Monday, November 26, 2012

If God were King # 5… We Would Treat Things His Way

          I want to begin by sharing with you something I posted in another blog of mine I call “Tell Me A Story”:
        Nathan Castens writes about a legend from ancient India that he first heard retold by Henri Nouwen (in his book THE WOUNDED HEALER):

           Four royal brothers decided each to master a special ability.
Time went by, and the brothers met to reveal what they had learned.
          “I have mastered a science,” said the first, “by which I can take but a bone of some creature and create the flesh that goes with it.”
          “I,” said the second, “know how to grow that creature's skin and hair if there is flesh on its bones.”
          The third said, “I am able to create its limbs if I have flesh, the skin, and the hair.”
         “And I,” concluded the fourth, “know how to give life to that creature if its form is complete.”
         Thereupon the brothers went into the jungle to find a bone so they could demonstrate their specialties. As fate would have it, the bone they found was a lion’s. One added flesh to the bone, the second grew hide and hair, the third completed it with matching limbs, and the fourth gave the lion life.
         Shaking its mane, the ferocious beast arose and jumped on his creators. He killed them all and vanished contentedly into the jungle.

        Castens continues, “We too have the capacity to create what can devour us. Goals and dreams can consume us. Possessions and property can turn and destroy us—unless we first seek God's kingdom and righteousness…”

            Someone once said, “The only reason a great many American families don't own an elephant is that they have never been offered an elephant for a dollar down and easy weekly payments.” I don’t know about that, but in this series, we have highlighted God’s emphasis on his creating people in his image. God designed each person to regard neighbor as highly as he regards himself.
            Among many teachings, Deuteronomy emphasizes to us the spirit of God with regard to things. Rick Atchley has written that God's people “… may own things, but they don't accumulate things at the expense of other people, because they know that God made things to be used and people to be loved.” Rick's statement expresses well a sentiment of Deuteronomy. 
            Remember: If things become gods, people become things.         
            As the recipient of God's gifts, his people were to accept the responsibility of sharing them with their fellow man in like kind. God's people had the responsibility of doing unto others as God had done unto them.
            Scripture does not teach communism; scripture does make provision for the ownership of things. However, as again Rick Atchley writes, “God never gives the ‘haves’ the right to oppress the ‘have-nots.’ Any culture or economy that condones the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the others is going against the teaching of Scripture.”
            As we should teach a more godly way with regard to sex and immorality, so too should we teach a more godly way with regard to money and immorality.
            Here’s another example from Deuteronomy, this time 22:1–4:
 1 If you see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him. 2 If the brother does not live near you or if you do not know who he is, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back to him. 3 Do the same if you find your brother’s donkey or his cloak or anything he loses. Do not ignore it. 4 If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help him get it to its feet.
            What is God saying here? God wants everyone's possessions to be secure.
            Now, let’s move on to another subject in Deuteronomy regarding things. Throughout history, nations have encouraged the rich to dominate those less fortunate through debt. Ultimately, this led to a glorification of things at the expense of people. Not so in Israel. Listen to this:  “1 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite. He shall not require payment from his fellow Israelite or brother, because the LORD’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed”(Deut. 15:1-2.)
            Why did God command this? Because he wanted to emphasize people over things. Remember, if things become gods, people become things.
            The Law stated that the Israelites were to leave portions of their produce in the fields, in the trees, and on the vines as food for the poor, widows, orphans, and stranger (Deut. 23:24-25)–again, people over things.
             Life in God’s nation sought to maintain a balance. God’s people were to understand that it was okay to own things… as long as they did not seek to own everything.
            How did a nation achieve these noble objectives? By remembering that God owned everything. Every tithe and offering was to reinforce this reality. Yet, this goes against human instinct.
I like the story told about Dr. George W. Truett, the preacher at First Baptist Church in Dallas during the first half of the twentieth century.
OUR DAILY BREAD related a story about him a few years ago:

          [Truett] was invited to dinner in the home of a very wealthy man in Texas. After the meal, the host led him to a place where they could get a good view of the surrounding area.
         Pointing to the oil wells punctuating the landscape, he boasted, “Twenty-five years ago I had nothing. Now, as far as you can see, it's all mine.” Looking in the opposite direction at his sprawling fields of grain, he said, “That's all mine.” 
         Turning east toward huge herds of cattle, he bragged, “They're all mine.”
         Then pointing to the west and a beautiful forest, he exclaimed, “That too is all mine.”
         He paused, expecting Dr. Truett to compliment him on his great success. Truett, however, placing one hand on the man's shoulder and pointing heavenward with the other, simply said, “How much do you have in that direction?” 
        The man hung his head and confessed, “I never thought of that?”

            What Truett’s acquaintance failed to understand was that not only did a holy God own all that was above him, he owned everything to the North, South, East, and West as well.
            A nation that looks up to a transcending God will more likely view the things here below as things—not gods. And, more importantly, that nation will look at people as precious.

Monday, November 19, 2012

If God were King # 4--We Would Treat People His Way

            [Last week I was traveling and took sabbatical from my blog. Today I resume my series seeking to cultivate a personal theology of government drawn from Deuteronomy.]
            It has been said many times that, to be great, it is not enough for a nation to have gifted leaders or even godly leaders; to be great, a nation must also have godly citizens who obey the laws—laws hopefully inspired by God.
            Even those who did not recognize Jehovah instinctively connected to this ideal. For example, Confucius said, “The strength of a nation is derived from the integrity of its homes.” But homes are made up of individuals, so it is important that individuals who make up a home behave in a righteous way.  
            In this vein, Daniel Webster once declared, “Whatever makes men Christians makes them good citizens.”
            I believe in God’s word we see the heart of God. God’s heart impacts individuals. Individuals impact families. Families impact culture. Culture impacts the nation. Nations impact the world.
            In Deuteronomy, God, through Moses, is addressing people. These people had been slaves in Egypt. Now they are citizens of God’s Kingdom, and they are a holy people.
            God called these people, once enslaved, now empowered, to recognize the special blessing and calling he has given them. Here is the way Moses uniquely phrases it, 18 And the LORD has declared this day that you are his people, his treasured possession as he promised, and that you are to keep all his commands. 19 He has declared that he will set you in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made and that you will be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised (Deut. 26:18–19.)
            Implicit in God’s commands is the understanding that all people are made in God’s image. God’s people are to treat each individual as someone who is made in the image of God. That means the Creator has endowed each human being with a special dignity. God challenges his people to love others as they love themselves.
            For example, Deut. 21 contains a detailed description demonstrating how much God values life. How would living out this ideal look today?
            Consider this. In all the wars in which the United States has participated, about 1.1 million of our citizens have been killed. Since the Supreme Court handed down the decision of Roe versus Wade in 1973, more than 20 times that number have been exterminated through abortion. 95% of these abortions take place for reasons of convenience–not because of incest, rape, or the health of the mother.
            Those attitudes clearly reflect a lack of respect for life, but let’s move to the other end of the spectrum. Are you familiar with “Granny dumping”? This is the practice of abandoning elderly people in places where they're most likely to receive the notice of authorities who specialize in elderly care such as hospices or nursing homes. Typically, they leave no identification so the relatives cannot be traced. Consequently, the elderly person becomes a ward of the state.
            Studies from groups such as the American College of Emergency Physicians estimate that about 200,000 elderly people are abandoned at hospitals each year. Granted, these numbers are not as high as those aborted, but both sets of numbers clearly indicate a disregard for life at the end… and at the beginning.
            In Deut. 21:1-9, one can see an elaborate ceremony, which reveals the heart of God. It describes what a community is to do should it not know the identity of a victim of murder. Although he may be unknown to the community, he is neither unknown or forgotten by God! The victim is a human being… not just an unsolved crime.
            Understand, however, the focus of God’s concern is not solely on the victims of crime. Because people matter, God establishes in Deuteronomy (19:1-10) protection for those who are falsely accused of the crime of murder. God establishes regional cities as sanctuaries of refuge to protect people who are falsely accused of crimes from suffering unjust retribution.
            Here are some other ways in Deuteronomy you may not have thought of that exhibit God’s care for people:
            * After victory in war, Israel must show respect for the lives and feelings of those who have been vanquished. The weaker are not to be crushed under the whims of the strong (Deut. 21:10-14)
            * If a person is put to death for a capital offense, neither the authorities nor the citizens can treat the deceased criminal’s body in a demeaning way. (Deut. 21:22-23—this is the original context of the passage later quoted by Paul in Gal. 3:13.)
            * God calls people to love one another by showing respect for life and property. God desires that people act in a way that preserves the lives and properties of their neighbors. This passage sums it up well:  1 If you see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but be sure to take it back to him. 2 If the brother does not live near you or if you do not know who he is, take it home with you and keep it until he comes looking for it. Then give it back to him. 3 Do the same if you find your brother’s donkey or his cloak or anything he loses. Do not ignore it.
          4 If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help him get it to its feet (Deut. 22:1-4.)
         In a community (or country) that cares, people regard the dignity of others as more important than the acquisition of wealth. That means you make allowances for the feelings of others as well as their physical or spiritual needs. You love people; you don't use them.
            This was hard enough for God's children in ancient Israel to achieve, much less for a secular nation today. Yet these ideals are worth pursuing.
            Granted, we will make mistakes. An old story (my source is Doug McIntosh in his commentary on Deuteronomy) tells about a young girl named Sally, who faced a challenging day. Her mother was sick, and Sally wanted to help. She insisted that her mom stay in bed—like Sally did when she was sick.
            Sally picked up the kitchen; she saw the tea kettle and decided to brew her mom a cup of tea, just like her mom had done for her dad when he had been sick. (This was back in the day, before microwaves!)
            Sally made the tea and, beaming with pride, took it to her mom’s bedroom. Sally’s mom bragged on her and smiled broadly. She praised Sally for her service and kind heart, saying with delight, “I didn't know you knew how to make tea.”
            Sally replied, “Yes I do mommy. I do. I boil the water and tea leaves together just like you always do.” As her mom sipped the tea, Sally further explained, “I couldn't find the little strainer thing, though, so I used the flyswatter.”
            Hearing this, her mother spewed the tea out of her mouth. “You used the flyswatter to strain this tea?”
            Little Sally could tell her mother was feeling anxious. Seeking to calm her, Sally told her, “Don't worry, mommy, I used the old flyswatter so I would not mess up the new one.”
            Sally’s mom summoned the self-control she needed to offer Sally her gratitude and praise, instead of a detailed lesson in kitchen sanitation. She saw Sally’s heart, and she was very pleased.
            I suspect God often wants to choke when he sees the ways humans mess things up trying to help people. Societies are imperfect! However, God knows people make mistakes, and I glean from the Bible that he is grateful when people try to do right.
            Granted, there is an element of the soul that Christians must address. But we live in a fallen world of time and space where people can be helped or hurt.
            People are precious to God; people are God’s prized possessions.
            Serve them as best you can.

Monday, November 5, 2012

If God were King # 3... We Would Treat Money His Way

[This series is the product of a study of Deuteronomy I did for my church earlier this year. While journeying through Deuteronomy, I came as close as I ever will to cultivating a theology of government. Some of the results I share in this blog.]

            God's laws are rooted in his love. God took the initiative.
            God delivered his people because he loved them; therefore, God called upon Israel to respond in loving obedience.
            God's laws grew out of his personal, intimate, and daily relationship with people. God gave these laws to guide people to live in a manner that was most in keeping with their personal relationship with God, which would help them be kind to individuals whom God created in his image.
            With that in mind, remember that God told his people to tithe off what he blessed them in a given year, “Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year” (Deut. 15:22.)
            Two main uses for this “money” were:
1) to help those in need (the poor, widows and orphans) and
2) to care for the religious leaders—the Levites.
            We’ll talk more about those in need later in this series when we discuss the subject of justice, but I want to say a word about the religious leaders.
            This is not original with me. In fact, you may have heard it before.
            In Israel, the Levites, directed the spiritual life of the people. They did not work in manual or farming, nor did they serve in the military. Their job was to protect Israel from her greatest enemy—Israel. If the religious leaders failed, Israel would ultimately fail.
The nation gave a tenth of what they had to protect itself at the grass roots level.
            This is the background for Paul’s famous charge to Christians to “not muzzle an ox….” He noted that even though he surrendered his right to be a fully supported minister, it was a right.
            This principle is of the reasons why our country gives churches and ministers tax breaks. Our founding fathers understood that for our government to succeed, citizens must be virtuous. Religion was an essential component in providing for the virtue of its citizenry. To help the citizens live religiously, ministers were deemed essential. 
            Now, concerning debt.
            God says much about debt in the Bible, including in Deuteronomy, and it is never positive. In ancient Israel, borrowing was typically practiced by individuals in a worse case scenario; it was not typically a practice of the nation’s government.
            Regarding individuals, a loan might be offered when a natural disaster occurred and suspended normal income. Also, a loan might help a poor family carry on until they could repay it.
            I think I can safely say that God never intended his government in Israel to go into debt itself in order to help individual Israelites find a better life. I’m not sure all of the reasons why, but I would guess the law of cause and effect would have something to do with it.
            Surely God would have viewed ancient Israel as being immoral had she enslaved her future generations to debt for the same reasons we do today in America.
            Moreover, as I wrote last week in another blog, it is immoral for a government’s accumulating debt to lower the value of the dollar. It is stealing. As our national debt grows, the value of the dollar will inevitably be reduced.
            Cause and effect.
            This is not a problem of politicians. They will do what we demand of them.
            This is our problem.
            We the People.