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Archive for September, 2012

Is this a story of doom and gloom? Or something else altogether?

The article, on CNN’s Belief Blog, recounts the results of an international census study by a team of mathematicians. The study concludes, “Organized religion will all but vanish eventually from nine Western-style democracies.”

Those countries, according to the mathematicians, are Ireland, Canada, Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.

The study’s authors base their report on two assumptions:

1. It’s more attractive to be part of the majority than the minority and in the countries named, people who are not part of any organized religion are the fastest growing group.

2. In these nine countries, there are “social, economic and political advantages” to being unaffiliated with any organized religion.

What attracted me to this article is the whole idea of belonging to an “organized religion”. I don’t think I’m stating it too strongly when I write that those two words are even less popular than “tax increase”.

And I have a pastor to back me up.

Ross Carkner, of Whitby Baptist Church in Ontario, told me this study isn’t even mildly alarming.

“You could be talking to a real Jesus follower and ask them about organized religion and they’d say ‘I’m not interested’. So I’m not in the least bit concerned.”

There’s something else at play in this study, something the authors don’t bother to consider. They seem to assume that being part of a religious group is the same as belonging to the Kiwanis Club or a lawn bowling league. For some people, that may be the case and they might, indeed, drift out of “organized religion” based exactly on the authors’ two assumptions.

But were those people ever really part of a faith group? For serious Christians like the ones Ross was referring to, it doesn’t matter how popular the group is because it’s not about the group. It’s about a living, day-to-day relationship with God through His son, Jesus. And that transcends any popularity contest or sociological label.

I would be a pretty sorry Christian – and a despicable example to non-Christians – if I examined the state of my faith, decided it was as solid as the Greek economy, then bailed out.

So what about you? Are you interested in being part of a group? Or are you intrigued by a living faith that transcends groups, disregards popularity, and ignores study results? If you’re reading this because you’re willing to consider the latter, then ponder what Jesus told one audience in the Bible: “Are you tired? Burned out on religion? Come to me . . . and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.”

What do you think? Post your comment below and let’s have a conversation.

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How did I not see this amazing, hilarious, and thoughtful Seinfeld episode when it was first aired?

For a few seasons, Seinfeld – that brilliant, inventive TV sitcom – was a cultural blockbuster, creating catch phrases and situations that millions across North America embraced and used as their own ‘insider’ language.

The episode that fascinates me concentrates, in part, on the relationship between principal character Elaine Benes and her boyfriend, David Puddy.

Benes (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds out Puddy (Patrick Warburton) is “religious”. This sets up all sorts of conversations between the two, plus other principal characters Jerry and George Constanza.

Here’s a sample of dialogue:

Elaine: I borrowed Puddy’s car and all the presets on his radio were Christian rock stations.

George: I like Christian rock. It’s very positive. It’s not like those real musicians who think they’re so cool and hip.

Elaine: So, you think that Puddy actually believes in something?

Jerry: It’s a used car; he probably never changed the presets.

Elaine: Yes, he is lazy.

Jerry: Plus, he probably doesn’t even know how to program the buttons.

Elaine: Yes, he is dumb.

Jerry: So you prefer dumb and lazy to religious?

Elaine: Dumb and lazy, I understand.

First off, ye gotta love George’s casual dissing of Christian musicians and his breathtaking ignorance. Did you know, for example, that singer/songwriter/guitarist Bruce Cockburn is a Christian? I’ve never heard a single critic knock him for his artistic ability.

Second, the notion of Elaine preferring a dumb and lazy boyfriend to one who is “religious” is not only funny, it’s a remarkably accurate assessment of our culture. From what I can tell, most people would rather spend hours debating the behaviour of Charlie Sheen or Lady Gaga than even think about spirituality and life’s big questions.

There’s no doubt that celebrity antics hold the same sort of fascination we feel when we drive past a car wreck. But in the end, does it make any difference in our lives?

Some more priceless Seinfeld dialogue:

Elaine: So, you’re pretty religious?

Puddy: That’s right.

Elaine: So is it a problem that I’m not really religious?

Puddy: Not for me.

Elaine: Why not?

Puddy: I’m not the one going to hell.

Yikes! If any serious Christian has used words like this with you, I apologize here and now. It’s no exaggeration to write that anyone who takes his or her faith seriously is never blasé about the fate of friends, family, and loved ones. I’ve eaten veggie burgers that tasted more real than the Christianity Puddy displays.

Real Christianity sacrifices itself in the same way serious Christians believe Jesus took on our failures and misdeeds when Roman authorities hung him on a cross. In the Bible, real Christianity says “First we were loved, now we love. God loved us first.” If you encounter a person who seems somehow different because he/she knows this amazing truth, then you’ve met the real thing and I hope you walk away thinking about your life and your fate.

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For a few years, I didn’t much like Kiss singer/bassist Gene Simmons. At the time, his epic ego and claims of endless sexual conquests (which, thankfully, we no longer hear about) were major turn-offs.

All that said, I felt like I was downing an ice-cold drink on a sweltering day when I read an article about his 2011 appearance on the U.S. cable TV talk show Chelsea Lately.

Interviewed by host Chelsea Handler, Simmons was surprisingly frank and humble when put on the spot about his sexual infidelities.

With longtime girlfriend (and, since 2011, wife) Shannon Tweed in the audience, Simmons said “I’m damaged goods, and I need Shannon in my life. I need her to fix what’s wrong with me.”

Wow! For a man who has bragged about bedding more than 4,000 women, this confession is simply astonishing. And it opens the door to explore two important ideas.

1. “I’m damaged goods.” Gene, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Like it or not, every person on this planet is damaged goods. Every one of us has somehow dropped the ball and missed the target of what we could be.

Looking for proof? If you give the Bible any credibility, consider this revealing statement in a section called ‘Romans’: “Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”

Oh, our damage may not be as obvious or as potentially hurtful as Gene Simmons’, but please notice that the statement doesn’t address degrees of damage. Why? Because in the end, it doesn’t matter. And that fact alone should keep the rest of us from feeling smug.

2. “I need her to fix what’s wrong with me.” Shannon, are you feeling the pressure yet? I know I would be if my wife made this declaration about me. Think about this: if all of us are damaged, then how is Shannon supposed to ‘fix’ Gene when she has her own failings?

Still, this doesn’t mean Shannon can’t do anything for Gene, just as it doesn’t mean my wife is incapable of helping me.

Serious Christians believe two things: that God cares about every person on this planet, and God can — and does — work through all people, no matter what their issues, to achieve His goals. When my wife & I got married, our pastor told Lori that I would be the prime resource God would use to repair her hurts and eliminate her weaknesses. Then he told me the same thing about Lori. All the two of us had to do was let God have His way.

So, do you want to let God fix you like he’s fixing me? Then invite His son, Jesus, into your life and let Him have His way. If you’re serious about it, and get hooked up with a Bible-believing church, then you’ll soon start to experience positive changes in your life.

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I am finding out, to my utter astonishment, that I’m good at board games.

Well, not all board games; just one that has become quite popular in the last decade. Settlers of Catan has been translated into 30 languages and was called the “board game of our time” by the Washington Post.

My family plays at almost every gathering. Each participant is a colonist settling an island (Catan) and the idea is to reach 10 points first by building settlements, cities, and roads using cards representing the island’s natural resources. Along the way, you can trade cards with other players and buy cards that give you armies or the right to steal resource cards from other colonists.

As you can tell, there are plenty of variables, but the game is a lot of fun once you understand everything.

For awhile, that was the problem. I just couldn’t deal with all the dynamics, so a blind man could drive a car better than I could play Settlers of Catan. And it made me more depressed than a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

But somewhere along the way it all came together, and lately, I win games like former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halliday tosses strikeouts.

Trouble is, as soon as someone reaches 10 points, the game is over. We put our roads, settlements, cities, and cards back in the box and in just a few minutes, my great accomplishment is forgotten.

It occurs to me that life is pretty similar. Roy Halliday won baseball games and Cy Young awards, but now he’s retired and his talent remembered only by baseball fanatics and a few mournful Blue Jays fans. More often than not, Roy will walk the streets in anonymity, just like you and me.

When I consider this, I’m reminded to ask the sort of questions that our culture discourages: Why am I here? To win board games? To consume, watch TV, sleep, have kids, go on vacations, and die?

For atheists, the website allaboutphilosophy.org answers my questions this way:
“If God doesn’t exist, that means life must have come about through some impersonal, unintelligent, and ultimately purposeless process.”

I really hope that explanation leaves you feeling emptier than a shopping mall on Christmas day.

Perhaps you are here just to enjoy the ride and not think about it any further. Our culture encourages that answer, but would you be reading this essay if you were that superficial?

Consider this from the biggest possible point of view: maybe you’re here because God created you. Maybe you were, as the Bible puts it, created in God’s image—meaning you are able to love, laugh, feel, and think.

If you’re still with me, maybe you’re here so you can connect with God, find out about an amazing guy named Jesus, and be that guy’s ambassador to a world we both know isn’t doing well. Does that make sense?

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After publishing my last essay, Twittering on the Divine, on another website, a reader named John responded with a pointed assertion. I responded and off we went, on a fascinating and, I believe, important debate on the nature of evil.

What do you think of the points each of us raised? Post your own thoughts below and let’s have a conversation.

John
True, it doesn’t make sense to blame God when someone uses their freewill to commit murders. But then it would be incorrect to thank God when governments and aid groups use their freewill to help starving people. So then God isn’t helping at all.

Frank
John, anyone who believes God is not good and doesn’t care about us will find your mindset quite valid. I prefer not to have such a hopeless perspective and my viewpoint is backed up by the fact that God gave every single person in this broken world a gift – Jesus.

My attitude toward God is also framed by this passage I found in the Bible: “First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.” For me, Jesus is proof of that love and I respond in kind.

John
I can see how the gift of Jesus could account for God’s creation of evil, that is to say God created evil in humans, but he also gave us Jesus so we can redeem ourselves. But I fail to see how that can account for the existence of evils not caused by humans, such as natural disasters or diseases. A father who gives his children expensive gifts is not necessary a good father.

Frank
Thank you for continuing this conversation, John. I’m enjoying the exchange of viewpoints. A couple of things:

1. Did God create evil? As with my last comment, anyone who doesn’t believe God is good and doesn’t believe He cares about us might lean towards that position, but I do not. And the reason can be found in my previous comment.

2. Biblical Christianity – which I accept as true – states we cannot use Jesus to redeem ourselves. Jesus’s death and resurrection redeems anyone who believes in Him and follows Him. Jesus does the redeeming (the ‘heavy lifting’); our obligation is to believe and trust. The difference might be subtle to some, but it is significant.

3. While I cannot explain diseases (if I could, I would be God and that responsibility is a little big for my shoulders), but as for disasters, we humans only call them that because we are in the way when they happen. If nobody is killed and no property/infrastructure is destroyed by an earthquake, do we still call it a disaster?

John
Since evil exists, wouldn’t it have had to been created by something? If God exists and created all, then he would have had to create evil, for if he did not then whence came evil?

Frank
I did some research on your question about God creating evil, so I could answer it credibly. The website gotquestions.org asserts that God did not create evil – it is not a ‘thing’, after all – and evil is simply the absence of good, just as cold is the absence of hot and darkness is the absence of light.

Obviously, God allows evil behaviour to exist and even to flourish. Why? Because if He didn’t, then He would be snatching back His gift of free will. It’s that simple.

In the end, if you want to think about evil being a ‘created’ thing, then it is created by us – you and me, John, when we drop the ball, when we miss the mark of what God created us to be and when we ignore opportunities to do good.

John
I think the analogy between light/dark and good/evil is a flawed one. Darkness is certainly the absence of light, that’s easy. Suppose you put yourself in a windowless room without any light sources, then certainly the room is dark. Darkness is then our zero point, our natural state of the universe.

Now put yourself in the same room and ask yourself: are you doing any good? If you say no, then by your analogy you are doing evil, since it is your zero point evil is the natural state of the universe. I fail to see how sitting alone in a dark room can be evil. I would suggest the zero point is simply neutral, doing no good and no evil, with evil below it and good above it. Hence God created good and evil.

You could say that sitting in the room is doing good since you’re doing no evil. But then we would have to consider good as our natural state and your analogy becomes reversed. Now evil is simply the absence of good, and good was never created, but evil was.

Frank
Let’s consider the light/dark analogy from this perspective, John: evil is the absence of God.

Where God is not acknowledged, where His will for humanity is ignored, where His love for every single person who ever lived – stretching from Osama Bin Laden to Mother Teresa and *proven* through His gift of Jesus Christ – is ridiculed, then evil is the inevitable consequence.

Sometimes, that evil comes from what you’ve referred to as the neutral of simply sitting in darkness. Does that sitting in darkness include the neutrality of doing nothing to stop someone from getting hit by a car? After all, you’re not driving the car and you’re not the dope who stepped on the road in front of it, so you haven’t done anything wrong (or right) by simply letting events unfold, correct?

But our exchange of views is getting very esoteric, John. The bottom line that I was making in the blog was we have been given two extraordinary and costly (for the giver) gifts: free will and Jesus Christ.

We’re free to spit on those gifts through our actions (and inactions), through our stubborn rejection of all that Jesus has done for every single person who decides to believe in and follow Him. Where do you stand on those gifts, John?

John
There’s no doubt that evil CAN come from what seems to be a neutral state, but there’s no doubt that there is a neutral state like sitting in the doctor’s office.
As for now changing the question from good-evil to acknowledging God-evil. Acknowledging God is simply respecting what God has given everyone ie. life, freewill. Now you’re sitting alone in the doctor’s waiting room, you’re certainly respecting everything God has given you. So the absence of evil is acknowledging Gods will, so evil is again shown to have been created.

The bottom line that I’m making in this debate is that if you want to believe in God, you must accept that he created evil. The only way to believe that He did not create evil, is to not believe in God. Which is one of the many reasons I chose a life without a god.

Frank
John, I simply can not and do not agree with your premise. As far as I’m concerned – and I’ve thought a lot about this, and read lots of books & blogs about this – free will is God’s invention and evil is humanity’s “invention”.

If I believed God “invented” evil (rather than allowing it – a significant difference), my life would become superficial and hope-less. That’s the kind of life I see lived by so many people who have no faith and unknowingly follow all the marketing and lifestyle mantras our society pushes on us.

I was fortunate in that I came to see and embrace the gift of free will, and the gift of Jesus Christ, without some sort of huge, often negative event forcing me to re-examine my life. Will that be what it takes for you to do that re-examining? I deeply and sincerely hope not.

John
I have argued well enough to show that if you believe in God, you must accept that He created evil. I can accept that evil is humanity’s creation because I’ve rejected the idea of any god.

If you insist of believing in God, then you must believe he created evil. Which really is a contradiction to your beliefs so, of course, your life would be hopeless since you’re living a lie. That’s the kind of life I see lived by so many people who have faith and unknowingly follow all the ignorant ideals and beliefs religion pushes on us.

Frank
Well, John, I guess we’re going to agree to disagree. I believe we’ve debated well; my hope and prayer is anyone reading these comments will connect with the hope-filled, positive viewpoint.

I hope readers will also recognize that with some spiritual things, there are no absolutely definitive answers. We can know many things about God (thanks to the Bible), but in some ways, He has been – and will always be – a mystery, whether we like it or not. Rather than frustrating me, I find this mystery is an important reminder that God is God and I am NOT.

In the meantime, John, I hope you don’t mind if I pray for you.

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