Monday, June 25, 2012

Why do Christians Proselytize?

To “proselytize” is to convert or attempt to convert.  Question: Is that a bad thing?

In today’s environment, it seems we assume that good, polite, and well-bred citizens do not engage in proselytizing, under the guise of “Live and let live” and “Mind your own business.”  It’s perceived as being closed minded and judgmental.  Both of which are terrible things to be.

Guess what.  We do it all the time—attempt to convert people.  Take for example those who excitedly tell their friends about a movie they just saw: “You ought to go see it; it’s good.”  Message: “If you have resisted thus far, I am trying to change your mind to think/believe otherwise and convince you that it is well worth your time, money, and effort to commit yourself to going and seeing this movie.”  It is a form of proselytizing—persuading, convincing, converting, changing people’s minds about this or that idea, topic, subject, object, or perspective, and inviting to commit to action.  In that sense, all TV commercials and various ads of all sorts are in the business of proselytizing—making converts to their product, their method, their item, substance, or thing—getting people to believe-in, to buy-into, to take ownership of, and to embrace the company’s product as something highly valuable, meaningful, and necessary for their life.  Commit yourself take action, and purchase!

Now, by way of illustration let me switch gears and bring in the Titanic.  Immediately after the Titanic’s fatal collision with the iceberg, there were those who did not, could not, or would not believe that the ship was sinking.  At first, many chose to ignore the warning call that all should don their life preservers and make their way to the nearest lifeboats.  Those who knew better were in high gear attempting to convince people otherwise (attempting to convert the skeptics): “It’s for your own good, believe me, you must get into the life boat!”  “Please madam, DO put on your life jacket, even if it does wrinkle your evening gown!”

Indeed, when it comes to proselytizing, motive and purpose makes a huge difference.  There are those who want to convert us out of selfish interest, personal gain, or self-aggrandizement, or otherwise fraudulent motives.  But not all attempts at proselytizing are from bad motives.

So, what about Christian proselytizing?

If you look carefully at the historical Christian Gospel message, there is both good news and bad news.  Which do you want to hear first?

Okay, let’s go with the bad news first.  The bad news, according to Christian Biblical teachings, is that the world as we know it is running out of time.  It’s a sinking ship.  It’s one big Titanic.  Judgment Day is a coming.

You’ve heard of the Apostle Peter, for whom St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is named after?  This is what he had to say about the end of days and the coming judgment: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass  away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” (2 Peter 3:10.)  Remember that Peter was a convert to Jesus’ message, hope, and promises and personally sat under Jesus’ tutelage.  Thus, Peter wrote this with full conviction and with the desired intent to make converts to Christianity—calling others to also become followers of Christ as he had become.

What’s the Good News?

The good news is that there are lifeboats available.  Come unto me that you might be saved, said Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you [put on your life jackets], and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls [get into the lifeboat].  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30.)

For the Christian Believer, this is a life and death emergency.  “Look!  The ship is sinking; here, take a lifejacket; there, get into the lifeboat.”  At its core, this is all that the Christian proselytizer is trying to say: “Our lives are in danger and we need to be rescued.  I’ve found a lifeboat with space for you and me.  Let’s get into it.  The lifeboat is Jesus.”  It is a goodwill gesture, with an interest in bringing hope for salvation and deliverance.

Okay, I agree.  The problem with Christian proselytizing in America today is that many contemporary U.S. Christians have confused American conservative social, political and cultural agenda with Christ’s Kingdom agenda.  There is a difference.

Christ is interested in saving and redeeming people—from present injustices and oppression as well as from future condemnation arising from God’s righteous and just judgments.  Sadly, many American social-political Christians are more interested in saving an idealized prosperous American lifestyle with its solidly middle and upper middle-class way of life, along with its Pleasantville cultural value system (supposedly best reflected by the 1950’s), than they are with actually living-out and promoting Kingdom-of-God principles, practices, and values as taught by Christ Himself (as for example, expressed in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7).  There is confusion here between Christ’s actual Repent-for-the-Kingdom-of-God-is-at-hand Gospel Message, with the message of the American Dream and its concomitant idea that America is the new Promised Land.  The two are definitely NOT one and the same.

But of course, as to the actual Gospel Message of Christ, anyone is most certainly free to dismiss it as ridiculous and unworthy of attention.  That is our privilege of having free-will and being personally responsible for our own choices and life decisions.  And that takes me back to the Titanic illustration.  At first, many freely chose to ignore the immediate warning signs disbelieving that such a ship could possibly sink.  But no amount of disbelief would change the fact that it was doomed to sink.  Many, many more lives would have been saved had people early-on heeded the warning—converted their way of thinking—and headed to the lifeboats when the initial call was first made.  There are times in which proselytizing—convincing, converting, and changing people’s minds—can mean the difference between life and death.

Monday, June 18, 2012

And Whose Side is God On Anyway?

Have you ever been caught in the middle between two opposing friends, or maybe between two family members in a feud?  “Take sides,” you’re told.  “Whose side are you on?” you’re asked.  And trying to stop them is like trying to stop a fight between two dogs, neither will appreciate your interference and you’re bound to get attacked and bit by both.

Everyone with a cause, a passionate purpose with goals and agenda, stakes their claim, draws their lines, defines their limits and rallies their supporters.  Their approach is quite simple: “If you’re not with me, you’re against me”; “Support my cause or get out of my way.”

If you are familiar with the Biblical records, you will know that Joshua was Moses’ right-hand-man.  Joshua took-over where Moses left-off.  After the death of Moses, Joshua was the one that led the people of Israel into the Promised Land.  [Joshua 1:1-9]

One day, when Joshua was near the city of Jericho, a city which Joshua needed to take, he had a vision.  He looked up and there, standing before him, was a great warrior with drawn sword in hand.  Being a warrior himself, Joshua demanded he state his cause: “Are you friend or foe, one of us or one of our adversaries?”  Interestingly enough, the answer was “I am neither.”  [See Joshua 5:13-15]

This was no ordinary soldier, this great warrior identified himself as “The Commander of the Lord’s Army.”  In response, Joshua bowed down in reverence and asked what he might be commanded to do, in effect saying, “Your will is my command.”  The first thing the Commander of the Lord’s Army said was, “Remove your sandals, for the place where you stand is Holy.”

It’s easily overlooked, hardly noticed, seemingly insignificant, but the Commander of the Lord’s Army did not claim to be on Joshua’s side—even though he was clearly the Lord’s agent come to give support to Joshua’s cause—to overtake Jericho, which was part of the process of claiming the Promised Land for the people of Israel.

Are you friend or foe, with us or against us, Joshua asked.  I am neither, was the answer.  I am neither friend nor foe, neither with you nor against you.  What does that mean?  It means that God’s pursuits and purposes are so far and above human concerns that God cannot and does not stoop to totally identify His Self with conditional and temporal human causes.

We on the other hand presume otherwise.  Claiming a righteous cause, a holy pursuit, a divine calling, we presume God’s backing.  We assume that God takes sides, and of course the side that he takes is ours, believing God will guarantee our triumph.  It’s as if God owes us one—for championing a good cause: “God and I make a majority; if God is for me, who can be against me?”  So is our thinking.  And then we set out to accomplish our pursuits in God’s name, justifying any means to our righteous cause.

There is no opponent fiercer than one driven by righteous indignation while seeking holy retribution, believing him or herself to be God’s specially chosen agent to accomplish His will.

I recently came across a quote: “Republicans are death on sexual sins and any limitation of personal freedom but really don’t care about inequity, while Democrats will fight to the death against inequity while jumping from bed to bed.  But both of them are in favor of greed.”  So, whose side is God on?  Answer: neither!

When it comes to God, what we fail to see is that God’s purposes are so far above-and-beyond our own agenda that He is neither for us nor against us in human terms.  So, for example, God is neither for the Democrat platform nor the Republican platform.  He is above it.  What’s the lesson here?  It’s this: when our agenda or our causes become more important to us than God Himself, we are committing idolatry.  When we presume that God must and will “back us” because of the presumed goodness and rightness of our cause, we presume too much, and are in danger of attempting to manipulate and/or use God for our own purposes.

God holds all peoples and all individuals, all groups of individuals and all associations of individuals, accountable for their attitudes and their actions performed in pursuit of their causes.  And the truth is this: when both “ends” and “means to those ends” are carefully scrutinized and closely examined, no one will be found innocent.  “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  [Romans 3:23]

Jesus tells us that we will be judged with the same judgment we used to condemn others: “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”  [Matthew 7:2]

Jesus also tells us that our own words will be held against us: “I tell you, on the Day of Judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  [Matthew 13:36-37]

And Jesus warns that in the latter times there will be those who will kill in God’s name, thinking that by doing so they are showing reverence for God, doing God a favor as it were (John 16:2).  How wrong their attitude and their actions will prove to be, come Judgment Day, according to Jesus.

So what should our response be?  First we need more humility.  We need to get off our high-horses and quit presuming God’s approval upon us while harboring mean-spirited, hard-hearted, and harshly condemning attitudes toward others—no matter how right we think we may be or how wrong we know that others are.  Secondly, we need to nurture a spirit of mercy, kindness, compassion, and grace as the operative principle within our hearts, remembering that God’s agenda and purposes for humanity are far above-and-beyond our own.  And thirdly, we need to seek grace and forgiveness for ourselves, for the wrongs we have committed in pursuit of our own agendas, and seek to be gracious to others in the same way we want God’s grace and mercy for ourselves.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hope for an Unjust and Cruel World

Life is not fair.  And there is no justice, not really.  There is always the guilty that gets away with murder and there is always the innocent who dies for someone else’s crime.  It’s the way it is.  And, let’s face it, there’s not enough to go around.  On this earth, in our time, as in all times, there is not enough for all to live on, for all to enjoy earth’s bounty at the same level.  There are the “haves” and “have-nots,” it’s always the same.

We try.  But we fail more often than not.  No perfect justice, no perfect nation, no perfect rule or government.  We do the best we can.  But for those who get the raw end of the deal, “close” is not good enough.  It’s misery to feel cheated.  Enough to drive one mad.  And there are indeed a lot of angry people out there.  Aren’t there?

This is one good reason why it makes sense to believe in God.  With God in the picture, there is a realistic hope, a promise of real and true justice just over the horizon.  Things will be made right.  Evil will be judged and condemned for what it is.  Truth, righteousness, justice, and peace will win in the end.  Such a promise, such a hope!

So, we have two options: (1) live as if there is no God or (2) live believing that God is.  Which option have you chosen?

Yes, I know.  One need not believe in God to live a good life and do good deeds to one’s neighbor.  It’s true, there are many atheists that live good lives and by contrast there are many believers that live quite devilish lives.  But if there were no God, such a point is meaningless; for, without God, we live as we choose and do as we please and die regardless, and that’s the end of that.  However, with God, we shall be held accountable.  A Final Judgment is yet to come—finally, real justice!

This is the nature of the message of the Cross of Christ.  Justice is wanted, nay, it is demanded.  But in a world of true exacting justice, who is innocent?  Can you say that you have done no harm, taint free of wrongdoing?  No one is guiltless.  What to do?  In comes Jesus—the righteous for the unrighteous—the message of salvation.

Grant us mercy, O God, and forgive us for all that is wrong in our lives, for unholy thoughts and impure motives, for scorning goodness and trifling with truth, for being petty rather than gracious, for failing to love and honor YOU, O God, in our heart of hearts, for ingratitude and willful blindness to Your gracious acts of kindness to us.  Forgive us for the wrong we have done to our neighbors, for using, manipulating, and otherwise taking advantage of others weaker than ourselves, for insensibility to the needs of others while relentlessly accumulating selfish wants that never satisfy, for believing more in our Selves than in Your Ruling Providence along with its offer of Love, Mercy, and Grace.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Love and Marriage! But what is Love?

We say “Love is all you need.”  But somehow, many who find love or fall-in-love, and then enter into a long term relationship based on that love, later discover that they’ve lost it, or have suddenly and surprisingly fallen out of love.  What happened?

So, what is love really?  Let’s break down what love is in actual practice.  Here’s what I have learned over the years.

Love gives respect.  All of us feel scorn.  We know when we are “treated like dirt.”  That’s an extreme.  There are many subtle ways in which we can be disrespected.  And often spouses, and or good or best-of-friends can be the worst culprits.  Rudeness, snappy impatience, showing disgust, cutting remarks, and serious put-downs are sure signs that respect is lacking in a relationship.  It is also a sure sign that bitterness is growing in the heart of the one being disrespected.  We honor the one we love.  To disrespect is to bring dishonor.  There are many spouses today that are enduring years of dishonor and disrespect, suffering in silent bitterness.

Love listens.  Hearing is not the same thing as listening.  Many spouses hear but fail to listen.  Listening means actively tuning-in and “getting it.”  Getting it means not only understanding the point, but the emotion and the motive behind the point that is being made by the speaker.  It is actively listening for, and actually catching, the why, the how and wherefore, as to what the speaker is saying.  Thus, at the end of a discussion the listener is not only able to repeat what was said by the speaker, but is also able to reflect its significance and it’s level of importance, to grasp the weight of its meaning and value to the speaker, and fully comprehend its intended purpose or impact upon the listener.   Love listens for the heart of the speaker and not just the words.

Love keeps it real and honest.  Honesty begins with one’s self.  That is, if you cannot be honest even with yourself, it will be next to impossible to be honest with another, even the one you love.  It is a false and misconstrued idea to think that if your spouse loves you enough, he or she will be able to automatically know what you desire or want or would like, without you telling him or her.  So, first be honest and truthful within yourself.  Give heed to that old saying, “know thy Self and to thine own Self be true.”  Know what you really like and dislike and then be ready to communicate as much to your spouse.  Don’t make your spouse guess and try to “discover” what your personal interests are.  Say it: “I don’t like Italian food.  I DO like Jazz.  I prefer this over that.”  Then negotiate from there.  Only people who are respectfully honest with each other are in a position to negotiate toward a happy and positive solution to what may appear at first sight to be conflicting likes and dislikes.  Love is genuine, authentic and open.

Love is vulnerable and humble.  It is our pride that gets us in the most trouble when it comes to relational and marital conflict.  Refusing to admit error or to accept being in the wrong is a common act of pride that is at the source of many broken marriages.  It’s an attitude that says, “I’m in the right and you’re in the wrong.”  It is being too proud to admit that your spouse may have a very good point and may be speaking a very real truth to you—one that perhaps you’d rather not hear because it makes you look bad.  Thus, to love someone is also to be humble before the one you love in such a way that you are willing to accept that he/she has strengths and gifts and talents that you yourself may not possess, letting that person shine where you cannot—and realizing that you also may be wrong where he or she may be actually quite right.  Love does not stubbornly refuse to admit shortcomings, weaknesses, and faults.

Love gives, as well as receives.  There is reciprocity in true love, a give-and-take.  Love not only gives, it receives.   When we receive a gift from another, we become somewhat indebted to the giver.  We are obliged.  Love receives and welcomes indebtedness to the giver/provider.  Love also gives and is willing to provide from the storehouse of one’s resources.  There is mutuality, mutual dependency and a healthy interdependency in love.  It’s not just a one way street.  If one is doing all the giving or all the receiving, true love is not at work.

And finally, love submits to the Greater LOVE, the Higher Authority, that is, the Greater Power—God.  Love works best when two lovers realize and accept the greater power of God over their lives to ensure that they grow to learn and embrace these practices and truths that are to be worked out in human relationships—the practice of humility, peace, patience, kindness, justice, respect, reciprocity and truth.

These practices are not for an elite corps of relational specialists.  These are to be learned, taught, and practiced by all.  Many of us fail to do so.  Though some refuse to submit to these greater truths, most of us want what’s best and hope to benefit from long lasting and fruitful relationships.  These principles, truths, values, and practices—call them what you will—are a sure-footed step in the right direction.