Thursday, December 27, 2007

A humble God

A couple years back, Fox had a TV show featuring two upper class wealthy socialite girls who agreed to relinquish the accoutrements of their upscale life: their chauffeurs, BMWs, cell-phones, credit cards, trust funds, and fashionable clothes. They did this in order to experience the decidedly downscale life of a more normal person. The show was called The Simple Life, and starred Paris Hilton, the Hilton Hotel heiress, and Nicole Richie, the daughter of ‘80’s crooner Lionel Richie. They dressed in semi-normal clothes, and got jobs doing a variety of things like dairy farming, sausage making, cattle ranching, working in a hair salon, and serving as hotel maids. It was designed to be a comedy and was played for laughs as the girls were totally incapable of doing a variety of things that a lot of the rest of people are able to do without thinking. I never watched the show, but I remember thinking, when it was on, “Why would someone who already has plenty of money ever agree to do this? I don’t need that much humiliation, never mind having it broadcast on national TV.”

And yet, the contrasts between even that human example what God did for us in Christ couldn’t be starker. I mean, think of it this way: Paris Hilton is heir to a family fortune worth $300 million dollars. She only has to “suffer” through life as a normal human for the few weeks it took to shoot each season of the TV show. And even though she is, for the purposes of the show, living like a “regular person,” everybody both on the show and watching it knows that, in actual fact, she’s a rich hotel heiress with access to more money and power than most of us can even imagine. But this is far beyond that. When Jesus came into the world, he gives up everything permanently, for the entire duration of his time on earth. Philippians 2:7 says “he made himself nothing.” The original Greek literally reads “he emptied himself.” Even though, as the Bible says, He was and remained God, he didn’t cling tightly to the power and prerogatives that He deserved and enjoyed as God. Instead He gave up the independent exercise of all of his divine power, and submitted its use entirely to the will of God the Father. The God who created time became subject to it, and experienced life as the same succession of moments with a past, a present, and a future, just like we do. The God who made the universe by his Word got tired and hungry and needed sleep and food. And He who had since time immemorial ruled the universe from a throne surrounded by singing angels crept into the world as the child of Jewish peasant girl.

Instead of royal robes, the King of Kings was wrapped in rags laid in an animal’s feed trough. And if it weren’t for the angelic announcement, there would have been no worshipers of the newborn king. As it was, the only ones present to worship Him on the night of his birth other than his parents were a bunch of smelly shepherds, since the Magi wouldn’t show up for several more months at least. And He who determines who will rule and who will not has to flee for his life with his parents due to a jealous king who can’t abide the thought that anyone should rule in his place.

Philippians 2 also says He who was in very nature God got a new nature, that of a servant of God, a man. And while he retained equality with God, he became just like us, made in human likeness. It’s amazing for me to contemplate. A God who grows up, gets pimples, and learns a trade. He who hung the stars in place learns to saw and shape wood and pound nails as a carpenter. And on top of all that, during His time on earth, virtually no one recognized him for Who He was. In fact, at one point, members of his own family came to lock him up, because they thought He was crazy. And then, in one of the supreme ironies of history, the God who loved man enough to become a man is killed by the men he came to save.

All of this raises the same question in my mind that the TV show, The Simple Life did. Why would somebody who has all of that power, wealth, and glory agree to undergo that much public humiliation? In Paris Hilton’s case, I think the answer is that she considered the notoriety and the money and the potential for more of both to be worth the sacrifice to her dignity. But why would God be willing to undergo the sacrifice to His dignity. Apparently because He considered me and every other person who would place his faith in Christ to be worth it.

And knowing that, there is nothing I can say to appropriately respond.

True Christians?

I recently read a review of Dinesh D'Souza's latest book, What's So Great About Christianity? The reviewer, David Klinghoffer, is an observant Jew, an that fact caused him to raise a few penetrating questions regarding Christianity's complicated history with Jews and the Jewish faith. Specifically, he questions D'Souza's perceived minimization and or revisionism regarding the Inquisition and the Crusades. Apparently D' Souza argues that the Crusades were defensive wars against Islamic aggression and that the Inquisition only killed 2,000 people over its 350-year existence, a number which compares quite favorably with those killed on behalf of other religions (e.g., Islamists killed more people than that on one day in 2001, while atheist National Socialists and Communists killed some 100 million+ between 1920 and 1990). Klinghoffer regards such arguments as a bit disingenuous and unconvincing at best.

Moreover, Klinghoffer objects strongly to the idea that D'Souza can dismiss as "not true Christians" some of the people who have committed horrible atrocities despite their profession of faith.

How should a Christian respond to such charges? Permit me to suggest the following:
  1. The Crusades are a response, not an attack. Islam conquered all of the Middle East, all of North Africa, nearly all of Spain and was advancing into what is now Turkey by c. 750 AD. All of these areas had been overwhelmingly Christian since at least the time of Constantine (c. 320), with many having a predominantly Christian population well before then. Anyone who has witnessed the slow-motion genocide of Darfur and Southern Sudan in recent years and noted the parallels to Islam's historic spread by the sword can't escape wondering whether armed resistance wouldn't be a better practical policy than helplessly waiting for one's murderers to arrive. After all, the armed resistance of Southern Sudan has won peace, a measure of independence, and freedom from the death, rape, and mutilation that used to be a feature of daily life, while the people of Darfur mostly wait helplessly. While this says nothing about the theological issues at hand, mass slaughter of non-Muslims does at least tempt a normal person to want to respond in kind and at least try to protect one's co-religionists. Which is what occurred, beginning with the 1st Crusade in 1095, after 400 years of Islamic aggression.
  2. The Crusades were a rational response, but a disaster for the Church. While I think the Crusades were understandable, given the circumstances, I still think that they were an immeasurable tragedy. In the Crusades, Christians internalized the values of their attackers-that war could be "holy," that death while engaged in holy war was an automatic ticket to heaven, and that possession of earthly territory and power was the kind of Kingdom our King had in mind. These attitudes led to the slaughter of Jews and peaceful fellow Christians in Constantinople while on the way to "holy war" in the Middle East. I think the big reason why this transition was so easily made had to do with the "Christianization" of the Roman Empire under Constantine, which was also a huge disaster for the Church.
  3. The union of Church and State makes it especially necessary to distinguish true from false Christians. Many sections of the NT (indeed some whole books, such as James) spend significant energy exhorting people about the fact that not everyone who claims to be a Christian is one. When Christianity became the culture and enforced by the power of the State, then this pre-existing reality became even more acute, because officially at least, everyone was a Christian. But this is clearly not true from any fair comparison of the actual lives of some "Christians" and the NT, any more than it is true that everyone in ancient Israel was a true worshiper of YHWH (else why all the denunciations of idolatry by the prophets?). Thus, I find it not only convenient (Klinghoffer's accusation), but also highly likely that those who murdered peaceful Jews and fellow Christians were no more like authentic Christians than a soy burger is to the real thing (That is, while there are superficial similarities, the real thing is distinct in all the ways that really matter).
  4. While Christians get blamed for European anti-Semitism, that's not Jesus. Anti-Semitism is one of the ugliest sins that some Christians (among them notably, Martin Luther) have fallen into. Yet I wonder whether such feelings of hatred are more of a pre-existing cultural phenomenon than they are a feature of Christianity as such. The reason I think that may be the case is that while Christianity is virtually nonexistent in most of Europe, anti-Semitism is on the rise there and is regarded as respectable within large segments of European society (usually cloaked in the veil of anti-Zionism). Moreover, America is the most philo-Semitic country other than Israel that has ever existed even though roughly 25%-35% of its population is Christian. How can this be if Christians are to bear the blame for European pogroms? Finally, the greatest slaughter of Jews in history came not through the Church (or even those claiming association with Her), but from those who adopted Nietzschean atheist philosophy and Marxist economics (i.e., the National Socialists or Nazis), a phenomenon which could not occur until the Church was dying out.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Visions of sugarplums

There is no more magical thing in all the world than being a kid on Christmas day. Fortunately for me, I never entirely grew up, so a little Christmas magic still remains for me each year. I simply love giving gifts and watching the surprise and wonder on the kids' faces when the wake up and find the tree surrounded with presents. This year has been my favorite Christmas with my children so far. Everybody seems to have gotten what they really wanted, with a profusion of Barbies, princesses, and assorted "girly-ness" (bubble bath, stationery, miniature puppies, clothes, etc.) for my daughters and dinosaurs, Transformers, tools, and guns for the boys. By the way, isn't it interesting that it's Christmas 1985 in all of the toy stores? I hadn't seen this many Transformers, Cabbage Patch Kids, Star Wars figures, Care Bears, and Strawberry Shortcake dolls in a store since my own childhood. All they need is He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to make my trip down nostalgia lane complete.

Karen made her traditional Christmas morning cinnamon rolls. Lunch was getyourowni. Dinner was a glorious brown sugar glazed ham with green beans, cornbread dressing, and Mediterranean herb bread. Dessert was going to be peach pie topped with freshly whipped cream, but we were too stuffed.

It was a good day.

Spirit and truth

One of the most memorable conversations in the Gospels is Jesus’ meeting with a Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar (John 4). As Jesus’ comments veer closer to uncomfortable areas of her personal life, she tries to engage him in a theological discussion about side issues, such as whether its right to worship God on nearby Mt. Gerizim or in Jerusalem. But Jesus refuses to be distracted. He quickly answered her question, but then came right back to the main issue, which isn’t the where of worship, but the who and how. He says, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23). In making this statement, Jesus is implying an important question for the woman: are you a true worshiper, who worships the Father in spirit and truth?

I believe that Jesus’ question is an important one for us to answer as well. Everyone who has placed his faith in Jesus’ death on the cross for his sins and resurrection from the dead is, in some sense, a true worshiper of God. But even followers of Jesus Christ can falter when it comes to worshipping in “spirit and truth.” We don’t always worship God in ways consistent with the truths revealed to us by God’s Spirit nor do we always keep worshiping God in spirit and truth as the focus of our worship services. Sometimes we Christians get more focused on side issues like the location of worship, the style of worship, and the other people involved in worship than we are on exalting God in a way that is consistent with His truth as revealed by His Spirit in the Scriptures.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Spiritual leadership

Over the past few weeks, the dw and a friend of hers have been engaged in a spirited discussion of what characteristics a man should have to be considered a "spiritual leader" in his home. I have, for the most part, simply sat on the sidelines of this discussion watching and being entertained by it. But it has caused me to do some thinking on the subject and to wonder if the reason why we often hear so much about husbands being the spiritual leaders of their homes is that modern-day pastors were simply too chicken to say that husbands were simply "the leaders" of their homes without the qualifier. That sounds all too plausible to me, given the direction of the wider church in the last 50 years or so. Maybe the whole "spiritual leader" bit is modern Christianity's concession to the feminist movement, seeking to maintain some level of biblical truth without making the whole thing seem so antiquated and patriarchal. Because after all, 1 Peter 3:1-6 seems to make it clear that male leadership and female submission are biblically defined roles even if the husband is an unbeliever.

At any rate, I have decided to leave the sidelines and join the game. Here's my take on what characteristics should be present in a Christian husband's life:
  1. A Christ follower. This may seem obvious, but too often I have seen Christian women marry ostensibly "Christian" men who show no evidence of commitment to Christ. There is no desire to grow in knowing Christ, no desire to serve Christ, and little interest in the things of God in far too many "Christian" homes. I feel great compassion for the women in these marriages, but I suspect that the men they married are very much like they were before the wedding. 1 Corinthians 7:39's statement about marrying "in the Lord" is meant, at least as I understand it, to be more than simply a box to check off on the way to the altar. A man who isn't "on fire" for Christ prior to the wedding very likely won't be afterward.
  2. Sexually pure. Our times have brought an explosion of opportunities for sexual immorality. And many men who are "physically pure" (i.e., they haven't had physical contact with anyone other than their wives) are nevertheless impure with their eyes and thoughts. 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 and Hebrews 13:4 should describe every Christian marriage, with Song of Solomon and Proverbs 5:15-19 the standard to strive toward.
  3. Self-sacrificial. Ephesians 5:25-33 says, in summary, that husbands must be willing to sacrifice themselves for their wives, just as Christ sacrificed himself for His bride, the Church. A lot of men would willingly lay down their lives and make the ultimate sacrifice if it came down to it, but too many of us relinquish our selfish desires while we remain alive only with great difficulty.
  4. Fiscally responsible. 1 Timothy 5:8 says a man must provide for his family's financial needs and that failure to do so is a denial of the faith.
To be clear, I don't think this is all that is expected of Christian men ever. I think that every man should strive toward the requirements for elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. But a man who meets the minimum standards outlined above should still earn the respect of his wife as a spiritual leader.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Just give me freedom!

I have been somewhat at a loss as I try to figure out the candidate from among the several currently on offer for which I should actually vote. Almost all of them seem to possess entirely the wrong instincts for my personal taste. Looking at the leading candidates on the Republican side we have:
  1. Mitt Romney: Fervent Mormon and recent convert to the social conservative club. Making his campaign about his experience as an effective manager of large bureaucratic organizations (Bain, the Salt Lake Olympics, the Massachusetts government). But the solutions he offers are more a refinement of the bureaucracy than a transformation of it. He never asked, for example, whether government health care is a good idea, only which means of providing would work best.
  2. Rudy Guiliani: I respect Guiliani for his work in transforming New York from a crime-infested hole of a city into the safest large city in the world. But he has a long history of antipathy toward gun-owners, government reduction measures like the line-item veto, and is very soft on illegal immigration, and a big supporter of the freedom of speech choking monstrosity that is also known as "campaign finance reform." Where is the love for freedom from the government for the average citizen from this guy? While he has a record of punishing evildoers, he also has a long history of restricting the freedom of the law-abiding to accomplish that objective. Sorry, Rudy, I can't support you either.
  3. Mike Huckabee: Rock-solid from a pro-life perspective and an evangelical to boot, but shaky on the role of government. I mean seriously, the guy thinks it's the job of the federal government to legislate where and when people can smoke cigarettes. Where is that in the Constitution? Or for that matter, his view that illegal immigration is okay, that an expanded role for government in health care, education, and on and on is a good thing. Is there any place in our society over which Huckabee thinks government should have no oversight?
The Dems, if anything, are worse. Where is the candidate making the case for less government rather than more? I suppose, when the election finally rolls around, I will vote for the candidate who is less of a statist than the alternative, but what a depressing choice.

I guess what I want is a government modeled on Romans 12, where Paul says government's job is to protect and uphold what is morally right and punish evil and evildoers (both foreign and domestic). Beyond those limited functions, I want government to leave me the heck alone! I've got to believe I'm not the only one who feels this way. So where is the candidate who thinks that way?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I've got to figure out how to post more often

Apparently, it has been nine days since my last post. Nine days! Which apparently means that the Christmas rush has overtaken me. Anyway, in the spirit of the great Thomas Sowell, here are a few random thoughts on the passing scene:
  • 5 a.m. seems a lot earlier than it used to. Maybe it's that it is dark longer and earlier this time of year.
  • Apparently, Mike Huckabee was on The View with Meredith Viera this week. I didn't see it, but I guess she accused him of "injecting religion into the celebration of Christmas." She was evidently shocked to discover that Christmas is indeed a religious holiday.
  • Speaking of Huckabee, as an evangelical I appreciate his celebration of his Christian faith as part of his campaign. I wish that his policy positions were as conservative as his theology. More than that, I worry that there is a fuzzy line between highlighting faith in Christ as part of who a candidate is and using that faith as a means for gaining votes.
  • Has there ever been anything more exciting than Christmas when you are a kid? I am experiencing again the joy of Christmas as I celebrate it with my kids.
  • Snow should be permissible in the Midwest from Thanksgiving until December 31st. After that, it should be 60 degrees again.
  • During the '92 campaign, when Bill Clinton lost big in Iowa, but came close in New Hampshire, he hailed himself as "the comeback kid." The Comeback Kid went on to win the nomination and the presidency. With Hilary apparently floundering in Iowa (at least, according to the most recent polls), are we to look forward to "The Comeback Kid, Part II"?
  • And speaking of Hilary, why has she not, after 6 years in the Senate, learned to tone down that distinctive Nurse Ratched quality she exudes with every public utterance?
  • Virtually every county in Illinois is overpopulated with deer, contributing to a huge number of car accidents and massive crop losses each year. So why does the firearms season on deer only last for seven days?

Monday, December 10, 2007

It's all a statist plot!

At the risk of sounding paranoid, the following news item came across my eyes today:

"More proof that Daylight Saving Time is a sinister plot by statists to control our lives: Hugo Chavez just enacted his own DST plan for Venezuela."-John J. Miller, NRO

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A cancelled service

Today was the first time I can remember when I was schedule to preach and didn't. I mean, usually when I'm scheduled to preach, I'm like the Post Office-neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor dark of night, etc., etc. will keep me from my appointed preaching. I've preached before with the flu, literally going from throwing up to preaching 10 minutes later.

So I wasn't quite sure what to do today. Not only was I not preaching, we didn't even have church. And I really can't remember the last time I was home and didn't go to church and worship. I was completely discombobulated. The cause of all this calamity? About 1/8" of ice that fell right around 8:00 a.m.

The upside of all of this was two-fold: One, I already have my sermon and Sunday School lesson for this week done, so that makes my week a whole lot simpler. And two, we had actual family devotions today. While we pray together several times daily, formal devotions have become pretty rare. But today, we got to have them. I read the Scriptures, Karen, the kids, and I all prayed together, and then we reviewed the story. It was a pretty cool way to spend the morning in the absence of worshiping together at church. Who knows? Maybe we'll even try to do this more regularly now that I know it isn't completly impossible with four kids age 6 and under.

Christmas reflections

As I watched our Christmas play, I couldn't help but reflect, even as I laughed and clapped, on a God who loves us too much to let us be separated from Him. How could that great Being come to us through a peasant girl's womb? More than that, why would He? I guess He wants us to know that He loves even the least of us more than we can fathom. But what humility! What amazing depth of love that not even the backwater peasants of the world's most hated people are forgotten by God.

And now, for something you'll really like...

I apologize to all fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle reading this for the title, but my last few posts have been a bit pessimistic about the world, and especially the world that my children will inherit. But tonight also had a lot to celebrate in it, for tonight was the Children's Christmas Program! This glorious affair had stage direction by Margie McCollough and music direction by Karen the Fair. The kids, as expected, did very well. They sang loud and well, remembered their lines, and were pretty cute (which, let's face it, is the main reason for having a Christmas program to begin with). John was awesome as Joseph and Sara and Ashley made excellent stars. Nate was too young to be in the program, but that did not prevent him from entertaining all those around us with his rendition of each of the songs (complete with motions!). I guess it's the price you pay for being in the music leader's family. I mean, after all, I never attended a single practice and I know all the songs by heart and every kid's lines.

My part in all of this festiveness was to watch Nathan (a bigger task than it might sound) and to share the Gospel at the end. I probably did better at one task than the other. But, it was a great way for me to continue looking forward to Christmas in the midst of the cold and ice that now coats everything outside. There's just something about kids and Christmas, after all, something that reminds you of the simple joy of celebrating Jesus and his coming. And that something, whatever it is, touched my soul this evening.

America Alone?

I've recently become a fan of Mark Steyn, who has long held forth on the dying of the West as a concept in Europe due to the very real death and decline of native Europeans there. Interestingly, as government there got bigger and bigger, the Church got smaller and smaller, as did European families. But an expanding population is required for the government to continue financing cradle-to-grave entitlements for all (such as France's annual six-week vacation for all workers and mandated 35 hour workweek). But where to get an expanding population when native Frenchmen aren't having enough children to replace themselves? Why, if we import people from Turkey and former African and Middle Eastern colonies, then that will fix it.

Problem is, these new immigrants are culturally unassimilated and often of Islamic faith, a dangerous combination in our modern world. If present trends continue, both continental Europe and Great Britain will be majority Islamic by 2030. And given the increasing radicalization of Europe's Muslims, what will that mean? I fear it will mean that America will find itself alone in the world, the sole defender of basic human rights, including freedom to convert to another faith without penalty (something Muslims in most countries cannot do, under penalty of death).

America Alone is the title of Mr. Steyn's book. In it, he gives detailed support to the views I have outlined above. He, along with the Candadian magazine Maclean's are currently being sued by a wealthy Saudi for "libel" for making these very points in a magazine article excerpting America Alone. The Canadian human rights council has agreed to take the case and review it for possible damages and the revocation of the right to publish the book, or excerpts thereof, in Canada. As always in these cases, the process is the punishment, even if you are eventually cleared.

Why is this an issue? Because Islamic radicals are, even now, in the absence of power and majority status using Western customs and laws to establish the functional equivalent of Islamic law, which proscribes the criticism of Islam or Muhammed. Incidents like this and the "teddy bear Muhammed" incident in Sudan recently are, I think showing us what the future will look like. And the future is scary precisely because many Americans are either too steeped in multiculturalism (anyone hear a feminist protest of the female teacher sentenced to 40 lashes for allowing her students to name the teddy bear?) or too afraid to resist. War has been declared, and it seems we are slow to recognize it, even though we are fighting Islamic radicalism in Iraq and elsewhere.

When the eventual open war comes, what will be the Christian response, I wonder? What should be the Christian response? Should Christians respond with love and missions work, as many here in the still-comfortable West assert? Or should Christians prepare for the reality that they may have to fight for their lives, as Christians have done in places like southern Sudan, Nigeria, and East Timor?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

But what's emerging?

The last post I wrote about the trends within Islam got me thinking about the trends within Christendom. While I think there is a lot to praise God about within world Christianity (unbelievable growth by conversion throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, for example), there's a lot about Christianity in the West that is deeply worrisome. And I fear that we are, in our day also experiencing a "new Reformation" of sorts. Only this time we are not going "back to the Bible." Instead, many of us in the American church are following the philosophy of our day (postmodernism) right off a cliff. We are putting our theology "up for grabs" in books like Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian and then wondering why the children we raise don't connect what we say we believe to how life choices are made (see George Barna's Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions for depressing evidence of this phenomenon). The name we are giving to this phenomenon is the Emerging Church.

But the question in my mind is this: Just what is emerging? From what I see it's more akin to the creature "emerging" from the guy's stomach in Alien (which first kills the host then grows to eat everyone but Sigourney Weaver) than it is like new flowers pushing up through the prior year's dead stems. To the extent the church goes in an "emergent" direction, to that extent it will diminish and die. For life isn't found in our culture, but in Christ and in deeper faithfulness to Him. Truth is found in the Bible, not in mystic spiritual experiences or "dialogue" with those from other faiths. If these convictions make me a theological obscurantist, so be it, but I fail to see the need for the Christian faith to "reform" in a way that takes us further away from, rather than closer to, the belief that Christ (as revealed in the Scriptures) gives us "everything we need for life and godliness" (2 Peter 1:3).

Okay, I feel better now. End of soapbox.

The Islamic Reformation

So I was reading a little of The Corner this week and found one of the back-and-forth exchanges there quite interesting. The thought was this: For some time now, lots of US pundits have been commenting on the need for an "Islamic Reformation," by which is usually meant some sort of reconsideration of the central tenets of the Islamic faith that causes Muslims to be more tolerant of modernity, more accepting of ideas like freedom of speech and the equality of women, a lot less "death to the infidels" and a lot more focus on personal faith in Allah. But what if the Islamic Reformation either already happened or is currently happening and what we are now experiencing is the results of it? In other words, what if Saudi Wahhabism and its fellow travelers are the result of the world's Muslims going "back to the Koran" in the same way that Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers went "back to the Bible"?

I'm inclined to think that is precisely what has happened. Despite what the President, Secretary Rice and other wishful thinkers have been saying since 9/11 about Islam being "the religion of peace" and "a few crazies that have hijacked a great religion" not being representative of "true Islam," I'm tending toward the belief that they have it precisely backward. That is, what we are witnessing is a modern Islamic revival of ancient Islamic faith and practice. Whereas not too many years ago most Muslims were "cultural" or "folk" believers more concerned about appeasing the jinn (evil spirits) than a pilgrimage to Mecca or engaging in jihad, it seems increasingly the case that Muslims around the world are awakening to the claims of their faith and taking them seriously. Which means that we in the West are in for a long, bumpy road, I think.