Archive for June, 2017

Christianity ≠ Morality

One of the topics I address often on this blog is that of morality.  With a collapsing cultural consensus on what morality looks like around issues like human sexuality, childbearing, childrearing, gender, justice, and political discourse – to name only a few examples – offering a Christian perspective on what it means to be moral is, I believe, important and needed.

There is an implicit danger, however, in spending all of one’s energy arguing for a Christian morality in a secular society.  Far too often, when we, as Christians, do nothing more than argue for a Christian morality in the public square, it can begin to appear that Christianity itself is nothing more than a set of moral propositions on controversial questions.  Like in the 1980s, during the height of the Christian Moral Majority, Christianity can be perceived to be conterminous with a particular system of morality.

A couple of years ago, an op-ed piece appeared in the LA Times titled, “How secular family values stack up.”  In it, Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, argues that godless parents do a better job raising their children than do godly parents.  He writes:

Studies have found that secular teenagers are far less likely to care what the “cool kids” think, or express a need to fit in with them, than their religious peers. When these teens mature into “godless” adults, they exhibit less racism than their religious counterparts, according to a 2010 Duke University study. Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.

Much of what these kids raised in secular homes grow up to be is good.  A resistance to peer pressure, an eschewing of racism, a willingness to forgive, a measured sobriety about the positives and negatives of one’s country, a desire to avoid violence, a willingness to serve instead of to command, and a charitable tolerance toward all people are certainly all noble traits.  Professor Zuckerman argues that since secular parenting has a statistically higher probability than does Christian parenting of producing children who act morally in these categories, Christian parenting serves no real purpose.  But it is here that he misunderstands the goal of Christian parenting.  The goal of Christian parenting is not to make your kids moral.  It is to share with your kids faith in Christ.  Morality is wonderful, but, in Christianity, faith comes first.

James, the brother of Jesus, describes the proper relationship between Christian morality and Christian faith when he writes:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  (James 2:14-18)

James here explains the absurdity of claiming to have faith apart from any sort of moral deeds.  He says that if someone claims to have faith and no moral deeds, he really has no faith at all.  He even goes so far as to challenge his readers to show him someone who has faith, but no moral deeds.  This, in James’ mind, is an impossibility.  Why?  Because James knows that faith inevitably produces some sort of moral action.  The real danger is not so much that someone will have faith and no moral action, but that someone will have plenty of moral action and no faith!  Indeed, this is the problem Jesus has with the religious leaders when He says of them, “These people honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me” (Matthew 15:8).  The religious leaders were supremely moral.  But they did not have faith in Christ.

In our crusade to argue for a Christian morality in the midst of a morally relativistic secular society, let us be careful not to spend so much time trying to make people moral that we forget to share with them faith in Christ.  For a Christianity that only makes people moral, ultimately, leads them the to same place that a secular moral relativism does – it leads to death.  Morality, no matter what type of morality it is, cannot offer life.  Only Christ can do that.

We are not here just to try to make people good.  We are here to show people the One who is perfectly good.  Let’s not forget what our real mission really is.

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June 26, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

When Politics Leads to Bloodshed

When 66-year old James Hodgkinson opened fire on a ball field in Alexandria, Virginia this past Wednesday, he seemed to be targeting Republican members of Congress, who were engaged in a friendly game of baseball.  Shortly before the shooting, the suspect asked two representatives if the congressional members playing that day were Republicans or Democrats.  When they responded that they were Republicans, he left.  But when he returned, he came toting a rifle, which he used to wound four people, including the majority whip for the House of Representatives, Steve Scalise, who sustained severe injuries.  He remains in critical condition at an area hospital.

Following the shooting, investigators sprang into action and quickly discovered that Hodgkinson had a sharp disdain for Republicans, posting many virulently anti-Republican messages on social media.

This is where we are.  Our nation has become so bifurcated politically that a difference in party can become a motive for attempted murder.

In general, recent times have not proven to be good ones for political discourse in our country.  From a magazine cover depicting a comedian holding a severed, bloodied head bearing a curious resemblance to the president’s head, to a modernized telling of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a New York park that portrays the assassination of someone who, again, appears strikingly similar to the president, to the president himself joking during his campaign that he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York and shoot someone and his voters would still support him, political discourse has, to put it mildly, taken a nosedive.

So often, such reckless political flame-throwing is defended on the grounds of the blessed freedom of speech that we enjoy in our country.  “If we can say it, we will say it,” the thinking goes.  Indeed, no matter what political views you may hold, it is likely that some in your political camp have said things about opposing political factions that, though they might be legal according to the standards of free speech, are certainly not moral according to the guidances of God’s good Word.  Free speech does not always equate to appropriate speech.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves not only, “Can I say this?” but, “Should I say this?”

Part of the problem with our political discourse is that so often, so many seem to be so content with ridiculing the other side that they forget to offer cogent arguments for the benefits of their side.  But when we define ourselves by how we belittle our opponent, we turn our opponents into nothing short of evil monsters.  We stop disagreeing with them and begin hating them.  And our political discourse turns toxic.

President John F. Kennedy, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, gave a commencement address at American University where he called for a recognition of and an appreciation for the humanity we share even in the midst of stark political differences.  He said:

No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue.  As Americans, we find communism profoundly repugnant as a negation of personal freedom and dignity.  But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements – in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage …

So, let us not be blind to our differences – but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.  For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future.  And we are all mortal.

President Kennedy had no qualms about vigorously defending American democracy against the dangers and evils of Soviet communism.  But he also never forgot that communists – yes, even communists – are people too.

The tragedy of this past Wednesday is a stark and dark reminder of what happens when we forget that our political adversaries are still our brothers and sisters in humanity.  To put it in uniquely theological terms:  our political adversaries are still God’s image-bearers.  This means a Republican has never met a Democrat who is not made in God’s image.  And a Democrat has never met a Republican who is not the same.  So may we guard our actions, guard our tongues, and, above all, guard our hearts as we engage those with whom we disagree.  After all, our hearts were made not to hate our opponents, but to love them.

Let’s use our hearts as God intended.

June 19, 2017 at 5:15 am 3 comments

In Praise of Fathers

Father Daughter

Just in time for Father’s Day this Sunday comes a new study detailing the impact fathers have on their daughters’ behavior patterns.  In an online article published in Developmental Psychology, researchers from the Universities of Utah and Albany “compared the outcomes of older and younger full biological sisters who experienced the divorce or separation of their parents while growing up, and thus spent differing amounts of time living with their fathers.”  They found that “when fathering was high quality…older sisters were less likely to affiliate with sexually risky peers during adolescence compared to their younger sisters” because they had more time with their fathers pre-divorce than did their younger siblings post-divorce.

This research is sobering, but it is not particularly surprising.  The profoundly formative effect fathers have on their children has been well-documented.  This study serves as both an encouragement for fathers and a challenge to fathers.  It serves as an encouragement for fathers because it is a yet another reminder that they matter – greatly.  In a culture that has enclaves that can, at times, belittle, disparage, and minimize the roles men play in families and in society, this study reminds us of the blessing of dads.  It reminds us that fathers, by how they treat their daughters when they are little, can shape their daughters’ expectations and views of men as they grow up.  But this study also presents a challenge to fathers.  In an age when far too many men make children but do not raise them, this study is a clarifying indictment of the steep price that a man’s absence can incur on his children.  This must change.

In a society that obsesses over personal autonomy and choice, fatherhood is a countercultural sacrifice and call.  Fatherhood compels men to sacrifice many of their freedoms and hobbies for the sake of loving, providing for, and raising their children.  And whether the call of fatherhood comes expectedly or unexpectedly, it should and must be answered wholeheartedly, regardless of whether or not a man feels he’s ready to be a dad.

Many men I know are quite competitive.  They have a desire to beat those who are strong by being even stronger themselves.  Fatherhood, instead of pushing men to be stronger than the strong, invites men to be tender with the vulnerable – their children.  Fatherhood calls for a strength that does not conquer, but loves.  And this is the highest strength of all.  Which is why fathers are worth celebrating.

June 12, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Physician-Assisted Suicide and Who We Really Are

Euthanasia

Physician-assisted suicide has gained limited acceptance in many regions of the country because it has been peddled, in part, as an option for those suffering from the excruciating pain of certain types of terminal illnesses.  Supervised suicide was sold as a way to alleviate physical misery.  A new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, however, suggests that the actual reasons people choose assisted suicide are quite different from that of physical suffering.   One of the researchers in the study, Madeline Li, explains that many people consider assisted suicide because of:

…what I call existential distress.  [For some people,] their quality of life is not what they want. They are mostly educated and affluent – people who are used to being successful and in control of their lives, and it’s how they want their death to be.

In one instance cited in this study, a marathon runner found herself confined to her bed because of cancer.  She wanted to take her own life because “that was not how she saw her identity,” Li explained.  In another case, a university professor wanted to die because, according to Li, “he had a brain tumor, and he didn’t want to get to the point of losing control of his own mind, [where he] couldn’t think clearly and couldn’t be present.”

This study reveals that physician-assisted suicide can turn out to be not so much a palliative response to physical pain, but an angry response to the loss of how we see ourselves.  A marathon runner wants to end her life when she can longer run marathons.  A university professor sees no reason to live if he is no longer able to think at the level he once was.  It turns out that when people lose what gives them their identities, they often lose the very will to live.

If nothing else, this study should serve as a warning concerning the dangers of finding your meaning, purpose, and identity in something you are or in something you do, for these types of identities can all too easily be shattered by the wily ravages of this world and this life.  This is why, as Christians, we are called to find who we are in Christ.

When a rich man comes to Jesus in Mark 10 and asks Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by citing a sampling of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.”  When the man boasts to Jesus, “All these I have kept as a little boy,” Jesus responds, “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”  The rich man, the story says, “went away sad, because he had great wealth.”  It turns out that this man found his meaning, purpose, and identity in his wealth.  And when Jesus asked him to give up the source of his earthly identity, he could not – even to follow Jesus eternally.  May we never make the same devastating mistake.

Physician-assisted suicide carries with it a whole host of ethical problems, including the temptation to place profits over people.  Just last week, The Washington Times reported on a doctor who claimed that some Nevada insurance companies refused to cover certain life-saving treatments he requested for his patients because they were too expensive.  Instead, these companies offered to help his patients end their lives.  If this story is true, such a practice is nothing short of appalling.  But sadly, far too many people do not need a creepy suggestion from a greedy insurance company to consider taking their own lives.  They only need to be so turned in on who they are in this life that they forget about who they are in Christ.

Suicide may be some people’s answer to a loss of identity.  But suicide cannot give someone a new identity.  It cannot give someone hope.  Only Jesus can do that.  So let us find ourselves in Him.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

June 5, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Reflections on London

Lodnon

As I finish my preparations for worship at Concordia tomorrow, I do so knowing that people across the world are hurting tonight as terrorists have launched an attack yet again, this time in London.

As I’ve been reflecting on another tragic night, I cannot help but hold out hope.  Here’s why.  Terrorists strike.  They quickly detonate a bomb, or mow down people using a car.  Terrorists strike.  Our God, however, does something more.  He abides.  He abides with us to comfort us in our distress.  He abides with us to dry our eyes when they are filled with tears.  He abides with us to give us strength when we are weak.  Terrorists strike.  Our God abides.

And abiding is better.

Abiding is better because it outlasts a strike.    Abiding is better because long after terrorists disappear into the shadows to plan their next sinister attack, our God remains by the sides of those who have lost loved ones.  Abiding is better because long after the police clear, loved ones are laid to rest, and today’s tragic story gets coopted by the next big tragic story, our God will not forget the events of this night.

One of my favorite hymns is “Abide with Me.”  Two of its verses are especially poignant to me tonight.  The first of these verses is for those who are mourning losses in these attacks.  The hymn reminds us of how Christ’s abiding presence can comfort us in our loss:

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings;
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea;
Come, Friend of sinners, and abide with me!

In a world of terror, we do not need Christ to be our terrible Judge.  Instead, we need Him to be our gentle Healer.  May Christ begin the healing process in all those who are grieving.

The second of the verses reminds us of the hope that we have for the lost:

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness:
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still if Thou abide with me.

Terrorists struck tonight.  And with them, death struck.  But when Christ abides with us, we triumph.

Terrorism doesn’t stand a chance.

Praying for London.

June 3, 2017 at 10:35 pm Leave a comment


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