Sunday, May 24, 2015

Is It Time to Get Our Noses Dirty?

When it comes to worship style, I’m a pretty mainstream Presbyterian. The Sunday morning gathering to me means attire worthy of a business meeting or meal at which hundreds of dollars or more are at stake: if not always a suit and tie, at least slacks and a button-down shirt and the kind of shoes men usually shine. In short, “proper attire” means clothes I wouldn’t want to do hard work in. T-shirt? Cutoffs? Flip-flops? Soccer uniform? No way.
How far I’ve come from my all-time favorite Sunday morning gatherings in our village in Papua New Guinea. Folks would show up in their everyday working attire (grass skirts, bark capes, an occasional worn and unsanitary T-shirt), piglets, puppies, and snot-faced toddlers in arm or in tow. They would sit or lie on the ground, dozing, nursing infants, smoking, and chewing betel nut while I’d do my best to turn a series of pictures into a comprehensible story that would give them some idea of who this Jesus was I’d come to tell them about. Sunday was the day we presented the Word of God as part of everyday life, something designed to take home.
So was impressed by my Bible reading a while back with how many times the faithful of Bible times did things that one just wouldn’t do in any “business formal” context, especially Sunday morning in a Presbyterian church: “Clap your hands … shout … with joyful praise” (Ps 47:1); they “wept aloud” (Ezr 3:12), “dressed in sackcloth and sprinkled dust on their heads” (Neh 9:1), “cried” (Neh 9:28), and “called out” (Neh 10:5). Even Jesus would get strange looks in any church I’d feel comfortable in when “he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could deliver him out of death” (Heb 5:7).
Notice that we have no trouble with raised voices and funny attire at sporting events. We might think the event itself is not worth the effort some people go to to celebrate it – I mean, really, spending a hundred bucks or more on a costume for a fooball game? – but I for one can’t see being more critical than “I say get a life, but if the game is that important to you, go for it.”
What got me going on this post this time was reading one day that the people “bowed … with their faces to the ground” (Neh 8:6). This was not in our sanctuary with its spotless carpet. It was outdoors, in the dirt. Now I can see our village friends doing that – their standards of cleanliness were not even close to ours. But does God want that from us? People in Bible times did it, but I tend to put it in the “that was fine for them then, but not for us now” category, hoping those people would identify more with my old village friends’ standards of cleanliness than with ours. But then again, while “cleanliness is next to godliness” is heresy, it is an understandable inference from the Torah. What if people in Bible times would identify more with our standards of cleanliness than with those of our village friends? What if they felt as odd putting their noses in the dirt as we would?
Though when it comes to worship, “man looks on the outside, but the Lord looks at the heart,” I often hear (and say) that what we do on the outside is an important part of the picture. And the next sentence is usually “If we’re having a formal meeting with the king of the universe, shouldn’t we dress up for it?” But maybe the opposite is also true: could being unwilling to get dirty to worship God be as disrespectful as being unwilling to dress business formal?
I wonder if dressing business formal for church isn’t a presumptive claim that what we are there to do is “business as usual” with God. Is that a valid assumption?
On September 11, 2001, people who worked in the lower-level offices of the World Trade Center showed up for business as usual and dressed accordingly. They didn’t realize that they were in trouble, that that day life would change dramatically for them. And on September 12, or whenever they next returned to work, they were likely dressed appropriately for moving furniture. (I’m assuming their next remunerative activities involved setting up new offices.)
We don’t have an equivalent of 9/11 to point to, but the church in the US is in trouble. We are shrinking in number and in influence over the culture. Half of our children abandon the faith in young adulthood. We commit sexual immorality, have abortions, and get divorced at the same rate as our unbelieving neighbors. Nations that fifteen years ago we were looking for creative ways to evangelize we have instead turned to rubble. We have provided no alternative to godless education, health, and peacekeeping systems. Need I say more?
Judgment is coming. God will not allow our godless society to go on with impunity. Nor will he fail to discipline a church that has become insipid at best.
Getting back to God looking at the heart, as important as corporate worship is, we know from Isaiah 58:5 that externals, even the most drastic, are useless without a heart change: “You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like a blade of grass in the wind. You dress in sackcloth and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the LORD?”
How do we get that heart change?
No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned [beginning, methinks, with people who grow plants God planted in Eden – QP] and to stop oppressing those who work for you [by taxing them for things they don’t use or want – QP]. Treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
Those are hard words, hard commands to do things that don’t come easily to us in our culture.
Maybe we can start small with other difficult but comparatively easy things. Like literally clapping our hands and dancing in church the way we do at football games and praying with our hands and eyes raised toward heaven. Like kneeling on our real knees and bowing with our faces to the ground, beginning with the sanctuary carpet and progressing to real dirt. Like literally washing each other’s feet on a regular basis.
(Take two minutes to consider the logistics of what Jesus did: how much water and how many rags would it take to wash twelve men’s dusty feet?)
These actions are humiliating, but maybe humiliation in the safe environment of corporate worship will make us willing to humble ourselves when it’s neither convenient nor safe.
A friend once told me of therapy he had to go through to get over a lost girlfriend. His therapist put an empty chair in the middle of the room and told him to say to that chair while the therapist listened everything he could think of that he would want to say to that old girlfriend if she were sitting in it. He said that that was the day he got closure: having the therapist hear his words had the same effect for him that having the old girlfriend hear them would have had, but he was able to say those words only because he was in a safe environment.
Maybe if we literally put our noses to dirt in corporate prayer we would be able to loosen our hold on our possessions and privacy, on “business as usual,” on national honor, and a few more of our idols. Maybe we could do a better job of building the kingdom of God. Maybe we could even forestall the coming judgment.

I must be on to something. My natural response is, “After you.” Better would be, “Let’s do it together.” Best would be, “I’ll go first.”

Friday, May 22, 2015

Down on Main Street II

Update of this earlier post.

It would seem that Molly Maguire's is now closed.

Thank you, Lansdale Borough Development Commission!

Secular State Church II

Part 1 is here.
Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) had an interesting story on May 13. Apparently the government of Egypt wanted to reach out to the families of the Christians beheaded by ISIS a few weeks ago, so they proposed to build a church in the home village of most of the victims and call it Church of the Martyrs.
The folks who hatched the plan were certainly well intentioned. Egypt is, don’t forget, a Muslim polity, and that Muslims would want to distance themselves from ISIS by giving tangible assistance to its victims is understandable and, in its way, commendable. But the result was not what the well-intentioned expected. Far from being met with flowers as benefactors, those who brought their good intentions to the village were met with hostility by the Muslims there and, it would seem, faint enthusiasm by the families of the victims.
Who could have imagined that Muslims would be unhappy that their tax money was being spent to build a Christian church in their village?
Fortunately, VOM heard about the situation and proposed that since clean drinking water was unobtainable in the village, they would buy water filters so both Christians and Muslims would be able to have clean water. The Muslim response was, it seems, “You gotta be kidding,” but once they realized that the offer was serious, even the tension that had existed before the government made its proposal was defused. The idea seemed to go over so well that VOM got to work putting filters in the villages of the other victims under the same terms, all paid for by voluntary contributions.
Our father Abraham learned firsthand the nature or worldly government when first the Pharaoh and then Abimelek abducted his wife instead of initiating wedding negotiations. He knew that he did not need, nor should he accept, help or reward from them in times of crisis; hence his brushoff of the king of Sodom after his rescue of Lot. We would do well to be his sons in that regard.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

From Prohibition to Persecution

What goes around comes around, and now it’s coming around. Christian florists, photographers, and caterers are being put out of business and fined because they refuse to do business with gay couples getting “married.”1 I’ve even heard rumors of homosexuals deliberately seeking out businesses that might refuse to serve them hoping that the businesses will refuse to serve them so that they can then sic the government anti–hate crime establishment on the businesses.
While this is indeed persecution of Christians by worldlings, God warns us twice to think carefully before we tear our clothes, fall on our faces, sprinkle dust on our heads, and bawl our eyes out at the turn of events (Jos 7:6-9). The first comes directly from Jesus:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:3-5)
Though Jesus is talking here about the sins of other believers, we would do well to apply it to our non-Christian neighbors as well.
The second comes from the apostle Peter: “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” (1 Peter 4:15).
Taken together, these make it clear that we need to make sure that we have given the world no cause to persecute us before we bewail our misfortunes. I would suggest that this round of persecution is in large measure simply the guns we have turned on others now being turned on us. We Christians in the US have our own set of sins to repent of.
Let’s begin with alcohol prohibition. While the Bible makes it plain that God abhors intoxication in any form, nowhere does he allow me to dictate or even desire to know what my neighbor consumes in the privacy of his own home. This seems to be a case of “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord, ‘I will repay’” and “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
Yet Christians violated their neighbors’ property rights en masse, most famously in Carrie Nation’s raids on saloons, but also by proxy through the agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Not only did they violate property rights by closing down saloons and speakeasies, they also violated the right of people peaceably to assemble.
When Prohibition ended, it was not ended to restore the people’s rights to property and assembly; it was ended to take the wind out of the sails of the crime wave that had struck the country as a direct result of Prohibition. The right of the people to own property was specifically violated within months when the war on (some) drugs was launched, again with no protest by Christians. Christians are not even known for protesting Roosevelt’s confiscation of gold. How could they, at that point, have based their argument on God’s prohibition of theft when they had so gladly violated it themselves since Prohibition and were gung ho to violate it in the drug war?
I also never recall hearing of any Christian protests against labor unionization. This is not surprising, as there are doubtless more Christians who can aspire only to be employees than there are who aspire to be entrepreneurs; union jobs tend to pay more than non-union jobs, so a Christian is likely to consider a union job a Godsend. Yet the moral system on which labor unions rest holds that those who start businesses lose their right to hire whom they will and pay what they will whenever they become large enough for the employees to vote in a union. That is, when a company becomes large enough to be taken over by a union, the rights of the owner to his property and to free assembly disappear. Where is the Christian outcry against this?
Similarly, Social Security was the plundering of future generations to fund the retirement of those who voted in the New Deal. Because of the provision that allowed a man to designate a wife as beneficiary after he died but not a homosexual lover, it was also de facto plundering of homosexuals. While I hear much just condemnation of homosexuality, I never hear homosexuals’ rights to property defended.
By the 1960s, with Social Security and the war on drugs, public schools and transportation, and dozens of other violations of property established as legitimate in the minds of US citizens, the Civil Rights movement had no trouble pushing government to further expropriate the private property of businesses by forcing them to serve customers they would otherwise not have served. The reasoning was simple: just as municipal bus systems should not discriminate against black riders, private restaurants should not discriminate against black customers. The difference between a tax-funded bus system (funded coercively through taxes and ruled by political power) and a private restaurant (voluntary, peaceable assembly on private property) was ignored. And again, Christians – including yours truly at that point – went along with the crowd.
I should say here that property and assembly are innate human rights, but they are not positive rights. I don’t have any positive right to food, clothing, or shelter. Instead, I have the right to die and go to hell (Rom 3:23; 6:23). But if I am able to accumulate property through peaceable exchange with others, I have the right to keep that property because no one has the right to take it from me. In the same way, I have the right to peaceable assembly on my property only because no one has the right to take it away from me.
So foreign is the idea of property rights to US Christians that they couched their objection to the persecution when these bizarre cases first started coming down in terms of religious freedom. “You can’t make civil rights laws that force people to violate their religious freedoms.” Instead of couching the argument in terms of the common human right to property, they put themselves in a special class of people whose religion needed to be protected.
I suppose that could be defended as a strategic move: a culture that acknowledges no objective standard of right and wrong will likely not be impressed by an appeal to the innate rights to property and assembly. But it seems counterproductive to try to fight violations of innate rights that are spelled out in Scripture by formulating a new “right” that is not found in Scripture. After all, Jesus said, “‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20), and the apostle Paul said, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ); to say we have the right not to have our religious freedom violated seems to have little basis in Scripture.
It seems to me that it would have been simpler – and I know of no Scripture that contradicts this – to say to the Prohibitionists “God nowhere gives me the right to snoop on people’s private lives. If drunks wreck others’ property or assault people on their own property, then that’s a separate issue we can deal with.” And unless one is going to lead off with calling for homosexuals to be executed (and thorough domestic spying to make sure no one can stay in the closet), what would be wrong with saying, “Who lives with whom under what circumstances is none of my concern”?
Would minding our own business have overcome the deep need homosexuals have to be accepted as completely normal? Probably not. But we would more likely have been able to let our gentleness be known to all (Phil 4:5) and as much as it lies with us live at peace with everyone (Rom 12:18) – thereby opening doors for the gospel, or at least not shutting them – if we had defended their property rights as well as ours by working to end plunder that especially affected them even as we refused to profit from their “marriage” ceremonies. As it is, of course, now that the powers that be, ordained of God, have determined that gay marriage is the law of the land, we are now subsidizing it with our Social Security taxes, being castigated for being intolerant, and being persecuted for not willingly being part of it.
The road out of this mess begins with acknowledging the image of God in all people – boozers, druggies, and queers as much as anyone – and defending the rights to life, property, reputation, and truth we all share. It is hard enough for the world to get its head around the idea that we who belong to Christ have been chosen from before the foundation of the world. If we truly believe that God’s election has nothing to do with our inherent goodness, we need to treat those yet uncalled as our equals, especially in ways that can be objectively measured.
1For the purposes of this essay, marriage (without scare quotes) will be restricted to arrangements found in the Bible: a husband, who must be male, and at least one wife, who must be female. I will acknowledge common modern usages of the word by putting them in scare quotes.

The Quill Pig Actually Does Something Useful

The Quill Pig and his wife will be going to Cameroon for three weeks tomorrow. You can follow their adventures on Don't forget to subscribe so you get the news as soon as it hits the cloud. For that matter, be sure to subscribe to this here blog. Page views are ever so encouraging!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Secular State Church

The return of the Jews from their exile in Babylon would have been an emotionally fraught time for all concerned. The elderly would have remembered the former temple – not only how grand it was on the outside, but also how corrupt the whole political and religious system had become – and how it was on orders from God that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed it, and how horrible the fall of Jerusalem had been.
Ezra left Babylon with items that Nebuchadnezzar had stolen from the first temple, intending to use them in the yet-unbuilt new temple, knowing that they would be tempting targets for bandits, but he refused to ask the king for an armed escort, choosing instead to trust that God wanted the temple built and would protect them (Ezra 8:22).
The operation began well enough.
In the first year of King Cyrus, the king issued a decree concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem: Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, and let its foundations be laid. … The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury. Also, the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, are to be returned to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; they are to be deposited in the house of God. (Ezra 6:3-5)
Cyrus quite properly took what he had plundered from the Babylon his Persia had conquered and restored to the Jews what the Babylonians had stolen from them. After a few years, however, “lesser magistrates” of the Persian empire stopped the work on the new temple. It was not until the reign of Darius that construction was able to start again. Unfortunately, Darius’ generosity got the better of godly justice:
Moreover, I [Darius] hereby decree what you are to do for these elders of the Jews in the construction of this house of God: The expenses of these men are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury, from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates, so that the work will not stop. Whatever is needed – young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings to the God of heaven, and wheat, salt, wine and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem – must be given them daily without fail, so that they may offer sacrifices pleasing to the God of heaven and pray for the well-being of the king and his sons. (Ezra 6:8-10)
When Darius decreed that the worship at the temple was to be financed “from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates [i.e., what had once been Israel and Judah],” he thereby established what we today would call a state church. Those who would have provided “the revenues” would not have been Jews, at least not all of them, and they would have had no opportunity to refuse to pay for it. The Jews would have been offering sacrifices that cost them nothing, contra 2 Sam 24:24.
Historians tell us that Darius was happy to allow all people in his empire to worship their own gods, so it isn’t as though he had adopted the God of the Jews as his own: he was simply allowing all of his subjects to pray to their own gods “for the well-being of the king and his sons.”
This joint venture between the church and the state probably seemed like a great idea to the Jews of Ezra’s day. The temple worship system was expensive, and what better way to defray the expenses than to get help from the tax man! And as when Cyrus had supplied the returning exiles of his day with the items taken from the first temple, the Jews may have felt like they were getting back what had been stolen from them to begin with.
So how did it work out? I would suggest that just as the descendants of Jacob and his sons who lived privileged lives in Egypt were horribly enslaved by that same Egypt, the descendants of Ezra’s generation ended up being afflicted by the same system that plundered their neighbors for them. In fact, Ezra himself summarizes the situation well when he laments, “Today we are slaves here in the land of plenty that you gave to our ancestors! We are slaves among all this abundance!” (Neh 9:36).
He who pays the piper calls the tune, and the abundance didn’t last. The Jews never shed the yoke of bondage. After the Persians came the Greeks, then the Romans. Judah during the second temple period was in constant social upheaval. There was no time of which it could be said, as it was in the time of the Judges, that the land was at peace for forty years (Jdg 3:11; 5:31; 8:28), let alone eighty years (Jdg 3:30).
The state church didn’t work in Ezra’s day, and state churches don’t work today.
When World War II ended, almost all of the schools and hospitals in what is now Papua New Guinea were run by churches. The missions, for all their faults, had a credible witness, and even though their emphasis on externals and failure to understand the local languages and cultures resulted in heathen practices going underground rather than being repented of, missionized towns and villages tended to be just, peaceful, and prosperous, students were learning and hospitals were healing in the name of Christ, and the name of Christ was respected and spreading.
By the 1980s the churches had taken the bait of tax funding and almost all education and health care were done by state functionaries. Even “church-run” schools were financed by the state. There was “religious education” in the schools and probably chaplains in the hospitals (I never saw one), but the gospel was irrelevant at best in the daily lives of most Papua New Guinean students and medical workers, and indeed in the lives of the average Papua New Guinean. In the two decades that I was in PNG, the common lament was that schools and hospitals, even those run ostensibly by churches, were getting worse all the time. As one would expect, the church was losing ground, and towns and villages became increasingly violent and the people increasingly alienated from God, their families, and peaceable society. The last I knew, the entire country was on the way to becoming a slum.
The church in the United States has followed a similar path. It sold its birthright long ago to the Progressive ideal of tax-funded schools. While I never heard the Bible read in school growing up, many of my contemporaries tell me it was read in their schools, but now some schools forbid it to be carried openly, let alone read out loud. The church was slower to surrender health care, but once private property and free association walked into the ambush in the madness that was Prohibition, the adversary could wait until more targets came into the zone before pulling the trigger with Medicare; ObamaCare is simply another organ shutting down as the body dies. The gospel is at best irrelevant to US education and medical care.
I’ve spent thirty years losing friends by telling them the church needs to be known for education and health care; I’ve only been losing friends for a decade by expanding that mandate to peacekeeping. We’ve relied on the tax man to educate our kids; now we’re spending first-world money to give kids third-world educations. We’re spending first-world money on a medical establishment better known for abortions than for effective (let alone affordable) health care. We’re spending trillions of dollars on police and military whose success at bringing peace at home and abroad is modest at best.

It may be too late for us to Jacob (“supplant”) the Progressive Edomites by building our own networks of peace keeping, education, health care, and other forms of relief. (One example in the area of health care is Samaritan Ministries, which is doing a Jacob on ObamaCare.) But it wouldn’t hurt to do what we can while we can to give a vision of Christ-centered societies to our grandchildren. If they survive the disaster that awaits our present society, they will have the vision and skills to build a city on a hill that will lift Jesus up and draw all men to him.