Friday, December 09, 2005
The fourth century pastor who inspired the tradition of Santa Claus, may not have lived at the North Pole or traveled by reindeer and sleigh but he certainly was a paradigm of graciousness, generosity, and Christian charity. Nicholas of Myra’s great love and concern for children drew him into a crusade that ultimately resulted in protective Imperial statutes banning child-abuse and abortion--statutes that remained in place in Byzantium for nearly a thousand years.
Though little is known of his childhood, he was probably born to wealthy parents at Patara in Lycia, a Roman province of Asia Minor. As a young man noted for his piety, judiciousness, and charity, he was chosen bishop of the then rundown diocese of Myra. There he became gained renown for his personal holiness, evangelistic zeal, and pastoral compassion. Early Byzantine histories reported that he suffered imprisonment and made a famous profession of faith during the persecution of Diocletian. He was also reputedly present at the Council of Nicaea, where he forthrightly condemned there heresy of Arianism--one story holds that he actually punched the heretic Arius in the nose. Ho, ho, ho!But it was his love for and care of children that gained him his greatest renown. Though much of what we know about his charitable work on behalf of the poor, the despised, and the rejected has been distorted by legend and lore over the centuries, it is evident that he was a particular champion of the downtrodden, bestowing upon them gifts as tokens of the grace and mercy of the Gospel.
One legend tells of how citizen of Patara lost his fortune, and because he could not raise dowries for his three young daughters, he was going to give them over to prostitution. After hearing this, Nicholas took a small bag of gold and threw it through the window of the man’s house on the eve of the feast of Christ’s Nativity. The eldest girl was married with it as her dowry. He performed the same gracious service for each of the other girls on each of the succeeding nights. The three purses, portrayed in art with the saint, were thought to be the origin of the pawnbroker’s symbol of three gold balls. But they were also the inspiration for Christians to begin the habit of gift giving during each of the twelve days of Christmas--from December 25 until Epiphany on January 6. In yet another legend, Nicholas saved several youngsters from certain death when he pulled them from a deep vat of vinegar brine--again, on the feast of the Nativity. Ever afterward, Christians remembered the day by giving one another the gift of large crisp pickles.
The popular cultural representation of St. Nicholas as Father Christmas or Santa Claus, though drawing on a number of such legends, was based primarily on a the Dutch custom of giving children presents--slipping fruits, nuts, and little toys into shoes or stockings drying along the warm hearthside--on his feast day, December 6. Throughout the rest of Europe during the Medieval Age, that day was marked by festively decorating homes and by a sumptuous feast that interrupted the general fasting of Advent. And in Scandanavia it was celebrated as a day of visitation, when the elders of all the remote country churches would bundle themselves in their thick furs and drive their sleighs laden with gift pastries through the snowy landscape to every home within the parish.
But perhaps more than any other sources, the advertising of soft drink manufacturer Coca Cola and the holiday cartoons of New York newspaperman Thomas Nash have profoundly shaped our perception. Coca Cola’s serving trays, signage, and print ads popularized the Nash caricature of a rotund, jolly, fur-draped, gift-laden, and unbidden visitor who pops down chimneys and distributes gifts to children all over the world. Alas, thus stripped of his pastoral function and parish proximity, Santa has become almost fairy-like in his mythic proportions.
Friday, December 02, 2005
"The Walt Disney Company and Walden Media are set to release The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on December 9 -- so get ready for a major cultural event. I'll provide much more material about the series, the movie, C. S. Lewis, and the cultural impact of this film in coming days. For now, I want to draw attention to two excellent articles published in the new edition of Reformation 21, the online journal of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals."
"In C.S. Lewis: Apologist with an Imagination, Andrew Hoffecker of Reformed Theological Seminary argues that the release of the movie offers a unique opportunity for theologically-minded evangelicals. In his words: The appearance of the Narnia stories in film in December, 2005 provides an opportunity for the Reformed community to reflect on our unique constitution as thinking, imaginative beings. Lewis viewed his task as an apologist to defend Christianity in two ways: by appealing to our rational capacity and to our imagination. Christianity is something to be assented to as true. It also something to be received imaginatively. Through his allegory, The Pilgrim's Regress we witness Lewis' "apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism." Though the recent plethora of works on Lewis do not often refer to it, the Regress will reward those interested in how Lewis refuted modern philosophies and worldviews and perhaps spur writers to take a try at Christian allegory. The Narnia chronicles, on the other hand, receive frequent attention. Seeing them as Christian fantasy reminds those of us who are able to take up Lewis' challenge and join him by creating additional imaginative stories which may work their way into the modern consciousness and thus help convert the modern mind."
"In Reading the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with C.S. Lewis, Leland Ryken of Wheaton College offers several points of interest and insight. Helpfully, Ryken the literary scholar demonstrates a keen theological insight as well: The theological themes of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are primarily three in number. The most important theological fact about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is its Christological focus. The figure of Aslan dominates our experience of the book, and Aslan, as every reader of the book knows, is representative of Christ. The redemptive acts of Aslan, coupled with his coming back to life after an atoning death, retell the story of Christ's passion and resurrection. This story of salvation history is told with theological precision and with a continuous eye on the Gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus."
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Gregory the Great served as the pastor of the city church in Rome from 590-604. Tomorrow morning I will be lecturing on this remarkable man and his remarkable heritage. He was of vital importance in the development of Christendom precisely because he forged the Roman bishop’s see into the formidable force of the Medieval papacy--indeed, before Gregory the pastors there were not yet called “popes” nor did their jurisdiction extend much beyond the city itself. There is much to admire in this man. And perhaps just as much to disdain. Like all men, he was a tangle of complexity and his legacy is not so easily summarized as most historians suppose.Though I have studied his life and legacy a good bit in the past (at least in survey), I had never read much of his writing. In fact, he left behind a substantial and varied literary heritage. His most ambitious work and one of the most popular works of Scriptural exegesis during the Medieval Age was the Moralia in Job. A vast and sprawling commentary on the book of Job in 35 books, it runs to over half a million words. The piety and humility of the work is quite profound--as this sample from the highly confessional last page of the text illustrates:
Now that I have finished this work, I see that I must return to myself. For our mind is much fragmented and scattered beyond itself, even when it tries to speak rightly. While we think of words and how to bring them out, those very words diminish the soul's integrity by plundering it from inside. So I must return from the forum of speech to the senate house of the heart, to call together the thoughts of the mind for a kind of council to deliberate how best I may watch over myself, to see to it that in my heart I speak no heedless evil nor speak poorly any good. For the good is well spoken when the speaker seeks with his words to please only the one from whom he has received the good he has. And indeed even if I do not find for sure that have spoken any evil, still I will not claim that I have spoken no evil at all. But if I have received some good from God and spoken it, I freely admit that I have spoken it less well than I should (through my own fault, to be sure). For when I turn inward to myself, pushing aside the leafy verbiage, pushing aside the branching arguments, and examine my intentions at the very root, I know it really was my intention to please God, but some little appetite for the praise of men crept in, I know not how, and intruded on my simple desire to please God. And when later, too much later, I realize this, I find that I have in fact done other than what I know I set out to do. It is often thus, that when we begin with good intentions in the eyes of God, a secret tagalong yen for the praise of our fellow men comes along, taking hold of our intentions from the side of the road. We take food, for example, out of necessity, but while we are eating, a gluttonous spirit creeps in and we begin to take delight in the eating for its own sake; so often it happens that what began as nourishment to protect our health ends by becoming a pretext for our pleasures. We must admit therefore that our intention, which seeks to please God alone, is sometimes treacherously accompanied by a less-righteous intention that seeks to please other men by exploiting the gifts of God. But if we are examined strictly by God in these matters, what refuge will remain in the midst of all this? For we see that our evil is always evil pure and simple, but the good that we think we have cannot be really good, pure and simple. But I think it worthwhile for me to reveal unhesitatingly here to the ears of my brothers everything I secretly revile in myself. As commentator, I have not hidden what I felt, and as confessor, I have not hidden what I suffer. In my commentary I reveal the gifts of God, and in my confession I uncover my wounds. In this vast human race there are always little ones who need to be instructed by my words, and there are always great ones who can take pity on my weakness once they know of it: thus with commentary and confession I offer my help to some of my brethren (as much as I can), and I seek the help of others. To the first I speak to explain what they should do, to the others I open my heart to admit what they should forgive. I have not withheld medicine from the ones, but I have not hidden my wounds and lacerations from the others. So I ask that whoever reads this should pour out the consolation of prayer before the strict judge for me, so that he may wash away with tears every sordid thing he finds in me. When I balance the power of my commentary and the power of prayer, I see that my reader will have more than paid me back if for what he hears from me, he offers his tears for me.
Sobering insights indeed for ministry, for writing, for life.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
- Our calendars are full, but our souls are empty.
- Meditation is the absorption of Scriptures
- Goal is not just to read the Bible, but to know God
- Jesus prohibits the repetitive prayer because we are prone to pray that way.
- Pray through your planned day
- To begin my day without any sense of the lord's will regarding my plans, or to begin my work without committing them to the Lord, reflects the same independence that brought sin into the world.
- Journaling assists in creating and preserving a spiritual heritage, in clarifying, articulating insights and impressions, in monitoring goals and priorities and in maintaining the other spiritual discipline.
- Develop the sound of silence
- Clarify your ambitions and you will simplify your life
- Computers do not upgrade intimacy with Jesus
- Take action to fulfill desires
- Contentment helps focus on right priority for life.
- Physical activity is a necessity of life.
Simple truths that can help in life.
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Today (July 10) is the anniversary of the birth of the pastor, theologian, and social reformer, John Calvin (1509-1564). His father, an attorney, made certain Jean received the best possible education—so, he attended the little Brethren of Common Life school in his hometown of Noyon in the Picardy region of France, just about sixty miles north of Paris. Later, he went to study in Orleans and Paris where he first began to explore the ideas of Luther’s nascent Protestant Reformation. He published the first edition of Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536, which propelled him as a thinker and spokesman to the forefront of Protestantism. Calvin made his first trip to Geneva that same year while on the way to Strasbourg. He was compelled to stay there (very much against his will) and helped to establish the church until he was asked to leave two years later (for which he was actually quite grateful and delighted). The next two years spent in Strasbourg pasturing under the tutelage of Martin Bucer were the happiest of his life. But, the city fathers in Geneva had a change of heart and in 1541 they persuaded Calvin to return to the city (much to his own dismay). The first Sunday he was back in the pulpit, he picked up exactly where he had left off two and a half years earlier—as if nothing had happened in the interval. He remained there the rest of his life. Laboring in the Word over the course of the next twenty-three years, he oversaw a dramatic reformation of the church and city—and ultimately, much of the rest of Western Europe. The transformation was stunning. As a result, liberty, opportunity, advancement, productivity, and innovation touched nearly every aspect of life and culture. Indeed, so great was Calvin’s influence that most modern historians (even those who despise his Biblical theology) have had to concede that he was the “virtual founder” of Western freedom and prosperity.
Sunday, May 15, 2005
The power of the courts is an ongoing topic of controversy and interest. All sides agree that great issues are at stake. Mark Levin’s recent book Men in Black is subtitled “How the Supreme Court is Destroying America.” Liberal Democrats, while not agreeing with Levin’s book, certainly see President Bush’s judicial nominees as threats to their vision of America. In fact, they are willing to shut down the government rather than bring these nominations to a vote. (Liberals willing to shut down the government?)There is much historical and constitutional debate over the power of the courts. But beyond the issue of power is the issue of influence. Even more important is the unintended influence of the courts. In the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, the Supreme Court overturned centuries of legal prohibitions against the abortion of infants. It may be that Roe v. Wade will mark the ending of the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517.For Protestant and Reformed Christians, the Reformation is a glorious time of Christian history. The boldness and convictions of Martin Luther continue to inspire the faithful. I love both the 1953 movie titled “Luther” and the more recent 2004 film version. Here I Stand by Roland Bainton remains one of my all time favorite books. Luther’s words, courage, and convictions continue to inspire many believers. And Luther was not alone. The age with brimming with theological geniuses, like John Calvin, Martin Bucer, John Knox, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer. These men not only changed Europe in the 16th century, but they shaped the theology of both America’s early history and my own spiritual awakening.Roman Catholicism throughout the Middle Ages was rich and complex in its transformation of European culture. But by the 1500s, indulgences, relics, the sale of church offices, and the corruption of the clergy were wrecking the Faith. In spite of the great works and writings of theologians, poets, and scholars, the drift of much church practice by Luther’s time was sharply downward. Internal reforms were inadequate: Erasmus is the prime example of a brilliant man who pointed out the abuses, but was powerless to effect internal reformation. Luther initially sought to cleanse the church through academic debate and parish preaching. He hoped his talking points—posted on the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517—would lead to productive debates within the scholarly community. From there, perhaps, the process of enlightenment and theological purification would seep throughout the church. But God used Luther as a catalyst that divided Christendom and put the Scriptural doctrines of grace at the forefront of the times. God turned an academician into a warrior.Calvin, even more than Luther, sought the quiet life of the scholar. From his studies of the ancient thinkers like Seneca, he turned to the study of theology. Instead of granting him a quiet nook in a library, God placed him right in the middle of a culture war in the thriving city of Geneva, Switzerland. The Catholic establishment had been overturned, but rival factions pitted a Biblical Christian commonwealth against a libertine ‘blue state’ mindset. Only the intellectual and spiritual force of Calvin was able to tilt the battle firmly toward the Christian side. In England, theologians and scholars grappled with having to weave reformational theology into the political pragmatism and marital roller coaster of Henry VIII. In Scotland, more political and theological issues converged in the efforts of John Knox and others to remove or control a despotic Catholic queen, Mary Stuart.In time, these issues continued to roil all of Europe, but especially in the northern countries. The theological upheavals of Europe during the 1500s provided much of the motivation for the new world migrations of the 1600s. Reformed Christians formed the bulk of the population that settled the shores of the English colonies in North America. Theological studies led to ecclesiastical and political convictions that were largely theoretical in the European setting. The newly cleared settlements in North America proved an ample proving ground for the ideas of the Reformation that animated and inspired the early colonists. David Hall’s magisterial book, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding, amply documents this story.The city on a hill that became America was strongly Protestant and Calvinistic. In time, the vision broadened to allow for greater freedom for Catholics and others to practice their beliefs. Still, Protestant and Catholic hostilities and suspicions remained in the history of American. Governor Al Smith of New York not only lost the presidency in 1928, but also lost portions of the traditionally Democrat solid South in that election due to his Catholicism. In 1960, John F. Kennedy eased the concerns of Protestants only after he promised a gathering of Baptists in Texas that his Catholic faith would not intrude upon his political activities. (Unfortunately, this campaign promise was fulfilled completely.)Efforts have been made between Protestants and Catholics to mend or overlook differences. The ecumenical movement sought unity at the expense of doctrinal differences, but the movement cast aside all vital doctrines in favor of unity. Neither Protestants of conviction or devout Catholics could tolerate that. Every effort to say that there are no real differences between the Catholic and Protestant theology, worship, and worldviews betrays convictions on both sides. Attempts have been made to promise not to proselytize each other’s congregations, but again that expectation for people who believe that truth exists is unrealistic.Two things have become clear over time. The religious wars of the 1600s that convulsed Europe were not exactly the greatest witness to Christian virtues of love and longsuffering, and any theological latitudarianism that blurs or denies the Reformation impulses is unacceptable. And then out of nowhere, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in start ending the rift.Much of the conflict of the Reformation hinged on the importance of the body of Christ. The term, the body of Christ, can be used to mean the actual body of Christ or His church. The Reformation battled over both. Was the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper the literal body of Christ offered up again and again as signified in the Roman Mass? Or was it a memorial and means of grace pointing to the once-for-all-time complete work of Christ as emphasized by the Protestants? (This is an over-simplification, since Protestants began the process of infinite divisions over doctrine in their disputes over the sacraments.) Likewise, was the body of Christ, meaning the church, that organization represented by the pope as Christ’s representative on earth? Or was the body of Christ truly represented by assemblies of believers who faithfully ministered the Word, sacraments, and discipline?Books and pamphlets poured forth on all sides of the issues. Kings raised banners and called together armies to enforce conformity and ward off heretics. Parliaments debated theology. Merchants packed religious tracts in shipments of fish and beer. Bible verses were quoted; church fathers were cited; and swords were brandished. It was of such grandeur and strife of the Reformation that one can apply W.B. Yeats’ phrase “and a terrible beauty was born.” Nearly five hundred years later, it is hard for a Bible totin’ Calvinist to minimize the price paid for our theological heritage. But between 1517 and 1973, a lot of things changed.Catholics and Protestants believed the body of Christ was important—in whatever sense the term was used. Then in the 1800s, a secular humanist worldview emerged out of the darker forces of the Enlightenment and became manifest with the advent of Darwinian naturalism. Every ideology it spawned, whether nihilism, communism, or higher critical theology, shared a hatred and an antithesis toward historic Christianity. Modernity rejected the Protestant affirmation of the authority of Scripture, but it also rejected the Catholic affirmation of the authority of the church. Creedal Christianity, absolute truth, doctrinal standards, and the like were all rejected by the spirit of the modern age. God was, in the paradigms of the moderns, either dead or irrelevant or unknowable or as much a product of chance and change as we were. As has been frequently said, philosophers rejected belief in God in the 19th century and then rejected belief in man in the 20th. On both counts, the modern unbelieving mindset rejected the incarnate God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ. The formulations of Nicea and Chalcedon were the mythological equivalents of the rulings of Zeus and the pantheon of Greek gods on Mount Olympus.The modern age moved from rejecting belief in God to rejecting the historic Jesus to rejecting the infant in the womb. The old philosophical question of the meaning of life was suddenly answered: Life begins when the Supreme Court says it begins and it exists at the whim and fancy of the court. So the safety and inviolability of the womb was violated. A mother-to-be became an arbiter of life or death. Personal convenience replaced motherly obligations. “I’m going to be a mother” was replaced with “My freedom is threatened.” Less often noticed was the destruction of the father’s role. The traditional leader and defender of the family had no say in the destruction of his offspring before birth. In time, even grandparents were removed when parental notification of a girl’s abortion was denied.From fighting over the body of Christ to fighting for the bodies of infants, Catholics and Protestants have been reminded of common beliefs. The world changed when a baby was born in Bethlehem. If Jesus was both God and man, then issues of human life and of truth and morality must all be referenced around His revelation in Word and deed. If He were simply man, then our philosophy classes can resume the question of whether our lives have any meaning or not. But if He is God, then both Catholic and Protestant is obliged to hear and follow Him. Despite a host of differences on other issues, Catholics and Bible-believing Protestants stand together on the doctrine of the Incarnation. Hence, Jesus called upon His followers in 1973 to stand together for the truth.Already the Left is redefining the late Pope John Paul II, just as the Left redefined the late President Reagan. Liberals study history not to learn what happened in the past, but as a tool for promoting a future agenda. Dogmatism with a congenial personality and a winning smile may not win your enemies over while you are alive, but those characteristics will enable them to redefine you after you are gone. If only, we are told, Joseph Ratzinger could be as open to the times as was John Paul II; if only, President Bush could be a statesman like Reagan; if only Paul could echo the true spirit of Jesus.The humanists, the relativists, the merchants of death, the haters of tradition, and the enemies of Christ all have need to worry. Fragmentation has been the miserable hallmark of Protestantism. We Calvinists are often the worst promoters of ‘divide instead of conquer.’ Indifference and unbelief have captured vast segments of the Catholic Church. Revival in both camps is still needed and true reformation of both theologies is ever to prayed for. Real substantial doctrinal issues will divide us for the morning hours each Sunday. But the times seem to point to greater unity on common social issues. All this bodes ill for the city of man and revives hope for the City of God. We might have a bit of a cause for some cautious, long-term optimism.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Necessity of Honor
Text: Ephesians 6:1 – 3
The foundational principle of living a godly life is to honor your father and mother.
A. The apostle Paul quotes the 5th commandment and the first commandments of how we relate to one another given by the Lord to Moses.
Exodus 20:12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
Paul uses the imperative verb form – this indicates that it is a command.
Singular – it is an individual requirement of life – it is not a corporate responsibility – a church is only corporately faithful when we are individually faithful to the word of God.
Oswald Chambers says of the passage "add to your faith virtue" (2 Peter 1:5). “Add” means there is something we have to do. We are in danger of forgetting that we cannot do what God does, and that God will not do what we can do. We cannot save ourselves nor sanctify ourselves, God does that; but God will not give us good habits, He will not give us character, He will not make us walk aright. We have to do all that ourselves, we have to work out the salvation God has worked in. “Add” means to get into the habit of doing things, and in the initial stages it is difficult. To take the initiative is to make a beginning, to instruct yourself in the way you have to go.
It is really critical that we take the initiative. No one else is going to do the work for us. We have been given life through Jesus Christ. We are to live that life out. That means getting up and getting after what needs to be done. The greatest danger we face is sloth (emptiness about life that leads to laziness). We are never to let life overwhelm us, but realizes that Christ lives in us and we are called to live out the life that He lives in us. It is time to get up and get after life by the power of God.
Monday, May 09, 2005
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The 5,200-pound slab of granite bearing a replica of the Ten Commandments rests in isolated splendor, set off by red and blue nylon sheets, on a flatbed truck parked on the front lawn of a church.
It's not just any church, either. Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church is a signature evangelical congregation in southern Florida — its gleaming white, 303-foot steeple visible for miles around.
Justice Moore's monument is something of a piece de resistance in the renewed effort by Christians and others of faith to preserve the place of the Almighty in the public square.
On this February day, the Commandments in granite is a top attraction of the annual "Reclaiming America for Christ" conference that drew 942 faithful to Coral Ridge Presbyterian, also stop No. 130 on the monument's nationwide tour. During breaks, conferees surround the slab, taking pictures and admiring the Bible verses and patriotic quotes inscribed on all four sides.
They recall the federal court order in 2003 that the monument be removed because it violates the Constitution's prohibition "against the establishment of religion." They talk about how fellow justices had to sue to remove the defiant Justice Moore — whom they consider a godly man — from office.
Inside the palm tree-ringed church, Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention, preaches on "A God-Blessed America: How It Could Happen and What It Could Look Like."
Loosed from its biblical moorings, Mr. Land tells the assembly that "a pagan America" can only become home to a legion of ills: harvests of fetal tissue and eggs from women's bodies, marriage redefined as any union with a variety of partners, single-parent families as the norm, a low age of consent for child-adult sex, hard-core porn on television.
Change will come when "a certain percentage of American Christians known only to God humble themselves and pray," Mr. Land says. "He will lean over from heaven and pour out a blessing, not only on Christians, but on non-Christian and Christian alike."
In such a "God-blessed America," he says, streets and schools would be safe, divorce and illegitimate children would be rare, and the elderly would live with their families and not in nursing homes.
"In an American society that preaches Judeo-Christian values, rooted in biblical theology, not all will be Christian, but they can at least live according to [shared] values," Mr. Land concludes.
The conference, designed to energize Christian activists, is the work of the Center for Reclaiming America (CRA), an eight-year-old public-policy group founded by Coral Ridge.
For two days, participants hear the words of rising stars in the politically active arm of American evangelicalism. One is the Rev. Rick Scarborough, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Pearland, Texas, and founder of Vision America, which seeks to involve pastors in public policy debates.
"All God is waiting for is for the church to show up," Mr. Scarborough says, in a message that earns him a standing ovation.
This series has examined the legal battles against religion in public life waged by a network of organizations that includes humanists, atheists and radical feminists as well as liberal or secular Jews and Christians.
The clashes highlight a growing determination of religious conservatives to stand firm for the Judeo-Christian principles of the nation's founding. People of faith are confronting the gathering tide of secularism and a coarser culture in a variety of ways.
A loose coalition of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics worked for President Bush's re-election in 11 battleground states, helping to make "moral values" a front-burner topic. Such activism is an essential part of any campaign to "reclaim" America "from those who have used the courts primarily to divorce America from her moral heritage," CRA spokesman John Aman says.
"We won the White House on pro-family values," explains Gary Cass, the group's new executive director, "but we're losing in the courts" on those same values.
But, he adds: "Since the late 1980s, the conservative movement has become more organized, better funded and more sophisticated. We're not going away. There is too much at stake for our children and grandchildren."
Mr. Cass, 48, moved to Fort Lauderdale last summer to add some muscle to the Center for Reclaiming America after pastoring churches in the San Diego area, serving on a school board there and recruiting evangelical Christians to run for office.
His group's Web site, www.reclaimamerica.org, is loaded for action. A string of petitions ranges from "Defund Planned Parenthood" to "Free Our Churches." The latter refers to a bill before Congress that would allow religious organizations — including pastors — to support or oppose political candidates without losing their tax-exempt status. Elsewhere are pleas for donations, lists of rallies and details on reaching Congress.
Another feature of the Web site is "A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing," an expose of the American Civil Liberties Union illustrated by a photo of a snarling wolf. The copy describes ACLU-inspired lawsuits and the organization's "war against religion."
The center last summer formed a lobbying group, Liberty's Voice, to be based in Washington and go head to head with the ACLU in disputes over religious liberty.
The group hopes to put a policy activist in 12 regional offices across the country. Another goal is to field activists in every congressional district, beginning with the key Electoral College states of Florida and Ohio.
Mr. Cass says his goal this year is to raise $2 million, including $1.2 million to finance the lobbying group and three other initiatives: media outreach, an online campaign called National Grassroots Alliance and a think tank, the Strategic Institute.
The Strategic Institute, with a staff of five analysts, expects to enter the debate on pornography, homosexual activism, the creation-evolution divide and "life" issues such as abortion and stem-cell research. First to sign on is Kelly Hollowell, 40, a Virginia Beach patent attorney who taught bioethics at the University of Richmond and Regent University in Virginia Beach.
The National Grassroots Alliance began in 2001 as a lobby for Senate confirmation of John Ashcroft as President Bush's first attorney general. It now has an e-mail list of 400,000 names. Over two days in late February, 107,000 of them appeared on an online petition appealing for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to save the life of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who would die of starvation March 31 after her husband successfully sought to have her feeding tube removed.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is doing his part from Louisville, Ky., as a leading American evangelical and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
In the past three years, Mr. Mohler dramatically increased his output of Internet and radio commentaries and newspaper op-ed pieces on topics such as stem-cell research, same-sex "marriage," human cloning and the definition of the family.
"There was an entire constellation of issues that demanded attention," Mr. Mohler, 45, says in an interview. "I wanted to mobilize Christians to become intellectually engaged and politically aware."
Across the country, evangelicals are forming a potent alliance, says Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a watchdog group in Washington that monitors the religious left.
"Not just evangelicals, but Catholics, too, have some political clout and are getting respect," Mrs. Knippers says. "Some people in the Democratic Party are having to pay attention to us. They've realized they've overlooked an important constituency. A lot of people think it's wrong to have an entirely secularized society, with no room for acknowledging God.
"There's a quiet determination to draw the line," she says. "The religious left is all smoke and mirrors. In terms of the religious landscape right now, the initiative is ours."
Christians in court
Modern Christian legal activism got its start in 1982, when a 36-year-old lawyer named John Whitehead founded the Rutherford Institute.
Mr. Whitehead's initial investment was $200; he now operates with a $2.5 million annual budget. He asks a network of more than 500 lawyers to work pro bono on one case a year involving religious liberties.
"When I first started Rutherford, there was no cohesive litigation strategy," Mr. Whitehead, now 58, says from his home in Charlottesville. "A lot of these Christian lawyers thought, 'Would Jesus go file a lawsuit?' and they were debating this issue constantly.
"My main emphasis was [that] even if you lose, litigation often has great education value."
The Rutherford Institute gained new prominence in 1997, when it helped Paula Jones file a sexual-harassment and discrimination lawsuit against President Clinton.
Its recent court victories include decisions allowing prayer and other religious expression at the Alamo in Texas and permitting an 11-year-old Muslim girl to wear a head covering to an Oklahoma public school.
Another Virginia lawyer, Jay Sekulow of Virginia Beach, started going to court in the mid-'80s on behalf of religious liberty and the rights of Christians.
Today Mr. Sekulow, 48, is chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a District-based constitutional law firm. The Rev. Pat Robertson, the religious broadcaster, founded the center in 1990 as a Christian answer to the ACLU.
Mr. Sekulow successfully argued several cases before the Supreme Court to protect the free speech of pro-life demonstrators and allow public school students to form Bible clubs on campus.
The pivotal shift in strategic momentum for the center, Mr. Sekulow says, came when he stopped arguing from the establishment clause of the First Amendment that he views as guaranteeing free exercise of religion. He began arguing instead on free speech grounds against religious discrimination.
Both lawyers say they are optimistic, though cautious, about the future of religious liberties.
The country is seeing a "growing, strong, serious movement" of Christians, Jews and Muslims who are open and uncompromising about their faith, Mr. Whitehead says, even if that could spark a "backlash" in the public square.
Mr. Sekulow says much rides on the outcome of the "constitutional showdown" in the Senate over Democratic filibustering of President Bush's judicial nominees.
"This is going to impact every cultural issue we have right now because of the increased role the courts are taking," Mr. Sekulow says. "The next month is going to be the key month."
Separating church and state is in the interest of American pluralism, ACLU President Nadine Strossen argues. "Many people with deeply held religious beliefs don't want the government to interfere by having government sponsorship," she says in an interview.
"I fear the removal of the Judeo-Christian foundation of our society," Dennis Prager, a conservative Jew, wrote in his syndicated column after the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted last May to remove a tiny cross from the county seal because the Southern California ACLU threatened to sue. "This is the real battle of our time, indeed the civil war of our time. The left wants America to become secular like Western Europe, not remain the Judeo-Christian country it has always been."
Binyamin Jolkovsky, editor of the Web site JewishWorldReview.com, argues that the ACLU and other civil liberties groups act counter to Jewish principles in efforts they depict as protecting minority religions.
"Jews who take their Judaism seriously don't want God taken out of the public square," Mr. Jolkovsky says.
A loose network of conservative Protestant, Catholic and Jewish groups coalesced during the 2004 election season not only to send Mr. Bush back to the White House but to add Republican seats in both the House and Senate.
Shortly afterward, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority in 1979, announced that he would restart his pioneering organization to take on new challenges.
Mr. Falwell is re-entering the fray after a reawakening over the past decade of a theologically conservative movement in which religious groups quietly help, advise and emulate each other.
In early March, for instance, the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., a Catholic answer to the ACLU, sent out a fundraising letter that, with a few minor changes, could have come from the Center for Reclaiming America.
"America's greatness lies in our Christian roots," the letter reads. "To a great extent, the key to maintaining those Christian roots depends on the ability of the [Catholic] Church and our bishops to proclaim the truth on the great moral issues of our time. Our enemies at the ACLU and elsewhere know this as well."
The move to counter the secular left also has the attention of Christian leaders who are black. Some brokered first-time alliances during the recent election season with white evangelicals over the issue of same-sex "marriage."
The Rev. Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Lanham joined other black pastors in Los Angeles in February to announce a "Black Contract With America on Moral Values," with the goal of promoting socially conservative legislation.
"Some of us in the evangelical community have been painted as mean-spirited and inarticulate," Mr. Jackson told 153 evangelical leaders during a March 10 gathering at the Hart Senate Office Building. Disarming such perceptions is simple, he said, adding: "The black community, with its needs, would team with the white evangelical community, with its power. We can change the way America thinks about religion."
From his vantage point in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Mohler agrees that more Americans are mobilizing against secularism but also has a warning.
"Some on the left are negotiating a way to use Christian language while keeping their liberal commitments," he says. "Evangelicals need to be more sophisticated in terms of looking past the language to what proposals are being offered."
Mr. Mohler intends to alert his audiences to such hidden hazards.
"Whether it's too little or too late is yet to be seen," he says. "Millions of Americans are awakening to the fact that something significant has happened in American society and unless they do something, the very future of the American experiment is threatened."
• Staff writer Jon Ward and researcher John Sopko contributed to this report.
Monday, March 21, 2005
Natan Sharansky Makes the Case for Democracy
President George W. Bush is recommending a book these days, and the President's new literary interest has caught the attention of the world press. President Bush is recommending Natan Sharansky's new book, The Case for Democracy, and he has made frequent references to Sharansky and his book, telling audiences that Sharansky's argument represents "how I feel" and how he thinks.
This is a remarkable turn of events for both Sharansky and Bush. Natan Sharansky first gained international attention in the 1970s as he served alongside Soviet scientist Andrei Sakarov in a struggle against the repressive Communist regime. Sharansky would eventually become one of the most famous dissidents in the Soviet Union, and would spend years in the Communist gulags. Now, Sharansky serves as a minister in the Israeli government, holding a post in the cabinet of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharansky's transformation from Soviet prisoner to Israeli government minister frames part of the background for his new book. But Sharansky is not only looking backward at his own remarkable story, but forward to a world marked by growing democracy and expanding freedom.
Sharansky, aided by journalist Ron Dermer, has written one of the most thoughtful and interesting treatises for our times. His own liberation from the Soviet gulag came after President Ronald Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, warning him that "as long as you keep him and other political prisoners locked up, we will not be able to establish a relationship of trust."
Within months, Gorbachev's aspirations for a thaw in world opinion would lead him to release Sharansky, but only after attempting to package his release as part of a "spy exchange" between the East and West. The Americans would not play this game, and Sharansky was eventually set free 30 minutes before the official exchange of spies. Within hours of his release, Sharansky was in Jerusalem, warmly greeted by thousands of Israelis at the Western Wall. "In a few hours, I had ascended from hell to paradise," Sharansky recalled, "from the grim reality of evil to the fantasy world of my imagination."
Sharansky's new book arrives as at least two generations of Americans have come to maturity with little knowledge of the Cold War and the terrors it represented. Sharansky will have nothing to do with the moral relativism of the political left. Like President Bush, he describes the war between freedom and tyranny as a struggle between good and evil. When it came to the Soviet Union, Sharansky knew the evil he faced. "The evil was a totalitarian regime that had killed tens of millions of its own subjects, and ruled an empire of fear by repressing all dissent for over half a century."
From within the bowels of the tortuous Soviet prison system, Sharansky was frustrated by American liberals who served as apologists for the Soviet regime. Furthermore, he and his fellow dissidents were also frustrated by American foreign policy experts of the "realist" school, who advised successive American administrations that the Communist world must be tolerated and cajoled, rather than confronted and destroyed. The foreign policy of "containment" marked presidential administrations from Harry S. Truman to Jimmy Carter, including both Republican and Democratic presidents. Only the arrival of President Ronald Reagan changed the equation--and Reagan's refusal to accept Communism as a permanent reality changed the situation utterly.
Sharansky is not reluctant to name names. Though he offers a gesture of respect to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Sharansky criticizes Kissinger as "the foremost champion of detente" and "a devoted pupil of the realist school of foreign policy" who "immediately went to work doing what realists do: de-emphasizing the ideological and moral dimension of foreign policy."
Sharansky and his fellow dissidents wanted merely to taste freedom, and to claim freedom on behalf of their fellow citizens. "We all wanted to live in a free society. And despite our sometimes contradictory visions of the future, the dissident experience enabled all of us to agree on what freedom meant: A society is free if people have a right to express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm."
Even from within the belly of the Soviet beast, Sharansky and his fellow prisoners knew that the Soviet Union was destined to self-destruct or collapse. "A regime based on fear must maintain increasingly tight control over its population to remain in power," Sharansky explains, "and such control inevitably triggers a process of decay. Outward signs of this decay may take some time to emerge. In fact, if a fear society is blessed with abundant natural resources, the society may prosper even when the process of internal dissolution is well underway. This is what occurred during the middle decades of the twentieth century in the Soviet Union."
In the prisons, the inmates would communicate with each other by tapping on the walls in Morse code, or talking through toilets after the bowls had been drained of water. Reports of a collapse in the Soviet economy offered threads of hope to the beleaguered prisoners. Above all, news of the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States offered the prisoners hope. When Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the "evil empire," the word spread rapidly through the walls and plumbing of the Soviet prisons. "The dissidents were ecstatic," Sharansky remembers. "Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth--a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us."
Armed with his experience in the Soviet gulags and his more recent years as an Israeli official, Sharansky calls the world to moral clarity and admonishes nations that they must follow a foreign policy of principle and morality, not merely of "realism" in policy.
Sharansky poses the reality like this: "The great debate of my youth has returned. Once again the world is divided between those who are prepared to confront evil and those who are willing to appease it. And once again, the question that ultimately separates members of the two camps remains this: Do you believe in the power of freedom to change the world?"
Sharansky divides the world's nations into two categories--the free societies and the fear societies. A free society allows dissent and genuine liberty, passing what Sharansky calls the crucial "town square test." According to this test, a society is free if its citizens can speak their minds freely in the town square without fear of arrest, harassment, or worse.
The fear societies are those nations that operate by fear and protect their own interests by intimidation, torture, or even the threat of death. "The power of a fear society is never based solely on an army and a secret police," Sharansky argues. "As important is a regime's ability to control what is read, said, heard, and above all, thought. This is how a regime based on fear attempts to maintain a constant pool of true believers."
Tracing a tragic pattern of Western naivete and complicity with dictatorial regimes, Sharansky warns that a "failure to appreciate the inherent belligerency of all nondemocratic regimes results in the dangerous illusion that they can serve as reliable allies in preserving international peace and stability." With his warning, Sharansky argues that fear societies, whether of the right or the left, cannot be trusted as allies, regardless of the admonitions of the foreign policy realists.
"Freedom's skeptics must understand that the democracy that hates you is less dangerous than the dictator who loves you," Sharansky asserts. "Indeed, it is the absence of democracy that represents the real threat to peace. The concept of the friendly dictator is a figment of our imagination because the internal dynamics of nondemocratic rule will always require external enemies. Today, the dictator's enemy may be your enemy. But tomorrow, his enemy may be you."
There can be no mistaking Sharansky's intended point--in the context of the War on Terror, he is advising America and other Western nations that autocratic Arab regimes like the government of Saudi Arabia cannot be trusted as reliable allies. Much like the Communists in the Soviet Union, the royal house of Saudi Arabia is propped up by a regime of fear, he claims, and as such it will inevitably fall of its own weight.
During his prison years, Sharansky believed that the West must have lacked the strength to confront the Soviet reality. After his release, Sharansky found out that the problem "was not that the West lacked the power to spread freedom around the world, but that it lacked the will."
Accordingly, Sharansky's appreciation for President Ronald Reagan is directly attributable to Reagan's determined refusal to accept the Soviet reality. Sharansky's appreciation for Reagan is understandable and eloquent. "Today, it is fashionable to believe that the Soviet Union would have collapsed regardless of who sat in the White House or which policies were adopted in Washington," Sharansky acknowledges. "In this view, Reagan was simply lucky, a man in the right place at the right time who benefited from an inexorable historical process. Nothing could be further from the truth. Had Reagan chosen to cooperate with the Soviet regime rather than compete with it, accommodate it rather than confront it, the hundreds of millions of people he helped free would still be living under tyranny."
Similarly, Sharansky sees President George W. Bush as a man of moral clarity who is willing to risk his own political future for the cause of freedom. Shortly after the November 2, 2004 elections, Sharansky visited Condoleeza Rice's office in the West Wing. Rice, then President Bush's National Security Adviser, told Sharansky that she was reading his book "because the president is reading it, and it's my job to know what the president is thinking."
Later that afternoon, Sharansky found himself in the Oval Office, talking about his book with the president. Sharansky later recalled what he said to President Bush: "I told the president, 'There is a great difference between politicians and dissidents. Politicians are focused on polls and the press. They are constantly making compromises. But dissidents focus on ideas. They have a message burning inside of them. They would stand up for their convictions no matter what the consequences.' I told the president, 'In spite of all the polls warning you that talking about spreading democracy in the Middle East might be a losing issue--despite all the critics and the resistance you faced--you kept talking about the importance of free societies and free elections. You kept explaining that democracy is for everybody. You kept saying that only democracy will truly pave the way to peace and security. You, Mr. President, are a dissident among the leaders of the free world.'"
A division of all the world's nations into fear societies and free societies is inescapably reductionistic, but it is also a helpful exercise in moral clarity. Sharansky's "town square test" is a common sense standard virtually all persons can understand. Free societies demonstrate and prove their commitment to freedom by allowing dissent, protecting the rights of citizens, and accepting limitations on state power. The Case for Democracy is an important book for these times, and Sharansky's treatise on liberty and foreign policy should remind the United States and all Western nations that we cannot do business with dictators without compromising our own integrity and national security.
The saddest aspect of Sharansky's book is his recitation of Western failures to confront Communism and defend liberty. Sadder still would be our refusal to learn the lessons of the past as America confronts the challenges of the present. Read The Case for Democracy in order to understand how the Bush administration intends to confront tyranny as it fights the War on Terror. Sharansky's argument is honored where it matters most.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
His servants ye are to whom ye obey. Romans 6:16.
The first thing to do in examining the power that dominates me is to take hold of the unwelcome fact that I am responsible for being thus dominated because I have yielded. If I am a slave to myself, I am to blame for it because at a point away back I yielded myself to myself. Likewise, if I obey God I do so because I have yielded myself to Him.
Yield in childhood to selfishness, and you will find it the most enchaining tyranny on earth. There is no power in the human soul of itself to break the bondage of a disposition formed by yielding. Yield for one second to anything in the nature of lust (remember what lust is: ‘I must have it at once,’ whether it be the lust of the flesh or the lust of the mind), once yield and though you may hate yourself for having yielded, you are a bond-slave to that thing. There is no release in human power at all, but only in the Redemption. You must yield yourself in utter humiliation to the only One Who can break the dominating power, viz., the Lord Jesus Christ. “He hath anointed Me . . . to preach deliverance to the captives.”
We find this out in the most ridiculously small ways—‘Oh, I can give that habit up when I like.’ You cannot, you will find that the habit absolutely dominates you because you yielded to it willingly. It is easy to sing—“He will break every fetter,” and at the same time be living a life of obvious slavery to yourself. Yielding to Jesus will break every form of slavery in any human life.
Simple Thought - You are responsible for how you act - you cannot break your faults because you do not want to break them. We either yield to Jesus or to ourselves. It's your choice!
Monday, March 14, 2005
I received this email today - it is great insight into the church position in dealing with homosexuality.
“Homosexuality and the Challenge to the Church”
John H. Armstrong
The present issue of homosexuality, in particular the matter of homosexual practice, threatens the church’s confession and unity in our time like few issues in the entire history of Christian faith and practice. This might seem to be a bold and daring statement at first but the facts that support it are growing on a daily basis.
When all is said and done, this issue comes down to two simple questions. First, shall we ordain practicing, non-celibate, homosexuals to the ministry of the gospel? And, second, shall we accept into the membership of our churches homosexuals who will not commit themselves to a lifestyle that forbids the pursuit of this sexual lifestyle?
The issue that weighs like a heavy albatross upon a number of mainline churches at this moment is the one of ordination. One has to be asleep to not know that the Episcopal Church (USA) consecrated an open and practicing homosexual bishop in the fall of 2003. This ecclesiastical approval of an aberrant and unchristian lifestyle has shocked the worldwide Anglican community into serious action. Just last week leaders of the worldwide Anglican communion, from the southern hemisphere nations, issued a communiqué that calls for the specific repentance of the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada. If these two historic church communions do not repent of their actions, then the Anglican Church will remove them from the international communion of this church. This action would be both tragic and historic. It will also send a proper signal to a half dozen other groups presently pursuing the same agenda.
At the same time, several major church bodies in America (e.g., the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church USA) are at various stages of debate about accepting same-sex marriage and ordination of ministers who live in same-sex unions. And the Reformed Church in America recent ly had a leader perform a same-sex marriage that will undoubtedly embroil it in a controversy that is just getting started. What do we say to these attempts to rewrite Christian ethics and theology?
Many conservatives sit on the sidelines and complain that all of this is happening precisely because these respective church communions are no longer real churches anyway. Without going into the shallow basis for such an unhelpful, if not arrogant, judgment we need to consider this matter more soberly and without condemnation. Those who are in the more conservative communions should pray for their brothers and sisters in the whole church while they also make sure that they consider the sin that is crouching at their own door. When I see the record of many very conservative churches on sexual sins among their own ministers I am appalled and dismayed. Perhaps we should remove the log from our own eye before we criticize others for the speck that is in theirs.
J. I. Packer gave an address some months ago titled: “A ‘No’ to Same Sex Unions.” In it he explained why he walked out of the synod of the Anglican diocese of New Westminster in June of 2002. In the section called, “why I walked out,” Dr. Packer wrote:
In one sentence my answer is: because this decision, taken in its context, falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth (italics mine).
I do not think it can be said much more clearly and faithfully than that. Packer went on to say that he wrote this statement on the authority of the apostle Paul himself. He then asks a series of questions directed to Paul based upon his counsel in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. These three questions are worth our consideration.
1. What is Pau l taking about in this vice list?
Answer: Lifestyles, regular behavior patterns, habits of mind and action. Not single lapses, followed by repentance, forgiveness and greater watchfulness, with God’s help against recurrence, but ways of life in which readers are set, believing that there is no harm in them.
2. What is Paul saying about these habits?
Answer: They are ways of sin, which, if not repented of and forsaken, will keep people out of God’s kingdom of salvation. Clearly self-indulgence, freedom from self-denial, is the attitude they express and thus a lack of oral discernment from the heart.
3. What is Paul saying about homosexuality here?
Answer: The practice of same-sex physical relationships, on the model of intercourse, should be eschewed by all who are Christ’s followers. There are two words here. The first is arsenakoitai, whic h literally means male-bedders. The second is malakoi, which literally means unmanly, womanish, and refers to males playing the woman’s role in physical sexual relationship. It is most important to note that Paul is speaking of physical action, not inclination.
What then is Paul saying about the gospel?
Answer: Those who cast themselves on Christ in the gospel and so receive the Holy Spirit, as all Christians do (Galatians 3:2), find transformation.
It needs to be admitted, before we go any further, that the issue here is not simply homosexuality. The issue is really sexual infidelity of all kinds. My own treatment of this issue, in the book The Stain That Stays, seeks to grapple with this very issue in both profound and faithful ways. I remain amazed at how reactive many evangelical Christians are to my thesis that sexually promiscuous ministers should be removed from pastoral office and kept out of the ministry for the foreseeable future. The fact that sexual compromise, with regard to the ministry of the gospel, has been going on for well over a generation seems lost on many conservative people. And furthermore, the present conflict is simply a reflection of the ground that we gave up since the 1960s.
A task force of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States, in its 190th General Assembly (1978), issued a paper titled, “The Church and Homosexuality.” This paper states very well my own conclusion to the question of homosexual ordination.
To be an ordained officer is to be a human instrument, touched by divine powers but still an earthen vessel. As portrayed in Scripture, the officers set before the church and community an example of piety, love, service, and moral integrity. Officers are not free from repeated expressions of sin. Neither are members and officers free to adopt a lifestyle of conscious, continuing, and unresisted sin in any area of their lives. For the church to ordain a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person to ministry would be to act in contradiction to its charter and calling in Scripture setting in motion both within the church and society serious contradictions to the will of Christ.
But there is a second major question that the church must face in this present sexual revolution. What about membership in the church? Should homosexuals be removed from the visible community of the church by discipline? Or, should they be kept out of the church in the first place if leaders know they are practicing this sinful lifestyle during the process of membership application?
Here the standard does not fundamentally change, but the application of it must be pastorally administered with very specific wisdom and deep congregational sensitivity. A confession of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ does not mean that one’s lifestyle is perfect. A person who falls, confesses their sin, falls yet again, and then falls even yet again, is not to be driven away. Jesus came to save sinners. He came not to condemn but to restore. If the church is a hospital for sinners, and not simply a haven for saints, then we had best rethink how we p ractice discipline, both positively and negatively. I do not deny that discipline is needed in the modern church. In fact, its absence is destroying many of our congregations. But discipline is much more than kicking people out of the church or keeping them out. And this is one area where the record of even the early Christian church was not always commendable. (At many points in history the church was unable, or even unwilling, to restore certain types of morally fallen people.) I believe New Testament professor, Marion L. Soards, is right when he concludes:
While the church cannot offer approval of homosexual activity, the church can also not deny the validity of faith in less-than-perfect humans. . . . If there is no demand for approval of homosexual activity, there is no reason to deny church membership to the homosexual who takes her or his place along with other forgiven sinners in the corporate body of Christ (italics mine, Scripture & Homosexuality , 76).
Now, you must read the above statement very carefully. Dr. Soards is not saying (as I read him), that the church should endorse homosexual behavior or approve its practice among Christians. He is not saying, “Let Christians live any way they please and remain members in good standing come what may.” He is saying something more nuanced and careful, namely that we must take care that we not drive away homosexual people who are earnestly seeking help. This is an important point and one missed by many conservative Christians.
The Presbyterian statement on “The Church and Homosexuality” (cited above) is worth hearing again.
As persons repent and believe, they become members of Christ’s body. The church is not a citadel of the morally perfect; it is a hospital for sinners. It is the fellowship where contrite, needy people rest their hope for salvation on Christ and his righteousness. Here in commun ity they seek and receive forgiveness and new life. The church must become the nurturing community so that all whose lives come short of the glory of God are converted, reoriented, and built up into Christian community. It may be only in the context of loving community, appreciation, pastoral care, forgiveness, and nurture that homosexual persons can come to a clear understanding of God’s pattern for their sexual expression.
There is room in the church for all who give honest affirmation to the vows required for membership in the church. Homosexual persons who sincerely affirm “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” and “I intend to be his disciple, to obey his word, and to show his love” should not be excluded from membership (italics mine).
Dr. Packer rightly notes that there are at least three major spiritual issues involved in the present struggle over homosexual ordination and inclusion in the life of the Christi an community.
First, this issue entails deviation from the biblical gospel and the historic Christian creed. It does this by distorting the doctrines of both creation and sin. It further distorts the doctrines of regeneration and sanctification, thus affirming that salvation is in sin rather than from sin (cf. Matthew 1:21).
Second, this issue threatens the destruction of my neighbor. Paul writes that we should “flee from sexual immorality” and then reasons that all sexual sin is sin “against a [person’s] own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). He concludes that “the sexually immoral” (for that matter all “wrongdoers,” which is a description of any lifestyle of sin that is not repented of) “will not inherit then kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9, TNIV). Thus Packer is right to insist that this issue is one of life and death for the souls of multitudes of people made in God’s imag e.
Third, this issue involves the delusion of looking to God to sanctify sin by blessing what he condemns. It is both irreverent and blasphemous to argue that we can “go on sinning so that grace may increase” (Romans 6:1). Christian believers have been crucified with Christ, buried with and in him, and raised by the Spirit and in our baptism, in order that “we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). We need to warn all who take his name in Christian baptism that resurrection life is not a life which settles down comfortably into sexual sin, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
The danger in our time, as in others, comes down to our understanding of God. Is he the “great approver” who endorses our every moral whim, or is he the Sovereign Creator who calls us to self-denial and obedient faith? The answer our generation gives, in large measure, will determine the spiritual direction and vitality of the Christian church in the West.
Saturday, March 12, 2005
The very first Christmas card that I received this December was from a Sikh friend in Thailand. He and his family fondly wished my family and me a Merry Christmas and a joyous New Year. As the cards continued to come in from all over the world, I realized that some were from Buddhists, some from Hindus, and yes, there were even similar greetings from Muslims. Growing up in India I remember often being greeted at Christmas with the words, “Bada din mubarrak,” which literally means “Greetings on the Big Day.” We would accordingly greet them in response and welcome them to our house for some sweets and delicacies.
A greeting such as this was not exactly meant to be a doctrinal test for orthodoxy, either by the greeter or by the greeted. I don’t recall my Hindu friends questioning the “bigness” of the day and asking for a change in the greeting. Even unbelievers understood the courtesy of wishing someone well on that special day. Yet, here in North America a strange reversal has been taking place. All around us “Christmas bashing” has gone on. After all, not everybody believes in it, so why should anyone be wished well at Christmas?
The ubiquitous American Civil Liberties Union, ever present to eradicate belief from the public square, lent its oppressive muscle to those who denied any government or state agency the freedom to put up a Christmas tree, or children to sing Christmas carols in schools. In keeping with that hollowness, a vacuous ceremonial pronouncement came at the lighting for the “People’s Tree” on Capitol Hill. This way the ceremony only offended the people for whom the tree was a celebration of the true meaning of Christmas and protected the rights of those who want the benefits of the season without the reason.
One civil libertarian, yes, one, demanded of a school in New Jersey that no Christmas tunes be played because it was not just the words that offended his sensitivities but the melodies as well. I heard one well-known talk-show host, a guru of psychological harmony and wellbeing, acknowledge that she would be offended if she were wished a “Merry Christmas.” Is the day coming when someone will be uncomfortable with “Good Morning” as a greeting because the word “good” is a derivative of God and they would not want to offend an atheist?
To be sure, this bigotry has come from our new cultural ethos of tolerance—something by which cultural liberals mean a society that allows only their views to be expressed in public while banishing everyone else’s views to their private chambers. And so the “Happy Holidays” rolled in on the heels of “Turkey Day” with the spirited haters of the season venting their vitriol against those whom they castigate for “audaciously claiming” these to be religious holidays. (Fortunately, most of them do not realize that the very word “holiday” is derived from the word “holy” or that would send them poring through a revisionist dictionary to re-baptize that word as well!) This microcosm is only a small portion of the bigger picture: Western civilization is on the verge of spiritual bankruptcy as it moves steadily towards cultural suicide.
As I have pondered this, I have been wondering what has happened to the West in general and to America in particular. Where has this culture lost its way? Europe, of course, long secularized, mocks America’s religious belief and wonders when we will come of age. I suppose they are delighted to see this outrage towards Christmas as at least a small glimmer of hope for them that we too will join their ranks of secularism writ large in our worldview.
Italy’s European Affairs Minister, Rocco Buttiglione, reminded Europeans how pagan they have become when he wrote in an article that by European standards, George Bush would be considered unfit for his job not for any other reason but for his religious beliefs. Even worse, said he, European legislators marvel that President Bush is “not ashamed” to express these beliefs. These are the very beliefs that prompted Buttiglione himself to withdraw his candidacy for the European Union’s Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner. Is it possible, do you suppose, that Europe’s anti-God stance made him realize that their definitions of justice and home affairs amount to nothing, and therefore, why would he want to become the Minister of Nothing?
That aside, a venomous and brazen anti-Christian attitude is now wielded in the West. We must ask ourselves an awful lot of questions to understand how this came to be. How did it come about that while so-called Muslim scholars do not hesitate to admit that Islam and democracy are not compatible, a Muslim can still have democratic rights to call his festivals by their names while Christians cannot? How is it that while Muslim radicals attacked the United States—and still set their sights on its destruction and on killing those within their own moderate ranks who would challenge them—the Koran is required reading at some academic institutions in the West, though in those same institutions the Bible is mocked in their classrooms?
How is it that a Muslim in Canada can get away with demanding that the Shari’a law be introduced into the Canadian legal code but would scream outrage if a westerner in a Muslim country were to ask to be tried by his own legal system? Why is it that the Hindu American Foundation is filing amicus briefs in two cases before the Supreme Court siding with the removal of the Ten Commandments from public display—one engraved on a war memorial from years before—when they would be incensed if a Christian in India asked that all Hindu relics and art from Indian courtrooms be removed because the country, by its own pronouncement, is “secular”? I know it doesn’t sound politically correct to ask such questions but wouldn’t they ask the same questions if they were in this position of being singled out for banishment?
You see, it is a bigger issue than Christmas carols being banned. Something has gone radically wrong in the West. The powers that are at work behind the scenes think they know what they are doing by pandering to the destroyers of America’s historic faith, but in reality, they don’t have the foggiest notion of what is actually at stake here. While in America we may think that by evicting the “Christian God” from its public square it is rending the arena neutral, we are ignorant of the reality that, in the long run, Eastern religions will not allow them such “no man’s zone.” Europe will find out that once Turkey is admitted into the European Union, their leaders will have to be careful about what public statements they may make about God. Nature abhors a vacuum, especially a spiritual one, and though this flirtation with absolute secularism may win the momentary dawn of a new era, it will lose the day to more strident religions than the Christian belief. Of that, I am certain. Ask any Muslim missionary that question and he or she will tell you that is so.
How did we get here?
The truth is that America’s values are based upon the bequest of a Judeo-Christian worldview. Take a look at the founding of the nation. The Federalist Papers that argued for the unification of the states did so for many reasons. One was that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government” for the quest of life and liberty, which they deemed “unalienable rights,” gifts from the Creator. They spoke of “Nature, and Nature’s God.” They pledged their commitment to the statutes with “sacred honor.”
The last verse and chorus of The Star-Spangled Banner reads:
“Oh thus be it ever when freeman shall stand Between their loved homes and war’s desolation; Blest with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land Praise the Power that had made and preserved us a nation. Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just; And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.” And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This was composed in 1814. Not long after that America, The Beautiful was penned, in which it was recognized that God had shed His grace on America for good and for brotherhood. And in 1832 America was written:
Long may our land be bright With freedoms’ holy light, Protect us by Thy might Great God, our King!
But it was not just America’s songs that acknowledged God; it was her leaders’ thoughts as well. In his Gettysburg Address in 1863 Lincoln closed with the prayer, “That this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” Earlier that year, in The Emancipation Proclamation, he had closed with the words, “I invoke the considerable judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.” And years before that, the Declaration of Independence ended with the words, “With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our Sacred Honor.”
Now one wonders, what do these words mean? Sacred… Honor…Holy… Providence… God? You can be absolutely sure that if the American Civil Liberties Union had their way, these words would never have made it into these songs and documents as national sentiments. They simply “violate the sensitivities” of the irreligious or the die-hard secularists for whom this world and this world alone must define freedom.
How, then, did we get to the point where such power is wielded by those who, in the name of freedom, deny us the right to preserve our historic traditions? A foreign friend once asked me what the American Civil Liberties Union stood for. I sarcastically said, “None of the above.” But the more I pondered that response the more I realized how true it is. It is certainly not American because it denies both the worldview that framed America’s founding documents and denies a vast majority of Americans the right to enjoy their festivals the way they always have been enjoyed. It is not civil because it redefines civility by making us think that tolerance only works one-way. It certainly does not understand liberty because liberty is not the bequest of naturalism. Naturalism begets a nature “red in tooth and claw” and makes determinism inevitable. That is not liberty. Liberty is the gift of the One who made us with intrinsic worth and taught us to respect life and property. And as for “union”, they spend millions of dollars to spread disunity. So much for their name and mission!
Sometime following Christmas, writer Tom Wolfe was being interviewed on his most recent book, I Am Charlotte Simmons. The storyline is woven against the backdrop of the hedonism that now runs through the veins of the American academy. The interviewer asked him how he thought such thinking became legitimized in our culture. Wolfe was unhesitating in his answer: It was when Nietzsche pronounced “the death of God” in the late nineteenth century. I have asserted that sequence for years. One can argue with the exact dating of the transition but who can argue against the logic of that assertion? Dostoevsky had said that if God is dead anything is permissible.
Nietzsche died at the beginning of the twentieth century. Take a look at the slide from that time to where we found ourselves by the end of that century. Abortion of the unborn has reached astronomic proportions. Even Edward Kennedy, an extreme liberal, averred that we should be trying to curtail the number of abortions. One shudders to wonder who, amid the myriad babies that have been killed in the womb, have we decimated along the way? Could there have been a mind that could have developed a cure for cancer? Could there have been another Martin Luther King or an Einstein or a Churchill or for that matter, another Mother Teresa—those who fought for the weak? Proponents of the right to abort fail to deal with the reality of what we are silencing amid the noise of our “rights”. Millions, even nations, have been banished to the domain of the voiceless.
That is the logic of killing God, isn’t it? Having killed Him we had to find a justification for killing other realities as well. But that was going to take genius of a different sort. Killing God was easier because the “right to belief” has a ring of goodness to it. How were we going to attack different moral frameworks? We altered such realities by rewording our acts. Rather than calling it the “freedom to destroy,” which it really is, we call it “freedom of choice.” Those who treat life as sacred are now the killers—the killers of choice. Anyone who believes in the parameters of sexual sanctity is the killer of freedom and pleasure. Even marriage has been desacralized so that we no longer have homes, we have “civil unions,” and why should anyone argue against a “civil” union? By rewording something you alter its look.
But the mask is taken off when you get closer and listen more intelligently to the voice behind the masquerade. Did you see and hear, during the American election, the hatred being vented against the Right by these voices? Don’t forget they are the same ones who want laws passed against “hate speech.” Canada, interestingly, while considering the provisions of the Shari’a law for the Muslim, is at the same time making it illegal to speak out against homosexuality. The former would make blasphemy against the Islamic sacred beliefs a crime and the latter will stifle the pulpit on the sanctity of sex. The follower of the Shari’a will be able to make any pronouncements against the Christian faith and the person who believes sex is nothing more than a personal choice can castigate the Bible as sexist. So in effect, the Christian faith becomes the sole voice silenced.
Did you hear the Hollywood elite speak with passion against The Passion of the Christ? The actor Jon Voigt scathingly attacked Mel Gibson for focusing so much on the gruesome. What? Did I hear him correctly? I had to see humor in that attack, for two miracles had taken place. A relativist had finally admitted that violence on the screen can be overdone, and second, that the screen can change behavior in the viewer. Please take note. Voigt—who starred in Deliverance, which I am told is a graphic, disturbing film—and others like him resented a film for being ideologically driven but crowned Michael Moore’s film with the highest praise. They were disturbed, they said, because the film was too violent. Are these not the same purveyors of violence who are outraged by censors?
Why all this anger, I ask? This is not a little tempest in a teapot. This is a firestorm intended for one purpose alone—to silence Christianity. Can you see the trend? First, we kill God. Then, we kill man. And to justify it all, we kill language. But language is guaranteed as part of our freedom. How does a purveyor of free speech kill the right of others to have the same privilege? This is cleverly done by transferring their hatred onto those they wish to silence—and the word “phobia” is added to anything they are against. Funny, they have never thought of themselves as Christophobes.
To drive home the last stake and elevate their view they co-opt the scientific community and come up with an educated response. Enter Richard Dawkins of Oxford, who has proposed that religion is a virus that has made its way into the software of some DNA, and therefore, it must be expunged. This is liberalism’s cure for the malady that plagues their freedom. Moral absolutes, according to such demagoguery, are the bane of our existence brought into play by the virus of religion.
Here is the conclusion. No, they are not against absolutes. They are only absolute relativists. No, the destroyers of our cultural values are not against freedom. They are only against the freedoms of those who challenge them. No, they are not against phobias. They are only against the phobias that others have. No, they are not against the sacred—the head of the ACLU is brilliantly ordained as a reverend. They are only against God. No, they are not against killing. They are only against those who kill for different reasons to theirs.
I do not recall hearing anything from Michael Moore when Saddam Hussein slaughtered his thousands. Where is his bleeding heart when tens of thousands of Christians are martyred and brutalized in so many totalitarian regimes? Did we hear a whimper from Hollywood a few short years ago when a Christian leader was brutally murdered by the Iranian authorities? I can accept the argument of the person who cries out against the slaughter of innocents in the war in Iraq if at the same time that person cried out against all slaughter of innocents.
No, that does not happen. I could list a dozen other such glaring inconsistencies. But herein is the cancer within the soul of our cultural relativists. The slide has taken place because the West wanted to remove any warning sign that cried “Stop!” to living with contradiction. Christianity makes such a challenge. Relativists decry the violence in The Passion because it exposes the violence in our own hearts. They redefine words because they refuse to recognize that “In the beginning was the Word.” Their peace is a bundle of contradictions because they reject the Prince of Peace. They have killed truth because truth is too coherent for them and they want the benefit of incoherence. They are terrified of some “fundamentalist takeover” and so assign phobias to their opponents.
When you stop and think about it, it has been the same right from the beginning of human history, hasn’t it? “Has God said?” in the Garden of Eden was followed by “You shall surely not die.” The fear of God was replaced by the fear of losing “freedom.” Adam and Eve failed to realize then, and we fail to realize now, that there is no such thing as absolute civil liberty. If mine is to be guarded someone else’s will have to be restricted and the reverse is true. Absolutes always restrict for the right reasons. And it is all born out of one thing, “sacred honor”—to honor God and your fellow human being. Only in that sequence can life be lived out logically.
Cultural liberalism had better wake up to the truth. The bottom line is that humanity is broken on the inside. We live with contradiction because life has fallen apart within. We dress it up with language like makeup plastered over a corpse, as if we have given it life again. Until we see the truth of our own brokenness we will be shattering everything and making a hell around us. This is where reality has a strange way of calling our bluff. God does not leave us destitute. In no uncertain terms He shows us a glimmer of hope, not the bankruptcy of the relativists’ answers but the image of God deposited in their souls, revealed by their questions.
A rude awakening
And amid all our self-centeredness, a rude awakening has come to us as an earthquake of gigantic proportions rocked continents the day after Christmas, and tens of thousands of people were swept into the sea. This is a tragedy too horrific to imagine. We have all sat glued to our television sets numbed by the loss of life. What is the question the cultural liberal asks? How can God allow such a thing? Where is God when such catastrophes happen?
Maybe it is time someone whispered that when Christmas was banned, the right to ask any question of God ought to have been banned as well. But the question haunts, doesn’t it, and there is no answer to be found in “The People’s Tree.” The thief who stole the joy and life of Christmas Day was arrested the morning after by the deluge of grief and death. In the courtroom of reality he was found guilty by his own interrogation. How?
Analyze the question. It is a self-defeating question for the scientific naturalist to ask why this happened because very few animals were lost in the tragedy. They intuitively sensed the danger that approached and fled long before the water could reach the shores. What happens to scientific naturalism’s theory of evolution here, when creatures on the lower evolutionary scale were smarter than those higher up the scale? If survival is the ultimate good, this seems like “devolution” to me. As a matter of fact, I even heard one person say that this is Nature’s way of balancing the numbers in a crowded world. Naturalism breaks under the weight of its own argument.
Similarly, the philosophical naturalist poses the question in a self-defeating way, for to ask the question is to assume a moral framework and there cannot be a moral world for the philosophical naturalist. According to this belief, our world came from primordial slime; can good or bad come from such chemistry? What about the Hindu or Buddhist? He would have to say that this was the karma of the individuals who perished in the deluge. Period. And the Muslim? The Muslim is so committed to the absolute sovereignty of Allah within which no freedom is granted to the “creature” that his answer would just be “Inshah-Allah”—the tsunami was just the will of God.
The question of “why” only has meaning because the Christian faith legitimizes it. And so the very question betrays that the soul is not completely dead in the West. Yes, the answers to life from the relativist may betray that “God has died,” but the questions from his soul at a time like this reveal that he cannot kill Him completely. A sovereign God in his grace has given us the freedom to ask such questions.
You see, in our human courtrooms revisionist wordsmiths in the role of prosecutor may play tricks with the words of others, but in the court of reality their own words will accuse and indict them. Whether we like it or not, only the reason for the season gives reason to the question and only in that season is the reason for the answer. That is why Christmas will always be celebrated in the heart even when it is denied public utterance. That is the bequest of the “Big Day.”
I would be remiss if I did not end with a warning and a glimmer of hope. Maybe I can summarize it in two illustrations.
Last year when I was in India, I went to visit my grandmother’s grave. I do that each time I go to Delhi. But there had been a lot of rains and some of the graves had sunk into the mud. With friends, I looked and looked and couldn’t find her grave. The caretaker said that he no longer had the register in his possession to tell me where she was buried. I knew the general area but just couldn’t find it. I began to get quite anxious about the possible loss of her grave. Then all of a sudden, I saw her name and the verse of Scripture that was inscribed above it. I was so grateful and proceeded to arrange for another, taller stone to be erected there. You see, even a grave has significance because it is a marker of a life, a relationship, and a memory.
Those who seek to change our vocabulary are gradually eradicating the relationship between truth and culture, between the past and the present. They want to remove all markers that brought us this far. They should be sure that if they continue in this way the very worldview they have put into place will one day eradicate them as well. Do you remember the words of Martin Niemoller who tried to warn those who remained silent to the Nazi atrocities? He said,
First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.
Those who wipe out the memory of the Christian faith will find out that the logic of their position may one day lead someone to wipe them out as well, and there will be no belief left to come to their aide, for there will be no one left with reason to speak of loving those who despise you.
So what is the glimmer of hope? I began this essay while I was in Beijing, China, where all over the city I saw banners that said, Merry Christmas. I spent one morning going through the Forbidden City on Tiananmen Square. This historic city was constructed in the fourteenth century as the home of China’s emperors. As I walked in the cold with some friends from one gate through to the next, deep in the inner sanctum of the palace of the Forbidden City I saw a small Starbucks. Yes, you read that correctly. And on the window of that Starbucks it said Merry Christmas. I stopped and pondered: How odd it is that in the land of Mao where individuals were humiliated for the sake of the “People” I should see a sign wishing me a Merry Christmas, while in the land where individual freedom is touted as defining the nation’s reason for being, the “People’s Tree” won the day.
But I found out something more, as I visited that vast land. The Chinese Church is now one of the largest in the world. No, Mao and his Cultural Revolution, standing on the shoulders of Marx, could not stop the faith that has transformed millions throughout history. In a land where the State has stopped at nothing in its attempt to crush the spirit, the spirit has triumphed. The contradiction of contradictions may be that God uses even the wrath of men to praise Him.
And so I thought: Maybe the East will bring the message to the West to awaken her to her heritage. Voices may sing to us in foreign accents of that silent, holy night, and no legal pronouncements from our cultural iconoclasts of the West will be able to stop them. That will truly bring contradiction full circle so that we might see the nature of truth that forces off the mask of contradiction and shows us that the cry in tragedy is really the longing for Christmas to be true.
What the civil libertarians need to know is that God simply will not be conquered by our puny little outbursts and our juvenile pronouncements. Christmas did not end with the night of Jesus’ birth. In fact, there were those who tried to kill Him then as well. They thought they had succeeded but it was only a momentary illusion. There was a day in which the central figure of Christmas rose again from the dead. That is why death itself is not the greatest tragedy. The greatest tragedy is when we have banished God and are buried by our own questions. Christianity will never be banished to the grave because it follows a Savior who knows the way out. That is the truth for life and it is worth celebrating.