What is it I’m not getting about Ferguson?

After months of deliberations and thousands of pages of evidence, the St. Louis County grand jury decided not to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Officer Wilson is white. Mr. Brown was black.

The jury, comprised of nine whites and three blacks, sifted through the evidence – 60 witnesses, 70 hours of testimony and a mountain of documents – and found much of it to be contradictory. Some witnesses clearly manufactured their stories, presumably to force a trial or to prevent one. Others presented radically different interpretations of established facts.

Reading about the incident, it seems clear to me that the grand jury could not have come to any other decision. But when most African-Americans (62 percent) read about the shooting of Michael Brown, they believe the case should have gone to trial. So what do they see that I do not see? What is it I’m not getting about Ferguson?

Just about everything, or at least that is what I suspect a Ferguson protestor might say. Can a middle-aged white guy, living in a largely white, rural community, think about the Michael Brown shooting in the same way a black American thinks about it? Probably not.

For one thing, many white Americans think of this case as an isolated incident that occurred one August afternoon on a Ferguson, Missouri street. But black Americans do not see it as an isolated incident. They see it as part of a disturbing pattern.

The Michael Brown shooting is like one of those Magic Eye pictures: stare at it long enough and an underlying image will emerge – to some people’s eyes, but not to all. Many whites, I suspect, have trouble seeing that image. But when many black people stare at Ferguson, the hidden picture takes shape, and it’s not pretty.

These are some of the images that materialize in the background of Ferguson: the shooting by police of a young man in a Walmart store, when he picked up an air rifle that was for sale. The death of a 12-year-old boy with an airsoft gun, shot by Cleveland police. The tragic death of a 93-year-old Texas woman, killed by police as she waved a real gun in the air. These incidents, and others like them, have occurred in just the past few months. It’s the picture behind the picture, the one middle-aged white guys like me have trouble seeing.

That picture is framed by facts like these: White Americans are more than twice as likely to use marijuana as blacks, yet eight times as many blacks are arrested for possession. Blacks are sentenced to as much time behind bars for a drug offense as whites are for a violent crime. One in three black Americans will spend time in prison, compared to one in seventeen whites. It’s helpful to realize that the anger that erupted in Ferguson was not just about Ferguson.

When I was in college in the seventies, I thought that racial prejudice, and with it racial distancing, was diminishing. When President Obama was elected, not once but twice, it seemed that white America and black America were at last converging into one America. That seems less likely now. I fear the distance between Americans of different races and ethnicities is growing.

There are social, political and economic reasons for this – some of which originate within the black community itself. There are many reasons, but not many solutions. If a solution is to be found, I suspect, it will be found in the Christian, and particularly the evangelical, Church.

Why? Because black and white evangelicals are numerous (a whopping 62 percent of blacks describe themselves as “born again”), and share deeply held and powerfully unifying beliefs. Those beliefs once brought unity to Jews and Gentiles, who were even more divided than America’s blacks and whites. Christ was then able to break “down the wall of hostility” and create “in himself one new people from the two groups.”

If he did it once, he can do it again. But he will not do it for us. He will only do it with us.


First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/28/2014

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He’s not the person I thought he was

“He’s not the person I thought he was when we got married.”

Most pastors and counselors have heard that line from people in marital crisis. They usually mean the person they married is not as good, as kind or as much fun as they thought he’d be. They say things like, “We used to talk for hours. Now I can hardly get a word out of him.” Or, “When we first got married, he would do things for me before I asked. Now when I talk he doesn’t even listen. If I ask him to do something, he acts like he’s been sentenced to hard labor.”

There’s a lot that people don’t know about each other on their wedding day. Marriage is an act of faith. That faith is based on true insight into the other person, but insight is hardly the same thing as understanding. There will be many surprises for couples as their life together continues. Hence the line, “He’s not the person I thought he was when we got married.”

Just once, I would like someone to come into my office and say, “He’s not the person I thought he was when we got married—he’s way better! He’s smarter, funnier and wiser than I realized. I had no idea how much I would enjoy being with him.”

No one has yet come to my office to tell me that. But then it’s rare for us to hear of anyone outperforming expectations, except in the sports arena: “He went undrafted and joined as a walk-on, but he has brought more to this team than anyone expected.”

Still, as a pastor, I’d love to hear someone say that about a spouse. Yet I’d be even more pleased to hear it said about God: “He’s not who I thought he was when I first believed—he’s way better than that!”

When people give their lives to God, as when they give their lives to each other, they are acting in faith. Though they may have real insight into the benefits of faith, they still have a lot to learn about the character of God. They come to God thinking it will do them good. It’s only later they discover that God is good.

That was certainly the case for me, and for others I have known. When I first came to faith – or when faith (barely the size of a mustard seed) first came to me – I knew almost nothing about God. I got that he made everything, including me, and was therefore the one in charge. I understood that he was a judge – and maybe a policeman too. But I had no idea what he was like.

It’s been a long journey since then, and I’ve learned a lot about God. For one thing, I discovered that God is happy – the most joyful being in all the universe. Creation itself is an expression of his joy. God is never frightened, lonely or bored. “Great tidal waves of joy must constantly wash through his being,” as one writer put it. And he doesn’t keep his joy to himself. He invites humans to join him: “Enter into the joy of your master!”

I also discovered that God loves us. Really loves us. I knew that in my head, but it took years (I was already in pastoral ministry) to learn it in my heart. God loves us as a father loves a child – not half-heartedly or disinterestedly – but passionately. He carries our picture in his wallet, as Tony Campolo likes to say. We don’t have to earn his love, any more than a newborn baby has to earn his mother’s love. He loves us not because we deserve it, but because he is love.

God values relationships – so much so that he lives in an eternal, three-personed relationship – and he desires a relationship with us. I used to think of that as if it were a business relationship: God is the boss, we’re the employees and the chief thing is to get work done. But God, I’ve learned, is far more interested in what we become than he is in what we accomplish.

With this business model in mind, it was only natural to think that success in the Christian life could be measured by keeping rules. But God gave us rules to serve the relationship, not replace it. He doesn’t measures success by the rules we keep but by the people – himself included – that we love.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/22/2014

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Breathe the fresh air of eternity

People are creatures of habit. I, for example, drink three-and-a-half cups of regular coffee a day. I drink one cup when I get up, one around ten o’clock, one after lunch, and a half-caf around mid-afternoon.

I wake up at the same time, according to the day of the week. After I pour a cup of coffee, I go into my study and close the door. I read Scripture and meditate and pray. I then walk two miles with my wife (except on Tuesdays), and then eat oatmeal for breakfast – blueberries every other day, apple, raisins and cranberries on the day in between.

On Friday mornings I leave my house within a minute or two of 6:17. I usually see no other cars on our country road. When I reach the main north-south road, I turn left and almost always reach the speed limit in front of the same house. I usually have not encountered any cars by then, though looking a half-mile down the road I see a school bus approaching.

On a recent morning I left the house at least a minute later than usual. As I drove down our country road I saw a car approaching with its bright lights on. When I came to the main north-south road, I had to wait for four cars to pass before I could slip in, the fifth of a six-car train.

I wondered where all the people had come from. There were more cars on the roads than I see in a month of Fridays. The bus that I usually meet just south of the business loop was missing, apparently having already passed. Did a minute or two really make such a difference?

If I were to leave a minute or two later every Friday morning, would I meet many of the same cars in the same places and have to wait at the same stop sign? I suspect I would. People are creatures of habit. But a slight change of perspective – in this case a temporal change of perspective – can bring a different world into view.

As I drove on it occurred to me that humans are fettered by time. We are as confined as any prison inmate, only our confinement is temporal rather than spatial. We are in temporal lockdown, incarcerated in the present. To us the past is fixed – we cannot reenter it or change it – and the future is inaccessible. So we live out our days imprisoned in the moment.

God’s experience of time is like ours in some ways, but differs dramatically in others. Like us, he does not live in the past or in the future, but in the present. But unlike us, his present includes all of time – past and future – simultaneously. What we call past and future are part of his present experience. He can walk through time the way I walk through the rooms of my house.

When theologians say that God is eternal, they have something more than his perpetual existence in mind. They mean that every moment of time, past and future, is always immediately present to God. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, who “announces the end from the beginning” and is present “with the first of them and with the last.”

Because life comes to us in a succession of moments, we are often surprised by things that happen. God never is. Though Scripture states that he can be grieved, he can never be surprised. His expectations are never undermined. Whereas we see life in snapshots, he sees it in panorama. He knows what’s coming.

The upshot for the Christian (or the person contemplating Christianity) is this: We are in lockdown, imprisoned in the narrow confines of the present, but we have a wise and trusted friend on the outside. He sees what’s going on and, in the light of what he sees, can tell us what to do. We cannot see what he sees, but we can choose to trust him and do what he says.

But that’s not all. The rumor is going around through the pages of Scripture and in the talk of his people that someday we will be let out of our temporal prison to breathe the fresh air of eternity. It is a reality beyond our comprehension, but not our hope.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/15/2014

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A shadow in the shade

People often say, ‘I never forget a face.” I think there is something wrong with me. I never remember one. Well, “never” is an exaggeration. But I’m pretty sure my “facial recognition software” is faulty.

I can recognize a picture of a person forever, but if someone gets a haircut or puts on five pounds or starts wearing glasses, I might walk right by that person without realizing I know him or her. My brain fails to extrapolate from known features to current identity. But if I hear the person speak, I’ll probably recognize him or her; my “voice recognition software” is excellent.

This is an embarrassing condition for anyone, but especially for someone who does what I do. People expect their pastor to know them, even if they rarely make it to church, but I can walk by someone with whom I have been acquainted for years and fail to recognize him.

People also expect God to know them, even if they fail to make it to church or talk to him very often. But the Bible presents the frightening prospect that God may not recognize some people. C. S. Lewis reminds us that “we are warned that it may happen to anyone of us to appear at last before the face of God and hear only the appalling words, ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me.’”

When St. Paul writes that “Whoever loves God is known by God” he raises the alarming possibility that people who do not love God may not be known by him. A similar thought interrupts the same apostle as he writes to the Galatian Church: “But now that you know God—or rather are known by God …”

It’s as if the apostle is afraid of overstating the knowledge that humans, who at best “see through a glass darkly,” have of God. Safer to speak of God knowing us. He “knows a word before it is on my tongue,” said the psalmist. The prophet added, “You know me, O LORD; you see me and test my thoughts.” God, according to Professor William J. Mander, “knows me better than I know myself … God knows the true me; the person I really am.”

That God knows us—really knows us—is a claim made repeatedly by biblical writers. He “searches the heart and examines the mind.” He probes “the heart and the mind.” He sees beyond appearances and false fronts to the reality that lies beneath. On page after page, the Bible affirms that God knows us like no one else, even ourselves.

A person is like a deep mine. His friends know only the surface terrain and the entrance. He himself knows only the main shafts. God alone knows the treasures—or horrors—that lie in the depths. We may find his knowledge of us a comfort or a terror. Either way, he knows us.

So what are we to make of the idea, introduced by Jesus himself, that a person might be unknown to God? How is it that, in Lewis’s words, “we can be both banished from the Presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all”? Could God’s “facial recognition software” be faulty?

The biblical writers would answer that question with a resounding no. Nothing can exist apart from God’s knowledge. To be unknown by God is to lack any kind of existence worthy of the name. It is to be a negation, a nullification, an impossibility. It is to be a shadow in the shade—or to use biblical language, an outcast in the outer darkness.

To be unknown by God is to be a potentiality never realized, an idea never thought, a song never sung. To be unknown by the one who knows everything is to be nothing. To be banished from the presence of the omnipresent one is “everlasting destruction…shut out from the presence of the Lord.” It is an unthinkable thought, an impossible possibility; it is hell.

But to be known by God is to be a potentiality fully realized, an idea thought and shared and brought to fruition; it is to be a child of God. To know God—limited though our knowledge be—and be known by him is nothing less than eternal life.


First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/8/14

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No-oh-oh, it’s not magic

A Kansas City Royals fan puts his lucky hat on the couch, five minutes before the first pitch – and it must be facing south. Another drinks only one kind of beer on game days. Still another watches a different sport – say, soccer – rather than the game, to avoid jinxing his team.

Magical thinking can be seen across cultures, in remote tribal groups as well as in highly developed western societies. We’d like to think that we Americans haven’t fallen under the spell, but the World Series proves otherwise.

But magical thinking does not end when the last pitch is thrown, nor is it limited to the ball park. Much of what passes as religious observation exhibits a connection to magical thinking. Of course that charge has been made before and made often by critics of religious faith, but I am making it as a practicing Christian.

Critics see religion as the evolutionary heir of magical thinking. The ancients tried to control their destiny by participating in sacrifices and magical rites and by paying careful attention to omens. A shooting star was a sign that it was time to move. Twelve white swans foretold the safe conclusion of a journey. Such practices, they say, were precursors to fingering beads and lighting candles.

I do not know enough about other religions to speak authoritatively about them (and do not presume to speak authoritatively on behalf of other Christians, either) but it seems to me that, when it comes to Christianity, the critics are mistaken. It would be easier to make the case that magic’s heir is not religion (at least not Judaism or Christianity) but science.

Science? Yes. One of the objectives of the modern scientific enterprise is to exercise control over our circumstances. Magicians used potions and spells to this end, while science attempts to do the same thing with molecular engineering and equations. Science is of course much better at achieving its objectives (for which we are truly grateful), but the goal of manipulating reality through the application of a set of currently held principles is very similar.

Magic and (to some degree) science are about control. Christianity is about submission. The Christian, following Jesus, says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” But the scientist, following the magician, says, “No, I think I’d rather my will be done.”

This is not to say that Christians are free of magical thinking. Frankly, they engage in it every time they treat prayer like an incantation – say the right words in the right order and in the right tone, and you’ll get what you ask for. But the point is, when Christians do so, they are not acting like Christians. They’re acting like pagans.

Some Christians treat the Bible as if it were a magic book, looking for secret codes or hidden meanings. Even their approach to the Bible betrays a magical mindset: “I will close my eyes, open the book randomly, put my finger on a verse, and whatever it says will be God’s will for me.” Can God use this silliness? Sure. He’s God. But it is still magical thinking.

The magical approach to religion betrays a serious misunderstanding of the way things work, the way God works, and the meaning of Christian faith. The Bible teaches that the power that is at work in a Christian’s life is personal power. It does not reside in the words spoken or the ritual performed, but in a personal God. This God wants to communicate with his creatures. He’s not playing trick or treat. He does not hide his message in esoteric symbols or secret codes. It is not magic.

It is with good reason that the Jewish and Christian scriptures strongly prohibit the practice of magic. It is totally inconsistent with the submission to God and love for others that constitutes the good life. The people who lived this kind of life – Moses, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and a host of others who followed them – had nothing to do with superstition or magic. They operated out of faith in a personal God on the basis of his word to them.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/1/14

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Is religion a do it yourself project?

The famous writer and Oxford don C. S. Lewis once walked in on a debate on comparative religions. The conferees were discussing whether or not there are any beliefs that are unique to Christianity. It seemed like incarnation and resurrection, as well as all the other Christian doctrines that debaters proposed, were in some fashion shared by other religions.

Then Lewis walked in and, in his inimitable fashion, asked, “What’s the rumpus about?”

His fellow-academics answered that they were debating whether or not Christianity offered anything unique among world religions.

Hearing that, Lewis responded: “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

Lewis hit the proverbial nail on the head. Islam has Sharia law, which adherents must carefully follow. Buddhism has the eight-fold path. Hinduism has Karma. World religions offer God’s love with strings attached. Christianity cuts the strings.

This is so unexpected that it is difficult for people to accept. Grace may be the thing that is unique to Christianity, but because it is so utterly unique, we don’t really know what to do with it.

I have been an alpine skier for most of my life, but it was many years before I ever tried waterskiing. When I did, I failed miserably. My friend and driver told me how to position myself in the water in order to “get up,” and I attempted to follow his instructions.

As the boat accelerated, everything was fine. I could feel my ski tips rise and then dip to the surface as I popped up. But when my skis planed on the surface and the friction eased, it felt to me as if the rope had gone slack. So I – trying to maintain control– pulled hard on the rope. When I did, my skis shot out from under me and I tumbled backwards.

This didn’t happen once, but again and again. My friend could see what I was doing wrong, and he warned me to stop pulling on the rope when the resistance eased. He wanted me to relax and just ride the surface. But I couldn’t help myself. The absence of friction didn’t feel right – in fact, it felt all wrong – because I was no longer controlling the situation by my own strength. Of course whenever I tried to assert control, I fell.

When a skier is doing well – that is, when he is actually enjoying the ride – it is the driver and the boat that are introducing all the energy into the situation. The skier does not “get up” by his own strength, but by the power of the boat and motor. It is not his job to create that power, but to respond to it. He positions himself to receive and use a power that originates outside himself.

Christianity teaches us to do something similar: to position ourselves to receive and use a power that originates outside ourselves. We cannot produce the power that brings forgiveness, everlasting life and personal fulfillment by any of the means that religions commonly propose, like keeping rules or being self-disciplined. We merely position ourselves to receive it.

The position in which a person is capable of receiving the power that brings forgiveness, fulfillment and life is one of faith. This is what St. Paul taught when he wrote, “If people trust in [God], their faith is accepted even though they do not work. Their faith makes them right with God” (Romans 4:5).

We find this kind of grace hard to accept precisely because it takes control out of our hands. We prefer to trust ourselves rather than anyone else, including God. So we try to reattach the strings God has cut, once again tying our forgiveness and happiness to our own efforts.

But Christianity is not a do-it-yourself project. It finds the power we need outside ourselves, in what God has done through Jesus Christ and is doing by his Spirit. Our role is simply to be in a position (one of faith) to receive that power and put it to use in daily life.

(First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/25/14)

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Whatever happened to tolerance on college campuses?

It wasn’t that long ago (in the politically correct era of the ’90s) that everyone was talking about tolerance. In those days tolerance meant that the viewpoints of others, particularly those of the socially or politically stigmatized, must be granted a place at society’s table. This was particularly true on college campuses, where the exchange of ideas and a broad-minded pluralism was valued.

How times have changed – particularly on college campuses, where free speech is now at risk. At Bowdoin College, Rollins College, Vanderbilt University, State University of New York (Buffalo), and others, including the California State University system, tolerance has taken a major step backwards.

In 2011, the chancellor of the California State University system issued a policy that required recognized student groups to accept any student as a potential leader. The aim was ostensibly to prevent discrimination against students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The result, however, was considerably broader.

Under the new policy, leadership in Christian groups must be open to any student (including an atheist). Strictly enforced, the policy opens leadership in Jewish groups to Neo-Nazis and requires Muslim groups to remain open to leadership from Buddhist monks.

Many Christian campus ministries, especially evangelical ones, require their leaders to be Christians and to affirm core Christian beliefs, such as the deity of Christ and the authority of Scripture. But universities believe this basic requirement, especially the affirmation of the authority of Scripture, poses a threat to the equality of gay and lesbian students.

It doesn’t seem to matter to university officials that these ministries encourage gay and lesbian students to attend. Nor does it matter that they require all their unmarried leaders – straight or gay, without exception – to be chaste. The real issue is that these universities will not bide another way of thinking about sexuality. So much for tolerance.

But what about first amendment rights? They’ve been swallowed up in what university officials consider to be a larger issue: the equality of gay, lesbian and transgendered students. Because they see religiously oriented student groups as a threat to such equality, they threaten them with de-recognition unless their officers sign a non-discriminatory policy statement, even though doing so opens the group’s leadership to people who do not hold its beliefs and values.

Tish Harrison Warren, writing in Christianity Today, relates her unsuccessful attempt as director of Graduate Christian Fellowship at Vanderbilt to arrive at a compromise with school administrators. She was told that requiring student leaders to affirm the group’s religious beliefs was a form of discrimination. “Creedal discrimination,” they insisted, “is still discrimination.”

How ironic. University officials discriminate against one group, ostensibly to stamp out discrimination against another. “Creedal discrimination” practiced by religious groups within a very narrow scope (the selection of their own officers) is considered offensive, but religious discrimination practiced by the university at large is acceptable. “God,” says St. Paul, “does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11). Clearly the same cannot be said of university administrators.

Once state institutions begin discriminating against groups on the basis of their beliefs, it’s not just religious freedom that is endangered, but freedom itself. It’s time for students and faculty, including those in the LGBT community, to stand up in support of religious rights on college campuses.

The plurality celebrated in the university, along with the openness to diverse points of view that makes it possible, depends upon the free exchange of ideas. That freedom, and the academic ideals that attend it, are now at risk.


First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, October 18, 2014

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