jasonbwatson

November 26, 2014

Public prayer

My entire post yesterday was the result of Max Lucado’s answer to the first question in his interview in Leadership Journal. There are other thought-provoking elements of the interview, too, though, and I want to touch here on the issue of public prayer. Lucado was asked if praying in public changes the way he prays, and he answered that it does. He elaborated on his answer though, no doubt at least in part to ensure that no one interpreted his “yes it does” as justification for the public prayers we have all heard that more closely resemble a dramatic recitation than a sincere prayer. You know what I am talking about. The voice changes to the “prayer voice” and the vocabulary changes, too, to include the “right phrases” or the Old English “thee” and “thine.” Sometimes both.

Not only is that not what Lucado had in mind, I do not think that is pleasing to the Lord. In fact, Jesus had some harsh words for the manner in which the Pharisees prayed publicly. In Matthew 6:5 Jesus said, “For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” Whatever they received from others in that situation was all they were going to receive, Jesus said. Their public prayers were performances for which they expected attention and respect. God is not interested in the least in such prayers, in no small part because He is not the audience–those watching and listening are the audience.

Lucado said that praying in public is “a huge privilege.” It is a privilege to intercede on behalf of another, he said, and it is a privilege to “model sincere prayer.” Effective and appropriate public prayer is offered in a sincere manner, often focused on different praises and requests than a private prayer might be, but otherwise containing the same elements of a private prayer. Lucado cautions against the theatrical prayers I described above, saying, “May the Lord deliver us from using those [public] prayers as a time to showcase our own spirituality.” Later, he says, “It’s always a mistake to try to impress people with your knowledge or your eloquence in prayer,” calling such behavior nothing but “self promotion.”

Lucado is talking about public prayer that is offered aloud for, and within the hearing of, an assembled audience. There is another kind of public prayer that is just as important as the sincere prayers Lucado is describing, and that is the public prayer that is offered quietly or silently in a crowd, a prayer that others can see but cannot hear. This could be as simple as a bowing of the head and closing of the eyes for a few moments or it could include speaking aloud a prayer for yourself and those in your group but not for the hearing of anyone beyond. These prayers can model sincerity and devotion, as well. Since the words are not heard by the audience it is the simple act of praying in a public setting that is the testimony. It is a quiet means of declaring to those around us that prayer is important enough to us that we will do it even when it may attract looks from others or cause us to stick out.

Prayer is a tremendously private activity and the Scripture makes it clear that that is as it should be. Perhaps for that reason, perhaps for others, I actually know someone who will not pray in public. I do not mean that he does not like to do so, I mean he will not do it. Not aloud, anyway. He will attend a prayer meeting and join in a group prayer gathering, but he will not pray aloud. I am not advocating that attitude because, like Lucado, I see public prayer as a privilege and an opportunity. I would much prefer to see someone refuse to pray publicly than to pray like the Pharisees, though.

One last thought on public prayer is that we do not need to concern ourselves with how effectively we speak or how impressive our prayer sounds. Many people are uncomfortable with public prayer. Since there may be many reasons for that I am not going to judge anyone’s motives, but I will say this: if your reluctance to pray in public is because you are not sure you will “do it right,” you need to get over that. If it the prayer is sincere, that is all that matters. Maybe your prayer will not sound as authoritative or impressive as someone else’s, but God is not comparing you with anyone else and neither should you. A public prayer is just having that honest conversation with God I described yesterday…and allowing others to listen in.

November 25, 2014

“An honest conversation with God”

Filed under: Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 10:18 pm
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Max Lucado recently wrote a book entitled Before Amen. I have not read the book, but I just finished reading an interview with Lucado about the book (and the broader topic of prayer) in the fall issue of Leadership Journal. The interview reinforced my desire to read the book, but it also provided several thought-provoking admissions and statements about prayer.

For example, when asked, “What does a good prayer do?” Lucado answered, “A prayer is simply an honest conversation with God.” If you’re like me, you have had the experience of hearing someone else pray and thinking, “Wow, it sounds like he/she is talking to another person…just having a conversation!” It always strikes me when I hear that because, more often that not, that is not how I feel when I am praying. I know God hears me and that I am talking directly to Him, but I do not talk to Him the same way I talk to my brother, my wife, my children or my friends. I say that as an admission of my own weakness, because there really is no reason why I should not talk to Him in a similar way. Yes, I need to approach God with reverence and respect; I am absolutely not advocating an overly casual approach to God. I am not even suggesting that we should allow ourselves to get too comfortable in how we approach God. He is, after all, God, and there has to be an acknowledgement and understanding of who He is and who we are.

I am reminded of a scene in the movie The American President when the President of the United States, played by Michael Douglas, is having a conversation with his long-time friend and current adviser (chief of staff, perhaps, I cannot remember) played by Martin Sheen. Sheen keeps referring to Douglas as “Mr. President,” and Douglas wants him to just call him by his name. Sheen refuses to do so, because the office Douglas holds requires that level of respect in Sheen’s opinion. In my mind, the same is true of God. Even though He desires a close, personal, even intimate relationship with me and with each of His children, even though He invites us to call him “Abba,” the equivalent of “papa,” He is still God, and I must never allow myself to forget that.

Having said that, I must also remember that there is no magic formula for speaking to God. I do not need to assume a specific posture or include specific words. I do not have to use a “prayer voice.” While I need to speak to Him respectfully and with full appreciation for who He is, I can speak to Him in the same manner in which I would speak to someone sitting at a table with me. “A good prayer,” Lucado said, “reestablishes a sense of communion with God.”

I tend to be reticent by nature, and I am not one to chit-chat just for the sake of making small talk. I do, however, enjoy conversation, and I find both pleasure and connection in conversation with friends and loved ones. I can have a lengthy conversation with someone I am not close to, of course. I have done that, and I am sure that you have, as well. I can leave that conversation feeling no closer to that person–feeling no deeper sense of personal connection–than I had before we talked. So it is not the conversation itself that establishes connection. True, regular conversation will build familiarity and increase the likelihood of closeness, but I have also had regular conversations with people to whom I am not close. In fact, I have had regular conversations with people to whom I do not even desire to be close. Our conversations are transactional in nature–giving or receiving necessary information.

That is exactly what my prayers should not be. God does not want me to approach Him as one more thing on my to-do list. God does not want me to tell Him about my day or about my needs because I am supposed to; He wants me to talk to Him because I want to. He does not want me to talk to Him with the cold formalism I reserve for people I communicate with simply because I need something. Neither does He want me to communicate with Him with the disinterested familiarity I have for people I talk to regularly but do not really know or even want to know. Instead, He wants me to talk to Him with the same kind of attitude and spirit I have when I am talking to someone I love, someone I know and want to know more, someone whose presence and company encourages me and makes me happy.

Do you know people in your life like that? If so, think about how you talk to that person and how it is different from the way you talk to your neighbor, your cubicle-mate, your boss or the teller at your bank. You may be quite friendly with those folks, but I suspect you are not often encouraged or strengthened by the time spent with them. (There may be exceptions, of course; you might have a great and deep relationship with your neighbor, cubicle-mate or even your boss. I guess it’s even possible for you to have such a relationship with your bank teller, though I suspect there would be another element to that relationship if that were the case). The people with whom we have deep, meaningful, connecting conversations are the people we are willing to be vulnerable with, people we empathize with, people we miss when we do not get to talk with them for a while and people whose presence lifts our spirits when we are together. Some of us will surely have more of these people in our lives than others, but I think it is fair to say that few of us will have a long list of people who fit that description. In fact, I think we would be fortunate to count a dozen such people in our lives.

That kind of conversation is the kind that God wants us to have with Him. That is the kind of “honest conversation” that Lucado has in mind, I think. That is the kind of conversation that I, sadly, often do not have with God. I get wrapped up in trying to remember to say the right things, I neglect to mention things that I do not think are that important and, in the interest of full disclosure, I often find my mind wandering to other things when I try to spend a lengthy time in prayer. These are my weaknesses, things I need to work on. I know this because these are not problems when I am in conversation with those dozen or so people I described above. When I am conversing with those individuals I am not particularly worried about saying the right thing; I can just be myself. I am not worried about only mentioning things that reach the appropriate level of importance; instead, I will share little–even trivial things–and delight in doing so. In fact, I will encounter things, read things, do things, that cause me to think, “I want to tell this to so-and-so.” I certainly do not find my mind wandering when I am with those folks. On the contrary, I am focused on what they are saying, focused on what I want to share with them, and am more likely to lose track of the time we are spending together than to find my mind wandering to other things.

That is the kind of prayer life I want…an honest conversation with God.

November 20, 2014

The heart of worship

The music used in church worship services is a topic on which almost every Christian has an opinion, and the odds are pretty good that if you were to poll almost any group of Christians you would find a range of opinions and even convictions about what kinds of music should be used, what instruments should be used, how the music should be led and by whom, how loud the music should be, whether or not hymn books should be used or PowerPoint slides… The list of areas of possible contention is quite lengthy and certainly not exhausted here.

This is a topic I have thought about before, and one on which I certainly have my own opinions, but it is also one that I have been thinking about more lately. The CD player in my car died a while back, so any music in the car now comes via radio. Particularly when my children are in the car, that usually means a station that plays exclusively contemporary Christian music (because that is the station my kids want). While I appreciate some of the contemporary Christian music the station plays, I certainly do not like all of it. As with most radio stations, this one tends to play a relatively small number of songs over and over again. Beyond that, though, some of the songs make me feel almost anything but worshipful–like irritated, aggravated, agitated, frustrated… You get the idea. Some of them, in fact, are not at all what I would even consider “music.” But I digress…

Recently, as we were driving somewhere and this station was on, my wife looked at me, recognizing that I was not particularly fond of the selection airing at the moment, and asked, “Do you ever wonder what the worship in heaven will be like? Do you think we will all be surprised?” My wife generally shares my taste in Christian music, so she was not chiding me; rather, she was gently prompting me to consider whether or not I was allowing my own opinions and tastes to cloud my thinking or even to cause me to be judgmental. (I actually have no idea if any of that was her intention, but that was what struck me as I thought about it. I suppose I will find out if that is what she had in mind after she reads this!)

My thinking on this subject was stoked further as I was reading the preface to Douglas Bond’s book, The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts. Watts was an eighteenth-century hymn writer in England who wroye powerful hymns that are fmailiar to many Christians who grew up in church, most notably “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Bond was making the point that the Church needs the “voice” of Watts in our worship services today. He first referenced the relative lack of depth in many contemporary lyrics, commenting this way on his experience in a worship service he had attended: “Try as I might, I could find little in the various lyrics that required any degree of thought about anything.” Bond went on, however, to explain that even when the words of Watts’ most famous hymn had been sung in a service he was attending, he was not at all moved, despite the fact that “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” had previously caused “the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone [to become] irrevocably real” to him. What was different this time, then? Here is Bond’s explanation…

[T]here were many elements in that worship that distracted me from taking the words on my lips and into my heart as my own and singing them. The swaying worship leaders and all the paraphernalia of the indie-rock band filled the stage, and the volume was cranked up so loud that I was eventually forced to take my seven-year-old out of the place, his hands clamped tightly over his ears. I watched rather than sang because in this kind of entertainment venue, it matters little whether the congregation participates in the singing. It’s fine if they do, of course, but it makes no difference to what one hears. The emotive vocal reflections and the pinched facial contortions of the well-meaning worhsip leader are difficult for most of us to emulate, and the occasional unexpected repetition of lines or addition of improvised lyrics leaves one singing something other than what the worship leader is singing. Not to worry, no one will hear you anyway.

I agree wholheartedly with Bond. As a result of my recent pondering about the worship we will experience in heaven, though, I caught myself, and had to admit that some people–difficult though it is for me to fathom–may be perfectly capable of focusing their attention on the Lord and worhsipping Him in the midst of the loud and unpredicatble style of music being used. And maybe, just maybe, God likes that kind of music on occasion, too. Scripture assures us that He is a God of order, so I cannot believe that He enjoys it when the music devolves in a cacophony of chaos. Most importantly, though, what I will always agree with Bond about, is that God is not pleased by a show loosely disguised as worship. Bond used the term “entertainment venue,” and when what purports to be a worship service becomes more a show, with the focus on the leader(s) of the music, the lights, the volume, the choreography or gyrations of the guitarists and drummers and singers, God is not pleased nor honored. Quite simply, bottom line, if the focus is on anything other than God, He is not pleased. We could debate the particulars of that. For example, could one of the worship leaders be focused on God even if he or she does not come across that way to me? Or could one of the audience members be focused on God even if the worship leader is not? The answer to both questions is certainly yes, meaning that we cannot judge anyone else in any worship service. God, we must recall, looks at the heart, not at the external.

I still have my own thoughts about what is and is not appropriate in a worship service, you no doubt do too, and I am sure neither of us is likely to change that anytime soon. Yet I do not think that is really what matters. What we need to concern ourselves with is the focus of our own hearts…because that is exactly what God is concerned with, too.

November 19, 2014

The signature of God

For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by signatures. When I was in elementary school I obtained a book that purported to list the home addresses of nearly every current and former Major League baseball player. The book was intended as a resource for those who requested autographs by mail. I began writing my letters, enclosing a baseball card and a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) and waited for the mailman to bring me my treasures. Some players actually did sign the cards and send them back. Others sent a postcard or something like that, some never responded at all. Later I learned that some players would have other people sign for them. I also learned that there is a device called an autopen, which is a machine that uses an actual pen to replicate someone’s signature. These are often used by members of Congress to sign constituent mail. If you learn what to look for, autopen signatures can be fairly easily differentiated from the real thing.

I am still fascinated by signatures. I suspect I am not the only person who has ever played around with multiple variations of my own signature and/or practiced replicating (that sounds so much better than forging) the signature of others. I got pretty good at some of them, too. My mother used to let me sign her name to my practice record for band when I was in high school. I got good enough at my brother’s that he let me sign a check for him one time. I have this habit–some might say odd habit–of tracing the lines of a signature with my eyes, sometimes even with my whole head, as I try to determine the exact strokes that were used to create the signature.

Anyway, enough about my quirks! An interesting fact about signatures is that they represent authority and have value. Even for someone who is not famous or “important,” a signature can accomplish incredible things. Simply scrawling one’s signature (and I have seen some that would be generously described as a scrawl!) can secure the purchase of an item, authorize the transfer of funds, give permission for medical treatment and much more. Indeed, it is amazing how many things cannot take place until the right person’s signature is placed on the right line!

Signatures have actual value when they belong to someone who is famous. Just the signature itself, on even a scrap of paper, can sell for a considerable amount of money in some instances. A signature can exponentially increase the value of an item that would otherwise be worth considerably less. As alluded to above, I enjoy collecting the signatures of baseball players. Anyone could purchase an authentic Major League baseball for $20 or so. They are not particularly difficult to come by and they are not particularly expensive. If, however, one of those baseballs has the signature of a great baseball player on it, that very same baseball could sell for several hundred dollars or more. Interesting, is it not? After all, the baseball itself could be used to play baseball. Once the signature is on it no one in his or her right mind would actually hit the ball with a bat or play catch with it, so the utility of the ball goes down dramatically. And yet the ball becomes significantly more valuable, even though no one will do anything but look at it, simply because it has someone’s signature on it.

I happen to have a large greeting card from the 1960s that, in and of itself, would be worth next to nothing now. This particular card, however, is signed by almost the entire Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. My father’s cousin was on the team, and my father’s aunt was the recipient of the card. She later gave it to my father, who has since given it to me. I do not have any idea what it is worth, but its value is significant.

Signatures have sentimental value, too. When we receive a card, a note or a letter with the signature of a friend or loved one, it has special meaning. I have only one letter that was ever written to me and signed by my grandfather. My grandmother usually wrote and signed letters and cards from them to me, but once he typed out a note and signed it “Grandpa.” The note itself is not all that significant, but because it is the only time he ever signed a note for me it is quite special.

So why all of this discussion of signatures? Here’s why: because just like a person’s signature can represent authority or add value and meaning to something, so God’s signature on a human life makes that life exponentially more valuable. Scripture teaches that each and every life is wonderfully created by God, meaning that every human bears God’s signature and is deserving of dignity and protection; every life is sacred. If evolution were true, and we all emerged over billions of years from ooze or monkeys (or monkeys that evolved from ooze), and if “survival of the fittest” were the reality for human worth, none of us would really be worth much. In and of ourselves we are kind of like that baseball I mentioned above…we have a little value perhaps but not really all that much. We might be useful in a utilitarian sort of way, able to accomplish some basic tasks. Our real value, though, comes from the fact that God created each of us uniquely and according to His purpose and design. Each of us bears His signature on our lives! I repeat, our value and worth is not in what we do or even so much in who we are, but rather in the fact that we bear the signature of God.

November 17, 2014

The value of creeds

Earlier this year Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research joined together to complete a survey of 3,000 Americans for the purpose of evaluating the state of theology in the United States. One of the questions statements participants were asked to respond to was this: “There is little value in studying and/or reciting creeds or catechisms.” Twenty-seven percent of respondents agreed with this statement, with another 16% responding that they were not sure—meaning that two in five people do not see any merit in the study or recitation of creeds or are not sure there is merit.

Another statement in the survey was this: I recite or use historical Christian creeds in personal discipleship. Seventy percent of respondents said no.

This prompted a question in my own mind—what is the purpose of creeds? While I was certainly familiar with the Apostle’s Creed before I began filling the pulpit of a Presbyterian church regularly over the past year, I had never been a member of a church that recites the creed regularly. While I could recite the Lord’s Prayer, I have never been a member of a church that recites it regularly. While I am familiar with the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms, I have not studied them in depth and cannot recite any portion of them other than the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

I grew up in independent Baptist churches, where the ideas of tradition that are prominent in the Catholic church as well as a number of Protestant denominations were generally frowned upon. “We have no creed but Christ” is a common mantra among those in independent churches. But are the creeds and catechisms of the church merely tradition?

Certainly the creeds and catechisms are not infallible; that is a distinction of the Bible alone. Confessions, catechisms and creeds, however, are summaries of the teachings of Scripture, a means through which we can learn and even memorize some of the most important elements of biblical theology. Zacharias Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, said of the Apostle’s Creed, “It signifies a brief and summary form of the Christian faith, which distinguishes the church and her members from the various sects.” It is important for any Christian to know what they believe. The catechisms, creeds and confessions provide a starting point and a means of consistent reminder. Regular recitation and repetition of the creeds and catechisms can serve to reinforce the crucial elements of our faith.

Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, senior pastor of Christ Reformed Church, writing in Tabletalk magazine, said, “[I]f you are to set out those things that differentiate Christianity from all other religions, including monotheistic ones (for example, Judaism and Islam), the Apostles’ Creed would provide an excellent summary of those doctrines unique to Christianity. … Ursinus chose the Apostles’ Creed as the skeletal structure for the section of his catechism dealing with God’s grace because the creed so effectively summarizes the basics of the Christian faith that no non-Christian could possibly recite it. In this sense, the creed defines what is Christianity and what is not.”

Robert Rayburn, in The Practice of Confessional Subscription, writes, “Creeds serve a variety of purposes in the life of the church. They are a testimony of the church’s belief to the world; they offer a summation of Christian doctrine for the instruction of the faithful; and they form a bulwark against the incursion of error by providing a standard of orthodoxy and a test for office-bearers. In these ways creeds also serve to protect and to foster the bond of Christian fellowship as a unity of faith and doctrine, of mind and conviction, and not merely of organization or sentiment.”

So what is the Apostles’ Creed? It is not in the Bible. We could not turn in our Bibles and find the Apostles’ Creed contained there. Neither was it written or developed by the apostles. In fact, it was written at least 150 years after the apostles had all died. What it is, then, is a record and summary of what the apostles taught.

There are two elements of the Apostles’ Creed that are often confused or debated. The first is the reference to the holy catholic church. You will notice that the word “catholic” is not capitalized in the creed, and it does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” means universal, and in the Apostles’ Creed it is referencing all those throughout time and around the world who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ for Salvation.

The other element of the creed that is debated is the statement that Jesus “descended into hell.” There are, including John Calvin most prominently, who hold that Jesus literally went into hell on Saturday between His crucifixion on Friday and His resurrection on Sunday. There are others who hold that this is not the case, and is not what the Bible teaches. I am of the opinion that there are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides, and I am not going to examine or elaborate on them here. Frankly, I am not sure I have come to a decision myself as to what I believe on that question.

There is reason to believe that there were creed-like statements utilized in the first-century church, during the time of the apostles’ ministry. Philippians 2:5-11 may have been a confessional hymn that Paul incorporated into his letter, and Galatians 4:4-6 provides a succinct presentation of the roles of the Father and the Son in redemption as well as the existence and ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Whether creeds and catechisms are weekly parts of the worship service in our churches or they are utilized regularly in our personal devotions, they do have purpose, merit and value.

November 13, 2014

Good news for marriage

Believe it or not, there may be some good news for those of us who believe in defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In late October, United States District Judge Juan Perez-Gimenez upheld the Puerto Rican law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Last week the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled, 2-1, that measures in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee limiting marriage to one man and one woman were constitutional. In both instances, the decisions held that the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, which struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, allows for states to define marriage.

Perez-Gimenez stated in his decision, “The Windsor opinion did not create a fundamental right to same gender marriage nor did it establish that state opposite-gender marriage regulations are amenable to federal constitutional challenges. If anything, Windsor stands for the opposite proposition: it reaffirms the State’s authority over marriage, buttressing Baker‘s conclusion that marriage is simply not a federal question.”

Baker v. Nelson, the other decision cited above, was a 1972 case in Minnesota in which the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a Minnesota law limiting marriage to a man and a woman did not violate the Constitution. Baker appealed, but the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) dismissed the appeal “for want of a substantial federal question.” Because of the way in which Supreme Court cases work, the Baker case went to the Supreme Court by way of mandatory appellate review. The refusal of SCOTUS to hear the case therefore became precedent because the refusal to hear the case was considered a decision on the merits of the case. This is important, because Perez-Gimenez explained that the Windsor case did not overturn Baker but rather complements it. “Windsor and Baker work in tandem to emphasize the States’ ‘historic and essential authority to define the marital relation’ free from ‘federal intrusion.'”

The Sixth Circuit decision came after a refusal by SCOTUS on October 6 to hear appeals from states that have had their traditional marriage laws struck down by courts, making it an important decision and one that has received considerable attention and no doubt will continue to do so.

Perhaps even more encouraging to defenders of traditional marriage than either decision in and of themselves, though, is the fact that both decisions take aim at the position of those who argue that homosexual marriage is a constitutional right. Perez-Gimenez wrote, “It takes inexplicable contortions of the mind or perhaps even willful ignorance–this Court does not venture an answer here–to interpret Windsor‘s endorsement of the state control of marriage as eliminating the state control of marriage.”

Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton wrote the majority decision in the Sixth Circuit case. He stated early in his decision that recent decisions are mostly ignoring a very, very long history of defining marriage as between a man and a woman. “For better, for worse, or for more of the same, marriage has long been a social institution defined by relationships between men and women. So long defined, the tradition is measured in millennia, not centuries or decades. So widely shared, the tradition until recently had been adopted by all governments and major religions of the world,” Sutton wrote. Sutton also wrote that it is not the place of the judges of the Sixth Circuit to make policy decisions for the citizens living in its circuit; rather, its purpose is to interpret laws vis-a-vis the existing laws and precedents, of which Baker still is one. This is a breath of fresh air coming from a federal bench, especially since so many courts seem more than happy to assume the role of making, rather than interpreting, laws. Sutton went on to write, “A dose of humility makes us hesitant to condemn as unconstitutionally irrational a view of marriage shared not long ago by every society in the world, shared by most, if not all, of our ancestors, and shared still today by a significant number of the States.”

This element of Sutton’s decision is a unique perspective on the issue, as far as I know, and I think it is going to prove to be a very important component of future cases dealing with the definition of marriage:

What we are left with is this: By creating a status (marriage) and by subsidizing it (e.g. with tax-filing privileges and deductions), the States created an incentive for two people who procreate together to stay together for purposes of rearing offspring. This does not convict the States of irrationality, only of awareness of the biological reality that couples of the same sex do not have children in the same way as couples of opposite sexes and that couples of the same sex do not run the risk of unintended offspring. This explanation, still relevant today, suffices to allow the States to retain authority over an issue they have regulated from the beginning.

The reason why this is so important is that is establishes that states do have a compelling interest in defining marriage as between a man and a woman–something that others have argued is not the case. If states have no compelling interest to define marriage as between a man and a woman, the argument goes, then states have no reason or justification for restricting marriage to a man and a woman other than legalized discrimination. So keep an eye on this rationale, because it is going to be extremely important.

Sutton went on to reinforce his point by writing this: “If it is constitutionally irrational to stand by the man-woman definition of marriage, it must be constitutionally irrational to stand by the monogamous definition of marriage.” This is, of course, one of the keystone elements of the argument I have been making against homosexual marriage all along; if we change the definition of marriage to be other than between a man and a woman we eliminate any justification for prohibiting any definition of marriage, whether male-male, female-female, adult-child, human-animal, multiple spouses, etc. Albert Mohler included this observation in his blog post on the Sixth Circuit decision: “He [Sutton] also recorded that in the oral arguments the attorneys arguing for same-sex marriage had been unable to answer his question [as to why marriage should be defined in terms of monogamy]. They could not, he stated, because the only argument they could advance was moral tradition. They could not cite moral tradition as the authority for monogamy because they argued that moral tradition was not a rational basis for law when it came to limiting marriage to a man-woman union.”

Perez-Gimenez stated in his decision, “The people and their elected representatives should debate the wisdom of redefining marriage. Judges should not.” Similarly, Sutton wrote, “The theory of the living constitution rests on the premise that every generation has the right to govern itself. If that premise prevents judges from insisting on principles that society has moved past, so too should it prevent judges from anticipating principles that society has yet to embrace.” In other words, both judges are taking a stand for courts restricting themselves to interpreting law and letting the people make the decision about how marriage is defined. Interestingly, this is exactly what the Windsor decision meant, as well.

Mohler closed his blog with this statement: “Sometimes the right argument just has to be made, even if it does not win at any given hour. The truth will stand the test of time, and Judge Sutton deserves our gratitude and respect for making an argument in defense of both marriage and the Constitution–and for making it so well.” I echo his sentiment, and would add Judge Perez-Gimenez to that, too. In the words of Galatians 6:9, let us not grow weary in doing what is good–and in this situation, it means continuing to take a stand for marriage as God defined it, and praying for those judges who are courageous enough to defend the right of the people to make that determination.

November 12, 2014

The State of Theology

Last month Ligonier Ministries, in partnership with LifeWay Research, released the findings of a survey conducted on the state of theology in the United States. The survey polled 3,000 American adults between the end of February and the beginning of March 2014. The objectives of the survey were “To quantify among a national sample of Americans indicators of the theological understanding of
Americans today providing comparisons between: Christian church goers and the unchurched; and, Those who consider themselves Evangelical and those who do not.” As with any survey or statistic, there must be some discernment used in reading and applying the survey results, but the survey claims that the sample provides 95% certainty that the margin of error does not exceed plus/minus 1.8%. Accordingly, the results are worth considering, especially for anyone whose ministry is focused on the spiritual development of parishioners or students. You can easily find the full results of the survey by visiting Ligonier.org or by googling State of Theology, but I want to zero in on a few of the results here.

First, 71% of survey responders agree–strongly or somewhat–that individuals must contribute their own efforts for personal salvation. This is a startling number–particularly in light of the fact the Bible makes it abundantly clear that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and that works have nothing to do with salvation. Any belief to the contrary is dangerous for one of two reasons; either humans are capable, in an of themselves, of contributing to their own salvation, or the death of Christ on the cross was somehow insufficient in and of itself to provide salvation. To suggest that Christ’s atoning death on the cross must be supplemented by man’s efforts is to seriously undermine the entire salvation message. John 3:16 is nullified by the position that human efforts are required to obtain salvation. And lest you temper your concern about this figure by suggesting that the 71% is surely made up of unbelievers, note that 38% of self-identified Evangelicals strongly agree with this notion. That is the same percentage of Evangelicals who attend church once a month or more who strongly disagree with the statement, meaning that even Evangelicals are evenly split over whether or not man has a role in salvation. It is not surprising, given the tenets of the Catholic faith, that 49% of Catholics strongly agree that human effort is required, but 38% of Evangelicals to do so is cause for concern.

Oddly enough, 87% of self-identified Evangelicals who attend church at least once a month strongly agree that salvation is found through Jesus Christ alone. Only 33% of other Christians strongly agree, and just 13% of non-Christians. That range is not surprising. It is baffling however, that 87% of Evangelicals can strongly agree that salvation is through Christ alone while 38% of them also agree that human effort is a required element of salvation. That means some 25% of Evangelical responders are either schizophrenic or deeply confused.

The beliefs about salvation segue right into a question in the survey about the authority of Scripture. A startling 41% of survey respondents agree–either somewhat or strongly–that the Bible is not literally true. I am pleased that 80% of Evangelicals who regularly attend church strongly disagree with this statement, but it concerns me that one in five do not strongly disagree! Forty-five percent of survey respondents believe that the Bible was written for each person to interpret as they choose–and only 66% of Evangelicals who regularly attend church strongly disagree with that. Only forty-eight percent of survey respondents agree that the Bible alone is the written Word of God. While 79% of Evangelicals who attend church regularly strongly agree, just 62% of all Evangelicals strongly agree and only 22% of Mainline Protestants strongly agree. This means that there is considerable belief that the Bible is not God’s only revealed, written Word. Among all survey responders, only 43% agree that the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches. And while 78% of Evangelicals who attend church regularly strongly agree with that statement, that still leaves almost a quarter who do not strongly agree. Even more troubling is that only 23% of “Other Christians” strongly agree.

So what can we learn from these statistics? First, the term “Christian” can obviously be applied very loosely, and just because someone identifies him- or herself as a Christian does not mean that they believe the things I would expect a Christian to believe. Second, we live in a world that is divided on issues of biblical authority and godly living at best, opposed to it at worst. (For example, 43% of the survey responders indicated disagreement that sex outside of marriage is a sin while only 48% indicated agreement. The balance was “not sure”). Accordingly, we need to be more diligent and more vigilant than ever in our churches, in our Christian schools and in our families that we are equipping our students with the Truth of God’s Word and preparing them for the realities of the world in which we live.

November 6, 2014

Freedom is not an entitlement

The Facebook page of the organization called The Federalist Papers posted an image of an American flag today with the caption, “The only entitlement I expect from my government is freedom.” The Federalist Papers is an organization with this purpose: “The mission of The Federalist Project is to get people the history and the civics lessons public schools don’t teach to motivate them to push back at the erosion of our liberties and restore constitutionally limited small government.” The organization relies primarily on social media to communicate its message. What is ironic about its post from today, however, is that freedom is not an entitlement at all.

An entitlement, by definition, is the right to guaranteed benefits under a government program. Such programs–Social Security, for example–are called entitlements because those who are qualified for the benefits are entitled to them. That entitlement, however, and the conditions qualifying one to become entitled to those benefits, are determined by the laws made by the government. Congress, for example, has been gradually increasing the age at which one becomes entitled to Social Security. I do not have a real problem with that, but it is clear evidence that entitlements are created by the government and can therefore be changed by, or even eliminated by, the government. Accordingly, referring to freedom as an entitlement is probably not a good idea.

Ironically, the very source the Federalist Papers claims as its name–the original Federalist Papers penned by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay–would have had very serious concerns about referring to freedom as an entitlement or as something which comes from the government at all. John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government articulated the idea that humans enter into a social contract through which they surrender some natural rights and freedoms in order to establish a government that will protect their other rights and freedoms. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote in the Declaration of Independence that man is endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable rights–meaning that the government does not give them and the government cannot take them away. And then the authors of the Federalist Papers, written to encourage the ratification of the Constitution, vehemently argued that the Constitution gave the federal government only those powers that were enumerated in the Constitution. So passionately did they feel about this that they argued against the need for a Bill of Rights, demanded by the Anti-Federalists, because articulating that the government did not have the powers prohibited in the Bill of Rights would imply that the government had had those powers prior to having them forbidden.

Maybe its semantics, and I understand and appreciate the point the Federalist Papers post was trying to make, but we need to be careful with our words…and the last thing we want to do is suggest that our freedom is an entitlement we receive from the government!

November 4, 2014

What the Composer intended

The November/December issue of RELEVANT Magazine includes an essay by Michael Gungor entitled “Wrestling with Faith and Doubt.” If you read this blog regularly then you will recall that I took serious issue with Gungor back in September over comments he made about evolution and his suggestion in a Liturgist podcast that Jesus may have either been wrong or lied about Adam and Noah. I commend RELEVANT for giving Gungor the opportunity to explain himself and I commend Gungor for taking the opportunity to do so.

In his essay, he begins with the illustration of a symphony orchestra and the fact that some instruments, like the first chair violinist, may play hundreds of thousands of notes while a percussionist may play very few notes but must play them “at precisely the right time.” Gungor uses this to stress his point that “all effective groups contain both diversity and unity.” He even makes a thought provoking observation about the importance of diversity in obtaining unity, writing, “it is arguable that without diversity, there is no unity (only a much less effective uniformity).”

From here, Gungor proceeds into his observation that today “the Christendom that claims to follow Jesus is divided into tens of thousands of bickering sects and denominations, more splintered and fragmented than ever before.” In many ways this is true, and there are many issues over which Christians vehemently disagree which are not of eternal significance. There are many subjects on which the Bible is quiet, if not silent, providing only guiding principals to shape our beliefs and behaviors. When the Scripture is not explicit no one should hold dogmatically to the notion that their position is the right one; no one should claim or exert superiority over anyone else because they are convinced of their own right-ness on issues Christian liberty.

Gungor says that he thinks “a little healthy friction in a team is OK. … But friction and division are not the same thing. There is a big difference between ‘you’re not doing your job well enough!’ and ‘I’m not playing on the same team with him anymore!'” I agree with Gungor here, too. Friction can absolutely be a positive thing. I seek out differences of opinion and insights from others than I may not have ever considered. I believe that we reach the best decisions when we weigh a variety of options and possibilities in the process of deciding. I believe this, though, when there are not absolutes already provided. If we were to argue at the school where I serve that students did not need to learn geography or to take Algebra we may well be able to develop convincing arguments but it would not matter. We are an accredited school, required to ensure that students meet graduation requirements established by the state before we can grant a diploma. In other words, it matters not at all how strongly, passionately or convincingly we may be able to argue against geography or Algebra because it is not up for debate. It has already been decided for us.

Gungor transitions from his explanation on the merits of friction within a team to his argument that he has been unfairly treated, labeled and opposed since his comments on evolution and Jesus’ references to Adam and Noah. “In the last few months, I personally have been called a heretic, a blasphemer, a two-fold son of hell and a fool who is leading thousands to hell, in which I happen to have a special spot reserved for me.” His explanation of why he has been called these things is that he “like a lot of Christians” believes that God created humans by means of evolution. Gungor says that he has no problem with Christians disagreeing with him or even arguing passionately that he is wrong. His issue, he writes, is when those who disagree with him start using “words that are intended to break unity, loaded words like ‘apostate,’ ‘heretic,’ ‘false teacher,’ and so on.”

I’ll own it. I am one of those who referred to Gungor as a false teacher. Not only did I blog about it, I used his comments as the basis for an entire sermon I preached on the importance of contending for the faith, defending the inerrancy of Scripture and rejecting the subtle but deadly false teaching that can easily slip in when we open our hearts and minds to “differences of opinion.” I did not do any of that, however, because Gungor believes in evolution. I think evolution is wrong and is contrary to Scripture and I think teaching it as truth is false teaching. But I took issue with Gungor because he suggested that Jesus either was wrong or knowingly lied, and, on top of that, said he wouldn’t be “freaked out” if that were the case. The problem is, if Jesus was either wrong or knowingly lied then the entire foundation of Scripture and Christianity is demolished. If you want to read more on that, check out my blog post of September 10.

Gungor goes on to explain that the early church used words like “apostate” and “false teacher” to refer to those who preached things such as Christ never coming in the flesh, but not to refer to those who “merely had differing interpretations of Scripture.” “Even in disagreements about significant doctrinal issues such as ‘Should we follow the law anymore?’ the early Christians maintained unity,” Gungor writes. I am not sure what Bible Gungor is reading, though, because he must have somehow missed Galatians. Paul addresses those who were teaching a continued adherence to the Old Testament law is very harsh terms. There were those who were teaching that salvation required following the law, including circumcision. In Galatians 1:6 Paul calls this “a different gospel,” continuing in verse 7 with, “not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” In verse 8 Paul says that if anyone, even an angel from heaven, preached anything contrary to the gospel message being preached by Paul, that person should “be accursed.” So strongly does Paul feel about this, so important to is the identification and rejection of false teaching, that Paul reiterates this in verse 9: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” Paul reinforces throughout the letter that teaching adherence to the law is false teaching.

Gungor then reverts back to his orchestra illustration, suggesting that by dividing over things like Gungor’s statements on evolution and Jesus’ statements about Adam and Noah is akin to a situation in which “every single player in the orchestra has gone off into her own corner, playing her part to whatever tempo she deems best in the moment. And what we have as a result is a din of clamorous noise–a series of competing factions, each trying to prove they are more right about the musical score than the others.” While this is no doubt the case at times, it is not the case with the reaction of myself and others to Gungor’s position. When Gungor suggested that Jesus may have been wrong about Adam and Noah or may simply have lied because his audience believed something that was not true and it was more convenient for him to let them believe that he was the one insisting that he was “more right about the musical score than the others.” Indeed, he was creating his own score! To his original point, there is indeed a difference between saying someone in the orchestra is not playing their part right and saying you will not play with that person anymore. The reality is that Gungor’s position is the equivalent of demanding the orchestra allow him to play a different piece of music than the rest of the group is playing, to acknowledge that he has the freedom and liberty to do so and that his playing his piece while they play the score the composer wrote is both acceptable and harmonious. This is patently absurd.

Gungor ends his essay by suggesting that the ultimate goal of the Christian is found in Matthew 26–which is true. What he fails to understand is that we are neither loving God nor our neighbor when we allow false teaching to go unchallenged. To suggest that we show love to Gungor by letting him hold to–and spread–his false interpretations of Scripture is the equivalent of suggesting that it would be loving for a parent to allow a toddler to stick a fork into an electrical socket simply because the child thinks it would be fun. The parent knows the danger involved and the damage that would result, meaning that the only loving course of action is to stop the child from his intended action and to teach him, sternly if necessary, not to pursue such behavior in the future. We are not loving Michael Gungor to suggest that his beliefs on this matter are acceptable or merely a difference of interpretation on an issue of liberty. We are not loving anyone else by allowing them to be exposed to Gungor’s position without warning them that it is wrong and dangerous. I hope and pray that Michael Gungor comes to see the error of his ways. Until then, however, I will continue to call his position what it is–false teaching. Because, contrary to what Gungor thinks, that is what the Composer intended.

November 3, 2014

Abounding Grace

Every once in a while something comes along that those who read and follow this blog expect me to address. The death of Brittany Maynard is one of those issues. It has been covered in every news outlet–major and minor–and opinions have been shared by countless others. Indeed, people far more knowledgeable about assisted suicide and both the physical and emotional pain of a terminal illness have already offered their insights. So I doubt I am going to offer anything new, but I will offer my thoughts nonetheless.

In case somehow you do not know, Maynard was informed by doctors last spring that she had a likely stage 4 glioblastoma. They said she likely had six months to live. A glioblastoma is a tumor “generally found in the cerebral hemispheres of the brain, but can be found anywhere in the brain or spinal cord,” according to the American Brain Tumor Association, and they are “usually highly malignant.” Maynard then moved with her family to Oregon in order to be able to access Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. Maynard announced that she would end her life when her suffering became too great, and later announced that November 1 would be the day she would die.

According to an article on The Huffington Post on October 8 Maynard received her initial diagnosis last January, and seventy days later was informed of the progression of the cancer and the six-month time frame she likely had remaining. “After months of research, Maynard found care options in her home state of California were limited and that treatment would destroy the time she had left,” the article stated. So she moved to Oregon, where the state’s Death with Dignity act “allows mentally competent, terminally ill adults with less than six months to live to end their lives with self-administered medication prescribed by a doctor.” Four other states have such laws, though Maynard made it her mission at the end of her life to expand that option for others. She partnered with Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit organization which seeks to “raise awareness about the widespread need for death with dignity nationwide.”

“Brittany’s courage to tell her story as she is dying, and alert all Americans to the choice of death with dignity, is selfless and heroic,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee in a press release. And that is really what I want to address. Is it selfless and heroic to end one’s life in the face of tremendous pain and suffering? I would suggest that it is not.

Maynard told PEOPLE, “My glioblastoma is going to kill me and that’s out of my control. I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. So being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.” I have no doubt that a terminal diagnosis is incredibly terrifying. It is not my intention, with anything I say here, to minimize in any way the incredible challenge of receiving such a diagnosis and then deciding what to do, or not do. I certainly do not wish in any way to add to the pain Maynard’s family is no doubt already feeling. But what strikes me most about Maynard’s statement above is this phrase: “being able to choose.” The Right to Life movement is certainly focused predominantly on abortion, but euthanasia and assisted suicide are just as much a part of defending the dignity of life. Maynard, and those on the pro-choice side, believe that individuals should be permitted to make their own choices about taking the life of an unborn child, taking their own life when the quality of life is no longer what it could or should be or when the prognosis for the future is bleak and painful.

Several things need to be taken into consideration in this discussion. First, death is necessarily final. There is no second chance on death. A medical diagnosis is not. In 2013 Good Morning, America ran a story Heather Knies, a woman who battled not one but two brain tumors, one of which was a stage 4 glioblastoma. As of January 2013 Knies was still alive, six years after her diagnosis, cancer free. She had married and become a mother, even, despite the fact that radiation and chemotherapy can sometimes leave patients sterile. Knies, the story said, “broke the biological rules.” Interestingly put, though I would suggest that, difficult as it is to accept and understand, there really are no biological rules. God does whatever He wants to do. That is incredibly difficult to accept sometimes, and even frustrating, because we are left wondering why God heals some people and not others, why He allows some people to be afflicted with deadly diseases and not others…why, why, why. Like probably every child has heard from the parents at times, sometimes God’s answer is simply this: “Because I said so.” His ways are not our ways, and He owes us no explanation.

Joni Eareckson Tada knows about suffering. Having been paralyzed by a diving accident as a teenager she has lived for decades with both extremely limited bodily function and extreme pain. How frustrating must that be to not be able to use your body but to still experience pain?!? Commenting on Maynard’s choice, Tada wrote, “I understand she may be in great pain, and her treatment options are limited and have their own devastating side effects, but I believe Brittany is missing a critical factor in her formula for death: God.” Furthermore, Tada said, God “alone has the right to decide when life should begin and end.”

John Piper, addressing Maynard’s choice and Tada’s response to it, wrote, “The fact that suffering almost inevitably increases with the approach of death is often a terrifying prospect. Even those who are fearless of death tremble at the process of dying. … But this tragic fact — which the suffering apostle [Paul] knew better than any of us — did not change the truth: Giving and taking life belongs to God, not to us. And the suffering of our final days is not meaningless.”

I imagine it is not coincidental that WORLD Magazine‘s November 1 issue–the day Maynard had originally planned to die–includes an essay by Kara Tippetts. Tippetts has stage 4 cancer. Two years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her prognosis has not improved. She writes, “Cancer has found new corners of my body in which to take up residence. But so has God’s grace.” The response of Kara Tippetts to a death sentence is completely different than the response of Brittany Maynard. I do not know either woman. What I do is that Tippetts knows Christ and she has accepted His sovereignty. She has also accepted that He has a purpose and a plan, even though it is not the plan she and her husband had in mind and is not the plan either of them would have chose or wanted. Rather than choose to end her life when she wants to, how she wants to and without suffering, like Maynard chose, Tippetts has chosen to embrace the suffering because she knows that it is temporary and that there are things far more powerful than physical pain. Yes, she is dying and no doubt in pain, but that is not what Tippetts has chosen to focus her attention. “I get to love my children and my guy with this abounding love that comes from Jesus. But I also get to meet my last breath knowing a much greater love will meet my family. The abounding love I know from Jesus will love them long past my last moment on this side of eternity–and that love will be breathtaking. More and more, abundance and grace meet us where my body is becoming less and less. That is grace. I never deserved to know such abounding love, but it is ours in Jesus.”

I am not alone in wishing that God did things differently sometimes. I am not alone in wishing that God would explain Himself. But Kara Tippetts has it right. The abounding love of Christ is far greater than the pain any of us may bear in this life–even those dying from stage 4 cancer. We do not know what God may do. He may choose to spare someone’s life in a miraculous way, as He did with Heather Knies. He may choose to let cancer run its course, and He seems to be doing with Kara Tippetts. Whatever He may choose to do, He is the only One with the right to choose. Brittany Maynard had no right to end her own life. She is not God. And God always has a plan.

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