As we rode across the countryside of East Germany on our way to Berlin, I looked out the window of the bus and could almost palpably feel the heavy oppression of the lives of the unfortunate people that lived under this tyrannical rule.  I could easily understand why they would risk it all to reach freedom.  One story of such an escape is portrayed in the 1982 Disney film Night Crossing, which is based on the true story of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families who escaped from East Germany September 1979.  They constructed a hot air balloon for their successful night crossing of the border into freedom.  There were many other attempts to cross the border using various methods over the years of that era.  It is so easy to understand why so many would make the risky attempt for the sake of freedom.  They lived in such a constricting environment that it is no wonder that they would at least want to escape.  Living in that environment must have felt like living in a small, constricted room in the dark, for days on end, with the air thin, tenebrous, and constricting, barely sufficient for life.  In a word, it was hopeless. 

There are a few movies that captured fairly well the harsh and bleak reality of the lives of people living in that era.    There is one award-winning movie that captures it best, in my opinion, the 2006 German-produced movie The Lives of Others, which I watched with English subtitles since my German has degraded from being away from that country for eight years now.  In this movie, the main protagonist is a Stasi (East German secret police) officer, Gerd Wiesler, who is assigned the duty of surveillance of a well-known playwright, Georg Dreyman.  Ostensibly, the reason for the stake-out is that Dreyman’s loyalty to the Communist regime is questionable, so he is possibly involved in unapproved and dissident activity.  However, Wiesler finds out in time that the main reason for his assignment is that a high-ranking Communist official has romantic interest in Dreyman’s girlfriend.  A big part of the plot revolves around Wiesler’s enlightenment as he discovers the corruption and abuse of Communist leaders that hypocritically repudiate all the propaganda of helping the working class.  Wiesler comes to understand that the tyrannical Communist government is extinguishing all joy and meaning of life for the ordinary citizens in its arrogant pursuit of total control.  And he comes to understand what we all have come to understand in human history, that our political leaders way too often do not have altruistic motives in their duties. 

There is something in the human heart that craves freedom.  It is like freedom was built into us such that we automatically understand that we were meant to experience it.  I believe that God made us to live in freedom, both physically and spiritually.  Surely He does not desire that we live in cruel, authoritarian regimes such as North Korea.  These places always suck the life out of the human heart and leave people feeling dissatisfied.  But there is also a need to live in spiritual freedom.  The only way we can experience that type of freedom is in a relationship with our Creator.  If we enter into covenant with Him through His son Jesus, then He can set us on the path of freedom.  At the point of salvation, He gives us the hope and promise of freedom.  But we can only get a small glimpse of that freedom if we walk in fellowship with Him, making prayer a regular priority.  As we spend that time with Him daily, over the space of years, we will find that the freedom becomes more and more of a reality in our lives as we submit parts of our lives to Him and He builds more and more of His spirit within us.  Over time, the many fears and sins of our life that keep us captive are cast out of us as He grows more and greater within us.  This is what we were meant for, and it is the only way we can find the freedom that we so desperately crave. 

I’ve enjoyed watching various reality shows over the last few years as this new phenomenon has grown in popularity on television.  These shows give you a peek into the lives of interesting people that you might not otherwise meet or who live too far away for that possibility.  One particular show that I’ve enjoyed watching is American Colony:  Meet the Hutterites on the National Geographic Channel.  The religious sect which is the focus of the show lives in Montana in the United States.  For the uninitiated, the Hutterites came from Germany in the 19th century, but they trace their roots back to Jakob Hutter, an Anabaptist preacher during the 16th century in the south of the Tyrolean region of the Alps.  That area today is in Italy, but the people are a Germanic group with some vestiges of German words still in their vocabulary.  Hutter and the Anabaptists came out of the Protestant Reformation, so they have a sound footing in the Bible and in Christian living.  But while I applaud such groups that try to keep their traditions and try to keep the world from interfering with their lives or changing their practices, I also see that they too often lapse into legalism, applying rules harshly in a way that is not securely founded in love which is the key principle of Christian doctrine.  Too often, such groups carry on their traditions without careful study or explanation of the reason for their way of life.  Over time, successive generations forget the reasons and begin to apply their rules legalistically, leading to bad practices every bit as ridiculous as what their founders objected to in the 16th century Roman Catholic Church.  Hence, they become every bit as harsh and legalistic as the Pharisees that Jesus criticized during His ministry on earth. 

The same can be said of Amish and Mennonites who came out of the same tradition and also from a Germanic culture, although the area where those two groups originated would now be Switzerland.  There are several reality shows based on the Amish who are the stricter of these two sects.  Some of the Amish groups do a good job of retaining the loving foundation of their rules and remembering the compassionate example set by our Lord.  Others lapse into pure legalism that has very little resemblance to a Christian life.  You can see this in some of the episodes on the shows that tell their stories.  In one show, Amish:  Out of Order, much of the drama centers on the attempts of young people in the Amish community to break-out into the modern world around them as they crave a life free of the constricting rules that stifle creativity and the human spirit.  But this is a difficult task for these young people, requiring great courage to make the leap, especially when their legalistic families subsequently cut them off, refusing even a kind word under their legalistic practice of shunning.  This is a far cry from the loving requirements of the Bible that God wants us to live up to.  Moreover, this is not what Jesus said He expected of those who claimed to be His followers (Mat. 25).  You can easily understand the frustrations of these young people in trying to live under such a harsh rule, and you can understand why they would want to break free from such a lifestyle. 

They remind me of the many East Europeans that risked life and limb to try escaping from the cruel, bleak life of the former Communist regimes during the late 40’s through the late 80’s.  I remember visiting Berlin before the wall fell.  I was stationed in Germany as a young American military officer.  My wife and I took advantage of a guided tour to that island of freedom in the middle of tyranny.  I distinctly remember crossing the heavily fortified border of East and West Germany.  The fences, towers, and other fortifications of the border informed you immediately that the authorities meant business and that this was a closed society.  As we moved through the highway checkpoint and entered East Germany, the change was abrupt.  The smooth asphalt ribbon of the West German Autobahn changed to a bumpy, rough concrete road which you would more expect to find in a less developed, less industrialized nation.  Additionally, the neat, pristine, colorful houses of West Germany gave way to the drab, run-down looking houses east of the border.  The meticulous yards full of interesting plants and flowers that you see everywhere in western Germany gave way to the disheveled, disorderly yards of the Communist side.  The message you could read on virtually everything in that country was that nobody cared, so why bother. 

More on this tomorrow.

Yesterday afternoon I indulged in one of my favorite pastimes, a Bollywood movie.   The Bollywood film industry is just as old as the American film industry in Hollywood and is still going strong.  They have produced and continue to produce far more movies than our American film industry does, although Hollywood seems to get most of the media attention, probably because they have controlled the print and airway media for so long.  Bollywood has a far larger audience in Asia and other parts of the world than Hollywood has here in the states or the world at large.  After watching so many of these movies, I’ve developed a deep respect and appreciation for Bollywood.  They always have a large, very talented cast of actors and dancers.  The script and choreography are consistently outstanding, and the cinematography is sumptuous, being filmed in beautiful locations with the scenes being expertly captured by the camera in all the right angles, lighting, and frame size or distance for a most pleasurable viewing experience.  The entire package is not just a couple of hours spent watching a movie.  A Bollywood movie is always an experience, a pleasurable flight of fantasy into a beautiful world where Hollywood used to take us until their industry leaders started frequently giving us base and degrading products that leave the viewer feeling dissatisfied.  There are still some good movies out of Hollywood, but it remains to be seen whether they are going to make a habit of it.

Bollywood, on the other hand, never forgot about their audience and the common beauty in the lives of those who come to the theaters.  But Hollywood was perhaps too absorbed in the demented version of reality that they lived and wanted to force on the rest of us.   Bollywood still captures all the beauty and fantasy of life so well, and perhaps their successes are a reminder to the rest of us that, when we live by God’s principles of love and respect for each other, we can still have successful lives of fulfillment.  God’s principles are stamped on nature itself such that anyone living within the world that He has created and living by the principles that He has woven into His creation can find the happiness and enjoyment that He intended for us all to have and which hopefully will guide the individual back to Him.  You can see the celebratory enjoyment of life so well captured in Bollywood films.  Above all, life is meant to be enjoyed, although meant to be enjoyed in a relationship with our Creator who will keep us on the right path of good character and successful relationships in our families and with our fellow human beings.   But there are so many ways to live a life that gives meaning and happiness to the individual anywhere in the world with all of his or her unique qualities.  Moreover, in living that life, God has given us so many gifts to bring us pleasure.

It would seem that God’s gifts to us are too numerous to count sometimes, but I’ll recount some of them here.   Art is one of those gifts with all the possible colors that can be put into the various expressional media.  Language is another gift from God with the orderly rules for language to express our ideas and the multitude of possible ways to express those ideas in literature or electronic media such as movies.  Additionally, modern movies would be much less enjoyable without one of the greatest gifts God has given us, music.  Music is stamped with God’s limitless creativity in the orderliness of musical notes spaced with precise intervals, in the orderliness of chord formation, and in the infinite variety of possible expressions within music with different timing, syncopation, levels of formality, musical instruments, combinations of instruments, types of accompaniment, etc., etc.  Moreover, with all of these possible ways to express ourselves, God has given us the incredible beauty of nature around us to inspire us with its drama, its multitude of colors, and its serenity. 

Lastly, we would not be able to enjoy these gifts if we did not have our five senses to take in the endless possible experiences and if we did not have our individual lives.  Life itself is a tremendous gift, although it is too easy to forget that when circumstances become difficult.  It is so hard for us to take things in perspective when we are in the midst of trouble.  But as with all of life’s experiences, even troubles have their limitation.  If they are not limited in time, troubles are limited in their ability to keep us down, to break our spirit, to stop us from dreaming and remembering the good times in life.  And when all else fails, we always have God to turn to.  He should not be our last resort, although He often is.  But when we do turn, He is always there, and He is always ready to express His love for us, to comfort us, and to give us strength.  Perhaps this is the greatest gift, the relationship we can have with Him. 

I just bought and installed a sweet little device made by RCA which I purchased from “Wallyworld” for $30 US dollars. It hooks onto my television and turns it into a “smart tv.”  It gives me the capability to view Netflix movies or other web programs such as YouTube or Hulu on my home tv.  This cost a whole lot less than the thousand dollar plus range for smart tv’s.  I know that all televisions will probably be forced by market conditions and consumer demand to eventually convert to the internet-capable “smart tv’s” in time.  I’m not one of those people that live and breathe by technological advancement, always wanting to be on the cutting edge of whatever is new and promising, but I will take advantage of any tool that God puts in my hands to make life better for my wonderful family or those around me.  Plus, I’ve learned from my Army career to roll with the punches and be ready to change direction or shift effort or simply make adjustments at a moment’s notice if conditions or requirements change.  So I’m always ready to adjust to technology.  Moreover, I see technology as simply another tool to enhance one’s capabilities to serve God in loving service to those around you on God’s behalf.   

But as I was exploring this new-found capability, I stumbled upon various programs that were posted on YouTube.  I was particularly interested in videos that might further develop my understanding of the Word, of God, of His Glorious Son Jesus, and of my responsibilities in light of what He has done for me.  I found one program that was posted on YouTube about a man in Russia that was portraying himself as Jesus.  He had all the bells and whistles and all the appearance, and he was leading his followers in a better way of living than the usual worldly ways of indulgence in pleasure and selfishness.  But it is so easy to be tricked into various legalistic schemes such as this cult.  I knew this was not truth, although it had so much correspondence with the truth and it had such a beautiful appearance of truth so that it would be hard even for an astute person to distinguish between real Biblical truth and the false truth that was being portrayed.  But there are so many touchstones or litmus tests that you can apply to pretenders to determine whether they are walking in truth.  One of these is complete openness.  In this cult, there were several points at which the leaders of the cult required the cameraman to stop filming.  Whenever people are afraid of having the truth told about them, this is what they do.  Real truth does not mind telling the whole story.  The other obvious revealing factor was the level of control.  In the legalistic environment, control is always necessary and is always centrally located on one figure or a small group who decide what everyone else should do.  In this Russian cult, control was ever present in various forms.  This is not the way of Christ.  He always gives us freedom to obey or not to obey.  He does not force himself on us.  Force is the way of Satan. 

But I will give the cult this much.  They followed enough of Biblical truth and a Biblical lifestyle that the people were relatively healthy and happy.  Even if people are not saved by Jesus and do not claim the Bible as their source of truth, perhaps making their own way or their own texts of truth, so long as they mimic the truths of the Bible close enough, they can be guaranteed at least a happy and healthy life.  God’s rules are stamped on the universe such that you can simply follow the same principles of the Bible and be ensured of a successful, healthy life.  This is not enough to ensure entrance into heaven, though, since God will still consider all works done in the flesh without His spirit as tainted by sin.  But His laws in the Bible, while intended to lead to deeper truths, including the ultimate truth of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, can still give people a good, healthy life if followed carefully.  God gave us these rules for our own good.  God wants people to have a relationship with Him, but He also wants people to be happy and to live lives that are sound.  The way of the legalist is to assert control and to take away freedom.  Many times, the way of the legalist takes away happiness in the process of its harsh rule.  For example, legalists have long eschewed dancing as a terrible sin.  But there are dances that God does not mind.  There are many forms of social dancing that are not sexually suggestive and simply give a fun outlet for adults and young adults to socialize.  Obviously there are some forms of “dirty dancing” that God would not approve of. 

But as with many of our freedoms, God wants us to exercise our freedom and enjoy life, just keeping these activities within moral boundaries.  The legalist, who is always focused on the surface, cannot make the fine distinctions of moral discernment, and may not have God’s wisdom operating within him with the Holy Spirit.  So the legalist makes sweeping judgments on behaviors that are not wrong in themselves, but rather are only wrong in certain circumstances or wrong when conducted certain ways.  Sex is another of God’s gifts to us that He wants us to enjoy, so long as we enjoy it in the sanctity of marriage and within healthy and respectable boundaries, treating each of the partners in this loving act with tenderness and honor.  But the legalist will always look on things such as sex and will again make sweeping judgments to keep people under control and keep them feeling guilty.  I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have my freedom and my peace of mind while enjoying ALL the various fun gifts which God has given us in life.  I’d rather do things God’s way.
Another legalistic group is the churchianity crowd.  Of course we are expected to gather together at least weekly with other fellow believers so that we may encourage one another, and there’s nothing wrong with going often if you find heartfelt enjoyment with being among other believers.  But for the churchianity people, church becomes a legalistic accomplishment, another control over the brownie points that legalists believe they are accumulating with God.  Everything is about church and attending church services and church functions while their hearts remain unchanged.  I’ve heard too many pastors say that the true measure of a Christian is the number of times you attend services.  They obviously thought with a legalistic mind that this was a good measure of what was going on inside a person’s heart.  But this is not what the Bible teaches.  Jesus taught that the way He knew his children and was able to distinguish them from those that pretended to be His was whether they rendered acts of service to those around them (Mat. 25, Isaiah 58).  If you live lives of service, then you will get the opportunities to witness, but you should prove yourself worthy of sharing His truth by first being an example of it, loving and submitting in service to those around us.  It is too easy to pretend to be a Christian by simply attending as many services as possible and reasoning to yourself that God must be pleased with you because you are supposedly in His house so many times.  Then you can avoid the weightier requirements of changing your heart, spending time with Him regularly, and submitting to Him every area of your life, especially in learning to love everyone around you with kindness and service.

Still another legalistic group is the teetotaler crowd, the behavior perfectionists who fall back on works done within their control and guided by the terms that they set instead of works led by God’s Spirit and imbued with His power.  There’s a humorous adage that I heard often when I was growing up:  “Don’t smoke, dip, or chew, and don’t date the girls that do.”  In this old saying, the focus is on the outward appearance, on the behaviors in which others may see you as a participant.  But God looks at morality very differently than the world does.  There are many habits or behaviors that you may indulge in that are not specifically prohibited in the Bible unless your participation in them causes harm to your body, harm to others, discouragement to others, or unless God has already confronted you about the habit.  Sometimes there are things that are fine for everyone else, but God confronts us about them because they have become a problem in our lives or our walk with Him.  So, you can’t always judge by one Christian to determine what is right for all Christians.  The flip side of this is that there are behaviors that God may allow in you but not in others.  Again, so long as the behavior is not specifically prohibited in the Bible, does not bring harm to others or to your witness to others, and so long as you have confessed the behavior to God and gotten guidance from him about the behavior.

I do not mean to disparage all rules here. There is a time and a place for rules.  They may set boundaries of behavior that keep us safe and holy.  But the rules are just guidelines that are supposed to drive you to the deeper truths underlying the rules.  One privilege enjoyed by many adults but constantly attacked by legalists is alcohol.  Alcohol is not expressly forbidden in the Bible.  Drinking to excess is discouraged, of course, and overindulging in alcohol, then abusing others or engaging in activity that is illegal would obviously be wrong.  There is a time and place for alcohol used in moderation.  It may even be a tool to help you in times of sorrow.  I do not subscribe to the legalistic argument that you shouldn’t indulge in alcohol at all and that it only gives you a temporary escape such that your sorrows will return in the morning.  Sometimes that’s specifically what you need, a momentary escape to be able to bear deep periods of sorrow.  I know that many soldiers returning from war have indescribable horrors that they relive in their daily lives and their dreams at night.  Sometimes, alcohol is an escape to them, giving momentary relief from the constant stress of their PTSD.  Sure there are many medications, but the efficacy of medication depends on the skill and wisdom of the doctor prescribing.  There are still way too few psychiatrists that are competent and that understand PTSD as I’ve found from my own experience.  And many of them are too full of themselves to be very helpful if you have persistent problems like severe PTSD as I have had.  Additionally, there are very few drugs that are of much help with PTSD in my experience.  It is not just the depression and the re-experiencing that are the problem.  It is also the adrenaline storms that keep you on edge, unable to sleep properly, and unable to relax for days on end.  Working with numerous psychiatrists, I have yet to find a drug that helps very much with the adrenaline except for alcohol. 

We finish on this topic tomorrow.

As you become more accustomed to doing it His way, as His character builds in you, squeezing out the old person that you were, you find that doing the right things becomes second nature.  It is an inseparable part of you now.  You may still have the propensity to sin in areas of your life, but those areas will become fewer and smaller over time, as His tremendous, relentless love incessantly wears down the old person, making it smaller and smaller.  You will never reach perfection of obedience in all things while your treasure is in this flesh, and it is not the legalistic perfection of adherence to a task-list that God desires anyway.  He wants your heart and mind, instead.  But His work in you, over decades of a constant walk with Him, will be so tremendous over time that, in comparison to people of the world, you will appear to be perfect.  Just don’t ever forget that you are not.  He is your perfection so that you do not have to be perfect.   He takes that load of expectation from your shoulders and then breaks it down into more comfortable bits and pieces that you can accomplish in His training of you. 

Sanctification is an ever-gradual process of training.  There is no “next level” as so many people like to frame it.  Unless you are resistant to His work, or unless you are a carnal Christian at times in your life, not bothering to spend time in His presence and His word, then your walk should never be the leaps and jerks of constant turmoil in a life that resists submission.  I know that there must be people like this.   It only stands to reason since we are infinitely variable in our lives, situations, humility, and willingness.  There will be Christians in heaven that cover the entire spectrum from “just got in by the skin of their teeth at the last minute,” such as the thief who was crucified beside Jesus, to the people like Mother Theresa or Pope John Paul  or the many other wonderful people over the ages, including numerous martyrs, such as you might find recounted in Foxe's Book of Martyrs.  They were totally sold out to Jesus and to loving service of those around them, holding to His truth and refusing to repudiate their faith even at the point of a sword.  You may even know, may live around, or may even yourself
be such as these who live out lives of loving service to our awesome God.  There are so many that continue to serve Him faithfully, and there are so many that came before us that are like this, the so-called “cloud of witnesses.”  There will be multitudes of us in Heaven who have yielded to God in the covenant relationship through Jesus and then the walk of sanctification.  God’s banquet table is big enough for all who already served Him and are there in Heaven now and for all those who are currently living on earth and walking with Him and even for those that will yet answer to His call in the coming Tribulation. 

Among those will be many legalistic Christians, who took the easy route of continued control rather than submission to His Lordship.  There are several versions of the legalistic Christian that you may recognize.  There is the head-hunter, ticket-punch Christian that modern evangelicalism made so popular.  People who focus on just pushing the product of salvation but avoiding the greater demands of loving, humble service to those around them.  It is so much easier to just focus on pimping the product that many of them do not even use themselves.  But this fixation on just the point of salvation became so popular with modern evangelicalism as if getting people saved caused everything to fall into place.  Being saved only starts the journey.  There is so much to learn after that.  By focusing so much on the moment of salvation, many churches turned themselves into salvation factories with many people coming in the front door, and just as many walking out the back door.  They didn’t care because they had enough numbers coming in that they could boast of big budgets and numbers of people baptized as if the numbers were all that mattered. 

They offered the tempting lie that you live happily ever after once you are saved, as if all problems in life stop at that point.  I'm sure that some people took them up on this lie, maybe with many not really getting saved, not submitting their hearts and wills to God, just going through the motions as if this is just religion where you go through certain acts and rituals to earn your way to heaven.  Or, there might have been people who really got saved but fell for the lie that life would be easy after that and became discouraged when it didn't, falling back into a carnal walk instead of taking their concerns to God where He would teach them and empower them to a stronger character that could deal with the problems of life.  But the entire environment of legalism is exposed by the focus on the numbers rather than the complete package of broader truths required for living a Christian life.  This focus on numbers is just evidence that pride is at work rather than the Holy Spirit.  True, there are probably people saved even in that prideful, legalistic environment, but God can work anywhere He desires.  He can even make a jackass speak to do His will, just as He did in the Bible. 

In a real walk of faith, life is much harder, much more demanding than the requirements of legalism.  But “you don’t eat the elephant all at one time,” as one of my bosses used to say.  In the everyday world, a seemingly monumental task can be broken down into small steps and divided out to numerous people so that you can then accomplish the seemingly impossible in a space of time much smaller than you would expect.  I’ve seen it done so many times in my military career and have even eaten numerous metaphorical elephants myself as a military leader.  The training of a Christian over a lifetime, the walk of sanctification, would seem to be a monumental task.  But you do not walk alone, and it is not all up to you.  Legalism is doing it by yourself, in your own power and living in guilt, frustration, and dissatisfaction.  Faith is doing it God’s way with Him gently guiding you in each step, giving you His words of understanding, putting in you the power of His Holy Spirit so that you can do what you would otherwise be incapable of doing, and living in peace, victory, and serenity. 

You serve a tremendous, wise, and gently loving God who knows it is His responsibility as the Father to train you properly, just as you train your own children over the space of many years, maybe even continuing to provide guidance and wisdom to them well into their adult years.  God takes His responsibility to train you very seriously because He loves you with an infinite love.  And He promises in His word to complete the task of training you (Phil. 1:6).  Moreover, God takes the tremendous demands of living a Christian walk and breaks them down into easily digestible bites that you consume in countless training situations over a lifetime.  Every day, every moment is a training opportunity for you to take on just a little bit more of the Christian character.  But bit by bit, you do eat that elephant over a lifetime, becoming a person that you will not recognize when you reach an advanced point of Christian maturity, nor will you recognize the old person that you were when you look back from that point. 

God’s way is a progressive and endless process.  He starts training you in the simple things, then moves to harder and more complex things over time, always progressively more challenging.  You’ll find in time, however, that the yoke of His training and His demands grows ever lighter over time.  It becomes easier to yield to His will.  The challenges may become bigger, and there may still be monumental, heart-rending lessons sometimes as He has to tear loose from your childish grasp things that you think you can’t live without in your immaturity and lack of understanding.  But if you yield to Him these things, you will find that you really didn’t need them.  You only needed His power and understanding.  And if you remain humble, over time you become ever bigger in character so that things that once were scary and difficult become easy to conquer and even appear laughable, once you look back in hindsight and realize how foolish you were to be afraid of each stronghold conquered. 

Continued tomorrow.

Zhao Xin was a marquis and general during the 1st Han dynasty of China.  As with any nobleman, he had many servants to do his bidding or to take care of him.  One story of him relates how he fell asleep while drunk and was covered with a robe by one of his servants.  Upon awakening, he realized that someone had been kind and concerned about his welfare in laying the robe over him.  Wanting to reward the thoughtful person, he inquired of the attendants present, “Who covered me with a robe?” Upon learning that the keeper of his hat had covered him instead of the keeper of his robe, he punished both men.  He punished the keeper of the robe for failing to do his duty, and he punished the keeper of the hat for stepping outside the bounds of his duty.  Such is the absurdity of legalism.  It goes to great lengths with detailed bodies of minutiae, but it usually neglects the things that truly matter to people.  Jesus warned about the dangers of legalism and constantly confronted the Scribes and Pharisees about their limited morality even while they were neglecting the more important matters of the heart and of loving service to God and to their neighbor. 

Legalism is a body of rules torn loose from their mooring to morality.  Without the connection to morality, the rules no longer make sense and can go to absurd lengths such as the story above.  Unfortunately, legalism has too great of an appeal to human pride and desire for control, so it is all too easy to lapse back into it, even for Christians.  With the focus on the outward appearance, you can neglect the harder work of changing your heart and your mind.  But it is fool’s gold.  It only has the appearance of true morality.  It has no real value in God’s eyes.  And it has very limited range.  Since it is done under human power, it always goes for the bare minimum and usually doesn’t even accomplish that very well.  Moreover, it only accomplishes that until no one is looking.  Then it lapses back into the original state.  It’s not real morality.  It never is.  But because it is cheap and easy, legalism is very popular and widespread.  It is rampant throughout our modern-day governments and legal systems throughout the world.  This is why you get such absurd rulings in courts these days and bizarre rules and regulations from legislatures and from the governments that apply their rules.

For the Christian, it is a slide back into what is comfortable rather than what is right, and it is the withholding of control.  You can all too easily come up with any limited set of rules and think to yourself, “If I only do these things, then God will be happy with me, and I can do what I want over here in this area of my life that I don’t want to surrender to God.”  True morality that pleases God is much harder.  It is the walk of faith.  It is the willingness to surrender to God anything and everything that He confronts us about.  It is the relinquishment of control to God.  It is not a set of rules, but rather it is a lifestyle that touches every single area of your life.  It is not doing just enough to get by, but rather it is going the extra mile and giving or doing sacrificially.  It can seem scary, but if we simply focus on obedience and allowing Him to guide us in what to do, step by step each day, and spend time with Him in prayer so that He can give us the power to do His will, then it is much easier than trying to live by an arbitrary and harsh set of rules that always leaves us dissatisfied and guilty. 

More on this tomorrow.

If you ever get bored, I recommend going to a public place where people tend to gather, sitting on the edge of the crowd, and just watching what people do and say.  Sooner or later, you will see unusual or absurd behavior that will leave you laughing or scratching your head in befuddlement.  Or maybe you don’t even have to leave your home.  With all the reality shows, political commentary shows, and shows centered around dopey human behavior, you can see from the comfort of your home just how entertaining people can be, many times not even aware that they are.  For me, a favorite source of comedic behavior is the many political commentary shows.  Without even being aware of it, political commentators on these shows say some of the most moronic things during their attempts to be profound.  And an expected focal point of their commentary these days is the recent national political election.  One particularly amusing idea that I've heard offered up on such shows is that America is changing from traditional, white culture to a more multicultural one.  Now I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what “white culture” is.  I’m not even sure I want to be a part of it.  It sounds like something the racial purists would say just before they spew some vile nonsense with a sinful or violent end. 

Now, I’ve been around white people all my life.  One might even say that I am a white person, having lived among them for so long.  So I speak with some authority.  But I have never known them to all act a certain way, think a certain way, be from the same background, follow the same religious expression, have the same political opinions, have the same lifestyle, believe in the same set of moral values, etc.  Let me say something earth shakingly profound.  Brace yourself.  White people are as variable as any other group of people.  In fact, cultural variability is quite extensive among white people.  Think about the many groups that came to our shores.  To give you an idea of the variability of white people, I’ll list some of the groups that settled our melting pot of a nation.  We were settled by Pilgrims (separatists), Puritans (Protestant non-separatists), Quakers (personal experience oriented separatists), Jews, Catholics, Mennonites, Hutterites, Moravians, etc., etc.  If you don’t think their differences are very profound, just try to get them into a conversation about the “right way to think or live.”  You may end up with a situation like Thoreau’s “Battle of the Ants” in Walden  where he related a fierce battle between red ants and black ants that he observed one day.    

Although religious freedom was the predominant motivation for many who came to America in the colonial era, there were many that came here for other reasons, such as greater opportunity for success and the easy availability of land. So, you can’t even say that our early white settlers were homogeneous.  Additionally, these people came from very different nations and cultural settings.  If you’ve ever traveled to numerous countries like we have, you know just how different the cultures of these various nations are with different architecture, customs, laws, rules for social interaction, foods, etc.  So, you can imagine the incredible variability of the early settlers of our nation, coming from those same nations , a few of which I’ll recount here:  France, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Greece, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, etc., etc.  Moreover, once all these groups arrived here, they settled in different regions, developing their own character, culture, or flair over time that was significantly different from other regions of the country. 

It should go without saying that there is infinite variability among any racial, ethnic, regional, religious, or cultural group, but I’ve found from living long enough that people have a tendency to be prejudiced, wanting to take shortcuts in logic or to think that their own group is special and better than all the others.  This is why they come up with sweeping observations about groups that they feel superior to or do not approve of.  You know this type thinking is going on when people say things like, “You know how those Asians are,” or “That’s so typical of those black people” or “all teenagers are that way” or even “everybody in that town or that area is like that.”  Such sweeping conclusions are absurd, taking a few features or habits that may be slightly based in reality and turning them into a caricature or stereotype of the group that has no correspondence with reality.  People are always infinitely variable within any demographic group. 

The immaturity and absurdity of this prejudiced thinking is captured humorously in the children’s book, The Sneetches, by Dr. Suess.  In this amusing tale, there are creatures of the in group and the out group that continuously try to accentuate their differences and make themselves special in relation to the other group.  At the beginning, they are distinguished by the outwardly visible presence or absence of a green star on their abdomen.  One day, a crafty entrepreneur recognizes the foolish prejudices of both groups and exploits those prejudices for monetary gain by, first putting stars on the non-star Sneetches so that they can believe they are just as good as the other group, then removing stars in the supposedly superior group that afterwards wanted to once again be special.  This set off a series of taking off and putting on the stars, repeatedly applying and removing, until chaos ensues.  In the midst of the chaos, it occurs to one of the participants that there is ultimately no difference between the two groups.  Inside, they are all the same, sharing in the same basic human emotions, desires, strengths, needs, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies, etc., no one better than another. 

So such thinking is incorrect regardless of what group you observe.  Therefore, there is no “white group” of which you can make sweeping observations or broad conclusions.  There’s no significant homogeneity.  There’s no “white people club” complete with a secret handshake.  The closest we ever came to having a “white people club” was when the KKK was so active primarily in the early 20th century.  But even in their heyday, the KKK could not get the majority of white people to join their ranks and subscribe to their vile beliefs.   Despite our nation’s inconsistent record on human rights, we have always strived to reach those lofty values that we established at our founding.  In setting up those values, we initiated a unique American culture that both embraces the common bond that we share in humane, Christian values, and embraces the incredible differences  and variableness that we find in each other, not just among white people, but also among all the many other ethnic, racial, and religious groups that have set foot on our favored shores.  Our country is a rare experiment in history.  We have unprecedented freedoms and successes.  The question still remains of whether we can keep our republic. 

If you ever are forced by circumstances to establish rules or give privileges that seem to favor one child over the other, be ready and willing to explain your reasoning and why your actions are still morally sound, fitting the Biblical principles that you follow in your family, and why the treatment, therefore, is not unequal.  To give you an example, one acceptable reason for difference in treatment is the maturity of the child, usually gauged by age.  If you have done your job as a parent well, at certain ages, they are ready to take on more privilege because they can better use the new privilege without straying off the path or without bringing harm to themselves.  Some of the rules that we have tied to age and maturity in our own family are: the wearing of make-up for girls; the watching of certain movies as they are ready at a certain point to morally reason through what they are seeing and know which behaviors portrayed in the movie are acceptable and which are not; bed times are a privilege that is certainly tied to age and maturity, with the older children being allowed to establish their own sleeping times within reasonable boundaries and as long as they do not disturb others who must go to bed earlier, including their parents. 

This is a short list just to give you an idea.  And with some of the privileges, you will still have to monitor them to ensure the privilege is not being abused to the point that they bring difficulty upon themselves or that they violate some of the moral principles upon which the household is run.  But the granting of privileges is a necessary step to gradually allow them to take on the privilege and responsibility of adults.  If you shelter them too much, when they finally do fly the nest to college or other independent life moves, then they will not be ready and will possibly fall prey to excessive behaviors that will threaten their health, their reputation, or their walk with God.  It is imperative that you prepare them for this day of independence and that they embrace the right moral principles ahead of this time for themselves rather than simply following the rules because you said so.  If you teach them to think for themselves and work through some problems for themselves while you stand back and observe to make sure that they remain safe, then you will know that they are ready to walk on their own outside of your over-watch when that time comes.  It should be a gradual process.

All things within the house should be done according to love.  Communication undergirds all these activities and responsibilities listed previously on this topic.  If you truly want your child to become a successful adult and to successfully follow your rules within the home, you must be willing every single time to drop whatever it is that you are doing and to listen to them respectfully when they come to you needing to tell you something.  If you continue in your activity, whether it be a household chore or some form of entertainment such as watching television or reading, and you do not look up to make eye contact, or if you continue on with the activity while they talk, barely listening to what they say, you are sending an unmistakable message.  The message you are sending is that they are unimportant, less important than the book you are reading or the television program you are watching or even the household chore that you are performing.  This is not a message that you ever want to send to your child unless you are prepared for the dysfunctional behavior that they will display over time as they try to get your attention for some sign that you do love them or as they seek solace in reckless behavior for the pain and confusion you have caused within their hearts.  They are always more important than anything that you may be doing

Don’t fall for the lie that you can leave off your responsibilities to your children because you are doing something more important that is for them anyway.  In my youth, I did some unfortunate things which I am not proud of.  Like many of my peers, growing up in the 70s, I experimented with drugs.  One of the things that struck me while engaged in this activity is that many of my friends that were with me would be pastor’s children like me.  In time, I grew to understand why it was so often that pastor’s children and children of other actively involved church members fell into loose lifestyles.  It was because they didn’t know love at home.  Love is always communicated to children through time spent, physical affection shown, verbal expressions of love and praise, and carefully listening to them.  Too often, parents that are very busy in the church reason incorrectly that they can leave off their responsibilities to their children because they are doing something that is more important and that somehow “God will fill in the blanks for their irresponsibility.”  There is nothing more important than the offices of love that you are called to carry out on God's behalf in the home.   

I can tell you from real life that God just does not automatically pick up the pieces when you fail to do your job.  This was a job that He called you to do.  If you do not carry out your responsibilities to your children, it does not magically happen some other way, and your children grow up with the unmistakable message that they do not matter and that the reason they did not matter was the fault of God or the church.  This is a recipe for disaster as I have seen it played out so often over the years.  And a close relative to this parental failure is men (or women in our modern age) spending too much time at work and not enough time with their families, incorrectly reasoning to themselves that they are doing it for the family.  Then they will try to buy back some of the affection by giving large gifts of material things.  But these will not buy back the time you did not spend with them, and it will not erase the message that is branded on their hearts that you did not love them enough to spend that time with them.  

Parenting is a very grave responsibility, and it is probably the most important thing that you will do in your lifetime, no matter who you are or what high reaches of society that you may be operating in.  It is a no-fail mission in God’s eyes, and make no mistake about it, God will hold you accountable.  The good news, as with all monumental tasks that God calls us to accomplish and to execute as flawlessly as possible, is that He will give us the wisdom and power to accomplish these things, if we spend time with Him so that He can put His power and His words into us.  As with all relationships in life, you do not want to try to live without His help, wisdom, and power.   



    I'm a retired soldier, having spent 23 years of my life serving our country, actually 30 years when you count the reserve and National Guard time as well.  I believe in servant leaders, following the example of our Lord, and I believe in giving back to the troops once one has attained a certain status or level of success in life.  But I also believe in fighting back against corruption and incompetence wherever you find it if it hurts people.  Our national values were worth dying for.  They are also worth living for.  A man or woman can actually live a life by these principles of humility, service, love, duty, and honor, and have a significant impact on the world around them...if you have the dedication to see it through. 


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