Sunday, January 29, 2017

Simple Test for Determining if a Government Policy is Christian or Not

American politics and policies are undergoing dramatic changes. There is righteousness and fury on both sides. There are also Christians on both sides. It can be hard to figure out whether a policy follows the way of Jesus.

While most laws and federal policies are complex and operate on multiple levels, the basic premises are critical. If that premise of the government policy is anti-Christian, then it is unlikely that the details will override that basic premise.

Jesus laid out a simple test for individual actions in the parable of "the Sheep and the Goats" from Matthew 25:31-46. That test can easily be applied to whether a person should support an action of the government or political leader.

The parable is below in italics. The test is in bold. The text is from the New International Version, but the general meaning is consistent through every Biblical translation I've seen.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

While not every government policy can be held up to this test, many of them can. A policy is not Christian if it does not :
  • provide for people's basic needs to sustain life
  • welcome strangers
  • clothe the poor
  • care for the sick
  • care for those imprisoned
You may be attached to a policy or policies that either doesn't support these tenets or actual runs contrary to them. They could appeal to your basic political ideology, your sense of security, or economic aspirations; but it's clear that policies that do not support these tenets run contrary to the teaching of Jesus.

You're going to have to choose which path to follow.

p.s. I delved into this topic in much more depth in a post from 2013, "The Bibles's Blueprint for Decisions in a Democracy."That post tracks a similar line of thinking in Psalm 72.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"Prophets of Doom" and a Faith That Operates Through Love

I spent a few days glued to "The Prophets of Doom" episode of Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. Carlin opens the podcast by apologizing to everyone that he is going to offend in his attempt to tell the story of the Münster Rebellion of 1534-1535. That list included both  the religious and atheists. It's that powerful of a story.

I highly recommend the podcast to anyone who can stand a little gore and isn't afraid to plumb the depths of religious violence and Christianity. The story begins relatively quietly as a militant strand of the persecuted Anabaptist Christian religious minority takes over the town from the Catholic Prince Bishop and and the Lutheran City Council that had been in charge.

The roots of this Anabaptist movement include powerful concepts that have reverberated through history like the equality between human beings, a more modern view of marital relations, adult baptism, and the communal ownership of property. The rebellion eventually devolved into delusional religious fervor, murder, polygamy, starvation, and cannibalism. Every side committed violence that we would now consider war crimes. If you're not into podcasts, you can read a full description of the siege on the All Empires website.

I don't know what the next version of the "Doomsday Prophets" will be, but their arrival is as inevitable as winter snow on the Rockies. However, the spectrum of this issue doesn't just include "Doomsday Prophets." How many churches are classified as hate groups? How many churches are more easily identified by the people they don't like rather than the people they love?

While Münster's "Prophets of Doom" bring up a lot of interesting psychological and sociological questions, the one that I think is most important to the modern day religious reader is how to we ensure that we do not inadvertently travel down the same twisting but well-worn path that turns a good religious faith into something evil.

I think that the answer is that your faith must operate through love. Charitable love must be your faith's connection to other human beings. For Christians, any other connection between your faith and others risks defying Jesus's clear mandate, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Matthew 7:1-2.

Beyond the danger of losing salvation through judging others harshly, the Christian theological basis for having your faith operate through love is summed up in Matthew 22:34-40. In that passage, a Pharisee lawyer asked Jesus, "Teacher, what is the greatest commandment under the law."

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

As Christians, we must constantly evaluate our faith and our actions against those two commandments. That is as close as we can come to inoculating our faith against becoming exactly the opposite of what it should be.j

p.s. Here is another "Running with the Current" video.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Running with the Current: Psalm One

I've started a new "Running with the Current" project focusing specifically on one spot of Ten Mile Creek near Rimini, Montana.  The goals is to do all 150 Psalms.

I hope you like them.  Here's Psalm One.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Election Fallout. Recapturing a Sense of Divine Providence

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"Triumph of Divine Providence" by Pietro da Cortona
I've spent the last few years doing history research for writing projects. The three periods that I've dwelt on are first-century Israel, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War. The time periods are different, yet the stories of humanity, power, identity and faith have powerful common currents.

One of the most interesting things that I've realized is how our modern age has lost touch with the belief in Divine Providence and its utility in understanding the course of humanity. This lens that allowed common people and world leaders to keep a sense of historical perspective amidst turbulent world events has been all-but abandoned.

As described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Theology, "Traditional theism holds that God is the creator of heaven and earth, and that all that occurs in the universe takes place under Divine Providence — that is, under God's sovereign guidance and control."

Historical figures utilized the theory of Divine Providence to help them understand the overall course of history and help guide their own actions in the midst of trying or tragic events. For example, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus explained how Emperor Caligula's assassination was an act of Divine Providence which prevented the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Similarly, President George Washington relied on the theory of Divine Providence to provide support for the American Revolution. In a letter to Governor Trumbull of Connecticut, Washington wrote, "The cause of our common country calls us both to an active and dangerous duty; Divine Providence, which wisely orders the affairs of men, will enable us to discharge it with fidelity and success."

It's probably too strong to say that we've lost our belief in Divine Providence when the sentence "All things happen for a reason" is repeated daily across the United States from people who range from just a little bit spiritual to deeply religious. However, it's difficult to keep that platitude in mind when trying to understand perplexing and vexing real world events. Yet, this is exactly when we need to rely on Divine Providence to help us keep the world in perspective so we can continue to do the good things that we are called to do.

In a short time, the United States will elect new President. Whoever is elected, a vast portion of the country will be some version of disgusted, saddened or disillusioned. You can give yourself a day or a week to grieve, but anything more than that is challenging the Divine and the Divine Plan. That President will somehow be used for good - even if that good is to stir up a movement in response to his or her actions. 

Saint Paul's called all Christians to trust in the reality of Divine Providence. "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." Romans 8:28

That is not a call to fatalism, just the opposite. We are at a phase shift in history. The information revolution has connected over 3.5 billion people online. Our modes of communication, working, and governing are changing. These changes are making it more important than ever that each person to express their opinion and take action for the things they care about. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." That divine arc is real, but it relies on each of us to keep working to make our communities, our country, and our world a better place regardless of who is in the White House.

p.s. Go vote!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Complexity And Challenges of Praying for Others

"Please pray for me."  - "Please pray for her." - "Please pray for him."

It's an essential refrain of the faithful. The call to pray for each other is echoed throughout the Bible, but perhaps most clearly in James 5:16, "Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed." Each Apostolic letter is full of examples of the fathers of the Church asking other to pray for them.

Prayer requests seem simple, but I struggle with them because God's version of how a situation should play out is always more complicated and interesting than any version of an outcome that I could pray for. As the Garth Brooks song says, "Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."

As a child, I easily prayed for someone to be healed quickly or their life made easier. It's become harder as I move through adulthood and have been forced to realize both in my own life and the lives of others that horrible situations often make people better. These challenges can be essential to our development in faith, love, and humility.

The harsh reality of improvement through adversity is reflected in scripture. In the Old Testament, the Lord describes refining the Israelites through the "furnace of affliction." Isiah 48:10. This message continues on into the New Testament. "Consider it all a joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance." James 1:2-3. 

Similarly, "[A]lthough now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 1:6-7.

Should I pray that someone avoids a situation that could deepen their faith or play an essential role in turning their life around? 

If that prayer isn't answered, does it mean it wasn't heard?

When the situation goes beyond mere personal trials and towards death, simplistic prayers for a continuation of life are complicated by the belief that earthly death is an essential step to union with the Divine Love. 1 John 4:16.

Is it okay for me to pray for the delay of someone's journey to their spiritual destination? What if they are in horrible unending pain?

What does it mean for me and my faith if those prayers aren't answered?

Beyond that, what kind of prayer am I supposed to offer for enemies and persecutors as required by Matthew 5:44? Most of my attempts in that arena turn out pretty selfish, basically backhanded attempts to pray for myself.

Simplest answer that I've seen to these conundrums is a simple prayer described by Russian monk in 19th century Orthodox classic The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way.

"Merciful Lord, may your will be done; you wish that all men come to the truth and be saved, have mercy and save your servant __________. Receive this petition from me, as a cry of love which you have commanded."

This humble method of asking for divine intervention is applicable to friends, family members, and foes alike. It leaves plenty of room for interpretation on the need and direction of help. It's applicable for both those who are struggling in earth and those on their way out of this life.

Please give it a try. This world is desperately in need of prayer.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Monarch Butterflies, Paramecium, and the Mystery of Christmas

This time of year, we all beat each other about losing the true spirit of Christmas. I can't argue against our collective guilt. Awash in a world of decisions between where to shop, what to buy, and how to wrap the gifts. School vacations plan. Trees to light up. Meals to make. Friends to visit. Family to love and argue with...

It's hard hard to keep track of anything, much less the divinity of a baby born in in Israel over two thousand years ago. We can beat ourselves up over consumerism and loss of faith, but we should also be honest that it's hard to keep the focus on something beyond what our human brains to truly understand.

I can easily picture Mary and Joseph in a stable with Baby Jesus in a manger. Same thing with wise men following a really big star. Angels in the heavens are a little more difficult, but possible if  I mentally graft on some white wings.

That level of clarity doesn't extend to all the details. According to the Christian faith, Jesus fundamentally changed the relationship between God and humanity. As described in John 1:14, "[T]he Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the gory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth." That concept is a lot more slippery. 

How can we grasp the nature of that massive spiritual inflection in human history when we can't figure out how to stop the cold virus or predict the weather with a higher degree of accuracy?

That doesn't mean we enough to form a connection with the Divine reality of Jesus; to sense and react to something deep, powerful and earth-changing. A Monarch Butterfly summering in southern Canada cannot perceive all of the details of its 2,500 mile migration to winter in Mexico, but it successfully makes the journey.

A paramecium doesn't need to understand everything about its environment to know that it needs to move towards warmth.

The physics of the Divinity of that child born in Bethlehem will always elude me, but there is something in my soul that knows that the son of God prophesy of Isaiah 7:14 was realized when Jesus was born to Mary. Matthew 1:18-25. It is the same voice that has spoken to other souls for over 2,000 years. In the same way that something in the Monarch Butterfly tells them it is time to begin flapping those little wings south and within the structure of the paramecium telling them to push and spin towards warmth.

That does not mean that Christmas is wrapped up in too much mystery to be celebrated and loved. There is a very basic concept that we can latch onto and treasure. The purpose of that child born in Israel was to help us each overcome our own personal battle between right and wrong.

Nothing is more obvious than the fact we cannot find the path to good on our own. We start out with the best of intentions and eventually slide off course. There is something incredibly good in us that knows that we can and should do better, but somehow we don't. Whether the fault lies on belief systems, brain functioning, or simply the human condition is up for debate; but the reality that we cannot find redemption on our own is self evident

In response, the Lord sent a child. I cannot understand exactly why, but I am eternally thankful that He did.

If you haven't heard it before, please take a few minutes to listen to Steve Earle's haunting Christmas song, "Nothing But a Child."

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

1990's Magic Eye Posters and the Illusion of Ownership

Note: This post is dedicated to Joe Day. Joe was a regular at the NAMI Montana office before passing away this week. Joe courageously battled serious bipolar disorder and poverty. Despite these challenges, he really enjoyed life and helped make all of us better - even when we didn't want to.

Magic Eye hidden 3-D image posters were really popular when I was a teenager. Swirls of dots and shapes - an optical illusion that revealed itself to the trained eye. I'd helplessly stare at them on my friends' walls.

"Put your nose right on the poster, then slowly move back"

I followed their orders, but didn't see the hidden image.

"Relax your eyes."

Still nothing.

"Don't you see the ship?"

More nothing.

"Keep trying, eventually you'll see it."

I never did.

In my unqualified opinion, the greatest spiritual works are similar to those Magic Eye posters. There's more to them than you initially see. It might take multiple readings or even years of multiple readings for your mind to grasp the secondary meaning. Those strokes of insight are precious.

I recently grasped a deeper meaning in the Parable of the Tenants that I'd never seen before.The Parable of the Tenants is one of Jesus' teaching that he gave in Jerusalem under the fierce questioning of the chief priests, the scribes, and elders. Mark 12:1-12, Matthew 21: 33-46, Luke 20: 9-19.

Jesus described a landowner who built a vineyard on his land and then leased it to tenant farmers while he was away on a journey. The landowner later sent servants to collect some of the proceeds of the vineyard, but the farmers beat them and sent them away. Then the landlord sent his only son. The farmers killed him in hopes of having the vineyard for themselves.

Jesus finishes the parable with a quotation of Psalm 118 ("The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.") This powerful combination of ancient prophesy and a prophesy of Jesus's crucifixion delivers a powerful message on Jesus's divinity. That's the message that hits the Sunday sermons.

But, the secondary message is also valuable. The foundation of this parable is that human beings are the tenants of Creation. That is more than just a setup for the story.

We are tenant farmers of all that God has created. Everything that we've been entrusted with bears the expectation of that we will use it to serve the God of Love. The implications of this lesson are broad:
  • Our talents, interest and abilities belong to God.
  • Our property and resources belong to God.
  • Our family members belong to God.
  • The natural world and all of Creation belong to God.
This secondary meaning is so important that Jesus also describes it in the Parable of the Talents when God is described as a master who gives his servants gold coins in expectation that they will invest them and gain him a return. Matthew 25: 14-30. 

We are expected to care for and use the tools that we have been given to serve the Creator to the best of our ability, just like any tenant farmer would for the owner of the land. But, we must remember that they are not ours.

A river of personal suffering stems from misunderstanding this fundamental rule of Divine ownership. We cling to and try to dominate what was never ours to begin with and then blame God for taking it away.

As described by Dalai Lama, "Attachment is the origin, the root of suffering; hence it is the cause of suffering."

NOTE: This brings up the followup question of what does God expect us to put our time, efforts and resources towards. There are a lot of places to look for answers for that question, but Matthew 25: 31-46 which describes the process of Divine Judgment and the judgment of the Seven Churches in Revelation 2-3 is a great place to start.

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