Pope Francis…a new openness


I find it fascinating that at the same time I am preaching a series (and writing a commentary) on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which lit the match that ignited the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis has stunned the world with a new openness in Roman Catholic thought.

In the Chicago Tribune this past Wednesday, there was an editorial written by a self-proclaimed “indifferent agnostic” who was moved by the Pope’s statement that “the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.” The writer also cited the Pope’s words said in a Mass last May, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, with the blood of Christ; all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone. ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”      

It is evident that while such openness impressed the writer, it did not move him beyond his indifferent agnosticism.  “I don’t know if God exists and I don’t care. Whether we were made by an all-powerful, all-loving creator or are the random result of a cosmic science experiment, it doesn’t change one bit our fundamental obligations to one another and to the world we live in… I believe that the creator (if such a creator exists) is exclusively concerned with how we treat his creation and supremely unconcerned about which God or gods we thank and praise for the opportunity.”

 I am resisting the urge to argue the oxymoronic nature of these statements. Instead I want to propose that such statements are a clear example of Paul’s main principle set forth in Romans 1:20, 21: “For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened”   

It does make a great deal of difference to acknowledge that God exists. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and He rewards those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6). It also makes a great deal of difference “which God or gods we thanks and praise…” Thus in spite of the Pope’s new openness, the reaction was a new closed-ness; the result of a darkened mind and heart. I do not blame Pope Francis for that.

Speaking of the Pope, just what did he mean by the blood of Christ being for everyone, including atheists? Will people who do not believe in Jesus get into heaven simply by obeying their conscience or by their sincerity? Before we try and understand all of this we need to delve a little (not too deeply) into Romans Catholic history and theology. OK- I just heard you yawn, so I’ll wait till next week. We will take it slow and in bite-sized chunks, but I think it will help you process what the Pope is saying and the fact that he is not breaking new theological ground in spite of what it sounds like. Have a blessed weekend!

If you want to join us in our preaching series on Romans check us out at http://www.commfell.org     

Meet our new grandson…

ChristianThis is my new grandson, Christian MacGregor McDowell. See if you can tell whether he is a Bear’s fan or not. My wife and I are here in the Baltimore area visiting his mom and dad and big brother and meeting him for the first time. He is beautiful, however, he keeps falling asleep every time I talk to him. I’ve noticed a lot of people tend to do that when I speak. O well…

We learned something about Christian just after he was born that will certainly change his life forever. He has what is known as a biotin deficiency, which is present in one out of 160,000 newborns. He is actually missing an enzyme that recycles biotin and therefore needs to take a biotin supplement, which is a part of the Vitamin B complex sometimes known as Vitamin H. All B vitamins help the body to convert food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose), which is used to produce energy. These B complex vitamins, also help the body metabolize fats and protein. B complex vitamins are needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver. They also help the nervous system function properly.

However, Christian needs to take a daily dose for the rest of his life. If he doesn’t, there is a chance of a hearing deficiency, vision issues, seizures, and other consequences. If he does take the supplement, he can lead a normal life without any major difficulty. Apparently, the condition is hereditary, and when both parents are “carriers” there is a one in four chance that their children will have the deficiency. A simple blood test will reveal if one is a carrier.

All this talk about chance makes me nervous since I believe that God is sovereign and does not leave things to chance. God’s creation is purposeful and, though pervaded by sin and disease, it still has meaning and significance and will accomplish the good ends that God has ordained. This means that for the God-lover, we believe that all things work together for the good (Rom 8:28-30) in spite of our deficiencies and DNA mutations.

I pray that God will use my new little Christian to grow up to love the Lord Jesus and to image his character. Perhaps his deficiency will help him to lean on his God and he will be used to help others to do the same who perhaps have a faith-deficiency. I also pray for my son and daughter-in-law that they will have great wisdom and patience as they care for and guide Christian in his physical, emotional, and spiritual development.

The Christian Church in Syria

christians in syriaAs we continue to pray for a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the crisis in Syria, I thought you might find it helpful (as I did) to learn more about the Christian Church there. Did you know that even before the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (ca. 34 AD) there were Christians in Syria? The followers of Jesus were first known as Christians in Syrian Antioch (ca. 46 AD). During the 2nd-4th century a school of theology developed in Antioch, one of whose most prestigious disciples was John Chrysostom. Monasticism flourished from the 4th-5th century with thousands of ascetics, monks and cenobites. St Simeon the Stylite and St Maron lived not far from Aleppo. 5th century Syria was at the heart of the Monophysite controversy. The Council of Chalcedon failed to end the disputes. St Maron’s monks, faithful to Rome, began to seek refuge in Lebanon. In the 7th century Caliph Omar dismissed Christian officials and his successor obliged them to wear distinctive dress. In 722 there were still 3.8 million Christians in Syria out of a population of 4 million.

During the 8th century Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi forced Arab-Christian Tannukhs to convert to Islam. In 855 Christians in Homs revolted and their leaders were crucified at the city gates. By the 9th century Islam was gained the upper hand and many churches became mosques and, by about 900, half the Syrian population was Muslim. During the 12th-13th century Christians in Syria had problems in areas controlled alternately by crusaders and Muslims. In 1124 the Aleppo cathedral was made into a mosque, but it still contends that it possesses the head of John the Baptist. In 1350, out of a population of one million, 100,000 were Christians (about the same proportion that exists today). In the 16th century, the Orthodox, Jacobite and Armenian Christian communities were recognized by the Ottoman sultan as nations with their own courts and laws. In 1860 there was a massacre of Christians in Mount Lebanon and it spread to Damascus: thousands died. In 1915 vast numbers of Armenians fled to Syria from massacres in Turkey.

Just as Islam is made up of a variety of groups, so the Christian church in Syria is composed of the following, from largest to smallest:

Greek Orthodox There are 500,000 divided into six Dioceses. Their leader is the “Patriarch of Antioch and all the East”, and their liturgy is in Arabic. Damascus has been the Patriarchal See since 1342. Greek Catholics (Melkites) The Greek Catholic Church of Antioch was born of a return to Catholicism by part of the Greek Orthodox Church in Antioch. Armenians The Armenian Church was inspired by St Gregory the Illuminator who made Armenia Christian in the third century.

Syriac/Syrian The Syrian Church was born in the mid-6th century from the dispute about the two natures of Christ. Jacob Baradai ordained Monophysite priests and Bishops, setting them beside the Catholic hierarchy. This Jacobite Church was joined by most of the Syrians who opposed Byzantine rule. Assyrians and Chaldeans Assyrians are Christians who belonged to the Nestorian Church established in Mesopotamia, and the Chaldeans are those who returned to Catholicism in 1681. Maronites The monks of St Maron founded the Church in Antioch by the Orontes River. Maronites are Catholic; persecuted by the Monophysites and then the Arabs, the majority were forced to take refuge in Lebanon. Latins The 3,000 Latins, mostly Catholics from Palestine or Europe (French and Italian), are under the jurisdiction of the Vicariate Apostolic of Aleppo for Latins, established in 1762. The majority of these Latins live in Damascus and Aleppo. Protestants A few thousand members of various denominations form the Superior Evangelical Council of Syria and Lebanon. Evangelical congregations are less than 1%. (This historical and statistical information was taken from L’Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English)

In Syria, Islam is not the state religion. The country is secular, which ensures equality for members of other religions. Christians can buy land and build churches. Clerics are exempt from military service and schools provide Christian and Muslim religious instruction. This is why Syrian Christians have been generally supportive of the Assad regime and why they were not calling for the proposed American missile strike. Syrian Christians believe that the government guarantees their survival. They fear extermination if Muslims take over and force Islam on the country. They have already seen what happened to Iraqi Christians. If you have time, I invite you to watch a news special by CBN from two years ago, just at the beginning of the uprisings. I think you will find it insightful. http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2011/August/Muslim-Syria-Full-of-Christian-History/



Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, said that the NAE recently surveyed evangelical leaders to ask whether Congress should authorize US military intervention in Syria. “Sixty-two and a half percent said ‘no.’ Thirty-seven and a half percent said ‘yes.’ I was surprised because I expected the answers would be the other way around.” Evangelicals do not often agree on a lot, but I think this is a significant response.

The Syrian civil war is a nightmare with more than 100,000 dead and over a million people displaced. The recent chemical attack which killed somewhere between 500-1400 has evoked moral outrage from most of the Western World. Since World War I there has been a general international consensus that “all is not fair in love and war,” and that chemical weapons should never be used. The fact that such weapons were used upon one’s own people presents a special case of injustice that begs to be confronted and rectified.

However, does that mean that there should be intervention even if it is a relatively limited punitive missile strike? Apparently our allies do not think so nor a majority of the American people. There are three major views that make up the landscape of Christian response to war and the use of force. The first is the Just War theory held by most Catholics and conservative Protestants who believe that war is justified if certain criteria are met. The second is the Pacifist position which believes that violence in any form is incompatible with the gospel and that Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” is not just a personal ethical response to evil, but a national one as well. Recently, there has been a third view called Just Peacemaking, which sees itself as a corrective to both of the major views.

In scanning the response of those who hold these views, I have seen a consensus that a punitive strike by the United States acting alone is neither justified nor wise. They have brought up a variety of concerns that no one is answering: What American interest are we protecting by such a strike? Won’t such a military action add to the human suffering and not alleviate it? How would this affect Christians in Syria and in that part of the world; would it add to their persecution like what happened in Iraq and is happening in Egypt? Would such a strike help or hurt Israel and Turkey? Finally, what is the point of such an intervention? A regime change; do we really know who the good guys are? I like what one proponent of the Just War theory said, “Saving national credibility is important but does not make a war just…It seems that the Administration is giving an altar call for a limited war, without having preached the sermon to make the case.”

What I hope for is that Congress will vote against such a strike and instead will draft a resolution that strongly condemns Syria’s action as unconscionable to the American people and to humanity. The resolution should call for the UN to live up to its principles by making a rigorous case for international intervention in the Syrian crisis and holding Russia complicit to the genocide taking place in Syria. As one writer in the Chicago Tribune said, “make Russia own Syria.” The resolution should also state that if the United Nations fails to act, the US will pull out and demand that the UN move its ineffective organization to Brussels or Geneva. This is a significant moment where we can use what moral leadership we have left to call the only organization in the world created for such a time as this, to put up or close up. One final point to the resolution, Congress should designate additional funds for the Syrian refuge relief effort and call upon the international community to also increase their efforts to alleviate the civilian suffering.

I do not expect Congress to pass my resolution. That is why we need to pray for our country, Syria, and the world—for God to accomplish what we cannot.