Saturday, November 18, 2017

IN DEFENSE OF A NAME

"But if you are called an Evangelical Christian and boast in God ... being confident of yourself that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, having a form of knowledge and of the truth in the Bible.  You then who teach the other, don't you teach yourself?  You who preach not to steal, do you steal?  You who say don't commit adultery, do you commit adultery?  For God's name is slandered among the unbelievers because of you ..."
- Paul the Apostle (Romans 8:17-24 - I changed a few words.)

An accused pedophile is a candidate for a Senate seat from the state of Alabama. Numerous women have come forth with allegations of his attempted relations with them when he was in his thirties and they were teenagers.  We are told that he was banned from the local mall around the same time, because of his coming on to teenage girls.

Many of his constituents are defending him in various ways, besides blaming the liberal news media, the Democrats and the establishment Republicans.  A couple of the weirder defenses are:
            "Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter, so what he (the would-be senator) did was no different."  (There is no mention of Joseph's age in the Bible, nor any mention of his being a carpenter at that time; and he didn't have sex with her till they were married and she had given birth to Jesus.)
            "This man is being 'persecuted like Jesus Christ.'"

Of course. the late night comics are having a great time with this and even the more serious newspersons seem to have problems keeping from rolling their eyes.  But, whether comics or newspersons, whether of the left or right, all refer to him and his supporters as "Evangelical Christians."

This title of course is nothing new in the public discourse.  "Evangelical Christian" is understood to be a voting bloc of the extreme right.  They stand for "values," "family values" and extreme moralism.  They are opposed to gay marriage (actually anything to do with homosexual behavior), abortion and birth control.  They want to "bring America back to God."  They are often seen (by friend or foe alike) as angry.  They feel they are being persecuted.

Wait a minute!  I object!  I have for many years considered myself an Evangelical Christian and I take exception to the accepted descriptions above!  I do not want to be identified with these.  I know that some who once would have referred to themselves as Evangelical Christians, have dropped the name, and I confess that I have been tempted to.  It's difficult having to explain that I'm not one of those guys.

So I believe we need to look at the history of these two words.  First the word "Christian."  This word is only used three times in the New Testament.  And it is not a name taken on themselves by the followers of Christ.

The first usage is in Acts 11:26:  " ... and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."  This was a formation of the name "Christ" and meant something like "followers of Christ."  Before this they had never had the label pinned on them.  The church in Antioch was the first church with a large number of Gentiles (non-Jews) and the label was apparently given by non-believing Gentiles to this new group.  It may have been a name of contempt, or at least disdain like the term "Jesus-freak" back in the 1970s.

The second time we encounter this word is in Acts 26:28.  The apostle Paul had been imprisoned for over two years with no clear charges made.  Finally he had made an appeal to the supreme court of his day, to Caesar himself.  Porcius Festus, the Roman governor scheduled a hearing to determine his actions and called in Herod Agrippa II to aid him in his determination.  Paul in making his case and giving his testimony began to preach the death and resurrection of Christ.  Though Festus accused Paul of being crazy, Paul pressed his case to Agrippa (who of course claimed Jewish ties.)  "King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets?  I know that you do."  And Agrippa replied to Paul, "In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian" (Acts 26:27, 28). Again, this may have been a contemptuous use of the word. Agrippa couldn't  escape the logic of Paul's argument and so, as many do today, resorted to sarcasm.

The third use of the word is in 1 Peter. Peter in this letter is urging his readers to "Keep your behavior excellent (or beautiful) among the Gentiles" (2:12a).  He admits that "they slander you as evildoers" (2:12b).  And then he tells them, "if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.  By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evil-doer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God" (4:14-16).

The label was apparently used derogatorily by those outside the faith in New Testament times and continued to be used that way for some time; to be a Christian was even considered a crime.  All this changed with the legalization of the faith by Constantine and somewhere the word Christian became a word used with pride.  If we fast forward a thousand years or so, we find that the word had become an adjective.  All Europe had become "Christian," if only in the cultural sense.  Today much of the world, including America considers itself Christian.

And what about the word "Evangelical"?  Well the earliest use I know of is from the 16th century.  It was originally used of the followers of Martin Luther and then spread to the other Reformers.   It seems to have been essentially synonymous with "Protestant."  But the roots of the word go way back before the word Christian, even before the Christian era.  It is derived from the Greek word euaggelion, which means, simply "good news" and is found around 75 times in the New Testament.  Also used in the New Testament are the words euaggelizomai, "to tell or proclaim the good news" and euaggelistes, "a bearer (or preacher) of "good news."  (By the way our English word "gospel" - god spell has the same meaning.)

Though the word "evangelical," like the word "Christian" has become more of a cultural term in Europe.  In the United States it has kept much of its original flavor

My Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition defines evangelical in a number of ways, but I believe the following definitions describe how we have historically understood ourselves.

"Evangelical:  1) of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel esp. as it is presented in the four Gospels. 3) emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual."

There is no mention of a voting bloc, or of anything political.  I'm sure the 12th Edition will correct that oversight?

So I will continue to refer to myself as an Evangelical Christian.  And I will use it in the sense given above.  I am a Christian - a disciple - a follower - of Jesus Christ.  I am an Evangelical - one who has been saved by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ and who believes in the authority of Scripture.

To my friends and others on the right:  Please make sure your Evangelicalism has to do with your faith in Christ and your desire to live by the authority of Scripture and not with your Pharisaic moralism or right wing politics.  Please try to live your lives by the example of Christ and the leading of the Spirit.  And when you fail please don't make excuses, don't hesitate to repent and confess your sin.  And please don't accuse your accusers; don't play the martyr!

And to my friends and others on the left:  Please recognize that there are many Evangelical Christians who attempt to live as Christ would have them live.  And when you see or hear of some who call themselves Evangelical Christians but fail to live up to Christ's example, remember that we, like you, are still imperfect sinners.  And when you see some who are behaving in open hypocrisy , if you must label them as Evangelical Christians, at least put quotation marks around the label! 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

THOUGHTS ON RACE BY AN OLD WHITE GUY

Nine years ago, on November 3, 2008, the United States elected our first African American President, Barack Obama.  Uni and I were overwhelmed with excitement that Tuesday evening as we watched the acceptance speech of the man we had voted for.  We had been ministering across racial lines for years and had felt that in our own small way we had made some contribution toward what was then known as "racial reconciliation."  We felt that Barack Obama's election was a great step forward for our nation and the church in America.  We soon found out that we were overly optimistic in our assessment; in  fact we found out the very next evening as we attended our (all white) church's Wednesday evening service. 

We had mixed emotions over the negative comments we heard; our joy became mixed with grief and anger.  What we had seen as something beautiful was perceived by many in my (white Christian) circle as something ugly.  By Friday I had assembled my thoughts enough to publish the following post which I am here republishing in its entirety:

IS GOD STILL ON THE THRONE?

Back in 1960, I was a fairly young believer and attending what I regarded then as a Bible-preaching church. It was an election year, my first in which I’d get to vote for president. The Democrat candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic was running against Richard M. Nixon, a Quaker and well-known Communist hunter.

Meetings were held at various churches, fundamentalist and others, including the one I attended, denouncing the evils of Catholicism and foretelling the horrible dangers that would befall our Protestant nation if Kennedy were elected. Not only was He Catholic, but also a liberal!

Rumors were circulated by mail and tract (I wonder what would have happened if we’d had the Internet).

Well, of course, all of us true believers voted against this horrible evil, but to no avail. Kennedy won! Fear struck our hearts! America was doomed! But few, if any, of our fears were realized.

When Barack Obama was campaigning for election, rumors were spread, only now we have the Internet.
-- He’s a secret Muslim.
-- He’s an Arab.
-- He “pals around with terrorists.”
-- He’s not even an American.
-- He’s going to promote gay marriage.
-- He’s going to take our guns away.
-- And, of course, he’s the anti-Christ!

And a few truths:
-- He’s a liberal (so were the signers of our Declaration of Independence).
-- He’s black (actually, he’s mixed-race)!
-- His middle name is Hussein.

The evening that Obama gave his acceptance speech huge crowds gathered in cities across the nation. Uni and I were moved to tears when we saw the images on our TV screen. Blacks and whites embracing; tears rolling down the cheeks of older black people.

A half-century after the Civil Rights Movement, after the demise of Jim Crow (our American version of apartheid), an African-American was elected President of the USA. We felt it was a great moment in the history of our nation, a demonstration that “all men (really) are created equal.” It was truly historical. Here was a moment all Americans, whether Democrat or Republican, whether black or white, no matter whom they’d voted for, could celebrate.

But such was not the case. Instead, we were told by our Christian friends (and others) that the reactions we witnessed were the same sort of reactions that the anti-Christ will get when he appears; that America may no longer be a “Christian nation” (whatever that is!). A friend of mine was told that the second coming must be near because of this.

This strange mixture of fear, eschatological zeal, far-right politics, and I believe, downright racism is unbecoming to those who name the name of Christ.

And even those who claim that they are not afraid say something like, “Well, we have to remember, God is still on the throne.” Apparently though in their thinking, the throne is wobbling and God is barely hanging on!

Our God is Sovereign! He reigns! He sets up rulers and takes them down. He has a purpose in setting up Barack Obama. Perhaps the church through this will learn a little more tolerance, as some of us did 48 years ago.

Bill Ball
11/7/2008

Knowing that very few of my friends and acquaintances read my blog, I felt that I needed to get these thoughts out to as many as I could,  so I e-mailed it to everyone in my address book.

I waited in fear and apprehension for the replies.  Though only a small number replied, I felt relieved when I read them.  Very few were hostile;  some expressed agreement;
some even seemed to share my feelings; most of them expressed what I at the time optimistically considered "qualified agreement" (See:  YES HE IS.)  I now feel that I was incorrect in this assessment.  Today, as I re-read these replies I understand most of them as attempts (sincere or insincere) to be irenic or conciliatory, perhaps out of respect (or pity?) for me.

I believe that the last nine years have demonstrated that my early optimism was misdirected.  We have made little, if any, progress toward racial reconciliation in America and in the church;  in fact I fear that we've actually gone backward.

For the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency we saw animosity toward him running high, and I strongly believe that much, if not most of it was racially motivated.  Why else would congressional leaders state that their goal was to see him fail?  Why were there so many conspiracy and "birther" theories?  Why the increase in the number of racially motivated and white supremacist hate groups - the Klan, the neo-nazis?

And the situation has not improved since Barack Obama left office.  Racism now seems to have become official American policy.  White supremacist groups are more open and even accepted. And the church at best looks the other way.

Many of my white Christian (and other) friends will sincerely deny that all of these people and actions are or were racially motivated. Perhaps some weren't, though I suspect that many people are simply refusing to look inside.  We fear what we may find.

Uni and I are brokenhearted!  And please do not accuse me of being "political."  This is not simply a matter of politics, but a matter of right and wrong.  It's a matter of the church being the church, of actually loving our neighbors.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

WOMEN, MEN AND JESUS

It seems that lately we are being regularly subjected to reports of sexual misbehavior of prominent men.  Women are becoming more and more open to relating tales of sexual abuse by men, especially those in authority or power over them (These are only the latest.):

            A network executive.
      
            A network commentator - one who has often spoken with "indignation" of the misbehavior of others.

            A beloved comedian - one who has in the past been held up as an example of "family values."

            A movie mogul.

            The President of the United States - who has boasted of sexually assaulting women and calls it simply "locker room talk."

            And, of course, various lesser personalities - politicians, preachers, coaches.

Sadly, while women are seemingly becoming bolder and more open to tell - even to bring lawsuits - this masculine behavior itself is nothing new.  I can remember hearing boasts from my high school acquaintances and fellow office workers. We tend to accept this behavior as "just the way things are."

But while this may be "the way things are," it's not the way things should be!  And when it gets close to home, when we hear or read reports even from those women dear to us, then perhaps it's time for us men to examine our own attitudes as well as our behavior toward the "opposite sex." Are we behaving as though we lived in a patriarchal society. Do we condescend? Do we regard women as somehow simply there for our own pleasure and convenience? How should we behave toward women? What is the proper Christian view on a man's treatment of women?

I've been leading two Bible studies at our church.  One is a study of the family in the Book of Genesis, which I've entitled, "Dysfunctional Family Values."  We've been looking at man/woman and family relationships in this book and find the characters just as broken as those of today.  I've studied and taught this book before, but this time I was hit with the frequency of the appearance of tragic (abused?) female figures:

            Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl, forced to have sex with the aged Abraham and to become the "surrogate mother" of his child, only to be rejected and driven away into the desert.

            Leah, the unattractive older sister forced unloved into a polygamous relationship.

            Dinah, the 11th of 13 siblings and only girl. Raped and then given in marriage (apparently without her consent) by her brothers who then slaughter her husband and all his family.

            Tamar, who lost two husbands and then resorted to prostitution, and after being impregnated by her own father-in-law, threatened with death for becoming pregnant.

And again we tend to accept these stories as "just the way things are."  After all, the society of those days was patriarchal.

But my other Bible study is in the Gospel of John.  It is here we find the One who treats women with respect and dignity, at times revealing truths about Himself to them that He had not even revealed to the 12 men in His inner circle:

            The Samaritan woman he meets at the well - a woman considered by Jews as of an inferior race and a false religion - a woman who had apparently been bounced from one man to the next and was currently on her sixth.  Besides breaking tradition by talking to her, Jesus asks to drink from her water jar, breaking taboo after taboo.  It is to this woman he reveals that the worship of God is a spiritual matter not to be confined to a particular location. And He told her that God was seeking such worshippers. God was seeking her!

            The woman caught in adultery, brought to Jesus as a test case. After silencing and sending off her accusers ("Let the one without sin cast the first stone.") He turns to her and asks "Where are your accusers?" and sends her off with assurance that He does not accuse her.

            Mary and Martha whose brother Lazarus, Jesus raises from the dead. It is to Martha he makes the amazing claim, "I am the Resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me will live even if she dies..." Then he personalizes it with, "Do you believe this?"

            Later it is Martha's sister Mary who anoints His feet with expensive perfume. And Jesus defends her action to Judas and the others.

            His own mother Mary, for whom He takes concern even while dying on the cross.

            And, of course, Mary Magdalene, the first person to whom he appeared after his resurrection in a tender moving scene.

I don't believe we men need a book or a list of rules telling us how to relate to women. I believe we simply need to follow Jesus' example, to ask, "What would Jesus do?" - and then do it!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

FANTASYLAND

Kurt Andersen, the author of Fantasyland - How American Went Haywire appears to believe he's put his finger on why we in America think and behave the strange way we do.  When I first started reading the book, however, I had mixed feelings.  While I felt that this book brought out some accurate analyses of American culture, I also felt like I was sitting around with an old curmudgeon who was mainly complaining about America's slippery slide.  I felt that the book would be best subtitled, "A Cynic's Guide to American History."  However, as I continued I found it a fascinating read and felt compelled to carry on through its 400 plus pages.

Kurt Andersen has impressive credentials:  a novelist, a contributor to The New York Times and Vanity Fair, a host on Public Radio and many others.  He is well-known as a cultural critic.  Andersen claims somewhere to be an agnostic and has a low view of Christianity, which he feels is based on fantasy.  This, I feel, is actually rather encouraging, because if a book such as this were written by a Christian, it would probably be ignored by most, except for the Pat Robertson types.

The thesis of the book is pretty clear and is brought out in the title:  we in America live in a fantasy world and have been moving in that direction since the beginning.  Interestingly, though our modern situation with a president who treats his office as that of a reality show host and who appears to have little understanding of truth is the epitome of "fantasyland," this is not where the author begins.  In fact, he lets us know that he began his studies and writing long before the Trump era.

He credits (or blames) the beginnings of this slide with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation (hence the subtitle "a 500 year history").  By making "belief in the Bible's supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus ... the only prerequisite for being a good Christian," Luther started people on a course of believing whatever they chose to.  "The footings for Fantasyland had been cast." (page 17)

The settlers of America come next; they are of two kinds:  the gold-seekers and the heaven-on-earth-seekers, i.e. the Puritans.  Both believed a fantasy; one group believed the fantasy that wealth for the pickings was to be found in America; the other that some sort of Millennial Kingdom could be built here.  And both were wrong.

And so we continue through the history of our nation.  Credit is given to those of our Founding Fathers who were "reality based," such as Franklin, Washington and Jefferson. The Enlightenment is not seen as a step in the right direction; rather it "gave license to the freedom of all thought ... the absurd and untrue, as well as, the sensible and true:"  The Great Awakening religious revival is a step backward into fantasy and led to even greater fantasies, such as Mormonism and the other weird religious movements of the early 19th century.

And on it goes from P. T. Barnum and the snake-oil salesmen to the California gold rush and on into the 20th century, the Fundamentalist movement and so on.  The hippy movement.  Always underlying much of his history are his digs at the "fantasies" of Christianity.  It's a discouraging history.  The red scare.  The plethora of conspiracy theories.  The economic bubbles.  Even liberal intellectuals with their post-modernism making truth optional and personal, subjective rather than objective.

Then there are the Hollywood versions of Fantasyland:  Disneyland and all its imitators.  The X-files.  Though these make no claims to reality, we are less and less able to tell where reality leaves off and fantasy begins.

And we finally end up in Trump's America, dominated by "alternative facts" and "fake news" and Fox News.  An America where "truthiness" is more pleasing than truth.

So how do we Christians take this book?  I suppose many, even most of my fellow believers will either ignore this book, write it off as the rantings of an agnostic curmudgeon or resent it as one more attack on the faith.  For sure, like many unbelievers, Andersen at times shows little knowledge of the Christianity he attacks.  And yes, he himself appears to have his own fantasy bubble.  As one reviewer said, he suffers, in short, from "the fantasy of the intellectual that of all the rival systems competing for our attention, his alone is reality-based."  (James Bowman in The Weekly Standard quoted in The Week, 9/22/17).

And yet I believe that this is an important book for any Christian communicator, for a number of reasons, the first being, as Robert Burns said long ago, "to see oursels as others see us."  And this should lead to confession of our complicity in the decline in thinking in America.  Andersen sees any belief in the supernatural as fantasy thinking and while we may not be able to prove him wrong to his satisfaction, we can at least attempt to rid ourselves of the fantasies that cling to us: imaginary miracles, supposed signs of the second coming, reading all disasters as signs of God's judgment, the prosperity gospel, seeking solutions to our moral problems in immoral political leaders.  At times (most times?) we who consider ourselves orthodox appear just as loony as the rest.
Also - though unwittingly - Andersen's book illustrates some truths that are essential to our understanding of the  faith:  the doctrine of original sin ("the only doctrine of Christianity that is empirically verifiable."), as well as humankind's propensity toward religious and superstitious error.  Or as the Apostle Paul said, "they (humankind) became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened."  (Romans 1:21)

And this book teaches us the danger of uncritical thinking.  Of all people, we who are committed to the One who claimed to be the Truth, should also be committed to discerning the truth in every claim and to not be eager to follow the path to Fantasyland.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

PROPHETS AND KINGS

When I first read the story of Micaiah and Ahab in the Bible many years ago, I could hardly believe what I was reading - not because it sounded too fantastic or unbelievable, but because it made me laugh.  Would God record a story so hilarious in His Word?  Apparently so.

Micaiah the prophet is only mentioned in one story in the Old Testament, but for some reason his story is told twice.  It's recorded in First Kings, chapter 22, verses 1-28 and in Second Chronicles, chapter 18, verses 1-27.  Both versions are essentially the same, with small variations in the details.  Read them both.

Though I still enjoy this story as a favorite, still see the humor and irony in it, and still see its relevance, I have found it even more relevant to our present situation in America.  If the reader will bear with me I'll try to tell it in my own words.

The nation of Israel had been divided into two separate kingdoms, both populated by the LORD's covenant people.  The northern kingdom still bore the name Israel, but had begun with an apostate religion, while the southern kingdom named Judah, had held on to the worship of the LORD, at least outwardly.  As our story begins, the kings of the two kingdoms had come together for some kind of conference, Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah.  We are told elsewhere something of what these two kings were like.

"Indeed there never was anyone like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the LORD, at the instigation of his wife Jezebel.  He acted very abominably in chasing after idols ..." (1 Kings 21:25, 26)

"Jehoshaphat ... walked in all the way of his father Asa and did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the LORD." (1 Kings 22:42, 43)

Though these two were clearly poles apart in their morals and religious beliefs their kingdoms had been united by the marriage of Jehoshaphat's son with Ahab's daughter.

Anyway at this conference, Ahab made a huge feast at which he attempted to persuade Jehoshaphat to unite with him to go to war with Aram (present day Syria) at a place called Ramoth-Gilead.  Jehoshaphat was in agreement.  "I'm with you; my people are as your people."  But Jehoshaphat wasn't quite ready; he said, "let's inquire for a word from the LORD."

So we're told that Ahab brought in about 400 of his prophets to give their opinions.  And of course, as religious leaders often do when given political prominence, these sycophantic soothsayers sucked up to this narcissistic king.  When he asked, "Should I go up to battle or should I refrain?" they all of course immediately assured him of victory.  Interestingly, at first they did not use the name of the LORD (Yahweh) but said, "the Lord (Adonai) will give victory," or "God will give victory."  Were they a bit afraid to cite the LORD as their source.?

Jehoshaphat seems to have been unimpressed.  "Wait a minute, isn't there a prophet of the LORD that we can inquire of?"  Apparently he was able to see through these phonies.
 
"Well yeah" said Ahab, "there's one more, but I hate him cause he never prophesies anything good about me, only evil" ("fake news?") His name is Micaiah Ben Imlah."

Jehoshaphat said, "Please don't say that your majesty!"

So Ahab called an officer to fetch Micaiah.  He knew where to find him; was he already in jail?

The officer told Micaiah that everyone was speaking favorable (flattering?) things to the king and that if he knows what's good for him he'll do the same. Micaiah simply answers, "What the LORD gives me is what I'll speak."

Meanwhile the 400 were going through their acts, reassuring Ahab that victory was his.  One change - they began to use the name of the LORD for their assurances.

So Micaiah, contrary to what Ahab was expecting, lays it on thick.  When Ahab asks him to give his opinion he says, "Go up to battle; you'll succeed because the LORD will give you victory!"  But though his "prophecy" agreed with all the others, Ahab was not pleased!

"How many times do I have to tell you to speak only the truth in the name of the LORD?"

Catch 22!  The king wants the truth!  The king wants you to say nice things!  How does one do both?  This sounds so -well - modern.  Truth is that which I want to hear.  Truth is that which reinforces my prejudices.  Truth is that which pumps up my ego.  And yet Ahab apparently knew that all his prophets were lying to him except this one lone man standing in front of him.  And he didn't care.

The story goes on. Micaiah then cuts loose with an account of his vision of the LORD and how the LORD is using Ahab's prophets to deceive him so that he would die in battle.  A heated dialog follows:  Ahab, Micaiah and one of the other "prophets."  Finally Ahab has Micaiah thrown in jail on bread and water ... "until I return safely."

Micaiah's final words were, "If you return safely then the LORD hasn't spoken by me!  Listen all you people!"

The story goes on.  Ahab, though attempting to keep safe by making Jehoshaphat his decoy, is killed in battle.  We're not told what happened to Micaiah; apparently he spent the rest of his days in jail on bread and water.

Though the story still strikes me as humorous, with a clown king who wants both truth and flattery at the same time when this is utterly impossible, it also is one of the best examples of a follower of the LORD who is unafraid to speak truth to power (albeit with a bit of sarcasm).

When I read stories in the Bible - or anywhere else - I often picture the characters as people I know or know of.  And I must confess that my picture of king Ahab looks a lot like Donald Trump.  And some of the prophets look a lot like the prominent "Christian" leaders who gather around him

We have a president whose concept of truth, like Ahab's is that which feeds his ego.  And sadly he has many "prophets" performing for him.  He has an advisory circle of preachers and televangelists who have apparently no effect on his  ethics or morals.  Some still tell us to "give him a chance;" some assure us that he's God's man; more and more excuses.

Are there no Micaiahs around?

Friday, September 29, 2017

SOME THOUGHTS ON HONORING THE FLAG

For years Uni and I lived in a two-story townhouse in Houston.  From an upstairs' window we could look down on the street behind us which was filled with neat single story homes.  In the yard directly behind us was a large American flag flying from a tall pole.  It flew day and night, rain or shine.  When we first moved in, the flag looked brand new - bright red, white and blue.  But as the years passed, the flag grew worn and frayed around the edges.  Then it began to turn gray.  Pieces of it seemed to disappear.  After more years all we could see was a worn gray rag flying from the pole.  It grew smaller and smaller until one day it was gone.

In the mall the other morning, we saw a pleasant looking middle-aged lady carrying an umbrella that looked like an American flag, stars and stripes and all.  It was wet and dripping from the rain.

We see people today wearing garments that appear to be made from American flags.  Even shorts, so they can sit on Old Glory.  We see flags waved in TV commercials, especially preceding national holidays, which seem to be becoming nothing more than opportunities for sales.

I suppose all these folks believe they are patriotic, honoring and respecting our flag by displaying it boldly.  Are they?  I don't believe so!  I was taught as a child and later as a Marine Reserve, that the American flag is to be treated with respect, even reverence. There used to be rules for its proper display.

And then there are those who display a Confederate battle flag boldly, sometimes right alongside Old Glory.  Displaying a flag that represents a traitorous rebellion against the United States does not seem to me to be honoring the flag.  And again these folks feel that they are patriotic. Are they?

Some - mostly African American - NFL players have refused to stand while the National Anthem is being played; some kneeled; some simply sat on the bench.  They said that they were doing this to protest injustice.  Many of their white teammates have joined them.  And these people were immediately condemned as dishonoring the flag, often by those same persons who had dishonored the flag in the ways mentioned above.  They were even called SOBs by our President who said they should be fired!.

I suspect that this sort of righteous indignation is not only pure hypocrisy, but it is fueled by racism.  The men who kneeled were not dishonoring the flag but demanding the "liberty and justice for all" that that flag stands for.

I believe the flag is to be respected.  I still stand for the National Anthem, but I also believe that those who kneel have every right to do so; in fact, I believe they are honoring the flag much more than those who treat it as a rag or an article of clothing, or an umbrella.  I suppose that someday I may find myself kneeling with them.

But while the American flag is to be respected and honored, it is honored for what it stands for, not as a salute to "the military" as many contend.  Nor is the flag to be treated as an object of worship.  It should have no place in a church sanctuary.  It should not be wrapped around the cross.  I believe that when we confuse our Christianity with some sort of display of "patriotism" we are committing blasphemy.

Jesus demanded that we love Him over every other human relationship (Matthew 10:37).  I would think that includes our country and its flag.  He demanded that we take up our cross and follow Him (verse 38).  He didn't tell us to take up our flag.

Monday, September 25, 2017

I SAW IT ON TV!

As I watched television Sunday afternoon and evening, I was struck by how much the various and diverse programs seemed to strike a common theme.

First, there were the news and sports broadcasts and especially the scenes of NFL players kneeling or locking arms as the National Anthem was played, accompanied by the rants and name calling by our President , who claimed that any SOB who did not honor the flag should be fired (apparently forgetting that Melania more than once had to push him to place his hand over his heart as the National Anthem was played). Many athletes and even team owners shot back.

Then I watched "60 Minutes."  In one segment Oprah Winfrey had gathered 14 people to discuss our President and their thoughts on how he was doing in office.  Seven of these had voted for Trump and seven had voted against him.  Though there was a bit of civility, especially at first, it didn't take long before the discussion grew pretty heated.  Oprah seemed amazed! It seemed to me that she  must have been of the conviction that if we could just get folks together to air their opinions we would somehow achieve some sort of unity.  Such was not the case!  However, we were later given the assurance that some of the participants continued to stay in touch with each other.

Then I watched the 6th episode of the PBS series on the Vietnam War, entitled "Things Begin to Fall Apart."  This one was about events in the first half of the year 1968. The news coverage of the horrible violence and bloodshed of the two Tet offensives was changing the thinking of the American people and opposition to the War was growing.  General Westmoreland, whose solution to the conflict was simply to send in more and more troops, was relieved of his command.  President Johnson was in a quandary as to the solution.  He of course blamed the divisions in America over the War on negative press coverage.  (Sound familiar?)

The saying in the 1960's and '70's was, "America is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War!" The saying in 2017 is, "America is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War!" I don't know which "now"  saying is more correct; the divisions and divisiveness in our nation are hard to quantify.

During the First World War (the "War to End all Wars"), this phrase was coined, "The first casualty, when war comes is truth" (Senator Hiram Johnson).  I've seen this in the wars that were fought in my lifetime, including the current ones.  But while war may trigger bigger and bolder untruths, we now live in an age when truth seems to be no longer relevant, when "truth" is whatever anyone wants it to be, when "truth" and "opinion" are synonyms.

Oprah's - or anyone's - desire for "unity" is an impossible dream as long as people hold to their own versions of what is true.  I could see her amazement, almost hear her bafflement as she questioned her panel.  Some of the participants seemed to have little regard for facts; their opinions and feelings had become truth for them.

And we have a President who makes up "facts" and even contradicts himself in the same sentence.  I believe Mark Shields, the political commentator hit it right, "I mean, it was said that George Washington was the president who could never tell a lie, and Richard Nixon was the president who could never tell the truth.  Donald Trump is truly the president who can't tell the difference."  And not only is he "truth-challenged," he spouts out hateful racist and misogynist remarks, and calls people whom he doesn't like or who threaten his ego by derogatory labels.

Yes, untruth and divisiveness have always been with us; America has always been divided, but today we have these traits and actions promoted as virtues by many - from the President on down.  Even Lyndon Johnson agonized over the divisions in our country; Donald Trump revels in them.

What I've been saying is nothing new; it's been said before.  I have no solution for the problems in our nation, nor does anyone else.  But I believe that we who know and claim to follow Jesus Christ are hit with a great challenge - the challenge to really be "a city on a hill," to be "the Light of the world."

We need to pull ourselves away from political parties and cease identifying ourselves with them or with certain political viewpoints.  We need to cease giving our allegiance to a man - to stop defending and endorsing the indefensible rants and actions of Donald Trump.  We need to seek to ascertain what is really truth - the facts - not simply to accept as truth whatever agrees with our personal feelings and prejudices.

Above all, we must seek to live as followers of Christ.  We must seek to build our behavior on the standards of the New Covenant as revealed in the Bible.  We must seek to build our ethics and our politics on Biblical standards.  We must be different.

Will this bring about unity? It can! Not unity of the people of America, but of Christ's church.  Will we all agree politically?  It's doubtful.  But we should be able to discuss our differences and together seek to bring them under the Lordship of Christ.  And maybe others "will see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven" and we might become agents of change.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY

This book came out last year at about the same time the book White Trash came out.  The authors were interviewed on the various news and talk programs on TV. Both received about the same amount of public exposure and both books seem to be about similar topics.  As the book White Trash was about twice as thick (at the same price) as the other, as well as appearing to be the scholarly one, I chose it over the other.  However, I recently found a used copy of Hillbilly Elegy at the Half-Price book store, so I purchased it and Uni and I read it together. (I confess I had to look up "elegy."  Webster defines it as "a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead.")
 
Hillbilly Elegy, subtitled A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was written by a young man named J. D. Vance, an ex-marine, a Yale Law School graduate and "a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm." This is, as the title tells us, a memoir.  The author tells us of life growing up in rust belt Ohio in a lower middle class  family with deep roots in the hills of Kentucky, from where his grandparents had migrated after WWII. Obviously, Vance has lived out "the American Dream;" he has risen above his raisings; and yet they are still with him.

Though his family's account is filled with tales of alcoholism, drug abuse, physical abuse, poverty, family breakups and struggles, it is not much different, I believe, from that of many families in America today.  And though the book was a real page-turner and well-written, Uni and I both wondered as we read, why is this book so popular; why is it still a best-seller when the other book mentioned above seems to have fallen from public view?  This question was on our minds all through the reading.  I think I have some idea.

As we were reading the stories of the family and families in the book, Uni and I were brought back to our own extended families and those among whom we grew up.  We began to realize that either of us could have written similar stories.  Often we would stop reading to tell or re-tell stories of our own pasts which were quite similar to Vance's.  We may not have had such a colorful background nor have risen quite so far, but we share much in common with the author.

It's tempting here to do a bit of comparison, to relate some tales of the pains as well as the blessings of our own family backgrounds.  I'll resist, although a search through previous posts on this blog would reveal quite a bit.  I'm sure that any who read this post could also come up with similar tales.  In fact, what impressed me was the ordinariness of Vance's story.

Which brings me back to my question: why does this book continue to be a best-seller? Why is it a best-seller at all?  I believe that the answer is that people who read books like this have no (or little) real idea about how people like Vance's family live.  They know nothing about the lower-middle class and their struggles and problems.  To those who have "made it" or who are of the second  or third generation of those who escaped the "hillbilly" life, this is like reading of an alien country.  They had to read about it through the eyes of one of their own, one who had "made it."

Vance's struggles are very much like those of many of us or at least of those we know.  He tells of his own anguish as he's bounced from family to family, of his struggles to fit in and not ever feeling like he has, of his "Mamaw" - his one anchor in all the turmoil, of his dabblings in Christianity. (We can only hope he continues in this quest.)  He pauses occasionally in his story telling to offer brief analyses and criticisms of the plight of rust-belt families.  He seems to be still trying to put it all together, as many of his readers are probably still trying to do.

I believe that while the book will be informative for those readers who have never been exposed to this sort of life, it will also be cathartic for those of us who find ourselves in these pages.

Monday, September 18, 2017

SOMETHING HAPPENED


It has been encouraging to turn on the TV news lately; we see scenes of acts of kindness and sometimes great heroism being performed by ordinary people in Texas and Louisiana after the hurricanes.  People of all colors and religions doing amazing things for one another with no regard for their differences. But then if we continue watching we also see looting, reports of scams, people trying to make a profit off the misery of their neighbors.  And then we are once again returned to the horrors of wars and genocide and "ethnic cleansing."  What's going on here?  How can human beings be capable of such contradictory behavior?

And we talk and we talk: and we talk: TV news persons, social media, everyone has an opinion.  But though we may pay attention to all the current opinions, we might find some wisdom in the writings of a 17th century thinker.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), well-known French scientist, mathematician and philosopher, was also a devout Christian. His best-known work was his PensÄ—es, a volume of loosely strung together meditions on God and man. In his observations on man, he wrote: “What sort of freak then is man! How novel, how monstrous, how chaotic, how paradoxical, how prodigious! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe! . . . Is it not as clear as day that man’s condition is dual? The point is that if man had never been corrupted, he would, in his innocence, confidently enjoy both truth and felicity, and, if man had never been anything but corrupt, he would have no idea either of truth or bliss.  . . .  we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it. We perceive an image of the truth and possess nothing but falsehood, being equally incapable of absolute ignorance and certain knowledge; …” He then goes on to say, “ … so obvious is it that we once enjoyed a degree of perfection from which we have unhappily fallen.”

Pascal was a Jansenist, a member of a Roman Catholic sect which was highly suspect in the Church because its teachings seemed a bit too close to the Calvinistic Protestantism of his day. As a Jansenist, he held a high view of the Scripture. The above observations, though they show clear rational thinking and a knowledge of human psychology, obviously are colored by his knowledge of the Word.

Pascal understood. He understood the truth of Genesis 3. I believe we must go to this chapter of the Bible and the one preceding to really get a handle on what’s wrong.  The story in Genesis 3 begins in a garden, an apparently perfect garden. Genesis 1:31, says that all that God had made “was very good.” In this garden God placed the man that He had created (Genesis 2:7, 8), also apparently perfect and then created a woman as “a helper suitable to” him, also apparently perfect.  They were God-like beings, created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26, 27).

So the stage is set: a perfect couple in a perfect location, all the food you want to eat; a cushy job. Naked with no shame. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Problem: there’s one prohibition. They were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17), or penalty of death.

So what happened? The serpent tempts the woman. (We’re told elsewhere that this serpent is none other than Satan himself, a fallen being: Revelation 12:9). The woman takes the fruit of the forbidden tree, hands it to her man (who the Hebrew text says was “with her”), he eats it, and suddenly everything goes wrong.

Now I don’t believe this was some sort of magic tree. They gained knowledge of good and evil by disobeying. It was simply a test case. God had put them in a perfect environment. God apparently wanted the willing obedience of the man and woman. He gave them the freedom of choice to obey or disobey. And they disobeyed.

We see the results of the fall immediately: Guilt – a broken relationship with God and with each other; shame; attempts to cover the shame; and excuses.

Paul tells us in Romans 5:12, that through this act, sin (guilt) and death entered the human race. So when we look at man today we see, as Pascal did “that man’s condition is dual.” We see great acts of love, courage and heroism. We see horrible acts of hatred, cowardice and murder. Sometimes by the same person.

And we waste a lot of time and energy trying to shift the blame, just like the first man and the first woman. “The woman YOU gave to be with me – she gave it to me and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). “The serpent deceived me and I ate” (Genesis 3:13). We make ourselves (metaphorical) loin coverings of leaves to hide our nakedness (Genesis 3:17) and never do take the blame or responsibility. Sound familiar? Turn on your TV news broadcasts and/or talk radio and you’ll hear more of the same.

But the beautiful thing is that God Himself takes care of our guilt and our shame. In the Genesis’ story we read that “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and covered them.” And He’s done the same for us and our guilt and shame. “He made Him who knew no sin (Christ) to be sin (a sin offering) on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Bill Ball
      adapted from What Happened, 4/20/2007 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

IS HATE THE PROBLEM?


"And He found in the temple those selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there.  And He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple with the sheep and the oxen.  And He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.  And He said to those selling the pigeons, 'Take these things out of here!  Stop making My Father's house into a shopping mall!'  And His disciples remembered that it is written, 'Zeal for your house will consume me!'" John 2:14-17.

John records this incident as occurring early in Jesus' ministry; the other Gospels record a similar event taking place in Jesus' final week.  In fact, Matthew tells us He accused the money-changers of making the temple "a den of thieves."

It doesn't take a great amount of imagination to visualize this scene.  Cattle and sheep running in all directions, confused merchants attempting to keep their animals from running away.  We can hear the mooing and baaing and the money rattling all over the floor; it's a smelly, noisy, chaotic mess.  And in the middle of it all is Jesus, violently swinging His scourge.  Is He angry?  Somehow we can't picture Him as not angry; fire is in His eyes, His voice is raised to a shout.

There are times when even the Savior seems out of control in His anger.  And this was not the only incident.

Saturday, August 12, 2017, the "Alt-right" held a rally in Charlottesville, VA. Various reasons were given for this rally, the ostensible reason being to protest the taking down of a confederate statue.  But the real motive was clear:  it was an opportunity for neo-Nazis and the KKK, along with other right-wing hate groups to have a show of force.

Others gathered to protest the rally.  The climax came when one of the "Alt-rights" drove his car into a crowd of those who were protesting them, killing a young woman and seriously injuring many more.  Had he not slammed into another car we can only assume he would have continued on his deadly mission.

Politicians, pundits and preachers immediately began to speak out on the incident.  Our President waited a while, then spoke out, placing the blame on "many sides."  Later he spoke out again, in anger, although his anger was directed mostly at the reporters who questioned him.

Many more voices have since spoken out, some criticizing the President for his failure to distance himself from the far-right, but most speaking against "hate"; many also talked about the need for our nation to "come together," whatever that means.

But is "hate" really the problem?

Webster (11th Collegiate Dictionary) defines hates as "(n) 1a: intense hostility or aversion usually from fear, anger, or sense of injury.  b: extreme dislike or antipathy:  LOATHING (vt) 1:  to feel extreme enmity toward. 2: to have a strong aversion to: find very distasteful."

We all have felt or expressed hate in some form or another, even if only by the milder definition ("I hate broccoli."), although there are many things or actions we probably hate by the stronger definition.  So why do we say that "hate" is the problem?

The Bible speaks of hate well over 100 times, often with variations that appear contradictory.  It even speaks of God Himself hating.  I don't plan to go there, but there are a few passages that relate to God's people and their responsibility.  Here are a few:
            Leviticus 19:17.  "You shall not hate your brother in your heart ... "
            Psalm 97:10.  "Hate evil, you who love the LORD."
            Amos 5:15.  "Hate evil, love good, and establish justice ... "
            Matthew 5:43, 44.  "You've heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy;' but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..."
            1 John 2:9 (also see 2:11; 3:15; 4:20)  "Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness."

If I may summarize - maybe oversimplifying a bit - we who claim to be followers of Christ have no business hating any other human being!  We are to love them all - even those who have it in for us.  And yet we are to hate evil.  We have no business tolerating it!

Was Jesus acting out of hate when He drove out the money-changers?  I believe He was:  hate for evil; hate for the defilement of His Father's house; hate for the greed that was taking advantage of the needs of pilgrims.

So back to Charlottesville.  Yes there was hate on both sides.  But we can't just decide that both sides were equally in the wrong.  We can't simply say that love equals tolerance of evil.  One side represented a horrible evil:  Nazism, the Ku Klux Clan, as well as other groups of the same kind.  These groups have a history, not of hate in the abstract, but of violent acts of evil:  gas-chambers, mass-murder, lynching:  genocide in Europe and attempted genocide in the USA.  Should we hate the evil these groups stand for?  Yes!

Were those who were protesting these groups equally responsible?  No!  Did they hate?  Yes!  Undoubtedly some transferred their hatred of evil over to hatred of evil-doers.  But it is the Alt-Right that advocates racism and terrorism; it was one of their group who committed an act of terrorism that day!

We who claim to follow Christ cannot put the blame only on an abstract "hate."  We must not simply promote a "love" that refuses to recognize genuine evil.  We must speak out against the evil that is being promoted, not only at Charlottesville, but all over our nation.

Remember Niemoller's words.  (See blog:  NIEMOLLER FOR TODAY - 12/3/16)