Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The MYTH of Private Faith

In one of my favorite movies, “The Matrix”, the character Morpheus
says to Neo, “there is a difference between knowing the path and
the path…” With that line in my head (I just watched
“The Matrix” again the other night), I was struck this morning as
I read in James 2 that “faith without deeds is dead”.

Like other mysteries of the faith (e.g., the precise nature of the Trinity)
which are often hotly debated, discussions of “Faith and Works” tend to
stir up our emotions and spur us to take sides… Here’s my own take
on the symbiosis between these two priorities, given in the form of
2 Statements and a Response to both:

“My relationship with God comes first”

While my personal, private relationship with God is certainly “Square One”
in my faith, there is a subtle, dangerous tendency, I believe (given the evil
human heart) to detach that relationship from any outward actions which
should stem from that relationship. The Bible is very clear when it tells us
that “deeds” (“works”) MUST accompany faith, and indeed, that our “faith”
is stone-cold DEAD without them.

Mathew 5:23,24 tell us that if we are making our offering to God
(private faith) and there recall that our brother has something against us,
WE are to take the initiative, get up, and go be reconciled to our brother
(“deeds”), before coming back to the altar.

James 2:14-17 makes it clear that wishing someone well (we might even
add “praying for them” – private faith) while failing to meet their physical
needs, is “dead” faith.

1 John 4 is even more direct, noting that whoever “says he loves God”
(private faith) but then hates (or fails to love) his brother is a liar; the
glaring theme of this passage is that a true love for God results in a
genuine love for those around us.

So the idea that we can think of our private relationship with God in one
context, and the way we treat other people, or how well we control our
tongues and our passions, in some other context, is profoundly mistaken.

“I can do nothing in and of myself; it has to be God”

The book of James is sometimes used to support the idea that real
Justification is a combination of what God has done and what WE do
(“good works”). Side-stepping that debate for now, the point I want to
make here is that there is, perhaps, a subtle “passivity” that can creep
into the heart of a Christian, as we “wait” for God to act through us.

Scripture overwhelmingly portrays those whom God calls “righteous” as
people who take action, who don’t wait around for additional
“spiritual growth” (private faith) before they engage the Disciplines and
before they reach out to those around them.

As an (admittedly rather silly) analogy, picture this: If my backhoe is
nice and clean, the tracks are solid, clean, and in good repair, and
the gears and hydraulics are all greased up and ready, but I never
actually DIG anything with it, what good is it? I may marvel to myself
at what great shape my backhoe is in, but if I never take action and
USE it for the work it was designed to do, the whole reason for having
it to begin with is meaningless.

Hebrews 11 talks about “faith” and immediately frames the discussion
in terms of great saints who went out and DID something about their
faith; Paul writes about running a race, rejecting evil, exercising
self-control, praying and sacrificing and arguing for the faith, and much
more, all of which are concrete actions which should typify our approach
to what we say we believe. James even notes that a prostitute was
considered “righteous” by God for her actions (hiding the spies)…

Do our actions play a part in our salvation? I’ll let the theologians and
biblical scholars hash that out; but the idea that “we can do nothing” is
perhaps little more than a veiled excuse to sit back comfortably and
merely “talk the talk”… As I read the Scriptures, the charge to those
who believe, it seems to me, is to get busy; Love is a VERB, and when
we are busy loving and serving those closest to us, we ARE doing
something about our faith (and God changes us in the process).

There is an expression that says, “People don’t care how much
you know until they know how much you care”. In the same way, genuine,
biblical Christianity exists precisely at the juncture of our devotional
approach to God (through Jesus) and our serving relationships to
those around us. Anything else is “dead” faith.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Fighting for "Christmas"

Well, it's Christmas time again, and the same old hubaloo over
how to greet one another during this season of "peace on Earth"
has cranked up all over again.

This year's headlines bring a bit of a new twist: Apparently some
conservatives are so put out by what they view as "political correctness"
that they are calling upon their lawyers to mandate the "proper" greeting
in the streets... Some of the details appeared this week on CNN.com:


What could be more ludicrous than an attempt to use the LAW to force
others to say the words YOU want to hear... Sadly, such efforts do FAR
more to allienate people than they do to generate any kind of
"good cheer"... Yet another example of the "Us versus Them" mentality...

A brief study on the history of what has come to be known as "Christmas"
quickly weakens the rather more conservative position on the holiday:
This particular time of year has, for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of
years been more about themes surrounding Festivals, Sun worship,
the Solstice, and other myths, legends, and customs than it has about the
birth of Jesus. Even the abbreviated "Xmas", far from "taking Christ out
of Christmas", is merely Greek language "shorthand" for the exact same
thing, used often among 16th century Christians (or "Xians" !)...

Here are some sites to look at, when considering the REAL story of
Christmas (there are many, many more):


So why all the fuss? Why are some in our society so "offended" by the
expression "Happy Holidays" instead of the more traditional
"Merry Christmas"?

Lots of reasons: People love their traditions, and are saddened to see
them being eroded, particularly religious ones and particularly if the
reason has to do (at least in their minds) with "political correctness".
Christmas is perhaps the one most near and dear to the hearts of many
"traditionalists", and self-defeating as it might be, a law suit is perhaps,
at its root, really a process of mourning the death of something held dear
and even considered sacred.

I think, though, that there is a valuable lesson to be gleaned from this:
Since the history of this holiday has relatively little to do with the Western
idea of "Christmas", and since the early Church was actually the party who
originally appropriated the date of December 25th from the pagans (along
with many of the pagan mythologies and traditions), and since there is so
LITTLE to be gained from legal action, or even the relentless clashes on
televsion and radio... I think the REAL reason for these "culture wars" has
more to do with Pride than anything else.

What is the problem with greeting someone with "Happy Holidays!"
instead of "Merry Christmas"?? Do we understand that to the ears of
someone (say, the grocery store clerk, the bus driver, the bank teller, etc.)
who may not believe that Jesus was (is) the Savior, this greeting may be
offensive? And if we ask ourselves WHY we don't want to modify our
greeting so as not to offend, what is our answer? What do we GAIN by
digging in our heels and putting up our fists while proclaiming,
"Christmas is about CHRIST!" ???

As an example, if somone wants to be called "African American", as
opposed to "black" or "colored" or "negro", they may not, in fact, be
asking for a factual recognition of their personal heritage: A (white)
person, of British heritage, having come from a long line of Brits who lived
in, say, South Africa, may come to the USA for a job, and find themselves
working next to a (black) person whose family has remained in, say,
Atlanta, for the last 160 years... Tell me, of the two, which one should be
called "African American"??

Either one! If either of these persons wishes to be called
"African American", tell me, what is the problem with that?? Keeping in
mind consideration for other people, and genuine humility and
compassion and a desire to SERVE other people, what is the issue
with deferring to their wishes?

The same goes for "Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays".
If America is anything, she is a country where Pluralism is welcomed and
encouraged, and if the waitress replies, "yes, Happy Holidays!" to my
"Merry Christmas", well then, that's just fine with me. Jesus was born to
trash the "culture wars" and to condemn the Snobs
while restoring the Snubbed.

For those who claim the true Gospel as their own,
THAT is the reason for the season.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The language of Polarization

Not long ago, televangelist Pat Robertson made public statements
to the people of Dover, PA, warning them of possible "disasters"
in their "area" and that "God might not be there" for them when
(if) those disasters strike...

The issue at hand was the fact that the local school board had
been summarily voted out of office in a recent election for having
supported the teaching of Intelligent Design in the local public
school system.

Read the details here:

Robertson has made provocative statements before, including
calling for the assasination of the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez
not long ago... While it may be easy to write off Robertson as
something of a nut-case, it's not hard to see that he has a lot of
company in the "Us versus Them" space...

Conservative Christians have, for years now, been pounding the drums
over social issues such as prayer in public schools, the teaching
of evolution, abortion, gay marriage, etc., and their general solidarity
in politics has weighted the Right so heavily that even those who share
one or two fundamental beliefs of theirs get lumped together in the
category of "radical religious Right"...

The net result is that many modern "Christian soldiers" look and sound
far more like soldiers than they do Christians. The true Gospel of
Jesus has been exchanged for Bibles-Bullets-and-Biggotry, and the
love of human beings is not only left behind but even made fun of
in some circles of those who say they are followers of Christ...

The battle cry for "victory" on social and political issues (and we could
add economic, environmental, military, and others) -- associated loosely
(and illegitimately) with the Faith -- has evolved into an entire language
of Polarization that condemns all who disagree to the "fires of hell"...
Looking at their faces and listening to the not-so-subtle hatred in the
voices of theses types, it's not at all hard to see why "the world"
(and the more moderate among us) want nothing whatsoever to do
with anything even remotely associated with Angry White Conservatives,
or with this whole "Christianity" business...

Contrast this approach to the modus operandi of Jesus, who purposely
sought out the liars, the adulterers, the cheaters, outcasts, murderers,
etc., and who had a special love for children because of their innocence
(not because "ya need to get 'em started young...")... HIS approach
was to love these people, to build personal relationships with them, to
speak to their hurt and confusion and hopelessness -- as well as their
need for repentence -- with an attitude of lifting up not pushing down...

And He violently reacted against those of His time who were "clean"
on the outside yet filthy on the inside, who held the "right" political views,
and who were more interested in the "issues" of the day than in the
people around them...

It's WAY past time to refocus on beating swords into plow shares...
We need to mimic Jesus by looking at people -- ALL people -- as Souls
whom God loves passionately... People need to see and hear that same
love for them in us, regardless of their beliefs, values, socio-economic
status, politics, sexual orientation, spiritual/physical condition, or
anything else that puts them in a different box than "us"...

There is nothing "Christian" whatsoever about the "Us vs. Them" view
of any other human being or group of human beings.
We are to love them ALL.