Why You Should Not Claim “the Right Side of History”

That famous philosopher from New York – the Yankees, that is – Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” That’s so Yogi and so true.

When I was young, I read – I think it was in Popular Mechanics – that we’d all own flying cars by the turn of the millennium. I couldn’t wait. I’m still waiting.

In 1904, the New York Times ran a story on the debate raging over the automobile. Some experts claimed the human brain was incapable of processing enough information to travel at speeds exceeding eight miles per hour. The article went on to predict vague, “disastrous results.”

Joe McKinley, writing in Reader’s Digest, cites a 1966 Time essay that claimed remote shopping would never catch on. According to the essay, “…while entirely feasible, [remote shopping] will flop—because women like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.”

Yogi was right: it is tough to make predictions – at least accurate ones. The prediction that the automobile was a passing fancy was dead wrong. It turned out that the telephone was not a faddish toy. Y2K did not devastate the country. NASA’s prediction that we would soon walk on Mars proved mistaken.

So why is everyone so quick to make predictions regarding the right and wrong side of history? Over the past dozen years it has become a mantra of sorts. During the Obama years, as Jonah Goldberg pointed out at the time, administration officials were regularly predicting that some particular international bully was going to find himself on the wrong side of history.

There are numerous mistaken assumptions that lie behind this way of thinking. First, it anthropomorphizes history and makes it humanity’s judge. Or it might be more accurate to say, it apotheosizes history, giving it God’s place as judge. But history is not a person, whether human or divine, and is incapable of rendering judgment.

A further error lies in the common but mistaken idea that history – in the sense of the progression of time – will somehow make things right and good. Martin Luther King understood the flaw in this thinking and wrote in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” of “the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.”

After quoting King, Jacob T. Levy, writing in Vox, calls the idea that “the passage of time reveals moral truth” a “superstition.” Jonah Goldberg goes further in The New York Post, suggesting the idea was popularized by Karl Marx and was used by communist regimes to justify the murder of “millions of inconvenient people.”

It has become popular to claim that anyone who disagrees on a moral issue is “on the wrong side of history,” as if history is a door with two sides, one of which opens onto some utopian society. But this has not been our experience. History doesn’t have sides nor does it take sides. It is simply the story of which sides we have taken.

It is irresponsible (and morally bankrupt) to take a side on a moral issue based on what we expect some future majority will choose. To take sides on a moral issue requires an ethical foundation, not software-based predictive analytics. That foundation will be made of something; often a philosophical understanding of, or a religious revelation regarding, humanity’s purpose and meaning.

For Christians, that ethical foundation lies in biblical revelation, which the church understands to be the word of God. Various influences have so eroded that foundation that society now nails together moral platforms on contemporary issues without any ethical foundation other than the illusory “right side of history.”

When someone claims their position is morally superior, ask the basis upon which they make that claim. If all they have to stand on is a “right side of history” claim, they have nothing to stand on at all. Remind them that a philosopher (of sorts) once said: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Key Four: No Fouls

http://lockwoodchurch.org/media (Listening time: 23:04)

In basketball, the worst kind of foul is the technical foul. A technical foul not only gives the opposing team free throws, it forfeits the next possession. At home, the worst kind of foul is hypocrisy. What can we do about hypocrisy? Almost all of us have fallen into it at one time or another. Can we ever get out of it? How?

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“People Have Forgotten God”

Forty-six years ago, the Nobel Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Solzhenitsyn was born the year after the Russian Revolution. He served in the Russian military during World War II and was a decorated combat veteran. While still in the military, he was arrested for making derogatory remarks about Josef Stalin in a letter to a friend. He spent the final months of the war in a prison cell.

Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. After serving his sentence, he was sent into exile in Kazakhstan. It was during his time there that he rethought his Marxist philosophy, abandoned it, and became an Orthodox Christian. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union expelled Solzhenitsyn.

The speech he gave when he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 1983 became known as the “Men Have Forgotten God” speech. In it he blamed “the ruinous Russian Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people” on the fact that “men have forgotten God.” We Christians in the west nodded our heads in agreement: “Yes, the Soviets have forgotten God.”

But Solzhenitsyn was not finished. He went on the say that “the principal trait of the entire 20th century” is that “men have forgotten God.” Not just in Communist Russia, but around the world, even in “ostensibly Christian states.” The “leaders of Europe … lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them.”

The Nobel Prize winner broadened the scope even further. The West “too is experiencing a drying up of religious consciousness… replaced by political or class considerations of short-lived value.” He went on to say, with prophetic insight, that the “eager fanning of the flames of hatred is becoming the mark of today’s free world.”

He widened the net still further, refusing to let any nation escape: “Here again we witness the single outcome of a worldwide process, with East and West yielding the same results, and once again for the same reason: Men have forgotten God.”

What can put a stop to this worldwide process, if not Christians? But Solzhenitsyn looked at the church and found it “disunited and frequently bewildered.” The “fragmented” church “has taken steps toward reconciliation. But these measures are far too slow; the world is perishing a hundred times more quickly.”

He noted that there is an organized movement to unify the Church, “The World Council of Churches” but it is little help since it “seems to care more for the success of revolutionary movements in the Third World, all the while remaining blind and deaf to the persecution of religion.”

The Russian prophet believed the Church itself had forgotten God at times. And indeed, this is the Church’s great danger at all times and, when it falls into sin, its great shame. The World Council of Churches was, in Solzhenitsyn’s day, trying to do good, but he perceived they were doing it without God – they had forgotten him.

But this is just as much a danger for conservative churches as for their liberal counterparts in the World Council of Churches. In its passion for biblical orthodoxy, Evangelicals sometimes think that the highest calling is to get doctrine right. But when getting it right becomes the de facto saving power, God is left waiting in the wings. In Solzhenitsyn’s words, people forget God.

When some churches and denominations try to use governments to bring God’s kingdom to earth through the establishment of social justice – as their generation understands it – they must make sure they remember the just God. When other churches are trying to make sure they are getting people to heaven by helping them believe truth, they must make sure they do not forget the true God.

It seems unbelievable, but even in worship people are in danger of forgetting God. Worshipers can focus so intently on the music they sing or the liturgy they use or the worship experience they have that they forget who it is they have come to worship.

Solzhenitsyn believed the only hope for the world and the church was “a determined quest for the warm hand of God, which we have so rashly and self-confidently spurned.” That was never more true than it is today.

First published by Gatehouse Media, 5/25/2019

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Plan-A, Plan Only

God had a plan to undo the consequences of the Fall, to heal and restore humanity, and that plan began with one man: Abraham.  His line would lead to a point: the Point-of-it-All.  And God would get from Abraham to that Point by what N. T. Wright calls “the single plan-of-God-through-Israel-for-the-world.”  There was never a Plan-B.

But (and this is a huge “but”) when the covenant was established, Abraham and Sarah had no child.  God’s plan and promise of a family line required Sarah, who had been infertile, to conceive. And she did.  I don’t think we can imagine the joy Abraham felt.  He and Sarah had a child.  They named him Isaac, which means laughter.  That tells us something, doesn’t it?  In his latter years, Abraham took great pleasure in watching his son grow up. I wonder how often he found himself chuckling at the antics of his boy.  But sometimes when he looked at him, he could see a line stretching into the future, embracing the promise, blessing the earth.

And then we come to Genesis 22. Plan-A, Plan-Only, “the single plan-of-God-through-Israel-for-the-world,” which depended on only one person, on Isaac, on the boy called Laughter, was put at risk. And it was God himself who was to blame. It looked as if Abraham’s laughter would be silenced forever.

Was God really going to erase the line that led to the point – the Point of it All? God sometimes seems almost reckless. Would he bring the line to an end before it even began? On only one other occasion in the history of redemption were the stakes so high. On that occasion (once again), everything depended on one person – this time, on Jesus, the end of the line, the point of it all.

How daring God is – or seems to be to us. He is fearless! But then he has nothing to fear. He sees the end from the beginning, sees Jesus in Isaac, and sees us in glory (even when see only trouble and pain). He is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And, because of Jesus, he is our God too.

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Take Advantage of Second-Chance Opportunties

Ann Arbor has one of the weirdest museums on the planet: The Museum of Failed Products. The museum’s shelves and aisles look like a supermarket—except there’s only one of each item. But these items aren’t in a supermarket nowadays: they are all failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted them.

Clairol’s A Touch of Yogurt shampoo is there. It was an abject failure. Gillette’s short-lived For Oily Hair Only is also there, a few feet from a now-empty bottle of Pepsi AM Breakfast Cola (born 1989; died 1990). The museum’s exhibits include discontinued brands of caffeinated beer; TV dinners by the toothpaste manufacturer Colgate; Fortune Snookies, a short-lived line of fortune cookies for dogs; and self-heating soup cans that had a tendency to explode in customers’ faces.

If the museum has a message, it’s that failure isn’t a rarity; it’s the norm. According to some estimates, the failure rate for new products is as high as 90 percent.

I wonder what the failure rate of Jesus’s people is? My guess would be 100%. The question is not whether we will fail but what we’ll do after we’ve failed. Because of God’s grace, there is an “after.”

In this message we look at John 21:1-22 and think about the third key for winning homes: Taking advantage of second-chance opportunities.

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If Shakespeare Were Writing from Washington

Imagine Shakespeare were now writing. What storylines (Tragedy? Comedy?) might he find in the ongoing drama in Washington, D.C.? Nearly every presidential contender, and there is a battlefield full of them, is in high dudgeon. Accusations fly like arrows in a Peter Jackson movie.

There are Hamlet-like duplicities, Macbeth-like rants, and King Lear-like bouts of self-pity. Katherina-like egos and Richard-like self-absorption dot the stage. Shakespeare would soon find a donkey-headed Bottom braying in the halls of Congress. Maybe a stable-full of them.

What seems to be rare – in Washington and in Shakespeare – is the person who acts deliberately for good; who quietly and thoughtfully pursues what is best. Of course, Washington has such people, acting from minds shaped by truth and characters formed in virtue, but we infrequently hear about them and, more infrequently still, hear from them. Washington is a power center, and the quest for power seldom coexists with self-forgetful, others-centered leadership.

The four-year struggle for power that is part of our system of government means that we will have constant revivals of this same power-play. This is of course not unique to our system of government nor our time in history. Think of Theresa May in the U.K. Think of Julius Caesar. Think of Jesus.

Jesus? We may not at first think of Jesus as a character in a political power play but he certainly was. He was the deliberate one, placing God’s interests and people’s good above party loyalty, and he suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous (and outraged) men because of it. As soon as the effort to coopt his abilities failed, the effort to eradicate his influence began. The will to power and the predisposition to anger seem to go hand in hand.

Among Jesus’s most vocal critics were the Pharisees. The group, which had emerged during the intertestamental years, was an influential actor in Israel by the time Jesus came on the scene. The Pharisees practically owned the synagogues, which were the center of Jewish life and thought in the first century.

With Jesus’s meteoric rise in popularity, the Pharisees sent envoys to learn what he was all about. Because he seemed to share a worldview with them, some Pharisees initially treated Jesus as an ally. That was short-lived. It soon became apparent that Jesus did not share some of the group’s fundamental commitments. His public disregard for one of their principal issues and his disagreement with the thinking that lay behind it led party leaders to label Jesus an adversary.

One early conflict is telling. The Pharisees’ signature issue was support for traditional Sabbath regulations. When Jesus, who understood the intent of the law differently, healed a man on a Sabbath day (after lecturing the Pharisees about proper Sabbath conduct), they were outraged. St. Luke writes: “…they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.”

“Furious” is an English rendering of a word that means “without thought.” The Pharisees, having been publicly reproved, reacted in a blind rage. There was no thoughtful pursuit of what was best, just unthinking malice. Latin has an evocative word for this state: “demens” – “demented”; “out of one’s mind.”

The hostility toward Jesus grew as time went by but he did not let the conflicts sidetrack him. He did not become “demented”; was not robbed of his reason. He continued doing the right thing for the right reasons, regardless of what his adversaries said or did.

He was able to do this because he was confident in the truth and in the God of truth. Had he been power-hungry, he would not have possessed this confidence. It is a delightful paradox: the one who had ultimate power by right refused to do wrong in order to exercise that power. The power-hungry devour those around them. The truly powerful do just the opposite: they nurture and empower them.

Christians must learn to think of power as Jesus did. Because he understood that power belongs to God, he never compromised in pursuing God’s interests and others’ best. He didn’t make the mistake, so often made, of thinking he had to do wrong to make things right. His is the attitude that is needed today.

Let some modern-day bard write about that.

First Published by Gatehouse Media

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The Point of it All

God blessed Abraham five times between Genesis 18 and 28. The final blessing in 28:14 is the capstone: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.” Through Adam all the peoples of the earth were cursed.   Through Abram, they will be blessed. 

Abram is God’s answer – at least the beginning of God’s answer – to Adam’s sin. The first eleven chapters of Genesis pose a simple question: What is God going to do to fix things?  Sin and evil and death threaten the planet.  Will God do anything?  And, if so, what will he do?  The rest of the Bible is the answer to that question (and it’s a very long answer), but it starts here.  It starts with one man. It starts with Abraham.

We need what film directors call a deep focus.  A deep focus requires a lens that can keep an image in the foreground sharp while at the same time bringing an image in the background into focus.  In the foreground we have Abram.  He is about to launch out into uncertainty and change.  He is an ordinary man, with family and career responsibilities, with hopes and fears.  He does not know where he is going.  He does not know what awaits him when he gets there.  He is sometimes harried and afraid. Yet this man is the beginning of the cure of all creation.

He is the beginning of the cure because he is the beginning of a line, a very long line that run through the Bible.  It runs through men of great repute, like David the king, and through women of ill-repute, like Rahab the harlot.  It runs through religious leaders like the high priest Joshua and through pagans like the Moabite, Ruth. It runs through forgotten people like Obed and unforgettable people like Solomon. The long line runs through a young woman – almost a child – named Mary.  Then the line becomes a point: a point of contention for some, the point of no return for others, but the point of it all for us who believe. It is through him that the promise comes to fulfillment: all the nations of the earth are blessed, and creation itself will be cured.

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Key # 2: No Turnovers (listening time: 22:19)

Families can allow “turnovers” – losses of opportunities that take away their chance of achieving something for God. In this sermon, we learn five causes for “turnovers”: when we get lazy; when we’re just going through the motions; when we get distracted; when we allow ourselves to get isolated; when we allow something to take God’s place in our hearts and minds.

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The Tricky Thing About Mother’s Day

Many churches commemorate Mother’s Day. In some churches, mothers receive gifts in recognition of their commitment and effort on behalf of their families. It’s nice, though sometimes a little corny. It’s also tricky.

Not every woman is a mother. Some made a choice not to be and, within that group, there are those who have regretted that choice. Others would gladly have become mothers had they ever married, but that never happened. Others wanted children more than anything but were denied the opportunity by infertility.

It gets trickier. Some women who are mothers have experienced broken relationships with their children. Their son or daughter never calls on Mother’s Day, doesn’t send a card or give a gift. They come to church with a feeling of rejection and failure, and the Mother’s Day tribute only serves to increase their pain.

Our church has tried to recognize these challenges while still honoring moms, but I am nowadays always aware that Mother’s Day brings feelings of sadness to some people. Should we just ignore Mother’s Day – after all, it isn’t a church holy day – and leave the commemoration to families?

It would not be wrong to do so. It might be easier. But at a time when our society finds it increasingly difficult to honor people (or even to want to honor people), I think we do well to honor those who are honorable. Yes, it presents its challenges and we will certainly do it imperfectly, but women who receive and live up to the calling to be mothers are worthy of honor.

Yet it must be remembered that God does not command the church to honor mothers (or fathers); he commands children to do so. Yet this can prove painfully difficult. Even those of us who had good mothers did not have perfect mothers, and some people did not have good mothers.

To honor one’s father and mother is one of the Ten Commandments, which outline a way of life for Jews and Christians. St. Paul, writing a millennium and a half after the Ten Commandments were given, tells children to honor their father and mother and reminds them that this was the first command to come with a promise: “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

What happens if a person refuses to honor his or her father and mother? Will “it [not] go well” with that person? Will their life not be long on the earth or, if it is, will they not enjoy it?”

Serving as a pastor, I have met many people who do not honor their parents and, sometimes, even dishonor them. Whether their lives will be long on the earth I don’t know; I do know that many of them have struggled to enjoy the life they have had. Honoring one’s parents is a critical component of having an enjoyable life.

But how does one honor a mother who was not honorable? A woman once told me how, when she was a child, her mother would have men over to the house weekly and even allowed them to stay after she left for work. Some of these men sexually abused her repeatedly. Could anyone honor such a mother? Sometimes, the choice not to dishonor is all the honor a person can render.

Usually, the issue is not so black and white. Most moms do well in many things and fail in a few. Both the good things and the failures leave an impression. To honor mom, a child must pay tribute to the good she has done, including the great good of giving life, and forgive the wrongs she has done.

The humility, perspective, and confidence in God that are required to honor a parent, understand her failures, and forgive her wrongs are some of the main ingredients in a life that can be enjoyed. People who are haunted by their childhood can receive grace to honor their moms for what is honorable and to forgive what is not. To do so is an important step in driving away the specter of the past and establishing a life that can be enjoyed in the present.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Blackmail-proof: A Life Without Secrets

My wife Karen got an email from a scammer this week, blackmailing her and demanding a payment of $1,000 in bitcoin.

The scammer claimed to be a hacker who had accessed her email account, embedded a keylogger and had taken control of her screen, network camera, and all her other devices. Since my wife only has one device, a laptop, taking control of all her devices is not nearly as impressive as the scammer hoped to portray.

The email was purportedly sent from my wife’s own email account, which the scammer claimed was proof that he/she had hacked the account. When my wife showed me the email, I immediately checked its source which, in spite of the scammer’s claims, was not from her account.

Dennis, our internet provider’s support whiz, told me that this scam is hitting large numbers of people. The scam rests on the “hacker’s” claim that he/she had introduced a special program that links users to a porn site. The scammer then claims to have video of his target, captured through the computer’s camera, using that link to watch pornographic videos. He then threatens to release the video and a backup of compromising files to all the victim’s contacts, “such as family members, colleagues, etc.”

When I read the email, I wanted to report this evil person to the authorities and did. My wife was more nonchalant. Even if this person were a real hacker who had succeeded in taking control of her computer; even if the hacker released her files and published a list of all the websites she had visited, it would not compromise her in any way. My wife is the same person in private that she is in public. She’s not hiding anything.

This scam only works because many people are hiding something and would suffer serious harm if their secret – in this case, their private internet browsing – was made public. How many people, I wonder, terrified at the prospect of being exposed, have purchased $1,000 in bitcoin to pay off the blackmailer? And I wonder if the blackmailer ever really stops at $1,000.

If everyone was like my wife, this scam would be powerless. To be the same person in private that one is in public is liberating. People who live like this need never look over their shoulder. There is nothing in the past that is going to overtake them.

This is exactly the kind of liberated life Jesus instructed his followers to live. When they sin – and everyone sins – they are to confess their sin to God and, when appropriate, to each other. By doing so, they make their freedom unassailable.

Jesus was plain-spoken about this. He told his students (more than once) that “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” People who are busy looking over their shoulders might also want to look up. If earth doesn’t expose their secrets, heaven will.

This is the teaching of the biblical writers in both testaments. “God,” says St. Paul, “will judge the secrets of people’s hearts.” He “will bring to light what is hidden in darkness.” The author of Hebrews concurs: “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

When the writer and pastor John Ortberg decided, “I don’t want to have any secrets anymore,” and told his friend all the things of which he was most ashamed, he walked out of that meeting a free man. This kind of transparency is a necessity for those who wish to walk, as the Apostle John described it “in the light.”

St. Paul went even further. Not only are the people of Jesus to walk in the light, without keeping guilty secrets, they are to become light. He wrote, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.”

A life that shines, without secrets and the fears that go along with them. This kind of life is possible for people who undergo spiritual transformation in the way of Jesus.

Published by Gatehouse Media, 5/4/2019

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