Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Shut up, they explained

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/151/15180/15180-83963.mp3

A letter recently published on my local newspaper’s editorial page helpfully summarized the view of many secular folks when it comes to religious expression in public.

We “stand for separation of church and state,” the letter writer declared. “Pick your religion, believe what you want, pursue greater knowledge toward that end. Do it for yourself — and keep it out of public discourse. That’s where the [secular] left stands.”

I appreciate his honesty, if not his all-too-common misunderstanding of church-state separation. Open hostility toward freedom of speech is better than paying lip service to it while working behind the scenes to silence it. Either approach, however, is wrong.

“Keep your views about God and His commandments to yourself,” society increasingly tells believers — particularly conservative evangelicals, traditional Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews. “Socially accepted truths and morals have progressed beyond your antiquated theologies. If you can’t embrace the new normal, just keep your mouth shut. If you don’t, we’ll shame you, shout you down, call you a bigot. We might even take you to court and charge you with ‘hate speech.’”

Such responses to religious speech undercut the spirit of the First Amendment. You have every right under the law and the Constitution to express almost any religious belief in public. If those views happen to be unpopular or minority positions, you still have the right to express them. That’s why the First Amendment exists.

Free religious expression in the United States didn’t come easily, as I wrote in a 2008 column, and it won’t endure without vigorous exercise and defense. State church tyranny was the main opponent in the nation’s infancy. Baptists, who experienced persecution by state-controlled churches in Europe and early America, played a key role in helping forge religious freedom in the new nation. Today the threats to religious speech are coming primarily from secular extremists who see biblical Christianity as “intolerant” and evangelism as “hate speech.”

By far the greatest threat to religious expression, however, is the self-censorship practiced by believers. We fear offending someone more than we care about telling him or her the truth. We don’t want to be thought intolerant. We don’t want to go against the pluralist grain.

Let’s find some inspiration — and backbone — from followers of Christ in tougher places who put everything on the line to share truth.

Recently I met several Muslim-background believers in North Africa and the Middle East. They are taking full advantage of the new freedoms they’re experiencing following the “Arab Spring” revolutions last year to spread the Gospel and make disciples. After generations of enforced silence, people in a number of Arab countries feel freer to express their opinions and seek their own answers — for now, at least.

“Sometimes I even get calls from [militant Islamists],” one believer told me. “They just want to know who is the right God. … So I think God is really working after the revolution.”

Another believer was arrested multiple times for telling people about Jesus before the revolution in his country. He just could not stay silent about the wonderful truth he had found. He’s wiser now about when to speak and when to be quiet, but he’s just as bold.

“Before, I was controlled by the government,” he explains. “I had to go and sign in every three months and tell them everything — what I did, where I moved. If I was having any guest [in my home], I had to go and ask permission. I really hated that. I feel more free now in doing God’s work.”

Even if the new freedoms disappear, however, these believers will keep telling others that Jesus is the only way to God. If they aren’t afraid to talk about the truth in places where the hammer could come down at any moment, why should we be?

Don’t squander your freedom in the land of the free. It’s not guaranteed.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Speak, memory

Listen to an audio version of this post at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/150/15063/15063-83366.mp3

Don’t look back.

That is one of the worst pieces of advice you’ll ever hear. Naturally, you hear it all the time. “Positive thinkers” and pop psychologists love it. Forget the past, they say. You can’t change it, so why dwell on it? Move on. Sunshine will follow the rain. Tomorrow will bring a new you. The next shot will fall. Insert your own cliché here.

“Waste not fresh tears over old griefs,” recommended Euripides, the great Greek dramatist, more than 2,400 years ago. Now that’s good advice. But regret is a response to memory, not memory itself. To forget our past is to forget who we are — individually and collectively.

Yes, the Apostle Paul urged believers to lay aside the past in their pursuit of knowing God: “(F)orgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13b-14, NASB). And he’s right. We should not obsess about past sins and failures, but look to God, rejoice in His patient mercy and relentlessly follow Him toward glory.

But Paul never forgot where he came from, what he had thought as a Pharisee and what he had done as a one-time enemy of the Gospel. He never forgot the long, dangerous, often discouraging road he had walked as an early apostle of Christ. And he never forgot the many ways God’s grace had pulled him from the pit to the mountaintop. Those experiences forged Paul into the man he eventually became. They stayed with him, informing his future attitudes, decisions and actions.

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”

Nor should it be. The Lord gave us memories for a reason. Even the painful ones. The Divine Physician has a way of healing us without removing our memories entirely. If we forget the pain, how can we minister to the hurting? If we forget the darkness, how can we lead others toward light?

Memories are precious things. As Saul Bellow observed, “They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” Who are you without the memory of who you have been, what you have thought and done, the people you have known? That’s why memory-killing afflictions such as Alzheimer’s are so heartbreaking, both for the people who experience them and their loved ones. Alzheimer’s is a thief that steals whole chunks of who we are.

A recent movie you should see is a meditation on memory. “The Iron Lady,” about former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, won actress Meryl Streep her third Academy Award. It might be Streep’s greatest performance in a long line of them. The film itself, however, has been criticized for focusing not on Thatcher the world-changing political leader of the 1970s and ’80s but on Thatcher the lioness in winter, elderly and infirm, confused, engaging in imaginary conversations with her late husband, Denis.

I found it deeply moving. Streep as Thatcher reflects on past events large and small: a girlhood working for her grocer father, meeting her future husband, challenging a male-dominated political world as a young member of Parliament, motherhood, triumphs and defeats, war and terrorism, national turmoil and progress, doubts, questions, resolution.

Looking back is an inward journey we all must take as our earthly lives approach the farther shore. Memory helps us along the way.

Memory is a gift from God. More than that, it is a command and a sacrament. “Do this in remembrance of Me,” Christ told His disciples as He introduced the Lord’s Supper on the last night He spent with them (Luke 22:19-20).

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits,” David sang (Psalm 103:2, NASB). Remembering who God is and the glorious things He has done is part and parcel of worshipping Him.

In his great farewell address to the children of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses thundered: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NASB).

Why go to such lengths? To remember — from one day to the next, from parent to child, from generation to generation and age to age — who God is and what He has done. Review the tragic history of the ancient Israelites to see what happened when they forgot. Remembering God is as important as obeying Him; indeed, it is part of obedience.

Look back. Remember. Praise God for His marvelous grace and mercy. Then look ahead without fear or regret.