Pam’s Ring: Getting Better from the Inside Out

“Christianity is the only system of thought where the people who hold it expect those who don’t to be better people than they are.” – Tim Keller

I am a Navy Officer at heart.  My office is full of reminders of my Navy life.  Books about the sea and especially Naval service are some of my favorites.  I break out The Caine Mutiny about once a year and read it again.  It is the favorite of my favorites.  The Caine is an old destroyer converted to minesweeper.  In the story, the first Captain of the Caine is Lieutenant Commander DeVriess, a pragmatic veteran who runs the ship efficiently, if not exactly by the book.  The ship and her crew are not much to look at; rusty and crusty, but she out-performs the other ships in her squadron when its time to get down to the business of minesweeping.  Devriess’ relief is the strictly by-the-book Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg.  Soon after taking command of the Caine, Queeg institutes a campaign to square away the ship.  He is obsessed with appearances.  He harasses the men over the slightest infraction of dress codes.  He insists upon cleaning up the exterior of the ship.  Soon, the same ship that was the envy of the other Destroyer-Minesweepers can’t even deploy her own minesweeping gear without a fiasco.  She runs aground leaving port.  She steams over her own minesweeping tow cable and cuts it.  Queeg never lets up his pressure to change the ship’s outsides, even as his command descends into inefficiency and ultimately disaster.

There’s nothing wrong with clean and bright exteriors.  It is a good thing to wear a clean uniform and keep the regulations.  One of my favorite lines from The Caine Mutiny says the Navy is a system designed by geniuses to be run by idiots.  The rules and regulations are important, but they aren’t the core of the thing.  They aren’t the heart of the matter.  A Navy exists to fight and win the war at sea.  No system can put a fighting spirit in a ship.  No set of regulations will create epsrit de corps that will cause a crew to fight as one.  These 1229804_10151822196156442_468071875_nthings are interior.  They come from belief in the cause we are fighting for and belief in the leadership of the ship to have the crew’s best interest at heart.  If you try to impose change from the outside in by enforcing the rules and procedures, you will have neither a fighting crew nor a cohesive crew.  The first time real pressure comes, everything will fall apart.  None of us are built to trust in rules; we are made to trust in relationships.

A friend of mine got married to his second wife about a decade ago.  They face a lot of challenges.  Blended family.  Business pressures.  New baby.  Different sets of expectations.  When they got married, him being a business guy and into efficiency, he went to the same jeweler where he got his first wife’s rings and he bought the same set.  It was simple.  He knew the value and it seemed like a no brainer.  It was a nice set and she wore it proudly even though when she discovered it was the identical set of the ex-wife it was a bit unpleasant for a while.  Just recently though, as a surprise, he went and traded out the old set for something brand new.  His wife was very happy to receive it.  She said something profound when she showed off the new set over dinner.  She said she was glad he hadn’t gone out and replaced it in the first few years after she found out it was a copy.  She said that all the struggles they went through to be a couple and to work out who they are made this new ring feel more special and valuable and a true representation of their marriage.  Thats the thing.  You see it?  The outside is the last thing that gets changed, not the first thing.  Put a ring on it if you want to but the real change comes from the core.

Christianity is not religion.  It is not a set of rules imposed upon us by God that we attempt to keep so that eventually the core of our lives change.  Its the opposite.  Christianity is God giving us a new core identity that is working its way to the surface through the trials…in spite of the trials and the way it may appear at the surface.  Many religious people are better people than Christians.  Many non-religious people are better people than Christians.  There is plenty people can do to change things on the outside of their ship.  Paint the hull.  Shift the configuration of the equipment.  It doesn’t mean the ship is a fighting ship that can sail into harm’s way.  The gospel tells us that some day, because of the change that happened at the heart of us, God is going to put a new ring on our finger.  He will take us completely as his own.  He isn’t going to do this because we keep his rules (even though his rules and system are genius and would help us and the world run better), but because we accepted his esprit de corp; we entered his service and gave up on setting our own course.

Christians who know the gospel are not bothered by non-Christians who are better people.  It doesn’t make us feel inferior.  We know we didn’t make ourselves into Christians and we know its ok to “work out our salvation.”  We should relate to others with neither fear nor pride.  We should learn to keep God’s rules because we know he loves us and we can trust his leadership.  He has our best interests at heart.  If we can’t get that by looking at the cross, we need to keep looking.  No other captain dies for his crew when they fail him.  And no other captain is so unconcerned with how his crew reflects upon his own image.

Arizona: There is No Such Thing as Freedom of Religion

The Governor of Arizona vetoed a bill yesterday that had a lot of people up in arms.  Did you hear what the bill was about?  I saw a lot of activity on social media with posts about discrimination and race and homosexuality.  It seemed to me the bill must be about letting people decide to discriminate against minorities if they wanted.  I assumed it must mention specific issues abridging a gay person’s rights.  Who would support that?  Stupid.  This morning I finally got around to reading the bill.  You know it is amazingly simple to get informed in our day and age.  The bill I found is only two pages long.  You can read it yourself in less than three minutes.  Even with the legalese it isn’t hard to get through it.  I was surprised at what I found.  This bill isn’t about discriminating against gay people, its about protecting people’s rights to act according to their religious beliefs.  That is what it says.  The government is not allowed to make anyone violate their conscience. It is basically nothing more than a repetition of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

Personally I am very happy to have the First Amendment guaranteeing me that no one can make my wife wear a burqa or tell me I can’t read the Torah.  If you’ve looked around you know that religions ask people to believe and to do lots of things.  What to wear, what to read, what to say, when to say it, who to associate with, who you can marry…tons of stuff.  Most of it leaves somebody shaking their head one way or another.  There is no sensitive way to say this, so here it is:  freedom of religion means the freedom to act stupidly.

Now if it happens to be YOUR religion, it is the freedom to act piously or correctly or whatever, but if its someone else’s religion, that’s a different story.  We all know this or feel this, but few of us can be real enough to say it out loud.  And some religions take their particular set of beliefs and practices so seriously that venturing to criticize or laugh at state_oppression_1them will get your name on a religious hit list.  Religion is about pleasing God, improving the world and/or getting to heaven.  If you believe in God, there aren’t many things that could be more important than your religion.  Forcing someone to give up their religion’s belief structure is stealing their core identity.  It is intolerant.  It is evil.  No matter how stupid it may seem to you.

The dirty little secret, though, is that only religious people try to force their religion upon others.  The religious are both the oppressors and the oppressed.  It is the nature of religion to enslave, not to free.  If you really believe you have THE set of beliefs and behaviors that please God and that God can only be pleased by people believing and acting upon these things, you cannot help but look down upon those who don’t.  You have to relegate them to second class citizenship.  You have to oppress them either implicitly or explicitly.  You have to discriminate against them.  They are the people messing up the world by acting in ways that displease God.  They are the ones who bring judgment on all of us.

Great, you say – I was looking for someone to finally agree with me that religion is the problem so we can all agree to get rid of it.  But it isn’t so easy as that.  The absence of God or gods does not mean the absence of religion.  If you have what you think are THE set of beliefs and behaviors that will make the world a better place if everyone would just adopt them, you have the same issues as the religious people.  You don’t have a God you have a Good that you worship and serve.  You are in fact, a religious person without a religion.  And you look down upon those who don’t hold your beliefs.  You are intolerant of them and you oppress them in the name of your Good.  Your non-religious religion is just as enslaving as any other.  The fact is there is no such thing as religious freedom.

I will make a claim here that will make many of you scoff, but it is true.  The Christian gospel is not religion.  The Christian gospel is the opposite of religion.  I am not saying Christians are not guilty of religious abuses.  I am not saying Christians don’t do stupid things in the name of Christianity.  I am saying that the Bible does not teach religion.  The Bible is not the story of what we must do to please God or to get to heaven or to make the world into a great place.  The Bible tells the story of what God has done to help us, to fix what is broken, to get us to heaven and to make the world a better place.  The Christian gospel is not about bad people gradually becoming better people from the outside in by their beliefs and behaviors; it is the story of God changing people from the inside out when they start believing what he has done and that he is for them.  People who rightly believe the gospel have no business looking upon others as second class citizens because they are not keeping the right rules and holding the right beliefs.  Christians know that they are not making the world or themselves better because they keep the rules or believe the right things. They know it is a miracle of grace that they have come to believe the gospel.  They can’t give themselves any credit for it.  God is the one making everything better by what he does.  Christians don’t expect to be better people than their neighbors and have no glory in it if they are.  A Christian can only claim to be loved by God for no good reason, and because they know that the last thing love can be is coercive, they know better than to try forcing the gospel into anyone’s life.  It can’t be done.  There is no such thing as religious freedom, but there is freedom from religion.  The gospel is freedom from religion.  It is freedom to love people who really disagree with us.  It is freedom to know that God is the one who will make everything right in its time and in his way.

Why Jesus (and his followers) Are Barbaric

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barbarian (bâr’behreeun) – the sound of an unknown tongue upon a well ordered ear.

What Jesus said to the people who had a well ordered religion was barbaric and so they politely crucified him.  They thought it was the best way to remove the barbarian from among the civilized and to stop his caustic affect upon decent people. What Paul said to the well ordered religionists was also barbaric so they politely stoned him (the old fashioned way) for the same reason.

barb (bârb) – a sharp point which faces in the opposite direction of the main point of a weapon making it extremely difficult to remove.


What Kind of Righteousness Do We Have?

“Cold, light, and selfish in the last resort, he had that modicum of prudence, miscalled morality, which keeps a man from inconvenient drunkenness or punishable theft.”
(excerpt from The Body Snatcher by Robert Louis Stevenson)

What a man is when he is surprised is often the only way to see what he is.  Self righteousness is actually self discipline and self control rolled up in a tightly bound package.  But there is always a thread hanging out of that package and a time will come when a misstep here or there causes it to snag.  Nothing is as awful to see as the rapid unwinding of a man’s righteousness in the midst of a seemingly insignificant moment.  Give me a righteousness not my own to create or maintain; one that lasts and cannot come unwound.  Give me more than prudence, give me Christ and all that goes with him.the-body-snatcher-ii

Why Religion Fails

A god that needs to be defended by a man is not a god worthy of being served by men.

Religion must protect itself for it has no Defender.

Religion must speak for itself for it has no Spokesman.

Religion must coerce for it has nothing Attractive in it.

Religion must act for it has no Confidence upon which to rest.

Religion is offense waiting to happen.

Religion cheapens it’s own god by placing bounties on the heads of it’s enemies.

Religion must rule for it has no Ruler.

Religion is not related to the Gospel…it is from an altogether different family and father. fruitless-large

Dancin’ machine

imagesOn Sunday we got to spend 90 plus minutes with a well oiled dancin’ machine otherwise known as a timeshare salesman. I don’t dance so it was painful for everyone involved. The timesharer was leading and he knew all the steps – he even knew the steps to make when I was screwing up the routine by saying things out of turn or (most annoyingly) telling him I wasn’t interested in dancing anymore. I think there was only one step I was supposed to make and though he led me to it several times I just didn’t get it right – I just wouldn’t say yes. Oddly enough this guy who I thought liked me (he shared his last 20 years worth of vacation pictures with me, told me about his daughter’s wedding, and shared a very personal letter from a victim’s family of 9-11 about how glad they were that they’d spent a week in the time share he’d sold them) got up and walked away so fast after my last misstep it made my head spin. He couldn’t get over my dancelessness. Now that I think about it he should get together with some of the evangelists I know. They have a lot of the same moves. 

Does this Work?

“When faced with wonderful theory, good-sounding teaching, laws prohibiting, or innovative frames of reference, I believe that we rarely ask ourselves the question, “Does this work?” We are so miserable in our present condition that we are willing to listen to anything that promises a quick remedy. At various times I have been told that Christians are not to own televisions, radios, open-toed shoes, wire-rimmed glasses, brightly colored clothing, or an organ in the church building. But in the ranks of the legalists have been found the grossest of immoralities. It must not work!” – Mike Wells, Sidetracked in the Wilderness

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Why Are Jews Leaving France?

A warning for all of us:  the seat of the Enlightenment, ground zero for “higher” education and the rise of humanism fostered the Holocaust.  No one believed it could happen in such an educated, civilized, religious place like Germany.  Civilization, education, and religion are merely water on snakeskins that John the Baptist warned about as people came asking him to wash away their sins (Luke 3:7-8).  The gospel is the penetrating power to change us and turn us into people who can not only tolerate the stranger, but also to love an enemy.

The story out of France this week:
“Today Jews are migrating out of France, and this is occurring in increasingly larger numbers. This migration starts within France, as a mere change of locations. In Greater Paris, middle-class Jewish families are deserting neighborhoods that have been engulfed by more recent immigrants from Africa and the Near East. These new immigrant images (2)populations have proven prone to violence, and as radical Muslims, many entertain negative views about Jews and Judaism. Harassment, arson, and assault are frequent. There have been several murders. Even the liberal-minded Imam Hassan Chalghoumi of Drancy, who advocates friendly relations with Christians and Jews, was threatened and assaulted.” (full story here)

Coptic Christians Suffer with Egyptians

images (1)What is happening is that all of Egypt is being targeted, not just the Christians,” said Fr. Dawoud, a priest at the Virgin Mary church. “Enough! People are getting sick and tired of this.” – reporting on a shooting at a Christian wedding this week

Religion cannot tolerate competition for its affections.  It will oppress, suppress, depress, or deny all people trying to live in its vicinity.