25 September 2008

Which Religion Is Right?

Unfortunately, religion is something Christians do wrong, not partly but completely. They can’t even agree on the purpose.

Some suggested purposes are:

  • Provide and maintain a moral framework in society
  • Teach people about God
  • Evangelize the world
  • Glorify God
  • Provide protection for God’s people
  • Resist evil and so on

None of these is wrong but religionists don’t agree on which one is primary? When some do agree on a purpose they don’t agree on how to achieve it or what constitutes evidence that it was done.

All of this, of course, comes from the perspective of religious people. This describes how Christian people understand their purpose. What about the non-religious? How would they define the purpose of religion and how would they characterize its effect?

Well, they see God as One Person and Christian religion as one group representing this One Person. They expect religious people and their churches to be God’s kingdom on earth, His institutional “body” so to speak. One non-religious person noted that Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary says the word “religion…means to bind together.” He considered that an important tenant of religion, especially the Christian religion.

Non-religious people expect religious people to work together mending the faults in society, uplifting people (that is why religion is exempt from taxes) and intriguing the lost. The Christian religion in particular has the numbers to do this. They represent a third of the population of the world but instead of making a unified effort, Christian religious groups can’t even get along.

Non-religious people look at the world of religion and see nothing but confusion. They don’t understand how so many Christian groups, all of whom claim to represent the same person and are so similar, can be antagonistic toward one another at the same time. They see Christian religion as fractious and Christian individuals as contentious (self serving and self absorbed) and they label the Christian religion as divisive. Not only is this observation correct it is substantiated by data.

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary says there are 39,000 different Christian denominations in 2008 and they estimate the number will grow to 55,000 by 2025. That represents a growth of over 40% in the next 17 years. The predominance of Christianity is amazing but when you consider the divided nature of Christendom the superior numbers is no reason to be proud.

Where did all this division come from and why is religion this way?

All Christian divisions stem from one common group (Jesus and His disciples) and it is only natural to anticipate a strong inter-connection between them (Jesus did pray for our unity). That isn’t the case. “Unity” has become a four-letter word among Christians and "religion" is the same for the non-religious.

The tendency to divide became popular in the 1500’s with the reformation and has escalated ever since. “Separation” moved from being a possibility (a sad but necessary evil on the odd occasion) to being the evidence of genuine commitment. It is now a primary doctrine. Separation is like baptism, everyone must do it. Going from a few divisions during the reformation to a projected 55,000 in 2025 is evidence we have learned it well. That kind of division rivals the proliferation of cells in the human body. To say religious people are divisive is an understatement. I don’t think that is God’s purpose for religion but it is the reality.

The fallout from all this separation is antagonism between groups (sometimes war) and outsiders notice this first. When questions are raised, religionists become defensive or proud neither of which is a mature response. It is no wonder people ask, “which religion is right?” It is no wonder they approach religion skeptically. If a person wishes to find God, to whom can they turn?

Non-religious people are being fair when they call us “divisive” and it is rational to expect a little more unity.

But, the question is, what does the Bible actually say? Is there some instruction which highlights the purpose of religion? The answer is yes!

In one of only four places where the Greek word for religion (threskeia) is used the Bible says…

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

This statement provides both the problem and the solution. The problem is the possibility of pollution. Religionists (Christians) need to avoid being engaged in and consumed by the pollutions of this life. But, the focus in this verse is not self or pollution. It is others, particularly those who need us.

This verse is not about keeping yourself “clean” for the sake of being clean. This is about being useful for the sake of those who are desperate. Those in distress are to be helped by those who aren’t. If those who are not distressed ignore those who are their religion is vain and they are susceptible to self-absorption and pollution. You cannot avoid pollution if you don’t work to resolve distress.

From this we can extract a life principle: If you exhaust your energy doing good things you don’t have any left for doing things that pollute; religion at its very best. That is actually a good rule of thumb for raising kids. Keep them exhausted with constructive activities and there is no fuel left for the other stuff. Going to church only will never be enough.

True religion has nothing to do with becoming reclusive or exclusive. Religion doesn’t focus on self or even God. It focuses on being useful in practical down to earth ways for the sake of others. The best way to be religious is to engage in relieving distress.

Would this approach have an evangelistic side effect? Yes! Is it possible that discipleship could occur in this type of environment? Yes! Would people be more open to learn about God in this situation? Yes! Would this type of religion provide an acceptable level of protection? Yes! Would God be glorified? Without question!

To any non-religious person who may be reading this post may I take this opportunity to apologize? I am sorry for the Crusades, the excesses committed during the reformation, the insensitive ways I and other religious people have handled problems in society, for being so bigoted and unreasonable at times and for using God’s name to endorse my personal agendas. ThinkAboutIt.

17 September 2008

Feathers To Help You Fly

This morning we put our second son, Timothy, on the plane to return to the USA. We have done this on many occasions previously but this time it was different. In the past there was always a date on which he would return “home” and the time away wouldn’t be that long, six weeks at the most. The schedule is different now. He is returning to the States for at least six months and if all goes well he might be settling there for good. Wow, it is really strange to even write the words.

Timothy is certainly ready for this move. We are behind him completely and have confidence he will do well but it is still a very big step. He is going to the country in which he was born but in which he has lived for only a short time. He starts with no definite job and only a very small amount of “get by” money. He has a car, which was graciously given him but has very little experience driving and maintaining a car in the States. He has no definite long-term place to stay and he is mostly a stranger to the city in which he plans to settle initially, Nashville.

Fortunately, he is very qualified in two ways: he has a Masters degree in biotechnology and he writes songs, sings and plays guitar better than average (actually quite well!!). He enjoys biotech but music is where his heart is. He travels with a credible diploma in one hand and a properly recorded CD in the other. He’ll be trying his luck with the music industry and investigating biotech jobs at the same time. And, he will probably do a bit of scrub work until he can make a reasonable decision. Regardless the direction in which he goes he will need to make many strategic decisions within the first few weeks and that could be tricky.

All of these things together can make any person a bit nervous. The transition can be made but there are pitfalls. Everyone makes mistakes (even Tim – only a few) and that can frustrate a perfectly laid plan. As a parent I’m thinking, what advice can I give, not just generally but appropriate for his situation and this move? And, how can I say it all concisely. Long wordy statements are boring and the meaning is usually lost in the time it takes to read it. After a bit of thinking I came up with the following:

  • Keep right (on the road – you are in the USA not South Africa)
  • Keep a moderate pace (plan your time, don’t hurry – haste makes waste – developments take time)
  • Keep control (watch your money daily – live down at least for a while)

  • Keep your name (don’t accumulate debt)

  • Keep your balance (spend a little money sometimes and save a little always)

  • Keep a positive outlook (don’t let frustration or worry rule you)

  • Keep a cautious approach (don’t make impulsive decisions – study and think before you decide)

  • Keep listening (ask questions - don’t argue – don’t be defensive)

  • Keep your soul (don’t take the first bio-tech job offered)

  • Keep busy (find some kind of job right away)

  • Keep writing (thoughts, songs, web page, etc.)

  • Keep singing (you have an amazing gift)

  • Keep in touch (contact everyone - Skype, email – your mother is waiting to hear from you now)

  • Keep learning (you will never know everything)

  • Keep organized (if it needs to be done do it now)

  • Keep your distance (be civil to all, serve as many as you can but be committed to only a few – you’re not Got)

  • Keep changing (no one has arrived yet)

  • Keep praying (God is listening)

  • Keep secure (never forget we love you)

  • Keep believing (your music is powerful)

  • Keep focused (visualize where you want to go and do something every day to move in that direction)

  • Keep trying (every winner works through mistakes and upsets)

  • Keep right (think it every day, every time you get in the car – we won’t be there to remind you what side of the road to drive on)
To Tim
Timothy, in a sense you are being kicked out of the nest but only in a good way. All these “keep” phrases are just a few feathers that will help you fly and we’ll be watching as you do. This is a great season in your life and everyone is on your side. Keep your head up and keep moving forward.

I could have written more but by the time I finished you would be my age and writing to your kids. This will have to suffice for now. ThinkAboutIt.

12 September 2008

Why Doesn't God Speak To Us...Normally?

People often complain that God is not visibly present or audibly perceived and they are correct on both counts. He has, however, made extensive efforts to communicate with us, not just on the odd occasion, but throughout history. In fact, one New Testament writer captured the full extent of God’s effort to communicate in one very brief statement:

“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)"

In other words, God has spoken to us consistently over a long period of time (most of human history) and has used a variety of methods to do so.

The people to whom this book was written, the Hebrews, (hence the name) were very familiar with the Bible record. They knew what God had done in the past and could appreciate the writer’s meaning. But, unless a person is familiar with Bible history they cannot know the full impact of this statement.

Therefore, please consider the following ways in which God has communicated with us:

  • God spoke audibly to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham and others. He even spoke audibly during the life of Jesus.
  • He physically appeared to Abraham, Joshua and Gideon in the Old Testament and He appeared after the resurrection to the Apostles in the New.
  • He used dreams to communicate with Jacob and his son Joseph.

  • He used visions to reveal future world events to Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Apostle John.

  • He made His will known to Moses, the Israelites and even to the Egyptians using miraculous signs and wonders during the Exodus.

  • God also used angels as messengers to Abraham, Daniel, Zacharias and Mary.

  • In addition, and amazingly, He spoke convincingly to Elijah using a still small voice.

Obviously, God’s methods were not monotonous. He used a variety of diverse ways to communicate. You could say that God is a Master Communicator. He has no limitations and sometimes used a combination of several methods at the same time.

Of all the means God has used to communicate with us the most significant was Jesus Whom the Bible refers to as Immanuel, “God with us,” and we refer to as “the incarnation.”

Jesus didn’t just appear out of nowhere and then fade. He wasn’t a vision or dream. He became human in the same way we become human and lived among us, as one of us. This was a time consuming and inconvenient method of communication for Him. God, Whose existence was not restricted by time, was subjected to a time intensive process. It involved more than a memo, text message or meeting over coffee. It took a life time to get His message across.

Jesus’ coming into the world was powerfully miraculous but extremely low key. His birth alone was miraculous on many levels. He was born to a virgin, yes, but this fact pales in significance to the many other miraculous aspects of the incarnation.

The miracle of the virgin birth has less to do with the unusual way in which conception occurred and more to do with the fact that God, Who is limitless and immeasurable, was confined to a human biological process and reduced to a human state.

Jesus transitioned from a holy environment to one that was corrupt, from eternity into time and He put aside invincibility to take on human frailty. He went from being the “all powerful” to dwelling among the lowest of the low and very few people were aware of it when it happened. The event was not accompanied by fanfare. That alone was a miracle. This transformation was more incredible than even the camel passing through the eye of the needle.

And why did God go to so much trouble? To make it easy for us relate to Him.

Jesus was not trying to be sensational or to show His power. He came into the world in a very human way and He was born into the lowest levels of society because He wanted to be accessible and approachable. He was communicating with us in a way we could understand, appearing to us physically and speaking to us audibly, the very thing people ask for. He downplayed the miraculous and became agreeably mundane.

This approach had a very different affect to what He had done before. When God appeared to Moses in the burning bush it mystified him. When He appeared to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai it frightened them. When Jesus took on human form the apprehension was removed. People were drawn to Him and they listened to what He taught. He touched them and they were healed. They felt free to ask their questions.

Note: For those who doubt the virgin birth there were at least two other people “born” in an unusual manner, the first human father and the first human mother. The coming into existence of these two people is far more unusual than the virgin birth of Jesus. Neither of them had mother or father. Prove that didn’t happen before questioning the birth of Jesus.
The point is, God has used many diverse ways to communicate with humanity and His efforts cover a span of time from creation to the death of the last Apostle. Following that, He made sure it was all recorded in the Bible for every other generation.

God has never personally come to my door, called me on the phone or shown Himself to me in any other normal, usual way but He has made Himself knowable to anyone who makes an effort to find Him.

As it stands now God is not far from any one of us and He has arranged circumstances to make it possible for any person to seek Him and find Him (Acts 17:27). The same book which made reference to the various times and ways in which God has attempted to communicate with us also said…

…He that comes to God (attempting to find Him) must believe that He exists, and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him. Hebrews 11:6
God, like any other person, wants to be sought. He encourages us to make the effort and is accessible to anyone who does. He is represented as waiting patiently to hear our response. In fact, the Bible says…

Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Romans 10:13

God is equal and findable to every person. He will do nothing more until we do something next.


04 September 2008

Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

It’s an age old problem. It happens in every generation. Good people die before their time, sometimes in horrible ways, or are disabled by unfair injuries or are crippled by unexpected financial loss…and we really get upset about this! Our sense of justice is offended.

When bad things happen to people we perceive as good, especially children, we become indignant. Why doesn’t God stop all the unnecessary pain and suffering? Why should any child be afflicted with disease, neglect or abuse? Why should any good person at any age endure painful experiences?

And the fact that God created the world in the blink of an eye begs the question. With all that power, why doesn’t He protect innocent people from bad things and prove to everyone how benevolent He can be? To any person who hasn’t become emotionally callous this is a fair and reasonable question but is it really an emotional issue? We can’t reasonably consider this question without asking several more first. For example…

At what point does a “good” person cease to be “innocent?”

Is innocence lost at a certain age? Does an eleven year old automatically become guilty on their twelfth birthday or is innocence lost by intentional acts of wrongdoing? If so, how many acts of wrongdoing does it take to turn a “good” person into one that is bad? How wide is the grey area between the first act of wrongdoing and the one that finally qualifies us as “bad?” Is there an absolute standard we follow or do we view a person as “good” because they aren’t as wrong as the ones we think are “bad?”

Is our measurement of “good” limited by preconceived stereotypes?

Can a McCoy ever consider a Hatfield good? Can a capitalist ever consider a communist good?

Communists impose their philosophies violently on anyone too weak to resist. That is the definition of a good communist. To a communist, communism is the only good and they are taught this from an early age. Are we to consider them innocent or guilty? When a Bolshevist is true to communism, they are being honest, loyal and genuine. Aren’t these good qualities? Are we to pray for and defend this “good” person? Should we petition the benevolence of God on their behalf?

Who is good and what is good are only the first questions. Once answered, how exactly, do we want God to keep “good” people tragedy free?

Option one. Should He suspend all natural laws at the critical moment without regard for how it affects others? If He only helps the “good” ones, does it matter how the “bad” ones are affected? How much are we “bad” willing to sacrifice so God can help the “good?”

Option two. Should God allow good people to die before they experience horror? Would the victims of the holocaust have been better off if they had died as infants? Would God be considered merciful if they had?

Option three. Should we expect God to destroy those who create horror before they have a chance to do so? Would we approve if Hitler or Stalin had died as infants? Would God still be implicated if they had? If God eliminated all the people who do bad things before they did it, how many of the now-living would actually be dead?

Can we know the good or bad that any person will do before they do it? If not, can we ever say we understand what God is doing and why He does it?

Obviously, the title of this post raises more questions than we are able to answer. There are too many details about which we can’t be sure but there are some things made clear by the Bible and human experience:

No one but God is good. On one occasion, a wealthy young ruler referred to Jesus as “good master” and Jesus questioned that. He said, why do you call me good? There is no one good but God. Jesus’ statement has a huge impact on the original question. Instead of “why do bad things happen to good people,” we should be asking “why do good things happen at all.” No, we aren’t going to pursue that thought here. Don’t have time or space to do so. But, it does present a very different perspective on the issue.

The largest number of tragedies experienced by humans are caused by humans. C. S. Lewis said human moral failure causes 80% of all tragedies and that doesn’t account for problems caused by human error or ignorance. That leaves very few “bad” things we can attribute to God. The obvious solution is to remove the humans. Where would we be then? Fortunately, the default setting for humans is not absolute evil. God created us with the ability to change. We can liberate like Moses or enslave like Pharaoh. Our choices can influence the outcome.

God is equal to everyone and encourages us to be the same, “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). That verse describes the big picture. On a personal level, however, Jesus became incarnate. He became like us so we could identify with Him and He died on the cross to meet our greatest need. Because of Jesus’ death, we can have a new nature, which is to say, Jesus attempts to change the outcome by changing the person. God wants this for every individual! If you want to change the situation tell the person about Jesus.

God controls the eventual outcome. The ultimate outcome for every person is in God’s hands and is not determined in this life. Justice will happen later, not now. We are all headed for eternity and for those who know and trust Jesus, eternity will be nothing but bliss, no tragedy allowed. The problems you have here will not be remembered there.

Here is what the Bible actually says,

“We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

All things, even the bad things, will work together for good. What an amazing statement!

Please understand three things:

One, God is not oblivious to tragedy. He understands our pain. Jesus, Who comforts us, experienced every kind of pain and temptation so He knows what you are going through and how to provide support. And the blessing is, He will make it go away in eternity.

Two, I have not resolved the question. The bad things we see happening to people is not something we will completely understand in this life. But, we have good reason not to become cynical or accuse God.

Three, nothing said here is intended to minimize or trivialize the tragedy you or any other person has or will experience. The pain is real and never easy to fully understand. The bottom line…Jesus is a loving Savior who wishes to embrace you now and will deliver you from all tragedy eventually. ThinkAboutIt