Take Courage

Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid. — Matthew 15-27b

Years ago, when someone related the story of Jesus’ walking on water, the focus always seemed to be on Peter’s failure of faith. If only Peter hadn’t taken his eyes off Jesus, the implication was, he would never have faltered on the crest of the waves. It wasn’t until long after I became an adult that I heard a preacher point out that of all the disciples, Peter was the only one with the courage – and faith – to get out of the boat in the first place. And when his courage did falter, Peter knew on whom to call to save him.

This incident, like so many in Peter’s life, is a lesson for us. Sometimes we have to have the courage to step out into scary situations with only our meager faith to sustain us. And when, in the midst of frightening circumstances, that faith begins to falter because the waves are high and Jesus seems a long way off, we still need to remember to call on Him to save us, to get us back in the boat or safely on shore.

In America, faithful Christians are being buffeted even now by winds and waves that will only grow stronger in the coming years. American Christians haven’t encountered such peril since before the nation’s founding. Many of us – like the disciples who stayed in the boat – will be tempted to huddle in our churches in hopes of riding out the storm. Instead, we need the courage to step out into the gale and do what we can to save the drowning.

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, over the next few years, safe harbors for America’s Christians are likely to become harder and harder to find. While our storms are not yet (and may never be) as fearful as those battering our fellow Christians in other parts of the world, it’s time, nevertheless, to recognize that we can weather them not by huddling in our churches, but by having courage to get out of the boat and faith to, as the old song says, “wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

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Above Reproach

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world. – Phil. 2:14-15 (NASB)

2016. A new year and a new opportunity to follow the tenets laid down in this verse.

Grumbling is something I’ve become too well acquainted with in recent years. The destruction of our culture and country is a hard thing to watch, and the anger thus engendered has only fueled my inborn and un-Christlike tendency to complain. Complaints come readily to my lips these days; praise and gratitude far too slowly.

We do indeed live amidst a crooked and perverse generation, getting more so by the minute. Yet, according to Paul – a man who knew a thing or two about crooked and perverse generations – we are called upon to live “above reproach” so as to “appear as lights in the world.”

And as much as it did in Paul’s time, heaven knows this dark world we live in today is in need of some light.

The gray days we’ve had for the past few weeks – in my neck of the woods and across much of America – are a fitting metaphor for the times in which we live, times that are dark now and growing darker by the minute. And I’m ashamed to say that instead of appearing as a “light” in that darkness, I’ve too often cursed the darkness and let it overwhelm me.

If, as we well know, cursing the darkness accomplishes nothing, however, the question is, exactly how does one go about appearing as a true light in a perverse world that calls light darkness and darkness light?

I suspect God has a different answer to that question for every one of His followers. And I suspect that most of us have some idea of what that answer is for ourselves.

But if not, let us make it our mission this new year to find out and to begin living out that light in this bleak world so that the darkness no longer overwhelms us, and, as Paul exhorts us, so that we can prove ourselves “to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach.”

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Marriage, Human Dignity, and Liberal Insecurity

Three essays I’ve read recently powerfully express – far better than I could – some thoughts I’ve been having lately on the nature of marriage, on the brouhaha over Clarence Thomas’s dissent in Obergefell vs. Hodges, and on liberal/progressive insecurity.

commons.wikimedia.org

commons.wikimedia.org

Writing at First Things, Joshua Schulz dismantles Justice Kennedy’s contentions that “the procreative potential once thought essential to marriage is in fact no more central to the institution than the race . . .,” and “that what is essential to marriage is the autonomy right of ‘self-definition’ in one’s intimate relationships . . .”

In his essay, Schulz thoughtfully articulates the problems with Kennedy’s contention and shows why the aspects of marriage essential to its nature are bound up in the procreative and unitive properties of human sexuality, and not, contra the Court, in the autonomous individual’s right to “self-definition.”

Also at First Things, Wesley J. Smith explains what Clarence Thomas was really saying about human dignity in his Obergefell vs. Hodges dissent. Only someone making a deliberate effort – or someone who no longer believes in inherent human worth – could have misunderstood Justice Thomas’s point. But for those few who may have honestly missed it, Smith’s essay provides an excellent corrective.

And over at Public Discourse, David Azerrad explores liberal insecurity. According to Azerrad, liberals believe that we “are all sovereign individuals, radically free to fashion and refashion ourselves into anything we so please at any point in our lives.” Oddly, however, these sovereign individuals seem unable to thrive unless others affirm and approve their self-defined choices.

“For all his purported god-like powers of self-creation,” Azerrad writes, “liberal promethean man is actually a weak, insecure, and isolated individual. It is not enough that he define and express his identity. He needs others to recognize it, embrace it, and celebrate it. He needs the state to confer dignity upon it.”

If you haven’t already read them, each of these essays is well worth your time.

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When Freedom Dies

Religious freedom and freedom of speech in America are both in their death throes. While the writhing may go on for a while, absent a miraculous healing of the American spirit, their ultimate deaths are assured – and likely to occur sooner than we ever imagined.

Thanks to the progressive agenda, in general, these two real “fundamental” rights have been ill for quite some time. But it took the trifecta of radical environmentalism, the Affordable Care Act, and the same-sex marriage movement to push them to the brink. Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling saving the ACA and – to a far greater extent – Friday’s ruling creating a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, sounded the death knell.

Despite being so strong that nothing can stand in its way, the “right side of history,” apparently, is, at the same time, so fragile that any dissent could upend the whole enterprise. Dissenters – Christians, in particular – must, therefore, be silenced and marginalized. Progressives no doubt are overjoyed that the Supreme Court has handed them the tools to make that happen.

As Os Guinness writes in A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, “[f]reedom never lasts forever, because its very vitality is built on a combination of elements that are dynamic, difficult to hold together and easy to corrupt.” In a fallen world, it could be no other way. When religious freedom and freedom of speech die, America’s freedom will be dead, as well.

CCO Public Domain pixabay.com

CCO Public Domain pixabay.com

At the Northampton Seminar on the Patheos website, my friend Gerry McDermott offers reasons to take heart. While “[t]hese are dark days for orthodox believers and conservatives,” Gerry writes, “. . . these are also days when we should be reminded of bright hopes.” Quoting Luke 6:22-23, Gerry reminds us that Jesus said we should “leap for joy” when men hate and revile us on His account. Such treatment puts us right up there with the prophets.

I know Gerry is right, and I sure can’t argue with the words of our Lord, but I’m not quite there yet. As a new neighbor helpfully pointed out to me recently, I’m no spring chicken. Still, I had hoped not to live to see the day freedom died in America. I’ll pray that I can leap for joy very soon. For now, I’m just trying to stay upright and stake out a small stand on the wrong side of history.

–updated 6:31 pm EDT

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The Cost of Our Convictions

The courage of our convictions is a phrase that means a willingness to stand up for what we believe in the face of opposition. Until recently, beyond a little ridicule, the cost of expressing our convictions hasn’t been too great for America’s Christians. But the ante on Christian courage is about to go up dramatically. The question then becomes, are we ready to pay that cost?

For Christians of my generation – the baby boomers – the cost may not be too onerous. Many of us are at or approaching the ends of our careers and so have less on the line. But for our children and grandchildren, the cost could betruth very great indeed. At Public Discourse, Ryan Shinkel lays out that cost in his excellent essay, “The Courage to Be on the Wrong Side of History: Lessons from Burke and Nietzsche.”

A senior studying philosophy and literature at the University of Michigan, Shinkel articulates well the challenges that his generation will likely face. But he doesn’t flinch from those challenges.

“Moral courage” Shinkel writes, “means placing more value upon the integrity of conscience over the stability of external events: being denied tenure, a plum internship, some job, friends who cannot tolerate “bigoted” opinions . . . prudence is necessary, yet those of my generation who stand for what the family is, what marriage is, and what the foundational institutions of civil society rooted in our rational and social natures are, make possible a new counter-revolution.”

I came of age during the sexual revolution of the ‘60s. Considered counter cultural at the time, that revolution – along with other misguided ideas regnant in those years – has wreaked unbelievable destruction on the well being of our nation and its citizens. If Shinkel can persuade others of his generation to grab hold of the moral courage to become the counterculture of today, to resist the so-called “right side of history,” and simply stand for what is right – whatever the cost – there may be hope for our nation yet.

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Where There is No Vision

 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

(flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Are you gonna exist or are you gonna live?” The question came from behind me as I browsed the reference book aisle at Barnes & Noble the other day. “Cause living means taking responsibility for your life and choices. Existing is just letting things happen to you.”

Those weren’t the speaker’s exact words,, but that’s the gist of what he was saying. After shamelessly eavesdropping for a few minutes, I discreetly glanced over my shoulder to see what was going on. The speaker was hidden from my view, but the listener – if he could be called that – was a young black teen who looked less than happy to be on the receiving end of the speaker’s words.

Curious, I prolonged my browsing, the better to hear the rest of the speaker’s monologue on the opportunities that were available to this young teen if he decided he wanted to live instead of exist.

“When I come to Barnes & Noble,” the speaker went on, “I come with a purpose. I ask about the section where the self-help books are that can help me change my life” (my paraphrase). The speaker continued on in this vein, trying to incite some response that would indicate his words were getting through to the sulky-faced teen.

Wanting to see who was trying so hard to make a difference in this young man’s life, I rounded the end of the aisle and glanced back once more. The speaker was leaning on the shelves, head bent toward the teenager, so I couldn’t get a clear look – at least without becoming a more obvious eavesdropper than I already had been. He was certainly older and wiser than the teen he was addressing – maybe an older brother – but most likely not his dad.

I left Barnes & Noble without purchasing any books, but the overheard entreaty stayed  in my mind.

In the KJV, Proverbs 29:18a is rendered, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Other versions translate vision as prophetic vision or revelation, and perish as unrestrained or cast off restraints. Regardless of the version, the verse well describes the times in which we live. But though it probably isn’t the most accurate translation, I like the KJV version best. It seems to describe the lives of so many young men today – particularly, but certainly not only – those in the black community.

Because they’ve not been given a vision of what it means to be a real man, many young men today are perishing – both literally in cities like Ferguson, MO, and figuratively all around the country. With few fathers to guide them and a culture that often seems to despise them, they’ve lost a sense of purpose and a belief in their value to society. Consequently, many are languishing either in real prisons or in prisons created by addictions to pornography and video games, by their lack of education, and by a lack of jobs.

I applaud the speaker in Barnes & Noble for stepping into a young teen’s life and trying to show him that he has a choice about whether to live or to simply exist. The words he spoke contained much wisdom, and if the young man is smart, he’ll chew on those words. But curing the malaise that has afflicted our young men will require more than self-help books and more responsible choices. Ultimately, only embracing a prophetic vision of biblical manhood, and a willingness to accept the restraints thus entailed, will enable our young men – and by extension, our culture – to flourish and thrive.

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If We Win at the Supreme Court, Do We Still Lose Marriage?

After hearing the oral arguments in the Obergefell v. Hodges case and listening to a Heritage Foundation panel discussion on the Supreme Court justices’ questions and what they might mean, I’m slightly more hopeful that the justices will resist the urge to invent a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. That would be a good thing. But at the risk of sounding like a Jeremiah, I have to say I’m not sure what practical difference resisting that urge will make.

As Solicitor General Donald Verrilli noted in response to a comment from Chief Justice Roberts, even if the justices do rule against a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, “questions of accommodation [of religious liberty] are going to arise . . . in states where there is no same sex marriage [and in states] where there [is].”

Verrilli is right. Leaving it to the states to decide their own definition of marriage isn’t necessarily going to protect the religious freedom of their citizens. And by declining the Elane Photography case, the Court has already signaled its lack of interest in resolving these questions when they do arise.

As of now, 37 states have legal same-sex marriage. Only 11, however, decided the issue through the democratic process. The other 26 have had same-sex marriage imposed on them by the courts. The vast majority of those decisions have occurred since the Windsor decision in June 2013 – an outcome the justices most certainly anticipated.

In the unlikely event the Supreme Court fails to create a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, my guess is that few if any of those 26 states will turn back the clock. The economic and other pressures to retain the status quo will be massive and unrelenting, and many governors and attorneys general won’t have the stomach for the fight. Others, like the governor and attorney general of Virginia, support same-sex marriage anyway and have no desire to fight.

In the 13 states that still define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, same-sex marriage advocates will wage intensive campaigns to pressure those states, first, to legally recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states (if the Court doesn’t require it in deciding Question 2 in Obergefell), and second, to legalize same-sex marriage, as well. The mauling Indiana took over its RFRA law offers an indication of what those campaigns will look like. Same-sex marriage advocates will give no quarter until every state falls into line.

The pressure will be equally intense on individuals, businesses, and institutions that refuse to get with the program. Those who oppose same-sex marriage for religious or any other reason will at the very least continue to be vilified, marginalized, and threatened with losing their jobs and businesses. Churches, religious schools, and other institutions and organizations will also be targeted. Resisting such pressure will become increasingly difficult, if not impossible.

So while I would certainly welcome a Supreme Court decision affirming the right of states to define marriage as they see fit, at best it will be nothing more than a bump in the road. The money and cultural influence of the same-sex marriage lobby will still drive us relentlessly on toward the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage even if it means the complete destruction of anyone who doesn’t get out of the way.

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