Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ideas and Ideals

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the actor Alec Baldwin “promised” in 2004 that if President Bush were to be reelected, he would leave the country. Well, President Bush was reelected, and I do not recall the banner heralding or mourning Mr. Baldwin’s departure. Now in 2008 actress Susan Sarandon is “threatening” to leave the country if John McCain is elected president and I am left wondering: am I missing something? Should I care what Ms. Sarandon thinks so much so that she will leave the country and my life will become a meaningless existence, void of anything of substance because of her departure?

One of the great (and equally infuriating) things about this republic is that we hold elections pretty regularly. Call it a job evaluation by which we determine whether those who currently hold the office have been living up to our expectations. Here’s the thing, though. The other voting members of the “committee” may not agree with my assessment, and those who disagree with me may well outnumber me. When the votes are counted, it will matter little how passionate I might have been about my own evaluation. What makes all this work, though, is my willingness to suck it up, respect the choices my opponents have made, and then make the most of it.

Sadly, we don’t seem to have this so much anymore. Far too many across this vast land have digressed to such a point that we no longer merely disagree with one another; we take disagreement as a personal affront to all that we hold near and dear. We take disagreement as a personal attack that requires a direct and equally personal counterattack, and we sincerely hope that we draw at least as much blood as we felt was taken from us. While doing this, we “charge” the other with sedition, accuse them of treason, and question their loyalty and patriotism when they do not agree with us. We call them just about any name that can be legally printed, and we feel like we are the only “true” defenders of this nation’s ideals.

I will grant that I will be gravely concerned about the direction of this country if either Democratic candidate wins the White House and the Democrats expand their majority in the Congress primarily because I am a Republican with Libertarian inclinations. I disagree with Democrats at almost every turn although I applaud them for sounding like a broken record in their insistence that we not forget about the MILLIONS of Americans who cannot afford good health care or health insurance. These are important issues that require some serious work, but calling names or leaving the country will not address the problems, let alone solve them.

Listening to the ugliness which is out there and growing more pronounced and profane, I am left to wonder exactly what it is we truly care about as a nation, as a people. Some claim that this nation is sliding toward the abyss because we have lost our Christian heritage and will ultimately face the Judgment Day with less than sufficient hope, but does this sort of message not betray the essence of the Christian faith? And are these charges and accusations not coming from Christians themselves who express nothing but raw hatred and disdain toward those with whom they disagree? Does this name-calling and finger-pointing not betray the principles of all that Jesus tried to teach us?

I am concerned, as a Christian, about the steady movement this nation is making toward homosexual marriage as an accepted practice and lifestyle and I am left wondering what sort of impact this will have on church and society, but I am not quite prepared to issue a proclamation of judgment that all homosexuals will be eternally condemned. This, too, betrays the ideal of the Christian faith that judgment will bring judgment. Is genuine hatred any less sinful than homosexuality?

It is certainly not cultural diversity that defines a people; it is commonality. What, pray tell, do Americans hold in common with one another? What principle or ideal do we commonly embrace as a people working toward a common goal? For that matter, what might be the common goal? That we need to respect one another is something we should all aspire to, but where will it take us? The “progressives” (formerly known as “liberals”) insist that we must continue to move forward. Fair enough, but where are we headed? Conservatives insist that we need to hold on to the past. Equally fair, but how far back are we willing to go?

This is an angry country, and we continually elect people into office who not only affirm our anger but also attempt to tell us who is to blame for all our misery. Republicans blamed President Clinton, and now Democrats blame President Bush. And we blame one another even though I am pretty sure that few of us can really pin down exactly what we are so anxious about that we are willing to destroy one another in our vain efforts to identify exactly what the problem may actually be. Denzel Washington’s character, Herman Boone, in the movie “Remember the Titans”, in his effort to bring white and black football players together as a common team with a common goal said it best while standing at a cemetery in Gettysburg PA: “If we do not learn to come together as a team, we will also be destroyed just as they (the buried soldiers) were.”

It is true enough, as Herman Boone also told his team, that we do not have to like one another, but we must learn to respect one another. And this requires the highest of Christian ideals: that we love one another. This does not mean that we have fond and warm feelings of emotion toward those with whom we would disagree, but it does mean that for the sake of others we would be willing to put self aside. That is the essence of Christian love, and it is identified by our genuine faith. It proves beyond any measure of doubt that we earnestly and honestly believe what Jesus said.

This is where we are isolated and identified as a people of common value, and it begins with us because we proclaim THE TRUTH of Christ and His Word. Anything less is the beginning of our ending, and politics will not even be given honorable mention on our headstone.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Our gods ... or our God?

Isaiah 49:8-16a
Psalm 131
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

“Hell is where you get what you want and have to live with it.”
- Stanley Hauerwas

How much is “too much”? How little is “not enough”? And by what standard do we measure either? Obviously the standard will depend on any number of variables including what part of the world we live in, but even in the United States we constantly debate these questions and wonder how it can be that some have far more than they can possibly need in a lifetime while others struggle just to make it through the day. The politicians try their level best to convince us that the so-called “middle class” is getting hammered while the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. No matter what the particular issue is, there never seems to be a point in which contentment is ever achieved because once we reach a particular plateau we raise the standard. And we raise this standard according to society’s, and our own, expectations.

I think it is a mistake to believe that what Jesus is talking about in Matthew’s Gospel is restricted only to material goods; the entire sixth chapter has more to do with the conflicts which most of us endure in discovering where we are versus where we should be. The “needs” to which Jesus refers are the very basics of what we require: food and clothing, although we might also add shelter and transportation to the list. Beyond this, however, what more is there?

Even if we expand the list of basics to more accurately fit our own lives and our sense of need according to our particular circumstances, the whole point that Jesus is making has little to do with material acquisition. I think maybe it has more to do with the choices we make and the reasons for those choices in the context of His admonition to “seek first the kingdom of G-d and His righteousness”. Only when this is achieved, He seems to suggest, will we find our genuine needs fulfilled.

Strictly speaking, what needs could we possibly have beyond food and clothing? Some would suggest that my particular needs cannot be fairly compared to the needs of others, that it is unfair to suggest that any one of us could establish an acceptable standard by which genuine needs can be measured, and this would be a fair statement. I think the problem most of us might have with this passage is that what we think we need (or want) may be in direct conflict with what has perhaps been ordered for our lives and, most likely, our confusion between “want” and “need”. Spiritually speaking, where does this passage take us? How can we know that the “stuff” we have is not in some way restricting our ability to pray, for instance, with a clear mind and conscience? How can we know that we are making choices that may conflict with what Jesus is encouraging us to do?

I think perhaps the key word in this entire passage is “worry”. Who among us has not laid awake at night at one time or another in our lives worrying about one thing or another? I know that when I was younger and my wife and I were just starting out, I lost a lot of sleep worrying about how the bills were going to get paid. When I lost my job earlier this year, the first couple of weeks were perhaps the most difficult period of my entire life because, as I had shared previously, I had my entire existence, my very identity, enmeshed with my job. So when I lost my job, I lost my identity. Who among us has not faced similar challenges especially when so much depends on our paychecks?

It’s not easy living in today’s society, and I know there is a lot of intense concern about which way we may be headed especially in the context of the price of a gallon of fuel. I freely admit to you that I am gravely concerned about whether my wife and I will be able to sell our home before we leave for Magnolia. Carrying that mortgage for too long is going to be a huge financial burden for us. But this is the rub, isn’t it? I am concerned about something I cannot control. I might be able to manipulate a newspaper ad to get more people to look at the house, but I cannot force anyone to buy it.

Fuel and food prices, both of which are beyond our control, continue to worry so many yet there is little any one of us can do about it, so it is as Jesus says: Why are you so worried about tomorrow when you still have today to deal with? And will your lives be somehow enhanced or lengthened by worrying?

Our gifts to the Kingdom of Heaven are entirely dependent on how well we use what has been divinely bestowed on us, so “seeking the Kingdom” must be considered within the context of what we have each been called to do. Equally as important, however, is to consider the Living Word which seeks to offer to us “abundant life” not only in the Age To Come but also in the age in which we find ourselves.

Tomorrow is coming, and the great challenge to us all is to determine WHICH GOD we will choose to get us through it. Will it be the Eternal, Ageless and Living God who continues to work in and through the lives of His faithful, or will it be some lifeless god of this age which even within its lifeless existence continually demands, devours and ultimately destroys?

Worry not, dear friends. Our heavenly Father knows what we need. If we believe Jesus enough to get us into Heaven, it should not be a far stretch to believe Him enough to get us through today. We can then worry about tomorrow when it comes.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

Several years ago I worked with a retired sailor whose tours of duty included time in Vietnam as well as other posts around the world. Back to work after a Memorial Day weekend, he was dismayed that during worship services that Sunday the pastor did little more than to mention Memorial Day in a pastoral prayer. The Navy man felt as though the pastor had somehow betrayed the fallen by failing to make the essence of Memorial Day the focus of the worship service. This man was not too open to the possibility that the pastor’s focus was true and proper in giving thanks to the Lord for our nation and her principles as well as for those who were willing to put themselves in harm’s way, to fight for those who could not – or would not – fight for themselves. For the Navy man, this was completely inadequate.

While I can appreciate the sentiment of the retired sailor who undoubtedly saw more action, more danger and certainly more heartbreak and heartache than I did during my relatively brief stint as a Marine, worship is reserved exclusively for the Lord God and Him alone. Those who have gone before us, those who have fallen in armed conflict throughout our nation’s history, can rightly have a special place in the heart of a grateful nation – as well they should – but they must never be considered a focus of worship on any level lest we come to believe that our salvation and that of the entire nation is dependent on the actions of any selfless man or woman. We must also be mindful, I think, that too much emphasis on dying for one’s country has the potential to romanticize war without fully appreciating that those we memorialize are those who died an unnatural death long before their potential as human beings could be fully realized or appreciated.

There is something else which must be taken into account when memorializing the fallen. While we who signed up to serve certainly knew that there is risk involved in putting on the uniform of the United States military, I think there were few who eagerly anticipated the day when the “ultimate sacrifice” might be required. I was already a husband and father when I enlisted. I did not sign up to become someone’s memory or a lifeless stone in Arlington VA, and I had no designs on dying in combat as the highest ideal of military service. I must also say that I did not eagerly await the day when I could possibly make someone else die for his own country as a means of victory for my own. I believed then, as I believe now, that it was simply time to take my turn to stand watch. Of course I had high ideals about what serving in such a capacity meant, but I honestly do not recall believing much more than that it was my turn to serve.

Assuming that all who have fallen believed as I did when they each signed up, does this somehow diminish the sacrifice that any made? There are countless stories of self-sacrifice and heroism that come from armed conflicts. Indeed, it is inscribed on the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington VA: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue”. It must be remembered that it is the duty of the commander to focus on the mission. Lacking any combat experiences, I will still suggest that in the heat of battle the focus and mission for the fighting soldier will soon enough become survival. It is perhaps the nature of humanity that we have something inherent within us that drives us to survive. We are also social creatures by nature, many with an instinct to protect. This sense of valor must surely be what produces a hero, one who acts with complete disregard for his or her own personal safety for the sake of others. Lest there be any doubt, there is no shortage of such men and women who have served, are serving, or will one day serve.

Let us be mindful this Memorial Day that we do not “celebrate” the premature death of young Americans who died well before their time. We must never fall into the trap of thanking the Lord that these men and women died in our stead. We should mourn their passing and offer undying support for those they left behind. These who continue to mourn and those who will mourn tomorrow are worthy of our focus of support and prayers. To be sure, these were, are and will be the ones who have quite literally given to the nation all that was dear to them.

This Memorial Day let us not glamorize war as the ultimate adventure. Let us instead memorialize those who served in their sense of duty and civic responsibility and were caught up in wars borne of man and his insatiable greed and/or lust for power (and no, this is not a cheap swipe at President Bush!). And let us never forget to honor those wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, and children who are left behind by offering to them our gratitude, our support, and our prayers. The fallen are safely now in the hands of the Almighty; the living are now, and still, in ours.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pay as you go

The Democrats, upon taking majority control of the Congress in 2006, made “pay as you go” a staple of what they promised to bring to the management of the US government. In a nutshell, it was simply this: if we cannot afford it, we will not take it. The problem with such a premise, however, is not whether we can genuinely afford something but whether we can withstand the actuality that if it is a program that promises the sun and the moon and the stars to voters, there will be a tax increase to pay for it. With the Democrat’s top two contenders for the presidency and with the very real prospect of an overwhelming and virtually veto-proof Democratic majority in the Congress in 2008, it promises to be a very expensive next term for Americans regardless of who occupies the White House in 2009.

“Pay as you go” is a good idea for American households as the current national credit crisis will testify. Americans, as evidenced by the crumbling mortgage market, have been buying more than they can actually afford and not only with homes. Consumer credit levels also indicate that many American households lack the discipline required to save for those big-ticket items that only a few short years ago would have required lay-away programs or savings accounts. Over the years in efforts to sell more stuff, companies that once specialized in making this stuff became their own financiers and made buying their stuff much easier, offering credit to less-than-creditworthy consumers which did nothing more than to create more havoc in the credit markets. And the cycle goes endlessly on.

The difference between the American consumer and the American Congress in a “pay as you go” scheme can be boiled down to this: consumers cannot go to their employers and “take” a pay raise in order to finance their enhanced lifestyles while Congress can put a dress on a pig and convince Americans that the latest tax increase is for our own good, sort of like President Clinton’s record-breaking tax increase. Like in other “revenue enhancements” or “investments” (government dressing the pig), regardless of what any may choose to call it, the government will take it whether we can afford it or not and Americans will do with less. Why? Because some government “leader” has a New Idea that will somehow make our lives better in the long run. And in the coming potential Democrat-controlled Congress and possibly a Democratic president, the American consumer’s life is about to be “enhanced” to an unbelievable level because the Congress is determined to “pay as you go”.

For the poor and the so-called Middle Class, it all sounds good when the Congress promises to make the rich “pay their fair share”, and it especially sounds good when a skilled political strategist can convince a politician that this is what the rank-and-file citizen wants to hear because that politician is seeking to “help” us by hammering someone else. What they fail to tell us, however, is that the rich folks in this country pay their lawful taxes according to the laws established by the very Congress that promises to “get ‘em” (the rich) for us. This is to say, there are enormous loopholes in the US tax code which enables those with means to pay less in taxes by substantial write-offs. These write-offs were brought to light during the 2004 presidential campaign as John Kerry and John Edwards were promising to soak the rich in order to pay off the growing deficit. Vice President Cheney reminded John Edwards during their debate that Mr. Edwards wrote off some $600,000.00 worth of income by certain investments that were protected by the tax code (Senator Kerry was also enjoying some of the same tax shelter benefits because both he and Senator Edwards were both men of substantial means).

The only thing wrong with this scenario is that it pointed out that the only reason rich people are not paying their “fair share” is that Congress has granted them the means by which to avoid such payments. Rich people have resources that enable them to make substantial write-offs, and there is nothing illegal about it. Many are highly questionable as to whether the tax code is fair, but the Congress created the laws which enable the rich to write off. Rather than repeal these laws and make the tax code more equitable, there is talk of “penalty” taxes reminiscent of the Clinton administration on incomes exceeding presumably the ambiguous line between Middle Class and rich.

In a “pay as you go” environment it is much easier to take more money to finance questionable expenses than to roll up one’s sleeves and figure out that something is actually not affordable. It is much easier to “soak the rich” in order to appease the masses than to simply say to these masses, “We simply cannot afford this”, especially in an election year.

The Congress lacks the ability or the will to simply say “no” to more government programs and bail-outs which makes the “pay as you go” promise to America perhaps one of the most dangerous, ill-advised, and expensive governments we will ultimately be forced to endure and in the end the poor will still be poor but will be receiving more government aid, the middle class will still struggle to make ends meet, and the rich will still have their write-offs because too many members of Congress also take advantage of these same write-offs. Honestly, would any of us deliberately choose to cut our own throats?

“Pay as you go” has to go far beyond simply making the ends meet. The premise must be founded upon the reality that there is only so much money to go around, and the government can only take so much out of the US economy without substantial harm. Let us hope that these Democrats who have promised us all that is under the sun can actually deliver responsibly and recognize that material wealth, in and of itself, is not the enemy of a sound economy or responsible government.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Blessed be the Name

Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father, and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
William Shakespeare

“A rose by any other name …” is a phrase often used in common speech to settle arguments over what something must be called in order to be accurate. Simply put, it is a challenge to stop “splitting hairs” over something that may otherwise be insignificant. Although I’ve often heard the same thing referring to the foul smell of manure, this comparison would not do for what I hope to achieve in this writing.

For as long as I can remember, it has always struck me as rather odd that the Lord is referred to as simply “God”. The English translations have pretty much narrowed down the references so that no matter the context in which the Lord’s name is invoked, it is simply reduced to “God”. I suppose the reason why it strikes me so strangely is that I was raised by parents who insisted that I address my elders with a title such as Mr. or Mrs. In the south, addressing an elder by first name is ok as long as Mr. or Mrs. is attached to the front. Always, it was taught to me, it is appropriate to show respect for our elders.

The Marine Corps is no exception to this rule. Everyone has a title, or rank, and it always precedes the person’s last name such as Captain Smith or Corporal Jones. And because the military has strict rules regarding fraternization, addressing superiors by rank maintains a certain degree of separation between the higher ranking officers and the enlisted. It all has to do with discipline and respect, and it matters especially on the battlefield in the midst of carrying out a mission. If we are too familiar or too chummy with those who outrank us and they command us to do something we would rather not do, we might feel free to question the order in the presence of others especially if the order or command does not suit us. In such a situation, such delays can cause the unnecessary loss of life or limb, the mission itself is in jeopardy, and the “former” leader’s role is forever diminished.

It has also been my experience that being too chummy in the workplace can be detrimental to the morale of the work force because supervisors will always have their favorites and by their actions make these favorites well known to the rest of the crew. It is also reasonable that genuine friendships can develop between these bosses and the favorites among the rank-and-file. It’s all fine and dandy until the boss has to actually fulfill the role of “boss” in order to get something done. It is then when the “boss” will find out who his or her friends really are or worse, the “boss” may consistently assign those less-than-desirable duties to someone not in his “inner circle”. Sooner or later, this imbalance will manifest itself in morale-diminishing ways. No matter how you slice it, nothing good will come of it and “fair” is the last thing that will be evident.

Last but certainly not least, the degree of separation in the home is also important for many of the same reasons. Children do not need their parents to be “buddies”; they need their parents to be the parents. Children need the guidance, the wisdom, the experience, and the discipline that can only come from responsible, godly parents who see their roles as leaders of the household not purely for the sake of a well-ordered home but also as opportunities to teach their children how to function not only culturally but also theologically. We as parents have an opportunity, in fact an obligation, to teach our children how to respect the Holy Father. We should also probably pay a little extra attention to how we teach our children to address the Lord. We would not allow our children to call us by our first names for what should be obvious reasons. Why would we teach them to address our Holy God and Father with any less respect?

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.” Exodus 20:7

This commandment has too often been oversimplified so that many will misunderstand that a familiar swear word is the prime example of what this commandment actually means. However, Judaism takes this commandment very seriously, and I wonder if Christians would not do well to follow this example of reverence and respect.

In the first place, at least in the Hebrew language, “God” is not the Lord’s name. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any reference to an actual proper name that can be attributed to the Lord. And according to some scholars, attempting to restrict Him to a single, proper name is akin to attempting to strictly define Him in human terms which, of course, is impossible. In the second place, in Judaism the Lord’s name is unspoken outside of a worship setting. It has been suggested that this particular prohibition stems from Ezekiel which is set in Babylon during the Exile. The Jews were in what was considered to be an “unclean” land which would have been unworthy of His Holiness and give “unclean” people the opportunity to besmirch the Holy Name (Hashem) since the Jews were, for lack of a better word, imprisoned. How “mighty” could be a God who would allow such a thing to happen to His chosen people?

Speaking His name so casually, in the context of this prohibition, suggests a certain lack of reverence and respect and diminishes the degree of separation in which it is understood that He is the Holy God worthy of intense awe and respect. We have casually come to understand Jesus in purely human terms as our “buddy” without realizing or even appreciating the reverence with which He is both addressed in the Gospels and referred to in the Epistles. He was “teacher”, “master”, “lord”, or “messiah” but never simply “Jesus”. Even if we get an image in our mind’s eye that the Lord laughed, joked, and played with His friends and certainly with children, there was still a degree of separation between Him and His disciples. It could well have been from an understanding and appreciation for the tradition and practice that may stem from Ezekiel’s time and school, but the disciples still acknowledged by manner of address that Jesus was not exactly their “equal”.

Is there a useful purpose in even worrying about something as seemingly inconsequential as what His name actually is or in a proper way of addressing or referring to Him? “A rose by any other name …” seems to fit here. After all, what we call Him cannot by any means change His essence. Is it just a language thing? I respectfully submit to you that the manner in which we address Him or refer to Him has everything to do with how seriously we regard Him and His Word. Think of how many Christians are involved in the political process and how nasty the campaigns progressively grow over the years. The name-calling, the accusations, the finger-pointing, fact-twisting and quote-manipulation, the overall nastiness is no indication of what we claim to believe and if the evidence of how we regard the Lord Himself is not apparent in our words or deeds, there exists no evidence at all. It grows progressively nasty from generation to generation because we are teaching our children by our example.

Or perhaps it is that what we really believe and how seriously we regard the Lord is entirely evident in our irreverence for life and disrespect toward our fellow man, especially those with whom we have disagreements, political or theological.

I think maybe it all matters in how we regard the so-called “Great Commission”. The words are attributed to the Risen Christ, spoken by “the word made flesh”. If we really believe that the Lord God and the Christ are One and the same, then we must believe that the words come to us from the Almighty Himself who does not show an inclination to mince words. A spoken word from Him is The Word, and we will receive it in the same manner in which we regard Him.

If we have no respect, no real respect, or reverence for Him or His Essence, then we can have no real respect for His Word. We will feel free to “talk back” or to sass Him just as children will sass an adult if they have not been taught respect for genuine authority. Or it could be like the buck private who lacks any sense of discipline or respect for authority when he is ordered to “duck” but chooses instead to turn and question the reason for the order. It is then when not only is his life in danger, but he also compromises the well-being of his entire unit, each member depending on the other to do what he is supposed to do.

The Lord created an entire world in six days. When the world threatened to overwhelm us, He came to us to show us the way home. That He is entitled to our respect and awe is an understatement.

Monday, May 12, 2008

the REAL Pursuit of Happiness

There is a non-profit program offering academic enrichment, martial arts, media production classes, mentoring, exposure to renowned writers such as Rudyard Kipling, and field trips to places like Washington. All this is made possible to enable young children from the Mississippi Delta to dream beyond the borders of their small and empoverished existence. It began as Freedom Summer 1964 when college kids descended on Mississippi to teach black children in so-called freedom schools and help register their parents to vote. In a nutshell, it is a program that offers to children an opportunity to see something much bigger than life in the Delta.

There are currently 42 kids enrolled in the program. According to writer Leonard Pitts, Jr., the families of these kids are asked to pay $300 per year. The program is funded with this money as well as grants from donors such as the Kellogg Foundation. According to Mr. Pitts, these enrolled students (from middle school and up) “see their reading scores improve by a grade level and overall grades rise by 15 percent. These same children who stick with the program and make it to that sixth year have so far had 100 percent college enrollment and high school graduation rates."

These are awesome numbers, but notice that there seems to be something missing. Mr. Pitts mentions no government assistance or interference. Couple this with such schools as Harvard and Stanford waiving tuition fees for enrolling students who qualify both financially and academically, and we have a formula for success for young people who had previously never thought it possible to be a “laser tech”, as one student aspires to be, and attend such high-end schools as MIT or Harvard.

There is more about this project that I don’t know, but this I do know: it is the essence of the United States and the American Dream that these young people have every reason to hope for and dream of. I think we have mistakenly thought of The American Dream as restricted only to a notion of working in fields of endeavor we had never thought possible or attending college or finally buying our own home. The true essence of all that is good is found in the young people who volunteer their time and talents to make such dreams possible and the students who make the most of it.

We have mistakenly believed the American Dream to be defined and summarized by owning our own homes, but I think it goes much deeper than material possessions. When we are free to pursue anything, especially that which extends beyond self, and be completely free from government intervention, we embody all that this nation holds dear to its heart, and the “pursuit of happiness” takes on a whole new meaning.

The Freedom Project was founded in 1998 by Chris Myers Asch and Shawn Raymond, alumni of Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates to teach in urban and rural schools, and by Charles McLaurin, an organizer of the original Freedom Summer. How much more amazing can the American Dream actually be when we come to realize the profound impact such unselfish dreams can have on dreams yet to be realized? And all without a government that more and more seeks to be all things to all people.

Thank you, Mr. Pitts, for bringing this to our attention. It is refreshing to read of such things within an election season in which politicians “promise” the same things but never seem to deliver.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Back to the Basics

A few years ago I had a serious conflict with my own faith after having read a particular book that turned everything I thought I believed to be true upside down. It was not so much that my own faith was not strong enough to withstand such a challenge. Instead it turned out to be that the faith I thought to be my own actually belonged to all those who had taught me as a child. More than anything, I believed whatever I did believe not because I had learned to embrace it but because the faith was never my own; it belonged to everyone else. To simply be told that “this is what you are supposed to believe” either because the Church said so, or because you might go to hell if you don’t is just not good enough. It never was, and it never will be.

Because I found myself somewhat lost and perceived my doubts as a genuine spiritual crisis, I decided that I had to go back to the basics and start over. To help facilitate this new journey, I decided to attend worship at a Jewish temple in Little Rock. It turned out to be a Reformed congregation, but I don’t think this mattered much. What mattered most was that, at least in my own mind, I was exploring the faith that Jesus called His own. It also mattered that the worship experience was interesting because it was new, but it was also difficult to keep up because most of the service was in Hebrew. Thankfully, however, there was enough English scattered here and there that I was able to at least stay with the flow. The worship was pure and honest even if it was almost entirely read from a prayer book. The entire congregation was involved.

I’ve not attended worship at the temple since so I cannot say that this is how it is each Sabbath, but the salvation story of the Exodus is told from the time of Abraham all the way to Moses. It made me think of Ezekiel and the return to basics that seemed to be the theme of his proclamation to the Jews in Babylon, that the exile was the nation’s punishment for turning its back on YHWH; therefore it was time to remember the story, tell it over and again, and then teach it. Even in the midst of exile, the people of Judah were reminded that they were a people set apart for one clear purpose: to glorify YHWH to the nations. Instead, what had gotten them into hot water with the Lord was their willingness to be assimilated into the foreign cultures which surrounded them. Their distinction as a people had been lost and, ultimately, so had their freedom.

A couple of weeks ago as I was packing some books in preparation for my move, I came across a book that had been given to me some time ago entitled Old Testament Theology in Outline by Walther Zimmerli. It is a back-to-basics approach to study of the Hebrew texts which, of course, have to come before we can fully comprehend or even appreciate the New Testament. In fact, it is my considered opinion that the New Testament has virtually no context apart from the Hebrew texts.

I suppose what has gotten me back on this religious back-to-basics kick is the feeling that, more and more, we as a church are more in the business of marketing and advertising than in worship and ministry. I have a hard time putting into words exactly what I feel about modern religion in America, but I find the media advertising to be border-line distasteful simply because folks already know there are churches and they already know where most of them are located. I don’t think this is the intent, but advertising religion or a particular denomination on TV is almost like a deodorant commercial in that the marketing folks are attempting to manipulate viewers into trying their product.

I realize that “manipulate” may be too strong a word for the actual intent, but is there worship or ministry in spending millions of dollars for media advertising? And if our advertising actually gets them into the door, what will we show them once they arrive? My heart tells me that a seeker should come into a door of any church, regardless of denomination, and find pure and honest worship, not feeble attempts at entertainment or the grasping of straws in a vain effort to provide “something for everyone” … everyone, that is, except the Lord God Himself.

This is to say that I have found at some churches I have visited an attempt by the church itself to focus its attention in manner and matter of worship on the congregation and their particular likes and dislikes. I wonder how much attention is actually given to whether or not a particular gathering is pleasing to the Holy Father? Is it “good enough” that there are many persons in attendance even if their focus is not on the Lord? Is it “good enough” that we would suggest that the Lord does not care where we attend church just as long as we simply “show up”? What, exactly, is “good enough” for the Holy God and Father of the Faith? What, exactly, is “good enough” for the God of the Exodus? What, exactly, is “good enough” for the God of the New Covenant who offers Eternal Life to all who would come to drink of the Living Water of Christ?

For that matter, what, exactly, constitutes good and proper “worship”? What, exactly, is required of us that our time in church would be “good enough” for the Holy God and Father of our Faith? What, exactly, constitutes proper worship of the God of the Exodus? What, exactly, is pleasing in the sight of the God and Father of the New Covenant? What, exactly, is a means of worship by which we would dare to approach the Altar from whence flows the Living Water of the Christ?

Of course the true worship of the Lord God must not be restricted to our corporate time together. To glorify the Lord is to speak to His true essence, to live our faith and practice our religion in such a way that His will is evident to non-believers. To glorify is relatively simple to explore and to define. What is true and proper worship, however, might be a little trickier but find it, identify it, and embrace it we must. But we must also do it in such a way that our entire focus is on Him alone and what we choose to bring to Him.

I think maybe the essence of true and genuine worship revolves around this relatively simple concept: what do WE bring to the Table of the Lord? I think there must also be a certain level of expectation as well. In other words, do we come to worship with the full expectation that we will encounter the Holy Spirit, to be renewed and refreshed as well as equipped by the Lord to carry out His perfect will according to those gifts which have been divinely imparted to us as individuals? I think maybe this is the essence of Pentecost and is thus the essence of the Holy God and Father of the New Covenant.

We as believers are indeed a people set apart from the rest of our contemporary culture, but we cannot face this culture alone lest we become party to the prevailing culture. This, too, is the essence of Pentecost. It is who we are, or at least it is who we claim to be. Whether it is good and true depends entirely upon whether or not we are willing; “able” rests securely in the mighty hand of the Holy God of the Exodus, the Holy God of the New Covenant, the Holy God and Father of our deliverance.

Peace be with you.