Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Curious George and Current Events…

My granddaughter, Davy, loves Curious George; a mischievous little monkey belonging to “the man in the yellow hat” named Ted (I bet you didn’t know that was his name). Almost every time she comes to my house we watch an episode or two (or more) together. There was one particular episode in which Ted was the scoutmaster for the Little Sprouts  and took them for a hike in the woods. They got lost after relying on a young assistant leader’s GPS,  and so Ted told George to climb up a tall tree and look around so he could help locate where they were.

In Psalm 121:1, 2 the writer says, ” I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The opening verses of this Song of Ascent could be understood in two ways. One interpretation is that the hills were recognized as a place of idolatry and thus “looking unto the hills” could represent a dependency on humanly created instruments of salvation and deliverance. The writer affirms that his reliance is upon the Lord. An other interpretation says that the hills represented the holy hill of Zion (Jerusalem) where the Temple was built and where God “dwelt.” Thus “looking unto the hills” in this case meant acknowledging God as The Psalmist’s ultimte source of deliverance.  Both interpretations land us in the same place; in the midst of the circumstances that surround us we should not place our confidence and hope in any form of human deliverance, but only in God who is good, merciful, and sovereign. However, to do this we must “lift up our eyes” (or go climb a tree with George) and look for God above our circumstances.

Why is it that we don’t lift up our eyes and look for God? I think it is because of our pride and self-sufficiency. Perhaps we think we know what is best and conclude that we can figure things out. We are often like a child who thinks she knows how to put on her coat even though she can’t and has a fit if you try and help her. And so we like stubborn children close in upon ourselves and live in a world where things begin and end with us and with our interpretation of reality.

I’m reminded of the testimony of Chuck Colson’s conversion. Colson, a former Marine captain and Special Counsel to Richard Nixon, was convicted and sent to prison for complicity in the Watergate scandel of the 1970’s.  He was given a copy of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity and was overpowered by this quote: “There is one vice of which no man in the world is free…the vice I’m talking about is Pride…. Pride leads to every other vice; it is the complete anti-God state of mind. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people, and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see somethng that is above you.”

If I might be so bold as to make an observation about how many people have framed their joy or disappointment at the outcome of the recent election. As Christians, we can often be guilty of failing to lift up our eyes and see what is above us. We can easily demonstrate pride and self-sufficiency when we see only what we want to see; refuse to listen to  an other perspective; and, most of all, fail to acknowledge God’s sovereignty and power. I am deeply concerned that many have chosen to drumroll their political views at the risk of hindering their effectiveness in sharing the gospel and/or of sacrificing their relationships within the Body of Christ.

When I had a church in Massachusetts, in a very liberal college town, I chose never to put a political sign on my lawn or sticker on my car. I stuck with this decision even when one of my elders decided to run for Congress against a very liberal (notice I don’t use the word progressive) encumbent. Though I voted for my dear brother, who lost in a landslide, I was most concerned that if I wore my political leanings on my lawn or bumper, my neighbors would pigeon-hole me politically and reject the gospel for reasons other than the gospel.

It is no secret that I am very concerned about the character and rhetoric of our President-elect. I am also very concerned about the cultural vitriol being expressed for him and against him. I understand the variety of reasons for why many evangelicals voted for Trump; not all are sexist, racist, and ethnocentrists. However, I also understand the pain of many minority Christians who are very concerned and fearful because they have experienced these -ists first hand.

I believe that when we lift up our eyes to our God and reaffirm our dependency upon him and our commitment to the gospel, we will see that our main concern as evangelicals should not be whether we won or lost politically, but how we treat the broken and suffering people around us; both in the Church and those in our culture who are truly “lost.” We also will come to see that racism and sexism are spiritual issues embedded deep in the hearts and systems of all humanity, which is why we need a savior…why I need a savior!

Let us once again hear the prophetic voice: “Look unto me and be saved all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other” (Isa 45:22).

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The Presidential Campaign: God Have Mercy upon Us!

If the following post seems familiar, it is because I am reblogging a post written 3 months ago. I think that much of the content is relevant to the upcoming election and that is why I changed only the title.

This past July 4th, I was re-reading the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution written eleven years later; amazing documents. While many consider them to be “inspired,” they are not inerrant; the 28 amendments to the Constitution are witness to that. Also the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments in particular prove that the Constitution has blind spots and must supported by something more if it going to provide the foundation for continuing freedom.

Os Guiness has written in A Free Peoples Suicide that there are many people in America today who scorn religious fundamentalism but are hard at work creating “a constitutional fundamentalism. It is being done through lawyers and judges rather than rabbis, priests, and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical.”  First amendment rights are being argued as the basis for opposing agendas and the interpretation of the Constitution itself is at the whim of political bias. Thus this incredible document alone cannot form the foundation for sustainable freedom. It needs to be supported by something else.

Guinness offers; “What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of liberty.” Tocqueville called this moral ecology the “habits of the heart.” Guinness calls it “the golden triangle of freedom…freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom.”

What resonates with me, mostly because we have been assaulted by months of political campaigning and debates, is the diminishing importance of virtue (character) that we see in our nation. We stress a written Constitution over the moral constitution of our nation’s citizenry and leadership. Unfortunately, examples of this are not hard to find.

Look at the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 when he was the sitting president. He was not convicted by the Senate of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”(Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution), and the overall consensus to the whole “affair” was that the character of the president was irrelevant as a public issue. What really matters to our society is competence– not character.  Look at the unrestrained greed and unfettered capitalism  of the Wall Street crisis and the recession of 2008. Look at the present political scenario and the upcoming election that will boil down to which untrustworthy candidate America trusts more. Our nation has sown the wind by making faith and virtue a private matter; it is now reaping the whirlwind of having two presidential candidates with serious personality flaws.

George Reedy, special assistant to Lyndon Johnson looked back on his experience in the halls of power and said, “in the White House, character and personality are extremely important because there are no other limitations…. Restraint must come from within the presidential soul and prudence from the presidential mind. The adversary forces which temper the action of others do not come into play until it is too late to change course.”(The Twilight of the Presidency, 1970, p. 20)

In spite of their importance, experience and competence are not the most important ingredients to what we should look for in a leader. We need a person of character who has demonstrated trustworthiness in his/her private world as well as in the public square. It is not the rhetoric or the promises for the future, but it is what they have done about keeping their promises in the past, both privately and publicly.

I think Os Guinness borders on the profound when he says, “Externally character is the bridge that provides the point of trust that links leaders with their followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides a leader’s deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint when the dizzy heights of leadership mean there are no other limitations.”

Our Constitution is a magnificent document and we can be thankful for it. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our nation can be sustained by a document alone without the virtue of its leaders and citizenry. “A good government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual and slavery will ensue.” (John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.)

Vote your conscience and may God have mercy on America!

Trust Me: I Will Protect You!

Psalm 121 is a beautiful song of trust and confidence where the psalmist expresses that God is his Helper and his Keeper; that he is safe and secure under the ever-watchful eye of the Creator of the heavens and the earth. The Psalmist is confident that the One who keeps Israel secure is also the deliverer of the person who trusts in him.

The word “keep” is six times in the Psalm which you will not notice if you read the NIV or KJV:

“He who keeps you will not slumber” (Psa. 121:3).

“He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psa. 121:4).

“The LORD is your keeper” (Psa.121:5).

“The LORD will keep you from all evil” (Psa. 121:7).

“He will keep your life” (Psa. 121:7).

“The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore” (Psa. 121:8)

It is why I call this the Keeper’s Psalm because the Hebrew word shāmar is repeated by the psalmist to emphasize God’s care and protection for the individual and for the nation.

There is one interpretive decision that we have to make immediately as we read v. 1. From where does the Psalmist initially look for help? I memorized this Psalm in the KJV many years ago and it begins “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?” The understanding is that since this is one of the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), the worshipper is coming to Jerusalem and lifts up his eyes to the holy Mount Zion where the Temple stood (2000 ft. above sea level). He makes a statement of trust and confidence that God, whose presence resides in the Temple’s Holy of Holies, is the only One who can help and keep him and his nation.

However, there is another way to read this verse where the conclusion is the same, but the starting point is different. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” (ESV) French theologian and disciple of John Calvin, Theodore Beza, underscored this translation with his own unique translation of Psalm 121:1, “Should I lift up my eyes unto these mountains? From where will my help come? Beza suggested that the psalmist asked two questions, not one. The first question is whether or not he should look toward the mountains; the second question is about the psalmist’s source of confidence.

In commenting on Beza’s translation, Professor Claude Mariottini of Northern Baptist Seminary says: Most commentators believe that the “mountains” in question refer to one mountain, Zion, the dwelling place of God…. But Beza’s interpretation may reflect another reality behind the psalmist’s faith. In Israel, the mountains were the places where pagan practices and illegitimate worship were conducted by the Israelites.

Thus, according to Beza’s translation, the psalmist refuses to look toward the mountains because he knew that his help would not come from there. Thus, using Beza’s translation of verse 1, “Should I lift up my eyes unto these mountains?”, the answer to the psalmist’s question is “no”, because his help will not come from the pagan gods worshiped on the mountains.

Again, the conclusion is the same but the starting point is different depending on how you interpret v.1. I like Beza’s translation. As we face an uncertain future as a nation, we have a choice of where we look to find the source of our confidence and security. Do we find it in the size of our military and of our weaponry? Do we look to our political leaders who argue as to who would make the best Commander-in-Chief and protect us the most? Or, do we look to the Creator of heaven and earth as our Helper and Keeper. We must make this choice almost daily as we watch the news, listen to the political rhetoric, and continue to raise our children and grandchildren in an evil and violent world. Whom do you trust?

July 4th: May God Have Mercy on America!

This is July 4th and I am re-reading the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution written eleven years later; amazing documents. While many consider them to be “inspired,” they are not inerrant; the 28 amendments to the Constitution are witness to that. Also the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments in particular prove that the Constitution has blind spots and must supported by something more if it going to provide the foundation for continuing freedom.

Os Guiness has written in A Free Peoples Suicide that there are many people in America today who scorn religious fundamentalism but are hard at work creating “a constitutional fundamentalism. It is being done through lawyers and judges rather than rabbis, priests, and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical.”  First amendment rights are being argued as the basis for opposing agendas and the interpretation of the Constitution itself is at the whim of political bias. Thus this incredible document alone cannot form the foundation for sustainable freedom. It needs to be supported by something else.

Guinness offers; “What the framers believed should complement and reinforce the Constitution and its separation of powers is the distinctive moral ecology that is at the heart of liberty.” Tocqueville called this moral ecology the “habits of the heart.” Guinness calls it “the golden triangle of freedom…freedom requires virtue, which requires faith, which requires freedom.”

What resonates with me, most likely because we have been assaulted by months of political campaigning, is the diminishing importance of virtue (character) that we see in our nation. We stress a written Constitution over the moral constitution of our nation’s citizenry and leadership. Unfortunately, examples of this are not hard to find.

Look at the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 when he was the sitting president. He was not convicted by the Senate of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors”(Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution), and the overall consensus to the whole “affair” was that the character of the president was irrelevant as a public issue. What really matters to our society is competence– not character.  Look at the unrestrained greed and unfettered capitalism  of the Wall Street crisis and the recession of 2008. Look at the present political scenario and the upcoming election that will boil down to which untrustworthy candidate America trusts more. Our nation has sown the wind by making faith and virtue a private matter; it is now reaping the whirlwind of having two presidential candidates with serious personality flaws.

George Reedy, special assistant to Lyndon Johnson looked back on his experience in the halls of power and said, “in the White House, character and personality are extremely important because there are no other limitations…. Restraint must come from within the presidential soul and prudence from the presidential mind. The adversary forces which temper the action of others do not come into play until it is too late to change course.”(The Twilight of the Presidency, 1970, p. 20)

In spite of their importance, experience and competence are not the most important ingredients to what we should look for in a leader. We need a person of character who has demonstrated trustworthiness in his/her private world as well as in the public square. It is not the rhetoric or the promises for the future, but it is what they have done about keeping their promises in the past, both privately and publicly.

I think Os Guinness borders on the profound when he says, “Externally character is the bridge that provides the point of trust that links leaders with their followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides a leader’s deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint when the dizzy heights of leadership mean there are no other limitations.”

Our Constitution is a magnificent document and we can be thankful for it. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that our nation can be sustained by a document alone without the virtue of its leaders and citizenry. “A good government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual and slavery will ensue.” (John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence.)

May God have mercy on America!

 

Christianity Should Never Rule…

The following blog post is from Peter Wehner (contributing opinion writer for the New York Times) giving his reflections on Good Friday and Easter.

“The writer Philip Yancey recently offered this:

I wrote in Vanishing Grace about an important insight I learned from a Muslim scholar who said to me, ‘I have read the entire Koran and can find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in a society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.’

“(Yancey) put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths. One, born at Pentecost, thrives cross-culturally and even counter-culturally, often coexisting with oppressive governments. The other, geographically anchored in Mecca, was founded simultaneously as a religion and a state….”

While Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics, Yancey wrote, Christianity works best as a minority faith, a counter-culture…. Historically, when Christians have reached a majority they too fall to the temptations of power in ways that are clearly anti-gospel. Add to this the fact that, as sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has pointed out, Christianity’s greatest period of vulnerability and political weakness was the time of its most explosive growth. He estimates that Christianity saw a 40 percent growth rate per decade from 30 AD to 300 AD. As a result a tiny and obscure movement became the dominant faith of Western civilization. And its enduring symbol is not the shield or the sword but the cross.”

“Early on in my faith pilgrimage – a journey that did not come particularly easily to me – I was struck and to some degree captivated by how in many respects the Christian faith is a radical inversion of what the world deems worthy and worth celebrating. The last shall be first. Strength is made perfect in weakness. The humble will be exalted. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Love rather than hate your enemies. Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for God. Whoever loses his life for God’s sake will find it.”

“Jesus himself came not as a king but as a servant. He was born not to wealth and privilege in Rome but in a manger in Bethlehem. He was a God who wept, was acquainted with grief and was ‘counted among the outlaws.’ He preferred the company of sinners to that of religious authorities, with whom he repeatedly clashed. He was abandoned and betrayed by his disciples. And he endured an agonizing death on a cross.”

“It is hardly the script you or I would write, a God whose crown was made of thorns. But for those of us of the Christian faith, Good Friday gives way to Easter Sunday – the days of God’s overpowering acts in history, acts in which God’s judgment and grace were revealed to all the world, in the words of the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

I would agree with this assessment. What we have learned from the Moral Majority and the rise of the Evangelical Voting Bloc is that even when they have held sway, they have not produced a more Christian nation; just as the Crusades and the Inquisition did not advance the gospel to the world. Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was a king; his reply, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

We (the Church) have not been called to rule, but to serve and to live out Christ’s kingdom here on earth. Our sign will never be a scepter, but always a cross because it will include suffering. Our prayer should not be for America to become a winner again, but as Francis Schaeffer used to say even back in the 1960’s, we should pray that God would have mercy on America and bring us to our knees in humble repentance. This will be our greatest victory and greatest witness to the world.

April Fools…

I wanted to write an informative blog on the origin of April Fools’ Day, but there are so many claims that I gave up and personally don’t care. So I thought instead I would share some memorable hoaxes that have been foisted upon our family over the years, but I couldn’t think of any. Finally, I thought I would tell you about the incredible April Fools’ joke I played on my parents when I found out I was adopted (April Fools), but I can’t.

On the one hand, it is fun to be a bit of an intentional ninnyhammer  on one day of the year when we often act or say foolish things quite naturally at other times. On the other hand, it is too bad we take so much time thinking of some untruth to tell someone when the time could be better spent thinking of something encouraging to do or say to them.

Instead, I think I’ll share a bit on the three types of fools that are revealed in the Bible. I would highly recommend the book Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion by Os Guinness, especially the chapter, “The Way of the Third Fool.”  Guinness writes that there is, first of all, the Fool Proper; applied to a broad category of people who have no time for God. There are those who make the outright claim that there is no God (Ps 14:1) or those who live with no conscious consideration of God (Lk 12:20).

The second kind of fool that the Bible mentions is the Fool Bearer. This person is the one who has been treated as a fool for Christ sake (1 Cor 4:10). Like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, this is a person who is misunderstood, mistreated, persecuted, and rejected for the sake of following Christ. He or she is willing to be laughed at by the world just as their Savior was mocked and treated as a Fool King when he was dressed in purple, given a fake scepter, and a crown of thorns as part of his suffering.

The third kind of fool that Guinness describes is the Fool Maker. The Fool Maker is one “…who is prepared to be seen and treated as a fool, so that from the position of derided folly, he or she may be able to bounce back and play the jester, addressing truth to power, pricking the balloons of the high and mighty, and telling the emperor he has no clothes… The cross, Martin Luther wrote, was the devil’s mousetrap. The devil smelled cheese, and wham, felt steel…Everything that climaxed in that sultry Passover week was spring-loaded with a deeper, history-shaking truth, although under a disguise so strange that it bewildered even the closest and most ardent followers of Jesus–and the devil himself fell for the smell of cheese. Just so did God shame the world’s folly, subvert the wold’s pride and put death to death through the death of his Son.”

And what I find most insightful is the fact that Guinness shows that this kind of foolery is what God uses to win the world. He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr who claimed that there is a limit to what even the power of God can do as power alone, for “such power does not reach the heart of the rebel.” Guinness adds, “power can fence us, in but only sacrificial love can find us out. Power can win when we are ranged against it, but it cannot win us…There was no other way. It takes the full folly and weakness of the cross to find us out and win us back.”

And so on this April Fools’ Day, which has so closely followed the “foolery” of Holy Week, let us not fall prey to the idea that power and dominance will be the way the gospel will win the world. It will be through our suffering as “fool-bearers” and our loving others as “fool-makers” that the gospel will subvert the wisdom and power of the world, and find and win the lost .

 

The Slavery of Too Many Choices

Years ago I went for lunch at a restaurant in Moscow. I sat down; the bread was already on the table (on all the tables), having been put there when the restaurant opened that morning. It was hard as a rock and probably could have been used in self-defense if the KGB ever came after me. I asked the waitress for a menu and she told me that they did not have one. She proceeded to tell me what they were serving and whether I wanted it cold or hot. On the one hand, I was stunned with the fact that I was being told what I was going to eat. On the other hand, it was refreshing that I didn’t have to make a choice— except for the temperature of the food. The Moscow markets were also very limited. People would buy whatever was on the shelves whether they needed it at that time or not. The issue was not one of choice but of supply. When I returned to the US and went into one of our grocery stores, I had a strange feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices with which I was again confronted.

Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice (2004) says, “Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”  That’s an understatement.  Instead of increasing our happiness, too many choices have tended to increase our anxiety. “Am I getting the best deal? Maybe I just won’t choose right now.”  “I’ve got so many interests, how am I ever going to choose what I want to be? Maybe I’ll put that decision on hold and travel.” “I’m afraid that if I get involved in a relationship it might not be with the one I’m supposed to end up with. Maybe I’ll be like Al Paccino in Heat who vowed never to get involved in a relationship he couldn’t walk away from in thirty seconds.” Could it be more than just an Orwellian truth that “Freedom is Slavery?”

The realization of this “paralysis of analysis” has actually found its way into advertising. I was reading one email advertising guru who said that if you’re trying to convince readers to take one action, a single offer is better than multiple ones. “With multiple offers, readers have to decide which product they want to focus on; then, they have to decide whether or not they want to act on that offer. This divides attention between choices and requires more decisions…” [As an aside: I know that purchasing a car can be an overwhelming experience because of all the choices. So a couple of years ago, when I was looking for a newer used vehicle, I used a different tactic.  I prayed for wisdom and then determined beforehand the make and model, the year, the approximate mileage and the price range of the car I wanted. I didn’t care that much about the color or the interior. I sent this information out on the internet to a few dealerships. I visited three of them and bought the car in two weeks.]

James 1:6-8 tells us that when we ask God for something we should ask in faith and not with a double mind; such doubt produces instability in all we do. I read an article awhile ago In Christianity Today written by Barry Cooper, Imprisoned by Choices. He said, “There comes a point when not choosing becomes idolatry. It becomes a lack of trust in the God who ordains the decisions we will make, gathers up the frayed ends, and works all things for our good and his glory. Be wise, but then rest in God’s total sovereignty and goodness, and choose. Commit. Make a decision. Be wholehearted and single-minded.” Martin Luther once said that in view of God’s grace “sin boldly.” Perhaps if he were talking about God’s sovereignty he would have said, “choose boldly.”