Wednesday, December 22, 2010

In Defense of the "Commercialization of Christmas."

Every year, as predictable as the arrival of winter, comes criticism about the commercialization of Christmas. We are told that Christ has been taken out of Christmas because we spend too much money on Christmas gifts and because stores have rendered Christmas little more than a great time to sell merchandise.

If there is a better example of people complaining about something that is overwhelmingly good, I would like to know what it is. One time each year, a majority of people feel obligated to buy gifts for their friends and relatives. It is a time when we go to stores, not for ourselves, but with the needs and wants of others in mind.

Here is a good rule governing criticizing: Before you criticize something, imagine its alternative. Imagine that when Christmas came around stores put up no decorations and no one bought gifts. Would we be a better society? Of course not! Spending money on gifts for others is one of the nicest traditions in society and ought to be cultivated, not discouraged. People who don't buy Christmas gifts aren't noble, they are cheap.

Another objection is that some people spend out of obligation, not out of love. Again, think of the alternative. If we were to encourage only altruistic acts that come from love, few people would get married or have children, and almost no gifts would ever be exchanged. It is none of my business to judge why other people give Christmas gifts. It is only for me to appreciate the fact that they do. Christmas is greatly honored by gift giving. When you buy Christmas gifts, you bring joy to the recipients, you feel good about giving, you spend time thinking about what other people like, you keep many businesses alive, and most of all, you honor God by reciprocating, in the lives of others, His gift to us – Jesus, the Christ.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Greatest Sin

"You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7)

As I have reflected on the 9/11 attacks this ninth anniversary, as well as the controversy surrounding the “Ground Zero mosque” and the “burn a Koran day,” my belief that there is one sin that is worse than all other sins has been reinforced. That sin is committing evil in the name of God – evil defined as purposefully harming another human being.

The Commandment in Exodus 20:7, translated as, "Do not take/misuse the name of the Lord your God in vain," is imprecisely translated. The Hebrew verb literally reads, "Do not carry the name of the Lord your God in vain." And, the commandment continues, "for God will not hold guiltless whoever carries His name in vain.” It is the one sin that does not have the offer of forgiveness!

When a secular person commits evil they do not bring God into disrepute. When a person commits evil in God's name, however, they destroy the greatest hope for goodness to prevail on earth - widespread belief in a God who demands ethical goodness.

There is nothing as evil as religious evil. The Nazis were cruel, and so were the Communists, but they only sullied their own names, not the name of God. For example, the immense amount of evil being caused by those Muslims who slaughter innocents in the name of God is hurting God's reputation.

One can only pray that Muslim institutions will realize the damage done to the name of Allah and to Islam by those Muslims who preach or practice evil in the name of Allah and Islam - and the even greater damage done by the rest of the Islamic world's failure to protest against this evil by publicly announcing that evil preached or committed in the name of Allah and Islam is sin and its practitioners will go to hell, not to Paradise to be serviced by multiple virgins! For if there is a hell, those who murder and torture the innocent while praising God are surely the first to go there.

I remember when Islamists kidnapped a young lady who was a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. Before taking her picture, these men covered her head and her hands so that no female skin would be exposed. In their perverse thinking, God is more concerned with men being titillated by female skin than He is with kidnapping (not to mention beheadings and bombings).

This is why religious fundamentalism is twisted. The legalism that fundamentalism produces furthers the greatest sin – carrying the name of God in vain because it causes people to act unkind and even commit evil in the name of God.

Dennis Prager tells about a young man who attended a Jewish institute he once directed. When this young man first arrived at the institute, he was a kind and nonjudgmental person - and completely secular. After his month-long immersion in the Torah, he became a fully practicing Orthodox Jew.

A year later the young man was actually less kind and was aggressively judgmental of his fellow Jews, including those who had brought him to Judaism in the first place. In one year he had become, in his own eyes, holier than the teachers who brought him to religion in the first place. The religion's emphasis on legal observance enabled him to count the number of laws his fellow Jews did not observe and judge them accordingly. Over the course of my own ministry I have seen a number of new converts behave in this way.

Within Christianity, faith in Christ can lead one to live a life of extraordinary loving-kindness and self-sacrifice, but it can also, and has, led Christians to place so much emphasis on proper faith as to neglect equal emphasis on proper behavior.

When you evaluate your own beliefs and practices, ask yourself, “Has this belief or doctrine made me a better person?” or, “Has this belief or doctrine made me less kind, less compassionate, less rational, and more judgmental?” If your answer is the latter, it’s time to re-evaluate that belief. If not, you may be “carrying” God’s name in vain.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Monday, August 30, 2010

What is Salvation?

What does it mean to be saved? What does the word “salvation” mean? Over the course of my ministry I did some informal polling on this question, asking Christians what they think salvation means. And invariably the answer is, “Salvation is going to heaven when you die.” When we ask, “Is this person saved?” what we’re asking is, “Have they done what is necessary in order to go to heaven when they die?” We tend to talk about salvation as a future expectation for individual people. We talk about salvation as a means of escaping this world and going to a better world.

The hope of going to heaven when I die brings me great comfort, but that is not the meaning of the concept of salvation in any of the gospels. It is simply not defined that way.

Stories of salvation in the gospels are about restoration. Jesus heals, and forgives, and restores. In every story the person touched by Jesus is restored to God, their family, and their community. Salvation is God giving back to us life and peace and community and trust.

The word we translate as “salvation” in the New Testament has a depth of meaning: life, deliverance, preservation, restoration, wholeness, soundness, health, and peace. And what are we saved from? Sin, death, guilt, sickness, loneliness, ignorance, fear, hell, despair, alienation, and meaninglessness.

So let’s take this word “salvation” out for a test drive through Luke’s Gospel.

In Luke 7:11-15 we read the story of Jesus raising a young man from the dead. If you had been a journalist on the scene, your headline would probably have read, “Jesus raises a young man from the dead.” But I want you to notice that Luke phrases this in such a way that the point of the story is Jesus giving back to a hopeless woman her status in the community. If you were a woman whose husband and only son died, leaving you all alone, you were in big trouble - you had no status, no voice, no income - and in this story Jesus saw her, had compassion on her, and the miracle here is the return of the son to the mother so that she can be restored to her community, and we’ll read that story a hundred times, and miss the point.

Also in chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel (vss 36-50) Jesus is anointed by a “sinful” woman at the home of Simon, a Pharisee. This woman understood God’s love and Simon never got it, and what’s interesting is the last thing Jesus said to her: “You faith has saved you; go in peace.”

In the Hebrew community and language the word “peace” is “shalom” - one of the most important words and concepts in the Bible. “Shalom” is wholeness, completeness, fullness. To live in shalom (peace) is to live in harmony with God and with humanity and with nature.

So when Jesus tells this sinful woman to, “Go in peace,” he’s not just saying, “Have a nice day.” He’s saying something profound. He’s talking to her in a such a way that she knows, and Simon knows, and everyone at the table knows, and everyone eavesdropping outside knows that she has been embraced by God, and because God has embraced her, her community, who knows her reputation, must also embrace her and forgive her and love her. Jesus restored her to her community. That is the meaning of salvation in this story.

In the following chapter (8:40-48) we read a similar story. Here again we come across a woman who is an outcast. Because of her uncleanness she has no community, no position, no standing, no voice - and Jesus heals her, he saves her, and he calls her “daughter” – and once again, this very public affirmation has the result of restoring her to her community.

All of these stories are, in one way or another, salvation stories.

My favorite salvation story in Luke’s Gospel takes place in chapter 19:vss 1-10. In short, as Jesus entered Jericho, Zacchaeus, who was a tax collector, and thus an outcast from his community, grabs Jesus’ attention. Jesus addresses him: “I must stay at your house today.”

Salvation came into that house literally and figuratively, and when Jesus said, in the presence of everybody, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham,” he is saying, “This man (Zacchaeus) is not an outsider. He is once again part of this community, he can be trusted, he can be loved, he can be forgiven and accepted again.”

Salvation cannot just be about a future expectation, it also has to be about present reality. If we let the future expectation of salvation dominate how we think and talk about salvation we are not being true to the way salvation is described in scripture, we’re not being true to the way Jesus spoke about salvation, and we will never function effectively as his body on earth. Salvation must be experienced here and now.

The church needs to ask some very difficult salvific questions. If we do not place ourselves in the loving and forgiving and salvation affirming shoes of Jesus, Christians can easily roll off phrases like, “I forgive you,” along with, “But sin has consequences” in the same confusing sentence with no apparent sense of irony or awareness of their mischaracterizing the gospel.

What does salvation look like for a divorced mother?
What does salvation look like for the family who’s been knocked out of their home by a hurricane?
What does salvation look like for the mother of 3 kids in Africa who has AIDS?
What does salvation look like to people in the Sudan who have nothing but contaminated water to drink?
What does salvation look like to people in Dallas who have no air conditioner in the summer?
What does salvation look like to people in our community with no food?
What does salvation look like to people addicted to drugs?
What does salvation look like for a church leader who has sinned?

What if salvation walked into their house?
What if Jesus walked into their community?

What if we’re supposed to be Jesus?

Salvation, for those people, had better not be a “see ya in heaven someday” pat on the back!
Salvation is a new house.
Salvation is food.
Salvation is medicine.
Salvation is clean water.
Salvation is restored trust
Salvation is peace.

What is salvation for you?

Monday, August 02, 2010

"I Have Sworn Upon the Altar of God, Eternal Hostility Toward Every Form of Tyranny Over the Mind of Man."

The origin of this quote is a letter written by Vice President Jefferson to his old friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush. Specifically, Jefferson fiercely opposed Christian clergy who sought to have an established state church. Instead, he championed the idea of church/state separation. For this, the clergy hated him, and waged a despicable campaign of slander and lies against him. Here is the quote in it's original context:

I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten. On the contrary, it is because I have reflected on it, that I find much more time necessary for it than I can at present dispose of. 

I have a view of the subject which ought to displease neither the rational Christian nor Deists, and would reconcile many to a character they have too hastily rejected. I do not know that it would reconcile the genus irritabile vatum who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened. 

The delusion into which the plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro' the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists. 

The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility toward every form of tyranny over the mind of man

But this is all they have to fear from me, and this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me, forging conversations for me with Mazzei, Bishop Madison, and company, which are absolute falsehoods without a circumstance of truth to rest on; falsehoods, too, of which I acquit Mazzei & Bishop Madison, for they are men of truth.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why the Arizona Immigration Law is Unconstitutional.

Since it was passed, I have been against Arizona’s illegal immigration law. So, needless to say, I was pleased when a Federal Court ruled against the law one day prior to its going into effect. The Arizona law runs counter to my understanding of Federalism. To explain, let’s run several laws/rulings through the Tenth Amendment.

The text reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” This states a principle in our system of government known as “enumerated powers.” Simply put, the responsibilities of the Federal government are listed in the Constitution, while all others are left to the several States. This jurisdictional line has often been blurred.

Take abortion. From a legal standpoint Roe v Wade (1973) was a terrible decision. Even liberal law professors (Lawrence Tribe of Harvard for example) admit this. If Roe v Wade is overturned, it will not make abortion illegal. It will simply return the issue to the states. At that point all fifty state legislatures will determine their own abortion laws.

In a similar vein, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. This law states that no State shall be forced to recognize any same-sex union considered a marriage in another State. The law also defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. This law was recently ruled unconstitutional, and rightly so. The Federal government has no jurisdiction over the marriage laws and rites of any State.

What about drug enforcement? The same principle applies. The Federal government has no jurisdiction. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) should not exist. The very idea of a “war on drugs” is laughable on its face, but from a legal standpoint, every State ought to be able to pass it’s own drug laws. If California wishes to legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana (or cocaine for that matter), it should be able to with no Federal intervention.

I understand that there are moral and societal arguments to be made in each of these cases, but purely from a jurisdictional and Constitutional point of view, the States have primary jurisdiction in each of these cases.

So why is the Arizona immigration law unconstitutional? In a nutshell, the law requires police officers who encounter persons engaged in a criminal offense (even a traffic stop) to inquire the suspect’s immigration status. Persons are thus required to keep proof of their status on them at all times.

Again, we have a jurisdictional problem. The Constitution grants the Federal government the power to admit persons into the United States, grant them residency status, and determine the process of naturalization for aliens. People are admitted to the United States, NOT Arizona, or Texas, or California, or New York. The States have no legal right to enforce any immigration law, and officers who represent a State or local municipality have no right to inquire the status of any person within their State. We cannot have a patchwork of fifty different standards of immigration enforcement. Arizona knew this when it signed up to enter the Union in 1912.

Ruling the Arizona law unconstitutional is a victory for our Federalist system of government.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 10: The Eight Principles of Moral and Ethical Behavior

Consider the first nine parts of this series on Ethics and Justice to be an introduction. After all these principles, the question is still out there, “Okay, so what should I do?” Once certain principles are ingrained in your subconscious mind, the right thing to do will be the natural thing to do. So here are eight principles that can be used by anyone to live just and ethical lives.

1. Do no Harm
You’re not really proactively good, you just have the courtesy not to intentionally hurt people. Most people define ethics and morality in terms of not hurting anyone. People define goodness negatively - “Of course I’m good. I’ve never killed anyone or robbed a bank.” One man said to his wife, “You know, I’m a good husband. We’ve been married for thirty years, and I’ve never once hit you.” If you can’t do any good, just don’t do any harm!

2. Do Good
James 4:17Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” Doing the right thing, initiating good, taking proactive steps is to swim against the tide. It is human nature to be led, to go with the flow, to blend in - this is why mobs of people will commit crimes that, individually, people would never commit. Goodness requires empathy. If you are incapable of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, you are capable of doing great evil.

3. Tell the Truth
One of the 10 Commandments is “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Living consistently with what you say is at the heart of personal integrity. Lying is the antithesis of who God is. Jesus says in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” If God is truth, then falsehood is like kryptonite – it goes against everything that God is. God can’t lie, and He will not tolerate deceit in people who are created to be like Him.

4. Keep Your Promises
This builds on the commitment to always tell the truth. Giving your word is a serious thing. And again, it’s about having respect for other people. Ethical people build reputations of honesty and integrity. Ethical people are reliable and dependable. Psalm 15 says, “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? He who keeps his oath even when it hurts.” God does not take lightly the breaking of covenants. Keep your word. Do what you say. Be faithful to your commitments because it honors God.

5. Respect Other People’s Freedom
This is staying out of other people’s business. Don’t meddle. Don’t be a busybody. The freedom to make our own decisions is a wonderful thing because it is a gift from God, and cannot be taken away by any person. This is why religion can never be coercive. Ethical behavior is built on the principle of respecting other people. When respect for another human being, created in the Image of God, is breached in any way, we are guilty of unethical behavior. Don’t tell adult people what to do just because you would do it differently.

6. Practice Fairness
Proverbs 29:7The Righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Ethical people are just and fair, and treat those who are weaker than them with respect and dignity. Here's a good measure. Ask yourself, "How do I treat people who are not in a position to do anything for me?" It's easy to be nice, and kind, and polite to people who can do something for us, people who have some power over us. But what about people who are weaker than us, people who are poorer than us, people who have no power over us? How do we treat them? God is deeply concerned with how we treat each other - so practice justice and fairness, and the more power and wealth you have, the greater the responsibility you have to act justly, and to be fair.

7. Make Reparations for Wrongs Committed
This practice of restitution, of reparation is deeply rooted in the principle of justice in the Hebrew Bible. If you stole something, you repaid what you took - a simple “I’m sorry” was not enough. This principle of restitution is an important step in addiction recovery programs - you’ve got to go back and fix what you did wrong. This is an important New Testament principle. It’s called repentance. 

8. Show Gratitude
We teach our kids that the foundation of politeness is to say “please” and “thank you.” It’s a wonderfully simple message, and yet it’s the most openly violated principle of polite behavior. Give thanks in all circumstances. Why? Because we who have tasted God’s love view all of life through the lens of thankfulness. “Thanks be to God.”

And finally, to quote Jesus, “Now go and DO likewise.”

Monday, July 05, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 9: The Nature of the God Who Demands Moral and Ethical Behavior

The Jewish people taught the world two significant things:

1. There is only one God, and morality stems from the nature of the one and only God.

This is why God revealing Himself to Moses and calling Israel and delivering them is of great importance for all humanity, because when God delivered the 10 Commandments on Sinai, for the first time in human history a people said, “There is only one God, and this is the type of behaviour He demands of us.” The implication of ethical monotheism is that morality is not a cultural variant. When God said, “Don’t murder,” that became true for all people, at all times, in every culture. There is no competing God to offer an alternative morality.

2. God’s primary demand is that we act with decency towards each other.

This statement doesn’t have the revolutionary impact on us that it should, because we live in a world heavily influenced by 3000 years of first Jewish and then Christian thinking. But consider the impact of this kind of thinking in the ancient world. In the ancient world, one could be devoutly religious and immoral at the same time. One could be a devoutly religious Greek or Roman and not be “good.” These people went to prostitutes as an act of religious worship.

So people ask with confusion sometimes, “How could a people as advanced as the Romans murder, and adulterate, and leave their unwanted babies out with the trash?” The answer is because that’s how the gods they worshipped behaved. Humans always become like the object of their worship. Christians insisted that religion impacts morality. One’s relationship with God is lived out in terms of relationships with other people.

So, if humans become like the object of their worship, what does scripture teach us about God’s nature in terms of our moral and ethical obligations?

1. God is Supernatural
God is above the natural world; He is not a part of it. The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, God created.”

The point of Genesis is not to provide a scientific account of the origins of the Earth; it is to provide people with an account of the nature and character of God. He is transcendent, He creates, He rules, He is self-sufficient. In a world in which nearly all people worshipped nature, God wanted Israel to know that nature was subservient to Him.

Why is this important? Because nature knows nothing of good or evil. Nature is amoral. In nature there is no right, only might. Into the ancient world where human sacrifice was a means of placating disease and disaster, God said, contrary to the laws of nature, “If something is weak don’t kill it, protect it.” The worship of Baal was a form of nature worship. They believed that in the winter Baal died, and went into the underworld, so the plants died also, in the spring Baal would be resurrected and the plants would be revived. The Canaanite practice of sacred prostitution was meant to help Baal revive and ensure the fertility of flocks and plants and people.

Nature cannot teach us right and wrong, only God can, and He is above nature.

2. God is Personal
God is not an unnamed, unknown force. He has a name, He has revealed Himself to us, and He cares about His creation.

When God revealed His name to Moses in Exodus 3 He also revealed His personality, His character, and His nature. God is not an “unmoved mover,” who has set forces in motion and moved on. We are created in His Image, He knows us, He loves us, He cares for us, He has numbered the hairs on our head, and out of His personhood, God cares how we treat each other.

Disrespecting a human being is dishonouring the God in whose Image they have been created. The ultimate demonstration of God’s personhood is that He became a man. In the incarnation of Jesus, God taught us what it is like to be truly human, and to be truly human is to be like God.

3. God is Good
A God who is not good cannot demand goodness from His creation. The ancient Babylonians and Canaanites and Greeks and Romans were not good because their gods were not good. God rules the universe by a code of moral standards.

Despite the temporary victories of evil people and the suffering of good people, a moral and just God rules the universe, and ultimately, if not in this life, then in the next, good and evil will get what’s coming to them. God is not neutral in the battle between good and evil, and neither can we be.

4. God is Holy
To be holy is to be set apart, to be different, distinctive. You don’t have to be like the world to have an impact on the world. You don’t have to be like the crowd to change the crowd. You don’t have to lower yourself to other people’s level to lift them up.  

Holiness isn’t being odd or a misfit - holiness is simply being like God, and the result of having a relationship with God is that you become like Him. To be holy is to elevate ourselves above our animal nature, and act like beings created in the image of God. No matter how meaningful, or beautiful, or well intentioned something may be, if it is separated from the goodness of God it can easily lead to evil. This is why the same culture that produced Wagner and Beethoven and Mozart also produced Hitler. 

Everything we do must be grounded in the goodness and holiness of the one God – art, education, law, love, compassion, reason, patriotism, life, ritual, business, profits, psychology, economics, sports - everything that we are involved in must be guided by the goodness and holiness of God.

Friday, July 02, 2010

What is an Intelligent Person?

I often say that I need to be around intelligent people. What do I mean by that?

Firstly, an intelligent person is not someone who comes across as the smartest person in the room. It is not someone who is inundated with facts and complex systems of hyper-knowledge. An intelligent person does not exude the thin air of esoteric concepts and vocabulary. A person who tries to dazzle you with their intelligence lacks humility, and ironically, humility is the first prerequisite of true intelligence.

In that same vein, an intelligent person is not a bully. A truly intelligent person begins the search for knowledge and understanding from a posture of humility. Knowledge and ideas and words are not weapons to win arguments and dominate dissenters, rather they are steps on the ladder that leads to truth.

An intelligent person is a curious person, and cannot be satiated with encyclopedic facts, because the search for understanding does not have an end. An intelligent person is one who speaks with both confidence and kindness because they recognize that every human being is created in God’s Image, and possesses some measure of truth.

Most of all, an intelligent person has an insatiable desire for truth, understanding, and clarity. An intelligent person is madly in love with ideas for the sake of truth, not their own interpretation of ideas for the sake of self-promotion.

And finally, an intelligent person realizes that we have two ears but only one mouth for a good reason! 

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ten Words You Should Know

English novelist Evelyn Waugh once said, “One forgets words as one forgets names. One's vocabulary needs constant fertilization or it will die.” I love language! For me, words are like a rich and vibrant palette of color. Conversations are canvases on which people collaborate to create a rhetorical work of art. So, in that spirit, here are ten words that are rarely used, but if used at the right time and in the right context, can fertilize your speech.

1. Defenestrate: To throw somebody or something out of a window.

2. Garbology: The study of waste materials. The study of a cultural group by an examination of what it discards.

3. Digerati: People who have or claim to have a sophisticated expertise in the area of computers, the Internet.

4. Antipodes: Places that are at exact opposite sides of world.

5. Hallux: The first digit on the foot. The big toe on the human foot.

6. Otiose: Something that is not effective; with no useful result or practical purpose. A person that is worthless or lazy.

7. Cullet: Broken or waste glass returned for recycling.

8. Pellucid: Transparent or clear in meaning. Easy to understand.

9. Borborygmus: The rumbling sounds made by the movement of gases in the stomach and intestine.

10. Embrangle: To confuse, perplex, or entangle somebody or something.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 8: Respect for Life: The Foundation of Ethical Behavior

When Jesus said: Love God; and love your neighbour, he was echoing something that had long been true in Israel’s history: God is deeply concerned with how we treat one another. He demands moral and ethical goodness. God goes into detail when regulating how we treat each other. Consider Deuteronomy 25:13-16: Do not have two differing weights in your bag - one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house - one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. For the LORD your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.”

Who does God detest? “Anyone who deals dishonestly!” Various versions render this differently, but the point is the same, and it should cause us to stop and think. If you lie, cheat, steal, mislead, or deceive for the sake of personal gain you are stirring up the anger of God because you are dishonouring a human life created with dignity in the Image of God! It’s not only high profile corrupt executives who have a lot to answer for – it’s the manager at the grocery store who charges more than the marked price, it’s the banker who tacks on “hidden fees,” it’s the gas station owner who has rigged his pumps to give you less gas than you’re paying for – “God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.”

The foundation of all these laws is respect for life. As we consider ethics, and morals, and practical implications, and this situation and that situation, let us never lose sight of the fact that it all depends on respect for life. Three thousand years ago most civilizations accepted human sacrifice as normative. In the context of that world God gave Israel certain laws, based on respect for the sanctity of life, not just human, but animal life as well. For example, God commanded them not to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk. Why? Because it is cruel to cook an animal in the very substance that gives it life. Jews were forbidden to eat the limb of a still living animal. And the Sabbath day commandment includes the remarkable obligation to give your animals a day of rest as well.

In the Jewish Talmud there is an obscure law that is one of the most ethically beautiful laws in Judaism. It simply says: “One is not permitted to ask a storekeeper the price of an item if he knows he will not purchase it.” Now isn’t that incredible? Just think about it. When we go into a store, from a clothing store to a car dealership, and we pretend to be interested in something we honestly have no intention of purchasing simply because we have time to kill, or we just want to test drive the car, we are stealing. Stealing valuable time from someone. Now, by all means, shop around for the best price if you really intend to buy something, but don’t intentionally deceive someone. Don’t falsely raise the hopes of someone who works on commission. This obscure Jewish law can help build an ethical society because it makes us aware that we have certain obligations towards other people. We’ve been told so often that “The customer is always right,” we really believe it! We’ll stand in line and argue with the people at Target until they take back an item we know we bought at Wal-Mart!

You can apply this principle to so many areas of your life, and you will be part of the solution in our society, not part of the problem.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Ten Questions You Need to Answer Before Marrying

When I used to counsel with church members before officiating at their wedding ceremonies, I would have them go home and answer these ten questions honestly. Then we would meet and discuss the answers. There are two ways you can take this advice: 1) Charles has no credibility when it comes to marriage advice; or 2) Charles has failed and learned some very valuable lessons, and therefore has credibility to give marriage advice. It's up to you.

1. Is the person your best friend or at least becoming so?
It is easy to get excited about a new person. But if you cannot say that the person you are considering marrying has become or is becoming your best friend, you need to figure out why before you decide to marry. This is probably the single most overlooked question among couples. Many people cannot answer this in the affirmative. But you have to answer it. Over time, friendship is the greatest bond between a couple. If the person you marry does not become your best friend, you will either seek someone who will be or simply drift apart. What is a best friend? Someone you tell just about everything to, someone you want to be with as much as possible, and someone you need. One of the most devastating ideas is that depending on another person is a sign of weakness. The opposite is true. The inability to need is a sign of weakness - you are afraid to relinquish power or afraid to be hurt.

2. Do you enjoy each other?
This sounds trite, but enjoying each other (aside from physical intimacy) may actually be the single most important characteristic of a happy marriage.

3. Is there chemistry between the two of you?
As essential as being best friends and enjoying each other are, there should be a vibrant physical component to your relationship. Dating for marriage is not an interview for a strictly platonic best friend. If there is insufficient physical attraction after all other criteria are met and time has passed, you may be in the tragic position of having to end a relationship with a great man or woman.

4. Does the person have at least one very close friend of the same sex?
It is a bad sign if the person you are thinking of marrying does not have good friends of the same sex. Something is very wrong. A woman who cannot hold female friends and a man who cannot hold male friends have issues that will probably sink your marriage.

5. How does the person treat others?
It should go without saying that if the person is not kind to you, quit while you can. But it is far from sufficient that the person you are considering marrying treats you kindly. Watch how they treat waiters, employees, family members, and anyone else they come into contact with. How the person treats others now is how this person will treat you later.

6. What problems do the two of you have now?
Whatever problems you have before the wedding day, you will have during your marriage. Do not think that marrying will solve any problem you have with the person. You have three choices: Make peace with the problem, see if it can be solved before deciding to marry, or don't marry the person. It is imperative that you be ruthlessly honest with yourself. And that is very hard. Nothing is easier than denying problems when you are in love.

7. How often do you fight?
It is normal for couples to fight, but it is a bad sign if you are doing so frequently while dating. That should be the easiest time to get along - no children together, no joint financial problems, and the excitement of a new person. If you fight, do you quickly make up? Does he/she hear your side? Do you apologize after a fight? And most important, do you fight over the same issues with no resolution? Also, Do you miss the person when you are not together?

8. Do you share values?
Opposites attract in the very beginning. Likes stay together for the long term.  The more you share, especially values, the better your chances of a good marriage. For example, if you think television watching is a form of self abuse and your prospective spouse loves watching for hours a day, you may have a big problem. Likewise if you have opposing political and social views to which you are passionately committed.

9. Is the person unhappy?
The importance of marrying an essentially happy person cannot be exaggerated. If you are basically happy, do not think for a moment that you can make an unhappy person happy by marrying him or her. On the contrary, the ability of the unhappy to make the happy unhappy is far greater than the ability of the happy to make the unhappy happy.

10. What do people you respect think of the person you're considering marrying?
Young people are certain they know better than anyone else in the world what is good for them. So a lack of enthusiasm for the person you are considering for marriage on the part of family or friends may mean little or nothing. But if objections come, let’s say, from a parent you respect for reasons that are not easily dismissed, and if others you respect are unenthusiastic as well, you should take their objections seriously.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 7: In Defense of Situational Ethics

Christians believe that God is the source of moral values and therefore what is moral and immoral transcends personal or societal opinion or mores. Without God, each individual makes up his or her own moral standards. This is known as moral relativism. Moral relativism is scary and dangerous because it means that murder, for example, is not objectively wrong. It's a matter of personal feeling, or societal norm. Most secular people do not confront these consequences of moral relativism because it is hard for decent people to realize that “I think murder is wrong,” is as meaningless as “I think purple is ugly.” Relativism is the idea that there is no definite right and wrong. There is no truth, and even if there were, we couldn’t recognize it. Right and wrong, and truth are manifestations of traditions and norms within various cultures. Right and wrong and truth are individual matters, determined by individuals. We cannot impose our values on other people.

However, there is one aspect of moral relativism that confuses many Christians who believe in moral absolutes. They assume that situational ethics is the same thing as moral relativism and therefore regard situational ethics as incompatible with Christian morality. I think it is a mistake to argue that just as individuals determining what is right and wrong negates moral absolutes, allowing situations to determine what is right and wrong also negates moral absolutes. This is a misunderstanding of the meaning of moral absolutes. A moral absolute means that if an act is good or bad, it is good or bad for everyone in the identical situation. This is also called universal morality.

But “everyone” is not the same as “every situation.” An act that is wrong is wrong for everyone in the SAME situation, but almost no act is wrong in EVERY situation. Sex in a loving relationship is good, but when violently coerced, it is rape. Truth telling is usually right, but if, during World War II, Nazis asked you where a Jewish family was hiding, telling them the truth would have been evil. Likewise, it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. That is why the Ten Commandments say “Do not murder,” not “Do not kill.” Murder is immoral and unlawful killing, and it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. Pacifists say that it is wrong to take a life in every situation. This is based on the mistaken belief that absolute morality means “in every situation” rather than “for everyone in the same situation.”

The key element in Christian morality remains simply this: There is good and there is evil, independent of personal or societal opinion; and in order to determine what it is, one must ask, “How would God judge this action?” My point is simple – because universal morality says that an action is wrong for all PEOPLE, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong in all SITUATIONS.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 6: The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

In part one of this series I pointed out that there are really two modes of moral reasoning. The first is consequentialist moral reasoning. Here morality is located in the consequences of an act. Right or wrong depends on the outcome. The second is categorical moral reasoning. Here morality is located in certain categorical duties and rights, regardless of the consequences or outcome. A little more on these systems, because everybody, whether they recognize it or not, uses one of these ways of making ethical decisions – and its good to know this, because if you live and breathe, you have to decide between right and wrong; good and evil every day.

The most prevalent form of consequentialist moral reasoning is Utilitarianism. This is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure. Utilitarianism is often described by the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” and is also known as “the greatest happiness principle.” Utility (the good to be maximized) has been defined as happiness or pleasure (versus suffering or pain). It is not inaccurate to describe utilitarianism as the ethics of majority rule. This is the most pragmatic way of deciding between right and wrong, and the allocation of resources, and therefore it is the most pervasive in our society. Our government uses a utilitarian ethic in making decisions – what will be most beneficial for the most number of people? It’s very democratic. Majority rules. Let’s look at an example: A doctor has five patients. Four are dying and need organ transplants NOW (one has a bad heart, one has a failing kidney, one only has a quarter of a lung, and one’s liver has been pickled). Only one “patient” is perfectly healthy. What would a utilitarian ethic demand? The doctor should kill the healthy one, take their organs and give it to the other four, right? That way one will die and four will live. Isn’t that better than four dying and only one living? It’s simple math. But what’s the problem? What if the one person would rather live? The problem with an ethical system that tries to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number is that it tramples on the rights and ignores the value of individual people.

Categorical moral reasoning, often called deontology, or moral absolutism, sees certain principles (often revealed in religious codes) as far greater than the circumstances of life, and the need for utility. There is definite truth, and we can come to know it. There is a clear distinction between right and wrong, and we can know the difference.

So, what do you think? Which is preferable? More importantly, which do you employ in your personal life, family life, and professional life?

Thursday, June 10, 2010


One of my favorite movies is "Doubt." It is based on the play of the same name by John Patrick Shanley. In his introduction to the play, Shanley has the following commentary about the virtue of doubt:

"There's a symptom apparent in America right now. It's evident in political talk shows, in entertainment coverage, in artistic criticism of every kind, in religious discussion.

We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe it's because, deep down under the chatter, we have come to a place where we know that we don't know ... anything. But nobody's willing to say that.

What is doubt? Each of us is like a planet. There's the crust, which seems eternal. We are confident about who we are. If you ask, we can readily describe our current state. I know my answers to so many questions, as do you. What was your father like? Do you believe in God? Who's your best friend? What do you want? Your answers are your current topography, seemingly permanent, but deceptively so. Because under that face of easy response, there is another You. And this wordless Being moves just as the instant moves; it presses upward without explanation, fluid and wordless, until the resisting consciousness has no choice but to give way.

It is doubt, so often experienced initially as weakness, that changes things. When a man feels unsteady, when he falters, when hard-won knowledge evaporates before his eyes, he's on the verge of growth. The subtle or violent reconciliation of the outer person and the inner core often seems at first like a mistake. Like you've gone the wrong way and you're lost. But this is just emotion longing for the familiar. Life happens when the tectonic power of your speechless soul breaks through the dead habits of the mind. Doubt is nothing less than an opportunity to reenter the present.

There is an uneasy time when belief has begun to slip, but hypocrisy has yet to take hold, when the consciousness is disturbed but not yet altered. It is the most dangerous, important and ongoing experience of life. The beginning of change is the moment of Doubt. It is that crucial moment when I renew my humanity or become a lie.

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite; it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That's the silence under the chatter of our time."

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

N.T. Wright on the Relationship Between Genesis and American Politics

Many of you have heard me preach and teach on the book of Genesis. My own theological interpretation certainly runs counter to the literal view taken by most evangelical Christians who "flatten the story," and then infuse it with unique (and modern) American cultural norms. In this clip N.T. Wright (widely regarded as one of the preeminent biblical scholars in the world) says in under 5 minutes what I have struggled to say for the past 10 years! It's hard to find brilliance like this - enjoy!