reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the category “Cross Currents”

A Campaign Gone Full Bore

ZZZA few weeks back, Donald Trump had a man thrown out of a rally for complaining that it was boring. I laughed at the time; life imitates The Onion, I thought. As it turns out, the man was part of a duo of comedians. Still, I think we may look back on that moment as the beginning of the end for The Donald. His campaign has proved immune to outrage, but boredom? That’s deadly.

Trump’s shtick is getting old, even for his supporters. He knows it too, but by toning it down, he may have initiated a death spiral. A tamer Trump leaves just the emptiness of his ideas, which only gain traction when coarsely shouted at a susceptible audience. When spoken in measured tones, they’re…boring.

So where does he go when his numbers start to slip? He can go back to outrageous, but that’s already worn out. Or he can stay the gentler course and fade into irrelevance.

Trump took the playbook of a rising dictator: exploit fear, invent scapegoats, and sell it all with bombast. But this isn’t 1939. Modern media will take anything to a saturation point much faster than the newspapers, placards and radio broadcasts of three generations ago.

It’s comforting to see signs that the old tactics are failing, but still scary that so many people – including some Christians – embraced a toxic message. Let’s hope a savvier successor to The Donald doesn’t emerge, able to feed that message into the communication channels of our time.

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Shedding Grace

majesty21For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9 (NIV)

In America the beautiful, many Christians are shedding grace, but not in a good way. They are setting aside the grace of the Gospel and replacing it with a covenant of works for their nation to follow.

As Christians we don’t impose this covenant even on ourselves, nor should we. And yet some spend untold emotional, financial and political resources trying to hammer the United States into the image of Christ, all by trying to dictate the behavior of the government and the culture. It’s a Christian nation, they say, and then they try to manufacture the proof out of materials that refuse to bend.

In doing so, they like to point to our heritage, a time of greater righteousness and morality. I wonder what time they have in mind. Was it the time when Africans were abducted from their homes, bought and enslaved here, and their descendants oppressed and treated as less than human? Was it the time when Native Americans were subjected to a creeping near-genocide that still echoes across desperate, drug-infested reservations? Or was it when wealth became enthroned and the rawest form of capitalism became the de facto religion?

My point is not to hold every American responsible for all past or present sins; it’s simply to say that if we’re looking to recapture some righteous national legacy, there’s less to it than we like to believe. Past generations may have been more polite, more civil and more churchgoing. But like the superficial goodness of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:27), these external virtues at times were whitewash on the tombs of hypocrisy.

I once wrote here that I believe righteousness does exalt a nation, as Proverbs 14:34 declares. Still, in all history only Israel could ever say, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.” (Psalm 33:12) That nation, the only chosen one ever, lived under a covenant based on the law – that is, on works – and it was exalted when it did right.

We are now in the age when God’s grace is revealed to a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). The grace God sheds on America is not saving grace. It’s simply His favor granted in the service of His plan, which has made this country into history’s greatest exporter of the Gospel. I’m thankful to live here, but like every other nation that ever was, the USA will fade away. No one in heaven will be wearing stars-and-stripes lapel pins.

The Bible instructs us to be good citizens and to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-3); let’s do as it says, but let’s not try to make our country more than it is. There’s only been one earthly nation that could be saved. And the grace that matters for eternity isn’t shed on nations but on individual people. Christians are here to point them to it.

The Right Questions

question“Has no one condemned you?” – John 8:10

If the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage didn’t turn out the way you hoped, you may have some questions for God right now. How could He allow this? Has He changed His mind about marriage? Is He still there?

Maybe we as Christians need to ask ourselves some questions instead. Principally, if God allowed the battle to be lost, was He ever in it? You may think, of course He was!  God always fights against those who break His commandments, doesn’t He?

God’s judgment has come and is coming. He judged sin at the cross. For those who don’t accept that judgment poured out on Jesus in our place, judgment will come at the end of time, and there will be no intermediary to absorb it. Until then, however, Jesus won’t raid the speakeasy and send the revelers scurrying into the night. He’ll enter, in our skin and on our feet, and invite them to come out into the light.

God invites us into a covenant relationship, and marriage is a sacred, earthly symbol of that covenant, as the Bible repeatedly makes clear. That may be one reason it’s hard to believe God wouldn’t stand and fight with the defenders of marriage as He established it. But when God gives a symbol to represent a deeper concept of faith, the symbol never trumps the spiritual reality.

When venomous snakes attacked God’s people as they wandered the wilderness, God commanded Moses to make a bronze snake and lift it high; all who looked to it would be saved (Numbers 21:4-9). Through this symbol God demonstrated His power and foreshadowed Christ being lifted up to save all who would look to Him. What could be more sacred than that? Fast forward several hundred years. When people persisted in worshiping the bronze serpent, the righteous King Hezekiah destroyed it.

Am I suggesting that God wants traditional marriage destroyed? No, though in the next world, earthly marriage won’t exist; its time will be past (Mark 12:25). But sacred as marriage is in this life, there are more sacred things – such as God’s invitation into the higher relationship marriage symbolizes. We can’t extend that invitation impaled on a sword of judgment.

Speaking of symbols, it’s interesting that the rainbow, which God declared a symbol of His covenant never to flood the Earth again, has been adopted as a symbol for marriage equality. We can sit and fume about that. Or, just as God made the rainbow a symbol of judgment suspended, we can see it as a reminder to suspend our own judgment.

God’s Housecleaning

“It is wDSCN1165ritten…‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.'” – Matthew 21:13

I recently read an article that made me wonder if I had time traveled back to the 1980s or ’90s. The surprisingly young author was calling Christians back to the social battles of the last Bush-Clinton era (are we really headed for another?). She unflinchingly used the term “culture wars,” and the article was illustrated with a young, tattooed and pierced couple respresenting the “Christian Left.”

I think many American Christians, myself include, now recognize the long detour we took to the wrong battlefield while that writer was still a child. Not that sin has become virtue; many of the things Christian leaders campaigned against 25 years ago were and are contrary to God’s laws. But to revisit one of my recurring themes, it’s not our job to save secular culture or purge it of what offends us. Our job is to call people out of that culture. No one should take my word for it, however.

What did Jesus do? He didn’t campaign against Rome’s corrupt tax-collection practices. He called tax collectors to abandon their morally hazadous profession for lives of integrity. He didn’t call for stepped-up prosecution of adulterers. He saved an adulteress from a stone-wielding mob, then privately, gently called her to repentance. And even as he spoke against divorce, He proclaimed good news to a serial, cohabitating divorcee.

Jesus was not silent toward institutional or cultural corruption. But when it came to that, notice where His wrath was directed. It wasn’t toward the Roman government and culture, which did what secular governments and cultures always do. It was toward the rot within God’s house: the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the thievery of the money changers and merchants in the temple. And lest we think He called out only the Jewish establishment, remember His words to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-18:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” (NIV)

The apostle Paul, too, spent little time on secular culture and institutions, except to seize opportunities to preach the Gospel to them, or to remind Christians of what they had left behind and warn them against backsliding or compromise. His first letter to the Corinthians, for example, was primarily a lengthy warning and exhortation to a morally crumbling congregation, and the second letter responded to the growing influence of troublemakers in the Corinthian assembly.

So if Christians as a body tackle any kind of collective sin, maybe like Jesus and Paul we should look within our own house. Are we being torn apart by factions, turf wars and petty feuds? Are we all about the bank balance while we turn our backs on the poor and the marginalized? Are we winking at immorality in our midst? Are struggling individuals, loved and sought by God, getting trampled in our marches against this or that cultural evil?

Some Christians may feel called to the fight against particular cancers in society. It’s certainly not my place to tell individuals what God is calling them to do. That’s between them and God. But as a body, we shouldn’t be making collective enemies of those who practice or promote what we oppose. We should be looking for Matthew, Zacchaeus, the ashamed adulteress and the woman at the well. And we should be inviting them into a clean house.

What I Learned From a Troll

A perverse man spreads strife, and a slanderer separates intimate friends. – Proverbs 16:28

As an evolving center-right kind of political creature, I respect my friends who sit a bit farther to the right than I do. They are, to some degree, my people. But I have this lament: Some of them wouldn’t recognize a troll if it clubbed them over the head and dragged them under the bridge.

I speak, of course, of the Internet troll, and some people badly need to be trained in troll-spotting. If you secretly wonder sometimes what this trolling thing even is, I’m talking to you. A fine recent example, though I can’t prove it, is a blog post purporting to be from a radical feminist who aborted her male child to avoid bringing another monster into the world.

If this is true, there are hardly words for how reprehensible it is. In a world that contains ISIS, such a person certainly could walk the Earth. But I doubt that this one does. Some things are so perfectly heinous that…well, there’s your first clue that you just might be getting trolled.

Trolling is not a new concept. Before the Internet, we would have called it yanking someone’s chain – saying something outrageous just to see the reaction. The anonymous online world has allowed this perverse craft to reach new heights of artistry and new depths of virulence. Sometimes it’s still just someone’s sophomoric fun, but much of it has taken on a sharp edge of agenda-driven deceit. It’s hard to even guess the motives anymore.

In the case of the allegedly aborted boy child, you may ask, “How could she?” A more interesting question might be, “Who is trolling us and why?” There are multiple possibilities. It could be an anti-feminist trying to make feminists look bad. It could be a feminist trying to provoke outrage from anti-feminists and make them look foolish for believing such a whopper. Or it could be the aforementioned juvenile someone with no particular agenda, stoking the fire just to soak up the heat.

The most interesting question, though, is why people fall for this kind of trolling. Never mind what it says about the troll. What does it say about us? Some people no doubt are just gullible. But in others I see an undercurrent of fear and/or hate, which are closely related. It’s the same kind of thing that I believe drives some conspiracy theorists. These people so despise those who are different from them, that they are willing to believe the “others” capable of just about any evil. Why so much hate? Behind hate there is almost always an element of feat.

As a Christian, I know better than to let fear control me, even if I don’t always practice what I know. We are taught to fear God, which means to hold Him in awestruck respect, but also to know that yes, He can deliver a righteous, loving smackdown if we have it coming. But fear of anything else in creation is not from God. If you find yourself a sucker for every scurrilous claim about someone you disagree with, maybe it’s time to ask God to root out the hate in your heart, and the fear that may be feeding it.

American Salad

saladI recently had my first exposure to Dr. Ben Carson, who is generating Republican presidential buzz with a growing fan base on the evangelical right. On video, he was a glib and entertaining speaker with an inspiring story, flashing the brilliance you expect of a pediatric brain surgeon. You feel smart just for listening to him. Then you hear more of what he has to say, and with all due respect to a fellow Christ follower, maybe the excitement starts to fade.

Did he really say America has become like Nazi Germany? And reaffirm the claim when given the chance to backpedal? And then draw some strained comparison between ISIS and America’s founding fathers? I’m sure he knows what he’s doing, but I’m not sure what it is. I just know I’m getting the sense of someone who is on a mission to shock people. He’ll justify it as his war on political correctness, and some of us will eat it up.

And what are we eating up? For one thing, I detect that staple of the American political menu, fear. Dr. Carson is just serving it up in an edgy plate of greens instead of the usual steakhouse wedge of iceberg. He’s not alone. Louisiana’s Gov. Bobby Jindal, a former Rhodes Scholar who courts the same vote as Dr. Carson, is out pushing the idea of Muslim “no-go” zones, a scare so baseless that Fox News had to back down from it four times in one day.

But my point is not to bash Ben Carson or Bobby Jindal; it’s to ask why American Christians keep responding to the politics of fear. To answer that, consider when we get afraid: when we think something important to us is at risk. Our level of fear reflects how invested we are in that thing.

We invest in certain things with gusto here in the Land of More is Better. “Too much of a good thing” is an alien concept. Americans are so busy going big, they rarely consider whether it might in fact be time to go home. Christians are not immune. Some of us even get over-invested, to the point of entitlement, in the idea of America that we see as our sacred heritage.

At the risk of my own tarring and feathering, perhaps the sense of entitlement springs from our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Life, I’ll give you that. Only God has the right to give it or take it, by His sovereign power or through the instruments of His choosing. Any others exercising that power are merely playing God, at their own ultimate peril.

Liberty? In Christ we are free from the penalty and power of sin, free from Old Testament law, free in debatable matters of conscience, as the apostle Paul declared in Romans 14. But the Bible never promised American-style freedom. God blessed me to be born and to live under it. These very words are protected by the First Amendment, which carries the benefit of a wide-open door for the Gospel. But whenever He pleases, God can let this door be closed and another opened. To Paul, even captivity was an opportunity; in Ephesians 6:20, he declared himself an “ambassador in chains” in his Roman imprisonment. He didn’t protest politically or incite rebellion against his oppressors. He was too busy evangelizing the guards.

Pursuit of Happiness? If we belong to God, our joy is, or should be, in Him above all: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4) Happiness for its own sake is just a warm, fuzzy and unreliable feeling, and the Bible doesn’t promise such happiness.

Still, some American Christians seem to expect politicians, usually Republicans, to guarantee a particular vision of life and liberty, without which they won’t be happy or feel secure.

Holly Fisher found fame or infamy, depending on your viewpoint, when she tweeted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and an AR-15 rifle in the other, while standing in front of an American flag. She had every right to do that, and those who cheered or mocked her had every right to react. America is great that way.

As for me, I had the all-too-familiar sensation of looking at a fellow believer, and squirming a little. That picture neatly captures an unsettling feature of our culture: a peculiar American salad of Christian faith, patriotism, conservative politics and guns, dressed with a dollop of fear that everything we cherish is one generation from oblivion. We’re giving it all away, Dr. Carson warns – an appeal to fear couched as a call to courage.

But where is our true security? Some who call themselves believers seem to put the Constitution, as they understand it, in God’s place. By this vision, we’re secure as long as the framework of our government guarantees we can speak and worship freely, and as long as guns can stand between us and the bad guys and/or a government that turns on us. Which brings us back to America as Nazi Germany. The comparison is, for now, thoroughly over the top. But let’s play what-if.

Some day it may become dangerous to be an American Christian. I don’t say this to sow fear. The threat to religious freedom simply is, and it’s more than a threat to countless people of all faiths around the world. Jesus warns that the persecuted church is the norm: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” The view from where He stood in John 15:19 is far from our blessed existence here in America.

So, what if oppression arises in our midst?

In the Garden of Gethsemane, government thugs came to take away Jesus’ right to speak and worship freely. Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. And Jesus told Peter to stop, and healed Malchus. In that moment, I think our Lord set the tone for any believer throughout history facing the loss of civil rights, including religious ones.

In the Bible, when God’s people are oppressed where they live, they continue to worship and they wait for deliverance, however God provides it. Think of the Israelite captivities, from Egypt to Babylon. That God has used America so remarkably, though it was born from a rebellion, may merely testify to His grace and His ability to bring good out of anything (Genesis 50:20). Find a passage in the Bible where God calls His people to insurrection against the government He allows to rule over them. If you can find one, please share, but I’m not aware of any in the Old Testament or the New. Yes, Jesus told his disciples – just before that confrontation in Gethsemane – to get swords (Luke 22:36). But the meaning and implications of that passage are debatable, and it’s not a proof text for the notion that Christians must arm themselves, especially in light of what followed at the moment of Jesus’ arrest.

Still, there are American Christians ready for metaphorical or even literal combat. We’ve seen the Holly Fishers, and we’ve seen the anonymous ones blustering in online comment threads about the day’s news. It isn’t always clear who is serious, but they can’t all be trolling. The ones who are serious have some hard questions to answer:

  • To defend your civil rights, given and taken by humans who rule with God’s permission (Romans 13), will you attack a fellow citizen? Or will you extend mercy?
  • For your religious rights, will you strike blows in the name of God, and raise the barrier of aggression between your adversary and the good news that you carry? Or like Paul will you simply take whatever opportunity presents itself under the powers that be?
  • For your right to bear arms, will you choose confrontation? Or will you trust God with your safety and lower your defenses, not to let the enemy in but to let grace out? Does your security so depend on a firearm, even more than on God, that you will shed blood over your right to keep it?

These very ideas may sound extreme to some, but in today’s supercharged, polarized politics, otherwise sane people seem to be wandering out to the fringes. And even if you’re not ready to take up arms against your government, consuming fear can twist your attitudes and actions. Never harbor the delusion that you’re fighting for God. You’re fighting in Him – His power, strength and wisdom, with spiritual weapons – against forces whose defeat is already sure, because God can fight perfectly well for Himself.

If we rethink how we might answer hostility from our own government in the future, we should separate that from issues of the here and now: personal security at home, or military service to repel external threats to the nation. In both of these matters, I believe a Christian may legitimately be prepared to defend family, neighbors or country against criminals or foreign invaders. I don’t believe millions of military men and women have served in vain. It is right to defend the defenseless against the lawless, as the psalmist says: “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:4) But none of this equates to a divine right or mandate for a Christian to own a gun or any weapon, or to demand that right on our terms.

Remember President Obama’s famously ill-chosen remarks about rural Americans clinging to their guns and religion. It was elitist and condescending. But if Obama saw Holly Fisher’s picture, I could understand him feeling a little bit vindicated. As for my reaction: If she treats her Bible as a symbol for an idea, not as a vehicle to encounter God, she’s missing its purpose. If she trusts the gun and the flag for her security, she’s forgotten where true security lies.

Holly Fisher may be celebrating the latest election results. Fine; God’s plan is moving forward, and we can always celebrate that, as well as the precious right that we have. On this I can agree with Ben Carson: Vote, and if your faith is truly a part of all you do, bring it into the voting booth. But I don’t assume that God’s plan is to advance the American Christian social or political agenda, whatever that is, or to restore America’s greatness.

Perhaps I’ve come to realize that patriotism, while not bad in itself, is best held loosely in light of my relationship with God. Like anything apart from God, my patriotism can crumble into disappointment or fear if the object of my devotion proves unworthy or impermanent. Better to be devoted to the One who will never disappoint us, leave us or forsake us. And I am less likely to regret what I do in my country’s name, if my nationalism doesn’t blur the vision of my heavenly citizenship.

Photo: pbs.org

Words Fail

Aemojibout 20 years ago, we truly escaped the mechanical limits of the printing press and acquired the ability to move more or less infinite numbers of words anywhere we wanted, as quickly as we wanted. I would be interested to know the word count of the entire Internet. It would be one of those ridiculous statistics with exponents and long strings of zeroes.

As I watched the unraveling of Ferguson, Mo., something struck me about the protesters’ raised hands. That image quickly is becoming a wordless icon in a world with a limitless capacity for verbal expression. Hands raised in surrender are the new hoodie for those who rightfully lament the tragedy surrounding so many young African-American men. It is far too soon to pick sides on what happened to Michael Brown, but the symbol already has a life of its own. It hardly matters what the facts in Ferguson turn out to be. And that’s the problem.

The more we speak in symbols and not words – in gestures, attire, emoticons, “likes” and hashtags (I don’t count those as words) – the less we truly think about or rigorously debate the things that divide us. There’s nothing wrong with symbolism, but someone once said anything that fits on a bumper sticker is too simplistic. Bumper stickers are looking like dissertations these days.

These symbols that now pass for debate become like flags for people to rally behind, and from their opposing camps they hurl abuse at each other, without ever doing the hard work of persuasion or – here’s a concept – compromise. Even when we do get down to verbal debate, it devolves into stock phrases, tired epithets and well-rehearsed talking points, often lobbed anonymously back and forth in comment threads on the news of the day.

I don’t have any brilliant answer for the death of real discussion, but I will keep trying to heed the advice of many a parent to a whining preschooler: “Use your words.” They are, especially in our day, an infinitely renewable resource – even though they sometimes seem awfully scarce.

The Day of the Storm

Hurricane

Photo: Chalky Lives

 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” – Matthew 7:24-27 (NIV)

A year ago, I sat with my wife and another couple watching the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers play their homecoming game, while overhead, the first wispy clouds of Sandy began to filter the sunlight streaming into the stadium. Everyone knew the storm was out there. I wonder how many really understood what was about to befall them. The Knights lost that game, but surely some of the spectators were just days away from a far more bitter homecoming – to the ruins of houses that literally had been built on sand.

The parable of the wise and foolish builders has at least a couple of layers of meaning, one of which is: Put your faith in the right Person, build your life on the Rock, and you will weather the storms of life better than someone who trusts in the wrong people or things, or only in the self. But God has pointed me lately to transitions in the Bible that start with “therefore” or “so,” and this is another of those passages. Here’s what came before it:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23 NIV)

Jesus was talking about “that day,” which usually is taken to mean the Day of the Lord or Judgment Day. So the storm that beats on the two builders’ houses is much more than illness or loss or adversity. It makes Sandy look like a summer squall. You won’t ride this one out with your generator, beans and toilet paper. It’s the coming storm of God’s judgment on the Earth, and it will blow away everything in our lives that isn’t built on God.

For those who have built on wealth, power, privilege, earthly relationships, even good deeds and clean living apart from God, truly everything will be lost. But those whose bedrock is Jesus – His dying for their sins and His rising from the dead – there will be a joyous homecoming to a room in the Father’s house, where the warranty is good for eternity (John 14:2). It won’t matter to them what they lost on Earth, because even their earthly gains will look like losses next to what the Father and Son have prepared (Philippians 3:8). I hope that you have that homecoming in your future.

About That Little Supreme Court Case…

keep-calm-and-love-on-15475“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.” – Isaiah 41:10 (NIV)

As the Supreme Court deliberates a potentially momentous decision on gay marriage, I’ve said about all I have to say right here. Agree or disagree, but don’t fear.

(Photo credit: keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk)

Of Popes and Progress

English: Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter ...

“I the Lord do not change.” – Malachi 3:6 (NIV)

My interest in the election of Pope Francis lies somewhere between the rapt attention of the pilgrims at St. Peter’s, and the bemused detachment of an observer who doesn’t know a catechism from a cassock. As an ex-Catholic, I feel no duty to obey the leader of a denomination I left more than 25 years ago. Yet I wish Francis well, and I can’t help but feel the direction of the Catholic church has some place in the greater story God is writing, perhaps to conclude in my or my children’s lifetime.

Almost as interesting have been the reactions of rank-and-file Catholics to the events of the past month. Not that all Catholics think this way, but a couple of on-the-street sound bites from one local newscast gave a remarkable, condensed summary of how people in our age think about religion. The reporter asked a man and a woman what they hoped to see from the new Pope. The man said he hoped for “reform,” which he defined as “loosening up the rules a little.” The woman offered that the church needed to “move with the times.”

The man’s response reflected the common view of religion as a set of man-made rules with a supernatural overlay to keep the superstitious rubes in line. He and the woman also showed what so many people want – a religion that doesn’t change them, but changes for them. Nothing in their responses suggested a dynamic relationship with a living but unchanging God.

Clearly, I have my differences with the Catholic church, or I wouldn’t have left it. But I won’t, as some do, call it a cult or suggest that Catholics can’t have authentic, saving faith. And there are things I very much respect. One is the way the church reflects the unchanging nature of God. It will not and should not change its teachings simply because a world that doesn’t follow God has moved on. If a teaching changes, it should be to align with eternal truth where there has been error. This principle seems lost on that man and woman on the street, and countless millions more like them.

If changing with the times means simply speaking to the world as it is – yes, the church needs to do that. But it’s a matter of applying timeless principles to the times, not changing the principles to fit the times. The transformations wrought by history leave the church with issues to address that were inconceivable in the first century. But God isn’t surprised by any of it, and if we seek Him through prayer and His Word, He will point the way for us without changing who He is. Unfortunately, some churches have tried to redraw the picture of God to please their members. Congregants whose churches hold the line look at the churches that waver, and they naturally want some of that.

As for people equating religion with rules, the Catholic church (and others) bears some responsibility for that perception. At least in my experience, an enduring weakness of the Catholic church has been a failure to point its members to a one-on-one relationship with God. Instead there are liturgies, hoops to jump through and mediators of the believer’s standing with the Lord. But before non-Catholics start feeling all superior, think of the dos and don’ts that have piled up in many Protestant denominations.

Whatever banner they fly, churches have done much to distort the world’s understanding of who God is and how He wants to relate to us. Here’s hoping Pope Francis can do for Catholics what needs to be done for millions of churchgoers in every denomination.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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