Category Archives: Religion

The New Religious Crackdown in Russia

Since June, I’ve been following a new anti-religion law in Russia which has been getting almost no coverage in the US (probably drowned out by the election). It’s pretty disturbing. I’ve been watching it because the United Brethren church supports missionaries in Russia, though we can’t identify them on the internet.

On July 20, Vladimir Putin (well on his way to dictator status) approved new laws which severely restrict Christians. The laws are embedded in a package of anti-extremism and anti-terrorism laws designed to keep Russia safe (sound familiar?). Putin is using islamic terrorism as a pretext for clamping down on all religious activity.

  • Though not necessarily explicitly stated, the law does the following:
  • Restricts all religious activity to registered church buildings or other places specifically designated for religious activity.
  • Prohibits religious activities in private homes.
  • Bans house churches.
  • Bans informal witnessing–even responding to a friend’s questions.
  • Prohibits sharing faith online, even in an email or text.
  • Imposes fines of up to $15,000 on organizations.
  • Requires missionaries to have permits, with connections to officially registered churches. Missionaries need a government permit to speak in churches and other settings.
  • Requires citizens to report religious activity to authorities.

Russia’s Baptist Council of Churches said the new law “creates the basis for mass persecution of believers,” and described it as “the most draconian anti-religion bill to be proposed in Russia since Nikita Khrushchev promised to eliminate Christianity in the Soviet Union.”

Within a month of going into effect, at least seven people were arrested, including a Baptist preacher from the United States who held services in his home; he was convicted and fined. This past week, on October 11, a representative of the Ukrainian Reformed Orthodox Church was arrested while preaching to a Jewish group–something considered “illegal missionary activity.”

Putin built on his 2007 law that defined religious extremism as promoting “the superiority of one’s own religion.” That law has been used to arrest many nonviolent Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses and to label various religious texts as “extremist.”

The Billy Graham association cancelled a conference they had planned for October. The Mormon Church reassigned 65 missionasries who were originally assigned to Russia.

A Google search will produce a lot of information about the crackdown. However, it remains Page 4 stuff, and to my knowledge (I’ve searched), no presidential candidate has addressed it. Russia should not be our friend.

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The Missed Opportunity Plague

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Eminent theologian Dave Barry says overrunning Egypt with frogs was the type of originality which earned God the title “Supreme Being.” Did this plague ever strike you as odd? As not particularly fearsome?

Frogs was the second plague, when God was just getting warmed up. Maybe he was using frogs as a somewhat harmless demonstration. “Imagine if this was camel spiders–because instead of a bunch of frogs, I could definitely do camel spiders.” I mean, it’s like overrunning the country with Beanie Babies. Unless there was something in Egyptian culture that led to an unusual fear of frogs, just as in modern day America, we have a fear of, well, just about everything, including getting vaccinated against smallpox.

The picture shows a camel spider, one of the major reasons to never ever visit Egypt. Later plagues included swarming the country with lice, flies, and locusts, but not even a wrathful God would cover the land in camel spiders. Although, if #2 had been camel spiders instead of Kermits, there might have been only two plagues and the Israelites would have hit the road a whole lot sooner. Then, instead of the Passover, Jews would annually celebrate the Feast of Camel Spiders.

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Fresh Spiritual Insights from an Atheist

Alain de Botton, an atheist, wrote a most fascinating book called “Religion for Atheists.” The person who recommended it to me said it would strengthen my faith, and he was right. Botton examines religious practices and teachings—not to debunk them, but to applaud how they meet actual human needs. It’s fascinating to read a committed atheist faithfully unpack a Scriptural story, looking for positive elements that atheists can learn from. In so doing, Botton is giving me totally fresh insights into my faith.

Take, for instance, his chapter on education (which presents strong arguments for attending a Christian college, as opposed to a secular universities which “rarely consent to ask, let alone answer the most serious questions of the soul”). He says Western intellectuals, suspicious of eloquence, apparently assume transformative ideas can be taught by stating them once or twice “via a lecturer standing in a bare room speaking in a monotone.” Likewise, we watch a movie or read a book which prompts us to reexamine our existence. But, “Three months after we finish reading a masterpiece, we may struggle to remember a single scene or phrase from it.

Christians, however, recognize the importance of regularly revisiting important themes. The Christian calendar is filled with annual reminders—Lent, Ash Wednesday, Epiphany, Christmas, Good Friday, Palm Sunday, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension Sunday, and more. Christians memorize key Scripture, regularly recite the Apostle’s Creed, follow a lectionary, hear multiple sermons on the same Bible stories, follow a Common Book of Prayer, use Sunday school curriculum which repeats important themes every few years, etc. We drill in what’s important.

Botton writes, “There is arguably as much wisdom to be found in the stories of Anton Chekhov as in the Gospels, but collections of the former are not bound with calendars reminding readers to schedule a regular review of their insights….At best, we haphazardly underline a few of the sentences that we most admire in them and which we may once in a while chance upon in an idle moment waiting for a taxi.”

So when you think, “Oh great, yet another sermon on prayer/forgiveness/servanthood/the Beatitudes/whatever,” recognize that we repeat these themes because they are important.

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Reflections on the Last Supper

This morning I read James Martin’s chapter on the Last Supper in “Jesus: a Pilgrimage.” You would expect a Catholic priest to focus on the Eucharist part (the bread and wine). Instead, Martin focused on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He mused, “I wonder how different the church would be if we spent as much time thinking about the Washing of the Feet as we do about Transsubstantiation.”

Jesus said he was giving the disciples an example to follow. Martin mentions how Pope Francis has followed that example. He spent his first Holy Thursday (the commemoration of the Last Supper) as Pope not in a grand basilica, as has every other Pope in recent decades, but in a juvenile detention center, where he washed the feet of poor and trouble youth. He spent the next year doing the same in a home for elderly and disabled people, and the following year washing the feet of prison inmates.

I couldn’t help musing, very briefly, on which presidential candidate on either side would be most open to washing the feet of, say, his cabinet members. Or even better, of Senators in the other party. That, of course, would be criticized as unPresidential.

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An Iraqi Martyr in Mosul

This year I’ve been reading the stories of many modern-day Christian martyrs. They greatly inspire me, and give me a different perspective on the fear-mongering which afflicts American society. In reality, we live in a country with amazing Christian freedom. We don’t understand what real persecution involves, and what it means to be obedient in the face of death. But many Christians around the world live with this constantly.

This morning I read the story of Shukri, an Iraqi Muslim from Fallujah–charismatic, witty, the type of person everybody likes and enjoys being around, who makes you laugh. The life of every party. He became a Christian, along with his family, through the witness of other Iraqi Christians. They, in turn, led many others to Christ.

Then they felt God definitely calling them to the ISIS stronghold of Mosul. In ancient times, Mosul was the city of Nineveh, where God called Jonah. They viewed themselves as following in Jonah’s path.

So the entire family moved to Mosul, and Shukri began distributing Bibles in a mosque. One morning, during his private time of worship, he sensed God telling him, “Today is the day you will see me.” He told his wife this before he left for the mosque. Sure enough, he was accosted on the street by a group of ISIS men, horribly tortured, and then killed.

But he was exactly where God wanted him to be.

His wife stayed. She led two couples in their apartment building to Christ, and before long, 23 believers were meeting for worship in the middle of the night. The family was eventually forced to relocated to Erbil. But she wrote, “Many more are interested in knowing our wonderful Savior. They are desperately afraid of ISIS and need the hope the Gospel gives them. By staying in Iraq, we show that Jesus is our Protector and that we do not fear the sinister works of men.”

(From the book “Killing Christians: Living the Faith Where it’s Not Safe to Believe.”)

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A Commandment Kids Can Love

<Alert: amateur theological musings ahead.>

As far as I can tell, the Israelites didn’t observe the Sabbath until Moses descended Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments. I imagine, as Moses read through the commandments, people accepted the first three as no brainers–no other gods, no idols, no using God’s name in vain. Duh.

Then Moses read the fourth commandment, which was new information.

“What? We can’t do any work on the Sabbath? One day out of seven, we just sit around doing nothing? Are you serious?”

That’s what the adults said. I’m guessing that teens throughout the tribes went, “Awesome! We’ve got the coolest god EVER!”

Every sabbath–no chores. It said so very plainly–you can’t make your sons and daughters do any work. Play time!

That’s what I would have thought, anyway.

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My Meager Loaves

I continue pecking away at James Martin’s wonderful book, “Jesus: a Pilgrimage.” I just finished reading the chapter about how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.

Every pastor can relate to these words, which are a matter of God multiplying what we have to offer:

“One of the most common experiences of those who work in spiritual ministries is hearing a grateful person tell you how something you barely remember doing changed his or her life. How something you believed to be small became something big for someone else.”

Over the years, I’ve published millions of words. It’s always gratifying when somebody tells me that something I wrote made a deep impression on them, perhaps shaped something in their behavior or thinking. Sometimes I remember having written it. Sometimes I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Martin continues, “Jesus accepts what we give, blesses it, breaks it open, and magnifies it. Often in ways that we don’t see or cannot see. Or will not be able to see in this lifetime. Who knows what a kind word does? Who knows what a single act of charity will do? Sometimes the smallest word or gesture can change a life.”

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Cross of Terror, Cross of Hope

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“In the United States,” writes black theologian James Cone, “the clearest image of the crucified Christ was the figure of an innocent black victim dangling from a lynching tree.” As Good Friday approaches, it’s worth reflecting on.

I’m nearly done with Cone’s troubling book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” It has shredded my heart. Cone describes the role of the cross among black Christians during the 70-some years of Jim Crow. After Union troops were removed from the South in 1877, it became open season on blacks. They lived in fear, not daring to cross whites in any way. It was an era of terrible persecution, daily terror, despicable evil.

Over 5000 blacks were lynched across the South. Some were shot, beaten to death, or burned alive. But most were hanged, after having been tortured–castrated, flogged, sliced up, burned with rods. The Atlanta Constitution and other newspapers sometimes published the date and location of an upcoming lynching. Up to 20,000 people might come out to see a black man, or perhaps several black men, be mutilated and killed. It was a family affair. Children often got their first chance to torture a black person, perhaps cut off a finger or ear as a souvenir. Photographers came to make postcards showing whites posing with the swinging bodies. Smile for the camera. “This is from our weekend barbecue,” people would write on the postcards they sent to friends. THIS EVIL HAPPENED.

lynching-tree-book250“Lynching was the white community’s way of forcibly reminding blacks of their inferiority and powerlessness,” Cone writes. “The fear of lynching was so deep and widespread that most blacks were too scared even to talk publicly about it. When they heard of a person being lynched in their vicinity, they often ran home, pulled down shades, and turned out lights–hoping the terror moment would pass without taking the lives of their relatives and friends.”

Cone tells of a black man who killed his white boss, but fled. A mob, frustrated, grabbed a different black man and lynched him instead. A proxy murder. When the man’s wife protested, she was arrested and turned over to the mob. She was eight months pregnant. Nevertheless, they stripped her naked, hung her by her feet, doused her in gasoline, and set her ablaze. Amidst this, a white man cut open her stomach, and the unborn child fell to the ground. Then the mob trampled the baby. THIS HAPPENED IN AMERICA.

Cone said that both whites and blacks, in their separate churches across town, would sing, “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” and other hymns about the cross. But it had a totally different meaning for each group. In white churches, the cross was a talisman, a symbol, something to wear on a chain. Something to burn on a black family’s yard.

But when blacks sang about the cross, Cone said, it was real life. The black spiritual said, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” They truly understood that. Some had watched fellow blacks hang on the lynching tree, and they trembled at the sight.

Lynching provided an obvious picture of Christ. There’s a hateful mob. An innocent man railroaded to execution. A public spectacle. Torture. The complicity of government officials. Others who wash their hands of it–“He’s innocent, but it’s not my problem.” A jeering crowd surrounding a man hanging from a tree, watching him die.

When black Christians sang about the cross, they were part of the story, part of the injustice. They had seen this. They had friends, family, coworkers, neighbors who had been beaten and abused, if not killed.

But what consumed black Christians, Cone said, was the VICTORY of the cross. They sang about a cross that brought hope out of despair, a cross that ultimately conquered death. The lynching tree, like the cross, offered condemnation of the hypocritical ruling class–in this case, of white “God-fearing” society. Sorrow and suffering would not defeat them. In the end, the cross promised, justice would reign. It represented hope and victory. As with Jesus, so with them. And that’s what they sang about. Exuberantly. Longingly.

Martin Luther King often used the imagery of the cross. He reminded crowds that when Jesus stumbled on the way to Golgotha, a black man–Simon of Cyrene–picked up the cross and carried it the rest of the way. King said, “One day God will remember that it was a black man who aided his only-begotten son in the darkest hour of his life.”

Another time he said, “When I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning….It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.”

In the black churches during those vile decades of Jim Crow–churches filled with downtrodden, despised, powerless people–the fraudulent Christianity of the white masters was redeemed.

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Than When We First Begun? Really?

One of the greatest hymns is “Amazing Grace.” We did it during communion yesterday–me at the piano, Maddie on the clarinet, Cecilia on the violin. Sounded beautiful. But I confess–that last line always bothers me.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

People sing the last line without the contraction: “Than when we first begun.” Which makes it ungrammatical and, therefore, unspiritual. It should just be, “Than when we first began.” But then you lose the rhyme, and we can’t have that. I’m sure Gabriel and all the other angels cringe whenever we sing it (since English is their native tongue).

Even WITH the contraction, I don’t like it. It means, “Than when we had first begun.” Doesn’t sound right.

I’m sorry. It grates on my wordsmith sensibilities. It just does.

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The Parable of the Prodigal Father?

What does “prodigal” mean? I’m a writer and editor, a lifelong well-trained wordsmith. I’m 58-year-old who learned the story of the Prodigal Son as a kid and has heard countless sermons about it since. But until today, I assumed it meant something like “wayward.” The Parable of the Wayward son.

But that’s wrong. “Prodigal” means doing something lavishly, with wasteful extravagance. Donald Trump is totally prodigal.

In the parable, the son was prodigal in blowing his inheritance. But as James Martin points out (in what I read this morning from “Jesus: a Pilgrimage”), perhaps it should be called the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

When the son returns, even before the son can express any remorse for his recklessness, his father runs out and, full of compassion, embraces and kisses him. Then he has his son clothed in the best robe, puts a ring on his finger, kills a calf in his honor, and throws a big celebration. As Martin says, the father is “lavish, extravagant, and overly generous.”

Jesus never called it the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Many lessons can be drawn from this story, and I’ve heard most of them. But perhaps a key point was the father’s prodigal nature. Jesus was saying, “Here’s what the Heavenly Father is like. Even before you have a chance to repent of anything, he’s all over you with his love. Point yourself in his direction, and you’ll find out.”

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