Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Few Thoughts at Year's End

At the close of every year I wonder how much longer it will be until Jesus comes back for His church. We know when the year ends but we do not know when the end of the age will be. Perhaps there are only days left, as there are in the year.

Are you ready?

I am.


(This is a bit sardonic. Apologies in advance.)
I have always liked Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things." I just wanted to note that 'cute' and 'adorable' are not in this list.
It is hard to keep one's mind on these things. The world has nothing that fits all these criteria.


Oral Roberts, RIP.

In my Sunday School class I am teaching church history. We are discussing historical figures and how history will judge the impact of a person on the world. Now I am not saying that we judge the individual (that is forbidden by Matthew 7:1) or that we judge their ministry (that is forbidden in 1 Corinthians 4:5) but what their effect, for better or worse, is upon the church (in this case) or the world.

I use the example of Thomas Jefferson who authored the Declaration of Independence. Some have said that he was bad because he owned slaves. Okay, but what effect did that have on history? None. Many owned slaves in that time and place.
But his authorship of the Declaration and his other activities associated with the founding of our nation have had a tremendous effect on our nation and the world.

Let's look at Roberts from this perspective. Look past his faults and examine his effect on the church. Nobody besides Billy Graham has had as much impact as Oral Roberts had in the second half of the 20th century. He brought knowledge of divine healing to a skeptical church. If you pray for the sick to be healed by the direct action of God you probably should thank Roberts who did it very publicly. Whether you liked him or not you ought to acknowledge that divine healing and Pentecostal Christianity were made respectable to most of the church by his ministry. He also pioneered spreading the gospel by television when other Christians cursed "the Devil's box".

When Roberts began preaching in the late 40's, Pentecostal Christians were marginalized and generally despised. Today they are the most dynamic, and numerous, group of Protestant Christians in the world. (The numbers are now estimated to be over 500 million.) It is easily the fastest growing Christian movement in the world and shows no sign of stopping. It is hard to imagine this happening without Oral Roberts.


A Happy New Year to all!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Change of Mind

Before I blog (is that a verb?) I usually think about my subject for a week or so and mull over what I am going to write. This week I had a topic all ready to go when something else presented itself to me that I now feel compelled to write about. In other words, I have changed my mind about what I would write about today.

My topic is now mainly about repentance. (The more clever of my readers will now realize that I am playing with my theme. The original meaning of the Greek word for repentance is 'change of mind'.) The reason that I changed my mind on the subject is twofold. First, my pastor has preached on repentance the last couple of Sundays and, second, I read a quote today in a book I was reading that really struck me as true.

It was a quote by G. K. Chesterton. It read, "There is a notion that to win a man [to the Lord] we must agree with him. Actually the opposite is true ... The man who is going in the wrong direction will never be set right by the affable religionist who falls into step beside him and goes the same way. Someone must place himself the path and insist that the straying man turn around and go in the right direction."

What Chesterton is telling us is that for a person to get right with God he must repent, he must change his mind, he must change the direction of his life. And he must do this in response to what Jesus did for him. He must believe that Jesus died for his sins and that God raised Him from the dead. "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9) And when He is the Lord of your life He will require that you stop sinning and do what He says you must do.

Some will say that this is very narrow. It is narrow and that is exactly what Jesus told us. He told us that the way to eternal life was narrow. That should settle it for us, but some are not satisfied with that. They want the church to be more inclusive. I do as well, but not necessarily in the same way they do. It all depends on what you mean by 'inclusive'.

I have heard some say that we must accept people of all kinds - whites, blacks, Hispanics, men, women, homosexuals and the like. I cannot help but notice something odd about a list like this. It is one thing to say that churches should accept people of all races and ethnicities, but what is the point of adding something that is behavior-based?

The reason is simple. They are trying to get the church to accept homosexual behavior and that is easier to do when you put them into categories alongside of race, gender and ethnicity. I think that this is a phony means of grouping people together. It is a list based on 'civil rights' and not on truly biblical categories. Homosexuals are a group of people who have certain sexual proclivities and one that the Bible categorically condemns. Now I am not suggesting that we reject homosexuals or bar them from church attendance. I am suggesting that we group them with other behavior-based groups. For example, we could say that God desires the salvation of all including the alcoholic, drug-addict, prostitute, thief, murderer, adulterer and homosexual. This is grouping according to behavior. And, of course, God does not approve of any of these activities. You will also find this kind of list in the Bible.

"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:9) Notice that it speaks to the church at Corinth about what some of them used to do. Notice also that it lumps homosexuals in with other kinds of sinners. Then it says that some of the Corinthian Christians WERE these various things. They WERE homosexuals, swindlers, etc. But God has washed, sanctified and justified them and they are no longer any of these things. They repented and God cleansed them of their sins. When sinners come to God they must repent. Only then does God cleanse them.

I like the saying, "God accepts us the way we are". But that is not the end of it. He does not leave us the way were are (or were). He transforms us.

Other lists categorize people not based on behavior but on what they are naturally or socially. "Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all." (Colossians 3:10) This is the inclusiveness that the church needs. Every kind of person, regardless of ethnicity, social class, gender, and former relationship to God through Judaism are equal before God and should be accepted as equals in the church setting. We are all one in Christ. What we are naturally and socially speaking has no bearing on our spiritual relationship with God.

What does affect our relationship with God is our sin. We must acknowledge it as wrong and repent of it. Here is a great summary of this lesson. "God commands all people everywhere to repent." (Acts 17:30) This is really good news for all. God calls all to repentance and that means every group of people are included. All are included in the gospel and all are called to repent of their sins.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Spiritual Economics Lesson

My undergraduate degree is in economics though my graduate degree is in theology. I imagine it's a rare combination. Economics has been called the 'dismal science' and is boring to most people. However, I have found that the kinds of analyses that economists use can be useful to gain a better understanding of issues that face Christians today.

I recall years ago reading some material regarding what is called "Liberation Theology". Now it sounds very good and has seduced some who care deeply for the poor, but it is basically Marxism in Christian garb. I immediately recognized the Marxist social and economic themes that dominate this false theology.

Now most of us are not going to fall for that sort of thing, but there are some more subtle things that Christians do fall for some times. One of them is confusing intrinsic worth of something (or someone) with its value in the marketplace. When someone is paid, say, $10.00 per hour to do some job, the employer is not saying that that is what this person is worth as a person. They are saying what the job they are performing is worth. No employer could possibly pay someone what they were worth as a person. (Only Jesus could do that.)

Let's look at some of the distinctions that economists make to help us understand this better. Aristotle (who might be considered the world's first economist) made the distinction between value-in-use and value-in-exchange. The classic example of these two things is diamonds and water. The value-in-exchange (price) of a diamond is much higher than that of water. I get water to the faucets of my house for about $25 per month and I use thousands of gallons a month. That is cheap. Can you imagine what the cost of that would be if it were diamonds? It would be astronomical because the value-in-exchange of diamonds is many times that of water.

But what about value-in-use? Which one is greater? Water is much more useful than diamonds. You can live without diamonds but you cannot live without water. This does not mean, however, that water ought to cost more than diamonds. Indeed, it is very good thing that water does not cost more than diamonds. We need more of the things that have a high value-in-use. The fact that diamonds cost more is irrelevant to the value we place on water.

Well, so what? Too dismal for you?

Have you ever heard someone say something like this: "We pay pro basketball players millions of dollars a year and we pay our school teachers only a fraction of that. Doesn't that show that our society places a much lower value on teachers than it does basketball players?" No, it does not! What we pay basketball players has no bearing on the value we place on school teachers.

Let's break this down. There are about 400 NBA players and millions of fans. But there are hundreds of thousands of school teachers with millions of students. We actually pay more in total to school teachers than we do to basketball players, but there are far fewer players so each player gets more.

Let's pose a hypothetical. Let's pay an NBA player $1 per fan per game at the arena. There are 82 games per year and let's say that attendance averages 15,000 per game. 82 times 15,000 equals $1.23 million per year. We have not included advertising and TV revenues here and we are only paying the player a dollar per person!

Now for our hypothetical school teacher. Let's pay the teacher $1 per student in a class. The teacher teaches 25 students per class and teaches 6 classes a day. There are 180 school days. 25 times 6 times 180 equals $27,000 per year.

It is easy to see that the teacher is paid much less than the basketball player, but can we really say that the basketball player is overpaid? Not really. His income, by this analysis, seems quite reasonable. Each fan is only paying a dollar to see him play. Is the teacher underpaid? Perhaps so, but it has nothing to do with the basketball player.

Also, and more importantly, I have no doubt that if you asked the most rabid basketball fan if he would rather have teachers or the NBA that he would choose the teachers. In other words, the teachers have a higher value-in-use. The price of a basketball player is much higher than that of a school teacher, but that is a good thing. If we paid teachers like basketball players it would bankrupt all of us. It is not possible. So why begrudge a basketball player his money? It has nothing to do with the 'value' we place on teachers. Teachers are like water - cheap, abundant and valuable. Basketball players are like diamonds - rare, expensive, entertaining and expendable.

Now back to our original subject.

The value of something in the marketplace is not how that society determines its intrinsic value. That is because prices and wages are determined by the laws of supply and demand and not by some sort of evaluation of its intrinsic worth. In fact, the things with the most intrinsic worth (water, for example) are cheaper because they are abundant. Where it is not abundant it becomes very expensive and that is a bad thing. We need things of high intrinsic value (water, food, clothing) to be abundant and cheap, that is, affordable to all.

You might be saying that this is all very interesting but what does it have to do with being a Christian. First of all, I have heard Christians talk about things like this in the pulpit and in Sunday Schools, etc. They make the same mistakes that the world does about these things. Except that they are worse. I have heard Christians condemn the supposedly higher value that we place on entertainers than we do on more necessary things. Now that may be true but the examples used are fallacious.

What a basketball player or movie star is paid has to do with the demand for their services and what price the market will bear. But this is not really the issue at all. The issue, if there is one, is the amount of attention we may pay to these things to the detriment of our spiritual lives. That is a real issue. What someone is paid is not really an issue at all. Too often we focus on the material side of something instead of the real, spiritual issues.