Horror of the “Same Old Thing”

screwtapeThe real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing . . .

-Screwtape (C S Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, letter 25)

ISIS, Martyrdom, Fear, and the Hope of Christ

Screen grab from Al-Jazeera television.

Screen grab from Al-Jazeera television.

Yesterday, ahead of the weekly sermon, I said a few words about recent events where 21 Egyptians were beheaded on a beach in Libya.  The executioners were ISIS affiliates.  The victims were self-identified Christians.  It is important that we face and at least try to address some current issues from the viewpoint of those who embrace the Gospel.  Here is a paraphrase of what I shared on Sunday:

 

We are trying, in addition to preaching, to make some brief pastoral commentary on issues that are current in our world.  This week, on a beach in Libya, 21 Egyptians were beheaded by ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State.  Many of us will have known of this through the news.  This is not new or the only such event but because of the imagery it serves as emblematic of such violence happening these days.  So for a few minutes, I’d like to just comment on that.

ISIS – I’d like to say a few words about ISIS.  They are a group that is motivated by their religious ideology and they believe that they are brining history to its conclusion.  They are not just a bunch of “wackos” but are acting upon a very coherent view of the world and of their own actions.  I’ll post (Graeme Wood, The Atlantic) probably the best article I’ve found on their background and beliefs.  It’s not a politically driven article, neither is it from a polarizing magazine.  If you’re interested you should read it.  It is difficult in our culture, being couched in comfort and secularism as we all are, to believe in such things.  But as Christians, we have a basis and foundation for belief in real evil – even religious evil.  ISIS is without doubt an example of a deeply religious evil.

*  Of course, it needs to be said that most Muslims in Canada are our friends and neighbours.  Also, most Muslims in the world can live in peace with us.  Most victims of ISIS are Muslims.  We need to remember our friends and neighbours both locally and globally and to pray for their prosperity, peace, and safety.

 

VICTIMS – A few words now about the victims of this event.  They were Egyptian Coptic Christians who practice a very different version of Christianity than us.  But they were killed because of their association with Christ – they died because they would not renounce Him.  This  makes them martyrs and martyrdom is not new.  If we’ve forgotten the call to follow Christ often involves this than we must allow a rebuke to fall upon us.  We have too much comfort, too much secular influence.

US –  So what about us?  When we watch or read of such events, I think we either go numb or feel shaken.  Neither of those is good.  I’m going to pray for us in moment – to be strengthened – to be faithful.  ISIS deliberately wants us to feel they are in charge of history.  This is their religious motivation.  Our own secularized culture wants us to understand this as something else; merely political or some other social phenomena.  We must not go numb and we must not be shaken or give in to fear.  So I will say one more thing that will correct us, comfort us, anchor us.

THE LORD – Our confession is that it is the Lord, the Triune God, who is in charge of history.  And Jesus is the Lord, the King of world, the Lord of all the Earth.  His way is justice, peace, love.  His way only looks weak, but in fact He is strong.  There is a conclusion to history and He will bring it – no other.  ISIS is not in charge of history, Jesus is.  As Christians we confess Him and while we can not predict how or when the conclusion to history will come, we must have hope in our confession.  We can have real hope.  The last book of our Bible was written to give us hope and to show us that Christ is the Master of History.  There are many interpretations to that last book but if we read Revelation and don’t find hope and confidence – we’re reading it wrong.  The Lord is in charge – no other.

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So we must have confidence in our confession and we must pray.

We must pray for mercy for our enemies.  This is what Jesus commanded and taught us to do.

We must also pray for God’s justice to come.  This is equally part of New Testament teaching.  (O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood…)  

We must pray for all our neighbours (in mind here are Muslims locally and globally) for peace and safety for them.

We must pray for all those who suffer for the sake of association with Jesus.  Their suffering and even death teaches and sometimes rebukes us.  We must pray for strength and faith for them.  We can also pray for their safety and peace.

For ourselves we must pray against fear and complacency.  And pray for confidence in our confession that Jesus is the Master of History and the Lord of all the Earth.

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For more on this issue:

What ISIS Really Wants – Graeme Wood, The Atlantic.  Wood writes a very lengthy analysis into the beliefs of ISIS and how they differ from other forms of Islam.  This article is vital if one wants to understand the headlines.

The Briefing from February 18, 2015 – Dr Al Mohler (audio).  Al Mohler is a Baptist theologian who addresses the recent beheadings on his daily podcast.  His commentary is helpful.

A Biblical Meditation on the ISIS execution of 21 Christians – Tom Schreiner.  Schreiner gives some Scriptural reflections on the recent events.

Misguided Compassion, the “Right” to Die, and the Christian Response

Heart Rate

This past Sunday, I took a few moments to make some commentary on the recent decision by our Supreme Court to strike down the ban on physician assisted suicide.  Here is a rough paraphrase of what I touched upon.

 

We have been trying to make some brief commentaries about current issues during our gatherings.  And so before I begin my sermon I’d like to make a few comments about the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in which they struck down the ban on assisted suicide.

Maybe you didn’t know about it, maybe you didn’t care, maybe you were troubled by it, maybe you’re wondering why it’s a big deal.

It needs to be said that this decision, and the public support behind it, is motivated by compassion.  There are many people suffering in our country and it is right and compassionate to want to end suffering.  Compassion is good but in this issue the compassion is seriously misguided.

We must all seek to diminish suffering.  The classic Christian moral tradition, which we inherit, has always asserted that we must never eliminate suffering by eliminating the sufferer.  This is because every life is precious, worthy of protection, not because of conditions or circumstances but just because it is a human life.

We should be concerned for several reasons:

1)  That this “right” will soon become an obligation.  Sufferers may soon face pressure to make what some will consider the “brave choice”.  Likewise, those who choose to continue living may be increasingly seen as being a burden.

2)  Christianity has always looked out for the most vulnerable of our society.  For us, these are namely the aged, the mentally ill, the marginalized, and the disabled.  We are promised safeguards for physician assisted suicide but the terms are vague, subjective, and do not inspire confidence.  The most vulnerable among us may well be placed in a precarious situation.

3)  When the door to this kind of death is opened, we have no way to stop where it may go.  This concern is often dismissed as a ‘slippery slope argument’ but we need only look to some places in Europe – Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark – to see what abuses are already occurring.

4)  Finally, we should be concerned that other avenues for alleviating suffering such as investment in hospice care and palliative research will be diminished.  These have only just begun to be explored.

We also have a different resource than some of our neighbours for resisting this false compassion.  We have a framework into which we can place the virtue of compassion.  We believe and follow God, the Author of all life.  We believe in the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus which makes us His people.  This Gospel message gives us every resource we need to live in times such as these.  It may be that in the years to come, those who stand for a culture of life will sound increasingly like a voice crying in the wilderness.  But we ought not to be troubled, we have been appointed to live in times like these.  The age we live in, with all its confusion and troubles, is a gift to us.  It gives us a chance to live like saints in the midst of society.  So let’s be firm, not be troubled, and hear the call to live like saints in our world and in our neighbourhoods.  And let us always stand for life.

For more commentary:

Why Assisted Suicide Will Put Canada’s Most Vulnerable At Risk – Steve Swan (yours truly), CBC

Our Euthanasia Point of No Return – Father Raymond J. de Souza

A Very Dangerous Euthanasia Ruling – Alex Schadenberg

Crossing the Rubicon, Supreme Court seems eerily complacent about ramifications of assisted suicide ruling – Andrew Coyne

Bruce Clemenger on 100 Huntley Street (video) – Bruce Clemenger of the EFC

 

 

The True Opiate of the Masses

Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.
-Czeslaw Milosz

Why Should We Pray For The Police? (and by extension, the entire city)

Police

Why should we pray for the Police?  This is not an abstract question.  For the second year in a row, my city’s Police Service have asked for 52 congregations to pray for them.  Each congregation signs up for a week and has assigned prayers for each day.  The idea is that every day of the year there are intentional intercessors praying for the Police, the communities they serve in, and the city at large.

So why should we participate?  And why should we participate with an abundance of glad enthusiasm?  I’ll offer four thoughts:

We were asked to pray.  Praying for the police is not an idea cooked up by religious leaders of our city.  Chief Devon Clunis has put out the request himself.  A Christian man himself, and one who sees faith and work necessarily related, he has risked ridicule and criticism in order to put out this plea.  He says he believes in prayer.  He also says he believes in action.  He is wise enough to know that to pray does not mean to abscond from other ways of participating.  But prayer is key.  Prayer empowers work and it is in itself a work.  According to Chief Clunis, Winnipeg has had a 14% drop in crime overall.  But there is more to do.  So we’ve been asked.  If we had a friend who made themselves vulnerable enough to ask for our prayers, we’d be remiss if we didn’t.  Our Police Chief has asked us.

We’ve been commanded to pray.  As Christians, we are commanded to honour and respect our civic leaders.  Both the Apostles Peter and Paul make this abundantly clear.  The New Testament also commands us to pray for all people, specially mentioned are those in a position to affect the civic life of others.  This means more than just the police certainly not less than them.  So this is not new.  To pray for those in authority, those who make concrete difference in our public life, is to by extension pray for the good of everyone.  We are praying for the good of our entire city when we pray for Winnipeg Police.  A command like this is general but we in this city have been given a specific call to obey it.  Christians can often forget about the wider world around us.  We can fall into the trap of praying only for our own concerns or maybe even our own lives.  We have to listen to God’s commands to cast our vision further than our own problems and situations.

There is great need for prayer.  Every large city has its issues.  Our city has its problems and recently attention has been given to this.  There is poverty, crime, violence, distrust between communities and the list goes on.  We don’t need to have all the answers in order to ask God to heal, bless, and restore Winnipeg.  Chief Clunis has made clear that he believes in crime reduction through community development.  When specific prayer requests are given to the churches from the Police Service, much of them are along the lines of prayer for troubled communities and the root causes of crime.  There is also the need to pray for police officers themselves.  They put themselves in danger often and need safety.  Police are also sinners and far from perfect.  There is need for greater justice in how they police this city.  There is great need for prayer.

This is why we’re here.   Winnipeg is a city with troubles.  Winnipeg is also a city with things going for it.  It is a difficult place to live for some.  We should want it to become a better place to live for all.  There is no better parallel then when Jeremiah wrote instructions to God’s People while they were in exile in Babylon.  Living in troubled times, on the margins of their culture, they were tempted to withdraw into their own religious bubble.  Perhaps they felt tempted to throw their hands up and see the world around them in a “hell-in-a-handbasket” way.  No! said God through Jeremiah.  They were to get involved, make their lives there, and work to the betterment of all their neighbours.  Seek the welfare of the city, they were told, which meant working for the prosperity, safety, and flourishing of the wider community.  And pray to the LORD on its behalf they were commanded (hear this echoing in Peter & Paul?).  As God’s People in Winnipeg in 2015, we are to participate and pray as well.  The city (through the Police Chief’s leadership) is even asking us to.  Why should we pray for the Police?  Because they are an instrument of God for social betterment.  Why should we pray for the communities served by them?  Because we are a part of those communities.  Why should we pray for the Police and the good of the entire city?  Because, like the Babylonian Exiles, we have been placed by God here in Winnipeg for HIs purposes.  It is the reason we’re here.

Winnipeg The Racist? A Response

racism-2One of Canada’s foremost news and cultural magazines, Maclean’s, has published a story by former Winnipegger, Nancy MacDonald, in which it is claimed that Winnipeg is the most racist city in Canada.  How racism can be objectively measured I do not know.  Nevertheless, as MacDonald builds her case it is a painful read.  For someone who has lived their entire life in Winnipeg, with all the benefit of membership in a demographic least likely to experience racism, it brought home to me what many Winnipeggers live with every day.  Fear, violence, dehumanizing prejudice, and loss of hope.

One does not need to have Christian faith to be able to see clearly the problem or to grieve over it.  Many of our neighbours, regardless of their beliefs, are able to bring wise commentary.  We should listen and learn wherever wisdom can be found.  But what can the Christian worldview bring that is unique in terms of response?  Here are some humble suggestions:

We can appreciate and value the authorities over us.  We are to do this, and to pray for themno matter what our leaders are like but sometimes good leadership makes it a pleasure.  Our new mayor, Brian Bowman, should be commended for not dodging, blame-shifting, excuse-making, and buck-passing.  He addressed the city alongside many civic and aboriginal leaders and set the right tone.  Words will need now to be backed up by real leadership – but words are often the beginning of action.  Authority flows to those who take responsibility and it flees from those who make excuses and blame others.  Our leaders, at least for the present, are earning trust.  We should give it.  And let’s pray for them.

 Let us recognize basis for the dignity of all.  Many people in our world value equality and the rights that flow from a shared humanity.  Less appreciated is that classical Christianity has given the world the firmest basis for this.  Even wise atheists can recognize this.  Christianity teaches that all persons are created in the image of God.  This is not something merited by birthplace, sex/gender, culture, or status.  It is also something that, although tarnished, can not be lost.  It means that dignity, respect, and protection must be sought for all without exception.  Perhaps less popular is the clear teaching that we are all, though image-bearers, completely sinful.  There is no one more or less advantaged in this.  There is no one better than another – no not even one.  This is the great equalizer – both individually and culturally.  Just as our individual sins give us no reason to look down on another, our collective sinfulness ought to humble us too.  European cultural failures and virtues are no greater than those of African or Aboriginal cultures.  There is difference and there is overlap but we are no better than each other.  Universal sinfulness may not be fashionable on the marketplace of ideas, but it does help to give a firm foundation for the equality of all.  And it humbles us.

Realize why we were placed in Winnipeg – Service and Prayer.  Nothing in life is by accident if God is King of the world and the Author of all history.  This means that Christians who live in Winnipeg were placed in Winnipeg.  A purpose must be in the mind of God.  Why does he want us here?  There is no better parallel than when God’s People (Israel) are sent into exile in Babylon.  While seeking to live as a minority in a pagan city, tempted to withdraw into their own little religious bubble of concerns, the prophet Jeremiah sends a letter, giving instruction.  Its content is as relevant now as it was then.  They are not to retreat from being part of the larger community, the city, though they live with many different from them.  They are to participate in the wider community and to love it.  God’s People are to love the city they’ve been placed in.  Pivotal is the command:  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  “Seek the welfare” means to seek, desire, work for the prosperity, peace, well-being, safety of every one of their neighbours – no matter who they are.  And they must “pray”.  Not just prayer for their own concerns and interests which is such an easy trap to fall into.  They are to pray so that their city – far from perfect – can become a better place for all.  The Christian church today is not Israel, and Winnipeg isn’t Babylon, but the command still stands and applies for us.  We have been placed in this troubled city for a purpose – to serve and to pray.

Violence? Religion?

violence religion

Above is a submachine gun with the French words – Ceci n’est pas une religion.  It’s a play on Magritte’s famous The Treachery of Images – but that is an art history lesson for another day.

The image (which I wish I could cite the artists for) is undoubtably circulated as comment on recent attacks in Paris by extremists.  It is meant to sever the link between an ideal of religion and violence in the name of that religion.  But is it true?  Does violence really have nothing to do with religion?

I think we are deceiving ourselves if we say it doesn’t.  Religion can fuel violence.  Whether it is a primary cause of violence is another matter.  We can not, however, say that it has nothing to do with violence.  Religious people have caused violence.  Sometimes, their religion serves as an inspiration for their violence even if it is not the only one.

As a Christian it would be silly for me to say one belief system has a monopoly on violent acts.  But what I can say, humbly but confidently, is that Christian faith makes no room for violence in the name of God.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written,“Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  Romans 12:9

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.  1 Peter 3:9

True Christianity, does not, can not endorse violence in the name of itself.  Other religions may, however, and it is folly to assert that they don’t.  History is filled with religious violence.  History is filled with religious violence wearing a Christian gloss.

This is not to say there is not place for defensive violence.  Christianity has a rich history of pacifism – of which I am not a part.  There may be, and I would argue that there is, a place for Christians to serve the common good by being a police officer, let’s say.  But one does not need to be a strict pacifist to hold to the truth that authentic, apostolic, Jesus Christianity leaves no room for retaliation, vengeance, aggression, or defence of our God’s honour.

But it is possible that many religions do.  We must be even more careful then, to flee from false religion and embrace the Gospel.