Extravagance and Dead Egyptians

In July, our church hosted an Egypt-themed Vacation Bible School that sought to give children a realistic, life-like experience of the story of Joseph (the biblical character who was sold into slavery, imprisoned unjustly, but became a prominent leader among the Egyptians). In preparing to bring Egypt to life, we were setting up a pyramid or two, and I was reminded of their purpose. Those who have visited Egypt can attest to how impressive the pyramids are, but they served a very useless purpose. They were shrines for dead pharaohs. Experts still disagree on the details, but it seems that they served to protect the mummified bodies of these former Egyptian leaders for the afterlife.

As you may have heard it said, "You can't take it with you." We can all probably think of someone in our lives who we think has spent time and money on things that aren't going to benefit anyone after he or she is gone. But wait a minute - am I not guilty of such things myself? Extravagance always happens to be more than we have, doesn't it? Compared to the majority of the earth's population, I'm extravagant.

Have you ever tried to practically answer the question, "How much is too much?" It's practically...impossible. It's all so relative to where you live, what your needs are (e.g., health), and what you do with it. I'm reading a book written by a former seminary classmate who founded an urban ministry to the homeless. In one particularly inspiring part of the book, she describes how she came to the decision to sell her 5-bedroom house and move to something much more modest. She did this for two reasons: 1) to be able to invest more money in her non-profit ministry, and 2) she felt too guilty and convicted about the disparity between her living situation and that of her poor or homeless friends. I am very inspired by her story. If you're willing to give up your standard of living for strangers in need, you're a saint in my book. But it gets you thinking: there's really no clear stopping point, is there? After I downgrade to a cheaper house, why don't I then get rid of my air conditioning? Why don't I then sell my cars? Why don't I just keep going until I'm also living in a cardboard box? Relative to one's station in life, there comes a point where our voluntary poverty would render us no longer helpful to others in need. Temporary solidarity with the poor is a great thing...it makes me realize what I have. Permanent solidarity would just make me yet another person in need. Where is that point for you? What would it look like for you to provide enough for your family and give the rest away? Are you there? Why is it so hard?

The Jesus we find in the gospels had a very special word for and ministry to the "poor" (broadly defined). In fact, the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus after them, seem so compassionate towards the poor and so hostile towards the rich that modern theologians began using the term "preferential option for the poor" (first articulated by Gustavo Gutierrez) to describe what we find in these traditions. Most decent theology schools at least introduce students to this view. But one thing it tends to do, especially while you're in the vacuum of seminary, is make you glorify the poor. As we reflect on Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 saying that "whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me," we start to expect to find God, and godly behavior, in the poor. But as Wendy McCaig finds out and describes in her book, this is not always the case. Those who live in what we call generational or perpetual poverty are sometimes very selfish, greedy, ungrateful, and unmotivated. Perhaps such traits are responsible for their current plight, but often, those in poverty find themselves living day to day, meal to meal, and it's nearly impossible to find motivation and vision in such circumstances. As so many affluent people don't realize, it's a steep downward spiral.

If you're like me, you might live life thinking that you're not in danger of becoming homeless, but in reality, you are. My family is one major accident, illness, or job loss away from having to depend on others. And therein lies the reason for being generous in any way we can with what we have. What if it were me? One day, it could be me. Jesus said to the rich young man, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor..." (Matthew 19:21). But for those of us who perceive perfection to be a little too far off, we have the simple biblical injunction to "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3).

At the very least, let's start by making sure we're not building huge pyramids for a dead Egyptian.


"Still Vertical" - A Tribute to Dedication

I remember being in a church board meeting a few years ago; some 18 church members were discussing some important issues and our church's ministry. At one point the senior pastor I was working with at the time looked around at the group and said, "I just want to thank you for being here tonight, because I don't know how some of you are still vertical."

What he was referring to was the fact that so many of the church members sitting in that room were going through tough, personal trials in their lives. One had been through a recent divorce, several others had spouses or other loved ones with cancer, and one had even been diagnosed with cancer himself. They probably wanted to be home - no, they probably needed to be home - resting and taking care of themselves, but there they were, carrying out the business of the church.

I can be a whiner. But then I see all these people pouring their heart and soul into the church (or whatever they do) despite their circumstances. It humbles me to say the least.

How can you do hours worth of landscaping or construction work at the church when you've had bouts with cancer and are "getting up in years"? I don't know, but there are gentlemen at my church who do. How can you continue to competently and passionately lead a church as moderator when your wife has just passed away? I don't know, but I've watched someone do it. How can you cook amazing meals for 100 people every Wednesday after you've been caring for an ill husband? I don't know, but we have those ladies. How can you spend dozens of hours a week coordinating a children's ministry program when you have three kids of your own and two part-time jobs? I don't know, but we have one very special lady who does. How often do teenagers show up for meetings or rehearsals when they have homework and a social life waiting for them? I don't know, but we have several who do.

And they would probably all tell you that their strength comes from beyond.

Colossians 3:23 says, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord." That's what these saints do. And as I think about what some of them have endured, 1 Corinthians 15:58 also comes to mind: "Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."

The amazing part is that these folks are so often the silent ones. They quietly do what God has gifted them to do, never complain, and never expect any praise. They are not thanked and recognized near enough. This is my tribute to dedication, to those who are "still vertical."


Reflections on a "Nation of Christians"

In Part 1, I said that America was not founded as an official "Christian nation," nor is it a nation where the Christian religion was supposed to be given preference. The idea of a nation that is democratically governed without any establishment of religion was not only an amazing idea, but was one that many believers have fought for out of the deep religious conviction that God desires such freedom of conscience.

A nation where the government declared Christianity the official religion and said that the Bible was the law of the land would result in utter devastation and tyranny. Not only because it would be abused by the majority and resisted by the minority, but it would also immediately present a dilemma of which parts of the Bible we're going to follow. How many of the Old Testament laws are we going to follow? Are we going to reinstate slavery? There's nothing in the Bible prohibiting it. What about polygamy? What about......see the problem?

However, here in Part 2, I imagine and ask the question, "What would it look like if everything from our daily personal conduct to our national policies fell in line with the teachings and example of Jesus?" The focus on Jesus is important. Baptist theologians have long said that the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ. Part of what it means to say you're a Christian is that you believe Jesus is the best picture we have of what God is like. So, what would it look like? As you read the following words of Jesus (chosen mostly from the gospel of Matthew for simplicity's sake), imagine the United States adopting such principles in its policy-making. Ponder the contrast between these commands and the efforts of modern day Christians. I'm convinced that we wouldn't recognize Jesus if He showed up again today - in fact, we'd crucify Him all over again. There's a reason that Jesus was always in trouble with the religious leaders of his day. Are you sure you're ready for a "Christian nation"?


"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." (Matthew 5:21-22)

"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24)

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:38-48)

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." (Matthew 6:19-20)

"You cannot serve both God and Money." (Matthew 6:24)

""Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Matthew 7:1-2)

"In everything, do to others what you would want them to do to you." (Matthew 7:12)

"While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matthew 9:10-13)

""No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved." (Matthew 9:16-17)

"Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' " (Matthew 15:10-11)

"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." (Matthew 18:21-22)

"If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21)

"So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (Matthew 20:16)

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Matthew 22:21)

"'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'" (Matthew 25:40)

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)

"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

Reflections on a "Christian Nation"

In 2007, the First Amendment Center reported that 2 out of every 3 Americans believed that our Founding Fathers intended to establish a Christian nation, and that 55% (still a majority) believed that the Constitution explicitly establishes a Christian nation.

Part of what we sometimes hear is that the U.S. Constitution and our laws in were strongly based on the 10 Commandments. But for me that idea kind of falls apart when we actually read the commandments and ask whether they are reflected in our laws. Commandments 1 through 4 are not only absent from American law but would be unconstitutional and run completely counter to our guarantees of religious freedom (are we going to arrest people for making idols and not honoring the Sabbath?). Commandments 5 (honoring father and mother) and 10 (do not covet) are also not found anywhere in American laws, and some have argued that covetousness (#10) is what keeps our economy ticking. Commandments 6 (murder) and 8 (stealing) are indeed reflected in American law, but certainly not unique to America.  Prohibitions against murder and stealing predate the Bible and have been found almost universally in societies all over the world.  Commandment 7 (adultery) is found as a law in some states but only becomes relevant in divorce proceedings. Prohibitions against "bearing false witness" (Commandment 9) in American law are only applicable in certain situations, like when testifying under oath.

Do I personally honor and try to follow the 10 Commandments? Absolutely. I have freely chosen to. And that's the key difference.

The affirmation of the separation of church and state is not a secular, liberal, or godless viewpoint. Quite the contrary; it is a position that honors the idea of a non-coercive God. Christians have long spoken of "free will," and the God we read about in much of the Bible never forces Himself on anyone. It is an affirmation that faith in or love of God is not genuine unless it is chosen, and that any other human being should be free to accept or reject faith just as I was. It's a simple matter of putting myself in another's shoes. Would I react favorably if I felt persecuted or marginalized for having a faith that differed from the majority? Would that make me want to sign on with them?

There is a reason that the Founding Fathers did not just sign the Bible. Think about it: if it's true that we were supposed to be a Christian nation, and they all believed as the fabricated George Washington quote asserts, "It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible," then why didn't they just sign the Bible? Why write a whole new pesky Constitution that never mentions God or Jesus and never quotes from the Bible? The answer is: they knew better. Theocracy had been tried. The Church of England was within recent memory, and the next round of religious persecution in the colonies was ongoing. And so the idea that government should not establish a religion won the day by a landslide.

There's a lot of discussion about the faith of the founding fathers. Is this important? In the history classroom, yes, it is obviously very important. But those men - whether they were Christians, Diests, or whatever - penned a religiously neutral Constitution that renders their faith (and anyone else's) irrelevant in questions of governance.

In early America, of all the denominations, Baptists spoke the loudest in favor of the separation. (And again, they did so from religious conviction, not secular interests). Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church on American soil, along with John Clarke, obtained for Rhode Island the first charter in the world that secured full liberty of conscience and religion. Thomas Helwys, widely regarded as one of the first Baptists, wrote the first call for full religious freedom in the English language. Virginia Baptist minister John Leland was set to run against James Madison for a seat at the ratifying of the Constitution until he met with Madison and was assured that he would fight for a provision for religious freedom.  Leland once wrote:
"The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever...Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians."
What exactly is being proposed when we are called to remember or revert to our Christian heritage? What does this mean in terms of practical governance?  Should we replace the Constitution with the Bible as the law of the land?  Should we give Christians more rights than everyone else and implement an all new three-fifths compromise for all the inferior non-Christians in our ranks?

The revelation that scripture was used in government documents arguing for war with Iraq is just one of many clear examples of what government would do with scripture and why it's just not a good idea. The church abuses the Bible enough already - let's not let government have it. Faith, evangelism, and ministry are the work of the church. Government has a different purpose.

Besides, our history, though filled with plenty of inspiration and bravery, is also a bit tainted, and I'm not sure when this golden age of godly living was. It wasn't when we were running off and killing Native Americans so that we could expand. It wasn't when we were oppressing and enslaving Africans, Chinese, or other foreigners and minorities to help us prosper It wasn't when we were holding witch trials or persecuting Catholics and Jews. It wasn't when we were not letting women vote.

Throughout history, every single time religion gets political power, it's a maniacal mess. BUT, every time people who have willingly chosen to love God and follow Christ freely come together to live that faith out, marvelous things happen. Which brings up the question: What would our nation look like if everyone took the teachings of Christ seriously? Would it look anything like the struggle for power, wealth or influence that Christians are engaged in now, or would it be something drastically different? See Part 2.

Recommended reading: The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church by Gregory A. Boyd.