Friday, February 29, 2008

An Open Bible Needs An Open Heart

This Sunday I start a new class called: “An Open Bible Needs An Open Heart.” I believe that our attitude and casual familiarity with scripture borders on contempt. I see examples everywhere of the abuse of scripture, some obvious, and some subtle. I have heard scripture rapidly quoted with anger and bitterness by people using the Bible as their own personal machine gun to win an argument, and I have spoken with an atheist about historical inconsistencies they saw in the Bible. Both of these examples have one thing in common – these people were quoting scripture without having a relationship with the author of scripture. In that vein, I have observed two very extreme, very opposite ways of reading scripture, and I believe they are both dangerous:

1. Pattenism
By this I mean reading scripture for the sole purpose of extracting rules, procedures, and guidelines. This is dangerous because scripture then becomes cold and lifeless. Passages can be ripped from their literary and historical contexts, and we tend to focus on the question, “Does the silence of scripture prohibit or allow something?” - a question that the Bible itself does not answer. (Several months ago I posted why I reject the prohibitive nature of the silence of scripture.) Reading the Bible this way can make us intellectually lazy because if the Bible is reduced to a collection of facts to be learned, then you can only know so much, and once you have all the facts and rules down there’s not much left to do but argue with anyone who disagrees. Plus, you tend to engage in doing something that I think is impossible – “restoring” the 1st century church in the 21st century.

2. Subjective Emotionalism
I often hear people use the phrase, “God laid it on my heart.” But the problem is that God could not possibly have laid on their hearts something as vapid as what they’re suggesting. When reading scripture becomes a private, purely emotional, application-only experience, you also rip passages out of their contexts, and force those passages to say things they were never intended to say. This way of reading scripture perpetuates the trendy myth that the aim of Christianity is to develop a “personal relationship” with Jesus. But when you find an unintended application in scripture you are committing violence against the integrity of the text. For example, I was sitting in on a small group Bible study some time ago, and we were studying one of the prophets – a text where the prophet was condemning Israel. And people were saying, “We Americans need to change. Look at this message. God will destroy our nation if we continue to sin and act immoral.” And I felt foolish pointing out that the prophet was speaking to Israel, not the United States. God has no covenant with the United States.

Both of these ways of reading scripture does not respect the distance between us and the text. Take 1st Corinthians. We are listening in on one side of a 2000-year-old conversation between Paul and a church in another city in another culture in another time. So, here’s one question we’ll discuss in class – do instructions given to the Corinthian church in the 1st century (oh say, concerning women in the assembly) apply to a congregation in 21st century America?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ride On!

Finally, I have found a good training partner for those long rides!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Happy First Birthday William Riley North

Today, our little boy turns one! I can't believe it was a whole year ago that we were in that delivery room in Hendrick Hospital in Abilene! What a year it's been!!!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Are All Sins Equal?

Most Christians instinctively believe that all sins are equal in God's eyes. This, no doubt, stems from our understanding of sin as something that separates us from God. We are taught that any sin, no matter how small, separates us from God. In salvation terms, that is sound Christian doctrine, but still, the belief that all sins are equal in God’s eyes makes little sense to me. If they were, that would make us humans more just, if not more intelligent than God. After all, our legal system differentiates between petty theft, speeding, and murder. We even have gradations of murder – 1st and 2nd degree murders. We don’t believe that all crime is equal in the eyes of the law. So, do Catholics who believe it is a sin to use birth control believe that God considers birth control as wrong as murder? (Actually, I’ve heard some morally confused Catholics argue just that, but I consider that helping to make my point.) Do Jews who believe it is a sin to eat non-kosher food equate doing so with committing rape? Do evangelicals who believe it is a sin to gamble (I don’t believe it is), believe that God views a night at the blackjack table as sinful as abusing a child? It is sad when religious people depict God in a way that renders Him less intelligent than his creations. Sure, we humans think that murdering a family is worse than taking a stapler home from the office, but God doesn't!

The Bible seems to be clear when it comes to the hierarchy of sin. God detests the deliberate infliction of unjust suffering on fellow human beings. There are some legal differences between the Old and New Testaments, but they agree that God hates evil and loves goodness. “Love your neighbor” is the great rule in Judaism, and, along with love of God, is the central rule of Christianity. God did not destroy Noah's generation because they ate forbidden foods or took home cheap objects from the workplace. He did so because it was violently evil. So to discern what the greatest sin is, we begin with it having to do with evil actions towards other people. There is one category that I believe is worse than any other - evil committed in God's name. In John 19:11 Jesus told Pilate that those who had delivered him up (the Jewish religious leaders) were “guilty of the greater sin.” Doesn’t that imply lesser sins, and by correlation, lesser punishments?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Africa - My Thoughts

Last week Zimbabwe issued a ten million dollar bill (about 4 U.S. dollars)! That’s because their inflation rate is 25000 percent! A hamburger costs 15 million dollars. Look at it. I laughed, and then it broke my heart. I love Africa! I was born in Africa. I can’t describe what it’s like to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Africa. Africa is not the cause of the month for me, or a photo opportunity. I lived in South Africa for the first 20 years of my life. The people are wonderful - full of joy, welcoming, and hospitable. I’ve been to Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. I’ve seen the Cape of Good Hope, climbed Table Mountain, smelled the pines of Tstsikamma, seen Victoria Falls, and stood at the convergence of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique in the Luangwa Valley, as the mighty Zambezi rolls towards Cabora Bassa. So here are my thoughts.

Most of Africa is a continent without much hope for its people. According to the Hoover Institution, two-thirds of African countries have either stagnated or shrunk economically since independence in the 1960s. Most African nations today are poorer than they were in 1980 - by very wide margins. Poverty is not a cause but a result of Africa's problems. According to Genocide Watch, about 9 million black Africans have been slaughtered through genocide and mass murder since 1960. There are a couple of sad observations one can make about this ongoing tragedy. The first is that if an equivalent number of rhinos, giraffes and lions had been similarly slaughtered, the world would be in an uproar. The second observation is that there was one African country that was the focal point of mass demonstrations, moral outcry, and economic reprisals. It was South Africa. But was South Africa the worst in terms of black lives lost? It turns out that only about 5000 South African blacks lost their lives during apartheid. World silence in the wake of millions upon millions of black lives lost on the rest of the continent, but world outrage in the case of South African apartheid and 5000 lives lost. Could it be that white Africans are held to higher standards of civility, thus our mistreatment of blacks is unacceptable, while blacks and Arabs are held to a lower standard of civility and their mistreatment of blacks is less offensive? This is the bigotry of low expectations.

According to the World Bank it takes 2 days to incorporate a company in Canada. In Mozambique it takes 153 days. Meanwhile, next door in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe's government is being given hundreds of thousands of tons of emergency supplies from the U.N.'s World Food Program. At the U.N. the head of the WFP emphasized that the famine was all due to drought and Aids, and nothing to do with Mugabe's stewardship of the economy. In 2002 Zimbabwe's government ordered those commercial farmers whose land had not yet been confiscated to cease all operations. Until we get serious about the thugs in power, no amount of “aid” will aid, because foreign aid goes to governments. So instead of helping the poor, foreign aid has enabled African tyrants to buy cronies and military equipment to stay in power, not to mention establishing multimillion dollar “retirement” accounts in Swiss banks.

What African countries need, the West cannot give. What Africans need is personal liberty. That means a political system where there are guarantees of private property rights and the rule of law. If you’re living in some impoverished African village, would you want any “wealth” if there is the constant likelihood that the government or some irate chief will take it from you, and maybe even take your life in the process? The Index of Economic Freedom published by the Wall Street Journal, lists Botswana, South Africa and Namibia as “mostly free.” Is there any mystery why they're well ahead of their neighbors? The lack of liberty means something else: A faltering nation loses its best and brightest people first. According to the last census, there were 881,300 African-born U.S. residents, of whom I am one. Want to end poverty in Africa? The first step must be removing those petty dictators who rule throughout that continent - dictatorial mini-giants like Robert Mugabe. Yes, there's hunger and poverty in Zimbabwe, and a history of racism and injustice; but the blame is to be placed squarely on Mugabe, not on a lack of help from the West.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Good Families and Bad Kids

I have been thinking a lot these past few weeks about children and parenting. William is about to turn one. He’s not a baby anymore, and now we’re faced with the daunting task of making him understand that temper tantrums won’t work because adults still run the world! Also, I preached on the fifth commandment yesterday – “Honor your father and mother.” So, with the help of a lot of sources, especially Dennis Prager, here are some thoughts.

It seems that a lot of good homes do not produce good children. Why? I’ve heard people blame TV violence, video games, rap music, divorce, the absence of fathers, bad schools, and poverty. But what about parents? What are parents doing wrong – especially well-educated parents in intact homes, with no financial worries? So, here are some thoughts as to why good homes sometimes produce bad children:

Goodness is Not Put First.
Most parents want their children to be good people, they just don’t make their child’s goodness their top concern. Parents are more concerned with their child’s being a brilliant student, a good athlete, or a successful professional. Would you rather have a kind child with average intelligence, or a brilliant child who isn’t kind? How much time to you devote to developing ethics in your child relative to developing other qualities? Do you monitor very closely how your child treats other people? If someone were to ask your child, “What do your parents want the most? For you to be happy, smart, successful, or good?” What would your child say? Most parents simply assume THEIR kids are good. Bad kids belong to other people – right? It is hard to raise a good student, but it is much harder to raise a good person. It is relentless, and requires attention to details. Why do I say this? Because the widely held belief that people are born basically good, and learn to be bad is wrong and dangerous. We are born morally neutral (innocent), but with tendencies towards both good and bad. Since we live in a fallen world, doing wrong comes easy. Goodness has to be cultivated. It takes as much time and effort as learning to master the violin, yet more parents give their children music lessons that goodness lessons.

Feelings Are Overemphasized.
I have observed parents give way more attention to how their child feels, rather than how they behave. If your child is a bully, don’t ask them, “What’s troubling you?” What your child FEELS may be important to you and the child, but the only thing that matters to the other 6 billion people on earth is how they ACT. We have to make our children understand that right actions trump good feelings, and that being upset doesn’t give them license to hurt other people. This runs counter to the almost religiously held belief that self-esteem is one of the most important aspects of making a responsible person. This is laughable. Children are born with nothing but self-esteem. They think the world revolves around their needs and wants – day and night! To be a good person, self-control is more important than self-esteem. Self-esteem has to be tied to good behavior, and it’s never too early to impress this on your child. If not, they grow up to be immature adults who throw tantrums whenever they feel uncomfortable or offended.

Parents Yearn to be Liked Rather Than Respected.
This one is hard. I feel like a complete hypocrite saying this. I’m Mr. “words of affirmation.” But my brain says that in the same way you cannot be an effective leader if you are afraid of being disliked, you cannot be an effective parent if you fear being disliked. This is especially hard for single parents (both men and women). It takes superhuman strength to be both mom and dad. It’s doubly hard to be both mom and dad in a disciplinary sense and still have your kids like you.

An Overemphasis on Micro-Goodness.
We have odd ways of defining what it means to be good, particularly in evangelical Christian circles. Goodness is very often expressed as trite moralisms. For Jesus this was like taking a speck out of someone else’s eye, while you have a plank protruding out of your own eye. It’s self-righteous and hypocritical. Jesus also accused the Pharisees of straining out a gnat, but swallowing a camel. We tend to blend into the culture in so many ways, so in order to be different, attention is focused on the trivial. We teach our kids that it’s okay to be captive to mass consumerism, as long as we don’t watch R-rated movies; it’s acceptable to pursue cozy affluence, as long as we don’t mow our lawn on a Sunday; it’s fine to be indifferent to systematic starvation around the world, as long as we don’t ever drink a beer. My point is that we need to teach our children that there are bigger issues of justice and morality in the world than counting "bad words" in a movie. Of course, this is a judgment call every parent has to wrestle with, I'm just saying that good people understand that the world is bigger than their likes and dislikes and cultural expressions of morality.

The Belief in “Quality Time.”
This is a term we use to rationalize being gone from our kids a lot. I know. I use the term. When it comes to time with children I don’t think quality can be separated from quantity. Do we really think that parents who spend very little time with their kids can bond in an hour? Children open up to adults when they want to, which is usually only after a LOT of “non-quality time.” I know that most “good” homes and families are under enormous stresses and time constraints, so I hope this doesn’t sound too judgmental, but life is full of trade-offs. If you make good money working 60 hours a week, you may be able to buy your kids nice things, but you can only give them so much of yourself. I’m about to make the 2 people who aren’t already mad at me mad at me – the more kids you have, the less attention you can give to each child.

And, One More Thing . . . NEVER humiliate your child – in public or private. There are obvious ways to humiliate a child – ignoring them, telling them to be quiet, laughing at their mistakes, yelling at them in the grocery store, not taking their ideas seriously, and never apologizing when you are wrong. Some parents, out of a sense of pride, tend to treat their children like owned commodities rather than like autonomous human beings. This too, is a form of humiliation.

I’m sure there’s plenty here to agree with or disagree with. I don’t claim to be the authority on parenting, and those of you who are veteran parents may think I’m delusional – but I’m just one outspoken guy with an opinion and a soapbox.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

My Second Favorite Commercial

I am working on another, more serious post that ought to generate a lot of discussion. Until then, enjoy this commercial. I have been attending a lot of meetings recently, and a lot are coming up. If you're also in this awkward predicament, laugh out loud!