Sunday, December 14, 2008

Galatians 2:17-18

In rereading the book of Galatians, it suddenly struck me what Paul was talking about when he wrote in verses 2:17-18 (NIV):
If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker.

This has always been a bit perplexing to me. Why would it become particularly obvious that we are sinners while we seek to be justified in Christ? And why would anyone think that if we slip up in trying to follow Christ, that this means Christ promotes sin? Also, why does rebuilding what I destroyed prove I'm a lawbreaker?

I was reading the passage rather quickly this time, so I still had in mind Paul's rebuke of Peter (verses 2:11-14) for encouraging Gentiles to live like Jews when he himself had been living like a Gentile... at least until some Jews belonging to the "circumcision group" came along and he began to shy away from the Gentiles.

It occurred to me that in verses 2:17-18 Paul is still talking about Peter, or rather, about the type of sin Peter had committed.

So if I might paraphrase the passage, I would say:
If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are "sinning" by violating the old ceremonial law, such as the law of circumcision, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! In fact, it is the other way around: If I rebuild the old, ineffective, ceremonial law that I destroyed - the way Peter has just been doing - that would really make me a lawbreaker.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Evil and God's Existence

One of the arguments I've heard repeatedly - and recently - is that the existence of evil in this world shows that God does not exist.

The argument is essentially parallel to this: "I've heard that there is a guy named Andrew who stabs people with knives. Stabbing people with knives is evil, therefore Andrew doesn't exist."


It may be that this argument is evidence that Andrew is an evil person (or is a heart surgeon), but by no stretch of the imagination is it an argument that Andrew does not exist. In the same way, the existence of evil in this world is not evidence that God does not exist.

I think people can legitimately look at evil and ask whether God is good and wonder how a good God can permit evil, and if they do this I think they will find answers to those questions since the whole Bible is essentially about that topic. All that, I think, falls into the category of reasonable questioning, but if they use the "evil-means-no-God" argument, then all they do is make themselves look exceedingly foolish.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Is Religion the Chief Cause of Suffering?

I just read yet again about how religion is the main cause of inhumanity in this world.

This is such an absurd contention that I don't understand how it survives. But it does. So in what is probably a vain attempt to counteract it, I did a quick Internet search to compare Christianity (since it is Christianity that most concerns me) against the only specifically God-free political philosophy I am aware of - communism.

So, my question was this: Which has caused the most human deaths, Christianity or communism? I am very sure I have left tragic events out here, but even if I missed a lot, I don't think it would come anywhere close to changing the outcome. I am also including just events where the motivation for the killings was mostly Christianity. Frankly, I think that even in this list the motivation was not always purely religion. For example, in his book, For the Glory of God, Rodney Stark points out that the killing of witches was most frequent in areas where the church had less influence and was often done despite the church, and while religion was involved in the 30 Year's War, the fact that France (a Catholic country) often supported the Protestants in Germany in an apparent effort to weaken Germany suggests that nationalistic forces were perhaps stronger than religious forces in that ugly conflict. Nevertheless, I'm throwing them all into the pot because religion is generally considered to be the major factor in these events.

Okay, for Christianity:

Number KilledEvent
1-5 millionCrusades
20,000-900,000"Witches" killed
14,000Jews killed, scapegoats for Black Death
1 millionAlbigensian Crusade
2-4 millionCatholic vs. Huguenot (France)
100,000Peasants War (Germany)
31,912Spanish Inquisition
11.5 millionThirty Years War
13,445,912High Total
6,565,912Low Total

Now let's take communism:

Number KilledEvent
20 millionJoseph Stalin
40 millionMao Zedong
2 millionPol Pot (Cambodia)
62 millionTotal


Okay, so if we take the most wildly generous estimates of people killed by those who claim to be Christians, it is 13.5 million. For communism it is 62 million.

Communism wins! In less than 100 years it killed about 62 million people, more than four and a half times the number of people those who claim to be Christians have killed over the course of nearly 2,000 years, or more than nine times as many if you accept the lower estimate for Christianity.

My suspicion is that a lust for power and fame and loot and glory are far more central to man's inhumanity to man than every religion in the world added together.

So PU-lease! Don't tell me how religion is the major cause of violence or suffering in this world. It is nonsense.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ministering to Poor Governments

It occurred to me this morning just how much suffering in this world is caused by inept government and how much could be avoided by competence.

A lot of us in the United States think we know all about inept government (FEMA during Katrina, for instance), but I'm actually thinking of a level of ineptitude that is somewhere in the middle between, say, the old Katrina-FEMA on the mild side and Zimbabwe on the extreme side.

I'm thinking of nations whose officials are at least kinda-sorta trying to do a good job, but for lack of training they simply don't have the best skills.

It seems that for cases like this it would be good to have a Christian ministry made up of government officials from countries around the world who would occasionally take some of their vacation time and spend it with their governmental counterparts in poor countries. Public works directors matching off with public works directors, planning department officials spending time with planning department officials, ministers of finance hanging out with ministers of finance. They could just spend time with each other talking about how they do their jobs and how they might do them better.

Having suggested that, a big red flag comes to mind, which is that often ideas that seem good to western visitors are not good at all.

For example, I have a friend with a large organization that was doing work in Africa. The westerners had finished their work in the country and were leaving but still had a lot of their food left over, so my friend gave it to his driver, a national, who gave it to a group of nationals. They all ate the western food and all got sick because they were not used to such a high protein diet.

My point is that good intentions need to be matched with good understanding.

But having said that, it seems that with some cultural training and a large dose of humility, a ministry by government officials to government officials in poor countries might be very helpful. In fact, though I haven't heard of it, maybe it already exists. If you know about such an organization, let me know; I'd be interested.

UPDATE: After watching FEMA performing quite well during Hurricane Gustav, I felt I had to update this post to make clear that I was talking about FEMA during the Katrina hurricane. I'm delighted to see how much the agency has improved!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Top Christian Colleges - 2008

I just saw a rating of colleges by Forbes Magazine and thought it would be interesting to pull out the Christian colleges and see how they compared.

I found a list of Christian colleges and was surprised how few (just 32) were on the Forbes List. Not even Point Loma in California. Weird. I think they need to expand their list a lot. Also, I don't think the Forbes rating considers all the factors a Christian would consider in looking at a Christian school, but still, I find it quite interesting. I would have thought Wheaton would have come up first on the list, but it doesn't. It is second, with a college I hadn't heard of, Huntington University, coming in first.

So, here is the list. The number at the beginning of each line is the Forbes rating:

65 - Huntington University Indiana
89 - Wheaton College Illinois
95 - Erskine College South Carolina
116 - Carson-Newman College Tennessee
117 - Covenant College Georgia
129 - Mississippi College Mississippi
131 - George Fox University Oregon [added in update]
149 - Master's College California
159 - Goshen College Indiana
163 - Oklahoma Baptist University Oklahoma
165 - Whitworth College Washington
185 - Oklahoma Wesleyan University Oklahoma
191 - Houghton College New York
205 - Biola University California
211 - Northwestern College Iowa
213 - Asbury College Kentucky
257 - Westmont College California
271 - Northwestern College Minnesota
281 - Grove City College Pennsylvania
282 - Union University Tennessee
308 - Taylor University Indiana
340 - Cedarville University Ohio
343 - Gordon College Massachusetts
352 - Baylor University Texas
357 - Messiah College Pennsylvania
358 - Vanguard University California
372 - Calvin College Michigan
374 - Dordt College Iowa
435 - Seattle Pacific University Washington
443 - Corban College Oregon
444 - Abilene Christian University Texas
456 - John Brown University Arkansas
465 - Azusa Pacific University California

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Church Architecture

I recently stumbled upon a curious old volume on Google Books called Housing the Sunday School, which you may wish to read if you are on the planning committee to design a Sunday School building, but it reminded me of a really excellent book I read a long time ago by 19th Century art and architecture critic, John Ruskin, called The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

I'm sure there are excellent newer books with a wider perspective, but I thought Ruskin's book was excellent. Even though it isn't exclusively about church buildings, a lot of it is. I highly recommend it, especially if you are on a church building committee.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In Praise of Mindlessness

I am really not very tidy. And I come from a family of not-very-tidy people (my mother even has a sign that says "Neatness causes cancer in laboratory rats"), and generally I've considered neatness to show a certain lack of creativity and of a mind in a rut.

Well... I've been rethinking that and am now prepared to say I was wrong.

I think what changed my mind was reading David Allen's fine book, Getting Things Done, in which he advocates a very rigorous tidiness. One of his main themes, as I recall, is that if you put (and keep) everything in its place - especially schedules of things to do - then your mind can switch itself off on these topics because it knows that your "system" is doing the remembering. (My wife looked at the book and kind of yawned. She's been living this for years and kind of wonders what's taken me so long to see it.)

Anyway, so now I realize the value of mindlessness. If I'm tidy, I won't have to think about where I put my pen, or the sander, or the crescent wrench, or the computer files I've been working on for Ann. If I just put things where they belong, I can mindlessly grab them and do what I need to do with them. If I already thought once about where to keep the harmonica, why waste my time thinking about it again? Just put it back in its place when I'm done with it!

So I was wrong. Tidiness doesn't cause me to be uncreative or put my mind in a rut or cause cancer in laboratory rats. In fact, it helps by giving me more time to think and be creative; time I wouldn't have if I always had to spend it thinking about where I put stuff.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Why Have You Forsaken Me?

I just finished a book by a notable Bible scholar who at one point discussed the difficulty of Jesus' words on the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

He gave a long and scholarly answer, basically saying that Jesus' words were a quote from the opening line of Psalm 22 and that they reflect the depth of his passion.

Well, yeah, that's true and okay as far as it goes, but it should go a lot farther.

To me, it seems the question is, Did Jesus' cry mean that he didn't understand what was happening to him?

And the answer is a very straightforward no; it doesn't mean that at all. In fact, it shows that he understood very clearly what was happening to him.

I'm quite sure that Jesus - who in these last moments of his life was probably incapable of giving a lengthy sermon, but even then yearned to reach out to people - quoted the first verse of Psalm 22 as a way of saying: Psalm 22 is all about me and I am fulfilling it in your sight. Go back and read the whole thing and you will understand.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Encroaching on Charity - Hooray!

I've always believed that charity should be mostly reserved for tasks that cannot be dealt with by profit-making businesses. So, for example, I'm not sure that stamping out smallpox throughout the world would pay a direct monetary dividend to the organization that did the stamping out, so that seems like a good project for a non-profit group.

But it always excites me to hear of someone figuring out a way to tackle a beneficial but seemingly money-losing task and still make a profit, because if they make a profit, they'll keep doing it and do more of it, and other people will do it, and relatively scarce charitable money can be redirected to those areas that can't be handled by profit making organizations.

With that lengthy preamble, I really want to recommend this article, Babble Rouser, a Forbes article about Denis O'Brien, who empowers poor people with cheap cell phone technology - often in defiance of their own corrupt governments - and thereby boosts the living standard of whole countries, and in the process makes a profit!

I wouldn't have thought it could be done, but I'm delighted to be proven wrong.

Friday, August 01, 2008

How to be Happy

Yes, I'm serious. I'm going to talk about how to be happy, but just to clarify before I get started, let me lay out a few qualifications.

First, even though I'm a Christian and am tempted to talk about the ultimate happiness of heaven, I don't mean that kind of happiness (but if you are interested in becoming a Christian, see here).

Second, I don't mean swooning bliss; all I mean is the everyday kind of happiness that millions of people already have but is a little harder for some of us.

Third, there are some people who have an talent for being happy while laying on the beach or watching television all day. I'm not talking to them. I'm talking to people who start to get a bit antsy after spending an hour and a half in the cool breezes watching the palms sway and the waves crash on a beautiful beach in Maui. In other words, slightly driven people who are kinda like me.

Okay, ready for the very simple secret? Here it is:

Make a daily to-do list and work through it.

Wait! Don't go away yet. I know it sounds stupid, but hear me out.

For some of us, there is a lot of satisfaction in accomplishing tasks and scratching them off our list. It's what makes us everyday-happy. Maybe we're psychologically stunted, or maybe other people are. Whatever. But we gotta work with who we are.

Here's a little more detail.

Get a little notepad (I use a 3" x 5" spiral notepad) and in the evening (or early morning), write down everything you want to do the next day, from the important to the trivial. Then put an A, B, or C in front of each item, depending on its level of importance. (Or, sometimes, I number them in the order that makes sense to do them.) Then, start working on the most important item (or the first item if you number them) and work your way through the list, scratching each item off the list as you complete it.

It may not sound exciting (who said anything about excitement?) but there is a lot of satisfaction in scratching off each item and at the end of the day seeing a bunch of completed tasks.

Now the really interesting thing that I've discovered is that it really doesn't make much psychological difference how important the items are! It is as satisfying for me to scratch off "Have coffee with Dad" as it is to scratch off "Complete programming task for Ann."

I have had long periods of not having a regular job and therefore not having anything important to do, and yet if I write a list of trivial tasks and mark them off throughout the day, the psychological effect is much the same as if the tasks were actually important.

Now, one objection I can anticipate is that I'm suggesting we all become workaholics. No! Not in the least!

I already mentioned "Have coffee with Dad." I assure you, that is not work. How about these:

Take nap
Go swimming
Go on bike ride
Paint cat (a picture of a cat, not a real cat)
See Batman movie

See? Just list goofing-off things along with the productive things and you get the pleasure of taking a nap and the pleasure of marking it off your list as an accomplished task.

What could be better?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Explaining Variations in Jesus' Words

There are several good explanations for why each of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) sometimes carry slightly different accounts of what Jesus said: In some cases it could be that it is a different event being recorded and that Jesus said similar things on differerent occasions (just as any traveling preacher might do); in some cases one writer may have recorded one part of what Jesus said and another writer may have recorded another part of what he said; or it could be that the Aramaic words Jesus used could be translated into the Greek of the New Testament using different (legitimate) words, and the gospel writers chose different words to bring out a different emphasis in what Jesus said; or, finally, it could be that the authors are paraphrasing - legitimately giving the meaning of what Jesus said - but not always giving the words verbatim.

All of these are good possibilities and probably they all apply in various situations.

But in reading the letter of 1 John it occurs to me that there may be another good explanation, and that is, simply, that Jesus said the same thing multiple ways on the same occasion.

Listen to 1 John 2:12-14:

I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.
I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.

And then it repeats, but with differences:

I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father.
I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

So, here we have John, one of Jesus' main disciples, who may well have picked up some of his teaching style from his Master, saying one thing and then immediately repeating it with some variation.

I suspect that Jesus may have done the same thing; say things one way, then immediately say them in another way. Then - in some cases - one gospel writer may have recorded one of Jesus' comments and another writer may have recorded another.

As I reflect on this, I recall that just this last Sunday the pastor at our church said the same thing four or five times in a row, sometimes repeating what he said verbatim, sometimes with variations, as a way of emphasizing his point.

If my pastor did this, and if the apostle John did this, I'm sure Jesus may have done it as well.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Accidentally Obedient

Usually I'm a bit quiet among people I don't know, and, well, sometimes I'm quiet among people I do know, so obeying Jesus' command to let the world know about him has always been rather difficult for me to obey on a personal level. I'm okay with supporting missionaries financially and things like that, but personally talking to people about Christ ("witnessing," in Christian jargon) has always been very difficult for me.

But over the past few years I've discovered - accidentally - that it can be done without any difficulty at all. So I thought I'd pass along what I've learned for other Christians who are on the shy side.

Fortunately, in addition to being a bit shy, in some ways I'm also boringly predictable. I wake up early and go out to a coffee shop (the same one all the time) to have a cup of coffee, read my Bible, pray, and plan my day. I don't approach anyone or really attempt any conversation, though I try to smile at people who walk by.

Well, it turns out that other people are also creatures of habit, and a lot of them come to the same coffee shop every day at the same time. So after months and even years of just being there you get to know people by face, and eventually somebody is bound to come up to you and say something like, "Can I use this chair?" and I say "Sure!" But one way or another, you slowly get to know people.

And people see you reading your Bible, and when they know you a little bit they comment on that and you can respond. I've had spiritual conversations with several people and got one guy a Bible by just - basically - sitting there minding my own business.

And, of course, occasionally Christians will see you with your Bible and will say hello and sometimes share something from their own lives. I've prayed with people who have endured some deep pains (one woman lost her husband in a traffic accident and another was in real financial trouble).

But my point is that it all came about by just quietly sitting and reading my Bible. But - and here's the secret - doing it for a loooong time.

Friday, July 18, 2008

God of Mystery

Speaking of mysteries (as I did in my last post) the thought occurs to me that if I believed in a God in whom there was no mystery, I'd probably be believing in a made-up God.


Because I think a made-up God would be a god who makes sense within the everyday knowledge that we have. I just don't think we'd make up a god who didn't fit our notions of reality.

Instead, the Real God must be greater than everything we perceive, or He couldn't have made everything.

And if there is mystery in what we perceive - and when we come to the edges of our perception of reality, things do begin to get really weird - then the God who created all this stuff, from the commonplace to the incomprehensibly baffling, must have a nature that in some ways is far more baffling than the weirdest mysteries of the universe.

His nature is true and constant and good, but to us limited human beings elements of his nature must be impossible to understand. I guess that's where faith comes in.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mystery for Christians and Atheists

Whenever either Christians or atheists get to a certain point in a logical examination of their beliefs, they find mystery.

For example, let's take the topic of free will.

For the Christian there are two seemingly incompatible truths:

First, that human beings have a free will and can make real decisions. You can see this throughout the Bible in every command and every bit of praise and every bit of blame. If we were mere puppets then we couldn't make real decisions - for good or for bad - so there would be no need for commands and no point in praise or blame.

Second, there is the truth that God is in control of everything, down to the last little thing.

So how do those two beliefs fit together? I don't know.

But the atheist faces a similar dilemma.

On the one hand, most atheists seem to believe that people can make real free-will decisions, otherwise, why would they write books and give lectures and otherwise try to persuade people to become atheists?

But on the other hand, athiests believe that everything is based on purely natural processes: one thing leading to another to another to another, the previous things causing the next things, from the beginning of the universe right down to their lives. But that means their decisions are not really decisions, but are just the inevitable result of preceeding events.

So, they believe in free-will and they believe that free-will is impossible, two clearly contradictory beliefs.

Okay, so what is the difference between the Christian's dilemna and the atheist's?

Well, as a Christian, what makes the seeming contradiction acceptable to me is that I know the One who understands how they fit together and who wouldn't have told us these two truths if they did not fit together. So I can reasonably assume that the logical conflict I face is resolved in dimensions or ways that I can't begin to imagine.

But the atheist - by definition - cannot appeal to God or any "higher power" who might assure him that, despite appearances, his contradictory beliefs fit together. Therefore he has no reasonable cause for believing that the logical conflict he faces can be reconciled, and he is left with nothing but contradiction.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Where Did God Come From?

I thought this question had been adequately dealt with years ago, but it seems to have made a reappearance, so I thought I would address it.

If you ask, "Where did God come from?" you are incorrectly including in your question the idea that God is a part of time, rather than the creator of time.

It does not make sense to ask what came "before" God because words like "before" and "earlier" and "previous" and so forth are all about time, but God made time and therefore is separate from time. And if something is separate from time, then there is no "before," and asking what is before God is as silly as asking, "What is before blue?" It is not a time question so you can't get a time answer.

Think of time as a line you draw on a sheet of paper. If someone asked what comes before you on that line, the question wouldn't really make sense because you are not part of the line. It's the same with God.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Encyclopedia Trivia

I've been slowly adding an old encyclopedia to the web, reading it as I go along, and occasionally stumbling on interesting tidbits.

For instance:

- Did you know that "Captain Bligh ... betrayed a singular capacity for making himself disliked by his subordinates." Oh, you did know that.

- I like James Brindley's method of solving problems.

- Did you know that a French engineers' report concluded that it would be virtually impossible to build the the Panama Canal?

- Did you know Sunday School had an inventor?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Abusing Human Resources

I don't know what reminded me of this, but for years I've been bothered by some of the harrassment rules that have governed companies - at least in California. While I totally agree with the principle of not permitting harrassment and I agree with coming down hard on it when it occurs, and while I know at least one woman who used the process quite correctly, I've also seen the process abused over the years by some women who seem to think that it was invented expressly to prevent them from experiencing any inconvenience in their social lives.

Let me give a couple examples:

- I was a manager at a computer software company. A guy who reported to me asked a woman in the company if she would like to drive together to a meeting of a professional association they both belonged to. She reported him for sexual harrassment. He was not punished but he was crushed and humiliated.

- At another company a woman who reported to me told me that a guy from "the other side of the building who didn't have any business on our side of the building" had come around a number of times and had spoken to her on a few occasions. And, although she had not told him her name, he knew it. She was deeply offended. Sigh. I dutifully told the HR department and dutifully told her she needed to discuss it with the HR department directly and dutifully kept my mouth shut, but I really thought what she did was wrong. Here, some poor fellow, probably some nerdie tech guy, had the temerity to like her and find out what her name was and - horror of horrors - speak to her. And for that crime he was undoubtedly dragged into the HR department and humiliated.

I want to make clear that I don't blame HR departments for this. The HR people I've dealt with have been very professional and know some of the rules are absurdly vague, but they're stuck with them just like everybody else. I remember at one mandatory meeting on harassment the presenter essentially said that if you "look at someone" you may be guilty of harrassment. It would have been vague enough if she had said that you couldn't "look at someone in a lascivious manner" or something like that, but it was just "look at someone." She knew it was stupid and she was uncomfortable when I pointed out that everybody at that meeting was - at that very moment - guilty of harrassment, and that we were all guilty from the moment we walked into the building until we left at night. But what was she supposed to do? The law may be stupidly vague, but it was the law.

So, I reserve my contempt for those who make vague laws and for those few women who use HR departments to turn down (and humiliate) poor guys they do not happen to like.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Aristotle - Hindering Science?

I recently finished reading the book, Politics, by Aristotle. Though I certainly respect the guy, the one thing that really struck me about the book was something I thought did not reflect well on him.

I had always heard that Aristotle taught kind of a "moderation in all things" philosophy, which seemed to me to be a pretty good plan, but then I read the book and discovered that when he talked about "moderation in all things" he basically meant ALL things. He struck me as being kind of an extremist about moderation, so to speak.

Everything was going fine until the last section of the book, where he discusses education. One of his examples of a subject that should be on the curriculum of every good citizen is music. Okay, fine. But, he said, the citizen of a community should learn just enough about playing music to amuse himself and his friends during leisure times. He shouldn't try to become a really good musician because becoming excellent in such skills is only for servants, not for full citizens. So, in other words, being really excellent at any art or craft is for inferiors and is not worthy of those who are full citizens.

Ouch! No wonder the Industrial Revolution did not begin with the Greeks. No wonder their science was mostly theoretical. Those who say that science began during the Renaissance when people began throwing out Christian thinking and rediscovering Greek thinking are full of prunes! Undoubtedly Greek thinking was a big factor, but taken as a whole, if Aristotle is indicative of Greek thinking, I believe Greek thinking was as much a hinderance as a help to the rise of science.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Paul's Authority and Humility

The Bible study group I belong to has been studying the New Testament book of II Corinthians, and one thing that really struck me about the book is the lessons it gives on authority.

In this book the Apostle Paul attempts (among other things) to persuade the Corinthians that he is a true apostle, and that the so-called "super apostles" that the people have fallen for are not.

Before telling you how Paul makes the point that he is legit, let me tell you how he does not make his point. It struck me that if the early church was organized in a heirarchical fashion, then the most obvious thing for Paul to do would have been to say something like this: "I was appointed by the official church leadership to be an apostle. Those fakes were not. End of discussion!"

But he doesn't do that. He explains and praises and argues and pleads and threatens and is ironic and urges the people to consider how he has lived among them. He knows they're upset that he didn't visit them as he had planned, so he tells his reasons; he knows the false apostles have sown seeds of doubt about his integrity, so he reminds them that he has never taken any money from them. But though he seems to use every tool available to him - much as a distraught parent might with a child - he never once cites any earthly authority, only God: "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God."

Though not conclusive, this suggests to me that the early church was probably not organized in a thoroughly heirarchical fashion.

Also, Paul was collecting money for a church in great need (apparently the church in Jerusalem) and the churches in Greece/Macedonia appointed a man to accompany Paul to make sure the money was spent properly.

I am awestruck! The churches had that authority and the great apostle Paul was perfectly willing to be watched to make sure he didn't steal money. What a lesson in godly humility! And in light of this, how can any church or parachurch organization refuse to have regular audits or otherwise demonstrate to those who give that the money they receive is being properly used?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Obama: Don't Betray Iraq!

I don't write about politics very much, but now it is pretty clear (barring some unforeseen upset) that Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party's nominee. If he becomes president he would be the commander in chief, which means that he can do whatever he wants with the military pretty much without congressional approval. And what he proposes to do is very troubling.

So I want to address any Obama fans out there.

The Democratic Party claims to be the party of "compassion," but Mr. Obama has indicated on his website that he'd immediately "remove one to two combat brigades each month" from Iraq, until our forces are all out, apparently regardless of whether the Iraqis are ready to stand on their own. In light of that commitment I have to ask how compassionate it is to abandon millions of Iraqis to the mercies of terrorist militias, both those home-grown in Iraq and state-sponsored terrorists from neighboring countries?

How compassionate is it to put Iraqis at the mercy of butchers who saw prisoners' heads off and then post videos of their barbarity on the Internet, or who set off bombs in marketplaces in an effort to kill as many civilians as possible?

Iraq's military is performing better and better, terrorist attacks have been way down and the country's legislature seems to be doing about as well as our own Congress, which is not saying much, but it's progress.

Yet even as the Iraqis are getting steady on their feet, your candidate wants to yank the rug out from under them, leaving nobody but a few guards for our embassy and maybe a little force somewhere in the Middle East for "targeted strikes" if al Qaeda happens to set up a base in Iraq. (What? It hasn't already?)

In other words, he wants to betray those who believed that we would help them.

He wants to desert those who worked and fought beside us! God help those Iraqi soldiers, police and politicians if we leave before they're ready.

He wants the United States to put its tail between its legs and run away, and let the families of fallen soldiers know that their sons' lives were lost for nothing, that nothing was accomplished by their sacrifice. And that on the brink of success.

This is not compassion. This is betrayal!

I know. You'll tell me too many American lives have been lost. Any lives lost is too many, but compared to most wars we've fought, 4,000 deaths in five years of war is insignificant. Many times we've lost far more than that in a single day of war. Our casualties could hardly be fewer!

I know. You'll tell me that America has committed crimes in Iraq. So the logic is that since we've committed crimes that means we should commit the additional crime of abandoning the Iraqis. Yeah, two crimes are better than one. That makes perfect sense.

I know. You'll tell me it is an "illegal" war. Well, just so we don't get stuck on the point, let's say that it is completely illegal. So, because it's illegal that means we should commit the additional crime of abandoning the Iraqis? Yeah, that makes perfect sense, too.

I'd never have thought that I'd want a politician to be a liar, but if Barack Obama is elected, I sure hope he's been lying about abandoning our friends before they are ready to stand on their own. And if he's not lying, and you vote for him, the shame of our betrayal and the blood of abandoned Iraqis will stain your hands as well.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Generational Baseline

I think one of the big problems in the church today is that children from Christian households are falling away from their faith.

There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this (lack of preparation for the arguments against Christianity that they'll hear in college is a big one), but I'd like to speculate about one reason I haven't heard explored, and it is this:

I think that every generation sets a new baseline for the following generation.

Let me give an example.

Let's say a man and woman have been involved in some bad behavior (take your pick), but they come to know Christ and begin following Him, living as good a life as they can, and then they marry and have children.

The problem is that while the parents remember how Christ saved them and how he set their lives straight, and while that is powerful for them, it's just ancient history to the children. The children don't see the change in their parents' lives; they simply experience having fairly nice parents and they tend to assume that this is normal and is no particular evidence of God. In fact, they will see that the parents do not always live up to their faith and may take that as evidence against Christianity.

And, of course, some parents are just plain awful, which simply makes the contrast between the parents' words and their professed faith even more damning.

So its a bad situation if you're a good parent and a worse situation if you're a rotten one.

I wish I had a simple answer for this. I don't, but two thoughts come to mind: be the best parent you can be, and ... pray.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

You're Not Welcome

It is my sad observation in rubbing shoulders with other Christians and in reading publications and hearing reports of children drifting away from the faith, that much of the U.S. Church is in the process of losing its soul and just becoming a part of the world. And I'm not talking just about liberal churches; I mean evangelical churches as well.

I think the process has been going on for a few decades, but has accelerated recently. It began as an admirable attempt to reach out to the world by casting aside unnecessary barriers, such as by using more broadly-understood words instead of "Christian" words ("redemption") and by meeting in non-churchy buildings such as restaurants and old warehouses, and by setting aside non-Biblical prohibitions (not playing cards). The idea was to strip away any stumbling blocks that would prevent people from coming to Christ, and I approved (and continue to approve) most heartily.

But now I think it has gone too far.

After having thrown out all the unnecessary baggage we find that lots of people still don't want to be Christians. Why? Because we're "judgemental" or because nobody should go to Hell, or, "Hey, there are lots of religions in the world." Or because it isn't "relevant" to my life.

So, to address these objections we've started throwing out the necessary baggage. We deemphasize sin and emphasize how welcoming we are "wherever you're at in life;" we downplay Christ and instead talk generically of a loving God while not mentioning that this loving God wants us to stop sinning. And Hell? Uh, well, we prefer to focus on the love of God at this church.

These days all we want is to be accepted and loved by the world, to be "part of the community."

The sight of a wonderful reform movement that has gone too far discourages me immensely and I think it is a sign of the church's slide into irrelevance. A church that does not differ from the world around it has nothing to offer that world.

But I don't think this applies to all the church.

I think there are those who are equally disheartened by this movement, and I think some churches that see the coming evil will put the brakes on, and some new churches will arise that will turn their focus back to Christ.

I think those churches will say, "We love you no matter what, but if you are going to attend this church you need to be making a serious effort to battle sin in your life. If you're stuck in adultery or homosexuality or theft or lying or hatred or cheating or greed or any other sin, you need to be fighting against it. If you do, we're here for you. If you are not, we want you to leave. You are not welcome here. Go away and come back when you are willing to follow Christ."

And I think those churches will say, "You're right. Hell is awful. For God's sake, don't go there!"

And I think they'll say, "We're sorry that you don't think this is a sin, but God said it is."

And I think they'll say, "That there are many religions in the world is irrelevant. The question is: What is true? If another religion is true, go follow it; if Christianity is true, then follow Christ. Don't be a wus!"

And I think that eventually this new church will go too far, and some will emphasize "separation from the world" to an exagerated and un-biblical extent, and then this church will become unnecessarily isolated, and then we'll need yet another correction.

But in the meantime, in general, I think Christians are going to feel increasingly lonely even within their own churches, and I think any notion they may have that they represent a large segment of the population is doomed to disappointment. We are a minority.

But on the other hand, as things continue to slide I think these isolated Christians will find each other and will enjoy sweet fellowship in their mutual devotion to Christ and in their attempts to live for Christ in their lives.

Of course the media and the slip-sliding-away church will not approve of this movement and will do a lot of harumphing about it, but that's fine. Wear it as a badge of honor.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Surveyors for Christ

I suspect that one of the main causes of poverty in the world is the lack of clarity about who owns what. For example, if a poor person in a poor country is living on a piece of land, I can't imagine that he would put much effort or expense into fixing up his home if he is not certain that he owns it. If the boundary lines are fuzzy, improving his property could simply make it more attractive for someone else - who claims to be the true landowner - to take it away.

I know it is not sexy and is certainly not as dramatic as some other forms of development work, but as a Christian I would think that some amount of Christian development effort should be directed toward helping poor but reasonably honest governments survey and record and make available property records. I think it would be a great ministry for a Christian development group, not that it would get much publicity and likely not much praise for its efforts, but I suspect that in a quiet way a ministry like that could have a tremendous impact.

In the book Measuring America, by Andro Linklater, which I review here, Linklater says that property lines in the southern U.S. states were less clear than those in the North, and that those vague lines hindered southern economic development. I have to think that better surveying and clearer boundary lines would be an economic blessing around the world.

This thought occurred to me on reading this most excellent article by Peter Huber about the need for governments to make available on-line each and every legal document relating to ownership, meaning all laws that apply, all maps and court records, contracts, etc. In other words, he goes beyond the simple lines-in-the-dirt surveying I'm advocating to make the point that there are other boundaries on property rights as well, and those too should be as clear and as easily available as possible. Amen! One of the best points I've heard anyone make in a long time.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

China and Taiwan

Today's primary elections remind me of a worry I've had for a while.

It occurs to me that within the next decade the United States could face a far more difficult situation than terrorism - China.

China is growing strong economically, technically and militarily, and while I have no objection to a strong China, and I don't see why China couldn't be a good friend and trading partner (especially if it cleans up its human rights problems), I really don't want a strong China with a grudge against the U.S., simply because I don't want what could be an extremely serious war.

Unfortunately, there is a grudge - Taiwan. The U.S. is guarding Taiwan from China and that annoys the Chinese, who regard it as part of China. Whatever. I won't get into that.

But this brings me to my point. I think we should sit down with Taiwan and China and encourage them to cooperate and resolve their differences, and we should do it now while tempers are still under some level of control and we're not waving missles in each others faces.

For whoever becomes president, I hope he (or she) will make this a priority. Waiting until it is a crisis would be just plain stupid.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Fact, Faith, Feeling

Not long ago a young man told me he couldn't remember a single instance of God working in his life.

I think he is very mistaken and has simply missed what God has been doing, because when I look at his life I see God at work as he becomes a godly young man.

But I think I understand what he meant. I think he meant that he could not feel God working in his life. That I can relate to. The times I have felt God at work in my life are very few and very far between.

What helps me with this is remembering an old illustration that showed a train, with "Fact" as the engine, followed by coal car, "Faith," and then trailing along at the end was the caboose, "Feeling." The train can run without Feeling, but it needs the engine of Fact and the fuel of Faith in the coal car.

I believe a lot of Christians today unconsciously base their faith on feelings. I sympathize. I want good feelings, too. But feelings are the caboose; they're not critical. Live life based on the Fact of the Gospel fueled by Faith, and if Feeling comes along for a ride sometimes, fine, if not, que sera. And don't count on feelings always being there; they won't be; or always being pleasant; they won't be; and certainly do not base your faith on them.

Luther Movie

I don't know if I just missed it when it first came out, or if it never appeared in the theaters, or what, but I recently saw a DVD movie called, "Luther," about the life of Martin Luther. I don't usually recommend movies, but this one was really great. It did not sugar-coat Luther and it's intent was not to slam Catholics. And it was very professionally done.

From what I know of Luther, it did a great job of presenting his life - "warts and all," to quote another famous German (Frederick the Great, I believe). After I saw it, I recommended that our fellowship group watch it. We did and everyone seemed to really like it, and one guy said he thought he'd recommend it to our new pastor. So anyway, rent the DVD. I think you will really enjoy it and learn quite a bit about both Luther and the Reformation.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Those Emotional Puritans

If you are like me, you've always had this idea in the back of your mind that the Puritans were stiff and formal and unemotional, but in reading some of the stuff they've written, well ... I dunno. In one sense what I've read does seem very methodical and scholastic at times (not that I object to that, but it can be dry), but then in the midst of a scholarly essay (in this case dealing with the role of memory in heaven - O brother! Does that sound dull, or what?) you may get something simply overflowing with passion, such as this (which I've edited into more-or-less modern English):
From the height of heaven the saint can look back and compare the past with the present. And what an inconceivable appreciation that soul must have. To stand on that mountain, where we can see both the Wilderness and Canaan at once; to stand in heaven and look back on earth, and weigh them side-by-side, how it must transport the soul, and make it cry out, "Is this what the blood of Christ has bought? No wonder it cost so much. O blessed purchase and blessed love! Is this the result of believing? Is this the result of the Spirit's workings? Have the winds of grace blown me into such a harbor? Is it to this place that Christ has allured my soul? O blessed path and blessed destination! Is this the glory of which the Scriptures spoke and ministers preached about so often? I see the Gospel is indeed good news, news of peace and good things, news of great joy to all nations! Did my mourning, my fasting, the sad times I was humbled, my difficult path, come to this? Did my praying, watching, and fearing to offend, come to this? Did all my afflictions, Satan's temptations, the world's scorn and jeers, come to this? O my vile nature, that resisted such a blessing so much and so long! Unworthy soul! is this the place you came to so unwillingly? Was duty tiresome? Was the world too good to lose? Could you not leave all, deny all, and suffer anything for this? Were you afraid to die, to come to this? O false heart, you almost betrayed me to eternal flames and would have lost me this glory! Are you not ashamed, my soul, that you ever questioned the love that brought you here? that you were jealous of the faithfulness of your Lord? that you doubted his love when you should only have doubted yourself? that you always quenched any working of his Spirit? and that you misinterpreted his actions and were unhappy at what he did to bring you to this end? Now you are convinced that your blessed Redeemer was saving you just as much when he denied your desires as when he granted them; when he broke your heart as when he healed. No thanks to you, unworthy self, for this crown; but thanks rather to Jehovah and the Lamb to whom be glory for ever."
Kind of takes my breath away. That's from The Saints' Everlasting Rest, by Richard Baxter, if you're interested.