What if it is true?

I’m a white, Protestant, middle class man.  I grew up in a redneck town, attended a predominantly white high school, paid for my own college, have had two successful careers that have allowed me to live a very comfortable life, that I worked hard for.  It’s pretty easy for me to argue that racism is dead, that equal opportunity is out there, and that black people need to quit (fill in the blank) and work hard, and they can be successful just like me.  As a matter of fact, I wrote a paper on that very same subject 20+ years ago in Freshman English at Lincoln University (my undergrad alma mater, and a historically black college).

But I also spent 23 years in the Army and became friends and comrades with many blacks from many different backgrounds from around the US.  I had a Master Sergeant that worked for me who was pulled over multiple times while we worked together in Des Moines, IA, for “driving while black.”  I’ve seen enough similar occurrences to know that it wasn’t an isolated situation.

In my years of leadership I’ve studied human behavior, particularly in situations of conflict, and learned that true progress can only be achieved when we begin by recognizing the existence of positions that may not align with our own.  I’ve also become very aware that a person’s perception becomes his or her reality, no matter how illogical it might seem to an observer.

Many, many black people in our country today are hurt, afraid, enraged, distrusting, and myriad other emotions.  They believe the system is prejudiced against them.  Rather than taking that as a condemnation of all us white folks, what if we stopped first to listen–not to form our argument as to how they are wrong, but to hear their perspective, to seek 1st to understand what makes this perception real to them?   What if, instead of immediately shouting back “You’re WRONG!” and launching into whatever flavor of justification we prefer/believe, we stopped to consider, “What if it is true?”

“Truth” + irrelevance = FAIL

The Christian world is all knotted up right now in a bout of self-torture over a recent New York Times interview with Brian Houston, pastor of Hillsong Church.  The reporter asked Houston to clarify Hillsong’s position on gay marriage.  Houston refused to take the bait, in part because his church has a presence in LA and NYC, and is being effective at ministering to the gay community in those two cities.  His response:

“It’s very easy to reduce what you think about homosexuality to just a public statement, and that would keep a lot of people happy,” he said, “but we feel at this point, that it is an ongoing conversation, that the real issues in people’s lives are too important for us just to reduce it down to a yes or no answer in a media outlet. So we’re on the journey with it.”

The reaction to this response was swift and strong from the evangelical conservatives, led by the Southern Baptist Convention.  In his blog post, Andrew Walker (no relation), SBC Director of Policy Studies for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, takes Houston to task for being accommodating to culture by not declaring an unequivocal Biblical stand in opposition to gay marriage, and homosexuality in general.  Conservative evangelicals hate the concept of cultural relevance, and believe Christians need to be clear, blunt, and unbending in declaring the “truth” found in the Bible.  In Andrew Walker’s words:

a non-answer is an answer. Let’s be very clear on that. It’s also a very vapid answer. What we’re seeing in many corners of evangelicalism is a pliability that makes Christianity an obsequious servant to whatever the reigning zeitgeist is. With non-answers like this, it isn’t Jesus who is sitting at the right hand of the Father. Culture is.

Apparently Walker and other evangelicals who are offended by Houston’s choice not to reply to a loaded question have forgotten Jesus’ answers to the chief priests in Matthew 21:23-27.  The religious leaders ask Jesus a loaded question:  “On whose authority are you saying and doing what you’re doing?”  Knowing that the question was loaded, Jesus artfully dodged the question by responding with a loaded question of his own.  When the religious leaders dodged Jesus’ question, he refused to answer theirs.

The NYT question to Houston was a loaded one–any answer was going to bring about division and controversy.  Here is where Houston erred in the eyes of Mr. Walker, and most other raging evangelical commentators:  He chose to avoid an answer that, while affirming Biblical truth (as even Mr. Houston interprets it, as indicated in this press release in response to the firestorm) didn’t poke sinners in the eye with a sharp stick.  These critics love to throw about a small phrase from Ephesians 4:15, devoid of context*:  “speaking the truth in love,” as in “The Bible demands that we declare loudly that homosexuals are sinners, and that by doing so we are showing them how much we love them by saving them from Hell.”

News flash for Mr. Walker and his friends:  Pretty much every coherent homosexual in the western world is abundantly clear on the evangelical position that homosexuality is a sin (not just any sin, but an abomination!), and that gay marriage is an affront to God, marriage, and Focus on the Family.  Your friends at Westboro Baptist are leading the charge in communicating the anti-relevance message.  We don’t need Mr. Houston to pile on.

18 months ago I articulated my views on gay marriage, so I’m not going to expound on that point.  Truth is, this post isn’t so much about gay marriage as it is about cultural relevance and the Christian church.  Houston’s critics will tell you, either indirectly or overtly, that their job is to present God’s truths so that everyone who does not know God as Lord and Savior will realize they are sinners, repent, and accept God’s forgiveness.  Any efforts to connect with the culture in a meaningful way is derided as accommodation, and diluting the gospel, most often with the stated or implied motive of attaining or maintaining popularity, which equals dollars.** These critics proudly proclaim that they would gladly see current society burn in hell before they would give up their primary mission of proclaiming “God’s truth.” (Walker:  A church in exile (and that’s how I’d describe the current placement of confessional evangelicalism) is one that is faithful amidst the culture, regardless of whether that culture looks more like America or more like Babylon. It knows that it may lose the culture, but that it cannot lose the Gospel. So be it.”)

There’s a problem with that approach, and it is most clearly seen in the example of missionaries of the past 200 years who left Western churches to “take the Gospel” to the unchurched in other parts of the world.  Whether it was Central America, Africa, or Alaska, those missionaries who refused to be relevant to the culture they were trying to reach, found themselves first trying to convert their audience to Western modernity before they could convert them to Christianity.  Most failed outright; some made initial headway (usually by force) in trying to force the people to change their culture, and in so doing, created long-lasting problems that we are still trying to undo today.  All created a distrust and fear of the Church.  On the other hand, missionaries that realized that you don’t have to be a Western European or American to be loved by God and be a part of his Kingdom have planted churches that are growing and thriving.  Those missionaries realized that the Truth of God is meaningful to all cultures, and does not have to be framed in the context of the culture that sent them.

More simply put:  the SBC’s message that “God abhors your sinful behavior and will send you to hell for all eternity if you don’t stop doing _____” is completely meaningless to someone who has no clue who God is, or why the person should care what God thinks.  Our culture doesn’t know God–they only know the church.  And their primary understanding of the church is that they hate homosexuals.  Somewhere along the way, evangelicals in America have lost sight of the Great Commission to “go and make disciples.”  Making disciples involves building a relationship.  That’s hard work.  Before we can help someone become a disciple of Jesus, we have to get to know them and help them get to know Jesus well enough that they would desire to follow him.  It’s going to be hard to do that with homosexuals when our initial message is “God hates you and is going to send you to hell if you don’t stop having homosexual sex.”

Evangelicals love to point to John 8’s account of the adulterous woman to justify their actions, citing Jesus in verse 11 telling the woman “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  However, they lose sight of the fact that he only made this statement after he saved the woman’s life, and told her that he didn’t condemn her.

Brian Houston chose to avoid a trap, in order to continue building relationships with people who he wants to help know Jesus, so that he can help them become disciples of Jesus.  He is condemned by fellow Christ followers who would prefer that he alienate these people by “speaking the truth.”  While the SBC message may be factually correct, its disdain for cultural relevance means that they will become less and less effective at the Church’s primary mission of making disciples.  To those who feel the need to “speak the truth” on this (or any other) sin issue, I would recommend they consider following Houston’s example.  You see, Houston is choosing to speak Truth–in the form of Jesus himself.  Because, it is Jesus, not the SBC, who takes away the sins of the world.

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* Too bad most folks don’t read all of Ephesians 4.  Paul’s discussion about spiritual maturity and church unity might clarify that this oft-quoted phrase is not a license to castigate nonbelievers, but a plea for Christians  to quit acting like babies and instead to treat each other as integral parts of the same body of Christ.

**Many commenters immediately attributed Houston’s approach, despite his clear statement that a simple yes/no answer would diminish the importance of the conversation, to a perceived greed and desire to preserve the wealth of his church.  Their evidence:  Houston’s church is big, and it has a huge influence in the Contemporary Christian music genre.  Therefore Houston’s motives must be greedy, selfish, and devoid of Christ.  I wonder how many of those who grabbed their keyboard and thesaurus to launch their scathing attacks on a Christian brother on Friday, finished their worship set Sunday morning with Oceans (a Hillsong original which is immensely popular with contemporary worship services around the country)?  Their immediate association of Houston’s lack of alignment with their thoughts to the astounding success and impact his church is having around the world is curious, and without further evidence seems to be a glaring fallacy of logic.

Scared of Ebola? Then you haven’t heard about THIS!

People are freaking out–right now my news feed is blowing up because somebody barfed in the Pentagon parking lot, causing officials to seal off one entrance, and quarantine a busload of people headed to some jarhead’s change of command ceremony.

While we’re spazzing out about whether or not to buy online this year, because the person at the shipping dock might have had Ebola (seriously–I’ve seen this concern!  I’m afraid these folks might just starve to death if they figure out the same problem could occur at the store.  “THIS JUST IN:  Walmart might be an Ebola vector!”)-  If we’re taking such drastic action to protect against the spread of this deadly virus, the CDC should be proactive to prevent THOUSANDS of deaths this year alone from a much more heinous killer, that’s already breached our shores.

Barricade all KFCs.

I’m serious!  Ebola has killed ONE person in the US, and TWO MORE are infected because of DIRECT contact with the deceased victim.  Meanwhile, an average of SIX HUNDRED THOUSAND Americans die ANNUALLY from heart disease!  The three leading contributors to heart disease are high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol levels, and smoking.

Six. Hundred. Thousand. Per. Year.  That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Portland Oregon or Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Wait, you don’t care about people dying, as long as it’s not you?  Ok, then choke on this number:  the CDC estimates that heart disease costs $108.9 BILLION per year!

Now, we can’t outlaw tobacco, because, well, it’s too big to fail.  But the smaller fast food chains like KFC are nothing more than disease-dispensers.

This whole Ebola scare in the US is a prime example of irrational thinking driving imbecilic behavior.   If we really were worried, we’d start outlawing fried foods.  Ebola is a real problem in West Africa.  In the US, it’s just fodder to feed our irrational need for drama.

Sodom’s Sin

The book of the prophet Ezekiel is not high on the list of most popular Christian speakers or writers.  It is full of apocalyptic imagery and symbolic prophecy against the Jews, and frankly doesn’t have too many nice things to say. The few who do make reference to Ezekiel typically do so in trying to predict the second coming of Jesus, along with all the events that will accompany it.

Ezekiel wasn’t written so we could predict Jesus’ return, nor to allow us to try to figure out when all the bad stuff was going to happen.  Ezekiel prophesied to the Jews in exile, and to the people left behind, to point out to them that their wanton rebellion against God had consequences.  Some of the imagery is quite bizarre and difficult to comprehend, but other images are all too easy to understand, and make their points quite readily.  Chapter 16 is one of the latter types.

In Ezekiel 16, God, speaking through the prophet, compares Israel to an abandoned baby, whom he finds, nurtures to health, and watches over as she grows to become a beautiful woman.  God then adorns her, and takes her for his bride.  Rather than showing appreciation and devotion, however, Israel prostitutes herself to anyone who will pay attention!   God goes on to say that Israel doesn’t even deserve to be called a prostitute, because she doesn’t even get paid for her actions–worse yet, she pays others!  All of this graphic description is to cast Israel’s behavior in the light of an unfaithful bride, who in no uncertain terms has violated her covenant.

Not stuff that sells well in Christian book stores.

That was a long intro to the point that really jumped out at me this morning, and the point that gave rise to this title.  Even most non-Christians in America have heard of the city of Sodom, and most would probably be able to tell you that the city’s destruction had something to do with sexual immorality. However, this basic understanding is inadequate.  Based on the description of the destruction of Sodom in  Genesis 19, it is easy to assume that Sodom was destroyed because of their deviant sexual practices.  Genesis 18:20 only tells us that the outcry against Sodom was great, and the sin was “very grave.”  But in Ezekiel 16:49-50, God explicitly states, “Now this was the sin of your (Israel’s) sister Sodom:  She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor or the needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me.  Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”

Many in the US today like to claim some sort of special favor upon our nation from God, some going so far as to claim a birthright akin to Israel’s, that we are a chosen nation.  While I believe we are incredibly blessed by God, there is no basis for any claim as to special favor.  Nonetheless, we can and should apply the lessons of Scripture, and I believe that the sin of Sodom contains a lesson for the US today, starting with those who claim to be followers of Jesus.  Too many Christians are quick to condemn those around us for their detestable acts, that are not pleasing to God.  We have declared Christian jihad against homosexual marriage and abortion*, but have not addressed the root problems of sin in our nation.  I believe American Christians are guilty of the Sin of Sodom:  We are arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned.  We do not help the poor and the needy.  We are haughty, and because of that, we do detestable things.

“But wait, Greg! I am concerned about the poor and the needy! I send $10 a month to a starving child in Africa!”  I  don’t underplay any of the contributions that people make to the needy in third world countries.  But too many Christians in this nation rail about the “welfare bums” and the illegal immigrants.  How many people who blocked busloads of frightened children with chants and signs went to church the next Sunday and sang about Christian love and charity?

I’m not saying that we will turn our nation’s fortunes around solely by helping the poor and the needy.  If that’s all we do, we won’t.  We need to start with the other issues described in Sodom’s Sin:  We need to start with our own arrogance, our own gluttony, our own selfishness that leads us to be unconcerned about others (or viewing others as competitors to what is “ours”).  There’s a lot of handwringing going on in pulpits, Christian teachings, blogs, and other conservative circles about the state of our nation, and that we appear to be headed for a fall.  Some respond with rejoicing, thinking that it means that Jesus is coming soon, and we’ll be taken from this messed up world to heaven (“great for all of us ‘good Christians,’ sucks to be you, sinner!”), or, more tragically (to hear some tell it) this great Christian nation is about to see its demise.  All of these responses seem to come from selfish hearts–“my world is going to be upended!”  What we should really be wringing our hands about is our sin of Sodom–our selfishness that evidences a lack of a Christ-like heart.

 

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*Is there a parallel to Ezekiel 16:20-21, “And you took your sons and daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols.  Was your prostitution not enough?  You slaughtered my children and sacrificed them to the idols.”?  I believe there is a frightening parallel to our acceptance of all deviant sexual behavior (defined as sex outside the bounds of Godly marriage) and abortion.  Nonetheless, I don’t believe the Israelites would have been saved by outlawing these practices–in fact, they were already outlawed in the laws of Moses! 

Hope and a Future

I haven’t blogged in a long time, but had been planning to start again soon.  This is not how I planned to start, but sometimes my plans don’t align with God’s plans.  I’ve found that it all goes better for me when I yield to his plans, rather than pressing on with my own, so humor me (and God) with a brief departure from my normal content, as I share a relatively obvious insight that had never caught my eye before:

Many Christians are familiar with, and can even quote verse 11 of Chapter 29 from the book Jeremiah.  The verse is a source of encouragement to all of God’s followers:  ” ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ”  Very uplifting words, that have been printed on coffee cups and desk placards, and quoted to countless others who are frustrated in their situation. How could you not be encouraged when the Creator of the universe tells you he has a plan to proper you?

I’m frustrated by our recent past in the Western Church, and one of those frustrations stems from the fact that we’ve often allowed our biblical teaching to become more a presentation of ethical principles than the telling of the Divine Story.  While this is subject for more than one future discussion, I raise it this morning because the popularity of this verse is a prime example of the problem:  We know maxims, comforting phrases, but we don’t know the whole story.

Jeremiah 29 isn’t a book of happy thoughts set in a prosperous time–to the contrary, the prophet Jeremiah is writing a letter to the king, the leaders, and the upper class of the nation of Judah, who had been captured by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and who were now living in Babylon under his rule (for more on the joys of being a captive of Nebuchadnezzar, read the book of Daniel, particularly chapter 3.  See also 2 Kings 21:18, where the prophet Isaiah foretells these captives who are “lucky” enough to be chosen to be servants in Nebuchadnezzar’s household, will do so after they are castrated).

So, Jeremiah pens this letter to people who aren’t in a prosperous situation at all.  What is his message?  That they will soon be rescued?  Nope.   In fact, he quickly tells them to ignore the lies of the prophets who are telling them that they will be rescued quickly.  Instead, Jeremiah tells them to get comfy, because they’re going to be there for a while-70 years, to be exact.  And he doesn’t tell them to begin a guerilla campaign, or even to be derisive or uncooperative; instead, the Lord tells the exiles to “seek the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you.”

Jeremiah is not writing to a group of people in happy conditions–in fact, they’re in unimaginably horrid conditions.  And he’s telling them to get comfortable, because it’s going to be a long haul.  Immediately prior to the oft-quoted verse 11, we find the Lord telling the captives, “When seventy years are completed for Babylon*, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place (Jerusalem).”

The good news?  God did exactly what he promised–he brought the Jews out of captivity, exactly 70 years later. When you read the whole story, you see that God is not a random, capricious judge who vacillates and contradicts himself, but a consistent, reliable, loving God who acts in our best interests, even when what we need is an extended time-out.  God does have plans for you–plans to prosper you and not to harm you; great things for you now and in the future.

The bad news?  If you want to cherry-pick Scripture to find phrases to support your own personal wants, needs, or beliefs, you can.  But, when you lift them out of context, you may miss some important details.  Jeremiah 29:11 can be a great encouragement to all who are struggling through trials in their lives, but they need to know the whole story–the trial may not be quick, easy, or painless.

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*I highlight this because I find the phrase “seventy years are completed for Babylon” to be interesting–sometimes the duration of our trials and struggles aren’t because we need that much time to learn something, but because God needs that time to do a work through or in someone else.  While the Jews in Babylonian captivity had the opportunity to learn and grow through the trials of captivity, at least from this verse it appears that God had an equally important objective of using the Babylonians to accomplish his purposes in the course of History.  What better place to preserve the remnant of your treasured people than in the house of the king of the most powerful nation of the world?

Reflections on “How to Raise a Pagan Kid in a Christian Home”

I just read “How to Raise a Pagan Kid in a Christian Home”, and thought I’d share it, as well as add some thoughts of my own.  The article brings up some good points, and some that I’m guilty of in my own parenting.

I spent too much of my life telling my kids that my job was to ensure they “grew up to be productive members of our society.”  I was wrong, and my only defense is ignorance.  For most of my kids’ formative years, that was my understanding of life.  As the author linked above states, “The only problem with this goal is that it runs in stark contrast to what the Bible teaches.”  I didn’t realize that until about nine years ago.  See, God’s goal is not to teach morality or ethics, so that we can be strong, upright citizens.  I didn’t know that; in fact, I spent most of my life thinking that was the goal, and our reward for attaining the goal was a ticket to heaven.

The author quotes Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer, who said:

“We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true.”

That first sentence describes me, and everything I taught my kids (except I was pretty light on the third part–mine would probably read more accurately if you substituted “Sunday school stories and Veggie Tales” for “gospel”).  But I’m afraid that the author of the blog goes too light on what he proposes as the antidote.  He says:

“or do you teach your kids that they will never be good without Christ’s offer of grace? There is a huge difference. One leads to moralism; the other leads to brokenness. One leads to self-righteousness; the other leads to a life that realizes that Christ is everything and that nothing else matters.”

While I don’t disagree with his point, I think that his description of “Christ’s offer of grace” still points to a message of “personal salvation,” one that tells you that if you accept Christ as your personal savior, your sins are forgiven, and you get to go to heaven.

Jesus didn’t die so we could get a ticket to heaven.  Jesus didn’t preach personal salvation.  He preached the Kingdom of Heaven.  That’s not a ticket for your afterlife, that’s a new life, starting right now.

I believe that so much of the hopelessness we see in our world, particularly in kids raised in the church, is that we are told, “pray a prayer, get ‘saved,’ then after you die, God will make everything better.”  That’s not what the BIBLE says!  If you read the whole book, it’s not just a collection of morality tales, but a comprehensive story, a metanarrative of how the Creator God has planned since the beginning to make things right in his Creation, and how each one of us, under his Lordship, can participate in that story.

I made a mess of things when I tried to do it on my own, and when I tried to use God, the church, and Veggie Tales to make my kids “productive members of society.”  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got amazing, God-loving children, who have grown up to become productive members of society, and of whom I’m very proud.  However, I way too late in life discovered that “the Protestant work ethic and the American dream” weren’t enough.

What makes my life exhilarating, and fully worth living is the fact that God wants me to be a part of his Kingdom, that he made a way for me to not only be a member, but to be an active participant in the Greatest Story, the one where he brings his fallen Creation back to relationship with him.  That purpose was what I was looking for all my life, and only recently discovered.  My hope is that my kids have that same purpose, and that other parents out there can raise their kids with The Story, rather than just the “ethics and reward” lessons I taught.

Want to be inspired?

Too many people today are frustrated by the injustice and evil in our world, and all too often are resigned to defeat, because the opposition seems to big, too powerful, too pervasive to fight.  Attempts to resist seem futile at best, and more often than not, appear to only offer personal pain and persecution.  So we do nothing, except maybe complain.  All the while, we are aching on the inside, because somebody ought to do something!  Maybe that ache is more because our own lives seem pointless in the face of the real things that matter–the bigger battle of good vs. evil, justice vs. brutality–yet we can’t seem to muster the courage to follow our passion into our purpose.

I was blessed in my years living in Alaska to have a friend, and a mentor, who was also a storyteller.  He often shared with me the stories he was working on, while we met each week to share coffee and life together, helping one another (ok, mostly him helping me) navigate our own stories.  Over the past year, Rick shared with me the most amazing story that he was living, while preparing to write his latest book.  Late night satellite phone conversations to interview guerrilla leaders hiding in the jungles on the other side of the world, researching exotic languages and the history of a country where people lived the most austere lives, fighting against nature and an oppressive government to liberate a nation–the things that young (and old) boys’ fantasies are made of!  Rick was preparing to tell the story of a man who did what he was made to do, and in the process has provided relief to over 1 million people engaged in a brutal struggle against evil in a place most of us can’t even find on a map.

I just finished the product.  In “Rangers in the Gap: Act with Courage. Never Surrender”, Rick tells the story of Dave Eubanks, a child of missionaries who becomes a successful US Army Special Forces officer, but finds his real purpose in life as the founder of the Free Burma Rangers.  Dave, and his teams are leading what might possibly the most radical, unconventional guerrilla campaign in history.  Against impossible odds, what began as one man has become 260 teams, defending the displaced ethnic people groups being ravaged in Myanmar (Burma), while simultaneously fighting a war against evil itself, using the only weapon that will defeat it.

I’d encourage you to download the Kindle book linked above to get the full story.  If you can’t, at least check out the Free Burma Rangers web page.   The story is inspiring.  Hopefully it’s inspiring enough to challenge each one of us to step into the role we were each given, to make a real difference in the world around us.