Monday, October 31, 2005

Parable of the Model Christian

Once there was a man who was a model Christian. He read his Bible and prayed every day. He sent his children to private Christian schools. He invited his fellow church members out to lunch every Sunday. He received food from grocery stores that weren’t wanted, and he gave it to the poor. He adopted orphans from other countries, and provided them their basic food, clothing and education. Finally, he died and he stood before God. After it was read to God all that he had done from the book, God pronounced his judgement: "According to the mercy you gave, so you shall receive." Thus, for all of eternity, the man ate moldy bread, food from dented cans, and cold entrees. It was given him a shack with holes in the roof to live in. He was given a Bible to read, but he never saw God.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Self-Love and Other-Love

I edited this from Thomas Merton. It has become especially important for me to meditate on since I have been diagnosed with diabetes and it has been recommended to me that I cut back on my ministry to care for myself.

Every human being ultimately seeks their own salvation and the salvation of those whom they live with. This salvation is the "good life", not found in the realization of the "american dream", but in the fulfillment of each individual’s God-given powers, in the love of others and of God. This fulfillment cannot come through one’s own ability, but each person must be found in and through others. These three Scriptures are fulfilled in this: "If any man would save his life, he must lose it"; and, "Love one another as I have loved you"; and "We are all members of one another."

Some would say that salvation, then is discovered in the setting aside of ourselves. On the contrary, the discovery of Christ is never genuine if it is nothing but a flight from ourselves. Our salvation cannot be an escape. It must be a fulfillment. I cannot discover God—the power that raised Christ from the dead—unless I have the courage to face myself exactly as I am—a poor, limited perplexed soul.

Thus, salvation is a terrible tangle of paradoxes. We become ourselves by dying to ourselves. We gain only what we give up, and if we give up everything we gain everything. We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others, yet at the same time before we can go out to others we must first find ourselves. The best way to love ourselves is to love others, yet we cannot love others unless we love ourselves since it is written, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." But if we love ourselves in the wrong way, we become incapable of loving anyone else.
There are many errors in achieving a balance between loving others and oneself:

Giving for oneself
There is a spiritual selfishness which even poisons the good act of giving to another. It is possible for me to love selfishly in the very act of depriving myself of material things for the benefit of another. If my gift is intended to bind him to me, to put him under an obligation, then in loving him I am really loving myself. And this is a greater selfishness, since it traffics not in flesh and blood, but in other person’s souls. This says that in loving another we simply seek the most effective way to love ourselves.

Loving one other
We might be tempted to the hedonism of romantic love. In this, we deny ourselves just enough to share with one another the pleasures of life. We admit a certain selfishness, and feel that in doing so we are being realistic. Our self denial is just sufficient to provide us with a healthy increase in our mutual satisfactions. In a bourgeois world, romantic love knows how to mask as Christian agape. This limits love to only one, no other.

Destroying ourselves
There is the temptation to destroy ourselves for the love of the other. The only value is love of the other. Self-sacrifice is an absolute value in itself. And the desire of the other is an absolute value. No matter what the other desires, we will give up our life or our soul to please the other. This is a false love, which makes it a point of honor to follow the beloved even into hell. This says we must only love others.

Another temptation is to go the other extreme and say, "Hell is other people." In that case love itself becomes the great temptation and the great sin. Because it is an inescapable sin, it is also hell. But this is simply the love of self in solitude. It is the love that is mortally wounded by its own incapacity to love another, and flies from others in order to not to have to give itself to them. This says we must only love ourselves.

All these answers are insufficient. The true answer, which is supernatural, tells us that we must love ourselves in order that we would be able to love others, and that we find ourselves by giving ourselves to them. True love is the gift of ourselves—cared for and fully functional—for others.

This is not merely a helpful suggestion, it is the fundamental law of human existence. Man is divided against himself and against God by his own selfishness, which divides him against his brother. This division cannot be healed by a love that places itself only on one side of the rift. Love must reach over to both sides and draw them together. We cannot love ourselves unless we love others, and our love of others is incomplete without loving ourselves. And a selfish love of ourselves makes us incapable of loving others.

This truth never becomes clear as long as we assume that each one of us, individually, is the center of the universe. We do not exist for ourselves alone, and it is only when we are fully convinced of this fact that we begin to love ourselves properly and thus also love others.
What do I mean by loving ourselves properly? I mean, first of all, desiring to live, accepting life as a very great gift and a great good, not because of what it gives us, but because of what it enables us to give to others. We have what is called a "death instinct." It is the power of a self-love that has turned into self-hatred and which, in adoring itself, adores the monster by which it is consumed. It is therefore of supreme importance that we consent to live not for ourselves, but for others.

We will only be able to do this when we face our own limitations. As long as we secretly adore ourselves, our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with an apparent defilement. But if we live for others, we will gradually discover that no one expects us to be "as gods." We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need others and others need us. We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in himself for the lack in another.

Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and "one body," we will begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement.

Every other man is a piece of myself, for I am a part and a member of mankind. Every Christian is a part of my body, because we are members in Christ. What I do is also done for them and with them and by them. What they do is done by me and for me.

Only when this truth is absolutely central do other teachings fit into their proper context. Humility, self-denial, action and contemplation, service, giving and community—none of these make sense except in relation to the central reality which is God’s love living and acting in those whom he has incorporated his Christ. Nothing at all makes sense unless we admit, with John Donne, that "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent."
To love others is to make a gift of oneself.

(This teaching was re-written from Thomas Merton’s preface to his book, No Man Is An Island, pp. xv-xxiii)

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Is The United States A Christian Nation?

"The Majority of people in the United States are Christian"
In a recent national poll, as many as 90% of the people in the United States consider themselves Christian in some way. A Christian viewpoint certainly dominates the U.S. culture. In broad outlines, most people in the U.S. believe in one God who created the universe and that Jesus died for our sins. Almost everyone has good things to say about Jesus in the U.S., even those who do not claim to be Christians. People desire to be forgiven for their sins and they think that Jesus is ready to help them.
However, most people in the U.S. do not understand what Jesus demands to follow him, let alone follow it. To be a "Christian" may be a good thing, but it is mostly a social title today, having nothing to do with Jesus’ death or teaching. Even the majority of people who go to churches have a false understanding about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Most people will agree that Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). But they do not agree with or even understand the following:
If anyone is to enter the kingdom of God, they must obey the teaching of Jesus. (Matthew 7:21-27)

If anyone is to follow Jesus, they must deny themselves and take up their cross. (Mark 8:35)
If anyone wants to gain their life, they must lose it. (Mark 8:36)
Whoever wants Jesus to accept them before the Father, they must accept Jesus before men. (Mark 8:38)
No one can follow Jesus unless they renounce their possessions. (Luke 14:33)
Those who will gain the kingdom of God must be poor, mourning and persecuted. (Luke 6:20-24)
Whoever will be raised from the dead must humble themselves. (Luke 14:11)

These are the demands of faith, and the people of the United States, especially the "Christians", are usually looking for ways to avoid this faith of Jesus, not embrace it.

"The Laws of the United States are based on the Bible"
Some say that the foundation of the law of the United States is based on a British system of law, which is based on the Bible, especially the Ten Commandments. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are based on "Christian" principles. Thus many people think that the laws of the U.S. are fundamentally Christian.
However, the laws of the United States have been drawn up and applied without reference to the teachings of Jesus, which is the basis of the laws of the kingdom of God. Seven of the Ten Commandments are not enforced by the laws of the United States. The makers of the laws of the U.S. are not concerned with the Bible, but with making the society well-running on their own principles, not on the principles of God.
Here are a few examples of where the law of God and of the United States are in opposition:

The law of God insists that idolatry is unacceptable. (Exodus 20:4; II Corinthians 6:16-17)
The law of the United States says that everyone has a right to worship whoever they want.
The law of God insists that those who take God’s name in vain will be punished. (Exodus 20:7; Matthew 12:31)
The law of the United States insists on freedom of speech, without punishment.
The law of God forbids covetousness and greed. (Exodus 20:17; Ephesians 5:3)
The law of the United States encourages corporations that thrive on greed.
The law of God says to teach one’s children about loving God. (Deuteronomy 6:7; Ephesians 6:4)
The law of the United States forbids the public teaching about God.
The law of God teaches to love everyone, even if they harmed you. (Matthew 5:43-44)
The law of the United States insist that the police and the military must harm others, and even encourage them to kill, if the threat seems bad enough.

The laws of the United States are, in many ways, opposed to Scripture, not in agreement with it.
"The United States is a Christian Nation"
The early colonists of the United States were all Christians, many persecuted for their faith. North America has been the site of many major revivals, which caused many towns to turn completely to the Lord. The majority of the leaders of the United States have been Christian, and have written statements that could be called devotional. So many say that the United States is a Christian nation, or that it should be.
However, the United States cannot today be called a Christian nation—nor can any nation on the earth. There is already a Christian nation, called the kingdom of God and Jesus is the king. There can be no other nation with any other system of government with anyone else as leader that could call itself "of Jesus" or "Christian". The kingdom of God already has its people all throughout the world. And though the kingdom does not now have a land that it can call its own, it is very much a living, vibrant nation.
On top of this, the United States is opposed to the kingdom of God in many areas. Following are many areas that the United States and the kingdom of God are diametrically opposed:

The kingdom of God is a distinctly religious kingdom, devoted exclusively to God.
The United States separates any religious practice or belief from the government.
The kingdom of God is a nation in which every member and citizen is devoted exclusively to God through Jesus Christ. (Romans 10:9)
The United States insists that every citizen can worship whatever God they want, or none at all, and hold to any teacher they want. To insist otherwise, it claims, is unethical.
The kingdom of God is a country ruled by an appointed benevolent dictator: Jesus Christ (Romans 1:4)
The United States firmly believes that only a republic where the leader is voted in by the people is a proper government.
The kingdom of God has all of its laws and ethics come from God himself, and all policies are allowed to be determined by local bodies, as long as they do not judge apart from God’s law. (James 2:8-10)
The United States judges according to the laws passed by their legislative body, with no regard to God’s will.
The kingdom of God is empowered by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)
The United States is empowered by economic and military strength—namely, the flesh.
The kingdom of God has values such as faith, love, endurance through persecution, following the teaching of Jesus that are requirements to remain in it. (Acts 14:22)
The United States does not promote love, generosity to the poor, devotion to God, faith in Jesus, humility, sound teaching or other values that would cause one to enter the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of God insists that one’s security comes from God alone, who sends angels to fight for it. (Matthew 26:52-53)
The United States firmly insists on having the strongest, most superior armed force in the world to promote its own security and its ideals.
The kingdom of God insists that greed must not be found among God’s people. (Ephesians 5:3)
The United States promotes greed, self-gratification and spending beyond one’s need as the backbone of its economy.
The kingdom of God teaches that to hate or destroy one’s enemy is to be unlike God and unworthy to be in God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God claims that God’s way is to do good to one’s enemy and pray for that one. (Luke 6:27-36)
The United States promotes the destruction of their enemies, killing even innocents in the pursuit of their goals of revenge, security and economic stability.
The kingdom of God grants salvation to those who have faith, obedience and love in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 5:5-6)
The United States grants its salvation to those who qualify and have filled out the proper paperwork—whether rich or needy, deserving or swindlers.

The United States, like all other nations, is not any kind of a Christian nation. It is a secular state, based on the principles of the world. It is completely opposed to God’s ways of running his nation.


In my weakness…

Let me never deny you by my actions
But allow me to be pure
Let me never speak in hostile wrath
But allow me to gently grant courage
Let me never ignore or reject the difficult
But allow me to welcome and make whole
Let me never isolate or hide my love
But allow me to join your people in heart, mind and body.
Let me never rely only on myself and my resources
But allow me to be strengthened by your love.

But even thus, allow me to gain rest
Allow me to cease striving
Allow me to gain peace
Allow me to be flooded with your Spirit
…if only for a moment.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Middle Class Assumptions

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, thousands of people were stranded in the city, which was soon destroyed by wind and flood and filled with diseases. Because the great majority of people stranded in the city were black, it is assumed that latent racism underlying American society has taken its toll again. Racism is an easy card to play—it seems to be a problem everywhere from the LA Police to grandpa’s living room. There is the prejudice inherent in racism as well as the system in which groups are held back from positions of power.
Personally, however, I don’t think that the problem in New Orleans was racial prejudice. Yes, the far majority of folks trapped in the city, lied to and even shot at were black—but certainly not all. Nor do I actually think that the problem stemmed from authorities "not caring" about those who were stranded. Yes, I am sure that there are some who didn’t care about them, but I don’t think that is what created the situation.
I think, rather, that the horrors in the city were created from the assumptions those in power had about society in general.
The powers that be knew that there were many people who had no intention of leaving the city, no matter how many evacuation warnings were given. These were people who had ways of getting out of the city, but they chose not to. So, as many authorities were leaving the city, and they saw people staying behind, it was no surprise. After all, many people were foolish and decided to ride out the storm.
The real problem lay in what they didn’t think about. They didn’t think about the fact that there is a vibrant street culture in New Orleans who wouldn’t have the capacity to leave the city. They didn’t think about the many who were injured or elderly who were incapable of leaving, and without family to assist them. They didn’t think about the poor who rely on public transportation for their daily needs, and do not have money to pay to leave the city. They assumed that everyone could get out of the city if they wanted to. It was never a spoken assumption. If it had been spoken, it could have been questioned. But the assumption was still there, still and quiet in the minds of those in power.
And who could really blame them? They were under a tremendous amount of stress. They had to figure out how to take care of their families and property. They had extra responsibilities. They just never thought of those who wanted to be evacuated, but couldn’t be.
We mustn’t judge these authorities. It is easy to point fingers after the fact, "You should have done this!" Rather we should think about what we would have done in similar circumstances. Would we have thought of those who had no transportation? Would we have thought of those who had no reserve of cash to deal with an emergency? Would we have thought of those in nursing homes and mental health facilities and prisons, if we had no one that we personally knew in such circumstances? Would we have thought beyond ourselves to those who lack the resources we do on a daily basis?
These questions are easy to answer. First we need to ask, do we think of these folks now? This is not asking—WHAT do we think of them? If pressed on the point, I suppose that most of us would honestly say, "I never think badly about the poor and lowly." But the reason it is true is because the poor and lowly are so far out of our context, out of our lives, that we never actually think about them at all- either good or ill. If we don’t think of them now, how could we expect anyone else like us to think of them when they are facing a personal crisis? How can we expect anyone to assist the lowly in an emergency when they never thought of them on normal days?
The stranded in New Orleans weren’t put in a life-threatening position because of racism or even because of blatant prejudice of any kind. They were stranded because of middle-class assumptions.
What is a middle class assumption? It is what most of us who are middle class assume that "everyone" has in society, because everyone we know has them. It is what we assume is the minimum standard to live and function in our society. It is what goes thoughtless when dealing with large groups of people—from leading a church meeting to organizing a free concert to governing an entire population.
Having assumptions is not wrong. It is a part of the cultural baggage we all have. We learn it bit by bit beginning as infants, and our culture grows and is reshaped and is transformed as we get older. The assumptions, however, is just what we get used to—what we never see missing. If we have never (or have rarely) experienced a person speaking anything but Russian, then "normal" people speak Russian, and everyone who is not "normal" just doesn’t come to mind when we make plans. Sure, we can understand intellectually that other people speak other languages, that they are people who are just as important as us and that they have their own need that doesn’t include speaking Russian—perhaps they speak Bengali or use sign language. But in the normal course of day-to-day events, non-Russian-speakers don’t count because we have never experienced them.
And this is the case of the middle class with the lower class. Yes, most middle class people know—intellectually— that lower class people count as much as they do and have their own needs and issues that differ from middle class needs and issues. However, since the majority of the middle class do not "rub elbows" with those of the lower class, then the needs and issues of the lower class are unknown, not to mention the specific needs of individuals who find themselves in the lower class because they suddenly are lost without one of the things that they assumed was necessary to survive—but never really thought about it.
What are these assumptions? Well, it is beyond my ability to list all of them. But below are a list of those that I and those whom I know experienced.
Ability to remain clean—The idea that everyone in our society has the capacity to a shower or bath with a change of clean clothes and proper hygiene items, such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. However, this is a huge assumption to make. To remain clean in this way requires many resources that people, especially those who live on the street, do not have. Think casually how much you pay for your cleanness—between water, a place to have privacy, all the various items to clean clothes and hygiene items. Even a quick overview can help us realize how expensive hygiene is. Now we can know that cleanliness is next to godliness because only the gods can afford such a standard!
Ability to gain identification—Most people assume that identification is simple to obtain. But if you had all of your identification stolen from you or lost in a fire, then you might find that you were in a grave situation. For legal state I.D. you need two pieces of identification. And you cannot obtain any other identification without identification. And without identification, you cannot even check out a library book, let alone get a job or cash a check.
Well spoken English with no or minor accent—This is an assumption that many immigrants face daily. It is assumed that because they learned English with a strong accent that they do not know English well at all. And this is a barrier to many avenues of our society, although bi-lingual services are being provided more and more frequently now.
Basic knowledge of national events—Most of the middle class assume that everyone has access to a newspaper or at least watch television news. However, for those who do not have televisions or who do not choose to pay attention to news, this limits conversation and the main source of knowledge of basic cultural information for the middle class.
Personal transportation—According to the middle class, "normal" people have access to an automobile, and thus can drive to places quickly as often as they like. However, the cost of an automobile is such that a large percentage of the lower class cannot afford to pay for the car, insurance, repairs and gas.
Ability to travel out of town—This is the assumption that stranded many people in New Orleans. It is assumed that if necessary, with some planning, anyone can leave to another county or state if they so desire. However, many people are limited to public transportation, which is limited to a metropolitan area. Or Greyhound, but if you can’t book two weeks in advance or have extra money, then you ain’t going anywhere.
Well dressed, (but not necessarily fancy)—This is the assumption that keeps many lower class folks from attending church services or weddings. It is assumed by most of the middle class that everyone has at least one set of "nice" clothes for special occasions. However, many people, especially those of the lower class, just do not have them.
Computer literate—It is an assumption being made more and more often that everyone has the ability to get on a computer and know what one is doing. Along with this assumption is the idea that we can send important information to people on the internet, or through email, and that is adequate for all who need it. However, not everyone can use a computer and a large percentage of people have difficulties accessing the internet.
Health insurance—Some assume that everyone has some kind of health insurance, although is it becoming widely recognized that most people’s insurance is extremely inadequate. Again, it is a large percentage of the lower class has no insurance whatsoever, and a growing group is being turned away from almost any medical care due to past unpaid bills.
No mental illness—This is the most widespread assumption and the one that is most wrong. Perhaps some 10 percent of people have a diagnosed mental illness. And perhaps another ten percent has a mental illness that has not been diagnosed. But every single one of us has a mental weakness that makes us inadequate in an area that most people are adequate in. Some of us are weak socially, some are weak in mathematics, some are weak in self-assessment. But more often than not, those of us who are strong in an area cannot understand or appreciate those who are inadequate in some area of mental ability. What we must remember however is that mental weakness is what is normal.
Disposable money—It is assumed and expected that everyone has some money, even if it is a small amount, that they can use for an occasional lunch out or for an emergency. However, those of low income, while they might have the occasional financial surplus, they cannot predict ahead of time when they will have disposable income. Thus, having a middle class friend ask if they want to do lunch together is just embarrassing.
It is important for all of us to recognize these assumptions and to fight such ignorance, both in ourselves and in others. To know that many people do not have these culturally significant items for the middle class is important for all of us. It is especially important for those who organize events or lead large groups of people to recognize what assumptions are being made, for the more assumptions we make, the more people we are excluding. But most importantly, it is important for those in civil leadership to be aware of their assumptions, so that they could truly represent all of their people, and not just the middle class and above.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Eleven Characteristics of a True Church

1. Devoted to God through Jesus Christ
This is a minimum requirement for everyone committed to the community. Baptism is the entrance rite of the community, and regular statements of commitment to the Father and the Lord Jesus are made.
Acts 16:31, Romans 10:9; John 14:6-9

2. Committed to one another
The congregation is committed to each other to be involved in each other’s lives. This means that they meet together, are accountable to one another, will work on agreement on essentials and be patient with each other with differences.
Hebrews 10:24-25; I Corinthians 12:13-21; John 13:34-35

3. Obedient to Jesus
This means that there is constant growth in knowing what Jesus requires and in practicing those requirements. It also means that when a committed member fails to obey Jesus, there is repentance or some kind of discipline process.
Matthew 12:50; Matthew 7:21-29

4. Spirit-filled
This means that the church is guided by the Holy Spirit to do as Jesus said. This guidance is toward love, peace and joy and is accompanied by spiritual healings, exorcisms, prophecies, and speaking in tongues.
I Corinthians 12:3-7; Mark 16:16-18; John 14:26

5. Participating in acts of worship
Acts of worship that are emphasized are prayer, praise and the Lord’s supper. Also included are singing, giving, fasting and prophesying.
John 4:23; I Thessalonians 5:16-22; I Corinthians 14:26

6. Helping the needy
This specifically means providing for those in need among the congregation, but also includes acts of charity among those outside the congregation.
Acts 4:34-35; Luke 12:33; Galatians 6:10

7. Building each other up
Churches are committed to seeing all the members grow in their maturity in Jesus. They assist each other in this by using what talents and gifts God has given them to support each other in living for Jesus. This could be done through teaching, Scripture quotes, singing, giving, prophesying, speaking in tongues, and many other ways. It also means that churches purpose to honor the lower ones of the congregation, never dishonoring anyone.
Romans 12:4-8; Ephesians 4:11-13; Mark 9:35-42

8. Involved in outreach
The church of God is committed to reaching out to those who need to hear the message of Jesus and of his kingdom. This outreach is not only words, but action, through teaching, prayer, service, hospitality and love.
Matthew 10:27, 32-33; Mark 16:15

9. Persecuted
The true church of God is attacked by those who find the truth of Jesus and the cross to be unacceptable and even immoral. The more involved in outreach, the more persecuted the church is.
John 15:18-21; Matthew 5:10-12; II Timothy 3:12

10. Servant leadership
The community of Jesus is led by those who are committed to serving others, not forcing others to do the will of the leaders. The leaders are gentle, prayerful, merciful and filled with the wisdom of Jesus through the Spirit of God.
Luke 22:25-27; Philippians 2:5-11

11. Part of a larger Community
Any individual community of Jesus recognizes that they are not alone, but a part of a larger, worldwide community of Jesus. They seek to be accountable to that community and to give to that community as they are able.
II Corinthians 8-9; Mark 9:38-41

So, are you "scandalized" by my list? Perhaps you are uncomfortable because many churches you know of—perhaps even your own—could not be characterized in this way. I will say that some churches exemplify some of these characteristics better than others. But every church of Jesus, I believe, will have some of each of these.

And it is interesting that for most American churches the component 9 is missing completely. I think it has to do with thinking too often that we are a part of this system, either that the United States is "Christian" and we have to restore it to its former glory or that it is close to reaching the ideal ethical system through the democratic process. Either ideal makes the church a part of the world, and thus we lose our prophetic voice. If we lose our prophetic voice, then we have nothing to be persecuted about.

Jesus, however, had no problem with being a scandalous man. And we lose out of part of who we are as a church because we decline to be scandalous.