Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Nativity Fast

Today marks the beginning of the Nativity Fast.  A common objection I hear to fasting, mostly from Protestants, is that it is fine "as long as you don't think you're earning anything by it."

It is with that in mind that I read with marvel this morning the Epistle reading for today.  Each day my homeschooled children, my wife and I begin the day by saying morning prayers, after which the children and I go through the readings of the day, the life of a saint of the day, and a short Bible study.

Today, the reading was Colossians 2:20-3:3.
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules:  “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?  These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
On the day we begin fasting, St. Paul is instructing us not to follow the rules of this world.  Not to say "Do not handle!  Do not taste!  Do not touch!"  Why, on this day of all days, does the Church choose this passage?  Precisely because we do not believe we are earning anything by fasting.  Actually, the opposite is true.

As St. Paul teaches us, our fasting is not to follow legalistic rules to earn heaven or favor with the Father.  Rather, fasting is to teach us to deny ourselves, and our inability to fast properly, in humility, with right attitude, and to put neighbor above self teaches us precisely that we cannot earn heaven or favor with God by fasting or anything else.  This is made most clear in the Gospel reading for today, Luke 14:25-35:

Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it— lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple. 
“Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land nor for the dunghill, but men throw it out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
Here, Jesus teaches us that we must hate our father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and even our own lives.  What does this mean?  Why does the Church give us this message on the day we begin fasting?  To show us the life Christ has given us to live, and to show us the magnitude of our inability to live it apart from Him.  "[W]hoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple."  This is what bearing the cross looks like.  Does it seem outrageous that one would be willing to lose father, mother, children, brothers and sisters?  How much more outrageous that one would give up his own life?

Jesus is teaching us to deny ourselves.  Not to earn heaven or favor with God, since sin is "missing the mark," and the mark is Christ Himself.  No, denying ourselves is precisely what it means to be Christian, because Christ denied Himself on the cross, gave His own life for the life of the world.  He denied Himself that we might live, and so we deny ourselves that we might learn (in however small a measure) to live in Him and not of ourselves.  So it is that as the Church begins the first of the Church's four fasting seasons, she has given us the wisdom of Jesus to deny ourselves (in much greater measure) and follow Him, and the wisdom of His Apostle to place no great weight on our doing so.  St. Paul puts quite a nice punctuation on this juxtaposition:
These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.  Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
Indeed.  May your Nativity fast be a blessed one, with your hearts set on things above and not on earthly things.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Election Post-Mortem

I did not post any political commentary before the election, and ordinarily I would not after the election.  What prompts me to write today is the horrific scene I see from my fellow men, on both sides of the aisle.

Putting my cards on the table, I did not vote for President-elect Trump.  I also did not vote for Secretary Clinton.  I voted for Gary Johnson, primarily because I think the country needs a new voice.  The proof of that, in my mind, was the two major party candidates we had to choose from.  This is not a new sentiment on my part.  I haven't voted for a Republican since George W. Bush in 2000 (notably, I voted Libertarian for all of those as well, though I seriously considered voting for Sen. Kerry, in 2004, thwarted mostly by the fact that I lived in a state such that my vote for him would have done no good, something that is also true in 2016).

As a sidenote, readers of this blog know I do not heavily moderate comments, but I will remove any comments indicating to me that I wasted my vote or that my third-party vote is responsible for Mr. Trump winning over Mrs. Clinton.  Both because I disagree and because that issue is tangential to what I wish to discuss.  I offer my own voting history as background for a larger point.

With that said, I still remember 2008.  I did not vote for President Obama.  I did not support President Obama and I disagreed with most of his policies.  However........however.......I defended him against what I saw as unfair accusations.  I defended him from those who said his connection to Rev. Wright meant he was a Marxist racist.  I defended him from those who said he was a Muslim, not on the grounds that there would be anything wrong with him being a Muslim and also being President, but on the grounds that it was 1) untrue, and 2) completely bigoted against Muslims, since it implied this supposed affiliation should be a problem.  I defended him from those who said he was not born in this country, including our current President-elect.  Why did I do these things, for someone I generally oppose in principle?  Because he is the President of the United States.

That does not mean, in any sense, that we have to hope a given president's goals succeed inasmuch as they are inapposite to our own vision for our country or our lives.  We do not have to support the President when he promotes, proposes and implements policy goals that we believe harm our country.  We can and we should vigorously oppose those who do so.  That was true of President Obama, and it is true of President-elect Trump.  I am not speaking against opposition here.  I also believe we as Christians also ought vigorously object to the life, words and actions of President-elect Trump inasmuch as they exhibit a decidedly un-Christian and immoral view of the world.  What I reject -- and what I see far too much of since last Tuesday -- is opposing the President to the point that we are no longer making principled rejections on policy grounds, or even suggesting he is an unfit person to hold the office on moral or ethical grounds, but rather opposing him simply because we did not get the result we wanted.  Opposing him because we think his "vision for America" is not what we prefer.  In other words, opposing him not inasmuch as we disagree with him, but even where we might otherwise agree with him, simply because he was not our preference.  That is what President Obama's opponents have spent eight years doing, and it is now what President-elect Trump's opponents are doing, even as we speak.

How do we know this?  Simply look at the actions and words of the loudest voices, though certainly not the majority of voices by a long shot.  Protests and rhetoric that delegitimize the Presidency.  "Not my President" (hint: he will be your President, for at least the next four years).  Violence against those who voted for the new President or, in some cases, against the property of those who just happen to be in the vicinity of the protests.  Immediate and angry denunciations of the President-elect from media figures and, not for nothing, littering my Facebook feed.  This cesspool -- not very different in kind (if, perhaps, more worrisome in scope) than the cesspool that followed 2008 -- indicates to us that we as a nation have lost the ability to accept the will of the people as expressed in free and fair elections through our chosen political process.  And how do I know this is not a one-sided phenomenon?  Simply look at President-elect Trump's rhetoric leading up the election, when he and everyone else thought he was going to lose.  "He started it" is not an excuse I accept from my children, and I don't accept it now, but I do offer it as evidence that both sides of the political divide have a serious problem simply accepting that their preferred candidate lost.  This is not new, but it is worsening.

Let me also take a moment to also acknowledge and denounce the violence and violent and hateful rhetoric from some Trump supporters since the election.  Though some of those have turned out to be staged hoaxes, and though such rhetoric is largely tangential to my point since I am speaking to the larger issue of acceptance of free and fair elections, I have no doubt at all that some of it, perhaps most of it, is absolutely true.  Not for nothing, it is also expected given the acerbic campaign President-elect Trump ran.  I write this even though it is tangential to my point, only because I do not want anyone to think I denounce the actions of a small minority of opponents of the President-elect and yet ignore the actions of a small minority of his supporters.  And as above, I think it is completely fair to note that President-elect Trump has invited a large measure of this with his own rhetoric, and to criticize him on that point.

Our nation is built, in part, on the promise of free and fair elections.  That means that oftentimes we find ourselves living in a country led by people who do not share our core values.  Who are even completely opposed to our core values.  Many of us felt that way about President Obama.  I did.  And yet I felt compelled to defend him.  I felt compelled to not have the nation's verdict on my own policy preferences turn me into someone who would delegitimize the Presidency itself.  Where I opposed him on policy, I said so.  Where I did not, I congratulated and praised him.  Such is the hard reality of self-rule.

And yet, as Christians, we believe God is in control.  "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help."  Psalm 146:3 (MT).  Ultimately, I observe that we are a faithless people.  Two separate friends have recently noted that in our collective inability to accept the outcomes of free and fair elections, there is evidence that we have traded a Christian worldview in this country for an essentially Gnostic or quasi-Gnostic view.  We believe that this world is essentially bad, but there is an ideal world within our reach, but it cannot be realized without worldly power to bring it to fruition.  This utopian fantasy cannot be realized if the wrong people win elections and achieve worldly power, because its potentiality is only seen by some (usually, those who agree with us).  When our side loses the race for worldly power, we do not know how to react.  We believe the frustration of this utopian purpose is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand, and so we refuse the legitimacy of the outcome, as the outcome itself is deemed immoral and unacceptable.   As my friend Perry Robinson from Energetic Procession noted on Facebook, speaking of the current protests against President-elect Trump, "this is why their rhetoric is hyper moralistic and puritanical, to the point of making Pharisees blush at their self righteous smugness."  I go a step further -- I believe very firmly that this is a problem on both sides of the political aisle, for reasons I articulate above.

The Christian worldview, contra the above view, is that worldly power cannot overcome the Kingdom of God.  The most glaring and obvious manifestation of this is Pilate.
Therefore, when Pilate heard that saying, he was the more afraid, and went again into the Praetorium, and said to Jesus, “Where are You from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.
Then Pilate said to Him, “Are You not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?”
Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”  (John 19:8-11).
Jesus was not simply facing the prospect of having his preferred candidate out of office and not being able to impose his utopian vision of the world on others around Him.  No, Jesus was facing the wrath of the the office itself -- the religious authorities, the public authorities, and even the overwhelming weight of public opinion.  And they were not going to institute policy goals that Jesus disagreed with to the point His feelings were hurt.  Instead, they were going to flog, scourge and beat Him, then nail Him to a cross to slowly and in agonizing fashion torture and kill Him.
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd, so that he should rather release Barabbas to them. Pilate answered and said to them again, “What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?”
So they cried out again, “Crucify Him!”
Then Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?”
But they cried out all the more, “Crucify Him!”
So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified.  (Mark 15:11-15).
It should be obvious by now that Christians do not seek victory in worldly authorities.  Christ didn't.  For Jesus, the governor, the chief priests and even the public at large were completely against Him.  And yet this was the stage for His greatest glory.  Christ defeated sin, death and the devil not by removing Pilate and getting a better governor to force the assembled crowd, the chief priests and the elders to live under His vision for mankind by the sword.  Christ defeated sin, death and the devil by submitting Himself to those same authorities,  dying on the cross for the life of the world and rising again on the third day.  Moreover, and quite notably, Christ did not react with violence, or even indignation, to His fate.  His Kingdom is not of this world.  And because He is in us and we in Him, neither is ours.

Viewing political candidates as enemies of God or enemies of the common good requires that we walk away from the Scriptures and strike out our own path.  For we are told in the Scriptures that the worldly authorities are appointed by God for peace, good order, and for our protection.  To serve us.  That some worldly authorities do not recognize this, or even seem to act against it, does not change this truth.  One might consider poor rulers as an act of Fatherly chastisement -- a Scriptural twist on the old saying "we get the government we deserve."

St. Paul writes:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.  (Romans 13:1-7).
This is true of President Obama.  It is true of President-elect Trump.  It would have been true of Secretary Clinton had she won.  It will be true even if the office of the President of the United States is occupied by a despot and a tyrant.  Would that we would all act like it.

The Christian Church is not immune to persecution, even from worldly leaders.  We do not seek it out, but we are not immune to it.  I do not mean "persecution" in the sense too many in this country mean it -- that people disagree with us and say mean things that hurt our feelings.  I mean real persecution.  Through her history, the Church has been persecuted under the rule of the Turks, Communists, and otherwise.  Oftentimes, various Christians factions have persecuted each other, one reason the Great Schism persists to this day, I believe.  There is no guarantee that she will not face persecution now or in the future.  Our brethren in the Middle East are being persecuted horribly as I write this, for example.  If anything, Christ's words to us seem to foreshadow persecution, since He came not to bring peace but a sword, etc.

How much more is it true, then, that we have no cause to think that the loss of an election is the loss of our freedom, our way of life, our utopia.  There is no utopia this side of heaven.  Put not your trust in princes.  Return to a Christian worldview that recognizes that even in times of trouble, God is in control and the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe the Gospel.  And above all, be kind to others.  Most especially our new President.  He too is redeemed by Christ the Crucified.  Let us all act like it.