Saturday, August 22, 2009

Liberals and Conservatives

This will be simple, simplistic even. It is not meant to be a poli sci term paper, an article, a debate speech, or an educational tool. I am just tired of some of the stuff I am reading and hearing, and I am ready to put my two cents in. This is how I view it.

1. I think very few people on either side are out to change America in any radical sense. This is not a culture war, a revolution, or an insurrection.

2. Liberals love America, democracy, and freedom.

3. Conservatives love America, democracy, and freedom.

4. Liberals have problems with some aspects of classic capitalism, particularly as it has resulted in marked disadvantages for poorer classes. That does not necessarily make them socialists, although some liberal ideas have some socialist overtones.

5. Conservatives have problems with some aspects of promotion of individual liberties, particularly as it has resulted in marked sociological changes in American culture that have changed what they view as the basic values being espoused in media and in Washington. That does not necessarily make them fascists, although some conservative ideas sound to some as if they have Nazi overtones.

6. I believe that there are three basic differences:
a. Equality of opportunity vs. equality of result. Conservatives believe in the former, liberals in the latter. Conservatives do not believe that all Americans have a right to health care, but they do believe that all Americans have a right to have the opportunity to earn their health care. Liberals want the government to provide health care.
b. Court process vs. court result. Liberals want a Supreme Court that reverses a conviction of a defendant if 5 members of the Court are convinced the defendant is innocent. Conservatives want a court system that allows a defendant to be tried by a jury, with appeals to make sure the trial system was fair, and with a reversal of any conviction that was reached by an unfair court, was disadvantaged by incompetent counsel, or did not have the benefit of newly-discovered relevant evidence that would have changed the outcome. But conservatives don't want a Supreme Court that strives to make law or find its own results irrespective of how the law has been set up by elected officials. Liberals like a court that makes law in certain areas - specifically areas where the court expands the concept of rights. Liberals believe that the power of the court to expand the view of rights is necessary to protect the minority from the oppression of the majority; conservatives believe that the values inherent in the American system appropriately value minority rights.
c. Government intrusion. The economically conservative position is for less government action that impedes individual liberties. Thus, a law outlawing abortion or flag burning is by definition a liberal law, and a law legalizing marijuana or unfettered talk radio is by definition a conservative law. Clearly, there are many so-called "conservatives" who would support certain economically liberal laws, and vice-versa.

7. I believe that many of the so-called political issues of the day have become such buzzwords that many of those speaking out on them don't know what they are talking about. While health care is one such issue, let me pick on a different one. "Tort reform" means many, many different things to different people. I am willing to bet that many people who speak out on tort reform don't know what a tort is. Tort reform in Texas is vastly different from tort reform in Missouri. To say that you can tell if someone is liberal or conservative based on how that person feels about "tort reform" is shallow and wrong.

I know that some of you are outraged that my definition of "conservative" or "liberal" does not accurately reflect your personal nuanced political philosophy, while others reading this are chuckling at my simple list. Again, I can go toe to toe with most of you on the implications of a lot of this, but that is not the point here. I really am just tired of hearing all of the vitriol that is being spewed by both sides, when in fact we have some specific differences that are worth debating without accusing the other side of a parade of horribles. Let's first understand what the fight really is, then let's figure out what our differences are and debate them.

As I have defined the terms here, by the way, I am "conservative" on some issues and "liberal" on others, and in between on a lot.

OK. Pollyanna sermonette over for tonight.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Of Josh, Mike, Hypocrisy, and Cynicism

Interesting how the world responds to the fallen, the falling, and the repentant.

You have read the stories this week. Heroes of the sports world whose transgressions have been published for the world to see.

Josh Hamilton, recovering alcoholic and drug addict, very public Christian, whose wild night in Arizona last January outed him for falling off the wagon.

Michael Vick, recently released ex-convict, public Christian, whose proclaimed "disgust" at his own actions and planned penance to be served in the community were broadcast on "60 Minutes" tonight.

I have been interested and a little saddened by the responses I have heard this week. The Hamilton story - undoubtedly in part because of the prurient nature of the pictures and the story that must go with them - has led many to say "I told you so" about his public testimonies of conversion. The Vick story has led person after person to scoff at his proclamations of reform and note with interest how many "handlers" Vick has.

Maybe I am just naive, but I look at some of this differently.

I am not ready to label Hamilton a hypocrite. To me, he seems to be someone who is struggling with a fight that will be with him for the rest of this life. When he says he thought he could handle one drink and found out he could not, that rings true to me. The rest of the story of what happened that night is easy to play out from there. Does that make him a hypocrite? Only if you decide that all of us who proclaim Christ but fall along the way are hypocrites. Maybe we are, but if so, it is a big club. Failure is not hypocritical; it is human. Owning up to your failure without calling in the players' union and the press agents to spin the story is admirable to me.

I am not ready to label Vick insincere. He may be. But the only pieces of evidence we have so far are his past actions and his present statements. His past actions label him a criminal, a person of horrible judgment, and something of a spoiled brat with little sense of propriety - in other words, a sinner. His present statements are those of someone who has been broken, who has been (in church language) convicted, who has repented. There is no way for me to judge his sincerity now because I cannot see his heart - I will have to follow his actions and try to make a judgment based on what I see. So too, however, there is no way for the cynics to judge his sincerity now, for they are no more able to see into his heart than I am.

My point is not to hold up Josh Hamilton and Michael Vick as icons or paragons of virtue. I may be wrong about Hamilton, and I may be naively guessing wrong about Vick. If so, ok... I have been wrong many times before.

My point is to note how cynical our society is when it comes to issues of repentance, forgiveness, confession, and changed heart. So many of us simply don't believe it when we see it. Is that because people have not experienced it for themselves? Is it simply because we have seen so many phoneys that we cannot accept it for real?

Like Josh Hamilton, Michael Vick may have a new public failure that leads to ridicule and cries of hypocrisy. If it is a pattern that exposes his statements of tonight as lies, then so be it. If it is a single terrible failure that illuminates the fact (that should be obvious to us all) that his struggles are far from over, then I hope somebody continues to allow him to go through the process.

I am not defending dog fighting, drunken escapades by married men with party girls, or any other failings. I am only noting that we all fail, we all fight our fights and sometimes lose. I would hope that we can see our own fight in the struggles of others and cut them some slack.

Are they hypocrites? Maybe. Are we cynics? Definitely.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Me and the Atheist - Some Excerpts

I am involved in an interesting, crucial, in many ways heart-rending cyber-discussion/debate with an atheist named Daniel. He has his own blog in which he spews vitriol about Christians, the Bible, and religion in general. (He is happy to shoot at Jews and Muslims too, so I guess he is an equal-opportunity religion-baiter.) We have a mutual friend/family member who asked me to get involved with Daniel by commenting on his blog and trying to draw him into a conversation. This is not all that hard to do, since his blog includes an open letter to Christian pastors and teachers daring us to take him on.

He is articulate, logical, and often (with notable exceptions) respectful. He probably pays his taxes and doesn't kick the dog either.

That said, his arguments can be reduced to this: (1) Many fundamentalist and/or shallow Christians he has known have made bad arguments against his atheism; (2) the God of the Old Testament is different from the Jesus of the New Testament; and (3) science is in conflict with much of scripture.

I have tried to focus my conversations with him on the fact that Christianity is not a "religion" but instead is a relationship with God, that love is not a good feeling but instead is a reflection of that holy relationship, and that his own brand of scientific rationality leaves him with no hope.

Here are some of the things I have said to Daniel:

In response to his continued attacks on the general intelligence of anyone who would fall for a religion:

I am not interested in selling you on religion. I am interested in talking to you about a relationship that I have. I know that it is not irrational, but I do not expect you to accept that right now. You can grasp for rationality and "intellectualism" as long as you like - let me know where that gets you. As we carry on this conversation, see if you conclude that I am either dumb or crazy. See if you think I am suspending my rationality. Perhaps I simply know somebody whom you do not know. Perhaps I have exercised faith and seen the result. Yes, you can choose to call me a fool, and I suppose that over the internet you can call me that and still sleep at night, not having met me.

In response to his claim that love is simply a combination of moods and emotions:

You do your wife and those who love you a disservice if you think that their love is nothing but a combination of moods, feelings, and passions. You don't understand the love of Christians for you if you believe that "there's nothing more special about that than love from anyone else." That may be the fault of the Christians who love you, but since I know some of them, I don't think so. I think you are intentionally choosing not to recognize that their love for you comes from something other than their feelings. Given your recently discovered atheism and your cynical attack on what they believe, I expect that their "feelings" and "passions" would not lead to love for you. Love is an action, not a feeling, and love for the one who despises what you believe comes from somewhere other than a good mood.

In response to his attack on the Bible (the typical stuff about how God in the Old Testament, who told his armies to kill innocent tribes, contradicts the picture of Jesus in the New Testament) I asked him what he does with the resurrection of Christ, the presence of the Roman guard at the tomb, and the more than 150 witnesses to the resurrected Christ. He responded that "there is no resurrection" and that the witnesses were "hallucinating or misled" like those who see UFOs. My response:

Well, you can certainly end this conversation if you want by saying "there was no resurrection" without offering a hint of logic or explanation, but I didn't think that was your style. I thought you were the big logician. Are you really saying that the Roman guard, working for the governor on pain of death, was collectively "hallucinating or misled"? And over 150 witnesses were "hallucinating or misled"? That is awfully convenient for you, isn't it - to take an argument you don't understand and just toss it out as based on faulty witnesses? Isn't that akin to that for which you criticize [Christian] people [who claim that the inexplicable in science reveals the presence of God] ... what you cleverly label 'reductio ad absurdum'? Can't you come up with something better than that? I'll help you ... just say ... hmm... that it's all a lie - there were no Roman soldiers there.... Or... Jesus didn't really die on the cross, he just passed out.... Or how about this - the apostles drugged the soldiers and stole the body. At least those make more sense then "they were hallucinating." And as for the 150 witnesses, just say they were all in a conspiracy to start a new religion - Roman law notwithstanding - and it was cool for them to join in this mass lie. Any of those is better than "they were all hallucinating." Come on, Daniel, I am disappointed in you.

In reading your latest posts, I am beginning to understand what I think is the heart of your problem with Christianity. You say this: "My primary issue with Christianity and for that matter Judaism and Islam is these religions are based on the dreams, visions, interpretations of folklore, and/or outright fabrications and manipulation of historical events." This of course dovetails nicely with your "rebranding" argument, wherein you accuse us of tossing out the parts of the "dreams, visions, folklore, and... historical events" we don't like in favor of a flavor of the month.

That would all make sense if it had an ounce of truth behind it, but your premise is wrong. Christianity is not based on what some goatherders in the Middle East said - it is based on relationship with the living God. You can say that I am hallucinating or misled if you want, but short of that (and unless I am just a brilliant liar with nothing better to do than to throw my life away on this tale), you have to deal with my experience with God. That experience is the basis of my belief and my faith - the Bible then becomes, as I have written to you before, a biography of that God and the story of how God has dealt with people in the past. It is authoritative, not because of Obadiah's innate understanding of quantum physics and Nahum's clear explanations of Chinese history, but rather because God reveals Godself to us bit by bit. Yes, ancients living in an incredibly violent world latched onto what they understood of God - God's authority and power - in making some incredibly violent decisions. But God is fully revealed in Christ.

Are there some things in the Old Testament that no longer apply? Of course. That is why the vast majority of Christians don't follow the Kosher laws. That does not mean there was not a time and place for those laws when God was dealing with infant peoples in a new world, but it is equally true that God's dealings with us have evolved as we as a race have matured.

Surely you have seen multiple examples of progressive revelation in other parts of life. Do you have kids? I doubt you explain why touching a stove is bad in the same way to your six-year-old as you do to your 9-month-old. To the baby, you simply say "no" and forcefully snatch her hand away before she is burned. Have you ever coached a team? Surely you don't explain tactics in the same way to a rookie as you do to an experienced all-star. Have you ever taught a class? Of course you start with basics, even skipping some critical elements at first, until there is some understanding of what has to be learned first. Ever seen somebody take a piano lesson? They are at first told NOT to use a pedal, even though pedaling is integral to good piano playing, because they must first learn how to play one key at a time. That does not mean that pedaling is wrong, but it does mean that it would be wrong to reveal pedaling to someone who has not yet mastered Chopsticks.

I think it is time for you to quit picking on strawmen. Yes, it is easy to make fun of people who call themselves Christian and who make bad arguments in support of Christianity. I could do the same thing with shallow atheists, but what would be the point? Get out of the shooting gallery and start dealing with the real issue - the fact that God wants relationship with you, the fact that God demonstrates that desire to you through His love for you and through His children's love for you, and the fact that Christ gave His life for you even while you were (and are) uninterested in His life. Those are the real issues, not whether somebody's view of Jesus contradicts somebody else's interpretation of Second Chronicles.

I have no idea how this conversation will end. Since he and I have never met, it is hard for him to assign credibility to my claims, I am sure. It is easy for him to write me off as, in his words, "misled." So be it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reflections on a Reunion, Part Two

About 14 months ago, I joined with members of my church youth group from back in the late 70s and early 80s for a reunion. It was a powerful experience for me and for many others who came. I wrote about it here.

This weekend, I witnessed another, similar reunion. My current church family hosted a reunion of members of this church's youth choir, called the Chapel Choir, from the last 25 years. I was not a part of the reunion, although my son was. I heard about it from him as it progressed through the weekend, and then I witnessed its climax as the Reunion Choir sang several selections during this morning's worship service.

I was struck once again by the reality of the experience with Christ and His love that I had as a youth even as I heard and saw these young (and some not-so-young) folks reliving their experience. It was manna for me, and it was manna for them. (To give credit where credit is due, I am taking off on the theme of the sermon that Rev. Eric Howell, one of the reunion participants and a fine pastor, delivered in the service.) "Manna," of course, is Hebrew for "What is it?" As youth, we did not always have a name or even an understanding for what was happening to us. If we had stopped to think about it and try to analyze it, we probably would have asked, "What is it?" It was, in fact, the bread of life being provided to us by God... it was manna. The truth is that we middle-aged adults often cannot name what is going on in our lives when God is providing - whether we are too jaded or just too lazy to see the work of God, we tend to look around at blessings that literally fall around for us to pick up and ask "what is this?"

Fourteen months ago, so many of my friends were experiencing great tragedy, but fourteen months of experience with the Giver of manna teach us much. One friend, whose husband and son had been killed the year before by a drunk driver in a senseless accident, was suffering. Yesterday, her birthday, she and I talked about her new husband and the joy that is in her life. Another dear friend missed the reunion altogether because she was in the throes of an addiction that had grabbed a hold of her life. Today, on the other side of rehabilitation, she works every day to maintain what we call (because we don't have a better word for it) recovery. Yet another friend spoke during that reunion from her wheelchair. Last week, she wrote, "We just continue to press forward and into the Grace of God. All the little and big things He continues to do to show us he loves us."

Make no mistake. The first will never replace her son and will always miss her husband, the second has to fight demons every day that I will never understand, and the third is still in her wheelchair. I am not pretending that their problems magically disappeared.

But I can just as quickly say that none of the three of them could see, fourteen months ago, where they would be today. They all exhibit great faith in God, but faith is not sight, and they could not see then how God would bless them. They are all receiving manna, daily.

Now, other people who were in my youth group have had tragedies strike during these fourteen months. Mothers have died. Jobs are in trouble. The recession hits Christian youth-group-veterans just like it hits everyone else. We cannot see how God will bless us over the coming fourteen months, or fourteen minutes. When God does bless, we may not be able to put our finger on it. But the manna will still come. It always does. Remember, God's mercies are new every morning.

This weekend, I saw about seventy former members of a choir in which I never sang show up for a reunion. I heard them sing several songs that my youth choir did not sing, and I was struck how God works differently in different lives.

But then, at the end of this morning's service, this Reunion Choir sang "In This Very Room." They sang the very same arrangement that my youth choir used to sing. The words are simple: "In this very room, there's quite enough love, joy, hope, and power for all the world, for Jesus, Lord Jesus, is in this very room."

Suddenly, it was not about how God works differently in different lives. It was about the ties that bind us. It was about the very best of what we know as church. It was about a bunch of kids separated by years and miles and events and histories who nonetheless experienced and understood precisely the same thing because they - we - serve the very same God, and His blessings are new for all of us every morning.

Same song. Same Jesus. He was in the room with them while He was in the room with us. He's here with me now and with you as you read. That's manna. That's the bread of life.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Dog Days

Baseball fans know what the Dog Days are. We are in them now. In a 162-game season, the enthusiasm of April wanes as the calendar pages turn. The All-Star game is over. The postseason is still months away. The weather is hot and dry. It is hard to stay excited.... These are the Dog Days.

We all have Dog Days.

We have them in our marriages. It is not that we want out, or that we think we have made a mistake, or even that there is anything particularly wrong. It is just that years of marriage have followed years of marriage, and enthusiasm wanes.

We have them in our jobs, of course. No matter how called you are and how much you love you job, there are weeks that pass that simply require commitment to get up and go back to that same office.

We have them in our spiritual lives. God is still there, just as God has always been. We are not tired of God nor wanting to take our turn as the Prodigal Son. We are simply lacking enthusiasm.

The Dog Days can make it hard to teach a lesson or write a blog. What do we have to say? How can I find it in me?

The answer, of course, is that we can't find it in us, for we really have very little to say. The answer, of course, is to turn to the One who has no Dog Days. The answer lies, of all places, in the often-ignored Old Testament treasure called Lamentations: "Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, 'The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.'"

"Great Is Thy Faithfulness" is one of our greatest hymns. It comes from this passage that reminds us that God's mercies are new every morning. The writer of Lamentations is definitely in the Dog Days. Just before the passage I quoted, the writer has talked of tasting wormwood and gall. But even then, there is hope, for what God has to offer never fails. Our faithful God just keeps bringing it. God's mercies - gifts, grace, goodness - are new every morning.

The truth is that my marriage is precisely what I need, that my wife is God's gift to me, that our life together is a great gift. That job you may dread is in fact where you live out God's call on your life, and you are in fact where you know you ought to be.

Baseball players get through the Dog Days. Truth be told, they enjoy the Dog Days, for what could be better than playing baseball for a living?

So too, tomorrow is to be enjoyed, to be savored, for what could be better than walking with God, than finding what God has new for me today?

Great is God's faithfulness.


We are in the desert. A desert is a dry place. Nothing much grows. It is hot - not pleasant but maddeningly, drainingly hot. Scorching. When...