How to pray in times like these

In the light of recent events in the news – the ISIS threat, the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, the continuing erosion of religious freedom, and the slaughter of nine Christians at a Bible study in a South Carolina Church – I’ve been wondering what Jesus must think of all this.

More specifically, I wonder what Jesus, who according to the Bible “always lives to intercede for us,” might be praying for us. In a time when traditional morality has been turned on its head and Christians around the world are again losing their heads to vicious religious zealots, how is Jesus praying for his Church?

Before attempting to answer that question, it is necessary to remind ourselves that things weren’t any better in the early days of the Church. Christians were hounded by pagans and Jews alike. They were imprisoned and beaten, killed and sometimes beheaded.

There was nothing like a universally accepted moral code in those days either. The sexual behavior sanctioned in places like ancient Corinth was as shocking as anything that happens in the world’s red light districts today. Greed and violence were just as powerful in the first century as they are in the twenty-first.

So, if we want to know what Jesus is praying for today, we ought to start by asking what he was praying then. What was on his mind? Was he praying for a regime change in Rome or for the liberation of Israel? Was he praying for an expansion of religious freedoms or for an end to sectarian violence?

We don’t know. He certainly may have prayed for these things, but none of them are mentioned in his recorded prayers, including the great prayer of John 17. There his concern seems to fall into two categories: God’s glory and his followers’ protection.

Jesus prayed for God’s glory. He knew that the world cannot be healed until its people have experienced it. Now it’s true that God’s glory has been used to justify the violent suppression of religious (and sometimes non-religious) groups, but that is a smokescreen. In such cases, it’s not really God’s glory people care about, but their own. The propagandist’s job is to convince the world the cause is divine, but you can be sure God has nothing to do with it.

Jesus prayed for both God’s glory and his people’s protection, but it was clearly not protection from violence that was uppermost in his mind. He told his disciples plainly and repeatedly to expect suffering. They would “be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and … hated by all nations…” In the verse that immediately precedes the great prayer of John 17, Jesus as much as guaranteed his followers that trouble (and, eventually, victory) was coming.

How does this guarantee fit with his prayer for their protection? The answer seems to be that it was not protection from bodily injury but protection from “evil” or “the evil one” that he was requesting. It was the protection of their souls that concerned him most. And the greatest threat to their souls, if gauged by the space given to it in Jesus’s prayer, was the threat to their unity. He asked God to protect his people so that they might be unified. He did not ask God to make them prosperous or to place them in positions of influence. He did not pray for political success. He prayed that his followers would be one.

He made that same request for those who would believe and follow him in the future, which would include today’s Christians. In a setting not unlike our own, one of violence, moral anarchy and religious persecution, it was the unity of his people that was uppermost on his mind. He wanted his followers to be united, not in an abstract propositional ecumenism, but in a shared life and love. He knew that this, more than anything else, would protect his people and bring glory to God. In times like these, this is how he prayed, and how he would have us pray too.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 3, 2015

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Christianity’s Answer to America’s Identity Crisis

America is going through an identity crisis. The “live for today” approach to life – or, more precisely, the “live for how I feel today” approach to life – has disconnected us from our past and from our roots. The relationships that have helped define a person’s identity (family, community, church, and nation) have far less influence today than they did a generation ago.

The question of identity affects us on all kind of levels. The continuing debate over taxes, budget, and social programs is part of a bigger debate about who we are, and who we want to be, as a nation. And since Americans don’t clearly know who they’ve been, they struggle to know who they are. Unlike Shakespeare’s Ophelia, we cannot say that “We know what we are,” And if we cannot figure out what we are, we will never get a handle on “what we may be.”

This national identity crisis is particularized in the identity crises of countless individuals. Caitlyn Jenner is not a just an example of gender dysphoria, but an exemplar of identity instability. Gender was once a person’s most basic identity marker, but that is changing. Consider Bellevue College in Washington State. It now lists seven possibilities for gender identity on its application form: “Feminine,” “Masculine,” “Androgynous,” “Gender Neutral,” “Transgender,” “Other’ and “Prefer Not To Answer.” Other organizations have followed suit.

And gender is not the only identity issue in flux. Rachel Dolezal, a woman who was born white but identifies as black, has generated heated controversy over race identity. Race and gender were once the most stable planks in an individual’s identity platform. Not anymore.

Whatever one thinks about the mutability of race and gender (my own views on the subject would be considered conservative), the loss of a stable identity is worrisome. People who lack their own identity will almost certainly take on someone else’s identity – often without knowing it. As Oscar Wilde said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” One only need look at Germany in the 1930s to see where that state of affairs can lead.

The Christian faith speaks to the issue of identity in unique and profound ways. It does not begin with those traditionally stable planks of race or gender for “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Christian identity does not even begin with the person himself or herself. It begins with Christ. A person’s relationship to him transcends all other relationships, and provides the Christian with his or her core identity. He or she is, on the most fundamental level, Christ’s person and God’s beloved child.

When a person believes in Jesus, he or she becomes, as St. Paul makes clear, a new creation. Race and gender do not disappear (indeed, they continue to be a cause for celebration), but they cease to be one’s primary identity markers. Christians so identify with Jesus that they share his life and participate in his death. His history becomes their history and his future their future.

But while the Christian’s identity is stable because it is fixed in Christ, his or her experience is fluid. The Bible brings this out by saying that believers in Jesus have been “made perfect forever” (their stable identity) even as they “are being made holy” (their changing experience).

Because this is true, a stable identity does not lead to a static lifestyle. Quite the opposite. Christians “grow,” “strain,” “strive,” “press,” fight,” and “pursue.” The Christian has to grow into his or her identity, to “grow up into … Christ.”

That dynamic – a strong and secure identity coupled with a vigorous and evolving experience – provides the Christian with the security of knowing who he or she is and the excitement of becoming who he or she longs to be. And so the Christian can join Soren Kierkegaard in confidently asserting: “Now, with God’s help, I shall become myself.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/27/2015

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Things I’m glad my dad didn’t teach me

After reading an article by Peter Scholl, a forty-something married man with kids, living in Australia, I find myself grateful for the things my dad didn’t teach me. Scholl reflects on what contemporary culture teaches boys and men about their identity, especially in the media.

Scholl writes that when he watches sports on TV, he is confused by how the advertisers and commentators think of guys like him. He says they imagine that he and men like him all wish they were 19 again, and think “the key elements of a happy life are (in no particular order) bacon, having fun with your mates, and beer.”

Further, they portray husbands as “hopeless” men who “can’t be trusted to do the grocery shopping, buy clothes for the kids, or articulately express an opinion when it comes to colour, style or appearance.” And “as a father, you are a joke. Your kids don’t take you seriously.”

He goes on to say that the media represents wives as killjoys and faithfulness in marriage as a sign of weakness or cowardice. The only happy place for a man to be is in a bar, surrounded by friends and, no doubt, 19-year-old girls.

Now it’s true my dad couldn’t be trusted to do the grocery shopping. When my mother was recuperating after surgery, he did the shopping, and I went with him. He bought junk food, any sale item that caught his eye, and the worst tasting off-brand foods ever produced.

And he was, admittedly, a terrible cook. When he got done preparing a steak, it should have been licensed as a deadly weapon. When he tried to bake a cake for my mother’s birthday and the recipe instructed him to “fold in an egg” he was completely bewildered. The only thing my dad could find in the kitchen was his place at the table. He could not have tracked down the baking soda, had his life depended on it.

Yet he didn’t teach my brother and me that dads are a joke. We knew he meant what he said. We saw him break up a violent fight between two men who were trying to kill each other. On another occasion, he apprehended a robbery suspect as he was breaking into the store across the street, and held him until the police arrived. He taught us that dads are courageous.

I’m also grateful my dad didn’t teach us that happiness comes from flirting with 19-year-old girls. I never saw his eye wander and never heard him say anything suggestive about a woman. He remained faithful to my mother until his death in 1996.

It’s true that my dad could have taught my brother and me that the only happy place for a man was in a bar – he drank a lot when we were young. In fact, his drinking caused problems, and brought the family to a crisis. That’s when he chose to quit drinking, to distance himself from some of his friends, and to concentrate on his family. In so doing, he taught us that a dad can do things he doesn’t want to do, but needs to do, for the sake of his family.

I’m glad my dad did not teach me to swear. Looking back on it now, I’m really surprised that he didn’t. He was as tough a guy as you’d ever want to know: a two-fisted Marine, who never backed down from a fight. When I was younger (and he was still drinking), he often lost his temper. Most of the men that hung around with my dad could swear a blue streak. But I never heard him use profanity – not even once.

I’m especially grateful my dad didn’t teach me that believing in God is for weaklings. When my brother was dying of cancer, my two-fisted, never-turn-away-from-a-fight father turned to God for help. His first years as a Christian were sometimes rocky – he brought his anger and pride with him into his new relationship with God – but he stuck it out.

By his example he taught me that a man really can change. He became increasingly attentive and loving to my mother. His confidence in God increased. His willingness to be known as a Christian grew. He became a kinder and gentler man. I’m grateful for the things my dad didn’t teach me, but I’m even more grateful that he taught me this.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/20/2015

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Hit by a pornographic tsunami

Recent survey data reveals that 68 percent of men who describe themselves as Christians – so approximately seven out of every ten Christian men in America – look at pornography. That is true even though 65 percent of all American men – Christian or not – say that viewing porn is morally wrong.

But that conviction is changing. Younger people, in ever greater numbers, are saying that viewing porn is a totally appropriate expression of one’s sexuality. The “clever clogs” (to borrow A. N. Wilson’s term) of social liberalism talk as if viewing pornography is natural and healthy, and assume that anyone who disagrees is a religious prude, hung up on ridiculous and outdated sexual mores.

In surveys taken of teen boys, 35 percent say they have viewed online porn “too many times to count.” More than half of boys and a third of girls have seen their first pornographic images before they turn thirteen. 64 percent of young men and 18 percent of young women say that they view pornography on a weekly basis.

There’s more. 40 to 50 percent of church pastors (depending on the survey) admit to struggling with porn addiction. Our country, our world and even our churches have been hit by a pornographic tsunami, originating in (of all places) the U. S., the supposed bastion of Christian values. (When the late Ayatollah Khomeini called America “the great satan,” he probably didn’t have this in mind, but when you think of how U.S. companies are spewing pornographic images of sexual violence around the globe, it’s bound to give you pause.)

What is so bad about porn? Well, leave aside for the moment – but don’t forget – the fact that pornography is demeaning to women, glorifies sexual aggression, and exploits the people whose images are being sold. Leave aside for the moment the fact that the women used in pornographic images and films are often sexually abused and drug addicted, and that the people who buy porn or visit pornographic websites support the monsters that inflict that abuse. Leaving that aside for the moment, consider what pornography does to the person who views it.

A man who is in the habit of viewing porn is creating neural pathways in his brain that become wider (for lack of a better word) each time he looks. Dr. William Struthers of Wheaton College writes that those neural corridors become the “automatic pathway through which interactions with woman are routed…” The brain on porn becomes more and more sexualized.

Here’s something else: As porn sexualizes people, it also desensitizes them. They feel less – less outrage, less excitement, less everything. In her book Pornified, New York Times editor Pamela Paul says that a person addicted to porn begins to find the real world boring and real people disinteresting.

We live in the wreckage of a twentieth century moral earthquake and the tsunami of porn it’s generating. It is in this context that we must wrestle with a concept that is largely unknown (or, if known, assumed outdated) in society, but is everywhere in the Bible: personal purity.

The biblical concept of purity certainly includes sexual purity, but it is not limited to it. It involves the whole person. Biblical writers repeatedly refers to it as purity of heart. To try to be sexually pure without being pure in heart is like trying to build a house from the roof down. It won’t work, and you’re liable to get crushed trying.

The Christian idea of purity does not primarily refer to sexual contact with another person, but to spiritual contact with a holy God. It calls a person to be changed in his or her thoughts, values and choices. As the heart is purified – that is, as attitudes and actions foreign to God’s character – are filtered out, a person is gradually freed from the domination of selfish desires to live a rich and fulfilled life. Jesus was right: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” But then, as C. S. Lewis once quipped, it’s only the pure in heart that want to.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/13/2015

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Why I’m Still an Evangelical

In 1987, the controversial Catholic priest Hans Kung famously published a book titled, “Why I am Still a Christian.” For some reason that book, which I read many years ago, came back to my mind recently, and started me thinking about why I am still an Evangelical Christian.

I first came to faith in God and learned confidence in Jesus in an Evangelical church. Many of the people who have been the most help to me in learning to live an authentic Christian life have been Evangelicals. I pastor an Evangelical church. Why wouldn’t I be an Evangelical?

I can think of reasons. For one, Evangelicals like to put on a show. Literally. Worship in Evangelical churches often deteriorates into an entertainment hour, with people choosing their church by the genre of music that’s used. The unchallenged authority of personal preference in worship, or in any other matter of faith and practice, is a very troubling development.

Something else about Evangelicals I don’t like: we too quickly borrow the latest methods used by secular businesses to achieve our goals. If the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan taught us, the Evangelical message is sometimes “We’re the cool kids on the block.”

Then there’s the fact that Evangelicals are eager to get people into heaven but unskilled at helping them live on earth. We tend to focus all our energy in getting people “saved” – helping them make a decision for Christ – but do little to help them remain spiritually solvent thereafter.

I have also seen Evangelicals employ means that are inappropriate to their chosen end. Too often Evangelical preachers manipulate people’s emotions and play on their fears, in an attempt to get them to choose heaven. But when the sermon is over and the emotion fades, the new convert finds he has nothing to stand on and is all too likely to fall.

And then there’s David Brooks stinging assessment of Evangelicals. He says that “Intellectual standards in the evangelical community are not as high as they could be,” and explains “that what drives people away the most [from Evangelicalism] is a mixture of an intellectual inferiority complex with a moral superiority complex.” Ouch!
I don’t deny any of these things, and yet I am still Evangelical. Why?

I am still an Evangelical because Evangelicals are people of the book. A Bible-less Christianity is like a map-less expedition. It can be done, but the explorer will probably not know where he is or where his goal lies. The Bible is our map and the Spirit our compass – a map and compass held in highest regard by Evangelicals. I, like many Evangelicals, have found the Bible to be the single biggest help to me in learning how to live and love as a Christian.

I am still an Evangelical because Evangelicals still call people to decision. The value of making a line-in-the-sand, do-or-die decision is inestimable. Jesus called people to decision. So did the Apostles Peter and Paul, and so do Evangelicals. I have not found that people become Christians by accident. God does not override people’s wills and force them into faith. They need to make a decision, and Evangelicals – more than any other Christians – understand that.

It’s not that decision is missing from mainline Churches and Roman Catholicism, but it is often understated. I have known many people raised in the Church of Rome (and I love them; I married one) who have told me that they did not understand the time of their confirmation to be a time of decision. They just stumbled through it, doing what they were told.

I am also an Evangelical because Evangelicals are some of the most compassionate people in the world. It is ironic. It can seem as if Evangelicals are only interested in getting people into heaven, yet they spend more time and money than anyone in keeping people fed, clothed and cared for on earth.

Those are a few of the reasons why I’m still an Evangelical. But what is more important – more important by far – is that I’m still a Christian, and I’m not ashamed to say so.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 6/6/15

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From what area code does this call originate?

Kym Ackerman left her dental appointment in Flagstaff, Arizona with a numinous feeling of wonder. On an X-ray of her left-side molars, she had just seen the image of Jesus. According to The Huffington Post, Ackerman explained that her mother died when she was only 17, but seeing “Jesus” in her tooth made her feel that she has been protected by a guardian angel.

The Huffington Post also reported that a couple felt the presence of God when they saw an image of Jesus on their Walmart shopping receipt. The Daily Mirror reported that a woman in Birmingham, England believes that Jesus revealed his presence to her through an image on her bathroom floor. (Full disclosure: she and her family have also met ghosts in their house.)

When the cult leader Jeffrey Don Lundgren executed an entire family in Kirtland, Ohio, he said that God had ordered him to do it. A mom allegedly tried to drown her child because Jesus told her to. A woman once told me about a man who tried to get her to go out with him by claiming God told him to date her. Just whose voice are these people hearing? From what area code do these calls originate?

Is everyone who claims to hear God either manipulative or crazy? Sometimes it seems that way. And yet, conservative estimates suggests that one out of ten people has experienced a “God communication” event. A Gallup poll suggested the numbers are much higher: almost one in four people say they have heard a voice or seen a vision in response to prayer.

Many well-known and highly regarded people, including scholars and world leaders, claimed to have heard God’s voice, either audibly or as words in their own minds. Skeptics commonly lump such experiences together under the category of auditory hallucinations, yet most of the people who claim to have heard God speak are normal folks. They are not always religious, and many have done things in response to God’s voice that have changed society for the better.

In the Bible there are numerous examples of men and women who have heard God speak. Some of those people were, admittedly, a little strange, but most were ordinary people, whose experience of hearing God enriched their lives and benefitted the people around them.

But if God really does speak to people, how can a person know whether the words/ideas in his or her mind come from God or are just originating in his or her imagination? How can a person know that he or she is not self-deceived? The Bible, which teaches that God does speak to people, also warns its readers to watch out for people who falsely claim to have heard from God.

An answer consistent with Biblical teaching might be put this way: the only way to tell whether or not God is speaking is to become familiar with his voice. Nothing can replace familiarity with God’s voice.

I have a friend whom I have not seen or talked to in more than a year, but were he to call today, I would recognize him immediately. I know his voice. I know the kinds of things he says, and the way he says them. A person can, in much the same way, learn to recognize God’s voice.

Those who are familiar with God’s voice know that he never whines. He doesn’t beg, he doesn’t say, “Ple-e-e-ease!” He never insults. He doesn’t say, “Why are you so stupid?” He certainly never tells a person to do anything immoral or anything that contradicts his revelation through Jesus Christ and through the Scriptures.

The psalmist says, “The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic.” God speaks with authority. His voice is weighty. It has gravitas.

The best way to develop a familiarity with God’s voice is to spend time reading and thinking about the Bible. The Bible speaks in God’s tones, and someone who knows those tones is likely to recognize God’s voice. But a person who doesn’t know the Bible might accept calls coming from an altogether different area code than heaven, and not even know it.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, May 30, 2015

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Safe on the other side of the impossible

Malcolm Gladwell, author of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, retold the story of David and Goliath for a TED talk in 2013. He told his audience that over the course of writing his book he learned “that everything I thought I knew about that story turned out to be wrong.”

Gladwell sets the stage by explaining the geography of the battle between the ancient Israelites and their adversaries to the west, the Philistines. The opposing armies met in the Shephelah, a region of interconnected valleys and ridges that connect the high country of the Israelites in the east to the coastal region of the Philistines in the west.

Whichever army marched down into the valley first would lose the high ground and be vulnerable, which neither was willing to do. So the Philistines proposed a single combat, winner-take-all solution to the deadlock. They sent their most fearsome soldier, Goliath, a man who was head and shoulders (and more) taller than anyone else. He was like a tree.

The Israelites quailed. No one would volunteer to face that monster of a man, until young David offered himself. David was not even in the army. He was a non-combatant; a shepherd, not a warrior. The Israelite commander initially rejected the idea, but later changed his mind. Who else could he send? So he offered the young hero his own armor and weapons, but David refused. “I’m not used to this stuff,” he said. He had a very different strategy in mind.

He went to the riverbed and picked up five smooth stones. The stones of that region are composed of barium sulfate and are twice as hard as an average stone. The sling David carried was no toy – it was an ancient artillery weapon, capable of launching a projectile at a speed of about 80 miles per hour.

Ancient slingers were accurate up to a range of 200 yards, could knock birds out of mid-air, and “sling a stone at a hair and not miss” (Judges 16:20). When David approached Goliath, he had no intention of engaging in hand-to-hand combat with him. He planned to stand out of reach and put a “bullet” right between the big man’s eyes.

Goliath himself, Gladwell suggests, was probably afflicted with acromegaly, a type of giantism that is caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland. Side effects include a progressive loss of vision or an increasing degree of double vision. That might explain why Goliath says that David was coming at him with sticks when, in fact, he had only one stick – a staff.

Goliath’s slow approach, the fact that his attendant led, rather than followed him, and his complete failure to grasp David’s strategy, all suggest to Gladwell that Goliath was visually impaired. As Gladwell portrays it, this was a fight David was bound to win.

Whether or not Gladwell’s depiction of the battle is correct, there is a theme in the David and Goliath story that runs through other biblical stories. At the beginning of his career, a person is sent on a dangerous – and seemingly impossible – mission with an apparent lack of resources. David approaches Goliath with a staff. Moses faces off with the world’s most powerful man, with nothing but a staff. Jesus sends his disciples into the world like sheep among wolves, and orders them to take nothing for their trip but a staff; no money, no extra clothes – just a staff.

It’s as if God trains his people by throwing them into an impossible situation without any of the resources commonly deemed necessary. This experience, repeated frequently in the life of biblical characters (think of Jacob, Elijah, the Apostle Paul, and others) is not intended to teach a person to “dig deep” and trust himself, but to look up and trust God.

A person needs to discover for himself that God is there and can be depended upon, no matter what the situation. Once he has emerged – safe and sound – on the other side of the impossible, he is ready to become God’s agent of change in the world.

But first he has to meet his Goliath.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, May 23, 2015

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