Tag Archives: Discipleship

Religious Liberty Means What the Government Says It Means

Let every detail in your lives—words, actions,
whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus.

Colossians 3:17 (the Message) 

US citizens justifiably rejoice in the existence of the First Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment protects the right of every individual to express his chosen religion, or the lack thereof, in his daily life. Ongoing power struggles between government and believers have tested the meaning of the simple words of that amendment, but the fact remains that in the US, people have more freedom to live according to their faith teachings than anywhere else on earth.

There are many countries that declare that they enforce the principle of “freedom of religion” and many even specify that they enforce “separation of church and state.” However, as is the case with most legal language, even though many countries use the same words to describe the way they deal with religion, each country has a unique twist to the meanings of the words. If the government is dominated by secular thinking, then the twist of these words will be different than if the government is dominated by a religion.

Uzbekistan is a good example. Uzbekistan was part of the former USSR, and after the dissolution of that nation, it retained the predominately secular viewpoint in culture and government which had been fostered in the Communist state. Uzbekistan proclaims that it protects “freedom of religion” and “separation of church and state.” The Constitution of Uzbekistan says:

” Art. 18. All citizens of the Republic of Uzbekistan shall have equal rights and freedoms, and shall be equal before the law, without distinction by sex, race, nationality, language, religion, social origin, convictions, individual and social status.”

Everyone is equal before the law, a principle that we honor in the USA and portray by statues of Justice wearing a blindfold. That concept sounds wonderful. We would expect that article to assure that nobody in Uzbekistan would be harassed by the culture or the police for expressing and living according to his religious convictions. We would not expect a woman in Uzbekistan to be arrested as she stepped off a bus and be held in prison for days because she had a Bible and a Christian DVD in her purse, but it happened.

Uzbekistan’s Constitution also says:      

“Art. 31. Freedom of conscience is guaranteed to all. Everyone shall have the right to profess or not to profess any religion. Any compulsory imposition of religion shall be impermissible.”

This sounds like an elaborate way to say the same thing our First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” An American contemplating a visit to Uzbekistan might read the Uzbek Constitution and believe he would feel right at home there. In fact, the Constitution of Uzbekistan adds another comforting element, the separation of church and state:

Art. 61. Religious organizations and associations shall be separated from the state and equal before the law. The state shall not interfere with the activity of religious associations.”

An American who reads these words could easily be lulled into a sense of brotherhood between the USA and Uzbekistan with regard to religious liberty, but it would be a mistake to jump to that conclusion. As we are learning in the USA, the Constitution is one thing; law is another. In both the USA and Uzbekistan, the law can and does run roughshod over the Constitution. In both countries, legislators and administrators proceed with their own agendas unless and until a court with the power of Constitutional review changes things. It remains to be seen what the Supreme Court of the USA will do with an issue such as the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The consequences of Constitutional review, or the lack thereof, in Uzbekistan are quite evident, and they provide a cautionary tale for those of us who think words in constitutions and laws have definite meanings that are generally agreed to. The growing dominance of secular thinking in the US federal government demonstrates some interesting parallels with Uzbekistan’s government practices.

When the government of Uzbekistan considered what needed to be done to assure the religious liberty of the citizens, government minds choked on a question that would not occur to you or me: how is the government to know if a group of people have a religion or just some private club? Most of us believe we know what a religion is. It is something people almost intuitively know the answer to. There have been attempts like that of my college professor who declared his dog to be a god and his household to be a church so he could deduct the price of dog food as a contribution to a church, but that sort of blatant fraud does not pass the test of common sense or plain language. (It did not pass muster with the IRS, either.) Only government needs thousands of pages of laws and more thousands of pages of regulations and forms to work out that Hinduism is a religion and therefore is protected by the Constitution.

In Uzbekistan, the Constitution notwithstanding, two laws define the government’s attitude toward religion, and one agency, the Committee on Religious Affairs, administers government policy toward religion. If all religion is “separated from the state and equal before the law,” most readers would believe that people of faith have nothing to worry about. However, the laws include many requirements that must be satisfied in order for any group to be considered a legitimate religion, entitled to religious freedom. Any religious group that is unwilling or unable to comply with all the government regulatory requirements for a legitimate religion is illegal in the eyes of the government. What does that mean?

For starters, every church must be registered, and legal religious worship must take place inside that registered location. That requirement all by itself prohibits prayer meetings and Bible studies in homes. Of course, such activities in the US can take place in parks and on street corners, too, none of which will happen without unpleasant consequences in Uzbekistan. Registration requires completion of a form designed by the government, and errors as small as a grammatical mistake in the native Uzbek language can result in the rejection of the form. The information on the form is the way the government determines if the applicant meets the government definition of a religion protected by the Uzbekistan Constitution. In fact, the form may never even be acknowledged. The seemingly simple act of registration is not so simple. Some groups balk at registration because the form requires the names of at least one hundred members, and some forms have been rejected for misspelled names or because one member or another is accused of association with criminals. It is not a simple matter for the government of Uzbekistan to be sure when to protect the liberty of a religion and the seemingly simple Constitutional protection of religious liberty does not automatically extend to every religious organization.

The government of the USA is just as easily flummoxed as the government of Uzbekistan when it tries to define what is and what is not protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. When the Affordable Care Act was passed, the Department of Health and Human Services began to write the regulations and design the forms that would implement this monstrous law. Mindful of complaints that the law trampled on the religious convictions of some Christians by requiring an employer to fund contraception, abortion and sterilization (yes, the morning-after pill absolutely qualifies as abortion), Americans were told that the Department took that problem into consideration. In a nation where religious liberty has been a highly valued protection for citizens, Americans certainly expected a conscience exemption for employers who religious convictions conflicted with the use of medications and devices that produced contraception, abortion and sterilization. They never expected that the US government, like the government of Uzbekistan, would choke on the very idea of religion. The US government looked at the situation and, just like the government in Uzbekistan, created a definition of the entity that would qualify for exemption from the ACA employer mandate to provide contraception, abortion and sterilization. This definition embodies the definition any secularist would use for religion.

The US government’s definition of a religious employer:

(1)   has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose;

(2)   primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets;

(3)   primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets;

(4)   is a non-profit organization    

With regard to point 4, the government has stated in court documents that “for-profit secular employers generally do not engage in any exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment.” In plain language, the government has determined that personal religious convictions do not apply in the operation of a business for profit. This comes as a shock to Christians who have spent a lifetime expressing their religious convictions in the way they operate their businesses.

The government of Uzbekistan has its definition of religion, and it uses its definition to create a process by which will suppress the religious freedom of some people and allow the religious freedom of others. In the same manner, the US government has created a definition of religion that feeds a process by which it will suppress the religious freedom of some people and allow the religious freedom of others. Everything depends on what definition of the word “religion” the government uses.

In Uzbekistan, the problem grows bigger under the legal requirement that the government must authorize every religious publication. This law is a partial response to the problem of freedom of religious expression. How can the government know what written expressions constitute legitimate religious expression unless it verifies first that the material is produced by a legally identified religion and second that the words are in compliance with the definition of the religion in question as identified on its registration form. Religions are free to print and distribute legally approved documents, but it is no mean trick to obtain that approval. The government retains for itself the power to declare what is and is not approved reading for followers of any religion. Religions, legal or not, may not import documents, such as Bibles, tracts or theology books. Those documents will not have the approval of the Committee on Religious Affairs, and is government authorities discover them in anyone’s possession, that individual will be arrested. To date, the US government has not gone down this path. That is something to be thankful for.

A major hurdle for any religion in Uzbekistan is the prohibition on proselytizing. In fact, the hurdle is raised another notch by a law prohibiting religious instruction of a minor without parental consent, even in a registered church using authorized literature. The government and the culture cooperate in suppressing freedom to speak about religion in ordinary conversation or to make any attempt to persuade anyone to change his chosen religion. Christians are called by Christ to make disciples of all nations, but it is actually dangerous to try to make a disciple of anyone in Uzbekistan. In the US, prohibitions on prayer in schools and on the display of the Ten Commandments have arisen due to the same kind of thinking that shapes Uzbekistan’s version of freedom of religion. Court documents show that a fear of even the hint of a “proselytizing” outcome is enough to drive a judge to squelch all sorts of religious activities, the First Amendment notwithstanding.

The training of church leaders in Uzbekistan is also inhibited by government. No religion can have a “central office” if it does not have registered churches in 8 of the 13 districts of Uzbekistan, and only a religion with a “central office” can have a school of any kind to train leaders such as pastors. In the US, the government has expressed no interest in controlling the training of religious leaders. However, in China, a country with which the US has increasingly close ties in the financial realm, the expression of religious freedom is heavily shaped by religious leaders educated in schools where the government controls the curriculum and the faculty. Could it happen in the US? Who knows?

In Uzbekistan, the simple statements that religion is no part of government and that all religions are equal before the law have given birth to a bureaucratic nightmare which threatens the religious liberty of Uzbek citizens the way the Affordable Care Act threatens the religious liberty of American citizens.

The parallel is uncanny. In order to protect religion in Uzbek, the government had to define what that means. In order to protect religion in the USA, after more than two hundred years of religious liberty, the government felt that it needed to define what religion is in order not to protect anything that does not meet the definition. Just as Uzbek citizens find it challenging to understand how their government decides what a religion is, US citizens are puzzling over the same question.

Recently a pastor in Uzbekistan was arrested and charged with possessing and distributing unauthorized documents. He was tried, convicted, and fined 100 times the average monthly wage in Uzbekistan. Before 2005, the fine was only 10 times the average monthly wage, but in 2005, the government increased the fine dramatically. It is a very costly offense to possess unauthorized religious documents. The pastor has appealed this conviction, but the prospects of reversal are very slim. Courts in Uzbekistan take a dim view of someone possessing documents that the Committee on Religious Affairs has not approved. It isn’t clear if these documents are unapproved because the words were not approved, or if the documents were printed in an unauthorized location. It is hard to sort out all the laws and regulations that may apply to this situation. Citizens in the US should read this story attentively as they follow the path of court cases that dispute the US government’s definition of “religion” and the implications of that definition for all citizens. It is not a big leap from government definition of religion to government definition of religious documents.

Read more news about religious persecution in Uzbekistan at Living on Tilt the newspaper

Citizens in the United States read our Constitution and its amendments, and they believe that the plain sense of the language protects their religious liberty. Citizens of Uzbekistan might believe the same thing if they read their Constitution. Developments in Uzbekistan should at the least make us aware that without citizen vigilance, the plain language of the US Constitution could easily be reinterpreted by law and policy to mean something very different from our understanding of the words. In both countries it can safely be said that all citizens lose liberty if one citizen loses liberty.

Every Christian knows that we are called by Christ to be “little Christs” in the world around us. Most of us sang about being sunbeams when we were children – “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam at home, at school, at play.” It seemed easier to do that when all of us sang that song together as children than it seems now when powerful public figures say that no rational person would pretend that anything religious happens in a for-profit enterprise. Yet Jesus still calls us to be light in a dark world – at home, at work, at play. We are expressing our faith when we shine our light. If we let our government suppress the light in one place, the government can then feel free to suppress it anywhere else. If we let the government put out somebody else’s light today, we will have nobody to help when the government comes for our light tomorrow. Pray. Speak. Shine. In the name of Christ. 

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16


A Hymn For Meditation

O God of Mercy

 O God of mercy, God of light,
In love and mercy infinite,
Teach us, as ever I your sight
To live our lives in you.

You sent your Son to die for all
That our lost world might hear your call;
Oh, hear us lest we stray and fall!
We rest our hope in you.

Teach us the lesson Jesus taught;
To feel for those his blood has bought,
That every deed and word and thought
May work a work for you.

 For all are kindred, far and wide,
Since Jesus Christ for all has died;
Grant us the will, and grace provide,
To love them all in you.

                       Godfrey Thring

  • It is not unusual for a hymn to describe God and his work. What is the viewpoint of this hymn? How does that viewpoint shape your experience of the hymn?
  • Does this hymnwriter believe that we only worship and serve Christ in church? Where does he believe we serve Christ?
  • What are examples of  straying and falling in your own life? How does God respond to our straying and falling?
  • The hymnwriter is grateful for Christ’s work in his own life, but for whom else is he concerned? What does this writer believe Christ asks of him? What does Christ ask of you?

Pray Faithfully

I don’t know any Christians who do not want to be faithful in prayer. Sadly, many feel that they don’t have time. They are stressed, and even if they do remember to pray, they forget what they wanted to pray about. They sit down to pray, but their minds wonder if the kids have lunch money or if they remembered to send in this week’s time sheet, or etcetera. Friends ask for prayer, and weeks later, well-intentioned Christians guiltily recall that they never did pray at all. Eager to feel better, they mutter, “doesn’t God already know what he is going to do?”

I have found an easy way to keep my prayer commitments and enforce my prayer time with little effort on my part. I keep a small notebook with my Bible and my devotional book. I make sure this notebook isn’t big, because that would make the task seem big. A small notebook reminds me that the entries in it are personal and private.

In this notebook, I make small notes about prayer concerns. If somebody says to me, “Will you pray for my daughter?” I make a note about the daughter in my little notebook. I usually pray briefly about the issue at the time I make the note, or in the right circumstances, I may pray at length about this concern. Either way, the next morning, when I step aside for my private time with God, I open the notebook, and there is my reminder to pray for my friend’s daughter. I note date and topic, usually quite briefly. I date the entry, because my personal standard is to pray for a concern until it is resolved, or for a month, whichever comes first. An issue that still seems current and important after a month is recycled into the next month.

Each day, I pray for that month’s concerns. There are usually several – some are requests from friends, some are concerns in the news, and some are personal issues. As things develop or change, I make brief notes. When an issue is resolved, I write “Thank you” beside the entry. I love going through my month’s list and seeing several “Thank you” notes. It is encouraging to be reminded that God answers prayer. When a month passes with no news about an issue, I let it go. I believe that if God wants me to continue praying about an issue, I will hear more.

At first, my notebook was only about other people’s requests, but as I grew in my understanding of prayer, I began adding my own issues. It increased the number of entries each month, but it increased the number of “Thank you” entries, too.

For some entries, I actually write a sentence or two in the form of a prayer. On a day when my attention is not well focused, those little prayer sentences help me pray with greater assurance. Occasionally, the wording I feel led to use points me to better understanding of the outcome.

A prayer journal is a powerful tool for keeping your prayer commitments and for maturing in faith. The sight of it calls specific requests to mind, allowing you to touch those requests prayerfully as you continue your work. These interim prayers reinforce your relationship with the person who made the request and they build your understanding of Christ’s call to love and serve one another. The very fact that you have such a notebook will send you running to record requests and concerns that otherwise might flit unattended through your day and into oblivion until one day events remind you that you wish you had prayed about this situation.

A prayer journal is not magic. It won’t assure that you get what you want. It won’t make you pray when you think you don’t have time. It will prod your commitment to the discipline of prayer and to maturing discipleship in your daily life. If you want to pray faithfully, a prayer journal is a great tool for success.

Spirituality is not the same thing as Discipleship

A couple of years ago I located a great site for writers and joined right away. The site is full of energetic and talented writers whom I admire very much. I learn a lot from them about the craft of writing. I have learned to be very careful about absorbing other ideas from them. I feel called by God to write and share what I learn about the Christian faith. I can learn things about the craft of writing from any good writer. I need to be more discriminating about learning anything else.

I have discovered that, like me, most writers feel that writing is an extension of their lives. To write is to engage in a conversation about the things that shape my life, or the actions that grow out of the shape of my life. Writing and living are tightly intertwined. Having grown up in rural communities and lived most of my life around people not considered sophisticated by urban dwellers, I found some of the life stories told on the writers’ site startling to say the least. I felt an inner warning to filter what I read before absorbing it as fact.

I soon discovered that many writers consider themselves to be spiritual. There are so many, in fact, that my well-loved writing site has a whole group of writers who gather together on the subject of spirituality. When I found the group, I was immediately attracted by its name. I clicked the “join” button and began to get acquainted.

It was a real shock. Not for the first time I was educated to understand that my perception of the definition of a term is not necessarily its actual meaning. Most importantly, my perception of the meaning of “spirituality” was completely different from the perceptions of 99% of the members of the group. I joined the group in the expectation that the other members shared my idea of growing in spirituality. I could not have been more wrong.

For most of my life, I have used the term “spiritual” to mean anything related to the Holy Spirit, or to my relationship with the Holy Spirit, or to my growth in the disciplines and practices of my faith in Christ. The writing group uses the term to mean whatever is not of the material world. Members belong to many different religions or to no religion at all, yet their common bond is a belief that the world we live in is not exclusively made up of physical matter. I share that understanding, but little else. Some members believe that “the universe” is a spiritual force they can relate to. Some believe in ancient gods I thought had been abandoned centuries ago. Some believe in something ephemeral and immaterial that they relate to in terms like hope and faith and luck. I encountered a couple of group members who were Christians, but like me, they felt no common bond with the majority of the members. I left the group after a few weeks, and I imagine they did, too.

This experience should not have shocked me that much. I should have been prepared for this. After I had made this mistake, I looked around and realized that the world is full of people teaching “spirituality” which is wrapped in more beautiful imagery than Halloween, but which is otherwise not a lot different from the masquerade of that October holiday. Spirituality is a popular theme on talk shows like “Oprah,” but it is nothing like what I mean when I talk about spirituality in the context of my Christian faith.

There are a lot of words floating around in our daily lives which are wrapped in spiritual imagery, and often those words delude us into believing that they are Christian words of inspiration, motivation and faith. Many, many of those words have nothing to do with Christianity, nothing to do with God, or Christ or the Holy Spirit. Many of the words and images lure us away from faith into behavior as pagan as Moloch or Baal ever was.

For example, you have no doubt received a “prayer” in your email inbox that concluded with a statement similar to this: “Forward this prayer to ten people, including me, and something magnificent will happen to you at 10PM this evening. Don’t break the chain, or you will be sorry.” The first time I received one of those prayers, I was upset. It reminded of chain letters I used to receive in snail mail, threatening me with being responsible for dire things happening to the person who sent it if I failed to forward it to ten more people. Those old letters made me angry, and these “chain” prayers make me angry, too. They are not prayers; a better word would be incantations. This kind of prayer is not so much a blessing as a curse. In fact, I feel that the sender has tried to enslave me as surely as he or she tried to enslave God, as if either or both of us might be a little genie in a bottle, compelled to do the bidding of the one who opened the lid.

Prayer to Almighty God in the name of Christ does not work the way those chain prayers allege to work. Prayer is not about compelling God to do anything, and it is not about calling down bad luck on people who do not participate.

There is a lot of “spirituality” in the world around us that could easily lure us away from the truth. We won’t find God’s truth in chain prayers on the internet. When we do get confused by chain prayers or any other “spiritual” words in the news or on television or in our inboxes, we must remember that we cannot listen to every spirit that competes for our attention. There is one who always speaks truth, and that One is the indwelling Holy Spirit. We need to study the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to know how to distinguish truth from lies.

Many people who claim to be spiritual but not Christian are good people by humanist standards. They are kind. They don’t steal. They help others and pay their taxes and would not hurt a fly, let alone a human being. We can enjoy them as neigbors and friends. However, people who do not know Christ cannot guide us into all truth; only the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth can do that. We need to be careful who we listen to.