Friday, August 22, 2008

A Proverbial Paradox

The book of Proverbs is one of the most intensely practical parts of Holy Scripture. Its wisdom has guided countless generations of individuals determined to live life God’s way. Addressing wide-ranging topics from child rearing to business ethics to the nature of true friendship, Proverbs provides direction that we all need.

Proverbs 28 contains a statement that is something of a conundrum: “How blessed is the man who fears always.” Now fear is not something most of us view in a positive way. Yes, we teach our children to fear hot stoves and the traffic whizzing by in front of the house. But for the most part, we emphasize courage, optimism, and confidence rather than fear. We suggest that heroes repress their fears and act with boldness and valor.

So how can the Bible extol the blessedness, or happiness, of one who fears all the time? The answer lies in the focus of that fear. The next phrase in Proverbs provides a telling contrast: “But he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.” Fear that produces blessings is directed toward one’s own heart.

In contrast to the one who brazenly plunges ahead, ignoring the potential for evil inherent within, the blessed man constantly fears his own proclivity to sin. The Bible expresses this axiom elsewhere in other words: “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.” The one who is consciously aware of the possibility of falling is the one most likely to remain standing.

History is littered with fallen heroes, including some of the greatest saints of Scripture, who failed to take seriously their own weaknesses. As one observer expresses it, “Fear keeps the heart tender, and the soul safe.” Only those deluded with an overestimation of their own perfection fail to fear their potential to fall. No one is so grounded in saving grace that he is free to let down his guard.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Your Child or Your Dog?

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, died as a martyr in the year 258 A.D. Among his writings is a sharp challenge to parents: “Pray, consider, he who minds his child’s body more than his soul is like one who, if his child and his dog were both drowning, was solicitous to save his dog and let his child perish in the water.”

Now even the most ardent animal lover surely understands that given the choice between saving his child versus rescuing his dog, he must preserve the child. Parents can readily grasp the gravity of this choice and the obvious, right conclusion. Cyprian’s point, however, was to emphasize the critical importance of focusing on the welfare of the child’s soul.

Parents these days are bombarded with advice from all directions, urging them to provide a healthy diet for their children, a proper balance of exercise and leisure, intellectual stimulation, systematic immunizations, adequate shielding from the evils lurking in cyberspace, and opportunities to advance in sporting and social activities. Fulfilling such demands typically results in a hectic schedule that ultimately undermines concern for the spiritual welfare of children.

Despite the physical, academic, social, and athletic achievements that rise to such importance in life, the one dimension that will endure eternally is the state of the soul. Yet a survey of family activities demonstrates that frequently the welfare of children’s souls ranks near the bottom of the priority list.

17th-century minister Cotton Mather was equally poignant in his stern advice: “Man, are your children but the children of swine? If you disregard their souls, truly you call them so.”

Faithful parents must resist the din of 21st century distractions and focus upon the one concern that will ultimately count when this life comes to an end, the state of their child’s eternal soul. It is not possible to be truly love your child and neglect his spiritual welfare.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Religious Butterflies

There are few scenes in nature with the colorful splendor of a monarch butterfly casually floating about a meadow of wildflowers in full bloom. We’re all familiar with the flying patterns of butterflies as they navigate the air, floating and touching down with abandon.

Rev. Tom Reese of Georgetown University compares people to butterflies: “Some people are like butterflies that go from flower to flower, going from religion to religion – and frankly they don’t get that deep into any of them.”

The growing pluralistic tolerance that is sweeping our country would seem to reinforce the butterfly analogy. A recent survey of 35,000 adults revealed some startling results. 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation believe that many religions can led to eternal life. Among this group are 57% of evangelical Christians who agree with this pluralistic assessment despite the clear teachings of their faith to the contrary. Perhaps even more surprising is the finding that 21% of self-identified atheists admit they actually believe in God or a universal spirit.

Such statistics lead Prof. D. Michael Lindsay of Rice University to conclude that “religion in America is, indeed, 3,000 miles wide and only three inches deep.”

Some observes praise these findings as indicating “increased religious security” causing people to be more comfortable with other faith traditions. A more realistic assessment, however, reveals that such open-mindedness grows out of a basic ignorance of the teachings’ of one’s faith.

No Christian who takes the Bible seriously can conclude that there are many ways to find peace with God. Jesus unambiguously declared an exclusive message: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Distorting those words to conclude that Jesus is simply one of many ways to find eternal life does irreparable damage to the integrity of Jesus’ message. Such a perspective is not open-minded Christianity; it is not Christianity at all.