Friday, May 21, 2010

Going to heaven or hell?

If your heart takes more pleasure in reading novels, or watching TV, or going to the movies, or talking to friends, rather than just sitting alone with God and embracing Him, sharing His cares and His burdens, weeping and rejoicing with Him, then how are you going to handle forever and ever in His presence...? You'd be bored to tears in heaven, if you're not ecstatic about God now!

Keith Green

On Seeing the World without a Conscience

This life's dim windows of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And goads you to believe a lie
When you see with and not through the eye

William Blake

Temptation and Certainity

Satan tempts us at the point of our physical needs, not that we might gratify them to excess, but that we might think of nothing else and gratify them at the expense of our usefulness in this world. Satan tempts us at the point of our ambitions, not that we might engage in positive evil, but simply accept the fact of evil, learn to live with it, come to terms with it, and maintain a discreet silence in the presence of it. Satan tempts us at the point of our religion, not that we might disbelieve in God, but that we might demand certainty; -- ­that kind of certainty of God that leaves nothing to faith, nothing to God himself. These are the moral struggles that have reality for people such as we are; the subtle temptation to renounce our duty in favor of what is attractive, that insidious allurement to a kind of a half-goodness which is the essence of everything bad and which is more productive of suffering and hatred, war and misery in this world, than all the designs of wicked and greedy people combined.

Extracted from Arthur Leonard Griffith's God's Time and Ours

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Purpose Blunted

If God has reminded us that His desire is to dwell with us and to meet with us in the sanctity of the human body, the violation of that locus destroys its purpose. In an article some years ago, Dr. James Dobson quoted a letter he had received that sums up the ache of a mistake better than I can say it:

It was as if I physically felt a loss. Throughout our years together, he had taken my self-respect, my self-esteem, my pride, my womanhood, my virginity, my capacity for love, and my future and discarded it as "unwanted." Looking back I didn't realize it then, but when I begged him to come back to me, I lost the last drop of myself. After our final break up, I went on to a Christian college and he went his own way.... Two years later, I met and married my husband. My husband is the world to me. He is everything I thought my former boyfriend was or was going to be. He is wonderful to me. We have a lovely home, stable income and beautiful young son who is our joy. However, there is a part of me I cannot share with him, because I gave it to my boyfriend back in high school ... to me, that is the very private, very painful, very tormenting consequence I cannot change. So the point is-there is a price. You may or may not pay with preg­nancy or VD, but you will certainly pay.... I know God's for­giveness, and I continually pray that He will restore the years the locusts have eaten.... Writing this letter has been on my heart for a long time. Please convey the message to teens and college students.... The consequences you pay most severely and most personally are paid emotionally.'

Monday, May 3, 2010

New Year's Address to the Nation

New Year's Address to the Nation
Prague, January 1, 1990

My dear fellow citizens,
For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.

I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers' state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available. A country that once could be proud of the educational level of its citizens spends so little on education that it ranks today as seventy-second in the world. We have polluted the soil, rivers and forests bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adults in our country die earlier than in most other European countries.

Allow me a small personal observation. When I flew recently to Bratislava, I found some time during discussions to look out of the plane window. I saw the industrial complex of Slovnaft chemical factory and the giant Petr'alka housing estate right behind it. The view was enough for me to understand that for decades our statesmen and political leaders did not look or did not want to look out of the windows of their planes. No study of statistics available to me would enable me to understand faster and better the situation in which we find ourselves.

But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly that the powers that be should not be all-powerful and that the special farms, which produced ecologically pure and top-quality food just for them, should send their produce to schools, children's homes and hospitals if our agriculture was unable to offer them to all.

The previous regime - armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology - reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production. In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship. It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to the nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking machine, whose real meaning was not clear to anyone. It could not do more than slowly but inexorably wear out itself and all its nuts and bolts.

When I talk about the contaminated moral atmosphere, I am not talking just about the gentlemen who eat organic vegetables and do not look out of the plane windows. I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all - though naturally to differing extents - responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.

Why do I say this? It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly. Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.

If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this, hope will return to our hearts.

In the effort to rectify matters of common concern, we have something to lean on. The recent period - and in particular the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution - has shown the enormous human, moral and spiritual potential, and the civic culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy. Whenever someone categorically claimed that we were this or that, I always objected that society is a very mysterious creature and that it is unwise to trust only the face it presents to you. I am happy that I was not mistaken. Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek, humiliated, skeptical and seemingly cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake the totalitarian yoke from their shoulders in several weeks, and in a decent and peaceful way. And let us ask: Where did the young people who never knew another system get their desire for truth, their love of free thought, their political ideas, their civic courage and civic prudence? How did it happen that their parents -- the very generation that had been considered lost -- joined them? How is it that so many people immediately knew what to do and none needed any advice or instruction?

I think there are two main reasons for the hopeful face of our present situation. First of all, people are never just a product of the external world; they are also able to relate themselves to something superior, however systematically the external world tries to kill that ability in them. Secondly, the humanistic and democratic traditions, about which there had been so much idle talk, did after all slumber in the unconsciousness of our nations and ethnic minorities, and were inconspicuously passed from one generation to another, so that each of us could discover them at the right time and transform them into deeds.

We had to pay, however, for our present freedom. Many citizens perished in jails in the 1950s, many were executed, thousands of human lives were destroyed, hundreds of thousands of talented people were forced to leave the country. Those who defended the honor of our nations during the Second World War, those who rebelled against totalitarian rule and those who simply managed to remain themselves and think freely, were all persecuted. We should not forget any of those who paid for our present freedom in one way or another. Independent courts should impartially consider the possible guilt of those who were responsible for the persecutions, so that the truth about our recent past might be fully revealed.

We must also bear in mind that other nations have paid even more dearly for their present freedom, and that indirectly they have also paid for ours. The rivers of blood that have flowed in Hungary, Poland, Germany and recently in such a horrific manner in Romania, as well as the sea of blood shed by the nations of the Soviet Union, must not be forgotten. First of all because all human suffering concerns every other human being. But more than this, they must also not be forgotten because it is these great sacrifices that form the tragic background of today's freedom or the gradual emancipation of the nations of the Soviet Bloc, and thus the background of our own newfound freedom. Without the changes in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, and the German Democratic Republic, what has happened in our country would have scarcely happened. And if it did, it certainly would not have followed such a peaceful course.

The fact that we enjoyed optimal international conditions does not mean that anyone else has directly helped us during the recent weeks. In fact, after hundreds of years, both our nations have raised their heads high of their own initiative without relying on the help of stronger nations or powers. It seems to me that this constitutes the great moral asset of the present moment. This moment holds within itself the hope that in the future we will no longer suffer from the complex of those who must always express their gratitude to somebody. It now depends only on us whether this hope will be realized and whether our civic, national, and political self-confidence will be awakened in a historically new way.

Self-confidence is not pride. Just the contrary: only a person or a nation that is self-confident, in the best sense of the word, is capable of listening to others, accepting them as equals, forgiving its enemies and regretting its own guilt. Let us try to introduce this kind of self-confidence into the life of our community and, as nations, into our behavior on the international stage. Only thus can we restore our self-respect and our respect for one another as well as the respect of other nations.

Our state should never again be an appendage or a poor relative of anyone else. It is true that we must accept and learn many things from others, but we must do this in the future as their equal partners, who also have something to offer.

Our first president wrote: "Jesus, not Caesar." In this he followed our philosophers Chel_ick_ and Komensk_. I dare to say that we may even have an opportunity to spread this idea further and introduce a new element into European and global politics. Our country, if that is what we want, can now permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of the spirit and of ideas. It is precisely this glow that we can offer as our specific contribution to international politics.

Masaryk* based his politics on morality. Let us try, in a new time and in a new way, to restore this concept of politics. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics can be not simply the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is, the art of improving ourselves and the world.

We are a small country, yet at one time we were the spiritual crossroads of Europe. Is there a reason why we could not again become one? Would it not be another asset with which to repay the help of others that we are going to need?

Our homegrown Mafia, those who do not look out of the plane windows and who eat specially fed pigs, may still be around and at times may muddy the waters, but they are no longer our main enemy. Even less so is our main enemy any kind of international Mafia. Our main enemy today is our own bad traits: indifference to the common good, vanity, personal ambition, selfishness, and rivalry. The main struggle will have to be fought on this field.

There are free elections and an election campaign ahead of us. Let us not allow this struggle to dirty the so-far clean face of our gentle revolution. Let us not allow the sympathies of the world, which we have won so fast, to be equally rapidly lost through our becoming entangled in the jungle of skirmishes for power. Let us not allow the desire to serve oneself to bloom once again under the stately garb of the desire to serve the common good. It is not really important now which party, club or group prevails in the elections. The important thing is that the winners will be the best of us, in the moral, civic, political and professional sense, regardless of their political affiliations. The future policies and prestige of our state will depend on the personalities we select, and later, elect to our representative bodies.

My dear fellow citizens!

Three days ago I became the president of the republic as a consequence of your will, expressed through the deputies of the Federal Assembly. You have a right to expect me to mention the tasks I see before me as president.

The first of these is to use all my power and influence to ensure that we soon step up to the ballot boxes in a free election, and that our path toward this historic milestone will be dignified and peaceful.

My second task is to guarantee that we approach these elections as two self-governing nations who respect each other's interests, national identity, religious traditions, and symbols. As a Czech who has given his presidential oath to an important Slovak who is personally close to him, I feel a special obligation -- after the bitter experiences that Slovaks had in the past -- to see that all the interests of the Slovak nation are respected and that no state office, including the highest one, will ever be barred to it in the future.

My third task is to support everything that will lead to better circumstances for our children, the elderly, women, the sick, the hardworking laborers, the national minorities and all citizens who are for any reason worse off than others. High-quality food or hospitals must no longer be a prerogative of the powerful; they must be available to those who need them the most.

As supreme commander of the armed forces I want to guarantee that the defensive capability of our country will no longer be used as a pretext for anyone to stand in the way of courageous peace initiatives, the reduction of military service, the establishment of alternative military service and the overall humanization of military life.

In our country there are many prisoners who, though they may have committed serious crimes and have been punished for them, have had to submit -- despite the goodwill of some investigators, judges and above all defense lawyers -- to a debased judiciary process that curtailed their rights. They now have to live in prisons that do not strive to awaken the better qualities contained in every person, but rather humiliate them and destroy them physically and mentally. In a view of this fact, I have decided to declare a relatively extensive amnesty. At the same time I call on the prisoners to understand that forty years of unjust investigations, trials and imprisonments cannot be put right overnight, and to understand that the changes that are being speedily prepared still require time to implement. By rebelling, the prisoners would help neither society nor themselves. I also call on the public not to fear the prisoners once they are released, not to make their lives difficult, to help them, in the Christian spirit, after their return among us to find within themselves that which jails could not find in them: the capacity to repent and the desire to live a respectable life.

My honorable task is to strengthen the authority of our country in the world. I would be glad if other states respected us for showing understanding, tolerance and love for peace. I would be happy if Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama of Tibet could visit our country before the elections, if only for a day. I would be happy if our friendly relations with all nations were strengthened. I would be happy if we succeeded before the elections in establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican and Israel. I would also like to contribute to peace by briefly visiting our close neighbors, the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany. Neither shall I forget our other neighbors -- fraternal Poland and the ever-closer countries of Hungary and Austria.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I want to be a president who will speak less and work more. To be a president who will not only look out of the windows of his airplane but who, first and foremost, will always be present among his fellow citizens and listen to them well.

You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such people it is impossible to solve any of our problems -- human, economic, ecological, social, or political.

The most distinguished of my predecessors opened his first speech with a quotation from the great Czech educator Komensk_. Allow me to conclude my first speech with my own paraphrase of the same statement:

People, your government has returned to you!

* Tom _ Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), Czech statesman and philosopher, the first president of Czechoslovakia

The Scandal of Grace

Not long ago I sat in a restaurant and lis­tened to yet another variation on a familiar theme. Daniel confided that he had decided to leave his wife after fifteen years of mar­riage. He had met someone younger and pret­tier, he said, someone who "makes me feel alive, like I haven't felt in years."

Daniel, a Christian, knew well the per­sonal and moral consequences of what he was about to do. His decision to leave would inflict permanent damage on his wife and three children. Even so, he said, the force pulling him toward the younger woman was too strong to resist.

I listened to his story with sadness and grief. Then, during the dessert course, he dropped the bombshell, "The reason I wanted to see you tonight was to ask you a ques­tion. Do you think God can forgive some­thing as awful as I am about to do?"

Historian and art critic Robert Hughes tells of a convict sentenced to life imprisonment on a maximum security island off the coast of Australia. One day with no provocation he turned on a fellow prisoner he barely knew and beat him senseless. The murderer was shipped back to the mainland to stand trial, where he gave a straightforward, passionless account of the crime, showing no sign of remorse. "Why?" asked the bewildered judge. "What was your motive?"

The prisoner replied that he was sick of life on the island, a notoriously brutal place, and that he saw no reason to keep on liv­ing. "Yes, yes, I understand all that," said the judge. "I can see why you might drown yourself in the ocean. But why murder?"

"Well, it's like this," said the prisoner. "I'm a Catholic. If I commit suicide I'll go straight to hell. But if I murder I can come back here and confess to a priest before my execution. That way, God will forgive me."

Do we fully appreciate the scandal of un­conditional grace? How can I dissuade my friend Daniel from committing a terrible mistake if he knows forgiveness lies just around the corner? Or, worse, why not mur­der, like the Australian prisoner, if you know in advance you'll be forgiven?

The scandal of grace must have haunted the apostle Paul as he wrote the book of Romans. The first three chapters ring down condemnation on every class of human being, concluding, "There is no one righteous, not even one." The next two chapters unveil the miracle of a grace so boundless that, as Paul says, "where sin increased, grace in­creased all the more."

Paul's tone changes in chapter 6. I can almost see the apostle staring at the papyrus and scratching his head, thinking to himself, Wait a minute! What have I said? What's to keep a murderer, adulterer, or common sinner from exploiting God's lavish promise of "forgiveness in ad­vance"?

More than once in the next few chapters Paul returns to this logical predicament: "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?" To such a devious question he has a pithy answer ("By no means!" or, as the King James Version has it, "God forbid!") and a lengthy one. What Paul keeps circling around in those dense, wonderful chapters (6-8) is, quite simply, the scandal of grace.

Here is what I told my friend Daniel, in a nutshell. "Can God forgive you? Of course. Read your Bible. David, Peter, Paul-God builds his church on the backs of people who murder, commit adultery, deny him, and persecute his followers. But because of Christ, forgiveness is now our problem, not God's. What we have to go through to commit sin distances us from God-we change in the very act of rebellion-and there is no guarantee we will come back. You ask me about forgiveness now, but will you even want it later, especially if it in­volves repentance?"

Several months after our conversation, Daniel made his choice. I have yet to see any evidence of repentance. Now he tends to ra­tionalize his decision as a way of escaping an unhappy marriage. He has rejected most of his Christian friends-"Too narrow­minded," he says-and looks instead for people who celebrate his newfound liberation.

To me, though, Daniel does not seem very liberated. The price of his "freedom" has meant turning his back on those who cared about him most. He also tells me God is not a part of his life right now. "Maybe later," he says.

God took a great risk by announcing for­giveness in advance. It occurs to me, though, that the scandal of grace involves a transfer of that risk to us. As George MacDonald put it, we are condemned not for the wicked things we've done, but for not leaving them.

Extracted from Philip Yancey’s Finding God in Unexpected Places.

Heart of a Marxist View of Humanity

Two decades ago, when Communism still posed a worldwide threat, a Romanian pas­tor named Josif Tson wrote of the contra­diction that lies at the heart of a Marxist view of humanity:

[They teach] their pupils that life is the product of chance combinations of matter, that it is governed by Dar­winian laws of adaptation and survival, and that it is man's only chance. There is no after-life, no "savior" to reward self-sacrifice or to punish egoism or rapacity. After the pupils have been thus taught, I am sent in to teach them to be noble and honorable men and women, expending all their energies on doing good for the benefit of soci­ety, even to the point of self-sacrifice. They must be courteous, tell only the truth, and live a morally pure life. But they lack motivation for goodness. They see that in a purely material world only he who hurries and grabs for himself possesses anything. Why should they be self-denying and hon­est? What motive can be offered them to live lives of usefulness to others?

The Pravda editors conceded to us that they did not know how to motivate people to show compassion. A recent campaign to raise funds for the children of Chernobyl had foundered. The aver­age Soviet citizen would rather spend his money on drink than support needy children. Their own polls had revealed that 70 percent of Soviet parents would not allow their children to have con­tact with a disabled child; 80 percent would not give money to help; some advocated in­fanticide. "How do you reform, change, motivate people?" the editors asked us.

Extracted from Philip Yancey's Finding God in Unexpected Places.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Brave New World

Daniel Boorstin, former Librarian of Con­gress and director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, offers this assessment of contemporary culture:

When we pick up our newspaper at breakfast, we expect- we even de­mand - that it bring us momentous events since the night before. We turn on the car radio as we drive to work and expect "news" to have occurred since the morning newspaper went to press. Returning in the evening, we expect our house not only to shelter us, to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, but to relax us, to dignify us, to encompass us with soft music and interesting hobbies, to be a playground, a theatre, and a bar. We expect our two ­week vacation to be romantic, exotic, cheap and effortless. We expect a far­ away atmosphere if we go to a near­by place; and we expect everything to be relaxing, sanitary, and American­ized if we go to a far-away place. We expect new heroes every season, a lit­erary masterpiece every month, a dra­matic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night. We expect ev­erybody to feel free to disagree, yet we expect everybody to be loyal, not to rock the boat or take the Fifth Amendment. We expect everybody to believe deeply in his religion, yet not to think less of others for not believ­ing. We expect our nation to be strong and great and vast and varied and pre­pared for every challenge; yet we ex­pect our "national purpose" to be clear and simple, something that gives di­rection to the -lives of two hundred million people and yet can be bought in a paperback at the corner drugstore for a dollar.

We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be in­spired by mediocre appeals for "ex­cellence," to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy. We ex­pect to eat and stay thin, to be con­stantly on the move and ever more neighbourly, to go to the "church of our choice" and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God.

Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed.

Ah, Brave New World! Boorstin ne­glected to mention that the word culture, as in "modern culture," also refers to some­thing grown in an artificial medium. For instance, a virus.

Extracted from Philip Yancey’s Finding God in Unexpected Places.