Friday, March 31, 2006

Isaiah 1 - The widows and the fatherless


This is my first post in a series of posts I will be making as I study through the Book of Isaiah.  I’ve only studied a few chapters of Isaiah closely, and not one of them has disappointed me, so I am looking forward to digging through the entire book.   I’d like to start talking about this chapter by describing the overall layout and then talking about some of the particulars that impressed me.


            v. 1-4 – preamble and address.  This revelation is for wayward Isreal.

            v. 5-9 – A gently toned call to repent.  Isreal is a mess, but there is hope.

            v. 10-15 – Your religious observances aren’t helping because of your wickedness

            v. 16-20 – Everything will be better if you take care of the poor, oppressed, widows, and fatherless. 

            v. 21-24 – Signs of Isreal’s corruption, condemnation of the leadership, and a warning.

            v. 25-27 – Zion will be created through a purging process.

            v. 28-31 – The purging will be like burning tinder – wholesale and devastating.  The sin of Isreal is idolatry.


The first thing that impressed me about this passage is the gentle pleading near the beginning.  God is asking, “Why should ye be stricken any more?”  God honestly doesn’t want Isreal to have to suffer through this condition that he likens to open wounds, bruises, and putrifying sores.   God really does love us and wants us to be happy, hence the sharp rebukes and revelation on how to do better.


I try to pay close attention to messages to the church like this one.  This revelation is very clearly for Israel and not for the world, because the Lord tells Israel that the sacrifies, ceremonies, temple rites, prayers, and even solemn assemblies are “iniquity” unto him because their hands “are full of blood”, and Israel is full of “murderers”.  Now this is pretty stark language.  I imagine that it is figurative in that most of the Israelites weren’t actually committing physical murders, but the Lord is trying to get our attention and see things from his perspective.  The point I think I most need to stand up and pay attention to is that because of the ceremonies, prayers, and rites, the Israelites probably thought they were righteous.  It must have come as a shock to them to be called murderers!   I am a member of the Lord’s church and I pray and take part in ceremonies and rites on a regular basis.  What does the Lord think about my devotions? 


The key for understanding this, I believe is in 16-17.  The Lord says that Israel needs to become clean, and stop doing evil things.  And what does he tell them to do?


17 Learn to do well; seek judgment (justice), relieve the oppressed, judge (give justice to) the fatherless, plead for the widow.


Likening the scriptures to ourselves, I want to point out two things that happened recently in my congregation.  Two sisters were discussed by the ward leaders, one is an elderly widow, and the other is a single sister with children at home under her care.   I think one can consider both women widows and their children to be “fatherless”.   


The sister with children was up to her neck in debt, did not know how to get out of it, and was being harassed by Social Security to pay back money that they had given her.  She was desperate for help.  An ordinary member who has been looking after her (her home teacher) rolled up his sleeves, went through her finances with her, put her on a budget, and went with her to a government hearing to talk to officials about her Social Security.  He literally “plead” for this widow and not only absolved her of the social security debt, but reclaimed enough money for her to pay off her current debts and increased the amount of support she was receiving.  It was a remarkable. 


The other sister, was living in the “worst living conditions” the bishop in the ward has ever seen.   This poor sweet widow was in and out of the hospital and was living among animal feces, garbage, drug addicts, and children who are siphoning off of her support.  If ever a widow was in distress, this one was.  Again, the home teachers came in (along with help from the high priest’s quorum), secured her bank account, moved her out of the apartment, and all the while helped her with the hospital trips and visited her there. 


I think Isaiah is prodding us to look for situations like this and ask the hard questions of ourselves:  What can I do?  There is always something.  We may be weak, but in all of this, we must remember that the Lord is there to love us and support us in our good works, granting us his grace to fulfill His purposes.


18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land:





Thursday, March 30, 2006

Abortion, Crime Rates, and Truth

Truth and relevance in a controversial debate.

Like many, I was intrigued and a little shocked to read Economist Stephen D. Levitt’s assertion that crime rates have been lowered as a direct result of legalized abortion. I have my own opinions on abortion, yet I think people on all sides of the issue find Levitt’s theory unsettling. Understandably, some have posted rebuttals questioning Levitt’s data and statistical methods. The purpose of these refutations appears to be to further the agenda of the author by finding flaws in Levitt’s theory. From all contributors, including Levitt, we find some arguments that are compelling and others that are weak. This leaves the passer-by in somewhat of a conundrum when attempting to discern truth from error in a veritable haystack of opinion and analysis.

I am a computer programmer by trade. Often times, I am involved in design meetings to intently discuss the best way to solve a certain problem. Competing algorithms are proposed and debated. Sometimes these debates become heated. As we discuss the issue, we start defending our own ideas and diverging from a unified solution. It is not uncommon at this point for someone to jump into the discussion and ask an obvious, yet overlooked, question: Why are we even trying to solve this problem at all? For, indeed, the passion of the debate has arisen from the fact that we are working on the wrong problem. There is no apparent solution because both sides are arguing something meaningless. Once we discover all of our haranguing came from two sides of the same coin, so to speak, the debate evaporates and we go on to something more productive.

The abortion debate in general, and this debate about crime rates in particular, is an example of this two-sides, same-coin problem. Almost all of us feel very strongly about abortion one way or another, and when we see a dichotomy, we believe that we can take one side or the other and therefore be “right” or “wrong”. The truth, as it turns out, is that we have been duped. Does abortion lower crime? Is a fetus alive? Does a woman have a right to control her body? All of these questions are phantasms, luring unsuspecting minds into an apparently moral debate where the participants contentedly and self-righteously establish and defend their viewpoints. The fervor and the emotion then blind the mind to the stark reality that it has fallen into an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual pit where the only hope of escape is to climb out and leave it alone. The American mind is stuck in the depths of a pit of this type.

We Americans are divided on so many fronts that it would be outright laughable if the problem weren’t so deadly serious. Pro-Life/Pro-Choice, Pro-War/Pro-Peace, Republican/Democrat, Liberal/Conservative, the list goes on. This list seems to get the longest during an election year, where the modern debate and the 15 second campaign ad have brought reductionism to an art form. I think almost all of us detect the absurdity of the situation otherwise the comedians would not get so much mileage on the jokes about it. But as John Stewart boldly said to the Co-Hosts of CNN’s Crossfire, “it’s hurting America”.

How is this happening? Americans (and I am sure others) love the thought that there is a “good” side and an “evil” side to conflict and conflicting ideas. We love it so much that seek it out and immerse ourselves in images and media that promote this viewpoint. This is not to say that there is no good and evil. I happen to believe there are forces for good and evil in the world that are absolute and discoverable. The problem is that the evil side understands our desire to separate right from wrong and plays a very clever deception by creating the appearance of a battlefront, which attracts us. We, as evil’s enemies, then spend our time fighting each other, each convinced that we are in the right, but essentially distracted from the real battlefront where there are precious few for a defence.

We spend such a great deal of effort to locate and eliminate the evil that is coming at us from the outside that, ironically, we neglect what is on the inside; for it is this internal struggle that is the “real” fight here. We can garner all the notoriety, wealth, status, and accolades the world has to offer, but we have lost utterly if we have lost the battle over self. If we are ever to gain ground in the battle against the social ills of this country, we must understand that questions and debates thrown around us by the media are largely irrelevant.

To illustrate what I am talking about, let’s take this popular subject of debate: When is a fetus ‘alive’? For many, this is the crucial point of contention that governs their opinion on the legalization of abortion. Brilliant minds on both sides of the issue have written eloquent arguments to one end or the other. Sometimes even God is invoked, complete with biblical citations. This is all a very interesting thought exercise, but even a casual observer can take a step back and see what everyone (including God) really wants. And that is this: We want to not have worry about abortion at all. That is to say: in a world patterned after godliness, there would be no rape, no incest, no unwed mothers, no unwanted babie; instead there would be chastity, self-discipline, patience, kindness, and courage. Therefore, there would be no band-aid called “abortion” invented to clean up after the lost battles of self that litter the country. When is a fetus alive? It’s irrelevant. Don’t let the question distract you from the real battle- the inside battle for your own self.

In several instances, Jesus Christ talked about these false outer battles and the true inner battles. I will bring up a three mentions in particular:

  • Matthew 15:8-9 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
  • Matthew 16:12 Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.*
  • Matthew 23: 27-28 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

To paraphrase, there is a lot of self-righteous rhetoric fueling the liberal and conservatives agendas. While all of this rhetoric sounds pretty and makes the speaker look like they are on high moral ground, in reality the speakers are simply pushing their own opinions and ideas which they have invented themselves in favor of their “cause”, whatever that may be. Worse, the speakers often do not live up to the ideals they espouse, nor do their cutting words do much to help anyone else to live up to those ideals.

In the mean time, the object that God desires is largely neglected in these public battles. That object is also given by Jesus:

Matthew 23:26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. (emphasis added)

If we can take a moment to really believe this- if we can be momentarily convinced it is the inner battle that is so important, then we will begin to understand something momentous: Personal moral purity is cure we seek for the ills, heartache, and suffering of society. There is real power that comes from morals written in the heart; more power than a picket line, a gun, public ranting, torture, or anything else that people can contrive to force their man-made ideas upon others.

If we seek resolution in the abortion debate, we must seek not to support abortion, nor to eradicate abortion. We must seek instead to eliminate the very need for abortion, for as long as that need, or even the perception of that need exists, we will lose the battle no matter what side we have chosen. And worse, that battle will work against humankind and will only serve the side of evil.

* To understand this reference, it is important to know that the Pharisees and Sadducees were the conservatives and liberals of their time, respectively. Therefore Jesus was warning the apostles to avoid the traditional dogmatic battles between liberals and conservatives, as both of them were spiritually dangerous.