Monday, April 6, 2015

Had Enough Tax-Time Fun?

If you’re like me, you’ve spent many hours and a lot of money over the last few weeks accounting for every dollar you’ve dealt with over the last year. If you own a business, you’ve also done the same thing four other times during the year. I should think you’d be in the market for a better way to get things done.
When you go to buy bread or to the circus, the grocer and the venue owner don’t ask you to account for the money you don’t give them. The grocer doesn’t force you to buy mopheads or gossip magazines, and the circus master doesn’t tell you whom you may and may not invite to parties at your home.
If Auto Zone and NAPA were competing for customers for their roads, I don’t think they’d have speed traps or demand money from people who park with the driver’s side of the car next to the curb. If ADT or State Farm were my first and only line of protection against burglars and terrorists—yours might be ADS or GEICO, and chances are they’d be working with my guys on some things—I would expect them to make sure I didn’t let my three-year-old kill his mother with my shotgun. If Walmart or Lt. Uhura down the street ran the nearest school, they would get my money only if I wanted to give it to them.
And for sure none of them would make dealing with them so difficult that I’d need to hire an accountant to get me through the paperwork.

As sure as ends never justify means, such a society would be better than what we’ve got, let alone the one we’re headed for. I’m not sure how to get there from here, but there’s no point finding out as long as you’re happy to have the taxman help himself to your money, your time, and your private life.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Anarchy at a Church Work Day

Brian announced in church that there would be a work day on Saturday and put out a list of things that needed to be done for people to sign up. Somewhere along the line, Ken and I got the idea that we were in charge of cooking breakfast before the work started. Then we found out that Tom and Rich were in charge of breakfast. So I wrote Tom to let him know that I’d help him, but he said he would be going out of town that day. Meantime, Rich, who hadn’t heard anything, said he’d be happy to head up breakfast, which was fine with us because he can put together wonderful meals in his sleep. Then he went to Costco and bought enough food for twice the number that eventually showed up—a week early. Oops.
Ken and I showed up at 6:30 to cook breakfast. No Rich. Neither of us had a key. Wait—didn’t we see a car come in? Sure enough, it was Tom, who opened the church, unlocked all the doors, and went on his way out of town.
We looked in the kitchen: no eggs, no bacon, no Bisquick, only frozen hash browns, and we didn’t know how those should be cooked. So we set up the tables and chairs. Then Rich showed up. He’d had to dig his wheelbarrow out of his shed for the work day.
Apart from Rich telling us how we should cook the eggs and bacon and hash browns, we pretty much worked in silence. Eventually everything was ready to eat, the people showed up, and the food got eaten—well, most of it.
Daniel and Kim had brought their kids, and while Daniel went to work on Brian’s to-do list, Kim and the girls cleaned up the kitchen while I struck the makeshift dining room. The kitchen crew discovered that half of the bacon had never been taken out of the oven and was now completely charred. Oops.
At that point, I had to leave to chase the buck, but as I drove off, I saw everyone hard at work—even the slight lady who first came to our church a few weeks ago and her son, who looked to be about six years old. And when I came to church the next morning, everything was shipshape.
No surprise. This is the way God designed the system.
Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones. Learn from their ways and be wise! Even though they have no prince, governor, or ruler to make them work, they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter. (Prov 6:6-8)
One of the greatest blessings of common grace, the goodness God bestows on everyone, his foes as well as his friends, is what I call the market: as an old song put it, “You must die to live / You must give to gain / You must lose to win.” A corollary of this is that people who desire a common goal will gladly work together to reach it. You don’t have to be a Christian to be a willing worker.
It is true that some people willingly work together to reach ungodly goals. Every person alive has probably done so at some point. This is why we need God’s wisdom—written in his Word and imparted by the Holy Spirit and godly counselors—to keep godly goals always before us.
It’s also true that some will pursue selfish ends instead of working for the common good.
But if a bunch of nobodies can whip a church facility into shape in a few hours without coercion and really without leadership that goes beyond setting the goals and teaching the ignorant how to reach them, there’s every reason to believe that the church can bring justice and prosperity to any society by peaceful means.
Jesus told them, “In this world the kings and great men order their people around, and yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you, those who are the greatest should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant.”

If we are to see the knowledge of the glory of the Lord cover the earth like the water covers the seas, we need to live up to the name of Jacob, “the supplanter,” supplanting the coercive institutions of the state with voluntary, service-based institutions as individuals, families, churches, and larger societies. If we build a city on a hill that truly reflects Jesus, burned bacon and all, people will come and surrender to him, and if they don’t they will have no cause to charge us with mistreating our neighbors.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bomb-Bomb-Bomb, Bomb-Bomb a Church?

I became a loyal listener to Rush Limbaugh in the fall of 1991, when his star was still rising and he had the patina of a supporter of the free market despite his support for the War on Drugs. This was when “free market,” “big business,” and even “Nazi” were synonymous in the minds of most Americans, and despite my strong and radical disagreement with him now, I have to hand it to him: back then he was bucking the tide of popular opinion.
Part of the Limbaugh brand has always been over-the-top humor. The most memorable example from that first year came in the spring of 1992, after a kerfluffle at a veterans’ hospital in Cincinnati in which an orderly got into trouble for using iodine to paint smiley faces on the ends of the penises of anesthetized patients. After reading a news report about the incident, Rush said, “I thought I’d see what the problem was, so I painted a face on the end of my penis. When I got to work, someone said, ‘Hey Rush—why the long face?’”
What I didn’t know when I became what I thought of as a dittohead with some reservations was that a year or so before, during or in the run up to Desert Storm, Rush had been playing a takeoff on the Beach Boys’ famous song “Barbara Ann,” which begins “Ba-Ba-Ba, Ba-Barbara Ann … Take my hand.” Rush’s version was “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iraq … Take Kuwait back.” However—true confessions time—I thought it was a hoot when I did hear it
It was Rush’s groundbreaking work that John McCain—the darling of American evangelicals in that election—took to a new level in 2008 with his infamous “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” quip.
Fast forward to last week. A friend told me about an interview with an Iranian Christian he had heard on Focus on the Family, so I read the transcript of the interview and was not disappointed. Naghmeh Abedini was born to an Iranian family that immigrated to the United States. Appalled by the moral degradation they saw in California, the parents moved the family to Boise, where Naghmeh and her brother became Christians while still in grade school. Years later, she visited Iran, met Saeed, a Muslim-background Christian man, and married him, and the couple began planting house churches and opening orphanages.
What do you think of their wedding?
They allowed us our wedding certificate says, "Muslim born, but Christian Protestant." And we had this amazing, in the middle of Tehran, there was a church called Central Assembly. Right in front of one of the largest mosques, by Tehran University, we had a huge celebration of our wedding. But it was really much, much of a[n] Evangelical crusade. We passed out 300 Jesus films and Bibles.
Makes mine look pretty tame.
Persecution broke out when Mahmoud Ahmedinejad became president, so they emigrated from Iran, but they returned periodically to strengthen local believers and help with the orphanages. On one of those visits Saeed was arrested and is currently in the third year of an eight-year prison sentence. Life for him is both tough and fruitful in ways it has never been for me:
But the first four or five months was the hardest, was when he was interrogated and beaten and told to deny Christ, which he hasn’t. And of course, over the last few years, he’s led people to Christ. He was leading people to Christ in Evin prison, so they exiled him to another prison …. He was in the lion’s den there. He was fighting for his life. He was covered with lice and just sick and he was just really sick. He was hurting. He was bleeding, internal bleeding. And people were trying to take his life. But interesting enough, the rough guys in the prison had dreams about this Jesus. And they came and asked Saeed, “Can you tell us?”
And so, Saeed wasn’t even the first one initiating. They asked about Jesus. They accepted Jesus and they start[ed] protecting him. They became his guards.
How does Naghmeh view her husband’s persecutors?
Jim [Daly]: It’s hard for us to think of that in terms of ISIS and what they’re doing. But literally, God can change people that are perpetrating these horrible acts. He can change their heart, can’t He?
Naghmeh: He can. You know, we should want justice, because there’s people that are defenseless and we should act as the body of Christ and around those that are persecuted and around the ones who are hurting them.
But even if they are our enemy, what are we supposed to do? We’re supposed to wash their feet and love them and pray for them. And it is such an balance, what Jesus did on the cross. There’s the justice of God that has to be paid and then there’s the mercy. And as Christians, we have to have both.
Our president says that “all options are on the table” as far as dealing with Iran. Take a look at this and think of what an atomic blast would mean for the church Naghmeh was married in, for the orphans in the orphanages she helped found, and probably for her husband in prison.
Then again, maybe it won’t be an atomic attack. That would mean the collateral damage could still smile afterwards.

Is anything we do as Christians worth unleashing this kind of hell on our neighbors? I don’t grant that the Great War of 1917-1945 was just, but even if I did, that means that this year is the seventieth anniversary of the last good major war. The big ones since—Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the Global War on Terror—have at best failed to achieve peace and safety and have unarguably left us worse off than if we had done nothing.
We had no dog in the fight in Korea: thousands died on both sides, and even with (or, more likely, because of) conscription, South Korea cannot (or will not or is not being permitted to) defend itself. Millions of dollars and thousands of lives have been lost needlessly, and it’s not over yet.
When Saigon fell in 1975, the effect was the same as if it had fallen in 1955: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were communist, and Christians were persecuted; the difference was that a million or so Vietnamese had died violent deaths and millions more had been maimed by atrocities committed by both sides, much of the land was poisoned by Agent Orange, and the victors were angry and vengeful. Billions of dollars and countless lives had been wasted for nothing. Vietnam is no paradise today, but it is no better for the war having been fought there.
We had no interest in Kuwait when Saddam, our “ally” up to that point, invaded. The war allowed a massive propaganda coup that “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all”—meaning that “my country, right or wrong” was now the American credo and “love your neighbor as yourself” was out the window—but the final result set the stage for sanctions that killed half a million innocent Iraqis and ultimately brought about 9/11. (Or maybe not. I find it interesting that both Osama and the West use the deaths-from-sanctions meme to justify killing innocent people in 9/11 and the GWOT, respectively. I’ve heard American conservative evangelicals deny the meme, but only to blame the deaths on Saddam and so justify the invasion.)
And the GWOT needs no introduction: thousands of combatants and countless innocents dead and maimed, trillions of dollars transferred to the military-industrial complex, more jihadists recruited per week than there were in the world in 2001, and what was once the land of the free now the home of the surveilled.
So what can we expect from military action against Iran? Will the Muslims there be more or less inclined to tolerate their Christian neighbors? Do our brothers and sisters there need less tolerance?
More importantly, what about the history of the last seventy years tells you that the final result of a war will be better than no war?
“Ah,” you say, “but if we don’t act, they’ll do us dirt, first by obliterating Israel.”
So what? If we have no ally in the Middle East at all, is that worse than having an ally that makes everyone else there hate us?
“But don’t you care about the Jews”?
Of course I care about the Jews. But I’m not excited about protecting them no matter what they do if they don’t even pay taxes to Washington. If they want my tax money to protect them, let them immigrate, or at least apply for statehood and start paying taxes. We can absorb them, and most of them will be good neighbors. But if they want to live over there, let them protect themselves. They’ve got enough atomic weapons to turn Iran into glass and carte blanche from Uncle Sam to make more. Iran is no threat to them.
Given a choice between Rush Limbaugh and Naghmeh Abedini, I think we should listen to her, even if he can make us laugh. Our strategy against ISIS and Iran needs to be the weapons of the Spirit: prayer and outreach. And if we’re to have the resources for outreach, we need to stop giving them to the war machine.

Eschewing war may mean lice and beatings—and I’m the world’s worst pansy, so I’m not saying I can handle either gracefully—but that seems better to me than taking the eternal consequences of killing innocents in church.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Nineteen Eight-Four: Tragedy or Comedy?

One of the benefits of my editing job is that I get to learn new things from my clients. Not too long ago my new tidbit was the word bildungsroman, a term that has been around long enough that Webster’s Online rates it as an English word. I guess I don’t travel in the right circles: when I looked it up, I was expecting it to be treated as a German word, but it’s not.
Anyway, for those of you who haven’t learned the term yet, a bildungsroman is a coming-of-age novel, “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.” A tragedy in that genre would, I suppose, involve a protagonist who either refused to grow up or grew up crooked. But I would guess that most bildungsromans are comedies: the protagonist learns his lesson and lives happily ever after.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The elevator-talk version of the plot is this: the protagonist, Winston Smith, a formerly married man who is becoming increasingly skeptical of the ruling authorities, and Julia, a female co-worker, another anti-authoritarian, fall in love and have a series of conjugal trysts. The authorities catch them in flagrante delicto (another word that I would have expected to be italicized) and use what would today be called “enhanced rehabilitation” to turn them against each other. After their return to society, the lovers meet, but the affair is dead, and the protagonist decides to join the side of the the authorities.
From the time I was first able to read the book and understand it in the late 1960s, I have always thought of it as a tragedy: the authorities, whose evil is limited only by their incompetence, employ torture to break Winston's will, they take away from him everything that gives his life meaning, and he ends up gladly becoming one of them.
I was not the only one who read it that way. When anyone said, “This is like something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” everyone I knew or had ever even heard of would immediately know that the speaker was talking about dystopia, tyranny, evil.
But that was before the year 1984, and it was certainly before “9/11 changed everything.”
I wonder if my conservative Christian brethren would now read the book as a comedy, a triumph of good over evil. Would they not point out that Winston and Julia were involved in an extramarital affair, and if the purpose of the civil government is to punish evildoers, it was fulfilling its job by having its eyes everywhere, capturing them, and persuading them by whatever means to end that affair? Perhaps more importantly, Winston and Julia were contemptuous of authority, doing everything they could to avoid being subject to it. Doesn’t the book’s final line, “He [Winston] loved Big Brother,” describe perfectly the attitude all subjects are to have toward the powers that be, ordained of God? Aren’t those who would read the novel as a tragedy thereby glorifying sexual immorality and rebellion?
The shift in reading from tragedy to triumph may indeed indicate that the American evangelical church is maturing in Christ, that it has taken the gloves off and is urging the powers that be, ordained of God, to unsheath the sword against evildoers. But I find it not irrelevant that today’s “mature” church matches the surrounding culture (one denounced both inside and outside of churches as sexually immoral) in rates of abortion, divorce, bastardy, and fornication—not to mention plain old, garden-variety, let’s-stop-attending-church apostasy—a feat it had not achieved in the days when the book’s title was synonymous with hell on earth.
As the American evangelical church celebrates the establishment of an imperialist police state that not only makes Orwell’s nightmare seem tame by comparison but is getting to the point at which it defies parody, let me suggest that if Jesus reads Nineteen Eighty-Four as a comedy, we are on the verge of a turning to Christ in this nation that is beyond our wildest dreams as the spy state leaves evil nowhere to hide and uses enhanced methods to convince people of their need to submit to authority. Libertarians and anarchists will either become statists or be left behind, but rank-and-file Americans will turn to him in droves.
Or, if that omniscient state turns against us, we could be on the verge of persecution beyond our wildest imagination. In that case, if the saying that the church grows fastest where the persecution is the worst is true, we’re in for massive turning to Christ that way too.
But if Jesus reads the book as a tragedy, American evangelicalism has some serious thinking to do.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The War on Drugs Is Anti Family

There’s a story making its way around conservative circles that goes something like this:
It appears that it now takes not only a village but a country to raise a child. Which puts me in mind of an exchange some years ago between Sen. Phil Gramm and a federal bureaucrat who wanted to expand a program of government child care. Gramm opined that mothers and fathers are best equipped for child-rearing because they love their children more. The official objected, saying, “I love your children as much as you do, Senator.” To which Gramm responded, “I am very pleased to hear that. What are their names?”
This story has the ring of truth about it, and it’s a handy intro for today’s rant, so I’ll assume it is pretty close to true. I was reminded of it when I read this from Larry Tomczak:
CBS News in L.A. ran an investigative report showing adults buying marijuana, selling it to kids in broad daylight and the kids then smoking the dope just minutes after leaving school! Is our Nation’s Capital with its terrible drug problems ready for this as they’ve just legalized dope?
Am I the only one who thinks Mr. Tomczak has just put on his “It takes a village—wait, no, it takes the government—to raise a child” suit here? Is he going to tell me he loves those “kids” more than their parents do?
I can hear him protest that it’s wrong for kids to smoke dope and that any parent who would let his (more likely a her with an AWOL man) kid smoke dope doesn’t love that kid. And I would agree that such a parent could do much better.
But it is those parents, not Mr. Tomczak, who taught that kid to tie his shoes. That kid isn’t welcome at Mr. Tomczak’s refrigerator 24/7. Mr. Tomczak doesn’t listen to him cry all night or take him to the emergency room when things go wrong. He doesn’t know that kid’s name.
So no, Mr. Tomczak, I don’t believe you love those kids more than their parents do.
A parent that lets a kid get to the point where he wants to smoke dope has already failed. But the same goes for self-destructive behaviors that are presently legal. Hasn’t a parent whose children eat themselves into obesity, spend hours playing video games, or dabble in sexual behavior failed them? Is Mr. Tomczak going to crusade against grocery stores, software dealers, and every form of media in the nation?
Put another way, is everything in others’ private lives his business?
The site for which Mr. Tomczak writes is big on fighting Islam. Good for them: Islam is a false religion at best, barbarism at worst. Does Mr. Tomczak love Muslim children more than their parents do? Or is he just more concerned with kids smoking dope than with kids following their parents into Islam?
Mr. Tomczak’s position is not without irony: “Our Founding Father, George Washington once warned us, ‘An uninformed populace is easily enslaved.’ We need to awaken!” Is Mr. Tomczak informed that George Washington grew hemp?
“But the hemp he grew had only one-twentieth to one-sixtieth the amount of THC that drug Cannabis has,” he replies. That is probably true. However, proof of the wisdom of George Washington and the folly of Mr. Tomczak and his ilk is that the kind of hemp George Washington grew is just as illegal in “the land of the free” as is its more potent subspecies. “An uninformed populace”—that is to say, one “informed” by the establishment—has allowed itself to be enslaved, and that in the name of protecting the children.
“So do we just let kids smoke dope?”
In a word, yes. Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” What you feed your kid or let him do in the confines of your house is your business. Jesus commands me to make my life so attractive to you that you’ll ask me, or at least allow me to tell you, what makes it so wonderful. At that point I’ll point you to Jesus, which is necessarily away from wasting time and poisoning your body. But until I can do that, ya pays yer money, ya takes yer choice, and ya faces the Lord of the universe who will call you to account for everything you’ve done.
Any program that usurps the sovereignty of the family is by definition anti family. That some families are detrimental to their members is beyond question, as is the folly of thinking that the iron fist of the state is the best way to deal with that detriment. The War on Drugs makes the state sovereign over parents. It is for that reason anti family.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Why Christians Might Should Join ISIS

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God.
If the powers that be have been instituted by God, does it behoove us to know who the powers that be will be in, say five years, and make sure we’re on their good side?
Let’s go back forty-three years to Vietnam and say you’re a nineteen-year-old Vietnamese Christian. The assumption I’ve always operated on has been that the Viet Cong were godless, bloodthirsty communists and Christians should have fought against them if they were to join the war effort at all. But you have to admit that anyone who knew or even guessed in 19721 that Uncle Sam would not win that war would necessarily have concluded that once the war was over, the powers that be according to Romans 13 would have been the communists.2 So if you know the communists will be in power in a few years, shouldn’t you help them come to power?
It didn’t take supernatural powers to predict the outcome of the Vietnam war. I can remember standing in the middle of Willamette Avenue, Adair Air Force Station, ten miles north of Corvallis, Oregon, in the late summer or fall of 1968 with a group of fellow high schoolaged Air Force brats, lamenting that it didn’t seem like our government was really interested in winning the war: if they were, wouldn’t they have won by now?3 Twelve years later, after the war was over, I heard the daughter of an Air Force fighter pilot quote her father as having said during the war that he knew how to win it single-handedly: “I should load my fighter up with bombs and rockets and drop them all on Washington, DC.” At no time between 1968 and the end of the war can I remember thinking Uncle Sam would win it.
We know that after Saigon fell, the communists made life miserable for Christians. (They still do, though non-government agents do also.) I for one have no trouble believing that an idealistic communist (or anyone who is zealous to see his version of justice realized), knowing that Christians in the US were fervently behind the war effort, would consider it his solemn duty to kill or imprison those who collaborated with the invaders who napalmed, bombed, shot, and otherwise killed and maimed his family and friends. If Christians had helped the communists come to power, might that have mitigated the backlash after the war? Could they not have been Daniel and his three friends, the mucky-mucks in a godless government that so many Christians aspire to be (or defend themselves as being)?
Let’s look at a situation in the Bible where the command is clear.
Let’s say you’re a nineteen-year-old male Jew in 586 or so BC and you hear Jeremiah say this:
Tell the people of Jerusalem that the Lord says, ‘I will give you a choice between two courses of action. One will result in life; the other will result in death. Those who stay in this city will die in battle or of starvation or disease. Those who leave the city and surrender to the Babylonians who are besieging it will live. They will escape with their lives. For I, the Lord, say that I am determined not to deliver this city but to bring disaster on it. It will be handed over to the king of Babylon and he will destroy it with fire. (21:8-11)
What do you do? If surrendering to the Babylonians is a good idea, wouldn’t joining their army be an even better idea?
After all, by that time many Judahites had been deported to Babylon. Maybe if you joined the army, you’d be allowed to stay in Judah. You might even have the chance to play Obadiah to Babylon’s Ahab and hide people in caves or otherwise protect them from the occupying army; you might keep some babies from being dashed on the rocks (Ps 137:8-9). If you become an officer, they’ll pay for your college and you can earn a pension. What could possibly go wrong? It might be your platoon that goes into the Holy of Holies and destroys the Ark of the Covenant and the cherubim, but the glory of the Lord has already departed from the temple (Ezek 11:23), so that would be no biggie.
So whether Vietnam or the Middle East, if it’s plain that Uncle Sam isn’t going to win, why not join his enemies? Or, more to the point for you, dear reader, why would a Christian fight for him?
Uncle Sam has no idea how to win the wars he is fighting today. He has no idea even what a win would look like, and hasn’t for years:
Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it's going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm. "It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win," says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. "This is going to end in an argument."
The same could have been said of Iraq.
We have an economy that exports weapons, pornography, and not much else (oh, and software), with $200 trillion in unfunded liabilities, a shrinking economy, a growing proportion of the population not only net tax consumers but the least healthy we have ever seen, and we’re going to win what wars?
If ISIS ever comes over here, anyone with a long-range plan for his life will join them.
Unless the world runs on ethical dominion and not on power. Unless the voice we are to be guided by is not necessarily the voice of the person holding the most powerful weapons in the area. Unless “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be paid back according to what he has done while in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10), and uniforms and badges and titles don’t change the standard by which we are judged.
The world certainly doesn’t need ISIS. It doesn’t need Uncle Sam either. What it needs is Jesus, Jesus’ body, the church, living for him only and not taking one godless side against another.
For [the church] my tears shall fall,
for her my prayers ascend,
to her my cares and toils be given,
till toils and cares shall end.

1I have chosen 1972 because it was the year I came to Christ, and it was the year my draft lottery number, somewhere in the 200s, was drawn. After coming to Christ, I spent hours at different times wondering what I would have done had I been drafted. I’m glad it didn’t happen, because I never came up with a good answer.
2Have you ever noticed that God always seems to ordain the winners of armed conflicts as the powers that be? Who says might doesn’t make right?

3There is a narrative going around to the effect that the Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet offensive was a disaster for the Viet Cong and a great victory for Uncle Sam’s forces, but the US media presented it to the home folks as the exact opposite. We may or may not have known or cared about the offensive.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Showing Our Dirty Diapers to the World

Our church announced a new “child protection policy” that goes along with the state’s new “mandatory reporting” law, which states that the church needs to report anyone they so much as suspect of abuse, whether a staff member or the parent of a child (or spouse or any other relative or acquaintance, I suppose) who appears to have been abused. This is essentially “If you see something, say something” applied to the church.
The existence of the new policy was announced at a congregational meeting and promoted with a statemetn to the effect of, “We need to go along with this if people are to trust us to take care of their children.” I told a staff member that I don't think we're going to get a lot of trust from parents, abusive or not, who are afraid of something like this happening to them.
This was the reply.
There are some things that fall within the responsibility of the state and about which the state then has the right to regulate. The physical harm of one individual by another falls within that realm. And it is their job to punish the evildoer. We may feel the state is doing a poor job of regulating this, or is perhaps issuing improper penalties, and it would be right for us to address this and call on them to do a better job. But that is different from saying that they have no business telling us what to do here at all. It is one thing to say that the church should settle disputes among brothers (1 Cor 6) and another thing to say that the church should settle criminal matters. The church has no divine authority to imprison, take property, or take a life, and so cannot punish criminal activity in the way God has authorized the state. It can offer no protection to those being taken advantage of or abused by others. The most the church can do is to excommunicate, which is significant but not sufficient in criminal matters.
There may be some areas where we think that the state has overstepped its bound, but I have to say that in the area of child safety, I’m with the state on this one. I have had too much personal experience with individuals whose lives have been severely damaged through adulthood because they were abused as children. This is not something that just happens and people “get over” when they get older. The results are devastating. I am pleased that the state is taking it so seriously and is placing so much responsibility on adults. This is not something that the church can “settle” by everybody confessing their sin and saying, “I’m sorry.” A very clear and firm message needs to be sent that this behavior will not be tolerated. The temptations for some are so great (like an addiction) and the results so devastating and lasting that a clear deterrent must be instituted.
Where I think that Pennsylvania has unnecessarily regulated things is in the area of background checks. Most abusers do not have criminal records, and what sense does it make to do a background check on someone we have known for ten years? This to me is just a nuisance that really does almost nothing to make our children more safe. I can see it in a school setting where people are working with children all day as their job, but for one-hour-a-week Sunday School teachers or nursery workers I think this policy is unnecessary.
I have to agree that if the best that can be expected from those who will someday judge angels and are guided by the Holy Spirit, prayer, and Scripture is that they would be content with “I’m sorry,” God does indeed need to delegate the responsibility for dealing with big sins to the godless. I can also see why those outside the church consider her useless at best. (I recently saw The Shawshank Redemption, so its takeaway that Christianity and the prison system are frauds who depend on each other to perpetuate themselves is fresh in my mind.) I’m finding reasons to disagree with them taken away from me every time I turn around.
The Jesus I thought I knew (since I’m not sure one can know something that isn’t true) was big on repentance, restitution, and restoration. The perp doesn’t just confess his sins and say, “I’m sorry.” He makes things right by compensating his victim fully and then some. For abuse of any kind, that means paying for counseling at least, plus whatever those charged with arbitrating the situation determine needs to be done for the victim to be restored as much as possible to health. If the prospect of paying for months or years of therapy and whatever else is needed isn’t a deterrent, nothing is.
Obviously, if the perp refuses to repent (by making restitution) even after admonishment by those who will judge angels, he is to be treated as a pagan or tax collector: report him to the police and let them handle it. But this is the last resort, not the first.
If restitution is impossible (e.g., murder), the perp is executed by either the community by stoning or by the “avenger of blood,” a family member, but after a trial before a neutral party (not professional tax guzzlers trying to justify their above-market paychecks). Of course, that doesn’t happen in our present state system, so to complain that it wouldn’t happen if the church kept matters in house is pointless.
Either way, the sin is against a flesh-and-blood human being, and the primary purpose of the reaction of God’s people is to make things right for the victim. At least that’s the way I read the Torah.
Why Jesus would scrap that idea for a system in which the crime is against an abstraction (“the State [capitalization of divinity] versus Joe Blow”), where the punishment does nothing for the victim but satisfy a cowardly desire for revenge, and where the process by which the perp is convicted is often as traumatic to the victim as the original offense was is beyond me.
Jail time satisfies nothing but a cowardly desire for revenge. If the victim or his protector wants the guy’s face broken or his balls cut off or whatever else happens to child molesters in prison, he should do it himself (be “the avenger of blood”) and not delegate it to the court, who in turn will delegate it to their prisoners. I have no respect for a man who would not be satisfied until his daughter’s attacker was put in a cage, the attacker’s family publicly disgraced, his church’s name put in the paper (all this before the “trial”), and then have the attacker set upon by his fellow prisoners. Again, if a real man wants another man destroyed, he destroys him himself.
If he is physically unable to destroy the perp himself, he should at least be in the room and forced to watch when the man is destroyed so he can hear the screams and the bones breaking and see the blood flow. Otherwise, he’s a coward. And if he’s content to have his and his neighbors’ tax money used to put the attacker in a place that no one I know really believes prepares anyone for life in decent society (Shawshank again), he’s at best what the Proverbs call a simpleton.
I would respect a man who shows that he truly believes that his own sins against God are worse than anyone’s sins against him and who allows God’s people to work to see that both the perp and his child are made whole (which might mean holding the church elders’ feet to the fire on occasion).
As for the trauma of the conviction process, what I don't know about women fills libraries, but I can't imagine any of my girls preferring to tell a story of abuse by a church worker to a state functionary rather than to a church elder, especially if, as is often the case, the abused person hates the sin but still loves the sinner.
And, of course, I can’t imagine the parent of a prospective Sunday school student saying, “Ah, yes, X Churchthat’s where they had some pervert arrested for abuse.” If both the perp and the victim can be restored with the story going no further than the families involved and a few of the church elders, why does the whole world need to know what went on?
I'm with my interlocutor: better to make sure such a situation never happens. Doubly so if spreading our dirty diapers before the godless world is the best way we know of to deal with it when it does.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jehoshaphat “R” Us

(Text of a sermon delivered at Meadowood retirement center, February 8, 2015.)

By way of introduction, I’d like to remind you of the ending of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11ff). You remember that a man had two sons. The younger son went off and squandered half the family’s fortune while the older son stayed home and worked for the father. When the younger son went broke, he came home to ask his father if he could be a servant, but the father forgave the boy, welcomed him home as a son, and threw the biggest party he had ever thrown. The older son was upset that his no-good, shiftless brother had been reinstated and refused to go to the party. The parable ends when the father comes out, explains why he had to celebrate his son’s return, and pleads for the older son to join the party.
This is what I want to draw your attention to: We don’t know whether the older son went to the party or not. Jesus doesn’t tell us. Yet we know that the older brother represented the Pharisees, the Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus because Jesus was associating with no-goods like prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see themselves as the older brother and understand that they were refusing God’s invitation to follow Jesus just as the older brother was refusing his father’s invitation to join the party. He never outright invites them to the party, but he does leave them, in effect, with the question “What are you going to do?”
The stories in the Bible are, the apostle Paul writes, “examples … written down as warnings for us” (1Co 10:11).
So is our text today, the story of the last day of King Ahab, where he refuses to listen to the voice of the prophet Mikayah and dies as a result. The Sunday school version of this story usually ends up by saying, “Don’t be like Ahab. Listen to the Word of God.” That’s true, but I think there’s much more to the story.
Let’s begin reading at 1 Kings 22:2:
There was no war between Syria and Israel for three years. In the third year King Jehoshaphat of Judah came down to visit the king of Israel. The king of Israel said to his servants, “Surely you recognize that Ramoth Gilead belongs to us, though we are hesitant to reclaim it from the king of Syria.”
Then he said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to attack Ramoth Gilead?”
Let’s look at what we know about Ahab when the story begins. What are his credentials? First, like Solomon, he had married a woman who worshiped idols, and he had set up idols all over his kingdom (1Kg 16:31ff). Then he had allowed his wife to threaten God’s prophet Elijah after Elijah defeated and killed the 400 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1Kg 18:20ff). (I want you to remember the number 400!) Then, just as David had murdered his friend to take his wife, Ahab had murdered a man named Naboth and his sons so he could steal Naboth’s land (1 Kgs 21). So his biography is almost a list of what you shouldn’t do if you want to please God.
What about Jehoshaphat? We know from 2 Chronicles 17:2ff that “The Lord was with Jehoshaphat because he followed in his ancestor David’s footsteps at the beginning of his reign.” He had removed idols from his kingdom (v. 6), and he had sent people to teach his people the law (vv. 7-9). He was a “good guy.” But he surely knew what kind of person Ahab was. He knew about all the horrible things he had done. So why was he going to visit him?
Well, his son Jehoram had earlier married a daughter of Ahab (2Kg 8:18)—that is, Jeshoshaphat had allowed his son to marry the daughter of an idolatrous murderer—so he and Ahab were now related by marriage and probably good friends by this time. Even at this early point in the story, Jehoshaphat is showing signs of compromise: as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Bad company corrupts good character” (1Co 15:31), and we should be on the lookout for signs that Ahab has influenced Jehoshaphat’s character.
Now Jehoshaphat showed up just in time for Ahab to tell him he had a wonderful idea: this would be a good time take the city of Ramoth back from the Syrians.
There was some reason to think this war was a good idea. Ramoth was indeed traditional Israelite territory; it was a city of refuge in the area God had granted the tribe of Gad (Jos 20:6). God had granted Ahab victory in other battles, defensive battles against the Syrians (1Kgs 20), so there was reason to believe Ahab could win this battle. So though Jehoshaphat didn’t have any significant military victories under his belt—and nothing makes a politician look and feel better than a military victory—this was as good a time as any to bag one.
Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, “I will support you; my army and horses are at your disposal.” Then Jehoshaphat added, “First seek an oracle from the Lord.”
Jeshoshaphat wasn’t totally spiritually dead yet. Somewhere inside of him he was uneasy. He wanted to know what the Lord had to say.
So the king of Israel assembled about four hundred prophets and asked them, “Should I attack Ramoth Gilead or not?”
By now the perceptive reader sees an ominous foreshadow: how many prophets of Baal had Elijah defeated on Mt. Carmel? That’s right, 400. So Ahab seems to have learned nothing. He has reconstituted his army of false prophets, and what do you think they’ll tell him?
They said, “Attack! The sovereign one will hand it over to the king.”
But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there not a prophet of the Lord still here, that we may ask him?”
Jeshoshaphat must be really serious, right? He’s asked a second time for a word from the Lord. What will the Lord say?
The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one man through whom we can seek the Lord’s will. But I despise him because he does not prophesy prosperity for me, but disaster. His name is Mikayah son of Imlah.”
Jehoshaphat said, “The king should not say such things.”
The king of Israel summoned an official and said, “Quickly bring Mikayah son of Imlah.”
Now the king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were sitting on their respective thrones, dressed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria.
Here’s the scene: the two kings are outdoors in a large flat space, surrounded by their courtiers, their soldiers, and as many common people as could get any kind of view. Everyone is dressed in their finest clothes.
And a messenger is sent to get Mikayah. We don’t know anything about Mikayah except what’s in this story. We don’t know where the official went to fetch Mikayah. Back before the Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets on Mt. Carmel, Ahab’s wife had been killing off the Lord’s prophets, and the survivors were living in caves and being taken care of by a man named Obadiah. If Mikayah had survived that purge and the official knew right where to find him, my first guess is that he was in prison. Or he might have been under house arrest or maybe, when Ahab dressed in sackcloth to show his regret for killing Naboth and taking his land, he had guaranteed protection to the Lord’s prophets and Mikayah had been able to live as a free man. We don’t know.
Now the messenger who went to summon Mikayah said to him, “Look, the prophets are in complete agreement that the king will succeed. Your words must agree with theirs; you must predict success.” But Mikayah said, “As certainly as the Lord lives, I will say what the Lord tells me to say.”
Again, my guess is that when he arrived on the scene he was a typical prisoner: on a chain, filthy, unkempt, and dressed in rags, and he was greeted with boos, hisses, and taunts. [He was the personification of what Rush Limaugh used to call “a filthy, maggot-infested, FM radio type.”—QP]
But no matter what he looked like, here we go! Mikayah will speak the Lord’s words, Jehoshaphat will heed them, and everything will be hunky-dory!
When he came before the king, the king asked him, “Mikayah, should we attack Ramoth Gilead or not?”
He answered him, “Attack! You will succeed; the Lord will hand it over to the king.”
What’s this? Ahab was in step with God on this one? This is wonderful—they will go out, they will retake Ramoth, God will be glorified, and everyone will be happy!
The king said to him, “How many times must I make you solemnly promise in the name of the Lord to tell me only the truth?”
Hold everything! Mikayah tells Ahab what Ahab wants to hear, and now Ahab’s objecting? I see Mikayah sighing and saying,
Mikayah said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep that have no shepherd. Then the Lord said, ‘They have no master. They should go home in peace.’”
The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you he does not prophesy prosperity for me, but disaster?”
Now we’re back to Square 2: Ahab knows the Lord is against him. Jehoshaphat is no longer the spokeseman for the Lord; Mikayah has upstaged him. Mikayah has also made a fool out of Ahab, and Ahab isn’t going to take it lying down.
Then the king of Israel said, “Take Mikayah and [put him] in prison. Give him only a little bread and water until I safely return.”
Mikayah said, “If you really do safely return, then the Lord has not spoken through me.” Then he added, “Take note, all you people.”
Remember where these words were spoken. The kings, their functionaries, and the common people were all assembled where they could hear Mikayah. Mikayah was speaking to Ahab, but the words “take note, all you people” tells us he wanted Jeshoshaphat to hear him as well. He wanted Ahab’s court and Jeshoshaphat’s entourage, including his soldiers, to listen. And, since we have this story in the Bible, God wants us to listen as well.
He didn’t come right out and say that the Lord forbade them to go to battle. But just as Jesus left the parable of the two brothers unfinished, Mikayah was saying, in effect, what Jesus often said: “He who has ears, let him hear.” That is, you know what the right thing to do is. You don’t need me to tell you. Just do it.
What is Jeshoshaphat going to do? He asked for the word of the Lord and he got it. Ahab has just sent Mikayah to prison for declaring the word of the Lord. He has a choice between siding with Mikayah and siding with Ahab. So now what is he going to do? We find out in the next verse:
The king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah attacked Ramoth Gilead.
You can almost hear all the angels in heaven groan. But it gets even worse:
The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will disguise myself and then enter into the battle; but you wear your royal robes.”
I feel like taking Jehoshaphat by the ears and looking him in the eye and saying, “Let’s get this straight, Jeshoshaphat. The Lord tells Ahab that the battle is lost and that Ahab is going to die in battle. Then Ahab wants you to wear the royal robe while he is disguised! Why do you suppose that is? Could it be that he wants you to take the heat for him disobeying God? ‘The prudent see danger and take refuge, but the simple keep going and pay the penalty’ (Pr 22:3). You’re certainly not being prudent, so what are you?”
Jesus said, “The person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me” (Jn 14:21). Did Jeshoshaphat really love the Lord? Did he really want to hear the commandments to begin with? He sounded like he did, but did he obey what the Lord told him? Did the Lord want him to attack Ramoth, to send his men out to kill and maim and and die and be maimed?
I say if Jeshoshaphat had really loved God from the heart, he would have taken the hint from Mikayah and withdrawn his support. Instead, he went to battle and almost got killed. Worse, it’s quite likely that some of the soldiers who had come with him did kill and get killed, and all because neither he nor they heeded the word of the Lord after he had made a big deal of asking for it.
By the way, when Mikayah said, “Take note, all you people,” I’m sure he was issuing an invitation to the soldiers in Jeshoshaphat’s army to stay out of the battle.
He was calling them to obey what Moses wrote: “You must not follow a crowd in doing evil things” (Ex 23:2). Those who refused to go would have joined Mikayah in prison, if they weren’t executed, but in one sense, they would have been where God was protecting them instead of on the battlefield where had said he would be opposing them.
That’s no guarantee of a happy ending for them, though. We don’t know what happened to Mikayah after Ahab died. There’s a proverb that says, “People ruin their lives by their own foolishness and then are angry at the LORD” (Pr 19:3), so my first guess is that Ahab’s loyalists blamed Mikayah for Ahab’s death and killed him. I certainly have a hard time thinking they had a tickertape parade for him. But again: did the Lord want those men out on the battlefield or back with Mikayah? “By faith, when he grew up, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be ill-treated with the people of God than to enjoy sin’s fleeting pleasure. He regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward” (Hb 11:25-26).
We are not pagan kings, so I don’t think we’re being called to listen as Ahab should have listened. Since we’re not kings at all, I don’t think we’re being called to listen as Jehoshaphat should have listened. Since most of us are nobodies, I think we’re being called to put ourselves in the shoes of Jehshaphat’s soldiers.
I think the Lord wanted Jehoshaphat’s soldiers to show their faith in him by “choosing … to be ill-treated with the people of God,” by bearing the “abuse suffered for Christ” with Mikayah. Jesus said, “'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (Jn 15:20). I see the marks of discipleship on Mikayah. I don’t see them on Jeshoshaphat or on his soldiers, at least not that day.
When Jeshoshaphat returned from the battle, God rebuked him for having his heart in the wrong place (2Chr 19:2-3):
“Is it right to help the wicked and be an ally of those who oppose the Lord? Because you have done this the Lord is angry with you!”
These are fearsome words. But then the Lord consoles Jeshoshaphat, reminding him of good things Jehoshaphat had done in the past.
“Nevertheless you have done some good things; you removed the Asherah poles from the land and you were determined to follow the Lord.”
Though it nowhere says that Jeshoshaphat repented, he certainly brought forth fruits of repentance: “He went out among the people from Beer Sheba to the hill country of Ephraim and encouraged them to follow the Lord God of their ancestors” (2Chr 19:4). He appointed judges throughout the land and in Jerusalem and called them to high standards (19:5ff). Later on, we see that God gave him great military success (2Ch 20).
So what do we take away from this?
First, we need to remember that the most important thing we can do is to love God with all our hearts. Every stupid thing we do—and I’ve examined Jehoshaphat’s stupidity in detail because I’ve been that stupid myself and probably some of you have also—is a result of our failure to love God. It is with our hearts that we make stupid decisions in our rebellion against God, and the stupidity follows like flies go after an open sore.
If we fail to love God the way Ahab failed to love God, we have no hope of eternal life. If we fail to love God the way Jeshoshaphat failed to love God, God will bring us to repentance, we will ask God for forgiveness the way the younger son in Jesus’ parable asked his father for forgiveness, and God will restore us. No matter how colossal our stupidity is, Jesus has paid the price for our sins by taking the penalty we deserve on the cross.
Second, we need to be careful that we are “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Jesus said, “Blessed … are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Lk 11:28). According to this verse, anyway, if you want God to bless you, you have to obey him. This is much more easily said than done. We need to be asking God to keep us on track, and he has promised to send his own Holy Spirit to do just that. We also need other Christians around us to tell us when we’re wandering off the narrow path. For me this means meeting regularly with a few men I trust. We confess our sins to each other, counsel each other, and pray for each other, and then we encourage each other between our meetings. We still have sins to confess, but the God of Mikayah challenges us to live for him and the God of Jeshoshaphat encourages us when we fail with a vision of what can be if we repent.
Prayer: God of Mikayah, Father of our Lord Jesus, we thank you that you are good, that your love and mercy and faithfulness endure forever. We admit that we are rebels against you in thought, word, and deed, in the evil that we do and in the good that we do not do. We thank for sending Jesus to pay the debt our sin incurred and for sending your Holy Spirit to guard and guide our hearts. Help us to avoid the sin of Jehoshaphat and the folly of those who followed him. Help us instead to choose to be ill-treated with your people if necessary, to bear the abuse suffered by Christ.