I’m not asking you to believe–just consider “What if?”

Fewer and fewer people are doing anything outside of their normal Friday routine today.  As the US becomes less bound to the Christian tradition, less of its people recognize that this week is the most important week on the Christian calendar, and that today is known as “Good Friday.”

As a kid, that name boggled my mind.  Now that I’m older and wiser, it still boggles my mind.  Shouldn’t it be “Good Sunday” and “Really Bad Friday?”  Now, before you start going all theological on me, I’m going to ask that you take off your spiritual glasses for a moment, and look at this story like most of the world would.  Jesus, the focal point of the Christian faith, is nailed to a cross (don’t gloss over that, just because you’ve heard it a million times–let it sink in for a minute) and he dies.

How can that be “good?”  As a kid, well-meaning family members and Sunday School teachers explained to me how it was necessary to satisfy God, to make up for all the bad things I had done, for Jesus to die.

“Why?” young Greg asks.

“Because that’s the way the penalty is paid.”

“So the guy who didn’t do anything wrong had to die to make up for me telling lies and stealing cookies?”

“Well, yes…”

“Who made those rules?”

“God did.”

“Jesus’ dad?”

“Yes.”

“Well that’s a dumb rule… But Jesus is dead, and that’s why we call it ‘Good Friday?’ ”

“I think I hear your mother calling you…”

Dead Jesus certainly didn’t seem to make sense to 10-year-old Greg.  It didn’t make sense to Peter, James, John, or the rest of Jesus’ followers.  In fact, it was so far from logical, let alone “good” that it had to be the worst day of all of their lives.

Today, no one gives a lot of thought to the execution of Jesus on the cross.  Christians might acknowledge it when they say “Jesus died for me,” but most don’t think about it any more deeply than they do “2+2=4.”  We tend to focus more on the resurrection of Jesus than the death.  Non-Christians probably don’t give it much thought at all.  Most non-Christians, if they take the time to consider the death of Jesus, are apt to write it off as either myth, or a relatively insignificant historical event that’s been blown way out of proportion by the deception of his early followers.

That’s unfortunate.

As Christians, we tend to demonstrate more gratitude to someone who finds and returns our lost wallet (with cash and credit cards intact) than the one who died a horrific death on our behalf.  What if Christians showed their gratitude for Jesus’ death by loving others the way Jesus loved those around him during his life?

For non-Christians, its doubly unfortunate in that their disbelief in the historicity of Jesus’ death, or their dismissal of its significance, causes them to not seriously consider a crucial question:  What if Jesus really did die on a Roman cross in Jerusalem?

The historicity of Jesus’ death on the cross is one of the most accurately established facts in all of history.  Refuting his death as a made up story that was manipulated by his followers into a grand religion has as much credibility as refuting the Apollo moon landings.*  And if his death was so significant that the Roman cross went from being a symbol of oppression, torture, and disgrace to the most recognized religious symbol in the world in a few hundred years, perhaps it is worth more consideration, not just from a historical standpoint, but from a personal one as well.

IF the accounts of Jesus’ death are true, if Jesus and his first followers believed he died for a purpose, and that purpose crosses the boundaries of history and includes you and me today–isn’t it worth at least exploring?

And if you believe, as I do, that the event is not only true, but that it occurred for the reasons Jesus said it would, then shouldn’t his willing sacrifice of life for my eternal benefit, cause me to live differently, as he asked?

 


*I use the analogy of the Apollo program very deliberately.  The writings which became the New Testament are strongly established to have been written within the first 50 years after Jesus’ death.  Today we would quickly dismiss as insane anyone who claims that the Apollo landings didn’t happen (approximately 50 years ago).  There is insurmountable evidence that it happened.  In much the same way, the truth of the death (and life) of Jesus of Nazareth is insurmountable, and is only dismissed by those who choose to consider only the evidence which supports their predetermined conclusion.

Scared? It’s your choice.

No, this is not a political post, although I can see an application in our current political climate.  But I’m not going there today.  I’ve spent the past few days hanging out in a hospital with one of my closest friends who is fighting a fight that would terrify any of us.  So my mind is primarily there, but it is also with many other friends, who are

  • dealing with loved ones battling major health issues,
  • dealing with the too-soon unexpected death of a spouse,
  • facing dramatic career-change and relocations,
  • and many others who are rightfully overwhelmed by the unknown future of family members, close friends, and their own inner struggles.
I was reminded of the phrase “be strong and courageous” from the book of Joshua, and I share it with all of you.  Joshua was the successor to Moses.  If you’ve ever taken a job where the person you are replacing was a legendary figure in the company, you have a little idea what it was like for Joshua.  Moses was the greatest leader they had ever known, and he had led the Israelites to do extraordinary things.  The book of Joshua begins with God talking to Joshua–passing Moses’ leadership mantle to Joshua.  What makes Joshua’s assignment even more daunting is the fact that he’s not merely taking over an organization that is running in a steady state, with the job “not to screw things up.”  Joshua is charged by God to take the nation of Israel to the next level–literally to lead them to take the “Promised Land,” the mission for which Moses had been training them for the past 40 years.
It’s easy to sit here in the luxury of nearly 3500 years of hindsight and underestimate Joshua’s situation.  Because, of course, God “promised” the Israelites this land, so certainly Joshua was going to be successful, so he should have no doubts, right?  Joshua was probably more focused on the fact that Moses was the one God chose to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into the Promised Land, and he died in the desert.  If Moses couldn’t do it, how was he supposed to pull it off?  Joshua had been a faithful second-in-command, but when you become “the guy,” everything changes.  All that to say, Joshua had more than a little reason to be overwhelmed with legitimate fear.
Fear is a messy thing.  Our culture has cast it as a weakness, a thing to be ridiculed, a sign of insufficient confidence or inner strength.  Religious people point to it as a lack of faith, as if it were some sort of character flaw or shortcoming.  Many try to deal with it in a number of unhealthy ways.  People suppress fear and deny it, or at the other end of the spectrum, embrace it as part of “who they are” and allow it to suppress them.  I don’t want to delve too deeply into the psychology of fear, but instead I want to look at this one teaching on it, and see if there’s something in here to help all of us as we grapple with the emotions generated as we contemplate the unknown (or sometimes that which we do know, and are about to encounter again).
God’s charge to Joshua starts brutally bluntly:  “Moses my servant is dead.  Now, you get all these people ready to invade the land that your ancestors have been dreaming about.” (Joshua 1:2, GMW version)  He then goes on in verses 3-5 to tell Joshua about the success God has in store for them.
Then in verse 6 God changes the topic slightly.  In the next 4 verses, God deals with a critical issue:  Joshua’s fear.  Joshua was a confident, courageous leader who had proven himself strong already on multiple occasions.  He is one of the few major biblical characters who has no significant character flaws (the only real negative I can find recorded in Scripture was his failure to consult with God about the Gibeonite treaty–a mistake, to be sure, but primarily because it was so out of character for Joshua).  Joshua was no wimp, no weak man.  But three times in four verses, God encourages Joshua:
  • v6: “Be strong and courageous…”
  • v7: “Be strong and very courageous…”
  • v9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous….”
God didn’t dismiss Joshua’s fears.  Too many times someone who is dealing with fearful situations is told “don’t be afraid” or worse yet, “Why are you afraid?”  Dismissing fear is less than pointless; it’s demeaning.  God doesn’t do that to Joshua.  He offers something better!  He tells him to be strong, to have courage.  That’s easy for God to say, he’s not looking at the situation through my eyeballs!
I left out a lot of text from those four verses, where God gives the details of how Joshua can “be strong and courageous” in the midst of his fearful circumstances.  More on that in a minute.  But first, I want to explore something I hadn’t noticed in that passage before, even though I’ve read it dozens of times.  In verse 9, God starts with “Have I not commanded you?”  I’ve always read that as something akin to that parental breakdown point, when logic and patience fail simultaneously, and the parent screams, “DO IT BECAUSE I SAID SO!!!”  But that’s not what is going on here.  Just as in John 13:34, where Jesus tells his disciples, “a new command I give you:  love one another”, Jesus is not commanding an emotion.  So also God is not commanding Joshua to have an emotion.  Emotions can’t be forced.
In our culture, we don’t fully understand Jesus’s command in John 13, because we think “warm fuzzy feels” when we think “love.”  But Jesus’s command is to an action, rooted in a choice.  In the same way, God commands Joshua, “Be strong and courageous.”  He’s not saying “don’t have an emotion (fear).”  He’s saying, essentially, “Make a choice:  Choose to have strength and courage.”  Just as our culture misunderstands love, we also misunderstand courage.  What most of us think of as courage is more accurately “bravado,” which Oxford defines as “a bold manner or a show of boldness intended to impress or intimidate.” 
God’s command to Joshua is something different.  He is commanding an action.  And precluding that action is a decision.  Joshua gets to decide whether he is going to act on his fears, or on something else.  Courage is the act of choosing to persevere despite the conditions that warrant fear.  Courage is focusing on your source of strength, and acting.  Fear is nothing more than empowered doubt.  Courage is choosing to focus on and continuing to work toward the right outcome, despite the risks.
God redirects Joshua’s attention from the obstacles and enormity of the task at hand.  Joshua wasn’t acting on blind wishes.  He’d seen God’s work and knew His strength.  He knew God’s assurances that Joshua would succeed could be trusted, because he knew God.
All of us face fearful circumstances at times in our lives.  Some of us are staring at the impossible, the insurmountable–at monsters so big that the only reasonable response is to curl up in the corner and wait for it to devour us.  But we have another choice.  We can choose to be strong and courageous.  We can choose to focus on the sources of strength in our lives, and to recognize that those strengths can help us press on in the midst of our fears.  When fearful thoughts start washing over us, we can choose to think a new thought!  We can decide to keep going, and not let our fears control us.  They won’t always go away, but they don’t have to dominate.

For followers of YHWH, Joshua’s God, our source of strength is the same assurances that Joshua had:  God is worthy of being trusted, because he has always proven himself to be true.  While verse 9 was not specifically addressed to us, God’s nature is such that we can be assured that we have the same promise:

“Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” 

Shame on Falwell

A few days ago, the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., encouraged his students in a mandatory weekly gathering of all undergraduate students, to enroll in a free concealed carry course, and to carry concealed weapons on the campus.

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he proclaimed to the loud unrestrained applause of students. “I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” (Huffington Post, 12.07.15)

Headlines and editorial pages are exploding, and the Facebook memes won’t be far behind.  Both sides of the political and Second Amendment arguments are stridently taking positions, and classifying the opposite side as subhuman, in intelligence level, if not in actual DNA composition.

As usual, my thoughts on this particular incident are complex, and have enough nuances to offend everyone.  I wish I were able to condense my thoughts on significant issues to the size of a Tweet, but I work hard to see the complexities and to consider the positions and concerns of all sides of a disagreement.  That unfortunately leads to long posts.  Fortunately for my readers, I don’t charge by the word.

I am a Christian, and a pastor.  A survey of my key theological beliefs would match up well with the Evangelical camp that Falwell calls home, and to which Liberty University caters.  I’m also a firearm owner, and believe that properly trained and qualified individuals should be able to carry firearms (more on the qualifiers in a moment).

With that introduction, let me tell you that I have a few problems with Falwell’s statements.  As in, I gave myself a bloody nose with the facepalm.

Let’s start with the practical:

  • Concealed carry licensing requirements in EVERY state in the US are a joke.  I was unable to obtain the details of the free training that Falwell is offering Liberty students, but I did check what is required in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Basically any firearm or hunter safety course, including those that consist only of classroom instruction, or an honorable discharge from the military, suffices to meet the state requirement that the applicant “has demonstrated competence with a handgun.” I’m not a hunter, and have never attended a hunter safety course, but I am retired from the Army, and can assure you that an honorable discharge from the US military in no way demonstrates “competence with a handgun.”  Many soldiers will go their entire enlistment without ever even handling a handgun, let alone demonstrating competence.
  • Beyond basic weapons proficiency, or lack thereof, the more important issue is that most people carrying handguns today neither train regularly to maintain basic skills, nor do they spend time developing the proper mindset and muscle memory to be effective in an active shooter scenario.  Despite the claims of the NRA and most gun rights advocates, most people carrying concealed today are a hazard to those around them, because they aren’t trained well.  College students, and presidents, shouldn’t assume that because they’ve hit a paper target, they’re effective gun-fighters, no matter how many video games they’ve played.
  • Security at a large institution should not be left to several hundred independent operators.  Imagine being a first responding law enforcement officer and arriving on a scene with two bad guy shooters, and 200 good guy shooters–who are your legitimate targets?  For that matter, even before the law enforcement arrives, assume you hear shots, draw your concealed weapon, look up and see several people with handguns drawn–who is the bad guy?  Most concealed carry permit holders don’t consider these scenarios.  Adding more untrained, armed people to the mix won’t help.
From an “influential leader perspective:
  • “ending those Muslims before they walk in”– yes, I know he clarified the next day in a press release that he meant the terrorists, but that’s not what he said…  This whole phrase is STUPID (to borrow Trump’s terminology).  It’s inflammatory, insensitive, and wrong.  How about we decide, and state, that we’re going to defend against terrorists, who are the problem, instead of an entire religion?
  • “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here”–more ignorant, harmful blustering.  I love John Wayne movies more than most, but cowboy bravado has no place in public leadership.  Taking lives, even terrorist lives, shouldn’t be about “teach(ing) a lesson.”  It should be about defending innocent lives.  And it shouldn’t be spoken of cavalierly by the leader of the largest evangelical Christian institution of higher learning in the world.  It sounds like high-school bluster.
  • IF you feel it is necessary to ignore all the thoughts above, and you choose to run your mouth, and IF you feel it is necessary to announce to thousands (millions, really) of people that you carry a concealed weapon, at least be well-trained enough to know whether or not pulling it out on stage, in front of thousands of people, when there is no imminent threat, is legal!!! (In case you missed it, Falwell said, “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know.”)  If you don’t know, you have no business carrying it, and you just acknowledged your lack of competence to the world.
  • As the leader of the largest evangelical Christian institution of higher learning, you bear an incredible responsibility to set a good, Christ-like example.  Pandering to the audience’s fear, and in so doing, a) encouraging your considerable audience to judge an entire religion by the actions of a small minority, and b) giving further credence to radicals’ claims that Americans, and Christians, are out to kill them, is grossly irresponsible.

Finally, from the Christian perspective:

  • Before Falwell, or anyone else who professes to be a follower of Jesus for that matter, starts advocating armed action against others, it would be wise to examine what God’s word says.
    • First, throughout much of Old Testament history, we see the Israelites being instructed by God to wage war.  Of note is that they were instructed by GOD.  In at least one instance where the Israelites decided on their own to take up arms against others, it didn’t go so well for them (Numbers 14).
    • Luke 22:36 is the only passage where we see Jesus advocate any form of taking up arms; a passage that Falwell’s supporters are quick to point out.  However, in just a few hours Jesus rebukes his followers for drawing their swords (22:49-51).
    • More instructive to what Jesus expects from his followers is the following 50 years of history recorded in the New Testament, where his followers are attacked, imprisoned, and even killed, but never respond with violence.
  • I don’t believe that Jesus was the pacifist that many want to portray him as; neither do I believe that he wants us to take up arms to defend him, or advance the Christian religion.  I do believe that the body of Scripture supports defending innocents against evil.  That doesn’t justify a religious war against opponents of Christianity.  The Apostle Paul identifies the opponents of Christianity not as humans, but as spiritual forces of evil that set themselves up against God.  The weapons Paul proscribes for the follower of Jesus in this fight against spiritual forces are not physical weapons, but spiritual weapons.
  • Revelation 19 is pointed to as a justification of physical violence against the opponents of Jesus, but one must interpret the book of Revelation with caution.  Even with the most literal of interpretations, the reader must recognize that the followers of Jesus are just that: followers.  Getting out in front of Jesus is probably not wise; it certainly isn’t Biblical.
  • Given this quick examination of Scripture, I would propose that while it is not imprudent for Jesus’ followers to arm themselves, they should do so with caution, that they not be tempted to take lives cavalierly, or in aggression.

Here’s the deal:  I’m not opposed to well-thought out security measures, including appropriately trained private citizens carrying concealed weapons.  I’m not opposed to the university president carrying a concealed weapon.  But talking smack on a stage in front of thousands of people, who are forming their own political and spiritual beliefs based in part on what you say, is no place to play cowboy.  Advocating violence based on a religion (and that’s what he said, whether or not it’s what he meant–and if he can’t communicate more accurately and effectively than that, he needs to find a new vocation) and pandering to the fear and mob mentality of a crowd of college students, is foolish, unprofessional, and not Christ-like.

Falwell screwed up.

Loving, conditionally

Had an interesting conversation with a neighbor this morning.  While petting my dogs on our morning walk, she told me that she had looked into volunteering at the local humane society, but couldn’t because she’d end up bringing all the dogs home so they wouldn’t be put down.  I told her that I thought our shelter was a no-kill shelter.  She then said, “Oh, it’s not just that.  Just seeing them in cages would be too much for me.”

I told her that I understood, and that from what I had seen, our local animal shelters had a lot of volunteers, but it was difficult to find volunteers to help people.

She then said, “But it’s so much easier to help animals than people.  People are hard to get along with; animals love you unconditionally.

Let that sink in for a minute…

While you are processing it, let me say, in her defense, that although I don’t know her well, my impressions are that this is a very kind, caring lady, who does help others.  I’m not in any way demeaning her. I probably have made very similar statements in the past.

It would seem to me that we all, me at the front of the line, are guilty of wanting, seeking, even demanding unconditional love–but most of us are quick to refuse offering it.  I could at this point begin blasting away at how selfish we all are, but that would be pointless.  It’s our nature.  Just like it’s pointless to yell at your dog to stop licking himself…

The truth is there is only one way to even begin to consider offering unconditional love–get a new nature.  I’m going to risk offending some non-Christian friends here, but I’ve studied enough human nature and alternative religions to feel safe in making this assertion:  The only way a human being can love unconditionally is as a new creation in Jesus.  Because only God (specifically, the Judeo-Christian God, YHWH) has the capacity to love unconditionally.  He extends that love to us, and fills us with it when we accept his love–and we become a new creation, with his Spirit dwelling in us, teaching our spirit to be like him–to love, unconditionally.

Oh that it were an instantaneous transformation from old nature to new.  Then Paul wouldn’t have had to write the last half of Romans 7. Instead, we, like Paul, have to grow, and to cooperate with what God’s Spirit is teaching us–against our old nature.

I’m not trashing my neighbor.  For all I know, she is following after Jesus in her life as well, and I am making too much of her innocuous statement.  She just got me thinking, and I thought I’d capture and share some of those thoughts, to challenge myself.  You see, nothing is impossible for God, but transforming me may push him to his limits.  🙂

Be an answer to prayer

I’m a “Pentecostal.”  That means I believe that the miraculous, supernatural power that Jesus promised his first disciples to heal the sick, raise the dead, and otherwise do his work here on earth is still available for his followers today.  Pentecostals believe that if we are truly following Jesus and devoted to being like him, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, empowering us to do things that we can’t do on our own.

Unfortunately, we sometimes rely so much on the element of the supernatural that we sit around waiting for the miracle, and in so doing miss the opportunity to BE the answer to prayer ourselves.  We’ve become enthralled with manifestations of power, and end up missing an opportunity to manifest love.

Jesus’ first followers did amazing things through the power of the Holy Spirit, including healing many people of various diseases and infirmities, as well as raising people from the dead on multiple occasions.  However, they also saw prayers answered as they lived life together in Christian community.  God’s plan has always been that the world would come to know HIM through his followers loving one another–see “Greatest Commandment(s).”

Recently we had a friend who had a material need, and asked for Christian friends to pray with her for fulfillment of that need.  In similar situations, most Christians pray, and then sit around hoping for a mysterious envelope to arrive in the mail or the material good to fall from the sky (Amazon drone malfunction?).  But this time, we didn’t do that.  Instead, the friends realized that THEY could be an answer to prayer–and they took it upon themselves to team together to meet the need.  THEY became the answer to prayer.  Not to get all self-righteous, because it’s not that they were special.  Instead, they realized that God uses his church, his people, to meet the needs of others.

Just today I got to witness another miracle-but not one where God wrinkled the fabric of the natural world.  Instead, I watched God’s incredible timing bring a man with a talent together to help a lady with a desperate need.  He even said it was “no big deal at all.”  But he solved her unsolvable problem.  That’s a pretty big deal in my book!  It was a miracle because God orchestrated the timing, and because he was generous with what he had.

How many prayers go unfulfilled because, rather than using a supernatural event, God appointed one or more of his people to meet the need, yet they didn’t respond?  I don’t recall where I first heard the principle, but credit it to a former missionary I know:

If someone you know has a need, and you have the means to fulfill it, God most likely put that means in your hand to meet that need!

But we want to hold on to what we have, because we might need it, and instead expect the cosmic air force to fulfill the needs of others with emergency resupply drops.  We essentially pray and say “I’m believing that God will magically meet your need; but don’t ask me to act in faith that he’ll meet MY need if I meet yours out of my provision.”

Be somebody’s miracle.  It’s really not that hard.

The Presidential Speech You Didn’t Hear

 

Recently, President Obama gave a speech that would astound most Americans.  The topic was faith.  He made three points to answer the question,

“So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious (sic) for their own murderous ends?”

His three points?  Humility, freedom of religion, and the universality of the Golden Rule to most religions and all of mankind.

He strongly condemns those who abuse religion for their own purposes:

“We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”

He quotes Colossians 3:14.

He says, “Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.”

In his closing remarks, he made the following appeal:

“If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

WOW!  Why didn’t we hear about this speech in the news?

Well, you did.  You just didn’t hear about this part of the speech.  See, these were the key points from his speech at the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast.

Why didn’t you hear about these points that most Americans, and certainly all Christians should be able to agree with?  Because the Twitterverse exploded in real time over a brief aside in his introductory remarks, and the right-wing blogosphere was in full attack before he began his first point.

Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, said in a statement that Mr. Obama was trying to “deflect guilt from Muslim madmen.” He said the president’s comparisons were “insulting” and “pernicious.”  Mr. Gilmore said the comments go “further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.”

and

“The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” said Jim Gilmore, the former Republican governor of Virginia. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.” (New York Times, 2/5/15)

DOUBLE-WOW!!! What could be so heinous as to offend “every believing Christian in the US?” 

Warning:  The following quote can be highly offensive–please don’t read while eating, or in the presence of young children:

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Yup.  That’s it.  The headlines have screamed how Obama has said Christians are just as bad as ISIL!  How the President is defending radical Islamists.  The pundits left out the next sentence, where he condemned violence under guise of religion in India.  They also totally ignored the next words out of his mouth, which led to him introducing his three main points, which were a spiritual (Christian, but watered down for a national ecumenical audience) response to the violence in the name of religion running rampant in our world:

“So this is not unique to one group or one religion.  There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

This point is crucial!  See, I read this as the President saying we should be on guard to ensure that we don’t twist our beliefs to our advantage, at the expense of others.

Me?  I see a great example of introspection and humility.  Jesus spent much of his latter ministry challenging the pious religious leaders of his day to examine themselves–a message which we should all continue to heed today.  Unfortunately, many American Christians today consider ourselves as superior to all others, as God’s chosen people, above criticism.  As the frothing commentators seem to clearly demonstrate, from our high horse, it’s easy to see that the atrocities of ISIL are a whole different level of ugly than anything we could ever do.  How dare the President drag up 1000 year old history and try to call us righteous Christians?  That was then.  We’re better than that now (interestingly enough, the point of typically liberal Washington Post commentator Eugene Robinson).

Bull.

Of all people, Christians should be the first to take a hard look inside, because we have a unique theology that tells us that even when we are inhabited by the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, we are still fighting a battle against our sinful human nature (see Romans 7:14-24).

Sure, we can point out that Christians such as William Wilberforce led the abolitionist movement.  But read Dr. King’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail.”  This amazing document was penned in response to CHRISTIAN leaders who challenged his actions in standing up for human rights.  Just a few sentences before his “verbal rape” (yes, Star Parker really said that!), the President made the point that faith has, and is being used for both good and evil:

“…we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife.  We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done.  We see faith driving us to do right.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon.”

Seems like his critics are doing the latter–they’re playing upon America’s polarization to drum up dissent, by twisting the President’s faith (professing Christian, and demonstrating more Christ-likeness in words and action than many of his critics) as a wedge… or a weapon.

I hate to break it to the former governor of Virginia, but this Christian is not offended by the President’s remarks.  I am in agreement with them.  I’m offended by all the people who are attacking him for speaking truth, while ignoring his broader points.  We American Christians can’t claim any moral high ground here.  Here’s a picture from less than 100 years ago.

jesse-washington-lot13093-no.38

That’s the body of Jesse Washington.  The full account of his lynching is here, but the short version of the story is that, after a questionable murder trial in Waco, Texas, Jesse was declared guilty, grabbed by a mob, dragged into the street to this tree, doused in oil, had his fingers and genitals cut off, was hung from the tree over a bonfire, where he was repeatedly lowered and raised over the next two hours, while he burned to death in the celebratory atmosphere of 10,ooo spectators.

Here’s another one (sorry, no pics of this one):  According to the Associated Press coverage of her death, “Mary Turner had made ‘unwise remarks’ about the execution of her husband, and that ‘the people, in their indignant mood, took exception to her remarks, as well as her attitude’.”  How did they take exception?

“There, before a crowd that included women and children, Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the grown, gave a cry, and was stomped to death. The Constitution’s coverage of the killing was subheaded-lined: ‘Fury of the People Is Unrestrained.” (Wikipedia, “Mary Turner”)

Betcha most of those folks went to church next Sunday.

“Yeah, but those stories don’t have anything to do with Christianity!”  Except they came from a time when it was common to teach in church that blacks were subhuman (click the link “carroll.pdf” on the page to download your very own copy of the book “The Negro a Beast…0r…In the Image of God”).

“Yeah, but that was 100 years ago.”  Well, first, the President’s point was that atrocities were committed by people who claimed to be Christians, and claimed to have Biblical justification for their heinous acts.  Second, just Google Christian Identity.  This hosed up, racist hatred is whitewashed “in the name of Jesus” and claims to use Scripture to justify their vile beliefs.  And there are thousands of adherents to this and similar beliefs in our world today.

 “So are you blaming all Christians for these lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and nutball white supremacists?”  No.  But I hope I’ve presented enough evidence to get you off your horse.

Or should we explore all the Jews killed during the Crusades–in the name of Jesus?

 

 

“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.

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.