A Guideline for Religious Freedom

The Attorney General’s announcement earlier this week that the Justice Department would start a “Religious Liberty Task Force” has caused a bit of consternation, especially among people who fear that the US is heading toward some sort of theocracy or “dominionist” regime. The DoJ’s task force appears to be an internal exercise, but fear has a way of making things seem bigger and more threatening than perhaps they really are.

Beyond the bounds of the government, and on the day-to-day scale of dealing with people who may not share our beliefs, we don’t need a task force. We may need a better understanding that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” means no law with respect to establishing a state religion, and that “no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof” means no law prohibiting people from practicing their religion according to its doctrines and dictates. But when it comes to “free exercise,” some broad guidelines might help the rest of us when it comes to exercising our religious liberty responsibly. That is, it might help if we had some reference by which to determine whether our religious freedom — i.e., our religious practice and the obligations we have taken on with respect to honoring and serving God — is infringing on the rights (or the freedoms) of others.

I find a useful guideline for religious freedom in what Paul the Apostle wrote to the church in Galatia about the “fruit of the Spirit.” Paul listed nine things and claimed, “against these there is no law”

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-Control

It’s quite a lovely list, and a friend of mine once declared that each of those characteristics builds upon the other, starting with Self-Control. That is, without Self-Control we are unable (or at least unlikely) to exhibit much in the way of Gentleness; until we learn how to be gentle with others and with ourselves deep Faithfulness may elude us; without faith we may be “good enough” to get by, but consistent and unconditional Goodness will be beyond our reach; and so forth. But that’s not what I mean by a guideline for religious liberty.


(Image: Stained Glass, Christ Church Cathedral, High Street, Dublin; by Andreas F. Borchert, on Wikimedia Commons. Full description: “Right stained glass rose window in the east wall of the passage to the Synod Hall [now Dublinia], depicting in its centre the Lord as Good Shepherd along with the Fruit of the Spirit, namely Love [inscription in centre], Joy & Peace [top inscription], and in clockwise direction: Longsuffering, Faith, Gentleness, Goodness, Meekness, Temperance in reference to Galatians 5:22-23….”)

Because the First Amendment prevents our government from establishing a state religion and from prohibiting citizens from freely exercising their religion, I would approach it as follows: As long as your “free exercise” of your religious faith is demonstrated in the love you show to others, the joy you share, the peacefulness with which you live your life, how patient you are when people vex you, the kindness you show to those around you, the good that you do, the faithfulness you practice, how gently you treat others, and the self-control you exhibit, then by all means enjoy your religious freedom. Against those things, there is no law.

But: If you are unloving, if you cause despair, if you are unruly, impatient, unkind, evil, unfaithful, cruel, or undisciplined — and in practicing your religious freedom you bring harm where you should bring healing — then your religious freedom may (and possibly should) be limited.

No doubt some may bristle at my proposing a Christian scripture as a guideline for general religious liberty. (Some people bristle at anything Christian.) If anyone knows of a comparable passage of scripture from some other religious tradition that encapsulates how faith may be put into practice for the most benefit and least harm, I would certainly consider it. Barring that, I will be content to do my best to live up to what was taught the Galatians.

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Writing that Crosses the Spiritual Divide

(Cross-posted, with some light edits, from my 12 June 2018 guest post on the Speculative Faith blog.)

The conventional wisdom is that authors shouldn’t read reviews of our own work.

If the reviews are good, they can inflate already outsized egos, and if the reviews are bad, well — egos don’t always just deflate. A hot-air-balloon-sized ego, pierced by a bad review, might slowly settle into a mass of hard-to-wrangle canvas, but a smaller, more fragile ego might burst into shreds that are impossible to reassemble.

Nevertheless, some of us are drawn to reviews like moths to flame. If we’re lucky, the flame is a gentle candle and we just get singed if we get too close. If we’re unlucky, it’s a napalm-spewing flamethrower and we get terribly burned.

Sometimes we just get confused, as I was at two contrasting reviews of my novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds. First, an Amazon reviewer gave the novel three stars and noted that it was a “good story” with strong character development but was “a bit bible-preachy [sic] for [their] tastes in hard science fiction.” Then the first issue of the Lorehaven online magazine included a brief, positive review that warned those seeking discernment that the story “only briefly referenced Christianity.”

Same story. Bible-preachy. Only briefly referenced Christianity.

I think this illustrates the fact that every reader brings their own experiences, attitudes, and expectations to the stories they read. Orson Scott Card told us in his writing workshop that whatever we’ve written is not the story, because the real story is in the reader’s head — and what’s in your head when you read a story is different from what’s in another person’s head when they read the same story. You might agree on some points, but you’ll disagree on others, and that’s okay.

In the case of my novel, someone who was not used to reading about believers and faith in the context of hard science fiction was put off by it. I have no way to know whether that person is a believer who was just surprised or a nonbeliever who was repulsed, and that really doesn’t matter. Their reading of the text is just as valid as anyone else’s — including the Lorehaven reviewer who might have been looking for more overt Christian themes. Was that person disappointed not to find them, or just surprised? I have no way of knowing, and again it hardly matters because however they read the story was the right way, for them.

Same story. Different readers. Different results.

It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, about the message of the cross seeming foolish to the lost, but representing the very power of God to those of us who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18). Same message. Different audience. Vastly different results.

Even within the body of believers, though, we can differ in our interpretations of Scripture. How much more should we expect to differ in reading science fiction and fantasy stories?


My friend Keith Phillips (Colonel, USAF, Retired), with whom I served in the 4th Space Operations Squadron, showing off his copy of Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work? Is it foolish even to try? I hope not, because in this age of growing doubt and disbelief I believe that Christian ideals, values, and themes still have a place in literature and art, whether science fiction, fantasy, or more mundane creations. And not just Christian principles, but Christian characters belong in fantastical stories — even in technology-heavy hard science fiction — just as surely as Christian people belong in every profession.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Christian characters in these stories end up being caricatures more than characters, reflecting the authors’ preconceptions rather than being portrayed as individuals, as people. I’ve found this to be true in stories by believers and nonbelievers alike, and it was something I tried to avoid.

That is, I tried to cross the spiritual divide by including Christian characters where they’re not always found — and by representing them as individual people with their own virtues and flaws, and even with different attitudes toward and expressions of faith. Some talk about it, some hide it, some deny it. Some ignore it, some sneer at it, some question it. That seemed realistic to me, and above all I tried to make the story seem realistic.

And maybe those two contrasting reviews — too much Bible to some people, not that much to others — show that I struck the right balance after all.

If you’ve read the story, I’d love to know what you think! And if you haven’t read the story, then now you know a little more of what you might find in it.

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When Church is Less Like Home and More Like ‘a Home’

(Another sermonette, of sorts.)

We call it a “church home,” but sometimes it’s … not.

At least, not home like a family home: a somewhat secure and comfortable family place where we spend a portion of our time, sometimes relaxing and eating and pursuing interests that captivate us and other times doing housework and chores and routine maintenance. Not a home that is a central gathering place or a base of operations for the time when we’re not at school or the office or the gym or wherever.

No: too often it seems more like a “home,” a rest home, an assisted living facility where the good church people hang out with the good church people and do good-church-person things. At these rest-home churches, we don’t often look beyond the church walls to see what we can do to make the world a better place. (Stained-glass windows are hard to see through.)

We’re shut-ins, and too often we shut out the world.

That’s not universally true, of course (but so little is). Some churches function fairly effectively as temporary refuges, where believers can refresh themselves before going back out into work and life and service. Some churches, though, appear to be permanent refuges, strongholds against the world, as if Christ had said “take yourselves out of the world” instead of telling us to be “in the world, but not of it.”


Stained-glass windows can be beautiful, but they’re not easy to see through. (Image: The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral. NASA photo.)

In a similar vein, we may call it a church “family,” but sometimes it’s not. Many churches do have a family atmosphere in which believers support one another and help one another through crises — even if it is dysfunctional at times, it’s still a caring family that does the best it can. Sometimes, in some respects, it can be better than a real family; sometimes it can be far worse.

But we don’t often mean a family like real relations in a household, in which — if we do it right — we encourage one another to grow and reach for the dreams that drive us, in which we learn right and wrong and discover our talents in order to make our way out in the world. As a church, nurturing young believers into mature believers — making disciples — we don’t always do so with the intention of preparing them to serve and live out their faith outside the church, in the real world. Often our attention is turned inward, as if serving the church and the church family is the single most Holy-Spirit-approved way of glorifying God.

But Christ didn’t tell his Disciples to stay in Jerusalem and serve only each other. And Christ doesn’t tell us to stay in the church and serve only each other.

Lord, forgive me when I prefer to stay safe in the cloister instead of walking with you in the wider world.

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The Disciples Couldn’t Stay Gone

Consider this my Easter sermon….

As I usually do, I spent part of Holy Saturday yesterday thinking about the Disciples’ sadness and despair and fear after Jesus’s crucifixion. I don’t think any of them actually expected or even dared to hope for the resurrection on the third day, and I expect that all of them were in shock to varying degrees. After all, scripture says that they “left him and fled,” which was, if not a fulfillment, at least a representation of Zechariah 13:6-7 (which Matthew tells us Jesus quoted at the Last Supper).

And if anyone asks him, “What are these wounds between your hands?” then he shall answer, “The wounds I received in the house of my friends.”

“Awake, O sword, against My shepherd, against the man who is My associate,” says the Lord of Hosts. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered; I will turn My hand against the little ones….”

So yesterday I wondered what exactly the disciples did on that day of despair.

I imagine that some of them had relatives in Jerusalem or in the outlying areas, and sought refuge with them. Perhaps they went alone, or in twos and threes, but it’s unlikely they would have roamed or lodged together as a group that first day. I imagine that they stayed hidden for a time, and when it became clear they were not being pursued they became comfortable enough to venture out.

I imagine that when they ventured out they probably saw other Disciples here or there. I imagine them looking furtively around, perhaps afraid to signal or greet each other openly. They would recognize one another on sight, of course: not only because they had spent many months together and knew each other well, but because each of them would be marked by the hours he had spent in abject grief.

Resurrection
(Image: “Resurrection,” by fady habib, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

But they couldn’t stay gone. They came back together.

We are not told who came back first, or what order they came back in. We are told that at one point Thomas had not joined them yet. But the main lesson, again, is that they could not stay away.

We, like the Disciples, may flee from certain troubles, may hide away for a time before we feel safe venturing out, and may glance about and over our shoulders to see if we’re being pursued. But if we fall away, may we find our way back as the Disciples did — and find the courage to live our faith in the open again.

Amen.

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A Hard Teaching

I’ve come to think of responsibility as, at its most basic, the ability to respond. That presents a high bar to clear, in light of this hard teaching about following the example of Christ:

In carnal wisdom, in earthly wisdom, it is height of responsibility to take responsibility for your own actions. But in God’s economy, in God’s new world, we are called to take responsibility for what we did not do….

I need to think more about the implications of that.

Lord, help me to understand.

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Putting ‘The Gift Church’ on Indefinite Hold

(This is the fifth, and possibly last, entry in an on-again, off-again series. Links to the first four are at the end.)

Scripture tells us to “wait upon the Lord” — in Psalms, in the Epistles, and famously in Isaiah 40 — but how long we have to wait is up to the Lord alone. That point occurred to me when I realized that I’ve been thinking about the “Gift Church” (or “Gift Fellowship”) idea — i.e., of starting a church that would practice radical generosity — for nearly three years.

Sure enough, when I went back to check I saw that my first notes on it were in early March 2015. Over a few feverish weeks I searched Scriptures and drafted guidelines to flesh out the idea before I shared it with my Bible study group. We discussed it a few times, off and on, and I thought doing so would get it out of my system — but the idea had me in thrall.

Eventually, that October, I first wrote about it here on the blog in a post entitled “The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES.” That was akin, I think, to crying out in the wilderness, but I didn’t actually do anything about it: I didn’t recruit people or organize interest meetings or whatever. I did put together a Facebook page and posted on it a few times, but I’ve since deactivated it. And as of now I haven’t written about it for nearly two years, outside of occasional Facebook comments.

But I can’t shake the vision.

Every so often I return to the idea and ask the Lord if I’m supposed to do something with it. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a clear “No” — at least I hope I haven’t just ignored it — but neither have I gotten a definite “Yes.”

I keep asking for a sign, and I think I finally looked in the right place to find one.

Your Family is Waiting for You
Wouldn’t it be great to have a single clear sign? Alas, it doesn’t always happen … so we wait. (Image: “Your Family is Waiting for You,” by Christian Senger, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

What sign have I been given? Simply that the Lord has not prompted anyone to partner with me. A few people have expressed mild interest in the concept, but that’s about it. No one else has had the same or a similar vision, and unless someone does I’ve decided that I need to give up this thought, this dream, this notion. (From a practical standpoint, of course, I suppose you could say I gave up — or gave up on — the notion long ago.)

Partnership is important to me because as I was studying the Scriptures, thinking about how such a church might govern itself, I focused on the fact that Jesus sent out the Disciples in pairs (as recorded in Luke 10), and that Paul always traveled with a ministry partner. Partnership offers support when times are difficult; provides for accountability to ensure vital tasks get done; and makes it less likely that a ministry will serve the minister’s ego more than the people or cause at which it is directed. I’ve come to believe that no ministry should operate except in partnership, and so I’ve put this ministry idea on indefinite hold.

And I’ve come to accept that no one else may ever catch this vision.

I may be the only person dissatisfied with the state of the church these days. Not so much the trappings of church, the worship or preaching or fellowship: the various churches I’ve attended recently haven’t satisfied my spiritual hunger, but that may say more about me than it does about them. No, I remain disheartened by the operations of churches that spend so much money on themselves — even going into massive debt like so many of the rest of us — that they spend relatively little on helping people. I wonder if it ever bothers their congregants to spend more every year on church programming, or more on utilities and maintenance of buildings that stand empty and unused most of the time, than they spend to feed the hungry or clothe the naked. I wonder if they even think about it.

When I was young, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland came to my hometown and spoke at my church. I recall two things about that Sunday. First, before the offering he prayed: “Lord, forgive us when we come before You with empty hearts, and empty hands.” That admonishment affected me deeply, and still does today.

Second, he based his sermon on the text, “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” (Mark 8:36). That was the day I learned that Christ had first asked that question (until then, I had only associated it with the Beatles). But I bring it up because lately I have come to view many Scriptures as applying to the corporate church as much as they apply to us as individuals, which leads me to wonder: What does it profit a church, if it gains all manner of worldly appurtenances but loses the soul of the Gospel? And the soul of the Gospel is to serve, rather than to be served.

I don’t know if I will find a church that puts serving others ahead of serving itself. I don’t know if the idea for The Gift Church, which would do just that, will ever catch anyone else’s attention.

All I know is that I will continue to wait upon the Lord.

___
Previously in this series:
– 1: The Church I’d Like to Start: A Church that GIVES
– 2: The Gift Church: Its Guiding Principle
– 3: The Gift Church: How It Might Work
– 4: The Gift Church: Choir Loft, or Orchestra Pit?

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Self-Control, Worship, and Life

Those of us who are Christians rightly appreciate the characteristics that Paul described to the Galatians as “the fruit of the Spirit.” A few years ago, a friend of mine pointed out that they form something of a hierarchy with “self-control” as the base. I don’t know where he learned or came up with that idea, but I like it.

I also like what Douglas Wilson has to say on the subject in the latest installment of his “State of the Church” series, Church and Kingdom, Cathedral and Town:

… the Spirit moves throughout the earth, converting and restoring individuals, fashioning them into saints, into believers. As His fruit is manifested in them, one of those fruits is self-control, self-government, or self-mastery. This self-government is the basic building block for establishing non-tyrannical governments in the other spheres that God has established among men. Without self-government, families can become autocratic tribes…. Without self-government, the church can become a grasping and despotic monster…. Without self-government, the civil magistrate can become an overweening and covetous thug….

I love that he starts with the point that the Spirit is what “moves throughout the earth” to convert people. I cannot convert anyone; I cannot restore anyone; I cannot compel or convince anyone on my own. I don’t “preach” to my non-Christian friends for precisely that reason. What I try to do — and here I’m paraphrasing, because I don’t recall the quote or the original source — is to live a life that, if I succeed, may invite someone prompted by the Spirit to ask me about whom I follow, whom I serve, whom I worship.

And, speaking of worship, I love the metaphors in this excerpt:

The worship of God is central to all of life, but it does not devour all of life. The sun does not burn everything up, but it does give light to everything. The water does not flood the world, but it does irrigate the entire world. The anchor fastens the ship, the ship does not turn into a gigantic anchor. The cathedral is at the center of the town, but does not “take over” all the activities of the townspeople — their printing, their auto mechanics, their software designing, their lawn mowing. In one sense all of that is none of their business. But at the same time the church instructs the townspeople in the adverbs — how these things are to be done, meaning, honestly, before the Lord, with one eye always on the text, and with a hard work ethic.

Lord, help me govern myself well; help me worship You in all I do, whatever I do; and help me be about the business of my life in a way that pleases You, and points others to You.

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If Buttercups Can Do It, It Isn’t Ministry

Among the 21 Maxims for Discouraged Pastors — in fact, as part of the very first one — we find this gem:

In 2 Tim. 2:3-6, the apostle Paul compares the work of ministry to three vocations, and all of them involve a goodly amount of sweat — soldiers, athletes, and farmers. The calling of the ministry is not for buttercups, and if buttercups can do it, it isn’t ministry.

The entire post seems as if it would be valuable for every pastor, whether discouraged or not, to review periodically — and for every one of us who has ever thought of going into the ministry to bear in mind when listening for that call.

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Two Warring Spirits

We have two warring spirits inside us, of criticism and of discernment, and of late I have become acutely aware of their battle within me. Even in posting this, and admitting my own failures, I’m tempted toward criticism rather than discernment — tempted to point out the motes in others’ eyes (maybe even yours) rather than acknowledging the beam in my own.

What is this critical spirit I struggle against?

The critical spirit bites and devours. The critical spirit tears down and does not rebuild. The critical spirit speaks without thinking or reflecting. The critical spirit does not have equal weights and measures; it does not apply the same level of scrutiny to itself as it does to the other.

In contrast, what is the discerning spirit that I try — and all too often fail — to employ?

The discerning spirit wants to protect, not destroy. The discerning spirit warns; it does not push. The discerning spirit can speak hard words, and often does, but it is the scalpel of the surgeon, not the cudgel of the mugger.

Do you struggle with this, at all? Or am I the only one?

Lord, help us — help me — discern more than criticize, build more than demolish, and support more than undermine.

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Panic in the Face of Change

It seems as if all of us resist change to some degree, for at least some kinds of change. Like so many things, we vary in how comfortable we are with change, even when we have some assurance the change will be beneficial. Sometimes, however, we are so caught up on what the change is doing or is likely to do to us — per Reaiah’s Maxim, “There is no change without tension”* — that we cannot envision a way for it to turn out well. Yet,

One of God’s great patterns is that of taking apart, and then restoring fully. The restoration, the resurrection, is fuller, deeper, and richer than the original unity ever was. But before God tears, we consistently tend to panic, afraid that this time He will not be able to put anything back together. But He always does.

“We consistently tend to panic” — no matter how often we study the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.** Momentary panic may not be all bad, though, if we eventually return to obedience and trust.

And what do we trust, if we claim to be Christian? That

The death of Jesus was not done in our place so that we might not experience it. Jesus did not die so that we might live. He died so that we might die; He lives so that we might live.

Lord, help us — help me — not to panic, but to trust.

___
*Bonus points for anyone who recognizes where this comes from.
**Upon which is printed, “Don’t Panic!”

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