Whoever exalts himself will be humbled

NBC anchor Brian Williams stopped reporting the news and became the news after several soldiers contradicted his sensational account of a 2003 trip to Iraq in which, he says, the helicopter he was in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The way Williams remembers it, the chopper was forced to make an emergency landing, and he and the crew had to be rescued from the enemy by U.S. troops.

Not so, say the soldiers who were with him. The chopper was never fired on. The whole account is fictitious.

Williams’s fellow-journalists are confused about why the veteran reporter would make up such a story. Some are coming to his defense, supporting his claim that he “misremembered” the event, but most are simply at a loss to explain it.

But Williams is not the only one making up stories. Bookstores around the country are pulling the book, “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,” about six-year-old Alex Malarkey, who claimed to have seen angels and met Jesus during the two months he was comatose following a car-accident. Malarkey, now 16, has admitted to making the story up.

The book, which reached the New York Times bestseller list in 2011, was promoted by the publisher as “…the true story of an ordinary boy’s most extraordinary journey. As you see heaven and earth through Alex’s eyes, you’ll come away with new insights on miracles, life beyond this world, and the power of a father’s love.”

Alex, who co-wrote the book with his father, now says that he made the whole thing up. “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”

He goes on to castigate the people who have made considerable money from the sale of his book. “People have profited from lies, and continue to … Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.”

Remarkably, Alex’s mother has been saying the same thing since at least 2012, but no one would listen to her. She contacted major booksellers, telling them that Alex had recanted his story, but was ignored.

How is it that a Christian publisher whose mission is to “minister to the spiritual needs of people, primarily through literature consistent with biblical principles” failed to pay attention to the warning signs? And why did major Christian retail outlets ignore Alex’s mother’s claim that the story was false?

One wonders whether the Christian publishing industry has fallen victim to its own success. Most of the Christian publishing houses and the booksellers who market their product were founded to serve the larger Church in communicating the good news of Christ to a wider audience. Have business plans somehow displaced mission goals? Has their model of success been reshaped in the mold of their secular counterparts? Has the focus shifted away from spiritual impact to issues of retail strategy and market share?

It has recently come to light that Christian authors (or their publishers) have been buying their way onto the New York Times Bestseller list by hiring marketing firms to purchase their books in bulk – enough books to earn a listing and thereby attract publicity. Some authors have defended the practice as a common sense marketing tool. Others have called it manipulative.

The fact that authors are defending the practice is itself a caution against the seductive power of success. It is also a reminder of one of Jesus’s most memorable teachings. After advising people against self-promotion, Jesus bluntly warned: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” He was right, as always.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, February 21, 2015

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The power of love, the power of marriage

Too often people get married with a demolition permit in their back pockets, and for some reason it doesn’t dawn on them that their children will be in the home when it comes crashing down. It was never meant to be that way.

Christians and other people of faith believe that marriage was God’s idea, and that he intended it to last. Because that’s true, marriage has always been envisioned as a covenant – the strongest of agreements into which two parties could enter.

Covenant haunts the wedding ceremony the way King Hamlet’s ghost haunts Elsinore Castle – though of course some people don’t believe in it any more than they believe in ghosts. Yet the spirit of covenant materializes at one spot in the wedding ceremony, disappears, and then shows up in another. If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see covenant repeatedly at any traditional wedding.

What is covenant? It is an ancient practice in which two parties – they could be individuals, groups or nations – enter into a do-or-die agreement with each other.

Where is covenant? It’s everywhere in the wedding ceremony. It appears first in the guests, who are present “to witness and bless the joining of this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” To “witness” is covenantal language. Guests serve as covenant witnesses.

When the officiant says, “Now that this man and this woman have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands, and the giving and receiving of rings…” he or she is using covenant language to describe the components of covenant.

The joining of hands is a covenant act. When couples take their vows, it is customary for them to take right hands. Taking right hands – the handshake – comes out of covenant ceremony. People used to say, “We shook hands on it; that’s enough for me.” They understood the power of covenant.

In ancient covenant there was always a sign – a token that revealed to the world that two parties were in covenant together. In the wedding ceremony, and in the marriage that follows, the covenant token is a ring. It lets everyone know that this man and woman are already in covenant with someone else.

The vows are at the heart of every covenant: solemn promises made before witnesses that will be kept no matter what the cost. Marriage partners promise “to have and to hold each other from this day forward, no matter what: for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until [they] are parted by death.” There are no disclaimers here, no legalese backdoor escape clauses; just “’til death do us part” promises. That’s covenant.

When the ceremony is over, people go to the reception and eat. That too is a carry-over from covenant. Covenants were ratified with a meal. So when God entered into covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, the biblical author writes, “Moses and … the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel …” – and then the most unexpected thing: “and they ate and drank.” They did what? They ate and drank? Yes. They were ratifying covenant.

People can see (and Hollywood often reminds us) that it takes the power of love to hold a marriage together, but they often fail to see that the power of marriage can hold love together. Previous generations understood this. There are times when a person keeps the marriage vows not because he or she wants to, still less because he or she feels affection for a spouse – that may not be the feeling at all – but because he or she has entered covenant before God and witnesses.

If they will keep their promises then, in spite of their feelings, and continue to keep them, affection will probably return. But keeping promises in spite of hard feelings is difficult, and to do it they’ll need a covenant in their hearts, not a demolition permit in their back pockets.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/14/2015

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Give your message “street cred”

When my children were still young and I was pastoring in another city, my wife and I took the kids downtown one Sunday afternoon and walked around the square and up and down the street. Downtown was unusually empty that day, but as we lingered in front of a store, a lone woman approached us.

She was holding something in her hand, a pamphlet of some sort. Not knowing that I was a pastor, she offered and I accepted it, and found that it was a religious tract. I looked it over briefly and then asked her, “What church do you belong to?”

She answered (in what seemed to me a rather haughty tone) that she did not belong to any church. It was her opinion that the churches in the community all had problems. (Of course as the pastor of one of those churches, I already knew that.) She had not found one that met her standards for orthodoxy or moral uprightness, so she chose to do the Christian life on her own.

I tried to engage her further in conversation, but she had another sinner in her sights and was targeting him for the gospel. She left us almost immediately.

I’ve thought about that encounter many times over the years. That woman, God bless her, was offering a salvation that was disconnected from day to day life. And is it any wonder? She was herself disconnected – from a church family, certainly, but also from the people to whom she gave her tracts. She said, in effect, “I’m offering eternal life, but I don’t have two minutes to spare.” It seemed weirdly incongruous.

How much a healthy church family could have benefitted her! She had grown crooked. She lacked the balance that comes from being in contact with different personalities and different viewpoints, and so her life grew at an angle. She needed other people to balance her, to smooth out her rough edges and broaden her narrow perspective.

And what benefit she might have brought to a healthy church family! She had a passion (and perhaps a gift, though undeveloped) for evangelism. She might have stirred up a local church, inculcated in it a concern for others and got its people outside the walls of their building and into the streets with the good news of God’s love.

A connection to a healthy church would also have made a tremendous difference in her success in spreading the news of God’s love. Because God’s love is relational, it is best understood in a relational setting. When people hear about God’s love in the context of a loving faith community, it makes sense to them in a way it does not when they hear about it in isolation.

There is a fine example of how this works in the Bible. People were responding in great numbers to the news that God loved them and had acted on their behalf through the sacrificial death of Jesus. That message had enormous impact because people could see the kind of love and sacrifice that church people attributed to God expressed naturally in their everyday lives.

The Bible says that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had … with great joy and generosity.”

It was the love those early church members had for each other and the sacrifices they made for each other that helped their friends and neighbors believe that the message of God’s love and sacrifice might be true. The message and the medium blended seamlessly, and provided convincing proof of the validity of the good news the church proclaimed.

Contrast that with the woman I met on that downtown street. Their message was presented against the backdrop of a loving church family, where people enjoyed one another’s company and willingly sacrificed for each other’s good. Hers was given in total isolation from such expressions. Their lifestyle gave their message a street cred that hers utterly lacked.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/7/105

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Why does more wedding equal less marriage?

If you spend more than $20 thousand on a wedding, you are almost twice as likely to divorce as a couple spending between $5 and $10 thousand. Spend less than $1 thousand, and you are more than twice as likely to stay together. In other words, the couple that spends under a grand is four times as likely to stay together as the couple that spends 20 grand.

My marriage ought to last forever. Between the cake, the wedding dress and the preacher, my wife and I probably spent around $75.

The study that revealed this data, which was conducted by Emory University professors Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon in July and August of 2014, concludes that, while the wedding industry has “sought to link spending with long-lasting marriages,” the opposite is true. The more one spends on the engagement ring and the wedding, the less likely the marriage is to last.

Curiously, this does not hold true for money spent on the honeymoon. People who’ve had a honeymoon are 41 percent less likely to divorce than those who have not.

Francis’s and Mialon’s work has drawn a great deal of attention since it was published. And it’s left me wondering: why does more wedding equal less marriage? What is the connection?

It is surely unlikely that stinginess is the secret to a long marriage – though the economic devastation caused by divorce, particularly on women, might keep some tightfisted couples together. But if stinginess doesn’t explain it, just where does the correlation lie?

The most obvious connection between wedding cost and marital discord is the accrual of debt. The study’s authors found that people who spent less than a thousand dollars on their wedding were about 90 percent less likely to report stress over the cost of the wedding. They write: “…it is possible that wedding expenses raise the likelihood of marital dissolution given that prior literature suggests a link between economic stress and marital dissolution.”

It might also be that people who spend big dollars on engagement rings and weddings are too much concerned about what their peers think of them. The big-ticket wedding has enjoyed a wave (thankfully, now receding) of popularity. As a pastor, I’ve noticed a subtle competition between siblings and friends to have the “best” wedding. This focus on what others think, rather than on what the betrothed wants and needs, is bound to have a negative effect on any marriage.

Further, many couples spend months, sometimes most of their engagement period, preoccupied with the details of the wedding. They talk endlessly about their big day but give little thought to the rest of their lives. They finally agree on the number of people they’d like to have in the bridal party, but not on the number of children – if any – they’d like to have in their family. Some have not have even discussed it.

Another reason behind this unexpected correlation between the cost of the wedding and the duration of the marriage may have to do with the kinds of examples to which young couples are exposed. Their friends have modeled for them how to put together a fabulous wedding, but no one has modeled for them how to put together a loving and lasting marriage.

This kind of mentoring was more common in the past, when people were less mobile and communities more stable. In that setting it was common for older women to “train the younger women to love their husbands and children” (Titus 2:4). Perhaps we do not think that loving a spouse or child requires any training, but the statistics suggest otherwise.

The Emory study also found that non-church attenders are far more likely to divorce than regular church attenders. The loads of money they spend on their one day at church – their wedding day – cannot make up for the absence of a meaningful connection to the church, and the encouragement and positive models it can provide.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/31/15

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Unanswered prayer: a thorn in theology’s side

Every branch of knowledge has its ongoing problems. Philosophy has the free-will problem, economics has the gambler’s fallacy, physics has the problem of why there are three space dimensions but only one time dimension. Sociology, mathematics, astronomy – they all have a proverbial thorn in their respective sides.

Theology is no different; it has its thorns as well. One of them is the problem of prayer. If God exists and knows all things, why pray at all? Won’t he do the good thing, whether I ask him or not? And more troublesome still, if I ask him to do a thing that is clearly good – heal a child of some awful disease, for example – why does he sometimes not do it?

I ran into the problem of prayer not long after I became a Christian. My grandfather, who lived five doors down, was dying. I had spent many Friday nights at his house, and spent many Saturday mornings watching westerns with him on TV. But my grandfather didn’t just watch westerns, he was a western. He was born in the Indian Territory in 1889, the year of the Oklahoma Land Rush. He rode horses and worked the oil fields and followed the harvest. He had fired my imagination and filled my young mind with images of the old west.

And in 1973 he was dying. I prayed earnestly that God would heal him but he didn’t and I couldn’t understand why. A few years later when our first son was born prematurely, his lung collapsed and he was moved to the neo-natal unit of a larger hospital. When I asked his doctor if he would be alright, he answered: “I can’t tell you that.” I prayed earnestly again, and our son recovered and grew into a strong, intelligent and kind man.

Why answer one request and not the other? And why, if a request is clearly meant to bring good – to land a job that will pay the bills, or to overthrow the dictator who kills innocent men, women and children – does God sometimes refuse to answer?

It would be silly to think that I could solve a problem over which thoughtful men and women have puzzled for generations in the space of a column. I hope rather to point in the direction of some possible answers, for those who care to explore further on their own.

The problem of unanswered prayer might be somewhat alleviated by considering God’s purpose for making a world in which people experience need and are compelled to pray. Answers may not be all – or even primarily – what God is after. The chief benefit of prayer might be that it brings God’s children into communication with the Father who loves them and wants them to know and love him.

That idea that God is a father is also helpful. If we only talk about prayer in religious or metaphysical terms, its simplicity and value remain hidden from us. As soon as we realize that prayer is a child’s request to a loving Father, a new outlook on prayer becomes possible. When a child asks a parent for something he or she really wants, even a good thing like a snack, the loving parent may say no because there are other goods the child needs more at the time.

A child may ask for five dollars to go the matinee. The movie may be a good one, but dad says no because there is a better good to be had. He may be building the child’s confidence and self-esteem by having him earn his spending money. While the movie is a good that might last for two hours, a work ethic is a good that can last a lifetime.

A loving father cares about his child’s entire life, not just one incident, and so sometimes he refuses a heartfelt request. This was the Apostle Paul’s experience. He repeatedly asked for relief from a terrible burden, and God repeatedly said no. Yet he gave him another and greater good that helped him bear the burden, a gift the apostle did not ask for, but came to cherish.

As soon as we see prayer as a request from a child to his or her father, we realize how likely it is that Father knows things and longs for things that his child cannot yet understand. Sure, he will sometimes say no; not because he doesn’t care, but because he does.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/24/15

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Freedom of speech is an opportunity, not an excuse

On the same day that twelve people were killed in the attack on the French satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly), I heard a commentator interviewed on National Public Radio say that people “are going to, you know, perhaps hesitate for a moment, think about security considerations. And that has a chilling effect on free speech…”

I had to stop and think about stopping and thinking. Was this commentator saying that hesitating for a moment and thinking about security concerns (or anything else – people’s feelings, for example) was somehow am unwarranted limitation on free speech?

The killings at Charlie Hebdo were wicked and inexcusable, and decent people everywhere must say so. But I very much doubt they were an attack on free speech. The murderers were not plotting to curtail free speech but to take revenge and, perhaps, as The Christian Science Monitor conjectured, to radicalize other French Muslims.

Charlie Hebdo’s free speech, exercised week after week, was rude, crude and intended to offend. While I defend their right to free speech, even if it is offensive, I also exercise my right to criticize what they say. Je ne suis pas Charlie – “I am not Charlie.”

Making fun of people, mocking their values and beliefs, and offending their sensibilities is not a way to promote positive social change. Such behavior betrays an arrogant conceit and a narrow outlook. It may be necessary to allow people to speak in such ways, even necessary to defend their right to speak like this, but that does not mean we approve of or condone what they say.

As a student of Jesus, I have learned that speech – what we say and how and why we say it – is of the utmost importance. Indeed, Jesus taught us that “by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” Freedom of speech is a political concern, and a vitally important one, at that. But the truthfulness of speech, and the love in which it is spoken, is a spiritual concern that is of even greater import.

Speech is, by its nature, revelatory; that is, our speech reveals who we are on the inside, under the layers of social sediment and public pretense. Jesus explained, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” As such, speech, when properly understood, expresses a person’s heart – his or her values, hurts, and commitments.

This is especially true of unguarded speech. A preacher’s unplanned remarks will likely reveal more about who he is than his carefully crafted sermons. A politician’s speech on the Senate floor may hide his true designs, but his speech on the sofa in his den will reveal them.

Because Jesus understood how this works, he said that “men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” It’s the careless, unplanned words that most clearly reveal character.

Jesus taught his students to refrain from using speech to manipulate others into a course of action, even if that course of action would prove helpful to the other person. He disallowed the use of rejection or condemnation as a means of forcing people into doing the right thing.

Jesus also cautioned his students against trying to talk their way to success. For many people, speech is nothing but a tool to get what they want, and they know all the tricks of the trade – rhetorical devises, exaggeration, sales techniques – to make that happen. But Jesus says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

A Christian’s speech ought to build people up, not tear them down. St. Paul said, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up …” For the Christian, freedom of speech is not an excuse to belittle people but an opportunity to help them, build them up, and make the world a better place.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/17/15

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Salvation-lite: Great Benefits…Less Responsibility?

It was once quite common to hear people say, “I was saved in Vacation Bible School,” or “I was saved in a small group Bible study.” What did they mean by that? Saved from what? Saved for what? In what sense saved?

There was a time when the church employed salvation language frequently, but in the mainline church that changed years ago and has, more recently, been changing in evangelical circles, too. Salvation-talk is out of fashion. No one these day wants to say, “I’m saved.” It seems self-focused and more than a little politically incorrect.

And yet the Bible is full of salvation talk. Salvation is seen as our most pressing need and as God’s great concern. That may be difficult for us to understand because in our time the breadth and richness of salvation has been drastically understated. Breadth and richness don’t sell in a culture that produces lite beer, lite soft drinks, lite computer software and lite radio stations. We want to reduce the calories, reduce the complexity and reduce the effort of just about everything, including salvation. So we have salvation lite: Great Benefits…Less Responsibility.

What is salvation lite? It’s what’s left of the rich biblical teaching about God’s salvation after cutting everything from it that is not about me. When that’s been done, the only thing left to salvation is a free trip to heaven when I die. That’s salvation lite.

I once urged a young man to give his life to God and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He told me that there would always be time for that later, and he was planning to do a lot of living until then. When he was old, he said, “Like in my seventies, then I’ll get religion; then I’ll get saved.”

Where did he get the idea that he could put God on hold for fifty years? What made him think that salvation was unnecessary until he came to death’s door? Sadly, his reasoning was based on the salvation lite teaching he had heard from church people. In his mind – and in most people’s minds – salvation remains inoperative and irrelevant until one dies. It is a boarding pass to be produced at death so that you can fly to the heavenly skies.

Such an idea of salvation would have been incomprehensible to Peter, Paul and the rest of the early church. For them, salvation was rooted in God’s actions in history, bloomed at the coming of Christ and will come to fruition at his return. They understood that, though God’s great work of salvation is unfolding all around us, salvation is not our personal property. Individuals may and must be saved, but that doesn’t mean salvation is individualistic.

In recent years our nation has gone through a spiritual earthquake, but reclining in her spiritual La-Z-Boy, the Church has hardly noticed. We are in the midst of a mass exodus from the Church and from Christianity – perhaps ours is the time of apostasy to which the Apostle Paul referred. (According to the last census, the number of people claiming no religious affiliation was the fastest growing religious category among Americans. It also showed that over one-third of the people who now call themselves irreligious are under the age of 30.)

I’m sure there are a variety of reasons for this apostasy, but one of the main ones is this: the salvation offered by the Church seems to a growing number of people to have nothing to do with real life. It seems completely irrelevant. It hasn’t even occurred to them that salvation might be important to their relationships and their work and their satisfaction in life.

But that is because they don’t understand salvation. They think of it as a boarding pass for a trip they don’t want to take to a place they don’t care to see. In reality, salvation is a rich, satisfying (and eternal) life – “more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (John 10:10, the message).

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, January 10, 2015

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