Posted by: jefriesen | July 6, 2010

A Christian Nation?

My ears are still ringing. Granted, they have been ringing for about 25 years, since that concert I went to when I was a freshman in high school; but the ringing is of a decidedly higher pitch today, a consequence of listening to an encouragement from John Adams, one of our nation’s founding fathers. He wrote that July 4th should be celebrated “as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations (fireworks) from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

Bonfire? check. Pomp and parade? check. Shows, games and sports? check. Fireworks? check. Double-check (Saturday and Sunday). Guns? If you count listening as various members of our community decided that three a.m. was the appropriate time to set off enough explosives to reduce a moderately sized Iraqi village to rubble, check.

“Solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty?” Che – wait a minute. It sounds as though John Adams should have read his history. Didn’t he know that the United States of America isn’t a Christian nation? How dare he suggest that we celebrate what he called the ‘Day of Deliverance’ with acts of devotion to God Almighty? In fact, it was Adams himself who signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which included the statement that “the government of the United States of America is not on any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”

These two quotes from John Adams raise a question: is the United States a Christian nation or not? Looking closely at the words from our founding fathers, the answer seems to be no . . . and yes. So how do we make sense of what seems to be a contradiction? The answer is in learning what the founding fathers understood about Christianity and what they were trying to do when establishing a nation that would be bigger than any one church or any one religion.

To begin with, many of the principle players in the making of this country, including Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, were not Christians. These men understood that the principle doctrine of Christianity was a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. They did not believe this.

Jefferson and Franklin were, by their own testimony, Deists. Deism was a religious system that combined the Bible with Enlightenment era reason. Deists believed that God created the world, set out a few principles by which we ought to live and then left the world on its own. Deists did not believe in miracles. Jefferson even went so far as to translate his own New Testament from the Greek in which he edited out the miracles, including the resurrection of Jesus. Jefferson’s gospel ends with the disciples walking away from the tomb, sorrowing. He only called himself a Christian in the sense that he tried to follow the morals of Jesus. Other founding fathers were of the same persuasion.

Here then is a beginning for understanding. The founding fathers rejected the central doctrine of Christianity and knew that they were not Christians. These men had also seen the abuses of a state run by the church and a church run by the state. Further, the fledgling United States was already home to people of various religious backgrounds. In establishing the governmental structure of our country, our founding fathers were self-consciously circumspect in tying the government to a particular form of religion. So, in that our government is not controlled by any church, the United States is not a Christian nation.

In another sense, however, the United States is very much a Christian nation.

We are all products of our culture. If you grew up in a small town, for example, you will find many aspects of your thought processes to be strikingly familiar to others from small towns. Cultural attitudes are mostly unspoken, until we find conflict with a differing culture, like when a boy from a small town in the Polish Alps marries a girl from Lincoln. Then they are spoken (boy are they spoken).

In this way, the culture that shaped the cultural attitudes of the founding fathers was very much Christian. They were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Pilgrims and Puritans. They were children of those who had experienced the Great Awakening. The very air that they breathed was shaped by biblical Christianity. Some of the principles expressed in our founding documents are found in no other nation in history; but are found in Christian teachings.

For example, the division of our government into three branches with separate powers is a direct response to the Bible’s teaching of the depravity of mankind. An emphasis on equality and tolerance for others flows out of the idea that men are created in God’s image. We were “created equal” and “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The tension between freedom and justice seen in the pages of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution flow from the pages of the New Testament. Mercy compassion and humility are qualities not found in ancient cultures, but form the bedrock on which our nation was built. The source of these qualities? Biblical Christianity.

Even further, there is little doubt that whatever these men believed privately about the person of Jesus, they almost all believed that our nation would function better if the citizens of this country would follow the commands of Jesus. Consider the following statements made by various of our founding fathers:

John Adams

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Thomas Jefferson

“Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern which have come under my observation, none appears to me so pure as that of Jesus.”

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

“Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure…are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.”

James Madison

“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We’ve staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity…to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”

George Washington

“The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion”

“…reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle…”

Patrick Henry

“It cannot be emphasized too clearly and too often that this nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason, peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”

So let us continue to celebrate our nation’s anniversary with fireworks. But let our ears also ring with acts of devotion to God Almighty.

Posted by: jefriesen | June 30, 2010

Atheism and the Burden of Proof

Atheists often assert that the burden of proof is on the believer to demonstrate with evidence that there is a God.  Noted atheist Richard Dawkins has made the statement that “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” This is all well and good, but Dawkins must play by his own rules. In an interview with Ben Stein, Dawkins made the suggestion that life came to this planet from the outside: aliens. This doesn’t mean that Dawkins believes that some advanced alien life form came and planted life here, but rather that perhaps a rock bearing a biologically primitive life form landed on our planet and from there, life evolved. But surely this is a tacit admission by Dawkins that he understands at least that the probability of life being spontaneously generated are so minimal as to be non-existent. Statistically zero, in fact.

 And Dawkins is not the first to come to this conclusion. Earlier, Francis Crick, one of the co-discoverers of DNA, stated that “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.” His solution was what he called Directed Panspermia, which he describes as “. . . the theory that organisms were deliberately transmitted to the earth by intelligent beings on another planet.”

 While conveniently moving the scope of this discussion out of this world, the assertion that life came here (perhaps) from other planets only removes the problem one evolutionary generation. For now the question must be asked ‘where did that life come from?’ ‘How did the aliens evolve?’ At the beginning (the true beginning) life had to be generated from somewhere. We run into the situation that philosophers described as an ‘infinite regression of causes.’ Pretty soon, we run out of time. If cosmology experts are correct and the universe began at a ‘big bang’ about 14 billion years ago and if it takes about 4 billion years for life to evolve from microorganism to the point where a life form could consciously send life to another planet (we aren’t there yet), then in three evolutionary generations we get almost to the beginning of the universe. At some point we must have what philosophers call “an uncaused first cause.”

 But before we go any further, we must simply point out that Dawkins, Crick and others who make similar assertions (I once had a guy in my office who made the claim that Jesus was actually an alien and performed miracles by dint of superior alien technology) are not coming to their conclusions after a ‘thorough examination of the evidence.’  For when it comes to the beginning of life on this planet, we don’t have anything by way of physical evidence.  Rather, their atheism is a philosophical pre-commitment formed prior to even having any ‘evidence’ to look at.  A brief survey of these ‘famous’ atheist’s autobiographies reveals that during their early lives, they all felt a disinclination to believing the religious teachings on which they were raised.  When they ‘discovered’ Darwin’s theory of naturalistic evolution, they had a reason not to believe.  For in naturalism, they found a theory that supported their preconceptions. 

 The problem is in how words are used.  Darwinists use the word ‘evolution’ both to describe how the Galapagos finch’s beak grew longer and shorter and to describe how the abundance of diverse life forms arose on earth in the first place.  The first, what we could call micro-evolution, has been observed scientifically.  The second, macro-evolution, hasn’t.  Ever. To paint with a broad brush for a moment, not once have we observed a dinosaur giving birth to a bird.  And in moving from what is empirically demonstrable (micro-evolution) to macro-evolution to a theory of life’s origins (how did life start in the first place), we are moving progressively from the realm of science to the realm of philosophy, from observation to faith. 

 Now, though I am not an evolutionist, my quibble here is not with the actual science of evolution.  My concern is with how language is used to shift the debate from science to atheistic faith.  It is a very large jump from observing fruit flies and bacteria to making broad conclusions about how major leaps in biology have been made through millions of years of adaptation and survival of the fittest, especially considering that in the vast majority of cases, all of the soft tissue is gone.  It is an even further jump to theories about how a bit of protein organized itself into a cell-like structure and suddenly became life.  One researcher described the odds of this happening by chance to be the same as the odds of a tornado whipping through a junkyard and leaving a fully assembled 747 airplane behind.  In many cases, the response of the atheist is some version of the statement “well, we’re here, so it must have happened.”  But it doesn’t take much to see that this statement assumes the very point to be proved.  It is not a statement of science.  It is a statement of faith.

 Unfortunately, these atheist don’t acknowledge this shift from science to philosophy to faith.  These men are using the veil of science to sell us some very poor philosophy.*  With this rhetorical sleight-of-hand, millions of high school and college students are taught that evolution is ‘scientific,’ and religion is, well, not.  The implication is that ‘science teaches there is no God.’  This is certainly what Dawkins and company would want us to believe. 

 Theologically, we can understand this.  Humans have long demonstrated a tendency to grab hold of any idea that would remove our accountability to God.  Dawkins’ and Crick’s theories about the origins of life, when reduced to their core assertions sound just as kooky as the wildest ideas ever spouted by any preacher.  And they have no evidence.  To quote Dawkins again, “what can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”  So the burden of proof is on you.

* The philosophy involved is called logical positivism.  It was a philosophical school that had great prominence in the 20’s and 30’s.  At the core of this system of philosophy was its verification principle, which stated that the only true statements are those that can be verified logically (laws of logic) or empirically (scientific method).  All other statements were not only not true, they were meaningless.  A statement about the beauty of a flower, for example, was a meaningless statement, since it could not stand up to scientific or logical scrutiny.  All statements about the person and nature of God fell under the heading of meaninglessness.  The problem with logical positivism, as pointed out by noted atheist Anthony Flew, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and others, is that the verification principle fails its own test.  The verification principle is not subject to logical or empirical scrutiny and is therefore a meaningless statement.  At this point, the philosophy falls in on itself. 

 Though discredited in philosophical circles, atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens and others use this to claim that religious claims are meaningless.  As a consequence, evolution is by definition true, because statements about the existence of God are seen as being ‘non-scientific’ and thus, meaningless.  In their minds, there is only one possible answer to the origin of life: naturalistic evolution.

Posted by: jefriesen | June 20, 2010

New York Dreaming

It all started last summer.  There I was, in the middle of June, about 12 thousand feet above sea level, huffing and puffing like a certain wolf in a certain children’s story, being passed by a spry sixty-plus year old lady, who was bounding up the near vertical slope as if she were merely out for a leisurely stroll in the Colorado woods.  The worst part was not her sympathetic smile, but having to endure the jeers and taunts of my brothers.  The taunts were good-natured, but even good-natured jests among brothers can be a powerful motivation.  I came home from that camping trip determined to do something.  I began walking, then running around the track at the school.  Slowly, the weight began to come off and the breathing became a bit easier.  I began to run with a friend out on River Road, where I learned that running doesn’t have to be both difficult and boring.

In the fall, I received a bit of additional motivation, when I accompanied my brother to the New York marathon, in which he was participating.  It was fun taking a run with him through Central Park and then walking back to the hotel past the historic brownstones on the upper west side of Manhattan; but the marathon itself was fantastic.  New York’s marathon is the world’s largest, with over 42,000 runners last year.  Those who run follow a path that leads them through all five of New York City’s boroughs.  It is estimated that over 2 million people line the streets to watch and encourage those who run, and have fun.  Last year, over 100 bands were playing at various points along the route.  People were lined up nearly six deep along the sidewalks, calling out encouragement to the people who were running.  Now, I’m an extrovert.  There is something thrilling about the thought of more people watching me run than live in the state of Nebraska.  I thought I might be able to run the 26.2 miles on the encouragement alone. 

 So while dreams of New York danced in my head, a friend made me aware of an event a bit less conspicuous: a 26.2 mile jaunt through the cattle country of Cherry county.  Fortunately for me, the run also included a half-marathon, 13.1 miles through some of the prettiest country in the state.  Here we would not be surrounded by throngs of people calling out encouragement.  Cherry county is home to 29 times more cows than people (166,000 to 5,609), so the likelihood of people standing six deep to watch me run was . . . um . . . low. 

 But even to run at this out of the way location in the middle of nowhere required even more obscurity: training.  Believe it or not, most people cannot just up and run 13.1 miles.  For fat, out of shape people like myself, running even the half marathon required nearly three months of just putting in miles: over 200 miles just to get to the starting gun.  When we started training, we endured cold temperatures and the wind.  When we finished training, we endured hot temperatures, high humidity and the wind.  The wind was the only constant. 

 What is true for a marathon is true for life.  Anything worth accomplishing is going to take work, often lots of work.  For every get rich quick infomercial, there are thousands of men and women who have worked diligently and saved and have achieved some measure of success. For every person who is able to successfully lose weight with no effort and tone all of their rapidly bulging muscles in just 30 seconds a day, there are many (many) more who discipline themselves in what they eat and how they exercise. Every accomplishment worth savoring requires work. For every mile we ran on the day of the race, we ran in 18 in training. 

 And you don’t have to feel good about yourself to accomplish something worthwhile.  In fact, in my case, the opposite was true: I did not feel good about the fact that I was overweight and out of shape and so I decided to do something about it.  This runs counter to the self-esteem gurus who run the talk shows and fill the counseling rooms with statements such as “if you just felt better about yourself, you would accomplish more.”  The appeal for a good self-esteem has an alluring, common sense appeal to it. It would seem to make sense that if we felt better about ourselves that we would accomplish more. But it is simply not true. According to American Psychologist Robin Dawes, there is no scientific basis for this idea that good self-esteem leads to greater accomplishments. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Dawes noted, consistent with my own observations, that many people who are highly successful have a low self-image. This was highlighted by a study done several years ago, when researchers measured how well students from various countries solved mathematic problems. The American students did more poorly than those from many other nations. Ironically, they felt better about their abilities than the students of any other nation. By contrast, Japanese students performed near the top, but felt worse about how they did. The Bible simply notes that we already think too highly of ourselves.

 So on Saturday, we woke up early and drove 40 miles from our hotel in Valentine just to get to the finish line.  Those who were running the full marathon had left Valentine so early in the morning that it would have simply qualified as a ‘late night’ during my college days.  We had it a bit easier.  For us, it was merely an ‘early morning.’  We hopped on a shuttle which took us even further away from civilization, on a paved stretch of one-lane highway known as the “Brownlee Road.”  As the shuttle pulled up to the starting area for the half-marathon, the top runners in the marathon were already passing the half-way point. A few minutes later, the shotgun sounded and we were off; 34 runners quietly padding down the road, headed towards a place that the organizers of the race had arbitrarily designated the ‘finish line.’  After about a mile, the jackets that had been donned to ward off the early morning chill (starting temperatures were about 55 degrees) started to come off. 

 Just over two hours later, it was finished.  We weren’t surrounded by throngs of an adoring public.  Very few people outside of those involved in the race were even aware of what was going on.  Just 84 people surrounded by 160 thousand cows.  We collected our horse shoe (the award for finishing the run) and quietly headed home.  I will savor the horseshoe. It is a reminder of the miles we put in to run the race successfully.

 New York is still out there; and so is a full marathon.  I hope to someday run a marathon, something accomplished by less than half a percent of all people.  Until then, I’ve got work to do.

Posted by: jefriesen | June 1, 2010

Why Morality Matters

On occasion in this space I will make comment upon or reference to a current moral issue that is vexing our county, state or nation. Most people think that, as a pastor, I believe that morality matters. Morality does matter, but not in the way that people think. Many people assume that I think morality matters because I believe that good people go to heaven. Under this theory, I would want people to be good so that they would go to heaven and would thus encourage moral behavior at every step. People who think this would be wrong. I do not believe that good people go to heaven. More to the point, the Bible does not teach that good people go to heaven. This raises two questions: what does the Bible say about morality and why then, is morality important? I will say at the outset that I will answer this question according to what the Bible teaches and, consequently, what I believe. I do my best to be an equal opportunity offender, but today may be an exception.

First, what does the Bible say about morality? The response to this question could itself be divided into two parts: morality for the Christian and morality for the non-Christian. For the non-Christian, the Bible’s commands are intended not to show the way to heaven, but to show our moral bankruptcy before God. You cannot earn God’s favor by trying to be good. Incidentally, there is a group of people described in the New Testament who believed that following the Ten Commandments would earn them favor with God. They were called Pharisees, and Jesus reserved His strongest words of condemnation for them. No, for the non-Christian, the Bible issues only one command: repent and believe (these are not two commands, but one). What this means is that, from the Bible’s perspective, I don’t really care if you drink too much, do drugs, steal, cheat on your spouse or your taxes, become a politician or any other sin you can think of to do. It doesn’t offend me. I am not the Judge. There is a Judge, but I am not Him.

The Christian, on the other hand, is one who has come to God to receive mercy and grace. Mercy and grace cannot be merited, they must be granted. For the Christian, morality matters. But morality matters not because we are trying to either earn favor with God or repay Him for His grace. Rather, morality matters because, having been saved by God’s grace, we are called to live no longer for ourselves, but for Christ, who paid the penalty for our sin. Because we have been given grace, we are asked to be set apart for God’s purpose. What this means is that whatever we do, we are to do it in a way that pleases Christ. For the Christian, morality matters because it reflects our relationship with God. “We love,” the apostle writes, “because He first loved us.” So from the Bible’s perspective, morality matters mainly for Christians.

So then, why do I write about moral issues if it is not to earn favor with God? Simply this: even though morality doesn’t earn us favor with God, it does help us live together in our community in a more harmonious way. Though it doesn’t earn favor with God, it is good for our community if people aren’t killed in accidents caused by drunk drivers. It is good for our county if families aren’t torn apart by abuse and divorce. It is good for our kids if they do not abuse their bodies through drug and alcohol abuse. It is good for our city when people refuse to gossip and tear down, when words are used in constructive ways. Morality matters for us.

But I write on moral issues for another reason. If, in the midst of personal evaluation of these moral issues, you decide that you are sick of yourself and the pain you are experiencing because of the choices you have made, you might discover your own fallen-ness before a holy God. You might discover your own need for God’s grace and come to Him for mercy. You may begin at a point of frustration and end up on your knees. And that is why I write about moral issues.

Posted by: jefriesen | May 19, 2010

Sending The Right Message

Note: This is the second column that I wrote for our local newspaper, the Hebron Journal Register. This was printed last week (before graduation). I am always hesitant to write about people who I know who have died. In the process of putting together an article limited to 800 words or so, invariably many critical details are left out and the reader is often left with a mere shadow of a picture of the person in question. Such is certainly the case here. David Woitalewicz (WATT-a-Lev-itch) was not a close friend of mine. Most of the information I know about him has been gleaned from friends of friends and half-buried memories over 20 years old. Nevertheless, his life illustrates the problem our society has with alcohol. I haven’t lost anyone in my class, but two men in the class ahead of me were killed in a drunk driving accident and two in my younger sister’s class. One of my best friends from high school spent a few weeks in the hospital after a near fatal accident involving alcohol. We have a problem in our society, and we are mostly ignoring it.

JF

David was a senior when I was a freshman in high school. He was intelligent, outgoing. He had a great future ahead of him. But another measure of success in our small town culture was the ability to ‘hold your liquor.’ At this, ‘Woog,’ as he was known by his friends, also excelled. Twenty some years later, I don’t remember exactly when the accident occurred. There was a party, David got drunk, got in a fight. On the way home in the old pickup he drove, he lost control and was ejected from the vehicle. He slid to a stop on the pavement face first. David almost became a statistic that night, but somehow, he survived. He survived, but he was not the same.

Over the next few years, his life followed a predictable routine: he would drive to town on his tractor, stop in at the local bar and drink to excess. Occasionally, he would be arrested. It would take four officers to take him in, while he screamed and shouted, kicking out windows and tearing up squad cars. We don’t know how his life could have been different, had he not chosen to drink to excess and then get in his vehicle, but it most certainly would have been different. In David’s case, a decision made in a moment carried consequences that would last for the rest of his life.

David’s story is not unique. We all have opportunities to make choices that have far-reaching ramifications. This weekend is a case in point. This weekend is graduation weekend for many of the schools in our county. And like my hometown, alcohol is nearly a constant presence in our celebrations, including graduation parties. A couple of administrators in our county schools estimated that 60 per cent of post-graduation parties they attended last year served alcohol. At one of the receptions I attended last year, an alcoholic beverage was mixed in a slushie machine, virtually unmonitored by the adults in the room.

On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with this activity. We are adults. If we choose to drink responsibly, we are legally able to do so. But the decision gets more complicated when we choose to drink around our kids. Our schools do an admirable job of educating our kids about the dangers of abusing alcohol. But our children’s attitude towards alcohol is most powerfully shaped at home. What message do we send to our children if every time we get together, either to celebrate an accomplishment or to take part in a weekly sporting league, that we choose to drink? Can we never celebrate without alcohol? If we have the attitude that it isn’t a celebration until the alcohol flows, we have a problem.

I have a simple suggestion for a rule of thumb: if the reason for our get-together or celebration is about or for our underage children, keep it alcohol-free. This would apply to get-togethers following sporting events that involve our school-aged students, such as high school football games, wrestling matches and basketball games. It would also apply to graduation receptions. After all, we are marking not our accomplishments, but theirs. As far as graduation receptions are concerned, who attends? Family members certainly, but mostly other high school aged friends and fellow graduates, who are all underage.

If you must serve alcohol at your student’s graduation reception, wait until the herd of high school students have made their rounds before serving your remaining guests. At the very least, put a responsible adult in charge of serving the drinks, making it clear that no minors are served. This is not just a good idea, it’s the law. If you provide liquor to a minor, you could be subject to a thousand dollar fine and up to a year in jail. Not only that, but in 2007, the Nebraska Unicameral passed a ‘social host liability law,’ that extends your liability as a provider. In short, if you provide alcohol for a minor and they cause an accident, you are responsible. Even if you simply allow students to party on your property, you can be sued over any damage that they may cause.

More important than any legal issue is this: we don’t want any of our children to become statistics this graduation weekend. We don’t want any more Thayer County families gathering around a coffin or a hospital bed this year, wondering how things could have been different.

Drinking is still a huge part of the culture in my hometown. But according to those who knew him best, David finally sobered up. He settled down to a life of helping his dad run their family farm. On Wednesday, December 9th of last year, he was driving his pickup outside of Lincoln when he was killed in a head-on collision; one of 223 Nebraskans killed our roads last year. David, the man who friends lovingly called ‘Woog,’ became a statistic.

Jeff Friesen is a member of the Thayer County Healthy Communities Coalition

Posted by: jefriesen | May 18, 2010

Tips for Graduates

I was going around town the other day, watching the newly minted graduates mark the well-worn path from the city office to Thirteenth Street. The celebrations were winding down, the cake nearly gone and the memories of speakers “urging us to believe in the power of our dreams” were gladly fading into memory. I will never be asked to be a commencement speaker. That would be too frightening. After all, I am a pastor, and I might say something that someone might consider ‘religious.’ Who knows, I might actually invoke the name of Jesus, upon which I would be labeled a far right extremist, the ACLU would swoop in, the school would lose its state funding, the universe would implode and, as a result, my children would be embarrassed. So since no school would ever ask me, I’ve taken it upon myself to create a list for the graduating class of 2010. This is not a ‘bucket list’ of things to do before you die. Rather, this is primarily a mental list. This is not because I don’t believe in doing things, but because what goes on in your head will be far more important to you than any of your athletic accomplishments.

1. Don’t buy into the lie that the high school years are the “best years of your life.” They aren’t. For some of you, the high school years aren’t even the best years of your life so far. Yes, high school may be fun, but the best time in high school pales in comparison to the birth of a child or seeing your future spouse at the other end of the aisle. If you don’t get beyond this cultural lie, you may find yourself at 40 just wishing you could “step onto the court one more time.” High school years may have been good and they may have been fun, but your best years are still ahead.

2. Learn how to think. At this stage in your life, you don’t really know how to think. No, you really don’t. Most of what passes for thinking in our society is not. Simply aligning yourself with people who agree with you is not thinking. Parroting back to your teacher the answer she or he wants to hear is not thinking. Thinking includes the ability to evaluate between competing statements fairly and logically. This means you must respectfully listen to those with whom you disagree. In contrast to the poor example on our cable news shows (right and left), we don’t have to yell at people who disagree with us. In order to evaluate competing statements fairly, a basic understanding of the laws of logic will be helpful, as would an elementary understanding of the ancient art of rhetoric. Begin there and you will begin to expand this thing that some would call your mind.

3. Hang out with people who are smarter than you. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “A man is known by the books he reads [and] by the company he keeps.” Find people who are able to push you and challenge you to grow beyond what is familiar. Talk to people who know rather than pooling your ignorance with those who don’t. In addition, read. I understand that you may not be able to rub shoulders with all of the smartest people in this world, but you can rub minds with some of the greatest thinkers in our world, some of whom have been dead for centuries. This will help prevent what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” that idea that our generation has the best ideas.

4. Do not neglect your soul. Materialists tell us that this world is all that exists and consequently, our actions have no repercussions beyond the physical realm. One of the results of this message is that we have a generation of people who are un-moored, drifting on a sea of ideas and competing philosophies without the tools to critically evaluate the water in which they are drowning. They are, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “carried away by every wind of teaching.” Contrary to what the materialists say, this world is not all that exists (metaphysics trumps physics). Set aside, for a moment all that you’ve heard about the Bible, be it from your catechism class or from the History channel and read the Bible for yourself. In the pages of the Bible, you will see life portrayed as it is: rough, dirty, raw. Even the heroes are not idealized. They, like us, are filled with flaws and bring problems upon themselves. At the center, God Himself slices through our roughness to bring us hope in the midst of our problems. As you read the stories, you will, at the very least, expose yourself to literature that has helped shape our society at its foundation. You may just find the Anchor for your soul.

There. I’ve said it. Something that someone would consider religious. Will someone please call the ACLU?

Posted by: jefriesen | May 10, 2010

Theological Review, Part 5: The Creation and Fall of Man

British journalist and Christian Malcom Muggeridge has stated (paraphrased) that the doctrine of the total depravity of man is the most empirically demonstrable doctrine in the bible, yet it is the one most universally denied. The basic idea is that whe we look around, we see the sinfulness of mankind played out on every stage. In every newspaper, every news website, every television news program, we see the evidence of the sinfulness of mankind on display. Yet this doctrine is often denied, because we don’t like to think of ourselves as ‘bad people.’ Some of these people would say that we are born ‘basically good.’ Others would see us as being ‘good, with the choice to do good or evil.’ These people note, rightly enough, that we don’t do everything bad that we could do. Even some of the most evil people have some good qualities.

 

The reason for this is found in the first chapters of the bible, that we were created in the image of God. Specifically, we were created in the moral image of God, meaning that we have the ability to think, reason, create and make moral choices. Because we are created in the image of God, we do not act as bad as we could. But the doctrine of total depravity does not mean that we act as sinfully as we could.* The doctrine of total depravity means that we are completely incapable of coming to God on our own merits, our own strength or abilities. This meas that if we do come to Christ, it is the result of His work in us, not our own ability. As Jonah says, “salvation is from the Lord.”

 

So take a few minutes, read through the doctrinal section on the creation and fall of man, study the passages and enjoy the day, knowing that you are in Christ because of His doing.

 

 

Jeff Friesen

 

* This is only a relative assessment, however. We are often not in the best position to fairly evaluate even our own motives, thoughts, actions and responses. For example, Sometimes what seem on the surface to be altruistic actions are sometimes driven by sinful impulses for recognition. We also only evaluate our actions and the actions of others by what we can see on the outside. From God’s perspect, however, things look different. 1 Samuel 16:7 reminds us that while man judges on the outward appearance, God sees the heart. Further, Paul writes in Romans 14:23, that whatever is not from faith is sin.

 

Condition and Fall of Man

 

We believe that Man was created in the image and likeness of God, in innocence and without sin. But, in Adam’s sin of disobedience to the revealed will and Word of God, man lost his innocence; incurred the penalty of spiritual and physical death; became subject to the wrath of God; and became inherently corrupt and utterly incapable of choosing or doing that which is acceptable to God apart from divine grace. With no recuperative powers to enable him to recover himself, man is hopelessly lost. Man’s salvation is thereby wholly of God’s grace through the redemptive work of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gen. 1:26; 3:1-24; Rom. 3:10-18; 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3).

Posted by: jefriesen | May 5, 2010

The Great Thayer County Sign Wars

Disclaimer: T.S. Eliot once stated that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Whether this is something defaced or something different is yours to decide, but I must confess that the character of Old Coot as depicted in this post is the intellectual property of one Trevor Meers. He is a more accomplished author, creative genius and all around renaissance man. You can get a taste of his writing at his blogsite, SW of Mingo, by following the link on this page. Any resemblance of Old Coot to a real character is merely a poor poet’s imitation.

JF

I wandered into the coffee shop the other day, just to listen to the Old Coot. He was a fixture in the land of the Oregon Trail. He told stories of the old days in Thayer County, when cowboys swung a wide loop and rumors of Jesse James’ gold sent young boys scurrying up the draws off of the river road in search of hidden loot.

“Have I ever told you,” the Old Coot began, his words drawn out like barbed wire on a fence row, “of the Great Thayer County Sign Wars?” I knew the story, as it had only been last week, but liked hearing the Old Coot tell the story. He could make a routine trip to the mailbox sound like an adventure worthy of Teddy Roosevelt, so I responded in the negative and the Old Coot continued. He would have continued in any case, so I grabbed a cup of joe and pulled up a chair.

“Back when the west was settled, we had the Johnson County wars and the Lincoln County Wars,” referring to range wars a hundred years old. The Old Coot looked as though he could have participated in both of them. “But they was triflin’ compared to the Great Thayer County Sign Wars.”

Old Coot looked slowly around the table, making sure he had my attention. “Now it had been quiet the last couple of election cycles. Looking back, prob’ly too quiet. For a couple of elections, they’d only beenst enough candidates for the jobs to fill ’em. Ya almost forgot that there was a democracy goin’ on.” The Old Coot paused to take a bite of the chocolate covered cinnamon roll in front of him.

“The trouble began in the primary season of ‘ought-ten;” he whispered, “filin’ deadline come and gone.” He paused to let the gravity of the filing deadline sink in. “It started out small. A sign show’d up here and there on one of those hand made four foot pieces of plywood, all painted and such. Just like in years past.”

I nodded. I knew the type of sign. Stenciled letters on hand painted signs; Just what you’d want to see from locals who knew the value of a dollar and were going to be frugal with county money.

“Then it started gettin’ crazy like.” The intensity in his voice grew.  “All of a sudden, they wasn’t just a few of them big signs, but pro’ly a hundred, scattered across the county like flies in a feedlot. But that was only the beginnin’ of the storm. With 16 candidates runnin’ for four spots, it jes exploded, kinda like when Big John and Space Cadet set the courthouse on fire with their homemade firecrackers.”

“Then came the little signs, and these twarn’t no handmade jobbies either. They was professional, shipped in from Kansas City or somewheres. They started poppin’ up all over the place like relatives when you’re roastin’ a pig.”

Indeed, the sign war had escalated quickly, with a ferocity that surprised even some of the candidates.  With the smaller, professional signs, another line had been crossed. The Old Coot somberly told of dangerous outsiders brought in to place the smaller signs; professional sign slingers, he called them. They would swoop in under the cover of patriotism, encouraging the residents of Thayer County to ‘do their civic duty’ and display the signs. Many a pleasant yard, clean, save for a few dandelions had been turned overnight into a lawn-sized version of Times Square, filled with dozens of the signs. The Old Coot even told of rumored bands of midnight raiders, who crept in during the night to remove the signs of their opponents.

“They was hundreds of them signs, spread as thick as raisins on a bagel – not one of them cheap bagels that only have a couple of raisins neither!” The Old Coots eyes narrowed. “In fact, a week and a half before the primary, I counted 331 signs in Hebron alone!”

I did a bit of quick mental math. With 1071 registered voters in Hebron, that meant one campaign sign for every three voters. Clearly you would think that would qualify as saturated.

“And they continued to grow. And then came the newspaper ads and the mailers and the flyers and the postcards.” The Old Coot’s dander, close to up during a normal tale, not only rose, but seemed to grow before my very eyes. “We liked to have drown’d in a sea of paper, liked we worked for the guv’ment or somewhat. And t’ think of all them trees, and us bein’ the Arbor Day state and all.”

At this point the Old Coot’s eyes welled up. “I was never so happy to see an election day in my life.”

“After the primary,” he continued, his voice gravelly from his uncharacteristic display of emotion, “they was ’bout forty thousand extra signs. Enough signs to paper the courthouse.”

“What did they do with the extra signs?” I asked.

The Old Coot brightened. “They found some ecologically friendly ways to use ’em.” He explained that some they used as kites at the city park. Others they cut in two and used as placemats in local restaurants. With the rest, they discovered that twenty of the signs tied together worked well as flotation devices and were donated to the city pool.

I finished my coffee, thanked the Old Coot for the story and left.

As for the big signs? Most of them were removed after the primary. But sometimes when you’re driving down a county road, you can see one standing, a faded testimony to the Great Thayer County Sign Wars.

Posted by: jefriesen | April 20, 2010

‘R’ is for Run

Appropriate Running Gear in the JRBEPFOOOS System

Exercise experts say that you should have a goal when you begin exercising. A half of a mile into my planned three-mile run, I had my goal: breathing.  That, and keeping my heart beating.  It’s fortunate that I have practiced autonomous multitasking; otherwise it could have been a disaster.  In hindsight, it was easy to see why this could be a disaster:  I hadn’t gotten much exercise since the weather turned cold in November, I had continued eating as if I was still exercising, I love chocolate and grease in nearly any form (though not, oddly enough, together) and I hadn’t gotten any exercise since November.  The run would have been a disaster, had I not implemented Jeff’s Rules for Beginning an Exercise Program For the Old, Overweight and Out of Shape, or JRBEPFOOOS, for short.  There are 5 simple rules that, if followed, will lead you down the path of peace and prosperity (Note: these claims have not been evaluated by the FDA, FBI, OSHA or any other regulatory office).  

Rule 1: Overreach.  My three mile goal sounds crazy, considering that when I began running last summer I had to push myself to make it a whole lap around the high school track.  After four months of near total inactivity and holiday eating, I had gained back most of the weight I had worked off and lost nearly all of the corresponding muscle.  But my unofficial motto is “if you are going to fail, fail spectacularly,” so I planned for three miles.

Rule 2: Be Visible.  Vanity motivates us for many of our activities in life, so put it to work in your favor.  I planned to run south out of town, along the main highway that enters Hebron.  Nearly everyone who comes to town, does so along this stretch of road.  Further, I scheduled my run for an after school time when I knew many high school boys would be driving by slowly.  This ensured that my exercise would be witnessed by a whole crowd of people who have nothing better to do than to laugh and jeer at fat people who are trying to exercise.  A corrolary to this rule is to dress as outlandishly as possible.  Anything that suggests that you went to high school in the 1980’s, such as super short shorts, sleeveless t-shirts, leg warmers and a sweatband emblazoned with the name of the NFL commissioner works well.  Even better is to wear old high school medals won for speech and drama.  From a distance, people could think that the medals are for track and field events.  Wear anything that would give the appearance that you are trying to recapture a former, even if imagined, glory.  If you are dressed in this way in a small town, you had better not stop, even if your legs fall off. 

Rule 3: Run Away.  Running around a track will not do.  Nor will running around a block.  Sometimes you just simply lose track of how many laps you have run.  It is too easy to quit after a lap and to exaggerate the distance; and if there is any consistent feature of JRBEPFOOOS, is that it is not easy.  The fundamental idea of JRBEPFOOOS is to maximize the potential embarrassment to the point that dying actually would be preferable to stopping.  Running in a straight line from your starting point half of the distance you plan to cover will guarantee that you will eventually have to move the entire planned distance.  It helps to run downhill with the wind on the first half of your run, in order to build a false sense of ability at the beginning.  This gives you a great feeling of accomplishment that lasts until . . . you turn around and head for home.  You will make it home (eventually) under your own power if you are to avoid the embarrassment of “The Gutsy Baker Fiasco” (story to come later), which leads to the next rule.

Rule 4: Don’t Call for Help.  Do not take a cell phone, walkie talkie, carrier pigeon, flags, flares or any other device that could bring help.  While the whole world should be able to watch you run, don’t, under any circumstances, let anyone who actually cares for your well-being know when you leave and what direction you are travelling.  This includes your teenage children, not because they care for your well-being, but they have a vested interest in collecting life insurance money if you would just ‘happen’ to not make it through your run still living.  If you must, leave a farewell note to your spouse, with clear instructions that it only be opened in the event that you have been missing for more than three days (three days being the allotted time to cover the three mile distance. If it is your first run, add one day per mile of planned run to the instructions on the front of the envelope).

Rule 5: Keep Your Head Down.  Admittedly, this does nothing to help you finish the run, but it does keep you from noticing when you are passed by new mothers pushing strollers.  This would be more embarrassment than most middle-aged men (or women) can handle.  It also prevents you from mentally noting the cars and license plate numbers of the teenage boys who have been heckling you for the entire duration of the run and plotting revenge.  Though being in prison can give you more time to exercise, it is not an optimal outcome according to the JRBEPFOOOS system.

There you have it.  Five rules that can help you successfully (depending on how loosely you define success) navigate the act of embarking on an exercise program.  So set your goals impossibly high, get out there and run!

We are at the end of a day that Christians around the world take to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Most Christians in English speaking countries people call this day ‘Easter.’ This reference covers the whole range of traditions, from dressing up and going to church to decorating eggs, eating chocolate bunnies and watching “The Easter Beagle” on TV. Most people are unaware – or don’t think through clearly enough that these traditions are not tied together.

Though some claim that the term ‘Easter’ comes from a Old High German mistranslation of Latin reference to an early church practice of baptizing new converts on the day of the resurrection celebration, the most likely origin for the word ‘Easter’ is from one pagan goddess or another. Nominations for the pagan goddess origin of the English word ‘Easter’ include Babylonian Astarte, Persian Ishtar, Norse Ostara and the Teutonic Eostre. Around each of these deities various springtime fertility rites sprung up, some involving eggs and bunnies, both symbols of fertility. Regardless of the source, one picture should be clear: these traditions have nothing to with the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.

In fact, in many other languages, the name for this holiday is not derived from a pagan goddess. In French it is called Paques, in the Netherlands, Pasen, in Sweden Påskdagen all of which are derived from the Latin pascha, which referred originally to the Passover celebration. The Latin word itself comes from the Greek pascha and the Hebrew pesach, both of which refer to the Hebrew Passover celebration, to which the death, burial and resurrection are tied. In Bulgaria, the celebration is called ‘Velikden,’ which literally means ‘the faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ It is only in English speaking countries and in countries where their traditions came from English speaking countries where the word ‘Easter’ is used.

As this became clear to me over fifteen years ago, I became uncomfortable with associating this special day in the church year with fertility rites and pagan goddesses. So beginning with the early days of ministry, I began calling this day ‘Resurrection Sunday.’

A knee-jerk reaction would result in my giving up all things related to Easter (eggs, bunnies, baskets and egg hunts) and assume a pseudo-pious position of “oh, we don’t do that.”  However, I try hard to guard against knee-jerk reactions. Plus, I am a great lover of chocolate and can see no biblical reason to refrain from eating chocolate any form, including small egg-shaped and large (and alas, hollow) chocolate bunnies. So what is a biblically sensitive, chocolate loving person to do?

The key, in my understanding, is to simply undo what the early church did: separate two unrelated celebrations. At some point in the early church’s history, church leaders began a strategy of co-opting pagan celebrations, perhaps in attempt to evangelize the pagans. The church still does this co-opting or ‘redeeming’ the world’s practices to bring the witness of Christ to the world; and sometimes this creates some pretty strange bedfellows, such as Hookers for Jesus (a ministry to those victimized by the sex industry). In the case of Easter, the church’s co-opting strategy has had the long term effect of almost completely obscuring the pagan roots of many of the practices. For the vast majority of Easter celebrating people, egg hunts and chocolate bunnies do not make them think of fertility and ancient goddesses. Instead, they are thinking about church and big bonnets and family get-togethers.

Even so, I am not most people. I am still uncomfortable with referring to the day that we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection by the name of a pagan goddess, even though I have no objection to a celebration of spring that has all but shed its pagan roots. There are, after all, the chocolate bunnies to think of (and enjoy). My solution is to divide the day into two celebrations: one is Resurrection Sunday, the Christian celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead; the other is Easter, the cultural celebration of spring.

So by all means, celebrate spring: paint some eggs and fill up a basket with chocolate bunnies. But do not neglect the celebration of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, the most important event in human history.

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