Religious Freedom (from consequences)

Christians in America fear the loss of religious freedom.

But to be more precise, we fear the loss of easy faith. Right now we follow Jesus without fear of suffering unpleasant consequences.

Let me explain.

Do Christians in North Korea have freedom to practice their faith? Yes. A Christian can walk into the street and begin preaching the Gospel. He is free to do so. He is not, however, free from the terrible consequences that would follow.

No government can take away freedom of religion. It can only impose consequences. The question every believer must ask is, “Will I bear the consequences for Jesus who first bore them for me?”

Now, I’m not suggesting that every Christian in North Korea rush into the street proclaiming Christ. To do so would be to engage in a form of suicide by preaching. Wisdom dictates that believers in such circumstances preach the faith quietly, in private homes with curtains drawn, carefully teaching the next generation. May God one day grant believers in North Korea the ability to proclaim Christ from the rooftops without fearing the consequences of an anti-Christian regime!

Not unlike our persecuted brothers elsewhere, American Christians enjoy the freedom to follow Jesus. Unlike our persecuted brothers, our only hindrance to proclaiming Christ is our willingness to bear the relatively mild consequences of social disapproval.

We have the freedom. We also have—for the time being—freedom from significant consequences.

Only our fear of losing the latter can prevent us from using the former.

A Poor Trade

Psalm 146:3-5 cautions:

Put not your trust in princes,                                                                                                              in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.                                                                    When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;                                                                          on that very day his plans perish.                                                                                              Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,                                                                                  whose hope is in the Lord his God.

After reading yet another article in which an evangelical celebrity urged Christians to secure the Kingdom of God on earth by voting Republican—no, he didn’t say it that bluntly—I think we need to amend Psalm 146, producing the American Evangelical Republican Version of the Bible. It goes like this:

Put not your trust in Democratic princes,                                                                                       in a socially liberal son of man, in whom there is no economic salvation.               When his presidency ends, he returns to Chicago;                                                                       on that very day his policies perish, but his judicial appointments endure.                Blessed is he whose help is the God of Republicans,                                                                        whose hope is in the Lord his God’s preferred political candidates.

Is this really the hope of the Bible? Is this what the Church is called to offer to the world? Political promises and fear-based pleas to vote for particular candidates? The advance of the Church on earth through legislation?

What a poor trade.

Jesus is building His Church. Our power lies in the faithful use of the Word, Sacraments, and prayer, not in the voting booth.

In Defense of Work

Work is good.

It is often toilsome, sometimes frustrating, and rarely without hiccups, but it is also good.

God created mankind to work. He gave Adam a garden to tend, and a Creation over which to exercise dominion. You know the rest of the story.

Adam sinned and God promised that Adam’s labor would become difficult. The earth produced thorns and thistles, and only by the sweat of his brow did Adam eat its fruits.

But work is still good.

When God gave His people the Ten Commandments, He said, “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work.” Often we skip those words, rushing directly for the prohibition that follows. But God commanded His people to work six days each week.

Why? Work is good.

Americans—Christians included—have grown accustomed to working five days a week. We also expect to retire sometime in our 60s in order to spend the rest of our lives doing nothing useful whatsoever.

“Six days you shall labor.” That command comes with no expiration date.

If you’re a Christian, work. Have a reason to get out of bed. It need not be full time employment. You can still “retire.” But work. Part-time. Volunteer. Make sure someone counts on you to be there. Do something.

When a person stops working some part of him withers, for men were created to work. Idleness lessens our humanity.

When we work, we image our God who worked. Our labor glorifies Him. Yet many people work only in order to retire. Their labor represents little more than a means to escape from work. But the Christian must labor as a means to glorify the Lord.

Paul commands in Colossians 3:23-24: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

All legitimate work is therefore dignified work. It is Christ-honoring work. It is spiritual work. It contributes to the Kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Work is good, so seek to glorify the Lord in your work.

And then enter your rest.

A Well-Dressed Orangutan

In Disney’s Jungle Book, King Louie the orangutan sings to the boy Mowgli: “I’ve reached the top and had to stop, and that’s what botherin’ me. I wanna be a man, mancub, and stroll right into town and be just like the other men. I’m tired of monkeyin’ around! Oh, oobee doo! I wanna be like you! I wanna walk like you, talk like you, too. You’ll see it’s true. Someone like me can learn to be like someone like you.”

It’s a great song because it is a fanciful song. An orangutan strolling through town dressed in slacks and a blazer is still an orangutan. King Louie is no more human for having donned Ralph Lauren.

That says something.

Because evidently, Neanderthals painted.

So says the latest research conducted on Spanish cave drawings. As scientists continue to debate whether to categorize Neanderthals as a separate species from modern man or simply as a variant population of humans, at least they can agree that they painted.

Maybe they were wearing animal skins rather than Ralph Lauren, but they did more than stroll through town—they created art.

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was a British essayist, poet, and lay theologian who had a way of seeing things simply. In The Everlasting Man, Chesterton suggests that cave drawings reveal skill: “They were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist.”

Chesterton imagined a young boy looking at such art, and argued that no child would expect to see his house cat “scratch on the wall a vindictive caricature of the dog,” for animals do not create art. I realize that people sell paintings made by elephants and dolphins and orangutans—which says more about human taste in paintings than orangutan prowess in creating them—but even here Chesterton simplifies: “It sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey,” while “it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man.”

Neither I nor Chesterton wish to denigrate those who celebrate King Louie’s paintings, but Chesterton appeals to common sense when he writes: “Monkeys did not begin pictures and men finish them; Pithecanthropus did not draw a reindeer badly and Homo Sapiens draw it well. The higher animals did not draw better and better portraits; the dog did not paint better in his best period than in his early bad manner as a jackal; the wild horse was not an Impressionist and the race-horse a Post-Impressionist.”

Instead, Chesterton recognizes: “Every sane sort of history must begin with man as man,” for “this creature was truly different than all other creatures.” This creature created art.

And only man makes art.

Or designs slacks and blazers. Sorry, King Louie.

Band-Aids and Bleeding Arteries

Arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart, under pressure, to every cell in the body. Veins carry oxygen-depleted blood from every cell back to the lungs to receive oxygen and then to the heart to repeat the journey.

Most people have never seen arterial bleeding. Venous bleeding looks like a dark red version of leaking, dripping, or even running water. On the other hand, arterial bleeding sprays scarlet jets of blood, spurting in time with the beat of the heart. It’s hard to die from venous bleeding. But you can die very quickly from an arterial wound.

When a person proposes an inadequate solution, you may have heard it said that his proposal is akin to “slapping a Band-Aid on a bleeding artery.” Band-Aids don’t work on arteries. A doctor may put a Band-Aid on a scraped knee. But he must stitch together the ends of a severed artery.

Liberal Protestantism in the United States lies in its death throes. Covered from head to toe with Band-Aids, its arteries lay flayed open. These self-inflicted cuts represent mortal wounds.

Repudiation of biblical history slices an artery. Denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus severs another. Disdain for biblical morality cuts more. As life bleeds away and attendance plummets, the leaders of such communions—blind in their unbelief—grope for more Band-Aids.

The Bible is the Word of God, the sure and only authority for the faith and practice of the Church. When a given church or denomination maintains and promotes that truth, it will still sin. It will err. It will falter. It will inflict wounds. But its wounds will be venous cuts, and it will go back to the Word of God to select the biblical Band-Aid. It will heal and thrive.

But when a people turn from God’s Word, reject its authority, or begin to “interpret” the Bible to fit the cultural whims of the day, then the bleeding changes. Scarlet jets spray. Death is near.

No liberal denomination started in unbelief. They all began as faithful, Bible-believing churches. Be warned.

Historically, the first people in any denomination to lose confidence in the Bible are the ministers. Solid, Bible-believing, orthodox lay people form the heart of every sound church and denomination.

If that describes you, then demand of your pastor, your leadership, and your denomination that they stand on the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God, that they refuse to tamper with it, but instead interpret and proclaim it in Christ-centered fidelity. Make your minister prove his teaching from the Word of God.

Even a faithful minister’s teaching occasionally errs. But the cuts will be shallow.

If your church or its leadership begins severing arteries, leave. Find a Bible-believing communion of Christians in which to work and worship.

Because no number of Band-Aids will stop the bleeding.

Angels and Ambiguity

My faith was younger than my boots and the leather in my boots still squeaked. But my friend Joel knew Christ from childhood. As we snaked up a Colorado canyon in Joel’s Chevy, Rich Mullins blared from the speakers: “Jacob, he loved Rachel and Rachel, she loved him, and Leah was just there for dramatic effect.” Joel blurted out, “That’s terrible theology.”

It had never dawned on me to evaluate Mullins’ words, especially when I was thinking about fly-fishing, but Joel planted a seed. I began to listen with discernment, not only to Christian radio but also to the songs I sang in church.

No lack of critics chasten contemporary praise music. Often repetitious, shallow, and of sophomoric quality, the proverbial “Jesus is my boyfriend” genre provides ready-made fodder for denunciation. Traditionalists tout the theological richness of hymnody while others praise the devotional warmth of contemporary songs. The so-called worship wars remain, but most evangelicals reside in a demilitarized zone of tolerance. Some embrace the lyrical equivalent of Gerber baby food while others glory in steak and potatoes. Just don’t foist your preference on my church and we can still be friends.

Few critics have tackled a more foundational truth: Hymnody is not poetry and poetry is not hymnody.

Poetry invites personal interpretation. A poet suggests rather than declares, encouraging readers to participate in forming meaning. Poets weave ambiguity into their work, causing readers to strive for understanding. Poet and academic Joseph DeRoche suggests that a poem unfolds “without directly telling the reader what conclusions to draw.” Rather, “The poet selects images and places them together, and . . . the poem, like a small explosion, really occurs in the reader’s brain.”

Hymnody, on the other hand, must articulate truth rather than encourage mental detonations. In Colossians 3:16, Paul commands the church: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” In other words, singing in worship represents an extension of the teaching ministry of the church. A skillful hymn writer therefore crafts an orthodox message rather than inviting personal interpretation.

All worship songs reside on a spectrum. At one end stand theological songs—proclaiming truth, doctrine, and duty. At the other end stand devotional songs—capturing Christian experience, trials, and joys. Most songs boast both elements. But if rhyme after rhyme suggest biblical themes while establishing no clear meaning, the writer has blundered. The church should no more sing ambiguous lyrics than pastors should preach ambiguous sermons.

New songs often fail this ambiguity test, but so do old hymns. In “Blessed Assurance” Fanny Crosby penned, “Angels descending bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.” Tell me, “What is an echo of mercy?” I’ve asked many Christians that question, and no two ever offered the same answer. The ambiguity of Crosby’s lyrics forces each worshipper to ascribe his or her own meaning.

But congregational worship requires unity. Believers pray, confess, and listen to the Word together. When a congregation sings of angels bringing “echoes of mercy,” one man may recall the angel who promised Jesus to Mary, foretelling God’s mercy to a sinful world. Another might conjure images of the angel of the Lord decimating Sennacherib’s army, granting last-minute mercy to Jerusalem. The woman one pew over might envision the angel who touched Isaiah’s lips with a live coal, granting mercy to the guilty prophet.

Scripture describes many angels and many acts of mercy. But no echoes.

Such lyrics do not teach. They invite private interpretation, for they establish no clear meaning.

Does your church sing words that extend its teaching ministry? Whether old or new are your worship songs clear and orthodox? Or does the sanctuary resound with muted mental explosions?

Rich Mullins may have been wrong but at least I knew what he meant.

Golf and Gags

Recently my six children and I played a couple rounds of miniature golf together. And while the first round was all business, the second degenerated into a convoluted series of ill-conceived trick shots, sophomoric antics, golf puns, and laughter. A lot of laughter.

I love hearing my children laugh.

Children today seem to have fewer opportunities to play—just play—than earlier generations. Sometimes, being goofy is the best, most important thing to accomplish.

Church matters. School matters. Work matters. But so does good, old-fashioned immature behavior at a mini-golf course.

The (Gun) Law of Unintended Consequences

I know very little about gun control legislation, but lately I’ve read two stories that seem to me to share a disconcerting connection.

Several days ago, Joy Behar, host of ABC’s The View, said that Vice President Mike Pence’s Christian faith is a “mental illness.”

At the same time, I read another article that wonders why evangelical Christians are slow to support seemingly common sense gun control measures, such as forbidding guns to those whom our government defines as “mentally ill.” Some have even suggested that Christians love guns more than children.

The 2nd Amendment is not vital to the Christian Church. If no Christian in America owned a firearm, the Church of Jesus Christ would still thrive. Jesus is building His Church, and He doesn’t need an AR-15 to do it. No Christian would lose any part of his eternal inheritance if Uncle Sam took away every gun and all the kitchen knives too.

But it strikes me that Joy Behar is not alone. The number of people who think like her is growing, including politicians. It’s not so fanciful to imagine a day when our government defines the Christian faith as a mental illness. And the gun control laws many are now advocating forbid mentally ill persons from owning a gun . . .

Maybe you’re thinking, “That won’t happen!” And you’re probably right. Maybe evangelicals should just get on board with more gun laws.

But maybe laws are dangerous things. After all, laws set precedents. And sometimes a good law—like the 14th Amendment, which extended citizenship and voting rights to former slaves after the Civil War—becomes the grounds for a not-so-good law, like Roe v. Wade. Ponder that for a moment. A post-Civil War voter rights amendment that enfranchised millions of former slaves was—105 years later—hijacked to justify the murder of 60 million unborn children.

The legislation this present generation passes will affect our children and grandchildren. It may affect generations to come. Sometimes it will affect those generations in ways none of us can foresee.

At other times, however, the writing is on the bad-idea wall. Encouraging our government to define mental illness, and then making our Bill of Rights dependent on that definition, is a bad idea. If a mentally ill person—as the government defines such illness—no longer possesses the rights afforded by the 2nd Amendment, what guarantees that citizen any other right? What prevents the government from denying 1st or 4th Amendment rights to those citizens whom it defines as mentally ill?

What happens if, years down the road, the government defines your beliefs as a form of mental illness?

If the government can create a group of citizens for whom the Constitution offers no protection, then the government is no longer a government of law. It is a tyranny. And that frightens me.

So maybe at least some Christians have thoughtful reasons not to rush to implement new laws, especially laws that depend upon the government to define mental illness; laws that deny constitutional rights based upon that definition—a definition that can be altered to include the beliefs of any group that the government finds unsavory.

Or maybe every Christian is just a brainwashed, NRA junkie, child-hating, supporter of school shootings.

In fact, maybe we’re all just mentally ill.

Jesus, Billy Graham, and Eternity

Billy Graham has died, and yet lives.

The Bible teaches that when a Christian’s body dies his soul immediately enters the presence of God, consciously to enjoy his reward. Theologians call this disembodied existence the intermediate state.

God created man soul and body. Jesus possesses a soul and body. He died in His body to redeem our bodies.

The soul of Billy Graham will therefore not remain disembodied forever, for the intermediate state is not the final state.

Resurrection is coming.

Jesus promised in John 5:26-29, “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

When Jesus returns, the bodies of all who ever have lived will rise immortal, imperishable, and incorruptible. Body and soul reunited, every person will stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

The righteous will inherit a renewed heavens and earth—a physical eternity—in which the spirit and flesh no longer war, where sin and disease no longer ravage the body, and in which God dwells with His people. We will walk and talk with Him as in Eden, having no shame for we shall have no sin.

Right now preparations are being made to commit the body of Billy Graham to his final earthly resting place. But it will not be his eternal resting place. That place will be a goodly land, in which all God’s people will run and be not weary; they shall walk and be not faint. For God will make their bodies just as immortal as their souls.

Mourn not for Billy Graham. He is, right now, rejoicing with His Lord. And one day soon, his tired old body, which finally succumbed to death, will rise—eternally young.

Jesus rose first.

Those who love Him will certainly follow.

Looking for Magnets

Recently I read yet another article that advises churches how to “attract” young people.

“Attraction” is not a biblical category. The Bible calls on churches to teach the young, to exhort the young, and to entrust the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the young. But it doesn’t tell us to attract the young. I think it realizes that we can’t.

In John 6:44 Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”

So if the Church has no pool of spiritual magnetism with which to “attract” the young, what can it do?

Preach the Word. Administer the sacraments. Pray. Do these things faithfully, and trust that God knows who are His. He will give the increase, drawing unto Himself all those whom He delights to save through faith in Jesus.

Either the Holy Spirit, using the Word, sacraments, and prayer, is sufficient or He is not.

He has been sufficient for 2000 years.

But lately we’ve lost confidence in Him. So now it depends on us. And we’re looking in vain for magnets.