJV, who relied heavily on Tyndale’s work, chose to use Easter in the post-Resurrection context of Acts 12:4. Using a word that means resurrection would not make sense to describe the Passover festivals prior to the Resurrection of Christ. (

In Honor of Anna Banana…

Anna Photo Shoot Seated…that wasn’t her name but rather the name of her still active website Anna O’Connor was my great niece and she succumbed to Stage IV Neuroblastoma cancer a year ago today (actually, it was February 29). Neuroblastoma is primarily a childhood cancer which originates in the sympathetic nervous system and then quickly spreads to various organs in the body. It is rare in older children and yet she was diagnosed with it when she was 17; the summer before her senior year in high school. She lived with it for nearly ten years, and she died after obtaining a Masters in Clinical Psychology from the Wheaton College grad school. She was 26.

Some would say she lost her battle with Neuroblastoma, but it would be more accurate to say she used the disease as a platform of influence and to bring comfort and hope to many children and families afflicted with the cancer. Through her foundation (Anna’s Hope), she raised thousands of dollars for research as well as public awareness of this virulent and relatively unknown form of cancer. She also “outlived” everyone’s expectations so that every breath she took and every experimental drug or treatment she participated in helped others with the disease, and may lead to an eventual cure. Her faith in Jesus and the hope of the life to come not only sustained her (and continues to sustain her family), but made her an “overcomer” if not a survivor. Like the rest of us, she wasn’t a saint, but she was an incredible steward of something that no one ever wants and turned it into a life that no one can ever forget. I had the privilege of speaking at her memorial service at Wheaton College last March which was attended by 1500 people.

I am actually writing this blog on a flight home from New England where I just spoke at another funeral for a very gifted young man from a beautiful family. He worked with memory-impaired people and his life was cut short at 29. Ironically, the very funeral home in which I did the service held the remains of yet another gentle young man whom I knew; age 22. Also, in attendance at the service was a wonderful family whose delightful mid-30’s daughter is in a semi-conscious state at a rehab hospital in Boston; the result of Meningitis. These are all young folks who grew up in my church and whom I either dedicated, baptized, or taught, as well as loved. No longer can I think that death is the unique possession of the old.

What is there to prevent this plane from going down or what is keeping me from contracting a mysterious virus from the guy sitting next to me? Oh no, he just sneezed! What assurance do I have that I will not slip into a deep depression and try to take my own life? I know that what I am saying is deeply disturbing to many of you who have had these thoughts or who feel vulnerable to all the dangers that lurk around us.

Anna’s favorite passage of Scripture was Psalm 62. She found great comfort and hope there. “My soul finds its rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my fortress, I will never be shaken.” The Psalmist admits that in himself he is just a leaning fence and a tottering wall. However, when he puts his trust and hope in God alone, he cannot be shaken. This sounds like Paul in Romans 8, who confesses that every day he faces death and feels like he is a sheep about to be slaughtered. Yet, because he believes that God is for us and nothing will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, he is able to say “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Anna learned what many of us have not yet grasped. Though we live in a dangerous world that groans beneath the weight of suffering, there is a refuge and fortress for our souls in the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Rock that enables us to steward whatever we face and reinterpret it for the glory of God. Luther wrote of this in his A Mighty Fortress is our God: “And tho’ this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us; we will not fear for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us.” God’s truth will triumph through our Neuroblastoma, through our Meningitis, through our persecution and suffering, and even through death itself. “Trust him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8).