Get off the Bandwagon of Hate

Six days after the 9/11 attacks, in remarks made at the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush told his audience, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.” He went on to say, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about.”

Many scholars agreed, but other people disputed this, claiming that violence against non-Muslims is grounded in the Koran itself, and cited texts to prove their point. I am not qualified to speak about the Koran but the frequent false claims I’ve heard made about the Bible give me cause for skepticism. I’ve known people to lift biblical passages out of their literary context and the historic realities that surrounded them to “prove” their respective and, sometimes ludicrous, points.

After the 9/11 attacks, there was a backlash against American Muslims that was shameful and wrong. The president spoke candidly about this and condemned it. Now, eighteen years later, I wonder if someone ought not speak as candidly about the acts of violence perpetrated on ethnic minorities by racists and white nationalists and state clearly that such behavior is abhorrent to the people of Jesus, wherever they’re found.

I wonder this because I once sat across the table from a Muslim who told me: “If you’re born in the United States, you are a Christian—unless you are a Jew or a Muslim.” I would not want that man – or anyone else – to think the murderer of worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue was a Christian because he was born in the United States. Likewise, it would be a mistake to think that the man who killed Muslims in New Zealand must be a Christian because he is not a Jew or a Muslim.

Hatred, and the violence it breeds, is inimical to the way of Jesus. His people are even forbidden to take revenge against those who hurt them. And it is not just hostile actions that are banned, but hostile attitudes. They are ordered to “get rid of anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from [their] lips.” Jesus and his earliest followers not only condemned violence toward people of other religions or races, they insisted that Jesus’s people show love to such people.

The Bible, which Christians consider divinely inspired, claims that we are aliens. Nevertheless, we have been loved and accepted by earth’s rightful landowner, God, who insists we follow suit. We are commanded “to love those who are aliens.” The biblical writer states that God “watches over” and “loves the alien,” and Christ’s people are expected to love and watch over them too.

Jesus goes even further: we are not only commanded to love strangers, but enemies – the people who seek to do us harm. White supremacists see people of other races and ethnicities as a threat to their way of life and desire harm to come to them. But Jesus tells his followers they must love even the people who oppose them, pray for them, and do good to them.

No one said that following Jesus would be easy.

The Bible not only commands God’s people to treat aliens with love and justice, it also provides examples of how to relate to people who serve other gods. Abraham was highly respected by people of other religions because he treated them with respect as friends and neighbors.

The Gospels do not recount many encounters between Jesus and non-Jewish people but when he did relate to non-Jews, he helped them. In fact, his highest praise was reserved for a non-Jewish soldier who served the much-reviled occupational army that subjugated his native land.

Unlike his master, St. Paul’s extensive travels led him into many encounters with people of different faiths. While he announced the good news of Jesus to them unapologetically, he never despised them or ridiculed their religion. He wanted to win them, not subdue them.

Readers who consider themselves Christians but have climbed onto the bandwagon of racial and religious hatred ought to review what Jesus and his apostles did and said. If, after doing so, they stay on that bandwagon, they should at least stop calling themselves Christians.

First published by Gatehouse Media, Inc.

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Tongues of Fire

James 3:1-12. (Listening time: under 24 minutes.)http://lockwoodchurch.org/media

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The Rebellion in the Garden

The temptation in the garden was not merely about eating forbidden fruit; it was about defying the one who had forbidden it. At the heart of the temptation to “know good and evil” was the lure that humans could decide for themselves what was good and evil. God could be bypassed. Humans could choose their own good. They could usurp the place of God.

God had given humans very great authority but it was authority in and under God. The temptation here was to step out from under God’s authority, to become one’s own authority, to put God to one side and place themselves at the center. What happened in the garden was not simply wrong, it was rebellion. A rebellion that has been repeated in all Adam’s children, including you and me.

What Eve did not know was that the moment she and Adam stepped out of the stream of God’s authority, their own authority over creation would be lost. Man was the duly-constituted authority over the earth, but that authority was forfeited, to the great hurt of both man and creation.

Our parents decided to abandon God’s way – it was too constrictive – and go off in their own direction. It was a disastrous choice. If a train leaves the track, it may be free to go in any direction, but it won’t go far. The track may seem constrictive to a train, but as soon as it leaves the track, it ceases to operate as a train. When humans chose to leave God’s way, they remained human – just as the derailed train remains a train – but they ceased to function as they were designed.

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We Must Not Think God Is Our Servant

I first learned about P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves from reading the remarkable English novelist Charles Williams. A character in his most accessible work, the 1930 novel War in Heaven, mentions her sheer delight in reading Jeeves. So I went in search of Wodehouse, who had been wildly popular in the first half of the twentieth century, found him, and began chuckling my way through Jeeves stories.

Jeeves is Reginald Jeeves, valet extraordinaire to the upper-class wastrel Bertie Wooster. Bertie, though educated at Eton and Oxford, is remarkably dense and nearly always in trouble. Enter Jeeves, the gentleman’s gentleman. Jeeves knows everything, from the best bet in the 2:00 race at Epsom Downs to the current romantic interests of the kitchen staff, to the most obscure lines of Renaissance poetry. His knowledge is encyclopedic.

Whenever Bertie gets into trouble, he turns to Jeeves. Though Jeeves is sometimes offended by Bertie’s outlandish behavior, Jeeves remains faithful to him. He may leave Bertie briefly, but he always returns to save the prodigal from the consequences of his own foolishness.

Jeeves, with his boundless knowledge and seemingly infinite reach, is more than a little like God. Perhaps Wodehouse realized this, for he once described him as “a godlike man in a bowler hat.” By making Jeeves like God, Wodehouse was able to create all kinds of interesting and comedic (in the term’s larger sense) plot lines.

Bertie thinks Jeeves is like God but we mustn’t think that God is like Jeeves – though many people do. They suppose he will remain nearby, though discreetly keeping his distance until he is needed. When his assistance is required, they think they need only call and he will appear – Jeeves-like – out of nowhere. He will of course know what to do and will use his vast network of connections to make sure it gets done. When the trouble is over, he will slip away into the nether regions until the next time he is summoned.

To the degree we subscribe to such a view of God, we do God an injustice and ourselves significant harm. When we think of God in these terms, we get our situation exactly backwards, assuming that the infinite and all-knowing God is our servant, whose chief concern is rescuing us from trouble and making sure our life runs smoothly.

Jesus and the biblical writers warned against this mistake. In the Old Testament, Joshua, the successor to Moses, is finalizing battle plans prior to his first engagement with the enemy. It is undoubtedly a nerve-wracking time that calls for great courage, which Joshua possesses in abundance. As he contemplates his first major battle in the Promised Land, he suddenly realizes he is not alone. He sees a man, standing in front of him with sword drawn. He goes straight toward him and boldly challenges him.

But this is no ordinary man. He identifies himself as “the commander of the Lord’s army.” When Joshua challenges him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” the man gives a striking answer: “Neither.” Apparently, when addressing God, the question is not whether he in on our side but whether we are on his.

Jesus once told a story about a servant who comes in from working in the fields. His master does not fix his supper, nor wait on him. Rather, the servant prepares the master’s dinner and only sits down to his own meal after his master has been served. The point of the parable has been disputed but this much is clear: the servant is not the master.

That is a truth the church must relearn in each generation. Whether it is twentieth century theologians attempting to use God to create a just society or twenty-first century therapeutic religionists trying to use God to achieve self-actualization, we keep forgetting that God is not a glorified Jeeves who lives to serve us.

A.W. Tozer was right: “The whole course of the life is upset by failure to put God where He belongs.” But it is also true that the whole course of life is upset when we put ourselves where we don’t belong – in God’s place.

First published by Gatehouse Media, 3/16/2019

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Dying of Loneliness: Faith Without Works

A sermon on James 2:14-26 (25 minutes).

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The Story’s Told That Adam Jumped (But I’m Thinking That He Fell)

In our world, we have beauty and cruelty, hand in hand; wisdom and insanity, side by side. We have the glory of Bach coming out of Weimar, and the barbarity of Hitler coming out of the Weimar Republic. There is a little Bach in Hitler, and a little Hitler in Bach, and a little of both of them in all of us.

What can explain these extremes: goodness and depravity, love and hatred, stunning beauty and appalling ugliness? Western man often tells the story of humanity in terms of progression, evolution, and growth. The plot follows crude and simple man as he plods, and occasionally jumps, forward. From stone to iron, from iron to refined metals, and from metals to polymers. He goes from fingers to abacus to supercomputer. Up he goes, always up. 

But part of the story is left out. It is not just from stone to iron, but from stone-headed axe to iron-tipped spear, from iron-tipped spear to lead bullet, from lead bullet to atom bomb.  We jump, but we usually land further down, not further up.  The story of man’s progress has been one of technological advance and spiritual decline. As the songwriter Jackson Browne once put it: “Now the story’s told that Adam jumped, but I’m thinking that he fell.”

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, humankind stepped off a cliff. Theologians often describe Adam and Eve’s sin as The Fall. But I believe what happened in the garden was only the initial tumble down a long, steep hill. Humanity is still falling

The would-be ruler of creation has become the subject of pain and sorrow. Sin is pandemic; we’ve all be infected. The story of the first sin ends with humans banished from the garden, without hope of return.

Humankind not only fell, it is still falling, and who can stop our plunge? But the Creator is faithful to his creation. The psalmist says, “he will not harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve . . . ” (Ps. 103:9-10). He will stretch out his hand and catch us. 


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The Other Problem of Pain

C. S. Lewis’s book, The Problem of Pain, was published in 1940. In it, Lewis responds to an argument against the existence of God that goes something like this: An all-good God would not want his creatures to suffer; an all-powerful God would be able to prevent them doing so; suffering does exist; therefore God is either not all-powerful or is not all-good.

When I first read The Problem of Pain in the 1970s, I found it spiritually stimulating and intellectually satisfying. It seemed to me that Lewis was onto something: a good and omnipotent God might, for the eternal good of his creatures, permit temporary suffering. He might allow sorrow to exist for a night so that unending joy could come in the morning.

Lewis’s argument is still relevant. One of the principal reasons young adults give for leaving the faith is the presence of unjust suffering. Some notable intellectuals who have left the faith – the New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman is a prime example – often cite the problem of evil and suffering as a cause of their apostasy. I have read that most scientists who reject belief in God do so not because of the weight of evidence but because of the seeming senselessness of suffering.

I still think Lewis’s argument is sound, but I now realize that the problem of pain is more than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an existential problem to be endured, and not just by those who doubt God’s existence but by those who despair of their own. As a friend recently said to me, “It is hard to be spiritual when you’re in pain.”

This is the experiential problem of pain: how can one trust God and love one’s fellow-man when one’s mind is overwhelmed by pain? Suffering is the ferocious dog that stands in front of you with the hair on its back raised, snarling through bared teeth. When you encounter it, it is hard to think about anything else. Hard to think of anything at all.

Something like this happened to me. I was at a friend’s place for a couple of days. I knew he had a dog for protection, but I assumed it stayed outside. Early in the morning I went out to the living room, sat on the sofa, and began conversing with my friend’s young son, who was already up. The next thing I knew, there was a growling Rottweiler in front of me, looking as if it would tear me limb from limb. In that moment, I did not think spiritual thoughts. I did not think of my young companion’s wellbeing, or how seeing an adult torn to pieces would mar his future life. I thought only of the dog.

How can a person attend to God and neighbor when suffering occupies all his vision, baring its teeth, threatening pain and dismemberment? I’ve had little experience in this area; just enough to reveal my failures, not enough to lead me to a solution. But others who have suffered more have relayed helpful advice.

First, to trust God in suffering, one must learn that God is trustworthy before suffering. In times of suffering, we fall back on what we know. If we know God as a loving Father, who is fully committed to us and our good, our experience of suffering will be very different than if we doubt his intentions.

Then, we must expect that suffering will come, sooner or later, and be ready for it. We should not be surprised by suffering – the biblical writers warn us repeatedly to expect it. It would be more surprising if we didn’t suffer.

Next, we must allow suffering to reveal areas where we are depending on what Randy Alcorn calls “God-substitutes” and transfer our trust to God himself. Suffering, perhaps more than anything else, reveals the regions in our souls where faith remains incomplete.

Finally, we must cling to the hope that God will use suffering, even when it is unjust, for our good and the good of others. He has promised to do this and we must cling to his promise. If we have seen him fulfill that promise in various ways before we encounter suffering, it will help us trust his word.

First published by Gatehouse Media, inc.

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Something Has Gone Dreadfully Wrong

When God looked at his creation, saw the dazzling nebulae and heard the ravishing symphony of streams and winds and waterfalls, he called it good. Then he turned his eye to humans. Men and women were the sub-creators, the commissioned rulers, the caretakers and love-givers of creation. Looking at them, God knew that “it was good … it was good … it was very good.”

And it is very good: The beauty, the freshness, the fertility of the earth; the love and heroism and passion of humankind. It is very good.

And it is very bad. Nature revolts. Tsunamis wipe out tens of thousands of people. Earthquakes crush and destroy. Hurricanes sweep away entire cities. Drought and disease kill untold millions.

But the harm caused by nature pales before the harm caused by her supposed caretaker and love-giver. It is humans who crash jet airplanes into buildings filled with people. It is humans who pack their fellows into cattle cars and ship them off to gas chambers. Humans, who torture and control and hate; who brutalize, degrade, and destroy.

Dostoevsky’s character, Ivan, in The Brother’s Karamazov, described it this way: “A Bulgarian I met. . . was telling me all about the atrocities being committed. . . they set fire to homes and property, they cut people’s throats, they rape women and children, they nail prisoners to the palisades by their ears and leave them there till the morning and then hang them, and so on; it really defies the imagination. We often talk of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but that is. . . insulting to beasts. . .”

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Humans Are the X-Factor: God’s Biggest Risk?

God has painted on a very big canvas. But do you know what the centerpiece of his creative genius is? It’s you and I, and the people around us. As far as we know (though there is much we don’t know), the stars and nebula and galaxies are all backdrop. He created seas and skies and plants and beasts, but the crown of his creation was man.

Humans are the X-factor; they were (from our perspective, at least) creation’s biggest risk, and its biggest reward. No one can fault God for thinking small. He had great plans for the humans – great plans for us – and he still does. The story is still unfolding, and we have a part to play.

Because people bear the image of God, they are tremendously valuable. The potential for humans – whether newborn child, world’s oldest man, or inmate serving a life sentence – is inestimable. Every person you know is priceless: the phone solicitor who calls at dinner time, the dentist, the restaurant server, the genius, and the person with intellectual disabilities, all are infinitely worthwhile.

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The Difference Between Failure and Success: Learning to Pay Attention

I was driving on a primary north-south route before dawn. A half-mile away I could see a car coming toward me with his bright lights on. When he went down a hill and disappeared from sight, I turned my bright lights on hoping that, when we got closer, he would see me turn mine off and would get the message to turn his off, too.

As we approached each other, I turned off my brights, but the other driver didn’t get the message. So I flashed my lights at him. He still didn’t turn off his bright lights. I didn’t know if he was being stubborn or if he just didn’t notice.

I frequently drive the country roads after dark or before dawn and I have notice that approaching drivers frequently forget to switch off their brights. I flash my lights at them as a reminder, but some – maybe a third – still don’t turn theirs off. Are they being stubborn? I doubt it. I think they simply don’t notice.

But how can you not notice a car approaching you at fifty-five miles per hour, flashing its lights? What could the other driver possibly be doing? Is he talking on his cell phone, or changing CDs or adjusting the heat? Is he dozing? Or is he just lost in his own thoughts? (It is a little disquieting to think that three out of ten drivers are so distracted that they do not notice when someone flashes lights at them.)

When it comes to driving a vehicle, paying attention could mean the difference between a safe arrival and an accident. When it comes to one’s spiritual journey, the same holds true. I think many of us crash in our spiritual journey simply because we are not paying attention. God is flashing his lights at us, so to speak, but we don’t notice. 

As there are rules in driving, so there are rules in the spiritual life. As there are skills in driving, there are skills in the life of faith. But knowing the rules or mastering the skills is not enough to guarantee success, whether one is on the road or following the spiritual path. We must also pay attention.

As a pastor, I have met people who know all the rules. They can quote them at length. Ask them a question – for example, “What does the Bible say about forgiveness?” – and they will give you three rules, all with biblical support.

Other people have the skills down pat. They read the Bible every day and understand what they read. They pray. They meet with others weekly to worship. They know how to use the Bible as a map to lead someone to faith in Christ.

Some people know the rules and have developed the skills, but miss a satisfying life with God, nonetheless. Why? Because they aren’t paying attention to him. They are lost in their own thoughts, pursuing their own agendas, or playing with their newest toys. And, because they are not paying attention, they keep having “accidents.” Their words damage others, they miss God’s will, and they drive their life through various barricades, right into temptation.

What is the difference between the person who pays attention and the one who does not? One decides that paying attention is important, intends to do so, then acts on his intention. The other does not. Most people who don’t pay attention to God never intended to. They think of this life as their own, and God as an option to which they can attend or not.

Paying attention – to the road or to God – is a habit and, like any habit, can be formed. We can get into the habit of paying attention to God by devoting time daily to listen to what God has to say, especially through the Bible. We can talk – and listen – to God at specified times during the day. We can adopt a posture like this: “Lord, I am listening. Speak to me today through the Bible, through other Christians, and even through chance meetings. Speak to me through what I read and the circumstances around me.”

The difference between failure and success is sometimes a simple matter of paying attention.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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