Friday, July 29, 2011

Gossip and the Rumor Mill ...

The scarlet letter, a public symbol used to brand the adulteress, thus humiliating her and serving as a warning to rest of the community.  Today we would not think of using such tactics … publicly.  But between friends and confidants, we are free to share our opinions on stories we have heard about the failings of various brothers and sisters in our church.  If a church leader is suspected to be found in some sort of compromising position, it becomes fodder for the membership, and excuse to warrant our own various objections to offerings, attendance, or any other element of worship we simply do not enjoy.  Harmless gossip after all is innocuous right?  What real harm can it do?  Shouldn’t a community of believers show an interest in what happens in their own church?

The TV images of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in the 1950’s presented America with an image of family life.  Divorce was a dirty word.  Just being divorced and attending a church would often immediately bring condescending looks, and social slights, enough to let the sinner know their place in the community.  Women would stand guard over their husbands to insure the recently cast out, would not attempt to take their man to cover the loss.  So too would interracial couples find a hard time with acceptance in either community.  Christians would tacitly accept them, but not usually make them a part of the inner circle.  Nominal acceptance with back door critique was the norm for the day for years to come.  Fast forward 50 years and these earlier improper treatments have all but vanished.  Not because divorce is gone, but because it is so wide spread it now dominates the membership.  Mixed families, children from other marriages, step children, all now are commonly seen in the pews and the “stain” of divorce is now too common to make much ridicule against.  So too, racial prejudice has subsided to a great degree.  It is not gone entirely, but it is no longer politically correct to express it publicly, so it now only lives in the dark recesses of the unchanged heart.
How a Christian treats his enemy is a telling event.  But how a Christian treats his brother speaks volumes more.  Gossip, at its core, is about making one feel better about themselves at the expense of another.  Rumors, by definition, include the various thoughts, feelings, and preferences of the person speaking.  Rumors are seedy, unverifiable stories, usually designed to achieve a particular result.  To spread them, or relay them if it makes you feel more comfortable, is to be a gossip.  The only proper response to a rumor is to quash it entirely.  But instead most folks who indulge in the listening or spreading of rumors add their own embellishments to the story as it is relayed.  Most of us would focus on the victims of the gossip and discuss the harm that comes to them from this practice.  That is well known, but the damage continues.  I believe the more salient focus should be on the damage that is done to the gossip than to the victim in their stories.  If the gossip truly understood what is happening to them, perhaps the practice would disappear altogether.
A need to feel better.  A need to be respected and heard.  A need to matter.  All of us crave these things.  Our sins have so long beaten us down, that some of us decide to compare ourselves to others in order that at least comparatively we can begin to feel better about our own lives.  We reason that we may not like someone else, but at least we don’t go beat them up.  Of course the person guilty of assault reasons that at least he did not kill the guy.  The murderer then reasons that at least he only killed the guy who deserves it, not his entire family.  The mass murderer then reasons that at least he did not kill as many people as Hitler.  Hitler reasons he is doing God’s work.  Thus an entire chain of Christians reason that at least they are not quite as bad as their neighbors.  But ALL suffer, all remain in pain, and none find relief from it.  Comparative salvation is not salvation at all.  Comparative holiness is nothing holy at all.  It is vain empty pursuits to bury pain, rather than find a way to end it.
When we embrace the idea of “relative salvation“ (or this sin is not as bad as that one), we implicitly accept the pain that comes from our own sin.  In addition, our focus on the sins of others, leaves us focused only on sin - period.  We do not look to Christ for relief from our own sins, nor can we in any way effect the life of our brother who is also in sin, so at the end of our investigation we have accomplished nothing.  We are no better because our brother is found to be in sin.  He remains in pain as well.  This kind of thinking is what the devil longs for.  Instead of an end to our own pain and evil, we extend its life by ignoring it, and comparing it to the lives of others.  We make our own lives seem even better by embellishing what we know of the failings of others.  In so doing we lie to ourselves, as well as to those we talk with.  We want to believe our own lies.  We need to believe them.  For if we face the unvarnished truth about ourselves we see our own evil up close and personal.  We are then forced to admit we are NO better than anyone we know, probably worse when it comes to it.  This is a truth we wish not to find or admit, but truth remains regardless of our desires.
It is an incredible waste of time and life.  Instead of focusing on pain, why not focus on the cure to pain.  Instead of searching for meaning by comparison, why not allow God to create meaning within you?  A life that matters, a life that will be remembered, a life that will be missed in this world and honored in the next is not a life of pain, but a life of love.  When a person dies, we miss them the most if we loved them the most, and even more if THEY loved us the most.  We do not miss the ones we never knew.  We do not mourn the loss of random strangers.  But our hearts break when one who spent their lives loving and giving to us is taken away by the pain of evil’s ultimate reward – death.  The sting of love lost is keen and is remembered.  Most folks do not miss the absence of a gossip, in fact, most prefer it.  But to lose a loving servant of God is mourned by every life that person touched.
A change of heart is needed, and one is offered.  To change the life of a gossip, one must begin by allowing Christ to change how we think.  We need to value different things.  We need to love in a different way than we understand today.  The feelings of love we have now are dwarfed by comparison to what God is able to install within us when we let Him.  A person may not naturally be drawn to help the homeless or downtrodden.  It costs us our time, our money, and our convenience.  Most of us naturally avoid getting personally involved with “these people” choosing rather to give an offering now and again and let someone else do that actual work.  But when we love like Christ loves, it is an entirely different matter.  Christ while here on this earth, went straight into the ghetto’s.  He spent more time on the Martin Luther King boulevards of His day, than in the places of pomp and spectacle.  He hung out with the hookers, pimps, diseased, and possessed and freed every one of them from their physical and their mental chains.  He broke the bonds of sin that held the weakest in slavery because the weakest knew they could not do it themselves.
Christ longed to teach the Pharisees what it meant to be free from sin, free from the chains that bind us to want to do what is wrong.  But the Pharisees and religious leaders of His day, believed they had no need of this freedom.  They were content to find righteousness in their own actions and self-denials.  They measured their spiritual holiness by comparison with the publicans.  They performed their actions and kept to strict lists to prevent any action that might be deemed inappropriate, but their hearts were completely unaffected.  They did not know how to love.  They desired wrong doing in their core, and denied it in their mouth.  But ultimately, their own self-centered ideas of holiness drove them to kill the only perfect life that revealed their hypocrisy.  Christ came to die for them as well.  He longed to reform their hearts and free them from their chains.  But they would not have it, rather they thought to end Christ and resume their own ideas unchallenged.
The Pharisees and the Publicans both needed a change of heart and mind.  Our actions follow our thinking.  We do what we want to do.  For there to be change, we must want different things.  We must value something else.  We are incapable of accomplishing this change on our own, but we are not asked to perform this work.  Instead we are offered a God who longs to do it for us and in us, and sometimes in spite of us.  All we need do is surrender ourselves to Christ.  Not just to accept that He is our God, or that He created the world, or inspired the Bible.  Those are facts not our personal surrender.  Our surrender is to the idea that we cannot change ourselves and ONLY He can change us.  We need to think differently than we do, and ONLY He can make that happen.  We need to want what He wants, not what we have always wanted.  We need to love like He loves, not like the paltry thing we call love.
When we do start to see people like He sees them, the homeless and downtrodden become the Prince and Princess of England.  Will and Kate are seen in the faces of the dirty street walking, mentally challenged, medically needy who seek only their next fix whatever that may be.  Like Christ, we do not care how they smell.  Like Christ, we do not care what they look like, what skin color they have, how old they are, how lazy they are, how greedy they are, even how dangerous they may be.  Instead, like Christ, we see only hurting children that SO much need an end to their pain.  Our hearts break as we look upon those in such desperate need and we are no longer content to simply give an occasional offering for them.  We need to get involved.  We need to make a difference.  Our hearts explode with love and sitting still in our chairs is no longer an option.  We - MUST - DO - Something.  This is how Christ felt as He walked our earth and saw the pain in so many lives.  He could not rest.  He could not leave the work up to others.  He had to take action.  He loved us too much to sit still and hope.  He got involved and made a difference and 2000 years later billions remember His life.
To indulge in gossip, is to prolong the pain in your own life.  It is to grant an extension to evil, to allow it to remain unchecked and unchanged and it hurts the life of the gossip far more than the lives of those they propagate rumors about.  But it need not be so.  It need not consume the years you have left on this planet earth.  There is meaning for those who seek Christ that they have yet to understand or imagine.  There is love so great that it truly changes how we think and mandates what we do, if we only come to the source of it and allow Him to begin to remake our hearts.  To surrender our desires to Christ is to see them replaced with desires that will echo through eternity and make an indelible impact in our here and now.  The journey to perfection begins as we let our enemy die.  Not the enemy in the world, or even the enemy beyond our sight.  Instead our enemy lies in the mirror.  “I” and my own worst enemy and as I allow Christ to recreate me, it is Christ who is found in me, and “I” who disappears.  This is the beginning of a life of meaning, and an end to the pain we embrace.  Rather than focus on our pain, let us begin to focus only on its cure – Christ.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Homosexuality in the Church ...

So what should be the church’s position on the acceptance of homosexual members in its midst?  Should we welcome them into the pews beside us, or attempt to keep them beyond our doors?  Should we allow them to participate in our worship or lead in a ministry, or keep them confined in the pews?  Should we accept them as spiritual leaders if they choose to serve, or restrict them from our pulpits until their lives reflect our ideals of what a pastor should be?  To date, the majority of Christian churches have ostracized the gay community if not by direct mandate, then through protests with hateful rhetoric that would imply gays are not welcome in the doors of the local sanctuary.  There are a few other Christian churches that have elected to completely embrace the gay community and declare that homosexuality is “no longer a problem” with God.  Is either correct?  What should be the position of the church with regards to members who do not comply with its ideals?

The predominant church bearing the name of Christ for many centuries was the Roman Catholic Christian church.  It had the widest membership and farthest reach for nearly a thousand years.  When the reformation began, the term Protestantism (or protest against various Catholic dogmas) arose and gained momentum.  But church discipline and traditions still mimicked its Catholic roots for centuries to come.  The early Catholic church viewed dis-fellowship (or in their vernacular excommunication) as being the most severe punishment it could inflict on its erring members.  Those who would not comply with the leadership of the Catholic Church were forced to remain outside its doors.  The thought being that only through the church could one obtain salvation and therefore excommunication essentially doomed a person to eternal hell.  This idea carried through into Protestant churches for a few centuries further.  Though Protestants do not believe that salvation is found exclusively inside a church, they do believe that Christian “standards” must be maintained; and traditionally those found to be in sin were sometimes asked to withdraw their membership from the church and go somewhere else.
Public sin, is an interesting concept.  While a pastor engages in an adulterous affair that nobody knows about, his sermons appear to be just fine.  But after his affair is discovered and revealed, his shame requires him to leave the pulpit and seek other employment, or at least another congregation.  Most traditional churches believe that a “leader” of the flock must live a life more righteous than a regular member.  But this implies a degree of relative salvation, that some of us are effectively more “holy” than others.  It implies we expect a higher degree or a higher level of perfection in our leaders than we do in ourselves.  Interesting given that scripture teaches we are ALL inundated with sin, that NO-ONE is holy outside of Christ, and that ALL of us are created equally.  Scripture does not describe a spiritual hierarchy within the church.  People in spiritual leadership positions are selected based on the gifts of the Spirit, and their own willingness to serve.
Some argue that the model of the first worship services in the sanctuary that was carried through the desert by Moses, then placed permanently in Jerusalem by David and Solomon, had a hierarchical system setup within it.  But this ignores some of the foundations of “why” this method of worship was established and how the hierarchy worked.  The Levites were selected for the priesthood because of all the twelve tribes who exited Egyptian slavery, only they chose to remain loyal to God when presented with the golden calf alternative for worship.  This loyalty on their part was rewarded by God by selecting their tribe for all the various roles associated with the worship of God.  Not all of them were selected to perform every single role in the sanctuary services.  Some performed the tasks of setting up and taking down the structures of the movable sanctuary.  Some performed music.  Some participated in the daily sacrifices.  And one priest was selected to be the high priest, to perform the tasks of entering the most holy place once a year, and to wear the breastplate, and carry the stones that God reflected His will through.  Only one priest was selected to perform the most sacred part of the first ministry.
The high priest was to represent the work of Christ.  The original worship services did not create an organizational hierarchy with the high priest on top, then the next layer of priest leadership, then the next layer and so on and so on.  When Christ Himself came to our world, He established Himself as the head of the church.  He did not delegate that the 12 should rule over the 70, and that the 70 should rule over the next layer and so on and so on.  He setup Himself as the head, all men are equal in His service, no one was set up over his brethren.  Those who wished to lead, would be the servants of all.  So if all are equal under Christ, even our leaders.  And if all are sinners, then why do we hold our leaders to a higher standard than we hold ourselves?
The true Christian church then is any association of believers who are willing to submit themselves to the true leader of our faith – Jesus Christ.  It is only in Christ that salvation is found, not in the buildings we dedicate to our worship services.  It is in Christ that we find truth, not from our own collective wisdom.  The ministry of Christ was to redeem man from his bondage to sin and evil.  In coming closer to Christ, we are transformed by His presence.  It is not our own actions that change us, it is our willingness to recognize that Christ alone can transform us from the pain we embrace to the perfection He intends.  It is an error to think that ostracizing a sinner somehow protects the church, or maintains its standards.  We all fall short of the standards of heaven.  And we all need the transformation Christ provides.  Church discipline then that centers on casting away those caught in sin, or known to be in sin, is merely the elitist classism you would expect to see in a typical high school, not in the ministry of Christ.  Where can the sick go but to the master physician.  To deny them this access for the purposes of preventing further corruption is to ignore the pressing needs of the patient and to disregard the obvious; the disease is already among the brethren.
There is a difference in attempting to excuse our shortcomings and living with the struggle to submit to Christ to see them removed.  We are none of us perfect yet.  But all of us are on that journey through our submission to Christ.  It may be years before Christ is able to perfect in me what must be changed.  The delay is not His fault.  It is exclusively my own stubbornness and unwillingness to submit.  But as I learn to let go, I free Him to fix in me what must be fixed.  And soon I realize that He is not just fixing what I thought was broken.  He is literally remaking every single part of me; because as it turns out, I am COMPLETELY broken.  I think wrong.  I reason wrong.  I want the wrong things.  I believe I need things that only cause me pain.  I do not know how to really love.  I am bathed in self-centered thinking.  I am an absolute mess.  It will take time to repair me.  The church then, serves as my hospital.  Getting together with other ill patients to talk about how good our Doctor really is, encourages us all.  We all benefit from this encounter.
I may be a liar, or an adulterer, or a murderer, or simply full of pride.  I could also be gay.  The fact that I am diseased with evil is NOT the question.  All that matters is whether I am seeking His perfection, or content in my own self-assured sense of holiness.  When I define perfection based on my own thinking, I tend to disregard what Christ thinks and advocate only what I want.  When I put self at the center of my religion, I begin to try to excuse my condition of evil, rather than to confront my own errant thinking on the matter.  When I put my own views of what is right and wrong, and what is good for me or not, ahead of submitting to Christ; I effectively tell Him … “never mind, I do not need Your help – I am fine on my own.”  This was the state of the Pharisees in the days of Christ.
Christ was content to be found in the company of hookers, tax collectors (cheats), low class, poor, down trodden, those plagued with contagious diseases, even the demon possessed.  Christ was not there with them to participate in their evil, but to free them from it.  They could not free themselves, and had been shunned by the pious who need no such conversions.  Christ had to enter their company in order to reach them.  He was welcomed by those in need.  And He was worshipped for taking from them, what they were unable to free themselves from.  Church in the days of Jesus, was measured in how close you could get to the Son of God.  To be near Him, was to be near the source of Love, and the source of Healing, and the end to pain.  To be freed from sin by Christ was not merely to be forgiven, but to be unbound to the former desires to commit those sins.  When Christ said … “go and sin no more.”  It was not an arbitrary edict for the lame man to rely on his own decisions and willpower and not make any more mistakes.  It was the gift of reform in the lame man’s heart that despite his new found physical abilities, his mind, his heart, his soul were to be henceforth freed from the chains of evil that had so previously consumed him.  This is the kind of freedom that Christ alone can bring.  Our churches are supposed to represent being close to Jesus.  It is the purpose of our getting together in the first place.  Proximity to Christ brings relief to the soul, not the glorification of our evil.
The definition of hell is separation from God.  Conversely the definition of bliss is proximity to our Lord and Savior.  Our churches should accept all manner of sinners into its ranks.  Not for the purposes of excusing our sin-sick diseases, or attempting to glorify the pain we live with, but for the purposes of allowing Christ to free us from it.  We should encourage each other in love.  How are we to do this, if we cast aside all we find in sin?  Gay people should be welcomed into our family of believers, NOT because they are gay, nor because we believe this condition is ideal, or OK with God.  Gay people should be welcomed into our family because our Lord, welcomes us into it.  If we are welcome to sit in our churches, take leadership roles despite our own shortcomings, or preach from pulpits – so should those who suffer from a bit different condition than our own.  We are equally struggling to allow God to completely change who we are.  This is not a gay thing.  This is a Christian phenomenon.  We are all seeking to have Christ completely remake us.  ALL of us.  Our journey’s will be different, our timelines will be varied, but our destinations are all centered in Christ.  ALL are welcome in His kingdom.  In His kingdom ALL of us will be former sinners of one variety or another.  Do you think it will matter in heaven that I am a former liar, and you are a former adulterer, and he is a former person with pride?  God will see us only us in the perfection which He intends and has wrought within us.
If we ALL give God the freedom to rule over even our own sexual desires and ideas, then we allow God to craft us into what He intends for each of us.  It is not our place to judge each other in this matter.  It is our place to accept His leadership individually.  Our Lord has more work to do reforming the corrupt hearts of adulterers in our churches than He does altering the lives of homosexuals.  In sheer numbers, there are more straight sexual issues to contend with than gay ones.  Christians live in shame for the sins they commit.  Few try to glorify them.  How many pastors have stood in the pulpits and advocated that we should all be unfaithful to our spouses?  None, or none that lasted very long.  Glorifying evil or trying to excuse evil, is blinding oneself to the pain that evil causes and merely prolonging the agony of evil.  Yet many pastors who have preached sermons on the value of fidelity in a marriage have been caught cheating in their own.  It is not intentional hypocrisy; it is human weakness and self-sufficiency that leads to these failings.
I would not expect a gay person to stand in the pulpit and try to justify his history, his choices, or his point in the process of perfection.  I would not expect him to give us a report on how far God has altered his thinking on his being gay as of this moment in time.  I do not ask pastors to tell us how far along they are in their struggles with sin and submission.  Nor do I volunteer this information about myself to any who seem to have an interest.  Instead, like the publican, I stand afar off, unwilling to lift even my eyes towards heaven, beating my own chest and joining in his prayer … “have mercy on me God as I am the sinner.”   It is no-one’s business to know where I am on my spiritual journey towards the perfection God intends for me; as it is none of my business where anyone else is either. 
I am content then to journey alongside of you, regardless of what it is you struggle with.  You may not think you suffer from a particular evil that I believe exists in your life.  But then, this too is the condition I find myself so often within.  Christ is patient with us both.  He reforms how I think, reveals what must be changed, and then does the work as I allow Him to.  He is patient with me in this process, tender and caring.  How can I be any less with my brothers, whether they be gay or straight or something else entirely.  Those who seek the perfection found in Christ are more than welcome in my home, at my table, in my pew, or in my pulpits.  I realize the truth of inspiration does not come from the person who is willing to serve, but from the God who inspires behind them.  We are vessels of truth to others when we serve God in humility and love without condition.  But we remain vessels not the source.  Christ alone is the unending source of love and truth and change.
It is time for Christians to quit condemning particular sins, and instead focus on the healing of all sins.  It is time for us to forsake the mediocrity of living with cherished evil habits and the pain that comes with them, and seek Christ to be freed from them entirely.  It is time to seek perfection, realizing that ALL must journey to this as well.  There is no time keeper.  There is no yard stick.  There are no standards we do not all fail to meet.  There is only Christ.  There is only the TOTAL transformation we must ALL be willing to embrace before perfection can be achieved.  It is difficult to realize the magnitude of giving literally everything about us over to Jesus, but when we embrace it, it is life altering. 
It is a process that begins here and will one day reach fulfillment.  For those alive to greet Him in the clouds, this process will reach fulfillment in our lifetimes.  For those who die before this perfection is fully achieved, they will be granted the total transformation in the twinkling of an eye at His second coming.  Praise God He is willing to save me, to save you, and to save those who are different from us both.  Praise God He welcomes all into His kingdom, and does the work of perfecting ALL of us from what we are today, to what He intends for each of us.  Our God desires ALL to come to Him.  We should echo His desires in our churches.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Who Do You Hear? ...

When seeking advice we tend to look for perfection, or at least as close to perfection as is possible, before we take the time to listen.  We like to consult “experts” on subject matter to make informed decisions when presented with information we ourselves admit we do not fully comprehend.  We avoid advice from people who say one thing and do another.  Hypocrites do not seem to make the best counselors.  Yet despite our best efforts, at the end of the day, the people we choose to listen to are all imperfect; make mistakes, and if examined closely enough – they disappoint us.  So who should we choose to rely upon for spiritual answers when faced with a world of obvious imperfections?

Would you take drug rehabilitation counseling from a non-reformed crack addict on the side of the street?  Would you take financial investment advice from a broker who just lost everything and is now going through bankruptcy?  Seems silly does it not?  The best these people might offer us is what not to do.  We could learn from their mistakes, but that is not the same as finding how things should be done.  When it comes to spiritual matters the problem is compounded.  Should I listen to a murderer whose uncontrollable temper could never be tamed?  Should I take prophetic advice from a coward?  How about advice on how to love from a ruthless womanizer?  How do I reconcile the counsel of say Paul which points me only to Jesus, when his entire life had been spent killing anyone who dared to claim the name of Jesus as the Messiah?  One could argue that Moses, Jonah, David, and Paul encountered God and were changed from their experiences.  But a careful reading of scripture shows that certain failings plagued them all right up to the grave.
Recently the trial of Casey Anthony, a young mother accused of killing her 3 year old daughter and did not report it for 31 days, was completed in Orlando Florida.  The verdict was not guilty on all murder charges for the state’s inability to prove their case.  She was however convicted of telling lies about her daughter for the 31 days after her daughter was noticed as missing.  Her behavior defies every norm we hold about how a mother reacts to a missing daughter.  Her trial was one of conflicting expert testimony, circumstantial evidence, accusations and denials.  She never spoke in her own defense.  Now that it is over, she could in fact publish a book, or sell movie rights to her story.  She could now decide to tell “the public” what actually happened.  Even if she did kill her daughter, the state is powerless to convict her now due to our double jeopardy laws.  So she is truly free to say anything about the matter.  But will she?  And if she did, would you listen?  Would you believe the word of a convicted liar, no matter what she said?
I would be willing to bet few would be seeking out Casey Anthony for parenting advice.  She might make good fodder for news shows looking to boost ratings, or talk shows looking to exploit pain.  But she will probably never make a name selling books on how to treasure a daughter and what to do if something happens to a daughter you love.  In that category she seems only qualified to tell you what NOT to do.  But what if Casey Anthony showed up in your local Christian church pulpit this weekend to deliver the sermon?  If the topic had nothing to do with her daughter, would you even be inclined to sit and listen while she speaks?  Her words could be the most loving tender picture of Christ there is, but given her recent infamous position in the media, would any congregation even sit still to listen.  Or would they get up and walk out before she could complete her first few thoughts?  How many would believe her efforts to preach a sermon were nothing more than publicity stunt on her part?  How many would accept that her motivation was not self-serving?
Yet the authors of our cornerstone of faith were a veritable parade of Casey Anthony’s of their own day.  None were perfect.  Many had direct contradictions between what they advocated and what they did.  Moses was an admitted murderer, and he wrote the first five books of the Old Testament.  The Ten Commandments include the edict … “thou shalt not murder”.  So … Moses did one thing and wrote another?  We could argue that he killed the Egyptian and then spent 40 years tending sheep (perhaps for penance, or to learn patience perhaps), and so maybe he changed in that time.  But the same temper that led him to slay the Egyptian, led him to strike the rock when he lost his patience with the constantly complaining children of Israel AFTER nearly 40 years of wandering in the desert.  Nearly 80 years had passed between his first temper incident with the Egyptian and the time he struck the rock in defiance of what God instructed.  One wonders how many times in between the struggle against his temper may have gotten the better of him.  But in any case, how do I take advice on murder from a guy who cannot control his temper?
Paul persecuted Christians.  He killed them.  He hunted them down using any deceitful method required turned their names over to local temple authorities and had them killed.  He was a zealous religious pious warrior for God – who killed every servant of the God he claimed to serve.  Ironic.  After his conversion, do you think he was well attended in his first few sermons on the love of Christ?  Do you think early Christians were willing to forgive the fact that Paul had only last week put their friends and families to death?  How could such a religious zealot who used any method of trickery required to seek out Christians and put them to death now be preaching about the tender love of Christ the true Messiah?  Who would listen? 
Our tendency is to associate the message with the messenger.  We link them such that if the source is not trusted, the content is disregarded.  But we live in an imperfect world.  Every one of us flawed at birth, inheriting generations of genetic decay, and environmental corruption.  For God to reach us, He is forced to use imperfect delivery vehicles.  The perfect truth must pass the lips of the imperfect vessel.  The heavenly communication must come from the pen of the author still struggling against his own very nature.  With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what is otherwise filthy can produce what is pure – whether in word, deed, or publication.  It is the quickening of the Holy Spirit that can transform, even if only for the moment of inspiration, that which is far from perfect, to deliver that which is perfection completed.  This is another gift of God to His erring creation.  It is yet another testament to the tender mercy of our God, to utilize those who are willing to be the delivery mechanism of His truth to all those in need.
Therefore it is the content alone that matters, the delivery vehicle is incidental.  Can truthful words come from a sinner still steeped in sin?  Yes.  The condition of the sinner matters little next to the power of truth that God may elect to send through them.  Consider for a minute God’s revelation of the future through the Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of Joseph.  If God only desired to save those who claimed His name, He could well have spoken directly with Jacob as He had done in the past.  He could have merely warned only the clan of Jacob to move eastward and avoid the coming famine, or to prepare for it as Egypt would eventually do.  But the love of God extends beyond just those who claim His name and worship Him in gratitude.  His love extends to the whole of the world, and so God revealed His purposes not to Jacob, or even to Joseph, His faithful servants.  Instead He reveals His mysteries to Pharaoh.
Pharaoh was no servant of the most High God.  Instead He blasphemed God by claiming that he was divinity on earth.  All men were to bow to the Pharaoh and recognize his earthly divine manifestation.  He did not keep the laws of God, rather he instituted his own.  He was what the Jewish nations would call pagan, or heathen.  He was unclean, unbaptized, unrepentant, ego-maniacal, and had quite literally a God complex.  Yet our God spoke to Pharaoh in a dream.  Our God revealed the future, and His own mercy, to the earthly king that denied His very existence.  Pharaoh did not seek the Holy Spirit.  Pharaoh did not renounce his own divine claims even after having Joseph interpret the meaning of his dreams.  Pharaoh did act in his own interests and in those of his nation.  Thus our God saved multitudes of people who would refuse to call on His name.  Only Joseph stood as an example of the salvation of the Lord through His truth.  Remember Pharaoh might have chosen to disregard the truth shown to him, but he did not.  Truth and mercy were sent to the world in the most unlikely vessel, the king of Egypt and the hand of a slave.
Were we to examine Pharaoh using today’s standards as Christians we would simply ignore the dreams of a raving heathen who claimed to be God as any messages to him from the great beyond, must only come from Satan.  Pharaoh could not be trusted to have received truth from God.  Like Casey Anthony, the stain on the vessel is too great for us to find truth in it.  But at least Pharaoh was sane right?  Nebuchadnezzar would follow many generations later in Babylon.  His sexual exploits would be far from monogamous, and the kind of palace parties (‘orgies’) done in Babylonian times were likely not completely heterosexual in nature.  Anything goes, when morality does not exist.  This king had blood on his hands, he ruled the then known world with a sword drenched in the blood of his enemies.  On top of that he went literally mad for seven years, living in the backyard of his palace feeding on grass.  Not exactly the picture of sanity, yet through him, God chose to reveal His plans for the world right up to the end of time itself.  NOT through his own prophet Daniel who only interpreted the truth God gave to Nebuchadnezzar.  No, like Joseph before him, Daniel was merely the interpretation of truth.  The message itself came to the most unlikely of vessels.
So is it possible that genuine truth could come from the lips of the convicted liar Casey Anthony?  Yes, it actually could.  It is the content that must be examined.  It is the content of the message that must be evaluated independently of the delivery vehicle.  Whatever I think of Casey, I must put my feelings aside, and examine only what she says.  If God chooses to speak through her, I am obliged to listen.  God does not tell us to emulate the vehicles of His truth.  He tells us to hear His words.  He tells us to listen.  He does not want us to be listening to the murderer Moses, or the murderer Paul.  He asks us to look beyond the murderer and see the truth He wishes to communicate to the world through these broken vessels.  His truth lives on.  And His truth is only ever delivered to us in this way throughout all of Scripture.  Christ Himself wrote no books of the New Testament.  Books were written by His far from perfect followers.  The truth lives on delivered by hands inspired of the Holy Spirit though not permanently perfected by Him.  Broken vessels can still deliver perfect truth, when it is God behind the inspiration.  It is why we MUST separate the content from the delivery system.
Jim Baker, a televangelist with an extensive ministry, who was caught with a hooker in a hotel room.  Or was that Jimmy Swaggart who confessed he had sinned.  TV ministers who frequently get caught in sexual indiscretions, some of a homosexual nature, shamed into disgrace leaving behind their ministries.  Does this negate everything they ever said in the uplifting of the name of God?  Does being caught in human weakness reduce the truth of what may have been said before, or after that time?  If it does do we abandon the words of Peter before or after his second conversion when he realized the gospel was not just intended for the Jews but for all people.  People are not perfect, but truth can be.  No one aspires to be Jim Baker, or Jimmy Swaggart, or the countless others who have been publicly humiliated in sins we all too often indulge in ourselves.  But then I do not remember such fallen ministers asking us to be “like them”, instead they asked us to “follow Christ”.  Not every word they uttered was divinely inspired, but not every word they uttered should be disregarded merely because the perfection we all seek had not been found in them yet.
A fundamental problem of our culture is that we idolize celebrity.  We seek the famous, and wish to carry fame of our own.  Thus we spend too much time trying to emulate those we admire rather than model ourselves after the ideals we know to be better.  This tendency leads us to fuse the message with the messenger and when the messenger disappoints we disregard the message as well.  But Christians should intrinsically know that only Christ is our role model.  We should seek only to emulate our Lord, not the imperfect souls who try to share His truth.  We should free ourselves to find the truth in the inspiration behind the vessel, than to believe the inspiration comes from the vessel itself.  It is the God of the truth we seek, not the vessel by which truth comes.
If we could do this, then we could find the beauty of a forgiving and loving God, and could discern His truth, even if it comes from Casey Anthony, or the pastor who already occupies our pulpits, or the family member who does not even embrace the name of God.  If we could ignore the failings of the vessel and focus on the purity of the truth that may come through them, we could finally learn to hear the voice of God.  God reveals His love in the most unlikely places.  But we are so picky about who we hear, and where we choose to listen, we ignore His constant foray into our lives.  We lose so much truth and love from our inability to segregate truth from weakness.  It is time for us to hear His voice wherever it comes.  It is time for us to aspire to truth, not to those who deliver it.  It is time for Christians to see God, even if God chooses to reveal Himself through Casey, or Moses, or Paul.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Homosexuality and Choice ...

Perhaps one of the most perplexing questions a Christian faces in our world is … “is homosexuality a choice?”  If the answer is yes, then adopting this lifestyle is a matter of conscious choice and as the Bible points out, it is a sin against God.  But if the answer is no, then how can God, or the Christian community hold those without choice accountable for this sin?  But beyond a simply yes or no answer are the gray scale responses that occur when regardless of what might have been the original ability to choose, evil inserts itself and corrupts that choice through abuse or rape, particularly when it occurs on children unable to defend themselves or mature enough to know their own sexual preferences.  In these situations the idea of “choice” itself is even murkier.  But then perhaps on an even more profound basis, we might all ask if sin itself is a matter of choice or not.

Most Christians believe that acts of sin are matters of conscious choice.  If this is true, then man should be accountable for both the commission of sin as well as the cessation of sin.  If I CAN choose not to sin, but do NOT choose to stop sinning, then I am alone responsible for the sin in my life.  And more to the point, if I am able to choose to stop sinning, why do I need a savior to save me from my pain?  It seems then the only role for Christ in this version of Christianity is to provide forgiveness for my past.  Going forward, if the actions of sin are nothing more than choice, I can simply elect to sin no further.  Perfection then, should be instantaneous, complete, and permanent.  Sounds like the twinkling of an eye to me which is not predicted until the second coming. 
Others believe it is the action of the Holy Spirit that drives sin from our lives.  That once “the Spirit falls” on us, our sin is removed from us and we are made perfect by the indwelling of the Spirit.  At its heart this is true, but we are still free to reject our salvation from sin, even after the Spirit has fallen.  On the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was made manifest in the upper room, all present were “of one accord”.  All 12 of the disciples as well as the rest of the servants of Christ were physically touched by the Spirit of God.  They spoke, and their words were heard in the native languages of all present.  It was a miraculous event.  Yet it did not prevent later dissention over preaching to the Gentiles, even in the heart of Peter who had to receive a further dream from God before he was convinced the gospel was meant for ALL the world, not just all Jewish peoples.  It did not prevent the later dissention about who should accompany various disciples on their journeys to spread the word.  Arguments were not permanently disabled thru the initial touch of the Holy Spirit.  They were abated only while His presence was among them.  Later imperfections still revealed themselves and it was obvious perfection had not been obtained through that singular incident.
Paul considered himself chief among sinners.  This was not merely a reference to his murderous past, but a declaration about his immediate present as he penned those words.  “That which I would not, that do I do” – these words reflect Paul’s struggles against sin long after his Damascus Road conversion being directly touched by Christ.  Paul knew the horror of sin, as well as the love of Christ.  His written letters of encourage to the churches of his day were designed to point all to the love and ministry of Christ on our behalf.  Paul who was responsible for writing nearly half the books included in the New Testament portion of our Bible, inspired of God, had not reached the perfection we all seek.  Paul who died a martyr’s death, had not reached perfection despite his being so close to Christ.  Paul’s own words reflect on our discussion of choice – Paul states – “that which I would not” – this means that Paul does not desire to do what he does, yet he does it anyway.  If sin was merely an act of choice why would Paul simply not do, what he does not wish to do.
Scripture also provides us with incidents that do appear to be matters of choice such as the act of Judas in betraying our Lord.  Judas makes a bargain with the Jewish religious leadership to betray Christ to them for a few pieces of silver.  No one knows why he committed this act.  It could have been to simply increase his greed.  But it might also have been to force Jesus to act to save himself when confronted with his imminent death.  Judas may have been trying to compel Jesus to become the earthly king the Pharisees had so long predicted would come.  There was no doubt in Judas’ mind as to Christ being the Son of God.  He had been with Jesus almost as long as any other disciple, he had seen the same miracles, and performed them himself like all the others.  He had the same understanding of scriptures as EVERY other disciple did.  They ALL used to argue about who would be greatest in the coming kingdom Jesus would implement in this world.  They ALL believed Jesus would eventually be an earthly king.  This is what their religion had taught, and what history had always seen develop.  Israel would sin, be invaded, and after repentance (which John the Baptist had called for), they would be delivered from their enemies.  Their current enemy was Rome, so they all believed Jesus would deliver them from Roman oppression.  Judas may have only believed he was forcing this to occur sooner rather than later.  So his act was a conscious decision, despite what his motives may have been.  A sin of choice.
Peter too sinned by choice.  Peter in an attempt to preserve his own life, denied even knowing his Savior.  These were sins of self-preservation, lies told to protect himself from the fear of discovery and association with Christ; sins that broke the heart of Peter when the words of Christ earlier in the day rang true in his ears with the cock crowing.  Judas’ sin broke his heart too as he realized that the ministry of Christ would not be to setup an earthly kingdom at all.  Both saw the death of Christ as a permanent thing (forgetting the words of Jesus about His own resurrection).  They saw their own acts of shame in the demise of Christ as unable to receive forgiveness for their Lord had died.  Judas elected to hang himself in his despair.  Peter simply cowered in the shame of what he had done.  Had Judas waited and witnessed the resurrection of his Lord, he too might have gotten the forgiveness of Christ he so longed to have.  No one can judge.  But clearly both men chose to do as they did.  Neither was compelled to do so.
So perhaps sin is sometimes a choice, and seems sometimes to be beyond what we would classify as choice.  Choices do have consequences.  It is the nature of sin to be addictive.  Not just the sins that alter our body chemistry through drugs or alcohol; but every sin has the propensity to become habit.  Any action we repeat can move from singular acts to acts of habit.  As habits grow they become part of our nature, part of who we are.  It is our brain chemistry itself that is altered with repeated behavior that moves a single choice, into a repeated pattern, into a “natural” part of who we are.  The pathways in the brain develop electrical superhighways that conduct the electricity in our brains with greater and greater ease as we repeat actions over and over again.  Ever heard the term “pathological liar”?  A person who lies over and over and over again, it becomes more natural to lie than to tell the truth – even when the truth might be better for you – even when telling the truth would decidedly prevent pain from lying, the liar may still lie, and defy explanation in doing so.
So there may be a choice that an alcoholic makes to take the first drink, but once the chemistry is altered in his brain, taking the second drink is significantly easier.  Over time, he loses his ability to choose.  Over time, he becomes an addict to alcohol.  Adam once had the ability to choose not to sin.  When he consumed the forbidden fruit, he lost the ability to say no to sin entirely.  He could war against it from then on, but was destined to lose.  Adam lost for us our dominion over ourselves.  We no longer have the ability to “just say no” to sin.  We are slaves.  We are addicts.  We have generations of our parents propensities built into our DNA, along with an environment of moral decline that has existed for over 6000 years.  We are programmed to fail in our current state.  When scripture proclaims there is not “one” who is holy outside of Christ, it states a fact of obvious observation.  So then our only real choice is “who” we wish to dominate our lives – not whether our lives will contain sin.
When we choose Christ, we learn to submit ourselves to Him.  Submission is not merely an act of acknowledgement that we require forgiveness for our past.  It is an act of surrender regarding our desperate need of a Savior in our present.  We must be saved from ourselves.  It is “I” who is the enemy of Christ.  It is “self” that must die, in order that life can be worth living.  Our surrender or submission to Christ then is about letting Christ change “who we are”.  We need to allow Him to remake what we want, what we desire, and what we love.  We need to allow Christ to teach us “how” to love, and what love really means.  We need to be willing to “let go” every shred of what we think is wisdom and instead accept what He teaches us as being truth.  Our own common sense must be abandoned in favor of trusting God.  Many times in scripture our God asks us to do things that defy common sense, and we agree miracles are performed by His great power.  The miracle of a changed life does not occur in the strength or desire of the subject, it occurs in the complete domination of a life submitted to Christ.  It is Christ’s strength that drives sin from our lives, our hearts, our minds, even our DNA.  It is Christ’s strength that is sufficient to do what cannot be done through “normal” means.  It is Christ alone who can, and “we” who can do nothing.
In this context, it does not matter whether homosexuality is brought on by choices repeated over time, or by inherent propensities of our genetics, or by the victimization of predators upon young prey.  The reason why a condition exists becomes less important than the process to reach perfection in our lives.  Gay, straight, adulterer, liar, drunkard, no matter our condition – we ALL exist in sin at the present.  And we ALL require healing.  And there is only ONE method by which healing can be attained; in the complete and total surrender to Christ.  When Christ leads, the reasons why we are in the condition we are do not matter, only that we reach the life He intended for us.  It is NOT up to us to define the sins of others, it is up to us to allow Christ to remove the sins that harbor within us.  It is not up to us to define how others must love; rather it is up to us to allow Christ to teach us what love means and how to love others without condition.  We must ALL learn to love like He loves, and not according to our own ideas on the topic.
The problem Christians truly face in questions of homosexuality is not about choices, but about judgment and condemnation.  We center our attention on a sexual sin, most of us are not confronted with, and decry it as being an abomination before God.  Yet we completely ignore the pride in our own hearts that would lead us to make these declarations.  We ignore the greater sin of self-focus in our own lives and hearts and focus only on what we believe to be aberrant in others; all this while indulging in lies, pride, avarice, greed, manipulation, and lust of another variety.  Our own cups of iniquity are overflowing while we cast dispersions and judge the motives and histories of others who are caught up in a different kind of pain and struggle than our own.  It is the world who would have us believe we should be “all we can be”.  It is the world who would have us believe we should be “true to ourselves”.  It is scripture that teaches us that “we” cannot be trusted to want the right things.  It is scripture that teaches us that our ideas of wisdom are actually folly.  It is scripture that teaches us that we can be SO much more than we are, if we are willing to allow Christ to remake us into His image once again.
The work of a follower of Christ must reflect the work of their leader.  Christ did not come to our world to condemn it, but to redeem it.  We are NOT called to condemn the sins of others, but to work for their redemption.  We must lead in this work by submitting to it ourselves FIRST.  We are not capable of witness to a life in pain, while we embrace the pain of evil in ourselves.  We are not capable of witness to how evil is defeated while we continue to war against it in our own strength, denying our need of a savior, and calling sin merely a matter of choice.  We must lead lives of submission found only in Christ before we have anything to say to the world around us.  We must see sin taken from us FIRST.  We must see sin disappear in our hearts FIRST.  We must see the clear leadership of Christ in our OWN desires, needs, wants, and love BEFORE we are qualified to talk to others about what Christ has done for us.  The process for the removal of sin, all sin, is the same.  The journeys are as different as fingerprints and DNA that make us unique.  God must reach each of us personally, if we are to be saved.  It is in our interests, and the interests of those we would wish to save, to keep from inserting “ourselves” in the process and allow Christ ALONE to do the work He alone is capable of doing.  We must learn to trust our own salvation to Him, and allow Him the freedom to do the same with others, in the manner He sees fit, in the timeline He chooses to use, and without our considered second opinions on the process at all.
If there is to be a choice at all – let it be to choose Christ and give Him the freedom to save us from ourselves.  This alone is the only “choice” worth making.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Bio Ethics ...

How far would you go to save your own life?  Would you take the life of another to save your own?  How should a Christian handle the idea of human cloning?  Just because we can do a thing, should we do that thing?  These questions haunt our minds and hearts as we consider the ethics of how far we have come with respect to biology and science around life.  DNA has been cracked by modern science.  The human genome is being mapped already.  Before long, science will offer us cures for illnesses that have long plagued our world.  But at what cost?  Will we be willing to compromise our humanity to achieve great medical breakthroughs, or perhaps just our Christian ideals?

Organ donation is a relatively new ability in our world.  It has only been around for about a hundred years.  Go back more than that and those requiring a new heart, or other critical organ, would simply die of their conditions.  Some organs are able to be harvested from live donors without significant loss of quality of life such as kidneys, etc.  Others like human hearts can only be harvested from poor souls who have died recently or are brain dead.  We look on those willing to donate these organs as “giving” the greatest gift of life to those in need.  But what if this sacrifice was no longer needed?  If scientists were able to advance our abilities in human organ cloning, it may one day be possible for medical personnel to grow a new heart from a cell harvested from our own bodies.  With the added ability of genetic manipulation, they may also be able to remove any inherent defects in the newly grown organ before transplant occurs.  How far would we go to see this goal achieved?  Imagine the worldwide impact of this kind of cloned organ transplant.
Genetic manipulation itself is studied with the intent of curing disease and removing potential threats from us and our offspring.  The goals are lofty, and seem beneficial to our society.  But our fear of the unknown makes us cautious in our pursuit of scientific achievement, perhaps rightfully so.  Despite best intentions, sometimes fairly horrific acts are committed in the “name” of science.  Hitler’s regime conducted “research” on the limits of a human to cope with pain.  His results are regularly employed in today’s torture implementations.  The “scientific” experiments he had conducted were nothing short of horrific and have had little beneficial value (if any) in our modern world.  All he seemed to achieve in the name of science was pain and suffering and needless death.  But to think only Hitler was capable of this is to ignore our own nations “research” into deliberately giving men venereal diseases, or deliberately giving American citizens radioactive poisons to study their effects on the population.  Our own government in times past has done regrettable things under the guise of scientific research.
In truth it is not the science behind cures and potential cures we fear, it is the reality of how humans use knowledge in harmful ways over others that we fear.  Nuclear technology could have been employed for power production only, but instead it was first used as a massive weapon.  Now the world lives in fear of a rogue nation or group deploying such a weapon.  Millions could die from it.  Our history and track record where it comes to scientific breakthroughs is not one of stellar success where mankind was benefited unconditionally.  Today, many believe that medical cures are no longer a topic of research.  Instead “treatments” are sought, that will captivate patients into lifelong commitment to drug regimens that will maintain drug company profits well into the future.  So while the promise of human cloning and genetic manipulation seem to offer us much, we remain skeptical based on our historical applications of new scientific information.
This is not a new problem.  It is theorized that after the fall of Adam and Eve, subsequent generations using 100 percent of their brain capacity and having nearly unlimited access to raw materials may well have cracked DNA prior to the flood.  The blending of human with animal species told of in our myths and legends may have a basis in our distant past.  The blending of animal species combined with genetic manipulation could well have resulted in the genesis of dinosaurs prior to the flood.  It would also explain why God chose not to preserve any of the species in the ark that He did not create.  It may also explain why the numbers of dinosaur remains are rarely found in great numbers.  Granted it is all speculation based on our understanding of Biblical teachings and the evidence we have uncovered to date (something which evolutionists would predictably dispute).  But if the theory has merit, it would imply that genetic manipulation is not always used to ennoble mankind, but rather to have him explore his baser ideas.
 Where it comes to bio-ethics, the weightier questions center around the cost and value of human life, or even animal life.  If one person is killed to save a thousand, is it worth it?  Perhaps not if YOU are the person slated for death, particularly if you are given no choice in the matter.  Those who would believe the loss of one life is worth the saving of a thousand are more likely to lower those numbers significantly before the equation breaks down.  Often it may simply come down to - better you than me.  It is this willingness to sacrifice the lives of others to preserve our own that form the basis for ethical conflict on this topic.  For those of us more tenderhearted the same argument is applied to lesser species of life such as animals.  While we do not discard the idea of animal testing on medical research, we seem to object more readily to cosmetic companies torturing animals to insure their products will have less adverse effects on their human customers.  At its base is the ethical question what is one life worth?
Christ laid down His life to save all of mankind.  But He chose to do so.  No one forced Him, or compelled Him to redeem a race that had rejected Him and broken trust with Him.  It was love unbound that motivated that decision.  In it, He does not compel us to do the same.  The Bible does not ask us to die for others, yet often love motivates mankind to do just that.  Soldiers on the battlefield give all to save their comrades.  People who they have only met in service to their country become like brothers to them, friends who they will sacrifice all to protect.  Men make choices to save others by laying down their own lives.  But none of it should be compulsory.  It is the tendency of science to create scenarios where choice is not offered.  The “research” is considered of more value to humanity, than the humans that will suffer to see the research completed.
The example of Christ is not one to disregard a single life.  Ninety nine sheep were left safely in the fold in order that one erring lost sheep could be found and carried back to the safety of the others.  Each life is of such value to our Lord that He would have come and lived His life to save only one, if only one was willing to be saved.  To this end our bio-ethical positions should reflect that extreme value of a single human life.  Not a single human life should ever be compelled to be sacrificed in exchange for the benefit of others.  The donor is as important as the recipient.  Each is precious.  Each must be preserved.
If human cloning requires the creation of a complete additional copy before organs would be suitable to donation, it takes the process too far and should violate our ethical standards.  If the research to accomplish genetic manipulation requires adverse consequences to those involved it cannot be mandated and must be fully disclosed.  In our quest to prolong and improve the quality of life we must as Christians maintain our focus on the value our Lord places in each life.  We must remember that His sacrifice was enormous for each life, and so each life should be so valued.  If we maintain a love-centered ideology our ethical decisions and standards will better reflect the government of heaven, where there is no compulsion, but only eternal love for each soul.