Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Enemy Within

"A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader... If virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security."

~ Samuel Adams, February 12, 1779

Lately I've been reading a lot of early American historical documents. One of the most stark features of the men and women who helped establish our country was their fearless commitment to integrity. I'm not espousing the belief that all of our founding fathers were Christians (although a great many of them were indeed); rather, I am acknowledging that they were passionately united by a desire to establish a nation based on principles of virtue, industriousness, and freedom. I'm going to write this piece under the assumption that we understand the definitions of these principles. Virtue being integrity; industriousness, hard work; and freedom, the liberty to choose what is right, not the right to choose whatever we deem acceptable.

Samuel Adams states, in the above quote, that when "the people are virtuous, they cannot be subdued." I thought for awhile about what he meant by that statement. The letter which contains this statement was written during the infancy of our country, in a time of great opposition and, in a sense, instability. Samuel Adams knew that, in order to truly succeed as a nation, virtue is a necessity. Without it, there is no passion; only complacency and ignorance.

I'm sure Mr. Adams was educated in world history. Every kingdom and empire suffers and eventually falls when given over to greed, tyranny, and corruption. Finally, here was a nation established upon an entirely different set of beliefs: just and limited rule, freedom, generosity, and righteousness.

I don't believe that America was established as a perfect nation, and I certainly don't believe she is perfect today. But I do believe, unashamedly, that America is a great nation, the greatest that ever graced the earth, because of her founding devotion to virtue.

But where is America's virtue now? It's still there, in the annals of documents established at our nation's birth, established for our well-being within and influence without -- "a shining light on a hill." It is still there, if only we will listen and heed the words and warnings of the men who knew, all too well, the price and the requirement of freedom.

There is an almost eerie, prophetic sound to Samuel Adams' quote: "...when they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader." There are not just enemies without; there are enemies within. I become as much an instigator of America's downfall when I fall into complacency, turning a blind eye to my own selfishness and lack of integrity. I instigate it again when I ignore the same from those around me.

Samuel Adams goes on to say that virtue and knowledge diffused among the people will be America's great security. He speaks of virtue and knowledge like two conjoined links on the same chain. Virtue and knowledge go hand in hand. When virtue is lost, there is a loss of passion (the people are 'subdued'). When passion is lost, replaced by indifference, there is an inevitable loss of knowledge. With the loss of knowledge comes the loss of the most basic common sense; we cease to think clearly. If we cannot think clearly and rationally, how on earth can we defend ourselves from enemies without and within?

Virtue and knowledge are inseparable in Peter's second letter, in the New Testament: "Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge..." (2 Peter 1; 5). Virtue is the predecessor of knowledge; knowledge cannot exist in its truly sublime and effective form when it is not wedded to virtue.

I love America. It's not very popular to say that anymore, but I'm not after popularity. I want truth. The truth is that America was founded as an astonishingly beautiful and counter-cultural "light on a hill." The men and women who fought for her sacrificed more than we can begin to imagine to make her a reality. This reality was not for themselves alone; it was for their posterity. It was for those by whom they were surrounded. It was for the other dreamers crazy enough to cross oceans and mountains and deserts in order to obtain, by diligent and honest hard work, the same beloved liberty. They knew that an America that held onto her virtue would not cease to offer, without and within, the hope of freedom.

I love America. I love the virtue that shone like a beacon to light the path for her birth. But I fear for her, too. I fear that we may fall so far from our height that we will not be able to climb back. Will I still be free, truly free, in twenty years? What kind of nation will be left for my future children? Will I have to know, like so many people in the world's history, the terrors of a nation built upon oppression and ignorance?

Thomas Jefferson, though certainly not a Christian (although perhaps a Deist), understood the beauty of virtue. He valued it. He also valued knowledge and freedom. Jefferson possessed a keen understanding of the grave danger in stubbornly refusing to acknowledge, as a nation, the source of our blessing:

"God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever."

So do I, Thomas. So do I.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Eternity in Their Hearts

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.

2 Timothy 4: 3-4

Relativism is the great opiate of our day. It deadens our senses to reality, makes us high on the fairy tale that subjective experience is the only moral compass, and renders our minds useless for intelligent thought. Relativism is the religion of the hour.

Our increasingly postmodern culture rejects the notion of absolute truth in gargantuan proportions. It's no secret. The thing that always boggles my mind about relativistic theory is how little one is required to think in order to embrace the idea. I'm not trying to be harsh or mean, and I'm not trying to say I'm some kind of Einstein. But I do enjoy thinking, and if I'm going to think, I want to go all the way. So let's dissect this idea of relativism, little by little, and peel away its transparent, fragile layers.

Let's start by summarizing the theory of Relativism: There is no such thing as absolute Truth. Everything is relative; therefore, there is no definite right or wrong. Each individual may arrive at his or her own truth, based upon his or her own ideas, affections, and preferences.

I have to admit that the whole idea sounds, at first, very attractive. It sounds fair. It sounds nice and pleasant and sweet. I am tempted to believe this theory... until I really start thinking. And when I really start to think about this idea of relativism, the whole theory is fraught with logical fallacies. (Again, I'm not trying to be harsh or overly critical. I would like to honestly consider this idea, but I want to consider it in an intellectual way.) So here it goes...

To be very blunt, the first fallacy seems so obvious as to almost be laughable. If one is to say, "There is no such thing as absolute truth," one is making a statement of, in fact, truth. It's exactly the same thing as saying, "The truth is that there is no truth." Right away I find that it's impossible to make a logical statement purporting the absence of an Absolute, because, in doing so, I am stating an Absolute.

The next obvious argument against the theory of Relativism is that relativism does not exist in the natural world. All around us every day, we are witnesses to, and subjected to, the natural order of things. (I really believe that this one is so obvious that we take it for granted.) That the earth is revolving around the sun, and that it must continue to do so for life to exist on our planet, is not a relative principle. It's Law. If it is a relativistic principle, I'm not so sure that I want to wake up tomorrow. The fact that placental mammals reproduce offspring by the male's sperm fertilizing the female's egg is not relative. It must happen for reproduction to take place. The natural world is positively brimming with absolutes, things that are set in motion, things that are true. Since we are a part of the natural world, why should we not operate on the same principle?

This leads us to the next inherent fallacy with the theory of Relativism. It is very common to hear the following statements: "As long as it works for you, it must be okay." "If it makes you feel good, then it must be right." "If it's true in your own heart, then it's true, period." Aside from the fact that these statements are inherently illogical, purporting relativism and truth simultaneously, they operate under the assumption that truth is subjective. This means that if I have decided something is right and true, then it is. Period.

The problem with subjective truth is that the principles that govern the natural and moral world are not dependent upon me. I did not decide that the earth should revolve around the sun. I was born into a world that functions in this way, whether I like it or not. Morally speaking, I did not determine that it's probably very wrong for someone to have sex with a person other than his or her spouse. Whether I believe this set of ideas is from God or another source, the fact is that I had nothing to do with the decision. I was born into a world operating under these principles.

Someone may say, "As long as someone is very sincere in his or her belief about what is true, then that's good enough." Again, a statement like this is very attractive. I am honestly tempted to seriously consider Relativism. Sincerity can be, after all, a very noble quality. But a statement like this assumes that sincerity and truth are synonymous. In actuality, they are nothing of the kind. It's impossible to have truth without sincerity. But it's entirely possible to have sincerity devoid of truth.

Consider the example of an individual who believes the following mathematical equation to be true: Two plus two equals five. He is very sincere in his belief. He believes it with all of his heart. His devotion to this belief does no harm to those around him. Does the sincerity of this individual's belief that two plus two equals five make it any more true? Of course not. Truth is never subjective to one's preferences or experience. Two plus two will never be five, even if I want it to be true with all of my heart. I cannot make it so. It is not dependent upon me.

Next, it is noteworthy to point out that all of the great human intellectual pursuits operate under the system of absolutes. Whether we study math, music, science, history, art, or linguistics, we begin our study with an introduction to the basic truths of each field. My history teacher would never teach that the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1036 and was won by the British. It's simply untrue, and therefore everything else I learn about the affects of that war are based on fallacies. (Incidentally, this might occur in the public school system, but that's another topic and another blog. *wink*) Also, I would never enter into a rendition of Beethoven's Ninth without first learning the building blocks, the basic musical notes, that make such a grand piece of music possible. (I could play such a masterpiece without learning the basics if I was a musical prodigy, but even then I am still operating under the laws that govern the music; I just skipped the introduction.) The acquisition of knowledge and understanding is always based on true principles. Therefore, to reject truth is to reject knowledge.

Let's consider next the issue of relativism in regard to morality, which is much more fundamental to our day. It's interesting to note that we are very quick to reject truth in issues of morality as long as it suits our own ends. For example, if we decide that we suddenly want to divorce our spouse because we have found someone who makes us happier, then there is no right or wrong about it. (I'm playing devil's advocate.) But when our spouse, whom we love, decides to run off with someone else for his or her own happiness, we are quick to agree how wrong and unjust such an action can be. We always find a way to justify an action, calling it morally relative, when our own selfish desires can be fed.

A strong argument against moral relativism is quite simply this: the horrific response of nearly everyone to acts of gross, violent evil. When we hear of the young child who was kidnapped, raped, and slowly and brutally murdered, we never say, "You know, it's really not that bad because everything is relative." No! We are aghast. We are disgusted and grieved. Sometimes we weep. We vehemently cry out for justice, and rightly so. Why? Because such an act is not morally relative. If moral relativism is true, if such a violent deed has no basis in right or wrong, then there is absolutely no reason or justification for our horror and demand for justice. We would not even be horrified. Moral relativism not only demands that we not think, it demands we not feel.

Finally, the great questions of humanity presuppose true answers: "Why am I here?" "Where do I come from?" Every human civilization has sought out answers to these questions (which is the source of manmade religion). These universal questions are like a gust of wind upon the flickering flame of Relativism. Such questions snuff out any shadow of substance that Relativism may feign because to ask such a question is to assume a real, unfaltering Truth behind it. "He has put eternity in their hearts..." (Ecclesiastes 3: 11)

Our culture, our world, has itching ears. We want something that sounds good, something that makes us feel good. But we need to think. Hard. When we really begin to think, we see that Relativism is a theory for the dogs. It's not for those with eternity in their hearts.

Today, absolute Truth is accused of being too narrow-minded. I agree with that. Truth is always narrow: Two plus two is four. The earth revolves around the sun. Murder is evil. Truth is narrow. But it's beautiful, too.

When I was a little girl, I dreamed that I was lost in a department store. Where was my mother?! Terrified, I searched frantically for her, finally thinking I had found her. I held confidently onto her hand for minutes, certain I had been rescued from my lostness. But when I looked up, a strange lady looked down at me. "I'm not your mother, sweetie," she said. My mother was far off still. I could see her from where I was, through the meandering path of strangers filling the store. There was one way to reach her, one pathway to her arms of safety. It was a narrow path. But it led to my mother.

And it was beautiful to be in her arms again.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Oil of Love

'Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.'
John 12: 3

It's interesting how a seemingly obscure and simple passage of Scripture will suddenly breathe profound truth into our hearts. For some reason - I think it's because of our fallen humanity - we seem to fall for the idea that only the most complex, theologically rich passages of Scripture can teach us real truth. Oftentimes, though, the simplest and most unassuming places of God's Word capture our hearts, revealing a new and beautifully subtle reality. That happened for me recently as I read the Gospel of John.

The account that so moved my heart is found in the context of a supper in Bethany at which Jesus is present, along with his friends and disciples. At one point Mary takes a pound of very expensive oil, which at the time would have been worth one year's wages. She pours the oil over the feet of Jesus and wipes His feet with her hair.

It's interesting to me that Jesus didn't ask her to do what she did, nor did anyone else. In fact, Mary's very action seems to be portrayed like something that occurred in the background while everyone else reclined (perhaps in conversation) at the dinner table. She wasn't looking for an audience. She also didn't care how silly it might look. Still, she chose to do it.

And what she chose to do seems, at the onset, rather strange. Remember, the oil she used was worth one year's wages! And she not only wiped the oil herself, but she wiped it with her hair. Because a woman's hair symbolized her beauty and glory, Mary's action here is especially touching. In order to show her humble devotion and love for Jesus, she quietly pours the oil, bends down, and strokes the dirtiest part of His body with the image of her glory.

She loved Him. Mary loved Jesus. It's all so simple. And so profound.

God has captured my heart with this account of Mary's love for Jesus. He has also used it to break my heart. I struggle so deeply with arrogance and pride, the very characteristics that are the direct antitheses of God. He knew I needed to understand the simple truth behind this story of Jesus and Mary, to see in Mary the kind of beautiful humility that I so often lack. Now that I see it so clearly, I pray that He will help me show Him the kind of love that Mary showed. It's the kind of love that is willing to let go of personal glory, and perhaps get dirty in the process. It's a dangerous and sacrificial love. But it's the only kind that really counts.

A poem and a song which both mirror the story of Mary's devotional love for Christ, dear to me in the past but since rather hazy, God has brought to the forefront of my mind in recent days. I'd like to end by sharing the words and lyrics to each. The first is a song that was sung often in my dearly missed fellowship of Imago Dei in Portland, Oregon. The second is a poem by Hannah Hurnard and can be found in her book Hinds Feet on High Places.
I will offer up my life in Spirit and Truth,
Pouring out the oil of love as my worship to You.
In surrender I must give my every part.
Lord receive the sacrifice of a broken heart.
Jesus, what can I give? What can I bring?
To so faithful a Friend, to so loving a King.
Jesus, what can be said? What can be sung?
As a praise of Your Name for the things You have done.
Oh my words could not tell, not even in part,
Of the debt of love that is owed by this grateful heart.

A poem by Hannah Hurnard
From Hinds Feet on High Places

Now when the King at table sits,
My spikenard smelleth sweet,
And myrrh and camphire from my store
I pour upon His feet.
My thankful love must be displayed,
He loved and wooed a beggar maid.
I am not fair save to the King,
Though fair my royal dress,
His kingly grace is lavished on
My need and worthlessness.
My blemishes He will not see,
But loves the beauty that shall be.

By God's grace, maybe my own house -- and yours -- will be filled with the fragrance of the oil of love for Jesus.

Like Mary.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What Remains

"From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said, "Do you also want to go away?" But Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

Everyone is looking for deep satisfaction. We want to be filled with something more than mediocre, more than ordinary. Most of us say we want to be happy. Some of us claim a desire to leave a legacy by impacting the world in a positive way. But all of us, regardless of the mode in which we choose to find it, want fulfillment. We want more than mere survival.

Most people, though, would probably admit to not having found it yet. They would acknowledge a sense of emptiness or futility even in the midst of the most noble pursuits, such as becoming a loving spouse and parent, caring for the needy, and being devoted to hard work. Our efforts could probably be summed up by these centuries-old words of Solomon: 'Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.' (Ecclesiastes 2: 11)

We labor and toil and sweat to make a difference, to find our niche, to fill a nagging, internal void. But when the sun goes down on the day and darkness surrounds us like a cold embrace, the haunting whisper comes: 'Is this really all there is?'

The fisherman Peter must have also understood that deep desire for significance. After many individuals turned away from following Jesus, the Lord asked the remaining few if they were also going to leave. I love Peter's response: 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.' In other words, "Where else can I go? I need You." Peter recognized in Jesus 'something more.' He knew that in Christ lay the very fuel to ignite his soul. If he left, he'd be returning to his own futile efforts to find meaning and fulfillment apart from His Creator. There was, quite simply, nowhere else to go.

Most of us, like ancient King Solomon, resort to everything under the sun in order to fill that universal void. Some of our pursuits are noble. Others, not so much so. But the common thread uniting them all is the desire to find something -- anything -- that will remain.

After indulging in all the world had to offer, yet still unsatisfied, Solomon had this to say: "Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come, and the years draw near when you say, 'I have no pleasure in them'... Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed... Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." (Ecclesiastes 12: 1 & 6)

The only thing that will remain is God. And all of our efforts to find fulfillment, noble or not, if not founded in Him, will inevitably pass away. Peter understood this when he responded to Jesus' question. He knew that, apart from Christ, there is only death. Deep satisfaction, the kind that cannot pass away, has its genesis in the Creator. Jesus Christ is the answer to the cry of the human heart, offering us the delight of finding satisfaction in Him.

When we, like King Solomon and Peter, have exhausted every resource and still come up with empty hands, where will we go? To another empty well... or the fountain of life?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Unable to Understand

'But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one.'

1 Corinthians 2: 14-15

For some silly reason lately, I find myself surprised by the naturalness of the natural man. When I say 'natural,' I'm not referring to any exhibited naturalness of character that is intrinsic to all of created humanity (eating, sleeping, etc.) I refer entirely to the state of mind and heart that is exhibited by those who have not been transformed by the Spirit of Christ.

I have noticed this everywhere lately: the media, internet, literature, even amongst those with whom I am surrounded. It characterizes itself in subtle and blatant ways, from the overtly arrogant comments of hostile unbelievers, to a news article parading the erroneously held presumptions of one who is merely uninformed and untaught. It's everywhere. And it surprises me.

I don't know why I'm surprised. God is not surprised by it. He isn't worried about it, either. So why should I find myself so shocked at such attitudes and opinions?

The answer is easy: I shouldn't.

Scripture is very clear about the reason our world is riddled with such a gross misunderstanding regarding the nature of God. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul writes that 'the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.' (italics mine)

It is impossible for an unsaved person to comprehend anything about the nature of the God from whom he or she has been separated. If the Spirit of God is not present, neither is discernment. Not only this, but the things of God are foolishness to him. An individual without the Holy Spirit truly believes that the things of God are, to be quite blunt, absolutely stupid. Only the Spirit of God can shed light on the glorious and lovely truths of God.

Please understand that I am not purporting to be better or more spiritual than any other person. I'm not writing from an attitude of idiotic self-righteousness. There was a time for me when the things of God sounded completely foolish. Apart from the grace of God I would have remained in my deafened and deadened state. And so it is with those who do not yet know Him. They are, quite sadly, unable to understand.

In pondering these thoughts, I have realized something very sad about myself, too. Instead of harboring tender compassion in my heart, I often find myself annoyed and angered by a spiritually lost world. The subtly snide comments. The erroneous assumptions. Even the passive indifference. Each manifestation of spiritual death in the world should fill my heart to overflowing with gracious, compassionate love. Far too often, though, my selfish nature (the 'natural' me) takes offense at the fact that, as a believer in what the world misunderstands, I will be misunderstood as well.

Paul touches on this very thing when he tells the Corinthians that the spiritual person (an individual with the indwelling Holy Spirit) 'is rightly judged by no one.' John also comments on this in his first letter: 'Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.' (1 John 3: 1) Finally, Peter understood our sojourning in a foreign, lost world when he states that debauched unbelievers 'find it strange' that we no longer enjoy our sin, 'speaking evil of (us).' (1 Peter 4: 3-4)

The truth is, though, that it's not about me. At all. And if it's not about me, then it's not important what assumptions people may have of me. It is important, though, what assumptions people have of God. If those assumptions and ideas are wrong, then there is no place for anger or annoyance in my heart; only sublimely humble compassion. The kind that comes from God. The kind He had for me when I was unable to understand.

I shouldn't find myself surprised by the naturalness of natural man. I should be brokenhearted over it. I should be grieved. I should be compassionate.
But I shouldn't be surprised.

Lord, please fill me with love for a spiritually lost world. Fill me to overflowing with humble, selfless love for a deceived and blinded generation. Help me to live in a way that makes Your true nature known. And thank you that Your Holy Spirit lives in me, not because of anything good I have done, but because You are a supremely good God.
** Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version of the Bible. The MacArthur Study Bible proved a valuable resource on Scriptural comments.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Testing, Testing

This is not going to be at all insightful. I am merely testing this blog thing to see just how it works.