Thought Provoking Thursday – A Tenth of Everything

So here we are on another thought provoking Thursday and I thought I would continue the conversation on how we read, interpret or implement what is written in the Bible.  Now, I was brought up for the majority of my christian ‘career’ to observe the principle of tithing and was faithful to give a tenth of my income to the church where I currently committed myself.  I even calculated this giving on my gross income and not just what the tax man left for me!  Like many of the things I had come to believe, it was based on what I had been taught and then what I personally researched as I found texts to support my understanding.

The tendency for ‘bible believing’ christians to call upon texts, whether isolated or cherry picked, to prove a particular belief or practice is something I have spent much time pondering.  This week, I am focusing on the issue of tithing as it presents a good case in point.  There are certainly statements, particularly in the Old Testament, that give weight to the argument that giving a tenth of all we receive would be a principle we might do well to follow.  From Abram, who gave a tenth to Melchizedek through Jacob’s promise in the same book of Genesis we have examples outside the law.  Moses introduced a tithe (tenth) as law in Leviticus and the principle of using the tithe to support the temple priesthood was established in Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Even Jesus makes reference to this when he addresses the Pharisees and reminds them to give attention to the weightier matters of justice and the love of God, without neglecting the requirement of the law to tithe.  This implies that his comment was specifically directed at people who were to continue to observe the law of the ‘old deal’, something that Jesus was intending to take to a new level through what he called the ‘new deal’.  The emphasis now seems to be on cultivating a generous heart towards others and pooling resources for the common good.

What is being introduced here is the transformation of attitude rather than the observation of rules.  We humans just love to have things spelt out for us; it brings security and reassurance to follow a set of precepts.  However, Jesus makes it clear that having the law written on our hearts is the new way of life.  He restates the ten commandments as summed up in loving God and loving your neighbor and mentions a new commandment based on loving others as he has loved us.

And this, I believe, highlights the key issue when it comes to observing rules or principles such as tithing.  Does it not take away from the heart of the matter to insist on a somewhat legalistic observance of giving instead of taking a completely ‘new deal’ view of this issue.  What if we start from the presumption that everything we have is a provision from God and that makes us merely stewards rather than owners?  If we thoughtfully and carefully manage this provision, whether it be money, time or anything else of value with an attitude that puts others first, then our giving would far outstrip the strict tenth suggested in the tithe.

My own feeling, though I admit to seeking continued reassessment, is that I am missing out if I give my tenth and then feel like I have done my bit, though I know many do this and give beyond out of a desire to be generous.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand why organizations feel the need to emphasize this practice.  Without a reminder or a clearly stated principle and left to individual conscience, giving to the common agenda can be seriously lower than needed.  I recently attended a service at a mega church where they were offering a 90 day money back guarantee for those who tithed.  They promised that if God did not bless the giver, they would return the tithe!

Apart from concern over why one is giving at all, I wonder if we may be missing out on a revolution of the heart by insisting on such specifics?  Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with an organization asking for a contribution to its operation.  It is done all the time in many religious and secular organizations.  My question is whether we limit our full understanding of Jesus’ new deal and its focus of inner transformation rather than outward observance .  How refreshing would it be to live amongst a generous community, where we all hold on to what we have so lightly that no one is ever in need and there is more than enough to enhance the lives of those around us?

Topical Tuesday – Our Savior

Ok, so this is a little tongue in cheek.  This Tuesday’s post is not about you know who, but actually a much less famous man who I recently heard about and to whom we might owe a rather huge debt of gratitude.  This man’s name is Stanislav Petrov. a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Force.  Although this story is over 3o years old – the existence of large arsenals of nuclear weapons make it as topical as ever!

It was September, the year 1983, at the height of the Cold War.  In March that year, President Reagan had announced his Star Wars initiative and nuclear weapons were housed by the US in West Germany.  To make matters even more tense, on September 1st 1983, the USSR shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 as it strayed into Soviet airspace.  This was perhaps the most tense era in the Cold War since the Bay 0f Pigs crisis in the sixties.

On September 26th of the same year, our hero, Stanislav Petrov was called into work because a colleague was sick.  It should be emphasized, in the light of what was to happen that night, that Stanislav was not scheduled to work that evening.  Mr Petrov worked at the command center for the Oko early-warning system which, for years, had been an important but rather boring incident free environment.  Just past midnight that evening, however, the system gave notice that an inter-continental ballistic missile had been launched by the US.  It was Mr Petrov’s job to relay any activity such as this to his superiors, at which point a decision would be made whether to react with a counter-strike and thus set off an escalation that would inevitably lead to the deaths of millions of people and the end of the world as we knew it.

For several reasons, Mr Petrov decided that this was a false alarm.  In his mind, he had determined that if the US were to attack using nuclear weapons, it would be an all out attack, and there seemed no sense in a single missile being launched.  However, it was not long before another missile appeared on the warning system, and then another and a further five appeared.  At this point, the original reason for not alerting his superiors was beginning to look weak.  But still, Mr Petrov hesitated to let anyone know.  Later, when questioned, he indicated that he knew the system was new, and that only five to seven missiles still seemed strange, but he was never quite sure.  The reality of the situation was that he had around 20 minutes before it would be too late to do anything, and he continued to hesitate until finally, the system was deemed to have malfunctioned.   This was apparently due to a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds!

Clearly, Stanislav Petrov’s hesitation and refusal to alert his superiors does not mean that nuclear retaliation was inevitable, but it was certainly a very real possibility.  On reflection, his decisions that night could well be the reason many of us are alive today!  So what happened to Mr Petrov?  Well, it was deemed that any recognition or reward for this rather momentous event would have meant punishment for those who were responsible for the erroneous system, and it seems there was potential for extreme embarrassment for the Soviets over the whole incident.  As a result, Mr Petrov was quietly moved aside and he took early retirement.  He has since claimed that he was neither rewarded nor punished, but this incident never came to light until much later in the 1990’s.  Since then, Mr Petrov has received a lot more recognition, including a recognition from the United Nations in 2006.  He also became the subject of a documentary released in 2014 entitled ‘The Man Who Saved The World’.

I couldn’t resist documenting this extraordinary story in my blog as it highlighted how our lives can sometimes hang in the balance, but also how significant one person’s actions or decisions can be on the rest of us.  It gave me pause for thought for how my own decisions impact the lives of others.  If you are like me, and have a tendency to act without thinking things through properly at times, it is also a reminder that pausing for thought just might be a life saver!

Sunday Sermon – Please Forgive Me!

“Please forgive me”… “Oh I forgive you, don’t worry about it”. How many times have I heard that? Or perhaps more pertinently, how many times have I been a party this exchange or something similar?  But is this really forgiveness?  It took me a long time to see that forgiveness achieved quickly with a few words, often involves one party begging and the other condescending.  Perhaps more importantly, I came to the realization, with some help from David Augsberger (Caring Enough to/not to Forgive), that forgiveness granted as a favor to the ‘offending other’ is no more than a form of control.  This never really achieves the real goal intended and often leaves the difficulty unresolved.

The Lord’s Prayer certainly implies forgiveness moving in multiple directions; from God to us and from us to others. But I want to focus on the mutual act of forgiveness that doesn’t allow flippant granting of release without true reconciliation. I believe that reconciliation is the true reward for all parties concerned when the journey to forgiveness is fully engaged. Here is something that looks more like “forgive me as I forgive you.”

Probably one of the most well-known and profound stories told by Jesus was that of the ‘Prodigal Son’. If you have don’t know the story, you can find it in Luke chapter 15. There is much to be gleaned from this story, but I want to focus on the attitude of the father when his son returns, destitute and expecting to be no more than a servant. The father comes out to meet him when the son is still far off in the distance. He then treats him as an equal and reinstates him with extravagant celebration as his son. Now, I am not sure I wouldn’t have had the same petulant attitude as the older brother to this turn up for the books, but I believe the story has a vital message to convey.

First of all it begins with love. Love is a choice, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, which takes no account of wrongs. Before forgiveness can happen, those involved must choose to love, and unconditional love puts value on the individual, takes no account of past wrongs and accepts the person just as they are, warts and all.  The father in our story starts right there before any questions, accounts, explanations can even start to happen.

Once love has been chosen, the real work of forgiveness can begin.  I have no proof of this, but I would like to think that the father accepts he had a part to play in his son leaving with his share of the inheritance. Perhaps he didn’t feel valued, perhaps he had in some way pushed his son away.  His attitude, in meeting the son as he arrives, conveys his willingness to enter in to the ultimate reconciliation. He also senses the son’s contrition and sorrow as he approaches this opportunity for healing.  His shame has brought him to an end of himself and he is humbled to believe his rightful position would be as servant in his father’s house.  But this is not where his father sees him.  It is on these grounds that the real work of forgiveness can take place.

Without this two sided approach to forgiveness, the wounds and pain inflicted seem almost certain to blight their futures.  Now, don’t get me wrong here, I don’t believe that every journey of forgiveness ends in fairy tale happiness.  There is no guarantee that relationships will be restored to their original state.  Those who were married may separate.  Those we were close to may be more distant.  Friends inevitably come and go.  Sometimes there are real opportunities for greater measures of trust and togetherness.  I have experienced this in my own life where I sadly gave opportunities for forgiveness and was met in a place of  reconciliation.  Whether relationships are restored completely, move on to higher levels of intimacy or simply go their separate ways, forgiveness opens a door to the future that can otherwise stay closed and hinder what may lie ahead.

Lastly,  the celebration of the father in the story for the return and reconciliation with his son puts a seal on the transaction.  The father wants there to be no ambiguity about where the son stands and though the prodigal’s elder brother may be struggling,  it also draws the whole household into the transaction that has taken place.  For those who seek to walk once again in step, to grasp the opportunity and the other’s hand in seeking out that future together, forgiveness is no ‘one off’ occasion and sometimes draws others into the work of reconciliation.  So, till the next time, when, once again, we have the opportunity to bring an end to pain through the journey to mutual forgiveness, I look to choose mutual forgiveness and not the one sided version that I have so often been tempted to accept!

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:31

Thought Provoking Thursday – The War on Drugs

No I am not writing a post on the eminently listenable indie band from Philadelphia.  Call me predictable, but as we spend a few days down here on the border of Mexico and the US, I was drawn to the very real and current drug war raging not far from us in many of the border Mexican towns and particularly Juarez.  My interest was further piqued on watching the recent film ‘Sicario’ and a brilliantly made documentary on the same subject, ‘Cartel Land’.  My further research suggests an overwhelming sense that this is a war that has been lost or worse still, no real attempt is being made to win it.

“Medellin refers to a time when one group controlled every aspect of the drug trade, providing a measure of order that we could control.  And until somebody finds a way to convince 20% of the population to stop snorting and smoking that shit, order’s the best we can hope for.”  This quote from Matt Graver, a CIA operative in ‘Sicario’ sums up a key dilemma.  Supply and demand synthesize to create a world where violence, drug induced death and disease is seemingly unstoppable, despite the efforts of the largest military power in the world and its latin american allies.  On this side of the border, though hundreds of thousands are incarcerated in the US for drug related crimes, the trade seems to be as robust as ever and shows no signs of being defeated or even controlled.

And so, I ask the question, should drugs be legalized?  I realize I am not an expert in this arena, I am merely asking the question.  First of all, let’s take a look at history.  The best example of a similar situation has to be the era of prohibition from 1920 to 1933.  During this period, the production and consumption of alcohol was controlled by organized crime and similar to the drug trade, those who were subjected most to criminal prosecution were the poor and underclass.  In many cases, the crime bosses were protected through corruption of officials, not dissimilar, it seems, from the situation today with the drug trade.  Following the repeal of prohibition, the influence and power of the crime organizations was greatly reduced as they retreated into more limited arenas such as gambling.  Alcohol still ruins many lives, but its consumption is regulated and taxes derived allow for greater focus on education and treatment.

Secondly, let’s take a look at where this entirely different approach has been taken.  Two countries in Europe, Switzerland and Portugal have adopted a legalization of more than ‘soft drugs’.  The reports from Switzerland are particularly encouraging.  Although there has been little reduction in existing older drug users, the incidence of death and disease from infected needles and overdose in heroin addicts has been dramatically reduced.  Perhaps of more interest, the incidence of younger people adopting hard drugs such as heroin has declined with the perception that it is no longer ‘cool’, but the domain of middle aged addicts lining up at clinics to receive their prescription.  I realize that this is a different culture and comparison is only partially applicable, but it is at least food for thought.

This is obviously a vast and complex problem, one that I continue to debate internally, but I felt I should at least ask the question.  What if we introduced a highly regulated distribution of drugs that allowed medical supervision and prescription?  And what if we couple this with a major initiative on educating the general public, providing support for those who are addicted and create an alternative supply of regulated drugs, gradually starving the criminal supply lines of Latin America?  After all, we know that tobacco and alcohol still cause harm, but accompanied by proper regulation, education and health warnings, the general public makes predominantly reasonable choices.

It is also important to stress that legalizing something does not necessarily imply support or endorsement.  The moves and legal and legislative decisions that have legalized abortion have largely been made by those who would prefer to see less abortions not more, but cannot support the dangerous world of illegal abortion that would continue to exist.  Smoking has not been banned, despite the overwhelming evidence of its detrimental health effects.

Let me be absolutely clear.  As a follower of Jesus, I cannot point to any biblical prohibition of drug use, but I truly believe that anything that robs us of our faculty to make life enhancing choices has to be inadvisable.   The broader question from this whole debate really asks whether we should allow the individual to choose what they consume, imbibe, smoke etc. and that the state’s responsibilities should rest more in the realm of providing education and support.  After all, the effective taxation of potentially damaging substances as already occurs with alcohol and tobacco could more than compensate for the expense involved.  And let’s not forget the vast sums currently involved in waging a losing war on the current criminal world of drug trafficking!  Please take a moment and give your answers to the poll below, thanks.


Topical Tuesday – Refuge for the Refugee

Whilst writing my blog in the anteroom of a dentist’s torture chamber in Tijuana seems like hardship to me, it is nothing compared to the plight of those refugees in Europe as winter really bites.  I read recently that many are trekking across Eastern Europe in minus 20 degrees centigrade and have to walk backwards into the biting, blistering winds.  I have determined that ‘Topical Tuesday’ will be an opportunity to cover positive topical events as a minor antidote to the mountain of bad news dished out by the media each day.  Today I want to focus on a story that moved me in a positive way and gave me hope for human kind

Most of the 900,000 refugees arriving in Europe from Syria have turned up in rickety boats and rafts on the shores of a few islands in the Aegean Sea.  This would clearly put a huge burden and strain on the relatively small number of inhabitants of these islands.  Remarkably, a group of these islanders is being nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their sacrificial humanitarian efforts in aiding those devastated by the war and fleeing their homeland in the Middle East.  Despite the crippling economic state of the Greek economy, these brave and selfless souls from Lesbos, Kos, Chíos, Samos, Rhodes and Leros have given up their occupations and risked their lives to focus on rescuing, clothing and preparing these  displaced people for onward journeys into the rest of Europe.  The assistance they have proffered has been so significant that eminent academics from Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, Copenhagen and Cornell are drafting the nomination on behalf of these modern day heroes.  It has been suggested their efforts have strongly influenced the way in which the rest of Europe have responded.

On reading this account, I was drawn to the story Jesus told of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25).  One of my perennial concerns with the evangelical world is the focus on who is in and who needs to ‘get in’.  This usually involves saying some kind of prayer, responding to an altar call or having a Damascus Road experience.  I may not be very popular bringing this up, but the story in Matthew more than implies that being ‘in’ involves taking care of the hungry, the thirsty, those who are homeless, who need clothing and who are in prison.  This is further borne out when we ask ourselves the difference between sheep and goats.  The most obvious distinction is that sheep are followers.  I am not suggesting that simply by doing these noble things, you have access to the Kingdom of God, but I would humbly suggest that those who profess to be followers of Jesus might be first in line to take care of those suffering along these lines.  The current mass exodus of refugees could not better depict the very people described by Jesus in this story.

So the challenge for me is, where would I be?  Have I the same inner passion to meet the needs of the poor, hungry and homeless?  This is the challenge we all face when we search deep inside and ask this question.  And when the poor hungry and homeless are on our doorstep, what will we do?  I am truly inspired by the people of the Aegean Islands as, I hope, are you.  I leave you with a quote from a Greek activist observing the exodus to Greece over the many months of the crisis, “I will never forget seeing young girls being rescued from a boat on Leros. They were smiling. They didn’t have suitcases or any possessions except their end-of-year school certificates written in Arabic. They laid those down in the sun to dry out. It was a combination of tragedy and hope.”