Monday, August 25, 2014

In the News

Ministers—professional preachers, anyway—have been in the news recently, both nationally and locally.  And it hasn’t been good.

That, in itself, is a shame, on many levels.

A few years ago I was sitting with a man whose father was on hospice.  I had arrived at the hospital as a hospice volunteer to sit with a man who was dying so that the family could leave the hospital—go home, maybe get a nap or a shower or just get out of the hospital for a while.  One of the man’s sons, though, kept thanking me for being there but not leaving.  He needed someone to unload on, and I was there.  (This happens a lot in hospice: people just needing to talk.  Most of them are pleasant, many are sad, I’ve only had to deal with one who was really angry.)

As the son sat there, talking about the passing of his father, I learned a couple things.  One, the man didn’t really like his father.  He loved his father in a vague way, but he didn’t like his father because—according to the monologue—his father had been hard and harsh and grumpy.  Still, he had provided for his family and taken good care of his wife (their mother), so there was at least some respect for that.

The second thing I learned from this son was that all church ministers/preachers were money-cheating crooks.  Every single one of them.  All they were in it for was the money.  Yes, he knew I was a minister but, while he never accused me to my face, it was clear he was painting me with the same broad brush.  As I thought of my one-car, one-bath existence, I listened respectfully and tried not to argue or laugh.  I did wonder where he had gotten this idea because, as the conversation (monologue) wore on, it seemed like he had only once in his life had any sort of lasting relationship with a minister or church.  I knew the building (not far from where I sit right now) and the man who had been the minister there when this son was young had been someone the son admired.  Loving, good teacher, impoverished.  Somehow, somewhere along the line the son had gotten the idea that all preachers were just in it for the money and would not be disabused of that idea.

I thought maybe he had a story—and, sadly, there are plenty of them out there—of a minister who absconded with some funds or cheated a widow out of her legacy.  If he had such a story, he never told it, to me, anyway.  Maybe he had just seen the stories on the news of mammon-obsessed preachers, but I don’t think so.  It seemed too personal.  Still, I imagine that the stories on the news only fed his preconceived notions.  The son wasn’t a moron.  He knew about local ministers who fed the poor, sat up to all hours at the hospital, visited the elderly, but he ascribed to us—one and all—bad motives.

(This, I am convinced, is how most prejudices work.  They may begin with a legitimate gripe against one person, but the Enemy creeps in and—through news stories and the anecdotes of “friends”—convinces us that our one-time experience is the norm.  Jim-Bob Smith has had one bad experience with a member of a certain ethnic group—against many many good experiences, for instance—but he has allowed himself to be convinced that the bad experience speaks for everyone of that ethnic group and the myriad good experiences were all aberrations.)

So anyway, nationally we have a popular and well-known minister being asked to step down from the pulpit for a time because—at the very least—he seems to have let his fame go to his head and—at the worst—he has become a spiritual and emotional bully.  Locally, we’ve had a couple ministers asked to resign their positions for, shall we say, “indiscretions”?  Like everyone else, I’m wondering (in regards to both the local and the national stories), “What happened?  Surely these guys had to know they were going to get caught!  Why throw everything they had worked for away?”  I have been praying for their families and the churches they formerly served.

But what is especially bugging me is that, as a minister of the gospel myself, I know these “ministers” have just helped fuel the thoughts of people like the son previously mentioned who will look at all of us—Christians in general and ministers in particular—and think, “Yep, that’s what they’re all like.”

[P.S.  I mean that my house only has one bathtub, not that I only take one bath a year.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

Eternal Assurance, Murder and Really Cold Hands

The police ruled it a murder-suicide.  Not like a “usual” one, though, where an agitated party murders a loved one, then turns the gun on themselves.  Often sparked by an assumption of infidelity.

No, the perpetrator in this case felt aggrieved over something (does it really matter what?), so he went out and found a complete stranger to murder.  Then, as the song says, “He turned his own cold hand.”

A mess, a tragedy, a crime, a venal sin.  Call it what you want, it was hard to think of any good associated with it.

Unless you were the preacher at the funeral for the perpetrator of this heinous act.  “He was a loving father,” said the preacher and “He’s in a better place now.”  In case that were too ambiguous, the preacher went on to specify that the “better place” was heaven, in the arms of his (the perp’s) Lord.

It was just a few weeks after another troubled person in our town had taken her own life.  A teenager with no known conflicts, no note left behind to explain things, decided death was better than life and brought about her own end one afternoon while everyone was out of the house.

At that funeral, too, the preacher—a different preacher from the other funeral—assured the audience that the dead girl was “in a better place.”  You know what?  Maybe she was.  The Bible speaks of an unforgivable sin, but it’s not suicide.  It’s the blasphemy (or rejection) of the Holy Spirit.  Now, suicide might well be a sign of such a rejection.  I tend to think that, most often, it is.  That, for whatever reason or factors, a person has decided that their life is not worth living and—by inference—God has abandoned them.

I don’t believe God has abandoned them, but once a person gets to that point in their thought processes, turning the ship around is not an easy task.  I also don’t think that suicide is an absolute guarantee that the person has rejected the overtures of God through his Holy Spirit.  Maybe they just forgot for a time, or acted in haste.  (Which, if that’s unforgivable then everything I have ever done because I momentarily forgot or got cocky is going to be held against me, too.)  Maybe it's the result of a chemical imbalance.  That doesn’t make suicide right—and it certainly isn’t “right” for anyone left behind—and, more than anything, this is in the purview of God. But since he didn’t say, “Suicide is the unforgivable sin” I’m sure not going to say it is.

On the other hand, I have a hard time with declaring someone who has decided their gift from God wasn’t worth keeping as automatically sitting in his mansion.  (Again, it’s not up to me, [praise God!] but) I think about the auditorium of high school kids at that second-mentioned funeral who came away with the idea that, if life sucks, just end it and let God take you to heaven.  If that were the way it worked, why didn’t God tell us all to off ourselves as soon as we came up out of the baptismal waters?

Now, I have great sympathy for those preachers.  They were asked to preside over a funeral—which is an event for the living; specifically, the family—and bring comfort at a time when comfort seems impossible.  The family is already sitting there wondering, “What signs did I miss?  Is there something I could have done?”  Still, to tell everyone that everything’s fine, now, doesn’t seem like the path of honesty, either.

Not too long after these two events, a car filled with teenagers caught our attention.  An inexperienced driver, with a car full of hung-over, under-aged drinkers, plunged to the death of everyone inside.  Horrible, horrible, thing.  Lives lost, other lives shattered.  But once again, we were told they were all in a better place.  In this case, because they had all attended church while children.  No one in the car had been in church in some time, there was no visible fruit of living for God in their lives, but because they once attended Sunday School without actively setting fire to the sacraments, they’re in heaven.

We don’t want to think bad of the dead, and there’s probably no way I can honestly end this blog without coming out harsh to modern sensibilities … but what if all or some of the people from the above-mentioned incidences are not in a better place?  There’s nothing we can do about it now—for their sakes, anyway—but what about ours?  I firmly believe in grace as an undeserved and unearnable gift, but what if how we live after having received grace—what if the fruit we produce, as Jesus put it—really does matter?  What if life—even a hard life—is a gift from God that shouldn’t be thrown away?

Monday, August 4, 2014

Do We Have Something Better to Do With Our Time Than Worry About the Aliens?

I receive an email letter each week from a prominent Christian ministry with whom I generally agree.  (I say generally even though, to date, I can’t think of a specific stance of theirs I disagreed with—though I have not read every issue assiduously so there may have been other points with which I would have differed.)  Within each email, there is a question—ostensibly sent in by a reader—and then an answer provided by the ministry.

The question last week was, “Did Jesus die for aliens, too?”

Let me print the first paragraph of the ministry’s two-paragraph response:  “An understanding of the gospel makes it clear that salvation through Christ is only for the Adamic race—human beings who are all descendants of Adam. Do an Internet search and you will find many examples over the years of both Christians and non-Christians who have made comments similar to this. In essence we are saying that Bible-believing Christians would have a problem with a belief in aliens because Jesus died for the human race, and thus only humans in this universe can be saved. Thus Bible-believing Christians don’t (or can’t) accept the belief there are aliens on other planets.”

Now, as someone who has read the Bible from cover to cover several times I take issue with this conclusion in that I don’t think the Bible says a single word—for or against—the idea of life on other planets.  Not one.  (For instance, I believe the angels mentioned are really angels and not “visitors from another planet”.)

I do agree that salvation comes through Jesus and Jesus alone.  I’m going to surprise some people here and put in a “however”.

Salvation comes through Jesus and Jesus alone, however, what if there’s a planet out there with people on it who never sinned?  Who (a la CS Lewis’s “Paralandra”) when Satan tried to tempt their Adam and Eve, stood up to him and trusted in God?  If they never fell, they would have no need for Christ’s redemption.  In fact, they would be walking with God in their garden still.

If they never sinned, were never cursed with death, what would they be like?  Assuming (as I do) that God created all of the universe at the same time, then from the beginning of the universe until now—using fully-functional brains that were not stunted by sin and led by scientists who didn’t die and continued to work on their own ideas—they would be so far ahead of us technologically that, even if they came to earth, we would probably appear to them as something just above a hamster in the intelligence department.

Of course, without sin, maybe they wouldn’t have even seen the need to leave their garden in the first place.  Let’s say they did, though.  What if God did put life on other planets but he only put one life-bearing planet in each galaxy?  What are the odds that we would ever find each other?  Our galaxy’s pretty big, and we’re on a planet in the western spiral arm, so what if the nearest planet with life is in another arm?  Even with incredibly advanced technology, would they ever find us?  Even if we find each other—through radio waves or something—how long ‘til we can actually make real contact?

Louis L’Amour (yes, the western author) once wrote that he couldn’t understand the people who want us to be visited by aliens.  Because, he wrote, we would need to hope they were nothing like us as our history is one of conquering or destroying any society we deem inferior to our own.

What if, though, there are aliens out there, aliens who never fell into sin, and they come here one day.  I think of the people who want aliens to come and teach us the “mysteries of the universe” mainly in the hope they’ll prove to us that there is no God.  I’m chuckling as I picture those people’s reactions if the aliens were to show up and start talking about Yahweh God!

But what if, on another planet somewhere, the inhabitants fell into sin just as we did?  Then I trust in God to provide them with salvation.  Would Jesus have to die for them, too?  It seems clear from Scripture that he only had to die once.  So, I go back to my earlier thought that, if there are aliens on other planets, a] they were put there by God and 2] they are sin-free and, thus, do not need to be saved.

Let me return to one of the things I said earlier, though: I find no warrant in Scripture for either the existence or non-existence of life on other planets.  I just don’t think the Bible addresses the subject in any way, shape or form.  Now, when I get to heaven, if God tells me there were people on other planets (and introduces some of them to me) I won’t be surprised.  If I get there and he tells me that Earth was the only planet where he ever put sentient life, I will only be a little surprised (because the universe is such a big place so why not put life on some of the other planets?).

Still, aside from this blog and a novel I will probably never get around to writing, I don’t see a lot of sense in spending much time pondering the matter when there’s so much to be done on the one planet we are convinced contains intelligent life.

{I have great respect for the organization, but in the interest of not being accused of plagiarism, I have to tell you that the above quoted paragraph is from "Answers in Genesis".}