Saturday, January 16, 2021

Pursuit of God in Troubled Times – 1. DWELL 1.0

All living creatures require a place in which to dwell:  a place or a habitat that is suitable for their survival, reproduction, and flourishing.  This “dwelling principle” is so universal that when we remove an individual animal or a population from their habitat they may be seriously harmed.  The same principle applies to humans.  There are over one-half million homeless persons in the United States, in 2019.  Alcohol and substance abuse, and mental illness, are the main causes of homelessness.  The spiritual roots of homelessness are evident in reports that those without connection to a faith community are 60 percent more likely to become homeless (Acton Institute).  

Essentials for Dwelling
It is impossible for humans or any creature to live and flourish if they have no suitable place in which to dwell.  Let’s explore the rich significance of what it means to “dwell.”

Many animals will modify a suitable habitat to create a dwelling—i.e. a den, hive, nest, or house.  Humans also depend upon suitable habitats in which to dwell.  There, we establish our homes, maintain our nutrition and health needs, and enjoy our family and friends.  Our homes are where we can recreate and relax, laugh and cry, enjoy and encourage our loved ones, greet the sunrise and find satisfying rest at the end of the day.  These blessings and many others are ours to share as we “dwell” in the place in God’s creation we call “home.”  There are at least five essential requirements for a creature to “dwell.”

Taken together, the five essentials for dwelling (see on left) —awareness, location, conditions, relationships, and submission encompass much of what it means to live in the fullest sense.  In fact, the word “live” is often used interchangeably with “dwell.”  A person who is aware of what it means to be spiritually alive will understand why God desires that humans “dwell with Him” and “He with us.”  God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a God of relationships.  To “dwell with God” requires all five elements of dwelling noted above.  As we shall see, God our Creator longs to have a relationship with us.  His Spirit draws us and participates with those who seek Him to secure each of the elements necessary for an intimate relationship of dwelling with Him.  As you continue to read about what it means to dwell in a place in the creation and with God, please keep the five elements in mind.

Dwelling Involves Stewardship (Oikonomia)
The Bible (NASB) contains the word “dwell” in some form 193 times.  According to Judeo-Christian teachings from Scripture, God places a deep significance on the word “home” and “dwell.” He created our earthly home (Genesis 1) and saw that it was good (Genesis 1: 18, 21, 25, 31).  Genesis 2 records how God specifically prepared a wonderful place, the Garden of Eden, suitable for humans to dwell.  Here, Adam and Eve dwelt in harmony with creation and communed in personal relationship with God (Genesis 3: 8). 

God commanded Adam to become a manager or steward of the Garden home in service to God, its Creator and Owner.  Adam’s responsibility is the first instance of the practice of stewardship.  God instructed Adam to till (or serve) and keep (preserve) the Garden (Genesis 2: 15).  In turn, Adam enjoyed fellowship and spiritual intimacy with God.  The Greek word for stewardship, oikonomia, is derived from oikos (house) and nomos (account, or management).  This well-chosen name portrays stewardship as management of the affairs of a house (or a business, industry, farm, etc.) as a functional unit by a steward, the person who is responsible to the owner of the house or other unit.

A Holy God Dwells with His People
When Adam and Eve sinned (Genesis 3), God expelled them from the Garden.  However, God’s great love for mankind caused Him to set in motion His plan to redeem, or buy back, mankind from the curse of sin.  The Old Testament of the Bible reveals how God chose Abraham to be the father of a special nation, the Jewish nation of Israel, through which He would unfold His redemptive plan.  He gave Israel a moral code summarized in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).  Then, God brought this nation to a suitable land in which to dwell—the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 27: 3).  God also gave specific instructions for the construction of a physical structure, a tabernacle, a transportable sanctuary within which He would dwell among His people (Exodus 25: 8).  Finally, God appointed a priestly order to intercede between Him as a Holy God and the rest of the people of Israel (Exodus 28: 40-43).

The Old Testament reveals what may appear to be a contradiction:  If God loves His creation and humankind, and claims that He wants to dwell with His people, then why does He distance Himself from His people?  The answer: God is Holy and cannot allow sin or those defiled by sin to dwell near Him.  The psalmist David affirms this truth in Psalm 15: 1 (See text box above.).  David answers his own question based on his knowledge of the holiness of God. 

The Old Testament made clear that God yearns to dwell with mankind.  He designated the tabernacle within which He would dwell and allow human access, but only under precise, physical, spiritual, social, ceremonial, and moral conditions.  In Exodus 25: 8-9 we read,

Let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it
.

Then, God instituted the Levitical priesthood to administer ceremonial festivals and sacrifices for an intercession between God and sinful man.  The moral and ceremonial laws given by God gave a forceful message: God is holy and we must abide by His laws if we desire to dwell in His presence.  The Scriptures support this principle as we can see by returning to our five essentials for dwelling:
(TAP on the table to ENLARGE.):

Although “the LORD would speak to Moses face to face” in the “tent of meeting” (Exodus 33: 7-11) and later manifest Himself to the High Priests within the Holy of Holies, most of the Israelites viewed God as a distant god.  According to Thomas Nelson Bibles, “The Spirit came upon certain judges, warriors, and prophets in a way that gave them extraordinary power: for example, Joshua (Num. 27:18), Othniel (Judg. 3:10), Gideon (6:34), Samson (13:25; 14:6), and Saul (1 Sam. 10:9, 10). However, the Spirit later departed from Saul because of his disobedience (16:14).”

Dwelling with God-- beyond Dwellings
If you were an Old Testament follower of Jehovah God, what would you think when you considered your relationship with Him?  What emotional and spiritual response did God desire from you?  We must understand that, as Jesus would later explain, God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4: 24).  Jesus spoke these words to a woman who thought she must go to the right “place” to worship God.  One thousand years earlier, King Solomon had exclaimed worshipfully:

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? 
Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You,
how much less this house which I have built! –
1 Kings 8: 27

The prophet Isaiah conveyed a similar declaration from God:

Heaven is My throne and the earth is the footstool for My feet.
Where then is a house you could build for Me?
And where is a place that I may rest?
For My hand made all these things,
So all these things came into being, declares the LORD.
But I will look to this one,
At one who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at My word.


Although “place of worship” is important, the integrity of our hearts is most important.
Both David and Solomon demonstrated in their writings in the Psalms and Proverbs what it meant to dwell with God.  For example, consider how the beloved Psalm 23 touches on every aspect of what it meant to David to “dwell with God:”
(TAP on the table to ENLARGE.)


God's Most Intimate Dwelling
We have considered what it means to “dwell with God” and “He with us” through abundant reference to God’s Word in the Scriptures.  Yet before the coming of Christ, most Israelites had focused on only two of the five “essentials for dwelling with God”—namely, LOCATION and CONDITIONS.  Even in these, the Israelites were wrong.  Although place of worship, priestly intercession, and ceremonial cleanness were all important, God expected more. 

From the Scriptures above, we see that God desires people of integrity who worship Him in spirit from humble, repentant hearts.  Amazingly, through the Old Testament Scriptures beginning in Genesis 3: 14-15, God had already begun to reveal His plan.  He would draw even closer to His creation and to mankind through the promised coming of Immanuel, meaning “God is [dwelling] with us:”

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and she will name Him Immanuel.  – Isaiah 7: 15

Seven hundred years after this prophecy, the Apostle John wrote (John 1: 14):
  
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Law chiseled in cold stone came through Moses, but Jesus Christ came into the world, “full of grace (God’s unmerited favor) and truth.”  This Good News of the Gospel reveals our sin and alienation from God, and our need of Christ if we wish to dwell with God, and God with us.  In “Choices for Troubled Times – 2.  DWELL 2.0,” we will consider how God’s provision of a Savior makes possible a more complete path of faith for us to dwell with God and He with us.

Now It's Your Turn
We hope this survey of what it means to “dwell with God, and He with you” from the Old Testament Scriptures has been meaningful to you.  We also hope you will continue to study and meditate on this theme in the Bible.  Try a search using the word “dwell” in an online Bible study aid such as Bible Gateway.  Then read the verses (and their context) for a rich insight into how much God loves you and wants to dwell with you, and you with Him.  If you have a “Comment” or question, just click on the “Comment” link below, or write to us at silviusj@gmail.com.  Thank you for reading.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Our 2020 Christmas Letter

Dear family and friends,

As we near the end of 2020, we hope you and your family are well and anticipating your celebration of Christmas.  We are writing this letter near a window which opens into the darkness of the predawn of a new day.  The darkness is punctuated with the light from our neighbors’ windows and colorful Christmas lights.  This predawn view reminds us of the year 2020, a year of darkness and uncertainty.  Still there are encouraging points of light, pleasant reminders of things good, right, and true.  We are thankful as we reflect on 2020.

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, we were able to visit our son Brad and his wife Raquel in Michigan.  They are always thoughtful hosts and we enjoyed our two visits this year, once in early February and then in August.  In February, we all enjoyed a trip to the University of Michigan Museum of Art.  In August, Brad and I worked on a construction project to upgrade their patio area.

In late February, we were invited to travel to Iowa with Abby’s sister Mary and brother-in-law, Bob Johnson, to attend the graduation of their son, Trent who had completed his graduate studies at Palmer School of Chiropractic Medicine.  The new “Dr. Johnson” has since moved to Tennessee and joined several other chiropractic doctors in a practice in Nashville.

In May, we were blessed to join our daughter Mindy, her husband Steve, and our granddaughter, Della Rose to see our granddaughter Kiara graduate from Mogadore High School during a modified commencement service suitable to meet CDC safety standards for COVID.  Unfortunately, Kiara’s brother, our grandson Caleb and his wife who live in Pennsylvania were unable to attend, but they were able to join us for Kiara’s reception in June.  In August, Kiara enrolled in classes at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University and has achieved a good academic standing going into the Spring semester.  Kiara's sister Della Rose found a welcome reprieve by horseback riding with her friend, Lily, at Skyview Ranch.

This summer, we watched God answer prayer by opening the door for our daughter Mindy to be employed as a nurse practitioner at LifeCare Hospice here in Wooster.
  Mindy is already using her professional and compassionate skills to encourage the lives of her patients needing palliative care.  

In August, Abby and I were honored to comfort our friends Roger and Margaret Riffle as they entered the final stretch of their brave ordeal with Roger’s Alzheimer’s Disease.  Roger and I were fellow students at Malone College, and later we served as each other’s best man in our respective weddings one year apart. Our final visit near the time of Roger’s departure for Heaven was a tender time of encouragement and of reliance on our faith that Jesus, our Shepherd, was very near.  On the next day, August 12, the gentle Shepherd led Roger graciously away from his beloved Margaret, and through the valley of the shadow of death into Eternal Life.

We are sure the pandemic has disrupted your lives, family relationships, and plans for 2020 like it did ours.  The threat of the virus required that all of us adapt and be creative in order to avoid infection while planning creative ways to stay connected with family and friends.  When we were unable to eat inside a restaurant, we found creative ways to eat together outside.  When our small group at church could not meet inside and maintain social distance, a large driveway of one of our members provided a great environment for encouragement and learning.

Many of you have also had to say “Good-bye” to family members and friends this year.   In April, Abby’s aunt, Edna Lee Sperry died.  Then, Edna’s youngest sister Norma Brumbaugh passed on to Glory on October 23.  Norma’s memorial service was held in the country church where her and her husband, Lynn, had worshiped and served.  Both aunts were a great blessing to Abby and I for many decades, and they were preceded in death by brother, John Bright, in 2018..

This year has been a tremendous challenge to so many that we all know--people on the front lines in health care, education, first response to emergencies, etc. Our prayers have been with our friends in Cedarville including university faculty and staff during this challenging academic year. We also thank God for staff of senior health care centers as they care for our loved ones who are isolated from family and often confused.  

We could easily conclude our year-end, Christmas letter with a tone of death and despair as we reflect on the year 2020.  However, the predawn darkness outside our window has been chased away by the brightness of the sun on new fallen snow blanketing the landscape.  The dawn of a new day reminds us of the prophecy of the coming of Jesus, the Light of the World, when God revealed the promise of Isaiah 9: 1-2 that the people of the Earth “will see a great light.”  

Seven hundred years later, Jesus was born as a baby in a stable.  The Word became flesh and lived a godly live among people, was crucified for claiming He was God, and then He was raised to new life so that all who put their faith in Him and follow Him will have Eternal Life.  “The hopes and fears of all the years, including 2020, are MET” (satisfied, canceled, overcome) in Jesus.  We are glad He came and found us, and has given our lives meaning and hope.

We thank many of you who have already communicated with us in various ways, and we look forward to hearing from others.  Our e-mail address is
silviusj@gmail.com

Merry Christmas, and a Blessed New Year,


P.S.  Since posting the above 2020 Letter on Christmas Eve, we were able to enjoy part of Christmas Day in the home of our daughter Mindy with her husband Steve and our granddaughters, Kiara and Della.  The next day, we were blessed to enjoy an overnight in the Pittsburgh area in order to exchange gifts with our grandson Caleb and his wife, Soni. Afterwards, these two "grand-kids" drove grandpa and grandma on an excellent tour of the city, beautifully lighted for the Christmas season. We are thankful that we were able to be with all of our immediate family in spite of the restrictions of the pandemic.


 

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Church: Part 2 – Essential and Priceless

Is it lawful for churches to meet during the COVID pandemic? We believe the answer is yes, based on the intentions of our Founders and their provision of the First Amendment.  Of course, it is also right that Christian love and grace be extended to those who are at risk and prefer to stay home or who prefer to attend wearing a mask.  Church leaders have shown they are capable of ensuring safe conditions so that corporate gatherings for worship need not be cancelled.  The Founders’ effort to protect the right to assemble for worship sends a loud message-- the church is essential to the function of our republic.  For a more detailed discussion, please go to “The Church: Part 1 – Anchor in Our Storms:”  Click HERE.

We have made a strong case for the lawfulness of church gatherings during the COVID pandemic.  But what makes the church so essential?  Does God’s command not to forsake assembling together (Hebrews 10: 25) extend to periods when our lives are at risk such as the current pandemic?  Does regular church attendance actually improve the mental and spiritual health of regular attenders?  Finally, is it selfish for Christians to gather for worship and risk spreading the virus?  Let’s address this last question first.

Are Church Attenders Being “Selfish?”
Adam Parker, Senior Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Beaverton, Oregon, outlines the logic used to oppose Christians who attend church during the pandemic.  According to Parker, writing in reformation21  [Click HERE.] the opposing logic goes like this:
(1) Lockdowns are meant to halt COVID-19 spread by eliminating unnecessary gatherings.
(2) Church gatherings are unnecessary and ought to be halted to avoid risk of viral spread.
(3) Christians who gather to worship are selfish spreaders of the virus.
(4) Selfishness is immoral; therefore, it is immoral to attend church gatherings.

Parker disagrees with the above logic because any human activity short of total isolation during the pandemic will cause some degree of risk.  If any human activity short of total isolation offers some risk, then two questions arise:
“What activities are “essential” enough to override the risk so that they should be allowed to function during the pandemic?”  And, “Do in-person gatherings for worship provide enough benefit to be considered “essential?”

Morality:  Is the Church Essential?
We have emphasized the valuable historic role of Christianity and the church in the founding of America and in sustaining her through times of war and peace.  We also lamented that our culture has been adrift in stormy waters because we have forsaken biblical and moral principles necessary to maintain strong marriages, families, churches, and government.  Nevertheless, out of the stormy waves, Christ still calls His followers to be a moral light of Truth and integrity, and to be salt to challenge, preserve, and add flavor (Matthew 5: 13-16).  God’s Word reminds us that He has no other plan for establishing His kingdom than His church, the witness of the Gospel in word and action by the “body of Christ” (1Corinthians 12:27).   

In an earlier Oikonomia article, we have discussed the wider context for how Christianity and the church maintain the spiritual and moral “health” of our nation.  See “How Firm Is Our Foundation?”  [Go
HERE.]

According to God’s revelation in Scripture, the church is God’s creation within which individual Christ-followers can encourage one another in their faith and practice.  The word church is derived from the Greek word ekklesia meaning “a called-out assembly.”  The true Christian church is composed of people of faith who have been called and convicted by God’s Spirit to repent of their sin, die to their selfish priorities, and become obedient disciples (followers and learners) of Christ.  This progression of believing faith, salvation, baptism, and corporate worship and fellowship is clearly evident in the early church as explained in Acts 2: 41-47.  Each of us can worship God alone and in any place.  Jesus Himself slipped away to worship and pray to His Father (Matthew 26: 36-39; Mark 1: 35).  However, corporate worship (from the Latin, corporatus, meaning “bodily and physical”) is by definition worship in a gathering of people.

The Scriptures in Hebrews 10: 19-39 provide a rich justification for the importance of Christ-followers regularly assembling together.  Granted, for health reasons during the current pandemic, many are justified to remain at home and rely on online technology to “stay connected.”  However, listed below are the Scripture-based activities and functions of a local church that are only fully realized when Christ-followers meet together in person for fellowship, learning, service, and evangelism.

Spirit-led obedience to the above points from the Book of Hebrews joins Christ-followers with other believers where God’s Spirit can work in wonderful ways.  Meeting together is necessary to enrich fellowship, provide intimate times of prayer, and enliven worship through corporate singing and making melody together (Colossians 3: 16).  In short, there is no substitute for Spirit-filled corporate worship because people of faith are drawn closer to each other and to God-- a prelude to the joy of heavenly worship for eternity (e.g. Revelation 5).

The worship scene pictured here (right) is also captured in an online video which provides a sample of in-person worship in song and in responsive reading.  Click HERE to view and imagine the joy of in-person participation that many readers long to experience again, especially those without online access.

In-person gatherings also enhance discussion and personal application of the Word of God.   Personal application of biblical Truth is especially enhanced through small group gatherings in which more personal applications can be made through shared commitments and accountability.



The Church: Essential and Priceless
Henri Nouwen in The Selfless Way of Christ (Orbis, 2007) expresses the important function of church in the life of the Christ-follower with strong implications for our culture:

The church is our first and foremost spiritual director. The church not only teaches us what to reflect on, what to pay attention to, and what to speak or think about, it also realizes in and through the liturgical discipline the Christ-event itself.  What is truly taking place in our lives is not determined by the random ups and downs of our personal and communal lives, but rather by the events of Christ's life being realized among us in and through the church.
It is the Advent, Christ is coming;
it is Christmas, Christ is being born;
it is Lent, Christ is suffering;
it is Holy Week, Christ is dying;
it is Easter, Christ is risen;
it is Pentecost, Christ is sending His Spirit.
That is what is truly happening!
 

Preparation of believers through in-person participation in church prepares them make priceless differences in our culture as individuals, and through strong marriages and families. Strong families prepare children to flourish and contribute positively to their communities instead of becoming a burden to the community and nation.  Especially in times of national turmoil such as the 2020 pandemic, those who are spiritually grounded within family and the church will convey hope in God and Eternal Life which is a much-needed anchor in the midst of the current stormy sea of the pandemic.


Some may ask whether there are actual data to support the notion that church attendance favors human well-being.  A recent Gallup Poll [Click HERE.] reveals that the COVID-19 pandemic has decreased the percentage of Americans who consider their mental health “excellent” when compared to respondents in a 2019 poll.  In contrast, weekly church-attenders who answered “excellent mental health” increased from 42% in 2019 to 46% in 2020.  These data support the belief that in-person worship services provide an “essential” service.  [See above for more results from the Gallup Poll.]

All of God’s people should make every effort to assemble together regularly.  God has commanded it and our Constitution affirms the importance of it.  But there is a third reason for Christians to assemble for worship:  The Church has been and will continue to be a bulwark against cultural and political attempts to destroy America.


What Do We Have to Fear?
Essential and priceless services of the church are not only proven through its support of the nuclear family, but also through the raising up of men and women of integrity to serve in education, government, science, and industry.  Consequently, the Christian faith and the church have been instrumental in sustaining America through many crises—i.e. war, economic downturns, cultural upheavals.  [See “The Church: Anchor in Our Storms”  [Click HERE]]  

But America has powerful enemies.  We are seeing an invasion of ambitious and greedy individuals who are influencing education, government, science, and industry.  For example, consider the agenda for 2030 of the World Economic Forum (WEF) [Click HERE].  The philosophy and goals of the WEF call for a one-world government as reflected in statements like, “Political institutions' response to the pandemic could be a crucial dress-rehearsal for a transition to a different economic model…”  Already, power-seeking individuals of the WEF believe the COVID lockdown provides the model for the next global lockdown—one justified by the threat of climate change.  See Climate Lockdowns Coming Soon, found HERE.  Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) urges the initiation of a climate lockdown as follows:

The climate crisis is one of the biggest emergencies that our country has ever faced, and our time is running out. Americans are counting on Biden to lead accordingly. Let’s act boldly, and treat this crisis like the emergency it is.  Click HERE to read more. 

In my view, vision of the WEF is a godless attempt to establish a utopian society under a one-world government, a development that we know is predicted by biblical prophecy.  However, such prophecies do not dismiss our responsibility as Christians to promote government that allows people to live peaceable lives in godliness and holiness (1 Timothy 2: 1-2.).  At the same time, we also know from Scripture that God may call us to testify of His Gospel through suffering under tyranny as many of our brothers and sisters in the faith are now experiencing. 

One-world government proponents view the church and Christianity as impediments.  The truth of Scripture (Matthew 6: 24) that “no person can serve two masters” applies in the realms of both Christianity and in secular realms of power.  A person who testifies an allegiance to God is a hindrance to the authority of any one-world leader.  In light of the looming emergence of a godless one-world government that will threaten religious freedom, God’s command in Hebrews 10: 25 sounds all the more real and necessary (emphasis mine):  not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near

Personally, I love my church—not the building but the assembly of my brothers and sisters in Jesus.  The privilege of gathering together with them to worship and serve one another is essential and priceless to our daily walk of faith in an uncertain world.

How About You?
We encourage you to post “Comments” describing how the church has influenced your life, or how essential you believe the church is especially during declared emergencies.  Or, you may have a question or general comment.  We’d love to hear from you.  Just post a “Comment” below or e-mail us at silviusj@gmail.edu.  If you aren't already a subscriber to Oikonomia, please send us your e-mail address using our e-mail (above) and we'll add you to our list to receive a reminder when new articles are posted.  Or you can subscribe using Subscribe to Mailing List on the right side-bar (web version).  Or, on your cell phone, click on View Web Version below and go to the right sidebar of web version to subscribe.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Church: Part 1 – Anchor in Our Storms

The COVID-19 pandemic has stormed into our lives and culture with many challenges—legal, political, economic, religious, medical, educational, and athletic.  Here, we will focus on the religious dimension of our American culture.  Our culture that is now adrift and being swallowed in stormy waves because it is no longer anchored in faith—a faith in the God who made the world and everything in it; a God who also providentially enabled the founding and preservation of our exceptional nation. 

American Culture Adrift
The most recent indication that our culture is spiritually adrift is our approach to the “war” against the COVID pandemic.  During war times a century ago, Americans understood the importance of the church, founded on faith in God and His Word as an anchor for their souls (Hebrews 6: 19).  Today, church is viewed by many as a relic of the past, not worthy to be included on the list of “essential services”—a list which includes big box stores, service stations, hospitals, and clinics.  While debating whether congregating in our churches is as necessary as congregating in a Walmart or a Buffalo Wild Wings, we are at war on a global scale with a deadly virus.  How much American culture has changed!

Throughout our history, when Americans faced the tragedy of war, they turned to the church for spiritual guidance, comfort, and hope.  When our young men and women went off to war, wondering if they would ever return, their communities of faith in God met them at the bus or train to hand them a Bible.  Loved ones who stayed behind devoted themselves to prayer and enlisting their communities in prayer through visible postings of reminders.  Almost every American from the Commander in Chief to military chaplains to the local town merchant understood the vital role played by the faith community.  When sons and daughters returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they were met by a loving family, community, and church family to help them adjust to civilian life.  If they returned in flag-draped caskets, the people of faith gathered around to comfort bereaved family and friends. 

The first signs that American culture was losing its moral and spiritual anchor during the past century was in our response to the Vietnam War which was fought during the tumultuous decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  We questioned both the justification for the war and the manner in which our leaders were conducting it.  Our brave servicemen and women who had simply followed orders during the war were dishonored by many when they came home.  Many Vietnam veterans still bear the wounds of the war and the social rejection. 

Unfortunately, during the 60’s and 70’s, the church was largely ineffective in providing moral leadership and compassionate love to a generation trying to make sense of the social, political, and cultural upheaval they faced.  Many would argue that the church and the community of faith in America has not recovered its rightful, valuable place as a spiritual anchor in American communities and culture. 

Church As a “Nonessential Service”
Fast-forward to the 2020 “war” of the COVID pandemic and we observe local churches across America and the world having made creative adjustments to worship services similar to those of schools and small businesses.  Many churches have cancelled their Sunday school and adult Bible classes, or converted them along with the worship services to Zoom or a similar internet platform to support virtual learning and worship.  Many state governors and other officials have put restrictions on congregational worship because they have classified churches among the “nonessential services.”  Should churches obey these government policies or push back?

God Speed Calvary Chapel, in Thousand Oaks, CA pastored by Rob McCoy, followed CDC guidelines during February-March through social distancing, face masks, and meticulous sanitation.  At that time, the virulence and spread of COVID-19 was not known.  They abided by the guidelines, but not because the Constitution grants authority to interfere with church gatherings.  Rather, the church wanted to honor biblical instruction to respect for government policy and safety of all involved (Romans 13; 1 Peter 3: 13-16).

However, by Holy Week, it became evident that the lockdown was harming Americans in greater ways than the virus (e.g. emotionally, spiritually, economically, etc.—drug addiction, suicides).  During this time, government leaders began to regard church gatherings as “nonessential” while considering abortion clinics, cannabis distribution centers, and liquor stores as “essential services.”  Because of this perceived disregard for the free exercise of religion, Pastor McCoy opted ignore the governor’s mandate and the church is now in contempt of the restraining order which has resulted in fines up to $1,500 per week.

To hear how Pastor McCoy articulated his rationale in an interview:
CLICK HERE.  This pastor ably explains how he is not defying government.  Instead, he is acting in good faith within the spirit of the First Amendment, and consistent with the intent of the Founding Fathers.

Legality:  Is It Unlawful for Churches to Meet?
Does the government have the authority under the U.S. Constitution to prohibit the right of people to peaceably assemble?  If it does, then Pastor McCoy is being a foolish rebel defying the governor's lawful orders and risking people’s lives.  But McCoy does not believe churches should defy the Constitution. Instead, he has opted to lead his church to exercise their rights under the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution which states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Founders wisely recognized that religious oppression was unacceptable.  They knew that our ultimate authority and source of liberty is God.  Therefore, they chose to allow no “law…prohibiting the free exercise of [religion]…freedom of speech, or of the press; or right of the people to peaceably assemble….” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”

According to Matthew 28: 18, Jesus Christ holds the supreme authority granted to Him by God.  He is the ultimate Source of our liberty and justice.  In fact, the Scripture states that, by Jesus Christ, all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1: 16).  Those who reject God and regard government as the ultimate authority are in direct opposition to the Christian church.  It follows that their goal must be to silence the church and the witness of Christ-followers who declare, “we have no king but Jesus.”

Because our Founding Fathers believed that our Liberty is from God, they viewed “we the people” as the stewards or caretakers and keepers of Liberty.  When Benjamin Franklin walked from Independence Hall, the site of the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, someone called out from the crowd,
“Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”
Dr. Franklin supposedly replied,
“A republic, if you can keep it.”

A republic, if you can keep it.  Franklin and the other Founders had the vision that Americans would be stewards of an “endowment from our Creator;” namely, the unalienable Rights…[and] among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  This radical philosophy of government represented in the First Amendment is rooted in biblical faith—especially, the belief that humans are responsible to God who has called us to be stewards of His many gifts including our freedom. Specifically, God has appointed us to exercise stewardship of the spheres of authority through which His authority is to be honored; namely, family, church, and government.

Is it lawful for churches to meet during the COVID pandemic?  We believe the answer is, "Yes," based on the intentions of our Founders and their provision of the First Amendment.  Church leaders have shown they are capable of ensuring safe conditions outlined by the CDC so that corporate gatherings for worship need not be cancelled.  Historically, the Founders of our nation and Framers of our Constitution sent a loud message to us about importance of church through the First Amendment.  They realized how important it is to ensure that religious faith, the church, freedom to assemble peaceably, and to respectfully express our beliefs should rightfully be given priority because they knew that government tends to encroach on individual Liberty. History since the founding has proven our Founders to be remarkably correct.

What Do You Think?
Thank you for reading.  It should be evident that our treatment here is brief and maybe a bit simplistic.  So, if you wish to express your view or ask questions about how churches ought to function in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic or in any national crisis, please use the “Comments” link below, or write to me at silviusj@gmail.com

In “The Church:  Part 2 – Essential and Priceless” [See HERE.],we will consider in more detail God’s purpose for the church and why it should be considered as an essential function of our republic.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Earthkeeping and Character: Book Review

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Francis Schaeffer’s Pollution and the Death of Man (Tyndale, 1970) awakened many of us to realize our responsibility to care for the Earth.  Since that time environmental issues like climate change and pollution have captured the headlines and attracted the attention of government policymakers.  Still, skeptics wonder if many who speak loudly on behalf of the environment have personally adopted environmentally friendly lifestyles.

A recent longitudinal study by M.P. Hall and colleagues at the University of Michigan surveyed people who “talked the talk” about climate change to determine if they actually “walked the walk” with lifestyles that promote environmental sustainability.  The study, entitled “Believing in Climate Change, But Not Behaving Sustainably,” found that those claiming to be “Highly Concerned” about climate change were more likely to support government climate policies than those who were “Skeptical.”  However, these same individuals were less likely to have adopted sustainable lifestyles than those claiming to be “Skeptical of Climate Change.”

The University of Michigan study appears to have exposed an ethic that rests on “do as I say, but don’t do what I do.”  If this is true, it may explain why government policymakers and activists have only limited influence on whether or not the average American chooses to adopt an Earth-friendly lifestyle.  Perhaps we should be asking, “What is the most effective approach to influencing a person’s beliefs and value systems?”  Or, “How can we effectively challenge and if necessary alter the environmental ethic which governs a person’s lifestyle choices and actions?

Why Should We Care about the Earth?
Steven Bouma-Prediger, professor of reformed theology at Hope College, and author of Earthkeeping and Character:  Exploring a Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI), provides an excellent survey of the ethical systems which justify human valuing of planet Earth.  In fact, if I were still teaching environmental ethics, I would make Bouma-Prediger’s thoughtful, scholarly treatment of the discipline one of my required readings.  However, the author’s purpose for readers goes beyond simply learning about environmental ethics.  His aim is to inspire readers to integrate “Earthkeeping” into the very fabric of who they are with respect to their character and values.

Most of us tend to respond to environmental issues in one of several ways.  Some choose to ignore or deny their importance.  Others “talk the talk” about caring for the environment, but show little interest in changing their lifestyle or participating in social action.  Finally, there are some who actually demonstrate by their lifestyle and political activism that they care about the Earth.  These environmentally conscious individuals are motivated either by a sense of duty toward the Earth; or, by a fear of the consequences of not caring for Earth.  Prof. Bouma-Prediger explains that the latter two motivations represent two principal ethical systems:  duty ethics (deontology) and consequentialist ethics (teleology).

Both deontological and consequentialist ethics justify making the decision to move beyond “talking the talk” to taking action to care for the Earth.  In Chapter 1, “Mapping the Territory,” Bouma-Prediger provides a detailed summary of both of these ethical systems.  Then, he points out that both duty ethics and consequentialist ethics “have one thing in common: each theory assumes that ethics, at its roots, is about doing and not being, primarily about conduct and not character.”  But this begs the question:  Is there an ethical system with roots that reach down deeper than the level of out conduct—an ethic rooted in our character?  Bouma-Prediger thinks so; and, he makes his case in this book.

Ecological Virtue Ethics

Earthkeeping and Character showcases an environmental ethic that is rooted in a third ethical tradition in the western world—a virtue ethic.  Virtue ethics probes to depths that are deeper than our words and deeds, reaching down to the very wellspring of our being—to our disposition, our character, whether virtuous or otherwise.  A virtuous person expresses certain praiseworthy character traits that flow out of an inner disposition that has been cultivated over time and that predisposes the person to respond in a certain way.  Bouma-Prediger lists eight virtues in pairs, one pair in each of four chapters as follows:
Chapter 2:  Wonder and Humility
Chapter 3:  Self-Control and Wisdom
Chapter 4:  Justice and Love
Chapter 5:  Courage and Hope

The author explains that each of the above praiseworthy character traits applies in many areas of life.  However, when we recognize that humans are only a small part of a complex web of life, then these same virtues can become what he calls ecological virtues.  That is, a virtue ethic becomes an ecological virtue ethic when we replace an anthropocentric (human-centered) view of our place on Earth with an ecological view. 

An ecological view of life convicts us that no part of the web of life is devoid of moral significance and value.  For example, a person who has cultivated the ecological virtues of wonder and humility will possess a “settled disposition to stand in rapt attention and amazement at the presence of something awe-inspiring, mysterious, or novel.”

Perhaps most insightfully, Earthkeeping and Character challenges readers to cultivate love as an ecological virtue.  But how do we come to love a sandhill crane or an old growth forest ecosystem?  Bouma-Prediger explains that ecological virtues are cultivated over long periods of time through stories, family experiences and traditions, or exemplary people we know or read about in the literature. 

Personally, I learned to love trees, wildflowers, and birds through spending time with my father and then, biology professors who demonstrated their love for these creatures.  Then, like Bouma-Prediger, I was introduced to the writings of lovers of nature like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold.  Like the author, I was impressed how Leopold possessed a deep love for the entire land community.  Leopold expressed this love in his essay, “The Land Ethic:”

…we can be ethical only in relation to something that we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.  It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for the land and a high regard for its value.

Christian Ecological Virtue Ethics
We have summarized Bouma-Prediger’s justification for drilling deeply into ethical tradition to employ virtue ethics; and then drawing upon ecology to justify broadening the scope of the ethic to include the entire breadth of the physical world around us.  But the author includes one more dimension to enrich his environmental ethic; namely, the Judeo-Christian teachings and historical faith traditions.  The book’s subtitle aptly names the ethic it describes as a “Christian Ecological Virtue Ethic.”

Readers, especially those who have little or no background in Christianity, will appreciate Bouma-Prediger’s humble and polite invitation.  He invites us as “dear readers” to “Explore” a Christian ecological virtue ethic with him while recognizing that we may not all share his faith commitment.  With this polite invitation, extended with warmth, humility, and respect, the author reveals his own virtuous heart—one whom readers may wish to hear, know personally, and even emulate as an example.

Although Bouma-Prediger’s invitation to explore a Christian ecological ethic is warm and respectful, Earthkeeping and Character does not dismiss the reality that “the world is not the way it is supposed to be.”  Ecological virtues are continually at odds with human vices which the Bible explains are the result of our rebellion and alienation “from God, other humans, ourselves, and the Earth.”  Bouma-Prediger explains the implications of this alienation as follows:

Though we are not God, we all too often think and act as if we were. Given the limitations of our knowledge and power, we must be circumspect and exercise forethought. Given our stubborn unwillingness to admit such limitations, we must strive to be honest and be willing to be held accountable for our actions."

This humble and biblical conviction, so well articulated by Bouma-Prediger, is the basic foundation for Christian environmental stewardship and Earthkeeping. It also provides an ethic necessary for what we have called "good science."

Personally, I believe Earthkeeping and Character will challenge you as it has me to realize that coming to know and love our Creator God can be greatly enriched when we diligently seek to know, love, and keep His creation.  Virtue ethics argues forcefully that we cannot separate these two loves.  Nor can we love our neighbor as ourself if we do not love the soil, the water, the air, and biodiversity that sustains the life of our neighbor.  Reading  Earthkeeping and Character will inspire you to love God, love His creation, and love your neighbor—three loves that are an integral part of becoming more like Christ our Creator who desires to produce His virtuous life and purposes within us.

Do You Have An Earthkeeping Story?
How would you describe your current “environmental ethic?”  Have you adopted habits of conserving energy and resources as part of your lifestyle?   If so, what values drive your choices?  Recall from this book review that the author points out that ecological virtues are cultivated over long periods of time through stories, family experiences and traditions, or exemplary people we know or read about in the literature.  I hope you can relate to this “cultivation process” and are willing to share your story of how your ecological virtues have begun to develop and continue today.   Thank you for reading and responding below in “Comments.”  You may also contact me at silviusj@gmail.com

Additional Reading:
Silvius, J.E.  2007.  Creation Care and Christian Character:  Beyond Fear of Consequences to Responsibility and Moral Virtues.  Creation Care (Summer): pp. 7-9.   See online article HERE.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Certainty of God in An Uncertain Year

If you live in the higher latitudes where seasonal changes occur, you have likely been blessed and encouraged by the beautiful days of autumn we have had in 2020.  This prolonged period without widespread killing frosts in our area have allowed Abby and I to enjoy the fruits of our landscaping efforts this year.  We are also enjoying hikes in some of our favorite Ohio natural areas.  In this article, we decided to share some photos showing the beauty of our landscape and to remind us all of God’s faithfulness which has affirmed our faith during this unusual year, 2020.

Outdoor Answers to 2020 Anxiety

For many of us, this outdoor blessing couldn’t have come at a better time.  This past weekend, Abby and I were blessed to hike in Johnson Woods State Nature Preserve, one of our wonderful natural areas in Wayne County.  Johnson Woods is one of Ohio’s largest stands of old growth forest where visitors can enjoy towering oaks, hickories, American beech, and sugar maple.  This 155-acre tract invites hikers to traverse the entire 1.4-mile boardwalk through both upland forest and swampland or take a shorter, less rigorous route.   Johnson Woods is actually changing through ecological succession from an oak-hickory forest to a beech-maple forest.  The latter tree species are among several species which are shade tolerant and thus able to establish their populations in the shade of the oaks and hickories which are less able to reproduce themselves in their own shade.

We also enjoyed our visit to Secrest Arboretum on the campus of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) one sunny afternoon.  This arboretum has both horticultural plantings and landscapes of native plant communities which are botanically diverse, beautiful, and inviting any season of the year.

Another inviting local forest tract, located a few miles west of the City of Wooster, is Wooster Memorial Park.  This 422-acre park differs from Johnson Woods, particularly because of its rolling topography which is dissected by steep ravines.  Wooster Memorial Park is an inviting treasure for botanists and birdwatchers in any season.

When Abby and I drove into the parking lots of the two natural areas, we were struck by the large number of cars.  At Wooster Memorial Park, we could barely get a parking place. 
“What is going on,” we asked? 
We had never seen such a large number of cars.   We soon realized that this large number of visitors was due, not only to the warm, sunny weather, but also by the increasing appeal of the outdoors as a place of safety and respite from virus-prone crowds.

Submitting Our Confusion to a Covenant-Keeping God

The year 2020 has given us many challenges.  We have faced a pandemic, the economic lockdown, limited access to routine health care, separation of families due to health and travel restrictions, alteration of classroom education, limited sports, online worship services, and a presidential election with an uncertain outcome. 

Meanwhile, most of us, and especially our children and grandchildren, depend on a sense of order, predictability, and security in their lives.  Yet 2020 has failed to deliver on these important needs, at least humanly speaking.  That is why we adults who live in higher latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres can be encouraged as we witness the predictable change of seasons.  And, we are wise to direct the attention of our children and grandchildren to God’s creation where we can observe, as the hymnwriter of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”  expresses so well,

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.



Of course, the weather is changeable and our climate is also changing.  But for those of us who believe in the Divine Providence of God, the regular, predictable, annual change of seasons is a tribute to God’s faithfulness. 

God is indeed faithful, and our faith in Him is not only self-reassuring in these difficult days, but can bring a wellspring of reassurance as we reach out to lonely people who are isolated from family and friends during this pandemic.

We conclude with a wonderful reminder from the Old Testament in which God assures His people of just how committed He is to His covenant with those who have put their trust in His plan of Salvation.  At the time Jeremiah wrote these words, God’s plan had yet to unfold.   Centuries later, it came to fruition through “the Son of David,” Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.  Those who put their trust in Jesus for salvation from our fallen nature will always be able to point to Him as Satan would accuse us, or when we stand before God as our Judge (emphasis mine):

Thus says the LORD,
‘If you can break My covenant for the day
 and My covenant for the night,
so that day and night will not be at their appointed time,
then My covenant may also be broken
with David My servant so that he
will not have a son to reign on his throne

                                                     – Jeremiah 33: 20-21

How Do You Respond to the Seasons?
What is your favorite season?  
What activities have you enjoyed in that season?
What Scripture have your found assuring during this uncertain year? 
Or, if you live in low or tropical latitudes, how do you enjoy a more constant seasonal change?  If this article touches a familiar chord in your experience and in your faith, we’d love to receive your “Comments” whether written below, by e-mail (silviusj@gmail.com), or through face-to-face conversations.  Thank you for reading.

Acknowledgement
Thanks are in order to our friends, Chris and Lynsa Knickerbocker.  During my phone conversation with Chris earlier this year, and as I was expressing some concern over the politics of the pandemic, Chris remarked how much comfort and solace he and his family receive from observing the evidence of God’s faithfulness in the changing seasons.  Chris appreciates the annual regularity revealed in each plant species as it emerges and progresses through its growing season.  I thank you, Chris, for interpreting God’s revelation in this encouraging way.