Thursday, February 26, 2015

Benjamin Franklin and Christian Faith

I recently came across a letter from one of our nation’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin.  It was written to the President of Yale College, Ezra Stiles.  Stiles was quite a fan of Franklin, especially as a scientist, and Franklin had given the college some scientific equipment and a few antiquities.   I’m not enough of a Franklin expert to know if it was his last letter, but it would certainly be among the last.  Dated March 9, 1790, Franklin would be dead within six weeks.

In fact, Franklin seems all too aware to his approaching finitude, cautioning Stiles, who wanted to honor Franklin at Yale with a portrait:

You have an excellent Artist lately arrived. If he will undertake to make one for you, I shall chearfully pay the Expence: But he must not long delay setting about it, or I may slip thro' his Fingers, for I am now in my 85th Year's and very infirm.

In the letter Franklin makes two statements I wish to comment upon.  The first:

“You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it.

I had to wonder whether Franklin was accurate in his memory or whether previous inquires went forgotten.  Franklin is now 85 years of age.  Is this really the first time he has been questioned about his religion?  What a tragic reproach upon Christians.  I realize Christians of the colonial era, were not, for the most part, highly evangelistic and much too intellectual.  I know there were  exceptions like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards.  Still, no one had taken Franklin to task about what we believe is the most important part of man—his eternal soul?

And Ezra Stiles?  He was a Congregational minister and a New Englander (Connecticut and Rhode Island) who may never have meet the Pennsylvanian Franklin in person.  Yet, they clearly had many correspondences.  At least Stiles finally got around to asking the key question. 

So maybe we modern evangelicals can walk away with two lessons here.   First, make sure our values match our priorities.  If we really value the souls of mankind, let’s have that conversation before we talk about contemporary events.  Sports, weather, hobbies, and families all make for enriching  and non-threatening conversations, but we shouldn’t be treating faith as an after-thought.  Second, it’s never too late to have that conversation with people in our lives.  I know ‘religion’ makes people uncomfortable and I like putting people at ease, so it’s easy to avoid it.  But I, and millions of other evangelicals, need to get over it.  Have that conversation with the people in your life.  Today.

The second statement Franklin made in his letter was about Jesus:

 As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.

Again, where were Franklin’s spiritual friends, elevating the need for him to “busy” himself with thoughts of Jesus?  Why did they let him get away with so casually dismissing the need to contemplate Jesus.  Franklin had previously stated he believed in God.  But his belief in God promoted only a moralism…a doing good to others.  He never saw himself as one who was a sinner…a rebel against the holiness of God in desperate need of the saving work of Jesus.  In Franklin’s view, Jesus was a good teacher and he didn’t need to take the time to figure out if that was all Jesus was.

Benjamin Franklin.  Patriot.  Founder. Witty and brilliant; wise and helpful;  inquisitive and experimental.  He left the world a better place.  But he never properly answered life’s singularly most important question—Who is Jesus?

Have you?

 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

God in Pursuit of Us

Luke 15 is probably my favorite parabolic passage.  I’ll be honest.  I’m a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to appreciating the parables of Jesus.  You know, those “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”.  I’ve always been drawn to the doctrine of the epistles or the compassion of Jesus and His redemptive acts in the Gospels.  I love the prophets of the OT.  But those stories of Jesus?  It’s taken me awhile to really appreciate them.  But I have long been drawn to this passage.  Who could not be?  Three parables in one really.  Three stories teaching the same theme.  And the thunderous message that comes from them is that God is relentless in searching for what is lost.

Jesus’s first story is that of a shepherd.  He has 100 sheep and discovers that one is lost.  He leaves the 99 and searches for the lost one.  The second story is of a woman who has 10 silver pieces and discovers one is lost.  She searches every corner of her house until it is found.  The last story is of a Father who has two sons.  One rebels, leaves and spoils his life.  The Father waits and hopes for his son to return. 
That last story is the more famous of the three, and the one that seems to throw a monkey wrench into everything.  In the previous two, the shepherd and the woman are both active in finding what is lost.  But here, the father seems a bit passive.  I said he “seems” passive.  But it only seems so to 21st century readers…people immersed in Amber Alerts, FBI Missing Persons Bureau, bounty hunters, credit card searches, cell phone pings, GPS, Facebook and social media.  But even then, if we’ll just pause a moment, we would realize a parent cannot force a rebellious child back home.  There is wisdom in waiting until the rebel is ready to receive reconciliation.  But that notwithstanding, in reading the passage in its 1st century context, you will notice the father was anything BUT passive. 

But when he [the prodigal son] was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him [Luke 15:20 KJV].
This is truly the story of the Bible.  Our God is pursuing us.  His love is relentless.  It is hesed—to use the Hebrew word.  Faithful, steadfast, enduring love.  The love God spoke of in Isaiah 54:10,  “Though the mountains move and the hills shake, My love will not be removed from you and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,” says your compassionate LORD (HCSB). 

Bible scholar John Oswalt remarks on such a loving, pursuing God.

The word hesed…[is] the descriptor par excellence of God in the Old Testament. The word speaks of a completely undeserved kindness and generosity done by a person who is in a position of power. This was the Israelites’ experience of God. He revealed himself to them when they were not looking for him, and he kept his covenant with them long after their persistent breaking of it had destroyed any reason for his continued keeping of it. …Unlike humans, this deity was not fickle, undependable, self-serving, and grasping. Instead he was faithful, true, upright, and generous—always.                                                                           
The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 71.
The Scottish bard, Thomas Carlyle is supposed to have said “God sit in Heaven and does nothing.”  But he doesn’t reflect most of humanity’s assessment.  Christians and non-believers alike have a sense of God’s tenacious love…and His unrelenting pursuit of us as objects of His love.  It is central to Christian doctrine:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus]; that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  Long before we ever even thought about asking God for help with our alienated relationship, the Father launched a plan of love to send His Son.  So there we were.  Drowning in a quagmire of sin, when Jesus left His throne, laid aside His glory and searched for us—dead to God and all things holy—until He found us.

 
And this pursuing love is central to human experience.  For every bitter, jaded poet there are dozens of others who sense the presence of God in their lives and realites.  Robert Frost, the true bard of Scotland, would urge:

      Tend flowers that God has given
       And keep the pathway open
      That leads you on to heaven.”

But it is probably Francis Thompson’s late 19th century poem, The Hound of Heaven, that is remembered for capturing the thought of God’s relentless search of wayward people.
       From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
       But with unhurrying chase,
      And unperturbed pace,
      Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
      They beat—and a Voice beat
      More instant than the Feet—
      “All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

God pursues us.  He loves you.  Will you not stop your running and let His love capture you?







 

 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

New England Patriots, Cheating and Deflate Gate

Okay.  I can’t help myself anymore.  I’m going to weigh in with my emotionally charged opinion about the New England “deflate gate” controversy.  I might as well own up to my bias that this year’s Superbowl features two of the worst teams in the NFL.  And before all of you football aficionados go ballistic, allow me to qualify “worst.”  Worst, as in morally worst.  So you need not write in about the Seahawks incredible defense, or Tom Brady’s status as an all-time great quarterback.  I simply believe you are hard pressed to find two other teams with as many moral deficiencies as the Seahawks and Patriots (perhaps the New Orlean's Saints could rival them).

Bill Belichick has the dishonor of being the only coach in NFL history to have a half million dollar fine leveled against him for cheating (the famous “spygate” episode of 2007).  He is an admitted cheater.  Today, he goes back and forth between admission and denial, sometimes owning it, sometimes spinning it.  But that is beside the point.  The NFL is conducting yet another investigation against the New England Patriots.  They were found in this years AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts to have footballs two pounds per square inch UNDER the required rules.  The NFL minimum is 12.5.  The Pats had their balls at 10.5 (they no official report has yet been issued).

Here are my problems with the Patriot’s cover up.

First, Bill Beli-cheat’s first interview on Thursday, January 22.  The one where he said he learned more about football air pressure in the past 3 days than in 40 years.  The one where he said he knew nothing.  Hmmm.   This from the same coach who is notoriously micro-managerial on every aspect of his team.  The one who looks at every angle for an edge.  The coach who supposedly only “misinterpreted” rules regarding video-taping of opponents defensive coordinator’s signals, but who has no earthly idea about football air pressure.  In Belichick’s world, someone brought up the idea of secretly videotaping the opposition to help the Patriots win, but no one ever, EVER, in his 40 years of coaching, ever suggested deflating balls to make them easier to catch and hold.  Yes, folks, the Patriots talked about this elaborate scheme to spy on their opponents and even read the rules to see what was legal and what was not.  Yet, they never, ever talked about what they might be able to do to make their footballs more manageable.

Second, Tom Brady’s follow up interview later that day.  The Patriot’s were in full damage control, trying to deflect attention from yet another violation of NFL rules.  Brady told us that he picks out the balls and that they matter to him.  This is presumably why he and others lobbied the NFL for the rule change back in 2007 to allow each team to pick their own balls.  When I pick those footballs out, at that point to me they're perfect” Brady said.  But this great, legendary QB supposedly didn’t realize two years later, his chosen balls were no longer perfect.  If we are to believe Brady, he can’t tell the difference between a properly inflated ball and one that is 1-2 pounds lighter.  So much for his method of picking the “perfect” balls.  The guy can’t remember what feels ‘perfect’ to him from one hour to the next.

Third, professor Belicheat’s scientific opinings.  His final interview, to put the matter to rest, was just too much.  He offered the explanation that the Patriot’s properly inflated the balls, but when they were taken out into the cold weather, they deflated on their own.  Never mind that the Indianapolis Colt’s properly inflated balls remained properly inflated in the same climate.  Who needs facts when we have the NFL convicted cheating coach now turned scientist telling us the climate did it?  Oh yeah.  And just in case the weather didn’t do it, maybe them “roughing” up Tom Brady’s “leave them like they are” perfect balls caused some air to leak? 

Too many miss the point of cheating.  I listened to way too many of the sporting world’s talking heads tell us it didn’t affect the outcome of the game.  Granted, the way that particular game was played, the Colts would likely have lost if Tom Brady were throwing anvils or beach balls.  But the cheating Patriots have profoundly affected both the game and their legacy.  When the sun sets on their contemporary dominance of the AFC and we look backwards, we will never know just how good, or how bad the New England Patriots were.  If the Patriots earn their fourth Superbowl victory this coming Sunday with Bill Belichick as head coach and Tom Brady as Quarterback, many will say they are the greatest team, greatest head coach and greatest QB ever.  But one solid, stubborn fact will overshadow those accolades...cheaters are never great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

International Holocaust Remembrance Day


Seven decades ago today, Soviet forces were rolling through Poland, uncovering some of the worst inhumanities of the Third Reich and some of the greatest abuses of the Jewish people.  On January 27, 1945, they came into Auschwitz…a name that has become synonymous with evil and human suffering…where they liberated nearly 7,000 prisoners still in the camp.  Nazis had forced some 60,000 to march west just days earlier and the world would come to learn that at least 1.1 million people were killed there.

We should remember the Holocaust for its history.  Now seventy years distant, time has worked some of its effect.  The movies, the pictures and the stories have perhaps calloused us a bit to the great horror of this epochal nightmare.  We must work to make sure this history still haunts us and moves us to the resolve of “never again.”  Stories like those of today’s Washington Post are very helpful at achieving this goal.
The IHRA is also committed to this.  In reaffirming the Stockholm Declaration today, they declared:

The unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning for us. We are committed to remembering and honouring its victims, to upholding the terrible truth of the Holocaust, to standing up against those who distort or deny it and to combatting anti-semitism, racism and prejudice…

We should remember the Holocaust for its anti-Semitism.  Adolf Hitler’s maniacal obsession in obliterating the Jewish race is instructive.  In the final days of Germany’s war effort, troop trains gave way to the trains carrying Jews to the gas chambers.  The nation of Iran, the Palestinian state and a multitude of terrorist organizations are committed to the deaths of Jewish persons and the destruction of the nation of Israel.  Stephen Spielberg, in his remarks today at the Auschwitz memorial said:

“If you are a Jew today, in fact if you are any person who believes in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, you know that like many other groups we’re once again facing the perennial demons of intolerance.”

We should remember the Holocaust for its spirit.   The spirit behind the Holocaust was hatred and violence.  And this spirit lives on and is too seldom checked.   Dr. Josef Mengele was the doctor who performed some of the worst experiments imaginable on human subjects at Auschwitz, most notably on identical twins.  Mengele was able to escape to South America where he lived in Argentina for its “no extradition” policy.  Mengele became an abortionist in Buenos Aires, transporting his violence towards Jews outside the womb to babies within the womb.  In America, 57,000,000 babies have been aborted since its legalization.  Our nation’s abortion chambers have turned out systematic death with such ruthless effectiveness that many of Hitler’s “Final Solution” Nazi planners would find impressive.

When several hundreds of people rioted in Ferguson, Missouri to protest the Grand Jury exoneration of Officer Darren Wilson, the national news media ran non-stop coverage.  When nearly a quarter of a million people marched peacefully in Washington DC at this past year’s March for Life, the national news media was silent. 

Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group, have killed nearly 2,000 Christians and burned numerous churches in Nigeria with little resistance from the world.  And again.  We know more about the New England Patriots deflating their balls than the suffering of those Nigerian Christians. 

We definitely need to remember the Holocaust.  Let us remember the victims of one of the world's worst eras, and let us not forget that such evil continues. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Remembering Roe v. Wade

We remember it well.  The date is etched in every pro-life person's mind.  We know it as well as December 7, 1941 or 9/11.  January 22, 1973.  The day the Supreme Court of the United States offered its Roe v Wade decision and foisted upon America, abortion on demand.  They ignored history.  They ignored science.  They ignored morality.  And they ignored constitutional continuity.  They invented a new right.  The right to privacy.

Justice Byron White, one of two dissenting justices (William Rehnquist was the other) stated it well in his dissenting opinion:
"I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the court's judgment. The court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes."

Now, forty two years later, we have experienced over 57,000,000 deaths of unborn children as well as countless deaths of pregnant mothers at the hands of a greedy, profit-driven, money making abortion industry.  The mental anguish of women (and men) exploited by abortion and the subsequent culture of violence created by Roe is another telling hallmark of this heinous case.

Roe v. Wade made it legal to destroy a developing baby within the womb of its mother during all 9 months of pregnancy.  By sanctioning the legal killing of innocent babies, the Supreme Court also slaughtered the noble dignity of a once great nation. 

In many ways, we have accomplished much.  In my own state of Missouri, I remember occasionally picketing the abortion provider Planned Parenthood near 46th & Troost in Kansas City.  It no longer provides abortions.  Neither does Columbia; nor does Springfield.  Planned Parenthood of St. Louis if the only abortion provider in Missouri.  Just one clinic.  But one clinic too many.

Abortion is still a vibrant and functioning part of the American culture.  While most abortionists prefer to keep their trade rather private, there is still little shame on the part of many in advancing this barbarism.  The President didn't bat much of an eye in his State of Union speech on Tuesday with his smoke and mirror gobbledygook.


We still may not agree on a woman's right to choose, but surely we can agree it's a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows, and that every woman should have access to the health care she needs.


By "the healthcare she needs" the President means the Obamacare fiasco forcing religious entities as well as private citizens to pay for women's abortions.  And no, that is not a good thing.  It is not good for the developing baby or even the mental and physical health of the mother; it is not a good thing for person's of pro-life conscience, and it is not a good thing for our nation.

The Republican party, once the unashamed advocate for the unborn, abandoned this week, legislation that would have protected babies in the fifth to ninth months of development from the pain of an abortion.

So let us remember today.  Let us remember the decision that ended dignity in America.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

President Obama's State of the Union Address

Ok.  I confess.  I watched President Obama's State of the Union Address.  I knew it would be a colossal waste of time, as well as a stressful and blood-pressure altering event.  Nevertheless, I put my mind, my patriotism and my Christian/conservative values through it.


It was rather boring.


In raw terms of speeches, it simply missed the mark totally.  It lacked just about everything a good speech should have from passionate, engaging delivery to substantive issues.  His opening was confusing.  Never mind his revisionism of the past 15 years.  Sure, we've had some devastating events, but the past decade and a half weren't all bad.  But seriously, they "dawned with terror touching our shores"?  I thought Y2K was the beginning and that 9/11 would come 21 months later.  But I suppose I'm quibbling over what "dawn" actually entails.


"But tonight we turn the page", said the President. "Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999."  I'm not sure what reality he is living in, but nothing has changed for me, my family, nor my friends.  The President would later ask
Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?
That sounds a lot like we haven't turned the page at all.  But what I'd really like to know is whether we will have an economy that gives to those who do nothing.  Whether illegal immigrants will continue to receive for free things my family cannot afford.  Whether those who choose not to work will receive benefits and entitlements at the expense of those who do work.


Additionally, the President's analogy taken from Rebekah Erler's letter that "we [Americans] are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times" is laughable.  We don't even all speak the same English language.


I suppose I've been so accustomed to the President's wealth distribution rhetoric that his vision of cheap child care and $0 tuition for community college didn't phase me (much).  And the closing of Gitmo (Guantanamo Bay prison)?  I thought he already promised he was closing it?  Albeit, it would be a huge mistake for our national security.  And that President seemed to know what the American people want and what they sent both Democrats and Republicans to Congress to do.  He seemed to forget that Americans sent Republicans to Congress in droves to stop him and his agenda.


One point did get my blood pumping just a bit.  The President scolded Congress
So let's set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let's pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.

As if the Keystone Pipeline bill would not be complex enough.  The President doesn't want a one-issue bill.  That would be too simplistic.  We could know who wants us dependent on foreign oil.  We could have a very focused debate on one issue.  But the President, who says he doesn't want politics as usual, wants politics as usual.  Create a massive bill with a massive pricetag that contains massive issues.


Let's hope the Republicans remember why they were given control of the Senate.  Of course, the best part about the evening was that we will only have to listen to one more State of the Union speech from Mr. Obama.



Monday, December 08, 2014

God Cares About Us



Most of us, from the world’s perspective are insignificant and unimportant.  But a great truth of Scripture and of this Christmas text is that there are no such persons with God.  With Him, every person is significant.  In His sight, you are important—you matter.  I am so thankful we have this Biblical record, this record that God spoke to shepherds.

Interestingly, this is the only place in the Bible that records this story of the angelic interruption of shepherdly slumber.  We could go one of two ways with this and with all other such places in the Bible.  On one hand, we could believe that since it isn’t repeated, it isn’t that essential.  For instance, all four gospels record the crucifixion of Jesus.  We might be prone to lean toward a belief that the Bible would repeat what it wants us to grasp--that God is redundant with stubborn and dull sinners, not leaving them to catch on one hearing His important messages.  But that isn’t a healthy Biblical viewpoint, is it?  That belittles and devalues the Word of God.  It advances a notion that only a part of the Bible is really worth grasping, while others, though they are perhaps interesting and helpful, can generally be overlooked.

Perhaps you realize that only the gospels of Matthew and Luke give us anything at all on the birth of Jesus.  Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism, while John begins with Jesus’ pre-existence.  Why the Holy Spirit moved only within the heart of Dr. Luke to record this event I do not know.  I only know I am grateful that God has given us this passage.  God speaks to people the rest of society is prone to forget or ignore.

The Amherst, Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson wrote in 1891, “I’m nobody!  Who are you?”  I wish she had known God better.  No one is a “nobody” with him.  Not Emily Dickinson.  Not shepherds abiding in the fields.  Not me and not you.  Jesus tells us “the very hairs on your head are numbered; don’t be afraid.  You are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7).

God cares about us.  It is why He sent Jesus.  Jesus would die on a cross so that our sins could be forgiven.  That’s how much God cares.