Thursday, November 19, 2015

BUT ...

     It seems that whenever an issue comes up that has ethical and political undertones as well as biblical, there is usually someone who will protest, "But what about ...," or "But if ..."
     Try discussing Jesus' teachings on non-retaliation - Matthew 5:38-42:  "Do not resist the evil, but whoever hits you on your right cheek turn to him the other ..."  Often before these words are out of your mouth, someone will protest.  "But what if someone is breaking into your home?" or "But what if your wife is being raped?"  I actually had someone say to me, "But what would Jesus have done if He saw His mother being raped?"
     Or bring up this one, Matthew 5:44, "But I'm telling you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you ..."  If you do you may be immediately confronted with some-thing like, "But it's the government's job to protect us and punish our enemies and we're commanded to support our government!"
     Or the current hot-button issues of the receiving of refugees or undocumented aliens.  The Old Testament is full of commands regarding the acceptance of aliens and strangers.  Leviticus 19:34, "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."  Or Jesus' words in Matthew 25:35, 40, "I was a stranger and you took me in ... In that you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me."  Try discussing these issues and someone will immediately protest something about protecting America or that we have enough poor in our own county.
     So we discuss care for the poor.  Again the Bible - Old and New Testaments - is full of commands to honor the poor.  Deuteronomy 15:11, "For there will never cease to be poor in the land; therefore I (the LORD) command you, 'You shall open your hand freely to your brother, to the needy and poor in your land.'"  Or James 2:5, "Listen my beloved brothers, didn't God choose the poor in the world, rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom ... ?"  Bring this up and you may be interrupted with protests about welfare fraud or drugs or alcoholism.  "But how do we know how they'll spend it?"
     I'm not speaking here of whether or not these protests are legitimate.  They may or may not be.  I've attempted to deal with many of them elsewhere in this blog.  What concerns me is our tendency to immediately protest these and other biblical teachings as though they were unreasonable demands.  In fact, it seems as though these protests are raised in order to excuse ourselves from being required to obey them.
     Yes, there are legitimate questions.
     Whenever we are confronted with demands in the Scripture, we should ask if these demands are directed at us (not all are) or if they have implications for us.  And once we understand that God is making these demands on us, we need to ask "how" questions.  How can I integrate this command into my life?  How should this affect or change my thinking?  How will my obedience affect my life?  My relationships?  My politics?
     If we call Christ our Lord, then we are responsible to submit to His demands on our lives, even when they may seem to be unreasonable or contrary to our political opinions.

Monday, November 9, 2015

JESUS AMONG OUR OTHER IDOLS

Our Sunday School class has been studying the Book of Acts.  We are moving slowly through the early chapters which relate the beginnings and early history of the church.  These chapters describe the church's early preaching and growth.  We've been discussing the conflicts within the church and the persecutions without.  One of my main goals has been to compare our 21st century church with that of the 1st century.
 
One of the seeming points of contrast is that of the miraculous:  the early church experienced genuine miracles regularly; our church doesn't.  And yet we hear of miracles and healings occurring in the church elsewhere.  So I invited a member of our church who had recently been on a mission trip to Africa to describe what he had seen and experienced.

As he spoke, (I must confess), I got sidetracked by his comparison of the traditions of the church he had visited, with our own church.  One in particular impressed me.  He told how, while we would think that we should give Bibles to all the church people, the church leaders there did not.  Bibles were kept at the church, where they could be studied.  The people would come, read and study, then leave the Bibles at the meeting place when they returned home.

The reason given for was that every household has a shelf on which sit the various idols of their culture.  The fear was that if a person were given a Bible it would be carried home and placed on the shelf to become just one more idol to be paid lip service to.  (I'm not here attempting to discuss the wisdom of this policy; I'm sure that experience had taught the church leaders a need for this concern.)

While our speaker appeared to think of this as an interesting and quaint contrast between two cultures, my mind focused on the similarities.  These people in Africa who were still burdened with the paganism of their past, were tempted to so something that we educated European Americans are guilty of.

Isn't that what we do?  Don't we take our Bibles home and set them on a shelf along with our other  gods?  And not just the Book, but also the God whom that Book reveals.

Have we placed our Christianity right there along with all the other goals, desires and pleasures we seek?  Is God - is Jesus Christ - merely a supplement to our life?  Is He someone we can go to when needed, but normally left to sit neatly on the shelf to receive an occasional dusting along with the other idols and His Book?

Didn't God tell His Old Covenant people, "You shall have no other gods besides Me."?  (Yes, that Hebrew expression can be translated "besides.")  Didn't He say, "I the LORD your God am a jealous God."?  Yet I fear that we want Him to sit conveniently on the shelf next to our other gods.

What are they?  Well, we each have our own pantheon.  But here in 21st century America, I suspect that Mammon is there in a prominent place, along with Civil Religion and many other minor deities.

I have no easy solution.  I fear that we deal with the problem the same way that that African church does:  we keep God at church where He is convenient when we need Him.

Perhaps we should start by cleaning the idols off the shelf into the (metaphorical) trash can and bringing God home from church and giving Him the prominent position He deserves - and demands.
 
Romans 12:1-2
 
 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"A WORLD WITHOUT SUFFERING?"

(February 1985)

While cleaning out my old files, I discovered this little paper that I had written over 30 years ago for a class I was taking.  Though the numbers and a few details have changed, I can't say my thoughts are much different today.  So I'm posting it as written.

(P.S.  I received an A-.)

An article in Parade Magazine caught my eye last week.  It was titled "A World Without Disease."  The article told us to "imagine a new world, a world in which disease no longer kills or maims, ... (where) there is ample food to feed all people because crops also resist disease."  It promised that this is no science fiction tale and that we are on our way to this because of the marvelous new science of genetic engineering.

We've all read stuff like this before, haven't we?  Is it possible?  Or is this somebody's utopian dream, a sugar pill for the problems of the world?  I believe that it is just a dream, impossible of fulfilling.  Not only that, but setting our hopes on a world without suffering through science may divert us from making real efforts to alleviate suffering in the world.

There are moral problems with this idea.  I'm not speaking of ethical implications of tampering with human life; I'm speaking of the moral implications of rich versus poor, of developed nations versus undeveloped.  The majority of funds spent on research in this area is being spent in the western world.  Cures are being found through genetic engineering and other research, people are being relieved from suffering, but who are these people?  Their number mainly includes those of the upper and middle classes of the richer nations.  Do we have any indication that their number will ever include those of the lower classes of the world - those who are really suffering?

The sheer mathematics of world population growth belies the idea that one day we will have cured the ills of the whole world.  The population of this planet now stands somewhere between 4.75 and 5 billion.  The World Bank estimates that by the year 2025, forty years from now, world population will be somewhere near 8.3 billion, almost double today's figure.  The greater number of these is, and will be, found in the under- developed nations.  Do we really believe that we will be able to cure the ills of all these?  We are unable even to feed them.  The images of starving Ethiopian children staring at us from our TV screens during the evening news are a reminder of that fact.  Can we cure their diseases without first relieving them of starvation?

Another problem with the elimination of disease in the world is the problem of administration.  Who is capable of initiating and carrying through a disease control program in any of the underdeveloped nations of the world?  Corrupt and inept govern-ments in many nations do not desire that larger nations dictate the use of foreign aid.  Who is going to convince them that they need to eliminate disease?

There have been successes in disease control in the underdeveloped nations.  A recent report on 20/20 centered on a medical team in Bangladesh which had virtually eliminated cholera deaths in a certain region at a cost of only a few cents per person.  Their problem, however, was that even for its low cost there were not enough funds available, though funds are being invested in medical research elsewhere.

Shall we then discontinue medical research and spend all our time, money and effort on other matters?  I'm not saying that.  I have a grandson with a congenital defect.  He would not be alive today if it were not for medical discoveries made in the recent past.  I hope too that someday a cure for his illness will be discovered.  Genetic research and engineering does hold promise.  But there are others with the same and other defects who will never be cured.  There ought to be a balance between the enormous amount spend on medical research for the few, and the relatively small amount spent on helping the many.

We are a rich nation.  Perhaps we can eliminate disease here.  But what about the rest of the world?  Are we to ignore their need?  Does our hope for the future only include ourselves?  Maybe we cannot find a solution for all the world's ills, but that does not mean that we ought not to put more money and effort into relieving the suffering of as many as we can.  The Bible says, "The poor will never cease to be in the land."  To let utopian thinking cause us to forget that, will also cause us to forget what follows, "You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to the needy and poor in the land" (Deuteronomy 15:11).  The great danger of false utopias is that we do not make an effort to relieve the sufferings of the poor in the world.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

THE CLASS REUNION

In July Uni and I attended the 60 year reunion of my High School Class of 1955.  It was different than previous reunions - a bit slower and with a few more serious moments and a lot fewer in attendance.

A few weeks earlier I had been called by Shirley, one of the "girls" who were in charge of the festivities and asked if I would give the invocation.  I told her that I'd be honored to, but I wanted her to know that I'd be praying in Jesus' Name, as that's the only way I pray.  She said that would be fine.

Usually when I'm asked to pray at a public occasion I pray extemporaneously - off the cuff - though I usually give the prayer some thought beforehand.  However, Shirley and I had quite a lengthy phone conversation beforehand, so I knew that this occasion would be different than any other.  Many of my classmates had passed away in the five years since the previous reunion; most of those of us who are left are not as healthy physically, emotionally and memory wise.  So this prayer would not be just me in communication with God.  I would need to attempt to express some of the feelings and desires of all of us.  So I spend many hours writing out my thoughts and rewriting them.

At the Saturday evening dinner/dance, we sat with two of my classmates I had known since grade school, and their spouses.

My class has a reunion every five years and with each gathering our number decreases.  Many have passed on.  Many are unable to attend for health and other reasons.  And yet each gathering seems more open and intimate.  As someone observed, there are no more cliques.  We are no longer jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, wallpapers.  We're more and more like family.  We're glad to see each other.  Maybe it's simply that we are survivors.

Anyway, when it came time for me to pray I gave a brief introduction and then read the prayer that I had typed out, of course with ad-lib remarks.  The following is my introduction and prayer as I recall it:

We're told in the 90th Psalm that:  "As for the days of our life, they contain 70 years; Or if due to strength 80 years ..."  (Psalm 90:10a)  All of us here have passed that 70 year mark and we are now in what we might refer to as our extended warranty.

Heavenly Father:  We grieve for those classmates who are no longer with us, who have passed on.  We pray for the spouses and families of those who have passed - for comfort and for the assurance of seeing their loved ones again.  We recognize too that our time for joining them is drawing nearer.

But Father, we thank you for those who are still here, for those who have gathered here - to renew old acquaintances and friendships, to retell tales of our high school adventures and misadventures, to get caught up with what's been happening in our classmates' lives over the past 60 years.  We thank you especially for those who have worked hard to make all the arrangements for this affair.

Tonight we'll be doing a lot of comparing - weight gains and losses, wrinkles, hair loss, aches, pains and illnesses, the latest meds.  Help us not to be proud or ashamed of our physical condition.  Forgive us if we are.

And we thank you Father that you love us.  We thank you most of all that you loved us enough that you sent your Son to die for us. We thank you too that you approve of our having a good time with old friends.  When your Son Jesus was on earth, he seemed to enjoy eating and drinking.  He even provided wine for a wedding!  We might even imagine Him here with us, digging into a good meal and enjoying a drink or two.  Perhaps we can even imagine Him putting in a few rounds on the dance floor.

So we ask you Heavenly Father, to bless this party.  For some this may be our last.  Bless the food, the drinks and the fellowship.  We pray that all we do and say here would be pleasing to you.

We pray in the name of your Son Jesus, our Savior.  Amen

Later a few people commented on the prayer and/or thanked me for it.  One comment I really loved was, "It was like you were inviting Jesus to join the party."  I guess I was.

We ate, had a few drinks and Uni and I danced a bit.  Most of the dances were slower than at previous reunions, though I did do The Twist with Diane (or was it Joanne; I still can't tell those twin sisters apart).  Dancing was supposed to be till 11, but when the one-man band came back from his 10 o'clock break, most of us were gone.

The next day was our picnic.  Few showed up.  Guess it was just too much excitement.

We're looking forward to Uni's reunion next summer - class of '56, same High School!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

A PARABLE

There was this white, red-state Christian going down from Oklahoma City to Dallas.  And he was pulled over by robbers who beat him up, stole his car and left him half dead along the side of the freeway.

Now along came a presidential candidate, who when he saw him, stopped his car, got out, made a speech about the need for stronger penalties for criminals, then got back in his car and went on down the freeway.

Then along came a televangelist who saw him, stopped his car, got out preached a sermon on the need for seed faith to be healed, then got back in his car and went on down the freeway.

But then a gay, black, Muslim, undocumented alien came up to him, stopped, felt compassion, got out of his pickup, gave him first aid, put him in his pickup and took him to the ER where he forked over 2 days' wages to get him taken care of, promising to settle in full when he returned.

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the guy who got mugged?  Luke 10:30-36 (Bill's Loose Paraphrase).

Monday, July 6, 2015

THE CHURCH IN DENIAL

The following incident occurred 15 or so years ago when I taught at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston.  CBS is a college that was originally founded to give Biblical and Theological training to African-American ministers and other leaders in the black community.  Though it has diversified since its beginnings, the majority of its students is still African-American, though ironically many of the faculty and most of its wealthy supporters are white.  (While my memory may have failed me on some of the details, I believe the story is basically accurate.

Anyway, I'm sitting having coffee with 3 or 4 students; I'm the only white guy at the table.

One of the students cheerfully informs us, "They asked me to give my testimony at the fund-raising banquet."

"Wow, that's great!" replies another.  "What you goin' to tell?"

"I'm goin' to tell how the Lord saved me and I'm goin' to tell about how this school has been such a help in my spiritual growth."

"Make sure you tell 'em about the drugs," says another, older student.  Smirks appear on the other faces (including mine).

"Drugs?" says the first.

"Yeah," says the other.  "You got to tell them how you were saved from drugs."  The smirks turn to grins.

"But I ain't never done drugs!" was the indignant reply.

"Look" says his self-appointed coach.  "That don't make no difference!  There's two things them rich white folks want to know about us black folks.  First, that we been saved from drugs, 'cause we all are on drugs!  And the other thing they want to know is that we ain't goin' after their daughters!"

Well, this white guy almost choked with laughter, as did the others at the table, except for the deflated young testifier.  However, later as I pondered the conversation I'd heard I was deeply saddened at how true the "coach's" insights were.  For quite some time I had recognized the truth of what was so cynically expressed, though I was hesitant to admit it.

On a previous post, AMERICA IN DENIAL, I spoke of the racism that permeates not only our white American culture, but also the church.  I spoke of how we all can find ourselves somewhere on a continuum of racism.  I spoke of our need as the church for repentance, not only of the racism within us but also of its accompanying twin: denial.  I mentioned some of our trite ways of excusing ourselves.  After posting this I learned of some new ways, not only of denying one's personal racism, but of denying that racism even exists.

In my own experience I have found some of the most ludicrous denials of racism coming from those who are most involved in ministry across racial lines.  I am speaking as one who has spent many years attempting to cross racial barriers, as one who has sought to bring about what used to be known as "racial reconciliation."  After all, we might say, aren't we white people the ones who are making an effort to cross these lines?  To "minister" to these people in their need - for the Gospel, for education, for whatever else?  Yes, but what is our motive for this service?  Does our service reinforce our feelings of racial superiority?  After all, aren't we the ones with something better to give?

I have heard my white co-workers, my white fellow ministers making of-the-cuff racist remarks or using racial stereotypes, often unwittingly.  And I suppose that I have been guilty of the same.  I have also heard those of other races express their distrust of white people, as the above episode illustrates.  Is our racism more obvious to those to whom we minister than it is to us?

As I said before, I am pessimistic of any real change in America's situation.  Though we must continue to work for social justice and racial reconciliation, we must also recognize this fact. However, we as the church, we who claim allegiance to Christ need to rise above the racism of America.  If there is to be change, it must begin with us.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves some pointed questions:
-- Do we really believe that Christ died to reconcile us to God and to our fellow human beings?
-- Do we really believe that in Christ "there is neither Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free" (Colossians 3:11), that "there is no Jew or Greek, there is no male or female" (Galatians 3:28)? How about black and white?
-- Do we really believe that we have an obligation to love our neighbor as ourselves?
-- Do we really believe that Jesus commanded us to make disciples of ALL the nations?

This is not and should not be a matter of political preference or regional upbringing.  This is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

The Second Person of the Trinity stepped outside the comfort zone of Heaven to become one of us.  If I may say, He crossed racial barriers to become one with those who were his enemies.

The Apostle Paul apparently felt that as a follower of Jesus, he needed to cross those barriers as his Lord had done. "For though I am free from all, I made myself a servant to all that I might win the more ... I have become all things to all that I might same some" (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22a).  He lists those he has "become as".

Are we willing to confess our racial pride and fears and become a "servant of all" even of those who are different, who may be suspicious of us, even hate us?

Monday, June 29, 2015

BARB'S THOUGHTS ON FEAR

My friend Barb sent me this via text because she couldn't make the comments on my previous post for some reason or another.  I feel that what she said is important enough to publish as a post.

Thanks Barb!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Bill:                                                                                               6/29/2015

Let's try it this way. I seem to have problems posting a comment on your blog. One particular sentence stood out to me and that is what I would like to comment on. You are talking about stricter gun regulations and this is what drew my attention: " these cries will have no effect on a population living in fear."

Fear is such an interesting emotion. There is real fear as in the fight or flight situation where our body recognizes the need for reaction before our mind does. Then there is the bump in the night fear where our mind talks to us. I am well aware of both types of fear. I believe most of us are.

Most, if not all, of my prejudices are based on the latter. Be they racial, economic, cultural or personal preference they come from a lack of experience or exposure or were passed to me by those I grew up with.

So what do I do with perceived fear? First I believe I must recognize it, then I must acknowledge it and only then am I free to choose to deal with it. As I move about in my everyday life I am exposed to all kinds of fearful situations. This world is a scary place and, let's face it, no one gets out alive. (Trite but true.)

So what do we do with fear? In what way does fear work for us? This isn't a question about how we overcome fear but rather one that should show us our inner workings. If I fear you because you are black or brown or white that allows me to not deal with the real you. If you are shabby and smelly and have your hand out then certainly I have reason to avoid you. You might ask something of me I am unwilling to give.

These and a myriad of other examples are my prejudices. And guess what? I DON'T LIKE THEM! So what is a person to do? Recognize that this is the human condition but is not the final word. I do not have to act on my fears. They really do nothing for me. I can choose to do that which makes me uncomfortable, that which makes my heart pound, that which makes me feel vulnerable. Even that which seems to take advantage of me. But it does not because I recognize all I have is temporary. It is mine (really?) for a short time. All that I love is only mine for a finite time. That frees me! I am freed from fear. That said, I will feel fear again tomorrow and I will have to make those choices all over again. And I will. I must. We all must.

Well this isn't the original post but somewhat close. I am so encouraged by the recent Supreme Court rulings. But they too have their prejudices. Racism may be part of our legacy but when you consider we are all from the same source it is a bit ridiculous. Mankind is tribal and therefore acts in ways to advance and protect their tribe. Perhaps the young generation with global access will do a better job of seeing all people as real. Thanks for your posts. They stimulate my thinking. Bob does much the same thing. There aren't many of you out there. I loved Sherry's post on marriage. I will be quoting that for awhile. Use of this whatever you want. It's a bit rambling.

Barb

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

AMERICA IN DENIAL

The slaughter last week of nine African-American Christians at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, seems to have had an impact on all Americans.  The picture of a young skinny white killer seemed contradictory.  He looked like a frightened child; he wasn't a tattooed skinhead.  Yet his racist Confederate paraphernalia told the story.

He had been welcomed into the church and sat for an hour through a Bible study before cold-bloodedly shooting his victims.

This horrible event seems to have awakened much of white America to the racism that lies very close to the surface of our culture.  After repeated news stories of police killings and abuse of black people, this slaughter seems to have finally brought forth an admission of this horrible American trait.

Or has it?  We have heard many expressions of sympathy for the families of the victims and for the members of Emanuel Church, but will that sympathy last?

We've latched on to some easy "solutions" to the problem.  There has been a nationwide outcry against the Confederate battle flag flying at the South Carolina capital - the same flag held by the killer in his proudly posted picture.  The governor of South Carolina and most of the state's legislators have agreed that the flag must come down.  Other states have spoken of removing it from public display as well.  Even Wal*Mart!  I agree it's about time, though actually it's about 150 years late.  No matter what its defenders say, the flag is a symbol that represents racism and slavery as many, both black and white have noted, though I have heard little mention of the fact that it also symbolizes rebellion against the United States of America; it is a treasonous symbol!

And then there are the cries for more and stricter gun regulation; of course, these cries will have no effect on a population living in fear.

I must say that I am pessimistic of any real change in America's situation.  Racism will continue.  There will be more cases of police racial profiling, of hate crimes, of injustice toward minorities, and yes, there will be more racist-motivated murders.

Because racism is in an integral part of our nation's history and culture.  And the reader's reaction to a statement like this is probably denial.  Surveys and polls inform us  that the majority of white Americans still do not see racism as a problem.  Inane denials that I heard 60 years ago are still being uttered today:
          "Some of my best friends are black (or colored or N_____s)."
          "I don't see color."
          "I'm not prejudiced."

And of course, the protests:
          "One lone incident does not mean we are all racists!"
          "What about black on white crime?"
          "What about black on black crime?"

The latest one:  "We mustn't politicize this tragedy."

What is so grievous is that Christians - people who claim to be followers of the One who commanded us to love our neighbor - are often the ones who are most caught up in denial.  While we may admit that racism exists, certainly "we have no part in it."

Some have referred to racism as America's Original Sin.  While I may not go that far, I believe that it ranks right up there as a contender for the title.  It has been with us from the beginning, with slavery and wars of extermination of native Americans.  Perhaps it is part of our American DNA as some have expressed.  And certainly it is not isolated to our nation.


I believe that racism - that fear of "the other" or the feeling that I am somehow superior to him - is an aspect of our fallen nature and that it dwells in some form or another in every one of us.  And we live in a fallen world of which America is a part.

Every one of us - I am speaking as a member of the white branch of the human race -  can find ourselves somewhere on a continuum of racism.  At the far end of this continuum we can find those who are members of the hate groups:  skinheads, neo-Nazis, Klansmen or "lone wolves" such as the young murderer of Charleston; and there are plenty of these.  But the rest of us, even those who consider ourselves "liberal" can find ourselves somewhere along this line if we'd bother to take an honest look.

I believe that it is time for the (white) church in America to stop "being conformed to this world" (Romans 12:2) in its racism.  It is time for us to stop saying, "we have no sin" and stop "deceiving ourselves" (1 John 1:8).  I believe we need to - we must - examine our own hearts for the racism that lurks there.  We must repent and confess it to God, as well as to our fellow human beings.  We need to ask God not only to forgive us, but to continue to show us where we are racist in our thoughts and actions.  We need to ask Him to, by the power of His Holy Spirit, cleanse us of this sin, this chronic disease.

We cannot on our own eliminate racism from our nation but we as the church of Jesus Christ can move toward cleansing it out of our midst.  Only then, I believe can we expect to see a real change in our culture.

Father, we confess that we your church, have been guilty.  We and our fathers have sinned in our racism, our lack of love, our hatred toward those who are different than we are.  We have compounded our sin by our denial of its existence.  We have compounded our sin by our tolerance of it in our churches and among our fellow believers.  Forgive us.  Open our eyes.  Cleanse us we pray.

Monday, June 22, 2015

BACK TO BASICS

Christianity is often criticized - even attacked - by its opponents as being ethically inconsistent.  Often such criticisms are justly aimed at our hypocrisy, our failure to live up to the demands that we seem to make not only of ourselves, but outsiders.  Other criticisms point out (at times justly) that we are selective as to which "rules" we stress and which we ignore.
 
I do not intend to address hypocrisy here, since I have often done so before.  And I must confess that I have been guilty of this myself.  I will only point out that hypocrisy does not invalidate one's ethical code, but rather serves to validate it.  As it has been said, "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue."
 
But our alleged selectivity is another matter.  Critics seem to enjoy pointing out what is perceived as inconsistency and though they are sometimes correct, often the criticisms are due to an ignorance of what Christianity really is.
 
For instance, one issue that has been at the front of these criticisms lately is Christians' condemnation of homosexual behavior. The criticism usually takes one of two directions.  The first is that while this behavior is clearly condemned as sinful in the Old testament, the penalty required is death by stoning (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), yet only a few, extremely radical Christian spokesmen would advocate this.  This is pointed out as inconsistent.

A second approach is to point out that various Old Testament dietary laws are given as just as binding as the laws on sexual behavior (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 18).  So if one condemns homosexual behavior but eats shrimp or pork chops, he is just as guilty as the one he condemns.

What the critics of Christianity, as well as many of its adherents fail to understand is that the ethical codes of the Old Testament are not binding on, or even addressed to, the follower of Christ.  The law of the Old Testament - the Law of Moses, was given to the nation of Israel by God at the beginning of that nation.  For nearly a millennium and a half the people of Israel were bound by this Law, even though they often - usually - failed to keep it.

And About halfway through this time period, God spoke to the nation through the prophet Jeremiah:  "Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days declares the LORD:  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.  And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.  For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" Jeremiah 31:31-34 - ESV.

There also were many more promises and details concerning this new covenant and to put them all together and explain them in their historical context would take more time and effort than I wish to expend here.

When Jesus came, he presented himself not only as the Messiah - the Anointed King - of Israel, but also as the Mediator of this New Covenant inaugurated by his death.  At his last Passover supper with his disciples just hours before his death, he took the cup of wine and said:  "This cup that is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood" Luke 22:20 - ESV.

So the follower of Christ, whether Jew or non-Jew, is not bound by the Old Covenant.  He is a participator in the New Covenant.  Our ethics then are not derived from the Law of Moses (the Old Covenant) but from the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels and elaborated in the New Testament Epistles.  The Old Testament ethics are often similar, and should be a part of our study but they are not binding.  Many of these ethical requirements are carried forward into the New Testament, but many are not; some are clearly annulled, such as the dietary restrictions (Mark 7:18, 19; Acts 10:9-16; Romans 14:2, 3).  Of course, there is ongoing debate as to some of the details and Christians will undoubtedly continue to have disagreements.

Most of the above should be understood by the critics of Christianity as well as its practitioners.  Ignorance of these basic distinctions has led to unnecessary conflict between Christians and outsiders as well as within the church.

A few more things need to be said.  First, Christianity is not primarily an ethical system.  It is a religion of redemption.  As the promises in Jeremiah 31 tell us, it is about forgiveness and about a work of God on the "hearts" of human beings.

Also, the New Testament ethics are not given for the Christian to condemn others, especially outsiders.  Our attitude toward those with whom we disagree, those who do not follow the ethics that we claim, is to be an ethic of love.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

IDENTITY CRISIS

Does anyone else see the irony in the contrasting reactions to these two recent news stories?

A male former Olympic athlete, now in his 60's comes out as a female.  This has apparently been his (her?) true identity all along, despite external evidence to the contrary.  This person is then made up as a woman, adorned in beautiful (sexy?) feminine clothing and placed on the front cover of national magazines, ogled and admired and proclaimed a hero for coming out.

The president of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP, who was assumed for years to be African-American, is outed as being white.  She is shamed, mocked and ridiculed by commentators and comedians, black, white, male and female.  She resigns in apparent disgrace.

What's wrong with these two pictures?  Why is one's reaction to an identity crisis considered heroic while the other's similar reaction is considered disgraceful?

I confess I know little about either of these people.  I suspect, however, that most of their admirers/detractors are as ignorant as I am.  Nor have I faced conflicts anything like theirs must have been and still are.  So how do I process this?

Usually when confronted with issues such as these I first tend to try to find some common ground, some connection with my own past experiences.  Though I can find little if anything to help me relate to the person with the sexual identity problem, I believe I can sympathize to some extent with the person with the "ethnic identity problem."  For years Uni and I were involved with ministries across racial lines.  There were times when I found myself identifying more with my African-American students and friends than with my white friends.  (And yet I still consider myself white.)

However, past experiences, while helpful are not enough.  The questions I must ask are "How does the Scripture address issues like these?"  "Or does it?"  "Are the two identity issues similar?"  "Or are they completely different?"

A few passages come to mind:
·       "... for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  Galatians 3:26-28
·       "... and (you) have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.  Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all and in all."  Colossians 3:10-11

Our maleness/femaleness or our blackness/whiteness are of secondary importance.  It is our relationship to Christ that counts.  Both of the above persons as well as many others, undoubtedly have had and still have deep emotional struggles relating to their identity as human beings.  But in Christ these identity problems fade away and we who belong to Christ should recognize this.

Another passage which relates:
·       "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.  To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.  To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings."  1 Corinthians 9:19-23

It would seem that Paul's concern for people - as that of his Master - was to love them and to bring them to the knowledge of Christ.  He empathized and he attempted to identify as much as possible with them and their situation.

While the world, the secular pundits and news media, may make heroes of some and condemn others, this is not to be our way.  The follower of Jesus must recognize the needs of others and point them to Christ and to a church in which they can find acceptance no matter what their "identity" and where they can ultimately find their identity in Christ.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

ILLIBERAL LIBERALS

Anyone who reads this blog will recognize that I have been and continue to be, a critic of the Religious Right.  As a follower of Jesus who considers himself an Evangelical Christian, I have felt that I have the right and responsibility to let it be known that not all of us are such as we are represented by so many of these persons and that they present a caricature of Christianity.  I feel that their equating of Christianity with right wing politics and super "patriotism" does a disservice to the Gospel.

Because of these views I have often been labeled a Liberal and I do not reject the label.  I feel that the word describes first of all a way of thinking and only secondly a set of political views.  (See:  THE REPUBLICAN BRAIN and WHY DO I THINK THE WAY I DO?.)

I disagree with many areas of Religious Right ethics because I find them contrary to New Testament teaching.  And I feel that the bigotry, intolerance, lying and just plain meanness that is employed by many of them is contrary to the way of Jesus.

However, having said all this, I must say that there are many areas where we do agree.  And it is in these areas that I find myself siding with them as they themselves have become the objects of bigotry, intolerance, lying and just plain meanness from the left.  While I feel that those on the Religious Right should know better because of their professed regard for the Scripture, I also feel that those on the Left - whether Religious or secular - should know better because of their professed liberal thinking.

Liberal thinking, by definition, is supposed to be broad-minded, not bound by authoritarianism, nuanced and tolerant.  Conservative thinking is supposed to be authoritarian, less open to new thinking, less tolerant.  So why lately have liberals become so "conservative" in their thinking, speech and actions?

Most persons, including myself, who accept the authority of the Scripture, are convinced that it clearly teaches that homosexual sex is sin.  We refuse to revise that conviction because we feel it is biblical.  To hold to this conviction does not make us "homophobes," nor does it mean we are "on the wrong side of history" (whatever that means).  While it is possible to act on this conviction in a way that contradicts the Law of Love - "Love your neighbor as yourself" - it is also possible and imperative that we let the Law of Love guide all our actions, even and especially in this area.

And so, I believe gay marriage is and should be tolerated by the follower of Jesus as granting the protection of law to those with whom I am in disagreement.  Yet this apparently is not enough for many on the left; tolerance is not enough; we are expected to endorse it.  And if not we are considered "homophobic."

Because of my convictions in this matter, I as a minister would have to refuse to perform a gay wedding.  Does that make me a bigot?  Or is it possible that those who would condemn me for acting on my convictions are the real bigots?  (By the way, there are a few "straight" weddings that I have refused to perform.)

And I, along with most of those on the right are convinced that abortion is the taking of a human life and thus a terrible evil, though as all evils, a forgivable one.  To automatically label those who desire to limit abortion as being sexist and antifeminist is another act of bigotry.

I also, as do most followers of Jesus Christ, believe that Islam is a false religion.  I believe that not only is its denial of the deity of Jesus erroneous, but that there is an inherent violence and sexism at its very core.  This does not necessarily make us deserving of the label "Islamophobe."

As an Evangelical Christian and as a liberal thinker I would love to see each side stop and listen to the other.  If we really consider ourselves followers of Jesus and believers in the authority of Scripture, then we must let the Law of Love control our thinking, our speech and our actions.  And if we consider ourselves liberal thinkers, then we must recognize that there are others who think differently than we do, and grant them the liberty to do so.

And we who follow Christ must recognize that all - not just some particular group - are sinners and that all can find forgiveness in Christ.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

THE GODS OF WAR

In ancient pagan nations they sacrificed their best young people to appease their gods.

I wonder if anyone questioned the sanity of it all.

In America we sacrifice our best young people to appease the gods of war.

I wonder....

I posted the above words on Facebook on Memorial Day evening while watching the National Memorial Day Service on PBS.

I wept as I listened to the stories of men who died, who "sacrificed" themselves for their country.  We saw some who had not made "the complete sacrifice" - those with parts of their bodies missing, paralyzed.  We heard pleas given to those who had returned in despair - offers of help and counsel for wounded souls.

While I know that many - perhaps most - in America feel that somehow these warriors had suffered heroically in the service of "God and Country," I was struck by the terrible irony of it all.  We as a nation had sent these persons to die or to be permanently disfigured in body and soul, and now we were grieving over them.  We heard talk of their sacrifice, but was it not we of America who sacrificed them?  Some had died or suffered in what some might term "just wars," but many had suffered and died in senseless, purposeless combat.

My thoughts went to the pagan gods mentioned in the Old Testament - Baal and Moloch - and how they were appeased by child sacrifices.  I thought too of the Aztecs and their bloody sacrifices of warriors who simply were the losers in war games.  Did the people grieve over these lost ones?

I thought about the gods of Olympus in Homer's Iliad, about their dispassionate manipulations of the combatants in the Trojan War - lives given up simply to provide amusement for these gods.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a war hero, in his Farewell Address of January 17, 1961, warned of what he termed "The military-industrial complex."  He warned, "This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in American experience. ... We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications...  The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."  His staff secretary later said that Ike "would have referred to the 'military-industrial-congressional complex,' but left out Congress 'out of respect for the other branch of government.'"  (Evan Thomas, Ike's Bluff, pp. 3, 4, 399.)

Eisenhower's warnings were given more than a half-century ago, and the American people have still failed to comprehend his warning.  Today the military establishment and the arms industry have become America's gods of war, demanding greater and greater sacrifices of the American people, especially the lives of their young, while the gods grow fatter and fatter.

I find it strange that in spite of all our grieving over these lost lives we still give heed to the high priests of these gods of war as they demand more deaths.  Politicians and pundits, senators, congressmen, presidential candidates - many of whom have never served in the military - continue to proclaim the necessity for more bloodshed.

I also find it strange that those who do question the sanity of our sacrifices to these gods of war are considered unpatriotic and of failing to "support our troops."

Well, I consider it my responsibility as an American and as a follower of Jesus, to question America's devotion to the gods of war and of her sacrifice of her finest young people.

Please note:  I am not here discussing whether or not there is such a thing as a "just war" or whether or not the follower of Jesus should take part in one.  I have attempted that elsewhere (THE CHRISTIAN AND WAR), though I am still wrestling with the question.  I am here only making a plea for sanity in a culture dominated by militarism.

Grieving over those we have sacrificed while at the same time giving in to the demands for more sacrifices is not only the great irony, it appears to be insanity.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hands of Hope: Privileged

This is a post by my friend Lisa.  I feel it is worth sharing:   Hands of Hope: Privileged: So, now that I'm using this blog for my personal reflections and utilizing other media for communicating about the ABLE program, I&#...

Monday, April 6, 2015

THE MAN WITH CLEAN HANDS

The New Testament devotes a great amount of material to the trials of Jesus - more even than to the crucifixion itself.  There were six stages taking up the whole night as well as the morning preceding His death.  The gospel writers paint pictures of the various characters involved in the drama - the Jewish priests, Judas his betrayer, Peter who denied him, Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate to whom the greatest amount of material is devoted.
 
In many retellings of the story - sermons, Sunday school lessons, movies, TV episodes - Pilate is treated as a minor character, in others as an evil, unprincipled man.  But the Gospels themselves portray him almost sympathetically, as a troubled, confused, frustrated person; a man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; a truly tragic figure.

There is also much historical material available concerning Pilate.  Josephus the contemporary Jewish historian and others give background for an understanding of the man.  An inscription with his name and title - "prefect" has even been discovered.  He served as prefect (Josephus calls him procurator) of the Roman province of Judea from 26-36 AD.  It is thought that he held this position under the patronage of Sejanus the prefect of the Praetorian guard, the most powerful man in Rome.

Pilate is pictured by history as a cruel "law and order" governor.  He had cruelly quelled Jewish demonstrations and riots in the past (see Luke 13:1) and at the time of Jesus' trial his position was shaky, as the Jews had powerful connections in Rome and by this time Sejanus had fallen from power.

So when the Jewish Sanhedrin brought Jesus to Pilate on Friday morning after their night-long trial, he clearly did not want to get involved until they insisted that Jesus was guilty of a capital crime and accused him of crime against the Roman emperor - especially of claiming that he himself was a King - their Messiah.

Pilate's interrogation of Jesus is described in all four Gospels with each writer supplying various details.  It is John's gospel, however, that describes it most vividly:

          "So Pilate entered the Praetorium again and called Jesus and said to him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?'
          Jesus answered, 'Do you say this on your own or did others tell you about me?'
          Pilate answered, 'I'm not a Jew, am I?  Your own people and their chief priests handed you over to me!  What have you done?'
          Jesus answered, 'My Kingdom isn't of this world.  If my Kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But now my Kingdom is not from here.'
          Thus Pilate said to him, 'So then you are a king?'
          Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king.  For this reason I was born and for this reason I came into the world, that I might testify to the truth!  Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.'
          Pilate says to him, 'What is truth?!!'''  (John 18:35-38a)

We can almost hear the frustration in Pilate's voice - perhaps anger - at the Jewish accusers, at Jesus.  He had found himself in a dilemma.  Shall he free an innocent man and anger the Sanhedrin or should he simply go along with them?  After all, to Pilate, Jesus was just another Jew, another provincial.  Pilate had disposed of a number of them in the past.  One more would seem to be no problem.  Or would it?  Does Pilate perhaps recognize that the man standing before him is more than just one more provincial?  Does he suspect that Jesus just may be the person his accusers said he was falsely claiming to be?

Both Luke 23:4 and John 18:38b tell us that at this point Pilates gives his verdict:  "I find no guilt in this man!"

It is probably at this point that Pilate, upon hearing that Jesus is from Galilee, sends him to Herod Antipas, who after mocking him, returns him to Pilate with no decision (Luke 23:5-12).  Luke tells us that Pilate now for the second time pronounces a Not guilty! verdict and offers to chastise and release Jesus (Luke 23:13-16).  All four Gospels tell us that the crowd at this time demands that Jesus be crucified and that Pilate release Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer.

In the meantime Pilate had received word from his wife, "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man.  I've suffered a lot today from a dream about him!"  (Matthew 27:19)  As the crowd continues to demand Barabbas' release and Jesus' crucifixion, we can almost hear Pilate screaming as he says, "Why?  What evil has he done?"  (Matthew 27:23)
 
Pilate appears to be doing all he can to save Jesus from the death penalty.  He has Jesus scourged; the soldiers mock him and plant a crown of thorns on his head.  Pilate has him again brought out to the crowd, bloodstained and beaten, and we hear Pilate's shout, "Behold the Man!"  (John 19:5)  Could it be that Pilate is hoping this will satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd?  He twice again pronounces Jesus not guilty!  But when the priests continue to demand his death, Pilate gives in and says, "Take him and crucify him yourselves!"

At this point the priests come up with a new accusation:  "We have a law and according to that law, he needs to die because he made himself out to be the Son of God!"  (John 19:7)

John tells us here that, "When Pilate heard this accusation, he became even more afraid" (19:8).  While it may be doubted that Pilate was a religious or superstitious man, he was a Roman and the gods would have been a part of his culture.  Myths of gods taking human form would have been familiar to him.  Add to this mix the fact that he had been in the center of Judaism for a number of years and must have gained some knowledge of their belief in the Invisible God with an unutterable Name.  And then there was his wife's dream.  Certainly the frightening possibility must have crossed his mind that he, Pilate had been forced into trying an earthly representative of a God much more powerful and frightening than his own.  So he again returns to the Praetorium with Jesus.

          "'Where are you from?' he said to Jesus.  But Jesus didn't give an answer.
          So Pilate says to him, 'Aren't you talking to me?  Don't you know that I have the authority to release you and I have the authority to crucify you?!'
          Jesus answered him, 'You'd have no authority over me if it hadn't been given you from above.  Because of this, the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin!'"  (John 19:9-11)
          We're told that after this, "Pilate was seeking to release him." But the Jewish leaders had one more trump card, "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend! Everyone who makes himself a king is opposed to Caesar."  (19:12)

It was apparently these words that caused Pilate to cave in. "Friend of Caesar" was probably an official title that Pilate had, one that provided privilege.  Pilate was already in hot water because of his previous acts against the Jews and the fall of his patron.  This could be the final straw.  A Jewish complaint to Rome could lead to his losing his position, even (literally) getting the axe.  It was no longer the question of Jesus or Barabbas, but of Jesus or Pilate!

But Pilate makes one more effort:  he presents Jesus to the crowd with a shout, "Behold your King!"  When they shout louder for Jesus to be crucified, we can hear Pilate  pleading?  Shouting?  Screaming?  "Shall I crucify your King?"  to which the chief priests reply, "We have no King but Caesar!"  (19:14, 15)

Matthew tells us that Pilate also feared a riot, and that he "took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood!  See to it yourselves!'" to which they answered "His blood be on us and our children!" (Matthew 27:24, 25)
And Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified.  But Pilate did get the final word.  While all the Gospels tell us that the charge for Jesus' crime which was nailed to the cross over his head, said, "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews," John tells us, "The chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, 'Don't write The King of the Jews, but that he said I am the King of the Jews.'  Pilate said, 'What I have written, I have written!'"  (John 19:21, 22)
This in no way, of course, justifies Pilate's actions.  The early disciples recognized that there was enough blame to go around.  An early prayer recorded in the Book of Acts names "Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel" as those who "were gathered together against (God's) holy servant Jesus" (Acts 4:27).  That's pretty all inclusive.
We in our day may justly put blame on Pontius Pilate; it's easy for us to do.  It's easy to think of him as an evil, unprincipled man, one willing to condemn an innocent man - our Savior - to save his own skin.  But if I may, I'd like to imagine Pilate addressing us as he wipes his hands:
"I had to do it.  I had no other option, did I?  What do you suppose would have happened to me if I had released Jesus?  The Jewish Sanhedrin would have accused me to Caesar himself.  I would surely have lost my position that I had worked so hard to attain.  It could even have cost me my life.  I wasn't willing to take that risk.
After all, I have a wife and family to look out for.  That's important, isn't it?  I've got to keep my job - and sometimes that requires compromise doesn't it?  Am I really that different from you 21st century American Christians?  Or maybe I should ask, are you really different from me?  I looked out for number one.  Don't you do the same?
My gods are made of bronze, granite and plaster.  You claim to worship the God who made the universe.
To me Jesus was just another provincial - expendable if necessary. You claim him as the Son of God, as your Savior, as your Lord.  You claim to have surrendered your all to him.
But what if those claims could cost you your life?  Your family?  Your job?  Your comfort? Would you behave any differently than I did?  Or would you too wash your hands of Jesus Christ?
Think about it!"