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Friday, October 29, 2010

Making the Most Room for What Matters Most

Check out this great post by Zach Bartels on how to make time and money for the things that are the most important—and how easy it is not to.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Who Are God's Children?

Isn't it funny how certain concepts rooted in the Bible have leaked out and become widely acceptable in popular culture whereas the rest are either unknown to most people or hated by them?  Someone should try to write a critical study of which Christian theological ideas have become mainstream and why.  (Not me.)  If it's already been written, somebody let me know the title.

One of these mainstream concepts is the idea that God is our Father and, in the words of the vaguely religious song "The Prayer," that "we [i.e., human beings] are all God's children" (though some prefer thinking of God as "Parent" rather than "Father"—remind me to write a post on why this isn't satisfactory).  This concept has become so pervasive that to suggest that people who don't belong to your religion aren't children of God is considered to be about as grossly hateful and intolerant a thing you can say.

But is the idea that "we are all God's children" biblical?  As a matter of fact, it is!  Well, sort of.  Actually the Bible talks about God as a father and humans as his children in a variety of ways depending upon what the writer wants to convey at the time.  Some of these ways are more inclusive than others.  Here's a brief survey.

1. God is the Father of Israel.  It was very uncommon in ancient Israel to call God "Father"—in fact, no individual ever considered him his own personal Father.  But on rare occasions Israel collectively is portrayed as God's son, because God "begot" the nation of Israel into existence and maintained an affectionate, protective, providing, disciplining yet merciful relationship with Israel through its history, a relationship that he did not maintain with any other nation.  (See Deut. 32:6; Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:19; Hos. 11:1; Mal. 2:10.)

2. God is the Father of God the Son.  Overwhelmingly the most common attribution of Fatherhood to God pertains to his Fatherhood of Jesus Christ, his Eternal Word [Logos].  Think how often in the New Testament that we see statements like Colossians 1:3, "We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."  John stresses that Jesus is God's "unique" (Greek monogen─ôs, "one of a kind," "one and only," in older [mis-]translations "only-begotten") Son—no one else has God for their Father like Jesus the Son of God does (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9).  That's because the Father's fatherhood of the Son is more than a figure of speech: the Son really (and from eternity past) comes from the Father and derives his existence from him, and he really is of utterly the same nature as him (see, e.g., Heb. 1).

But Jesus also claims God for his Father uniquely because Jesus is the True Israel, the one who in his life fulfilled all the covenant faithfulness that Israel was supposed to but fell short.  So for example, as God says in Hosea 11:1, "When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt," Matthew claims that Jesus replicated this in a fuller way.  Likewise, when God promised to David to claim David's successor as his own son to make a permanent dynasty, the author of Hebrews asserts that this is true of Jesus far beyond how it was true of Solomon.

3. God is the Father of those who trust in Jesus.  One of the several ways the Bible describes the enormous salvation that God offers people in Jesus Christ is the staggering idea that people can actually become his children: "But to all who received [Jesus]—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God's children—children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband's decision, but by God" (John 1:12-13).  Notice that this privilege doesn't come from natural birth, which means that you're neither lucky enough nor too unlucky to receive that status based on who your parents happen to be.  It also means that it isn't a privilege received merely by being born human.  The universal condition for becoming God's child in this sense is trust in Jesus Christ his Son as Savior.  As I've talked about before, faith in Christ is what unites us with Christ so that what is true of him (in this case, Sonship) becomes true of us.

Paul likes to describe becoming a part of God's family in terms of adoption with an eye to the authority and property that accrues to us as a result.  For example,
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, "Abba [Aramaic, 'Daddy'], Father."  The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God's children.  And if children, then heirs (namely heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ)—if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him [Rom. 8:14-17].
John on the other hand talks about it as being "born from above" or "born again" (depending on how the Greek is translated)—a spiritual birth, begotten by God and receiving his "genes," in contrast with one's physical birth, begotten by one's earthly father and getting his genes (see John 3:3-7; 1 John 5:1), so that we actually become transformed into his divine nature.

4. God is the Father of all humanity.  There are a tiny, tiny number of references in the Bible to God being the Father of all people.  The only one that is indisputable in my opinion is Acts 17:26-29, where Paul argues to the learned citizenry of Athens,
From one man [God] made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.  For in him we live and move about and exist [Epimenides, Cretica], as even some of your own poets have said, "For we too are his offspring" [Aratus, Phaenomena 5].  So since we are God's offspring, we should not think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination.
Paul, a Jew, is trying to establish common ground with the Athenians by identifying a single God as the one who oversaw the destinies of both their nations and that both have access to and even by quoting Greek authors to buttress his case.  He is arguing that since we agree that humans sprang from God's creativity in his image, it doesn't make sense to worship a god sprung from a human's creativity in his image.

God's creation of humanity in his image that Paul argues from in Athens is the source of the "we are all God's children" concept, and obviously that's entirely legitimate.  I do believe that this is worth talking about in order to establish common ground with people of other religions or no religion, especially those who have some "Only God" or "Chief God" concept.  It is also important as a means to detach religion from ethnicity, culture, and/or citizenship, which is a crucial distinguishing mark of Christianity from some other religions like traditional Judaism.  If we can agree that people of all nations are God's children and can "find him," then I can engage constructively with a Jew even though I'm not Jewish and with a Hindu even though I'm not Indian.

However, in our culture this genuinely biblical idea has been blown entirely out of proportion to its attestation in the Bible.  A bit over a century ago, "old liberal" Protestantism in the West identified the Universal Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Infinite Value of the Human Soul (to paraphrase Adolf Harnack) as the essence of Christianity.  As so often happens in these situations, generations down the line this rarefied idea suffused the popular culture.

But there are serious problems with making God's universal Fatherhood of the human race the primary or even sole understanding of his Fatherhood.  Paul used the idea of "God, the Father of all humanity" as a bridge to telling Gentiles about "God, the Father of God the Son," so that in turn he could proclaim "God, the Father of those who trust in Jesus," which is really where he wants to end up (later instructing new believers as to how this fulfills "God, the Father of Israel," which is basically what his letter to the Romans is about).  In other words, he was willing to talk about the family of God in the most inclusive sense to win a hearing for more exclusive senses of God's Fatherhood.  Because without knowing about God as the Father of those who believe in Jesus, Paul's hearers could never become God's children in that sense.

Unfortunately, the concept of God's universal Fatherhood has inoculated people to understand, care about, or even be open to the fullness of what it means to be a child of God.  The idea that Jesus Christ is the Son of God isn't striking to people who believe that everyone is a son or daughter of God.  The idea that we can be adopted into God's family isn't awe-inspiring to people who think they are already in it.  The unfathomable wonder of what it means to have the all-powerful Creator as one's real Father is lost to those who assume that in their run-of-the-mill lives they are already experiencing it.  And if all people—apparently good, apparently evil, and everything in between—are children of God, then the concept is empty of the ethical implications that would be obvious otherwise (for example, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," Matt. 5:48; see also 1 John 3:10).  This is yet another example of how when a little bit of truth gets blown out of proportion it becomes its own kind of lie and in fact is usually far more powerful than outright falsehood.

So, are we all God's children?  In one sense, yes, we are.  But in a sense more important to our eternal destinies, some people have become God's children while others remain estranged.  As repellent as this idea is in our faux-tolerant culture, holding fast to this distinction is a necessary part of inviting everyone to cross it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Glory Revealed II: The Word of God in Worship


In 2007, David Nasser wrote Glory Revealed: How the Invisible God Makes Himself Known in conjunction with a compilation album called Glory Revealed: The Word of God in Worship.  Last year a follow-up album, aptly titled Glory Revealed II, was released, produced by Mac Powell of Third Day.  I listened to excerpts from both albums and recently bought the second one, because, basically, I thought it was awesome.

And after listening to it almost exclusively for a week or two, I still do.  The overall concept of the album lyrically is songs based on, quoting, and occasionally entirely composed of Scripture, which makes it an extremely inspiring and encouraging set of tunes as well as being a great Bible memory aid.

The musical concept is what I guess is being called "Americana," which appears to meanacoustic music with  Southern Appalachian country, bluegrass, and folk influences that features guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle and at times sounds vaguely like Jay Ungar's soundtrack to Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War.  At one extreme is a track like "Never," based on Heb. 13:5-6, that's basically contemporary worship music with a hint of "Americana" influence, but at the other is "There Is a City" (Rev. 21:19-23; 22:1-5, 17) that sounds like it came right out of a 19th-century frontier campmeeting.

For this second album at least, a core band assembled at a remote farm and lodge in southern Georgia (the liner notes repeatedly say it belongs to "the Foxworthys"—as in Jeff Foxworthy???) to write the songs and lay down the instrumentals and some vocals.  Then most of the lead vocals got farmed out to a variety of CCM luminaries who recorded their parts hither and yon (i.e., Nashville).

Not a country music fan?  Neither am I, but I can't stop listening to this somewhat country-ish stuff.  And many of the tracks lead my thoughts to praising the Lord no matter what I'm doing at the time.  Take a listen yourself.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Obama: Christian or Muslim? Faith: Public or Private?

Two months ago, a political consulting firm called The Eleison Group wrote a public letter signed by many Christian luminaries that called on "public officials, faith leaders, and the media to offer no further support to those who misrepresent and call into question the President's Christian faith" by asserting that he is a Muslim.

This letter garnered some significant national attention, and because I agree with the basic request, which I'll explain in a moment, I was ready to sign it myself.  But just before clicking "Submit" I reread it more carefully and stopped.

The title of the letter is "Faith is not a political issue," by which I think they meant, "Faith should not be a political issue."  I agree with this in the sense that in any discussion we should stick to the point.  If we're hiring or evaluating someone whose job is public policy, let's talk public policy.  Let's not talk faith or sports or cooking or auto maintenance.  Unless a particular public policy position of the President stems directly and unambiguously from his religion, there's really no reason for his religion to come up.  There's certainly no reason for it to dominate political conversation.

But the letter goes too far when it says, "We understand that these are contentious times, but the personal faith of our leaders should not be up for public debate."

Allow me to make a fine but important distinction between "political issue" and "public debate."  A "political issue" is an issue that has to do with the well-being of the polis, the society governed by the state. "Public debate" is discourse that happens in the public sphere, especially facilitated by the media.  Public debate includes discussion of political issues, but it also involves anything that happens in public (i.e., more people than the people in my household or private group observe it).

The very reason that President Obama's Christian faith shouldn't be a political issue and in fact shouldn't be a controversial issue at all is because "personal faith" is public, especially when it has been publicly professed, as Obama's has.

Now before going on, there's another distinction I should make, and it has to do with the word "Christian."  Setting aside where the word "Christian" came from, it has two meanings in the United States in 2010.  The sociological definition of "Christian" is basically "someone who calls him- or herself a Christian, especially if they perform the practices that other people who call themselves Christians perform."  The theological definition of "Christian" might differ somewhat among Christian traditions, but it basically means "someone who has been born again through faith in Christ, whose name is written in the Book of Life, who is adopted into God's family and an heir to his kingdom."  The theological definition is narrower than the sociological definition—in other words there are some Christians sociologically who aren't Christians theologically.  (This concept has substantial biblical support—see for example Matt. 7:13-23.)  It's important to understand that when Evangelicals use the word "Christian," they're generally using the theological definition, but when non-religious people use the term they're generally using the sociological definition.  (I'm not sure about non-Evangelicals who profess to be Christians; that might be a case-by-case situation.)  Does it surprise you that we're talking past each other?

Anyway, I contend that without a doubt President Obama is a Christian, sociologically speaking, not a Muslim.  The guy has said repeatedly that he's a Christian.  He said it early in his presidential campaign to Christianity Today, and he directly denied being a Muslim in that interview.  He said it last week in a backyard in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He said in the CT article that he "believes in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."  That's something Christians say.  He hasn't been heard saying, "There is no God but God [Allah], and Mohammed is his prophet," something Muslims say.  He's been seen praying, worshiping, and hearing the gospel in church on Sunday morning with other Christians.  Those are things that Christians do.  He hasn't been seen bowing down in prayer five times a day, fasting through Ramadan, worshiping in a mosque on Friday afternoon, or making hajj (pilgrimmage) to Mecca, things that Muslims do.

In other words, the reason that people shouldn't be calling the President a Muslim is that he does things in public that back up his claim to be a Christian, at least sociologically.  His "personal faith" is validated by his public actions.

But let's pretend that the President's public actions were more confusing.  Let's say that he repeatedly called himself a Christian but was rarely seen in churches and frequently seen in mosques.  Let's say he took the oath of office with his hand on a Qur'an instead of a Bible (as has been wrongly alleged).  Let's say he has been seen bowing down toward Mecca five times a day.  If he was known to do these things but kept calling himself a Christian, would it be right to say with The Eleison Group's letter that "the personal faith of our leaders should not be up for public debate" and that "We believe that questioning . . . the faith of a confessing believer goes too far"?  Absolutely not!  It isn't acceptable for a public figure to claim a religious identity for whatever benefits that profession might garner if it's actually a masquerade.  A civic leader's walk matching his talk is always a matter for public debate, because integrity and honesty are qualities we demand from our leaders.  Failures of integrity and honesty are always to be publicly questioned, including if the failure is in religious territory.

But this leads us to the interesting realm of policy positions.  As I said before, there is no inherent reason for a public official's religion to come up when talking about his or her policy positions.  Those positions should be considered on policy merits.  But what do we do if an official advocates a policy that violates the tenets of his or her religion?  Pointing out the inconsistency doesn't really matter from a policy perspective.  But it does matter from an integrity perspective.  For example, the Roman Catholic Church explicitly teaches about numerous social issues—abortion, war, capital punishment, and economics among others.  If a politician claims to be Catholic but acts in the public sphere in total violation of Catholic social teaching, it is legitimate for citizens of all religions to ask if that politician is really being sincere about him- or herself, aside from the question of whether the politician's policies are good ideas.

Publicly questioning a politician's personal faith is all the more legitimate for people who share the politician's religion.  This is certainly true for us Christians.  The Eleison Group's letter says, "As Christian pastors and leaders, we believe that fellow Christians need to be an encouragement to those who call Christ their savior"—I'm totally on board with that—"not question the veracity of their faith."  I don't always agree with the latter part.  In most circumstances, sure, it's not my business to get on a professed Christian politician's case about whether he or she is walking with the Lord.  That person has a pastor and Christian friends who are much better positioned to do that.  But in extreme cases, if I believe that a politician consistently threatens to bring shame to the name of Christ or confusion to the gospel by his or her actions, then I might have to question whether his or her faith is genuine not for the sake of the state but for the sake of the gospel and the kingdom of God.

The thing is, I think that the signatories of The Eleison Group's letter agree with me on this point.  The Eleison Group happens to be a firm that consults with Democrats to reach out to and mobilize Christians toward progressive public policy objectives.  So not surprisingly, the signatories of the letter neatly represent Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, and the Evangelical Left (and a tiny number of Catholics).  At least one of the signatories that I know of, and probably more that I don't, openly questioned the veracity of George W. Bush's faith when he was in office.  (I think the self-congratulatory euphemism for this is "speaking truth to power.")  In other words, during the prosecution of the Iraq War at least one signatory of this letter didn't believe that Bush's "personal faith" was not "a matter for public debate."

Regardless, don't call President Obama a Muslim, and correct those who do if you can do so winsomely and gently.  If you're a political conservative this is even more important, because it truly isn't a policy issue, and it bolsters your integrity if you don't put up with someone else's integrity being wrongfully questioned (and it's loving your neighbor as yourself).  But don't buy into the idea that faith is "a private matter" that has no bearing on one's life in public, including for public officials.  Every religion I know demands that faith be represented in action, and Christianity is at least as emphatic about this as any.  Everyone who makes a faith-claim is daily proving or disproving it before a watching world and is constantly being judged in public.  That includes President Obama and me and you.  And that's as it should be.  "Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).

Oh, and one more thing: I don't know if President Obama is a Christian, theologically speaking.  Like many people, there are things he says and does that tell me he is and other things that raise concerns (which is probably how people view me too).  But for now, I'm going to hope that he is, trust that God has placed believers in his life to encourage and challenge him appropriately, and otherwise, God helping me, take care of myself and the people around me that I can encourage and challenge, a posture I commend to you too.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Porn, and All the Other Sins

As internet access became widespread over the last decade, viewing pornography did too, a fact that has become a commonplace.  40 million Americans are regular visitors to porn sites, and at any given second 28,258 internet users are viewing porn.  (For more interesting statistics and other great material on the subject check out a remarkable organization, The Pink Cross Foundation.)  I could go on about the appeal of porn and the power of the internet as a distribution channel with great insight and profundity, but I don't feel like doing that right now.  Instead let's summarize with the analysis of a good friend of mine: "Seeing naked ladies is more interesting than pretty much anything else we might be doing."  (And since a third of porn viewers are women, I suppose that goes for seeing naked men, or naked men and ladies, too.)  He went on to say, "It's a miracle that anything gets done in this country"—at least by people who work at a computer.

A big chunk of those who view porn on the internet (or elsewhere) happen to be or identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ.  Some are hardened, outright hypocrites, others hate doing it but suffer lapses of self-control, and many are somewhere in between.  Even now, after a full decade in the Age of Porn, the church has an uneven acknowledgment of this fact.  There are still many churches in which most people don't believe that the folks they see on Sunday morning could possibly be doing that kind of thing, and the many in the church who are are each convinced that he or she is the only one.  However, there are now a sizable number of churches at the opposite extreme.  In these churches there is common acceptance of the premise that Christians in general—though by "Christians" they almost always mean men—are struggling with temptation to look at porn.  In fact, it's assumed of people even if they don't identify themselves.  And there are many churches somewhere in between these two extremes too.

The friend I quoted before attends a church with a strong emphasis on men's discipleship, an environment similar to the latter extreme I just described.  But check out this comment he wrote to me the other day:
I think that we (not just you and I but the royal, evangelical WE) equate being "good" spiritually with not looking at porn.  Porn has become THE enemy, to the degree that, in our minds, a "good" week means I didn't look at porn and a bad week means I did.  When, in fact, there are a lot of other sins and spiritual issues that need "tending to" as well . . . our prayer lives, our trusting God lives, our tempers, our attitudes, etc.
Isn't it interesting what Satan does?  In a prior post I cited Francis Schaeffer's observation that when the Church underemphasizes part of Christian doctrine then a movement arises to point this out and correct the Church.  But usually this movement proceeds to blow the previously neglected dogma out of proportion and make it the touchstone of orthodoxy while the rest of the Church recoils against this and deemphasizes it even more.  Says Schaeffer, "Satan fishes equally on both sides and he wins on both sides."

The strategy the devil employs with false teaching is exactly the same strategy he employs with other sins.  Satan would be very happy if all Christians were in complete denial about our failures to remain sexually pure with our eyes and minds.  But if some Christians begin to own up to the truth despite his best efforts to shut them up, he'll take the opposite tack and make sure it's all those Christians can think about.  That way even if some of them get victory over lust, he can silently enslave them to materialism, callous disregard of the poor, spiritual pride, outbursts of anger, complaining, and gluttony.  If he's really effective they might even end up worse off spiritually than when they were downloading videos every few nights.

Indeed, this is the very same strategy the evil one employs with respect to our consciousness of him.  C. S. Lewis observed in his preface to The Screwtape Letters that there are two equal and opposite errors people fall into when it comes to the devil.  The one is to disbelieve he exists, and the other is to have an unhealthy fascination with him.  And this doesn't just apply to non-Christian materialists and occultists.  It applies to carefully rational Christians (theologically conservative or liberal, it doesn't matter) and to devotees of what is loosely called "spiritual warfare."  The last people the devil wants to deal with are Christians like the apostle Paul and Martin Luther who talked about the devil as if he was as real and as present as their own right hands but who were totally unimpressed by him, his power robbed by Christ.

The bottom line?  We have to fight against sin, all kinds of sin.  We have to remain ceaselessly vigilant, constantly confessing our faults, continually counting on the grace of God in Christ and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit.  We must never allow a sin—porn or whatever—to go on festering in our lives because we're just too embarrassed to ask for help from our brothers and sisters.  But we also must never ignore the sins that aren't embarrassing at all among the company we keep but are still hated by God and silently killing us.

Lord God, the battle is too much for me.  It never stops; I cannot rest.  I am hard-pressed on every side—no matter what I get right, I always seem to get something else wrong.  And just when I think I'm getting it I drop it all again, or I discover a whole other area of evil that I've been indulging that I didn't even know I had.  I'm so discouraged sometimes, Lord—shouldn't I have gotten better by now?  Wasn't I supposed to be what you wanted me to be, what I wanted me to be?  Who will free me from this body of death?  Thanks be to you through Jesus Christ our Lord [Rom. 7:24-25]!  Thank you that the battle will not rage forever, and that as long as I know I'm fighting it, whether I press ahead or keep winning back the same ground over and over again, I won't be overcome by it.  Because the Lord Jesus, who is in me, is greater than the evil one who is in the world [1 John 4:4].  And he is coming, and when I see him, I will finally—thank you, God, FINALLY—be like him, because I will see him as he is [1 John 3:2-3].  Purify your Church from every stain, O God.  Make her clean, and do not let her fall.  In Jesus' name, amen.