Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Couple of Brief Hints for Better Reading Instruction

The following hints are distilled from the Academic Associates Reading Program
How to Sound Out Consonants 
    Some instructors teach children to sound out words awkwardly by adding a full “-uh” sound after consonants.   For example, bad is sounded out as BUH ĂDUH.  Unfortunately, adding vowel sounds during the sound-out process can delay fluent reading  for some children.  Instead, instructors should teach each consonant’s most briefly distinguishable sound. Instead of LUH for the letter L, teach only the LLLL- sound.   Instead of a voiced PUH, teach P using only the lips and a short, voiceless puff of air.  Lap becomes LLL—Ă—P-- instead of LUH— Ă —PUH.  Teach only the most essential sound of each consonant, and children will identify words more easily and read more quickly. 
How to Teach Consonant Blends 
    Some instructors make students memorize consonant blends from charts out of context.  For instance, Blah-Bleh-Blih-Bloh-Bluh.   Instead, teach separately the consonants that make only one sound each and then blend them each naturally as they occur in words.  Instead of isolated blends, simply teach the sounds of the individual consonants and help students say them sequentially. In the vast majority of cases, the sounds will blend into words naturally. Teachers can incorporate this method into whatever reading instruction program they are currently using and will save many frustrating hours each year as students make unprecedented progress.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Dealing with Bitterness in Preparation for Dealing with Conflict

Most people have enemies—people who stand or work against them, who are quick to point out and capitalize on their failures. These enemies are usually in a very bad place spiritually. They do not themselves have a grasp of biblical conflict resolution. They are often filled with pride, jealously, fear, or hate. Sometimes it is appropriate to avoid enemies. Sometimes, one cannot avoid enemies because they intentionally place themselves in the way. Sometimes, one must meet them head on.

Spiritually stunted enemies can have a devastating impact upon peace of mind. A strong need for justice is built into every human being. When we do not get justice, or when we feel as though we have been treated unjustly, unkindly, or even simply misunderstood, we can get very, very defensive. This defensiveness destroys the peace of the Gospel in our lives and stirs up turmoil and bitterness in our spirits. This bitterness can effectively take over and overcome good intentions, wise words, and godly actions. It can turn a situation with only one enemy into two enemies, dead-set upon destroying one another. If this battle does not come to pass in actual circumstances, it will at least be played out in the battlefield of the mind. Bitterness rehearses the injustices. It dwells upon them. It enjoys imagining ways to defeat the enemy. It tells others about the injustice, looking for confirmation and support. Bitterness desires to be justified and is very needy. It works hard to infect others, and destroy whatever good impressions others may have of the enemy. It preoccupies waking hours and keeps people up at night. It re-imagines the injustice, regretting brilliant unspoken retorts and planning what will be done and said when the same injustice rears its head again. Bitterness takes over the soul and destroys the peace of the Gospel that should rule in hearts. It takes root deeply and spreads through relationships like kudzu across a hillside.

Christians should be champions of justice. More often than not ignoring injustice under the pretense of peace creates fertile ground for bitterness. However, dealing with injustice while caught in the throes of bitterness often leads to more conflict. Therefore, resolving bitterness should probably precede the resolution of injustice. After all, if resolving bitterness depends solely upon the ability to resolve injustice, then bitterness will often go unresolved. Champions of justice though we should be, we cannot control other people. The simple fact is that, after all efforts to change enemies into friends have been exhausted, often and unfortunately they will remain enemies. It is good if the injustice can be resolved, but it is better if the bitterness is not dependent upon the resolution. It is best if the peace within you trumps the turmoil around you.

How does one prepare the heart to deal with injustice? How does one settle the spirit and restore peace and joy? How does one resolve bitterness prior to or even apart from the resolution of injustice? Three biblical points of meditation have been helpful to me:

  1. Love your enemies. 
  2. Leave vengeance to the Lord. 
  3. Let Christ be your defense, whether you are right or wrong. 
These are not easy points to master. In fact, they are extremely difficult because our God-given sense of justice, warped by depravity, seeks to undermine them again and again. Nevertheless, God commands them, and they do not appear to be dependent upon whether or not justice has been achieved.

Love for enemies is a radical notion. Frankly, we do not even know how to love enemies. It is natural to hate enemies and to seek to destroy them. If we only love our neighbors, then we are no different from unbelievers, because it is normal for them to hate their enemies. Christians should be radically different from the world in that they are called to not only love those who are good to them but also those who use and abuse them. What does love for enemies look like? Frankly I do not always know. But I do know full well when I am hating my enemies.

Though love is much more than the absence of hate, I am quite sure that it at least starts with the absence of hate. And I am quite sure that love and hate cannot occupy the same heart space at the same time. They might alternate though. One could go back and forth between love and hate. Forgiveness is seldom something that needs to be given only once. Our depravity easily stirs up past bitterness and hatred, especially when we rehearse the injustices in our minds or remember them as we relate them to other people. Reaching a place of love for the same unjust enemies will probably need to be done again and again.

Vengeance is often subtle. It seldom involves breaking car windows and burning down houses. Instead, it more often involves a more rational retaliation. Vengeance seeks to destroy the spirit of the enemy, often through wars of words and one-upmanship. It celebrates when bad things happen to those we hate. It is smugly satisfied when others see our enemies as we see them. It views an enemy’s failure and demoralization as victory.

Leaving vengeance to the Lord leaves justice to the Lord and leaves us with the resolution of personal bitterness. It is ostensible to "leave vengeance to the Lord" while retaining a spirit of bitterness. To leave vengeance to God is to put the matter in God’s hands, to let him deal with the injustice as he sees fit and in his time, and to put away the desperate need for one’s own satisfaction. Leaving vengeance to God celebrates his justice by faith. Vengeance that is left to God alone leaves room for love instead of bitterness. How does one know if one has not truly left vengeance to the Lord? Probably if the thought of and hope for God’s vengeance still preoccupies a person. One knows when one has left vengeance to Lord when the need for vengeance no longer rules the heart and preoccupies the mind.

Letting Christ be your defense is a key to these first two points. In fact, all three are tightly interwoven. To accomplish the one without the others is probably not really to accomplish the one. But letting Christ be one’s defense is foundational.

Often, injustice is a personal affront. When personally attacked, we can be desperate in our own self-defense. This desperation, once again, does not represent the peace of the Gospel. It is anything but peaceful, like flailing for a life line in deep, swift water. To what do we look to defend ourselves from attack? To what do we look to protect us from danger? To what do we look to console us in a crisis? The answers to those questions tell us what we are relying upon for our peace, joy, satisfaction, and sense of self-worth. We may have some semblance of peace, joy, satisfaction, and self-worth if we get what we want in answer to those questions. But the real test occurs when we do not get what we want. If we do not get what we want, or have no ability to get those things, our peace, joy, satisfaction, and self-worth is destroyed, and we reveal that we are not letting Christ be our defense.

Christ as our defense is a part of the Gospel. We find all our value in Christ—all our peace, satisfaction, joy and self-worth. He has made us righteous. He has declared us to be perfect and accepted. Nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ; no act of man, no circumstance of injustice. We can have peace in spite of all that goes wrong around us as we learn to rest in Christ.

What is wonderful about this last point is that often enemies are enemies for good reason, that is, because of some failure on our part. Of course, enemies often respond in ways that are totally disproportionate to the offense, hence the injustice that still causes bitterness. However, the fact remains that we mess up and bring some things, at least in part, upon our own heads.

When Christ is our defense, we can deal with whatever results from our errors or sins. We can ask forgiveness and rest peacefully, even when enemies abuse instead of forgive. When Christ is truly our defense, we are not desperate to defend ourselves. Sometimes self-defense amounts to desperate rationalizations. We make lists of ways that the injustice was disproportionate. We might even rationalize our own sins and failures, comparing them to the injustice, and seek to justify them in some way. Or we may seek to hide them, perhaps going so far as to lie, all in the name of self-defense.

Resting our defense in Christ removes any need to do these things and allows us to own up to our weaknesses and failures, taking consequences without fear. When all is said and done, even if we are undone, we will still be complete in Christ. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

As I said before, none of these three things comes easily. I find myself needing to spend much time in prayer and meditation upon God’s Word before I can even begin to grab hold of the nearest edge of these admonitions and truths. My own depravity fights against these things. But when praying to grab hold of them, there is a starting place that begins to bring them into reach. Paul says to forgive as the Lord forgave me. He says to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave me. Christ leads us to pray for forgiveness just as we have forgiven others. Each of these compares God’s forgiveness of our own sins to our willingness or unwillingness to forgive others for theirs. The point is simply that there is no grievance that can be committed against us that we ourselves have not exceeded in magnitude and turpitude against God. We were at one time haters of God, dead in our trespasses and sins, gratifying our sinful cravings and following wicked desires and thoughts. We were deserving objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions. God demonstrated his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

The starting point for meditation and prayer that moves these three points into our reach is a full consideration of how much we ourselves have been forgiven. There is no sin that has been committed against us that matches the sins we have already been forgiven through Christ. God was merciful to us; can we not find room to be merciful to others, no matter how great their wickedness toward us?

In the end, the injustices if our enemies will probably need to be handled in some way or another. Christians do not have to just roll over and play dead when they are wronged. However, Paul tells us to speak the truth in love. The author of Hebrews tells us to pursue peace with all men. We can deal with injustices in ways that do nothing to really deal with our sinful bitterness, or we can deal with bitterness in ways that prepare us to deal justly with the unjust. In the end, our peace must rest with Christ, who has been merciful to us when we did not deserve it.

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. "In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. . . .Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:25-32 

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. Colossians 3:12-15 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:14-21 

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:43-48 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Movies I would Buy If I Bought Movies

I do not buy movies, because I think it is a waste of money.  But if I did, it would be the best compliment that I could give a movie.  It means that I enjoy a movie enough to want to watch again and again.  That is why, when I give my opinions of movies, I often use the following rubric:  Not worth watching, worth watching once, worth watching twice (once in theater and again at home), and worth buying.  I recently thought of trying to add another category called "forgot I already watched it," which would be the worst criticism you could give a movie. Not just implying that the movie was forgettable, but actually forgetting that I had watched it already says a lot about whether or not I enjoyed it.  So what movies would I purchase?   I can only think of a few off the top of my head, but I know there are many more.  If I cannot remember them now, I may be reminded of them when I am watching TV and find myself eagerly rewatching a movie that I have already seen many times before, not just out of  boredom, but out of delight.  What would you buy if you only bought your absolute favorite movies?

  • The Sixth Sense
  • Unbreakable
  • Signs
  • Serenity
  • The Big Lebowski
  • Fargo
  • Alien
  • Aliens
  • The Incredibles

Monday, October 18, 2010

Liberal Guilt

I am always curious about mechanisms that explain unilateral, predictable behavior among political liberals and conservatives.  I do not view myself as either one, because I have massive problems with each.  But conservative behavior is more difficult for me to pinpoint.  I am quite sure that depravity is influencing most conservative political behavior and policy, just as I believe it is influencing liberal political behavior and policy.  I am also quite sure at the same time that common grace has its influence upon both as well.

But liberals seem a little easier to speculate about.  It seems to me that government programs  like medicare, medicaid,  health care,  welfare, etc.,  are viewed by so many as the primary means by which the poor should be cared for in this country.  One could easily see how the beneficiaries of these programs would  support these programs.  But what explains the unilateral support of these programs on the part of liberals?

Perhaps an analogy would be enlightening--I remember when I was on staff at a church for a couple of years in the early 2000's that the church gave its mercy ministry money, ie money intended to help people with heating bills, food, rent, etc, to a local clearing house agency, and would let them fool with the difficult task of evaluating needs.   People would call the church asking for assistance, and the standard response was to have them "call Such-and-Such charitable agency, because we support them and expect them to do this work for us."  When I began working there, I worked differently by becoming involved in people's lives, helping them work up budgets, talking them through problems, and when appropriate, giving them the Gospel.  I also asked the church for money to pass directly to people's needs rather than passing them off to an organization.  It just seemed to me that by using the charitable organization, we were passing off an important responsibility and opportunity.  It seemed to me that we were sort of saying to people who called, "Sorry, I gave at the office."  Our consciences were then salved, and we felt like we had done all that we needed to do.  A sort of legalistic love for our neighbors.

Could it be that support for government programs operates much the same way?  So many feel as if the poor are poor unjustly, and maybe they are in many cases.  But the solution to this guilt appears to be that  government agencies should handle the problem.  We pay taxes and support government agencies so that we can continue on with our lives, and our standard of living, while at the same time minimizing our contact with the poor, and feeling as if we have met their needs at the same time--a salve for the conscience.   Is it possible that sometimes this is the hidden, self-deceived motivation behind support for government assistance for the poor?  The liberal version of "I gave at the office?"

Is there any correlation between the statistical verity that liberals, who predominantly support the expansion of government assistance, tend to be less religious than conservatives?  Is there any debate about this?  Of course politically liberal Christians exist, but they are the exception rather than the rule.  Who will most likely take public stands against perceived Christian morals in society?  Political liberals or political conservatives?   Is there a also a correlation with regard to support for government assistance programs?

Note that I am not saying that we should not help the poor. I do in fact believe that we should.  I question though whether the government is the best solution to the problem of our guilt for the injustice of poverty.  It seems to me that the Christian solution would be to have much more direct involvement with the poor rather than merely rely upon government to perform our responsibilities for us.

Thoughts in flux--which means that they are subject to change.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Metaphysics on the Mountainside

I wrote the following in 1994, after a trip to Hong Kong my senior year of college. Rereading this so many years later, I see many things that I would have written differently.  But generally, I believe the main ideas are valid and true.  Regardless, it was an important experience in my life.  The pictures are from my trips to Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan and are unrelated to the story.
Some people can look up into the heavens and so easily assume that God made all things. Others struggle with this. They are not convinced that a personal God exists and would like more evidence presented to them. Why do these people have such a hard time believing in the Christian God? Why do others so easily accept the fact that he exists? Perhaps the following testimony can help us understand that the difference lies in men's hearts and not in their intellects.

While visiting Hong Kong in January of 1994, I stayed for a few nights in a hostel at the top of Mount Davis on the west side of the island. The hike up the long-ago paved road to the hostel at the mountain's summit was about two kilometers long. Every now and again the trees and foliage that lined the road would thin and allow grand views of a well-lit city far below. At a curve in the road about half-way up, the vegetation opened into a large flat clearing. On the edge of the clearing, a huge cement bunker stood vigil over Hong Kong Island. One of several that punctured the hillside, it was round, about thirty feet in diameter, and at one time had housed a huge British gun that could shoot into the bay below.  Apparently this mountain had been a British fortress during the World War II.

I remember walking across the clearing to that bunker. As I rounded its edge to the opposite side, I saw a view that had been hidden from the road. My breath was taken away as I stared across the water at a glowing city that stretched for miles on the far shore of Discovery Bay. I wish I had the talent to capture on paper the impression that it made on me as I took it all in. The city was a magnificent monument of lights nestled into a far mountain beside the South China Sea. The lights stopped abruptly at the edge of the water where they left off into blackness. Smaller lights bobbed gently in that blackness from there to the foot of the mountain on which I stood—vessels anchored for the night in the harbor. I sat down on the edge of the bunker and just marveled in silence. The wind came up from the waters below and sailed softly through the little clearing in which I sat. My heart swelled in praise to God for the wonder of the work of his hands. Everything that lay before me was the creation of God and given to man. The mountains, the sea, and the wind were all his. And to the capstone of His creation—mankind—God gave the intelligence and ability to build and govern the microcosm that sat before me. As I beheld it all, I worshiped God, the Creator of the Universe.

The rest of the road was very dark, and the vegetation along its sides at times seemed deceptively alive. Feral dogs roamed the area and jumped every now and again from the undergrowth, barking at passers-by. Soon I heard a noise in the darkness ahead. It sounded like a voice singing softly. "Probably someone trying to keep himself company," I thought to myself. As I peered through the darkness I, was able to distinguish the form of an old man walking alone along the path. I was cautious at first, but since we were both traveling the same path, I decided to see if he wanted a walking companion.

 I called out to him, and he stopped singing. Turning a quarter, he glanced behind without saying anything. I caught up with him, and we started up the hill again. He was a British man, about sixty years of age, with a ruggedness that compensated for his bent frame. His clothing was old and dirty. His hair, long and white, was pulled into a ponytail down the center of his back. A long, bushy, white beard gave him an ancient, wizened appearance.

As we began talking, I learned that he had once worked as a psychiatrist in England. After a divorce shattered his life, he began searching for the meaning of life. He had tested philosophies of all types and eventually made his way to the Orient to study Buddhism. Now he lived as a hermit on Mount Davis. Exploring his own mind day after day, he was still trying to find the meaning of life. Being a Christian and believing that Christ was the answer he was searching for, I gladly began to share my faith with him.

God giving me grace, my commitment to the Christian world-view will never be shaken. Truth is truth, and "there are not because there cannot be other than God-interpreted facts (Van Til)." However, as I talked with this man, I slowly realized that the truth that I possessed was going to do him little good. He had too many intellectual objections to my beliefs. He had studied philosophy, and it seemed as though he knew a little about everything of that nature. He knew how to respond to my assertions and easily brush them aside. He knew how to reject truth and remain happily inconsistent. He had read the Bible, and it had been an interesting book, but Buddhism attracted him more at the present time. He refused to accept any of my arguments for the existence of the Christian God and the truth of Christianity.

I always marvel at the man who can live in the world that God created and not accept it as such. It is as though he were blind to the origins of the great expanses of the heavens that swirl above his head. Sure, he knows they are there, acknowledges their complexity, makes studies of them, and even postulates theories of origin. For the most part though, in all of his thinking, he refuses to allow for the possibility of creation by a personal God. He tries to embrace any or every alternative to accepting the Christian world-view. It is almost as though he were bent against God from the very start of his considerations. He says that he does not believe that the Christian God exists and then interprets all evidence on the basis of that belief. For him, God does not exist because he does want Him to.

The Bible gives a fascinating explanation for this phenomenon. Romans 1:19-25 says that “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” The Scripture says that "although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” The Scriptures assert here and in other places that man has all the proof that he needs for the existence of God. However, he has not accepted that proof because of the sinfulness of his heart. As Scripture says, he "suppresses the truth" because of his wicked nature. Instead of acknowledging God, he has "exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator." Man is bent against the idea of God from the very beginning of his considerations.

Let me here issue a warning to the reader.  As intellectual creatures, we are often tempted to let personal intellect be the measure of Truth. If you, like the man on the mountain, remain unconvinced by arguments presented to you, that does not automatically mean that your beliefs are correct. It merely means that the arguments were unable to convince you. Just because I may not be able to formulate the most persuasive arguments for the Christian world-view does not mean that the Christian world-view is not true. There will always be someone more gifted of expression than I am who will be better able to explain the truth and overcome the obstacles of your intellect. Men should beware being satisfied that "I have not yet found someone to refute me, therefore I am right." To do so is to claim one's personal intellect as the standard of Truth. One should always remember that there are many other people who will probably disagree with any one world-view. It is, therefore, a great audacity to allow one's limited intelligence to convince him of the meaning of life when he has not exhaustively considered all other possibilities, especially when he may be wrong. These possibilities seem to be as many and as diverse as the minds that care to think about them. Can a single human being evaluate the great variety of world-views that represent all the individuals that have ever lived? Who of all these individuals has the right one?

Since this man on the mountainside had not and could not consider all possible meanings of life, we may say that he has had to accept his present beliefs primarily on a faith commitment. In other words, is not certain of his beliefs beyond the level of faith. He cannot prove his theories. He merely has to accept them. The question he should then face is this—On whose authority does he accept the world-view he has embraced? On his own, or that of someone other than himself? If it is only himself or another human, I ask, "How do you know for certain that you or those you trust are the measure of all knowledge? Have you considered all that exists and are you then able to decide what is truth?" Likely not. No human is capable of this. Only one who is able to examine and evaluate everything that exists has the right to state truth dogmatically. He must be omniscient. The Christian, of course, believes this omniscient being to be God. Thus, only God's perspective is the right perspective. Only His perspective has the authority upon which man may base his faith-commitments. This perspective is revealed in the Bible.

The Christian will not claim to know everything. He will not be daring enough to say that his mind is greater than the unbeliever's mind. He merely places his faith in the one who knows all things, and he believes that there can be no certainty about anything apart from God’s revelation through his Word.

Well, I wish I had thought to explain all this to my friend on the mountainside that evening, but alas, I am not so quick on my feet. I have a feeling that he would not have listened anyway. The Bible gives an explanation for this—“The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2: 14).”

You see, only the Spirit of God can take away the “ suppressor of Truth” that is within the heart of every man. "The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).” Knowing that only God could convince my new friend of the truth, I left him with words that I hope he has thought much about. I decided to appeal to what the Scripture says that every man knows, no matter how much he may deny it--that the Christian God does indeed exist (Romans 1:21).

As we walked along the road, he suddenly stopped. We were in a curve, and, right at its apex, I could barely see a stone walk that led to steps in the hillside. I followed the steps with my eyes up to a crumbling, shadowy wall. We had apparently reached his home. The conversation had stopped, so he turned down the walk toward the steps.

"Sir," I began. "I just want to remind you of something."

He climbed about five of the steps until he stopped to lean against the ivy-covered building that was his home. "And what might that be?"

I took a deep breath and mustered all the conviction of heart that I could. "Deep down in your heart of hearts, you know that my God is the true God."

"Or Tao or whatever you want to call it," he responded.

"No sir. I am speaking of the God of the Bible. And your knowledge of Him will forever haunt you until the day that you embrace both him and the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ."

He just looked at me. It seemed as though the seriousness of my tone had arrested him for a moment.

Presently he said only, "Maybe so." And, turning up the stairs, he disappeared around the corner of the building into the darkness.

The Scriptures make the difference between believers and unbelievers clear. The believer has a heart that can believe; the unbeliever does not. Until the unbeliever's heart is changed, he will never be able to believe the fullness of God's revelation to him. He may learn to accept some of the facts that testify to the truth and rationality of the Christian world-view, but he will never experience the Christian's certainty of life until he comes to faith in Christ. It is only the heart that has been changed by Jesus Christ that has the right to certainty of beliefs in this life.

Perhaps you are not a Christian and are dissatisfied with the uncertainty of your beliefs. Perhaps you are now willing to consider a possibility that you had previously rejected--that God does indeed exist and that what His Word says is true. Perhaps you are an honest inquirer and really desire to know the truth once and for all. Continue your search for truth. Pray, asking God to give you the heart of a believer. If you are sincerely seeking, He will give you that heart. Remember that "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews1 1:6).”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Of Homosexuals, Vampires, Gremlins, and the Light

To what absolutes do you appeal to justify what you believe is moral while at the same time condemning what you believe is evil?  

In 2003, a political event occurred that brought homosexuals and their supporters to the brink of rationality.   Their proximity to the edge caused a furor that made news nationwide.   The event brought to mind the legendary reaction of vampires to the light.  When it hits their skin, they burst into flames, screaming in panic and pain, thrashing with violent efforts to escape illumination. 

In 2003, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum made the following statement in a press interview:
“If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything.”
The public was appalled, and Rick Santorum was universally excoriated for his comments. “How dare you equate homosexuality with sick, deviant behaviors like incest.”  Santorum was attacked mercilessly on all fronts because his comments were perceived to be prejudiced and homophobic.  The airwaves were awash with talk of Santorum’s despicable equation of homosexuality with pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, incest, polygamy, and others.   

The world that excoriated him was brushing up against the light of rationality, flailing defensively at the prospect of illumination. They reminded me of gremlins screaming frantically about the “Bright Light! Bright Light!”   Gay rights advocates snarled, “How dare he!  Everyone knows that pedophilia is immoral.  Homosexuality involves sex between two consenting adults. Children are not capable of consenting to such activities. Rick Santorum is despicable for making such a comparison.”  

Unfortunately, this response falls short of answering a crucial question—If homosexuality is right, what justifies the condemnation of other sexual behaviors as aberrant?  Another way to ask the question is “To what absolutes do you appeal to justify certain sexual behaviors while at the same time condemning those with which you disagree?   

The question of absolutes must be posed in order to justify moral judgments of another human being’s moral choices.  Therefore, if you believe that pedophilia is absolutely wrong, by what absolute do you then affirm homosexuality?  During the controversy, the ubiquitous defense was the criteria of mutual consent—Children, of course, are unable to give mutual consent. Therefore pedophilia is wrong.  

My question in response is “Can you demonstrate that the criteria of “mutual consent” is absolute?  Or is this simply an assertion based upon natural or cultural sensibilities?"  If it is only an assertion based upon natural or cultural sensibilities, what makes those natural or cultural sensibilities superior to the natural or cultural sensibilities of those who disagree?  For example, what about cultures throughout history that have practiced pedophilia or the marriage of young children?  Many ancient cultures infamously practiced both pedophilia and homosexuality.  Many modern countries and cultures still endorse the marriages of barely pubescent children.  My own great-grandmother was thirteen when she married her twenty-eight year old husband (No comments about West Virginia please).   What makes the natural and cultural sensibility that objects to pedophilia superior to the sensibilities of these other cultures?  

On the other hand, if their defense is grounded only upon an appeal to natural or cultural sensibilities, why then are the natural and cultural sensibilities of modern millions who condemn homosexuality regarded as homophobic and prejudicial?  In other words, what makes their support of homosexuality right and my vehement opposition to it wrong? 

The answer to these questions must exist in the form of an absolute—a principle that transcends time, place and culture, and obliges all people everywhere to affirm the same moral conclusions.    I do not believe that homosexuals and their supporters have such an absolute to appeal to—one that affirms homosexuality while condemning, for example, pedophilia.  If homosexuality is morally permissible, then there are no absolute grounds to condemn other aberrant sexual behaviors.   The bottom line is that the embrace of homosexuality is irrational when juxtaposed with the condemnation of pedophilia, polygamy, incest, bestiality, and any other sexual behaviors depraved minds can imagine.

Rick Santorum’s comments brought supporters of homosexuality to the edge of the precipice of rationality.  However, they shrunk back in frantic, defensive terror at the implications.  When the light of rationality was shed upon their depravity, they screamed bloody murder. Like vampires and gremlins, those who affirm homosexuality are terrified of illumination.

John 3--This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 
Romans 1--For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 
Post Script--Rick Santorum embraced a moral political agenda that I believe was beyond the scope of governmental authority.  While his comments shed some light, there were serious problems with his political agenda, and I am pleased that he is no longer in office to impinge upon the domain that belongs exclusively to the Church. See this post for an explanation. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Koran-Burning Idiot and the Slobbering Beast

Internet friend and Pastor Bob Bixby has a fascinating post at this link that gives some thoughts that many apparently have not considered.   I echo his assertion that the Koran-Burning Idiot (KBI) is an idiot for the same reasons that he provides.  I would add that the KBI's actions are militant in a worldly sense. The Church has no call to worldly militancy.  We do not fight with swords or spears, but with the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel is our most powerful weapon, and it is to be given in love to all those who need it.  There is no Gospel in the actions of the KBI.  The man is not a wise man and he defames the Glory of God.

I find it all ironic, however, on two counts:  First, this man is doing something very unwise, but due to religious freedom and rights to free speech, this lack of wisdom is protected by our Constitution.  However, the world has been nearly united in condemning him, and many have called for forceful action to prevent him from exercising his foolishness.

The irony comes from the simple fact that another recent incident has also involved people doing something very unwise, but lawful,  in the name of religion.  What makes it ironic is that the most vocal opponents of the KBI have been very supportive of the unwise people in this other incident.  I speak of those who support those who desire to build a mosque near Ground Zero.   If the argument in favor of the mosque at Ground Zero goes like this, "I do not think it is wise for them to do this thing, but this is America, so they have the right,"  then the fact that the same standard is not applied to both situations reveals a telling inconsistency that is characteristic of the unbelieving mind.

However, I am personally far more outraged against the KBI than the Ground Zero Muslims, but not because his actions are an affront to another "legitimate" religion that so many are desperate to appease. I am outraged because the man is doing something in the name of our God that he has not commissioned us to do.  In my mind, he is violating the command of the One True God. But make no mistake, he is not violating Islam's Allah.  That Allah is a figment of the Muslim imagination and a false god.  Allah does not exist, therefore he cannot be violated.

2)  The second irony is pointed out in Bob's post, that this Koran burning incident, as unwise as it may be, reveals something that is being ignored by most of its critics--The Muslim religion is inherently a violent religion.  James White has called it "the Religion of Perpetual Outrage."   It has been outraged and violent from its inception 1500 years ago.  They have sought conversions by the power of the sword, according to the command of their imaginary god, throughout their history.  They have enforced his laws by the power of the sword.   Granted that the Christian religion has also been violent from time to time throughout history, but the difference is that violent Christians have disobeyed God's revealed will.  On the other hand, violent Muslims are simply obeying the revealed will of their god.  The Bible condemns both violent Christians and violent Muslims. Obedient Christians are not violent, but obedient Muslims are authorized to be murderers.   What then do we make of those Muslims who preach peace?  They simply disregard the revealed will of their god.  Those who spew threats and violence are more respectful of the Koran's teaching than those who preach peace.  There is nothing more noble and respectable about those who preach peace; both are prophets of a false religion.

The reaction of Muslims throughout the world has once again revealed the slobbering beast to those who have eyes to see.  They have revealed the true nature of their religion.  And yet, the world comes to their defense, even as Muslims who are true to their religion threaten violence in response.  Look up, Oh World!  Look up from your irrational outrage and religious denial and see the slobbering beast that is hiding in plain sight!

BTW, I am aware that the KBI has backed off at least temporarily because of a supposed deal between him and the Ground Zero Muslims (dubious).   He has attempted to draw attention to the Muslim world's reaction as a sort of justification for his foolishness.   Some might eventually suggest (perhaps even he himself) that this was the substance of his plan all along--to reveal the slobbering beast.  However, I don't believe he is wise enough to have planned this revelation. He is simply a fool.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Some Early Thoughts on the Possibility of a Reformed Seminary in West Virginia

A seminary in West Virginia would make seminary education available to those within the State who might not otherwise have the opportunity or ability to attend seminary.

I don’t know any statistics to prove my case, but I am under the general impression that our State does not produce very many Reformed seminarians.  If this is true, there are probably many different reasons.  I am sure these reasons are not unique to WV.  Everybody who attends any graduate school in any field of study must overcome the obstacles of cost, location, time, and academic prerequisites.  Again, no real figures, but I believe that people in our State might be among the most disadvantaged with regard to these obstacles. 

So a centrally located seminary, say in the Charleston area, would make the possibility open to more people.  It would have to be exceptionally affordable in order for already financially-stressed people to even be able to consider it.  Since finances are already an issue, working seminarians would have to have the content delivered non-traditionally—a variety of class times and modalities that would fit most easily into a working family-life.   There is not much that any of us can do about academic prerequisites (chiefly a Bachelor’s degree) other than to just encourage and support potential seminarians in their efforts to finish college.

However, other Reformed denominations have lay-pastor training programs that might be exemplars.  If it is true that lack of formal education need not stand in the way of the spread of reformed theology, then perhaps we could provide pastors for churches who are educated at least to the level that increases the chances of their staying true to the tenets of historic Reformed theology throughout their ministries.  This might mean that graduate education is not absolutely necessary.  However, I wonder if the possibility of a generational slide away from Reformed theology might go along with this, ie, if this generation reduces its education and ordination requirements for the sake of training lay-pastors, what is to prevent the next generation from reducing them even more, to the point that eventually the purpose of a reformed education is undermined?  I speculate that this generational slide has already happened to Baptist theology.  Calvinistic Baptists were once influential, but could it be that their lack of clergy ordination standards resulted in a modern Baptist movement that hardly knows what Reformed theology is?

A seminary in West Virginia would allow us to really focus upon the spread of Reformed theology in the State of West Virginia.  I have already made some comments about the weak state of Reformed theology in our State.  Others have made some good comments in reply.  More Reformed seminarians might mean more Reformed missions throughout the State. 

A Seminary in West Virginia would also allow us to explore the unique cultural distinctives of Appalachia in general and West Virginia in particular.  Don’t get me wrong--what can be found here can probably be found throughout the country, but our culture is intense in its “You’re not from around here” mentality.  And what makes our culture unique is not that it does not exist elsewhere, but that it is so concentrated here.  And it is concentrated here to such a degree that statistics do indeed show that West Virginia is different from other States.   

In spite of this, West Virginia is not culturally monolithic, so this seminary would need to acquaint itself with the wide variety of cultural elements in our State.  We have college towns and industrial towns and coal mining communities and farming communities and communities that have virtually no predominate work or industry.  But whatever is unique about our State would need to be explored by this seminary and then passed on through pastoral theology to our seminarians.   Armed with a strong understanding of our culture, seminarians might have better opportunities to spread the Gospel, advance the Kingdom, and entrench Reformed theology.

So, like I said, these are early thoughts.  Lots of minds would have to come together on this one, but I am interested in at least beginning the process of considering the possibilities.  Feel free to add thoughts.

The State of Reformed Theology in the State of West Virginia

How many Reformed churches does West Virginia have?  

I know there are 10 churches affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America (my denomination).  There are two Orthodox Presbyterian churches.  One Evangelical Presbyterian church.  One Reformed Baptist Church.  Perhaps three or four independent Baptist churches that have Reformed leanings, but do not claim to be creedally Reformed.   There are dozens of churches affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, but who knows how many of these are actually Reformed or even embrace the most basic Christian doctrines.   So the State of West Virginia has a very meager Reformed presence.  Why? 

I hope to be able to explore this question in detail in a doctoral dissertation at Pittsburgh Theological  Seminary within the next couple of years.  I have a feeling that at least some of the reasons are related to reasons West Virginia is consistently at the bottom of good lists and at the top of bad lists.  But here’s a few observations for the moment.
  1. It is difficult to find pastors for Reformed Churches in our State.
    •  It is hard to bring them in from the outside because there is a dearth of Calls within the State.  Even when Calls are available, West Virginia doesn’t tend to attract people easily.  There are not a lot of churches and not a lot of ministers for those churches. Five of our ten PCA churches are without pastors at the moment, so they are being filled by “stated supply,” which is a sort of interim. The vast majority of the dozens of PCUSA churches in the State are filled by lay-pastors, interims, and stated supply.  This is probably because they are too small to support full-time, ordained teaching elders.
    • It is hard to bring them in from the outside because most of those churches are not able to support full-time pastors.  Low salaries do not attract pastors who need to support families.
    • It is hard to bring them up from the inside because educational standards are poor within the State.  West Virginia trails the nation in the percentage of college graduates.  People who do not go to college cannot go to seminary.  Someone who “desires the office of a bishop” has a long row to hoe before he can even begin to consider pastoring a church—at least 7 to 10 years of undergraduate and graduate education.   Who wants to bother with this?  It is a tough and rare achievement even in States with higher rates of college completion.  How much more in a State where college degrees are few and far between.
    • It is also hard to bring them up from the inside simply because Reformed theology is not widely understood even in Reformed churches.  That leads to the second observation.
  2. West Virginians have a hard time accepting Reformed Theology and Presbyterianism.  Why?  I am not dogmatic, but I wonder if the following has any merit:
    • Our Appalachian culture has been dominated by easier theology.  Frankly, we are flooded with free-will theology, churches, and culture.  Baptistic churches have spread throughout our State in part because there are no universal ordination standards, such as seminary education, and because baptistic theology is easier to both preach and digest.  "Low ordination standards" means that literally anyone can be a preacher and a pastor.  Baptistic churches can and have spread quickly and easily.  It also means that their preachers and pastors tend to be unschooled in theology and exegesis.  In many cases, West Virginia preaching is simplistic, containing very little theological instruction or exegesis.   People have been digesting this type of preaching for decades.  It is all they know.  Bring in something different and people immediately recognize it.  And that is not a good thing in their eyes.   They may be getting the Word of God more richly and deeply than they ever have before, but they will still yearn for "hard preaching" and a some good ol' fire and brimstone.   Can I get an "Amen?"
    • The result is that Reformed theology is an affront to widely accepted and deeply pervasive free-will theology.   Election is a bad word, as is the word "doctrine."  The local Christian bookstore owner assured me that her Sunday School Quarterlies don't contain "doctrine." She said that as if it were a good thing, revealing at the same time that she was unaware of what the word "doctrine" even means. Even in Presbyterian churches, many congregants are suspicious  of Reformed doctrines that have been taught elsewhere for centuries.   
    • There might also exist a blue-collar distrust for white-collar Presbyterian ministers.  This is compounded by the simple fact that any serious attempt to teach theology must include terminology and complexities that many see no practical need for or have a difficult time understanding.   The education and experience of those who labor in the Word varies so widely from those who labor with their hands that it is qualitatively different in comparison.   This difference is not always viewed favorably.
    • I also do not want to underestimate the dark and difficult history of West Virginia. Our history flavors who we are as West Virginians. I would even speculate that the deeply ingrained historical animosity between Company men and miners might play some sort of a role in the entire culture.   Sometimes I wonder if the Presbyterian distinctions between ordained ministers and laymen might mirror the Company/miner distinction in disadvantageous ways.  Is overarching presbytery action inherently perceived as analogous to Company dictates and abuses of power?   This is union country.  The Presbytery, by analogy, might be the Company.  Union members are raised to distrust the company from their earliest years.

In short, our more complex theology and higher ordination requirements, among other cultural distinctives, might be responsible for reformed theology's lack of success in this State. But it does not seem that a simpler theology and lower education requirements would fix this problem. A simpler theology would be less likely to be a Reformed theology. Similarly, lower education requirements would eventually result in a simpler theology and less Reformed theology. One of the reasons we have such high education requirements is because it enables the preservation of the Reformed faith.

So are we in a straight betwixt two?

I think we are, but I think that if the state of Reformed theology in the State of West Virginia is going to improve, we will likely need to explore, expand upon, correct, and address some of these ideas. 

As I say all these things, I want any reader to understand that the people in our State are just as intelligent as the people in any other State. They are hard working and wise in ways that the rest of the country cannot even identify with. My church members have been drinking in the Reformed faith and I have enjoyed every minute of my preaching and teaching ministry to them. I find them very capable of understanding and embracing Reformed doctrines that are taught well. 

But the people of our State have simply not had the same opportunities that other parts of the country have enjoyed. Poverty has played a role in this. The abuse of our people and resources by the rest of the country has played a role in this. Closed geographical communities have played a role in this as well. Just as Robert Byrd couldn't change these things over course of fifty years in spite of his best intentions, I do not expect that we will be able to change these things either. The job is more difficult here than it might be elsewhere.

What that means is that the burden is upon the Presbyterian church to meet our people where they are. We must find some way to do this or the Reformed faith will continue to struggle in this State.

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    Dealing with School Dress Codes: The Big Picture

    The following article was first published in Tri-State Family Magazine (Distributed by The Herald Dispatch, Huntington, WV). Copyright © 2008 by Dennis E. Bills.

    School dress codes are notoriously controversial: “How dare schools tell me how I should dress! They should stay out of my family’s business!”  Educators do not enjoy enforcing them, and parents enjoy it even less.   Students enjoy it least of all. 
        Most students handle dress codes very well. But occasionally dress codes irritate everyone. Parents and teachers would be much more comfortable letting children make their own decisions. We do not enjoy the disappointment and frustration of children who have been told to wear something they do not like. But a visit to schools, dances, malls, or around town quickly reveals that many teens gravitate toward shabbiness, immodesty, and exorbitant fads and fashions. Parents who have higher expectations for their children have the right to expect a difference at school.  
        When dress codes become irritating and intrusive, it is important to remember the big picture. Dress codes serve many different purposes, but most address at least three concerns that many families hold in common:  decorum, modesty, and priority.
        Most people believe that certain types of clothes are more appropriate than others for different environments or activities. For instance, what one wears for yard work differs from what one wears to work in an office. Likewise, what one wears to school will often differ from what one wears to the mall on Saturdays. Common sense says that dressing up for a job interview can greatly impact the impressions of a potential employer. Learning to dress appropriately for the occasion serves children well in life. Schools desire children to understand that sharp, neat attire is perfectly appropriate for school. As an academic environment, school is an excellent place to practice discernment in dress decorum. 
        Most parents are concerned that their children learn some standard of modesty. Since this standard obviously differs from family to family, schools tend to draw the lines as best they can. Frequently, these lines are not popular, so parents lives are sometimes disrupted by unhappy children.  
        It may be helpful to realize that schools do not intend to judge or condemn the preferences of individual families through dress codes. Educators agree that each family has the right to apply its own standards as it sees fit. However, since families vary greatly in their understanding of what is modest, schools develop reasonable and common expectations that they hope will be agreeable to the majority of their families. Producing a standard for modesty that is acceptable to most families is difficult but necessary. 
        Clothing needs to be seen in proper perspective. Fads and fashions sometimes overwhelm all sense of what really matters in life.  None of us objects to wearing nice, up-to-date clothes, but fads and fashions can easily be overblown and superficial. Learning to place clothing in proper perspective is a valuable life-skill that encourages priorities independent of the whims and shallowness of celebrity or popularity.  
        Learning to put fads and fashions in their proper place helps our students stay focused on their primary reasons for attending school. Instead of “expressing their individuality” by means of dress (one of the most frequent dress code objections I have encountered), students should see the greater value of expressing their individuality through the focused development of personality, character, knowledge, reason, and communication skills. When a student applies himself or herself to studies, a unique personality will come through loud and clear in valuable, impacting ways. 
    The Big Picture: Principles are More Important than Rules
        As parents, we desire our children to internalize these principles and make them their own so they can face life with significant social, developmental, and occupational advantages.  Eventually students make their own decisions without someone looking over their shoulder telling them what to wear. That is the time when the value of these principles will be most evident.   
        If adults could rely on children to always use discernment, dress codes would not be necessary. But we ask them where they are going on Friday nights, we tell them to be back by a certain time, and we refuse to allow them to watch certain things on TV or at the movies until they are mature enough. Our instruction as parents is crucial to helping children develop discernment. Over time, their character develops, and they learn to live by principle rather than by parental or school dress codes. Gradually we loosen the strictures and allow them to test the waters, to succeed, and to fail, and to learn how to live life as blossoming adults. As young adults, they will take the principles of their youth with them and leave the rules behind. This is one reason teachers are expected to model dress code principles, but are not themselves subject to the same dress code rules. Rather than being a stumbling block to children and families (“Why don’t the teachers have to dress like we do?!”), teachers should become examples of what it means to live by principle. 
        When the dress code becomes a point of contention, schools and families need to remind themselves of the big picture that sometimes gets lost in the details: the principles underlying the dress code are more important than the rules themselves. Students also need to remember that, in the big picture, being asked to dress a certain way for a few hours a day is not really as arduous as it might seem. Hopefully, the “big picture” perspective will help parents and faculty enforce dress codes with balance and understanding and will help students understand the heart behind the rules. Of all the lessons to be learned in school, decorum, modesty, and priority in dress are not the most important. But understanding these principles will help us all keep the dress code in its proper place so that it does not become a bigger issue than it should.