Sunday, July 24, 2011

Amy Winehouse

The 27-year old British singer has joined the sad ranks of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Janis Joplin by self-destructive behavior. The news reports are clear about her addiction, but seem to be downplaying the fact that she received the natural consequences of lifestyle choices. She serves as an example for any who might be tempted to follow such a path. There's nothing good that can come from finding answers in addictive behavior. As William Glaser put it in Reality Therapy, we all have legitimate needs in life, but sometimes we're tempted to get them met with irresponsible means. When life hurts, there are healthy ways of escaping the stress. And there is God, Who stands ready to walk with us--as our Higher Power and our Friend.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Book Review: Worship & the Reality of God by John Jefferson Davis

When we do away with ritual, we end up with anemic worship, if worship at all, according to Professor Davis. How is much of today's evangelical worship different from a contemporary Christian music concert? In order for worship to have substance, we need a return to liturgy, a theme expressed years ago by Robert Weber in his book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. As a pastor, I've chosen the middle ground between "high church" and "low church" with blended worship--a mix of the formal and informal, because, as Davis puts it, we are ministering to the whole body of Christ and not a "niche" group. I've seen "specialty" churches that indeed focus on one demographic, and I have tried instead to cover all the bases with a general/collective approach...and so I found much in this excellent book to say "Amen" to. The message of this book is much needed today. I spoke briefly with Professor Davis at GCTS who admitted this is a "tough sell" in many of today's churches, but I think more and more pastors are discovering the richness of ritual, culminating in substantive worship focused on God's glory; after all, He is our audience.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

From Fear to Faith

When I was an Army Chaplain, I invariably would be asked by Commanders during field exercises to pray for good training weather. And I would be reminded of General George Patton’s Chaplain. You may know the story. On December 14th, 1944, on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge, Patton called his Third Army Chaplain into his office and told him he wanted to publish a prayer for good weather. Now, what most people don’t know is that Patton also said to his Chaplain, “With your prayer, and my relationship with God, we’ll have good weather to fight.” When I explained this to one of my Commanders, he said, “Chaplain, we’re in trouble.” Patton’s Chaplain received the Bronze Star for his prayer. Since then, most Commanders have regarded Chaplains as meteorologists, even though we’re really in sales, not management!

Patton was known for being a fearless Commanding General. Listen to a few of his famous quotes:

o “Fear kills more people than death.”
o “There is only one direction—forward!”
o “The person who cannot face a fear will always be running from it.”
o “The courageous man is the man who forces himself, in spite of his fear, to carry on.”
o “You are not beaten until you admit it. Hence, DON’T.”

The reason Patton was able to face his fears and engage the enemy courageously was simple. Patton explained that the reason Patton conquered his fear was by reading the Bible (“every #@&*% day!”). While Patton’s language was typically soldier-rough, he sincerely trusted the promises of God in Scripture. Like King David, he declared, “God trains my hands for battle; He gives me His shield of victory and His right hand sustains me” (Psalm 18:34-35).

I don’t regard myself as an exceptionally courageous person, but when I entered Iraq during Desert Storm I wasn’t afraid. My confidence was not due to our effective weaponry, but due to God’s watch-care. I knew He was with me every step of the way. Because of God, we can face life and death.

In II Timothy 1:7, Paul explains, “God has not given us a spirit of fear/timidity, but a spirit of power, love and of self-discipline.” This is also the theme of the Old Testament Minor Prophets book of Habakkuk, in which the prophet encourages Israel to move from fear to faith in times of trouble.

While fear can mar our effectiveness as Christians and cause us to worry how people may respond to our efforts to express our faith, God can grant us boldness. We can serve God with confidence. We can be fearless because the Spirit is with us and gives us the ability to serve God effectively. Faith casts out fear, and helps us to see life from God’s viewpoint.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review: Allah, a Christian Response by Miroslav Volf

After reading this book on Muslim-Christian conflict, I think the author's unstated thesis is: "I can't change other people's attitudes and actions, I can only change mine." Volf's concern is not what Muslims think of us, or even whether they might be inclined to meet us halfway (although that is his hope) in dialogue and mutual tolerance. He can only speak as a Christian. But this limitation exposes the weakness of his argument in an otherwise excellent book. So what if our "circle" includes them; it matters little if their circle excludes us...unless we love them so much that they come around, which appears to be Volf's sincere hope.

In order to promote solidarity, Volf argues that Christianity and Islam have the same God: "Christians and Muslims name in different names and worship in different ways the one true God." However, there is no consensus among Muslims as to whether Allah is the God of Christians (Jews are omitted for the most part from the discussion, as are all other faiths). And some Christians respond to terrorism by concluding "their God can't be ours." Fear of Islam (however justified) does not welcome reconciliation.

A stumbling block to harmony is the Trinity. In order to defend a Trinitarian position against the charge that Christians say but don't mean that God is "one", Volf gives the best explanation I've read of the Trinity. Muslim criticism is toward a misguided view of the doctrine, Volf claims...which even many Christians admittedly get wrong; it's a difficult doctrine to grasp. Volf insists, "the talk about `three Persons' does not subvert God's oneness...God is beyond number" (which seems to imply 1 + 1 + 1 = 1). He speculates that the term "person" may not accurately describe what is largely inexpressible (language has limitations). He goes on to say, "The divine `Persons' are tied together in their mutual cannot say that the act of one is the act of that Person alone; the other two are always `in' the third."

In dealing with stereotypes, Volf spends considerable time unpacking Pope Benedict XVI's volatile comment that Islam is a violent religion...which resulted in some Muslims declaring the Pope must die. If a Muslim cleric said Christians were violent, would there have been comparable rioting in the streets?

My response to Volf's overall argument is that it doesn't matter whether we worship different deities; we can choose to be at peace regardless, with anyone. Volk asks, "Is monotheism by its very nature religiously and politically exclusive?" No, our prevalently Judeo-Christian nation is not at war with India, Japan, or China, yet their religions are even more at odds with ours. Does it really matter (politically) whether or not we worship the same God? Can Muslims and Christians "live under the same political roof and work together for the common good?" Volf asks.

In describing religious differences, Volf omits what I see as the major difference between the two, namely grace: "God demonstrates His love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us," Romans 5:8. How do Muslims satisfy the justice of God? But Volf's book is about political theology, not soteriology. This emphasis on justice plays out with Islam's denial of love toward enemies. They are told to love their neighbor...but what if that neighbor isn't a Muslim? Is God's love conditional? In writing to a Christian audience, Volf rightly charges us: "If you say that Your God is unconditional Love, you should show unconditional love towards Muslims."

Volf envisions a world that can embrace diversity and religious pluralism, and the free exercise of religion, to include the right to witness and to leave one's religion--no problem in America, but a huge problem in some Muslim countries. But the real issue is the human heart: "Bad people, with no intention of doing good, can think alike about God, and that won't prevent them from being at each other's throats." Volf admits, "We fail often, and fail miserably, not because of our convictions, but despite them."

Volf is hoping that Muslims and Christians will decide our religions are not "radically incompatible" and thus choose to coexist for the sake of peace. Otherwise clashes and conflict will continue. Changes in attitudes on a global scale are critical: "Our common future is at stake." There will be no peace unless all nations choose religious tolerance. There must be charitable dialogue, engagement--conversation, not crusade.