Monday, March 11, 2013

Advice for a New Pope

Getting ready to board a flight from Dallas to Detroit last Saturday, I picked up a copy of the Wall Street Journal. The most interesting articles I spotted were not about the economy, emerging markets, or the new record highs on the New York Stock Exchange. They were about the selection of a new pope.
Pope Benedict XVI stunned his own Roman Catholic Church and the larger world last month by resigning the papal office. He thus became the first pope to retire from office since 1415. Now the Journal was running six views of “What to Look for in a New Pope.” The writers came at their assignment from a variety of perspectives and with several common themes. Among them were advocacy for the poor, transparency about recent scandals, being a moral-spiritual warrior to a world that seems increasingly immoral and secular, etc.
Among the suggestions I found most insightful were these words from one of the two female writers: “[T]he new pope must bring Catholicism back to basics, not to elaborations on a theme but to the theme itself. The modern Church, at the very highest levels of its thinking, in the writings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has become somewhat abstract and cerebral. Such things have their place, but for now, in the ruined world, what’s needed is a reintroduction of Christ to the rising and post-Christian nations alike, always with an eye to meaning, meaning.”
I found Peggy Noonan’s words convicting. They speak not only to Catholics but to Protestants as well. They are, in fact, variations on a theme that Time magazine noted almost exactly a year ago. Commenting on Christian believers who say they no longer have a religious affiliation, the national newsmagazine quoted an ordained Presbyterian: “My sense is that for most they’re not rejecting God. They’re rejecting organized religion as being rigid and dogmatic.”
Too cerebral? Somewhat abstract? Rigid? Dogmatic? Why, how dare anyone say such things!
Yet Jesus said similar things about the religion of his day. Tradition had become more important to the religious leaders than Scripture itself. He allowed that the Temple had been turned into a marketplace and den of thieves. He protested that the religion scholars were debating the meaning of obscure texts while the “weightier matters” of justice, mercy, and faith were being neglected.
To the degree that any of us who stand in the Christian tradition feel defensive about the criticisms we hear of church these days – and please hear the term “church” in its broadest possible connotation – we are likely part of the problem. Whether Catholics about priestly transgressions or Protestants about self-aggrandizing televangelists, whether you are non-denominational or a “none” (i.e., Time’s non-affiliated believer), we could all benefit by listening.
The world isn’t dying for a lack of clarity about difficult theological problems or clerical authority. It needs to encounter its redeemer, Jesus Christ.
Lived faith, radiant hope, and selfless love – these are the qualities of a Christ-filled life that will make it possible for someone to meet him through you. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Reflections on Malala’s Recovery

              Malala Yousafzai is the 15-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot by Taliban gunmen last October. Her offense was that she wanted to go to school. More than that, she had dared to speak and blog for the freedom of girls like her to receive an education in Pakistan. Her father had kept a school he operated in a conventional region of that country open to girls – in defiance of the Taliban.
            Two gunmen stopped the school van in which Malala was riding, forced other students to point her out, and opened fire. She was critically injured by bullets that struck her head and neck. Moved from Pakistan to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in London, she has received aggressive treatment over the past three months. Her progress has been remarkable – a miracle, says her father.
            She was discharged from the hospital last week and is in a safe house with her family. While she is much improved, she is hardly recovered from her injuries. There will be surgery soon to replace a shattered portion of her skull. There is more therapy to come. And some damage to her will be permanent.
            For a moment, let your sympathy for Malala and your outrage toward those who would do such a thing to her extend to a broader group. She is one very public and visible case of injustice against women and children. Hers is a most important and extreme instance of the mistreatment millions of people suffer on a daily basis for their entire lives.
            You surely read of the 23-year-old woman who died after being raped, beaten, and otherwise brutalized in India. That widely publicized episode has become the occasion for the world to learn how vulnerable women are in India to lewd confrontations, physical groping, and sexual violation.
            Then last week Operation Sunflower, led by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials, brought about the arrest of 245 persons for child sexual abuse and child pornography. Of those 245, all but 23 were in the United States. As a result of the operation, 44 children were rescued from the adult abusers and pornographers with whom they were living – five under the age of 3 and nine between the ages of 4 and 6.
            The time is long past that you and I can turn away from such evils. Guard your children and grandchildren. Report abuse to the police. Don’t make excuses for pornography or stay silent when others do. The issue here is simple respect for human worth and dignity. Basic human rights. Love for the most vulnerable.
            “If we don’t love the people we can see, how can we claim to love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20). 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

You’re Trying Too Hard!

            It was a conversation I’ve had with several people before. I’m always cautious about it and feel the need to explain the meaning of the statement. But it really does appear true that some people try too hard to be good Christians. The way it came up was in a conversation with a young friend last week who was distraught over some impure motives she saw at work in her heart.
            Just to set the record straight, Becky (not her real name) is one of the finest and most genuine people I know. Everyone else in her family and the circle of friends who know her best would tell you the same. But that, you see, is the root of her problem. She is so authentic and earnest about things that she is on the verge of driving herself crazy! If the problem with some people is that they are devoid of introspection and conscience, hers is the opposite. She tries too hard.
            The gospel of Jesus is the good news that we have release from our past and hope for our future because of what he did. It is not the bad news that we might climb out of the pits we have dug for ourselves and find a way into God’s heart if we master all our character flaws and resist every temptation.
            Becky is too introspective, too self-critical, and too unwilling to give herself the benefit of the doubt she would give a total stranger. And it is making her miserable. Perhaps even spiritually neurotic. Jesus offered pardon and peace to his followers. Becky has turned his offer on its head and lives with a constant sense of judgment and fear. About the only thing I can think of that would be worse would be for her to decide she has conquered all her flaws. She just might turn into a self-righteous prig who couldn’t stand those of us who still struggle.
            Surely the better way is to walk with a lighter step and happier heart. Yes, we are sinful people – but people who have been loved, redeemed, and secured to God through the work of Christ. Yes, we still name and confess our sins – but with gratitude for pardon rather than in fear of rejection. Don’t presume on grace; be grateful for it. Don’t be cavalier about failure; confess it and move on.
            Remember the story in Luke 18 about the man who tried so hard to be holy and could name the steps of progress he had made? The other person in the story was anything but holy, but he went home at peace with God for confessing his unworthiness! His confessional and prayerful attitude seems to be at the heart of true holiness – the holiness that God himself seeks and honors in us.
            “My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous” (1 John 2:1 NLT).
            So keep trying. Just don’t try too hard. It could be your downfall.

Monday, November 12, 2012

When Heroes Fall

            National news media and personal blogs were clogged with the breaking news last Friday related to David Petraeus. He is the Army general whose leadership had been relied upon by President Bush. He then became Director of the Central Intelligence Agency for President Obama. Brilliant and focused, there are people who believed he was presidential material for the near future.
            In the words of Saturday’s New York Times, “Few imagined that such a dazzling career would have so tawdry and so sudden a collapse.” Some news outlets even pulled up the biblical story of David and Bathsheba as a parallel.
            The news story Friday was that Mr. Petraeus had resigned his position as CIA Director because of an affair. The term “adultery” was used in headlines. And the issue of personal morality and public life came front and center again.
            The point of this short essay is not moralistic piling-on. David and Holly Petraeus have been married 38 years. Their marriage has survived multiple long deployments, generated two children who are now adults, and was regarded as a model for many in the military. I don’t know if they are people of faith. But I can hope and pray for repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation for the Petraeuses.
            The point is, instead, what reactions to the Petraeus story reveal about our moral climate in America. Countless people weighed in to the effect that a sexual affair between Petraeus and the married woman who had written his biography was really nobody’s business and should not have required his resignation.
            On this point, David Petraeus seems to have been more upright than his would-be defenders. The military code under which he served for 37 years still regards adultery as a crime when it stands to “bring discredit upon the armed forces.” Furthermore, an affair is a circumstance that stands to make an intelligence officer susceptible to blackmail.
            But the moral atmosphere of our time is terribly polluted. An ongoing poll in the Los Angeles Times asked if an affair should cost someone his career. When I checked the numbers, 75% said it should not. Of course, they did! Movie stars, athletes, clergy, politicians – countless examples can be cited where careers soared with documented infidelities a matter of public record. Some reports say President Obama asked Petraeus to reconsider his resignation. To quote the New York Times again, a “jaundiced Washington” just might have accepted it.
            Humans care far too much about our cars and hair, image and options; on the other hand, we can evidence far too little concern about our families and commitments, character and destinies. Something is terribly, terribly wrong with that reality! And this episode has the wrongdoer acting more honorably in some ways than those of us who have heard and reacted to the report.
            While praying for the Petraeuses, perhaps all of us should be more aware of our shared identity as sinful people who are vulnerable to temptation.
            “If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall” (1 Cor 10:12 NLT).

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Post-Election Reminder

      On Tuesday of this week, the contentious marathon called an American presidential election is scheduled to end. The curious system that has both a popular vote tally and a decisive electoral college total is scheduled to render a verdict in the Obama-Romney contest. Writing 48 hours in advance of Election Day, I can only hope the complexities of voting in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and challenges of other sorts do not leave the outcome in doubt.
If your candidate wins, can you assume that his every promise will be kept promptly and without fail? That his leadership will establish American prestige abroad and prosperity at home? That a stable peace is at hand? That we are secure from terrorism, health pandemic, and partisan gridlock in Washington? You know better. The election of neither candidate will turn the wasteland of our spiritual, economic, and political landscape into the Garden of Eden.
If your candidate loses, will you be demoralized with the thought that all is lost? That his position over the next four years is guaranteed to bring about the collapse of the American experiment, if not the ruin of the world? That he will turn out to be the Anti-Christ who will plunge the world into Armageddon? That it will be time to plan for a return to the Dark Ages or life in a cave? You know better. The election of neither candidate will destroy the country, shatter the global economy, or make it impossible for godly people to seek the Kingdom of God.
Perhaps that last sentence is the key to what believers need to remember late Tuesday night or in the definitive wee hours of Wednesday morning. I love the United States of America and cherish my citizenship here, but it is not my ultimate loyalty or hope for a meaningful life. This wonderful country is not the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God can neither be defeated by any of its failures or be kept from thriving in any corner of Planet Earth.
In the glory days of the Roman Empire, an apostle of Jesus Christ wrote this: “We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives,” he said. “And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior” (Philippians 3:20 NLT).
A believer’s ultimate allegiance – and hope – is in the reign of God. Her hope is not in a human system, political party, or leader; it is in Jesus Christ. Nothing can take his Savior’s promises from him – nor be so precious to him.
I’ve lived long enough to have heard it before: “This is the most important election in our lifetimes, and everything we hold sacred is at stake!”
Oh, I hope not. While every election is important and has consequences, God will still be sovereign over his universe this Wednesday morning. And nothing so valuable as what he has already given us in Christ will have been gained or lost through whatever happens with Tuesday’s vote.
Between Election Day and Jesus’ Return, honor the dignity of your fellow-human beings. Stay closely connected to your Christian community. Worship God. Show respect to your government. (My paraphrase of 1 Peter 2:17.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Civil Discourse

In every election cycle I can recall, the talking heads of TV news have discussed “negative campaign ads” and “harsh rhetoric.” Even before the Biden-Ryan sparring match and the more antagonistic tone of the second Obama-Romney exchange, Dan Rather had dubbed this election season “the worst.”
It probably isn’t. In the John Adams versus Thomas Jefferson election of 1800, then-President Adams’ camp called Jefferson an atheist, a libertine, and a coward; they stumped with the claim that the election offered a choice between “God and a religious president, or Jefferson and no God!” The rumor was that Jefferson would gather and burn all the Bibles upon his second inauguration.
In response, then-Vice President Jefferson – it is the only time in U.S. history a sitting president and vice president ran against each other – countered in kind. His surrogates blasted Adams for his “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Once friends, the two became such again in post-election days.
More examples can be given, but this illustrates that mud-slinging and vitriol are anything but novel in political campaigns. And the politicians may have learned it from the clergy in the American colonies. Some of the anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic language that rang from pulpits went far beyond “insensitive.” It was crude, inflammatory, and wicked. “Whore of Babylon,” “Christ-killers,” and “Anti-Christ” – these are some of the many epithets used from pulpits to poison minds and prejudice hearts. The Ku Klux Klan had roots in those pulpits.
So what’s the point here? It certainly isn’t to minimize or excuse the blood sport that American political campaigns has turned into. It is simply to put what is happening now into historical perspective. It is also to say that politics isn’t the only sphere of life where the verbal bombast has become reckless and injurious.
It is time for all of us to step back. Take a deep breath. Look at politicians and preachers, family members and friends, co-workers and strangers through more respectful eyes. Stop trying to one-up everybody with a snappy – if also insulting and demeaning – one-liner. Strive for civility over disrespect.
Here is a worthy goal for all of us to embrace: “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them” (Ephesians 4:29 NLT).

Monday, October 15, 2012

Life as a 14-Year-Old

       Fourteen should be a wonderful, carefree year in a child’s life. Actually, being 14 is more nearly part of the bridge between being a child and becoming an adult. At so tender an age, a degree of maturity might well be making a child aware of the world and its ills; at that age, however, there should be no sense of being an adult who is responsible for fixing the world’s misfortunes and evils.
Little boys whose voices occasionally crack now should have nothing greater to agonize over than that. Little girls who are laying aside their dolls should have nothing greater to fret over than those boys whose voices are starting to crack.
Malala Yousafzai is only 14, and she seems to be something of an exception. In her home country of Pakistan first, then eventually at an international level, she has become an activist for education. More specifically, she has pleaded for adults in her part of the world to make education more widely available to girls.
Malala has the misfortune of living in a place where a rigid fundamentalist religion claims that girls should not receive the education boys are entitled to have. After all, as women they will remain answerable to their fathers, brothers, and husbands – with very few personal rights. They will be required to be subservient and docile. Cover their faces. Defer to men. Keep their mouths shut.
Today Malala is fighting for her life in a military hospital in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Doctors give her slightly more than a 50-50 chance of survival. If she recovers, the degree of permanent damage is uncertain.
Last week, armed men stopped the school bus on which she was riding, called for her by name, and shot her in the head and neck. According to a spokesman for the Taliban – the fundamentalist Muslim group that eagerly claimed “credit” for the deed – it was Malala’s fault. And the fault of her father.
She dared go to school, and her father had permitted it. In the face of such “secular-minded” and “pro-West” behavior, said the spokesman, reverent and devout Taliban shooters were “forced to take this extreme step.” If Malala survives, he said, more righteous warriors will be dispatched to finish the job.
That the attempted murder of a child happened in the name of religion only makes this story more disgraceful. The “righteous warrior” who would commit such an atrocity is evil beyond imagination. He is the right arm of Satan himself.
            Islam condemns such behavior. So does Christianity. For that matter, so do atheists. All rational people recognize true evil for what it is – whether perpetrated by Muslims or Christians or Jews, by far right or far left.
            People of goodwill from all backgrounds must stand up for freedom of expression, justice for minorities, rights for women, and protection of children.
            An ancient Hebrew prophet speaks eloquently to all religious people who miss the point of their religion: “I hate all your show and pretense – the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. . . . I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living” (Amos 5:21-24 NLT).
            Enough with making excuses for hatred. It is time for all nations and tribes, religions and parties to affirm human dignity, respect for one another, and love.
Pray for Malala. And pray for us all to surmount our most sordid impulses.