A Song and a Blessing

I recently finished Deuteronomy. What a book! Moses recites God's Law to Israel, reminding them that success rides on obedience rather than strength of arms. He calls them to live obediently, rejecting the ways of the nations. He challenges them to love God only.

Deuteronomy ends with Moses delivering a song and a blessing. The song celebrates the way God fights for his people, delivering them from enemies. It ends thusly:

"Rejoice with him, O heavens;
bow down to him, all gods,
for he avenges the blood of his children
and takes vengeance on his adversaries.
He repays thsoe who hate him
and cleanses his people's land."

The blessing spreads hope for the ways God will bless individual tribes. It ends in a similar way;

"Happy are you, O Israel!
Who is like you,
a people saved by the Lord,
the shield of your help,
and the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall come,
fawning to you,
and you shall tread upon their backs."

These two pieces remind Israel of the most important thing, just before they enter the Promised Land: God fights the battles. He is the Sovereign One, success depends on Him alone, and their hopes for peace and prosperity rest on their relationship to him.

I love this thought, because it highlights truths that we can appreciate just as much today as the Israelites then. God fights our battles. We cannot look to worldly means for success, we can only live faithfully and trust God's direction for us. Our response to every challenge must be the same; faithfulness and obedience.

It is also beautiful and sad to remember throughout that Moses knows some key things:

1. He will not enter the Promised Land.
2. He will soon die.
3. Israel will fail to walk in obedience.

And yet he delivers this powerful oration with joy and strength, knowing that God will use his faithfulness rightly to bless the world with the knowledge of the Master of the Universe.

Deuteronomy is a powerful book for interacting with the character of God, and I've greatly enjoyed sitting under its teaching.

Next up; Micah.


The Joy for Those Who Obey

Deuteronomy 30 is the close of Moses' speech to the Israelites, which began in chapter 1. After the horrors of chapter 28 (see my last entry), it is full of welcome joy.

The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers...

It is an excellent closing arguement, because it emphasizes the certainty of God's character and the importance of choosing wisely.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.

What is interesting here is how Moses structures his speech as a call to action. "Do you desire blessing?" he seems to say. "Pursue it! Pursue it rightly, by repenting of sin and walking in obedience. Love God, love your neighbor. Enter joy by living in submission."

Recent days reminded me of the challenge presented by the world's self-centeredness. An atheist friend of mine recommended a book (called The Alchemist) which tries to beautify one young man's pursuit of his life purpose- conveniently ignoring the way he forsakes all duty, relational connections, and responsibility for the sake of finding what he wants. It is attractive because your mind tells you that the path will fulfill your longings.

After all, wouldn't it be nice to leave your spouse and family, leave your responsibilities, leave your problems? Do what you want, when you want? Never have to feel guilty?

It does sound nice. It is also a lie.

God calls us to something else entirely. He calls us to submission and sacrifice, to responsibility and suffering, to glorification of Him rather than of ourselves. And yet strangely, impossibly, and wonderfully- this path of suffering is the true path of joy and prosperity. What a God we serve.


The Horrors that Await Disobedience

My latest Deuteronomy (Ch. 28) reading was a little disturbing. It is a clear example of the Old Testament reward/punishment structure for the nation of Israel in response to their obedience or disobedience.

The simple, specific language (take note, all ye who would desire to be good writers!) is especially powerful. If you obey, it says, "Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock." Later it says, "And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you. And the Lord will make you abound in prosperity…"

However, if they do NOT obey, the results are horrifying. "The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. They shall pursue you until you perish." Not only that, but starvation will be so pervasive that, "The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, her afterbirth that comes out between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns." It really does not get much worse than that.

What do you think it felt like, to be among the people receiving this communication from the Lord? Would it not drive you to moralism, to fear, to shame? On one hand, I think our tendency is to gloss over passages like this. We prefer to talk about Jesus, about love, about joy. But are those things even possible without their antithesis? Could the Israelites hope for a Savior to come without a desperate fear of their inability to save themselves?

One portion of faithfulness in the life of a Christian is meditating on all that we have been saved from. The driving, sickening fear of punishment is now a mild guilt; we learn to be dismayed at our sin, but do not feel the pits of hell advancing every time we make a mistake. We cry before God, but not in abject horror at the shrieking tortures awaiting those who fall into serious moral decay.

Yes, our situation is somewhat different. God no longer ties earthly wealth to ethical adherence. But ultimately, our situation is the same. Our disobedience equals death and horror, and we only have one location in history to look to for salvation: the life, death, resurrection, and offer of salvation by Christ to all those who place their faith in him.

It is good to read the Old Testament. It allows us to see our need not merely as individual sinners, but as humanity. And it ought to fill us with desire for the spread of the gospel, as the only hope of the nations.


Where will the new Wilberforce come from?

William Wilberforce

Over at Owen's blog, he gives an excellent call for Christians to consider public service as an opportunity for displaying the gospel in the world, much the way William Wilberforce did in England. Let me say outright that I agree almost entirely with Owen in this. However, it brought to mind this question; why isn't this already happening? Lots of Christians are interested in politics, we have lots of money and plenty of people in the culture who lean our direction... where are the Wilberforces?

My suggestion is that it may partly be a question of tactics. Here is my response (which I posted in the comments section) to Owen's call.


Thanks for this thoughtful article. It expresses well a great need and a helpful metaphor.

However, I think there are two major things that go along with this call.

First, the need for evangelicals to rethink how we educate young people in regards to politics. I think our paradigms are not well thought out, and as a result Christian interaction with politics tends toward the extremely simplistic and unhelpful. Christian teaching about politics tends to focus only on value issues, apologetics, and the like. We are taught to be so moralistic, as well as so vociferous in our denunciations of secular morality, that we have little opportunity to demonstrate the grace and hope that the gospel offers. How can we be excellent negotiators and policy makers when so much Christian thought is devoted to loud denunciations of the evils of the secular worldview? They simply stop listening to us.

I saw this clearly, because for nearly seven years I was absolutely committed to being one of those Christians who would change the political sphere. I studied carefully, debated thoughtfully, took non-paying internships, was introduced to the right people, and so on. However, I soon saw that politics is dominated by secular characters. These people may claim faith, but generally are pragmatic to the core. When they think of Christians, they think of a voting block, but not serious thinkers about civic policy and direction. As a result, they have little reason to support Christian involvement in positions of real power and responsibility, because they do not think them capable of serious engagement with the issues. In fact, the reality is that they basically ignore us and placate us with pro-life votes.

This leads to the other problem. Christian ethics are extremely hard to maintain in the ultra-pragmatic world of politics. Part of the reason that those Christians in politics seem to be “weak” ones is that you usually HAVE to be willing to sacrifice your principles for the sake of advancement to leadership and decision-making roles. Wilberforce had massive advantages in regards to his personal fortune, his location in society and history, the governmental structure, etc. Without those, it is an extremely rare Christian who can both advance politically and maintain his ethical stance consistently.

In my own life, I saw how often (even at the lowest levels of party politics) I was required to compromise to gain notice and influence. Don’t want to steal the other candidate’s signs? You’ll never help run a campaign. Won’t accept money from pornography producers, sweat shop runners, unethical businessmen? We’ll run the guy who will. Won’t vote yes on the bill your party leader supports but you don’t? You won’t be supported by the party, won’t get a leadership position, and will be relegated to a meaningless committee. Won’t do a dirty backroom deal? You’ll never accomplish landmark legislation that will give your resume the credibility it needs to take the next step.

One possible exception to these problems is the legal field. Christians have made some remarkable gains in legal practice and judgeships, often in alliance with conservative groups such as The Federalist Society. Advancement comes through consistency and high standards, which works in Christians’ favor. However, party politics is nigh-unto impossible to navigate without moral compromise, unless a person makes a name for himself outside of the party “system.”

It is this last that is the key. Rather than support parties and hope that solid Christians can penetrate party structures (a rarity), I believe we can be much more effective on the local level. We can look for people with the will and character to make God-honoring decisions, and then strongly support them for jobs like county commissioner, mayor, or attorney general. After that, they have the opportunity to gain enough name recognition to run for Governor… and it’s the governors who are in the best position to run for executive office.

Bobby Jindal

So, there’s no one Senator I can think of whom I would feel entirely comfortable with running for President (this last election being Exhibit A). However, there are several governors who, if not perfect, exhibit signs of being our best hope for mature, thoughtful , and ethical leadership; Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, etc. (Palin hasn’t really convinced me that she is willing to forego the party line).

I guess what I’m saying is this… we Christians should probably focus less on supporting one party or making unholy alliances to focus on one issue, and focus more on using dollars and volunteerism to support individual candidates who show excellent moral character and an ability to create thoughtful and non-partisan policy. This, I think, will separate us from being characterized as a “voting block” and give far greater opportunity to use our civic engagement to point to the health and hope of the gospel.



Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States

Whatever your party, this is a historic moment for our country.

A Wistful Vote

Well, I voted. There are all kinds of good things about voting today.

-I get to add my contribution to the political process.
-Lines were short.
-No more abuse for my unorthodox political perspectives.
-One less thing for which to be called an argumentative person.
-It looks like almost all of my political predictions are going to come true (I thought Guiliani would do better, but otherwise I nailed most of them).

But that said, I did it with a bit of wistfulness. I voted for George W. Bush both times he ran, and am glad I did so. I will miss him. I think he was an excellent President in many respects.

-I believe he sought to lead in a morally consistent way. He sought to limit stem cell research on embryos, but expanded AIDS relief in Africa. He did more to fight the sex slave trade than any other president, and chose excellent judges who do not view abortion as a right. His tenure was marked by thoughtfulness and character rather than responsiveness to opinion polls.

-I believe he made courageous decisions, such as propping up an economy on the edge of disaster even though his own party was against it. He wanted the nation to be stable, and acted accordingly even though it seemed to go against his own party. He did so in spite of opinion polls.

-I believe he understood his role as a figurehead in times of crisis. His ability to deliver hope and strength exactly when we neeeded it were remarkable. He helped the nation heal quickly after September 11, and carried out justice as best we understood it. He only delivered a few great speeches, but those were truly great. Rather than focus on himself and his ability to fix problems, he guided us to faith in something higher as the source of hope. And he did not give speeches designed to respond to opinion polls.

-I think the justification for the Iraq war was badly communicated, but I think it was the strategically correct move and I believe our nation will reap the rewards (not primarily financial) for generations to come. I think Iraq and indeed the Middle East are significantly better off because President Bush saw a larger need for significant change in that region, and he followed through in a way that UN always has and likely always will be too weak to emulate. And he did not capitulate because of opinion polls.

-I believe he truly cared about us. But he cared too much to try to give us everything we asked for, because George W. Bush is not beholden to opinion polls.

I think these things make him a great man and president, as opposed to his predecessor, who DID build most of his actions around opinion polls.

So today I cast my vote for Barack Obama, because I believe he will be better for the nation on the whole in executing the office of president and casting vision for the people. But I also heave a sigh, because I will miss that brief period when we had a President too stubborn to listen to anything but his own moral clarity.

Thank you, Mr. President.


Economic Grapes of Wrath

(note: I also submitted this article at Christ and Pop Culture. Even so, my frustration on this point is personal enough that I thought I would post it here as well)

I recently joined a book club, and our next book is, "The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck. Most interesting was the reason for choosing this particular book; the choosers felt, "it would be especially relevant to our time and situation." In other words, they felt the many parallels between our time and the events depicted in the book warranted close consideration.

Of course, the title for the book comes from the Christian hymn "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," which uses martial terms to depict God's harshly judgmental return before the coming of the new heavens and the new earth. As it says;

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

In other words, the book depicts economic conditions so bad it is like being smashed in a winepress. Steinbeck carries the analogy forward to argue that its best result –or, "wine,"- is the way it forces workers to unite and organize. Still, his book depicts sad and crushing hardships during the late stages of the Great Depression.

But are things really so dire? Our presidential election seems to suggest it is. The campaigns are dominated by discussion of economics, and people have been more willing than prior years to look to government for financial help (even making Obama immune to accusations of socialism, whether or not these are true). President Bush's approval ratings are through the floor, partially for an unpopular war but with a much stronger correlation to the condition of the economy.

I, on the other hand, would tend to disagree for a couple of reasons. First, though government can be of help in times of crisis, it really does not control the economy. Our financial situation is governed by thousands of decisions by millions of different people, all of whom have their self-interest first and foremost in their hearts. To argue that our chief executive is the cause or the downfall of happy economic times is merely to find a scapegoat; any economist worth his salt will tell you that federal government impact on the economy is usually negligible at best.

Second, I would disagree quite strongly with the core accusation that our economy is fundamentally, "bad." After all, our unemployment is at 6.1%, better than all but the most efficient (and usually resource-rich) countries worldwide (by comparison, during the Great Depression it reached 24%). Average income, even after adjustment for the buying power of money, is light-years ahead of any other time in history, American or otherwise. And those truly in some form of poverty have more options for recourse and support than any other civilization that has ever existed.

As these thoughts were running through my mind, I came across a helpful article that compares our economic condition to that of the last twenty years. In it, the authors trash most objective measures of riches, and focus on how we FEEL about our money. In other words, they try to describe economic conditions by our emotional status rather than numbers that depict- well, economic conditions.

Their case is startlingly valuable, because it highlights a basic problem for human happiness; we have no perspective. Though we live in the richest, healthiest, most robust, most diversified economy in world history, we are angry about its condition.

The reason, I think, is a nice little mix of short memories, self-centeredness, and the influence of postmodern thought. Or, we forget things used to be worse, we desire the absolute best for ourselves, and we think the relative value of economic conditions is a matter of comparing them to the best we ever had.

This is a childish way of thinking. If I defined the value of marriage by comparing it to the absolute best our relationship ever was, I would be unhappy all the time (or at least divorced in a very short amount of time). If I defined whether a meal is good by comparing it to the best meal I ever tasted, then a dinner at a four-start hotel would ruin my appetite for life.

Christians, then, need to approach our time in this world very differently. Here are a few principles for responding to living conditions, economic or otherwise.

Trust God's Providence. The Christian who believes God is in control has no real reason to fear or become incensed over the condition of the economy. God provides what is right and good, and our goal must be to respond with faithfulness to whatever he deems to be best.

Practice Contentment. Jeremiah Burroughs, in "The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment," (highly recommended) points out that if our desires are larger than our possessions, we will always be unhappily straining to achieve our desires and ignoring the blessing of our possessions. However, if we learn to constrain our desires to meet our possessions (in other words, accept that God has given what we need), we will find contentment and joy in the present, rather than looking for it in the future.

Hope in the Gospel, not Finances. We look forward not to a time of constant economic growth, or fulfillment of our wildest financial dreams, but to a place of perfect joy and peace. Money is a tool, but it is not a fountain of satisfaction. God, on the other hand, is. In times of economic downturn (relative though they may be), Christians have a special opportunity to show the world that our joy is different from theirs, that our hope is not conditioned on our portfolios, and that Jesus is the same whether we are getting richer or not.

In these and other ways, Christians can reflect the image of God by laughing at days to come, because our Risen Savior is Ruler of All.