After an essay woodshedding the Republicans and cheering the Democrats on to pass health care reform without the stubborn opposition, the editors of The New Republic (October 7) sign off with this: "If Max Baucus's months of work achieved nothing else, he has unmasked the true nature of the contemporary GOP and, in the process, revealed just how broken our political system has become."
I doubt our system is as broken as all that. However, our practice of that system is more cynical, self-centered, power-grasping, and uncivil than it's ever been. The American republican form of government was born in a moral and social setting in which gentlemen still lived - lettered men who knew how to express themselves without rancor or vilification, and who argued the points of every issue with clear and compelling logic (think: Federalist Papers). Yes, of course, there were ploys and schemes and back-room deals, and no small amount of turf-marking; however, the Founders of this republic were, by and large, true statesmen, and they practiced the art of politics within a framework of civility and concern for the common weal that seems decidedly lacking in our day.
Our political system is fine, thank you. It's the practitioners who need some help. The state of governance in our country is what it is because the nation as a whole has drifted so far from the Biblical moorings to which it was originally anchored. This is not the nation's fault; it's the fault of the Church, which, for nearly 300 years, has failed to detect and then resist the changing temper of the times and has, instead, tried to shift its sails to catch every wayward breeze that seemed to promise more members, more attention, more money, and more power. If something in this country is broken, it's the Church and her leaders, who have fundamentally abandoned any sense of obligation to the teaching of Scripture in wide areas of Biblical Truth and are, instead, off exploring the mists of, first, modernity, and now, postmodernity, to see if there are any seeking souls to be swayed.
The Church, having swayed from its clear path, has failed to maintain the moral consensus and framework within which the Constitution was drafted. We are to blame, at least in the first place, for the irresponsible leaders who man our excellent system of government. The sooner we get back to our proper calling, the sooner we will be able to help Washington get back to its own.
Few natural structures in the creation are as elegant and wondrous as sand dunes. These crescents of sculpted loess accumulate as the wind picks up bits of dust and sand and shapes and carries them until the pull of gravity or the crest of an existing sand dune interrupts their transport and receives them as the latest addition to one of creation's true glories.
Sand dunes shift and move, grow and change shape, becoming ever more lovely and alluring as the wind deposits fresh bits of sand to replace those which have crested and fallen to the downwind side of the dune. These dunes are not made all at once; instead, they gradually grow into majestic sculptures that remind us that works of beauty do not come into being all at once, but by increments, as minute particles accumulate and contribute to the growing whole.
What a parable of the life of faith is represented in a sand dune! We have been created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them (Eph. 2.10). Our lives can be sculpted into elegant, ever-changing, ever-growing things of beauty as we yield the everyday bits and pieces of our lives to the wind of God's Spirit. We are called to glorify God in even the most ordinary of activities - such as eating and drinking (1 Cor. 10.31). The more consistently we do this, yielding every moment, every thought, every word and action, to the ever-blowing Spirit of God, the more He is able to sculpt our humble efforts into minute bits of beauty, depositing them in our lives as ever-new contributions to a growing oeuvre of goodness, grace, and truth.
We will not be salt and light for the watching world in great leaps and bounds. Good works are a daily calling; Jesus commands us to be faithful in the small things of life, for these are the grist He can sweep up, shape, and deposit as building-blocks in the sculpture of grace He intends our lives to be. So how ya dune? Seek grace each day so that, even - no, especially - in the everyday, small details of life, the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Lord will, in the hands of His Spirit, sculpt us into living works of art to the praise of the glory of His grace.
Last night's discussion at The Gospel and This World Group surfaced some important points about our involvement in talking about the political issues of the day. I thought I might try to summarize the conversation and challenge us all to think about becoming more consistently involved in political speech as a fundamental duty of our role as "we the people."
The biggest issue we explored was the fact that so often, when we're talking about political issues, we don't take the time to explore the foundational views, the political assumptions, that underlie people's positions on various matters. So often we're standing on one platform and they're standing on another, and we simply talk past one another. We need to give more attention - using questions such as "Why do you believe that?" "How did you come to this view?" "Why are you so persuaded that your beliefs are reliable?" to help us - and the people with whom we're talking - understand the most basic assumptions undergirding our views.
We also talked about the importance of being well-informed, clear, winsome and respectful, good listeners, persuasive conversationalists, and thoroughly Biblical in all we believe and how we talk with others. Defining these various ideas was a rich conversation, and we all agreed we need to work harder and more consistently at each point.
And we agreed that we need to have clear in our own minds the basic principles of our own political views - justice, impartiality, goodness, truth, moral decency, and so forth. Without a firm foundation under our own feet, we'll have a hard time helping others evaluate - and perhaps adjust - their own.
The contexts and opportunities for political speech are many and will continue in the days ahead. Either we'll be ready and able to participate responsibly and effectively, or we'll chalk up one more missed opportunity when the Body of Christ might have begun to make a real difference. Let's take seriously this part of our calling as followers of Christ, so that we can render to Caesar the truth he is due in all matters of political moment.
New Jersey parents are in an uproar over their children being led in a chant praising President Barak Hussein Obama. The Internet video is causing a furor all over the country, and rightly so. People are outraged because they insist it is not the mandate of the public schools to indoctrinate children in political views and opinions. The Harvard graduate who contrived this activity should be admonished, and a formal apology must be issued to parents and the public for this abuse of public funds and the public trust.
But we shouldn't be surprised at this. Nor will it be the last. Many who voted President Obama into office hold him in an almost religious awe. The President does little to discourage such thinking. He is so persuaded of the correctness of his views, that anyone opposing him is scorned, vilified, or simply ignored. At his speech to the United Nations, eager to demonstrate the basic goodness of America and its ability to solve big problems, Mr. Obama pointed to his first nine months in office as the example the world should acknowledge and embrace. In the President's mind, he is, indeed worthy of the children's - if not the world's - admiration.
But there's a larger problem here, and it relates to the mission of America's schools. One outraged parent insisted during an interview that political views have no place in public schools. Like religious views, she declared, they should be left at home. Two problems here. First, public schools are inescapably a forum for pushing political agendas and religious views. What else can we conclude about a system that indoctrinates millions of children to believe that religion is not sufficiently important to include in their course of life preparation? Or that concentrates in all its teaching to prepare young people to take their place in the getting-and-spending economy of our secular, materialist society? Religion and politics are being taught - the one by omission, the other by deliberate design.
The second problem is the false separation between religion and politics implied in her answer. Americans may cherish the separation of Church and State, but they must not think that this means politics and religion are unrelated areas. All of life is religious - that is, people pursue their lives within an overarching framework of beliefs and convictions - a worldview - that they embrace by faith and hope earnestly will connect them with ultimate reality and truth. That, friends, is religion. Even secularism is a religion, and to break out "religion" as a formal area of life separate from politics, education, getting ready for life, and all the rest is a false assertion and an unworkable approach. Religion pervades all of life, including politics. Therefore, if we must teach one in the nation's schools, we should teach both.
Meanwhile, the children will continue to praise the one to whom they look for salvation and the good life. At present, President Obama is the only candidate many teachers - and parents - are willing to promote.
Home on the Lord's Day from a long weekend in Knoxville and Dayton, TN. Happy to be resting in the Creator, and meditating on the abundant evidence of His goodness, beauty, and truth which He trumpets day by day through the things He has made.
One observation in particular has captured my imagination and will guide my meditations today. Outside the hotel where I stayed in Knoxville was a gnarled tree, lovely in its decrepitude. On one face of the trunk was a natural formation - a gash or spread in the bark - that looked for all the world like a peacock - perfect body, legs, neck, head turned backward as if to admire himself as one of God's truly glorious creatures. How odd, I thought. I've never seen a more perfect natural representation (and remember, I'm the guy who looks for stones in the shape of the 50 states, and I've found lots).
The peacock in the tree spoke to me of the unity of creation and set my mind to thinking about the Christian's environmental responsibility. We are called to be good stewards of the earth, to exercise dominion over it in such a way that its full resources come to their good and glorious potential. The creation is all of a piece, a unified tapestry of glory in which the Lord has stitched His signature and stamped His character for every eye to see. But we need to look carefully, think deeply, and meditate before the Lord of all Creation, that He might make the message of His glory clear to our souls.
The Exodus giving of the Law exhorts us to remember the Lord as Creator on His Day. Rather than give your day over to the getting-and-spending of pro sports, why not stroll through your yard, looking and listening for the Lord to draw you into His glory through the things He has made? Oh, the warmth of love and assurance you can know! And oh what lovely words of thanks and praise the Spirit can engender within you. The world ignores the voice of God graciously speaking to them through His creation; we must not. There's a peacock in the tree in your yard, or at least, the equivalent thereof. Let him whisper to you of the steadfast love of the Lord.
It was important to the writer of 2 Samuel that, in beginning the story of David and Bathsheba, he not-so-subtly imply that David was not where he should have been, and was not doing what kings are supposed to do (11.1). We couldn't say that David was dithering - he seems to have had no problem with letting his troops go off to war while he stayed at home for a little R & R (winter blahs and all that). He may have been conniving - how many times had he been up on that rooftop and observed Bathsheba before? Certainly he turned to conniving after the sin of fornication and being made aware of Bathsheba's pregnancy. His conniving was completely self-centered, and not only did he not care that it would cost another man his life, he planned for it. David's irresponsibility in this matter led to subsequent problems in his family and in the nation. We never sin alone, and we never sin just once.
So what about President Obama and the policy in Afghanistan? Is he simply dithering, unable to make a decision whether or not to continue the policy he inaugurated in March, to suppress the insurgency and protect the Afghan people from the Taliban? NPR's Scott Simon seemed to think so in a rare commentary on Saturday morning. Perhaps he is conniving? Trying to figure out the best way to save face, secure his liberal base, and still manage to make himself look like the hero of Afghanistan? Or maybe he's just irresponsible, incapable of making the right decision due to pressure from his Vice-President (who favors a Donald Rumsfeld approach), concern for his soldiers on the ground, inability to guage the long-term viability of democracy in Afghanistan, or uncertainty about the real direction of American political winds?
This much is certain: Mr. Obama is not acting like a commander-in-chief. When the general whom he has entrusted with leading the effort in Afghanistan pleads for more soldiers and promises that all is lost if we don't act now, it seems irresponsible to me for the President to strike the pose of a contemplative trying to determine if his military leader on the ground knows better than he and whoever he needs to consult about the proper course. It's time for the President to make a determination on what the future of America's involvement in Afghanistan will be, but he has made his decision all the more difficult by insisting that this is the right war and we should stay in it for the win. Whether we agree with the President or not, now is not the time for him to be strolling around the balconies of the White House. Either he needs to go out to battle for victory or tell the nation the whole thing has been a terrible mistake, apologize to the loved ones of those lost and wounded in combat (he has some experience at apologizing), and get the heck out of that woeful semi-nation. Pray for the President. Pray especially that perhaps this will be the situation that drives him to seek the Lord concerning His will for the nation, and for the President's approach to governance.
Anyone who doubts that the people of this country are still seeking something more, even seeking God, need only have watched the first episode of Ken Burns' new PBS series, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."
This first two-hour episode was bathed in the language of general revelation. Episode 1 was entitled, "The Scripture of Nature," and the videography and narrative delivered as promised. Quotes from early proponents of creating national reserves for the delight and edification of the public, together with the general narrative, brimmed with talk of God, His creation, His majesty, wonder, beauty, immensity, and might. Lafayette Benel was quoted, one of the first white men to see the Yosemite valley, describing himself as experiencing "a peculiar exalted sensation...I have seen the power and glory of a Supreme Being." An early newspaper report of the area described "cathedral rocks...cathedral spires." Another report said that Yosemite featured "nature that looks like the new morning of God's creation." The underlying music included "This is My Father's World" as what would become Yellowstone National Park was described as an environment "fresh from the Maker's hand."
The series is building to be an argument not only for Americans to enjoy what they corporately own, but to suppress their appetite for unbridled consumption and the destruction of our natural resources in favor of taking the time to delight in the abundant beauty of the American wilderness. The first episode, which featured segments entitled "Eden" and "Hell", was a foretaste of rich explorations to come. Will the language of God and natural revelation continue? Perhaps not. But at least in this first episode the filmmakers thought it wise to play on such language, so they must have believed this would strike a receptive chord in the hearts of the great majority of viewers.
People can't help but think about God. He is, after all, continually making Himself known to the world in the things He has made (Ps. 19.1-4; Rom. 1.18-21). By and large people ignore the evidence of His revelation, but they see it anyway, and it appeals to them, even though they may suppress it.
It's always a good time to talk with people about the Lord. It's not so much that our generation has stopped its ears against the Gospel. Rather, the Church has become silent, preferring to do its "evangelism" within the safe walls of Sunday morning, where the true worship of God has been set aside for entertainment, light preaching, and an overall feel-good atmosphere which, church leaders are convinced, is just what "seekers" want in church. I don't agree. They want to connect with majesty, awe, power, holiness, sanctity, beauty, and the divine presence, and they want to be told "This is available, but not without some cost." God is still on the minds of our unsaved contemporaries. Now if only He were more in our lives and on our lips.
I remind myself that President Obama claims to be a Christian as I continue listening for anything remotely Christian in his manner of governance. Reading news journals lately this much has become clear: While Mr. Obama continues speaking, speaking, speaking - in town hall meetings, nationally-televised speeches, and anywhere anyone will gather to listen - the world is beginning to seem less inclined to listen. Mr. Netanyahu isn't listening. He rejects the President's demand that new housing developments cease in disputed areas. The so-called President of Iran isn't listening, just like the great one in North Korea isn't listening. They continue doing whatever they want in the way of nuclear weapons development, in spite of the President's many "warnings."
Mr. Putin isn't listening. The Chinese are listening, but only for some advantage. Chavez isn't listening, either. In fact, a growing number of Americans, weary of almost daily harangues from the eloquent Speaker-in-Chief, are beginning not to listen, too. Mr. Obama is a man of many words, but his performance so far has been shruggable. James counsels believers to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. The President doesn't listen to anyone but his own advisors; he'll speak at the drop of a hat; and cross him and you're likely to have the Secret Service investigating your Facebook poll to see what others think about the President.
I just want to say, "Mr. President, shut up! Stay home and get some work done. Listen to the people, the Founders, the Word of God - somebody other than Rahm and Dave. Stop believing that you alone have the right answers on everything and begin thinking about something else besides your political status." I want to believe the President is a Christian and that, sooner or later, the prayers of God's people for him will break through and he will begin to govern in a manner more consistent with the teaching of Scripture. But he's already pretty far over to the Saul-side of ruling; whether he can make it to the David end of the spectrum is seeming increasingly unlikely.
One of the most familiar, and most beloved, aspects of the Celtic Christian period is the artwork produced in the monastic centers of the 7th-9th centuries. Liturgical dishes and chalices, illuminated manuscripts, and stately carved crosses bear witness to an era in which art flourished in the service of the Gospel.
There was nothing "pop" about Celtic Christian art. It represents a blend of ancient and contemporary styles, crafted together into a narrative abstract art style that was meant to adorn sacred places and objects and to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. We only know the names of two of these craftsmen - Muiredach, who carved the high cross at Monasterboice in the 9th centure, and Eadfrith, who both wrote and illustrated the Lindisfarne Gospels at about the same time. Apart from the poets - Sechnall, Columba, Columbanus, and Oengus mac Oengobann, chief among them - all the other painters, calligraphers, carvers, and overseers remain anonymous. They were not paid for their work; they offered it as a sacrifice to the Lord and a resource for teaching a largely illiterate people and helping to lift their minds and hearts for worship.
Art used to play a prominent role in the life and worship of the Church. That's pretty much gone now, except for the pop music that drowns out congregational singing on Sunday mornings and blares indistinctly across Christian radio stations. Celtic artists took captive the art forms of their past and their day and used them to narrate the story of Christ in exalted and exalting terms. Contemporary Christian composers borrow existing pop art forms and use them to drag the Gospel down to the level of the streets.
Will real art ever revive in the churches? It seems like it should, given that we are all creators and hungry for beauty. Art in the service of the Kingdom certainly has the endorsement of Scripture. It simply lacks - apart from Christian pop music - the endorsement of the believing community. Which prompts me to wonder, which gospel do we believe, if not the one in Scripture, which over and over commends the use of serious art to honor God, edify His people, and bear witness to the world?
The political and economic air is charged with discussions of ethics. ACORN could well implicate a number of politicians in ethical wrongdoing. Harvard is revamping its business school courses in ethics - since a good many Harvard graduates made not such great news during the recent economic hard times. Presidential czars and advisors bring a colorful bag of questionable ethical practices to the White House, some of which have already come to light, others are just beginning to emerge. Is it ethical to lead school children in a cheer for President Obama? Or to show them a cartoon about cross-dressing? And what about health care? Lots of ethical concerns there, to be sure.
But in America these days ethics is like the weather - everybody talks about it but no one does anything about it. We are a relativistic, pragmatic, and utilitarian society where anything goes, up to a point. These seasons of ethical fussing and fuming come and go with some regularity. After each one, the ethics of the country are more in disarray than before. Why?
Because secular, materialist Americans have no means of stopping the drift of ethical behavior into complete relativism. Nor do they have much will for it. Even Christians don't have a leg to stand on to propose something different, since we have almost universally abandoned the Law of God as having anything to do with the life of faith. So the drift continues. I keep hoping that little cadres and enclaves of Christians will suddenly rediscover the Law of God - holy and righteous and good (Rom. 7.12) - and begin, like the people of Bethlehem in the time of Ruth, to discover the power of grace and transformation latent there. The Law won't save America; only Christ can do that. But the Law has power to check sin and to allow space for righteousness and grace to flourish, which should make rediscovering the Law a high priority on the part of Christians.
As many are beginning to speculate that conservatism as a movement may be dead, conservatives are starting to tally up the evidence of what they hope will mean a resurgence of their views. Everyone is watching the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey as bell wethers for Congressional elections next year. So far, conservative candidates are leading their liberal opponents, and this gives conservatives a much-needed jolt of hope that the traditional cycle of political waxing and waning is beginning to turn in their favor.
Undoubtedly evangelical Christians - from all communions - are hoping for a conservative resurgence as well. But if there's one thing they should learn about conservative politicians, it's that they are politicians first and conservatives second. Which means that questions of power and continuity in office always trump those of social policies. At best, conservative politicians have been a finger in the dike against the liberal moral flood that's trying to inundate the nation. It will take more than conservative office-holders and judges to roll back the steady, forward march of liberal and libertine morality.
It will take Christians seeking the Lord for revival and learning how to stand firmly on the Word of God, without compromise or apology, in the stances and demands they make in the public square. We must not be afraid to say, "This is what the Lord says" when it comes to our preferred objectives. Only the Word of God is living and active and able to penetrate the souls of men; mere reason and political finessing won't change the heart of the nation. We've tried for a generation now to make nice with our conservative allies and not to be "too Biblical" in our demands. That, of course, hasn't worked.
We need a more prophetic presence, one that is both lived and spoken, in the public square of this country. But before we can do that we'll have to get back to the Word ourselves and study it intensely to discover what it teaches on matters of public policy, to make it our daily essential spiritual food, and to use it in pleading with God to come and revive us. As the next cycle of political change begins, let the Christian community strike a more Biblically distinct posture to both parties, and the let the Word of God do what it will.