Thursday, December 29, 2011

Utah court gets it right on right to life

The Utah Supreme Court recently ruled that an unborn child qualifies as a minor and wrongful-death claims can be filed on behalf of a fetus who dies before birth.

The decision stemmed from a 2006 medical negligence lawsuit filed by a Utah County couple after their baby was stillborn.

A few other states have also extended liability for wrongful death of unborn babies, and some states are proposing ballot initiatives to recognize the legal personhood of a fetus.

I applaud the Utah court’s ruling. The recognition of a fetus as a person promotes the sanctity of life.

The crux of the pro-life argument is that life begins at conception and thus terminating a pregnancy is equivalent to ending a life.

Scriptures teach that a fetus in the womb is a living being who has a divinely ordained purpose. The prophet Isaiah said, “The Lord called me before my birth; from within the womb he called me by name.” God said to the prophet Jeremiah, “I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart.” The psalmist declared to God, “You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.”

From a biblical perspective, ending a life in the womb is unthinkable.

While the pro-life premise has scriptural backing — and the termination of a pregnancy violates the tenants of many faiths — opposition to abortion is not simply a religious issue. These recent decisions are giving the movement legal merit.

Abortion-rights advocates base their arguments on the right of women to dictate the course of their own lives. By opting to have an abortion, the woman elevates her right to choose over her child’s right to live.

Courts have asserted in several cases that children under a certain age suffer a legal disability because they are unable to make sound judgments. For this reason the government has an interest in protecting the well-being of minors. At times this may require infringing on the personal freedoms of adults. For example, the law mandates that parents secure their children in car seats while riding in vehicles. The protection of children from physical harm outweighs the parents’ right to do as they please in their own car.

If Utah and other states acknowledge the personhood of an unborn child, then it stands to reason that a fetus deserves the same legal protections as minors. Thus, the unborn child’s right to live should be safeguarded — even if it may violate a parent’s freedoms.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Keep tax money out of abortion

Published November 13, 2009
The House's recently passed health-care bill includes a provision banning the use of federal funds for abortion services in the public insurance option and government-sponsored health-care exchange.

The measure prohibits abortion coverage as part of a minimum benefits package except in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's life is in danger. The restriction, a big victory for anti-abortion forces, has ignited a fiery debate, and abortion-rights advocates are determined to strip the amendment. Many doubt the Senate bill and any final legislation will contain a ban on government-financed abortions.

Abortion-rights groups call the funding restriction an underhanded attempt by opponents to ban legal abortions in the United States. This is a gross exaggeration. The amendment does not prohibit a woman from having an abortion; it merely forbids government funds paying for one (women would be required to buy separate insurance riders with their own money to cover abortions).

Health-care reform is long overdue. Access to medical care for all Americans is a moral issue and lawmakers must find a solution. But the possibility of government-subsidized abortions is unconscionable. Federally funded abortions are essentially taxpayer-funded abortions. Some have argued this would not be the first time the government has used taxpayer money to pay for programs that some Americans oppose. This may be true, but few issues are as divisive; both sides of the debate hold deep convictions.

Abortion foes ascribe to the belief that life begins at conception. Terminating a pregnancy thus is equivalent to ending a life. This is considered not only morally wrong but also a clear violation of the tenets of many faiths. Rearing children, whether planned or unplanned, can be challenging, but every life has a purpose and deserves to be protected. Adoption is a viable alternative to abortion.

Abortion-rights advocates base their arguments on the right of women to dictate the course of their own lives. Ironically, by choosing to have an abortion, the woman elevates her right to choose over her child's right to life. If abortion opponents are expected to respect a woman's right to choose to abort her child, those on the other side should respect our right not to want to pay for it with tax dollars.

Like many abortion opponents, I continue to support nonviolent efforts for legislative reform. However, until the law changes, abortion foes are forced to acknowledge that abortion is legal. As a person of faith, I find this a harsh reality. But forcing anti-abortion taxpayers to fund a practice so contradictory to our moral and religious beliefs crosses the line. It is callous and infringes on our rights.

Murder of abortion doctor a tragedy on both sides of the debate

Published June 12, 2009
On May 31, George Tiller, a physician who performed late-term abortions, was gunned down at his church. The suspect being held for the murder is an anti-abortion activist, Scott Roeder, who is reported to have regularly protested outside Tiller's clinic.

This week, Tiller's family announced that his clinic would close permanently. Under normal circumstances, the closure of an abortion clinic may be a victory for the pro-life movement, but Tiller's murder is a tragedy for both sides of the abortion debate.

The crux of the pro-life argument centers on the sanctity of human life. While many people who consider themselves pro-choice agree that life is sacred and should be protected, some do not agree that a fetus is a living organism and thus, terminating a pregnancy does not equate to ending a life.

Some may consider a fetus to be a life but believe there are extenuating circumstances, such as rape or possibility of giving birth to a severely disabled child, that justify abortion. Still others hold that the woman has the right to make a decision on the fate of the fetus (whether it is a life or not), since it is taking residence in her body. Some people are pro-choice simply because they do not believe in legislating morality.

On the other hand, pro-lifers ascribe to the belief that life starts at the time of conception. In Jeremiah 1:5, God says to the prophet Jeremiah, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart."

Based on this text alone, it seems safe to conclude that God's acknowledgement of human life begins long before birth. This thought is also the premise of opposition to so-called "justifiable abortion." While the circumstances surrounding rape are traumatic and raising a disabled child is challenging, every life has a purpose and deserves to be protected; adoption should be considered in place of abortion.

But be that as it may, if sanctity of life is the basis of Roeder's ideology, it is hard to miss the inconsistency. By committing murder, Roeder is guilty of the very act that he so vehemently opposes. It is these sorts of contradictions that contribute to the delegitimization of the pro-life movement. Most of the leading anti-abortion groups have condemned Tiller's murder, but no movement is devoid of fringe people.

In recent years, the pro-life debate has been dominated by extremists, many of whom have committed senseless crimes in the name of religion. The irony in this instance is Tiller was shot while serving at his church, making it more difficult to turn this into a religious versus irreligious discussion.

No one claiming to value life can condone Tiller's murder. Even though his decision to perform late-term abortions went against pro-life beliefs, his life deserved just as much respect and consideration as the life of an unborn child.

Canceling church on Christmas makes no sense

Many churches see a surge in attendance around Christmas, but this year the holiday falls on a Sunday, leading some congregations to cancel their worship services.

Some pastors doubt parishioners will take time to attend a church service on Christmas Day. Others want to allow their staff and volunteers to spend time with their families.

The purpose of a Sunday service is for Christians to gather and worship Christ. It is ironic, then, that churches are scrapping services on CHRIST-mas. It seems as unthinkable as shelving an Easter service.

Churches have long voiced concerns about the growing trend to remove Christ from the celebration of Christmas. Retail stores have replaced “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.” Nativity scenes in public places draw controversy and court challenges. The commercialization of Christmas has led to excessive consumer spending, landing many in debt and overshadowing the religious aspects of the holiday. Some argue that Christians should not even observe the Christmas holiday because many of the season’s traditions have pagan origins. Further, historians do not believe Jesus was born on Dec. 25.

Be that as it may, Christmas is the day the Christian church has chosen to mark the birth of Christ. The day is significant because the faith hinges on the incarnation of Jesus. If the Messiah had not been born, he could not have died and there would be no promise of eternal life. The Bible says shepherds tending their flocks stopped their labor and made their way to the manger to see the babe. Wise men traveled a far distance to see the child. This was a momentous occasion. The promised Messiah had come. No distance was too great, no task too important.

Although many parishioners may not attend services on Christmas, canceling worship would perpetuate the idea that the spiritual meaning of Christmas is secondary. It makes no sense to defend the religious roots of the holiday if we are so entangled in the secular ones. There’s nothing wrong with exchanging gifts or spending time with family, but these activities should not draw Christians away from manger. If Jesus is the reason for the season, then taking time to remember his birth should never be an inconvenience, no matter what day it falls.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Divorce an ailing spouse? That’s sick

Pat Robertson, host of the popular show “The 700 Club,” drew flak for advising a viewer to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer’s disease. Robertson maintains his comment was “misinterpreted.” He says he did not mean to give general advise but rather his statement was for this specific situation — the viewer was already committing adultery.

Still, Robertson’s remarks were especially shocking coming from a Christian leader.

Jesus taught that marriage was ordained by God, saying “the two shall become one flesh … therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Ideally only death should dissolve marriage. The Bible does teach that divorce is permitted in the case of adultery or desertion by a non-Christian spouse. In both these scenarios, the divorce is initiated by the betrayed and not the offending spouse.

However, sickness is never scripturally cited as a reason for divorce.

No one would argue that Alzheimer’s is a difficult illness — not just for the patient but also for family members. It is hard to watch a loved ones waste away as they lose intellectual, social, emotional and physical ability. It is especially difficult when patients no longer recognize friends and family. Caregivers can feel as if they have lost all that they cherished about a loved one.

In a traditional Christian wedding ceremony, couples vow to be faithful in sickness and health, for better or worse, until death. Patients — even if nonresponsive — need their spouse’s love and care.

Instead of encouraging divorce, Robertson should have addressed the need for caregivers to find a support system or even professional help. If the patient’s spouse is contemplating divorce or committing adultery, it may be because he or she is unable to handle the overwhelming demands of being a caregiver.

In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul defines the characteristics of love in a chapter that is often recited at weddings: “Love is patient … it is not self-seeking … it always protects … always hopes, always perseveres.”

We should not cast judgment on the person who can no longer handle the pressure of caring for a sick spouse, but a Christian leader should never promote abandonment. The challenges of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s are enormous. It is normal to want to give in, but God promises to provide comfort and strength — to care for the caregiver.

Perspective helps us give thanks in tough times

For many Americans, 2011 has been a difficult year. The national unemployment rate continues to linger around 9 percent, the number of home foreclosures rose last month, the cost of food has increased across the globe and gas prices remain high. As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, it may be hard to find a reason to be thankful.

One of the more challenging directives in the Bible is found in the book of Thessalonians. The Apostle Paul says, “Rejoice always … give thanks in all circumstances.” Certainly this is easy to do in times of prosperity, but it can be an arduous task in trying economic times such as these.

Maintaining a mind-set of gratitude has benefits that extend beyond the spiritual. Experts agree being positive can reduce stress. Optimistic people also have a tendency to aim high and make the most of every situation; the result is their lives can be more fulfilling.

While it is unlikely that the economy will turn around soon, all that may be required to remain thankful is a change in perspective.

Seventeenth-century theologian Matthew Henry uttered this prayer after being robbed: “I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse they did not take my life; third, because although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth because it was I who was robbed, and not I who robbed.”

The Apostle Paul is not instructing us to suppress unpleasant emotions. Pain, sadness and suffering are real emotions that we will experience from time to time. The Scriptures even tell us that Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. What Paul is encouraging is an inner joy and sense of contentment that recognizes that even in less than ideal conditions or when we are unhappy, we likely still have many reasons to be thankful.

We take a lot of things for granted. As tedious as the presidential election process is, and as much as there is to criticize on both sides of the aisle, I am grateful I live in a country that allows us to peacefully disagree. I’m thankful for the freedoms we enjoy as a result of living in a democratic nation, in particular freedom of speech and freedom to worship.

If you are employed, or if you have a place to call home, or if you have warm clothes to wear this winter, or if you’re not relying on your local food bank for your Thanksgiving meal, or if you’re in relatively good health, or if you have loved ones to spend the holidays with, you have a reason to be thankful.

Remembering the past also can stir up gratitude. If we recall times when things were better, we can give thanks and live with the hope that someday they will be again.

This Thanksgiving, let’s pause to give thanks for our many blessings, despite the challenging economic circumstances. If you’re reading this column, you’re alive. That’s another reason to give thanks.

When Bible translations go too far

This summer, the Southern Baptist Convention wisely rejected the updated New International Version (NIV) translation of the Bible at its annual convention in Phoenix.

The new translation uses gender-neutral language. Published by Biblica and Zondervan Publishing House, the 2011 edition is meant to replace the 1984 NIV, which has been widely accepted and revered by evangelicals.

The Southern Baptist Convention notes that the gender-neutral NIV “alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.”

The Bible was written by about 40 authors over 1,600 years. Christians believe that these men were led by God. The Apostle Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.” Therefore, evangelicals affirm that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. The Scriptures teach that God never changes. The Bible, therefore, is just as authoritative and inspired today. A translation should not manipulate the message even if it is perceived to be politically incorrect.

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic and the New Testament in Greek. The first English translation of the Bible is believed to have been completed in 1384 and is attributed to John Wycliffe. The King James Version (KJV) was published in 1611 and for more than 300 years it was the most prominent translation. However, as the English language evolved, translations emerged for modern readers.

The 20th century produced many contemporary renderings of the Bible, including the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the New King James Version (NKJV), which modernized the King James while attempting to retain its traditional phrasing.

Some translations, such as the New American Standard Bible, attempt literal word-for-word renditions. Others, including the New International Version, are less rigid and more idiomatic. Nonetheless, evangelical scholars generally agree that the variations among the widely accepted translations are relatively insignificant. While various translations may use distinctive words and phrases, they preserve the message.

But the 2011 New International Version goes beyond acceptable translation practices and changes the original meaning of the text to accommodate current social norms. The convention is justified in rejecting it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Churches must welcome special-needs children

After my most recent column, “Teaching children to behave in church,” a mother of an autistic child emailed me saying, “I certainly do not want to intrude on the worship of others who come to church for peace and spiritual replenishment. ... However, noise is often just a part of having such wonderful and special people in our lives.”

She went on to ask, “Do we deprive ourselves and our children of worship and settle for a lifetime of sporadic church attendance?”

Let me first clarify: My column was not directed at parents with special-needs children; their behavior during worship is not a result of bad parenting.

One of the issues that sparked the Christianity Today article referenced in my piece was the removal of a boy with cerebral palsy from a service in a church in North Carolina. It was apparent from this action and the comments that followed that many churches are not prepared to accommodate special-needs children and their families. Consequently, their parents often opt to stay home. This is unfortunate because worship services can provide spiritual guidance needed to cope with challenging family situations.

The dilemma can be circular: Special-needs families may not attend church because they do not feel welcome. The church does nothing to accommodate them because they have no members in that category.

In the Bible, God said “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” Thus, it is the church’s responsibility to ensure all people are truly welcome.

Cry rooms provide one solution for families wishing to participate in worship but leery of being disruptive. But inclusion goes far beyond architectural offerings.

Ministry workers should be trained to handle children with disabilities. Many Christian publishing companies provide materials for special-needs children. Parents would be much more comfortable entrusting their children to teachers who are willing and prepared for the challenge.

Parishioners must also be educated. Sometimes congregants may not be aware that a child has a disability. There are times, however, when well-meaning worshippers may not know what to do. Simple actions such as inviting a special-needs child to a birthday party, offering to help a parent, or extending a personal invitation to a church event, may go a long way toward making families feel welcome.

Churches have a lot to learn about accommodating special-needs children and their families. Physical barriers can be eliminated and staff and congregants can be trained. But it also may require the commitment of families with special-needs children to help create an atmosphere that is truly inclusive.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Teaching kids to behave in church

In an Aug. 31 online piece, Christianity Today asked readers to weigh in on the question, “Should churches try to minimize disruptions?” The column notes a South Carolina church bars children from its main service. A North Carolina congregation removed a boy with cerebral palsy because he was supposedly marring the service.

So how should churches respond to children in worship?

When I was a child, church was far from fun. My siblings and I were expected to sit through a two-hour service, appear engaged and be on our best behavior. My mother would glare at us if we showed the slightest sign of unruliness. In those days, the responsibility of monitoring children during worship was left to the parent.

It is more challenging for churches today because parents seem to be more lenient with their kids. Perhaps not wanting to subject their children to the rigid disciplinary practices they endured, parents sometimes let their brood run wild. There also are adults who were not raised in church and are unfamiliar with worshipful decorum.

While parents are ultimately responsible for their unruly children, churches play a role. Many offer separate children’s services that run concurrent with adult worship. Many open nurseries for babies and toddlers. Some buildings contain soundproof cry rooms, where parents can see and hear the service while tending to noisy youngsters.

Jesus was adamant about welcoming children. He told his disciples who were trying to prevent a group of kids from approaching him to “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

During worship or even when I’m preaching from the pulpit, the occasional disruption from a child does not bother me. More disturbing are disruptive adults — those who chatter through worship, who make numerous trips to the restroom or who repeatedly walk in and out to take phone calls. Children will be children; adults are supposed to know better.

Churches can minimize disruptions by creating a fun atmosphere for kids. But parents can help. For instance, children should not be allowed to sprint down the aisle, jump on the pews, kick the seats or throw things. If unruly church children are never taught how to behave during worship, they will likely grow up and become disruptive church adults.

Monday, August 22, 2011

When the preacher needs a minister

On Aug. 12, mega-church pastor and televangelist Zachery Tims was found dead in his room at the W Hotel in Manhattan.

He was the founder and pastor of New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Fla., with a reported membership of more than 8,000 worshippers.

The 42-year-old preacher made headlines in 2009 when he admitted to an “indiscretion” with a stripper. His wife of 15 years, filed for divorce soon after.

I have known Tims for several years, so the news hit hard. Police still are investigating the cause of his death, but The Wall Street Journal reports, “a white powdery substance, believed to be narcotics, was discovered with the body.”

If his death turns out to be from drugs, I can’t help but wonder if it could have been avoided. Too often pastors fail to seek help when needed.

The pressure of leading a congregation can be tremendous. Parishioners turn to their minister when they need guidance and support. But, for the pastor, there may be no one filling that role. Unfortunately, it sometimes is difficult for ministers to find confidants; many fear being discredited if their flaws are exposed.

Congregants sometimes have unrealistic expectations and can be quick to judge any missteps. Pastors should indeed strive to exemplify biblical principles, but they are not infallible. If perfection is a prerequisite for becoming a minister, nobody qualifies.

Throughout the Bible, we see examples of God’s chosen prophets and priests committing sin. While there were consequences, their indiscretions did not disqualify them from their positions.

Since becoming a pastor, I have been fortunate to form relationships with other pastors who have been a source of strength and accountability. Through the years, these friendships have helped me navigate tough situations. Every minister needs a support network.

The circumstances surrounding Tims’ death are not a reflection of how he lived; he did tremendous good in his life. We may be tempted to judge, but Jesus’ words to the Pharisees attempting to stone the woman caught in adultery are worth repeating: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Judge candidates by their politics, not their piety

The pool of presidential candidates includes two Mormons: former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Both men are keenly aware that their affiliation with the LDS Church could hurt their shot at the White House.

In a major 2008 speech, Romney affirmed his faith but asserted he would not confuse his church’s teachings with a president’s constitutional obligations.

Huntsman recently took a different tack. In an interview with Time magazine, he said it was “tough to define” his personal faith.

Christians are expected to formulate their worldviews from biblical principles. This is especially true when voting for president. If a candidate’s political views do not align with the Scriptures, Christian voters should side with someone else who more closely reflects their spiritual convictions. Presidents make decisions that can affect society’s moral fabric, so, for some people of faith, it is crucial to have officeholders who institute and preserve biblically based moral principles.

The religion of candidates is a factor only if the office seekers allow the doctrines from their faith to affect their politics and if the resulting views clash with the Bible. But even in this instance, it is their politics being judged, not their religion.

While religions disagree on how to obtain eternal life, they generally share a moral creed: Love God, respect and serve others, cherish the sanctity of life. When translated into political ideology, theists from various faiths usually uphold the same political values. (Of course, not all people of faith vote their religious convictions.)

The fear some have in backing Huntsman or Romney is that the two candidates would be unable to make national decisions independent of their church — even though both have emphasized that, if elected, they would not be beholden to their faith.

The Constitution bars any “religious test” as a qualification for public office. It also restricts Congress from establishing laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

The hope is that all politicians honor the Constitution and the separation of church and state. Candidates should be judged by their political views, not their religious values, even though the two sometimes are one and the same.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The pain of emotional infidelity

Before resigning this week, Rep. Anthony Weiner checked into a treatment center for a sexting addiction as more inappropriate pictures of him surfaced.

The New York Democrat admitted to exchanging explicit messages and suggestive photos on Facebook and Twitter with other women. Weiner initially said his Twitter account had been hacked and used to send sexually suggestive pictures. He apologized to his wife, but said repeatedly that none of the relationships was sexual.

Weiner’s Internet exchanges were inappropriate, but some argue they stopped short of infidelity.

The seventh commandment of the Decalogue — “Do not commit adultery” — forbids sexual intercourse between a married person and someone not his or her spouse. In the New Testament, Jesus sets the standard higher, saying, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The underlying principle: Intent, even without physical contact, constitutes unfaithfulness.

Emotional infidelity occurs when, even without sexual intercourse, an intense intimate relationship forms. According to Time magazine, men generally see no harm in these sorts of relationships. For many women, for whom physical and emotional intimacy are inseparable, emotional infidelity can be just as devastating as physical infidelity.

Emotional affairs are dangerous. Not only can they lead to physical affairs, but they also threaten to destroy the sacred marriage bond. Couples are supposed to find physical and emotional fulfillment in each other, not in other people.

Some suggest that even looking at a person of the opposite sex is cheating, but looking cannot always be equated with lusting. Infidelity — emotional or physical — is a conscious choice.

While there may be disagreement about whether emotional relationships constitute infidelity, cover-ups and lies clearly violate trust, a crucial component for a successful marriage.

Trust is difficult to regain once it is lost. It requires commitment from both parties. The most important step toward recovery is for the offending spouse to acknowledge wrongdoing. The offended spouse then must search within to forgive.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Yes, there are just wars

The death of Osama Bin Laden has revived questions about U.S. involvement in war.

At present, our military is fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the NATO-led resistance in Libya. Even some of the most patriotic theists struggle with supporting war.

The Hebrew Bible offers no shortage of stories of violent conflict among nations. Many times, Israel’s leaders were instructed by God to wage battle with foreign powers. Some use the Old Testament accounts to bolster an argument that war is always justified, especially when the United States, a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles, engages with non-Christian nations.

On the other extreme are those who suggest that it is never appropriate to engage in war, quoting the Decalogue, “Thou shall not kill.” Furthermore, the incarnation of Jesus instituted a new covenant rooted in grace in sharp contrast to the sometimes-callous nature of the law. Jesus quoted from the law, saying, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and then redefined it by urging people to “turn the other cheek.”

Not enough biblical evidence exists for either argument to prevail, but there are instances when war seems justified. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul suggests peace is not always possible. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Military force should never be the first response; diplomacy should be preferred. There are times when sanctions can be equally effective, but there are times when war is justified. For instance, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. retaliated in self-defense. Similarly, with great wealth and power come great responsibility; we cannot ignore genocide in any part of the world or attacks on allies unable to defend themselves.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, proved that there are those who have no regard for human life. We live in a world where ideological and religious differences can prompt violent responses. If this were not the case, we might be able to adopt an absolute anti-war stance. While we do not want to become that which we despise, we cannot allow such evil to prevail.

Christians are called to live in peace with others, but peace is not always passive.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The final Word on hell: it’s real

A recent Time magazine cover read, “What if there’s no hell?”

The article discusses the views of Pastor Rob Bell, author of a new best-seller, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell struggles with the traditional interpretation of hell as an eternal place of literal fire and torment, reserved for those who reject Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross.

Bell is not alone. Preachers often talk about heaven but may rarely allude to hell. It is difficult for many Christians to harmonize the concept of a loving, merciful God of grace with eternal punishment. It is also hard to acknowledge that a loved one or a person who does many good things but does not accept Christ before death, could end up in hell. And does God really banish babies to hell?

Such unsettling notions have led some to attempt to redefine the orthodox view of hell to make it more palatable. The metaphoric view suggests that the biblical text is not describing a place of literal flames. However, proponents maintain that the metaphor does not dilute the intensity of the punishment, therefore the metaphorical view is not really an improvement.

Annihilationists do not deny the reality of hell but they lessen the severity by contending that the punishment is only temporary; those banished to hell eventually perish. Universalists view hell’s flames as a refining fire; ultimately everyone ends up in heaven.

The problem with these theories: They have little scriptural support. The scriptures teach that while God is loving and merciful, he is equally just. It is because of his love and mercy that he extends the invitation of eternal life to all through Christ.

Still, his justice is believed to be exercised upon those who willfully reject his open invitation. Theologians generally agree that children who die before the age of accountability do not go to hell.

While the thought of hell bothers Bell and many others, traditionalists hold that Christians who adhere to inerrancy of the scriptures cannot reject a doctrine solely because it does not bode well with them.

Certainly preaching hell, fire and brimstone is not the best way to present the gospel message. But if hell is indeed real, denying it will not change that reality.

Monday, May 2, 2011

No true Christian would burn the Quran

The burning of the Quran by a Florida pastor triggered protests across Afghanistan and led to the death of seven U.N. employees.

Last year, the Rev. Terry Jones threatened to burn the Muslim holy book amid controversy over plans to build an Islamic center not far from Ground Zero in Manhattan. Political and religious leaders persuaded Jones to abandon his cause. But, on March 20, Jones reneged and streamed his distasteful stunt on the Internet.

The obscure Florida minister has been labeled a Christian fanatic with a particular disdain for Islam. It seems more appropriate to call him an attention-seeking lunatic.

No Bible-believing Christian would endorse such an action; it violates Christian principles.

Certainly, significant doctrinal differences exist between Christianity and Islam. The scriptures teach Christians to proselytize — but with conditions.

Peter, for instance, encouraged Christians to be ready to “give a defense” to anyone who asks about the faith, but to do so “with gentleness and respect.” Paul says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Torching the Quran does not satisfy any of these stipulations. Furthermore, the heart of the gospel message is love — with Jesus urging Christians to love even their enemies.

Some Christians are uncomfortable with tolerance, fearing that it suggests some sort of compromise.

It is possible to be tolerant of beliefs without accepting or endorsing them.

Tolerance does not require silence.

It does demand respect for people.

All religions have fringe groups that misinterpret scriptures and tarnish the faith. Jones’ battle is not against the Quran but rather Muslim extremists who kill in the name of God.

Ironically, Jones’ actions could give credence to this movement.

Rather than burning the Quran or any religious text, Jones should read the Bible and practice its principles.

Bible offers perspective on recent catastrophes

The recent earthquakes in Japan and around the world, and the revolt of nations in the Middle East, have eschatologists debating whether the end times are here. In the gospels, Jesus describes some signs the end of time is approaching: “Wars and rumors of wars … nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places and famines.”

Christians believe before the end of the earth as we know it, there will be a period known as the tribulation. The tribulation is believed to be seven years in which God will finally unleash his wrath on the earth through a series of devastating events. It will culminate with God conquering evil and restoring the earth to its original perfect state.

The Book of Revelation is the primary source for Christian eschatology. There is debate as to whether the book is to be taken literally or figuratively. The author uses a lot of imagery that is clearly symbolic. But despite various interpretations, Revelation is understood to be describing a period of great calamity on Earth.

There is disagreement as to the time period of the tribulation.

Preterists hold that nearly all the prophecies in Revelation are directed at the time period in which they were made. Futurists believe the prophesies are still to come and relate to the end time. Historists take a middle position: Revelation includes prophesies from the past and the future. Most mainstream Christians are futurists.

The apostle Paul speaks of Christians being “caught up to meet the Lord in the air.” This is known as the rapture. Theologians hold varying views on when the rapture will occur. A pre-tribulation view is one in which the rapture happens before the start of the tribulation. In a mid-tribulation view, the rapture occurs during the tribulation period. In a post-tribulation view, the rapture is at the end of the tribulation.

Proponents of the pre-tribulation view argue God would not allow his people to go through such suffering and thus he raptures the believers. Proponents of the post-tribulation view believe at least some Christians must be left on Earth to proselytize during the tribulation.

The catastrophes in the world today appear to be escalating, thus suggesting the end is near, but Jesus said, “No one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Since it is impossible to predict when the end will come, the theist’s time is better spent evaluating his life and preparing for what lies beyond the grave.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Thou shalt not Facebook — inappropriately

Some pastors are in favor of an 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not Facebook.”

The Rev. Cedric Miller in New Jersey told his married leaders to either delete their Facebook accounts or resign. News services reported that Miller — who has acknowledged his own sexual indiscretion — believes social-networking websites can reignite old passions and lead to infidelity.

While I do not have any personal social-media pages, our church maintains several. I am struck by the disconnect between some people’s online and real-life personalities.

Most married people would not agree to meet with an “old flame” in person but they gladly accept a Facebook friend request.

Social websites seem to ignite poor judgment. Last week, the deputy attorney general of Indiana lost his job for tweeting that Wisconsin police should “use live ammunition” to clear pro-union demonstrators.

Employers also check social websites to assess potential employees. Provocative, inappropriate, discriminatory or unprofessional content are some of the top reasons they disregard candidates.

The Bible, of course, does not deal directly with the matter. But the moral standards people of faith attempt to uphold in real life should not be abandoned when on the Internet.

Social media sites are not inherently evil. The Internet has the potential to reach millions. New Testament writers devoted their lives to spreading the gospel. Undoubtedly, the apostles would have tweeted if it meant more converts.

Jesus said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” Clearly he was applying hyperbole but the point is that if the temptation is too great, it is best to avoid it.

If social media sites are ruining your marriage or if you cannot withstand the temptation to behave inappropriately on the Internet, “gouge it out and throw it away.”

Friday, February 4, 2011

Is it wrong to pray for Super Bowl win?

On Sunday, before the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers face off in Super Bowl XLV, the two teams and their fans will likely pray and ask God to, in essence, rig the game in their favor.

But does God care who wins?

Prayer is the mechanism used to communicate with the Almighty. While God is omniscient (all-knowing), he desires that we make petitions to him so we can develop a relationship and reaffirm our dependence on him.

Theists believe God is omnipotent (all-powerful). Miracles — inexplicable phenomena that defy the laws of nature — are attributed to divine intervention. Therefore, people of faith believe God is capable of manipulating the outcome of any event. If he does not, it is not because he is unable, but because he chose not to do so.

Christians believe God hears our prayers. Jesus said in Matthew, “If you believe, you will receive, whatever you ask for in prayer.” But the Bible points to several reasons prayers seem to go unanswered. Chief among these: a lack of faith that God can deliver and petitions that are not within God’s will or, from his perspective, within our best interest. There also are times when God does not respond the way the petitioner envisioned and, therefore, the result is seen as an unanswered prayer.

Some argue that God answers the prayers only of those deemed righteous. The parable of the Pharisee and the publican contradicts this view. In his prayer, the Pharisee, who meticulously followed divine law, said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. … I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The publican, a religious outcast, simply pleaded, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Jesus pointed out that God heard the publican’s, not the Pharisee’s, prayer because of the publican’s humility.

Even when all the human conditions for answered prayer are met, God sometimes does not intervene. Theologians do not claim to know why God chooses to act, but there are some agreed-upon premises: God never will do anything that contradicts any of his attributes, he does not intrude on our free will and he allows miracles to happen only if they ultimately will bring him glory.

Football is a physical game. Perhaps our prayers should be for the players’ safety.

There is certainly no harm in asking God for insignificant requests such as a victory for a favorite team. The dilemma, of course, is if both teams pray, God will have to take sides. Chances are, he will sit on the sidelines. But just in case God decides to heed the prayers of Super Bowl fans, I’m sending mine up for the Steelers.

How to help alcoholics

Three weeks ago, Ted Williams was homeless, holding up a cardboard sign along a highway in Ohio begging someone to give him a chance to use his "God-given" gift to get himself out of his hopeless predicament.

A reporter posted on YouTube a clip of Williams using his "golden voice." The video went viral and a few short weeks later Williams was a national celebrity with lucrative job offers.

Williams was a radio personality before drugs and alcohol derailed him. He had lived in shelters for nearly 10 years. He had been sober for almost three. But the new attention proved too overwhelming. Last week, Williams reportedly checked into rehab for alcohol abuse.

As a pastor, I have counseled addicts and their families through repeated relapses. Part of the problem is that our society does not fully understand alcoholism. Some still refuse to accept alcoholism as a disease.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence defines alcoholism as "a chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations." The term disease indicates that the addiction is an "involuntary disability."

Because denial is so prevalent among alcoholics, many believe addicts simply lack willpower and motivation. Addicts must consent and commit to treatment and may need to change their environment and behavior, but self-discipline alone is not the solution. Williams had likely managed to subdue his urges several times during those three years but, as with other addictions, it can take just one moment of weakness to restart the cycle.

While alcoholism is treatable, it is not curable. I recently counseled an individual who relapsed after 20 years. Sometimes there is a trigger such as a divorce, a death or, perhaps in Williams’ case, a rapid change in lifestyle. Recovering alcoholics must be aware that they are always susceptible to setbacks. Williams should have received immediate counseling to help with his newfound fame.

Crucial to a recovering addict are loved ones who understand the disease and can balance tough love with patience. Dealing with an addict can be painful and frustrating. Relatives sometimes require their own support system. But perhaps if alcoholism were more widely accepted as a disease, family members would be less prone to embarrassment, which can prompt them to abandon the addict. There are times, to be sure, when all options have been exhausted, and the only step left is to sever ties. However, in many cases, with support and treatment, addicts can learn to live normal lives.

I celebrated Williams’ comeback and want him to succeed. Thankfully, he was able to get help before he slipped too far back.

On NBC’s "Today" show, Williams indicated things were different this time around because of his faith in God. I hope Williams emerges from rehab better equipped to deal with the pressures of life — which will be more valuable to him than fame and fortune. This time he has God.

Believers aren’t being duped

American Atheists erected a billboard in Huntsville, Ala., that claims all religions are cons.

The ad pictures religious symbols — including the cross, the Jewish star and the Muslim crescent moon and star — and reads, “You know they’re all scams.”

The billboard further contends that the American Atheists group has been “telling the truth since 1963.” The scam, the group says, is that “all religions … tell you how to live, and then take your money, all in exchange for an afterlife that does not exist.”

It is presumptuous to claim that theists are being bamboozled into their beliefs. Most people of faith have made a conscious choice to trust in a higher power, to believe in an afterlife and to commit their lives and resources to certain religious practices.

It is true that some blindly follow and lack a clear understanding of their faiths’ tenets. They participate out of obligation, not devotion.

But such belief does not qualify as authentic faith. In Christianity, the scriptures teach that true faith stems from the heart. God does not simply judge a person’s actions but their motivation; doing the right things for the wrong reasons does not please God. Likewise anyone who believes in God simply out of fear of the consequences misses the point.

Atheists often argue that theists are weak, needy and irrational, because they believe in God yet cannot prove he exists.

The Bible defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Thus, by definition, faith does not seek to prove God’s existence. This does not mean that people of faith are fideists. When science, archaeology or philosophy supports religious claims, theists can embrace these evidences. But while such sources can strengthen belief, they do not form the basis of one’s faith.

Some argue that if God were visible, everyone would believe in him. But the Old Testament contains many accounts of God revealing himself more visibly to people. In the New Testament, he came to Earth as Jesus. Yet many remained skeptical. Furthermore, people of faith argue God has revealed himself through nature and, for many, through their own experiences.

It takes trust and commitment to believe in an invisible deity. This is God’s desire — a relationship in which we rely on him. But those who hold to their faith do so because it has proven to be fulfilling and unfailing.

The bottom line: There is no scam. Theists understand you cannot prove the existence of God or the afterlife but still choose to believe. Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists.”

Oh, for a lasting Christmas truce

Around Christmas Day, in 1914 during World War I, the combatants reached a truce in a number of places along the Western Front.

The holiday spirit led to a temporary halt in the fighting. German and British troops sang carols, and some soldiers reportedly came out of their trenches, shook hands, wished one another “Merry Christmas” in their native languages and even exchanged gifts.

Christmas is both a sacred holiday and a secular celebration. Around the globe, the occasion is observed in various ways for various reasons, but it elicits the same basic responses: joy, peace and generosity.

These themes are echoed in Jesus’ Nativity, which Christians mark during Christmas.

In Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, an angel appears to shepherds and says, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” A child was born. He was the promised Messiah, whose coming was foretold centuries before in Hebrew scriptures. He was to save the world. The prophet Isaiah called him the “Prince of Peace.” This birth signaled the beginning of God’s plan to redeem humankind. Thus, people of faith view Jesus as a gift from God.

Secularly, Christmas is marked by Santa, who epitomizes joy and generosity.

The Santa legend can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas. He is believed to have given away his inherited wealth and traveled around helping the poor and the sick. The modern-day, gift-giving “jolly old St. Nick” became popular in the 19th century; similar characters existed around the world. The commercial phenomenon that has become Christmas has Santa as its standard-bearer.

Whether one celebrates the birth of Jesus or anticipates the arrival of Santa, Christmas truly brings out the best in humanity. People give more, love more and go out of their way to help the less fortunate. Homes are decorated with Christmas trees, bright lights and Nativity sets in hopes of spreading Christmas cheer. Strangers smile and wish one another well.

But, much like the Christmas Truce of 1914, after the presents are unwrapped, the guests have gone and the lights, trees and crèches are packed away, the world returns to normalcy — the rest of the year can be anything but merry. It is unfortunate that the good we see at Christmas is only temporary.

I am not suggesting a year-round Christmas celebration. Few of us could tolerate being around extended family for that long, the overindulgence or the numerous renditions of the same holiday songs. But it would be a welcome change if this year — after the symbols of Christmas vanish — the joy, the peace and the generosity stuck around.