Posted in Christlike justice, reflections

Four confessions of a American Christian

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, a crowd of angry American insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. When the Senators, Representatives, and other staff emerged from hiding, the carnage was appalling. The Capitol had been ransacked and (more importantly), five individuals had lost their lives, including a U.S. Air Force veteran and a U.S. Capitol police officer. Most heartbreaking for people of Christian faith was the presence in the mob of “Jesus Saves” signs. These were hoisted side-by-side with Confederate flags, as if no one thought it strange to carry a deeply divisive symbol of White Supremacy alongside the name of the non-white Savior of the world, the Redeemer of all tribes and nations and peoples and tongues (Revelation 7:9).

What follows are my confessions, those of an American Christian, more specifically, an American ordained minister. I offer these as a mea culpa, an attempt to bring out into the light-of-day some of the unhelpful elements of my own worldview that (in their small way) have contributed to an atmosphere where such acts of animosity like those of January 6 in Washington D.C. are the sad outcome.* These cultural blind spots can easily undermine key principles of Christian faith, such as love for neighbor (Mark 12:31), caring for the poor (Matthew 25: 31-46), or the equal dignity of all human beings as those created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, Galatians 3:28). By reading my confessions, perhaps you will see – as in a mirror (James 1:23) – a fleeting reflection of yourself and chart together with me a new direction, with God’s help.

  1. Confusing hard work with white privilege

Because I grew up in a setting with few minorities – Black or Brown – whether at school or at church, I had no life experience to counteract the idea (more caught than taught) that whites are better off economically because we work harder than non-whites. Now I realize how erroneous that idea is, and life experience has been my teacher.

It has been said: “Some are born on third base and think they hit a triple.” I may not have been born on third base, but I was at least born on second. Now 57, I’ve met scores of people on my life journey so far, fellow travelers from various backgrounds who work harder than I ever will, yet they will never know the head-start that I’ve known as a white American. I confess that I’ve been too concerned to guard my own place and comforts and far too little concerned to stand in solidarity with those who were not gifted the same opportunities.

2). Accent upon “independence” rather than “interdependence”

This brings us to a second false idea, the American myth of our “independence,” an idea stemming back to July 4, 1776 when the United States declared its “independence” from England. From the time we are little, we as Americans are socialized to brag about how “I did it myself.” Frank Sinatra even sang the immortal “I did it my way.” There’s the idea that ultimate freedom is the freedom to be an individual, whatever that looks like. The positive side of this cultural value is that Americans have been amazing inventors across two centuries. Individuals have dared break out of group-think and imagine new ways of doing things. But there is a shadow side to that fierce independence and that is overlooking the negative consequences that my actions in the name of “liberty” can have upon others. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of our interdependence, that even our mutual health and survival hinges upon upon the decisions we make together, whether to wear a mask or to roll up our sleeves for a vaccination.

3) America as “God’s Chosen People” or “The Greatest Nation on Earth”

Besides the issues of work vs. white privilege and independence vs. interdependence, a third area of confession relates to how I view my country in relation to other nations. Peter Marshall’s and David Manuel’s 1977 The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? is an important propaganda piece for those who see America as occupying a unique place in God’s affection, a kind of New Israel. (This textbook has been widely used in Christian homeschooling for children). Rather than examining our national sins alongside our national virtues, it’s a one-sided presentation, arguing a 20th century version of “manifest destiny,” the 19th century rationale for U.S. expansionism.

The truth is that God loves the U.S. in the same way and to the same degree that God loves all nations. God sent Jesus to be the Savior of the world (John 1:29, 3:16), not just one country. To love one’s country is patriotic; to believe that God’s special favor resides upon it above all others is ethnocentric and idolatrous. Of this attitude of American exceptionalism, of the idea that we are a nation that is a cut-above, I repent.

4) Trusting in guns and military might more than trusting in God

Finally, I’ve placed too much trust in guns and weapons of war and not enough trust in God. This temptation is nothing new. The Psalmist observed: “Some nations boast of their chariots and horses, but we boast in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7, NLT). Former President Jimmy Carter – himself a devout Christian – has lamented the warlike posture of our nation over time, claiming in April 2019 that the United States has been at peace for only 16 of our 242 years as a nation. I confess that too often I’ve soft-pedaled the clear teaching of Jesus for Christians to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), thinking it an impossible ideal reserved for some future time after Jesus returns. I’ve remained quiet when our Defense budget is increased yet again, even though it is already larger than the next 10 countries combined. May the Lord forgive me for my silence and give me courage to speak against our war-like ways, even as the number of homeless in my own city explodes in the middle of an historic pandemic. Surely, we can do better, and I would be part of the solution.

Conclusion

Confusing hard work with white privilege, the false notion of “independence,” American exceptionalism, and militarism — These are four areas where I confess my complicity with larger American cultural narratives that, left unchecked, contribute to the chaos like we saw on January 6, 2021. As people of Christian faith, may we go to God in prayer and fasting, asking the Lord to reveal to us these blind spots and others. Once we have knowledge of them, may God give us the grace we need to confess them and repent, changing our thinking and our behavior, becoming like Christ in thought, word, and deed.

*Note: In doing so, I acknowledge that I’m looking at one side of the coin only, that there have been positive contributions of the unique American take on Christian faith, such as the “can do” attitude that can be channeled to make positive change in the world in the name of Christ. Abolition of slavery is just one example.

____________

Image credits

cross and baseball player: by the author

handshake: Official website of the supreme leader of Iran, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Posted in Christian ethics, discipleship, reflections

Upright, or uptight?

There’s just one letter difference, but what a difference it makes.

To be upright is to be righteous. It refuses moral compromise but does so in a way that attracts rather than repels. It’s the loving, kindhearted, winsome quality of character and integrity epitomized by Jesus.

In the quest to be upright, some become uptight. Uptight religion scolds; it’s suspicious of laughter, always serious, and rarely lets down its hair. Steering clear of the ditch of sin, it ends up in the opposite ditch of joyless austerity. Uptight religion repels rather than attracts. It empties churches, then calls itself persecuted, blaming the “devil” or “the world.”

Uptight religion majors on what good Christians don’t do. In the early editions of my denomination’s Manual, they were called the “special rules.” Here’s a sampling:

Don’t dance.

Don’t go to the movie theater.

Don’t play the lottery.

Don’t swim with members of the opposite sex.

Let’s be clear. There’s a place for prohibitions in the Christian life. After all, the 10 Commandments include multiple “do not” statements including “do not steal,” “do not murder,” and “do not commit adultery.” (See Exodus 20:1-17). But while the church of my youth did plenty right, it also unwittingly sowed in my heart the notion that religion is mostly about keeping rules. Mine was an uptight religion, and I still struggle to see faith through the lens of what God asks me to do rather than what he commands me to avoid.

Uptight religion was certainly not God’s intention for Adam and Eve (See Genesis 2-3). The LORD created an amazing garden, with a dizzying variety of plants and trees. God turned them loose in the garden and said, “Go have fun!” Imagine the freedom they enjoyed. They could drink of the crystal-clear brook, soak-up the sunlight that filtered through the canopy, and – best of all – feast on the fruit of hundreds of trees. There was a single tree that God said was off-limits (Gen. 2:16-17), the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We can’t know for sure how many trees were in the garden, but it’s safe to say that (as a percentage) more than 99% of the trees were in-bounds. That’s freedom!

Sadly, uptight religion wants to fence-off more trees in the garden than God ever intended. It forgets that God is much more often the God of “yes” than the God of “no.” This positive outlook is captured by Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:20 (NLT): “For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory.”

As the scales of uptight religion fall away from my spiritual eyes, I’m coming to see upright religion in a new light. If uptight religion is negative, emphasizing what we don’t do, upright religion is positive, accentuating what God calls us to do. I’m coming to understand holiness as engagement with the world rather than a rules-based sequestering myself from the world. It’s a confident thrust forward rather than a suspicious step back. It’s Jesus’ attitude as he sends out the 12 apostles in Matthew 7:8-9 (NLT): “Go and announce to them that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!”

What about you? Is your Christian faith of the upright or the uptight variety? May God help us to discern this crucial distinction.

Posted in chaplaincy, reflections

Coffee and milk

“God, may you and I be like coffee and milk; once mixed together, they can’t be separated.” So says the Haitian prayer.

As a hospice chaplain, I’ve encountered some coffee and milk marriages. Couples may have been together for 50 or 60 years. Because life for one of them is drawing to a close, one is labelled the “patient” while the other is the “caregiver.” But this fails to capture the myriad ways their lives had already become mixed together long before they began the hospice journey. Family photos on the wall, twin recliner chairs in proximity, bookshelves carefully arranged with reading treasures, tended plants on porches or back decks, family pets lovingly caressed – the evidence of two lives marvelously intertwined is on full display.

Not all marriages are like this. I’ve heard that it’s possible to live under one roof and already be emotionally divorced from one’s partner. Spouses have been downgraded to roommates. But tell me: Just because this can happen, must it happen? The clues of enduring love that I discover in the homes of hospice couples encourage me to cherish the relationship that – other than my relationship with God – is the most rewarding. Coffee and milk, anyone? 

Posted in book reviews, reflections

Scott Daniels on exile and the stories we live by

scott-daniels
Scott Daniels

How are Christ followers to live when society seems increasingly hostile to the church? T. Scott Daniels in Embracing Exile: Living Faithfully as God’s Unique People in the World (Beacon Hill, 2017, Kindle edition) takes up this question, mining the biblical metaphor of “exile” for insights that can serve the People of God at a moment when – in the United States – our cultural influence is waning.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when Christian clergy were paid deference, and the church was closer to the center of civic life. For Daniels, the word “exile” – evoking the 70 years that the Jewish people were in captivity in Babylon following the fall of Jerusalem in 586 A.D. – is appropriate to describe the sense of disorientation Christians feel in 2020 America. Daniels observes: “People who live in exile feel displaced. They feel like resident aliens. They feel like a people who have to live counterculturally” (location 56).

One of the key fears of Christian parents – according to Daniels – is that they will lose their children to the surrounding culture. To pre-empt this outcome, he emphasizes that we must formulate a story and the practices to sustain that story (location 111).

Daniels cites the 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche who famously concluded that “God is dead.” If this is true, then meaning must be made by each individual. But is this enough? Daniels thinks not:

Without God there is no more certainty or hope about the future. When the only meaning life has is the meaning an individual creates, it ceases to have any real or lasting significance. When the story that gave people meaning and purpose – the story of God – is gone, all that remains is a kind of hopeless despair (location 605).

In subsequent sections, Daniels outlines what alternative stories people live by. These include the “success” story, the “nation” story, the “humanist” story, or a fragmented story that weaves together elements of each (See Chapter 3, “This is My Story.”) Daniels summarizes well the non-God stories that thrive.

embracing exile

Overall, Daniels has written a helpful book that resonates with our cultural moment. Each chapter includes engaging discussion questions that let readers expand on the ideas presented. But where Embracing Exile comes up short is its failure to examine what version of the God story large segments of the American church have been communicating in recent decades. Is it possible that the messages we’ve been communicating have been more reactionary than Spirit-led? As the broader culture changes rapidly, has our response come from a place of fear rather than a heart of love?

In the church where I grew up in the 1970s, we often sang the hymn “I love to tell the story.” The lyrics by Ian Eskelin have stayed with me:

I love to tell the story,

‘Twill be my theme in glory.

To tell the old, old story

Of Jesus and his love.

Love is at the center of the Gospel message (Romans 5:8, John 3:16), but is love what we’re still all about?

A store in a mall became concerned about the number of teenagers who were loitering. Some suggested they were shoplifting or keeping older shoppers from entering. The manager did some research and learned that the highest frequencies can only be heard by those younger than 18.  So he installed a machine that would broadcast painful high frequencies near the store entrance. When younger teens came close, their ears hurt, so they hurried away. On the other hand, those 18 or older kept coming in. Their ears weren’t hurt; they couldn’t hear the painful high tones.

At the center of the Good News is love, but is love what we’re now broadcasting? Is it possible that what used to be a story of love with an attractive melody has mutated into a discordant and shrill refrain? Has what we believe to be Good News instead become Bad News in their ears, driving them away?

It’s possible that many youth turn to other meaning-making stories – what Daniels calls “metanarratives” (location 501) – not because they have rejected the historic, winsome Jesus story of loving God and loving others (Mark 12:30-31) but because that’s not what we’re broadcasting anymore.

Here are three areas where our story – rather than attracting youth – may have repulsed them:

  1. Caring for the Earth – A strong stewardship ethic is apparent in Genesis and the Psalms, yet how often have we heard Christians mocking “tree huggers” or ridiculing those who advocate for phasing out the energy sources driving climate change? How might Lisa, an 11-year-old girl forced to flee with her family from a forest fire engulfing their Colorado home, respond if she overheard such comments?
  2. Gun violence –  Tonya, a 13-year-old girl near Pittsburgh, practices an active shooter drill with her classmates at middle school. After school, she steps off the bus and spots her churchgoing neighbor’s political yard sign touting “God, guns, and country.” If you were Tonya, what reaction might this produce?
  3. Two moms – In Chicago, Antonio, a 15-year-old boy long passed-over in the foster system, is finally adopted by a lesbian couple. At home one night, taking a break from his homework, he picks up his phone and begins scrolling through social media. He clicks on a viral YouTube video of a preacher who insists that “homosexuals are going to hell.” How would you feel if you were Antonio?

Note: Each of these scenarios ends with a question mark because I’m raising questions, not drawing definitive conclusions. Here’s another question: Rather than “Blessing Babylon” – as Daniels titles Chapter 5 – have we (with every good intention) unwittingly been “Cursing Babylon”?

The “exile” metaphor (while certainly present in Scripture) presupposes that a hostile culture has in some way marginalized a faithful church. (The Babylonians forcibly marched the Jewish mobility into exile, after all). This metaphor seems to imply that the church is the “good guys” and everyone else the “bad guys.” Yet as Wesleyans, we believe that God’s prevenient grace is active in every corner of God’s creation (John 1:9; Romans 2:14-15).

An emphasis upon “exile”- while well-intended for all the reasons Daniels outlines – may foster a back-door self-righteousness, a “batten down the hatches” approach that sequesters itself at just the moment when a world drowning in hate needs the engagement of a church turbo-charged by love. We are a missional people. Does talk of “exile” fuel that mission or impede it?

This short essay passes over other themes that Scott Daniels covers, themes that deserve their own consideration. Daniels, to his credit, gently invites us to think together about how we engage the world in faithful ways, without being “squeezed into the world’s mold” (Romans 12:2, Philips). We should thank Pastor Daniels for a well-written and thought-provoking book.

Posted in Christlike justice, missions & evangelism, reflections

Holiness in the age of George Floyd

Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City, 7/13/2020 

How do holiness and promoting justice in society relate? In a Facebook post on July 25, 2020, longtime Nazarene Pastor Michael Hull observed:


My heart is breaking with concern as I watch many of my beloved denominational leaders rushing to ‘take a knee’ before the cultural idol of ‘social justice’ rather than leading us to the true answer for the hour: a clarion call to Christian holiness.

His alternative solution? “The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the promise of Christian holiness IS the answer! It’s revival we need.”

There’s much to consider in what Pastor Hull has written, and I hope you’ll read the entire statement on his FaceBook page, as linked above. There’s no question that sin in the human heart is a sickness that needs the cure that only Jesus can provide. By “revival,” Hull and those of us in the holiness tradition recognize that God wants to change our hearts. We individually need forgiveness of sins and the heart cleansing that the blood of Jesus provides (1 John 1:7-9). For this end we constantly pray.

But as a 3rd generation Nazarene who grew up in a revivalistic tradition, I wonder whether this individualistic lens is sufficient in our current cultural moment. “Just get people saved and sanctified and everything will be fine” is the sentiment I hear periodically. Usually it is voiced at a moment of societal reckoning like we’re witnessing following the brutal killing of George Floyd, a Black man arrested and murdered at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25.

I’ve been processing in my heart and mind what we all saw in that video. In this essay, I want to talk about it on two levels, namely, emotionally and theologically.

First, what can we say emotionally?

I’ve tried over the last 60 days to hear the voices of Black, Brown, and Asian Americans as they open up about their daily experience of living in the United States. (In this pandemic, that has mostly been through watching short testimonial videos and reading stories online). What I’ve heard is a heart’s cry from people who in a hundred ways, large and small, sense that they have been disrespected, wronged, and marginalized because of their skin color. Hull criticizes some of our Nazarene denominational leaders for “taking a knee before the cultural idol of social justice.” I respectfully disagree. What I see our denominational leaders doing is what hundreds of thousands across our land have been doing. We’ve stopped, we’ve sat down, and we’ve attempted to listen to the hurt. (If you haven’t watched the movie, “Just Mercy,” I highly recommend it as a good discussion starter). Out of those conversations have come stories of individuals of color who have been hurt by society in general and (sometimes) by churches. Only when we acknowledge that and ask for forgiveness can we experience God’s healing together.

Some years ago, General Superintendent Jerry Porter and other denominational leaders met with a group of Black Nazarene pastors. At the end, he knelt in front of one of the lead pastors and on behalf of the Church of the Nazarene asked for their forgiveness for our silence and (sometimes) complicity around racism. That moment seared itself into my memory, as I read about it in Holiness Today. I remember thinking that this is the essence of entire sanctification, of God’s Holy Spirit moving the church as a whole to a place of repentance. These kinds of gestures can be the first rain drops of a mighty divine downpour among us! And as we see similar gestures unfolding in our society – powerful signs of God’s prevenient grace at work – can we dare believe that the God who has entrusted us with the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21) is up to something new?

In the spirit of Dr. Porter’s historic gesture, I’ve been gratified to see reports on social media of pastors who – following George Floyd’s death – have headed into the streets to stand in solidarity with those raising their voices in support of Black lives. On Facebook, Adam Lipscomb, pastor of the City Life Church (a Wesleyan church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan) wrote of his involvement in one such protest on May 30, 2020:

I was at the protest downtown in Grand Rapids tonight. I was asked to pray by the organizers of a nonviolent protest that was to include a silent march. There were other groups that were not part of that protest that were filling the space before the non-violent protesters arrived. It’s easy to watch the news tonight and think that only one group was involved. There were multiple groups, some of which were Christian, nonviolent, and very disciplined. Other groups were from some sort of militia, and there were identifiable provocateurs.

I spent much of the night as part of the safety team standing between the protesters and police. I did end up taking an opportunity to pray publicly. It was a particularly dicey moment, and I shouted out my prayer over the crowd. I’m home now and will continue to pray for peace with justice.
#BlackLivesMatter

It shouldn’t surprise us that the devil will try to sow weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Jesus warned us as much. But it strikes me that what Pastor Lipscomb did and what many clergy and laity from a broad spectrum of denominations are doing is God’s good work and puts feet to our holiness.

Secondly, what can we say theologically?

The murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police calls us not only to process emotionally but also theologically. On this score, there is much to say.

1 Thess. 5:23-24 is a favorite passage for those of us who are persuaded that entire sanctification is a second definite work of grace after the New Birth. Yet as many sermons as I’ve heard preached on that passage, I’ve yet to hear a preacher underscore that Paul’s admonition is not to an individual, but to a church. When Paul writes “May the God of peace sanctify you through and through,” we could translate it as “May the God of peace sanctify y’all through and through.” Yes, God sanctifies individuals, but God does so in the context of our relational networks. In Africa, the meaning of Ubuntu is summarized as “I am because we are.” We cannot conceive of individual holiness apart from our connections with other human beings, so we could just as well say social sanctification as sanctification. It’s all of one piece.

Chanshi Chanda 

Hull criticizes the term “social justice” as an “idol.” He says “the moment that ‘social’ is added to justice, it isn’t.” He doesn’t explain what he means by that statement. In fact, justice often plays itself out in the social setting as is evidenced by the Old Testament prophets’ calling out the injustices of their day. Sometimes, young idealists are mocked as being SJW’s – Social Justice Warriors. If they dropped the word “social” and just became JWs (Justice Warriors), would that satisfy their critics? Maybe we should just adopt the language of Zambian Nazarene Chanshi Chanda, who speaks of “Christlike Justice.” (See his excellent primer, Christlike Justice and the Holiness Tradition, where he maintains that our theological tradition is the natural soil for justice concerns to grow). Perhaps we should speak of Christlike Justice Warriors – CJWs? But I have the sneaking suspicion that whatever label we might use – SJW, JW, or CJW – someone would criticize. It’s time to ask ourselves:

What is it about the demand for justice that makes us profoundly uncomfortable?

How might our view change if we saw our pursuit of justice not as a distraction from holiness but as one important way that the church models Christian holiness for the world to see?

Finally, we need to revisit our concept of sin. Sin is not just individual; sin can be systemic. This is what the prophet Amos had in mind when he admonished Israel:

Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:15, NIV).

God’s favor upon His people was dependent (according to Amos) on how just the court system was. For that system to be corrupt (i.e. sinful) brought God’s judgment upon the people. In verse 14, seeking good and not evil had an objective. It was “that you may live.” God cared about whether the systems in place were righteous or evil. Society flourishes when justice dominates.

Dr. John Nielson of Eastern Nazarene College, at a BLM Prayer Rally, Quincy, MA – 6/14/2020 

This is but a taste of the Scripture’s concern for justice. As Nazarenes who are part of the holiness tradition, we must consider whether revival comes first and then racial reconciliation follows, or whether we have the order backwards. As the church, should we not come alongside anyone animated by God’s prevenient grace (Christian or not) to work for racial reconciliation as a necessary prerequisite and foretaste of revival? Is this not the model from Zaccheus? First, he acknowledged his wrongdoing then explained how he would be reconciled with those offended, by making restitution (Luke 19:8). Only then did Jesus say: “Today, salvation has come to this house…” (Luke 19:9a, NASB). Reconciliation preceded revival.

Thank you, Pastor Michael Hull, for your thoughts. You are my brother in Christ. I’ve been struggling to understand what holiness looks like in the age of George Floyd and I sense that you are, too. Let us continue to feel, to think, and to act as the Lord leads us in the holy way of Gospel reconciliation.

_______________________________________

Image credit (Black Lives Matter marchers)

Wikimedia Commons: Eden, Janine and Jim from New York City / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Posted in From soup to nuts, reflections

Wearing masks and loving neighbors

It’s July 4 and I’m inside.

What a strange place to be during our nation’s birthday celebration. But this year in Texas, we had a guest show up uninvited. His name? Mr. COVID-19 and he doesn’t mix well with others.

Our Governor just ordered Texans to wear masks when going out in public. (To show he wasn’t joking, he pushed the announcement to our cell phones, like an AMBER alert for missing children). In Houston, San Antonio, as well as in Austin (where I live), a recent surge in COVID hospitalizations means that intensive care units are at near capacity.

It’s difficult to say to what extent people are complying with the Governor’s order. My observations are only anecdotal. A quick trip for groceries to our North Austin Walmart yesterday would indicate that people are taking this pandemic seriously. I watched as parents in the parking lot put on their own mask then helped their young children adjust theirs. Waiting in the line outside the door, we stood 6 feet apart and shuffled slowly toward the entrance. We were Black, White, Latinx, and Asian, a multi-cultural crowd, and I heard no one griping as we waited for admission.

Good citizenship aside, you don’t need to look far in the Bible to find a reason for Christians to wear a mask. The Second Great Commandment from our Lord is relevant: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39, NIV). And since any of us can be a spreader of corona virus, even if we show no symptoms, our mask becomes a visible symbol of our consideration for others’ welfare. If Jesus were here, he’d have his mask on.

In practice, our Christian duty is sometimes elbowed aside by other considerations. There’s a libertarian streak in us Americans. We place a premium on self-expression and individualism. Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” become a hit for a reason. Still, there are times when both our individual and collective interests are served by adhering to what experts advise. This is one of those times.

So here’s to a happy July 4th, from behind the mask. Let’s pray that this time next year, such measures will be unnecessary and we can get back to the group activities that make this day special.

Posted in reflections

Listen well, love well

I sat across from a homeless man in a hospital room. For 45 minutes, he poured out his heart. My job? To be present with him, to silently witness his pain and frustration. At the end, we prayed together. He said he felt better, lighter. He thanked me for listening.

In nearly a year on the job as a hospital chaplain-in-training, here’s the greatest takeaway so far:

People need to be heard.

James 1:19 encourages us: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (NIV). What does it mean to be “quick to listen”?

  • Listen to understand, not to respond. This can be the hardest part of listening. We start out well, but after a few seconds, we begin mentally planning out our response. That response usually begins with “Yes, but…” And suddenly we’ve become a sparring partner in a debate rather than an empathetic listener.
  • Listen deeply by asking clarifying questions. If something is unclear, a short question seeking clarity shows others that you’re present with them, that they’re being heard. “When you said ‘I’m so tired of it all,’ what did you mean?”
  • Listen to pray more specifically. Details matter. I know that I wasn’t listening closely if I ask a question and someone responds: “As I said earlier…” My question reveals that I had tuned out. On the other hand, when I close a patient visit with a prayer, I will often rehearse the detailed concerns they mentioned, bringing them specifically to God in prayer. One patient observed afterwards: “You didn’t miss a thing!” To listen well is to love well.

 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the past week, anger and frustration have boiled over on our streets. Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” If there’s one thing that I can do to move the needle a fraction in the right direction, it’s listening – not to respond, not to debate, but to understand.

Please tell me your story. What are the everyday indignities and frustrations that you live with as an African-American, Latinx, Native American or other minority in the United States?

I’m listening.

___________

Image credits

  1. Ear: Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Left_ear.JPG#file
  2. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Nobel Foundation/Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin_Luther_King,_Jr..jpg
Posted in Christian ethics, Christlike justice, pastoral care, reflections

A people of hope: Nazarenes on abortion

Environmental_day_specialAbortion legislation is coming fast-and-furious in the U.S. setting.  Multiple state legislatures  have been emboldened to pass restrictions, since the compositon of the U.S. Supreme seems to have recently shifted in a conservative direction, calling into question whether the landmark 1973 decision, Roe v. Wade, will be overturned. At such a time, it’s helpful to review what our Nazarene Manual (2017-2021) has to say about abortion.

[Note: For those not part of the denomination, a bit of context is in order. Every four years, the Church of the Nazarene around the world sends delegates to a General Assembly. At the GA, decisions are made that govern the church. These decisions are codified in the Manual, the current version being for 2017-2021. The Manual also contains statements on social issues.]

Here’s the relevant section, from Manual 30.1, under the larger heading of “The Sanctity of Human Life”:

30.1. Induced Abortion. The Church of the Nazarene affirms the sanctity of human life as established by God the Creator and believes that such sanctity extends to the child not yet born. Life is a gift from God. All human life, including life developing in the womb, is created by God in His image and is, therefore, to be nurtured, supported, and protected. From the moment of conception, a child is a human being with all of the developing characteristics of human life, and this life is dependent on the mother for its continued development. Therefore, we believe that human life must be respected and protected from the moment of conception. We oppose induced abortion by any means, when used for either personal convenience or population control. We oppose laws that allow abortion. Realizing that there are rare, but real medical conditions wherein the mother or the unborn child, or both, could not survive the pregnancy, termination of the pregnancy should only be made after sound medical and Christian counseling.

Responsible opposition to abortion requires our commitment to the initiation and support of programs designed to provide care for mothers and children. The crisis of an unwanted pregnancy calls for the community of believers (represented only by those for whom knowledge of the crisis is appropriate) to provide a context of love, prayer, and counsel. In such instances, support can take the form of counseling centers, homes for expectant mothers, and the creation or utilization of Christian adoption services.

The Church of the Nazarene recognizes that consideration of abortion as a means of ending an unwanted pregnancy often occurs because Christian standards of sexual responsibility have been ignored. Therefore the church calls for persons to practice the ethic of the New Testament as it bears upon human sexuality and to deal with the issue of abortion by placing it within the larger framework of biblical principles that provide guidance for moral decision making.

(Genesis 2:7, 9:6; Exodus 20:13; 21:12-16, 22-25; Leviticus 18:21; Job 31:15; Psalms 22:9; 139:3-16; Isaiah 44:2, 24; 49:5; Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 1:15, 23-25, 36-45; Acts 17:25; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:16; 7:1ff.; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6)

The Church of the Nazarene also recognizes that many have been affected by the tragedy of abortion. Each local congregation and individual believer is urged to offer the message of forgiveness by God for each person who has experienced abortion. Our local congregations are to be communities of redemption and hope to all who suffer physical, emotional, and spiritual pain as a result of the willful termination of a pregnancy.

(Romans 3:22-24; Galatians 6:1)

Continue reading “A people of hope: Nazarenes on abortion”

Posted in reflections, Uncategorized

On restitution and tipping

US_Silvercert1By any standard, John the Baptist was odd.

Matthew 3:4 portrays a wilderness dweller clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. His food? Locusts and wild honey.

Most detect the explicit part of his message. We must repent, turning away from our sins. He warned the crowds who traveled out to gawk at this Elijah-like prophet:

Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! (Matt. 3:3, CEB)

Yet there’s an often overlooked element to his fiery preaching. Repentance alone is insufficient. Once we have repented, there is a second step: “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives” (3:8, CEB; italics added).

John the Baptist’s two-step sermon that day squares with a word from the prophet Ezekiel centuries earlier. God called Ezekiel a “lookout” to warn Israel about a “sword” that the LORD was about to bring against them — see Ezekiel 33:1-16. God had pronounced a “death sentence” upon them since they were a “wicked people” (v. 8). Yet this sentence was not inevitable. How could it be averted?

And even if I have pronounced a death sentence on the wicked, if they turn from sin and do what is just and right – if they return pledges, make restitution for robbery, and walk in life-giving regulations in order not to sin – they will live and not die (Ezek. 33:14-15, CEB).

Repentance alone was not sufficient. Israel was required to produce evidence of  repentance by paying back what they had stolen. The vital second step was restitution.

The online Oxford English Dictionary gives three definitions for “restitution”:

  1. The restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner;
  2. Recompense for injury or loss;
  3. The restoration of something to its original state.

Continue reading “On restitution and tipping”

Posted in Christology, reflections

5 lessons from the Cross

crucifixWe’re in the middle of the Lenten season, a time when Christ followers reflect on the sacrifice of our Lord.

Isaac Watts in 1707 penned the immortal lyrics to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The first verse reads:

When I survey the wondrous Cross

On which the Prince of glory died;

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

His invitation is fresh today, challenging us to ponder again the meaning of that sacrifice outside Jerusalem’s walls.

What are the lessons of the Cross?

  1. No good deed goes unpunished. Christian do-gooders, beware! There are forces who are invested in the status quo. Shine your light, but don’t be surprised when lots of people would prefer to douse it. Jesus said to Nicodemus: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19, NIV). Some things haven’t changed.
  2. Christianity was never meant to be a feel-good faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted: “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It’s no accident that prosperity preachers rarely feature the Cross prominently in their sanctuaries or sermons. The Cross is a bloody instrument of torture, a reminder of what awaits every person who would follow in the footsteps of the Master.
  3. God doesn’t treat sin lightly. Sin is a tear in the moral fabric of the universe, one that isn’t easily mended. Hebrews 9:22b (ESV) reminds us that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” When Jesus came to be baptized by his cousin, John cried out: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, ESV). The severity of sin is underscored by the costly nature of the sacrifice necessary to atone for it.
  4.  Non-resistance is a powerful force. This is the paradox of the Cross. Jesus, who could have called a legion of angels to his defense (Matthew 26:53), chose the much more difficult but infinitely more powerful course of non-resistance. It was his chance to practice what he had taught his followers: “But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39, NLT). Our instinct is to meet force with force, like Peter who drew his sword and lopped off the ear of Malchus when he came with the soliders to arrest him (John 18:10). Jesus shows us a better way.
  5. Love is stronger than hate. Michael Card poetically asks: “Why did they nail his feet and hands, when his love would have held him there?” This is the most amazing of all spiritual insights at the foot of the Cross. The sacrifice of Christ is a demonstration of God’s love, and not because we earned it. Paul writes: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV, italics added). Perhaps Paul was thinking of the Cross when he wote to the Romans: “Do  not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). In the Cross, we have a picture of God’s love for us, a love that was willing to die that we might live.

These are just a few lessons of the Cross. These lessons are radical in an age when we’ve convinced ourselves that God exists to serve us and not the other way around. May the Cross remind us of the Cause we serve, One far greater than ourselves. May we cherish the promise of the eternal life reserved for those who dare follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha.