Friday, June 27, 2014

It's Not About Me

As you may well expect, as a youth pastor, I am subscribed to a smattering of youth ministry related resources that do everything from advertising material, to sharing testimonies, discussing popular culture, and giving tips on dealing with teenagers.

I understand that not everything I get will always be Biblically based and doctrinally sound. Many of these resources are used mostly for games, illustrations, etc. - the kind of stuff, I generally don't care about but that youth enjoy. I rarely go to them for lesson material. I have specific trusted sources for that, first and foremost being the Bible. However, every now and then I come across something that just strikes me as utterly ridiculous.

The title of an article I recently received by email was, "Ways to Know if Teens Are Connecting with You." As you might expect, I would prefer to know I am making a difference in the lives of my students, so I actually stopped to read it.

Here is the opening paragraph:

"As youth ministers, we often wonder if we are making a difference
among our teens. Usually we have to wait several years to see if
they become strong Christians, but what about now? Where does our
instant gratification come from?"

Hold on! "Our instant gratification?"
I'm really trying to not sound overly pious here, but right out of the gate we have a grossly misplaced sense of priorities. I love every student God has placed in my care. In my younger years, as a tutor, there was hardly a more satisfying moment than when a student had that "ah ha!" moment. I love that! And do I want to experience that? Of course I do. But it's not a priority. Its true that your preachers, ministers and pastors need some encouragement, and you should give it, but it's not why we do what we do.

"Do your teens take your advice? What a great feeling it is when a
teen walks up to you and says, "I need your advice on something."
Man, what a breakthrough moment! What a feeling of accomplishment.
They trust your judgment."

I don't want them to trust my judgment. I did a right fine job of screwing up my own life, thank you very much. Don't look to ME for your sound judgment.

I plead with my students to test everything they hear and read from teachers and preachers against the Bible. The only promise I can make to my students is that I WILL fail them, disappoint them, and possibly lead them astray on something. Don't trust MY judgment.

Trust the Word of God and the discerning of the Holy Spirit in you.

"Do your teens spend time with you? At youth group, or any other
event, do your teens just sit around and hang out with you? Have
you noticed that when you are sitting alone that some may walk over
and just sit with you? Have they invited you to one of their
special events? Take notice, this is important."

The best teacher I ever had was a tyrant. Yeah, we had interesting lessons in his history class (or maybe I'm just a nerd like that), but the man handed out loads of daily homework like candy on Halloween. He was a strict disciplinarian in his classroom, and had zero tolerance and no mercy. In algebra (Yes, he double majored in social study and math. What's up with that?), taking shortcuts in your math got the whole problem marked wrong, even if you got it right. In history, we had pages and pages of detailed outlines, that were strictly graded on their format, not just their content.

This was not a man that teenagers were lining up to hang out with. But we learned. His job was to teach us that material, and to this day I can solve equations of polynomials with multiple variables faster with scratch paper than with a calculator. Why? Because he was more interested in doing his job than in being our friend.

My "job" is to teach the Word of God and to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not to have kids want to come hang out with me. ... though, it is cool if they want to.

"You really connect with your group when you notice that they laugh
when you laugh and they hurt when you hurt."

Taken as a whole, what I see being described is a list of how to know if your students like you. I was never the cool kid. Even when I was a kid. I'm white and nerdy to the core. I will never be the hip and cool youth pastor. It's not me.

We all want to be liked. We all want to be thought of as cool, or smart, or wise, or ... whatever it is that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. If that's what "connecting with my youth" looks like, then count me out.

YES, if there is a personal connection it is better and easier for the more compassionate and counseling aspects of pastoral ministry. But I have experienced and seen too much in youth and college ministries to see that "connection" turn into a cult of personality. If my students' "connection" with me in any way hinders their connection to Christ, then I have failed them. They don't need to connect with ME, they need a connection with their Lord and Savior. I'm just the messenger. I'm just His emissary.

Lord, please do not let me or my desires to be liked or be "cool" get in the way of ANY of these students being connected to YOU.

John 3:30
"He must increase, but I must decrease."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Judgment or Advisement?

 I never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed. In fact, on many things I am very slow on the uptake. Just ask my wife. Subtle hints are completely lost on me. I try to tell it plain, and tend to hear it plain, and sometimes forget that not everyone does.
From time to time I have been horribly misunderstood and sat in the wake of someone blowing up at me, calling me "hateful," "judgmental," or worse, and I was left wondering what just happened.
Recently, a conversation took a turn towards the "Who are you to judge others and say they're wrong?" I was taken back a bit because my language and demeanor was one of explanation and not declaration. At least that's what I was trying to get across. Unfortunately, what I was saying and what they were hearing were miles apart.
Once I had a couple of youth who stopped coming to Sunday service for a while because of something the pastor said. Something that they completely misheard and misunderstood.
When we hear/read something, we filter it through our own understandings and ideas. It helps when communicating to be aware of the other person's filters and ideas. When taking in what someone is saying, it helps to be aware of their filters and ideas, .... and our own as well.
One filter that many people have now days is that to disagree or voice disagreement in any way is a form of being judgmental or intolerant. Or, many people also have the filter that Christians ARE judgmental, and so any time a Christian voices disagreement they are automatically seen as being hateful or judgmental.
Here's the deal. Many times whenever I, or others I have witnessed, expressed some form of "You shouldn't _____," it gets heard as "If you _____, you are a despicable, sinful piece of trash!" At least that's what is implied by the tone and fervor of the response I sometimes get.
But now who's being judgmental?
If I say, "You shouldn't drink alcohol," how do you know my meaning and motive? What variety of meanings could that statement have? Here are just a few off the top of my head.
1. Is the person being addressed a minor for whom it would be illegal to drink alcohol?
2. Are you a friend who I know to be prone to addictive behaviors?
3. Do you have a track record of bad results when you drink and I'm just concerned for you?
4. Maybe I understand that there's nothing inherently evil about alcohol, but I have a general experience of nothing worth-while coming from the consumption of alcohol and think it unwise.
5. Or maybe I think drinking is of the Devil and if you partake of his vile drink you are courting darkness and demonstrating that you possess a wicked and corrupt soul. SINNER!!
Oddly enough, when I say, "You shouldn't drink alcohol," because I am a Christian, many people assume number 5.
However, generally, unless I am quoting a direct "Thou shall not..." from the Bible, when I say, "You shouldn't ____," I'm giving an advisement of what I believe to be wise behavior, not a judgment about a person's moral character.
Don't listen to this song.
Don't watch that movie.
Don't go to that place.
Don't hang out with those people.
Don't read those magazines.
Don't share those things on social media.
Don't do that thing.
Don't make that choice.
Don't ______.
When I make those sorts of comments, I know that I am no authoritative voice or judge in your life. I do hope to be an influential one, but that is about it. You're not answerable to me. I have no position, authority or grounds to pass judgment, and my comments, even if I were passing judgment, have no power or control over you.
The statement is not, "If you do X, then you are a bad person."
The statement is, "If you do X, then it will turn out bad for you. I care about you, so please don't do X."
Most of the time that I see, read, or hear about Christians being labelled as judgmental, intolerant, hateful, etc. what is really taking place is that they are expressing a compassionate concern and advising as to what should or should not be done, with the person's well being or benefit in mind. Different people communicate this with varying degrees of success, but seldom do I actually witness the judgmental, "You're a dirty, rotten sinner!" attitude so often accused.
Here's a breakdown of how this may work on a couple of different hot-button issues:
"Abortion is murder."
What they hear: "Evil baby killer!!"
What was meant: "That is a human life who didn't ask to be in this situation. It's not the baby's fault. You're not a murderer. Please don't end an innocent life."
"Homosexuality is a sin."
What they hear: "God hates fags!!"
What was meant: "God has a design for human sexuality, and we should use and enjoy sex within the limits of His design. Like fire, when it's in the fireplace, it lights and warms the house, but get it out of the fireplace and it can burn the house down."
For various reasons, some deserved and some not, there is a large segment of society that filters all Christian statements through a filter of hate or judgmentalism.
Are there hateful and judgmental people who proclaim to be Christians? Of course. Does Christ or the doctrines of Christianity teach hate and judgmentalism? No.
Christ teaches love and compassion that is able to stand in the face of what God calls sin, admit that it is sin, but still have a heart of compassion for the individual. In John 8 Jesus treates the woman caught in adultery with compassion, turns away her assailants who seek to kill her, and even says that He doesn't condemn her. But in no instance does He say what she had done was ok, and He even ends the exchange by imploring her to stop sinning. Compassion and admission of sin at work side by side.
Do Christians do this well? There are probably as many answers to that question as there are Christians in the world.
If there is one thing I could hope my friends from "the other side" get from this is that when you hear/read a Christian say "X is a sin," or "You shouldn't do Y," please do not let your knee-jerk reaction be an assumption of hate and judgmentalism. Chances are, if they didn't care about the person (community/state/nation) in question they wouldn't be saying anything at all.
Most Christian activism is not based on bigotry, hate, or just wanting to force our views on everyone else. (Yes, there are some people who are simply jerks, but it can be argued they're not actually "followers of Christ"... different issue.)
We actually do love and care about people and believe God's Word presents Truth. And we do not want our nation, our communities, or the individuals around us to suffer the harm done when we venture outside of the way God designed things to work. That's not a stance of hate. That is a stance of love.
We are not judging "those people," we are seeking to love our neighbors by arguing for our position, trying to persuade people to see a different point of view, and advising those around us of a wiser and better way.
You may not think it is a wiser or better way, but that is a whole other issue. We certainly should have that conversation. But that conversation cannot take place as long as one side has an erroneous understanding of the position of the other.
You don't cast us all as hateful, judgmental bigots trying to set up a theocracy, and we won't assume you're all a bunch of godless, anti-American communists, conspiring to tear down the foundations of society to meet your own twisted agendas.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Good People? Bad Choices?

[This is a re-posted blog, so it may be a bit dated. However, it is still relevant to our world today.]

If my hair wasn't already thinning, I just might pull it out.

This is a good follow up to my last post on Human Nature.

I don't know why the total ignorance of reality constantly being paraded before us still surprises me, but sometimes it does.

We're corrupt, fallen, selfish people, and without the regeneration and new life given through Jesus Christ we can never really comprehend morality. People can learn good habits and even have good humanitarian reasons why "being good" is, ... well ... good. But depraved minds just don't really get it.

Every one's favorite "Twilight" star (thankfully that series is over). ... anyway, a while back she was apparently caught in a heated make-out session with the directer. Not a big shock there. She's 22 and he's 41. Still no real big shock there either, but it gets a little too day-time-TV drama when you learn she has a boyfriend and he has a wife and kids!

Scandalous, even in our rapidly declining society.

The part that just really got me all riled up is a supposed "source"'s take: Apparently the girl "is absolutely devastated." Well, at least she has some conscience left. Let's pray the Holy Spirit can use it to prompt her to receive the Gospel, if there's anyone in her life who will share it.

The source went on to tell People, "It was a mistake and a complete lapse in judgment." (ya think?) "She wasn't having an affair with Rupert. It was just a fleeting moment that shouldn't have happened. She never meant to hurt anyone." We seldom do, but that doesn't change things. Here's the REAL kicker that got me, "She's a good person who just made a bad choice." 


OK, I don't want this to be a drama filled, bash on a celeb piece. So let's forget the who we're talking about. The Who doesn't matter.

You don't get to be hot-and-heavy with a guy nearly 2x your age who has a family and say "Oops, I feel bad about it."  You don't accidentally make out with a married man. And a married man sure as heck doesn't accidentally play kissy-face with a 20-something co-worker.

And yet, many still have the audacity to say, "They're really good people at heart. It was just a mistake."

When will we wake up? No they're not really good at heart. They're just like the rest of us, "sinful from birth" (Psalm 51:5) and in need of forgiveness (Romans 3:22-24).

People ask how a loving God could allow bad things? We've so deluded ourselves that we don't see that the bad in the world comes from us, and not just the big stuff but even the small miseries. We do them to ourselves and to each other.

If God wasn't loving, the bible would be about 3 pages long, and He would have sent the whole lot of us straight to hell ... and He'd be right to do so!

But He loves us enough to give us life and give us hope, hope that we can be forgiven because of His grace, through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8).

We're not a bunch of good-at-heart people making mistakes every now and then. We are selfish, pride-filled sinners deserving of justice. Some people have asked me why God puts up with us. If we're so bad, why doesn't He just wipe us out? Why drag this out?

We are guilty, and we have a death sentence (Genesis 3). The same reason we keep death row inmates around for decades before actually carrying out the sentence. Mercy. We allow time for appeals and a chance for them to prove their innocence, or maybe even for a pardon to come through. While we are certainly guilty, and there is no higher appeal than God, we can be pardoned. Jesus Christ died and rose again to purchase that pardon for all who would repent and believe. God is not being cruel in allowing us to stay in this broken world with all of its miseries and problems. He is giving us time to come back to Him so that we may be pardoned.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Human Nature

In the wake of the recent tragedies we have witnessed lately (school shootings, extreme bullying, kidnappings, etc.), I have heard many comments made along the lines of "How could someone do such a thing?", "I'm amazed at the evil some people commit.", "I don't understand what makes a person do that", etc. 

I have also heard words thrown around like “psychopath”, “crazy”, and “mental illness.”

While this may explain some of why this specific person committed this specific act of evil at this specific time and place, it fails to explain the deeper reasons as to why a person, any person, would do something so horrible.

We wrap ourselves in this perception of people being better than they really are. Here in America we live in such comfort, in a country where basic morality and decency (while greatly eroded) is still a majority held view. We don't live under a military dictator. Canada's not launching missiles into our cities. Mexico's not sending suicide bombers across the border. It is easy for us to white wash the reality of human nature.

I recently saw a post on Facebook with a quote by Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

It’s a great thought, and I’m sure it does wonders for encouraging and it is very motivational, but it’s simply not true. While we may have to be taught to hate a specific trait (color, background, religion) “love” does not “come more naturally to the human heart.”

Yet this is what we tell ourselves over and over again in our movies, our stories, our relationships, even our churches. And then we white-wash over reality with a superficially “moral” society and do the spiritual equivalent of sticking our fingers in our ears and humming real loud.

But what does the bible tell us about human nature, about the human heart? What does God explain comes more naturally to us?

Romans 3:23
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

In Genesis 6:5, Noah is told that God is going to flood the world in judgment because in the time since creation the entire human race had become wicked: The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.

Jeremiah 17:9
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

The very basis of Christianity, and the entire teaching of the bible (and therefore reality since it is true) is that we are essentially flawed and corrupt!

Romans 1:30 described people who actually invent ways of doing evil.” Good old fashioned lying and thieving wasn’t doing it for them. They had to come up with new ways to inflict wickedness upon themselves.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden isn’t just a nice story. It is the very reason and explanation of why everything in this world is so messed up, why we have evil. Romans 5:12sin entered the world through one man.” Adam!

And since we’re all descended from Adam, we all bear the corruption that his sin brought.

Stop and think about it. Love is not the most natural thing that comes to a human heart. Selfishness is! Babies are not taught the concept of “Give me! Give me! Give me!” No. We have to teach them that it’s ok, often good, to not get exactly what you want when you want it.

 It may not manifest in “hate” or “violent acts”, but each and every one of us have in our hearts the very same corrupt, selfish, sinful nature that leads some to commit violent tragedies like in Colorado … or the sick deeds done at Penn State.

We want to recoil from that thought and say, “No! Not me! I’m a good person.” But if we look, even at our own definition of what is “good” we see that we fail miserably. 

How much more do we fail God’s standard?

Every one of us, from Mother Teresa to Stalin to Martin Luther King Jr to Bob the plumber with a great family and loving friends, we all have within us the capacity for vile evil deeds. 

But our selfishness doesn’t have to manifest in extreme examples. We might lie to our boss to cover a mistake. Maybe its just a small bit of road rage. Maybe we flirt with that attractive co-worker … it’s not like you’re “really” cheating. Do you drive through the “nice” neighborhoods or “window shop” at car lots wondering when you’ll get to have something nice?

James 2:10 says, For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

That’s why Jesus had to come and die on the cross and be raised three days later. There is no way our desperately wicked (corrupt, selfish, pride filled) hearts could ever earn God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

And if we cannot come to terms with the reality of our own selfishness and sinfulness, how can we ever humble ourselves and be forgiven?

That shooter you see on the news may have been troubled, crazy, mentally ill or a psychopath. But those are just the surface motivations for this particular deed. His real problem, the cause of such a vile act, is the same selfish, corrupt, sinful heart that lives in each of us.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Choices and Consequences

"Do what you want.
It's your life.
Do whatever makes you happy.
Friends aren't the ones who have to live with your choices years down the road."

That was the advice given to a friend of mine facing a pretty emotional situation, trapped between intense feelings and desires and wanting to do the right thing.

If we're honest, we have all likely said something similar to this, or maybe thought it ourselves when we didn't  like the advice others were giving us.

However, when something is emotionally charged, or we are blinded by a strong desire for a particular choice, we don't always think clearly. That's why God tells us that we should get some advice from multiple wise sources (Proverbs 1:5).

So let's break down the statement and see what we find.

1. Do what you want.

Well that's a silly thing to say. Apply just a little reason here. This is the kind of logic applied by my 4 year old. "I want it, so give it to me."

Can you think of a time when what you wanted turned out to be the wrong choice? Of course you can. It's called regrets, and we all have them. You can't make it past the age of 12 without racking up at least a few.

Proverbs 12:15 says it this way, "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, But a wise man is he who listens to counsel." Just because you want it and it seems right in your opinion doesn't mean it is the right choice to make.

2. It's your life.

Remember that you do not exist in a vacuum. How's the old saying go? "No man is an island." Your life intersects the lives of others, and your choices and actions will have a ripple effect of consequences for them as well. It is the height of selfishness to go through life carelessly, inflicting pain and stress on those around with with no regard for what you are doing.

Also, let me throw out a couple of verses for you: 1 Corinthians 7:23, "You have been bought with a price." Jesus' sacrifice on the cross paid the debt for your sin. You have been purchased by His blood. You have surrendered your life, remember?

Not a christian? OK, there's this one then, "The earth is the LORD’S, and all it contains, The world, and  those who dwell in it." (Psalm 24:1) He made it. It's all His.

It's not really your life, and even if it was, it would be pretty selfish to not consider the lives of others you will impact with your choices.

3. Do whatever makes you happy.

Seriously? This may come as a shock to you, but life is not about happiness. This goes right along with what was said above. Did you know that one of the definitions of "mature" is the having ability to delay satisfaction?

Happiness is a temporary feeling of pleasure that comes and goes based on the situation at that moment. Do you really want to live your life on that emotional roller-coaster? There are some people who have a chemical imbalance in their brain that takes them on extreme highs of happiness and then down again. It's such a disruptive and harmful way to live that most of them require medication and/or therapy just to live normal. And you would intentionally want THAT sort of up and down to be what you base your decisions on?

Paul said it this way in Philippians 4:11, "Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am."

We should learn to be content and not thrown about by the whimsy of our "happiness." Remember the wise man built his house on the rock (Matthew 7), not on shifting sand. Happiness is shifting and unstable. The Rock of Christ is steady.

4. Friends aren't the ones who have to live with your choices years down the road.

This goes back to not living in a vacuum. God's Word says we are to "bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2) We are not meant to go through life alone.

Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, "And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart."

Even if the people in your life are not directly bearing your burden along with you, they will have to experience the effects your choices have on you. Was it a good outcome? Was your life enriched? Your friends and loved ones will be enriched as well by the joy and blessing you carry with you. Your stress levels will be down, and your liveliness will be up. People will get to share in that blessing as they interact with you. What if your choices bring pain? The people in your life will endure the effects of that pain in your life as they walk through life with you. Are you Stressed? Bitter? Angry? Cranky? Depressed? They will have to experience the results of that as they interact with you.

As you go through life, your choices will have consequences. Some good. Some bad. And when the result is pain and regret, God does not intend for you to go through that alone. He places friends and family in our lives to bear that burden and walk with us through that pain. He commands that we help one another through life's tough times and strengthen each other when one of us is weak.

If your friends aren't going to be there with you to live with the consequences of your choices .... get some new friends.

I will leave you with these verses to consider:

Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves"

Proverbs 16:25, "There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death."


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

True or False: The Truth is True

I once had a particularly lively debate on Facebook (granted, not the wisest use of time or most productive means of convincing people) which ultimately ended up centering around the idea of "Truth". If I believe X and you believe Y, and X NOT= Y, what is "the truth"?

Rather quickly, I realized that those holding opposing views to my own seemed to have a different definition of "truth" than I do. I've witnessed, in this particular conversation, as well as others, three basic concepts of "truth": (1) The one I hold is that there is such a thing as truth, and we should seek to search it out and discover what it is. (2) Another major concept is what is often referred to as "post-modernism", a highly relative idea of truth. We can't really know the truth (or there is no truth). Whatever we want to believe is "true" for us, and reality is defined by our beliefs. Since that is a fairly extreme view, the more common "quasi-relative" view I encountered (3) is a sort of blending of the two. These folks believe in an absolute truth only in the areas that can be definitively proven through empirical means (5 senses); anything else is simply opinion.

Since going in circles in a running debate on a variety of topics with no clear definition of "truth" was kind of making my brain hurt (and is pretty futile), I decided to withdraw and look up the definition. According to, "Truth" is defined as:

1. the true or actual state of a matter
2. conformity with fact or reality; verity: the truth of a statement.
3. a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like
4. the state or character of being true.
5. actuality or actual existence.

This was the first definition offered, the following ones more or less repeated these ideas with some rewording and very little relativistic meaning. The conclusion: "Truth" simply is that which is.

Our opinions and beliefs do not change or alter what is true, regardless of our devotion, reasoning, or accepted evidence to the contrary.

At one point in the above mentioned conversation, I made the comment, "If there is a question, then there has to be a right answer." I've been thinking about that statement, wondering if that is indeed correct, however, I think that it is.

The answer may be "We can't figure out the truth", "There's not enough information to determine the truth" or even "This is a matter of preference". But there IS a True answer.

Take Ice Cream for example. If the question is, "What is the tastiest flavor?" How do you answer? What if you are lactose intolerant and can't have ice cream? Then you do not possess the means to answer the question since you cannot do the necessary (rather tasty) research. Maybe you have only ever had vanilla and strawberry; you can't answer the question because at this time you haven't tasted all flavors to be able to make a determination. However, I think we would all agree that the answer to this particular question really is a "matter of preference."

The answer may even be determined by the desired result. Consider the question, "What is the best way to get there from here?" If, for you, "best" means easiest, most peaceful, least traffic, then the long way around would be best. But what if you're a pizza delivery driver and the faster you get it there the bigger the tip you will receive? You'll have a different answer.

OK, so now you're saying, "WHOA, Marc! You're sounding pretty relativistic here. I thought you said there is absolute truth?" Yes, there is. In the case of which route is "best" the Absolute answer is determined by your definition of "best". Mainly because "best" is kind of vague. The delivery driver isn't asking "which route is best?" They are really asking, "Which route will get me there fastest?"

A lot of times what appears relative is really just lack of sufficient definitions.

Think about it? When you ask, "Is it raining outside?" Someone might say, "No, it's just drizzling." Well, if you're wearing a silk blouse and "drizzle" still gets you wet when you go outside, you might consider that rain. Where as me in my jeans, boots and jacket may not care and so I don't consider it to be "raining."

Or if you ask a classmate, "Is the teacher here today?" You are seeking an absolute response as to whether the assigned instructor for your class will be present in the classroom, not some abstract idea about how we are all always learning from each other and so whoever is around you is your "teacher" ... and what do we really mean by "here" anyway? That is generally understood.

One of the kids in my youth group is like this. He sees someone using a word where the socially acceptable meaning is not really literal, and he pounces with his sarcastic wit to point out the flaw in the person's statement. But his behavior points out the reality that we all use words differently. Sometimes subtly so and sometimes drastically so. But these differences in vocabulary can cause great differences in perception of The Truth.

Also, most things we can simply test with our senses and know the TRUTH of the situation. "Is it raining?" Look out the window. "Is this burned?" Smell it or taste a bit. "Is the AC on?" Get up and go look at the thermostat. "Is that new movie still playing?" Check the theater's website or call.

However, and this is where all the controversy and hurt feelings come up, there are things which have absolute answers for which we do not appear to have complete information or we place values on the evidences presented to us.

"Is there such a thing as a 'spiritual' or 'supernatural' realm"? Now we can argue all day long about if there is or not, and the sufficiency of the 'evidence' presented by each side, but what we cannot do is say it is a matter of opinion.

The same can be said for questions such as "Does God exist?", "Is Jesus the Son of God?", "Is the Bible reliable?", "Are people inherently sinful or basically good or just whatever society teaches them to be?", "Is there an afterlife?"

In my previously mentioned Facebook conversation, a friend mentioned that these things are not matters of truth. Specifically that "You cannot opine truth."

Back to the dictionary! According to "opine" means, "to hold or express an opinion".

Sorry bud, but yes you can opine the truth. Scientists do it all the time. It's called a hypothesis.

[Pet peeve side note: I find it interesting that people who hold up science and the scientific method are willing to accept untestable ideas about the past like Darwinian Evolution (which addresses events of the distant past that cannot be tested with the scientific method) as "True" but then turn around and say that since "spiritual" things can't be tested by scientific methods then they can't be true.]

Uniformitarianism: the belief that everything in the past has always behaved according to the processes we see at work in the present. It is an opinion. The Truth is that natural processes either have or have not been constant throughout history. Since scientists cannot observe the past, they cannot really know for sure if uniformitarianism is "true" or not. Most scientists have the opinion that it is. They may be wrong. They have "opined the truth."

We all use the logic and reason to fill in the gaps where the concrete evidence does not provide an absolute answer. Since we all have certain presuppositions about the world around us, our logic and reason will necessarily produce various conclusions. Because we have a certain conclusion or just because we see a variety of conclusions does not exclude the possibility of the truth.

"Truth" simply IS the state of reality. It IS what IS. Our awareness of it, belief in it, understanding or perception of it does not change or alter the Truth in any way.

The one time I meet you, you may have a bad day. Now my conclusion based on my limited evidence and applied reason says, "This guy's a jerk." The Truth may be that you're actually a very kind and caring person who gives almost to the point of pain to be a blessing to those around you. I just happened to catch you on the day after you've been up all night at the hospital while your mom was undergoing surgery after being hit by a drunk driver and didn't make it. And on top of that the whole reason she was driving anyway was because you decided to stay late at the homeless shelter and she decided to drive herself. So now you're tired, grieving and guilt-ridden. All information I didn't know and couldn't have known. Truth: Nice guy. My opinion based on limited evidence and reason: Jerk.

Chances are that you understand THAT example. That's why we tend to try and give people some leeway and some grace. Because we don't know the whole story, and they may just be having a bad day. We lack complete evidence, and our logic may be based on faulty assumptions.

But then many people turn around and do the opposite with God. Does He even exist? Is He personal and involved or aloof and detached? Is He loving or mean? Does He judge evil or let us slide if we have good intentions? We draw our conclusions about spirituality and God and religion based on our limited experience and apply our logic based on (potentially) faulty assumptions, and then proclaim that we have figured out the Truth, can't know the Truth, or that the Truth doesn't exist. Then when others try to provide additional evidence or reasoning to the contrary it gets dismissed outright because conclusions have already been made and "how dare you try to push your beliefs on me?!"

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that spiritual and religious matters are deeply personal. The impact and consequences of both the truth about, and our beliefs on, religion affect every other aspect of our lives. To even pose the idea that we have foolishly or carelessly dealt with the basic foundations of life would mean that our whole perception is built on a lie or at least a misunderstanding. Our pride doesn't want to admit it, and our sense of self-preservation doesn't want to rock the philosophical boat.

However, for the very reason that it IS such a foundational issue, we should try to be open to the "truth" that we don't know everything. And within the realm of the information we don't possess may be the missing evidence that could change our perception of, and draw us closer to a better understanding of, the Truth.

Does that mean we can't be devout or have strong convictions? Of course not. As the old country song says, if you don't stand for something then you'll fall for anything.

If we do not have a solid foundation, a basic set of presuppositions, that the rest of our reasoning starts from, then we will be lost, confused, believing anything with no clear sense of self or purpose, unable to figure out the larger issues in life ... or the smaller ones either.

We should examine the evidence before us, reason to the best of our abilities according to our experience and the understanding we have, and stick to it, holding any so called "evidence" to a high standard. Obviously we should not so easily abandon carefully considered and deeply held beliefs.

However, we should not be so closed off or obtuse that we outright dismiss or deny any such evidence could exist or that we take offense at or personally lash out at those who would try to introduce us to a new perspective or piece of evidence.

The Truth is out there. And we are obligated to honestly seek it out, regardless of personal stakes or feelings.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Religion, Morality, and Government Policies

I generally try to avoid political posts on social media, but there was one that was just too funny to pass up. My comments in sharing the post involved my low opinion of policies based on taxing wealthy people in order to pay for programs that are of questionable effectiveness to begin with. Now, regardless of how you feel about that issue, that's not really the point. A friend brought to my attention what at first glance looks like a contradiction in my thinking.
She asked, "If as a christian you feel compelled to bind others to christian standards using laws and policies that police things like abortion and gay marriage, why is it suddenly a crime to do the same to rich people? There's more in the bible, specifically the gospel about charity and giving and paying your taxes."
Was I being inconsistent? I certainly don't want that. As I pondered, I saw several issues here, and ultimately, no, I do not think there is a contradiction.
First, while I honestly don't think she was being tricky with it, her language is a bit loaded to throw me on the defensive, as if I have something answer for. Emotionally charged terminology already paints the question so there could be no "good" answer. Like I said, I don't think she did this for that purpose, but it does have that effect.
As a Christian I am not "compelled to bind others to Christian standards using laws and policies." In fact history has shown that while a government might impose religious behavior it cannot produce genuine faith. Some of darkest parts of church history is when it got tied up with the government. Beginning with Constantine around 300 AD, the church got intertwined with the Roman Empire in such a way that eventually, to be Roman was to be Christian. Disagreement with or failure to follow church doctrine (whether biblically sound or not) was punishable by the state. How many "Christians" were actually repentant followers of Jesus Christ, and how many were simply Roman citizens jumping through the hoops the church set for them? I think it is safe to say that is not what is revealed in the Bible as Christ's intentions for the church, and neither should it be the desire of Christians today.

However, as an American, living in this representative society where government policy should reflect the will of the people, I am obligated to make my voice heard and try to persuade my fellow citizens and elected officials that a particular position is the better choice for our society. The same as everyone else. It just so happens that my views are colored by my religious & philosophical beliefs. Which is also the same as everyone else, some just like to pick on Christians as if we're the only ones. The fact is, everyone has a worldview that answers certain foundational questions about life that are generally thought of as "religious" issues. That worldview ("religious views") shape everything else.

Second, it seems that the question is about this supposed inconsistency in thinking where there are certain parts of my religious beliefs that I want to see the government enforce but not others. The first step in clearing this up would be to make sure that the supposedly contradicting views in question actually are accurate Christian teaching on those issues. Not wanting to get off in the weeds on the specific issues used as examples, I'm going to assume they are accurate and try to just explain how they are not contradictory.
There is a difference in a moral framework informed and shaped by my religious beliefs and my opinion on how that framework gets effectively applied to society. Not everything is best applied as a direct enforcement by government.
For example, murder, is a sin and is something we can and should effectively enforce through society. Most non-Christians would likely agree, though I doubt their reasons are based on man being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and His commandment to not murder (Exodus 20:13). Given that it destabilizes society to have murderers running around killing people, it is proper for government to enforce this commandment, and given that we can arrest, try, convict and incarcerate/execute murderers effectively without creating other overly burdensome problems, then it is something that we can/should do.
But Jesus also said to be unjustly angry is a sin (Matthew 5:22). I don't want thought-police though. That's unenforceable and would be a horrible opportunity for oppression and abuse even if it could be done. Usually, people being angry only hurts themselves, so that's not really a societal concern. Also, we have no means to effectively judge and enforce an ordinance against anger. Even if we could, by giving government that sort of authority and power, we create all sorts of societal problems worse than the one we sought to fix.
Third, the opinions on what is a proper application of a moral belief can vary from one society to another based on culture and government system. Christians can even disagree on the proper application within their own communities. Some Christians are all for taxing the rich to give to the poor. And they cite verses on charity, giving and helping the poor. However, while I share their moral position that those who have should help those who don't, I greatly disagree on the propriety and effectiveness of this method of forced charity. <-- (an example of loaded language to solicit emotional response producing a built in bias against any critical response)
Fourth, not all sins are created equal. Some Biblical "commands" are prohibitions and some are obligations. Some are societal, some are personal. Some involve our actions, and some our attitudes. Some deal with our relationship to God, others our relationship to people. Some sin causes damage to others, some only hurt ourselves.
The issues that we face are as unique and complex as the individuals they involve. Not all commandments are an explicit "though shalt not". Not all people have the same struggles, temptations, and proclivities. The shape and specifics of how these things get obeyed and lived out in our individual lives will look different from person to person. How much more would it create a convoluted mess in society if every law was a direct reflection of a specific divine command? However, from God's Word and His commandments we get general principles that can be applied in how we determine effective and appropriate uses of government policies and laws.