Monday, December 30, 2013

Making a mole hill out of a mountain

If you haven't read Michael Gerson's opinion piece in the Washington Post of December 27, I recommend that you give it a look. He lists a few terrible examples of recent, intensifying persecution of Christians in some nations where the followers of Jesus are in the minority. In light of the command of Hebrews 13:3 that Christians remember their fellow believers who are imprisoned or being tortured as if we are imprisoned or being tortured as well, we should not ignore the plight of our persecuted brothers and sisters.

Besides the obvious moral and theological issues that should inspire our concern about the mistreatment of Christians, there is also a vital practical matter at stake. Gerson points out the high correlation between religious persecution and national security threats. According to William Inboden of the University of Texas, every major war involving the U.S. of the last 70 years has been against an enemy that does not prize religious liberty. Conversely, no nation that respects religious freedom poses a security threat to the U.S.

Yet it is Gerson's mention of America's strange disengagement regarding religious persecution that really grabbed my attention. He provides this disturbing quote from  Economist editors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge: “One of America’s oddest failures in recent years is its inability to draw any global lessons from its unique success in dealing with religion at home. It is a mystery why a country so rooted in pluralism has made so little of religious freedom.”

It seems that we the people of the United States may have succeeded in generally making a mole hill out of a glorious mountain. This was the first nation on earth to guarantee religious liberty in its founding documents. This grand experiment is an obvious and remarkable success. 

History and recent headlines reveal the humanitarian abuses that inevitably arise in countries where religious freedom is not protected. Yet, in this nation in which we revere not mere religious toleration but religious liberty for all, violence in the name of religion is nearly nonexistent. On the rare occasions that there is brutality linked to religion here, it is quickly and widely denounced.

We've a story to tell to the nations regarding religious liberty. But, by and large, we are silent, or close to it. Even worse, it is common in many evangelical circles these days to attack the mechanism that protects religious liberty in this country, namely church-state separation. Baptists in particular, once stalwart defenders of separation of church and state, now largely decry the concept. Perhaps more evangelicals would again embrace separation if they paid more attention to the world headlines that describe atrocities committed in places where religion and government are united. 

Be that as it may, I think Micklethwait and Wooldridge are onto something. We don't make enough of the American heritage of religious liberty. We are not as deliberate as we should be about remembering and celebrating our roots in this regard. By continuing to neglect our story about religious freedom we run the risk of letting this right slip away for ourselves and we lose our voice in the world on a point at which we have something important and wonderful to say.   

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Drafty tents in a season in which we remember a drafty stable

Does it ever seem to you that there are too things many that we should care about? There are so many needs, so many heart-breaking situations in our world, that it just becomes overwhelming at times. One of the circumstances that has captured my attention of late is the plight of Syrian refugees who have fled their country to escape a bloody civil war. 

I read an article a couple of days ago that told of a Syrian mother of seven named Aisha. They all live in one tent in Lebanon. They had just received a wood burning stove and some fuel for it. Aisha claims that she and her family would soon have frozen to death without the stove. They are but eight of the more than two million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries. Many are ill-clad with little food and living under pieces of canvas or plastic trying to survive the frigid Lebanese winter. 

In a season in which we mark the time that God gave everything to help a world of people in need, shouldn't we make some effort to remember people like Aisha and her children? It's a good thing to gather with family and friends in warm places in this season and to enjoy fellowship together. Truly, this is a good thing. But as we remember a baby born in a drafty stable, shouldn't we also remember families huddled in drafty tents along the borders surrounding Syria?

It's really not that far from Bethlehem to Lebanon.

There are numerous reputable aid organizations helping Syrian refugees.  

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Should the government ban conversion therapy?

I'm a pastor and people who know me are aware that I care deeply about matters pertaining to religious liberty and church-state separation. I'm pretty sensitive to possible government intrusions into matters of faith. In this regard, something in the news earlier this week caught my attention.

Conversion therapy involves attempting to transform homosexual desires into heterosexual desires. On Monday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed into law a bill banning licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy with teenagers. A similar measure was passed in California last year but implementation is currently held up in federal court. Massachusetts and New York have introduced similar bans in their state legislatures this year. 
Many experts believe conversion therapy is not only ineffective but harmful. I don't have nearly enough knowledge about the process to know whether or not this is true, but let's say it is true. In that case, here's my question: Is conversion therapy so harmful as to warrant government intrusion into what is for many a matter of religious faith?

Many, if not most, of those who practice conversion therapy and who seek conversion therapy do so as a function of their faith. Many homosexuals embrace that part of their identity without question. Others, often because of their religious beliefs, experience great distress concerning same-sex attraction and they seek help sometimes through conversion therapy. So conversion therapy is very much an act of faith for some. That being the case, the practice would need be considered extremely harmful in order to merit a government ban.

The state laws in question are limited in that they involve only minors and only licensed therapists. Therefore, religious groups using this process may continue to do so with minors as long as they are not utilizing licensed professionals. Yet including this limitation may still be problematic in relationship to government intrusion into matters of faith. If a minor, due to his or her religious beliefs, is in acute distress over same sex attraction, should that minor be barred by the government from seeking the help of a licensed therapist who might use some degree of conversion therapy as a step on a longer journey of healing?    

Again, the main question for me is whether conversion therapy is so ineffective and damaging that it deserves a government ban on what is for many an act of faith? If a teenager expresses extreme anguish over same sex attraction, should government intervention prohibit a pastor from even considering a referral of this young person to a licensed professional who might attempt conversion therapy? Should a teenager be barred by the government from taking this avenue of exploring his or her sexual identity, no matter where that process ultimately leads?

I don't have the answers to such questions, but I think the questions need to be discussed. It could be that conversion therapy for minors is so ineffective and dangerous that it deserves a government ban. But it is also possible that a door is being opened to a level of government intrusion into matters of faith that should be left closed. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

That door needs to be opened

Pope Francis made headlines earlier this week because of what he said about gay priests, which is understandable. What is receiving, so far, comparatively less attention is a statement he  made about women. I have written previously of my appreciation for some of the steps Pope Francis has taken but I confess that his words about the ordination of females disturbs me. 

To be sure, Francis said essentially that there would be no church without women and he acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church lacked a "deep theology of women." But he went on to say, "On the ordination of women, the church has spoken and said no, John Paul II, in a definitive formulation, said that door is closed."

Maybe that's all he could say given what John Paul II wrote in an apostolic letter of 1994. Nonetheless, it is a disappointing statement. After all, Pope Francis also said this recently: "I want a mess ... I want trouble in dioceses!" He has stated his intent to shake things up (certainly a Christ-like thing to do) and he has been doing this in numerous surprising and wonderful ways.

So why not mention the tension between the position of John Paul II and that of the Vatican's Pontifical Biblical Commission of 1976 that concluded that the church could ordain females to the priesthood without violating Christ's original intentions? That would shake things up. But I suppose challenging the doctrine of papal infallibility would make too big of a mess for now.

In disagreeing with Pope Francis I mean no disrespect. I simply cannot allow the injustice of closing the door on the ordination of females to pass without remark whether it is proclaimed by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church or evangelical leaders. The door to the ordination of women needs to be opened. Thankfully that door is open in many Christian groups, including the congregation that I serve.

In my own faith tradition, the Bible is supposed to be our guide for faith and practice. The weight of the scriptural evidence supports the ordination of females.  A detailed examination of the biblical evidence in this regard would produce far more text than most folks would want to read in a single blog entry. So I'll just briefly list a little biblical evidence in support of opening the door to ordaining women:

  • There is no outright prohibition of ordaining females in the Bible.
  • Women are depicted as carrying out the primary ministerial function of declaring the word of God (i.e. preaching) in the scriptures. 
  • Females hold ministerial positions on the pages of the Bible. (Junia [a female] is listed as an apostle in Romans 16:7.  Deborah was the spiritual and political leader and a preacher of Israel in Judges 4-5).
  • All of the gift passages of the New Testament are literally gender inclusive, including Ephesians 4:11-12 that says Christ gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
  • The New Testament declares principles that tear down gender walls, most notably the one found in Galatians 3:27:28: "As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (NRSV, emphasis mine).

I could go on, but I'll stop there for now. I'm aware that others make a biblical case against the ordination of women and I have responses to their arguments and they have responses to mine. 

But here's an important point to me. Those who decide to close a door between a whole class of humans and a particular way of serving God had better have an iron clad case for taking such a radical step. As I have indicated, there is a Bible-based case to be made in favor of ordaining females, and a strong one at that. This being the case, who am I to stand in the way of any properly gifted human, male or female, and a calling that human senses from God? 

"Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut" (Revelation 3:8, NRSV).

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Optimistic about a pessimistic outlook

Robert Gordon is a 72-year-old economist at Northwestern University and he believes that America is in a permanent state of economic decline. According to an article outlining Gordon's view, before 1750 economic growth was virtually imperceptible in the world. Then an industrial revolution began in England in 1750. It was followed by a second industrial revolution beginning in 1870 based largely in the United States. By  the 1950s economic growth was so rapid and seemingly automatic that the average American would roughly double his or her parents' standard of living. 

By the late sixties or early seventies this growth rate slowed. Up until recently virtually all economists were not bothered by the deceleration-just a blip. But Gordon thinks the blip was 1750 until now. Since nothing like the the back-to-back industrial revolutions of 1750 and 1870 ever happened before in human history, there is no reason to conclude that any such phenomenon will happen again.

But what about computers, the Internet, and mobile phone technology? Aren't these innovations evidence that we can expect the innovations and the growth to continue? Not according to Gordon (and others). Example: Our kitchens are largely unchanged in the last 50 years. Go back fifty years before that and there was no refrigeration, only blocks of ice, and no gas stove, just piles of wood. With the growth of the population in the United States, Gordon says that we need innovations eight times more important than what we've had before and there appears to be nothing like that on the horizon.

Is he right? I'm no economist. I don't know. But the article indicates that Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary, is impressed with Gordon's work. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chair, delivered a commencement address this spring in which he considered the implications of a paper written by Gordon which suggests that if Bernanke doesn't embrace Gordon's conclusions he at least doesn't dismiss them. 

But what if Gordon is right? To paraphrase a line from Jack Nicholson, what if this is as good as it gets, economically speaking? What if we have reached the top of the economic development hill and it is a permanent slide downhill from here? 

When I read the article I was a bit disturbed at first. But then a ray of light brightened my darkened spirit. Could it be that slower economic growth could spawn greater spiritual growth? 

If there are fewer next new things to anticipate then might we place more hope in God? If there is less new gadgetry to capture our attention then might we devote more attention to the Lord? If we have fewer chances to gain fulfillment from the next thing our money can buy then might might we seek more fulfillment through the Holy Spirit? If we are forced to expend less energy propping up the American Dream then might we devote more energy to the mission of our Lord?

I'm a Star Trek fan. Maybe someone will invent warp engine technology in the next few years thereby kick starting economic growth for a few more centuries. If not, maybe a decline in economic growth might give way to a different type of growth that we desperately need. Maybe there's reason for a degree of optimism about Gordon's pessimistic view.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sadly the death penalty is probably returning to North Carolina

Sadly, it looks like the death penalty is likely to resume in North Carolina. An unofficial moratorium on capital punishment has been in place in this state since 2006 due to various legal challenges, some of which resulted in the passage of the Racial Justice Act four years ago, a measure designed to help administer the death penalty fairly. This act was weakened last year and, as of yesterday, the North Carolina House repealed what was left of it. Since the Senate has already passed this latest bill, it looks like the death penalty is nearly ready to return to North Carolina.

I used to be a big supporter of capital punishment--I mean really big. I was once in a debate on the death penalty in school and I was on the pro capital punishment side of the question which is the side I wanted to be on and my team won the debate. But my views on the death penalty changed about 21 years ago.

I was leading a study in church called "Issues and Questions" in which we took up numerous controversial ethical questions including the death penalty. I always presented arguments on both sides of the issue and then asked questions of the group designed to spur discussion. Near the beginning of this series of discussions, a former pastor in the congregation loaned me a book that contained essays by various Baptist authors exploring how the Bible speaks to numerous ethical questions. I was very glad to see that the article on the death penalty was written by one of my seminary professors.

This professor is a highly respected Old Testament scholar. He was one of the translators of the first edition of the New International Version of the Bible. He is also very, very conservative. I turned to his essay on the death penalty first where I was sure that I would find a well structured, Bible-based defense of capital punishment. But I got a big shock. This esteemed, conservative Bible scholar presented a persuasive scripture-based argument against the death penalty.

Well, that just turned my world upside down with regard to this issue. I prayed a bunch and I studied some more and I concluded that I could no longer support the death penalty. Indeed, for more than two decades I have strongly favored life imprisonment without parole as punishment for the most dangerous criminals rather capital punishment.

What are the the specific arguments that led me to this change of heart? It was not secular arguments outside of the Bible, although one can make a pretty good case from that angle. One bit of logic against the death penalty worth bringing up here is that the death penalty costs more than life imprisonment--a lot more. According to one study of four years ago, North Carolina could save $11 million per year if we did away with the death penalty.

Isn't it interesting that our current crop of lawmakers who run ads on TV saying that they are in the business of cutting costs are so anxious implement a practice that costs taxpayers $11 million more annually than a very sensible alternative. Think of all the other things that we could do with that money. Even if we simply applied it to our budget deficit we would be a lot better off than using it to kill criminals when simply incarcerating them will keep citizens safe for a lot less money.      

But it is not the logical, secular arguments that are most persuasive to me in opposing the death penalty. It is, rather, biblical arguments. I won't take the time and space here to list all of the Bible-based arguments that I find compelling in rejecting capital punishment. Perhaps I'll do that in future blog entries. Right now I'll mention only the argument that I consider the most important.

Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith" (NRSV). The power of God is powerful enough to transform anyone, even murderers, but not if we give them lethal injections first. We can protect society from the most dangerous criminals short of killing them. Because life is precious and because the gospel, the power of God, can transform anyone we must put murderers in prison for life rather than executing them.

When we put the most dangerous criminals in prison for life, we take their lives. Their freedom is gone and they die in the custody of the state. In view of the sanctity of human life and the power of the gospel and the realities of the grace of Jesus Christ, we must not rush the process with a lethal injection.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Six: The Trip of a Lifetime

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, May 20, 2013.
I took the photo above on our last morning in the hotel beside the Sea of Galilee. We were there for four nights before moving to a hotel in Jerusalem. On three of the four mornings that we were at this body of water around which Jesus spent much of his physical time on earth I went to the shore in hopes of witnessing a beautiful sunrise. 

I guess every sunrise is beautiful in its own way, but, let's face it, some are prettier than others, right? On the first two morning that I went to the beach early, the sky was so overcast that the sun could barely be seen. But on the final morning that I was up with the sun near that lake, the sky was golden and the water reflected it. And I think my little camera did a fairly decent job of capturing that moment of beauty. In fact, I got a poster size print of this photo and framed it for my office.

I wonder if there was a sunrise like that on the morning that the risen Jesus fed breakfast to the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (See John 21)?

This really was the trip of a lifetime. I actually got to see places that I have read about and studied for, well, almost my whole life. I got to meet new people and make new friends, not to mention deepening the bonds of friendship with some folks that I knew before this journey. I learned many new things. 

Perhaps most importantly of all, my faith was renewed in ways that were surprising for me. I really didn't anticipate being moved the way that I was often moved by some of the places we visited. Jesus is just as present and just as real here in North Carolina as he is in Israel and the Palestinian Territory. Nonetheless, I was touched in unexpected ways by walking where Jesus physically walked.

I don't know how much, if any, further blogging I will do about this pilgrimage. Terri, my wife, has posted hundreds of pictures from our travels on her Facebook page. I posted some of those on the church Facebook page and we may post more later. I'm sure that some of my experiences in the Holy Land will find their way into my preaching and teaching. But there are elements of this journey that will impact me for the rest of my life. 

What did I like the least? To be honest, it was the sites where churches have been built over sites where important events from the life of Jesus are believed to have taken place. I understand that the Christian groups that built those churches did so out of reverence for Christ and I have deep appreciation for that intent. Still, I wish those places had been left in their natural state with, perhaps, sanctuaries built nearby.

What did I like the most? As mentioned above, I enjoyed making some new friends and spending times with friends I have know for some time. And I liked walking where Jesus walked. "Liked" isn't the right word, really. I found great meaning in this pilgrimage. It really was the tri of a lifetime.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Five: Where Jesus Prayed

Eight stops in 11 hours of touring today. The Western Wall Tunnels were amazing. We heard an enlightening lecture at Bethlehem Bible College. But it is a moment at Gethsemane that I will focus on now.

In our debriefing tonight our group discussed this question: What is the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist? Of course, pilgrims seek to get in touch with their faith in some way through a particular journey. Tourists tend to be more focused on rest, relaxation, and having a good time.

On a journey like this, weaving back hang forth between tourist and pilgrim is unavoidable. On the one hand we visit holy sites and we have devotionals at some of those locations each day. On the other hand, we visit the gift shops and we take photos like any tourists.

Today at Gethsemane there was a moment when tourist and pilgrim were mingled in me in a pretty good way, I think. Jesus, of course, prayed in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives on the night that he was arrested. But, as Karen Pruette, a Campbell Divinity School student, noted in a devotional that she led on the Mount of Olives, Luke 22:39-40 tells us that it was Jesus' custom to go to the Mount of Olives. He must have prayed there often.

We visited a church on the Mount of Olives and beside that church are some olive trees that are 2,000 years old.  The place was crowded with tourists/pilgrims. There was a noisy street and there were street vendors haggling over prices nearby. It was not the ideal setting to ponder a spot where Jesus was known to pray. But I had a 'moment' anyway.

There I was, on or near a spot at which Jesus made it his custom to pray--probably among the very same trees still standing on that location. He wasn't there physically today but I sensed his presence just the same even amid the hustle and bustle.

I started taking pictures of those trees (see one below). I plan to have one or two of those photos enlarged and placed in a few locations that I have in mind. I want to be reminded of the moment. I also want to be reminded that Jesus made it his custom to get away and pray so I had better do the same.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Four: Renewal of Vows

Yesterday we saw many great sites and switched hotels. We were late getting in and then the hotel was having Internet problems so I couldn't post an entry. In a few minutes there will be a sale on personalized Holy Land jewelry here at the hotel. I'm not interested, but today is Terri's and my wedding anniversary, so I figure I'd better go with her. So for now I'll tell you briefly about an event in which it was my great honor to participate two days ago.

Two members of our group are also members of Woodhaven Baptist Church--Bob and Pat Barker. While here in Israel, they asked me to officiate over a renewal of their vows. No, not their wedding vows; their baptismal vows.

Many pilgrims to the Holy Land find it meaningful to be baptized in the Jordan River--the river where Jesus was also baptized. Fifteen members of our group decided to take this step, including Bob and Pat. I was honored that they asked me to to baptize them.

On the night before the trip to Yardenit, the site of the baptism, Dr. Cameron Jorgenson did a great job of explaining the theology behind this pilgrim step of faith. He was careful to point out that these baptisms should not be seen as re-baptisms. Rather Dr. Jorgenson suggested viewing this as a renewal of one's baptismal vows somewhat like a renewal of wedding vows.

The five ministers carrying out the baptisms in our group did not use the traditional "I baptize you ..." formula. Instead, we called on our fellow pilgrims to remember their baptism.

Below are a couple of photos from Bob's and Pat's renewal of their baptismal vows in the Jordan River this past Sunday. I hope it was meaningful to them. It certainly was for me.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Three: Dangerous Gospel

Signs like the one above warning of "Danger of Death" are on power poles all over Nazareth.
This sign at the peak of Mount of Precipice says that Jesus jumped to flee pursuers when Luke 4 tells us that he actually just walked through the midst of his attackers just before they threw him over the edge.
Yesterday we visited Caesarea by the sea, Tel Megiddo, Zippori, the Church of the Annunciation, and Mount of Precipice. In the course of our travels we went to Jesus' hometown of Nazareth twice. Today's tidbit is based on a couple of things I found interesting and enlightening in and around Nazareth.

Power poles up and down the streets of Jesus' hometown have signs on them like the one in the photo above advertising "Danger of Death." I've seen signs like this in other towns here but, perhaps because we spent more time in Nazareth, they seemed particularly prominent there. Those Nazarene signs took on a new significance for me after our second visit to the city at our last stop of the day.

Not long before sunset our tour bus lumbered up a steep incline at the edge of Jesus' hometown. We were entering a park surrounding the Mount of Precipice, the traditional site from which enraged worshipers from the synagogue nearly threw Jesus off a cliff. The sign at the peak (second photo above) says that Jesus jumped to escape his pursuers but the account from Luke 4 tells that rather than leaping he simply walked through the midst of his attackers.
Dr. Cameron Jorgenson reads the account in Luke  4 in which the worshipers from Nazareth nearly threw Jesus from a cliff.

At the peak our group sat down and listened as Dr. Cameron Jorgenson read the passage describing a seriously bad day for Jesus.. The people of his hometown violently rejected his revolution of grace. Before he prayed, Dr. Jorgenson mentioned that Jesus preached a "dangerous gospel."

Sitting there on Mount of Precipice I was impressed with the severity of the danger inspired by Jesus' message of grace that day in the synagogue. We don't know for sure that it was that exact cliff from which Jesus was nearly pitched but it had to be somewhere close to that spot. As you can see on the sign above, it's 397 meters to the bottom of that cliff--more than 1,300 feet. I noticed numerous other high ridges around Nazareth plenty tall enough to cause death if one were to be thrown off the edge. Look how small the features are in the valley behind Dr. Jorgenson in the photo above.

Jesus definitely faced danger of death due to his dangerous gospel even in his hometown.

There at or close to a spot at which Jesus faced grave danger because of his message, Dr. Jorgenson closed with a word of prayer in which he requested that we might be bold to proclaim Jesus' dangerous gospel. It is a charge to which all Christ-followers are called, even if we face danger of death.

(Note: Our schedule and Internet problems at the hotel prevented me from posting this yesterday. Tonight we pack and tomorrow we head for another hotel in Jerusalem. I don't know what it any Internet access I'll have there.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Two: The Gates of Hell

If I were to blog about every site we visited today in even summary fashion this blog entry would be (1) probably longer than you want to read and (2) definitely longer than I want to write. We visited the Mount of Beatitudes, Tel Hazor, Tel Dan, Caesarea Philippi, and the Valley of Tears Memorial. Each site was breathtaking in its own way and I learned more than I'll report fully here. For now I'll tell you about just one interesting tidbit that is illustrative of the day.

At Caesarea Philippi, we stood outside a large cave opening surrounded by carvings paying tribute to Greek gods on the cliff facing. Our leader, Dr. Tony Cartledge, told the group that the water supply for the area once flowed from the mouth of the cave until an earthquake changed the course of the river. He also explained that many believed the river flowing from that cave to lead to the River Styx at Hades in Greek mythology.

Dr. Cartledge then reminded us of the scene in Matthew 16 when Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. If you will recall, verse 13 tells us this happened at Caesarea Phillippi. Dr. Cartledge pointed out that it's possible that Jesus and the disciples were right there in view of icons to gods when he asked his closest followers who people said he was and then who the disciples said he was.

Finally, Dr. Cartledge underscored the Lord's response to Peter's confession of Jesus' Messiahship: "... I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (v. 18, NRSV). Could it be that Jesus was at that place where we stood--a place known as the Gates of Hades--when he uttered those words?

We can't be absolutely sure that this turning point in the earthly ministry of Christ took place at that spot. But the evidence from the text coupled with the evidence remaining at the site is pretty overpowering. It seems likely to me that Jesus used important visible symbols as illustrations of a very important teaching.

And I was moved.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part One: 6,000 Miles

Terri and I are in Israel for a Holy Land tour sponsored by Campbell University divinity School. I'm going to blog about it when I can ...

Back in the 90's I officiated over the funeral of a man who died at age 93. He once told me that his family, in the 1920s, was the first in their area to own a car. He drove his mother from Wilmington, North Carolina to Lumberton, North Carolina--a trip that takes about an hour today. He said that it took them three days.

When we got on the plane for the second leg of our journey to Israel on Wednesday evening, I noticed that the small screen on the back of the seat in front of me was equipped with a GPS option for our flight. If memory serves, early in that flight, that device reported that we had something over 5,700 miles to go. I don't know how far it was from Raleigh to Philadelphia--the first leg of the journey from earlier in the day--but I know it was a lot more than the 300 miles needed to put the total miles of our trip over 6,000. The flight time of the two legs put together was about 11 1/2 hours.

I know air travel has been around for a long time, but the way this invention has made our world so much smaller in the space of just a few decades still amazes me.

The trip was smooth and uneventful. The folks that we are traveling with are wonderful. We arrived last night in time for a somewhat late supper, an orientation meeting, a devotional, and an opportunity to unpack before bed. The tour begins today.

 Right now jet lag has me up early. Our hotel is on a beach on the Sea of Galilee. The sun is coming up and I'm going for a walk.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Care about Boston; care about the world

Certainly everyone reading this knows about the horrific bombing in Boston on Monday that, as of this writing, left three dead and injured more than 100 others. This attack rightfully captures our attention and inspires our prayers and our concern. And there are some other things that happened in recent days that perhaps also broke our hearts.

Did you hear about the 16,000 children that died unnecessarily yesterday? They died of hunger related causes even though there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone.  

A bombing of a bus in Pakistan killed 8 people. A suicide bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia killed 29 people in a court complex. Nine children were among the 15 killed in a bombing of Aleppo, Syria. Ten people have been killed in recent days in clashes between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. A boat carrying Afghan refugees sank killing 5, but 53 others are missing and feared dead. 

Don't get me wrong; we should pay close attention to what happened in Boston. Our hearts should ache for the dead, for the injured,  and for the hatred or sickness or whatever that led to this act of violence. We should pray for those who are grieving and those who are injured in the wake of this bombing.

I understand completely why an act of terror close to home grips us more than violence and tragedy elsewhere. My question is do we really care at all about killings and catastrophes in other places? Do we make any real effort to pay attention to the daily news of the senseless killing and regular tragedies in other countries? Does God's compassion stop with the borders of this country? Should ours?   

Thursday, April 4, 2013

NC lawmakers seek to set up a state religion (part 2)

Yesterday I wrote about NC House Bill 494 that seeks to open the door to a state establishment of religion in this state. Using a feature from the earthly ministry of Jesus I showed that Jesus established a separateness between his mission and government. Now I would like to respond to some comments of the sponsors of the bill published in an article in the Raleigh News and Observer.

Carl Ford and Harry Warren, the Rowan County Representatives who filed the bill, say that they have no intention of setting up a state church. They want to support Rowan County Commissioners in a legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union about the regular use of specifically Christian prayers to open their meetings. While the motivation behind the bill may be to allow such prayers the actual language of the legislation goes much further. The measure states that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion" and that North Carolina does not recognize federal court rulings that regulate or prohibit the state or any political entities within the state from "making laws respecting an establishment of religion."  

So these two State Representatives and the eleven others who have signed on as sponsors may only wish to support Christian prayers at County Commissioner meetings, but the language of the bill clearly expresses support for a state establishment of religion.

However, the language of the legislation would have to go that far in order to accomplish the aim regarding Christian prayers at government meetings. The framers of the Bill of Rights clearly understood the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to express strict separation of church and state.   

One year after Congress approved the Bill of Rights, in the discussion concerning the census bill, James Madison explained why he did not include on the census a question concerning the occupations of citizens. He was concerned about listing religious professionals. Madison did not think it proper to list members of the clergy because “the general government is proscribed from interfering, in any manner whatever, in matters respecting religion; and it may be thought to do this, in ascertaining who [are] and who are not ministers of the gospel." No member of Congress disagreed with Madison's reasoning.

So the actual framers of the Bill of Rights believed its language to prevent the government from asking citizens what they do for a living because the question would have to be posed to ministers which was not allowed because the government was not to touch religion "in any manner whatever." This is obviously an expression of strict separation between church and state, and this is the interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by the the body that adopted it.

However, the sponsors of NC House Bill 494 say that the First Amendment does not apply to states. The problem with this thinking is that a series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1920s interprets a portion of the Fourteenth Amendment to mean that the First Amendment is enforceable against state governments. But the NC bill in question says that it does not recognize such court rulings. The problem with this thinking is that anyone with two grains of sense knows the the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the law in this nation.

But what about the root cause of this lousy bill: prayer at County Commissioner meetings. Whatever you may think about that issue the solution proposed by the Rowan County Reps is way over the top. Yet, is public prayer at government meetings really a wise move?

Are Muslims allowed to lead prayers in Allah's name at County Commissioner meetings in Rowan County or any other county? Are members of any other religious faith other than Christians allowed to lead such prayers? What about those of no faith at all, how are they to participate in these prayers? I don't know the answers to these questions--I'm just asking.

The response of those who would support only Christian prayers in government meetings might be that the overwhelming majority of the citizens in their area claim to be Christians so it is appropriate that only Christian prayers be offered. The problem with this reasoning is that religious liberty is a fundamental right for all and if that right does not extend to everyone then everyone is not free.  The driving force, really, behind the religion clauses of the First Amendment was oppression of religious minorities in this land. 

Baptists in particular were severely persecuted as a religious minority in Virginia from about 1760 to 1780. In practicing their faith they were beaten, jailed, and fined by other Christians when church and state were united there. In response Baptists and others said that church and state should be separate in order that the government would not infringe on the rights of conscience of anyone, including those belonging to religious groups that were not in the majority and those claiming no religious faith at all. 

Many would say that religious freedom is best preserved by keeping government out of religion entirely, including public prayer at government meetings. But Christians who want for this to remain a truly free country and who desire prayer in government meetings must make the practice free and fair for all faith groups and for those of no faith, including those in the minority. And I'm wondering how that can be accomplished in a manner that guards the fundamental right of religious liberty for all. 


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

NC lawmakers seek to set up a state religion

My oldest daughter sent me a text message saying there is an effort underway in the North Carolina legislature to create a state establishment of religion in this state. She knows my passion for church-state separation so I figured this was the opening to some joke, but she assured me that she was serious. I poked around online and discovered that she is right.

According to one article, House Bill 494, filed by Rowan County Representatives Harry Warren and Carl Ford includes this language:

"The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion ... The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion."

Eleven other House members have signed on as sponsors including Majority Leader Edgar Starnes. I have no idea what chance of passage this bill has, but I hope it's zilch. It is disturbing enough  that at least 13 legislators of this state would support such an embarrassing, stupid, and appalling bill. 

I've had trouble with the government of this state losing tax documents that my accountant mailed (fortunately using certified mail). If the government can't keep track of my tax documents, Lord knows I don't want the government messing around in my religion or that of anyone else.

There are so many angles from which to underscore the utter idiocy of this bill. It would be easy to start listing the long trail of blood left in history by state establishments of religion. But, for the moment, I'll stick to an application of one feature from the earthly ministry of Jesus. 

The devil offered Jesus the power of the governments of the world to accomplish his mission and Jesus rejected the offer for what it was: a temptation of Satan. Thus Jesus established a pattern of separateness between his mission and government. He died not with the sword of government in his hand but with the spear of government in his side.

Would that the 13 lawmakers sponsoring this bill would apply this wisdom of Christ by keeping government and religion institutionally separate.     

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The good news looking good in the news

I got up early this morning as I normally do. As I was making a pot of coffee I turned on the TV and tuned into one of the national cable news channels. In the midst of the headlines this particular network chose to show a clip from last night's The Colbert Report, a comedic news show hosted by Stephen Colbert. The subject of the segment was Pope Francis' decision to hold a Mass in a prison on Thursday and to wash the feet of some of the inmates. In his satirical way, Colbert underscored the wisdom in Pope Francis' efforts to follow the example of Jesus by expressing love through lowly acts of service.

As the clip was replayed on a national news show this morning I was intrigued. I did a little Googling and found numerous mainstream media outlets proclaiming the Pope's plan to visit a prison and wash the feet of inmates including this one in the Washington Post. The article points out that "in the Gospel of John, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples just before his trial and crucifixion."

I'm a Baptist, not a Roman Catholic, but I must say that I am encouraged by such news accounts. It seems that Christianity regularly gets plenty of bad press. But today we have major news agencies reporting on a snippet of the good news of Jesus Christ and the attempt of one Christian leader to live out the Savior's love.

In the course of my Googling I also found a column in the left-leaning Huffington Post in which Allan Brawley, a self-proclaimed non-believer, delights in Pope Francis' example of living "in accordance with the teachings of Christ." Brawley expresses the hope that the new Pope will lead "all self-professed people of faith to re-examine what it means to live a truly Christian life on Earth." He finds the Pope's acts "refreshing ... even to a nonbeliever like me."

It's good to see the good news cast in a good light in seemingly unusual places. Followers of Christ should take note. Let us all give the world plenty of reason to see the good news as truly good.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The number of young "nones" continues to skyrocket

There's a new poll out indicating that more and more Americans are parting ways with religion. Indeed, religious affiliation in the United States is now at its lowest point since it began to be tracked in the 1930s. But what struck me about the numbers in this latest survey is the alarming rate of increase in young adults who claim no religious preference. More than one-third of 18-24-year-olds now claim to have no religion.

Three years ago I saw an article about a Pew Research survey that said 20% of young adults claimed to be atheists, agnostics or had "no religion." I was appalled because the same article informed me that 'only' 11% of young Americans gave the same answers in 1988. I tried to go back and find that article of three years ago, but I couldn't locate it. I can't remember the exact age range of young adults in that Pew survey, but I did find that Pew released the results of another survey on October 9, 2012 indicating that 32% of 18-29-year-olds claimed no religion.

So, three years ago I was upset that that we went from 11% of young adults who had no religion to 20% in the span of 22 years. Now I learn that, in the last three years, that number has shot up to 32 or 33+ percent depending on whose survey I read. Isn't this truly alarming?

So I'm asking myself, "What are we going to do about this?" I certainly don't have all of the answers, but I am convinced that the solution, first and foremost, has to be about Christ-followers doing a better job of living and sharing the love of Christ. After all, Jesus said that the greatest commandment, the most important thing we do, is all about love (Mark 12:28-31).  

Jesus' kind of love isn't a sappy, easy thing. His love gives everything, to the point of death, for those who don't deserve it. His love turns the other cheek rather than retaliating. His love forgives those who do us wrong no matter how many times they do us wrong.

This kind of love is hard. But it is attractive to everyone of every age when it is exemplified in daily living.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A lesson from 500-year-old bones

The remains of Richard III, King of England from 1483 to 1485 have been found under a public parking lot. He died  about 528 years ago in the Battle of Bosworth. DNA testing confirms that his body wound up under a dreary municipal parking lot. 

So the body of a king was found in an unmarked grave where people parked their cars. That's not typically the way we picture the final resting place of a monarch, is it?

Of course, some might say that Richard III deserved an ignominious grave. His name is a virtual synonym for evil to many. Shakespeare certainly painted an unflattering picture of the king in one of his plays. But more recently some historians are saying that Richard's bad reputation may be rooted less in truth and more in an effort by his successor to tarnish his image. After all, in his brief reign, Richard implemented a few progressive reforms like the right of bail and the lifting of restrictions on books and printing presses.   

But what intrigues me is the revelation of the final resting place of this king: under a bleak parking lot with no marker. For hundreds of years no one knew the location of the remains of King Richard III.  If the grave of a king can end up paved over and forgotten, what of the legacy of those of us who do not hold such esteemed places in history.

Jesus advised us not to store up earthly treasures that always fade away. Rather he said that we should store up for ourselves treasures in heaven that never fade away (Matt. 6:19-21). In 1 Peter 1, followers of Christ are told that, thanks to the promise inherent in Jesus' resurrection, we have a living hope of an imperishable inheritance kept in heaven for us.

Maybe the news that King Richard III wound up in an unmarked grave under a parking lot should serve as a reminder that we should strive for a lasting legacy through ambition for something other than the typical trappings of prestige offered by our culture. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mississippi finally rejects slavery

Earlier this month Mississippi finally officially ratified the 13th Amendment which outlawed slavery. Actually the state voted to ratify this amendment in 1995, a mere 130 years after it became the law of the land. But the paperwork was never sent United States Archivist as required until January 30 of this year. On February 7 the paperwork was processed in Washington D.C. and Mississippi went on record, in 2013, as supporting the notion that people shouldn't own other people as property in this nation.

Mississippi wasn't exactly progressive concerning the notion that women should be allowed to vote either. It was the last state to adopt the 19th Amendment which gave females that right, taking this action in 1984, about 64 years after this was already the law of the land. But, before we in North Carolina become too indignant over that one, we should remember that this state didn't ratify the 19th Amendment until 1971, more than 50 years after it had become law. Indeed, this was the next to last state to go on record saying that women should be allowed to vote.

I've always found it disturbing that many Christians in this country used the Bible to defend slavery and to make the case that females should not have the right to vote. In an article published in 1884, Rev. Prof. H. M. Goodwin said that the notion of women voting violated the scriptures and represented "a rebellion against the divinely ordained position and duties of woman." Baptist hero Richard Furman, in his biblical defense of slavery, said, "The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures."

Today, of course, we believe the Christians who used the Bible to defend slavery and to oppose giving women the right to vote grossly erred in their interpretation. We are rightfully ashamed that our spiritual ancestors abused the Bible in these ways. But the scary thing is that Christians back then were, by and large, completely convinced that they were right and that their cause was just.

Do you ever wonder if there are issues that we face in this land that, should the Lord tarry, future Christians will look back at us in the same way that we look back at Christians who defended slavery and opposed females having the right to vote? Does it bother you that it seems that Christians seem to often bring up the rear rather than take the lead in promoting Bible-based social justice? Do you think that we could use a heavy dose of humility in biblical interpretation concerning controversial issues given our track record of being wrong on some matters that are today considered fundamental rights?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Cameron Crazies apparently didn't say that

So last night during the Duke vs NC State basketball game Terri was sitting in her recliner which is next to my recliner. She, as usual, had her laptop in her lap with Facebook up and she reported to me that someone posted that the Cameron Crazies directed this chant toward Tyler Lewis (freshman point guard for State): "How's your Grandma?" Lewis' grandmother died a week ago. 

When Terri told me of the post, I didn't believe it. I mean I really didn't believe it, and I said so out loud. I took this position as one who is certainly NOT a Duke fan. I'm a Virginia Tech grad and a big fan of the Hokies (which can be really tough in basketball season).

This morning I saw that one of my friends on Facebook also posted something about the reported classless cheer, so I did a little investigating. In a few seconds I found a News & Observer blog from Laura Keeley who reports that the Crazies were actually chanting "past your bedtime" (see the end of the blog at the link). Lewis, a 5'11" freshman dwarfed by the other players on the court, was an easy target for such a cheer.

So it appears highly doubtful that the ugly chant about Lewis' deceased grandmother ever happened. Nonetheless, a Google search reveals numerous indignant blogs and tweets saying that it did. Who is right? Again, as one who DOES NOT pull for the Blue Devils, I think the evidence favors the "past your bedtime" version. But, at the very least, Keeley's report casts considerable doubt that the classless chant was ever uttered.

Whatever the truth is, doesn't this incident remind us to take caution in spreading ugly rumors? The Bible takes a dim view of sharing gossip (e.g. Romans 1:29) and the Internet helps us to spread it like never before in the history of humankind. I would recommend restraint in passing along this dubious tidbit.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ray Lewis was wrong

It's well known that Ray Lewis, the now retired star linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens, was accused of murdering two men outside an Atlanta nightclub in 2000. He was not found guilty of those crimes but he did wind up paying a financial settlement to the families of the victims. Many still have questions about Lewis' involvement in those slayings. I certainly can't answer those questions, but I do have several problems with what he said in answer to a question about the murders in an interview that aired prior to Super Bowl XLVII last Sunday. Here I'll point out only one of my difficulties with Lewis' words.

He was asked by Shannon Sharpe what he would say to the families of the victims of the murders. Here is part of Lewis' response: "To the family, if you knew — if you really knew — the way God works, He don’t use people who commits anything like that for his glory. No way.  It’s the total opposite.”

I'm sure Lewis meant well, but his theology is terribly flawed. His point appears to be that God has used him in the 13 years since those murders and God wouldn't use him if he was a murderer. Leaving Lewis' specific case aside, it is simply not true that God doesn't use people who commit crimes like murder.

Moses was a murderer (Exodus 2:11-15) and God called him to lead the people of Israel out of bondage. 

King David was a murderer (2 Samuel 11) and he is named in a New Testament list of faith heroes (Hebrews 11).

The Apostle Paul assisted in the killing of Christians (Acts 8:1), but, after a change in heart, he became probably the most aggressive advocate of  Christianity of his time and his words are still treated as inspired by God by Christians today. 

Obviously there is ample biblical evidence that God at times uses murderers for his glory. Certainly all followers of Christ must strive to live holy lives (1 Peter 1:14-16). But when we mess up (and we will), even if we mess up big, thankfully, God isn't finished working through us. The Lord is always ready to forgive as we turn to him in repentance and faith and he still has great plans for us even after we stray.

I appreciate Ray Lewis' willingness to openly share his faith in Christ on a very public stage. But he got his theology badly wrong in the interview that aired before the Super Bowl. God's grace is bigger, a lot bigger, than Ray Lewis seems to think.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Preparing for the end

I found out a little late that there were not one but two failed predictions of the end of the world in the closing days of 2012. Most everyone knows that a certain interpretation of an ancient calendar of the Mayan culture indicated that the world would end on December 21, 2012. Lesser known is the prediction of Warren Jeffs, the jailed leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), who apparently declared from prison  that the world would end before the dawning of 2013. 

It is no surprise that predictions like these turn out to be wrong because Jesus told his followers that they would not know the timing of his return and that he would come at an unexpected hour (Matt. 24:42; 44). Nonetheless, it seems that predictions of the end make the news with some regularity. I suggest ignoring them. In another place Jesus taught his followers that it is not for us know the timing of the culmination of things (Acts 1:6-7).      

While we should discourage predicting the timing of the end and buying into such predictions, Warren Jeffs sort of had it right about one thing. If the news accounts are correct, he told his followers to be ready for the end. If this is true, then he has something in common with Jesus who also commanded his followers to be watchful and ready for his return (Matt. 24:42; 44). One big difference between the command of Jeffs and the command of Jesus is that Jeffs told his followers to be ready because the end was coming by a certain near date while Jesus told his followers to be ever ready because they would not know the date. But both commanded watchfulness and readiness.

While we may rightfully shake our heads at predictions of the date of the end of the world, we should not forget the Lord's command to be ready at all times. One of my seminary professors said that every New Testament mention of the return of Christ falls in the context of an ethical injunction to Christians. In other words, the New Testament writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, did not use the impending return of Christ to scare unbelievers into believing. Rather, they used it to encourage Christ-followers to get to work in doing what the Lord has called us to do. 

That's the way to be watchful and ready: steadfast obedience to the teachings and the example of Jesus.    

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Setting yourself up for Bible reading success in 2013

In my January 2012 church newsletter column I encouraged folks to make a New Year's resolution to read through the Bible in the year. After all, 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us, among other things, that all scripture is God-breathed and equips us for every good work. I can't think of a book more worthy of habitual reading than one that is God-breathed and equips us for every good work.

Last year I suggested several methods of reading through the Bible in a year, but one in particular appealed to me then. Zondervan, a publisher of the New International Version (NIV), has made available a schedule for reading through the entire Bible in 90 days. The page numbers reference a special 90-day version of the NIV, but you can ignore those and go by the chapter numbers.

If people have trouble reading the Bible in a year, what makes me think there would be a higher success rate in attempting to read the Bible in 90 days? I wonder if many may find it easier to stick to a discipline for three months rather than 12 months. Furthermore, what if you try the 90-day plan, but you miss some days and it winds up taking you six months or 12 months to finish instead of 90 days? So what? You will still read through the whole Bible within the calendar year, which is better than most Bible readers in our culture.

This year, I'm going to suggest a modification to this 90-day schedule. If you look at the link above, you will see that you don't get to the New Testament until day 68 of 90. Start there, picking up with Matthew, not the the end of the Old Testament. If you can hang with the schedule for 22 days, beginning at day 68, then you will at least read through the entire New Testament. Once again, if you miss a few days and the process takes longer than 22 days, don't quit. 

The New Testament is, of course, a lot shorter than the Old Testament. You can build on your success of completing the New Testament by turning your attention to the Old Testament. Perhaps in this way the discipline of reading through the Bible in a year will become less intimidating. 

We can do this.