Monday, July 28, 2008

Cooking Something New: Help Wanted

It might sound ironic at first, but I really like it whenever I'm asked to preach or write and the topic is assigned.

For one thing, being assigned a topic saves me from the sometimes-agonizing question: So what exactly will I speak (or write) about? It's already decided. They're expecting to hear from me about that.

Something else. Of the better things I've ever come up with, many were the result of an assignment. I have a theory about why. I think it's because, whenever I pick the topic, it's something I think I already know about. Now, it's true that I do know something about a few things. The only problem is, when I select a topic that I think I already know about, I don't begin to search. Instead, I simply try to figure out how to say what I think I already know.

The result? Not much digging. No new discoveries. No trying to figure out a thing for myself. None of the excitement that comes from a fresh insight. Just trying to convey what I think I know. It feels like I'm taking something out of the freezer and tossing it in the microwave. "Ding!" Ready to eat?

I'd much rather serve and eat a home-cooked meal made of fresh ingredients. And that's more often what I come up with whenever I start with an assigned topic. So I'm happy that I was recently asked to deliver lessons (about 30 minutes each) for these titles:

1. The Sovereignty of God

2. Christianity as Counter Culture

Now I want your help. Would you name one or more biblical texts to go with each title?

Also, can you name something else--a book or an article or a movie clip or anything--on these topics that you think I should know about?

Thanks for any feedback. I always like hearing from my blog buddies.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is the United States a Christian Nation?

Is the United States of America a Christian nation? There’s more than one way to answer that question.

According to statistics gathered by the Pew Forum, Roman Catholics and Protestants in the U.S. account for more than 75 % of our population. By the numbers, America is overwhelmingly Christian.

On the other hand, if one looks at our nation in terms of truly following Jesus Christ: loving neighbor, doing the right thing, ensuring dignity for all people, etc., the measurement is much harder to take. But what is certain is that the numbers aren’t so high.

So, is this a Christian nation? A third answer would begin with the intentions of our Founding Fathers, the men who gave our country its start.

I recently watched a new video series, now being shown to dozens of churches in the U.S., entitled, “The Silencing of God.” The subtitle reads, “The Dismantling of America’s Christian Heritage.” Among other things, I was told that people like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin fully intended to establish the United States of America as a decidedly Christian nation, and that the separation of church and state “is not a Constitutional concept.”

Of course, statements like these are part of a bigger picture, namely, the so-called “culture wars” currently taking place on American soil. Evidently, one of the many armies in this war has decided to advance the notion that our government should not be religiously neutral. Instead, they say, it should be positively Christian.

But did the Founders themselves ever speak to this question? They did.

For example, when John Adams was serving as our second President, the U.S. made a treaty with the Muslim country of Tripoli (now Libya). Article 11 of that treaty includes these words: “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” Copies were distributed to the Legislature, and the treaty was read aloud on the floor of the U.S. Senate. In June of 1797, the Senate ratified the treaty by unanimous vote, and President Adams signed it into law.

In his book, Jews, Turks, and Infidels, historian Morton Borden writes, “What is significant about the Tripoli treaty is . . . its ready acceptance by the government. Not a word of protest was raised . . . Whatever their personal feelings on the question of religious equality for non-Christians in particular states, all concurred that Article 11 comported with the principles of the Constitution.”

Following its ratification, the text of the treaty appeared in several leading newspapers of the day. The public’s reaction was hardly a ripple. Why? Because the citizens of our new nation then understood something that threatens to become for us a forgotten truth: according to our Constitution, the United States of America was intended to be a federal republic where people can believe anything they like.

Only the rule of law, rooted in self-evident morality, would be enforced. Religious beliefs, provided that they did not lead to the violation of law, could be advocated, criticized or ignored. Either way, all of them would be tolerated.

For example, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, written in the early 1780s, Thomas Jefferson includes a short chapter on “Religion.” Regarding various religious beliefs, Jefferson observes: “[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” One might think his neighbor’s religious ideas are nonsense. But what is the effect of attempting to coerce people to accept what you “know” is the truth? Said Jefferson, it makes “one half of the world fools, and other half hypocrites.”

Paradoxically, because the First Amendment to our Constitution prohibited the establishment of a national church, and any form of coercion, religion in the United States flourished. In those early years, devout Americans came to realize that they would have to do by persuasion what other countries had pretended to do by legislation.

And persuade they did. But not because they were somehow compelled by their Uncle Sam, but because they felt called by their Father God. As a result, the United States certainly is, in that sense, a Christian nation. In 1819, James Madison, commonly regarded as the father of the Constitution, observed that the religious devotion of the American people had been encouraged by what he called “the total separation of the church and state.”

I believe that when it comes to the political state and the church of God, Christians should remember what the Founding Fathers certainly knew: the first axiom of real religion is that it resonates in the heart. It cannot be coerced.

Furthermore, according to the Scriptures, the responsibility of training children does not belong to some “Christian nation” and its public schools commissioned to make all students sufficiently “religious” through state-mandated, teacher-led prayer and Bible reading. The responsibility for training children belongs to parents. To the Israelite nation, Moses said, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NIV).

Paul wrote to Christians, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).

If the Bible provides for a partner in the training of children, that partner is the church which Paul referred to as “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

At present, even in the midst of a real or imagined “godless assault,” Christians in the United States face much less hostility and oppression than did the earliest Christians. And yet, at least some of them went everywhere preaching the Word, serving others, setting an example, bringing up their children in the instruction that comes from heaven. Who would argue that under our present laws in these United States, Christians are not free to do the same?

God has not been silenced. In these last days, he speaks clearly “by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:2).

A few credits: In writing this post, I've been informed and inspired by Richard T. Hughes' book Myths Americans Live By (which was reviewed by my long-lost friend Joel M. Solliday over at Campus Crosswalk); and also by a fine article, Joel Barlow and the Treaty with Tripoli, by church-and-state journalist extraordinaire, Rob Boston.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Trip to San Antonio

It was sunny and hot at the Alamo!

At the Riverwalk

As of last Saturday night, we're back in Amarillo.

On Tuesday morning last week, Benjamin, Abigail and I got in the Camry and traveled to San Antonio. Michele was already there, finishing up a two-day teacher's conference.

My kids are good travelers. We made good time on the road. But everyone was tired when we finally made it there and met up with Michele around 6:00 that evening. We all took a dip in the motel pool and had a 22-inch pizza delivered to the room.

Next morning, we decided that our choice for Wednesday was Sea World. We got passes and parking tickets online and took off. A couple things about Sea World.

First, like a lot of other first-class "adventure parks," this one is pricey. If you decide you want to go, buy your tickets and parking pass online and find every coupon and promotional break you can.

Second, we really liked the variety of Sea World. It has all kinds of shows and exhibits. But it also has a water park and lots of rides you'd expect to find at a regular amusement park. We were there for the entire ten hours and didn't come close to doing and seeing everything we wanted to.

Favorite sea-life attraction: Dolphin Cove, where you can get really close to dolphins, and maybe even pet one. The "Shamu Rocks Texas" show gets an honorable mention.

Favorite ride: the Steel Eel. It was fun getting to sit next to Abigail on her first serious roller coaster. But she nearly squeezed my arm off.

I guess it was the combination of water and sun and staying up a little too late on Tuesday night watching some of that marathon All-Star Game. It was nearly 10:00 when we woke up Thursday morning. I can't remember the last time I slept that late. The worst part was, we completely missed the complimentary breakfast! I could hear Gomer Pyle saying, "For shame, for shame, for shame!"

Anyway, Thursday was our "Alamo and River Walk Day." After a very late brunch, we ventured downtown. There's so much to do and see down by the river. In the afternoon, we stayed cool walking around in the Riverwalk Mall. Then, we decided to see the IMAX film about the Battle of the Alamo.

From there, we walked two blocks over to the Alamo itself and spent a good bit of time looking around inside and out. I understand Texas pride and the street names in Amarillo a little better now, although I still don't get all of the fanatical stuff. Texans are awfully proud of Texas, if you didn't know. That evening, we took in the Riverwalk and had supper at one of the many restaurants there.

Friday, the four of us traveled north from San Antonio to my folks' house in Altus, Oklahoma. Along highway 281 in Texas, I'd have to say that Marble Falls gets the nod for nicest looking town. I noticed that we'd eventually make it to Mineral Wells, Texas. I instantly recognized that name from my wonder years.

Back then, every summer my parents would take me and my sisters to Possum Kingdom Lake (called "PK" by folks in the region) near Mineral Wells. For a week or more, we'd sleep late in the morning, ski and swim during the day, and fish well into the night. Those were some of the best times I ever had.

I decided to take my wife and kids to see some of those places. It brought back so many memories, and I found myself wanting to renew the tradition there. Maybe next year, I'll be writing about our trip to P.K. We'll see.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Water Woes, Etc.

Rain! . . . Let's Keep It

Most sections of the Texas Panhandle have gotten a few inches of rain over the past two weeks. In some cases it's been the typical downpour accompanied by lots of wind. But we've also had some gentle overnight showers. The high plains are relatively green these days.

However, . . . Lake Meredith, a key source of Panhandle water, continues to sit at record-low levels. (The photo of a buoy where there used to be a lake is no gag). Given the circumstances, I'm amazed that some folks here in Amarillo continue to leave their lawn sprinklers set to run every day. That's not even an effective way to keep the lawn healthy. Every third day, in the early morning, is plenty. Because of the recent wet weather, I've watered maybe twice in the last three weeks.

And then there's the problem of over spray and run-off. You don't have to look around much in this city to see well-watered driveways and soaked sidewalks, with the excess running down the street. Most everyone here would agree that we have a problem. Few seem ready to acknowledge that they're a part of that problem. We can and must do better.

The Silencing of God: Part Deux

I don't plan to write about every segment of the "Silencing of God Seminar." I just don't want to. But here are a few responses based on notes taken during the second installment. Speaker Dave Miller begins with George Washington's farewell speech, delivered at the end of his second term as President. Several quotes from Washington are read, words to the effect that religion and morality are essential to the common good. So far, so good.

The speaker then says that, from his words, we must draw the conclusion that our first President rejected the idea of separation of church and state. (!) Here we have a completely unwarranted leap, a textbook example of non sequitur. "It does not follow." To say that a great nation must first be a moral nation is simply not an argument against what Thomas Jefferson called a Constitutional "wall of separation."

Something positive! I agree with Miller's assertion that you can't go just anywhere and, among any group of people, set up the institutions of an American-style federal republic and come out with the same results that we've seen in the U.S. Along this line, Miller's passing critique of the Bush Plan in Iraq is, in my opinion, spot on.

Back to the negative. It's a little irritating to see the way that other Protestants, and even Deists, are referred to as "Christian" when under different polemic circumstances representatives of the Churches of Christ have not acknowledged the Christian identity of these people. The subtitle of the "Seminar" is "The Dismantling of America's Christian Heritage." And the U.S. Founding Fathers are said to have established a Christian nation.

However, if any of the Founders had strapped himself into into ye olde time machine, set the dial to 2008, and flown forward in time, my guess is that very few promoters of the "Silencing of God Seminar" would extend to any of those men the right hand of fellowship. That is to say, none of the Founders would be considered true Christians. So tell me again how it is that non-Christians established a Christian nation. . . .

Video of Mark Henderson Interview

A few months ago, Frankly Speaking featured a few posts about the Quail Springs Church of Christ adopting instrumental music. Located in the Oklahoma City area, Quail Springs was formerly an a-cappella-only congregation. At the time, I didn't see a video of an interview featuring Mark Henderson, preacher at Quail Springs.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Silencing of God: A Few Responses to the First Session

In session one of the "Silencing of God Seminar," speaker Dave Miller followed the script I figured he would.

We were told, for example, that expressions like "Nature's God" and "Creator" in the Declaration of Independence are references to the God of the Christian Bible. But this question was never entertained: If the authors of the Declaration really wanted to clearly identify that God, why didn't they say something like "the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ"? That would have done it, right? But they didn't say that. And with reason.

The expression "Nature's God" is about as broad and generic as you can get. Contrary to Miller's assertion, references to deity in the Declaration would mean just as much to a colonial-era Deist--or to a contemporary Hindu or a Muslim for that matter--as they would to any Christian. This point is completely suppressed.

The speaker was just as inconsistent when he came to the separation of church and state. The idea, he said, "is not a Constitutional concept" and was nowhere in the minds of the Framers.

But the facts speak otherwise. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson used the phrase "wall of separation" to describe his vision of the relationship between church and state. Any number of historians and constitutional scholars have concluded that Jefferson's remark is a good summary of his thinking in regard to church-state relations.

This view was upheld in 1879, for example, when the Supreme Court noted that Jefferson's observations could be "accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment."

Similar language is found in the writings of James Madison, commonly considered the Father of the Constitution (pictured above, and never mentioned by Miller). In the early 1800s, Madison wrote, "Strongly guarded . . . is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States." Again, in 1819, he observed that the religious devotion of the American people had been encouraged by "the total separation of the church and state."

When he referred to the phrase that Jefferson used, Miller said that there are only two possible understandings. Either it means that there is a government ban on all public expression of religion, or it means that the government cannot interfere at all with religious expression. Take your pick. But those aren't the only alternatives when it comes to understanding the intent and right application of the First Amendment.

Such are what I see as just some of the inconsistencies and the question begging to be heard in the "Silencing of God Seminar." But you can listen for yourself to the audio portion of all five presentations.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Silencing of God?

A video series named The Silencing of God includes 5 one-hour segments that reportedly take up questions like, Did the Founding Fathers uphold the "separation of church and state"? Did they reject expressions of Christianity in government and public schools? Intend for federal institutions to be religiously neutral? Etc., etc. The series subtitle reads, "The Dismantling of America's Christian Heritage."

It's been decided that this series will be presented at my home congregation on the five Wednesday nights of July. Segment number one is tonight. I can already feel my blood pressure going up. Okay, I admit that I don't actually know what the series presents. I haven't seen it yet. But I do have my strong suspicions.

Regarding the separation of church and state, it will likely be said that this legal and political doctrine was never envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Instead, it was later created by, I don't know, the ACLU or Communists or God-hating atheistic judges. Whoever you like least, they're probably responsible. In my case, that would be someone like the New York Yankees. But then, I actually happen to think that the separation of church and state was envisioned by people like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and that, when rightly applied, it's a good thing.

We'll also hear, I suspect, that in the 1960s, the U. S. Supreme Court misinterpreted the Constitution in ways that led to the banning of Bibles and prayer in public schools. And, of course, these changes, real or merely-alleged, precipitated all kinds of bad things like the rise in divorce rates and the drop in SAT scores. If your dog has recently been sick, trust me, someone can trace it back to the 1960s Court.

There may be stories about the religious devotion of Colonial patriots and early-American leaders. We might be told, in the words of Pat Robertson, that the United States was "founded by Christians as a Christian Nation." And we might be challenged to reclaim the Christian political legacy that is ours here in the United States. If so, someone like Patrick Henry will replace the Apostle Paul, and voting will become more important than praying. Oh, that's provided you vote for the right (= Republican) candidate.

When it comes to disputing the historical and political myths associated with the so-called Christian Right, you can find yourself feeling like a mosquito at a nudist colony. You know what to do. You just don't know where to begin.

Here's the part that bothers me the most: to me, all of it appears to be accompanied by the assumption, even the demand, that American culture should be friendly toward, and weighted in favor of, Christianity. And why? Not because this is some sort of biblical mandate, but because some Christian people carry around in their imaginations that there was this time, a golden era, when the culture was clean and evangelism was easy because the government and the media were holding up their end of the bargain.

I've never found any of it convincing. Maybe I'll say more about this. I guess it depends on how it goes tonight. In the meantime, has anyone out there actually seen the series already? What did you think?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Latest Christian Chronicle and the Shrinking Globe

The July issue of the Christian Chronicle arrived in the mail a few days ago. A story on the front cover, Scout's death latest in string of tragedies, reminded me of the unspeakable pain in our world. Even those who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, says Paul, grown inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. There is a real, undeniable sense in which none of us have been saved. Not yet.

While I wait, I can't help being irritated by the story Teachers quit over music document. It seems that if you're a faculty member at Columbia Academy in Tennessee, you have to sign a document in which you affirm your belief in God as Creator and Jesus as God's son. Fair enough. Columbia Academy is a Christian school. Oh, but you also have to affirm "a cappella singing in worship assemblies" and "weekly observance of the Lord's Supper." And if the congregation you attend happens to host a Good Friday service that includes instruments? Well, read the story and see what you think.

I was glad to see the story OVU steps up recruiting efforts in the Northeast. It would be great to see the number and vitality of the Churches of Christ in the northeastern United States growing right along with Ohio Valley University. Of the Christian colleges affiliated with the Churches of Christ, OVU, located in Vienna and Parkersburg, West Virginia, is the only one that far north and east.

I love the Christian Chronicle. It's one of the few publications I just have to read as soon as it arrives.

Speaking of newspapers, the front page of today's Amarillo Globe-News includes a note from the publisher, Les Simpson. Prices for everything are going up, he says. And that includes newsprint, the single largest expense of the newspaper. So, the Globe-News will no longer provide a full page of stock listings. Instead, we'll get a short list of stocks of local interest. Instead of two pages of editorials, we'll get one. And, last but certainly not least, the comics will also go from two pages to one. I haven't checked to see if "Zits" has been cut. I hope not.

As I read the notice, I was reminded of how the Chronicle recently had to reduce its size because of skyrocketing costs. All this makes me wonder about the future of newspapers.

Got any ideas about that?