Watch Aaron in the film Holy Wars

Monday, January 29, 2007

Why I'm a Christian

I'll be on the road for a couple of days, so I decided before I put my pedal to the medal, I'd write a quick post on why I am a Christian. Sorry for the brevity, I know full well that a topic like this is not something that can be covered in a few short paragraphs.

First, let me give the reasons why I am not a Christian. I am not a Christian because I'm an American and I feel that it is my patriotic duty to be a Christian (more on that in another post..yes...there are people who actually hold to this ideology..I'm not making this one up). Furthermore, I am not a Christian because I understand everything in the Bible. I do not. In fact, there are many passages in the Bible that I find deeply disturbing. Neither am I a Christian because I can defend every passage in the Bible. I can not. I'm not even sure if I ever will. Apologetics has helped me a lot over the years, but the more I learn about life, the world, and people of other faiths and philosophies, I have come to realize that a person can be a genuinely intelligent and (at least by human standards) moral human being and not be a Christian.

So why am I a Christian? First and foremost, I can say that I am a Christian because I believe that the essentials of the Christian faith as outlined in the Apostles Creed are true. I believe that God, as revealed in the Old and New Testaments and, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ is the true God.

I have not come to this conclusion lightly. Perhaps one can say that I am a Christian by default because I have genuinely reviewed all the other major religions and philosophies and they have come up short. That, however, is not a reason to embrace the Christian faith.

If I can put all my reasons in a nutshell, then I would say that I am a Christian because of the cross. When I look at the cross and see the man of meekness bearing my sin, I am breathless. The more I consider backing out the more the image of Jesus haunts me. Jesus confronts me, challenges me, inspires me, and yes, even at times, He frustrates me, but most importantly, I know that He loves me.

I am a Christian because I believe that love is the most powerful force in the world and only Jesus can show me what love truly is. I follow the only book in the world that says, "God is love." In Jesus, love is not merely an impersonal force (as in eastern religions). In Jesus, love has a face, a name, a character. When I look at the moral life of Jesus, I see a man deeply connected with human suffering-and that is why I love Him so much.

Lastly, I am a Christian because of the resurrection. Because He lives, I know that I can live too, not only in the here and now, but in the there and then as well. Jesus holds my past, my present and my future safely in His hands and because nothing can separate me from His love, I know that He will never let me go. If I were Jesus, I probably would have given up on me a long time a go. But I am not and He has not and that, my friend is why I am a Christian.

Friday, January 26, 2007

What if?

Last November, I debated with a radical jihadist who believed that Christianity is a weak and immoral religion that deserves to be superseded by Islam using whatever force necessary. The man believed that 9-11, the London and Madrid subway bombings, as well as all the other means that terrorists use to assert their ideology are morally justifiable.

The man then asked me why our government does not negotiate with Bin Laden who "offered a peace treaty." When I asked him what would happen if the West did, in fact sign a treaty with Al Qaeda, he said that the treaty would last for five months, then they would offer Islam again, and, if it is refused, they would break the treaty and continue to use force. In this man's mind, if the entire world came under the rule of Islam, then that would be a validation that his religion is, indeed, the right one. I replied that it is not realistic to believe that 2 billion Christians are going to be persuaded to deny their faith and that Western governments will fight to defend themselves. I then told him that even if he was able to establish a world wide theocracy under Islam, that it isn't over until it is over.

What did I mean by that? It is hard for us to imagine our nation being overrun by foreigners of a different faith. We are the most powerful nation in the world and we also have one of the largest population of Christians in the world.

Not so fast. What I am describing has happened before. It must have seemed like the world was ending when the largely Christian Roman empire was overrun by the barbarians. The most powerful empire in the world with the largest Christian population in the world fell seemingly overnight. But did the gospel stop there? No! An amazing thing happened. The barbarians eventually embraced the faith of the people they conquered.

The same thing happened at the turn of the first millenium. Ireland at that time was one of the most Christian nations that the world has ever seen, but when the Vikings came and destroyed their villages and raped their women, it must have seemed like the world was ending to the Irish monks who were captured and enslaved by the Vikings. But, then, an incredible thing happened. The Vikings embraced the faith of the Irish. History credits this to the faithful witness of the Irish monks who lived out the values of Jesus before the eyes of their captors.

No matter what happens in this dark, cruel world. The cause of Christ will carry on as long as there are Christians who are radically faithful to the teachings of Jesus. As the Apostle Paul said, "The Word of God is not chained."

Do I fear that the Western world may be overrun by Islam? You bet I do. But, as a Christian, I know that no matter what happens, God is in control and His purposes will prevail no matter how dark it seems. In the end, I know who wins.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Jesus the divider

If you ask the average person what words come to mind when you think of "Jesus", most people, regardless of their religious or philosophical persuasions will says words like "love, peace, humility." I find it very interesting that very few people think of Jesus as a man of war or as a divider of humanity. Either Jesus has a very good public relations network or there really is something about Jesus that lets us all know that His values are the standard by which the world is judged. As someone who longs for an end to violence and extremism, I am fascinated by Jesus' teachings of "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" and "all who take the sword will perish by the sword." If those were the only words that Jesus ever uttered, I'd still consider Him the greatest moral teacher in history because I can't think of a higher moral ethic to live by.

And then comes the bombshell. Here is a quote from the man of peace that has baffled peace loving hippie wannabees like me for centuries.

Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. for I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law and a man's enemies will be those of his own household.

At first glance I want to throw my hands up in despair. The carnal mind in me says something like this, "Come on Jesus! I really thought you were better than that. I thought you were a man of peace and now you're telling me that you came to divide families? Isn't there a more tolerant moral teacher out there that isn't so divisive? No wonder there is so much war in the world. Perhaps religion is the problem."

And then I remember the courageous Christians around the world who are kicked out of their homes, thrown out on the streets, persecuted mercilessly by their families (and in many cases, their governments) and yet they can't seem to remove the glow on their faces and the warmth in their eyes. Those that make the ultimate sacrifice to follow Jesus may lose their fathers, their daughters, even their wives or their husbands, but their faces continue to shine because they haven't lost the one thing that matters the most-their dignity as human beings.

I think that Jesus understood something that much of the world still does not understand to this day. Jesus understood that an essential element of human dignity is the ability to follow one's conscience in regards to matters of faith. The ability to make a free and uncoerced decision in response to a religious truth claim is one of the primary elements of human dignity. This is why those who decide to follow Jesus despite the opposition are often some of the most joyful people in the world.

If everything that we see, touch, taste, smell, and hear will one day pass away (as the Bible and science tell us will happen) then what truly matters for the individual is not peace, safety, comfort, stability, or even procreation (after all, if there is no God eventually everything will cease to exist, including one's descendants). All that truly matters is connecting with ultimate reality. Connecting with God should be priority number one for every human being because without God, life is meaningless.

Even if life leaves us broken, frustrated, abused, humiliated, or confused, all of us as long as we have air in our lungs and blood pumping through our veins can choose to worship the one who gave us the greatest gift of all-our existence. When we connect with God despite the cost to our temporary human relationships, we affirm the value of what separates us from the rest of the primates-our conscience.

Some may call Jesus a hopeless idealist, an egomaniac, or even a mad man. And that's okay. People said the same thing while He was walking on earth. I, for one, choose to call Him Lord. And, because I've decided to follow His teachings, I'll stand up for the rights of all who disagree. Given the rest of Jesus's life and teachings, I think that is exactly what He would want me to do.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Why I'm glad I was born in America

I know that I may seem like a schizophrenic writing this post after what I wrote in my last post, but I believe one can honor and appreciate their country without equating that honor and devotion with following Christ.

Although our nation is not without flaws (even serious ones at that), I can honestly say that I, along with the vast majority of people in the world, would rather live in America than in any other country. In most places that I travel, I meet many people whose life's dream is to come to America. Why?

Although I can not answer this question for others, I can answer it for myself. For one thing, we are one of the most free people in the world. Living in America, I can choose whatever religion my conscience tells me to choose and I don't have to worry about imprisonment, death, or paying humiliating taxes (as is the case with minorities living in Islamic countries). Not only can I follow my religion, but if my religion demands that I share my faith with others, I can do so without fear.

Another aspect that makes America great is our culture. To be sure, there are many things about our culture that needs improvement (most people around the world think that we are arrogant and, I hate to say it, judging the way many Americans behave in foreign countries that is, to a large extent, true), but there is one thing about our culture that deserves special recognition, and that is our compassion for those who are suffering.

Let me give you a personal example. As some of you know, my wife has suffered multiple miscarriages in our five years of marriage and we still do not have biological children. As difficult as this is to handle, it would be far more difficult to handle if we lived in a country in the developing world. When my wife had her first miscarriage, we were living in Africa. One person told us that her miscarriage was God's judgment on us-and this was a pastor telling us this! In many places around the world, I have seen barren woman scorned because of the stigma placed on them by society. In America, all we've received is love and support. Knowing what I know, I should be getting down on my knees every morning and thanking God that my wife and I were not born in Pakistan or Senegal or Afghanistan.

Americans believe, for the most part, that all people should have equal opportunity for advancement. We believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We believe that the poor should be cared for, even if we do a shabby job at it, we know it should be done. Contrast this with those born in Hindu or Buddhist nations where the mindset is "If you're poor, then it's because you are paying for the sins of your past life." It is further believed that those who help the poor are actually doing more harm than good because helping the poor is hindering them from working off their bad karma and thus, hindering them from a chance at a better life in the next life.

Besides the obvious fact that we are the most wealthy nation on earth and that makes for better living conditions, what makes America great is our egalitarian spirit. Most Americans really do believe that all men (and women) are created equal. This egalitarian spirit is framed from a Biblical Christian ethic. Many people believe that cultures create religions. In fact, the opposite is true. Religions create cultures. I will not hesitate to say that the positive values of freedom, compassion, and human rights that Americans hold dear have been framed by the man who came to set the captives free. His name is Jesus Christ.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The pledge of two students

Imagine a grade school student from China who goes to a public school and is asked to swear an oath to the Chinese state every day along with the rest of his or her class at school. Imagine that the young boy or girl refuses to participate due to the fact that he or she is a Christian and does not want to declare allegiance to anyone or anything other than Jesus Christ. How do you think the average American Christian would view this scenario? I imagine that the millions of Christians in America would not only admire the grade school student, but would probably use him or her as an example in Sunday School on how to take a stand as a Christian.

Now let's imagine another scenario. Imagine a young boy or girl in America attending one of the thousands of Christian schools throughout the nation. Imagine that a young boy or girl decides one day to politely decline in saying the pledge of allegiance along with his or her classmates. How do you think the average American evangelical Christian would view this scenario? Given the political firestorm over taking "under God" out of the pledge, I imagine that the reaction of the same millions of Christians who thought the Chinese boy or girl was a hero would be decisively different than the Christian child refusing to participate in the American pledge of allegiance. I further imagine that many would even question if the student was a Christian at all. After all, so the thinking goes, we are a Christian nation.

Does anyone else see a problem with this? To many American Christians, a child who pledges allegiance to China is considered idolatrous, but a child who pledges allegiance to America is considered a patriot. What does this say about how we American Christians view ourselves? For many Christians, the idea that America is not a Christian nation is considered near blasphemous. The same people that would applaud a Chinese or a Russian for refusing to swear an oath to a secular state see no problem with wrapping an American flag around a cross in the front yards of their churches.

For those who think that I am undermining the great American tradition of saying the pledge, relax. I am not saying that it is wrong to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The Bible says, "Give custom to whom custom is due." What I am questioning, however, is American Christians' association of following Jesus with patriotism. The truth is that America is a mixture of good and bad, just like many other nations. We can not claim a special relationship with God more than any other nation can. Given the numerous Scriptures that warn against oaths, it is hard for me to imagine how those who would ridicule a Christian for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance could legitimately call themselves Christians. Although I would never say that those of such persuasion should not be considered Christians, I will say that often we read the Bible with cultural blinders on. Many Christians from around the world that I talk to are baffled about American Christian's tendency to associate Christianity with the American flag.

Our first and foremost loyalty should be to Jesus Christ. Although we need to honor and serve our country as good citizens, to equate love for Jesus with love for country is nothing short of idolatry.

Friday, January 19, 2007

If you want to get to know me-Come to my house

It has been 50 years (give or take) since the civil rights movement and, yes, our society has made much progress. We no longer have Jim Crow laws and most African Americans in the south do not have to fear being lynched for the crime of going into a white neighborhood.

And yet, racism and prejudice persist. Many black Americans have to endure racial profiling, fear, and intimidation when they try to make it in a white man's world. And, what is worse, most of us white Christians don't really give a damn. In fact, I bet that some of my readers who read this last sentence are more shocked that I wrote the word damn than that entire groups of people in this country suffer the dehumanizing effects of racial prejudice every day.

I'm not talking about silly issues (like suing Cracker Barrel because of one instance of being overlooked), I'm talking about real issues that us whites do not really understand because we would rather not make the effort to understand. I'm talking about issues like racial profiling, discrimination in housing and the workplace, and the humiliating welfare system that our government has created. We would rather believe that we are the ones that are being discriminated against because of the "unjust" system of affirmitave action that many scholars say did, in fact, help to create a black middle class. Please! Regardless of the position that one takes on affirmitave action,(I am not taking a position one way or the other) can we whites honestly say that we have it that bad? I don't think so.

It is a shame that the most racially segregated day of the week is Sunday morning. Something has to be done about this. We can pray for unity and repent for the sins of our fathers until we are blue in the face, but not much of that will do us any good until we are willing to put action to our prayers. As one black American pastor said, "If you want to get to know me, come to my house." It's time we stop playing games and start intentionally pursuing friendships with those who are different than us. Why else would Jesus spend so much of His ministry eating and drinking with people? Because He knew that if the world is to change, it must be changed through friendships. Breaking down racial, gender, and class barriers. Isn't that what the Body of Christ is supposed to be all about?

Here is a ministry that has it right.

Let's build a better world, one friendship at a time.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Dreams and Visions

All over the Muslim world, people have been receiving dreams and visions of Jesus. I've been hearing about this for years on the mission field. I've talked to many people that have either experienced a dream or vision of Jesus or knows someone who did. This seems to be happening a lot in West Africa. Even my Muslim friends in Senegal know about the phenomenon. Although this site is dedicated to sharing stories about Muslims coming to faith in Christ in this way, I can tell you that the same is happening throughout the Buddhist world, especially among Buddhist monks. Jesus is alive and well on planet earth!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Conscience over faith?

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched one of the best films we have seen in a long time. The film is called Water and is directed by Deepa Mehta. Water is set in the 1930's against the backdrop of Ghandi's rise to power in India. The film tells the story of an 8 year old girl who is sent to live the rest of her life in a commune with other widows due to the death of her husband (whom she never met). In Hinduism, a woman is considered half of her husband, so, when a man dies, the widow has three options: Burn herself alive with her husband, marry his younger brother, or live an ascetic life of self denial with other widows for the rest of her life. The young girl befriends a beautiful young woman (who is also a widow) and by chance introduces her to an idealistic young man who despises his society's treatment of widows, but has to choose between his faith and his conscience.

The making of Water set off a firestorm in India. For four years, Hindu extremists did nearly everything to shut down the production of the film, including riots and death threats. Finally, the director decided to make the film in Sri Lanka when she realized it was not safe to make the movie in India. Although many Hindu extremists consider the movie anti-Hindu, the director denies that the film is anti-Hindu. Instead, she declares that the story is about the "universal" struggle between faith and conscience.

Forgive me, but I have to interject that I can not relate to the "universal" struggle between following the dictates of my faith and following the dictates of my conscience. If anything, watching Water helped to confirm what my conscience has been telling me my entire life, namely that following Jesus is the most moral path a person can take. The characters in Water had to choose between an obvious flaw in their religion and doing what their hearts told them what was right, especially regarding the fate of an 8-year old girl whose spirit was being crushed by the oppression. Interestingly, Ghandi is portrayed in the film as standing up for the rights of the widow and the outcast. One person in the film said, "Ghandi is one of the few people in the world who listens to the voice of his conscience." If this is true, then Ghandi was a far more remarkable man than I have previously realized. This would mean that Ghandi chose to give dignity to the poor and the outcast despite what his religion taught him. This does not surprise me because there is, in fact, a tradition of pagan saints in Scripture (see Romans 2).

Watching this film made me appreciate in a deeper way the moral life of the founder of my religion, Jesus of Nazareth, the man who came to set the captives free.

Friday, January 12, 2007

That's something to be proud of

I'm having internet connection problems at home so I had to go to the community college today to get online. I was planning on a theologically profound article, but, alas, I forgot my Bible and at the moment I am too lazy to search this enormous library to find one. So I'll have to settle for giving you the lyrics of one of my favorite songs. I like it so much I downloaded it from Itunes. Believe it or not, when I first heard this song, I actually got a little teary-eyed. For those of you who can't stand country music, I sincerely apologize. Actually, I don't. It's my blog and I'll write country lyrics if I want to (lame joke I know...hey..I tried)

That's something to be proud of
That's a life you can hang your hat on
That's a chin held high, tear falls down
Gut sucked in, chest stuck out

Like a small town flag a flyin
Or a newborn baby cryin
In the arms of the woman that you love
That's something to be proud of

Why do I like this song? Because it has tapped in to an often- overlooked Biblical concept of simplicity. The Apostle Paul said, "Aspire to live a quiet and peacful life in all godliness and reverence." Our society too often measures success by status and achievement. Sometimes it's good to be reminded "You don't need to make a million. Just be thankful to be working" and "If all you ever really do is the best you can. You did it man. That's something to be proud of."

Being a minister (and an evangelist at that), it is very easy for me to get caught up in measuring my life by how good (or bad) I am at what I do. All too often my life is consumed not with enjoying God and His gracious gifts, but with the struggle to get ahead. Sometimes I need to be reminded that if I love God, love my wife, go to church, and do that best I can, that's something to be proud of.

I have a feeling I'm not the only one that needs to be reminded of this from time to time.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Random thoughts and questions

Here are a few thoughts I've been working on lately.

1. There has been a move within evangelical Christianity to address called the Creation Care movement which seeks to correct apathetic attitudes within American Christianity over the issue of global warming. The question I have is: If the predictions of global warming are true and the human race is on the brink of annihilation, then what does that say about God's providence? Especially in light of God'covenant with Noah? On the other hand, God tells us that we are supposed to take care of the earth. My only conclusion is that a belief in God's providence along with a belief in man's responsibility to care for creation can not be mutually exclusive.

2. What is law without love and what is justice without mercy? We know that justice is good, but is justice the sole measurement of goodness?

3. Is America truly a Christian nation? The fact of the matter is that most of our founders were not what we would call Biblical Christians by today's evangelical standards. Notice I said most, not all. Practically all of them believed in God, but many of them were deists and unitarians. Furthermore, how can we say we are a Christian nation especially in light of what our fathers did to blacks and native Americans?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The other side

After writing yesterday's post I realized I should probably clarify a few things. I am definitely not saying that the sole aim of theology is to make one a better person. I believe that the aim of religion (and theology) is to connect the individual to ultimate reality. The problem is that our current generation does not believe in objective truth claims. Therefore the standard of belief for today is "will this religion make me a better person?" In one sense this is a positive development because it forces Christian thinkers to evaluate their beliefs with a moral criteria. Moral reasoning should be an integral part of theologizing. This is why groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists could read their Bibles and come to the conclusion that God wanted to deliver the oppressed even though there are passages in Scripture that seem to indicate a neutral position on slavery. I would argue that the idea of prevenient grace laid the moral foundation for them to consider the equality of every human being. In another sense, the moral criteria can be misleading if it is posited against the idea that objective truth is grounded in revelation. This is the dilemna that many apologists face today. How do you present objective truth to a culture that doesn't believe objective truths exist?

Secondly, I also do not mean to imply that only Methodists and Quakers were on the right side of history. I am certain that there were a few Calvinists who opposed slavery as well. The problem is that the entire belief system of 19th century Calvinism was hierarchical and lended itself to the conclusion that God ordains some to rule over others. If God selects certain individuals to be saved, then why wouldn't He select certain races to rule over others? A Calvinist today would decry such reasoning, but what is obvious to us today wasn't so obvious to people back then. The bottom line is that although certain theologies lend themselves to greater social consciousness than others, there are good and bad people within every belief system. It was a Calvinist named William Carey that launched the modern missionary movement and socially and economically transformed the country of India. If I were a Calvinist, I would be very proud of that...and rightly so.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's resolution-be a better person

It's the time of the year where everyone is counting the calories to trim their wastelines (usually out of guilt for all the Christmas cookies consummed). This guilt is often displayed in what is called the New Year resolution. I don't have statistics to prove this, but I would bet that 90% of all New Year's resolutions have to do with diet and excercise. Given that we Americans are the fattest people on the planet, that might not be a bad thing.

Something we hear very little about are those who resolve not just to be better eaters, but better people. Please understand that I am writing this mostly for myself. I am giving you, my reader, a chance to listen in on Aaron's conversation with Aaron. I promise you will not be arrested for eavesdropping if you keep reading.

Here goes: Aaron, when was the last time that you resolved to become a better person? Well, to be honest, I can't remember? But don't you pray for guidance and wisdom on a daily basis? Well, almost daily. I miss a few every now and then. Do you pray for God to make you a more loving person? Yes, as a matter of fact I do. Do you pray the prayers written in the epistles? Yes, I pray those for myself and for others ocassionally. Then, in essence, becoming a better person is a consistent focus or prayer for you. I guess I never thought of it that way before. Thanks Aaron for your help. No problem. Oops, I almost forgot. The question I now have is this: How do I become a better person?

It is at this question that many sincere resolutions find the most frustration. How does one become a better person. For some, the question is never even asked. The idea is "I know that Jesus died for my sins, so why do I need to become a better person? Since I'm already going to heaven, what's in it for me?" I would like to believe that few Christians hold to this idea so I will not deal with it here. The question still becomes: How do I become a better person? I have a simple answer: To become a better person one must obtain better beliefs. For it is out of the heart that flows the issues of life.

Here is a question that all of us need to ask ourselves from time to time: If I believe such and such about God, the earth, my fellow man, those that are different from me, then what kind of a person does that make me? Is it good for myself. Is it good for my family. Is it good for society?

These are tough questions to be asked, but they still should be asked. History is filled with examples of ideas misapplied leading to extraordinary human suffering. Some of the tragedies even come from "Christians" who had incorrect theologies that led them to do terrible things. In the 1800's there were sincere Christians living in America that believed that slavery was a God-ordained institution. Anybody want to guess what book they turned to to justify their beliefs? We know now that they were wrong largely because the Christians on the other side of the debate, the Methodists and the Quakers, won the debate in their day-and the world is a better place because of it. I would argue that the Methodists and the Quakers had a better understanding of the social issues of their day precisely because the basic theological concepts that produced Methodism and Quakerism lended themselves to producing better people. (If you would like to know what the theological concepts were, and still are, you will have to study early Methodism and Quakerism to find out. If you are one of my loyal readers,you may be able to figure some of this out right now if you think about the posts I have been writing over the past two months)

It doesn't hurt to begin the New Year asking yourself this question: What kind of a person does my theology make me?