Monday, October 31, 2011

Resisting Halloween

This is the one day of the year when I don't enjoy being a Christian.

Because I'm always puzzled by fellow evangelicals who love Halloween. And insist fun is more important than principle.  That, plus the fact that I'm not a terribly gracious Christian.

Granted, I don't know if I'm supposed to "enjoy" being a Christian to begin with. Yes, we're supposed to "worship God and enjoy Him forever," but the "enjoyment" part is something He defines, not us. And frankly, some parts of the Christian experience aren't what I'd call very enjoyable.

Plus, I'm not wired to constantly stoke the pleasure principle like many evangelicals do. I'm not convinced having fun equals enjoyment, or that fun is even a right, although I don't think fun in itself is wrong.

But when it comes to Halloween, it really does all boil down to fun, doesn't it? Because there's not much left to redeem it. Some theologians try to rationalize history and tease some All Saints tribute out of it, but in my mind, there's a big difference between celebrating the fact that God's grace cancels out the fear of death, which is what All Saints Day commemorates, and celebrating fear with conventional hedonism.

Yet like all the other times when I disagree with conventional contemporary Christianity, I'm supposed to be the gracious one and let everybody else do what they think is right in their own eyes.  And keep my opinions to myself, so I don't ruin their fun.

But... fun?  When I think of Christ, I think of things like love, joy, and peace, or even righteous anger.  When I think of Halloween, I think of, well, a relic of a Druidic celebration observed today by real-life witches.

You know - real Satan worshippers who many evangelicals like to pretend don't exist.

Indeed, church historians who like Halloween suddenly become fuzzy with early timelines of October 31. Rather than tracing the holiday all the way back to the Druid's pagan Samheim, they eagerly trot out early renditions of the Catholic Church's recalibration of All Hallows Eve. In what is now the United Kingdom, Catholics were able to capture the popular cultural observance of Samheim and intermesh Rome's traditions for All Saints Day, like they've done with other religious holidays in other parts of the world.

David Mathis, a pastor at John Piper's (normally) doctrinally-astute Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota, is one of evangelical Christianity's Halloween apologists. Last week, he posted a blog entry in support of using Halloween as an evangelical opportunity. And while I understand why some believers view evangelism as a viable use for the holiday, here's the flawed crux of why they justify this thinking:

"What posture would Jesus have us take when we are told that our 'adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour' (1 Peter 5:8)? Naïveté? Retreat? Rather: 'Resist him, firm in your faith' (verse 9). What if we had the gospel gall to trust Jesus for this promise: 'Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you.' (James 4:7)? And what if resistance meant not only holding our ground, but taking his?"

Oh, if that supposition were a given in the Gospel's marching orders! Resistance implying certain advancement. It's a nice thought, but in context, I'm thinking "standing firm" is the more explicit instruction from James. Yes, advancement may occur, and inevitably, it does. But remember, the battle is not ours.  It's God's. And He's already won the victory for us. Through - and because of - His holiness.

Meanwhile, although we're never instructed to just sit around and wait for the victory party, we're to be wise and deliberately God-honoring in the forms that "resisting the Devil" takes.

How interesting to note that Mathis doesn't say pressing against the Devil to gain ground is what the Bible teaches.  He phrases what he hopes is a justification for observing Halloween in a hypothetical interrogative. Creating the illusion of fact, similar to many gory Halloween props.

Indeed, the traditional trappings of Hallow 'Een have gotten turned by some evangelicals into tools with which we can mock the Devil.  There's no Scripture that tells us to mock Satan, but Martin Luther has written about doing so, which apparently is good enough for the pleasure principle crowd.  I'm fully aware that Luther is practically the patron saint of the modern church, and understandably so, but his was no more perfect a life than yours or mine. For example, did you know Luther was a raging antisemite? Indeed, there are perfectly good reasons why none of his writings are included in the Canon of Scripture. 

Mostly because they're not inspired by God.  Which, of course, is true of what I write, too.  It's just that Luther, his antisemitism notwithstanding, was right about so many more things so much earlier than I am today.  Which gives my opinion that much less credibility.

That's why I don't rely on my opinion, but the facts.  And in the case of Halloween, having it be a modern observance of a modern religion - Wicca - is fact, not opinion. Evangelicals can choose to overlook that fact, or minimize the importance of that fact since Wicca has far fewer adherents than Christianity. But doesn't doing so place greater priority on fun than principle?

An atheist co-worker of mine once asked me why so many Christians celebrate Halloween. I told him that I really couldn't speak for everyone else, but that I don't.

Because it's an important celebration of a false religion.

He took that explanation far better, it seemed, than if I had told him Christians just wanna have fun.

PS - Although he doesn't reach the same conclusion I do about Halloween, you might find James Harleman's essay of interest. Harleman is a pastor at Seattle, Washington's Mars Hill Church.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Give Us Your Cash, Your Yearning for Visas

Have you heard?

Two US Senators are hawking half-million-dollar homes, using the lure of free visas as a gimmick.

No, not Visa, the credit card.  US immigration visas.

They want to sell foreigners free access to the United States for a minimum of $500,000 a pop.

Sound ridiculous? Do you suppose there must be something in the details that will make it less ridiculous?  I hoped so, too. But details don't really help here.

The house has to be a minimum of half a million dollars, yes, or a combination of properties equalling that sum, with at least one property worth $250,000.  And they've gotta pay cash; no mortgages.  If and when the immigrants sell, they have to turn in their visa as well. The visa won't allow them to work here, but they'll have to live at least half of the year in the house they buy.

Charles Schumer, D-NY, one of the co-sponsors of the measure along with Mike Lee, R-UT, says it is a great way to spur our stagnant real estate market "without costing the federal government a nickel."

But how does this plan really help anything?

Do we need to further weaken the value of an immigration visa to the United States by flaunting them to people who are already rich enough to invest in our housing market?

After all, at half a million dollars, there probably aren't too many foreigners out there who even need another visa; they probably already have a tourist or work visa with less inconvenient restrictions.

And how does masking a housing market that even the provision's sponsors agree is hamstrung by bad national economics solve what ails it? If the problem is the fact that Americans are too scared to invest any more in real estate, should senators be wallpapering that reality with free visas?

What about people who already live in the United States who have become upside-down in their homes through no fault of their own, or still can't even afford to purchase a home because many of our urban housing markets are still prohibitively expensive? Why give homeowners a break, when home seekers already here still can't break into the market? Granted, Shumer's right that giving away visas don't really cost anything dollar-wise, but what are he and Senator Lee giving away in terms of public trust?

And speaking of lubricating the real estate market, what about all of the bailout money that's gone to banks that has yet to trickle down into mortgage financing relief? If foreigners have to plunk down $500,000 cash, most of that will probably go directly to banks to pay off existing mortgages.

Okay, maybe now I'm seeing where Schumer and Lee are going with this thing!

Still, it's not like our Homeland Security folks need any more work to do, keeping tabs on foreigners who get into our country simply by buying an expensive house. It's not like overseas investors who are already active players in our current real estate market need any more incentives, either. They've already got a weak dollar, plenty of selection in prime vacation towns, and a seller's market working in their favor.

This is yet another example of the government trying to come up with a plan that doesn't fix anything and poses more risks than it resolves.

Meanwhile, taxpaying Americans are still waiting for everything that this same government has been promising them for the past three years: mortgage relief, accountability from bailed-out banks, and less government red tape in the homeownership process.

But then again, apparently this is America's new dream: wealthy opportunists speaking languages we won't necessarily understand, who actually won't live here or work.

Hmm... actually, that sounds a lot like the population of Washington, DC, doesn't it?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Personhood Movement Has Heart; but Brains?

Is it kneejerk Christianity?

Or a promising new strategy to help repeal Roe v. Wade?

On November 8, voters in Mississippi will be deciding whether to change the state's constitution to make abortion illegal. Or at least, that's what pro-choice advocates fear.

Many pro-life advocates, on the other hand, have rallied around the efforts of Colorado-based Personhood USA to re-write Mississippi's constitutional definition of a person, which would then afford fertilized eggs the same rights as human beings outside the womb.

To be specific, Proposition 26, the legal tool crafted by Personhood USA, would define "person" in Article 111 of Mississippi's state constitution to include “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

Which on first reading, sounds like a no-brainer for pro-lifers to support.

But should we?

Prop 26's Good Intentions

No greater foes in the abortion debate than the National Right to Life and Planned Parenthood both oppose Prop 26, as it's called.

Granted, we all know why Planned Parenthood opposes it: they oppose every legal attempt at ending the heinous murder of unborn children. But why does the National Right to Life campaign oppose what should be a slam-dunk home-run Hail Mary pass through the legislative uprights?

Mostly because the federal legislation stemming from Roe v. Wade will still override the Mississippi legislation, should it pass. Which means that even though there's only one abortion mill currently operating in the state, it will be able to obtain legal permission to remain open as pro-choice lawyers take their inevitable challenges to Prop 26 through the appeals process. Maybe even all the way to the Supreme Court.

And what will happen there? You tell me: in what direction is the high court heading these days, with President Barak Obama having already appointed two liberal justices, with another one or two who could arrange their retirements before his term ends next year?

Isn't there a significant risk that not only Prop 26 could be ruled unconstitutional, but further tweaking of privacy laws - the basis for Roe v. Wade's success - could be done in the process? Couldn't this undermine the efforts of groups like the National Right to Life and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, another major pro-life group opposing Prop 26?

Critical Weakness of the Personhood Movement

Personally, I'm not sure science can support the legal assertion made by Prop 26 supporters that in the context of the womb, life equals a person.

Please read this carefully. I don't deny that a fertilized egg is the start of life. But science has proven that there's a period of 24 to 28 weeks in which the fertilized egg is unviable outside of the womb.  Although I agree that life exists during that time, and that intentionally ending it is murder, I'm not convinced that we can prove in a court of law that the unviable life has the same intrinsic characteristics as life which can be sustained outside the womb, which can be legally proven to be a person.

Remember, we can't legislate morality; pro-lifers need to have facts when crafting legislation. Although their intentions are honorable, couldn't the folks at Personhood USA come up with a ballot initiative featuring greater legislative integrity? Simply having a majority of Mississippi voters approve Prop 26 - which appears likely - doesn't change science's ability to affirm what they want to believe. This is why I worry it's all just kneejerk Christianity - seeing a problem, and figuring some good-sounding law will fix it.

Good Intentions, Yes, but Sloppy Execution

In addition, I'm a little frustrated by some of the ways Personhood USA has attempted to refute criticisms of Prop 26 by pro-abortion groups.

For example, advocates for the amendment say that contrary to claims by Planned Parenthood, Prop 26 will not outlaw birth control pills. Which is technically correct. In fact, it doesn't even specifically outlaw abortion. What it does is attempt to define what "personhood" is, with the implication being that any attempt at ending that personhood is murder, which of course, is illegal.

In another example of misleading advertising, Prop 26 advocates say that in the extreme event the life of the birth mother is at risk, the amendment won't prevent doctors from saving the mother's life at the expense of an "unviable" baby. But that does not address any case where the baby could have as great a survival expectancy as its mother, but only one of them will survive the pregnancy. In this age of medical malpractice run amok, how many doctors will assume the risk of determining the standard of unviability set cryptically by Prop 26?

So, while I support the objective advocated by Personhood USA, I'm nonetheless convinced that pro-life advocates must be above reproach when we address our opposition. This applies not only in the wording we use to defend our position, but in the legislation we craft to protect life.

Tough Call

Which brings us back to whether or not Prop 26 is really a good idea. Is taking a drastic stand against abortion, despite its wobbly legal legs, worth it in the long run? Should evangelicals be listening harder to the reasons why such hardworking and dedicated pro-life groups as National Right to Life and the Conference of Catholic Bishops think Prop 26 is a bad idea?

Between the time it takes Prop 26 to hit the books in Mississippi, and an appeals court to put it on hold, perhaps a few lives may be spared. That's a good thing, and some pro-life advocates may claim it justifies the entire effort.

But if it ends up undermining more cumbersome yet effective strategies for further criminalizing abortion across the United States, will we have won the battle, but lost the war?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

No Insider Trading for God's Grace

Mostly unsubstantiated.

Yet sometimes wholly entertaining.

And on even rarer occasions, educational.

Reader feedback to Internet articles can run the gamut, from weird and farcical to worthless and vehement. Depending on the website, some of the feedback, such as the jaded retorts posted by stressed-out New York Post readers, can make me laugh out loud.

And other times, on sites owned by organizations as varied as the Bangor Daily News and the Wall Street Journal, reader feedback can actually make me think.

For example, in responding to a New York Times story that Wall Street darling Rajat Gupta will be formally charged with insider trading, one reader claiming to live on Manhattan's conservative Upper East Side appears to rise to Gupta's defense. Of course, there's no way of knowing whether this reader lives in New York, or if they're even related to Gupta, but it doesn't really matter. The way they marginalize the charges against Gupta and champion his good deeds echos the manner in which many of us leaven the bad we do with the good.

See for yourself, in what this reader has to say on Gupta's behalf:

"Rajat was an inspiration to his colleagues at McKinsey and to many other immigrants. A brilliant career in shambles because of ambition, not greed. It is however important to remember the many acts of kindness and philanthropy of the Gupta family so that the good does not get interred with the ashes and the bad remembered.

Rajat was not a regular Wall Streeter, and nor was he a greedy, conniving get ahead-at-all-costs type of person. He did succumb to temptation, and did break the rules. He did no harm to the elderly and infirm, and did not bilk anyone out of their savings. So despite everything, he will be remembered as a gracious and generous person who fell to Earth.

I do hope that he escapes the harsh punishment meted out to Rajaratnam [a recently convicted Wall Street guru], cruel and unusual in that at their ages, these are life sentences. They were not evil people, and in the balance, did a lot more good and saved a lot more lives than most of us ever will."

- New York Times reader feedback from someone identifying themself as "comorin," 10/25/11

Of course, like anybody else accused of a crime, Gupta should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Which makes it ironic that even in their defense, this writer assumes Gupta probably is guilty of the charges being made against him.

Yet away they go, rationalizing the behavior for which Gupta is being accused against all of the good he's done as an employer and philanthropist.

The methodology that got him into trouble is characterized as ambition, rather than greed, since it's greed that makes people bad. Whereas without ambition, society wouldn't go anyplace.

But it's not that Gupta isn't a bad person. We're all bad people, aren't we? Some of us may be more law-abiding than others, our ethics may be more inscrutable than those of others, and our motivations more socially-acceptable than those of others. But none of us are good.

At least, not according to the Bible.

There is no one who is righteous, remember? Christ died for all, because all have sinned. I once had a pastor who was fond of saying, "it's not why bad things happen to good people, but why do good things happen to bad people."

Whether the writer of this online response supporting Gupta's generosity knows it or not, they're describing a works-based salvation. Which might have some leverage in a court of law, although considering the level of financial crimes for which he's being accused, probably not in this case. Personally, I suspect that he's being made a scapegoat for far grander frauds that have been perpetrated by people far more powerful than he is. Or was.

But assuming, for the sake of argument, that Gupta is guilty as charged:  can a moral scale balance out between the crimes we intentionally commit, and the beneficence we show others?  In my quick research of Gupta, I've learned that he indeed was a hard-working and bright man, highly respected in America's Indian community, as well as his native country.  He's served on boards as prestigious as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as Indian-centric and poverty-centric organizations.

You might fault him for his politics, which tend to lean towards the liberal side, but certainly not his humanity. Or at least, that's what this one defender of his in the Times assumes.

But who can purchase moral innocence? Granted, the wealthier and better-connected a person is in our society, the greater the chances of getting a reduced sentence or even being found not guilty as charged. But at the end of the day, the court of public opinion only holds so much clout.

And in the eyes of our holy Creator, none at all.

Just as this is true for Gupta and anybody who gets accused of trading insider information, no matter the extent of their philanthropy, it's true for the rest of us who dabble in sins just as heinous in God's eyes, but less newsworthy in the media's.

The fact that we can't buy God's grace makes it that much more valuable. He doesn't do deals of any kind.

A truth I pray that Gupta, and his defender in the Times, soon learn for themselves.

Again, by God's grace.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reading the Magnolia Leaves

Photo 1: At least 2 leaves have managed to make their way through another "host leaf."

Photo 2:  Note the puckering of the leaves as they've poked through the "host leaf."

I've never claimed to be a botanist, and I'm not about to start.

But I'm pretty confident when I say that these photos I took today of the magnolia tree in my back yard depict a pretty rare phenomenon.

At least two leaves have managed to grow their way through another leaf, which I've decided to call the "host leaf."

In case you're not familiar with the grande dame of southern evergreens, the magnolia tree, let me introduce you. They're more commonly found in wetter southern states east of Texas, but a hardy variety has managed to survive in our scorching summer heat and raw winter freezes. The healthiest specimens benefit from a full profusion of branches - no trimming! - and a deep blanket of dead magnolia leaves underneath, just like an ordinary pine tree usually does best with a thick pile of pine needles around its roots.

Unlike the conventional prickly needles of northern evergreens, however, the magnolia features broad, oval-shaped leaves with waxy green tops and a brownish fuzz underneath. And it's amongst these leaves that the phenomenon I noticed today has taken place.

As a new magnolia leaf grows, I've noticed in the past that if an abrasion occurs on its waxy surface, a dead spot can form, and even create a hole through the leaf. Apparently - and again, remember, I'm not an expert - an abrasion of some sort formed on this host leaf, which could have even been a result of the constant rubbing of the other leaves, since they are close together in a clump at the end of a branch. Over time, the constant rubbing of these leaves nestled perpendicular to each other seems to have worn an abrasion through the host leaf, which then yielded a hole, through which the other two leaves have grown!

Either that, or some bored squirrel chewed a hole in a leaf and pulled through a couple of other leaves, just to kill some time.

At any rate, I think it's an extraordinary occurrence. Don't you? No moral analogy. No sermonizing or doctrinal exposition.

Just nature doing its thing, even if it's not exactly part of God's ideal plan for leaves on His magnolia trees. Usually, they're splayed along buoyant, long branches in little tropical-looking umbrellas of verdant green, making the tree almost shine after a thunderstorm, and looking lush even in winter - a sure reminder, as all evergreens are, that spring will be here soon enough.

Perhaps even in this natural display of God's Creation, however, some rambunctious and stubborn leaves didn't want to play by the rulebook. One of them stayed in place, refusing to budge as two other leaves rubbed against it for so long that they wore a hole in it.

And proceeded to grow through it!

Hmmm... maybe there's a profound moral in here somewhere after all. At least enough to admire how God's Creation both accommodates (the host leaf) and persists (the two other ones)? And how they do it so they both survive?

I'm not even sure I'm wired to do that!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Freeing the Fetus from Politics

It's a subject about which I rarely write.

Mostly because I consider it a settled issue.


In its most prevalent usage, abortion is a convenient path for those who don't want to be responsible for their sexual promiscuity.

In the rarest of cases, it's a tortuous alternative for the sake of the mother's own life, the last resort by the slimmest of ethical margins, in which life outside the womb takes precedence over life inside it.

Because that's what it is, isn't it? Abortion is the taking of a life.

We all know that. We do: we ALL know that. Both pro-lifers, and pro-choicers.

Pro-choicers can spare me their objections - they know the choice in question is over life. So they try to take the sliver of deference pro-lifers pay to life outside the womb and extrapolate that into absolute dominion over life in the womb. And it makes their misguided argument less offensive when they try to complicate the issue with games about when life starts.

Even while we all know that the best way to make sure a little life doesn't start is to not have sex. After all, we can put a man on the moon, but despite our digital world, analog abstinence is still the only 100% effective form of birth control.

The Politics of Abortion

Unfortunately, like anything else in America, the abortion issue has become heavily politicized, with some conservatives staking an entire partisan platform on the issue. Many is the preacher and politician who warns churchgoers that Christians with a Biblical conscience can't vote for anybody in the Democratic Party, since Democrats feature abortion rights as part of their social manifesto.

Like every plank in the Republican platform jives with Scripture.

After meeting a delegate to the Texas Republican Party several years ago at church, I confided to her that I wasn't the true-blue conservative many evangelicals are. To which she responded with a straight face, "Well, are you pro-life?"

"Yes, of course!" I affirmed.

"Well then," she said, "as long as you're pro-life, that's the most important thing in politics."

Granted, even some of my gung-ho capitalist friends might argue that point when it comes to taxes and wealth redistribution, but I got what she was saying. Because just under the pro-life banner isn't just a belief that abortion is wrong, but that it symbolizes a pervasive attitude of entitlement and downright selfishness in the United States today.

If you can be convinced that a person's sexual appetite is more important than the life of a living being tucked inside its mother's womb, then you can be convinced of the validity of any number of entitlements. Because after all, accountability-free sex is an entitlement that the state may grant people, but just because the state grants it doesn't make it morally right.

I don't mean to denigrate the critical absolutes of the abortion debate, but if you can believe abortion is OK, then you can also be convinced that liberal welfare policies are OK, along with big government and ever higher taxes to pay for it all.

Current GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain claimed last week that although he personally considers abortion to be wrong, he doesn't think the government has any place telling a woman what to do with her own body. But that opinion - even after Cain tried to distance himself from it - belies a twisted viewpoint that the government is oppressing women by banning elective abortions.

The pro-life stance is about the government protecting the rights of an unborn child, rather than simply the rights of the birth mother. However, it could be argued that the pro-life stance affirms the role motherhood plays in our society, since it recognizes the woman's vital responsibility in providing a healthy pregnancy for her child.

Abortion and the Poor

Which brings up some sobering statistics wealthy conservatives need to understand. Nearly half of all abortions in the United States are sought by women whose annual household income is less than $30,000. Only 14% of abortions are performed on women whose annual household income is greater than $60,000.

Plus, although white women have the most abortions - simply by virtue of the fact that there are more of them in the United States than women of any other race - abortions are actually performed on a greater percentage of black women. And since more blacks live in poverty in the United States than whites, we should all understand the powerful motivator family finances - or the lack of them - plays in our country's abortion crisis.

So while Republicans and people like me (since many of my conservative friends distrust my conservative credentials) rail against government-funded entitlements, let's not forget that although entitlements aren't helping to solve poverty, they might be holding some sort of fiscal line against even more abortions. At least to the extent that food stamps, public housing, and other financial programs help poor families decide to keep their babies, instead of kill them for financial reasons.

Abortion in the Church

And evangelical conservatives, in particular, need a wake-up call regarding the prevalence of abortions in our own church-going midst.

What do I mean? How about this stunning figure: almost 20% of all abortions in the United States are performed on women who identify themselves as "Born-again/Evangelical."

Meanwhile, women with no religious affiliation obtain 23.7% of all abortions.

This means that any difference in the abortion rate between churched women and unchurched women is almost statistically irrelevant.

Which may help explain how the abortion debate has lost a bit of its zing during these early days of the presidential election season. Rick Perry came out with some harsh words about Cain's socially liberal stance on the subject, but hardly any waves were made in the national press over it. Indeed, it almost seems as though abortion is an issue about which none of the Republican candidates wants to talk these days.

Probably because it's more of a political minefield than a personal one. Consider the remarkable advocacy of the pro-life stance from a liberal gay manager who was meeting my equally gay, liberal boss one day when I was an intern for the City of New York.

The Pope was coming to town, and my boss was part of a group protesting his visit. So my boss, when another manager who was gay came by our office, was making pejorative remarks against the Pope, assuming he'd get some affirmation from his other liberal friend.

To my boss's surprise - as well as mine, the other manager rose up in an unlikely defense of the pontiff. Whereas beforehand, they had been joking together about some hopelessly straight topic, this other manager suddenly started sounding like a Bible-thumper.

My boss was aghast. "But - but - ," he stammered, caught completely off-guard. "You're GAY! You're supposed to be pro-choice! You're supposed to oppose the Pope!"

The other manager was quick to respond. "Just because I'm gay doesn't mean I can't be pro-life. I'm gay, but I'm also Catholic, and I believe abortion is murder. I have to support the Pope on this one!"

I remember seeing the look in my boss's face - a look of absolute confusion. Obviously, he'd assumed that to be gay meant to be against everything conservatives champion. That moment provided him with a big lesson in the personal nature of politics.

Who's Face Do They See?

And it's that personal nature of politics that is likely keeping this year's crop of presidential contenders so quiet when it comes to abortion. Which helps explain why I don't think politics is necessarily the best way to handle this travesty anyway.

Inevitably, the face people who would contemplate an abortion see is the face of surly anger and distorted partisan rancor.

Instead, I look to the people I know who volunteer at crisis pregnancy centers across the country. Many of them prefer to be called "pregnancy resource centers," but however they're identified, they still provide life-saving options for women who initially assume abortion is a solution to the pregnancy they think they don't want.

Thousands of pro-lifers meet one-on-one with anxious mothers and fathers in big cities and small towns, explaining the biology of conception and the literal facts of life. Most of the staffers who sit down and care for the parents in crisis are evangelical volunteers whose only pay is knowing that they're on the front lines of murder prevention.

They're the face of Christ, offering a sympathetic countenance, not fear of losing a policy decision. They're the eyes of Christ, twinkling with hope and alternatives. They're the arms of Christ, comforting the aching shoulders of parents who've discovered that pro-choice is no choice at all. And they're the voice of Christ, advocating for the promise in the womb, who can't yet speak for itself.

It's this front line in the battle over abortion where the daily struggles are fought and the victories are won. Because it is here that the discipline of right choices and personal accountability are stressed, but not inflicted as a cold law or a stale mandate.

Like many other facets of the Christian life, the fight against abortion is less about laws than it is a conviction that the truth we've been given is greater than anything our government and culture can deliver.

And that even with stronger laws, the only thing about abortion that will truly ever go away are its innocent victims.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Go Start With God

It all starts with God.

Everything. Not only the beginning of our world, in Creation. But the way we live our lives and view our personhood.

How you brush your teeth in the morning. Whether you brush your teeth every morning. The color of summertime grass. The density of structural concrete. How long your commute to work took this morning. And your commute home this evening. Whether you even have a job. Or not.

Remember, all of these things start with God. How they end up is, in some grand theological mystery, due in part to the decisions, mistakes, and wisdom that you and I bring to our little patches of reality.

Yet how often do we get seduced into thinking that our actions towards every event in life are more important that the One Who set it all in motion to begin with? Whose sovereignty keeps it all controlled even today, even if our definition of control isn't His?

It's about at this spot where reformed theology becomes important, because I don't believe that any of us chooses Christ. God chooses us. Otherwise, God wouldn't be sovereign, would He?

And if God isn't sovereign, He's not the center of our universe.

Not that many of us remember that He is anyway, while we go about our daily lives. How often to we try and hammer little nuggets of God and His truth into our lives only when it's convenient, or helpful, or absolutely necessary, like in times of crisis?

Instead, shouldn't our lives - every bit of them - be flowing from His truth, His laws, His provision for our salvation, His plan for our sanctification, His promise of the Holy Spirit, and His eternal Kingdom?

I'm not talking about simply trying to fit Sunday church into your schedule. Or volunteer service opportunities.

We know we're not supposed to plan stuff and then ask God to bless it. But don't we spend an awful lot of time and energy living life with our holy Savior being an afterthought, an addendum, a pesky prickler of conscience, or an ambivalent go-with-the-flow kinda fun-loving Guy?

"Oh sure, it's all good!"

The older I get, and the more I realize how ill-equipped I am to live my life despite a college education and an otherwise proper middle-class upbringing in the world's greatest nation, the more I value the perspective of self-denial (Luke 9:23) and a lifestyle of permeating worship.

Not the singing and praying and sermonizing of Sunday morning liturgies, but cultivating a God-centric action plan for the way I think and act that recognizes the His primacy and truth in all of Creation.

Not even in some big, heady intellectual exercise or browbeating no-fun asceticism. Granted, what God has purposed for our good won't always jive with what our culture says is good, and some onlookers to my life may figure I'm a pretty dull, bitter, deprived individual.

Yet to the extent that I don't focus my lifestyle on the culture around me, won't I be better able to remind myself of the things I know and am supposedly still learning about God and what His intentions and gifts are?

Something like "where my treasure is, there my heart will be also?"  (Matthew 6:21)

Don't think I'm pontificating on something I've mastered. Or that since I'm further along in this lifelong exercise than you might be, I figure I'm qualified enough to slap you upside your head for not doing as good a job at this as I'm doing.  None of us will master this before we get to Heaven, and after that, I'm not sure it will matter, since we'll physically be with God.  And who knows how much further along I am in this journey than you or anybody else - and how many other people are even much further along than both of us put together.

It's a race that we run, yes, but we're not competing against each other. We're competing against a culture that the Devil hopes will seep into our souls. Yet how often is it easier to just flow with the culture downstream, when we're supposed to be going upstream? Pegging our journey in sanctification to the culture around us doesn't give an accurate reading of our progress. We're supposed to be pegging our journey in sanctification on Christ and His perfection.

Which doesn't change, like our culture does.

Indeed, the more I read, watch, hear, and experience religious stuff at church, online, in books and magazines, and even those few times when I make a stab at sharing my faith, I become increasingly cognizant of how cluttered our thinking has become in North America's evangelical community. Cluttered, and distracted, and many times downright mis-directed. It's like we're looking back at God along this journey, when we're supposed to be looking forward to Him.

Which is another grand paradox to the Gospel, too, isn't it? Everything starts with God.

Yet He is our leader, the One to Whom we look towards.

Kinda reminds me of the old benediction, "Go with God."

Go! With God.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

How Free Grace Gets Cheapened

I need some help.

How often should we believers resort to grace when we simply don't want to face a difficult ethical decision?  Not just when we can't figure out a more appropriate way to respond than with gracious acquiescence, but when we know something is not proper, yet we keep our mouths shut anyway?

Or how often should invoking God's forgiveness seem easier than inquiring about whether we're really permitted to do something?  Not when we blatantly disobey God's laws, which we know to be wrong, but in areas that seem grayer to us, particularly when we suspect they're not as gray as we hope them to be?

Are there times when, to avoid offending another person, we can permit something that we're pretty sure is offensive to God?  Such as, say, attending the wedding of good friends with lots of sexually immoral baggage?

Love, Marriage, Lust, and Sin

These questions have been percolating in my mind after reading Al Mohler's blog post on gay marriage in light of Joel Osteen's response to the rising trend.  Basically, Osteen has been quoted as saying he would not perform a gay wedding, but he would attend one.  In his blog, Mohler calls Osteen out on his contradictory viewpoints.  If gay marriage isn't something Osteen can endorse as an officiant, what makes it good enough for him to endorse as a guest?

Most people of faith likely wouldn't attend the wedding of a gay couple, but would that be out of theological conviction, opposition to the political statement being made, or simple unease with being around homosexuals of any marital status?  If it's because of a theological conviction that gay marriage is a sin, then why don't we oppose other marriages between people exhibiting sin practices of a sexual nature?

It doesn't take much for Mohler's castigation of Osteen to unravel an increasingly pernicious tendency of believers to marginalize marriage by letting all sorts of issues fall by the wayside on the way to the altar.

What about divorce and re-marriage, for example? I know of a pastor whose wife left him, refusing all attempts at reconciliation by her husband, and actually telling the elder board at his church that there was nothing he'd done wrong; she just wanted a change.  He later re-married a widow and is now a senior pastor - a senior pastor - at another church.

Then there was the friend who commented to me at dinner one evening several years ago, "don't you just hate it when women keep asking you for sex?"

To which I had to reply in all honesty that, no, I'd never had that problem in my life. So he told me that someone he'd met and dated a couple of times kept pestering him for sex, even though he'd met her at church and didn't believe in sex outside of marriage. He finally stopped the relationship, only to have her contact him several months later and ask him for one night of passionate uninhibitedness before her wedding - the next day.  And sure, her fiance was fine with it, since he was going to have a final fling with a female friend of his.

Oh. My. Word.

Our society has woven tangled webs of lust and promiscuity that have deceived us into a false understanding of morality and what is acceptable, even for believers. 

That my friend with the nymphomaniacal pursuer had met her at church should tell us something about the ineffectiveness within some communities of faith of instilling a pervasive sense of respect for God's laws and His holiness. Should she have felt so comfortable attending that church while pursuing its men so deviantly?

That another church would invite a divorced man into their conservative pulpit certainly reveals how accepting congregations have become towards broken marriages. I understand that not every marriage is going to last, but if any do fail, especially a pastor's, should we just cry a bit and shake off any negative implications?

Especially since marriage is supposed to model the relationship between Christ and His, um, church?

Does Sin Obscure Grace?

Maybe it's me who doesn't understand grace. Maybe my soul is so corrupted by my own sin that I can't understand how God could wipe my soul's slate utterly clean, let alone anybody else's. Or how other believers can accept something they haven't paid for and then act as though they deserve further infusions of grace whenever they willfully contravene His laws.

Do we sin so that grace may abound? Consider Romans 6, and you tell me. I'll give you the juicy bits here:

1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?

2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

Presenting Ourselves to God as Slaves of Righteousness

So is God's grace an excuse, or a get-out-of-jail-free card? Or is it slavery to righteousness?

Paul admits in verse 19 that sure, we used to be free to wallow in all sorts of sinful behavior.  But then in verse 22, he creates the expectation that the fruits of our lives will point to the sanctification process taking place in our hearts and minds.

So am I just making up the correlation between what we do as believers, what we tolerate in our communities of faith, and how authentic that faith really is?

Like I've said, many evangelicals will fairly readily admit that attending a gay wedding isn't appropriate.  But how many evangelicals have allowed activities like divorce and sex outside of marriage to get exceedingly fuzzy?  Can't doing so endanger the integrity of the witness we portray to the world?  Should we just shrug our shoulders and let grace cover it, like we do with our credit cards after a dinner out?

Maybe I'm just jealous since the sins I harbor secretively in my life aren't the type of sins that are socially acceptable in Christian circles.  It doesn't really help, either, to realize that both my private sins and public ones are equally grave to our Father.

Fortunately, it's not up to us to decide the eternal fate of every believer based on how we view their personal interpretations of what grace is. But the fact that God does look at our hearts to gauge our motivations... perhaps that's scarier that letting our peers make the eternity call on our behalf. Because if in our hearts, we're not letting the process of sanctification have unfettered access to our desires, impulses, and actions, what does that say about our acceptance of His grace to begin with?

Not that rules and regulations make a believer holy. But we can't ignore the fact that Christ is the Fulfillment of the law, not the obliterator of it (Matthew 5:17).

One of the best ways to obliterate something is, over time, to weaken and cheapen it.  The marriage covenant, yes; plus all sorts of best practices in the Christian life.

Obviously, Christ doesn't weaken or cheapen the lives of His followers with His grace.

But do we?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Victims of Their Own Naivete

Did you hear the one about an Occupy Wall Streeter whose $5,500 Apple laptop was stolen from Zuccotti Park?

Rupert Murdoch's irascible New York Post broke the story, along with salacious accounts of thievery running amok among the idealist hipsters playing urban wilderness campers in New York City's Financial District.

Apparently, according to an 18-year-old protester from Florida, “stealing is our biggest problem at the moment.”

And it's the stuff made by the very capitalists being reviled by the protesters that's being stolen.

Oh, the irony!

Setting an Example for Wealth Redistribution?

Wealth is relative, of course, and even if you think a $5,500 laptop fits into an anarchist's personal budget, it's still more than many average, middle-class families can spend on something that's outdated almost as soon as it's purchased. Indeed, it's probably the parents of that 18-year-old Floridian, a volunteer staffer in the park, who are madder than their daughter, since they were likely the ones who bought that Mac in the first place.

It's not just overpriced Apple computers thieves are stealing from amongst the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park, however. Cell phones and digital cameras have been disappearing, along with umbrellas and even somebody's fold-up bed. As plenty of bemused commenters of the Post's article observed, it's "wealth redistribution" at its most basic form. Something for which the Occupy Wall Streeters (OWSers) have been clamoring, but which they don't actually appreciate happening to them.

Granted, the sophisticated government programs and entitlements many conservatives brand as wealth redistribution can't legitimately be called theft, since tax codes - however unfair - aren't illegal. But having New York's protesters discovering that they can't even trust their fellow demonstrators should be showing them one of their campaign's major fallacies: capitalism itself isn't the problem as much as it is a lack of personal responsibility.

Think about it: the verifiable evils many protesters have been complaining about, such as offshoring, downsizing, excessive executive compensation, and banks profiteering off of taxpayer bailouts, have at their core not the capitalism which has allowed these phenomena to take hold, but individual businesspeople who have made decisions based on narrow self-interests.

And these businesspeople have been forced to make self-serving decisions by greedy shareholders - most of them 99 Percenters - who consider themselves a more important component of capitalism than products and the people who make them.

Then there are the greedy unions - particularly in the automotive industry - who wrangle with management to secure unreasonably high pay for more people than necessary to produce low-quality work.

Top it all off with win-at-any-cost politicians whose diet consists of pure legislative pork, with partisan flavoring serving more as diversionary tactic than heartfelt conviction.

Add all of these myopic business patterns together and what do you get? A crumbling national economy, while even more socially and financially corrupt societies in Asia chop away at our global competitiveness.

Who's Responsible?

Just as the demonstrators look at the thievery taking place among their ranks and cry foul, the crimes that are taking place aren't being perpetrated by faceless, soulless organizations; they're being perpetrated by individual crooks. Yet, just as there's no point marching over to Rikers Island and Sing Sing, chanting anti-crime slogans at incarcerated felons, is there any benefit to marching down Wall Street's corporate canyons, berating the faceless, soulless capitalists they think are responsible for our economic malaise?

Last week, when a small group of protesters made their way uptown to chant their slogans on sidewalks outside of exclusive apartment buildings, they didn't bother selecting the home of Democrat activist George Soros, one of the wealthiest Wall Street players in the world. No, they picked on some less politically-sensitive targets to appease the left-wing elements of their underground sponsors. So even to them, individualism does matter.

Not that their petulant Uptown demonstrations were very effective, anyway. They ended up frustrating far more of New York's 99 Percenters who ended up stuck in the traffic chaos than the One Percenters they intended to inconvenience.

Has the Big Apple Struck Again?

Of course, going back to the missing $5,500 computer, it could also be that, in fact, there are no thieves among the OWSers. Might this new problem in Zuccotti Park just be a result of New York being New York?

Let's be realistic here: this is New York City, and many of these protesters are from out of town. Even among the ones who say they're New Yorkers are a lot of spoiled white suburban kids who've moved to the Greatest City in the World for a post-college rush, and they're as naive as Zuccotti's traveling demonstrators to Gotham's gritty dangers.

If I were a common street criminal in the City, would I pass up such an opportunity as this? I've seen photos on the Internet of laptop computers and other gadgets left unattended. You just don't do that in New York City. Especially in a crowd where you really don't know who belongs and who doesn't.

Throw in all of the gourmet food that's been donated free, and what New York pickpocket, scam artist, and petty mugger wouldn't be enticed downtown?

Free laptops, cell phones, and a hot meal! Can't beat that.

If this is the case, then the OWSers still don't win, because yet again, they're exposing their own irrationality and misunderstanding of reality. Just as yelling at a building full of office workers doesn't convey an astute grasp of economic complexities, camping out for over a month with unguarded technology on the streets of Manhattan doesn't convey an astute grasp on personal responsibility.

Either way, the protesters are looking for sympathy when they really don't deserve any. Out of work? How many months of rent would $5,500 pay for, instead of an over-the-top laptop? How much peanut butter and bananas, if you're starving? How much of your student loans, or your car payments, or your airline ticket to a city with a cheaper cost of living?

The Learning Experience Whose Lessons They Don't Want to Learn

I'm not saying that the problems towards which Occupy Wall Street has directed its angst aren't real or valid. But in order to solve problems, one needs to have the facts, the insight, and even the savvy to construct effective solutions.

The more I hear about the OWSers, the less confident I become that they're even capable of being the productive citizens they claim they want to be, let alone people who can offer rational solutions to fix our economic woes. Take, for example, the grungy protester on a pro-OWS video outed by both Breitbart TV and the New York Times as a trust fund Ivy Leaguer. Then there's the retired vice chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange who's the largest single benefactor of New York's protests to date. And he's also given to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

Perhaps the more amazing thing about Occupy Wall Street isn't that its taken this long for a $5,500 laptop to get stolen, but that they've been around this long already, considering the type of agitators they're attracting.

Indeed, staying on-message has been extremely difficult for the protesters, primarily because they didn't start out with one. How curious that now they've managed to coalesce their grievances around the banner of economic opportunity, thievery has begun to paradoxically plague the demonstrators.

And it's all proving one of the truths they don't seem willing to admit: that personal accountability begins with each one of us.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One Layman's Introspection

Notice anything new on this blog?

Besides the advertising? Which, by the way, does not appear to be a gold mine for me.

I'm tinkering with the name of this blog, which started out as "Outside, Looking In." A name I came up with on the fly two years ago when a friend urged me to cave in and start writing online.

Today, I changed it to "One Layman's Introspection" to try and clarify the point of the essays I write. Perhaps it's overstating the obvious, but my opinions are just that: my opinions. They're not divine, or inerrant, or infallible. In other words, they're just like your opinions.

Only I happen to think mine are at least worth reading!

Still, for a person who doesn't embrace change, I felt it was time for a title change.

If you think about it, "Outside, Looking In" can sound a bit voyeuristic, like I'm some sort of peeping tom, hanging around in the dark watching people unawares.

Some of my readers may find my opinions as scary as having a weirdo hiding out in their bushes, but that's certainly not the imagery I want to convey.

Then, too, there's the perception that people on the "outside, looking in" want to be part of the "in-crowd," and are feeling sorry for themselves that they're not as popular as everyone else.

Anybody who's read many of my essays, however, knows I have no desire to be part of any social clique, because many of them are based on artificial commonalities like status or materialism. Even religious cliques can be stratified to celebrate professional titles, denominational doctrines, and particular freedoms that lesser folk still stigmatize as in appropriate. For example, I know that I've not been invited to some events because I don't drink alcohol. I'm not in the giddy, churchy beer and wine crowd.

And if I have to compromise my principles to be in most "in-crowds," then I'm better of outside... and not even looking in! Not that my principles are perfect, but if people can't accept me for who I am, then why should I want to hang out with them anyway? Of course, this is a two-way street, because I'm not always accepting of people who are different from me, either. But isn't being aware of my problem my first step in solving it?

So the voyeuristic, socially inept image conveyed with "Outside, Looking In" is being retired.

In its place, at least for a while, is "One Layman's Introspection," which keen observers will notice has the same initials - OLI - that already exist in my blog's URL, I'm not ready to establish a completely fresh URL, and I don't want to lose people who may not have added my site to their list of favorites, so I wanted to keep the OLI.

Plus, I really am just one layman, which in church parlance means I'm not a professionally-trained theologian or licensed preacher. Personally, after knowing a number of people who've gone through seminary, the only real difference I see in them is their greater knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. Many of them entered seminary with an already impressive grasp of the Gospel. Yet they tend to emerge from seminary more disillusioned about professional Christianity than when they went in. Sure, now they have a diploma with which they can dazzle pastoral search committees, but they can also quickly diagnose the problems in churches looking for pastors to replace the one that just resigned.

If that's an exceptionally cynical view of seminaries, then I'm sorry, and yes, I do need to acknowledge that some seminary-trained teachers of the Bible have benefited greatly from their schooling. I'm just saying that being a Christian layperson isn't necessarily anything to be ashamed of.

And introspection? Very few of my viewpoints are crafted on the fly. I'm old enough now to have spent some time thinking about a lot of the ways and reasons why North Americans do church the way we do. I'm also fairly aware of my own flaws and frailties as a follower of Christ, which is one reason the tagline of this blog remains "confessions of a refugee from conventional North American evangelicalism."

I'm a recovering cynic of the dominant seeker-sensitive and contemporary influences in our church culture, which helps explain my episodes of tart critiques of popular methodologies in the name of religion. I'm convinced evangelical Christianity has flirted with the world for so long that it's no longer the older worship styles that have become irrelevant, but most of the contemporary parts churches insist are now necessary. But think about it: what person desperately in need of salvation really cares if you've got a rock band and smoke machines in what you used to call a sanctuary if you've still got the same old church cliques and manufactured programs that helped stigmatize churches as havens of hypocrites in the first place?

No, just because I'm toying around with a new name doesn't mean that my charming New York-ish brashness is being replaced by a hip new vibe of New Age Zen and contemplation. Or even that I'm being sexist since it's "layman" instead of "layperson."

I still invite you to read what I've been thinking about and evaluate each essay for yourself based on Biblical truth. Call me out on stuff that you think I've gotten wrong. And flatter me by incorporating my on-target introspections into your own.


Yes, this blog is a form of therapy for me, as well as a resume of my writing.

But why are you reading it if there's not something here that speaks to you, too?

Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Speaking of Confession Suppression

Call it the attack of the oral orifice.

Sometimes, I think that hole in the front of my face is my own worst enemy.

The Book of Proverbs contains repeated warnings about controlling our tongues, watching what we say, and making sure everything that comes out of our mouths is wholesome and edifying.

Our speech doesn't necessarily have to always be pretty, or flowery, or bright, or soothing, does it? But it does need to be truthful, beneficial, and loving. All three, all the time.

Sometimes "truthful" and "loving" cancel each other out, don't they, and we end up not really talking much about a particular subject, even if we think our comments might be beneficial. At least to our audience!

I'm Not Sick! (At least, not physically)

One morning several years ago, during my devotions before going off to work, the Lord struck me with how unloving and careless my talk had been recently in the office. So I decided to try and put into practice the old adage, "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." That afternoon, I overheard a couple of my co-workers commiserating about my health, wondering if I was under the weather, since I had said almost nothing that day!

Fact was, every time I'd gone to open my mouth, I'd realized that what I was about to say wasn't nice, so I'd ended up not talking much at all! When I informed my co-workers that physically, I was fine - I was just trying to watch my mouth - we all had a good laugh, realizing how much all of us contribute to the negative vibes at work when we complain more than we encourage as we talk.

But even when I do things like explaining my silence to my co-workers, I risk offending others, because our world - both at work and at church - isn't geared for gentle admonishments about sinful behavior.

Can't Reel it Back In

I was reminded of that unfortunate reality this past Friday evening at a casual dinner party with church friends. As five or six of us were chatting about people in our denomination, I blurted out a blatantly unloving opinion about somebody I hardly know, and was immediately chastised - both by a dinner companion, and my own conscience.

Why had I said that? My opinion lent nothing to the conversation, didn't encourage anybody, and maligned a fellow believer in Christ for no reason whatsoever.

I shut up - painfully aware through both the corrections of my friend and my own conscience - that I was out of line, but my silence was misinterpreted as lack of ammunition to defend my position. Which, granted, I didn't have, either. The conversation wobbled along for a couple more comments until lurching to a stop.

Yet I felt compelled to continue my silence, partly out of sheer embarrassment, but also because for some odd reason, it seemed if I apologized to the group, I would be sounding sanctimonious. Holier-than-thou. And rubbing their own noses in sin. After all, my unholy outburst merely followed a sequence of other gossip-tinged comments from other people, even though theirs were not nearly as uninformed and malicious as mine.

Which begs the question, incidentally: if what you're talking about is chock-full of facts and communicated in an unemotional tone, when does it become gossip?

Awkwardly, the conversation switched to something else entirely, and for all practical purposes, I was off the hook.

But was I? Although I felt as though I should have brought closure to my sin by apologizing for it, doing so seemed as though it would invite more consternation from my friends than genuine forgiveness. Plus, I rationalized, I didn't want to draw any more attention to what I'd said.

After all, none of us is innocent when it comes to talking our way into sin. It's just that some of us commit that sin more frequently and boldly than others, and socially, it's become relatively acceptable.

But my purpose, now as then, is not to confess any sins my friends may have committed, nor rebuke them for not doing that themselves.

Indeed, the very environment which inhibited me - however uncharitably, or conveniently - from blurting out my confession Friday night does, in fact, likely exist at other times when I'm part of the group of people observing somebody else's blatant sin behavior. No doubt there are times when I'm one of the people who inhibits the proper response from somebody who gets convicted of something they've done. Which, yes, I know it's hard for you to believe, but I'm not always a verbally rambunctious, unloving boor in public. Sometimes I'm the observer of bad behavior, not the perpetrator.

Which all combined, makes for that unhealthy social phenomenon I'll call suppression of confession and guilt.

Suppression of Confession

The suppression of confession and guilt has woven itself in the fabric of evangelical community because we often are fully aware of the sins we commit, yet we've heard so much teaching about spiritual modesty that it sounds like heresy when we actually call ourselves out on a particular sin that we ourselves commit. It's somewhere between bad interpretations of boasting in our weaknesses and trying to extract the log in our own eye while, at the same time, hoping other guilty people see the littler logs in their own eyes. And we all end up in some big confession-fest.

Which probably wouldn't be a bad idea, sometimes, particularly in communities of faith that have gotten woefully bogged-down in anti-social behaviors like false modesty, gossip, slander, judgmentalism, and - horrors! - legalism.

And perhaps this phenomenon is more acute here in the south, where social etiquette probably remains more prevalent than in, say, New York City, where people are more blunt and ambivalent towards austere aspects of group protocol.

But my question is this: at what point should we just freeze in our tracks when we realize we've said something sinful, and just let it wither and die on the flagpole of group disdain? If the conversation takes a twist and leaves us behind at the crossroads of our indiscretion, should we voluntarily dredge up the topic again when those who've heard our sin have mentally "forgiven" us already and moved on?

Or am I the only person to whom these things happen? Is it because I stick my foot in my mouth so many times, I've trained myself to try and close the proverbial barn door after the horse has bolted?

Either way, it's not so much my friends' duty to shake a confession out of me at my every verbal sin, as it is perhaps to come up alongside me in private and encourage me to rectify the situation, in whatever appropriate form that might take, based on the circumstance.

That's all well and good for me to expect that from my friends, but how much of that is a big cop-out on my part? And how often do I perform that service to them? When it's their time in the foot-in-mouth barn?

Yeah, well... maybe my lack of integrity in this area comes from my own aversion to practicing what I preach.

Perhaps this is one of those reasons why suppression of confession is so rampant in North American evangelicalism these days. Not an excuse, but a reason.

Those are times when instead of shutting my oral orifice, I should practice using it in a truthful, beneficial, and loving way.

After all, if your language is seasoned rightly, people might actually be glad when you have a big mouth.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Whose Grace Is It?

I take as my text today some passages from Psalm 78:

God did miracles in the sight of Israel's fathers in the land of Egypt... But they continued to sin against him, rebelling in the desert against the Most High. They willfully put God to the test by demanding the food they craved.

They spoke against God, saying, "Can God spread a table in the desert? When he struck the rock, water gushed out, and streams flowed abundantly. But can he also give us food? Can he supply meat for his people?"

When the LORD heard them, he was very angry; his fire broke out against Jacob, and his wrath rose against Israel, for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance. Yet he gave a command to the skies above and opened the doors of the heavens; he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. He rained meat down on them like dust, flying birds like sand on the seashore.

In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe.

So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror. Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant.

Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.

How often they rebelled against him in the desert and grieved him in the wasteland! Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember his power, the day he redeemed them from the oppressor.

Like their fathers they were disloyal and faithless, as unreliable as a faulty bow. They angered him with their high places; they aroused his jealousy with their idols. When God heard them, he was very angry; he rejected Israel completely. He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent he had set up among men. He sent the ark of his might into captivity, his splendor into the hands of the enemy. He gave his people over to the sword; he was very angry with his inheritance.

- from Psalm 78

We love grace, as we should, considering the Price that was paid for it.

However, the more we enjoy it, don't we tend to abuse it? Might we be doing more than simply taking it for granted? Might we be demonstrating an appreciation for the raw religious significance of grace, instead of what God wants: an imperfect love for the Provider of that grace?

No believer in Christ can lose their salvation, but how might the extent to which we never appropriate a deeper devotion to our Savior by considering the fullness of His teachings (and not just those parts we enjoy hearing) and how they apply in our service to others actually indicate we're not really His at all?

Should we dare to shrug off the impact of Psalm 78?

"But they continued to sin against Him."

"They would flatter Him, lying to Him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to Him."

"They were disloyal and as unreliable as a faulty bow."

"They aroused His jealousy with their idols."

If you've committed any of these sins, as I have, and believe that God has forgiven you through the atoning sacrifice of His holy Son, then rejoice in that grace! Understand the price that was paid. And live in that grace like you mean it! Not flaunting it for your own purposes, but for the benefit of His Kingdom.

Not because you need to try and repay God for anything. But because as a servant of His, you know you can't. And you know He doesn't want you to try. It's not even like it's a burden, since the love of Christ should "compel us." (2 Corinthians 5:14)

It's all a matter of perspective, isn't it? The esteemed 17th Century Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford wrote:

"Humble sinners have high thoughts of free grace. Stand not afar off, come near, be washed, for free grace is not proud when grace refuseth not sinners. Salvation must be a flower planted without hands that groweth only out of the heart of Christ.

"Take humble thoughts of yourselves - and noble and high thoughts of excellent Jesus to heaven with you!

"Angels and saints shall be Christ's debtors for eternity of ages; and so long as God is God, sinners shall be in grace's account book!"

Those who have been bought with a price live not under a yolk of oppression, but under an obligation of thanks. After all, God is jealous, and He does not want us misplacing our focus on anything else but Him.

Might the extent to which we twist that obligation inwards and lose touch with the entirety of God's holy expectations of us be the extent to which we actually devalue the sacrifice made on our behalf?

Again, to quote Rutherford, "Of all created comforts, God is the lender; you are the borrower, not the owner."

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Last Chance for School of Last Chancers?

Fourth Street School may close next year.

Mostly because many parents with special needs kids, Fourth Street School's specialty, can't afford the annual $13,000 tuition.

Partly because the vast majority of residents here in Arlington, Texas, have no idea that Fourth Street School even exists.

And maybe even because special needs kids have about as much legitimacy in our society as elderly invalids. At least senior citizens can command some attention and respect with the money they've accrued over their lifetime.

This Ain't No Little Red Schoolhouse

I have a friend who has taught at Fourth Street School since, well, it was located on Fourth Street in central Arlington. A short street in an old neighborhood nearly swallowed up by the sprawling University of Texas campus here in town.

As it grew, Fourth Street School moved to a more modern facility with better street exposure in the southwestern part of town, but kept the name, and its mission: to help educate the kids who've been deemed uneducatable.

They're the problem children that both our city's public school district and private schools can't handle in conventional classrooms. Indeed, Fourth Street School is the last chance for some truants and juvenile offenders before they're shipped off to a state institution.

They're the kids who've literally been spoiled rotten by over-indulgent parents, and therefore have been unwittingly trained to be belligerent.

And yes, they're the kids who display all the classic symptoms of legitimate attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, autism, and dyslexia. To the extreme. And then some.

For all of the students trapped in their quiet despair caused by various psychosomatic problems, there are others whose uninhibitedness would make the most raunchy public school highschooler blush. My teacher friend has been assaulted by his students almost as many times as they've disappeared from their families, died under questionable circumstances, or been hauled off to reform school. Again.

Yes, my friend and his colleagues are paid a bit more than ordinary teachers in conventional schools, though even that amount doesn't compensate for everything they go through with these kids.

In the Drama Department

Nevertheless, the faculty manages to have some fairly high expectations from their students.

For example, every year the school holds a spring fundraiser, where local merchants donate goods and services for a silent auction, the kids serve a catered dinner, and the evening's entertainment is a blustery, rough, yet endearing mix of talent show and skits.

I used to attend regularly with other friends, and actually, the entertainment - such as it was - usually ended up being the kids themselves, earnestly struggling to approximate some semblance of social normalcy.

Sometimes with hilariously spontaneous moments of juvenile candor that spoke to the problems we all have communicating with each other.

And other times, with poignant failures.

Some of the students were either painfully - and I mean excruciatingly - shy and withdrawn, while others were bowl-you-over frenetic. One year, a girl hyperventilated and literally sank to the floor in complete stage fright during the program. Usually, though, other students of a more gregarious nature appeared ready to actually take over the entire production single-handedly, and often tried.

As an outsider at these fundraisers, you can't help but feel sorry for the kids and their parents. In many of their families, a sobering social dysfunction exists that infects everybody in them - whether it originates in the parents, or their kids. Living in these challenging environments must take a profound toll on everybody exposed to them. Although I wanted to give all of them the benefit of the doubt, I could never get over the creepy feeling attending those fundraisers that I was some sort of voyeur from the Planet Rational conducting a case study of people from the Planet Bonkers.

Is that mean of me? Or just patronizing?

The sensation of being at the verge of bedlam would permeate the auditorium. Many of the kids would charge between people and tables, red-faced and breathless, often with hot food slopping off of lopsided plates.

A few of the parents, obviously exhausted by their non-stop lives, appeared to mentally check-out at these fundraisers, sitting at tables like shell-shocked survivors of a terrorist attack, staring blankly into space while their kids literally bounced off the walls.

These kids weren't just on temporary sugar highs, or wild from lack of sleep or over-stimulation at an amusement park. This was real, everyday, 24-hour life for them and their families. At times, it could get uncomfortable for those of us unfamiliar with that environment.

Other parents, although they weren't physically frenetic, appeared to be just as frazzled, even while wearing designer clothing and expensive business suits. After all, few poor kids attend Fourth Street School, because of the cost.

Which begs the question: where do the rest go?

Some poorer kids end up as wards of the state, or committed to psychiatric hospitals, or shuttled off to a state school over one hundred miles away.

Not that Fourth Street School is the place for all of them to be anyway. At least, not all at the same time. Fourth Street's several dozen students create enough noise and confusion for a conventional public school's entire student population.

And, as my teacher friend would constantly remind us: don't forget, these kids were on their best behavior for us that evening!

Early Dismissal?

The other day, I learned that the Fourth Street School may be forced to shut down after this school year. Rising costs and a stagnant enrollment are the major culprits, so my friend and some other special education cohorts of his are working on an alternative business plan to try and at least salvage the school's mission, if not its actual existence.

But they've got an uphill battle. The vast majority of America's parents have what we'd consider to be normal kids, and funding requirements for problem kids is usually somebody else's problem. Unless these kids get unceremoniously dumped back into your child's regular school classroom.

Is it solely the burden of individual parents to grapple with securing educational resources for their special-needs child? Should society try and help out with that, or simply hope these kids don't end up in a life of crime, government welfare, and/or homelessness?

Because we all know what happens to normal kids who don't get a good education. Imagine what the future holds for special-needs kids who don't.

As it's handled now, the education for students like those at Fourth Street School is an ad-hoc patchwork of private, public, and government programs with families burning candles at both ends. Not ideal, certainly, but better than nothing. And even if Fourth Street School shuts down next fall and its students are shuffled off to other learning environments less suited to their individual needs, maybe the time they've spent among teachers like my friend will be enough to remind them that there are people in this world who do care for them outside of their family.

Obviously, no easy answers exist for funding an optimal education environment for every single child in the United States, let alone those with such unique needs. A lot of political talk has bounced around regarding school vouchers, an idea I support in principle, and for which schools like Fourth Street seem ideally suited.

Meanwhile, special needs kids keep entering school and matriculating through the grades every year, whether Washington or state governments or local districts can get their education financing acts together or not. For families and students who need resources like Fourth Street School, help can't come soon enough.

Still, I have to admit - I really couldn't wait for those fundraising dinners to be over. I would be emotionally and mentally exhausted towards the end of the evening, wondering how those parents live with these kids all the time.

Some days, the only success is having these kids learn that educators genuinely care about them.

Otherwise, Fourth Street School wouldn't even exist.

Too bad that soon, it might not.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

So Much Yelling and So Little Talking


They've had their fun.

They've gotten to camp out in a granite-paved park among the canyons of Lower Manhattan. They've gotten to accidentally break toilets in tiny coffee shop bathrooms when trying to bathe for free. They've gotten to yell obscenities at restaurant owners who wouldn't give away food. They've gotten to dance topless as mothers in the neighborhood tried to shield their young children from the bacchanalia.

They've generally gotten away with creating all sorts of mayhem and perpetrating social misbehavior in the world's most powerful and dynamic city. With cops arresting only a comparative few when they petulantly blocked traffic on the historic Brooklyn Bridge.

But today, they marched uptown to the high-rise luxury apartment buildings where some of the world's wealthiest people own homes.

Granted, there weren't as many protesters making the trek northward from the Financial District as have been roughing it downtown. But if any of them assume that what they've done - and what they want to do uptown - makes any difference, or even makes any sense, does that lend more folly than credibility to their cause?

After all, we're still not really sure what it is.

Because until today, we hadn't heard a clear message regarding their objectives. Unless that lack of clarity actually was their message.

If they're mad about our country's high unemployment, how does camping out in Manhattan like high-tech bums solve anything? Have you seen the photos of all the laptop computers they've scattered amongst expensive luggage next to tables lavished with freshly-cooked food from gourmet restaurants? They look more prepared for tailgating than job hunting.

If they're mad about income inequity, how does marching around in designer camping wear and outdoor gear prove they're poor, unless they're in debt up to their eyeballs after purchasing all of this chic clothing?

If they're mad about political disenfranchisement, how does taking advantage of New York's liberal right-of-assembly laws and demonstration permits - not to mention a police force obviously restraining itself - prove they don't have rights and a voice?

The longer anybody stays in New York City, the disparity between Gotham's rich and poor becomes ever more stark, and it's taken the Occupy Wall Streeters about a month to realize that targeting the homes of select economic villains could make for a rejuvenating diversion.

So today, they slapped together a "Millionaires March Tour" to visit the exclusive Upper East Side enclaves where New York's most notorious businessmen live. The protesters told the press - which considers the rowdy throngs to be ratings gold, and follows them with glee - that today's objective was to penalize big earners who have a "willingness to hoard wealth at the expense of the 99%."

Whatever that means.

I think they want it to mean that our country's economic problems would be solved if the wealthiest one percent of Americans would give their money away. As if that were possible, considering that many of their assets aren't in cash, but companies and other enterprises that employ the 90% of Americans who still have jobs.

But pragmatism was an early casualty of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon.

Here's a listing of executives and their exclusive residences that were targeted today:

- Rupert Murdoch, 64th and 5th Avenue
- David Koch, 71st and Park Avenue
- Howard Milstein, 78th and Park Avenue
- John Paulson, 86th and Madison Avenue
- Jamie Dimon, 93rd and Park Avenue

Protesters outside the Park Avenue apartment building where Jamie Dimon, Chase CEO, lives

Aside from taunting a nanny trying to enter one of the apartment buildings, jamming sidewalks along some of Manhattan's most famous streets, and making a lot of security guards put in lots of overtime, about all that the protesters seem to have accomplished was inconveniencing ordinary people who likely had no idea they lived near, were driving by, or were walking past the homes of such titans of commerce. Who probably weren't even home, since today was a work day.

Oh yeah - I forgot.

Most of these protesters don't have jobs.

Which, actually, is a fact that the targeted One Percenters really shouldn't ignore. Sure, up to this point, the protesters and their garbled message have made for interesting press reports, as well as a surprisingly robust copy-cat movement in other cities across America. I've heard that a small group has even begun protesting the Federal Building in the mighty metropolis of Fort Worth, Texas.


Yet, still... how many revolutions have been sparked by even less organized agitators? Idle hands are the Devil's workshop, as the saying goes. Let the peons get angry enough, and all the money that the One Percenters command might not be enough to protect themselves from the proverbial 99 percent.

Conservatives fret over President Obama's policies eliciting a new class warfare in the United States, but as the Occupy Wall Streeters continue to command attention and flaunt their rights to assemble and demonstrate, we may learn how much easier - and quicker - it is to channel anger into action than smug complacency.

Sure, it's been tough deciphering what the demonstrators really stand for, but we all know they're angry and disillusioned. And not entire logical. Which can't be a good combination, particularly when mixed with real problems like high unemployment, increasingly prevalent evidence that the Wall Street bailouts have only lined the pockets of a few top bankers, a decade-long war for which no resolution can be seen, and any number of other problems that have been identified by both liberals and conservatives.

Ahh, yes! Conservatives. They've had their own protest going for over two years now called the Tea Party. And while that's been far more conventional, since it's involved actually electing new representation and re-writing legislation, it's a type of discontent that the nation's established power brokers shouldn't be ignoring, either.

Right now, it doesn't appear likely that Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Streeters will join forces. But the sociopolitical conversation in our country is becoming increasingly bitter, sour, and contentious. Among conservatives, and now, among liberals.

I'm not crazy about the way either extreme has gone about expressing themselves.

But the same flash-in-the-pan ambivalence some Repubicans had towards the Tea Party seems to be echoed again towards Wall Street's rag-tag critics. Since the Tea Party doesn't seem to be ending anytime soon, why do the One Percenters think the folks jeering at their empty apartments are going home anytime soon, either?

Whatever happened to dialog in this country?

All anybody seems to be doing these days is yelling at walls.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Politics, Cults, and a Blunt Baptist

And a Baptist shall agitate them.

Dr. Robert Jeffress, that is; senior pastor at Dallas' legendary First Baptist Church. The guy who's ruffled a lot of Republican Christian feathers since his endorsement of Rick Perry at a conservative seminar this past Friday.

As a religion, Christianity has survived the past 2,000 years relatively well. Indeed, what started out as an unlikely band of 12 hapless disciples - one of them treasonous - has evolved into the world's largest religion.

Even today, in North America's "post-Christian" society, it's still politically prudent to dust off one's Christian credentials, at least during election seasons. Voters who aren't Christians begrudgingly accept its persistent resurrections during campaigns, and people who claim to be Christians find it reassuringly de rigueur in an increasingly polarized political climate.

But there's a big difference between Christianity as a religion and a personal faith in Jesus Christ, Christianity's namesake. And as a faith, Christianity remains as unpopular as it's always been. Inevitably, uncommitted hangers-on to the counter-cultural teachings of Christ continue proving their hidden apostasies when core doctrines of the Bible come under public scrutiny.

Just look at the storm that has billowed up since Jeffress' remarks last Friday.

Already well-known in the Dallas area for his pointed yet accurate assessments of Islam and other hot-button topics, Jeffress introduced the popular governor to the Values Voter Summit by distinguishing the fellow Texan as a Christian. With the insinuation that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is not.

Of the apparently receptive crowd, Jeffress asked, "Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person? Or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ? Rick Perry is a proven leader. He is a true conservative, and he is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ."

Later, asked by a piqued media to clarify the distinctions he appeared to be making between Perry and Romney, Jeffress went on to say, "Mormonism is not Christianity. It's not politically correct to say, but Mormonism is a cult. I did not talk about my Mormon views [with Perry beforehand], and I'm not insinuating that the governor shares those at all. He may not share them at all."

And, as it turns out, Perry doesn't. After the forum, both Perry and his political advisers tried to distance themselves from Jeffress' remarks, with Perry himself replying "No" when asked if he personally believed Mormonism is a cult.

Yes, It's a Cult

But it is, isn't it? This distinction dogged Romney during his last run for the presidency in 2008, and to his credit, Jeffress has brought it back into the nation's political conversation again this year. However, by doing so, First Baptist's outspoken preacher may have inadvertently highlighted the shallow faith of many conservatives who assume they're Christians, even though they lack personal faith in Christ.

After all, can a person be both saved and accepting of Mormonism as another branch of Christianity? Of course not, because Christianity is based on God's grace, rather than the works Mormons need to perform for their salvation. Which makes Mormonism a false religion, like Islam and Hinduism.

But Jeffress didn't leave it there. He cut to the chase with his deliberate use of the "C" word when describing Romney's faith. And while some religion experts dispute the terminology and how cults should be defined, the very fact that Mormonism expends a lot of energy trying to validate its Christianity actually helps confirm its classification as a cult.

Several organizations exist to provide in-depth facts and insights about the false teachings of Mormonism, such as Watchman Fellowship, Apologetics Index, and Still, false teachings don't themselves make a cult. So what does?

I propose that a cult can be characterized by the degree to which members are prevented from abdicating, and the degree to which outsiders are prevented from observing the group's rituals.

Plenty of evidence exists to document the excessive hold Mormons force upon their membership, and while they profess to allow scholarly exploration of alternative viewpoints, when it comes to letting doubting adherents simply walk away, Mormons have a notoriously hard time letting go of those who've grown disenchanted with the group.

In addition, only Mormons who have jumped through a variety of doctrinal hoops can even view some of their secret ceremonies, let alone participate. And many of their religious sites have areas where non-Mormons are forbidden access. Even Islam, one of the most rigid of religions, distinguishes access to their facilities more by gender than faith.

Yet perhaps the strongest evidence of its cultishness comes from Mormonism's very efforts at establishing itself as a more complete Christianity than ours. Indeed, Mormonism actually adds to the Bible with their Book of Mormon, whose content has undergone wholesale revisions - not just edits - several times, and includes direct contradictions to the holy, inerrant Word of God.

Christ warns His followers in Deuteronomy and Revelation not to add anything to what He tells us in His Word. For Mormonism to not simply have their own holy book, but to promote it in conjunction it with the Bible, speaks not only to its heretical nature, but its vile ambition for subverting the Gospel of Christ. That in itself makes it an exceptionally dangerous religion, particularly since many professing Christians don't even know their own doctrine well enough to distinguish between the two.

Which begs the question: might Mormonism be even worse than an ordinary cult? It tries so hard to join the Christian mainstream, even convincing otherwise logical people to gullibly overlook its doctrinal subterfuge, theological duplicity, and organizational deceit. Plus, if Mormons will obfuscate the very Bible they pretend to believe to advance their own heretical document, for example, what might one of them do to, say, the Constitution of the United States?

Outing the Lukewarmers

Ironically, by trying to portray Perry as an evangelical, Jeffress may have inadvertently outed Texas' governor as the lukewarm, theologically liberal Methodist some orthodox Texas evangelicals have long suspected him as being.

Perry has worked hard to craft a religiously pious, Christian-right image, particularly in his home state, which boasts extraordinarily high church-attendance figures. But when push comes to shove regarding his personal beliefs, by revealing his lack of understanding between the tenets of his professed faith and that of Mormons, Perry may have voided the very credentials he's been trying to sell to Bible-centric Christian voters.

And Perry isn't the only supposed Christian who's ended up on the wrong side of faith in this controversy.

On Saturday, at the same Values Voter Summit in Washington DC, another respected conservative, Bill Bennett, blasted Jeffress for his audacity in calling out Romney and Mormons on their continued charade of Christianity. The former education secretary accused Jeffress of bigotry and chastised him for stealing Perry's thunder.

“Do not give voice to bigotry. Do not give voice to bigotry. I would say to Pastor Jeffress: You stepped on and obscured the words of Perry and Santorum and Cain and Bachmann and everyone else who has spoken here. You did Rick Perry no good, Sir, in what you had to say.”

In addition, Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, joined the Jeffress-bashing wagon with an op-ed on CNN in which he tries to say that just because Mormons have a law school, some of their religious leaders have Ivy League degrees, and say they believe in Jesus Christ, they're not a cult.

"These folks talk admiringly of the evangelical Billy Graham and the Catholic Mother Teresa, and they enjoy reading the evangelical C.S. Lewis and Father Henri Nouwen, a Catholic. That is not the kind of thing you run into in anti-Christian cults."

No, not if the cult isn't trying to claim it's Christian, Dr. Mouw.

Good grief, in the orthodox evangelical Christian community, how much has the value of a Fuller degree just tanked? Mouw takes some breathlessly dangerous leaps of logic when he compares talking about Jesus Christ to actually believing He's the Son of God. He acts as though the flirtatious attention he's receiving from Mormons on an academic level validates a less nefarious secularism, as if the lack of believing faith can be hierarchical and relative instead of the pivot point between Heaven and Hell.

Religiosity Isn't Faith

Am I saying that to be a born-again Christian, you must believe that Mormonism is a cult? Of course not. To be a born-again Christian, you must believe that Jesus Christ is the holy Son of God and the perfect substitute for your sins.

But the extent to which you're convinced of that fact should also preclude your tolerance of any other religion which attempts to piggy-back on Biblical Gospel. And if your view of religion is tempered by your political aspirations, then of what quality is your faith in God's Son?

After all, you can tell the media and your voters that you're a Christian, but if your love for Christ does not compel you to defend His holiness, does it even matter if you're a Mormon or a cultural Christian?

Romney, Perry, Bennett, and Mouw can believe what they want to believe about religion.

They just shouldn't expect religion to be an acceptable substitute for faith in Christ.