Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Strange Things Which Happen When You Google Your Name

When the man introduced himself to me as an "independent journalist," I didn't think an awful lot about it. There are often journalists writing for blogs and small magazines around religious conventions and conferences. He spent a while talking to me, a very pleasant guy.

I had gone to the mic during a comment time after a presentation at the Renewing the Evangelical Mission Conference at Gordon Conwell last month. The context was a talk during which the presenter suggested that what the church needed for new vitality was more focus on correct doctrine. I suggested that maybe we have correct doctrine by the bucketloads and what we're missing is a willingness to suffer. In my conversation with the reporter afterwards, we started to talk about immigration and immigrants.

I Googled my name today (I'm told this is a wise thing to do, but I'd do it anyway because I'm self-centered) and got several pages into it and discovered that my little interview landed in the WASHINGTON POST. While writing this blog entry I looked up the web address for the Post article and found out that people were writing about the article in the Post while naming me (as the pastor of Highlands!) and several others. If you are interested, you can find Highlands mentioned on First Things, Mike Potter's Blog and BlackChristianNews.com as well as some others.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Renewing the Mission

Gordon-Conwell Seminary
South Hamilton, MA

I'm not sure how I ended up here. Some months ago I received a flyer in the mail for a conference and I mat the speakers list, "I've never really been to a conference before and here are a bunch of cool speakers; I should go." I drive everywhere it seems, so I drove...23 hours...to New England. It's very pretty here...and cold.

I have been struck by two of the talks especially so far. The first was a talk by Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian. He spoke on the relationship between human flourishing and the pursuit of pleasurable experiences. In one sense, as he described it, there is little substantive difference between an obsession with classical music and the most degraded drug addiction. Both are the pursuit of experience instead of the pursuit of God. I couldn't even come close to writing quickly enough. I am sure they will publish a book from this conference, but I don't know if I can wait for it.

The other talk which struck me somewhat surprised me. J. I. Packer was to give a talk on the renewal of catechesis (the act of catechizing). He is ill and not allowed to travel, so his co-author (Parret) presented some of Packer's paper. Two of the very helplful things that he read were a description of the outline of ancient and Reformation catechetical content and the relationship between the rise of Sunday Schools and the decline of catechesis. Two of the greatest periods of the Church were the ancient pre-Middle Age church and the Reformation Church to the Puritan times. Catechism was prominent in their church life. Catechism tended to center on three areas: Nicene (or Apostle's) Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. These areas correspond to teaching Christian Truth, Christian Behavior and give a roadmap for Christian Communion with God. Sunday School programs, which are a recent development in the Church, were a successful outreach to unchurched children which ended up supplanting the formal training programs for covenant children. Since the Sunday School unions were inter-denominational the material quickly began to focus on the things which did not intersect so much with doctrine - Bible stories. This is the hallmark of most Sunday School curricula today.

I'm going to blog more on this later, but it is back into the Sessions.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Belated Praise

From South Hampton, MA (Panera)
(Pastor Travis is attending the "Renewing the Evangelical Mission Conference" this week)

I struggle constantly with getting certain types of tasks done. There are things which I intend to do which I seem either to not get done or encounter monumental struggles in doing so. A friend of mine, unnamed but easily identifiable, is a citizen of another country. His mission board has encouraged him to obtain health insurance but he cannot purchase insurance from a US company as a foreign national whose residence is in another country. He's here legally, but not permanently.

Well, earlier in the year he got a terrible stomach/side ache. It became apparent quickly that this was not some stomach bug and I and his other friends ordered him to the hospital. The long and short of it was a night at Memorial getting his appendix removed and him going home the next day. When the surgeon came by to check on him and heard his story, the doc just wrote off his fee.

I told my friend I would work on the bills for this thing and all of the applications for aid. And I did...for a while. But in the back and forth with the hospital (always wanting another piece of information) and the plethora of other providers, I set the whole thing aside until I had more time. Days rolled into weeks and weeks (to my shame) became months.

My friend paid off the smaller providers, but he was left with three big bills: the hospital ($10,000), and two other docs ($1500 total). I finally got all of the paperwork back out, organized it and saw a line that made my heart sink: "This application must be turned in within ten days or it may be denied." Swallowing my pride and dreading what I was going to find out, I picked up the phone. I told the lady at the hospital that I was a lousy friend and that I had this paperwork still to finish. "Just send it in," she replied. So I did.

A week later we get a "Final Notice" from the hospital. Knowing that this means we need to cut a payment deal before this thing goes to collection, I called the hospital. I should also say that by this time I had explained everything to my friend and instead of sharing (very deserved) disappointment, he told me how much he appreciated what I was doing (a VERY charitable point of view).

The account representative at Memorial looks up the account and says, "I show a zero balance." I told her the situation and she read through the file, "The hospital has reviewed your friend's situation and decided to waive the entire bill." I started crying on the phone. I could barely get out, "Thank you, thank you so much." I think she was a little uncomfortable with this man crying on the phone. I called my friend and cryed again.

Several things have occurred to me as I have thought about this. First, my indwelling sin being what it is, there is always a plausible reason for not doing things I need to do. The lazy man in Proverbs (22:13) says, "There is a lion in the road! I shall be killed in the streets!" Second, we often "do not have because we do not ask." James 4:2 And often we cancel out our prayers by not acting as if God will (or even may) answer our prayers. This is called "doublemindedness" in Scripture. God was waiting for me to finish asking and he was ready to provide. Third, my failure to ask is almost always rooted in a defective view of God (lack of faith). I don't believe God will answer my prayers because I often don't see him as my gracious father. Matthew 7:7-11 Fourth, our health care system is not full of evil-baddies. Most people involved with health care are in it to help people and struggle with how to do so and stay in business. It gives them joy to be able to do something kind for someone. Fifth, just as our heavenly Father loves us more than we can ever understand, our friends often love us more than we give them credit for as well. Their love "covers a multitude of" our "sins."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Deeper into Liberalism

UPDATE - The two young journalists have now released two more videos in their gotcha journalism series on ACORN. Apparently they had a fairly easy time finding ACORN employees willing to help them lie to banks and the IRS while setting up a child prostitution business. Exposing this organization has now led to the US Census Bureau cancelling their contract with ACORN. I wonder why an organization under investigation in 15 states for vote fraud still had a contract with the Census. The House of Representatives voted to de-fund ACORN federally. Now the states will follow. ACORN is probably doomed.

Biblical principle - Dragging evil into the light is often the best way to kill it.

ACORN is threatening to sue Fox News for airing the videos. A DA in Baltimore (who was part of Obama's campaign) is threatening to file wiretap charges against the two young people.

ACORN is a community action group patterned after the principles of Saul Alinsky, who wrote the "Bible" of community organizing, Rules for Radicals. His principles made ACORN the force that it became. Barack Obama worked for Vote Now, an ACORN affiliated group. Hillary Clinton wrote her 96 page bachelor's thesis on Saul Alinsky. The two young journalists who exposed ACORN say that they decided to use Alinsky's principles against ACORN. Radicals become the establishment and then get fat and lazy. The next radical takes them down.

Here's a taste of Alinksy from his book, Rules for Radicals. This is the dedication:

"Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer"

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Following" & "Subscribing"

A conversation with one of my blog "followers" revealed that people probably have the impression that "following" a blog is the same as "subscribing." Apparently if you "follow" you still do not receive notification of a new posting. "Following" a blog is a) a way to show your support of the blog and b) a way to organize the blogs you are following from your Blogger account "dashboard." If you "subscribe," you will receive either the posts or the comments (or both) by email. I've added that functionality to the top of the blog.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

An Entirely Personal Note and Praise

Several people at Highlands have mentioned that I seem like I've lost weight. I have, and it's intentional. I've lost over 30 pounds so far and hope to lost about 20 more. Someone told me today that I looked too thin. I'm actually still overweight by anyone's measure - I just have a large frame, wear baggy shirts, and have been big long enough that people are used to seeing me that way. I've been on the Atkin's Diet, eating lots of meat and vegetables, moderate amounts of fruit, and very little simple carbs (bread, rice, sugar, etc.).

I've been convicted of my gluttony for a long time. I love to eat. I eat as a sensual pleasure and I eat to deal with stress, fear and anger. It is just sin, plain and simple. Food is an idol of mine. My wife has gently encouraged me to eat less for years, but I haven't succeeded. With the Atkin's Diet food is just less interesting because I'm eating the same thing over and over again. I may have to eat like this for the rest of my life. If so, it is better than the alternative. And since my chloresterol, blood pressure and blood sugar seem to be doing well with this diet, I probably will be healthier eating like this than something else that doesn't keep my weight down.

Another issue for me is that I'm an older father. I want to be around for my kids and want to be able to be active enough to enjoy them. In my family, the obese men get rewarded with heart disease and diabetes. While I acknowledge God's sovereignty in my length of life, it is pretty stupid to habitually take actions to reduce my life expectancy. Which brings me to the next point...

Back when my youngest son was born three years ago I had a medical test which indicated slightly high liver scores. My doctor told me the probable reason was that I was overweight. I didn't get my scores re-checked until recently, right after I started my diet. This time they were substantially higher and he decided to give it a month and see if the scores kept rising and give me a hepatitis test (given my travel history to developing countries and one war zone). He still thought that my scores were probably high because of weight, but we wanted to rule out Hep A-C.

Reading up on hepatitis gave new life to my motivation to lose weight and eat better, so I continued on my diet, waited a month, and went in for another test. This time I had a different nurse and we started chatting about the testing. It turned out that she was a Charismatic Christian and she said confidently, "I'm going to pray, we're going to believe God for healing, and you are not going to have hepatitis." My first thought was that she was a little bit wacky. My second thought was "I'll take that prayer."

A couple of weeks later I get a letter from my doc. No hepatitis, and my liver scores were perfectly normal. His note said, "You might have had some mild virus that raised your scores." That's true. And maybe I had something else and God heard the confident prayer of the nurse. Either way, to allow my health to slide as a result of my gluttony would be to trash his gift.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Liberal Abuse of the Poor

Conservatives and Liberals alike have their share of guilt when it comes to abuse of the poor. One of the things which makes Liberal abuse of the poor particularly aggregious is that they usually do it under the guise of "helping" the people that they are abusing. As I pointed out last Sunday, every tyrant of the 20th century rose to power claiming to be an advocate of the poor. Most of them then proceeded to abuse the poor in horrific ways.

A great deal of Liberal activism in the United States is a sham which hurts the poor. One example is the Community Reinvestment Act, which was a piece of legislation designed to move poorer people in depressed communities into home ownership. While the goal of home ownership sounds noble, the real impact was moving vulnerable people out of stable living situations into homes which they were not equipped to care for and which they could not afford. The poorer people who ended up losing their homes were actually set back and the bad debt on all of this was re-packaged in a massive Ponzi scheme which contributed to the collapse of our economy.

It still amazes me that John McCain, who publically blew the whistle on this before it fell apart, ended up with the blame for the collapse and Barack Obama and Barney Frank ended up looking like heroes. Barney Frank was the head of the Congressional Financial Services Committee which John McCain confronted. Barack Obama was a "community organizer" who worked with ACORN to pressure banks into making these loans.

Now, ACORN is eligible for billions of dollars in federal "bailout" money even though it is under investigation for voter fraud. In a new twist to the "Liberals Hurt the Poor" saga, an independent undercover investigator posed as a pimp, took a woman posing as a prostitute with him and visited ACORN in Baltimore. There they received advice on how to get a home loan for the explicit purpose of conducting a sex business and how to hide underage girls from overseas working as prostitutes on his taxes. To put it plainly, this "Liberal" organization, with close ties to the president of the United States, was willing to help a man lie to set up a prostitution business and advice him on how he could hide his child sex/slavery business. It usually isn't the wealthy who end up in the sex trade, but the poor. It isn't the wealthy who end up as sex slaves, but the poorest and most desperate of the world's people.

ACORN has fired two of the Baltimore employees and claims that this is an isolated incident and a "set up." The question is, what kind of organization are they running where something like this could occur? What about their organization would attract someone who would be willing to help a pimp do something like this? This isn't very different than the Planned Parenthood affiliates who've been caught the same way agreeing to keep statutory rape (a crime) secret (also a crime) in order to secure abortion business.

What is it about these Liberal organizations which produces this kind of support of evil? Does anyone believe that Focus on the Family could be caught in the same kind of investigative sting?

If I can be forgiven for connecting this to the sermon series I just finished preaching, this is a glaring example of how Moral Relativism and Mocking Skepticism strangle out fruitfulness (social righteousness). If we don't accept God's standards for behavior and we don't believe that God is near to judge and to help us, our innate sinfulness will lead us far astray. You cannot have righteousness without God. Anytime there is no righteousness, the weakest members of our society suffer.

UPDATE: ACORN's claim that this was an "isolated incident" has taken a blow as the investigative reporter has now released a second video showing an employee of the Washington office of ACORN doing exactly the same thing (including the advice on how to hide his child prostitution business). Pray that this organization will be brought to repentance or will be shut down before they help (more?) actual criminals commit child-sex crimes.

Monday, September 7, 2009

C. S. Lewis & the Mango Orchard

I've heard (many times) an illustration of a mango orchard (usually used to teach a dynamic related to evangelism) which goes something like this: In a mango orchard the mangos do not ripen all at once, but over many weeks. So, instead of harvesting by cleaning all of the trees, the worker has to continually go back through the orchard looking for ripe fruit. I don't know if this illustration is accurate or not, but it pretty well describes my experience with books. Some books I acquire and browse and set down for months or years (decades even). They just don't resonate, or I'm just not able to understand them. I might understand the words and sentences, but I feel impatient or bored. Later and pick them up and discover solid gold. C. S. Lewis has been like that for me. Some of his writings I read and enjoyed long ago (Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity), others are just now becoming ripe.

From God in the Dock:

"Science progresses because scientists, instead of running away from such troublesome phenomena or hushing them up, are constantly seeking them out. In the same way, there will be progress in Christian knowledge only as long as we accept the challenge of the difficult or repellent doctrines. A 'liberal' Christianity which considers itself free to alter the Faith whenever the Faith looks perplexing or repellent must be completely stagnant. Progress is made only into a resisting material."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

C. S. Lewis on Speaking English

I ran across this little gem in God in the Dock. It is in a letter Lewis wrote to The Christian Century.

"In both countries an essential part of the ordination exam ought to be a passage from some recognized theological work set for translation into vulgar English - just like doing Latin prose. Failure on this paper should mean failure on the whole exam. It is absolutely disgraceful that we expect missionaries to the Bantus to learn Bantu but never ask whether our missionaries to the Americans or English can speak American or English. Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can't turn your faith into it, then either you don't understand it or you don't believe it."

Church members complain about this all of the time. "My pastor talks in a way I don't understand." I need to hear this as well as any other pastor.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Praising and Praying

I'm praising the Lord for the open, frank discussion on last Sunday at the congregational meeting. Thank you all for your godly and gentle deportment. Please continue to pray for the Session and for John as he begins another stage of Christian service at the First Presbyterian Church in Summerville.

This week I am interviewing and testing multiple applicants for our secretary/office manager position. Please pray! We need the right person to fill in the gaps of all my administrative failings. Pray that God would use the new person to advance his Kingdom at Highlands.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Praying for the Persecuted on the Day of Fasting

Brothers and Sisters,

As you fast and pray today (I observe the fast from sundown Thursday to sundown Friday) here are some deep needs in the Body of Christ which I found on the International Christian Concern website:

Over ten thousand Christians have fled Burma (Myanmar) for CHINA to escape the ongoing civil conflict in Myanmar. The military government in Myanmar is attempting to crush resistance to their rule in tribal areas. One of these tribal groups are the Karen, a mostly Christian group within the country.

Pakistani Christians continue to be persecuted by the government and attacked by mob violence under the new blasphemy law. Please pray for its repeal and protection for the many Christians in Pakistan.

The South Korean government is seeking to restrict the mission work of their citizens in Islamic countries after many South Korean missionaries have been arrested and expelled by Islamic countries. Please pray that God will keep does open for our brothers and sisters to share the gospel of Jesus in the Islamic world.

Please pray that the government of India will revise the legal status of Dalits from "Backward Classes" to "Scheduled Caste." This will give the Dalits the same political and socio-economic and educational opportunities as others. Many Dalits have become Christians.

In the Woodshed with John Owen

While sitting in the men's study this morning...

"If you hate sin as sin, and every evil way, you would be watchful against everything that grieves and disquiets the Spirit of God. You would not be concerned only about the sin that upsets your own soul! It is evident that you fight against this sin merely because it troubles you. If it did not bother your conscience you would let it alone. If it did not bother you, you would not bother it. Do you think that the Holy Spirit will help you in the treachery and falsehood of your own spirit? Do you think he will free you from this so you are free to go and commit another sin which grieves him?"

John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, 51.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sadness and Hope

As I struggle through the Scriptures for a memorial service sermon tomorrow, I'm thinking both about Charlene (who had been praying for the Lord to bring her home for some time) and the difficult situation at Highlands around the departure of our brother elder John. I'm listening to worship music, "you conquered the grave," "you are mighty to save." Amen and amen. Jesus is mighty to save. Pastors seek to save and manage and fix and it is all completely futile. JESUS is mighty to save. If I rest in him and his grace, I'll live in hope. As soon as I turn back to my own failing strength, hope flees from me. Dear Jesus, keep me from falling, from stumbling headlong over my own sin. Only you...

The Lord's Supper is this Sunday. Prepare your hearts to come to his Table. Jesus is inviting us to come to him in our weakness and need, promising to always be with us, even to the end of the age. I invite you to join us in praying and fasting on Friday in preparation for his Table. Pray that the Spirit would reveal to you your sin and need and grant you repentance. Pray that your elders would walk humbly before God and minister in Christ's church in the love of Christ. Pray for your brothers and sisters around the world who are even now being persecuted and killed for the testimony of Jesus.

Our teaching time will include a time for questions about women in the church. We'll struggle through God's word together and seek his peace and healing at his Table.

Dr. K.'s New Book on James

Many people at Highlands know Henry Krabbendam, emeritus professor of theology at Covenant College and long-time missionary to Uganda. He is a passionate, heroic, and eccentric figure. His booming, rich, Dutch-accented voice, his 6' 9'' frame, his broad smile and easy gentle hugs are all unforgettable. Thousands of students have learned to do theology under his teaching and today housewives to theologians think in the categories which Dr. K. teaches: “100% plus 100% is 100%.” “It doesn't fit in your mind, but it fits in your heart.” “The One and the Many.”

Many hundreds (at least) have journeyed with Dr. K. to Uganda and seen God working and had their lives changed forever. Military evacuations, foiled terrorist attacks, pit latrines, preaching on the streets and in pagan temples are all part of the incredible life ministry of Dr. K.

A few weeks ago Dr. K. wrote me inviting me to participate in a new ministry. In the course of the back and forth I asked about his forthcoming commentary on James. Dr. K. has been teaching on James for years and he told me that he was using some of my writing on confession of sin in him commentary. He sent me his commentary (all 1007 pages) EMBEDDED in an email and told me to distribute it. He wants the commentary “out.” I sat on it for a few days before something occurred to me. I wasn't going to use an electronic copy. I don't particularly like three-ring binders or comb binding. So I published it and ordered three copies.

Technology for book publishing has developed to the point that it is possible to set up a book oneself and print copies as single units. It just costs more per copy, but it is the greatest thing in the world for low-investment, no wastage publishing. I uploaded his book to one of these services and should have three copies a week later, bound in a large paperback.

For those of you interested in such things as commentaries or books on theology (Dr. K's book is both), or if you are just interested in having some great Dr. K. material at your fingertips, you can order the book by clicking on the book below. While the publisher's copy will be undoubtably nicer, it with also most likely be more expensive. I've priced the book at cost. Neither I nor Dr. K. will make anything from these pre-release sales. With shipping, it'll cost you about $20 per copy. Enjoy and be blessed!

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Goodbye Rod Jackson

Last Friday, the Lord took Rod Jackson, a former deacon at our church, children's ministry powerhouse, father of five and friend to many, home to be with his savior. I posted this memory on a blog dedicated to Rod.

I remember Rod coming down the concourse with my son in his arms. It gave him a tremendous amount of joy to hand him to us. "Look at his feet! They're huge! He's going to be a hulk!" He said it like he was handing us a Grade-A son. And he was right. After he said it, he laughed and laughed. I loved his laugh.

I'm sure that my son and his two youngest kids were the hardest adoptions he ever did. I lost count of the amount of times he had to fly out of state to tend to something or the other, pushing things through. There was some case manager involved who was grossly incompetent and negligent. Rod fought and fought until they did things right.

I was a little astonished that Rod went on to found an adoption agency. I figured that the first experience was so difficult that only a crazy person would want to repeat it. But Rod was a fighter. There were a few times where it got the better of him, but many, many times where he did something good because he stuck with it long after anyone else would have quit. If Rod was on your side, you had an army.

I've never known anyone who could keep the attention of so many kids for so long with sheer energy and love. One year our VBS was rained out and all we had was one big room with over a 100 kids. Rod kept them entertained so that others (and Rod) could share about Jesus with them. The high point for me was Rod singing "One in a Million" while we rolled on the floor.

Another memory. During our adoption we did something really stupid, considering our weird adoption situation (which I WON'T confess here). I went to Rod to tell him and expected him to confirm my worst fears. Instead he laughed and laughed. When he finished laughing I wasn't afraid any more.

Emergent Churrch = Tolerant?

Here's a confession, I don't really know much about the "Emergent Church" movement. Pastor Mark Driscoll is supposed to be the pastor of a prominent church in the movement. I've heard that the movement is characterized by a softening of biblical truth. I don't think Mark got the message that he's supposed to back off on truth. But he sure is entertaining...

Naked Role Models

Sometimes I don't know whether I'm closer to weeping, heaving, or blowing a gasket. Like when I wrote this letter last week...

12 June 2008

The Walker County Messenger

Dear Editor,

Reading Ms. Martin's column about Flintstone native Ashley Harkleroad's decision to uncover herself for Playboy magazine, I was struck by several things.

The first was the comment that the nude pictures of his daughter "were done in good taste." The only time a woman (or a man) takes her clothes off in "good taste" is for her husband. Our sexuality is a gift we give to our spouses, not a commodity to be sold to paying customers (in this case to pornography king Hugh Hefner and by default to the readers - a strange term in this context - of Playboy).

Second, the opening line, which seems to say her father regularly picks up copies of Playboy illustrates a problem in our culture. To be fair, I think that the opening line is probably a rhetorical device and I hope her dad doesn't really read Playboy. But there is an important principle for us as fathers. Our daughters will never learn to treasure their sexuality until they see their fathers honoring women. We must teach our daughters that their appearances are not linked to their value. That means that we complement and encourage their creativity, work, service to others, and most of all, godliness. We protect them from people who would sexualize them, even in the way they dress. Mom may not realize how a man might look at a girl dressed a certain way. As fathers, we must speak up.

We also need to ask ourselves, what needs to go out of our lives and our homes? Do our internet services need a filter? Are there magazines in our closets that need to go? A racy movie or a copy of a swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated are not worth the message that we give to our girls that women are primarily objects for men's sexual desires.

Last, I was struck by the contrast between a gifted professional athlete who took off her clothes for money and Taylor Mullinax, the Gordon Lee freshman who took the initiative to make "chemo hats" for children with cancer. Taylor is "full of good deeds" (Acts 9:26), as was Dorcas in the Bible. In her service to children she she has adorned herself with "the hidden person of the heart." Ashley Harkleroad adorned herself with nothing at all.

Call to Prayer

I have a new hero, Fr. Zakaria Boutros, a Coptic priest now living in the United States. While the rest of us are lamenting Islam, Boutros is putting his life on the line to respond. He is apparently winning converts to Christ from al-Islam.

As a disclaimer, the Copts are not Evangelicals. In, fact they are not even part of Orthodox Christian communion. But as Monophysites, they are about as close as you can be to Orthodoxy (as defined by the Nicean Creed). Oddly, the literature published on his website seems somewhat Evangelical in tone, exhorting people to place their faith in Christ and to receive Jesus into their hearts.

Goodbye Gary Gygax

I think it was in 1978 that an older friend lent me a paperback rulebook to a game that changed my world, Dungeons & Dragons. I think it was sub-titled, Basic Rulebook. Old-time gamers will remember the blue cover with the dragon. It was before the publication of the Player's Handbook, or the Dungeon Master's Guide, both of which I bought as soon as they appeared. The game brought me into a world of imagination and fraternity with other like-minded geeks. The creator, who died yesterday at 69, was Gary Gygax, to whom I will always feel a great debt.

For for the next six years I played Dungeons & Dragons one or two times a week for four to ten hours a sitting. I wrote volumes of descriptions of alternate worlds and drew scores of maps. I read a small mountain of books on the Middle Ages, weapons and armor. I went to conventions and competed on teams (dismally, I might add). I read magazines on gaming. I even play-tested (once or twice) new fantasy games. And I still have a tremendous unused collection of rule books, figurines and dice.

I say all of this knowing, that as an evangelical pastor, I am supposed to eschew anything having to do with gratuitous violence, the occult, or paganism. Dungeons & Dragons is full of killing, magic spells and pagan gods. Dungeons & Dragons is to occultism what marijuana is to heroin - the gateway drug. Dungeons & Dragons is a prime recruitment tool for Satanic covens. And hundreds of kids who play Dungeons & Dragons commit suicide every year. And the last three sentences are utter rubbish and believed fervently by many evangelicals.

As someone who was just about as deeply involved in Dungeons & Dragons as it was possible to be, I can say that the majority of people I knew in the gaming community were not occultists, but agnostics. They didn't practice paganism, they made fun of it. And as far as depression and suicide? Well, Dungeons & Dragons attracted kids who were sometimes a bit...odd. Depressives and imagination tend to go hand in hand. But to tell the truth, I saw more kids come OUT of depression because they were continually interacting with others and being (arguably) productive. The fantasy worlds weren't real, but the friends were. And that is a big thing to kids who don't fit in.

I remember being made fun of in school for reading. What kind of sap would walk around with books? One close gaming friend was a football player and he kept both his intelligence and his gaming fairly under wraps from his team mates. There were two groups of people who would accept just about anyone at my school, freaks (druggies) and gamers. (Notice I didn't mention Christians.) I had a foot in each group and my involvement with the second severely curtailed my involvement with the first. I'm not recommending the gaming community as something healthy or Christian, it's just better than watching TV and definately not Christian. But the criticisms leveled at it by Christians tend to be ignorant, uncharitable, and unimaginative. The gaming community cannot meet the need for belonging that ultimately should be met in the body of Christ. The secular-skeptical atmosphere is not occultism, it's simply unbelief. And the campy treatment of paganism tends to lead to a denigration of all things spiritual (instead of glorifying it and promoting occultism, quite the opposite).

What Gary Gygax and the old gaming world have revealed is two great deficiencies in modern Christianity: a) a lack of imagination, and b) a lack of a place (and a lack of openness) for many kinds of youth.

"Christian Literature" is often synonymous with warmed-over syrupy drivel, romance novels for the prudish. "Christian Music" is filled with bands and performers who make their living copying better secular performers (worst one I remember, a substandard Christian "bluesman" named "Sleepy Ray" who dressed like Stevie Ray Vaughn, except in white). [In all fairness it has gotten a LOT better.] Churches produce "Christian Drama" which wouldn't pass muster in most high schools. There are notable exceptions to all of these, but too few. And the mediocre get plenty of attention because they're safe. There's just nothing that threatening about the Newsboys or a Francine Rivers novel (yes, I read ONE).

Christians read C. S. Lewis without attending to what he said. There is something absolutely indespensible about imagination. Because we can't imagine, our Christianity looks just like the rest of our culture. We're as worldly as everybody else, we just anti-homosexual.

Our unconfronted worldliness also makes us very interested in success - in our youth programs for instance. Our youth programs tend to be filled with kids either in the mainstream of youth-culture cool, or with kids in the Christian-culture safe. The first type of youth program doesn't have a place for the geek or oddball. The second doesn't have a place for the kid who struggles with sin or habitually asks the hard questions. Growth is the goal. Memory: I called a great youth pastor I knew who had a big youth program and asked if a vulnerable little girl I had in my drug program would be welcomed at his group. She was proto-goth, introspective, smoker, non-Christian family, sober, and completely open to the Gospel. His answer: "Honestly, I don't think she'd fit in."

When I was a gamer, I knew Christianity was a bunch of shallow bunk because they listened to crummy music, couldn't make a rational argument and were convinced we were summoning demons while eating Doritos and rolling dice. Thankfully, I read the Word and met Jesus. He didn't seem like someone who read shallow novels and listened to bad music. And I thought he'd like me.

I heard a sermon one time where the pastor said our churches should be like Cheers. Everybody knows your name, your troubles are all the same, and they're always glad you came. I like that. But I also hope we can be a little like Gary Gygax, and make a place for those who are different and imagine a different world. Not a secular world with a thin coat of Gospel paint (modern Christianity), but a Kingdom that is completely and radically different than the world we live in now.

Jesus' Wife?

"Behold, the greatest cover-up in human history. Not only was Jesus Christ married, but He was a father." And, we find out from the Da Vinci Code, he was married to Mary Magdalene.

This stunning assertion is one of the key revelations in Dan Brown’s book. Jesus had a wife, and it was Mary Magdalene, a familiar figure from the Gospels. Mary Magdalene is the woman out of whom Jesus had cast out seven demons (Luke 8:2) and who was present at the crucifixion and afterwards a witness to the resurrection of Jesus (Mark 15:40; 16:1). She is not to be confused with the other Marys in the Gospels: The mother of Jesus, the sister of Martha, or the Mary who anointed Jesus. Could she have been the wife of Jesus? No, not a chance. No reliable scholar, Christian or non, would ever make such a claim. The only people who are claiming this are 1) gullible people who read the Da Vinci Code; 2) cranks writing pseudo-scholarship for the UFO crowd; 3) novelists using books written by cranks to sell books to gullible people. There is not a shred of evidence to support such a claim.

But Dan Brown says there is. And he claims "all depictions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." He claims that he "researched" the material in his book, and that he "stands by" his research. One way to lie convincingly when you have to pass off a really big whopper is to look people in the eye and say confidently, over and over again, that you are telling the truth. Eventually people will start to think that no one would say something so ridiculous if it were not true. If you assert something long enough, some people will start to believe you. Elvis isn’t dead, he just got tired of all the publicity. He’s really a cook in a truck stop in Kansas.

Another way to lie convincingly is to cite a bunch of documents that people are not familiar with, that have some kind of mystery surrounding them because of age or circumstance. This has several advantages. First, no one knows what is really in the documents and most people are too lazy to go find out. Second, this works best if you don’t completely lie about the contents, but just exaggerate them or twist their meaning. Third, non-scholars don’t always know how to judge a reliable document from an old gossip rag. If Jesus doesn’t come back in the next hundred years, somebody is going to dig up a copy of the Weekly World News and wonder if Bat Boy really existed and whether he helped fight Saddam Hussein. This is the essence of pseudo-scholarship, it seems like deep stuff, but it is really about appearances. It is like a redneck overhaul: paint the black parts black, the silver parts silver, and spray a can of engine cleaner over the whole thing. It LOOKS like a new engine.

One way that Brown tries to lie convincingly is to use the Gospel of Mary. The "gospel" is a short document of which we only have two ancient copies. In the Gospel, Mary reveals to the disciples secret teaching that he hid from the rest of them. She then gives them the secret teaching, which is a bewildering little lecture that makes little sense to modern listeners (I tried reading it to my congregation: Eyes glassing over, drool escaping from corners of mouths, people sliding onto the floor…ok, I’m exaggerating, but only a little). There’s also stuff in there about Jesus loving Mary Magdalene more than the others and him kissing her on the [hole in manuscript]. Wow, obviously Jesus and Mary were married and founded a goddess-worshiping sex cult!

The first thing about this that all reputable scholars are pointing out, is that if the Gospel of Mary WAS a reliable account, which it is not, it doesn’t even begin to advance Brown’s claims. Christians greeted each other with kisses. We know this from both Scripture (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14), and also from Church history. The practice of Christians calling each other "brother" and "sister" and kissing each other led to early charges of incest. Tertullian, a second and third century Christian dealt with this at great length. It means nothing for a document to claim that Jesus kissed someone. It also means very little that Jesus said (in this document) that he "loved" Mary more than the others. This language appears in Scripture in very non-sexual ways (John 11:5; 13:23; and others). And in the Gospel of Mary it is used not to establish a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary, but establish authority for the distinctive teaching she is imparting.

The second thing about all of this is that the Gospel of Mary has never had any claim for authenticity. The earliest anyone thinks it could have been composed is one hundred years after Jesus. There is no indication that the author/ess had any connection with anyone associated with Jesus. No church ever used it. No pastor or church scholar ever endorsed it. So why did it even exist?

It existed because it was a "gnostic" document. The gnostics were teachers who believed that this world was created by a an evil or bumbling god (the demiurge) who had become detached from the source of other gods and the source of the other gods (the pleroma) had sent another manifestation of itself to this world to rescue it from the demiurge. Those who understood this great mystery would themselves be saved from this terrible physical world that the demiurge created. I’m grossly oversimplifying this, but it probably still doesn’t make sense (I don’t know if the gnostics really understood it either). Here’s the really simple version: Matter bad, spirit good. Dumb people bad, smart people good. Simple religion bad, complicated philosophy good.

The document is a way to put gnostic religion/philosophy into the mouth of someone close to Jesus. Mary is a convenient candidate because she didn’t write anything else, so there’s nothing to contradict her gnostic teaching. This technique is called "borrowing authority." Find someone who is well respected and come up with a way to say that they are on your side. This doesn’t usually draw away many faithful adherents, but it does give you an edge with the undecided.

The Gospel of Mary is a fantasy piece of gnostic drivel which doesn’t even promote what Dan Brown is using it for. The writer of Mary was a neo-Platonic gnostic, Dan Brown is a sex-religion pagan. The Gospel of Mary isn’t a challenge to Christianity, it is a bad joke.

When the State Opposes the Church

At the risk of beating on a dead horse, I’m writing again on the topic of immigration, this time to address a specific piece of legislation, House Resolution 3347. HR 3347 is most likely dead in the water, as it seems the United States Senate will never pass it. So why would I take time to talk about it at all?

There are lots of reasons. While this specific bill may be dead, the ideas driving the bill are very much alive. And issues of justice are the major theme of the prophetic books in the Bible. While some groups of Christians effectively jettison over two thirds of the Bible from their lives, this is a terrible mistake. God hasn’t changed. He still is concerned for the poor and powerless. Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 25 ("The Sheep and the Goats") declares that those who have no ministry to the poor and powerless will be sentenced to eternal death.

HR 3347 also effects many Christians (an "illegal alien" is more likely to be an evangelical Christian than a narco-killer), and Christians should think through how to respond to these kind of things, both as affected people and ministers to affected people.

While much of the Christian right has lined up behind the anti-immigration movement (I’ve been receiving anti-immigrant emails from the American Family Association, apparently a completely separate organization than the Mexican Family Association), the issues for Christians are not as simple as many political statements. Whenever the Church lines up completely with a political party, either the party or the Church has become an idol. The Church can never line up completely with a political party (and never should try) because the Church has as its calling the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Political parties have as their calling the advancement and improvement of the Kingdom of this world. And "friendship with the world is enmity with God."

I hope you caught that. The Church and the State both have legitimate obligations. But often those obligations compete. If the State gives up her obligations to support the mission of the Church, she is irresponsible, and the Church becomes polluted. If the Church gives up her obligations and becomes a pawn of the State or a Party, then she is a whore. Christians should strive to be good citizens inasmuch as doing so does not compromise the mission of the Gospel. The State should attempt to be friendly to the Church inasmuch as she can do so without becoming the Church.

At no time in my recent memory has a clearer example of this arisen than the recent immigration controversy. I know that some of you might protest that the abortion debate is more weighty, but in the abortion debate the line between the State and the Church is more clear and the State has not attempted to bind the Church to the degree which the House of Representatives has.

Many consider this a cut-and-dried law-and-order issue. It is against the law for people to enter this country without proper documentation and permission, therefore Christians should support law-keeping and law-enforcement. Likewise, Christians should not support any scheme with encourages law-breaking, dishonors those who kept the law at great effort or expense, or weakens the intent of law. All of these are arguments which Christians have made against amnesty programs and offering guest-worker status to aliens here in the US illegally.

The problem is that Rome was a law-and-order empire. They were all about law-and-order. And if Christianity was simply a law-and-order religion, Christians would never have been persecuted and Jesus would likely have not died on the cross. Rome had a law-and-order religion, Stoicism. One of the greatest Stoic teachers, Marcus Aurelius, was also a persecutor of Christians. John and Peter stood before the Sanhedrin as Peter thundered, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right to obey men rather than God." Christianity recognizes that there is always a higher law above the laws of men. If you make abortion legal, it is still murder. If you pass "Jim Crow" laws, they are still unjust. Plenty of laws are a stench in God’s nostrils. Christians are not obligated to keep all laws, and some laws they are obligated to actively resist.

Currently we have an immigration problem in our country. At least 12 million people are living in this country illegally. Terrorism is a growing global problem and the government cannot adequately protect its people if it cannot secure its borders. Our country’s population is not growing with the demand for workers, largely because we’ve murdered 40 million children in utero. And many of the undocumented persons in our country come from countries where the United States has fostered fascist governments fighting "wars" on communism, wars which are excuses for bands of US-equipped militias to murder, rape, and pillage villagers in Central America (does "Iran-Contra" ring any bells?). The villagers fled to the United States, which would not grant them refugee status because to do so would be to admit the covert wars which the government denies waging [The US government finally shut down its School of the Americas, where militias were trained to torture and kill villagers]. What would Jesus have the Church do?

Currently our North and South borders are fairly porous. Incidentally, most of the prospective terrorists the United States have apprehended have flown into our airports or driven across from Canada. Why would a terrorist make his way across a Mexican desert on foot when he can drive across at Buffalo, New York? According to our current laws, an immigration violator is guilty of violating immigration code but is not a criminal any more than you are a criminal by local standards if you don’t mow your lawn. That is why police departments don’t round up "illegal aliens," they have no jurisdiction. This means that our immigration laws, which ostensibly exist to control the flow of desperately poor people into the US have about as much effect as setting a cold glass of water in front of a person dying of thirst, saying, "Don’t drink this," and walking away. Central Americans know that the US doesn’t really enforce its laws, and know that they are not technically criminals, and so they come seeking economic opportunity. They want to eat well, have good health care, and want their kids to have the same opportunities that we do. But the "Republican base" is fed up with the tide of illegal immigration, and it’s an election year. So the politicians are acting. And the House passes HR 4437.

One thing that HR 4437 would do is increase security at the borders. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. The government has a responsibility to protect its citizens. Liberals wail about the idea of a wall, but there’s nothing Scriptural against it. All nations in the ancient world had walls, some around cities, others around whole nations, and the Bible never says a word about it. There is some question about whether or not it will work. Building a wall without having a system for moving the needed people into the country legally is a little like building a dam without a spillway. Before you get the whole thing up it’ll fall and wash down the stream. Maybe we can get some Mexican guest-workers to build it.

Another part of HR 4437 is the changing of the status of violators. Under HR 4437, they become felons, and not just the violators who enter after the passage of the law, but all who are currently in the United States. This provision might have been struck down by the courts as being a violation of the US Constitution. It is very close to being an ex post facto (after the fact) law (forbidden by the Constitution). The framers of HR 4437 have denied this, saying that there would be a "grace period" wherein people could return to Mexico (or elsewhere) without penalty. The biblically questionable part of this has to do with justice and compassion. These people have built lives here. Consider an analogy. The city you live in has a law that you need a building permit to add on to your house. The permits are expensive and City Hall grants so few that you know it’s not worth it to try. You know that if you get caught, they’ll fine you a small amount and let you go. So you build without the permit. After living in the addition for a few years, the city passes a law making it a felony to build without a permit. The law will effect everyone retroactively. You complain that you’ve already build the edition but they say that you’ll have a "30-day grace period" to tear it down. I’m sure you’d bet overjoyed at their compassion.

HR 4437 would also up the bar for employers who hire aliens illegally. The first effect would be to move most of these aliens out of tax-paying work [and yes, most of them currently pay taxes, just with fake Social Security numbers, 40 billion dollars a year, gone] and into a completely underground economy. Because even the most ardent anti-immigrant activist admits that the US doesn’t have the infrastructure or money to detain or deport 12 million men, women, and children. While not explicitly an evil move, there is certainly room to question the judgement of such a scheme.

The other consequence is the vast need this would create for legal workers. Since our unemployment is pretty low in most areas (especially in areas with undocumented workers, they go where the jobs are), this law creates an immediate vacuum while the country waits for the legal guest workers to make it through the INS. Conservative columnist Mark Steyn notes that if you wait for the INS to approve Mary Poppins to nanny your newborn, Ms. Poppins might make it over to the US in time for you kid’s college graduation. Will the jobs stay in the US long enough to process the guest workers? This isn’t really a biblical issue, because people in Indonesia need jobs too.

The long and short of it is that strengthening borders, giving or not giving amnesty, building a fence, requiring people to learn English, starting a guest worker program, changing the law for future violators, etc. are all POLICY decisions. These kinds of policy decisions can be informed by Scripture, but the Bible doesn’t speak to them directly. Christians can fall on different places in the debate. But HR 4437 steps into an area where no Christian should waver, the role of the Church in showing hospitality to the alien and stranger.

HR 4437 would make it a felony for any people to feed, clothe, educate, treat, transport or house any person in the United States illegally. It would be a felony to buy a little Guatemalan girl an ice cream cone. I’m not kidding. ESL programs would be illegal if they did not confirm immigration status. Even providing medical help would be felonious. There is no provision exempting people who do so as charity (the bill explicitly makes this kind of charity illegal). There is no provision exempting churches or religious workers. The Federal Department of Homeland Security would be responsible for rounding up Christians who defy this law. This is all under section 202 (a) of HR 4437. You might ask, How could they do this? The authors, many self-identified Christians, say that if you help a felon commit a felony, you are a felon. Christians shouldn’t help people break laws. The problem is that violating immigration law (which Christian missionaries do routinely) is not the moral equivalent of bank robbery. And while Christians don’t have an obligation in most instances to assist people in crossing borders (and probably shouldn’t, in most instances), Christians do have an obligation to show all aliens and strangers kindness and charity and hospitality, regardless of their status with the United States government. The Roman Catholic Cardinal of Los Angeles has publicly stated that he has pre-emptively ordered his thousands of priests to disobey this resolution, should it become law.

You don’t have to be a right-wing nut to believe the United States should do something about her borders. You are not violating Scripture to promote stronger laws and better enforcement. You are not a racist to think that immigrants should learn English and United States history. Ann Coulter isn’t bigoted to suggest that we issue more visas to educated and skilled immigrants than unskilled laborers (which would be great if we could get them to work in poultry packing plants). But if you forbid Christians to do what God commands, you are committing an act of evil.

Shaking Down the Stranger

The Senate of Georgia recently passed an "immigration reform" bill which attempts to curtail services available to undocumented (mostly what I call "creatively documented") workers and make it harder for employers to hire them. To me, the most offensive provision in the law was a tax on wire transfers by immigrants (5%), which the State would have generously shared with Western Union. Thankfully, the Georgia House noted that this provision might not be legal and removed it from the bill. So my letter to the editors of two Georgia newspapers was unnecessary. Here it is:

To the Editor of the Walker County Messenger:

In Chattanooga or Fort Payne if you want to steal from immigrants you have to have a couple of police officers pull them over for a broken tail light and shake them down for a hundred bucks under fear of deportation. Congratulations to our Georgia representatives for organizing a state-wide traffic stop to rob all our immigrants at once.

Right before we pressure the work force for several industrial towns out of the country (and move all that undesirable textile industry overseas) let’s pick the pockets of the workers. It’s not a bad idea as far as practical politics goes. They don’t have a vote and their language barrier means that most of them don’t have American friends who’ll complain.

The Georgia representatives have just learned what urban gang members have known for years. If you are going to make money by robbing people, pick on immigrants. They tend to carry cash and are afraid of the police. Maybe they spent time in Chattanooga or Fort Payne.

"Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien…" (Jer. 22:3); Jesus says: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt 25:40) The spiritual condition of our society is shown by how we treat the least powerful among us.