Monday, September 15, 2014

ISRAEL OR THE CHURCH?

A recent action by a Republican senator from Texas has stirred up comments in both the secular and the religious media.  Ted Cruz of Texas was booed off the stage while addressing representatives of the suffering and persecuted Christians in the Middle East.  From the bits of his speech that I heard, it sounded like he was attempting to turn the rally he was addressing into a pro-Israel rally.  While he was speaking of persecution of both Christians and Jews, he received what sounded like a reasonable amount of supportive applause.  But as he continued speaking, his theme kept moving toward the idea of the nation of Israel being the Christians' best hope and the applause became more and more interspersed with and finally replaced by boos.  He ended up walking off the stage with the statement,  "If you will not stand with Israel then I will not stand with you!"


So how do we explain this?  And with whom should we side?  Before attempting to answer the second question, I felt that I needed to attempt to seek Senator Cruz' motives for seemingly shooting himself in the foot, and to figure out why there were those who agreed with him and even condemned his hearers. Many thoughts were given by various bloggers and pundits.

Some attempted to blame his audience by simply accusing them of anti-Semitism.  But a look at what's happening in the Middle East gives the lie to this thinking.  The church there is undergoing horrible suffering under militant Islam.  They suffer for their faith in Christ and not for their political allegiance even though they are mostly Arab peoples.  They are caught in the middle - between Sunnis and Shiites, between Israelis and Palestinian Muslims.  This explanation seems to be simply another case of blaming the victim.

Another more plausible explanation is that these Christians are different.  Cruz is an American and reputed to be from an Evangelical background.  The Christians he was addressing and their brand of Christianity have always seemed a bit suspect to American Evangelicals (of whom I am one).  They have strange rituals and customs and dress.  Their faith doesn't seem compatible with our born-again Bible thumping.  It's too "spooky" for us.  So it is easier to question the reality of their faith.

Another possible way of explaining Cruz' actions - though admittedly more cynical - is to "follow the money."  The pro-Israel lobby is undoubtedly much more powerful than this group of suffering Christians and can do much more for the Senator.  Perhaps both of these last two motives were involved in Cruz' behavior.

I'll suggest another possible motivating factor which occurred to me as soon as I read about this.  I confess that I don't know that much about Cruz' religious/theological background, but I do know a bit about the theological thinking of many in the Evangelical world, a way of interpreting the Scriptures that I believe has led many to agree with Mr. Cruz.

A large number of Evangelical Christians hold to a theological system known as Dispensationalism, even though many who hold this position may never have heard the word.  Dispensationalists take pride in "rightly dividing the Word of Truth," in noting the distinctions made in the Scriptures.  To some extent this is an excellent way to interpret the Scriptures.  But sometimes Dispensationalists make distinctions where the Bible is not that clear.  And they also at times carry those distinctions to illogical conclusions.

Dispensationalists distinguish (as do many Christians) between God's Old Covenant people and His New Covenant people, between the nation of Israel of the Old Testament and the Church of the New, between Judaism and Christianity.  They do not see the Church (Christianity) as a continuation of God's promises, expanded to include both Jews and non Jews who believe in Christ.  "So then, know this; that those who are of faith, these are sons of Abraham" (Galatians 3:7).

Dispensationalists see Israel as a people set aside until the end times when God will again deal with them.  "And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written, 'The Deliverer will come from Zion to turn away ungodliness from Jacob'" (Romans 11:26; Isaiah 59:20).  And many see the present (secular) nation of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.  According to Dispensationalist eschatology (the doctrine of last things) the nation of Israel, scattered for millennia, must be back in their land and undergo seven years of "great tribulation" before Jesus returns.

And this eschatology has led some (not all) Dispensationalists to a strange devotion and commitment to a foreign nation.  Many American Dispensationalists appear to place their loyalty to Israel above their loyalty to their own country.  The nation of Israel is regarded not simply as an American ally in the Middle East, nor even as the homeland of a people who have been homeless for 2,000 years.  Israel in the land is regarded by them as the fulfillment of prophecy.  To disregard Israel is considered to be akin to heresy.

And so we find many followers of Christ ignoring the cries of their persecuted brothers and sisters in favor of a foreign political unit.  And agreeing with Ted Cruz' statements.  Brothers and sisters it ought not to be so.

See:  CONFESSIONS OF A (FORMER) DISPENSATIONALIST
(http://billball.blogspot.com/2013/07/confessions-of-former-dispensationalist.html)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

PREACHERS AND PRIDE

News of what's happening in the Christian community usually passes under the radar of the secular news media - unless, of course, there's a good juicy scandal.  And there have been enough of those to bring us into the public eye regularly.  Usually these have something to do with the sexual (mis)behavior of some well-known preacher or televangelist, but occasionally there will be one or two involving financial indiscretions.

Recently there has been a scandal involving a mega-church pastor who is also a founder and leader of a large network of churches.  This scandal, however, does not as far as I know, involve sex, and only involves financial impropriety in a secondary way.  It appears to involve plagiarism and padding of sales of the pastor's books.  The pastor was removed from his office by his board.  His pride was named as a problem.  The secular media had little to say about this, of course.

As I read of these goings-on in the religious media I kept thinking about that word - "pride".  Isn't that possibly the main problem behind all of these scandals?

I have been associated with Christian ministry in one way or another for nearly 60 years.  I graduated from seminary and was ordained 37 years ago.  I have served as a pastor of a number of churches and have served on boards of others.  When I taught at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, many of my students were people involved in the ministry.  I count many pastors and full-time Christian workers among my friends and acquaintances.  And I have known some who have "fallen".  I've had to deal with a few of these ministers and I've also had to deal with many people who were pieces of the wreckage that they and others had left behind.

When I entered my first pastorate at the age of 40, I felt that I had enough maturity to handle most crises.  I thought I'd seen it all and was unshockable.  But such was not the case.  In the first year that I served at that church I had to deal with a situation that tried me to the limits.

It was a small church - a hundred or so people.  In the church was a minister along with  his wife and family - children, parents and in-laws.  He served as director of a Christian ministry not directly related to the church.  He was about my age, but with more experience in the ministry, so Uni and I cultivated their friendship.  Uni even went to work in his office part-time.  Well, it wasn't long before she discovered his briefcase full of porn and then we found that he was having multiple affairs and had been for years.  It ended in a messy divorce and with his being removed from his position.

Uni and I were left to pick up the pieces - disillusioned church members, prominent townspeople, one of the women, his family of three generations.  And church leadership that didn't know what to do, but somehow felt that my way of handling the situation was not the best.  And this was just the beginning of a number of similar experiences.

Though at the time I felt stretched nearly to the breaking point, I later came to realize that I had gone through an education experience that I could never have gotten in seminary and that my four years in seminary had not prepared me for.

And it forced me to rethink my motives for being in the ministry.  The man I had to deal with was clearly a man with an excess of pride; this came out during the conflict.  And yet I soon realized that I too was suffering from the same affliction.

Why do people go into the public ministry?  Why did I?  Oh sure, most of us have felt some sort of "call" or at least have felt the Lord's leading in some way or another, or we've felt gifted as teachers, exhorters or leaders.  But are there also underlying motives that we don't like to admit?  Is it possible that the same motives or personality traits that lead some to enter the ministry could also be contributing factors in their fall?

I believe that we are more complex than we recognize or want to recognize.  We may have entered the ministry for what seem the best of motives.  We love the Lord; we love His church; we love people; we want to yield totally to Christ.  We don't do this for our own benefit.  And yet --

Let's face it, most of us in public ministry have egos that need feeding - pride.  Of course, we need feedback and need to know what impact our ministry is having.  Those "amens!" - the responses to our sermons, to our counseling - tell us they're listening and growing.  But they also make us feel good!  It's easy to take them as responses to us rather than the Lord; and sometimes they are.

Those who fall into sexual or financial indiscretions are crossing a line that we all face.  I suspect that it's not only or even primarily the sex or the money - it's the bump to our egos that they bring.  Most of us - at least the men in the ministry I know - have at times come too close to that line and some have crossed it.  Though I've not been in a situation where money has been much of a temptation, I can assure my readers that I've been in situations with women where I've had to - to use Paul's word - flee!  (Sometimes I've had to warn him of the danger! - Uni)

Harry Truman  once said:  "When you get to be President, there are all those things, the honors, the 21-gun salutes, all those things.  You have to remember it isn't for you.  It's for the Presidency."

And we in the ministry need to remember this as well.  It's not about us.  We have a higher calling than even the Presidency.  We must submit our pride to the One we serve.  So when we receive those honors, they are not to build up our ego.  We need to point them to Jesus.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

WHY DO WE DO STUPID STUFF?

According to Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and likely presidential candidate, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle."  We may agree with her assessment, yet as we look around at the nations of the world, it would seem that paying attention to this prohibition should be a necessity for good government and that it is too often ignored.
 
Why do people in authority do stupid stuff?  This question has often come to my mind as I watch the daily news programs.  It seems that quite often those who should be leaders in their nations and communities fail to exercise anything that resembles good leadership.  I'm not thinking especially of immoral acts, but of acts and behaviors that appear to be contrary to the best interests, not only of those led, but of those very leaders.

Hosni Mubarak is deposed as dictator in Egypt; rather than giving ear to the complaints of his people, he attempted to violently suppress all protest, which ultimately resulted in his overthrow.  Even when it was apparent that his methods of suppression weren't working, he continued on the same course.  Mohammed Morsi was then elected as Prime Minister of Egypt in a fair election and when protests arose, he followed the same methods of oppression as his predecessor.  And he too suffered the same fate.  Now we have a third leader in Egypt who seems to be following the same course.

We could name more middle eastern dictators and wannabe dictators, who continue to follow non-workable government policies which get them thrown out of office or killed, or even worse, destroy their nations:  Assad in Syria, Maliki in Iraq.

But we don't need to go halfway around the world to witness these strange behaviors.  The actions of the police in Ferguson, Missouri come to mind.  Attempts to quell legitimate protest with militarized force only lead to more and more violence.

Don't these guys ever learn?  Don't they watch the news?  Can't they see that their methods don't work?  That they are counter-productive?

The above examples all demonstrate that force is not only ineffective but actually contrary to the best interests of all parties.  The use of force, however, is only one way in which those in leadership can act contrary even to their own best interests.

Having been involved in church "politics" for many years, as both a pastor and a layman, I can verify that this behavior is as often the rule as the exception.  I've also seen it among engineers and educators.

Browsing through the sale rack at the Half Price Bookstore, I came across a copy of The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman.  I am always delighted to find a book I haven't read but have wanted to for years.  Though the book is 30 years old it was still in great shape and at three dollars  I felt I couldn't afford to pass it up.  The book deals with the very question that had bothered me and it is a fascinating read.

Tuchman's first chapter sets the stage for the whole book.  She is concerned about "misgovernment" which she sees as being "of four kinds, often in combination ... :  1) tyranny or oppression ...; 2) excessive ambition ...; 3) incompetence or decadence ... and finally 4) folly or perversity" (page 5).  She tells us, "This book is concerned with the last, in a specific manifestation; that is the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved."  "To qualify as folly" she continues, a policy "must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time."  Also "a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. ... a third criterion" she says, "must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler."

She cites examples from many different periods of history, but for purposes of her book homes in on just four, which make up the major sections of the book:
·       "Prototype:  The Trojans Take the Wooden Horse Within Their Walls"
·       "The Renaissance Popes Provoke the Protestant Secession 1470-1530"
·       "The British Lose America"
·       "America Betrays Herself in Vietnam"

The book is full of historical details which are usually ignored by many.  After all, I've been taught the Reformation from the view of the Reformers and the American Revolution from the American point of view without much consideration of what brought these on, from the "losers'" point of view.

But what fascinates is her comments and observations on the folly as demonstrated in the details.  She shows the various aspects of folly.  As I read I kept my iridescent yellow pen handy for every mention of the word "folly."

What we observe on our evening news then, is nothing new.  The pursuit by governments and lesser leaders of policies contrary to the interests of both governors and governed has been going on since the dawn of history; some of the earliest being Rehoboam's loss of 10 tribes and the reduction of the nation of Israel as well as the Trojan horse.

In the Epilogue Tuchman concludes, "If pursuing disadvantage after the disadvantage has become obvious is irrational, then rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly" (page 380).  She does not offer much hope of change but sees a need for an educated electorate "that will recognize and reward integrity of character and ... reject the ersatz" (page 387).

Tuchman does not write as a Christian but more as a pragmatist.  She does address matters, such as greed and the lust for power, but less from a moral position than a pragmatic one.  And yet as a Christian I find myself agreeing with her.  The moral position is often the practical one.  Greed, self-aggrandizement, the failure to consider what is best for one's neighbor; refusal to face the truth about one's actions -- these could all be recognized as sin.  And of course sin is ultimately self-destructive.

The Bible is full of stories similar to those found in this book.  In fact, the history of the nation of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament in a continual repetition of the book's themes:  actions taken for which there were better alternatives; refusal to heed warnings -- in most cases the prophets.  And these actions ultimately brought down the nation.

Of course, we could go clear back to the Garden of Eden, to Eve's and Adam's partaking of the forbidden fruit, which got the ball rolling.  We've been following their precedent every since.

How often have we -- have I -- taken actions that were not only sinful but destructive, not only to me but to those I am responsible for?  Forgive me Lord and help me to heed your warnings.

Friday, July 18, 2014

DO ATHEISTS EXIST?

I enjoy reading of the latest scientific discoveries, though I am amused at how often great, thorough studies are made, only to arrive at conclusions that many people already know or at least suspect:  sunshine is addictive; broccoli is good for you; domestic cats kill small animals, etc.  I am especially amused when scientific discoveries arrive at biblical conclusions or at least come close.

So I was intrigued when I came across an article in The Week magazine (7/18/14, page 10) entitled, "Are humans hardwired for faith?"  This article referred me to a longer article published in Science 2.0 by Nuri Vittachi with the even more intriguing title, "Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that's not a joke".

I have long suspected that what this title asserted was actually so, even though there have been many who would disagree.

This article begins by stating, "While militant atheists like Richard Dawkins may be convinced God doesn't exist, God, if he is around, may be amused to find that atheists might not exist." And it goes on to tell us, "Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged."

While Vittachi concedes that "this idea may seem outlandish," he explains that what we believe is not something we decide on our own, but lies somewhere in our "much deeper levels of consciousness."  He asserts that scientists claim "we are born believers ... pattern seekers from birth, with a belief in karma, or cosmic justice, as our default setting."

Vittachi continues by presenting evidence involving "invisible friends" - some person or persons with whom we all hold internal conversations -  whether these are divine beings, spouses, near relatives or whatever.

He relates how in social science studies, even those who claim to be atheist or agnostic, claim belief in some higher power.  Though he comes up with some attempts at evolutionary explanations we are still left with huge percentages of humankind who have some sense of purpose in the universe - even those who claim no religious affiliation.  He speaks of "the notion" of "an invisible moralistic presence" which motivates "religious folk."

One interesting argument he gives is that from literature.  There seems to be a "manifestation of cosmic justice in fictional narratives - books, movies and games."  We're told that "in almost all fictional worlds, God exists" - no matter what the "beliefs" of the authors.  "In children's stories ... the good guys win, the bad guys lose."  The same goes for most adult stories.

It would appear then that rather than to seek an explanation for belief in God as many professing atheists demand, we need to answer the question "where does atheism fit in?"

The article continues with much the same argument with similar data and concludes "...it might be wise for religious folks to refrain from teasing atheist friends who accidentally say something about their souls.  And it might be equally smart for the more militant of today's atheists to stop teasing religious people at all.
          We might all be a little more spiritual than we think."

As I implied earlier, these conclusions come close to, and even verify the biblical assertion that everyone is religious in some way or another, or at least has religious predispositions.

Qoheleth, the author of the biblical book whose title is usually given as Ecclesiastes, is probably the one biblical writer whom we'd be tempted to label as cynical (he's not).  He writes from the perspective of one who lives "under the sun" and seems to be searching for meaning in life.  He feels that God has laid this "task" on him.  Qoheleth is not setting about this task on the basis of some written or spoken command, but apparently because of an inner subjective urge.

"It is an evil task which God has given to the sons of men to be tasked with" (1:13).

"He has made everything beautiful in its time.  Also He has placed eternity in their heart, without which man will not find out the work which God has worked from beginning until end" (3:11).

Qoheleth doesn't claim that he attained a knowledge of God and His ways from divine revelation.  He rather tells his readers of what he has "seen," as well as this inner urge and desire "placed in (his) heart."  And he is not alone.  He claims that God has laid this "task" on "the sons of men."  This appears to be a claim that the whole human race has this inner Godward urge placed upon them.

If we fast forward about a thousand years we find the Apostle Paul making similar assertions.  He tells the readers of his letter to the Romans.

"... that which can be known of God is evident among them (i.e. humankind), for God made it evident to them" (Romans 1:19).

Though Paul was primarily speaking of the evidence for God in nature ("the things He has made" - verse 20), the word translated "among" (Greek - en) could also be translated "within" and may imply the conscience.  He is certainly speaking of what Vittachi would refer to as an inner sense of "cosmic justice," (or even "karma"?) in his following argument:

"For whenever gentiles (pagans, non-Jews), those who don't have the Law, by nature do the things of the Law, these who don't have the Law are a law to themselves, such ones as give evidence of the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience testifying together and their reasonings alternately accusing or excusing them" (2:14, 15).

As Paul presents it here, the conscience is not merely a moral sense, a sense of right and wrong, but a sense of moral responsibility in the sight of a divine being.  And Paul seems to assume this sense to be true of all human beings.

The Bible, which asserts the existence of God from the first verse (the third word in Hebrew), nowhere assumes the existence of atheists as we would define them, although it mentions those who deny God's existence by their behavior.

"The fool says in his heart, there is no God" (Psalm 14:1; 53:1; also see 10:4).

This is not, however, an intellectual denial of God's existence, but a moral denial.  It is an indictment of those who behave as though they think God has no moral authority over them.  They are "fools" not because of their intellectual denial, but because of their behavior.

So what should we conclude?  Perhaps we should go back to what Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher said in his Pensees:  " ... there was once in man a true happiness ... there now remain(s) to him only the mark and empty trace, ... the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself."

All have some knowledge of God.  But as Paul says, it is our responsibility to recognize Him - to "glorify Him and give thanks" (Romans 1:21).  Sad to say we don't do this.

Also see:  WHAT HAPPENED?
                 MAYBE WE'RE ALL FUNDAMENTALISTS