Monday, October 14, 2013

What We All Want, Too

A couple of weeks ago our venerable Pastor Dods Pengra delivered an excellent sermon in which he mentioned the launch of an Atheistic Church in London. The local atheists—called the Sunday Assembly—meet in a "deconsecrated" church in London's East Side each Sunday morning for tea, cookies, and fellowship. They hear a sermon, sing some songs, and enjoy fellowship with one another. But I am not concerned with what they are doing; it's the why that speaks volumes about them—about people in general.

This is what the author said:
I don’t think religion should have a monopoly on community. I like the idea of a secular temple, where atheists can enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church—a sense of community, a thought-provoking sermon, a scheduled period of respite, easy access to community service opportunities, group singing, an ethos of self-improvement, free food—without the stinging imposition of God Almighty. Evidently, I was not alone.
Without the stinging imposition of God Almighty. That phrase is telling of what's really going on here. They want the benefits of traditional Christian community without the imposition of a holy God and his righteousness. It's the same upside-down desire system that has plagued us since the Fall.

When God created us, he created us with certain desires that mimic his character and attributes. One of those desires is the desire for community. God exists in community (as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and so we were created to be in community with God and with one another. Our communion with God overflows into our communion with one another. God designed us to want to be together and live life together. But sin, being sin and all, distorts these desires. The town of Babel is a great example—and particularly germane to the Sunday Assembly.

The people of Babel had a word from God: be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. But the people of Babel had other plans. They wanted to build a tower that displayed man's prowess and reach to the heavens. They wanted to build a name for themselves—and make God irrelevant in the process. They wanted the benefits of God-given desires without the imposition of God. They wanted to be their own god. But God will not be mocked; he dispersed the Babel builders and confused their language. And it came to pass that the tower of Babel became the tower of Babble.

The same mindset lies deep behind the Sunday Assembly. The assemblers want a strong sense of community, which is God-given, but they do not want the imposition of the God who gave them those desires. They want the gifts, but they want to despise the giver. This is nothing new; it's been going on since the beginning. The human heart has not changed: we want it our way, on our terms.

Instead, the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to cast aside our idol of self and all its manifestations. The condition of craving-the-gift-but-despising-the-giver is not limited to Atheist Church start-ups. It affects every one of us at the core. In many different ways, we place our desires in front of God's desires. We want the cultural benefits of God's grace without having to submit to the God that purchased that grace. This is idolatry, and it affects the real Church too.

The reality is that the Sunday Assembly will not last. Without a unifying vision (and really, without Jesus Christ), the voices of the Assembly will begin to drown one another out. It will become its own version of the Tower of Babel. But it is interesting to see a singular idol affect all of mankind throughout history. Through the story of Babel, we can see our own story. And when we really see, it is a kindness of God that we do. May it lead us to repentance.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rights and Obligations

The other day I read an interesting story in the Houston Chronicle about a local family with an autistic son. The family had tried for years to educate their son in the public school system, with terrible results. The boy was not learning, not socializing, and acted out violently towards his peers. So the parents pulled him from public school and placed him in a private school designed for children with extraordinary educational needs. The boy received close instruction, one-on-one attention and interaction, and other instructional changes that helped him grow and learn. Soon the boy was learning, interacting, and functioning on a much higher level. His grades improved and the parents were happy with the results. Only one problem, though: this private instruction was expensive. They had no choice but to send their child back to public school, where he soon floundered. But the parents felt they had an inherent right to the best education methods available for their son.

So, they sued the local school district, claiming that the school district failed to provide competent accommodations for their son and his disability. The parents claimed that the school district had a duty to either provide competent, specialized care for their son or to reimburse the parents for their private school costs. The school opted for the former option, but there was a slight problem: after several attempts at trying to hire a specialized instructor for their son, the school district ran out of options. No one wanted the job. No one applied. So the parents are back in court, claiming that they have a right to have a specialized instructor—or to pay for the private schooling.

Truly this will be an interesting "battle of rights."What we have run into is the logical conclusion of rights run amok. When someone has a right, it means that someone else has a corresponding duty. If you have a right to life, it means that someone has a duty to not kill you. If you have a right to liberty, it means that someone has a duty not to restrain you. If you have a right to your property, it means the someone has a duty to not steal your property. These all make sense when we discuss libertarian rights—meaning the right to do or to say or to believe certain things. These rights come with corresponding duties of omission; they merely require that others refrain from doing certain actions that would impede those rights. So far so good—these rights generally correspond with a truly free society.

But what about "rights" that entitle us to receive certain things, like abortions, education, and health care? Those rights require others to perform certain functions and provide certain goods or services (and they do not flow from a free society). In this case, the child's right to an equivalent, competent education provided by the state means that someone has the affirmative duty to teach that child. But what if no one wants to teach him? What if no one is able to teach him successfully? What if no one applies for the job? What if the private school teacher who originally had success decides to quit? What then? When push comes to shove, which right wins: the right of the child to have a competent education or the right of a free person not to teach?

We have to be careful to remember that rights come from God, not a government. That's why the Declaration of Independence says we are "endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights." Rights exist independent of our government. Therefore, we must look to scripture—God's word—to know what our rights are as human beings. And—spoiler alert—free, public education is not one of them. In fact, parents have a duty to raise (literally, inculcate, or create a culture for) their children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." So I guess you could say that children of Christian parents have a right to a Christian education. But I digress...

I think everyone agrees that people have certain rights, but where those rights come from is hotly contested. And its the where that determines the what. It's like two builders who are building houses with similar materials and blueprints, but with completely different foundations. The wise man builds his house upon the rock of Scripture, but the foolish man builds his house upon the sands (or post-modern goo). And when the rains of "tolerance" come, the house built on sand washes away. What you're left with is chaos in trying to determine which way is up.

Another issue here is freedom and the nature of a free society. If we live in a country where—theoretically—someone could be forced to teach an autistic child against their will, do we really live in a free society? A biblical understanding of rights tells us that true rights do not require compulsory service from someone else. That is not freedom. True rights create freedom in that they free us to serve others with a willing conscience. Sorta like how free grace makes us free to obey and delight in God. See the similarities? That house was built on the rock.