Tag Archives: free exercise

I am Glad That People Love Christmas

It isn’t uncommon to hear Christians deplore the fact that so many people who clearly have no idea what Christmas is about busily decorate with Christmas ornaments and buy Christmas gifts and dine at Christmas parties and feasts all through the month of December. “They don’t have a clue what Christmas is about,” Christians wail, wringing their hands.

I am starting to ask, “Why don’t they have a clue what Christmas is about?” We decorate and buy gifts and feast, too. With all these Christians celebrating all over the place, why don’t people in general know what Christmas is about? Is their ignorance the real problem, or is it something else?

I believe it is something else.

I believe that Christians are too focused on the way nonbelievers get Christmas wrong. Christians deplore the commercialism that starts advertising Christmas gifts by the first of October. Christians despair of the frenzy of parties and choirs and plays and charity events during a season of prayerful waiting in the church calendar. Some Christians are upset because cashiers won’t say “Merry Christmas, while others are upset that the retail window displays blend Santa Claus and the baby Jesus.

There is another way to look at this situation.

Think about the culture into which Jesus was born. In that culture there were people faithfully waiting for Messiah, there were people who suffered in hopeless despair that Messiah would ever come, and there were people who scorned the whole idea of a Messiah. There were people who had unflappable faith that God always keeps his promises, and there were people who thought that believing in God was the attitude of a simpleton.

The time and place where Christ was born was just like the times and places in which we all live. With that in mind, I am glad that every December, America lights up like a Christmas tree. I’m glad that the phrase Christmas tree has found its way into the language in standalone usage. I’m glad that in the classic secular poem of the holiday season, Santa Claus says, “Merry Christmas to all!” I’m glad, because even though the language and culture pervert the Christmas story, the fact that Christians set up nativity scenes and sing “Silent Night” during this season keeps pointing to the Christmas story, the real story of Christmas. The cultural folderol does not crush the truth that Christ was born to bring God’s salvation and grace to every person on earth.

I have been known to rant a bit about the silliness of some of the “holiday” customs. I rant about silliness wherever I see it. I enjoy poking fun at all sorts of nonsensical excuses for meaningless festivity. However, I don’t think that the abuse of the opportunity for celebration at Christmas is necessarily a bad thing.

Jesus addressed the issue of misuse of blessings when he said, “[God] makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” God does not prevent evil people from receiving the blessing of rain. He lets them enjoy rain and grow crops watered by rain the same way he blesses his faithful children. Likewise, at Christmas, even in the midst of tinsel and baubles, you will also see the star over Bethlehem and the manger with the baby Jesus. Because the images of the birth of Jesus are so widespread at this time of year, we who love the Lord have many, many opportunities to tell people about him. We even get to talk about Jesus when the Freedom From Religion Foundation sues yet another municipality or homeowners association for allowing a public display of a nativity scene. We don’t have all those opportunities every day.

We should thank God for every instance of Christ’s name or his story in public life. If the people talking about it, we should thank God for the opportunity to discuss the story with them, and tell the story correctly. If people are confused, it gives us a chance to speak the truth.

I am very glad that Christmas is a very big deal in the USA in December. I am quite sure that Christians in Kazakhstan, where people can be arrested for carrying a Bible in a shopping bag on a public bus, would love to have the problem of too much glitz about Christmas in Kazakhstan. I can well imagine that Christians in Pakistan, who must be extremely cautious about their behavior during Ramadan, would love to need to explain to fellow Pakistanis which elements in a storefront Christmas display were Christian and which were secular. These Christians know what it is to be silenced by laws and regulations that are prohibited in the USA by our First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion. Let us give thanks for free speech, even when the speech we hear is repulsive, because free speech is our guarantee that we can say “Jesus is Lord!” fearlessly on any occasion when we feel led by the Spirit to speak out. Let us give thanks even for confused and error-filled Christmas displays that allow us as Christians many opportunities to talk about the real story of Jesus.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-19 ESV). At Christmas, in the midst of the frenzy, when you feel frustrated that people just do not understand what Christmas is all about, be glad. Let the Holy Spirit give you the words to share Jesus with everyone, because it is his season and his time. It is our open door to testify to Christ. We will not likely see the immediate response we hope for in those who hear us speak, but that is not our business. Our business is to share Jesus fearlessly and consistently. I am thankful that, because people love Christmas, I have a chance to introduce them to the love of Christ.

 

Advertisements

Why US Christians Should Watch the Federal Government

American citizens rightly look to the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, to protect their right to protection against government control of their exercise of religion. It should make Americans nervous to hear that the US president makes even the vaguest comparison between Ho Chi Minh and the patriots who established the USA.

Historically, First Amendment issues have often centered on the passage of well-intentioned laws that unexpectedly imposed pressure on the individual right to exercise religious convictions. Conscription of soldiers in wartime was not an attempt to interfere with the free exercise of anyone’s faith, and when that unintended consequence arose, men of good will found a faithful and patriotic way to manage the problem. For more than two hundred years, it could be said with confidence that the government of the USA had no real desire to interfere with the freedom of any citizen to live according to his faith.

The current transformation of the US culture to a secular worldview is actually redefining the words “religion” and “worship” and “exercise” in ways that make it much more difficult to defend the free exercise of religion. For example, it is becoming popular in the culture to characterize the Christian religion as a collection of rules. Based on that imagery, some people have praised Buddhism because “it is a way of life, not a religion.” In contemporary everyday speech, people routinely conflate the words “worship” and “religion” as if they were totally synonymous. Further, when someone mentions a religious conviction as the determinant for personal action, it is common for someone who hears this statement to express a desire that people keep their religions to themselves. Not only is the culture redefining what a religion is, but the culture is increasingly pressing against all religions in an attempt to keep them confined within their houses of worship. These definitions and attitudes are shaping government language and attitudes. Over time, almost unnoticed, the culture and the government use the words of religion, worship and faith to mean something other than what the Founders meant, thereby lulling Christians into a false feeling that the First Amendment still protects their free exercise of faith.

Couple the cultural redefinition of the meaning and place of religion in public life with the fact that the federal government is operated outside the Constitution’s boundaries, and it becomes obvious that people of faith must be vigilant and assertive to protect their rights.

When the chief executive of the United States, the person with the great weight of responsibility to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” compares Ho Chi Minh with the Founders of the United States of America, it is reveals that the holder of this high office has no respect for the principles and values of the Founders. If the president does not mean what he said, citizens should be alarmed that he would deliberately life. If the president does mean what he said, citizens should be alarmed that he things this way.

Ho Chi Minh persecuted Christians along with people of other faiths as part of his campaign to create a pure Communist culture. He had enough success that the current government of Viet Nam is completely secular. From the beginning, churches in Vietnam were considered undesirable. They were highly regulated. In January, 2013, the government enacted new regulations for church registration which will make it extremely difficult for any Christian church to attain legal status.  What’s more, the new law includes a requirement of every religion that its “ceremonies and activities … do not contradict fine national traditions and customs.” Christians fear this requirement will expect them to worship ancestors and national heroes. Since they will only worship God, this requirement seems like a deliberate attempt to get rid of Christians. This law is the natural outgrowth of the completely secular government established by Ho Chi Minh, who supposedly has common values with the Founders of the USA.

How long before the government of the USA attempts to regulate Christian churches the same way Vietnam regulates them? It could be sooner rather than later. The Affordable Care Act, administered by the IRS, provides the perfect vehicle to kick off that process. Buried in the regulations for the Affordable Care Act is the conscience provision that exempts an employer from the mandate to include contraception, sterilization and abortion as preventive health services in a group health insurance package. The regulation reads as follows:

For purposes of this exemption, a religious employer is one that: (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; and (4) is a non-profit organization described in section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the Code. Section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) and (iii) of the Code refers to churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.

You can find this information online by searching for Federal Register/Vol. 77, No 31/Wednesday, February 15, 2012. At present, this exemption relies on self-certification of eligibility, but just as the current law in Vietnam replaces an older, more lenient law, it is highly likely that the IRS will seek to assure that no ineligible employers escape and that will require some sort of registration and database, processes not in the current rules. It won’t even call for new legislation. Since the non-compliance of an employer ineligible for the exemption calls for a fine, the IRS could conceivably create a regulation and a process as part of its assurance of compliance with the law. Once there is a database of houses of worship, then the door is open for the government to continually redefine those entities eligible for inclusion. If one arm of government has its thumb on churches, it will be easy for others to use the database or to ask for more data to be included, and soon churches could be regulated so tightly that, like the churches in Vietnam, it would be extremely difficult for them to continue to exist.

 

This is why Christians should fear a presidential statement comparing Ho Chi Minh to the Founders of the United States of America. It would be easy to laugh off such a ridiculous statement if the current president were simply guilty of an ignorant gaffe. This president, however, knows his communists, and this comparison is not an accident. It is purposeful, and for now, we can only guess at the purpose. It reveals a dangerous worldview, which should not be dismissed, because politics is the concretization of a worldview.

 

Even while Christians take careful note of the president’s worldview, they must be actively asserting their own. As Jesus was about to ascend to heaven, he explained how Christians are to assert their worldview:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. Matthew 28:18-20

Christians need not cower and tremble because of the threats to their future. The persecuted church in Vietnam would have disappeared by now if that were their response. Instead, they act on Christ’s authority and work diligently to make disciples. When the government oversteps its quite considerable authority, they stand up and push back. They pray and worship faithfully, remembering and acting on Christ’s promise not to abandon them. Christians in the US have much more freedom now than Christians in Vietnam have ever known. There is no reason for US Christians to cringe or backpedal on Christ’s imperatives just because the US government is trying to redefine the meaning of free exercise of religion. US Christians, like Vietnamese Christians, must act on Christ’s authority and diligently make disciples, trusting that Christ will never abandon them, no matter what the government does.

 

The Meaning of Religious Liberty

A business owner is a citizen and a human being. What is so strange about a human being who chooses to assert his right to exercise his faith at all times in all places?

In an article about the recent judgment that exempts the owners of Hobby Lobby from fines for failure to provide 16 forms of contraceptives in the health insurance for their employees, the government’s lawyer, Michael Heaton, was reported to have been surprised that a person’s constitutional rights extended to the operation of a business. How can that be so strange? A business is operated by human beings. Human beings have natural rights, including the right of free exercise of religion, which are not expressed as being limited to any particular location or setting. In other cases it has been reported that the government tried to assert that a person’s constitutional right to the free exercise of religion ends when he engages in business. No person who has religious convictions could possibly understand this point of view. Religion is about life, the totality of life.  If there is a religion that confines itself to ritual and ceremony in dedicated religious space, it must have very few adherents.

In truth, the people who believe that religion has no place in business – or in government, or in schools, or in any location outside its worship space – are secular thinkers. Only secular thinkers actually believe that religion is naturally confined to worship spaces or to the acts of worship. Secular thinkers grandly pose themselves as supporting “freedom of worship,” and they point to lovely buildings where people gather for that purpose as if that were the definition of religion. When they make this claim, they betray how ignorant they are of the scope and meaning of religion in the lives of human beings.

Christianity has often been accused of being a religion of rules and strictures that people chafe against in the real world, but it has always been present in the person of believers in every realm of human life. When the early explorers crossed oceans in search of new worlds, they took their religion with them. Captain and crew alike were normally Christian, although there might be a sprinkling of people who followed other religions. Nevertheless, the captains of ships were often devout, and if they were, they enforced rules and practices that expressed their faith aboard the ships. It was not only normal, but it was expected.

Likewise, the European empires who sent soldiers for military conquest and businessmen for economic conquest sent religious leaders along to guide and to serve the religious needs of the men and women who were far from the familiar worship spaces of Europe. They didn’t live their faith only in cathedrals; they lived their faith in counting houses and courtrooms and factories.

Secular thinkers and others who doubt or reject the Christian faith are quick to point out sinful behaviors of believing Christians, and they are correct to notice that. Unbelievers often confuse Christian salvation with reformation to pious perfection. Christians teach that we are forgiven by God’s grace through salvation and that we are called to live by Christ’s standards, not those of satanic greed and selfishness, but Christians know that every Christian remains imperfect, forgiven but not yet holy. Perhaps this paradox of human nature is what makes secular thinkers believe that the Christian religion, and all others as well, simply have no place in commerce – or law, or education or other human endeavors. They are wrong. The fact that some Christians fail to live up to the best Christ asks of us does not mean that we are not all working toward that goal. We are all called to Christ’s standard. The failure of some to achieve that standard does not lower the standard.

Christians can rejoice that Hobby Lobby can now be added to the list of businesses which have successfully challenged the HHS employer mandate in the courts. Christians can rejoice that there are still judges who understand the Constitutional protection for the free exercise of religion. Christians must not, however, become complacent about this victory for religious liberty. Michael Heaton’s statement is clear evidence that secular thinkers will not relent in their efforts to circumscribe and restrict the free exercise of Christian faith, and all other faith, for that matter. Christians must continue to pray and call on the power of God to act in this ongoing conflict. Christians must continue to write and call their Representatives and Senators to persuade them to enact legislation that repeals the mandates of the oppressive and unaffordable Affordable Healthcare Act. And all the while, it behooves every Christian to recognize that every victory for religious liberty shines the public spotlight ever more brightly on Christians and their behavior. If Christians want the right to live their faith in all places at all times, then they need to be exercising their faith in all places at all times. Jesus said that people would know we belong to him by the love we show to each other and to all the people we encounter. If we want to continue to have the liberty to live our lives by Christ’s standards, we must be ever more vigilant to do exactly that.