Charlottesville: Is it Time to Take Sides?

 

After Charlottesville, is it time to take sides? President Trump has been roundly criticized for his alleged refusal to do so, both in his initial response to the violence there and in his follow-up news conference. He has been reproached for implying that there is a moral equivalency between the parties involved, and challenged to formally renounce the KKK and other white nationalists.

Many Republicans have joined their colleagues across the aisle in choosing a side – sort of. They’ve come out against neo-Nazism, white supremacy and hate groups. But that’s like taking a stand against beating children and robbing little old ladies – who would disagree?

So, politicians are rushing to take a side – and it happens to be the one on which almost every voter in their district stands. Not a lot of courage there. President Trump is trying (or is being represented as trying) to avoid taking a side. Perhaps there is more courage there, but a startling lack of moral cognizance. Meanwhile, our nation is being torn apart, and not between Antifa and Neo-Nazis movements, but between whites and people of color, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans.

So, after Charlottesville, is it time to take a side? After Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in New York, is it time to take a side? After the brutal killing of praying Christians at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, is it time to take a side? Yes, it’s time to take a side: the side of justice over injustice, love over hate, peace over violence, listening over shouting, humility over pride, and self-sacrifice over self-promotion.

But which side is more likely to provide all these things – the Antifa or the white supremacists? The Right or the Left? The Republicans or the Democrats? If this were a multiple-choice test, everyone would be skipping through A, B, and C in a rush to circle D: “None of the above.” These groups have been ratcheting up the hatred, not reducing it. They have benefited from divisiveness – why would they want to end it?

It’s not that I don’t believe in choosing a side – I do. As a student of the Scriptures, I know that Christianity is a side-taking religion. The claim against Christians has always been that they are side-takers; they are exclusive. They have the chutzpah to claim that they are right.

That claim is not quite accurate. Christians don’t claim they are right, but that Jesus is, and they take his side. They will work with anyone who genuinely desires love, justice and peace, but they won’t take their side. They’ve already taken one, and proclaimed it in their baptism. They’ve taken sides with Jesus Christ.

But isn’t taking sides what’s wrong with the world? Doesn’t taking sides make a person combative and malicious towards people on the other side? Isn’t this the whole problem with militant Islam – they’ve taken sides? Wouldn’t we be better off with a more “spherical” religion – one in which there are no sides, where no one is wrong, and all paths lead to God?

I think not. Better to take a stand and choose a side with Jesus Christ and the non-ethnic people of God. But do not mistake this with choosing a side in the culture wars, which is not at all the same thing. We don’t take a side by baptizing the latest liberal cause and giving it a Christian name, nor by proclaiming the gospel of traditional values. We take a side by being faithful to the God of Jesus, no matter what.

Right now, everyone is in a hurry to renounce white supremacy. Good – it’s repulsive. But who is in a hurry to love their enemies, even those white supremacists? Only those who’ve taken sides with Jesus. Who prays for those who misuse them? The Christians do. Who makes “every effort to do what leads to peace”? The people who call Jesus “Lord.”

I take my side with those people – all of them, whatever their ethnicity, whatever the cost. I take my side with them, and with the one we together call “Lord.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/17/2017

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What the World Needs Now

What does the world need now? Answers to that question are everywhere. One can’t amble through the morning paper or the evening news – or even the grocery store – without tripping over them. Some answers are religious and some secular, some hackneyed and familiar while others are new and novel. Some answers are hard and techy (a globally reliable communication network), while others are soft and feel-good (what the world needs now is love, sweet love).

The church certainly has offered its share of answers to the question, though often in confusing and even contradictory ways. Depending on the voice you’re listening to, the answer might be: the world needs justice or equality (gender, racial, and economic), or the world needs to return to (or discover for the first time) Christian morality.

The church has frequently tried to give the world an answer that both proves God’s existence and justifies the church’s. But these apologetic-type answers are ineffective for at least two reasons. First, they have kept the church in a defensive posture for generations; and second (and more importantly), they have reduced God’s big answer to mere words. When he gave the world his Son and his church, he said, “Here’s my answer.”

The church needs to remember that. She is not a social service agency nor a foundation for the preservation of traditional morals, but the Body of Christ. As such, the church doesn’t have the answer; the church is the answer – the only answer that can make a difference.

For several generations, the liberal wing of the church has tried to answer the question, “What does the world need now?” from a revised catalog of secular solutions. The world needs to end economic disparity and racial bias, while promoting universal health care and non-violence. The world needs gender equality, or perhaps gender blindness, or (even more radically) to put an end to gender distinction altogether.

Where does God fit into these answers? He usually arrives as a sanctified afterthought, as Christians posit a relationship between today’s preferred answers and their overlooked deity: “Of course, with God there is no male or female, but all are one in Christ.” This God is not necessarily the God of Jesus, whose actions and ways are revealed in the Bible. This is a more generic divinity who, happily, follows the same agenda as social and political progressives. How convenient!

One can sympathize with the liberal wing of the church. They understandably long to regain the radicalism that characterized Jesus. His contemporaries considered him scandalous. Ours considered us boring. How can we recover the scandal of the gospel? The liberal church has tried to do it, according to Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in their excellent book Resident Aliens, “by identifying the church with the newest secular solutions.”

Does the conservative wing of the church fare any better? Not much. Though they have the advantage of a high view of Scripture, they’ve made little use of it. Finding themselves on the same path as their liberal brothers and sisters, they’ve trudged off in the opposite direction, where they hope to find shelter from the storms of the age in the traditions of the past.

The trouble with the twenty-first century American church is not that its path is too liberal or too conservative, but that it is the wrong path. It has followed politics when it should have been following Jesus. If it had, liberals would have had the scandal they thought they wanted, and conservatives would have preserved the values their children have lost.

Is there hope? Of course there’s hope: there is a God. The church belongs to him, not to liberals or conservatives. The good shepherd will lead his church through the moral wilderness of the twenty-first century and not even one of his own will be lost. But while the critics and commentators are shouting answers from the rooftops of media strongholds, we must learn again to listen for the good shepherd’s voice. He not only has the answer, he is the answer.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/12/2017

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Just Give it a Rest, America

Americans are some of the most restless and least rested people in the world. They work more hours a week and more weeks a year than their European counterparts. The U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 35 percent of Americans get less than the minimum hours of sleep required to reduce the risk of serious illness like diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke. Just give it a rest, America.

In an interview with John Pattison, Columbia Theological Seminary Professor Walter Bruggemann, claims Americans “are caught up in a culture of restlessness, a market ideology in which the goal of life is to produce more and consume more … The market ideology is a rat-race that has infected us all.”

It could be reasonably argued that this state of affairs is nothing new; that it is, rather, intrinsic to our cultural identity. Professor James Jasper has written that the Puritan communities in 17th century America were “dashed by transiency.” According to Jasper, “In late-seventeenth-century Virginia, fewer than half of those appearing on county tax lists in one decade were living in the same county ten years later.” Those early Americans just couldn’t give it a rest.

Things haven’t changed much either. According to Jasper, at the end of a typical five-year period, nearly half the U.S. population (47 percent) is living in different place. When compared to other societies – the Dutch, 4 percent; the Germans, 4 percent; the English 8 percent, and the French and Japanese 10 percent – it is clear that Americans are still “dashed by transience.”

Even when Americans aren’t on the job or on the go, they would rather be distracted than rested. According to a recent Nielsen company study, the average American spends nearly 11 hours a day on their smartphones, tablets, TVs, or computers. According to a study by dscout Enterprise, the average cell phone user touches his or her phone over 2,000 times a day.

What we need is rest and relaxation. What we get is visual stimulation from almost 11 hours of screen use a day and a compulsive need to touch our phones. People who are not sufficiently rested have lower impulse control, often feel “foggy” and irritable, and miss work more often. They struggle with maintaining a healthy weight. They have trouble remembering things. Rest will help with these symptoms, but distractions – smart phone apps, video games and television – will not. No one gets up from watching four hours of television and says, “I feel rested.”

Restlessness is not merely a sociological issue. It is a theological one. Augustine was right when he acknowledged to God: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

R. Paul Stevens claims that “our rest patterns express our real beliefs about God. Restless people have not found peace with God or with themselves. Restless societies are out of sync with God’s purposes.”

An inability to rest sometimes betrays a lack of confidence in God. We may profess faith, but our hurried and harried lives proclaim a deep mistrust in God’s care. Overwork and lack of sleep suggest a person is trusting himself or herself to make things come out right, rather than God. It is precisely these people the biblical songwriter challenges when he writes, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves.” Commenting on this verse, Stevens writes, “The gospel of Jesus literally puts people to sleep,” since it replaces angst-ridden toil with quiet confidence in God.

Jesus promised his students rest, if they would learn from him. That promise has never been more relevant than it is now, in twenty-first century American life: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

This rest only comes from learning a different kind of life, one that Jesus – more than anyone else – knows how to teach.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/5/2017

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A Burden Too Big for People to Bear

How should a man respond to a beautiful woman who looks deep into his eyes and says (in the words of R&B songwriter Jazmine Sullivan), “You’re my best friend, my lover – Baby, you’re my everything. You’re everything to me: The air that I breathe; my sight, so I see, oh, you’re everything to me. I need you, I need you, I need you…”

Or how should a woman respond to a handsome and intelligent man who speaks to her these lines from Neil Sedaka: “I don’t know how I ever lived before. You are my life, my destiny. Oh, my darling, I love you so. You mean everything to me.”

If someone said words like these to you, how would you respond? Would you melt on the spot? Would you swell with pride? If you were smart, you would run away. No one is big enough to bear the burden of being everything to someone else – no one except God.

What does it even mean to “be everything” to another person? Not, I presume, that one is a rock, a bear, oxygen, the planet Mars, sleep and sunshine to that person. The language of the idiom is imprecise, but the thought seems to be, “You are a substitute to me for everything else. I don’t need other things, as long as I have you.”

Of course, that is nonsense. If a person substitutes a lover for food or air, he or she won’t be around long enough to find satisfaction in the lover. Then perhaps, “You’re everything to me,” is just a shorthand way of saying that my happiness depends on you. Again, what a terrible burden to place on another person.

And yet people do it all the time. A parent says of his or her infant son, “He’s everything to me.” Pity that son: he’s going to spend a fortune on psychiatric treatment someday. A man or woman says of a spouse, “You mean everything to me.” That’s not a marriage any sane person would want to be in. A fan says of a celebrity, “He’s my life; he’s everything to me.” Disillusionment is waiting around the corner.

It is not only unwise to make another human your everything, it is unfair. As a pastor, I have seen husbands and wives do something very like this. They have placed their happiness and fulfillment on their spouse’s shoulders and said, in effect, “Only you can make me happy. It’s all up to you. I’m depending on you.” Of course, there is a flipside: any unhappiness I experience will be your fault.

But it’s not always another person on whom such responsibility is thrust. Sometimes people’s everything is a hobby, a sports team, or a lifelong pursuit. A person might say, “I live and breathe Detroit Lions football. It’s everything to me.” That will be one (perennially) depressed person.

Other people say, “Music is my life. Music means everythin25-26g to me.” Such people will someday stand on the edge of their embattled illusions (as the songwriter Jackson Browne put it), and realize they made a big mistake. Music can enrich them, but it will never fulfill them.

The biblical songwriter said something like “You’re everything to me,” but he said it to God, the only person who is big enough to handle it. In Psalm 73, the poet writes, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

When a person decides another human will be his or her everything, other things lose meaning. But a curious thing happens when a person decides that God will be his or her everything: other things gain meaning. Other things – rocks, bears, oxygen, the planet Mars, sleep and sunshine – become reminders of God, gifts of his grace, and expressions of his wisdom and beauty.

This is, perhaps, the kind of thing C. S. Lewis had in mind when he wrote, “…look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.” When God is a person’s everything, other things are not thrown out but “thrown in.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/29/2017

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Hard Hearts, Closed Minds, and Blind Eyes

If a pastor wants to start a row, he needn’t preach heresy. All he needs to do is change the color of the carpet in the church nursery or bring a drum set onto the platform. People might not notice the heresy, but everyone will notice the carpet and the drum set.

Churches are famous for their “we-never-did-it-that-way-before” mindset, though, in fact, churches are no more prone to such thinking than the Kiwanis, the Chamber of Commerce or the United States Senate. It is a human condition.

And that is why organizations have such a hard time with change. People can do the same thing a thousand times, as long they know that what the result will be, and it is moderately good (or, at least, not bad). But investing time and resources in uncertainty is disconcerting – even painful.

When Jesus burst onto the scene in the Palestinian region of Galilee in the mid to late-twenties, there were a lot of people saying things like, “We never did it that way before.” In a world where tradition was not only ingrained but celebrated, Jesus’s new way of doing things (based on new ways of seeing things), made people uncomfortable, defensive and increasingly combative.

In first century Judaism, religious people refused to eat (or have “table fellowship,” as it is often called) with the irreligious. When Jesus flouted that custom, religious people didn’t know what to make of him. His explanation (that sinners need help too) didn’t satisfy them.

In many first century religious communities, fasting was a weekly practice. It was a sign of one’s deep seriousness about spirituality and reverence for God. Jesus was reproached because his disciples, unlike those in other religious communities, did not fast. Though Jesus explained the reason to his critics, they simply couldn’t comprehend it.

St. Mark tells these stories in a section of his Gospel devoted to conflict narratives. The most serious involve misunderstandings regarding the Sabbath Day, which Jews had been commanded to “keep holy.” Many of Jesus’s contemporaries believed the long string of disasters that had befallen their country were divine punishment for their failure to keep the Sabbath holy, and had devised elaborate plans to so do. Over 600 Sabbath Day regulations had been legislated since the end of the Old Testament era.

Jesus ignored many of those regulations, and insisted that the Sabbath was meant to serve people, not people the Sabbath. After a string of conflicts, some of which had to do with proper Sabbath conduct, Jesus found himself in a synagogue on the Sabbath in the company of increasingly adversarial religious leaders and a man whose hand was deformed.

St. Mark tells the story: “Jesus said to the man with the deformed hand, ‘Come and stand in front of everyone.’ Then he turned to his critics and asked, “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer him.

 

“He looked around at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hard hearts. Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored! At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus.”

The Evangelist makes a point of telling readers that Jesus’s critics had hard hearts and that Jesus was deeply saddened by their condition. He knew hard hearts lead to closed minds and blind eyes. It is a condition we are all too familiar with in our day.

Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, liberals and fundamentalists all accuse one another of refusing to think. But it’s not so much that they refuse to consider the other side’s views as they are incapable of doing so: their hard hearts have left their minds closed and their eyes blind.

It is fear and sin (with its myriad expressions of selfishness and deceit) that harden hearts, and hardened hearts will generally not soften until they break. Perhaps this is the reason God “will not despise” a “broken and contrite heart”: it offers the promise, or at least the possibility, of an open mind, seeing eyes, and a sympathetic soul.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/22/2017

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Better Choose Plan-A When There Is no Plan-B

Christian theology teaches that the church was founded by Jesus and is the world’s most important institution. Perhaps institution is not the best word, since the church is not exactly institutional; it is a movement. But it might be better yet to follow biblical usage and call it a body, or even to call it a body-in-movement.

Yes, the church is considered by Christians to be more important than the U.S. government and the European Union, more important than the International Monetary Fund and NATO, more important than the United Nations or the World Bank. The church is thought by Christians to be the place where God and humanity intersect.

Outsiders may well accuse the church of self-aggrandizement. The most important institution in the world? Really? The little clapboard building with the corny sign, the ancient organ and the lackluster sermons? It seems more than a little far-fetched to call that the world’s most important institution.

But the church is far more than a clapboard building, old hymns and a weekly sermon. The church is a people, called out of the larger society to serve God in that society. The church is an outpost of the approaching kingdom of God, strategically positioned within the various kingdoms of the world. The church is the bridgehead of divine activity in the world.

I was walking downtown on a Sunday afternoon many years ago, when I was approached by a woman handing out religious tracts. I took one, glanced at it briefly and then, without telling her I was a pastor, asked her to what church she belonged. She answered, with a kind of defiance in her voice, that she did not belong to any church, and told me that all of the churches were wrong in one way or another.

Of course, she was right about that – who knows it better than a pastor? The church is, in the words of Jon Foreman, “Painfully uncool, the church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures and the fools.” Yet she couldn’t have been more wrong in her choice to distance herself from the church. God is using those uncool dropouts, losers and sinners to transform humanity and inaugurate his kingdom.

If Christians are right, the church is God’s own idea. But that raises the question: Why a church? Why not individual Christians doing their own thing? The answer must be that the church provides individual Christians something they would miss, if they were alone. And the church offers God something that individual Christians – even the cool and successful ones – could never offer him on their own.

The church provides Christians with a perspective individual cannot attain. I’ve seen things about myself and others and, more importantly, about God, through the eyes of African believers I would never have seen otherwise. But it’s not just people from other cultures. People from my own culture, from my own church, have revealed truths to me that long remained outside my field of vision.

In the church, people’s strengths are multiplied and their weaknesses minimized. There are people in my own and in other local churches who can accomplish things I could never do, with gifts and talents I do not possess. Together we can achieve more than any of us can do alone.

The church provides the valuable gift of rebuke and correction. This is something I simply cannot do for myself. I’m too close to myself to see my own foibles and failures with any clarity, and too subjective to apply the insights I do have in anything like an effective manner.

More than anything else, the church affords the opportunity to love and be loved – an opportunity that ought not be missed. Love originates with the social God (which is why the characters in Jesus’s God-stories are always throwing parties) and is the destiny of his people. The church is where people make the necessary party preparations – where they learn to value others, to sacrifice and forgive, to release control and take control.

Because of these (and other) reasons, the church is not one option for spiritual expression among the many a Christian might want to try. It is God’s Plan-A – and there is no Plan-B.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/15/2017

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No Symptoms Doesn’t Equal No Disease

I recently visited the nice people at Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan for a coronary angiogram, with overnight accommodations, IVs, heart monitors, and blood draws as part of the all-inclusive package.

How I got there is a long story, full of coincidences. I like my doctor, but I try to avoid him whenever possible, so it was unusual for me to go for an annual wellness exam. “Unusual” is an understatement – I hadn’t been for a physical in 37 years. And I only scheduled this one because my insurance pays for it, and I had some complaints I hoped he would address at no additional charge.

The doctor was about to pronounce me fit as the proverbial fiddle, when he heard an unwelcome sound in his stethoscope, a bruit, and he sent me for an ultrasound. The ultrasound confirmed a blockage in an artery I didn’t know I had, and I was sent to a surgeon. The surgeon explained medical intervention was not called for under current protocols, and invited me back for a follow-up in a year.

During the follow-up, the surgeon told me to check with my family doctor about taking a cholesterol-lowering drug and undergoing a test to discover if there might also be a blockage in my heart. I scheduled my second wellness exam with my doctor in two years, told him what the surgeon said and explained, “I don’t want to go on cholesterol meds, and I don’t want to take the heart test. But I don’t want to be stupid, either, so I want your counsel.”

He had an EKG done in the office, and when the results came back wonky, he sent me to a cardiologist. The cardiologist looked me in the eye and said, “If I were a betting man, I’d bet there’s nothing wrong with you.” But he wasn’t a betting man, so he sent me for a stress test. It also showed possible blockages.

I spoke to a second cardiologist before the heart catherization, and he agreed with the first: there was probably nothing wrong with me. A false positive – it happens all the time. But when I came back from the cath lab, it was with two stents in my heart. I had two arteries that were 90 percent blocked.

I had no symptoms. If it hadn’t been for the vascular surgeon, I would not have thought to check for problems. Two weeks before the procedure, I was hiking state parks, scuttling up and down ravines, and climbing and descending hundreds of stairs, without a problem. When the hospital called to say the doctor wanted me to come in that day, I’d just returned from a three-mile walk and was planning to go hiking that night. (They told me not to do it.)

I could have said, “Come on, there’s nothing wrong with me! I don’t drink. I’m not overweight. I exercise regularly. I eat well. I’m fine. Besides that, the cardiologist as good as said there’s nothing wrong with me.”

While all that was true, it didn’t change a thing. I was standing on the threshold of a heart attack, knocking on the door. I could have disregarded the vascular surgeon’s directive, ignored my family doctor’s advice, and clung to the cardiologist’s off-the-cuff assessment. Maybe I’d be just fine. Then again, maybe I’d be dead.

As a pastor, I understand how a doctor must feel when he warns a patient of impending trouble, and the patient ignores him because he’s had no symptoms. The Bible warns us of the disastrous consequences of sin to ourselves and to the world. But people say, “Sin? Not me. I go to church. I try not to hurt anyone. I’m better than most people!”

That may be true, but it doesn’t change a thing. I can compare myself favorably to other people, and some expert can tell me I’m fine, but I’m not. None of us are. The biblical message is that we have a disease (known familiarly as sin) that will destroy us, sooner or later. But we also have a healer who can save us. We must admit our need, trust him and place ourselves in his care.

In biblical shorthand, it’s put this way: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, July 8, 2017

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