Friday, September 24, 2004

Reformation & Redevelopment: Montserrat’s Alternatives
GEM 04:09:20

Ever since September 1997, three months after the deadly volcanic eruptions of June 25 1997, Montserrat has had an official vision statement, one that acknowledges that we face the challenge of rebuilding our nation, and it also implies that we have to think, decide and act based on our community’s fundamental views and values:

The rebuilding of a healthy and wholesome Montserrat, founded upon a thriving modern economy with a friendly, vibrant community in which all of our people through enterprise and initiative can fulfil their hopes in a truly democratic and God fearing society.

So, when our community leaders sat down together seven years ago to think carefully about our common future, the consensus that emerged was that we want to build a healthy, wholesome, friendly, enterprise-driven, truly democratic and God-fearing society. However, now that we are considering concrete development proposals, we are facing issues and conflicts that are tied to the current three-way global clash on the future:

I. Those who are influenced by secularism – i.e. “practical” atheism -- and other anti-Christian trends from North America and Europe assume that the most dangerous threat to our liberty and progress is: traditional, so-called “fundamentalist” Christians. So, now that Bible-believing Christians in Montserrat have objected to the proposed gambling act, some feel that Christians are attempting to undermine the “freedom” for people to do whatever they want to do, and are also blocking the road to economic progress. (Sadly, they are blind to the moral, social and economic responsibilities that are the basis for liberty – and to the chaos that grows from gambling.)

II. Islamists view the West (including the Caribbean) as decadent enemies of Allah. Advocates for Islam also sometimes accuse traditional Christians of being foolish idolaters who have allowed the upstart apostle Paul to distort the true teachings of Jesus and his disciples. (But, in fact, the ~ AD 49 Apostolic council described in Ac 15:1 – 28 agrees with Gal 1:15 – 24 that “the man who formerly persecuted [Jesus’ disciples] is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” Cf. .)

III. Christian revival and reformation have been reshaping the South of our planet over the past 200 years as millions in Latin America, Africa and Asia have turned to Jesus. So, souls have been saved, and lives, families and societies have been blessed and transformed in light of love: first to God, and then to our neighbours.

Clearly, these three alternatives have drastically different and conflicting core beliefs about God, ourselves, the world and our moral duties. How, then, should we decide which is best? And, given that different people think different options are better, how can we form a workable compromise so we can come together to rebuild our community?

Obviously, we must decide democratically – the majority should rule, but we must respect the rights of minorities that disagree. However, when popular feelings are based on ignorance or misinformation, community decisions often go tragically wrong. So, if we are to consistently decide wisely, we need to have free, informed, fearless public discussions based on well-established facts and sound reasoning, rather than on lies, misleading sweet-talk, high feelings, fear, greed or blind loyalties. But also, whenever we deal with basic questions that touch on God and morality, every major alternative is built on core beliefs that we simply cannot prove beyond dispute. So wise people and communities compare the alternatives and their difficulties, then choose the “best”; recognising and respecting the fact that other people will come to a different decision.

So, since our community’s God-fearing Christian values are now being publicly challenged, we will need to “give an answer . . . [for] the reason for the hope that [we] have.” [1 Pet. 3:15.] The best start-line for that is the words of the Apostle Paul, as he spoke to the C1 leaders of Athens:

"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth . . . From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. `For in him we live and move and have our being.' . . . . now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." [Ac 17:24 – 31.]

So, in the end, our choice is whether or not we are willing to accept the testimony of the over five hundred eye-witnesses to the resurrection of Christ [1 Cor 15:1 – 11], a testimony that was cheerfully kept up even in the teeth of torture and execution. Further, while there have been many sad evils done by wicked and misguided people in the name of Christianity, it is also undeniable that once the Word of God was freely available to the people, the gospel has consistently been in the forefront of the waves of liberation and godly reformation that have transformed and blessed the world over the past five centuries. For, “except the LORD builds the house, its workmen labour but in vain.” [Ps 127:1a.] AMEN.

Monday, September 13, 2004

On Repentance, Revival and Community Transformation
GEM 04:09:12 [Ivan: Gilbert + 16]

Rev. Jesse Jackson once said that if you were walking through a rough part of town on a dark night, and you suddenly saw four strapping young men coming your way, you would be very, very relieved to learn that they were coming from a Bible study. In short, being heavenly minded is one motivation for doing much earthly good!

For, lived out gospel principles have a definite and obvious impact on personal behaviour, and as a result truly godly people often have a definite positive impact on the community at large.

The biblical explanation for this pattern is that: (1) souls are saved and filled with the Spirit of God through the atonement in Christ’s blood (what the Passion of the Christ is about); (2) people are discipled through the teaching and corporate life of the church; and, (3) their lives, families, communities and associated institutions are reformed and positively transformed as a result. For, communities and their institutions do not have souls; so, it can only be through spiritually transformed – i.e. “born again” -- people who are motivated, envisioned and equipped by God that the church can work to bring enduring blessings to the nations. As Paul puts it: “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith . . . not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [Eph. 2:8 – 10, cf. 4:9 – 29 & Titus 2:11 - 14.]

Indeed, history records that in the barbarous Dark Ages the people were systematically kept from having the Bible in their own language. But the sacrifices of martyrs such as Tyndale -- betrayed and burned at the stake in 1536 for the “crime” of translating the Bible into English -- unleashed the Spirit-driven reviving force of the gospel by putting the Bible and its message in the hands of the people. This led to centuries of reformation and liberation, as otherwise ordinary people stood up for conscience, for freedom, and to end age-old social injustices: tyrannical government and wars of conquest; colonialism and slavery; child labour; barbaric prison conditions; the oppression of women and racial groups; and more.

Here in the Caribbean, Colonialism, racism and slavery (that once universal curse) indeed came to us at the hands of “christianised” Europeans. However, the church of 1492 was a church that had long fallen far short of the gospel mark, and was only then about to be confronted by the call to reformation in light of the unfettered gospel and Scriptures. Then, as modern democracy emerged over the next several centuries, based on the declaration that it is self-evidently true that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, age-old abuses gradually and in turn came under the moral microscope and were found wanting. So, in the course of time, it was “dissenting” – that is, evangelical -- Christians who saw that something was deeply wrong with slavery in the New World and began to call for the end of the slave trade, then slavery itself, leading to a long and bitter conflict.

But, why “gradually”? Why, sometimes, “centuries”?

It is tempting to expect and demand that the flaws in communities and cultures should all be seen and perfectly corrected at once. However, that requires revolution rather than reformation: such a sudden, across the board change leaves no time or room for people to change their thinking. So, objectors to the demands of revolutionaries are instead swept away, often to the forced labour extermination camp or to the execution-place. Thus, it is no surprise to see that the history of revolutions – starting with the French Revolution, the prototype for such radical revolutions -- is by and large a sad one: they almost always end in bloody reigns of terror and ruthless dictatorships.

For, it takes time to think, discuss questions and create a critical mass of support for social change. It also takes time to find and fix the bugs in proposals for such change – and the white heat of revolutionary rage is not the best mood for successfully carrying out the required debugging. (Observe: it was only on the second attempt that the American Revolution narrowly managed to work out an effective – as opposed to perfect -- governing structure in 1787, and it would take a massively bloody civil war in the 1860’s to resolve a key remaining issue: slavery.)

In short, history teaches us a vital lesson, one written in rivers of blood: gradual reformation is as a rule safer, sounder and more successful than radical revolution. But, for a much needed reformation to happen here in our region, courageous reformers must be prepared to stand up and ask hard questions that many powerful (and perhaps corrupt or even ruthless) people will not want to hear. So, the basic rights of such reformers need to be protected by law: freedom of conscience, of association, of expression, of the press, etc. And that brings us back to our need to respect and uphold the ideals in the Montserrat Vision statement: “a truly democratic, God fearing society.”

Therefore, let us now repent, especially from blindly following those who try to lead by deceptive rhetoric, slander and intimidation. Then, let us confess that we have too often allowed fear to silence our consciences (and indeed sometimes: even our pulpits). After that, let us turn again to fulfilling the urgent task and call of the church in the Caribbean and world: saving souls, transforming lives and reforming and blessing communities as we build our nations under God.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

On Morality vs. Salvation
GEM 04:08:29a.1

Recently, in the Let’s Talk session on Godliness, Morality and Law, Bro Ed Gough made a remark that touched a raw nerve: morality will keep you out of jail, but not out of hell. This has prompted several calls, and much discussion, more or less on: How will God judge sincere and moral Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sun-worshippers,-- or even “Christians”-- etc.? [That is: Aren’t they “ saved”?]

This question is not a simple one, and a full theological and philosophical answer would need a big book. But, since it goes to the heart of why the gospel of Jesus the Christ of God is good news for the whole world, we need to highlight the key issues and summarise what a responsible, biblical, balanced Christian answer looks like. So, let us now consider:

1. The post-modern context: many people today believe that “the unpardonable sin” is to think or say that sincere people who hold different opinions can be well-intentioned, but sadly wrong. However, just consider the claim: “error exists.” If one tries to reject it, s/he would in effect say: it is an error to think that error exists. That is, “error exists” is undeniably true. So, since error exists, truth obviously exists; even though we may be mistaken about it. Let us therefore seek and serve the truth, wherever it leads. (NB: Jesus warns us that “Light has come . . . but men loved darkness . . . because their deeds are evil . . . But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen that what he has done has been done through God.” [Jn. 3:19 - 21.])

2. The Fact of Diversity: There have always been a great many religious traditions, but these are based on worldviews that are so sharply diverse that they cannot all be correct. For instance, the C1 NT asserts that Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God suffered and died on a cross as Redeemer; the C7 Quran – without historical evidence – (1) baldly asserts that Jesus was not crucified, (2) infers that Christians are idolaters who “promoted” the merely human prophet Jesus and his mother Mary as companion “gods” alongside Allah, and (3) implies that church leaders deliberately corrupted the text and message of the Bible. Zen Buddhism is non-theistic, and aims to give us meditative techniques and disciplines that quieten our inner lives, rather than addressing sin and the consequent conflicts with God and one another as the roots of inner turmoil and outer chaos. Hinduism ranges from polytheistic worship at the folk level to pantheistic, idealistic monism at the philosophical level. Atheists assert that they know enough to know there is no God – even though it is logically impossible for a finite, fallible mind to prove [such] a universal negative claim. All may be wrong, but all cannot be right – the contradictions are far too deep for that.

3. The Myth of the “Moral” Man: Morality deals with the world of creatures who are free to choose and act in light of good and evil, right and wrong. And, conscience within points, like a compass-needle, to our holy, just, loving Creator, who has a public standard of morality for the world: the Man he revealed to all men by raising him from the dead. [Ac 17:16 – 34, cf. Rom 1:16 – 32 & 1 Cor 15:1 – 20.] But, we ALL struggle when it comes to right and wrong – Christian or Atheist, Muslim or Hindu, Buddhist or Jew. So, when we read the Sermon on the Mount [Mt 5 – 7] we find in it not only wonderful inspiration but also, sadly, a stunning indictment of our deceitful, desperately wicked hearts [Jer 17:5 – 18]. In short, there are no truly moral people, just struggling sinners.

4. Light, Darkness and Judgement: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is your darkness.” [Matt 6:22 – 23, cf. Eph 4:17 - 19.] In short, we can be deceived: thinking we are “enlightened” but in fact we have only been “en-darkened.” Also, even though God will not punish us for mere ignorance, if he judges us by the light we do have [Rom 2:1 – 16], in fact we too often reject what we know is true and right (but difficult) [2:6 - 11]. For, instead, we willfully cling to what is false and wrong, but enticing [3:9 - 23]. Then, we point an accusing finger at others [2:1 – 3]. So, if God were to judge us by the moral standards we set for other people when we quarrel, our self-serving hypocrisy would shame and silence us!

That is why Paul concludes that there are no truly moral people: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin . . . . whatever the [written] law [of God] says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God . . . through the law we become conscious of sin.” [Rom 3:9, 19 – 20.] Thus, we are all guilty as charged, so our only real hope is to throw ourselves at the feet of our Judge and plead for his forgiveness and mercy. For, whatever tradition we have: “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Buddhist,” “Hindu,” “Atheist” etc., if we try to rely on our “morality,” or selfishly reject the truth and the right because we want to cling to darkness, we will simply condemn ourselves. [Jn 3:19 – 21, 1 Jn 1:5 - 10.] So, it is only if we (1) accept whatever degree of true light we have: by nature, reason, tradition, conscience or the Word of God, and then (2) admit our shameful hypocrisy and guilt, (3) crying out for mercy from God; that, (4) we can be saved. Of course, God, our loving Father, delights to give us his mercy!

Finally, we can now also clearly see the saving power and the gracious, loving blessing that are in the gospel: it reveals the True Light of God in His full glory [Heb1:1 – 4],which dispels darkness and deception so that we can accept Jesus, God’s Final Revelation. So, those who call on God through Jesus find deliverance from sin through that One Name under heaven that brings salvation to all who call upon it. [Ac 4:9 – 12, cf. Jn 1:1 – 14, 14:6.] END