Tag Archives: values

Have We Lost The Next Generation?

I just read (skimmed really) an article published online by Charisma Magazine called Year in Review: How the New Christian Left is Twisting the Gospel. Among other things, the article defines three different types of Christians. I’m listing them below because they’ll factor into my essay by the by:

  1. Couch-potato Christians: These Christians adapt to the culture by staying silent on the tough culture-and-faith discussions. Typically this group will downplay God’s absolute truths by promoting the illusion that neutrality was Jesus’ preferred method of evangelism.
  2. Cafeteria-style Christians: This group picks and chooses which Scripture passages to live by, opting for the ones that best seem to jive with culture. Typically they focus solely on the “nice” parts of the gospel while simultaneously and intentionally minimizing sin, hell, repentance and transformation.
  3. Convictional Christians: In the face of the culture’s harsh admonitions, these evangelicals refuse to be silent. Mimicking Jesus, they compassionately talk about love and grace while also sharing with their neighbors the need to recognize and turn from sin.
culture wars
Image: © Istockphoto/Thomas_EyeDesign – found at Charisma Magazine

While the author is focused on this crisis in Evangelicalism, it’s not unique to Christianity. One of the long-standing issues in Judaism is assimilation of Jews to either secular culture or conversion to Christianity.

Last May, Arutz Sheva published Assimilation, the Jewish people’s worst nightmare outlining this, although a little over two years ago, Tablet Magazine posted an article called Why the Myth of Vanishing American Jewry is so Hard to Dispel.

All of these essays are very long and I’ll admit in not reading the entire content of each one.

In general though, the blame for Christians leaving the church or creating churches that are largely secular in their values, as well as for Jews assimilating and either identifying as cultural (but not religious) Jews or at least joining liberal Reform synagogues, is laid squarely at the feet of popular, secular culture, and by that I mean progressive liberalism.

I recently reviewed a book written by the late Andrew Breitbart titled Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World. It was written during the Obama administration and covered how the news media, entertainment industry, and university system have all been co-opted by socialism and liberalism so that they have almost overwhelming control of the national “message” being transmitted today.

But while Breitbart was addressing how Tea Party conservatives could fight back and send a message of their own, I can see parallels between his points and how religious structures in our country, really in western culture, are being impacted in the same way.

The question is, assuming all this is correct, how can Jews and Christians (and I’m including Messianics in this mix) successfully communicate their/our values to the next generation and make it stick?

Chanukah 2016

As I wrote in my previous blog post, I haven’t been particularly successful in that arena.

Of course this comes to mind:

Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Proverbs 22:6 (NASB)

That sounds nice in theory, but is it really successful?

You aren’t her parents anymore, her parents are Axl Rose and Madonna, you can’t compete with that kind of constant bombardment.

-Albert Gibson (played by Tom Arnold)
from the film True Lies (1994)

As our culture increasingly diverges from the values taught in Christianity and Judaism, it sends a powerful message to everyone, including younger people who want to be relevant and not perceived as an enemy or bigot by their larger peer group.

And our modern culture has a much larger and louder public relations department than the family our religious instructors.

So is it hopeless?

I hope not. On the other hand, you’d just about have to keep kids locked in a closet and never let them on the internet, watch TV, listen to the radio, go out to watch movies, or go anywhere and associate with anyone except like-minded religious people.

Only the most conservative and reclusive groups do that kind of thing. In fact, I’ve encountered some progressives that think raising Jewish children as Orthodox and controlling their hair styles, clothing, and educational environment is a form of child abuse (although for some strange reason, they don’t have the same problems with Muslims).

Not only does secularism teach values different from the Church and Synagogue, but they teach that Christian and Jewish values (conservative or traditional ones) are bad, wrong, homophobic, islamophobic, racist, sexist, patriarchal, misogynistic, and so on.

judeo-christianNo one wants to be thought of as a bigot, but the message being transmitted is that religious thought and observance is all of those things, and the only way to not be a bigot is to stop being religious (or create a religion that embraces secular progressive values).

I’m sure there are young Christian and Jewish people out there who have adhered to their religious values to one degree or another, but it certainly seems as if we’re trying to repair a ripped artery with chewing gum and scotch tape.

I know there are plenty of pundits who have written about the “culture wars” and what to do about it, but I’m not so sure how successful their solutions are (if they have any).

One problem that I don’t think is being addressed was raised by the Charisma Mag author:

Convictional Christians: In the face of the culture’s harsh admonitions, these evangelicals refuse to be silent. Mimicking Jesus, they compassionately talk about love and grace while also sharing with their neighbors the need to recognize and turn from sin.

The problem is whether their values are truly based in the Bible, or based rather upon conservative Christian interpretation and tradition?

I came across the notion of “teaching correct doctrine” in my previous sojourn in church. I left over two years ago, but my experiences are still vivid in my memory.

christians vs gaysThe problem might not always be religious vs. secular values, but how religious values are defined and understood.

Messianics, by definition, have come to the conclusion that normative Christianity does not have an entirely correct understanding of the Bible, especially when it comes to the Torah, Israel, and the Jewish people.

In fact, at least in my own experience, the Church has been wrong about so many things, that I’ve re-examined at large number of topics, including Christianity’s and Judaism’s stand on Gays in the church as well as in the Synagogue.

I came up with an answer that is a lot more nuanced than “Homosexuality is an abomination,” but still determined that Same-sex sex and marriage is not presupposed anywhere in the Bible.

But I looked, I didn’t just assume.

That might be a big problem younger people are having with religion. Conservative Christians and Jews rely on what they were taught and the explanations they were provided without engaging in an honest investigation into those beliefs.

Instead of just telling some young person “Homosexuality is a sin” or “Eve made Adam sin with the apple,” maybe engaging them and taking them through an investigation as to why these values are adhered to. Further, if a traditional value is discovered to be false (“the Church replaced the Jews in all God’s covenant promises”), adjust or eliminate the value.

While some churches have done this relative to Israel and the Covenants, other Christians have found it necessary to leave the Church and to either join Messianic congregations or, lacking access, finding online venues to nurture their beliefs and values.

But conducting an extensive investigation of scripture to define religious values takes time, effort, and resources, plus the willingness to question your own traditions. Christianity and Judaism might not be willing to do that, since tradition has a tendency to take on a life of its own.

father and sonOne final point, and this has been said before, is that parents and religious teachers must walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Most younger people will learn more about your values by watching you live them out (or your failure to do so) than anything you’ll ever tell them.

That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect, but you do have to be consistent. If cultural values lure you in at one level or another, you will probably lose the war for the next generation.

I wonder if we already have?

The Light of Our Traditions

I’ll share a little secret with you. Sometimes, I really don’t like the holidays, but probably not for the reasons you think.

There’s a temptation to read into the reasons a person like me might “disengage” from Christmas, even though my wife and (Jewish) family members consider me a Christian. You might think I’m freaking out over the “pagan origins” of Christmas. Maybe you believe I abhor the secular, consumerism associated with Christmas. Along those lines, you could even consider that I want to put the “Christ” back in “Christmas”.

Actually, the crass materialism connected to one of the biggest American holidays of the year is probably my biggest objection of those listed above. The intense greed and “feeding frenzy” chaotic power surge of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” are more objectionable to me than people putting up a real or artificial pine tree and decorating it with lights and ornaments.

And of course, my family is Jewish, making Christmas a “non-starter” in our home. Really, I don’t miss it. Well, not exactly.

Children's Christmas PageantI’ve written about Christmas before (do a search on “Christmas” on this blog and you’ll see the list…it’s long), and although I’m not fond of this time of year, I really don’t care if secular people or even Christians celebrate it.

Every person has their cherished traditions, as does every family. Christmas is a cherished tradition for many, many American families. Some see it as a way to celebrate the birth of the Savior and take the opportunity to loudly and publicly praise his advent into our world. Some of those same people also seize the moment and choose to give back extra to the community through various forms of charity.

Others, who are not religious, still view Christmas as a time to gather family and friends in whom they find physical and emotional warmth at this time of year, which, here in Idaho, can be pretty cold and dark. Even the areligious bask in the joy of their children on Christmas morning as they open their presents, enjoy roast turkey or goose for the celebratory meal, and marvel in the beauty of neighborhoods decked in the glow of seasonal lights. And sometimes the areligious outshine the Christians in our communities in giving to charity and helping give to those who are doing without.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed seasonal lights recently, they just weren’t Christmas lights.

Every night for the first seven nights of Chanukah, my wife and daughter would gather around our two Chanukiah, say the blessings, and light the Chanukah lights one by one.

I usually only become aware of it when I hear the blessings being said and, when I peak out into our living room toward the kitchen and dining areas, I see my wife and daughter illuminated by the glow.

It still stings a little, but I try to understand that, from their point of view, this is a celebration of Jewish lights, Jewish victories, and Jewish freedom, and the miracles of God toward Israel. As a Christian, my tradition isn’t supposed to include Jewish tradition, so they don’t think to invite me.

But last night was different.

Actually, all of yesterday was different.

lambMy wife and daughter being foodies, can take all day to prepare for a single dinner. My daughter had to work yesterday, so my wife had me fire up the Traeger and pour in the wood pellets so it was prepared, first for beef brisket, and then for lamb. My job as a non-cook, is to clean, usually the ever mounting mess in the kitchen, but also to vacuum the living room and such. I also get sent to the store for various last minute items.

I had an irrational thought about whether or not the stores would be open, only to remember that, for the rest of the world, Chanukah is no big deal. No store closures or limited hours in Idaho for a Jewish celebration.

Finally 5 o’clock arrived and so did the family. Children and grandchildren gathered together. It wasn’t idyllic. These are human beings and we’re a human family, not a Hallmark greeting card. Still, I felt a warmth that didn’t come from the glow of a well used stove top and oven.

I was remembering other family holiday gatherings of the past. I was remembering Christmas, of a sort. Not the tree or the presents or all of that, but the feeling of family coming together, good company, good food, and playing games (my grandson cleaned up on gelt when we played dreidel).

My daughter, who actually knows Hebrew and doesn’t require transliterations of the blessings, helped my six-year old grandson recite the blessing to ignite the Chanukah lights for the final night. His pronunciation was terrible and I doubt he understood the significance, especially since his parents don’t (as far as I know) incorporate any Jewish observance or tradition in their home. But if we can expose him and his now nearly six-month old sister, to activities such as Chanukah, Passover, and Sukkot, year after year, then maybe, just maybe, when they’re older, they’ll be curious enough about their father’s Jewish heritage to look into it on their own.

chanukahOK, that’s pretty unlikely, but what the heck. It’s worth a shot.

That’s what tradition is and what it does. It’s a way to teach your children the values and history of the family, to pass on to the next generation what practices we think are important and why they mean so much to us.

The Jews are experts at this and have been passing on traditions from parent to child for thousands of years, and this, as much as anything, has preserved the Jewish people and the functional practice of Judaism from generation to generation, when over 99% of the rest of the world has actively been trying to destroy them, either through outright extermination or assimilation, which amounts to the same thing.

Although I no longer connect with Christmas, I can hardly distain those who hold it most dear. They’re doing what we’re doing…passing along family and cultural traditions and values. We may or may not approve of the specifics of those values, but we can hardly call the process into question because what they do is what we do.

I know some secular people who have objected to, for example, various practices in Orthodox Judaism involving children, such as what they see as excessively modest dress or little boys wearing their hair in Payot (Hebrew: פֵּאָה‎; plural: פֵּאוֹת), even going so far as to call it child abuse.

But it’s a tradition of their culture and a rather benign one at that. Are we to criticize the traditions of other families and other cultures just because they are not like our own?

So if one family celebrates Chanukah and another Christmas, why the panic attack?

family chanukahHeck, I remember when my children were quite young. We still lived in Southern California. We still celebrated Christmas. My wife had friends, an older Jewish couple (they were friends of her parents actually) who visited us on Christmas Day. One year, they took us to a Judaica store, one of the few businesses open on December 25th, and it was quite interesting.

They didn’t seem to object that we were celebrating Christmas (even though they knew my wife was Jewish, though she wasn’t religious at the time). It was an opportunity for us to get together and spend some time with each other. Friendship and family works like that.

So last night, I enjoyed the lamb and the latkes. We ate homemade ice cream and played dreidel. My grandson helped light the Chanukah lights and I got to stand right there with my family and watch our home become illuminated.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. I hope next year it will be even better.

Conquering Wrong with Right

broken-crossSo Christians, tell me. What is the church really like?

Because I go to a church event for the first time in weeks and within twenty minutes, I hear people make off-the-cuff racist, sexist and homophobic comments and nobody bats an eye.

I lay on the couch, curled up in a ball with the phone to my ear and listen to a dear friend tell me how he feels like an outsider to the people he’s attended church with for years because he has chosen to plant his flag with the disenfranchised and the vulnerable in his community, as messy as that gets. And it got messy.

Another friend I grew up with sends me a middle of the night link to an article about the guy in Arizona who stood on his college campus holding a sign reading “You Deserve Rape.” We’ve been having conversations lately about some of his qualms with Christianity, and he sums it nicely by saying, “I don’t want to have to spend the rest of my life explaining this to people. I have better things to do.” And I sympathize. Because I don’t want to have to spend the rest of my life explaining that to people, either.

And that’s just in the last couple of weeks.

-Emily Joy Allison
“Church Prove Me Wrong”

The church is its own worse enemy.

I came across Ms. Allison’s blog (I get the impression she wouldn’t consider us on a first name basis so I’ll maintain some formality) as a link someone put on Facebook. That was well over a week ago, but this was the first chance I had to write about it. She says a lot of good things and a few things I disagree with, but she presents me with a struggle. Actually, she presents me with my own struggle, though I don’t conceptualize it in the same manner that Ms. Allison does. The struggle is with being a Christian and going to church vs. some of the really dippy and even hurtful things some Christians and some Christian churches do in the world.

For instance, she posted a screen capture of John Piper tweeting a message on twitter quoting Job 1:19 “in the wake of the terrible tragedies in Oklahoma,”

“Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.”

Even if Piper hadn’t intended this message to be taken the way it sounds, his timing (and probably his tastefulness) was ghastly. The tweet was subsequently deleted, but it’s another example of Christians (and people I refer to as “famous Christians” … more on that in a minute) standing on the platform of faith in Jesus Christ and throwing rocks at the injured and dying people of the world.

I sometimes have a problem with some “famous Christians.” These are usually televangelists or other Pastors or leaders who are in the public eye, people whose names are familiar even with atheists. Christians who typically are the worst examples of Christianity and who give the rest of the world the impression that we’re all like they are.

I recently heard an unsubstantiated story (that is, I can’t find it by Googling it) of scandal-plagued Jimmy Swaggart actually selling individual pages from his family Bible while leading a tour group in Israel. This would have been fairly recently, but I can’t find an online reference to the event. We’ve also heard names such as Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen, and I cringe to think that this is what the world sees when they think they’re looking at men who are disciples of and witnesses for Christ.

praying-aloneMany years ago, I knew some Americans who, when they toured Europe, would tell people they were from Canada (this obviously didn’t work at airports when they had to present their passports) because they were too embarrassed by America’s reputation overseas. There are days when I feel that way about being a Christian. I believe as a Christian, that I should be held accountable for my own behavior, my flaws, my mistakes, my errors, but it’s adding insult to injury if I have to be ashamed for every lousy thing someone else does in the name of Christ.

In terms of social consciousness and popular causes, it looks like Ms. Allison and I are different enough to where she would probably be embarrassed to be counted a Christian along with me, so from her perspective, I’m likely one of those folks she’s appealing to when she says:

YOU are supposed to be the living, breathing, embodiment of the gospel, and sometimes I can’t see anything good about it.

Church, prove me wrong. I’m begging you.

Church, prove me wrong. I’ve tried to be patient—and I will continue to try. I will be eating with you, talking with you, praying with you; from time to time I’ll probably be sitting in a church service with you. I will not abandon you, as long as Jesus has anything to do with it. But I need you to show me that he still does.

I recently read a blog post that quoted Jones, E. Stanley, (1925). The Christ of the Indian Road. Abingdon Press, 72-73. You’ve probably read this before:

“Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”

Gandhi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Ghandi’s rejection of Christianity grew out of an incident that happened when he was a young man. During his years studying law in Britain, he had become attracted to the Christian faith, had studied the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, and was seriously exploring becoming a Christian. One Sunday, in South Africa where he had gone to practice law after getting his degree, he decided to attend a church service.

As he came up the steps of the large church where he intended to go, a white South African elder of the church barred his way at the door. “Where do you think you’re going, kaffir?” the man asked Gandhi in a belligerent tone of voice.

Gandhi replied, “I’d like to attend worship here.”

The church elder snarled at Him, “There’s no room for Kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps.”

Gandhi is certainly an outstanding example, but how many Christians have thrown people out of the church or driven folks away who otherwise are men and women who act and think and breathe with the heart of Christ?

On the other hand, and there’s always an other hand, I can’t use all of this as an excuse to go “church bashing” or “Christian bashing.” From her writing, I get the impression that Ms. Allison is representative of a specifically narrow corridor of the believing world that exists in fusion with many of the popular values western society espouses today.

If the problem Ms. Allison or anyone else has with “the church” is that “the church” has a specific values system that conflicts with the non-religious social priorities we see continually in the popular news media, then maybe it’s a case of the church following its own priorities rather than believing it must “go along to get along” in American culture.

broken_godAlso, if your issue is that your particular religious group or you, as an individual, have difference of opinion with how other religious people or other religious groups conceptualize and operationalize a life of faith, that may not be a matter of the church needing to prove anything to you. That might just be a difference in how you see a life of faith vs. their perspective.

Some churches aren’t going to support what has come to be known as “marriage equality,” not as a matter of bigotry (note, I think the Westboro Baptist Church is reprehensible and does not represent Christ on any level), but a matter of conscience.

If your problem with “church” is that “church” doesn’t mesh with the values we see paraded in public by CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, and such so that “church” refuses to blend in like a chameleon into the progressive social background, then that’s not the church failing to follow Christ, it’s the church failing to worship society and culture.

I can’t prove to Ms. Allison that she’s wrong. If the church has failed to live up to her expectations, then I’m sorry. The church isn’t perfect because it’s full of imperfect human beings. Sometimes we do stupid things. Sometimes we do mean things. Sometimes some people in the church need to be told that Jesus would never act the way they’re acting.

Ms. Allison will never find a church that is perfect. No matter where she goes to worship and fellowship, she’ll always find “bad apples.” There are whole churches that are “bad apples.”  I don’t doubt though that there are a number of Christian churches that demonstrate values sufficiently similar to her’s that she’d be comfortable worshiping within their walls. I’m not sure what to make of such churches, but if Ms. Allison wants a place to belong, I’m sure it’s out there.

But we’ll never be perfect. Frankly, if a church is following in the footsteps of the Messiah, they probably shouldn’t look and act exactly like the world around us. Jesus said that we are in the world but not of the world.

I’ve been afraid of church for my own personal reasons, but they’re my personal reasons. My problems with going to church belong to me, not church. And yet, I came to a point in my life where I felt I had no other option but to go to church. If you call yourself a believer and a disciple, you can’t go off half-cocked following your own priorities when you know you need to be in fellowship with other believers and you need to follow the Master.

If you want to think that “the church” is irredeemably bad, you’ll find plenty examples of bad churches and bad Christians. If you don’t want to accept church-bashing lying down, and you believe that Christ still exists within the body of believers, you can do something about it. Instead of pointing a finger at what’s wrong, you can be what’s right in the church.

Gandhi is famous for saying, Be the change you wish to see in the world. If you don’t like what you see happening in the church, then be the sort of Christian you believe Jesus wants to see in the church. Walking away doesn’t make you more noble, it just makes you alone. Jesus didn’t walk away from an imperfect world. He died for it.

Mahatma-GandhiAnd then he lived. Someday he’ll come back to redeem our imperfect world. In the meantime, if we call ourselves disciples, if we call ourselves Christians, then we have a responsibility to do here and now what he is going to do when he comes back. We need to introduce a little kindness, compassion, and self-sacrifice into an otherwise broken and bleeding world. Jesus didn’t complain about what was wrong. He was moved by compassion. He caused the blind to see, caused the deaf to hear, caused the lame to walk. Like Christ, don’t complain about what’s wrong. Just do what’s right.

To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:20-21

If I should ever leave the community of faith, it won’t be because church is broken. It will be because I am.

118 days.

Blowing Out a Candle

They DID NOT choose their religion. They were brain-washed into it. Religion is a matter of geography. Religion is a matter of the family you were born into.

THINK! It is not you who chose your religion, it was chosen for you! It is time to move on, to realize that religion is man made. Become who you are, an individual, an atheist!

From an image posted on Facebook
by Spread Logic and Reason

Disclaimer: This is a rant. This isn’t what I normally post here as a “meditation.” Frankly, I’m getting a little tired of being pushed around by a bunch of folks on the web who think they can take an image, manipulate it with some text, and use it to complain about how bad religion is. Today, I decided to push back.

I first saw this bit of Internet meme “shared” by a Facebook friend and a person I’ve known for many years. He’s a person I hold in high regard but we obviously have different viewpoints on religion. If I had seen this coming from almost anyone else, I would have ignored it, but I consider this person an actual friend, so naturally, it hurts.

Here’s my initial response to seeing this image:

I turn 58 tomorrow. I didn’t become a Christian until I was over 40. I used to be an atheist, primarily because the prevailing culture around me was atheist and it seemed to make sense at the time. Then I started thinking for myself. Why would I let the culture around me choose my religion and my identity for me? Why would I let an Internet meme choose my identity for me?

And what have I ever done to you that you should try to change my identity into what you think would be better for me? I’m not trying to change you.

Then I thought about it some more while doing my lawn, came back over lunch and expanded my answer:

It occurs to me that all cultures and people groups have their various values and customs that are passed on from one generation to another. Most liberal progressives don’t complain about cultural diversity, even if it radically differs from their own, because they recognize that people have the right to observe their native customs and certainly, in the vast majority of cases, liberal progressives and atheists don’t demand that other people groups who are not white, middle-class Americans, change their ways just because they are different than the white, middle-class American atheist’s ways.

Islam and Judaism are closely tied to national, ethnic, cultural, and racial identity. Why isn’t is considered racism, prejudice, and bigotry for you to demand that Jews and Arabs refrain from passing on their values and beliefs to their children? Are you (the general “you”…not naming anyone specifically) more equipped to tell the rest of the world to live your lifestyle? Don’t you pass on your values (atheism, progressive liberalism) to your children?

Why are you trying to control everyone else in the world?

To be fair, between my first comment and my second, my friend said:

Jim, if you had been born in Saudi Arabia and were atheist, assuming you survived to 40, the odds are more likely you would have become Muslim. This isn’t really about an Internet meme, but an historical fact. It exited loooooong before the Internet. 99% of people grow up believing what their parents did. Why did none of the natives in the Americas become Christian for 1500 year. That you decided to for a different belief system than your environment does not alter the facts. You are an exception.

I can see his point, but I think he (and a lot of people like him) are missing something. In making statements and posting photos such as the one I put at the top of this blog post, aren’t atheists trying to say that their viewpoint, lifestyle, and values system is superior to everyone else’s? I know that many religions, particularly Christianity, are accused of exactly the same thing and I know from personal experience (having once been an agnostic leaning toward atheism) that having to listen to a Christian evangelist can be really annoying.

But what about all that “diversity” stuff? If progressive liberalism and atheism supports generally being accepting of racial, cultural and ethnic diversity, then isn’t complaining about how different ethnic, cultural, and racial groups choose to raise their children and pass on their values a type of bigotry? While Christianity isn’t tied to a particular nationality, race, ethnicity, or culture, Islam and Judaism certainly are. How can the comments espoused by this group of people be seen as anything but prejudiced and even racist?

Yes, I’m coming on strong. Yes, today I’ve decided to feed the trolls. But it seems like everyone is supposed to have rights to this, that, and the other thing in this world…except religious people. Not only is this group of atheists guilty of the same acts they say religion commits: exclusivism and rejection of the values and lifestyles of other people groups, but they’re also guilty of what the rest of the world sees Americans as doing: attempting to spread our own values and lifestyle to the rest of the world and using our own cultural lens to judge the right and the wrong of other people, cultures, and nations.

How are these atheists any more morally correct than any religious person?

“Blowing out someone else’s candle does not make your’s burn any brighter.”


Dear people who don’t like religion,

How does complaining about religious people make the world a better place? What do you gain by “going after” Muslims, Jews, and Christians? Do you plan on taking on Buddhists and Wiccans next? Has the Dalai Lama somehow offended you? If you really want to spend your time and energy being useful and helping others, please step away from the computer and actually do something for another human being. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Give cans of food to the local food bank. Spend an hour picking up trash in the parking lot of your neighborhood park. Hold the door open at a public building such as the library for a disabled person or a single mother who is trying to manage five children. Heck, just smile at a stranger once in a while because it’s the right thing to do.

Don’t complain about me or people like me, saying we’re the problem. Go out into the world and be the solution. If you do that, the problems will take care of themselves.

Signed, a fellow human being, who has volunteered, donated, picked up trash, held doors open, and who smiles occasionally at strangers.

Thank you.

Red Stew in Context

campfire-stewOnce when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”-which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.Genesis 25:29-34 (JPS Tanakh)

Let there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.Hebrews 12:16-17

We usually think of right and wrong as based on some set of formal or informal standards. For religious people, there tends to be a formal code against which actions are judged morally. It’s a little more fuzzy if you are a secular person, but that amorphous entity known as political correctness seems to be the final arbiter of proper actions (I tend to think of it as the doctrine of “Thou shalt not offend anybody”) in humanistic philosophy or atheism.

The example I’ve presented, from this week’s Torah Portion Toldot may seem to be difficult to understand in terms of how right and wrong are defined. Just what did Esau do that was so wrong? If it was his birthright, why shouldn’t he sell it for a bowl of red stew or anything else?

We don’t have a concept of the “rights of the first born” in modern, western society, so the question of Esau’s “sin” is mysterious to us. It cannot be understood outside of it’s literary and religious context and it is that context that provides the actions of Esau and Jacob with meaning. The First Fruits of Zion commentary on Toldot offers some illumination.

Whenever we allow our appetites to rule us, we are following in the footsteps of Esau. How often our desire for “red, red stuff” dictates our decisions! Opportunities to honor or despise our birthright pass before us on a daily basis. We are constantly placed in positions where we must decide between what we crave and what is right. A man who lets his appetites control him is a godless man. For many men, sexual temptation is the “red, red stuff” for which they are willing to compromise their birthright. For others it may be the desire for power or control. For others it may be desire for possessions. For still others, it may lie in the realm of physical addictions. All of these are signs of Esau. They are the “red, red stuff”.

Esau accepted Jacob’s offer. The Torah artfully describes Esau’s cavalier exit with a succinct series of one-word verbs: “He ate, he drank, he rose, he left and he despised his birthright.”

In some ways, the exchange between Esau and Jacob becomes a metaphor for how people confuse their priorities and their values, choosing something quick and satisfying at the expense of what is precious and enduring. The transaction becomes a lesson and a cautionary tale for people of faith to stay the course and to cling to our principles rather than giving in to momentary stressors, challenges, and temptations.

Now let’s take one giant step backward.

Right and wrong are defined within a contextual framework. Without such a framework, morals, ethics, and values either do not exist or become highly subjective (something is good because it is good for me or I like it, regardless of its impact on you). As I previously mentioned, religion isn’t the only framework that defines right and wrong. The secular world has a set of standards and morals that guide people in “right living”, but those standards often contradict what religious people think of as proper behavior. To be fair, between different religions and even within different sects of the same religion, the standards for right and wrong vary…sometimes by quite a bit.

vandalism-in-JerusalemThe recent Sydney Morning Herald news story When women and girls are the enemy illustrates how members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community are seemingly “at war” with women, or at least with their appearance in photos and advertisements, which they believe is immodest and sexually “tempting”. But from an outsider’s viewpoint, it’s one thing to object to an image on moral grounds and something else entirely to commit acts of vandalism to enforce those morals. This example is uncomfortably close to a proposal in Saudi Arabia that may require women, who are normally completely covered from head to toe except for their eyes (and they have to see somehow), to cover even their eyes if these women have tempting eyes.

I suppose the philosophy behind both sets of behaviors is that these Jewish and Muslim men are incredibly concerned that they’ll be inspired to some sort of sexual attraction by women and are making the women (or the photo ads of women) responsible for the men’s feelings. I’m sure I’ll receive some sort of rebuttal about what I just said and I admit that I lack the context by which to completely understand what these Jewish and Muslim men are thinking and feeling, but like I said, right and wrong are defined contextually. For instance, seeing a little, red-headed girl as the official icon for the Wendy’s Hamburger restaurant chain is no big deal to me, but it might seem offensive to a conservative Jewish or Muslim man.

OK, to be fair, just about every guy has to deal with the struggle of objectifying women in terms of appearance, and if you are a Christian and seriously consider what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:28, then this really is a problem that men must address. In Christianity and in most forms of Judaism however, the responsibility is given to the men and not to the women since it is our eyes, and our brain, and our emotions that are at the root of obedience or disobedience, not the fact that women exist physically and visually.

I mentioned taking one giant step backward before. Let’s take another one.

Is God an Objective being? That is, does God exist independently of whatever religion and creed we happen to follow? Most of us should say “yes”. God doesn’t need us to be a Lutheran or a Catholic or a Reform Jew or an Orthodox Jew simply to exist as God. Moses said:

Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. –Psalm 90:2

And David said:

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever. –Psalm 29:10

If God existed before Creation and He will continue after all things have passed away, then God’s standard of morality, correctness, and justice are certainly independent of our religious orientation or lack thereof. Sure, it’s probably not as simple as that, but I have to start somewhere. The Talmud considers morality to be somewhat mutable and changeable with the needs of each generation, but there is a limit beyond which Jewish people (and Christians and Muslims) say, “this is always wrong.” God must have that limit too, only in His case, His is the ultimate limit. God is His own context. He is, in reality (however you want to define that term), is the final arbiter of right and wrong.

God didn’t really invent “religion”. A religious framework is the interface by which people define and live out the actions they believe to be the will of God. However, religion is a man-made construct designed to interpret the Divine and as something man-made, it is not perfect…probably far from perfect, as a method of interpretation and definition.

How do people choose a religion, assuming they are religious? If you are born into a religious Jewish or Christian family, there is a possibility you will continue the religion of your parents because it is what you have learned and it is a continuation of your family and culture. But that’s not an absolute assurance. Some Jews have chosen to convert to other religions, to reject the religious aspect of their Judaism, or in extreme cases, to reject being Jewish in any lived manner. Someone born into a Christian home isn’t guaranteed to grow up a Christian and many kids leave the church the minute they are old enough to effectively tell their parents, “No.”

Why do secular people choose one religion or another? I don’t want to take up time and space by describing my own experience of becoming a believer in detail, but let’s just say a series of very unlikely events occurred that resulted in me accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior and starting to attend a specific church in my community. My Jewish wife introduced me to the local Messianic Jewish (One Law) congregation and I shifted my religious orientation. Within the past year, I’ve shifted again based on my assessment of the validity of the One Law proposition, while my wife, over the past several years, transitioned into a more traditional (non-Messianic) Jewish faith.

But is my religious orientation (admittedly in a state of flux at the moment) any more or less valid than any other Christian in or out of any other church (or synagogue) or any religious Jew or any Muslim or any other spiritual or faith group?

Tough question.

My personal opinion about why we have so many different religious and spiritual traditions in the world is that we, as human beings, are wired by God to seek Him. On the other hand, as human beings, we want what we want and we want it our way. If how we perceive God’s requirements in one system doesn’t meet our personal requirements for a faith community (whatever those requirements may be), then we go shopping for another faith community until we find one that fits the bill.

I know, that’s kind of cynical, but that’s what we do as human beings. We simply tell ourselves that the religious tradition we have selected is the “true” religion and all of the others are wannabes and posers.

interfaithBut how do you know you are right in your choice? How can you be so sure? Remember, your entire understanding of what is right and what is wrong is based on the religious, spiritual, or moral context you have selected for yourself (and even secular humanism and atheism is a “moral context”). How you think of others and how you treat them is based on that context. How you think of yourself and your place in the universe is based on that context. You chose it. You live with it. If you don’t like it, you can change it. Many people have.

It’s a tough question. What makes you right and everyone else wrong? Or, turning the question around, what makes me right and everyone else wrong? How can I be so sure? What if I made a mistake. If God exists, if God cares for human beings, if God has an objective set of moral standards He wants people to understand and live by, how can we know them and how can we be sure; how can I be sure, that the values I’m living by right now are the ones He has for me?

Or for you?

If Rabbi Freeman is right, that set of standards and context is extremely important.

There is no such thing as a mitzvah done alone.

In a mitzvah, space, time and consciousness converge. You nod your consent, and a flood of generations flows through you to do the rest.

Together with you, every soul of our people, wherever they may be, are swept along in the current.

That works for Rabbi Freeman within his conceptual framework but what about the rest of us? In Judaism, the metaphor can be extended to include performing every mitzvah as a partner with God. Is God waiting to perform the mitzvot with us? Are we are living a life of enduring substance or just noshing on a pot of yummy red stew?