Free competition: good or bad?

Okay, so today it’s the same question, part two. Asked a different way, do you believe Christianity should declare a monopoly in the USA and then discourage all other competition? Or should we do as Elijah did in his land of Israel in relation to the prophets of Baal during the time of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel?

How we answer such questions as these depends on whether we think it is most likely people today will prefer a product that stands alone with no allowed competition or else prefer one that has been demonstrated to have a superior value or performance.   Use your own judgment, but base this on your own personal preference before answering these initial questions.

I remember well my days back in college, the early 1960’s, when I raised my text book money by selling Fuller Brush products door to door. Best selling products were always those I could demonstrate alongside the current brand being used by the home occupant. In those days, many housewives there in central Kansas would obsess about such things as yellowing linoleum on the kitchen floors. Sounds a bit weird if you weren’t around at that time, but the whole idea was to compare our clean to their clean, our shine to their shine when it came to the household furniture or flooring. I trusted our Fuller Brush products enough to do a side by side comparison.

Elijah trusted God enough to do a little demo found in I Kings 18. Remember it? The prophets of Baal would call on their god to spontaneously ignite a fire on a pile of dry wood to roast their own animal burnt offering. They tried all day long and nothing. They had nothing. Then he had the King’s servants pour multiple pots full of water upon his own wood pile supporting his animal offering to God. Totally soaked. Elijah prayed. And instantly God ignited a fire within that wet wood that achieved what Baal could not do in a day using even dry wood.

This morning in my devotional time I continued my study of John’s Gospel, where I’m now in the 13th chapter. That’s the one where Jesus is nearing the crucifixion and having one last evening with his disciples to celebrate the Passover. You remember the scene where he washes everyone’s feet? Even Judas who betrays him. Even Peter who denies him. And then do you remember what Jesus says in 13:14-15? “So if I, our Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you.

We Christians say we are saved by our faith in God’s grace in Jesus Christ. But in a fair and free competition with people of other faiths, would we stand a chance of winning because our faith is in some way superior? Dare we compare God’s grace that loves enemies, washes the feet of our own betrayers and deniers, forgives our killers, that kind of thing? Could Jesus stand that kind of demonstration? That kind of side by side comparison? Or should we leave our faith inside the sales-kit, and just tell people ours is better? Can’t we just go around the world telling people this faith in grace has the power to save them?  Or do they need to see it demonstrated?

Jesus seemed to think we should show and not just tell. He seemed to say, okay he actually commanded, that we should love one another as he has loved us, betrayers and deniers, sinners all. We should love our enemies as he has loved his. And why? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” — JN 13:35.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that God’s equivalent of the wet wood fire igniter today is God’s ability to love enemies that betray, deny, persecute — okay, even torture and kill. Nor any doubt that if we were to demonstrate God’s love in today’s world, many others would join us in coming to faith. No doubt that in a side by side comparison in a world full of enemies, faith in Jesus to save by grace would win against faith in anyone or anything else on earth. I have no doubt whatsoever.

Or do I?

I think back to the story of the great Wallenda crossing over Niagara Falls on a tightrope while pushing a wheelbarrow. Across the falls stood a man who was asked, “Do you believe he can make it all the way across here pushing that wheelbarrow?” The man says, “I have no doubt he can do it.” Wallenda crosses safely. Again the man is asked the same question of whether he believes Wallenda can push the wheelbarrow back to other side safely? He again says, “I have faith he can do that.” Then came the test of that faith. The man was told to now get into that wheelbarrow.

Friends, we as Christians have a challenge on our hands today. Even more than a challenge, it’s a commandment (JN 13:34). Can God’s grace in us help us love our enemies as that grace helped Jesus first do for us? Can that grace really save us? If so, it’s time for us to get in the wheelbarrow. It’s time for our demonstration.

I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” — JN 13:34-35.

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Free competition: good or bad?

So you live in a land where there is a free marketplace of competition to sell most goods and services. In the USA this means even our schools and colleges that compete with public institutions. And where health insurance is concerned, we have no single payer system of socialized care. Banking, same way. Retailing, much competition prevails. In general, America has prospered when open competition forces suppliers to create, differentiate, and excel in their particular product or service line. We generally have free and open bidding for buyers.

So is this a good thing or a bad thing?

How many of us like the idea of a monopoly where one giant corporation or a few giant corporations get to decide which products and services are allowed to enter the marketplace? And at which price? Would it be okay so long as that monopoly is not public, like the government, but only private, like Exxon-Mobil to name but one big supplier? Or do you somehow think our freedom depends on being able to pick and choose? No monopolies allowed.

Which is better: plenty of competition or no competition at all?

Choice made? Then let’s move on to the question of religion. Better to have a monopoly on religion, say, Christianity? Or better to have free competition among different religions? And within each different religion, is it better for that faith if buyers (i.e., believers) must choose between conservatives or nothing, or should there be both conservatives and liberals displaying their wares? Should there be open discourse or exchange of ideas, or is it best to segregate ourselves according to narrow doctrines?

Got that one answered? Then move on with me to the question of scriptures. Better to have many or few? Better to have only one translation or many? Better for only one interpretation of what these scriptures mean, or several possible interpretations? And because these scriptures point us to God, as they do in the 3 Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, then do we read in them a God open to competition or One who is closed?

Using the Christian scriptures as an example, what does the Old Testament prophet Elijah reveal about God? If you’re interested in knowing, I’ll invite you to turn with me to the book of I Kings, chapters 17-18. I’m not going to proof text here with a single verse or two nor paste the entire 2 chapters into my post. So check this out for yourself. Won’t take you that long if you start on I Kings 17:8. The first miracle this prophet performs happens not in Judah or Israel but rather in the foreign province of Phoenicia, in a small town called Zarephath. In the home of a foreign widow and her orphan son. Elijah’s most substantial miracles on their behalf turns this woman into a believer, as noted in the last verse of chapter 17. “Then the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know you a man of God and the Lord’s word from your mouth is true.’”

Turn the page. Next chapter, you’ll notice that some time later on Elijah is told by God to return to Israel’s King Ahab, a man who with his wife, Jezebel, worshiped the Baal god and who had essentially caused Elijah’s exile in the first place after murdering most of Yahweh’s other prophets. So here’s Elijah now inviting King Ahab to rally his own prophets of Baal and meet him atop Israel’s Mount Carmel. Definite home court advantage for the Baal team. Yet, God was telling Elijah to have an open competition there between these several hundred prophets of Baal and himself, as Yahweh’s prophet. “Then Elijah approached all the people and said, ‘How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow him. But if Baal, follow him.’ But the people didn’t answer him a word.” — I Kings 18:21.

As we go on with the story, we find that Elijah doesn’t go about asking for a level playing field so he can compete freely and fairly. Nope. Make it as unfair, as unlevel, as at all possible. Each would receive one bull to be slaughtered. Afterward each would be placed on a pile of wood that would be burned to sacrifice the bulls. Neither the prophets of Baal nor Elijah would be allowed to start a fire. Instead, they would only pray. Side by side comparison between Baal who would answer the prayers of his many prophets, and Yahweh who would answer the prayer of his lone prophet, Elijah. Baal could go first. Even take all day if necessary. Oh, and to make it even more interesting, Baal’s wood must be dry and easy to ignite. Yahweh’s wood must be drenched in water, four one gallon pots of water to be exact. Well, why not make it eight? Okay, let’s go with twelve? Enough water so the servants of King Ahab would be literally standing in water with the bull and the wood and the rocks supporting them.

If you’ve read ahead a ways to see what happened, you’ll notice the story ends in verse 39 when after Yahweh manages to ignite the wet wood in answer to Elijah’s prayer, the people switched sides and worshiped Yahweh instead of Baal, who’d wasted all day trying to get his damn wood, dry as can be, to ever burn.

If you don’t believe that story, there are others in scripture that reveal a similar pattern. God welcomes, even encourages, open competition. Side by side comparisons. Freedom of religion in a marketplace dominated not by Yahweh but rather by foreign gods given every opportunity to win. Jesus especially reveals a God who welcomes foreign competition. In fact, he thrives on it where, among his own home-folks, even his miracles don’t stand much of a chance.

By means of church history, we also come to learn that apart from competition, the state church tends to die out. Worst that can happen to Christians is for them to get their wish granted for a faith monopoly. That is the curse of death! History proves this is so.

Which brings us to the final question about western Christianity. Take American Christianity in particular. Better to declare the USA, for instance, a Christian nation? Better to start closing mosques in our neighborhood or to discourage participation in other religions, including use of their religious customs of attire?   Wheaton College thinks so.  Or will it be better, as the Bible reveals, for us to do side by side comparisons to help people decide for themselves?   I think open competition in religion is good, but what do you say?

My next post in this blog will be to explore the type of competition that God is, I believe, calling us to offer to all faiths and even those with no faith. Spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with the burning of any animals, but it does have everything to do with starting a different kind of fire.

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New Year, New Birth

Have you heard that little fable about the fetal twins in the womb before birth? They are arguing about whether or not there’s a Mother. And whether or not there’s life about birth. Neither have seen Mother. Neither knows for sure if there’s life beyond the womb. But one of the twins has faith, while the other is a confirmed skeptic refusing to believe there’s any life beyond the womb. They argue to no avail. Both are eventually born, both must leave the womb’s darkness and follow the bright light of new life beyond. Mother really does exist. And the argument is entirely forgotten.

Mostly this fable is used to inspire our faith in the God we depend upon here in this world and in the heavenly light that lies beyond. Some believe. Some don’t. But our unresolved arguments will one day become a moot point.

Which is all fine except that I think this fable might inspire us in an even better way as we approach this new year of 2016. Ready or not, we have all left 2015 behind and are birthed into this unknown world of a new year. The darkness of December has given way to the slow pull of summer’s own equinox, but our first sense of this new place is often a cold, cruel world handing us circumstances beyond our control, a world that sometimes slaps us until we cry. A world where everybody sucks. Literally. No more umbilical cords. Yet, there’s no going back. We can now only hope for the best.

Personally I hope your new year has been a bit less dramatic and traumatic than all that. Perhaps your best surprises so far have been no surprises at all. Maybe you can already see and appreciate a brighter world in 2016 than you’ve ever known before. Either way, try to imagine this new year as if it is your new birth as well. As if it is the leaving behind of a kind of dark but warm and dependable place you’ve known but that is no more. As if it a way out of some place where you were once stuck, trapped, and unable to see the light.

In the 3rd chapter of John’s Gospel, we read of this conversation that Jesus has with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. It is in the dark of night that Nicodemus comes to have this conversation. Or so John describes the scene, which fits into the larger metaphor in chapters 1-2 of Jesus as the sign of God’s new Light sent into the world’s now darkness.

So in this story Nicodemus assumes the role of “now darkness” meeting up with Jesus as the “new Light.” The now and the new have a conversation in which the now is as skeptical as the unborn twin in that opening fable. The new picks up on this theme of Light after darkness and tells Nicodemus we cannot see the Kingdom of God unless we are newly born. We must be born again, this time in the Spirit of God while before we were born of the water of our mother’s womb. We must leave that darkness of now if we are to see the glory of God’s non-condemning, non-violent love that Jesus called God’s Kingdom. God’s Kingdom of heaven was coming to the world God so loves, as a Light to the darkness, but we wrongly prefer the darkness and resist the great Light. Much like the doubtful twin in the fable.

We don’t know how this conversation finally resolves, if at all. We don’t know how this argument between darkness and Light, now and new, Nicodemus and Jesus really turns out. In my own mind I believe Jesus had the better argument. That’s in the prefrontal cortex of my brain where our human mind’s logic prevails. Yet in the back of my mind, where memory prevails, I have to admit there are times when I also want to remain in the womb of my own darkness, my own comfort zone, my old dependencies and securities. Like Nicodemus, I want to hold onto my now and resist the new. I may be stuck or trapped but I’ve grown to kind of like my own comfortable rut. I’d rather stay asleep than have some potentially great awakening. And I’d rather not face the unknowns of a new birth or a new year. Truth be told, I’m often like Nicodemus in preferring the metaphorical dark of night to the new light of day.

So what about you? Are you tempted to ever stay with what you already know instead of believing in the unknown? Is there some umbilical cord in your own life you’re afraid to cut? Some dark, warm womb or comfort zone you’re afraid to leave? Ever wish you could crawl back into some easier or more dependable past? Ever want to just remain stuck with what is in your life?

Maybe we both need to listen to Jesus when it comes to this new year’s unknowns. Maybe we need to relax in the promise that God so loves us that He is not here to condemn us, control us, or win any arguments against us. Instead, the God who has come to us at Christmas offers us all the Light of a new birth, the opportunity of a new year.

And the faith that there really is life after birth. Like the unseen mother’s arms waiting to love us and not damn us, so God’s even greater love and Light calls us to be born again. Happy New Year!

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