Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Myth

I was sitting in a coffee shop in La Grande, Oregon, having a cup of cowboy coffee. A copy of the La Grande Observer was on the counter. As I shuffled through the thin paper looking for something of interest to pass the time, I came upon a headline that caught my eye. "It Is Time to Create a New Myth," it read.

It seems a traveling lecturer was coming to town and would be speaking at Eastern Oregon University. His subject was the death of the old myths - he meant specifically the old creation myths and superstitions - and the need for  new myth that would capture the minds of the scientific generation. It sounded like a topic of more interest in sophisticated Portland or Seattle than in a ranch and farming town in  the conservative half of the state. But I was interested. I read on.

Having finished, my first reaction was to take offense that someone would in such an offhand way categorize as a myth and unhelpful what I had believed true for more than forty years and what millions of people, great thinkers among them, had believed to be true over the millennia. And then to suggest that science provided something better, that was puzzling. I had considered through college what science had to offer, and I was not impressed. Nor were the disciples of science in my generation, the Timothy Learys who preached "Turn on, tune in, and drop out," the lost generation who like Ernest Hemingway in one way or another took a shotgun and blew their brains out.

Since then - this was the mid-90s - I have had occasion to think of this lecturer's ideas in more depth. I occurs to me now that modern intellectuals had already created a new myth. It was the myth of a wholly material reality. And it was being promoted in everything from high school science text books to popular programs on TV. It was, of course, being sold to us as "fact," but at heart it was myth.It provided us with microwaves to heat our nachos. It promised us liberation from the Puritanical mores of the past. And in the end it left us with no meaning to life.

It was a story that was intended to explain life. It was supposedly superior to the old myths in that it required no supernatural deities. Its deities were men and women of science. It was not even perceived as a myth. It was reality. And that is what made it powerful.

But that is true of all myths. They are not perceived as myth.They are true.

And that is why, on reflection, I like the lecturer's premise. This is a new MYTH,  this scientific materialism. It is a mythical story that attempts to explain a limited set of phenomena in an all embracing story. It is no more true than the myth of Thor.

The new scientific myth, of course, is accepted and defended vigorously as real reality by the modern myth makers. Oh, the details of the scientific myth may be true in a limited way, just as the thunder which the existence of Thor was intended to explain was true. But the story into which the details are woven is not. It cannot be.

If it were true that the material universe is all there is, a la Carl Sagan, it would be the most unimaginable myth of human history. And the most narrowly argued. Beside this new scientific myth, belief in Thor is sound and rational. But few of the devotees of the modern myth are able to see that. They go on proclaiming that it is the only truth that makes sense and satisfies the data.

And we, who know that the material universe is not all there is, play the game. We weakly reply that the material universe requires a originator. We use for evidence the same data the modern myth makers use. And we leave it there, as though that is sufficient to make our case.

That is a mistake. Reality consists of more. And the evidence for a larger reality includes data that the scientific myth makers ignore. It includes the interaction of God in human history. It includes prophecies fulfilled. It includes dreams that are more than dreams. It includes a spiritual side of man that is beyond the reach of physical science. It includes the amazing revelation of God in the Bible and in history in the person of Jesus.

To most of mankind throughout history these things are not anomalous or bizarre phenomena. They are as real as molecules and mountains.  It is only to those who limit the data to that which they can put under a microscope for which they are "superstitions" made up in the human mind. We who know better must not play by those rules.

I read a book a few years ago entitled I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. It was a good book, but it is an even better title because, the truth is, it requires immense faith to believe the modern scientific myth. It requires believing in the mindlessness of reality and that this mindless reality somehow created or organized itself in all its complexity and beauty from nothing or from some vague quantum fluctuations. It requires believing that the universe and our life within it makes no sense, when everything around us and the voice within screams otherwise.  It requires believing that mind, yes, the mind of people such as Einstein and Hawking and Socrates and Augustine is explained by mere matter - and an incredible, impossible amount of luck.

I don't have enough faith to believe that.

It requires that the art and literature that graces our lives and mimics the beauty - or pathos - of the world we live in, are nothing more than the doodles of apes grown unaccountably wise.

I don't have enough faith to believe that.

No. Such a myth is unimaginable. And I have the lecturer with a PhD in Joseph Campbell after his name who came to Eastern Oregon University to thank for reminding me that the story we have come to believe as real and "scientific" is actually nothing more than a myth. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Here I Stand

In the 2nd century a man name Justin, a Christian from Samaria, wrote a defense of the Christian faith and sent it to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Christianity was held by many to be a danger to Rome and to the authority of the Emperor. Justin wrote to explain that Christians were not a danger, that they were Rome’s best citizens. History affirms he was right.

Eighteen hundred years later, Christianity is again spoken against by many. In China and India it is regarded as a danger to the state and culture. In America it is considered antagonistic to the public good. Maybe it is time for another Justin. 

I make no claim to be a modern day Justin. But I do believe Christianity deserves a defense. It may not make a difference. Justin’s stand did not make a difference in his day either, and his public defense ended up costing him his life. But his defense created for Christians a framework of reason. It affirmed the reasonableness and rightness of what  they believed and spurred them on to persist in the faith. Maybe that is what is needed today. 

The hot button issues of Justin’s day were the questions of authority and morality. Christians were thought to be a danger to the state because they would not revere the emperor as the supreme authority. They insisted on obeying and worshiping God as sovereign. They were also considered strange if not immoral because their lives and worship were so different from the lifestyle of Rome and the worship in pagan religions.

The hot button issues today are still authority and morality. Christians bow ultimately to one authority, God. Christians follow one set of moral imperatives, those given to us in the word of God, the Bible. Does that make us a danger to society? No. It makes us the best citizens. We are not blown about by the winds of currently popular ideas or cultural change. We are solidly anchored to what is right and good, principles that have stood the test of centuries. And we follow those principles even when the personal cost is great. Our stand on those principles is no threat but to the rule of tyrants.

Not only so, but our presence in any society is a benefit to the public good.

In India Christians are engaged in working for social justice for those who are oppressed by poverty and by the lingering prejudice of the caste system. They rescue young girls who have been enslaved in the sex trade and young boys who have been enslaved in forced labor. They run hospitals and clinics for the poor, providing care at minimum or no cost to people in villages where there is no health care. They respond to disasters such as the recent earthquake in Nepal providing food, shelter, medical care, and assistance in rebuilding. 

In India Christians serve poor communities, developing water supplies and sanitation and teaching better farming techniques in rural villages. These are not foreigners doing this, but Indian Christians. They are India’s best citizens. 

In America the list of benefits Christians provide for our society is, if anything, larger. We provide hospitals and clinics and disaster relief in every emergency from Katrina to the wild fires in California that displaced so many. We work in organizations that are rescuing girls enslaved in prostitution. We provide help to the homeless and a way out for the addict. We man rescue missions and provide food and shelter. We collect food and clothing and distribute it freely to those in need. We qre America's best citizens.

Yet for a growing number of Americans, Christians are just trying to lure the unsuspecting or to recruit the vulnerable. Faith based social services, it is argued, run counter to the modern American value of separation of church and state. Never mind that in almost every instance there is no pressure applied to adopt our faith, and assistance is given without any condition of faith. 

The benefit of Christian social service in America is so great that if it were to be curtailed by law or by changing culture, America, whether the government or non-religious charitable institutions, would not be able to take up the slack. The suffering of the poor would certainly increase.

But are Christians to be trusted? Are they loyal citizens? The record should be more than clear. Christians serve in every branch of the military and in every level of political service from elected officials to volunteers in our local communities. We believe in America. We believe that America was founded upon the values we hold dear, values that came directly or indirectly from the Bible itself.

Christians are involved in politics because we believe in America. Despite the popular opinion, we are found among both Democrats and Republicans. We sometimes disagree even among ourselves as to the best course to follow to preserve America and the Christian values that have made America great. But there is no question that American Christians are pro-America. 

And that is why Christians are willing to stand our ground when American values are threatened. We look around us today and see the values of respect for others and for freedom threatened by a growing centralization of government authority. We fear a big brother government, and rightly so, for in every place where government has become absolute people have suffered. We believe too much in America to stand by quietly. 

We believe God has blessed America with her foundational values. But we believe too much in those same principles, principles we see as biblical as well as historical,  to force those upon anyone. Americans will decide the future. It is their God given right. We only wish to be a voice for the values that made our nation great. 

For this, we are more and more regarded as immoral. When we stand for the values of freedom and life and family we are called bigots or meddlers. When we preach moral standards of faithfulness and purity, we are called hateful. Why?

Christians believe in life. We have been foremost in the right to life movement because we believe that life is a God given gift. We believe no one has the right to take a life, least of all for simple convenience or personal
benefit. We believe an unborn child is not “tissue.” She is a person. He is sacred. They are lives made in the image of God. 

When our culture made a turn toward what we consider self-interest rather than respect for life, we stood for the rights of the unborn. It is our culture too. And we believe the kind of selfishness that has killed millions of unborn children is a crime against God himself. It will have consequences. It has had consequences. We desire not only to save the life of the unborn but to save our culture from those consequences. Is that immoral? 

Yet Christians have been vilified for our attempts to rescue our culture from moral disaster.
When our culture made a turn toward sexual permissiveness and immorality, we spoke up. We believe that sexual immorality whether it is heterosexual or homosexual endangers our society. Pornography, for example, diminishes women. It turns them into objects of lust, abuse, and enslavement. As pornography became mainstream it spread that exploitation into every corner of the culture, from fashion and music and films to the seamy, ugly underworld of sexual slavery, gay bath houses, and pedophilia. We believe we must take a stand. 

Does that make us immoral? Does that make us the enemy? You would think so from the reaction of the press and the murmur on the Internet. But we believe too much in the greatness of the dream of our Christian American forefathers of a just and good society and in the guideline of God’s word to relent. We will speak. We will stand for righteousness because we believe it is right. We will stand for righteousness because we believe it is the only hope for America. 

Perhaps the evil of self-interest and greed that drives our culture will prevail. We pray not. We pray for a return to righteousness across this land. 

But whether we as a culture repent or not, we Christians will continue to stand for righteousness - despite the increasing personal cost. We will continue to speak. We were given no assurances from the Lord that righteousness will prevail. Rather we were forewarned that we would be hated, just as he was hated. 

Jesus himself and Justin, who is called Martyr because of his determination to live by what is true rather than by what is expedient, remain models for us. They took a stand. They  spoke, even though it cost them their lives. And we will speak.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Jude: A Word for Today

Who reads Jude? Not one in a hundred Christians, I’d guess. But maybe we should.

Jude addresses a crisis of immorality that has reached epidemic proportions and is metastasizing like a cancer  into rebellion toward God (v. 8, 10) or anyone else who would speak correction or rebuke.
The danger though is not that these people to whom Jude writes live in an immoral culture. Outside the culture of the Jewish people, the world largely was immoral, celebrating it in their mosaic murals and painted pottery, even incorporating immorality into their religions. No, the danger was that there have been some who have preached that sickness to the church as normal and good (v. 4, 12). Ultimately this sickness leads to death (v. 7).

If we find parallels to our day, it is not by chance. Jude seems to be writing not merely for his day but for ours.  There is a sense that those to whom he writes are living in a time close to the return of the Lord. That describes us more than the church 2000 years ago. And the picture he paints certainly fits. 

There is no question that we live in a particularly immoral time and culture, particularly in America. Sexual promiscuity and selfish greed is embraced as the norm in every novel and film. What fifty years ago was regarded as pornography is now mainstream. And the culture of America is being exported around the world via the media. Places as far away from America as India and China have been infected. Bollywood in India has adopted the morals of Hollywood. It is becoming a world culture.

Then there is the celebration of perversion that is sweeping America and the world. Behaviors that only a few years ago were spoken of in the closet are now front page, proudly paraded in every city, and licensed in almost every state in America.  

Perhaps more alarming than these things is the pervasiveness of the ME culture. If I want it, I can have it. No rules. Mobs looting Baltimore, kids blowing away their school mates, and crowds stoning out on  marijuana in Seattle are examples of the ME culture in the extreme. 

If those things were limited to the world around us, it would be serious enough, but they are not. They have infected the thinking and the actions of the church. We are very much people of this generation, just a little more refined about it. Maybe.

What shall we do? Jude’s prescription is to grow in personal faith. Make our relationship with the Lord more central to our lives. Pray. And rescue those we can. There will be those who are walking the fence not sure on which side to land. Rescue them. 

There are those who have been burned by the immorality of the ME culture. Their lives are a cinder. Pull them from the fire. Show mercy, not hatred. (v. 23) Get into the fray to pull people out, being careful not to get sucked in yourself. 

Sadly, that is rarely what we do. Either we get sucked in because we don’t see the dangers or we push people away because of the vileness of their lifestyle. Jude’s message is rescue those we can. 

And there is one final thing, more the example of Jude than his message: tell the truth of what is happening. Despite the glowing predictions of the blind, our world is going to hell. Tell it like it is.

The Hard Work of Holiness

I was face down on the floor in front of the altar of our small church. Two brothers lay beside me praying. We were seeking holiness, and we were wrestling with God that he might bless us with it. We had been wrestling every Saturday morning for months. And I do not know if any one of us could have witnessed to having received that “second blessing.”

After an hour or so, we would get up from our places of prayer head out to our Saturday. My Saturday was the evening shift at a gas station. 

During off hours when I was not working on college classes or lubing cars, I would read the books of the old holiness preachers. I had a library of them. I would ask why it was that if God desired my sanctification he did not bless me with it. It was not that I did not want to be sanctified. But how?

That was fifty years ago. I belonged to a denomination that described itself as Holiness. Sanctification (just another name for holiness) was the theme of many of the messages we heard both in church on Sunday and in the various special meetings throughout the year, and of course in the camp meetings during the summer.

I remember forceful men at those meeting proclaiming that God not only desired our holiness, he provided for it, if we would ask. If.  But I was asking. It still seemed elusive. 

I was told to wait upon the Lord. The example of the disciples waiting for the Holy Spirit was often evoked. I waited. But except for brief moments when I thought God had given me sanctification, I waited in vain. Was the problem me? 

Holiness was one of the major planks of our theology as a Wesleyan Holiness church. In its extreme form the doctrine was that God would remove all sin from our lives if we would believe him for it. It was called total eradication. In more moderate versions, it was that God would enable us to live holy lives free from sin. Interestingly sanctification was often conceived of as moral holiness rather than the practical holiness that Peter writes on in 1st Peter. We could enter that place of blessing and remain in it by faith. 

I continued to read the books of those who had gotten the blessing, trying to understand. I read, too, the other takes on sanctification. Yes, there were others. In particular there was the version called progressive sanctification. I hear it spoken of in some Reformed circles today, and it is a plank in the theology of most baptistic churches.  In those days progressive sanctification sounded like sanctification by works rather than by God, and I had tried that without any more success than I was experiencing. 

Years passed.  One day sometime in my forties I picked up a little book by Watchman Nee called Sit, Walk, Stand. It it as meditation on the book of Ephesians. In it Nee develops the truth that we all are seated with Christ. We are the beneficiaries of every blessing God has for us. They are our now. We do not need to wait for them. 

But we must stand by faith in those blessing. They are not automatically imparted to us. We must grasp them by faith. Finally, Nee goes on to say that we then are able to walk in the blessings. They can become real in the daily of life.

It was a life changing insight. I recommend the book. But there was more to learn.

And I did learn. In particular I found myself returning again and again to the book of Colossians where Paul says we are dead to the world’s influence and the power of sin that dominates the world (2:12) and we are alive in Christ with a new life in which we have been brought to “fullness” (2:10). Without parsing the word fullness in detail that means completion. I am complete in Christ. That means I am sanctified. It does not mean I can be if I believe it or that I will be if I work at it but that I am.
For those who must have grammatical support, the critical verbs are in the aorist tense, having the force of something that is done and is a fact. 

In Reformed theology that would be described as my position in Christ. But all too often that becomes an excuse for not quite experiencing it in practical living as a pump jockey in a gas station or for gradually implementing it in practical living. I was uncomfortable with that. It seemed too much my work and not God’s. 

And that does not seem to be what Paul means. He goes on to say in chapter 3 that we should therefore, because of the fact of our being dead in Christ to the old and alive in him to the new,  put off the things of the old life and put on the things of the new life. Those words put off and put on are also aorist. That implies we may do so now, not by gradual steps of improvement but by walking in the truth of our standing by faith. 

That study in Colossians was life changing for me. It provided biblical, theological support for what Watchman Nee wrote. And it reinforced the truth that the first work of sanctification was faith. That may be the hardest work of all. It requires that I believe in the fact of my standing in Christ and all it provides today, tomorrow, and every tomorrow. It is not a one time “faith.” It is a continuing faith. It is the work of faith. And that is what was missing in my earlier search for holiness. But there is more.
I have been recently reading in Hebrews. The reason for writing the letter was to encourage Christian Jews not to return to their old traditions and hope in the works of the Jewish religion but to hold firmly to what God had done and was doing for them in Christ. The last few verses in chapter 5 caught my eye. 

These Jewish Christians were finding those traditions easier and less demanding than pushing on to real righteousness (v. 13). Ah! How like me, I thought. How like us. But what is real righteousness?
I thought about that. Righteousness simplified is right living. It may be described as holiness. It is the application of my life to relationship with God and the practical living out of God’s pattern for life in loving and serving.  

Those words need to be fleshed out, of course. And that is part of the hard work of holiness. As I understand more and more truly what God’s pattern for my life is, a pattern that is both common to all believers and specific to me, I apply faith in my standing in Christ to live it. And I practice it. (The NIV in verse 14 says “train” myself.) 

That word reminds me of the training necessary for every athlete. It is hard work. 

So how do I train myself in holiness? The first thing I do is understand the coach’s directions; I read the Word. 

The next is that I work at putting those directions into actions. In faith. 

Working at developing a skill that I don’t have is really hard work but doable. If I do not have the physical capacity it is impossible. If I need to run 100 yards in 10 seconds and do not have the physical capacity for that - if I have no legs - it is futile to try and build myself up to achieve that goal. I may drag myself along and crawl the 100 in a minute, but that is the best I can do. That is what so many truly dedicated Christians try to do. They try to crawl.

Biblically it is impossible work to create holiness by such effort. It leads to failure and sometimes to giving up. But if I have the capacity and just lack the skill, the goal is possible. So I train myself.
Success is not instant. There are many directions for holy living. They need to be tackled one at a time. That is part of the hard work of holiness. But they are possible because God has given me the capacity, my standing in Christ as a new person. 

What is the result? It is described in Hebrews 5:14 as maturity. 

That is really what I was desiring those many years ago. I was just wanting it NOW without the hard work of holiness, the daily faith and training.