Thursday, February 28, 2008

Election Reflection

Do not put your trust in princes. Psalm 146:3

In this amazing U.S. presidential election season, where neither party started with a clear heir-apparent, campaign rhetoric has gravitated toward two poles. One is an almost messianic fervor for candidates as though they will rescue the country. The other is a demonizing the opposing candidates as though they will doom the country. As hopes and fears intensify, losing sight of the whole complex of government and international politics also clouds the perception of God's hidden hand in human events. I am not at all suggesting that God manipulates elections so the "right" candidate wins, but that eternal forces are at work with more profound significance and power than transitory circumstances.

I am not suggesting this means voting doesn't matter or that we shouldn't make our voting decisions with prayerful and careful research, but I do think looking at all of this from God's perspective can spare us from unwarranted hope and fear. The Psalm also suggests the kind of values godly people should be looking for in government and political candidates: consistency with the character and concerns of God. (vv. 7-9)

[One] who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

This is a remarkable match with Luke 4:18-19 where Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

It is fully consistent with the expectations for the king expressed in Deuteronomy 17:16-20. While the theocratic and hereditary dimensions of those expectations clearly don't apply in a democratic, secular, pluralistic society like the U.S., the implications about character, power and wealth are right on target.

He must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Adopted Heir of the Covenant

As I did the prayer exercise for Thursday of Week Three in Unbinding Your Heart (Martha Grace Reese, Chalice 2008, p. 136), I read in Genesis 28:10-22 about God’s affirmation of the Abrahamic Covenant with Jacob and thought about the spiritual implications of Elizabeth’s adoption. By virtue of Christ, I am an adopted heir of the Abrahamic covenant. (Romans 8:15; Galatians 3:6; 4:5; Ephesians 1:5) Rachel and David have talked about how this adoption process has strengthened their faith and made them more aware of God’s action and presence. So by adoption Elizabeth will come from a culture with a non-Christian heritage and an officially non-religious society into a family of the new covenant in Christ. I can’t begin to explain God’s sovereign hand in how this one little girl and this one family are brought together by adoption. Of course, just being in the family is not automatic faith for Elizabeth (Jacob’s conditional acceptance of the Abrahamic covenant shows the mystery of our role in God’s sovereign calling), yet the adoption is a claiming of Christ’s covenant for her, as well as a welcome into our family. For me, today, reflecting on the juxtaposition of Jacob’s experience and Elizabeth’s impending welcome into our family has heightened my appreciation of being an adopted heir of God’s covenant with Abraham through Christ.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

We Await a Date

Rachel and David have learned that some of the other couples in the same adoption group with them have received their travel papers for China, so they are expecting theirs to arrive anytime. Then they can turn the frequent flyer miles they have been offered into tickets. They have been approved for a no-interest loan that will reimburse them for their expenses in China, but they are looking for a way to get some kind of short-term cash advance before going to China that would be paid off when they return. They are working on getting the house ready for Elizabeth. Candy and I are going to try to get one more shipment of old cell phones and ink/toner cartridges together to put a little more in their adoption fund.

In my conversations with my mother, she seems to have gotten some incentive for hope from anticipating Elizabeth’s arrival. Rachel and David have said one of her first trips will be to see her.

Candy and I were talking the other day (as we were mall walking) about what those first days, weeks and months coming into our family will be like for Elizabeth. Certainly different than the institutional life she has known (regardless of how good it has been). At a year and four months old, she will certainly be aware of the language switch from Chinese to English and of being brought by people she has never seen into totally new surroundings. So many family members are excited to see her, she will find herself to be the center of attention: parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, friends, church. And camping in June. Wow!

We can tell how God’s hand through this process has built up David and Rachel’s faith. We are confident, not only in finishing the process (money, travel, etc.) but also adjustment for Elizabeth and Sam, not to mention David and Rachel.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

One Christian’s Response to the Hijab

Yesterday I heard a news story on NPR about the debates in Turkey over women’s head scarves (hijab). Those arguing in favor of allowing them on university campuses and government facilities appeal to religious freedom. Those opposing them suggest this is an attack on the Turkish secular tradition and a step toward religious oppression. A number of western proponents of women’s rights in the Islamic world see the hijab as an abusive tool for the oppression of women.

The debate is a curious inverse parallelism to the discussions about the hijab and other religious symbols in Europe, much of which seems to center in France. There the concern seems to be that any religious symbol is offensive and a threat to national secularism. Religion is acceptable only as a private concern but is impermissible in the public arena.

In the U.S. religious symbols seem almost relegated to the realm of fashion and treated as fairly innocuous, though women who wear the hijab are definitely identified as Muslim. For many non-Muslim Americans, this takes on a cultural dimension with the assumption that with the passing of a generation it will be abandoned for current western dress. Some non-Muslim Americans may interpret the hijab as a threatening sign that Islam intends to displace American culture, perhaps even violently. Some Christians in the United States see the hijab as a symbol of “the competition” and even suggest that it is inappropriate with this country’s Judeo-Christian roots.

As a male Christian and pastor of a church in the U.S., I must acknowledge that my response to Muslim women wearing the hijab in western society is largely positive. Now, I do advocate equality, justice, opportunity and freedom for women in Islamic societies and in the rest of the world. I welcome and celebrate women in ministry in the Church. So I would not approve of using the hijab as a weapon of subjugation.

I do believe that Christians should refuse to let our faith be privatized, as though religion was a matter of personal taste akin to one’s favorite flavor of ice cream. This can happen through legal structures such as seem to be under consideration in Europe. Perhaps even more powerful, though, is an informal social consensus that makes it impolite (or “politically incorrect”) to bring faith or religious convictions or symbols into public discourse or even casual conversation. More insidious is reducing religious symbols to mere fashion, as that empties them of value, so that a cross ceases to represent Christian faith. Perhaps if Christian symbols were powerful enough not to be expressions of fashion but of faith, and being publicly identified as a Christian was socially unacceptable, then Christian discipleship would be stimulated for strength and significance.

It would seem that U.S. politics have already moved in this direction. The press, if not the electorate, now expect candidates for the U.S. Presidency to say that their religious beliefs are private and will not influence their public decisions and policies. While there have certainly been abuses of politicians trying to use their clout to impose a particular religious perspective without regard to varieties of perspective in the public, to suggest that religious convictions of public officials shouldn’t influence their policy decisions diminishes faith to an inconsequential hobby rather than the core of being from which all of life springs. Perhaps that means that a fully committed disciple of Jesus Christ could not serve as President of the U.S. or in other public offices. I would suggest instead that an authentic disciple of Jesus would respect the convictions of others and want them to be part of open social discourse. After all, the only Christian faith that matters is that which is understood (within the bounds of finite intelligence and infinite mystery) and freely, voluntarily adopted.

So as a Christian, I welcome Muslim women wearing the hijab as a religious symbol. It opens respectful, mutual conversation about faith. I feel no need to protect Jesus or the Bible from the free exchange of ideas from alternate or competitive sources. Nor do I feel compelled to convince people that Christianity is right (and other religions are wrong) or superior. I am confident the Holy Spirit is quite capable of whatever persuasion is needed.

Christian symbols seem to have become either expressions of fashion (a cross on a necklace) or trivial (a fish or dove or WWJD) or a culture wars attack (a slogan on a bumper sticker). What symbol might have the strength and significance to represent serious Christian discipleship the way wearing the hijab signals that this woman is a devout Muslim?

The hijab, however, is more than a symbol of being Muslim. It is a means of modesty. I am not at all suggesting that covering the hair is necessary for modesty. But I do sense that modesty has gone out of fashion, not only in the general society but among Christians as well. We snicker at Victorian cover ups and equate modesty with prudishness or repressed sexuality. My concern for modesty has little if anything to do with what I expect of the culture in which I live, but everything to do with how Christians respect their bodies and sexuality and that of others. Also, this is not just about women or about thinking of women as temptresses who corrupt men.

Rather, I want to cultivate and explore how a modesty that values and celebrates our physical bodies and sexuality might be expressed in Christian discipleship. As the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

We tend to get caught up in rules and externals: how much and which skin showing is immodest? How short is too short for skirts and shorts? How tight is too tight? All of that, I think, misses the point of our internal, spiritual modesty. How do I dress, and how do I look at the way others dress that glorifies God for, with and in these bodies? Beauty, strength, energy, movement, focus. What is my own (male, Christian) hijab that disciplines me toward Christ-like modesty in my time and place? When I see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab (as is common enough to be a daily occurrence when I am out and about in the city), I respect her courage in outwardly identifying her faith, even if unpopular, and her expression of modesty. I take it as Christ’s call and reminder to me to cultivate my inner spiritual modesty.