Friday, May 25, 2007

Pentecost and Memorial Day

Every now and again, the Feast of Pentecost and Memorial Day fall back-to-back on the calendar, as they do this year. At first blush, they seem to have little in common: one is religious, the other secular; one focuses on the harvest of firstfruits, the other on the patriotic sacrifices of loved ones; one has an agrarian background, the other has its roots in war; and so forth. They seem to be as far removed from each other as ancient history and current events, as distant as Jerusalem from Washington.

Yet, we should not be too hasty in concluding that they do not share any common features. Immediately, we can see that they occur in the same season of the year, as spring is ending and summer looms. In this way, they both mark time, an end and a beginning.

Memorial Day does this in a couple of ways. For most, and especially for children, this holiday, situated as it is at the end of May, represents the end of the school year and the beginning of the more carefree summer months. If the administrators had an ounce of sense, most schools would not run their academic year beyond Memorial Day, since 99 percent of the students have already mentally finished their studies for the year. Requiring them to attend class into the heat of June serves only to fulfill meaningless mandated days-of-instruction regulations. Of course, it follows that this holiday ushers in the months of summer vacation until Labor Day in early September.

A more serious set of ends and beginnings in Memorial Day is one that those who have lost loved ones in the nation's wars realize all too well. For these, Memorial Day closes one year and begins another without the soldier, sailor, airman, marine, or guardsman or –woman who gave his or her life in the defense of American freedom. This day is for them not so much a holiday as it is a solemn day of remembrance and pride in the patriotism of their fallen service member. In many, it renews a commitment to the national values that so many have died to protect.

For its part, Pentecost concludes the seven-week count from the Days of Unleavened Bread, specifically commanded by God and unlike the determination of any other holy day. Such an oddity is a biblical tip-off that underlying spiritual meaning awaits our further study and consideration. That the count begins in the atmosphere of the Feast of Unleavened Bread—when thoughts of overcoming sin and putting on righteousness are thick in the air—traverses a time of verdure and growth, and finishes in a harvest, a reaping or gathering of ripe produce, should clue us in to at least one of the lessons God wishes us to learn from this annual exercise.

It marks a beginning too. Acts 2 tells us that the Christian church began on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead as a type of the wavesheaf offering, as the First of the firstfruits (Romans 8:29; I Corinthians 15:23; Revelation 1:5). On this day, God sent His Holy Spirit to dwell in those few who had been converted during Christ's ministry, providing them with the understanding, power, and skills to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom of God to the world. From then until now, the church of God has fulfilled this commission to a greater or lesser extent, the gates of the grave not prevailing against it (Matthew 16:18).

Because Pentecost focuses so much on the church and its work, it is not too much of a stretch to consider it a kind of day of remembrance of those who have gone before us spiritually. From that first Christian Day of Pentecost to our own time, thousands of men and women have given themselves in sacrifice—both in dying and in living—to transmit the true gospel to us. Many true Christians in the first century, and certainly almost all the apostles, suffered martyrdom for their convictions about God and His way of life. Some of them suffered cruelly in the "pleasure gardens" of Nero and in the "games" in the Coliseum, but many more died alone and unheralded at the hands of rioters, wicked judges, and tyrannical rulers.

The sacrifices did not end there. In many times and places, the true church and its practices have been outlawed under penalty of fines, imprisonment, and death. Under such injustice, keeping the Sabbath was risking one's life—and the lives of one's family members. Whether it was being baptized by immersion or celebrating Passover or even reading Scripture in one's native tongue, practicing God's way of life was for such people a matter of life and death. Yet, down through the centuries, many gladly took this risk upon themselves, and what is more, some had the courage to proclaim it beyond their families to the public. Most of these paid the highest price for their boldness, but the truth of God never ceased to be handed down from one generation to the next.

What the author of Hebrews says about the Old Testament faithful in Hebrews 11:35-40 can be applied to many true Christians over the last nearly two thousand years:

Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.

The Day of Pentecost pictures the spiritual harvest of firstfruits, among whom will be the Christian faithful down through the centuries. They still wait in their graves for their resurrection with us at the return of Christ, and for the fulfillment of God's promise of eternal life and their reward in the Kingdom of God (I Corinthians 15:51-52; I Thessalonians 4:13-17). Perhaps we can take a few moments this weekend to consider their sacrifices and thank God that He has called such heroes of faith into His Family.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Liberalism and Legalism

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As our various governments become increasingly liberal, a horrifying—a word chosen with care—paradox becomes more apparent: A more liberal America is becoming less free. The conventional wisdom is that conservatism is restrictive while liberalism is liberating, but in practice, the opposite is true. While conservatives generally uphold standards to a higher degree than liberals do, they are in the main legal minimalists. Liberals, on the other hand, while they disdain
moral standards—and do their best to tear them down at every opportunity—are legal maximalists. Because of this liberal trait, we find ourselves buried under an avalanche of laws, regulations, orders, procedures, and bureaucratic oversight and interference.

Many people fail to understand this aspect of the liberal mind, so it may take some explanation. The misunderstanding arises from linguistic and historical misconceptions about what "liberalism" is. Liberal is—or was—a good word. It derives from the Latin word liber, which means "free," and thus has the same root and underlying sense as "liberty." Classically, a liberal person was free in bestowing upon others; he was generous, in other words. Sometimes, his generosity extended beyond economics into more ethical areas to include freedom from prejudice on racial, ethnic, sexual, social, religious, or even national grounds. An individual could also be liberal in more aesthetic areas, depending on his attitude toward the arts, sports and entertainments, or fashion—for instance, whether he liked and promoted avant-garde artists in music, painting, acting, or poetry.

Historically, a political or philosophic liberal advocated expanding personal freedoms. For instance, the religious reformers of fifteenth-century Europe were liberals in the eyes of the Catholic Church, for they advocated stripping the Pope and his hierarchy of priests of their power and control over Christians. In a similar way, the men at the forefront of the ensuing Enlightenment campaigned for political and philosophical freedom, that is, for more democratic forms of government (as opposed to autocratic, centralized rule) and more reliance on human reason and science (as opposed to divine revelation via Scripture and church, which they considered "superstition"). Many of America's Founding Fathers, today considered quite conservative, were the "flaming liberals" of their time. They took Enlightenment ideas of liberty and put them into practice on a grand scale.

However, as political systems and cultures evolved, "liberal" slowly changed meanings. While nations have always been composed of people with a wide range of views, Western democratic nations soon developed the modern political spectrum by dividing into factions, known as political parties. Usually, the spectrum fell into two primary parts, which we call "the Right" and "the Left." Rightists desired things to remain as they were, or even to return to a standard of the past. Being advocates of the status quo, they became known as "conservatives"—they wanted to conserve or preserve the nation as it was.

Leftists, though, were not satisfied with the current state of affairs in one area or another. They desired to improve society: to better working conditions, to increase wages, to open access to wealth and privilege to more people, to raise the status of various minorities, etc. They did not want the country to stagnate, as they saw it, but to make progress in many areas of life. Leftists became known as "progressives."

So far, so good. Yet, despite being humanitarians and succeeding in many areas that needed to be addressed, the progressive spirit became poisoned through excess and evolutionary thinking. Progressives began to reach beyond merely improving society to remaking it along the lines of the then-new ideas of Darwin, Marx, and Freud. Soon, progressive parties around the world were controlled by atheists and communists who used their crude understanding of human psychology to persuade and control huge populations. The world has progressive thinking to thank for such historic movements as the Russian and Chinese communism, German National Socialism, most Third-World dictatorships, Liberation Theology, and even institutions that many people today consider more-or-less benign, like the United Nations, the World Bank, the AFL-CIO, and Greenpeace.

In the United States, with the defeat of Nazism in World War II and the advent of the Cold War, first "communist" and then "socialist" took on pejorative meanings. To be considered a communist was to be blackballed, making one's life almost unbearable and unsustainable. After a time, it was almost just as ruinous to be called a socialist, as most informed people understood that socialism is communism with a yellow happy face for a mask. Thus, in America, Leftists needed a new label, and "liberal" would work just fine—its benevolent meaning would hide a multitude of progressive ideas and programs.

Today's liberals repudiate the term because more people have caught on to their linguistic joke. But liberals they are, as their progressive ideas and voting records expose. Since their predecessors' failures to remake the world through revolution, they have decided to do the job through legal means, one law or regulation at a time. They are willing to let the nation evolve, as they believe man evolves, by increments, if need be—though they would love to see it make a progressive leap every now and then.

Thus, they have taken over the governments of this land—not the visible leadership in many cases, but the invisible bureaucracy supporting the elected leaders. There, hidden from view and in many cases shielded from responsibility, they tinker with our freedoms, slowly changing "the land of the free" into a nation in a legal straitjacket. The legal code of the U.S. is mammoth, so massive that no one can keep abreast of it any longer. Why else has the legal profession in this country exploded except that 1) there are so many laws, people are breaking them right and left, consciously or unconsciously; and 2) teams of lawyers are necessary to handle the intricacies of the law? Liberalism is killing this nation. Legalism is its weapon.

Many people think that the church of God is legalistic—or that God Himself is legalistic. That is the furthest thing from the truth! God commands His creation, humanity, to follow only ten principles of living, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5). While this may be an oversimplification, He does not overwhelm us with laws or change them every few years. All of His laws fit in one, easily accessible, unchanging Book. Compared to life under human liberalism, living under God's revealed way of life is liberating!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Commencement 2007

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The news this morning is that today is Graduation Day at Virginia Tech, and the reporters covering the story are probing just how different this day will be from other commencement exercises in years past. Though only a handful of the victims of the April 16 mass murder would have graduated this year, the university is planning to honor the 27 student victims with posthumous degrees, and class rings will be given to their families. Security will be a primary concern for attendees.

However, many other universities, colleges, and high schools will be graduating millions of students over the course of the next month. These young people will be "commencing" their adult lives, beginning new careers, starting families, and launching out into a world of both opportunity and danger. Yet, the graduating members of the class of 2007 need more than a pep talk to prompt their charge onto the field of their future endeavors—they need a sober, eye-opening vision of reality. Thus:

Congratulations, graduates! You are to be commended for fulfilling the requirements of the degree program in your chosen area of study. All those late nights of cramming have paid off! You have accomplished a worthy goal.

However, despite the thousands of dollars you and/or your parents have paid for this slip of parchment, despite the midnight oil you probably burned from time to time, despite the mounds of pizza boxes and cans of Red Bull you likely added to our nation's landfills, despite the ill health you may have suffered as a result, you must let go of much of what you learned and experienced in this institution of learning and start from scratch.

That may seem rather harsh and to diminish what you have accomplished—and it may be a bit of hyperbole—but it reflects cold reality. Your modern, cutting-edge, progressive education is not really worth all that much over the long haul. Sure, it will probably help you to land a job, and the technical skills and the raw facts you learned will be of some benefit in that job, but just about everything else has been fairly worthless.

Now, I can see that you are either shocked or unbelieving, and that is to be expected. You have been taught not to accept this at my say-so. Nevertheless, should we ever meet again, say forty years down the line, I hope that you will let me know whether I was right or not. Perhaps by that time we will both be wise enough to have realized the whole truth about life.

Today is Commencement Day, and that means "the day of beginning." Everything up to now has been preparation for beginning adult life with the tools to succeed in it. You have been taught facts, figures, skills, techniques, perspectives, and methodologies. By graduating, you have proven to your teachers that you have a passable grasp on the subjects they have taught you.

But this is America 2007. Our public schools and most of our colleges and universities are entirely secular in philosophy. They are a hodge-podge of ideas and theories and assumptions, and 99 percent of them have their origins in the minds of men. Your professors and teachers have fed you a load of humanism from kindergarten to your final exam before this momentous day of achievement. What you have learned, then, is as finite and as flawed as humanity itself. Man's knowledge and ideas can reach only as high as man and no farther. Alone, mankind cannot break through the glass ceiling of his own limitations.

Sadly, your education has not prepared you for life. It may have prepared you for a job, but life? Hardly. Is life a job? What a poor life that would be! Life is not a career, a skill, a profession, or any kind of way of making a living. Yet, that is all a secular education can provide. It does not have the stature to go beyond material knowledge, beyond the skills of mind or hand.

As others have noted, the schools of this nation have closed, locked, and barred the door to the one Person who could teach this truly "higher learning." Of course, I am speaking of God Himself. The apostle Paul informs us that the natural man apart from God can only know the things of men—physical, material, technical knowledge. If we desire to know truly useful and eternal things—knowledge, understanding, and wisdom about the "big questions" of life—they have to be revealed by God through His Spirit. Otherwise, the answers to those "big questions" remain sealed between the covers of a closed Book.

Can I let you in on a secret? We call this a "commencement," and think of it as the end of a period of preparation for life—and it is. But the truth is that all of life is a time of preparation; we are preparing for real, eternal life. What we do in this life readies us for everlasting life as children of God in His Kingdom. Our experiences, beliefs, and practices will shape our characters and forge our destinies beyond this mortal coil.

If God is beginning to work with us, this knowledge should begin to rearrange our thinking and reprioritize our goals. Suddenly, a sheepskin diploma does not possess the value it may have had just minutes ago. It has its own worth, a material importance, but it pales beside the value of things like a relationship with God, a loving spouse, a close family, personal integrity, self-control, a sterling reputation, and a sound mind. These are the bones of real life, and the diploma and the job are merely means to put food on the table, clothes in the closet, and a roof over our heads.

With these thoughts in mind, we can leave here with new resolution to begin preparing for life. Yes, you heard me right. This commencement is just the end of the first semester, as it were, in our lives of education and preparation for real life. If we study hard, do our exercises, and pass our tests, true commencement will take place on some future day when we hear the great Chancellor of the Universe say in the hearing of all, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"