Sunday, March 29, 2009

Advice From Jethro

With increasing evidence, our politicians and the systems under which they serve are becoming more and more corrupt. The new Obama administration, having gained popularity and power ostensibly by promising a high standard of ethics, has been a big disappointment. The previous Bush administration can hardly claim to have been any better. The similarities to a “banana republic” grow more evident every week.

Since the November 2008 election, we have seen: a governor impeached for attempting to sell a Senate seat, a Senate appointee get caught up in lying about campaign contributions involving that same governor, and a multitude of pending government appointees who forgot to pay their taxes. Any regular American found guilty of this last offense would certainly have to pay a fine and may even be subject to jail time. Not so the lofty political appointee, who must temporarily endure some negative press, but then is allowed to take the new government position after paying the back-taxes (with no interest penalty). One of those officials was then placed in charge of the Internal Revenue Service – irony, but not of the delicious sort.

When I read these news stories and ponder my increasing distrust of our government, my first thought is that we should sweep all of our current elected officials out of office. Then, start anew with a fresh crop, and allow them to serve one, and only one, term – call it six years. The temptations and waste associated with re-election machinations would be reduced, and we might entreat a group of properly-motivated individuals to govern.

This is a tempting idea, but I’m reminded of some sound advice about governing officials from the Old Testament. In Exodus 18, we see Moses fulfilling the role of political leader for the nation of Israel. His every waking moment is spent as judge and decision-maker, because he indicates that he is the only one to hear cases and make decisions for that entire nation of people. When his father-in-law, Jethro, hears of this (perhaps you were thinking of a different Jethro when you read the title?), he offers some sage advice. He counsels Moses to divide up the duties of governing among a few men, leaving only the more weighty cases for Moses to preside over. Specifically, in verse 21, Jethro names the qualifications of these men – “choose men who fear God and hate bribes”.

Wow – those are words dripping with wisdom. Imagine for a moment a government populated by men and women who not only have agreed ethically to avoid bribes, but who actually hate the practice of lobbying and influence-peddling. This would motivate them to look for truth and wisdom in places other than those which deliver financial gain or power to themselves – a far cry from most of our politicians on Capitol Hill today.

And this source would be the other half of Jethro’s advice – direction and wisdom should come from the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). Without this, our nation would be left to the ever-changing whim of man - sound familiar? But God is unchanging and wise beyond our wildest imagination. What better source could we ask for?

Perhaps a change is coming. It has before, in this very country. Less than 250 years ago, the founding fathers of America split from a tyrannical king who had clearly renounced God’s ways. We could do it again. Now is the time to proudly advocate for godly government - much like Jethro did - and ready our children to take on the mantle of God-fearing, bribe-hating leadership. I will gladly follow them.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Communion Meditation – A Tale of Two Traitors

Grace is often a difficult concept to grasp. God’s grace requires that we simply accept the fact that we are lost without Jesus’ sacrifice, and that we accept his gift of redemption. It is not conditional, nor does it require me to live a perfect life before it takes effect. But we cannot forget that it requires our acceptance. Without that, we are indeed lost.

In the single day leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, two people betrayed him. The one we often think about when we use the word betrayal is, of course, Judas Iscariot. Judas sold his Lord for thirty pieces of silver, kissed him on the cheek, and gave him up to the authorities to die a cruel death. But after Jesus’ trial, Matthew 27: 3-4 says, “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned’, he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’”

Judas’ reaction was one of despair. Clearly, the weight of the act he had committed was torture to his soul – so much, that he immediately went out and hung himself. How tragic an end! Even after his betrayal of Jesus, I believe he could have been forgiven, but he simply saw himself as too far from God’s grace. In an effort to get away from the pain, he chose to quickly leave this life – certainly to be greeted by an eternity of something much, much worse.

We rarely use the term “traitor” when we talk of Peter. Yet, he denied knowing Jesus three different times in a very short time frame. In fact, it would seem that he did this within sight of Jesus’ trial, because Mark 22:61 tells us that just after Peter’s third denial, “the Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.” He remembered Jesus’ prediction of his denial, which he had adamantly argued against, and his heart was broken. Scripture tells us that “he went outside and wept bitterly.”

Was Peter tempted to do the same as Judas and end his life right there? Perhaps. But Peter did not kill himself, though he must have agonized for the three days that Jesus was in the tomb. The Bible does not tell us what happens to him during this time.

When Jesus’ disappearance from the tomb is reported to the disciples by Mary Magdalene, Peter is the first one to enter the tomb. He goes away confused. What was he feeling at this point? Was he worried that Jesus might be alive, and ready to take revenge on those who had betrayed him three days earlier? Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ ministry and purpose was certainly imperfect at this point. So what does he do? Probably the same thing that a lot of us do when things get stressful. He went fishing.

After recognizing Jesus at the shore, the disciples return, led by an anxious Simon Peter. And it is at this beach scene that Jesus does something beautiful. He asks Peter specifically, “Do you truly love me?” – not once, not twice, but three times. The significance of this should not be lost on us. Jesus knew that Peter needed to make this confession three times to atone for his three previous denials. Peter did not understand this at the time, but I’m certain that he did when reflecting on it in future years. His own betrayal of the Lord was wiped clean, and he was ready to start anew in serving the Lord. And this he did.

The choice was there for both of these men, and they each took different paths. The results for each man were radically different. The parallel of this story to our own is not accidental. After our denial, God gives each of us a choice – to remove ourselves from His presence, or to accept His grace. Which will you choose?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Next Social Revolution Appears To Be Godless

There is a revolution brewing.

More than any other period in my lifetime, there seems to be an urgency in the air to fight dishonesty in government. In the last two months, we have seen gun sales reach unprecedented highs, consumer confidence is at new lows, the stock market has pulled back dramatically, and anti-government “tea parties” are being held in every major city. Will it all lead to some meaningful change?

I’ve seen mention of a great number of “revolutionary” books lately. We are reminded of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Both are excellent reads, and inspire some creative thought regarding libertarianism and social anarchy.

The idea of social anarchy, especially the push for individual freedoms over government-imposed regulations, can be fun to toy with. In both Rand’s and Heinlein’s books, we see a likable group of characters overthrowing their tyrannical and oppressive government in favor of a culture where rules are largely removed and where individuals start making well-informed decisions that seem to benefit all those around them. The chief character in Rand’s book – John Galt –is compared to Atlas, who is best known for holding the world on his shoulders. But instead of taking on the world’s troubles, Galt simply chooses to walk away, leaving the world behind.

Both books share the same fundamental problem – they create a society which does not recognize the sovereignty of God. And that is a big miss.

More than ever, I have grown to distrust almost all of our highly-placed government officials. I believe it is nearly impossible to reach such a lofty and powerful position without some act of bribery or unethical compromise. Our government taxes our income, and then taxes any gains we may make on the leftover money. They tax nearly every purchase that we make, assess standing yearly taxes on our property and then, as if all that wasn’t insult enough, they invoke a “death tax” to steal money from the inheritance that we try to leave to our children. And what do they do with a lot of this money? In addition to lining their own pockets with re-election funds, they spend it on reprehensible practices such as abortion and “free love”-style sex education. Until we choose to throw them out, or we make our own Mayflower-type departure from this land, we seem to have little choice.

The ideas of civil disobedience or creating a society without government intrusion are gaining popularity. I expect to see more of this in the coming months. But a system devoid of government regulations and one which refuses to acknowledge or honor God’s supremacy is a society which is ruled only by the whims of man’s desire. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us of the problem with such a system – “for the heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure”. Replacing one tyrannical system of government with another anarchical system governed only by man’s evil motivations can only lead to deceit, and then failure. As we ponder tea parties and government reform, let’s remember that God has an eternal plan already designed. He has left us with the blueprints contained within His Holy Word. He gives us His Spirit to help us through difficult times. And He gave us the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus Christ, to take away the curse of sin that exists today, and which will continue to exist in any human-derived system of government. Without God, we simply exchange one lie for another.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

“The Day Before Last” Blues

My wife and I recently returned from an eight-day cruise of the Caribbean, in celebration of twenty years of marriage. The ship was amazing. The waitstaff and crew were extremely helpful and pleasant. And we made friendships in the dining room that we hope will last.

If you’ve ever been on a week-long vacation to a tropical island or another desirable destination, you know that in the first hours (for us, as the cruise ship left Ft. Lauderdale), the whole week stretches out before you, ready to be seized – but not too quickly. You begin to plan your time, making sure that you do everything that you want to, but spacing it out so as to make the week last. In fact, as we prayed over our meals, my wife and I asked God to make the time go by slowly on our vacation.

As the week progresses, you are conscious of the passage of days. At some point, you realize that you have reached the halfway point. For this recent cruise, I remember that moment, but I remember still thinking that we had plenty of time left to do the things that we hadn’t yet done. The halfway point is still filled with optimism.

For me, the real emotional turning point is the day before last. That was day seven of our eight-day cruise. Even though we still had almost two full days to go, that day was filled with melancholy as we began our “litany of lasts” – last walk around the deck, last dinner with our new shipboard friends, last free cookie and hot tea in the promenade café before bedtime. Instead of being able to fully enjoy these last few hours, each event was tempered with a little sorrow as the finality of our time approached. Maybe you have had this feeling on a vacation, or when leaving a job, city, school, or friend in your past.

There is a purpose to this observation. My oldest daughter Molly is now fifteen years old, and we have only three years to go before college potentially takes her away. The timing is equivalent to “the day before last” in terms of our time with her. I’m beginning to become aware that I have very little time left to teach and influence her on a daily basis. The reality that I may not get to experience all of the things that I have mentally planned to do with her is suddenly apparent to me.

Will we ever get to vacation as a full family in Hawaii again? Have we painted her room for the last time? Does she have clothes in her closet right now that she might pack with her on her honeymoon? Is this feeling the one that every parent experiences when they suddenly come to grips with the idea that their children won’t be at home forever?

This feeling is strong for me right now. As sad as I was to complete our fantastic cruise-ship vacation, I will be far more distraught when our family dinner table is reduced from five chairs to four. And then from four to three. Even with as much love as my wife and I have for each other, there will be an indescribable sense of melancholy when that number is finally reduced to two.

I am determined to use these last days well. From our entire child-rearing perspective, we are somewhere in the middle of day five, out of an eight day journey. The “day before last” is quickly upon us. Dear Lord, please multiply our time, give it purpose and meaning, and let my children (as well as me and my wife) be ready when it comes time to part ways and enter the next step in the voyage.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Discovering An Addiction

I’ve just returned from eight glorious days at sea with my lovely wife of twenty years. After much deliberation, we finally decided to spend this landmark anniversary on a cruise of the Caribbean. It was inspiring!

As we were packing and planning the week before the trip, my wife asked about the possibility of leaving our laptops at home and trying to spend the entire trip sans computer. Much to her surprise, I readily agreed. It might have been a bit of a surprise to me to consider such a thing.

Armed only with my Blackberry (so we could stay in daily touch with the kids), we headed out the door. It’s really amazing how light you can travel without the burden of the laptop bag, and it makes the security check at the airport just a little easier.

In our society, we are surrounded every day by addiction temptations. Internet addiction may not seem as grievous as some temptations, but I now have a much deeper understanding of how much time it steals. Had I brought my computer along on the trip and made a simple promise to only check it twice a day (something I considered), I would have likely been unable to resist and would have spent a great deal of time “checking the news” or “watching the stock market”. Instead, I made a conscious effort simply to talk with my wife over a meal, or find fun things in which to share our time together and make this week truly memorable. Eight days in a row of being Internet-free has a sobering effect.

Let me tell you what brought it all even more to light for me. We had a balcony room on the ship and we tried to use it often. But it was hard to do so, because our next-door neighbors insisted on smoking on their balcony at least twenty times a day. We rarely sat on our balcony for more than a few minutes without having to endure the noxious fumes. I felt sadness for them instead of anger, though, because this couple spent the majority of their time together inhaling cigarette smoke, without a word between them. As I write these words (with paper and pencil, mind you), they came out on the balcony yet again. And the analogy came to me.

How much time do I spend apart from my wife, my kids, my church, my friends, and people in need just because I want to keep up with the latest happenings in the world? The answer is – too much. Like my neighbors on the boat, who missed every shore excursion and every fun-filled meal in the boat’s excellent dining room (where we laughed and developed a friendship with Don and Ann, Gary and Tara, Derek and Nadine), I can miss what’s really important in this life. All too soon, these opportunities will be gone. I will have missed out on the chance to deepen my relationship with people, in exchange for knowing more about a world I neither admire nor wish to imitate. Stated that way, is there any doubt what change I should make when I get home? Honestly, is there a drawback to becoming addicted to people instead of news, sports and money?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My Best Friend

Today is a special day for me, so I hope you regular readers will allow me to issue this post on a more personal level.

I have never been one to have a host of close friends - indeed, sometimes, I feel like I am fine without them. Perhaps that is a character flaw, I don't know, but it is simply the way it is for now. But twenty years ago TODAY, I had the distinct joy to proclaim my vows and marry my best friend before two-hundred people in Fort Collins, CO. Maybe God knew that what I really needed was one faithful friend by my side for the rest of my life.

Wendy has been my wife for a fifth of a century now (!), and there has never been a single day in that time that I have regretted our marriage. And while I am far from being the perfect spouse, she makes it easy for me because she approaches that ideal much more than I ever will.

She has been my helper every day these last twenty years, and has helped me raise three wonderful children. They are growing up far too fast for my liking, but they are thankfully growing up to know the Lord. Her dutiful attention to them, our decision to homeschool them five years ago, and (I hope) our example of marriage serve as a model to them. I pray for their future spouses and that they each find the same joy that I have found in marriage.

I love you, Wendy, and look forward to growing ever more mature in our love for each other and for Christ.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Getting a Constitutional Education – The Birth of Judicial Activism (Part 9)

It’s important that we educate our children on the topics of politics, government, and the Constitution which governs our nation. This nine-part series attempts to remind us of some basic principles, lest they be forgotten by the next generation.

Late in the year 1800, John Adams was narrowly defeated in the presidential election by Thomas Jefferson. In an effort to “pack the courts” with Federalist judges of his own thinking, Adams made dozens of judicial appointments just before he left office (these were called “midnight appointments”). To complete the appointment, a nominee had to be both approved by Congress and have their commission signed by the Secretary of State.

Due to a curious oversight, a few of the appointees never had their commission signed under the outgoing administration, and were left waiting for the signature of the new Secretary, James Madison. One of these pending appointees was William Marbury. So began the famous Marbury vs. Madison court case.

Madison refused to sign the commission, and Marbury sued, immediately taking his case to the Supreme Court. He contended that under the Judiciary Act of 1789, Madison should be forced to sign his commission – that a writ of mandamus should be written by the court requiring him to do so. Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed that Marbury should be appointed, but that the Judiciary Act law that he was citing was really unconstitutional, and that he should take his case back to a lower court.

Marbury lost the case, but the real story here was that the Supreme Court, for the first time, had single-handedly declared an Act of Congress to be unconstitutional. In essence, the Court asserted authority over Congress in an unprecedented manner, essentially giving itself the supreme right to interpret the Constitution. To us today, that may not seem like big news, but the fact is that the Constitution does not anywhere give the Supreme Court this power! Article 3 of the Constitution details the jurisdiction and duties of the Supreme Court, and indeed, Section 2 seems to imply that Marbury may have been in the wrong court. But the brazenness of Chief Justice John Marshall to unilaterally strike down an Act of Congress was unheard of before this event (and curiously, John Marshall was the Secretary of State in the Adams administration who had accidentally forgotten to sign Marbury’s commission before being appointed Chief Justice!)

Thomas Jefferson was incensed at the judicial ruling, and wrote, “Certainly there is not a word in the Constitution which has given that power to them more than to the Executive or Legislative branches.” For Jefferson, the founders intended for the three branches of government to be in equal balance, with no single branch having supreme authority to interpret the Constitution.

With a precedent such as Marbury vs. Madison on the record, that precept has been lost. Today, we live in a time where it is generally accepted that the United States Supreme Court is the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution, with the authority to rescind or make demands on both the Congress and the President. But a simple reading of the Constitution shows that no such power was meant. This was the beginning of judicial activism.

Judicial activists submit that the Constitution is a “living document” and that powers and nuances not mentioned explicitly in the text may be “implied”. The opposite of this position is judicial restraint, which argues for a very conservative approach to rulings. A judge exercising judicial restraint will overturn a law only if it is obviously unconstitutional. In the case of Marbury, judicial restraint would likely have found a judge simply sending the case back with no ruling, rather than explicitly declaring the law unconstitutional. An advocate of judicial restraint, Ronald Reagan said “I intend to go right on appointing highly qualified individuals of the highest personal integrity to the bench, individuals who understand the danger of short-circuiting the electoral process and disenfranchising the people through judicial activism."

Judicial activism has grown beyond just the assertion of supreme constitutional authority. Today, we see many judges making rulings based on their own opinion, and not citing a legal precedence. Roe vs. Wade is probably the most far-reaching example of judicial activism. In this case, the Supreme Court cited the “right to privacy” to allow a woman to terminate her own pregnancy, but admitted in their own written ruling that “The Constitution does not explicitly mention any right of privacy." If judges are allowed to make laws with no Constitutional backing or precedent, then what happens to justice? Rather than relying on the written Constitution to govern our land, it becomes a matter of individual opinion, and the court system becomes nothing more than a game of “packing the courts” with judges who are sympathetic to an individual cause. This makes a mockery of justice, and undermines the real intent of the founders when they penned that most important document – the Constitution of the United States of America.


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