Followers of the Prince of Peace?

640px-Collared_DoveJesus is all about peace.

Isaiah 9:6 (NIV) foretold his birth, predicting the coming of one who would bear four exalted titles: 1) Wonderful Counselor; 2) Mighty God; 3) Everlasting Father, and 4) Prince of Peace.

When the Messiah arrived, his message included this important, peaceful strand. The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in both Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49, but is it in Matthew’s account where the peace motif shines. Among the famed Beatitudes, we find this commendation:

Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children (Matthew 5:9, CEB).

At his arrest, Jesus corrected Peter when his petulant disciple drew his sword to defend the Lord. “Put back your sword in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, NIV). The rest of Jesus’ words on the occasion are lesser known: “Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? But if I did that, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen?” (vv. 53-54, CEB). Jesus overcame one of history’s greatest acts of terrorism – crucifixion – not through superior strength but through a radical act of passive non-resistance. God exalted the Prince of Peace by raising him from the dead, vindication and a seal of approval upon Jesus’ counterintuitive ways (Acts 2:31-33).

Elsewhere, the New Testament affirms the humility that is inherent in the peace ethic. Paul portrays Christ as one who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8, CEB). Following Jesus’ example, as much as possible, we are to “live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18b, NIV). We are sanctified entirely not just by “God,” but by the “God of peace” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Further, the writer to the Hebrews exhorts:

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy. Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14, NIV; italics added).

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Mirrors and transformation

hand_mirrorWhen I was young, barbers cut your hair with the customer facing away from the mirror. Then, when the cut was done, they’d dramatically spin you around for the big reveal. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a barber do that. But even if you’re sitting facing the mirror throughout the hair cut, you’ll never know what it looks like in the back unless they give you a hand miror. Then, you can tell by the reflection of the hand mirror into the larger mirror whether the cut in back is correct.

The apostle James knew something about the value of mirrors. In James 1:23-25 (NIV), he writes:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it–not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it–they will be blessed in what they do.

James lived centuries before the invention of motion pictures, but if he lived today, I think he’d agree that film can serve as a mirror, revealing the character of the one who looks in it. I was reminded of this tonight watching the 1967 masterpiece, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

John Prentice (played by Sidney Poitier) – an accomplished tropical medicine doctor – is a 39-year-old widower. On vacation to Hawaii, he meets the lovely 23-year-old Joey Drayton (played by Katharine Houghton). Together just 10 days, they fall madly in love and plan to marry. There is only one hitch. Prentice is African-American (or “Negro” as was the common label of the time) while Drayton is white. While the fiancée insists her liberal activist parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) will have no problem with the union, the fiancé is not so sure. They fly to San Francisco to meet Joey’s parents and have dinner. Suffice it to say that the daughter has naively misread her parents, particularly her father. The angst ratchets up from there and the hard lessons begin.

The movie takes me back to a Sunday dinner conversation around 1975 when I was twelve. My paternal grandmother – a fine Christian  woman now decesased – was visiting. That Sunday our pastor and the evangelist (who was at our church holding a revival) were among our dinner guests. When we were all done eating, we lingered around the table, enjoying good conversation. Somehow, we got on to the topic of so-called “interracial marriage.” When my grandmother expressed her opposition to African-Americans and white people marrying each other, she point blank asked the ministers what they thought. There was a long, awkward silence. The question clearly made them uncomfortable. Instead of answering, they changed the topic.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (GWCTD) made viewers squirm in 1967, and eight years later around my family’s dinner table, the same topic made people squirm. I wish that I could say that in 2016 we’d put race issues behind us. Sadly, they seem as alive as ever. Yet when the topic does arise, instead of talking it through and listening to each other, are we like the pastor and evangelist? Do we squirm, anxious to change the topic?

It’s not fun to look in the mirror of movies like GWCTD. They force us – indeed, they force me – to take stock of my own prejudices. Do I really believe, like Martin Luther King, Jr., that what matters most is not the color of one’s skin but the content of one’s character? And surely this is larger than skin pigmentation. What about those who are followers of other religions not my own? To adapt King’s maxim, do I truly believe that what matters most is not the “color” of one’s religion but the content of one’s character? We say as followers of Christ that loving God and loving others is the essence of our belief system (Mark 12:28-31). But are we living up to that profession when we seem ready to write off more than a billion people in our world – to “other” them – because a tiny minority among them has done heinous things? Where is the Christian love in that? 

Film is a mirror. Sometimes when we look in the mirror, we don’t like what we see. Yet the jarring realization that our attitudes are ugly can be the opportunity for change. James 1:25 holds out the hope of “freedom.” When we listen to God’s law of love and continue in it, God can liberate us from the prejudices that bind us. Only then can we be “blessed” in what we do. Using the mirrors he places in our lives, may the Lord Christ open our eyes to the hidden but deadly hatred that lies in our hearts. May he transform us into the kind of people whose love knows no boundaries!

Baggage surrounding the word “holiness”

suitcaseYou know a word has issues when you have to start qualifying it. Why does someone say they are a “born-again Christian”?  Shouldn’t “Christian” be enough? (Read more on that here.)

Similarly, Ken Abraham published a book in 1988 entitled Positive Holiness. But I wonder: For those in the holiness tradition, shouldn’t the unadorned word “holiness” be enough? Abraham added the qualifier “positive” because he admitted what we rarely do:

The word “holiness” has baggage.

Like at the airport, baggage comes in different shapes and sizes. Here are two kinds of baggage:

1. Legalistic holiness – This was nearly extinct but is seeing a resurgence in response to shifting mores in society. It is the judgmental, Pharisaical approach to religion with an emphasis upon rules and outward appearance. Here, holiness is defined by what we abstain from: “A good ______________ (fill in denominational affiliation) does not _____________.”

This can be trickier than it looks. No one is denying the moral content of Christian faith. Jesus affirmed the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:16-21) which contain numerous negative commands, i.e. “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” etc. But the problem with legalistic holiness is that it never gets around to the positive side of the equation, the Great Commandment of Christ to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34), itself a re-affirmation of Old Testament teaching (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:8). Rules devoid of love dry up the spirit.

2. Magical holiness  – Besides legalistic holiness, a second type of baggage is more subtle. I call it “magical holiness.” This well-meaning error is usually accompanied by calls to “revival,” to get back to a time when we really knew how to preach holiness! And so we plaster the word on our brochures and banners, and call holiness the “great hope.”

Yet hope in the New Testament is seldom attached to a religious experience, no matter how powerful that experience may be. Rather, our hope is Jesus!  Galatians 5:5 speaks of our hope to be made righteous, but Colossians 1:27 exemplifies the more usual pattern, where it is “Christ in us” that is our “hope of glory” (NIV). 1 Thessalonians 1:3 affirms the believers for their “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (CEB). Likewise, Peter extols the “living hope” into which we have been born, a living hope made possible through the resurrection of Christ (1 Peter 1:3, NIV).

A comparison helps. When studying spiritual gifts, sometimes we speak of the importance of “seeking the Giver more than the gifts.” That’s good advice, and keeps us from overemphasizing spectacular manifestations. However, we forget that counsel when it comes to holiness theology. We urge our people to seek “entire sanctification.” But I wonder: Isn’t that seeking the gift rather than the Giver? And when we seek gifts first and foremost, we become like Simon the Magician, wanting the power without the relationship from which the power flows. (See Acts 8:9-24).

But you say: Did not Jesus call us to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6)? Indeed, he did, yet that day on a hillside in Galilee, the people focused their attention on Jesus. They came to get to know this teacher better. They carefully listened to him, understanding intuitively that Jesus is the source of all righteousness. The order is important. If we desire holiness, seek first the Holy One.

Once we have sought Jesus for himself and not for what he can do in our lives, then we blossom into a growing, dynamic relationship with God. Later, in God’s timing, will God not transform us at a deeper level into the image of Christ? Paul affirms this clearly in Romans 8:31-32:

So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? (CEB)

Seek the sanctifying experience only, and you make Jesus your magician. Seek Jesus for himself, and you can’t help but be transformed at every level of your being.

Jesus, the Holy One, is our hope! May we preach a positive Christ, one who fills us with love for God and others. And may we always remember: We serve Jesus not for what he can do for us, though he does much. Rather, we serve Jesus because he is enough.

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Photo credit: Pinstripes and Pearls

When compassion and purity embrace: Lessons from James 1:27

Cup-Cold-WaterI’ve always liked the New Testament book of James. Yes, James is my first name, so that’s a point in his favor, but it’s more than that. James knows how to marry compassion and purity. Take for instance James 1:27 (NIV):

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: To look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Some emphasize purity, contained in the last phrase of the verse, “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This is an essential part of the Christian ethic and is as old as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). Commandments 6-10 are all phrased negatively:

6) “You shall not murder.”

7) “You shall not commit adultery.”

8) “You shall not steal.”

9) “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

10) “You shall not covet…”

Jesus himself ratified the Ten Commandments as still in effect (Matthew 19:16-22). How many of the cases that clog our court system can be traced back to a non-respect of these basic principles of conduct? Eighty percent of divorce lawyers would be out of business if the seventh commandment was obeyed. Likewise, the corruption so rampant in many countries reflects a fundamental disregard of the tenth commandment, where the “little guy” is the victim of extortion, the prey of government bureaucrats determined to fleece the public. As for the sixth commandment, if followed by all, debate over the death penalty would be unnecessary since murders would be no more.

I am part of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. We have  been quite comfortable with the Ten Commandments and other Scriptures that apply to personal morality. As for preaching, the importance of being “saved” and “sanctified” is our stock-in-trade. While this has sometimes morphed into legalism – a piling up of rules not clearly taught in Scripture – more often there has been a positive note of the transformation God the Holy Spirit makes in our lives. That’s an outcome we can celebrate!

Where we have done less well is applying the earlier part of James 1:27, i.e. the looking after orphans and widows in their distress. This phrase symbolizes the positive aspect of holiness, that righteousness is more than what we don’t do; it is what we do. The order of the phrases is important. James calls us to positive action before he calls us to purity. The proverb affirms: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” It’s not enough to outline the things from which the believer should abstain. Rather, when we pour our lives compassionately into others, we may very well be too busy to be distracted by the “sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1a, NIV).

The old debate over whether we should emphasize compassion or purity is a false one. James 1:27 shows that the two go hand-in-glove. May the Lord show us opportunities to put our faith into loving action!

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Photo credit: Truth Endures

Thank you, Dr King

kingOn August 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that galvanized a nation, with echoes heard around the world. Coming from the airport in Johannesburg yesterday, the taxi driver who transported me listened to a radio discussion on to what degree King’s ideals have been realized in South African society. I’m proud that a fellow American like Dr King left a positive legacy that is still referenced 50 years later.

The story of Jackie Robinson is brilliantly portrayed in the film, 42. As a baseball player post-WW II, he faced blatant prejudices as he broke the color barrier in professional sports. There can be little doubt that we have come a long ways since the time when “Whites Only” signs were painted on the doors of public bathrooms or over water fountains. Yet much remains to be accomplished.

But let us narrow the focus from society in general to our own personal, daily choices. Here are a few small ways that in recent years I’ve tried to narrow the gap at least a little bit:

1. There is only one race, the human race. Dr Charles Gailey, Professor Emeritus of Missions at Nazarene Theological Seminary, spoke eloquently that there are not “races,” but only one, the human race. Within that race, there are certainly variations and diversity, yet there is so much more that unites us than what divides us! When a political pollster called one evening, at the end he needed to check off the boxes on his questionnaire. “What race are you?” he asked. “Human,” I replied. There was a long silence, then the pollster responded:  “You are correct. I never thought of it that way before.” Thank you, Dr Gailey, for reminding us that what we share far outweighs what differentiates us.

2. Take a bus. You can have some amazing conversations on buses. Everyone is on a journey somewhere, and buses are among the best multicultural crossroads in our nation. (If I had more than one life, I would travel buses between cities and in cities for a year, just so I could write a book about my experiences). They say that love’s first duty is to listen, and on buses you get the chance to hear each other out. I spoke for 45 minutes with several African-American men headed to California, breaking into celebrity in the world of rap music. In that one hour, I learned more about that topic than I had learned before. I also learned that a few of my comments were perceived as racist, even though I had no idea they were coming across that way. They in-turn were interested in my experiences in Africa. We shook hands at the end, and wished each other well. My world expanded in a way that it likely would not have except for riding the bus together.

3. Gently correct. In a rural church, the greeter met me at the door and introduced himself. Within 5 minutes, he had asked me questions that were pejorative toward those who skin is of a darker color. I’ve learned that the best way to correct discordant notes in someone’s narrative is to give them a new narrative. After he had listened to our missionary presentation, you could see the wheels turning in his head as his conclusions about entire groups of people were challenged by new information. Now he knew names and details, a new narrative. At the end of my presentation, I closed in prayer, thanking the Lord that one day we would all gather in worship around God’s throne, black and white, men and women and children of all nations, to worship God eternally.

4. Go out of your way to welcome those different than yourselves. At a recent church gathering, I noticed that there were only two African-American women present. Understandably, they were sitting together. From what I could tell, no one engaged them in conversation. They looked uncomfortable, so I shook their hand and exchanged names, asked them where they were from, and welcomed them to the meeting. You could see them visibly relax as a smile replaced what had been a frown.

5. Grow beyond your biases. A friend recently talked about “Jewing someone down.” When I asked why she would use such an expression, she apologized. “My mother used to say that,” she said. “But you’re right. I’ll do better.” And so must I! You can’t help but breathe some biases growing up in an all-white neighborhood, attending a high school where perhaps only 1% of the student body was black. And I suspect that many Americans are in the same boat as myself. Limited experience with those of a different color or cultural background allows negative stereotypes to thrive since there is little first-hand experience to contradict it. But my world is growing, and as it does, I’m seeing it with new eyes.

6. Accommodate as much as possible the wishes of others. The other day I made a new friend. When I called him “Ed,” he gently corrected me. “Please call me Edward” he said. What would my new friend think if I had insisted on calling him “Ed” even though he had requested otherwise? Would that have harmed or hurt our budding friendship? Likewise, there are minority groups who are sensitive about how they are called. Out of love, we now say “little people” instead of “midget” or “dwarf.” The handicapped more positively are known as the physically challenged. When we accommodate others as much as possible, we are fulfilling the command of the Lord to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12).

Dr Martin Luther King held up a mirror to our collective face, and allowed us to gaze into it. He reminded us in his “I Have a Dream Speech” on that warm day in August 1963 that what matters is not the color of our skin, but the content of our character. Thank you, Dr King, for showing us the better path that – by the grace of God – we all can follow.

A mini U.N. in my closet – but at what price?

One of two shirts I often wear, made in Bangladesh
one of two shirts I often wear, made in Bangladesh

A factory in Savar, Bangladesh collapsed Wednesday. More than 3,000 workers were inside, making clothes to fill orders placed by stores like Walmart, working at monthly wages equivalent to only $ 38.00 U.S.  When the building began to shake, chaos ensued as people ran for the doors. At last count, more than 350 were killed, crushed under the weight of a building shoddily constructed but only days ago certified as safe by engineers.

The commercial asks: “What’s in your wallet?” But the tragic news from Savar begs a different question: “What’s in your closet?” Looking at shirts only, I discovered in my wardrobe “made in” tags from:

Bangladesh

Vietnam

Hong Kong

Macau (administered by the Chinese)

Lesotho

Nicaragua

Kenya

Guatemala

Pakistan

India

Bottom line? I have a mini U.N. in my closet, but at what price?

The “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12) ethic of the Christian faith teaches us that sin is not just an affair between us and God. Sin always has collateral damage, affecting others. Sometimes, sin insidiously weaves its way into the economic structures of our world, producing what theologians call systemic evil.

The factory in Bangladesh paying its workers little more than $ 1.00 per day is there in part because of the shirt hanging in my closet. If I and countless other consumers had chosen to buy shirts only from stores who outsource to safe manufacturers that pay fair wages, then Wednesday’s tragedy may have been avoided.

But let’s face it: We want cheap shirts and pants and running shoes and power tools, and the list goes on.

I have seen the face of evil, and it is me.

James 4:17 teaches that if we know to do good yet refuse, then we have sinned. So let’s get practical. Solving all systemic evil is overwhelming, on that we can agree. Yet surely we can light a candle and not just curse the darkness. Short of becoming Amish and spinning my own clothes, how should I react to the systemic evil in this instance?

1) As a regular customer of Walmart, I can tell them that I am sorry for having participated in this tragedy by buying their clothes from Bangladesh. Further, I can invite them to join me in demanding changes.

2) Until those changes take place, I can find a store that guarantees its products were produced responsibly in safe factories that pay a fair wage. Will I pay more? Most likely I will, but here the Golden Rule applies again. If I were working in Pakistan, Kenya, or anywhere else, would I want to receive a fair wage?

3) Finally, I can buy local products on purpose. When I buy things made close-by, I can be more sure that those who made them were fairly compensated. Also, by helping a local company grow its local market, they will spend less on transporting the goods far away. This in-turn will reduce the energy used and therefore the greenhouse gases produced to transport it to far away customers.

Systemic evil includes all of us, yet we can loosen its clutch if we are intentional. Like Jesus, let’s remember that loving “the least of these” (Matt. 25:31-46) means loving those who make the things that I use every day.

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UPDATE: Since this story broke, I noticed that clothing from Bangladesh at the Atlanta airport was marked down by 75%. Time will tell whether this distaste on the part of the buying public will endure.

Let’s talk about the “s” word

When did sin become the “s” word that we dare not speak?

This was not always so. There was a time when most believed that sin – disobedience to God’s law, whether through rebellion or neglect (1 John 3:4, James 4:17) – was a big deal. Sinning was stigmatized, a warning to others of its danger, like a sign on a power box: “Danger: High Voltage.” We believed it was the cryptonite that could bring any Superman to his knees. Do we still believe that?voltage

There are at least two devastating consequences of sin’s denial:

1. The denial of sin precludes the possibility of healing, leading to death.

In his sermon Original Sin, John Wesley urged: “Know your sickness, know your cure.” Salvation in Scripture is a solution to a problem. But if we think there is no problem, then we won’t seek a solution.

One of the most painful reality T.V. shows to watch is Intervention. In one episode, a young woman addicted to methamphetamine takes the drug regularly, admitting no downside to her habit. Yet she is blind to the way it is controlling her life, putting her job in jeopardy and straining her relationship with those who love her most. Recovery only came when her family staged an intervention and she was willing to admit: “I’m an addict, and I need help.”

Likewise, the Good News of Jesus’ death only makes sense if we first acknowledge the bad news of our sinful predicament. Each of us must come to the place where we acknowledge that we are the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15, NIV). Only when the illness is diagnosed and we accept Scripture’s dismal diagnosis will we be ready to seek the Great Physician for a remedy.

Sometimes death is presented only as what happens when we breathe our last. Yet sin is so poisonous that it begins to diminish the present vitality of those who deny its presence. In John 10:10, Jesus warns about the “thief” that has come to “steal, kill and destroy” (CEB). Sin gives us death on the installment plan, a progressive choking off of our life here-and-now. The end result is utter darkness, devoid of hope and without God (Matt. 25:30, Galatians 6:8). Conversely, to confess our sin is the first step toward the full recovery God wishes for each of us (1 John 1:9), a clean heart and a fresh start.

2. The denial of sin destroys community.

One of the devil’s biggest lies is often repeated: “No one else is getting hurt.” But is this true? Before the cheating spouse is unmasked, he or she may be convinced that an extramarital dalliance is harmless, not a sin but an innocent pleasure. Yet when the affair is exposed, the fallout is no less devastating. Like a priceless vase shattered into a hundred pieces, trust can only be painstakingly glued back together. Even then, the fissures are obvious, the beauty marred.

The epitome of beauty marred is Fantine, Victor Hugo’s pitiful character in Les Misérables. Her own indiscretion of conceiving a child out of wedlock is compounded by the sin of others who move beyond stigmatizing to self-righteous victimizing, chasing her from her factory job, forcing her to resort to prostitution to support her daughter, Cosette. In the 2012 film adaptation of the novel, Anne Hathaway sings “I dreamed a dream,” dripping with pathos:

“I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed…
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed…”

Fantine is alone and broken. Her own sin could have been forgiven and overcome if she had experienced the power of grace demonstrated through others. Instead, the blindness of her fellow employees to the sinfulness of their gossip and their subsequent shunning of one they judge to be disgraced dramatically fractures community. Whether it is the denial of sin by an individual or the tolerance of corporate sin by the community at-large, it is the community itself that is destroyed.

Only in this light does the radical action of Peter toward Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 make any sense. When they sold their land and secretly kept back part of the money for themselves, Peter confronted them. Since the couple had lied about what they had done, Peter became the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit, pronouncing judgment: “You have not lied to people, but to God” (Acts 5:4, CEB). For the Christian community to sweep sin under the carpet would have guaranteed the church’s demise. Peter knew that the denial of sin destroys community.

Conclusion

In the 21st century, the Church faces many challenges. The culture in North America particularly seems to be growing intolerant of the “s” word. Yet Scripture and experience both remind us that only when we acknowledge our sin can God’s forgiveness flow. Isn’t it time we talk about the “s” word?

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Photo credit: Creative Safety Supply