Thursday, January 17, 2019

CALLING FOR COMPROMISE


Personal Disclosure
Some personal disclosure as I write on this subject.  One of my sons is part of the federal work force that is working without pay.  So, for me this is personal.  My son tries very hard to be apolitical and he doesn’t like to engage in political discussions.  He is a loyal and sacrificing American, a combat veteran, and has an essential job in security for our nation.  These are not his opinions as he is just trying to do his job, take care of his family, and survive these difficult times.
  
    Some of the things I say will be vehemently opposed by those who are partisan.  They completely support the president or adamantly oppose him, no matter what he does.  I may fail in my attempt to take a neutral position here, but I am sincere in seeking to honestly discuss and analyze what I think is going on, and on some possible scenarios for what may happen, or could happen.

It Should Be Possible to Agree
   First let me say that I think it is possible for Americans to agree on two positions, one is that we ought to continue to be a country that welcomes immigrants, refugees, and try to be a nation that is not racist or xenophobic.    Second, I think we can admit we have an overwhelmingly too large population in our country who have come here illegally, or have stayed here illegally.  I don’t think those two positions are mutually exclusive, although the extremists in political parties seem to oppose one of those positions.

   I need to give some commentary on both of these items.  First I will write about illegal immigration vs. legal or needed immigration.  Many Americans remember south of the border interactions with fondness, not anger.  There has always been a need for additional farm labor, and much of it was seasonal and temporary, and some became permanent.  Many of these folks came from Mexico, and with the South-West once belonging to Mexico and the U.S. having such a long Latino heritage in the West it was not offensive, except to some. 

   Puerto Rico is part of the United States and Puerto Ricans are Americans, so we have always had a strong Latino presence in the northeast.  Cuba has always had a strong interaction with the U.S., and when it became Communist Cubans who fled from there were immediately given asylum here due to cold war policies.  Florida was heavily impacted by this and Cubans are part of it’s heritage.

The Immigration Crisis
    However, a huge group of folks from Latin America began to come without papers, documentation, or permission early in this (21st) century, and stayed.  That trend has grown increasingly from Central America.  This flow reached its peak around 2003 but the growth made a significant demographic, cultural, educational and social service, (and thus political) impact.  Since then the flow has gone down and this illegal group of immigrants has gone from 4.0% of the population to 3.4% of the population (around 12.7 million according to the Pew Hispanic Center).  Not only that but apprehensions of those crossing illegally went from 71-222,000 per month in the year 2000 to 20-40,000 by 2018.  This is an amazing drop.  In addition, when the economy went into recession there were more “illegals” from Latin American leaving then there were coming as many jobs disappeared.

   One might say the “crisis” in border crossings has largely diminished or that we are far more effective in stopping it.  But, that is not solving the problem of the millions who have stayed by breaking the law.  These are two different things and they need to be differently approached for solutions.  Thus one might say the “wall” is more of a symbolic political stand on the reality of illegal crossings rather than a crisis necessity.  It is like closing the barn door after the horse has left, though border security is a real need and has continued importance.

   Why should we be concerned about illegal immigration, because many Americans do constitutionally (by character and allegiance) not like people scoffing at our laws.  Even when we are compassionate and care about the suffering of people from other countries due to oppressive governments, religious persecution, gang and criminal violence, and grinding poverty it is hard to turn a blind eye to a process of illegality that starts with getting in without permission, then forging documents, skirting social security and taxes, or staying past an expired visa, then working an over-extended system of immigration courts to extend those stays, and hiding out.

   I for one do not give much credence to being afraid of immigrants, legal or illegal, because of some supposed inherent criminality.  There are of course too many stories of crime, but highlighting some cases to scare people for political purposes is simplistic cynicism by political opportunists.  Since we already have so much home grown crime and home grown extremism these rather isolated stories seem to pale in comparison.  Since so many immigrants are hardworking, (legal or illegal) is it hard to make an effective economic argument against them, except when their economic involvement prevents business, government, or individuals to look to our own (low skill) legal population to do the work and incentivize that through education, training, and higher wages.  As someone who works with inner city folk this is a concern of mine.

Solutions Suggested
    So, I want our government to find a practical process that speeds up the identification of those who are here without documentation, find compassionate ideas and solutions for those children who grew up here without choice of their own and are now culturally American, send back to their country of origin those who have willfully and illegally overstayed their visa or come without one, and use common sense about border security on which we are already spending billions.  I know many of us will differ about what is common sense.  I also want to stop or expose what are simply racist and xenophobic responses to strangers and people with accents, which has always been a dark under belly of our collective American experience.

Observations
   We need immigrants and we need them for several reasons.  One is simply to be true to our ideals and heritage as Americans, besides Native Americans and African Americans (as opposed to immigrant Africans) we have always been a nation of immigrants.  Another is that we need them economically, and a third is that we need them for our future and our seniors.  Americans are not replacing themselves in the rate of births.  We must continue to grow that population in order to have workers to support an aging population (yours truly included).  If we had not aborted so many of our children we would have an additional 40 something million people, but they are dead and we don’t have them.

  Overwhelmingly immigrants are aspirational, they work hard, they want to achieve what they think of as the “American Dream.”  They are not losers, parasites, or deadbeats.  We are in a war against religious extremism that produces terrorism.  This is related to certain immigrant groups but some of it occurs in those who are here legally as religious passions arise within them. We  have the same problem with Americans who have been here for generations when political passions arise within them.  Where can we ship them, if we could identify them?  Vigilance against extremism and terror are our constant challenge, and right now some of the people we pay to do that aren’t getting paid.

    Some of the driving force of President Trump’s stand on the wall comes from the extreme fringe of his party. He will find it difficult to compromise his stand because of them as they make the biggest noise in the primaries.  Indeed, there are extreme fringes on both sides and they are both dangerous to the Republic.  Some of these people are simply seditious traitors who don’t believe in government at all and have no problem shutting any of it down.  Some of these folks are those that think people who blow up federal buildings are patriots. 

    Even more conservatives are callous in their approach to people who work for all of us, risk their lives for us at the border, fighting crime, spies, and terror, risk their lives for us when out at sea, and control those prisons which are built to isolate the dangerous and corrupt from the rest of us.  Yet they proclaim themselves to be flag wavers while having little appreciation of what keeps our lives safe, working, and feasible.  They are patriots who moan about taxes yet want the Coast Guard to come and rescue them.

    There is much that could be written about the culture wars of our political parties.  Democrats have achieved much through judicial fiat and without majority approval and this has made conservatives resentful and determined to use the same politicization of judge selection (i.e., Teddy Kennedy and Borg) to stem the tide of what they see as a cultural and moral erosion of values.  At the same time, going back to the Warren court, civil rights has come about by judicial action and that is and has been a good thing for our country. 

   Unfortunately, Conservatives have seemed to think that since government is “the problem” they can use heavy handed tactics to force economic decisions from Congress without majority approval.  We are a democracy, we vote in our legislators by state, they constitutionally control the purse strings.  In order to get them to agree on things they must compromise and that is the art of politics.  Today politics is actually hostage taking, not negotiation or compromise.  I get my way or we kill what you want, or if necessary burn our collective house down, or since we only have one horse and we want to go in two different directions let me shoot the horse.

We Need A Compromise
   I think we need a compromise.  I think we need strong border security.  I think the Congress has already voted a compromise to give the President more than he is asking for right now, but also with provisions for the “Dreamers” (is that not so?)  Why can’t that bill be brought back up and re-worked if necessary?  The only reason is to completely defeat one’s political enemies, and that is not politics but demagoguery leading to dictatorship.  This is a political crisis, not a border one, created by our President and only he can end it.  If he wins because he holds out longer than the Democrats I am afraid there will be some horrible consequences for all of us.  One will most likely be a speedier path to impeachment.

    To continue to demoralize some of our best Americans, some of the finest people we could find who are educated, trained, and committed to work for all of us is not only short sighted but extremely dumb.  At what point do they stop working, walk away, and go find some way to feed their families?  How can we make up for their present fears and anxiety, the ruin of their credit, and the disgust they must begin to feel for our present political leaders?  Maybe if we had a national strike and not only those workers but everyone walked off their job for a day, so the border was left completely open, no food or drugs inspected, no one could fly or planes were left to crash, prisoners would be left to walk out of jail, those at sea left to drown, taxes uncollected and no elected officials allowed to be paid, what would that be like?  I hope we don’t have to find out.

   Now, by the way, I pray for our President, I honor his office, and I pray for our government and our country as a whole.  I encourage  you to do the same.
   

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

STAYING UNDER THE UMBRELLA


STAYING UNDER THE UMBRELLA
“Can two walk together unless they be agreed?” Amos 3.3

   If you have ever tried walking in the rain under an umbrella with another person then you know that it takes a bit of care and intentionality to actually share it.  One has to work at keeping both of you under the umbrella otherwise someone is hanging out a little too much.  The “guest” who is being included may not realize that the “host” who is holding the umbrella may be actually sacrificing themselves while trying to keep the guest under cover.  The closer the two people get to the handle, and to each other, the more protected each will be.

   There can be a bit of awkwardness to sharing an umbrella.  You might not be sure about how close you want to get to the other person.  Will you be forced to put your arm around them, touch hands, shoulders, or hips? People are not always the same height, they don’t always walk at the same pace.  How does this get worked out?   Someone usually takes the initiative and does whatever they can to keep the other person covered even at the cost of their own exposure.  Mutual cooperation and adjustment seem to be the secret of making it from the car to the store without getting too wet.  I’m short and I may have to give up the right to hold the umbrella to a taller person, otherwise he is out in the rain.

    Umbrellas and tents have been used as metaphor to help us visualize bringing people together under one idea, one purpose, or sense of purpose.  These metaphors lack punch unless one realizes that there is indeed an environment to which we are exposed.  It is always raining something, whether water or sunshine, and both can reach a point where we realize we need some cover.  My point in this writing is that not only do we need cover, but that to actually get the covering we have to share it.  I suppose you could say I want a theology of golf umbrellas versus that of the collapsible one person kind.

    I understand that no one wants to share an umbrella, or probably anything else, with someone that they believe to be an enemy or someone they feel will bring them harm.  That is exactly what I wish to examine, i.e., the standards people use to make the choice of exclusion and the refusal to share a close space.

    There are two areas that are my present concern, both have to do with the context and history of my ministry and involvement.  First is the Christian social justice movement and the second is the area of race and reconciliation ministry.  The umbrella metaphor is helpful when we realize that as Christians we are trying to get to some place together, at least we ought to be mindful of what Jesus demands of us in terms of love, unity, and reconciliation.  I can preach love but if I don’t want you under my umbrella it might be hard for others to believe that I actually practice what I preach.  I might advocate social justice, but if I am not very social in my crusade for justice just what am I about? 

  Unity is often difficult to achieve.  Meaningful and continuing relationships of cooperation in ministry are hard to sustain, especially when disparate individuals, groups, ministries, churches actually try to accomplish something.  I am speaking here of folks who do have some things in common.  They confess the same Lord Jesus Christ, they are both aware of a certain hostile environment opposed to the things they wish to achieve (consider this the rain or the heat from which we need some shelter), and they essentially agree in the broader vision of what they want to see brought about; things such as justice, peace, and love.

   There are “reasonable” difficulties in maintaining unity.  The common elements of human life such as work, daily and weekly schedules, geographical distance, and normal family complications make almost all partnerships challenging.  When and where will we meet, how will we communicate, how often, who will be the energy for us to continue in our common effort, etc.  Then there are the hidden obstacles that can suddenly and surprisingly become all too apparent and even vicious; envy, jealousy, competition, power grabbing, resentment and bitterness about real or suspected motives.  Even when we agree to what or who should be included under the same umbrella we can still be competitive as to who holds the handle.  We can actually hate the one standing next to us.   Agreements don’t eliminate our innate sinfulness.  May the Lord have mercy on us!

   There are problems of theology, ideology, and strategy that are significant and not to be dismissed easily.  Add to these the problems mentioned above such as ego, personality, and sin, and one is amazed we get to experience unity at all.  How many churches and denominations agree on just about everything within themselves so that the differences about what they believe are so small as to be invisible to the outside world, yet, still manage to fight like cats and dogs about just those differences.  Sometimes differences are invented just so obnoxiousness can have its day, and these people can be as homogeneous as anybody from the School of Church Growth could desire.

   In reference to Christian social justice I am concerned with the Christian Community Development Association especially, although the issue is broader than just this one organization.  CCDA has been a blessed and wonderful experience for my wife and me.  We have many friends in the Association, and have learned and been blessed by the worship and teaching at the conferences.   As it has grown and developed it is obvious to me that the umbrella is getting harder to share, both because some want to push people like myself out, and because I am not sure others should have ever been asked to share the shelter.

    At what point does such an organization have to define what it means by “Christian?”  As “progressives” (which is such a problematic word as a lack of fidelity to Scripture means one is no longer progressing but regressing), want to make sure women are treated equitably both as preachers and leaders, that homosexual practice is no longer seen as sin, or that traditional religions are seen as equal to God’s revelation in Christ, what happens to those they consider conservative Evangelicals (even if many of us didn’t vote for Trump)?  There are still those of us who don’t ordain women due to biblical conviction.  Is this the dividing line in terms of ministry involvement or cooperation?  Will we divide over issue advocacy versus evangelism and church planting among the poor?  Will we divide over an Ana-Baptist view of justice versus those who believe in the just war theory? 

    The umbrella seems to be getting smaller and smaller for those who insist on a humble obedience to the Bible and believe it to be God’s word and authoritative in all things.  Many of my fellow urban workers are no longer comfortable in CCDA gatherings as they have no sense of safety there in holding to the biblical foundations that led them to the pursuit of justice and racial reconciliation in the first place.  At one time if somebody said something crazy in the evening meeting it would be called out by John Perkins the next morning. Where will that authoritative biblical voice come from in the future?

    In the racial reconciliation movement there is a divide that is, not surprisingly, based on race.  Several issues are involved in keeping people under the same umbrella or pushing them out of a partnership in the pursuit of racial reconciliation.  Sometimes it comes down to who will hold the umbrella, a person of color or not?  Is that always the aim or goal of a racially reconciled church or organization, and can it be assumed that this is the proof positive of reconciliation? Can we actually walk under the same umbrella if someone from the majority culture is the pastor or the leader of an organization?

    In terms of leadership in reconciliation churches or ministries, does every person of color have an innate understanding of what it takes to pursue reconciliation and are white people automatically disqualified or suspect until they stop being white?  Does anyone, whatever our color or ethnicity, have the right to choose not to pursue reconciliation?  If we are Christians the answer must be that no one has the right to step out of God’s commission of the ministry and message of reconciliation.  All of our discussion is of course in the historical context of racism and so it must be asked, how are we taking on the humility of Christ and attempting to make ourselves less in our service to others if as white men we fight to hold onto dominance?  How are we becoming “least of all” if as black men we insist on leadership for ourselves and are never able to serve under white leadership or even cooperate with it?  Is this movement just a temporary or cosmetic movement while in our ethnicity we are actually striving for supremacy?

   One realizes that not all talk of reconciliation and justice is actually that, but more an expression of hurt, bitterness, anger, and a desire to maintain a wall of separation.  There is a difference between heart felt lamentation and emotional venting and accusation.  There is a difference between biblically prophetic calls for repentance versus that of simple antagonistic name calling.  In short realized reconciliation has to be the goal of a righteous agenda, no matter how much necessary truth telling, repenting, forgiving, patience and seeking to understand each other we have to go through to get there.  There is no legitimate reconciliation without seeking to lovingly become a slave to others in their cultural context. (I Corinthians 19.9ff)

     There are those who struggle with incipient racism, prejudice and bias.  Some also can fall into the trap of being a “racialist;” seeing everything through the lens of race and justifying all decisions about involvement, cooperation, and association based on it.  How do we maintain cultural integrity, righteous gratitude and pride for our ethnicity and legacy while not damning or rejecting other people?  How do we appreciate who and what others are without giving up who we are by cultural assimilation?

   A legitimate reconciliation movement has to honestly look at history and cannot bury its head in the sand about racial injustice.  There is no real reconciliation without a constant effort at repentance for bias and prejudice, and a rejection of any systematic oppression of people.  There must always be the acceptance of responsibility for an active breaking of the yoke of past wickedness.  In the movement for reconciliation there will always be a hurting grief over racial injustice.  We cannot be honest or healthy via a burial within ourselves through a suppression of emotional deep hurt.  It cannot be papered over with a joint worship service. However, though anger must be acknowledged, understood, and even sympathized with, it must not be allowed to define any of us as believers.

   If reconciliation and unity are the will of God, if mutual love and submission are mandates of Christ, and if these must be exhibited no matter what ethnic history has been or how it has injured us, then we must attempt to walk together.   Evil is raining on us, and we all need shelter both from the hatred of racism and its bitterness.  Christ is our shelter, and to be linked to others as we walk toward His kingdom is a blessed thing.  It models the kingdom while we seek it.  It is what love and peace have always done.
   

Thursday, November 8, 2018

I WANT TO BE FAMOUS


“I want to be famous,” he told me.  Now this was in a prayer session, and he obviously saw it as a struggle, but nevertheless it was a vivid and naked confession and I think it is right on target for many young men in ministry.

   How many times have I sung the hymn, “Father I Know That All My Life” and in it is the phrase, “content to fill a little space if Thou be glorified?”  I sing it with conviction and passion because that is not a normal part of my desire.  I think I was actually saying, “Lord, I want this to be true of me but I don’t think I am content to fill a little space.”  I wanted to be famous too.

    I have a firm theological conviction that our mission is to make Jesus famous, not ourselves.  Yet, as with many pastors and church planters, my conviction is not always as the same or consistent with my emotion, personality, and nature.  We struggle with ambition, with ego, with competition.  Our identity is tied up with our reputation, with whether or not anybody knows our name, and how we compare with our peers in being given opportunity, or even respect.  I believe in humility, and yearn to have others mention me as an example of it, just as long as I am mentioned.

    Recently, in a workshop taught by Mark Reynolds of City to City, he quoted from a book on leadership a fascinating phrase, “the suffering of obscurity.”  It just rang out to me as a common problem among striving church planters and pastors.  It really does feel like suffering, as envy often does, and isolation, and loneliness.  This led me to think and ponder on the reality of the struggle of ambitious young men in the ministry.

    As someone who has been involved in cross cultural ministry and has sought to recruit and encourage minorities coming into my denomination I have seen how this very issue of significance play a role in the attitude men have about their place, or lack of place, in the PCA.  The Presbyterian Church in America is a great leveler when it comes to fame and significance in the ministry.  It is not an easy place to “make your bones” or a name for yourself.

   Sometimes I get the impression from some of these young men that the secret to being significant is to know the right people, to have someone open doors, and if one does know the right people than success comes a lot sooner than otherwise.  There are always men who seem to demand to be let in, to positions of influence, to places on the dais, or committees, or speaking opportunities.  Of course the reality is that any man ordained in the PCA is already a fairly successful and significant person.  One has to have finished college, graduate school, taken arduous theological exams, and be hired by some ministry.  On the other hand, these men are a dime a dozen, and the PCA is one place where no one thinks that any other Teaching Elder is that important, or more important than others, unless he has earned it.

    That is another question, how does one earn importance?   Usually the common and mundane answer to that is from successful experience, from building a church or a ministry.  Some think it is through academics, another degree, maybe writing a book.  Actually for a young man to write a book that anyone believes is important means they really would be exceptional, like Calvin.  Books are always being written, and most are forgettable.  Some men think the way to importance is in the courts of the Church, to fight battles over governance and the Book of Church Order.  This notoriety is usually seasonal, say at General Assembly, and such notoriety makes some more infamous than famous.

    Why doesn’t anyone else recognize me as an expert?   Our role as preachers give us a certain sense of authority, and we begin to expect our opinions should be taken as profound, yet we keep not being invited to preach at the big churches, at the big conferences, and we keep not being quoted.  How many years does it take to get some traction?   What is the architecture of significance?  Some despise our company because they will never be famous here, so they jump to other Evangelical camps where the cult of celebrity and charisma is common and strong.

   I agree, reputation and significance comes faster in other places.  Presbyterianism seems to be as fast changing as the movement of glaciers while young men see themselves as agents of change, movement, and creativity.  I have watched men grow old griping about how no one pays attention to them and I am saddened for their bitterness and disappointment.  I don’t want to be one of them.

   What is the good word about all this?   Just a few thoughts and it starts with this, if we don’t find our significance in the blood and righteousness of Christ we are looking in the wrong places.  If we don’t seek the glory of Jesus more than our own than we are glory thieves, idol worshipers, and ingrates.  If we don’t find our identity in being a son of God, seated with Christ in heavenly places, and a joint-heir with Christ we are settling for cheap change.

   At the same time if we don’t recognize the natural and innate need of young men to feel like they are making a difference, that they are making an essential contribution, then we are mistreating them.  We are wasting precious resource, energy and fruit.  If we continue to frustrate them by not being their advocates, champions, mentors, and cheerleaders than we are failing not only to serve them well, but failing the future of the church.  Every pastor needs to open doors for young men, to praise them, to give them space and a place to make a contribution.  We need to challenge them, but we also need to hear their voices, and ask them to meetings even before somebody elects them to such.

    One last word, the best way to feel important in this denomination is to have friends.  Presbytery won’t give it to you, General Assembly won’t give it to you, even if you enjoy them.  You need friends, who love you, who are loyal, with whom you hang out, go on vacation, and call you up.  You need an older man in your life who believes in you, and I confess sometimes we don’t get that from the Ruling Elders who make up our Sessions. 

   Would it not be wonderful if we all could fill little spaces and be satisfied, if we were being faithful to Jesus in that place?  It will take much spiritual work in our hearts before that restlessness is settled, so may the Lord convince you that he loves you, and may he convince you that in the end, that is more than enough!
END.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

RECONCILIATION AND THE LAW OF PRAYER


Lex Talionis versus Lex Orandi.
  Say what?   These are Latin phrases standing for the Law of Retaliation versus the Law of Prayer.   I had never really thought about them in regard to racial reconciliation until I was listening to a lecture about Cyprian, a Bishop from North Africa, who had to deal with whether or not the Church should forgive those who had betrayed their faith (lapsi) during a time of persecution and made sacrifice or burned incense to the Emperor of Rome.

   We know the Law of Retaliation in terms of “An eye for an eye.”   The Law of Prayer is the one found in Mark 11:25.  In this passage Jesus is teaching about prayer. “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”  Or, as when Jesus taught his disciples to pray what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” he adds, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”  Matthew 6:14-15.

    The Bishops of North Africa came to a decision about demanding “penance” for those who had betrayed their faith, but they also came to the conclusion that eventually they had to forgive them and receive them back into the Church.  Some of the Bishops had lost all their property, some had been in hiding during the persecution, some had been tortured and had not given in to the demands to deny their faith.  They had lost family and friends to the Roman persecution and seen fellow Christians slaughtered for their faith.  It must not have been easy to forgive these traitors.  There was another group of Christians (Rigorists) who felt that those who had betrayed their faith should never be forgiven or brought back in the Church.

    I confess that I have a problem with the teachings of Jesus about forgiving others, especially when I am praying or before I pray.  My problem is not with his authority, or the truth of it.  My problem is I don’t want to do it.  These are usually simply personal issues of offense; someone who has betrayed me, slandered me, said something mean to me or about me.  They have hurt me, and I can’t seem to get over it or shake it.  Then Jesus says, “when you stand praying…”  Which of course is every day for me, every day I come before the Lord to pray, or if you think he is speaking of formal worship then I have to face the issue every week.

   So how about those who bear the scars of racism and racist attacks?  How about those who have experienced loss due to prejudice and bias, or have been and are insulted, or who feel the suffering of their people as a minority in a majority world, read and hear a long history of oppression, see present instances of ignorant, mean, and harsh hostility based on race?  Suppose these people who have experienced suffering or are sensitive to this suffering are indeed Christians, and suppose some of the racists also call themselves Christians?

   It is one thing of course to call sinners to repentance, no matter what those sins might be.  This is what believers and the Church of Jesus Christ should be doing against all sin, racism and injustice included; calling for an end to it, calling for repentance for it, calling for evil and sin to stop.  What happens when there are people who do repent, at least in owning up to their sin, who are sorrowful for it, who confess it?

This is exactly I think where Cyprian found himself, trying hard to believe these people were really sorry for what they had done, trying to figure out how they could move toward repairing the damage, prove their loyalty, and make their way back into fellowship.  I think it reasonable for those of us who have been racist in our hearts and actions to bring forth fruit worthy of our repentance, and do the demonstrable work of pursing reconciliation- and not just ask for a “make me feel better” card.  I think Cyprian and the other Bishops were also trying to figure out a way inside themselves to let the bitterness go, to truly and completely forgive.

   The hurt inside us makes Lex Talionis seem so reasonable.  Justice demands a payment, a recompense, a pound of flesh.  Forgiveness often seems like a miracle, and it seems that way because it really is one, a miracle given by God inside our hearts and without which we can’t really claim to know God, or to love Him, not really.   We either forgive or we don’t get forgiven, and that to me seems really harsh of God and I personally wish he would cut us some slack about hating people and be more understanding about it.  I suppose a father who gave his only son to die for and completely forgive his enemies has a right to expect the same from us.  The really good news in the theology I believe is that not only does he demand it, but he provides miraculous grace to do it.  Lord, give us more grace!

Monday, October 1, 2018

THERE HAS GOT TO BE A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS...

   I feel caught between a rock and a hard place in the conflict between sympathy for the victims of sexual assault or abuse and the rule of law.   Many of my friends cast this current conflict at the hearing for the Supreme Court in the light of power versus victims.  Many people are simply saying, “believe the victim!”   Others are reminding us that a person is considered innocent until “proven” guilty.

   I want to do both.  If someone is indeed a victim I want to believe them, love on them, protect them, and even avenge them.  Whatever in my feeble and inept ways I can I want to be there for them, try to understand, listen, and weep with those who weep. 

   In my own family I have seen someone ripped apart by the abuse they suffered, and I admit that I will never adequately know how that has affected their fears, feelings, self-image, confidence, sense of security, and ability to trust.  I have marveled at how they have clung to the grace of God, and by the power of God have been able to give of themselves, have courage, and even speak frankly about the effects of abuse on their life. It is undeniable to me that abuse radically shapes a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.

   Some may say that the hearings are not a trial, so it is okay to bring accusations without proof or corroboration.  I have seen this kind of equivocal situation in the context of the church, usually in the case of church member versus pastor, or elder.  There too it might be looked at as a victim versus power.  When Ruling Elders of a church allow a member to come to a Session meeting and bring accusations against a pastor, or even another member, without witnesses or proof, but solely in the name of keeping the peace by allowing someone who feels aggrieved the opportunity to vent their feelings, it is not only destructive and detrimental to the protection of the church and its authority but simply wrong.  Equivocation between parties is not justice, though it might appear to be so by adjudicators thinking they are keeping the peace.

    There is a movement to erase all boundaries of protection for a person's reputation in the name of giving comfort and safety to those who claim to have been abused.  Ultimately this is corrupting to the rule of law and is more akin to lynch law where the mob makes decisions on their emotional response to a situation.  

   We obviously have a dilemma, as a society, when it comes to such things.   How much time should we allow victims to bring forward their stories?  Is it ever too late to bring something up from the past, especially if it is some kind of sexual abuse?  My answer would tend to be that there should be no time limit, but there should always be the limiting factor of who is told, and the limiting factors of standards by which people are believed.  We have to protect children, or those abused as children, and women, and we have to give them a way to bring their story and accusations forward, while at the same time not giving way to a flood of hysteria that takes away all safeguards for people who are innocent of those charges.

    We don't have to look far to see the danger, first in the Bible with the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, then to the stories of black men lynched at the word of white women that were later found to be lying, and even to present day as men are finally let out of prison when DNA proves they could not have done the crime for which they were incarcerated.  

    I feel ashamed as an American to see all this played out at the Senate hearings.  I am ashamed that the Senate would ever let someone step forward to make an accusation about someone without corroboration, prior to their public appearance.  This is equivocation of the worst sort, with political gamesmanship and the weaponizing of public opinion. 

     I am ashamed of teen-age drinking parties, where parental supervision seems to get lost or be abandoned.  I am ashamed of men who try to rape women, and most especially of those who sexually abuse children.  I am past shame and into anger when it comes to and kind of religious authority using their position to sexually abuse children.  I am ashamed of myself when I think of where, and how, I learned about sex and what I wanted and tried to do and get away with in my teen years.

   I am grateful for the cross of Christ where I found forgiveness and the power to be delivered from really intense sexual bondage.  I am sad that our society seems to know so little about forgiveness, or grace, and can't seem to provide either one to victims or perpetrators.  I don't think this reality TV has helped us very much, except to realize that there has to be a better way for the Senate to advise and consent to the President's choice.

   

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

ENTANGLING ALLIANCES


Someone has asked my opinion on local churches cooperating or interacting with other organizations, and possibly other ministries.  What principles should we keep in mind, what practical issues might develop, and what are some of the perplexing perils in fulfilling our mission?  I will try to integrate some of the “perplexing perils” (PP) as I articulate principles and practical issues.  Here is a start to discussion.

PRINCIPLES
   I write from the perspective of someone who was an urban pastor trying to reach and minister to poor people, and in a cross-cultural context.
1.     Know your own identity and mission as the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is unique, it is essential, and it must not be compromised as to its Gospel message, call to conversion and discipleship, and moral and ethical integrity.
(PP-If you care about the social conditions surrounding you the temptation might be to think the Church and its message are neither relevant nor practical enough to really help people.  Other social agencies may ridicule your call to faith as proselytizing and reject your involvement.  We must not be intimidated by the weight of social pathology nor by the social activist-despisers of our religion. Even (many) non-believers expect religious leaders and institutions to be moral and ethical as a standard of behavior, it is an important reputation to keep.)
2.    Remember that preaching and teaching (Grace, Gospel and Bible truth) are life giving and life enhancing moments to individuals, families, and thus the whole community.  Preaching Biblical sermons that meet real human needs are not irrelevant to the life of the community but essential to human flourishing.
3.    No interaction, collaboration, or cooperation with other institutions or agencies should move the church from its primary mission of proclaiming the Gospel and its care of souls.  This must be consistent throughout a congregation’s “owned” ministries.  The local church must protect its freedom to speak from a religious, spiritual, and dogmatic perspective within the realm of its own ministry.
4.    The leadership of a local church must consider the reputation of other institutions, agencies, and individuals when it considers an agreement or cooperating partnership.  There are some arrangements which are essentially neutral, and others which are compromising of reputation, and still others that are enhancing of reputation.  Leadership has to be wise and prayerfully discerning as to which is which. The attitude of the church should always be love, even when trying to protect its testimony, and should always have an attitude and practice of loving kindness even when it must keep distance from some involvements.  [I have probably taken more risks than others in such involvement, but tried to be bold in my witness at the same time.]
5.    The local church has to be mindful of the involvement of their pastor with other institutions and agencies, his reputation, his time commitments, and his freedom to serve Christ in every situation he formally and professionally places himself in.  (PP-when does a pastor represent only himself, or is representing his congregation?  He always represents God, or else shouldn’t be a pastor.)
6.    Local churches can interact with other ministry, institutions, and agencies in various ways and for various purposes.  A key principle for the local church is to know how this particular involvement moves the mission of the church forward, or is it a diversion of focus and resources? (PP-most non-profits want money and people from local congregations but not all of them further the mission of the congregation or enhance the ministry of the church, and some do not want any spiritual input from Christians.)
7.    While local church involvement in other institutions can be by way of volunteer hours, financial support, facility cooperation, etc. the practice of resource investment (especially that of church member man hours) must be weighed against how it brings people to Christ and into the membership of the body?  This principle must always be balanced against any other purpose, no matter how well meaning.  Ministries of mercy, helps, kindness, or any other noble or good thing people can do, as we “do good to all men,” are not a substitute for being “fishers of men,” but all can be a means to that end if we are intentional about it.
8.    It is good for church leadership to regularly, on some periodic basis, to reevaluate the stewardship of the resources of the church (especially the volunteer ministry hours of the membership) as to whether they are effective for…
·       The name recognition of the church
·       A proto-evangelism of the community
·       Direct evangelism of the community
·       In conflict with the functioning of the worship and activities of the church, including the shepherding of the children of the church.
·       The bringing of justice and mercy to the community in the name of Christ.
·       Doing what must be done to help the people of the community survive and thrive as an act of love.


PRACTICAL ISSUES
9.    The Pastor especially may be called upon to serve on community boards of various sorts.  He is asked because he is a pastor of a specific church and not usually simply because he lives in the neighborhood.  Some of these activities are neutral, that is they don’t hurt the pastor or church’s reputation.  However, every involvement takes time and pastors need counsel from church leaders to be careful about their commitments. He needs to humble himself to ask others to speak into these decisions so he doesn’t hurt himself, his family, or the congregation.
10.Taking money from anyone, or any agency, that hinders the church’s ministry or message has to be rejected.  Thankfully there are government programs, and grants from foundations and businesses that don’t prohibit churches from their message or ministry, but these must be carefully assessed and evaluated.  Many institutions want to do good, and are willing to do it through a congregation, and these may coincide with a congregation’s own vision and mission for ministry.  Things such as the feeding of children, tutoring or after school programs, sports programs, arts and music programs, health and medical programs, housing, etc are all possible areas of collaboration.  A church has to ask what it wants to accomplish in such programs, and if or when does it feel its primary purpose is being compromised.
11.Once money is taken from an agency with commitments as to its use and reporting congregations must be strictly ethical in fulfilling their commitments and not funnel money into some other use, no matter how seemingly good or necessary that use may be.
12.Congregations have to ask themselves if their building is “holy” and is totally and only committed to their doctrinal identity?  Will the church let a public school rent the building, or use the building for a ceremony?  Will the church let another denomination rent space to worship there, even if there is not total doctrinal agreement? How about a cult?  How about AA or some other 12 step program?  Many Evangelical congregations have rented space from Synagogues and other religious institutions, will we be reciprocal in their hour of need?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

GOD BLESS THE DEACONS!


I like Deacons.   I honor the office of Deacon.  I love the men and women who serve in the ministry of mercy throughout our churches.  May the Lord bless them and give them a reward for what they do.

    Pastors and Elders need to value the ministry of Deacons, and they need to be thankful that they have them.  Pastors need to brag on them and give them honor, encourage the congregation to hold the Deacons up in prayer, and to give them their cooperation as well as the physical and financial resources to do effective work.

   Some pastors simply want the Deacons to protect them from facility surprises, as in maintaining roofs, heating and air conditioners, grounds keeping, snow removal, clean bathrooms, etc.  Some churches want them to make sure there are ushers, money counting, good budgeting, security, and parking lot attendants.  All of these things are important, and the larger and more middle-class the congregation is than the more important these things are going to be. 

   In some of our congregations we have CEOs of major corporations serving as Deacons (really, this is not hyperbole).  They know how to get business done, and the title is nice on their resume for community involvement.   Everyone appreciates a congregation that maintains a healthy, safe, and welcoming facility and has a positive sense of good organization and administration.   I appreciate these things too, but I know that they are not enough if our goal is to be faithful to Jesus and his kingdom.

    Some churches have Deacons and never use them in ministry to the poor.  The pastor and church secretary seem to do all of the benevolence, or else simply bar the door and send strangers asking for help away to other “agencies.”  (Deacons should strongly discourage any pastor from being the “Sugar Daddy” in dispensing aid to people.  Pastors should delegate that direct ministry to the Deacons.) As a former pastor I am very much in favor of having people “wait on tables” as it were so I can focus on prayer and the Word.  At the same time I would very much like to see Deacons mobilize a congregation so that any and every poor person seeking help from our church would be met with love, compassion, kindness, wisdom, prayer, and effective help.

   I yearn to see Deacons organize themselves, train themselves, and create effective ministry plans so that they are able to stay motivated, refreshed, and multiplied so they don’t burn out, drop out, become cynical, or waste their very precious time simply going to meetings.

    So, in this short article may I make one plea…  Deacons, stay humble enough to want to learn how to do your ministry in more effective ways.  Keep asking of yourself, and of your team, “how can we do this better, how can we do mercy so we actually lead people to Christ and bring them into discipleship, how can we do this so people actually come out of poverty?”

    If you ask those questions of your team you will begin to realize you need help, and so you will start praying more, identifying and recruiting more saints with more of the gifts needed to accomplish the mission, communicating more with the Pastor and Elders, and encouraging more financial liberality from the members.

    When Deacons start seeing the lives of poor people being truly turned around they will hopefully begin to have a larger vision for the neighborhood and community.  Hopefully they will begin to be proactive and create ministries and programs that help poor people create strategies for themselves that move them to self-sufficiency.