Tuesday, January 20, 2015

TRANSFORMING CULTURE

TRANSCENDENT VALUES IN THE TANGIBLES

    I have just read an article by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. entitled, “Preaching with the Culture in View,” which is a chapter in the book, “Preaching The Cross,” a ministry edition from Together For The Gospel.   In this article he discusses the ideas of H. Richard Niebuhr compiled in the book, “Christ and Culture.”

   “Christ and Culture” is a book which Tim Keller refers to when he writes or discusses culture, and a book which I had to read as a student at Covenant College, many years ago.  All three of the aforementioned men are brilliant and the subject is one with which Christians need to come to grips.  Just how do we Christians react or respond to the culture we live in, and how do we preach and live out the Gospel in it, and how can we remain faithful to Scripture as we (our lives, our integrity, and our faith) are affected by it?

    I do not intend here to rehearse the various strategies outlined by Niebuhr from his lectures, nor the conclusions of Keller or Mohler in response to them.  I do want to think a little about what Scripture calls on us to do in the world in which we live, and I reflect on these things around the time of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I don’t have room here to go into depth but I do want to make a few points and ask some questions.

   The first is that there may be something missing in the arguments I read or hear concerning this issue, and that is the observation that the Gospel does affect culture.  Another is that transcendent values ( being things such as Justice, Mercy, and Love) do affect tangible institutions.  Another point is that we should want that to happen because, I believe, God wants it to happen.  One more point would be that it does not matter if the changes in such institutions are permanent, but rather that the values are eternal and each mark of them, for as long as they make that mark in history, do give glory to God.

   Most arguments about culture from preachers seem to concern a conflict between preaching the Gospel and being distracted from it by attempting to fix things in the world.  If one does substitute or replace the Evangelical concept of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for social reform then of course I would have to agree that is an error.  The historic heresy of the Social Gospel was such an error.   It is also an error to assume the Gospel does not affect society, or that it was not designed to do so.

    The question for me is, just how “Wholistic” is the Gospel we are preaching?  I am not advocating for moralism, only Biblical obedience and practice.  While all nations and cultures will be forever changed in the new heavens and the new earth we understand that acts of love, justice, and mercy in the behavior of human beings, or the violation of those values, will be judged by Almighty God.  We also believe that the exhibition of those values bring eternal glory to God, are a witness to his work among men, and something about which God cares.  If he cares about them then how can the church be silent about them?

   What right did John the Baptist have to tell people, even government agents, that they should do their work with integrity and justice?  He called them to true repentance, not just good behavior, and he was specific about how they should act.  Do we have the right to articulate to whatever culture we live in that God has expectations for how people behave?

     Do we just gloss over acts of injustice, racism, social oppression of various sorts because we know people are just sinners and we should expect nothing else of them?  Is our job simply to articulate the love of Jesus, and the death of Jesus for sinners, and call them to believe so that their hearts and character would be changed?  Of course sinners sin, and no we don’t expect them to have the power to change their own hearts, but I never find God excusing injustice because people are totally depraved.  In fact his anger about it is a cause for people to ask, “what must I do?”

    We have to preach God’s expectations, those transcendent values, to everyone.  We are to be salt and light, are we not?  What does that mean?  What does it mean to do our good works before men?  When the church does live out its light and salt, when the church loves the poor, when the church boldly proclaims what is right and what is wrong, culture is affected.  When the church lives righteously culture is transformed, if maybe only for short times, but those short times are important and bless everyone.  Sometimes such preaching and behaving brings about persecution, but even that is used by God to change cultures.

    Maybe if people stopped looking at the concept of transforming culture as a post-millennial progressive effort toward the Kingdom, and saw it as “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” they would begin to get it. Maybe if Christians saw Biblical ethics separate from political ideologies and political parties, (sometimes in agreement and often not), maybe they would not be so hesitant to preach about them.

   I think a lot of preachers and folks who dismiss the idea of transforming culture end up dismissing a call to justice.  They end up standing on the sidelines of social issues sincerely wanting to preach spiritual salvation and end up stifling a prophetic call for justice that pushes people to realize they need spiritual salvation.  That may be one reason they stand on the sidelines, but another admittedly might be that they are complicit with cultural sins.  Perhaps cowardice has stopped some preachers from preaching about sin, especially sins which are cultural or societal, and admittedly that borders on the political.

     I am afraid too many Evangelical preachers have abandoned preaching and teaching ethics because they don’t think non-Christians have a hope of being ethical.  My view is that it doesn't have anything to do with the incapacity of non-Christians but rather with the demands of a holy and just God   We dare not give up the preaching of the cross of Christ, nor how necessary it was for him to shed his blood, nor the necessity of repentance and faith. 

    If that substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone good news is preached in the context of God’s concern for human life and dignity, for the call of all people to be just and merciful, then you create an ethical dissonance that reveals the need for a Savior.  When you preach the gospel in that context the local church begins to stop being irrelevant to the context in which they live.

      The church needs to take the suffering of all people seriously because God obviously does, or else the Scriptures are wrong in the way it describes his response to the injustice of nations.  The church has sinned when it has lost its commitment to the Gospel, and it has also sinned when it was silent about injustice.  “The lion has roared—who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken—who can but prophesy?”   Amos 3:8 (NIV)

   I end with this admission, the wisdom to know what is just and unjust, what is righteous and unrighteous can be difficult to discern. It is far too easy to assign motives to others recklessly, to get caught up in politics, to be unaware of our own bias.  It is the Word of God which is our safety and the character of God which ought to be our cultural standard for the behavior of people, governments, and nations in the world.

END

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

SIGNIFICANT PARTICULARS OF THE PASTOR-SHEPHERD

SIGNIFICANT PARTICULARS OF THE PASTOR-SHEPHERD
By Randy Nabors

    I offer this not as criticism to any pastor, except maybe myself, for my failings were many.  I thankfully confess that I was privileged to have one of the greatest callings in life, in one of the greatest congregations I can imagine, and that by the mercy of God I had that job for an extended period of time.  How blessed I have been, and I give God praise for it.

     Now I am a Pastor Emeritus and work for my denomination to help plant and nurture other congregations, especially in the areas of racial reconciliation and mercy ministries.  I have a great job, but it is not as great as being a pastor.  Though my present work has its challenges it is not as hard as being a pastor.  I’m where the Lord wants me at this point in my life, but I am able at various times to reflect on what I consider to be a position essential to the welfare of the people of God.

   In an attempt to keep things simple I would like to suggest that we can think of the role or “job” of the pastor as consisting of three main areas.  These would be Preacher, Leader, and Engager.  Here I will just make a few comments on these three components.

PREACHER
   I have always felt that this is an essential skill and practice for every pastor.  Preaching is not just a duty to fill time on Sunday morning.  If one believes that the Word of God is true, that it is life giving, and in fact that it is holy than one will have a certain reverence and awe in not only approaching it and understanding it, but in communicating it to God’s people.

   The skill of preachers may vary, but every preacher should understand that so many leadership issues in his congregation are solved by good preaching.  Preachers should realize that so many counseling issues are solved in good sermons that are effectively preached.  I hope you saw that combination, you may have a good sermon but it becomes so much more useful if you can communicate not only well, but powerfully.

    Our influence in a congregation is often tied to the effectiveness of our preaching, backed up by a life that makes it credible.  Congregations will forgive us for a lot of our foibles, but if the people are hungry to hear us preach their patience with us seems to last longer. Some preachers are very good communicators, entertaining, funny, even insightful.  Without a Biblical and theologically accurate sermon that skill may even be a problem, as it may hold listeners while spiritually starving them.  On the other hand brilliant, scholarly, theologically astute, and correct sermons turn to dust in the mouths of lazy and boring communicators.  Some preachers are tremendous in the study, and somehow think it is the fault of their listeners for others not to be as excited as he has been in his preparation, when the fault is with his delivery.

   All of us preachers should constantly be studying the Word, and our craft, and we ought to be reflecting on how we are doing, humbly receiving criticism (even seeking it), and praying to get better at delivering “as an oracle of God.”

   I don’t mean to make this a paper on preaching, but it is an essential part of being an effective pastor and must not be neglected.  I don’t care if you get sick every time you preach, or if it scares you to death, or if you feel emotionally naked after a sermon (this is my constant problem), this is your calling and is your most powerful and effective tool by which to pastor your people.  Get better at it, and throw yourself on the Spirit of God so he can carry you as you preach.

LEADER
   If you are called to be a pastor you are a leader in the household of God.  Leadership is a mantle that has to be picked up and is not to be constantly ducked and avoided, which is the tendency of some pastors.  Being a pastor is not license to be a petty dictator.  Nor does our leadership consist in being a simple “yes” man or people pleaser.  The pastor is not a politician who governs by testing which way the wind is blowing; we are not there to simply exercise the will of the majority.  We are there to speak clearly the Word and will of God.

   However, we are not the Holy Spirit.  Our authority doesn't consist in us being an expert in every area of life, or even right about every decision that must be made to lead in the affairs of church life.  Our role is not to be autocratic nor in being manipulative to get our way. 

    You are to be a servant leader, and submissive and humble before your brethren who are Elders in the church, but that does not mean you don’t take the risk of leadership.  You absolutely must cast vision, make decisions, and take stands on various aspects of the work of the church.  Once you take a stand and face opposition, or even defeat in the reality of losing a church decision, you have to own up to it and not blame it on others, or throw staff or others under the bus to somehow avoid being accountable.

     If you always have to win in every encounter you won’t have a long shelf life as a pastor, nor gain much respect.  At the same time if you don’t have the courage to stand up for what you believe to be right when everyone else is against it then just why are you there?

    Pastors are often called to lead not simply in and through their Session, or in the congregation, but sometimes in the local community, or in the more extended courts of the church, or even in broader society.  If you are pastoring among poor people then the local church is one of the few places that has any power to speak for them, or to bring resources to help them, and your leadership must extend to the community or you will be irrelevant to it.

     The middle class usually do not require much local community leadership from their pastors, and might even resent you for engaging in it.  On the other hand those pastors who have great preaching or writing reputations, or are pastors of wealthy churches, may be expected to give their influence even on national or international levels.

     Each pastor has to be careful how much work he is doing out of his own congregation (to include Presbytery or denominational work), even if it feeds his ego or his pocketbook. The sad fact is that some pastors take denominational responsibilities, other ministry positions, or outside speaking engagements because they don't feel fulfilled (or respected) in their own place of calling.   The pastor who takes every invitation and has no discipline to protect the time he has for his own people, and sometimes even his own family, is being foolish. Just because a pastor starts being popular as a speaker or writer doesn't mean he actually has any credibility.

   The pastor must lead his own family, his church officers, his staff, and his congregation.  He does it through his preaching, his modeling (example of life, humility, passion, and example of his study and skill at ministry), and his active mentoring by raising up new leaders.  He doesn't lead by doing everything by himself, but by having the determination to bring others with him.

ENGAGER
   The pastor is a shepherd and if he does not know his people, speak with them, listen to them, visit them, cry with them, celebrate with them, or engage with them then he is not much of a pastor.  Great preachers sometimes seem to give the impression they are too important to really know the people they are called to shepherd, this is amazingly short sighted.

   There is no better context to know and understand the application of the Word of God than the lives of the people among whom we are to pastor.  There is no better preparation for the people to be ready to hear the Word of God from our lips than the conviction that they have that we love them.  Can the Word have power among them without any relationship with us?  Certainly, we can all be blessed by hearing a sermon on the radio, or even reading one from a book.  This is not “full court” pastoring however.  That takes the kind of relationship where there can be give and take over sermons preached, where a pastor can put the touch on someone directly. 

    I wish I had been in more homes, had more people in my house.  I wish I had been better at visiting the sick, or just sitting with folks at the time of the dying or death of a loved one.  I was thrilled when I did have time and opportunity to do that, thrilled to know that people have said they felt loved by me.  It became harder as the church grew, as more things grabbed my time and attention, but it is important to never think of yourself as too important or too busy for your people, nor to let events give the impression that this is what you think.  If you are not engaged with your people you might as well simply be on television, and those kind of preachers are not pastors no matter how some pretend that they are.

   I think we can put many of the specific ministry skills of pastoring under these three headings.  I hope it might give you some clarity in analyzing how you are doing.


END.

Monday, December 22, 2014

WHO IS ON THE LORD'S SIDE?

     It doesn't matter what anyone else says, it is Jesus who has the last word.  It doesn't matter how much power anyone or any institution has, it is the word of Jesus that counts and must be obeyed.  It doesn't matter how much anger anyone expresses, or even how much pain or hurt anyone says they have.  No matter our empathy or sympathy, no matter the intimidation of their emotions, our response to them must be according to the word of Jesus, and his word is what must be spoken and obeyed.

    I bring this up in the context of the present American drama of the anger and hurt of African Americans about the injustice of over-policing, over-sentencing, profiling, the failure of government agencies to grasp the inequity of police application and the feelings of oppression that it generates.

    Bitterness over governmental oppression is what created the American Revolution.  The sensitivity to that reality, or perceived reality, all Americans must come to grips with it if we are going to move beyond our current crisis.  White Americans tend to fear and be bitter about the power of the Federal government to oppress, while African Americans tend to fear and be bitter about a more personal application of onerous municipal policing.

   It is a crisis, because camps are taking sides, and people are saying and doing some fairly stupid things.  Police unions who chastise those who publicly protest police practice, or call for reform, are revealing a disturbing “bunker” mentality.  Their comments are confirming what many of the public already believe about police attitudes; that the police are not there to serve us but that they are against us. People are calling for revenge killings, people are inciting violence on the internet, and now someone has done an evil thing in killing two police officers.

    There are those who would like to divorce the killer’s actions from the current protests and anger and simply say he was crazy.  He may well have been, but his own comments reflect a motive and a self-justification.  Of course it was wrong, but it certainly was in his mind.  And he is not the only one who has thought it, considered it, and called for it as social media can attest.

    I sincerely believe Jesus is against oppression, of any kind.  I believe he is against thugs who mug people.  My mother and sister were mugged one Christmas morning in the projects by two young African American men.  We called the cops and their expressions of sympathy for my mom took the form of racist comments about black people.  I believe Jesus is against racism just as much as he is against street violence. 

    One of the great problems of continued racism, class ism, and prejudice in general is to take individual actions and make them stereotypical of a race, class, or institution.  Though that thinking is illogical continued patterns and examples of egregious behaviors reinforce our opinions.  Are all police officers like the one who took a club and smashed the teeth of one of my sister’s friends?   Are all police officers like the ones who told me one night in St. Louis, when they came to investigate a call, that they hoped it was a “buck.”  They would love to shoot a “buck,” they said.  Their comments were sickening, bad enough in those particular instances, but I will not believe it universal about policemen.

   Are there thugs in the city, black young men who are gangsters and show no mercy to their neighbors?  Oh yes, far too many of them, and it is reflection and consequence of many things; broken families and the absence of caring fathers, failing schools, inadequate employment opportunities, the avoidance of Evangelical churches from poor communities, a broken criminal justice system, and their own wickedness for which at the end of the day each individual must be held responsible.

   Demanding just and righteous policing doesn't mean we are denying the facts on the ground about evil.  The word of Jesus means we must speak against evil, but it also means we must preach the Gospel to evil people.  We must preach good news to bad people so that their hearts and lives can be changed, because their lives do matter.  Just as there are young men and women doing evil things, especially in inner city neighborhoods, there are corrupt police officers and mismanaged and poorly led police departments.  There are unjust laws and unfair courts, even while conducted by some fine outstanding church folks.

    In all of this it is important for the Christian to remember, if you are tempted to take sides, there is only one ultimate safe side to be on, and that is the side of Christ the Lord.  God alone is the final judge, the absolute ruler over all mankind and their destinies, the only righteous arbiter, the one who knows all things, and the revealer of the true motives of the hearts of men; the one who can and will deliver perfect and eternal justice.

   We must speak truth to power, and truth to the powerless.  Both sides don’t seem to like to hear the truth, especially when it doesn't reinforce their preconceived stereotypes.  Yet truth is what they need, as well as someone having the determined love to speak it.  Murder is murder and there is no justification for it.  Revenge is no license, anger is no license, and such violence must be repudiated. 
   
    If it is any comfort these kinds of dynamics in America are not new.  During the sixties and seventies there were quite a few people who went to prison because they decided they would like to kill policemen, and did.  There have always been brutal and unjust authorities, the prisons have held some of them as well.  Have some gotten away with murder?  If you don’t believe in God then you would have to say, “yes.” 

    But we do believe in God, and so we continue to warn men and women there will be a reckoning.  “Knowing the fear of God we persuade men…” the Apostle teaches us.   We seek to persuade them that love and justice is better than hate and the power of the gun.  Christian, don’t despair, there are never only two sides to conflicts among men.  There is always only one truly safe side, and that is the side of Jesus; where justice shines, and love forgives, and the cross delivers from the bondage of hate.

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love and His Gospel is peace.   O Holy Night.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

THE JESUS FAMILY

  As we come close to the celebration of Christmas some of us will once again get to read, in the Gospel of Luke chapter 1, Mary's praise to God for being told she will bear the Christ child.  This "Magnificat"carries with it an amazing revelation into the irony of how God has dealt with human beings; and Mary personalizes it for herself.  Her poem of praise is reminiscent of Hannah's praise to God in 1 Samuel chapter 2 after the birth of her son Samuel, a child she earnestly sought from God after being humiliated in her barrenness.

    I am not sure if any of us can fully appreciate these passages if we have never been on the bottom looking up.  One could attempt to spiritualize them and take application that in our sin we have all been on the bottom, all "losers" when it comes to righteousness.  That is true of all us certainly, but there is more in these passages. Hannah and Mary  are not speaking of deliverance from their sins.   They are speaking of the emotional power of deficit, about being "not enough" in terms of social acceptability or even financial means, and therefore possessing a brokenness from feeling they are not good enough compared to others.

    God does something amazing for them, and certainly through Mary God has done something amazing for the whole world.  Usually during the celebration of Christmas we move quickly from Mary's feelings to the historical miracle of the incarnation and the birth of Jesus, but maybe we should linger for a moment on how Mary thinks.

    One reason I think we should meditate on her expression of praise, or her thinking, has to do with the children she will raise.  Obviously some in Christendom don't think Mary had any more children after Jesus and that she is forever a virgin.  We in the Protestant tradition don't hold to that idea.  The reason I bring that up is that I find the comparison between the teachings of Jesus concerning the poor, and that of his brother James, along with their mother Mary very consistent.  It seems to me to be a fairly radical perspective on economic justice and the sovereignty of God.

    Mary obviously believes God can change the facts on the ground for both hungry people and for rich people.  He changes the realities of and for political rulers, and is mindful of the humble.  Hannah believed that those who are proud because they are strong, the well fed, and the mother with many children who despises the barren woman all will get their comeuppance.  The God she praises is able to lift up beggars to sit with princes, but He is also able to take wealth, and life, and military power away from others.

    Did this kind of thinking affect Jesus?  I would imagine some might think that because Jesus is the Son of God he doesn't need any nurturing or instructing from Mary.  Jesus is the one who teaches, not the one who is taught.  Certainly Jesus was teaching the elders at an early age, but the Bible does tell us he "grew in stature and in favor with God and man."  He learned obedience from the things he suffered.  It doesn't really matter to me how much we think Jesus needed to learn or not, the source of such revelation was the same, and that was from His Heavenly Father.  The same Father who taught Mary when she sang His praise.

    I see a pattern in the Jesus family of a certain way of thinking about money, about the rich, about the poor, and about the people on the bottom.  The self-understanding of Jesus is revealed when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah and said that on that day the prophecy was fulfilled in Him.  Specifically that the Anointed One was going to preach the Gospel to the poor.  This is his mission, it is his task, it is His priority.  We realize that this good news was comprehensive not just as a happy message of love from God through Jesus, but as the work of Jesus in His redemption.

    God has favor on the poor because the world doesn't.  God's favor on the poor doesn't mean he hates the wealthy, in fact the Scripture tells us that when Jesus looked on the rich young ruler He loved him.  What makes Jesus so radical, and even uncomfortable to all of us who let money be our idol, is that Jesus has no mercy on the grip of materialism.  Compassion pours out of him for the suffering, but so does condemnation on those who seek to hold onto their wealth.  The Gospel of Luke especially drips with the irony of the wealthy not having the edge when it comes to God and salvation.  

    Then we come to the brother of Jesus, the writer of the book of James, and as we say where I come from, "James don't play!"  He tells us what good religion is, its about taking care of widows and orphans as well as watching our mouths and the morality of our lives. 

     He very definitely tells us that God has "chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world" and he castigates those who insult the poor by preferring the rich who he describes as those who exploit "us."  His point here is to do away with favoritism, which is natural according to the book of Proverbs where it lets us know friends desert you when you are poor (nobody loves you when you're down and out) but they like you when you have money.  I see an application of this today in places where PCA churches are planted, where our favoritism passes by the neighborhoods of the poor so we can continue to plant churches among the middle class.

    I kind of like the idea that maybe in Mary's kitchen there were times when Jesus and James talked about money, and poverty, and faith.  Maybe during that discussion their cousin John (the Baptist) walked in and things really got going.  These people were not simply idealistic and revolutionary prophets for a change in the economic or political system.  Jesus is the Son of God, He is the one of whom Hannah spoke when she wrote of a God who makes poor and makes rich, who brings death and makes alive.

    Because Jesus is the sovereign God He has the right to call us on our divided hearts: We will either love money or we will love Him. He has the right to expose whether we give out of our surplus or whether we give all we have.  He has the right to call us to faith, and sacrifice, and to make purses for ourselves that will never wear out.  I think being in the Jesus family could make some of us feel pretty uncomfortable, but that is in fact the family we are now in, if we follow Christ.  What a blessing to be in it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

THE CONSEQUENTIAL DAMAGE OF MYTHS ARISING FROM THE FACTS OF INJUSTICE

The U.S. Senate releases a report on the use of torture by the Central Intelligence Agency and we see division in the public response.  Some react by wishing the Senate had not released it, as it will give our enemies reason to intensify their hatred and use it to paint the U.S. as evil.   Some react by calling for prosecution of those involved.  Some react with dismay that such a thing happened in and through our own government and country.

    I was proud of the statements by Senator McCain, a man who himself was tortured while a prisoner in North Vietnam.  He seemed to get it right when he spoke of what should make us different as Americans.

    Myths are powerful things, whether for good or ill.  I don't use the word in the sense of "make believe" or fairy tale.  I use it in the sense of identity, what we think about ourselves and others.  When it comes to patriotism it is far more powerful when we have the idea that we are the "good guys," than if our conflict with enemies was simply a contest between two moral equals.  I cannot equivocate between radical Islamic terrorists and the U.S. government.

    Every time we as a nation or government do something stupid or evil, sometimes bordering on genocide, those taking the brunt of our nefarious actions build up reasons to create an all too plausible myth that we are the "Great Satan."  One of the problems of myth is that they are hardly ever completely true and that is because none of us are completely good, or completely evil.  We are all bad enough and that is a shame, but as Americans it is not enough that it be "us" against "them" but that we be essentially "better" than those who are against us.

    I am an American and I grew up with certain myths that were very powerful for me.  I happen to like those myths.  I have always wanted to be on the side of the "good guys" and wear the white hat.  I always thought it righteous to be a cowboy versus an Indian, or on the side of the cavalry when the bugle blows.  Then I read history and realized "we" weren't always the good guys; not in history nor in the eyes of Native Americans, African Americans, Africans, Latinos, Iranians, Arabs, etc., etc.

    But the negative myths about us that are held by the "other" side are just as erroneous, and also destructively inaccurate for our own self understanding and identity.  The good thing about the Senate report is that we ourselves are doing the reporting, even if according to the CIA they didn't get it completely correct.  This is also part of the American record, we tell on ourselves, we criticize ourselves, we have often sought some kind of repentance, and reconciliation.  Our record is that even when we have done evil there were those among us who stood for what was right, even at the cost of their lives, property, freedom, or reputation.

    Isn't it so that when some Americans wanted all the Indians dead and all their land taken that some Christians campaigned for Native American rights and sought to protect them as people?   Isn't it so that when some called black people less than human and that they could be taken as property some Christians campaigned against the entire notion of slavery, and certainly against racial slavery, as "man stealing?"  Isn't it so that an awful lot of white boys died fighting to end slavery? Isn't it so that when governments refused to give African Americans their civil rights there were white people who marched in the movement and even died in the struggle?  Aren't their white people marching in Ferguson?  Aren't there plenty of just and fair police officers?

   Yes, history is not all one thing, just ambiguous enough to make those who suffered (and their progeny) ambivalent about the holders of  power and the majority culture's claim of righteousness.  The facts of evil dominate the myth for those who suffered and that is why it is so important as Americans that we fight hard not to repeat injustice, anytime, anywhere, in any of our actions.
    
    The danger of blind patriotism is to think that whatever we do is right if someone is opposing us.  Even if one believes in overwhelming fire power to defeat our enemies it makes all the difference in the world if we know when and when not to apply it; when to shoot, when to use a choke hold, and when to restrain ourselves. Injustice and oppression always seem to have those who justify it, sometimes it is fear, sometimes naked avarice, sometimes false and pathetic theories about race, biology, gender, and religion.

  If we are a great nation, and I still believe that we are, we must always go back to our first principles and hold to them.  This is almost impossible of course if cultural shifts in such things as truth and philosophy create only one absolute and that being self-interest.  We are better because of what our founders believed, and we are only better if we keep believing it, and putting those principles into practice.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

THANKSGIVING FOR FERGUSON

  I'm not really, but I am trying to think of how and why I could be thankful for the events in Ferguson, MO this Thanksgiving of 2014.

    I'm thankful that no matter the injustice that exists in temporal times, God's Word says eternity is real and lasts forever, and there is no injustice there or then, forever.

    I'm thankful that in a world that can be terrifying with the prospect that even if you did everything right (and especially when you don't) someone may take away your rights, your freedom, or your life; there is the assurance of heaven, and eternal life.  Some things the world can take away, and some things it never can.

    I'm thankful that in a context where facts are disputed and there is much confusion some things are very clear.  A young man was killed, and he was unarmed, and that in and of itself is a tragedy and should not be.  The clarity of that should be gripping, and I am glad some people get that rather than seeking justification for it.

    I'm thankful that in the face of so many loudly declaring that racism is no longer existent or that we have outgrown our problems reality smacks us in the face once again, and is forcing many to think and discuss how far we have not yet come.

    I am thankful that many young people, and many church people, especially in the St. Louis area have taken these events deeply to heart and are grieving, and angry at injustice, yet praying, and talking, and leading in the efforts of healing, peace, and dialogue.

    I am thankful for the measure of restraint I see in the police around the country during these protests.  I am thankful as one who remembers Kent State, who lived in Newark, NJ and remembers the riots of the 60's and is appreciative of how American authorities are not as heavy handed as they used to be.

    I am thankful to the people in the community who sought to protect the property of others from being destroyed, and who realize how senseless it is for people to burn their own neighborhoods down.  I am glad for those that oppose that kind of violence as I remember how many decades it has taken for some cities to rise from the ashes of previous riots.

   I am thankful that those who say they "are so tired of making this into a racial issue" are made to stay awake and kept from falling to sleep by their own willful ambien ignorance and being forced to realize that the nation is not yet healed, and that their instransigence to listening and taking action is part of the problem.

    I am thankful for the churches that over these last decades have intentionally sought to be cross-cultural and multi-racial and are not now embarrassed by having somehow missed the fight of justice or love.

    I am thankful that a national spotlight can be focused on the culture of police tactics, training, and internal investigation and that possibly some departments can be exposed for terrible leadership, mismanagement, the excusing of racist or brutal officers, or the cover up of abuse of power.

   I am thankful for courageous policeman who do treat people, even really bad people, with respect and dignity while seeking to protect the community and truly serve the people even at the risk of their lives.

    I am thankful that the response around the nation to what has been perceived as a callous indifference to a far too wide and long antagonism between police and black citizens, especially young black males, has not been orchestrated by any organization or leaders but has been a grass roots and spontaneous outcry.

    I am thankful that repentance is possible, for abusers, for oppressive authorities, for looters, for seekers after violence, for cowards who hide behind the status quo.  I am thankful that there is forgiveness from God for our sins, both personally and corporately.  I am thankful that God gives us grace to forgive others who have hurt us, and even to those who won't admit what they have done.

   I am thankful that learning is possible, that the unity of love is stronger than the bitterness and disintegrating nature of hate.  I am thankful that one doesn't have to know everything (all the facts, or where to place the blame, or all the solutions) before one can be caring, and empathetic, or ready to make peace.

    I am thankful that there is God in heaven who sits up high but looks down low, who is and always has been the origin and character of justice and mercy.  I am thankful that the Sovereign God of the universe is the One who bends the moral arc of the universe toward himself, for in his glory is all the goodness for which we long and hope.  I am glad that there is no such thing as "getting away with murder" with Him.   No one walks away free from Him who repays except those who knew they needed to be paid for, and here I think of myself, and how thankful I am that Jesus has paid for my sins.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

GOD JOINS TOGETHER

The other day I was privileged to do a wedding.   I chose for my comments two texts, one from Mark 10 and one from Hebrews 13.   Though I have often quoted from Mark 10:9 at the end of the wedding ceremony, "What God has joined together let no man put asunder!"  I have not really thought about the impact of that statement in regard to what really makes a man or woman married.  I always simply took it as a warning that we should not seek to commit adultery, nor seek to divorce, which is certainly in the context of the passage.

    In the Hebrews passage I noticed that 13:4 tells us that "marriage should be held in honor among all..."   And so from thinking about these two commands in Scripture I come to some conclusions, and maybe they raise other questions.

   The marriage of (any and all) heterosexual partners is something God establishes.  The passage in Mark certainly makes a positive statement that marriage is between a man and a woman, as there were no other options in the garden, and this was obviously by God's design.  The fact that the marriage ceremony has varied over the millenia, being something between families, within a village or community, being celebrated with feast, gifts, and ceremony, given "official" status by the church, and then by the state doesn't take away from a theological understanding of every marriage.  It is God ordained, and that ordination is active in the institution generally and in each marital relationship severally. God does the joining, and it is consummated in the two becoming one through the sexual act of intercourse, and they are no longer two but one.  This act of becoming one cannot happen between homosexuals and therefore there is no marriage there, certainly not one ordained or joined by God, no matter what any earthly authority might say.

    Marriage is not simply the sex act, it is a covenant primarily between the two individuals involved, consummated and celebrated in the physical union, and is to be steadfastly protected and honored by everyone.  Marriage is not something simply to be honored by immediate family, or local community, but by anyone and everyone in the whole world when they meet and interact with a married couple.  The Egyptian Pharaoh doesn't have a right to take Abraham's wife, even if he thinks she is Abraham's sister, and even if Sarah is not from Egypt and was not married according to Egyptian rules, whatever they may have been.

    It is not wrong for the church and the state to license, celebrate,and regulate marriage, as long as it doesn't make it more or less than God has declared.  Children, property, inheritance, and health all are involved in the proper recognition and regulation of marriage relationships. It is proper for the community to celebrate weddings, not simply to provide historic photographs, but for those of us who attend the event to witness this covenant making and to begin to honor this new marriage relationship and support it.  We support each marriage not simply as a love for an individual couple, but as an act of support for all couples.

   Each marriage has its own struggles, trials, and temptations.  We make mention of that reality in the vows we use in the ceremony.  Some of this struggle comes from the common weakness of the individuals involved, some struggles will arise from the circumstances couples will variously face as they go through life, and some struggles will come from the interference of others.  If we are to honor marriage we must protect it, for all of us, and for each of us. 

   So the question arises, what about those marriages that should not have happened?  Suppose a Christian marries a non-Christian; once married is that marriage joined by God?   We know that when Jesus comes into a person's life, and that person is already married to someone who doesn't want Jesus, the person not loving Jesus is free to leave the Christian.  The Christian however is not free to leave the non-christian.  If the believer purposefully marries a non-christian we don't think they then have an option to leave when they realize what they have done and want out.

     I am not asking here about those who feel they made a mistake due to a growing awareness of incompatibility.   That could be the "get out of jail card" for a lot of couples at various moments of their married life.  Marriage is considered by most Christians to be so radical a commitment that even those marriages that "should not have been" have to be protected, and are considered under the command of Jesus not to be interfered with.  I am not speaking here of incestuous or child bondage brides or any that are against the law, in and under the proper regulation of the state.

    My comments here are not addressed to the boundaries of what might be called a 'Biblical divorce."  That is another discussion.