Monday, December 27, 2010


  Recently the U.S. Congress voted to repeal the policy known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which the Clinton Administration had settled on as a compromise to allow homosexuals to serve in the military without being open about their sexual behavior or inclinations.  There were many Conservatives opposed to that policy when it was first established since it opened the door to homosexuals serving in the military without being asked about their sexual orientation.  The policy did allow homosexuals to serve but its' enforcement continued to lead to the expulsion of known homosexuals, some of whom openly admitted their orientation and did so for the political motive of changing the policy.  There didn't seem to be much acknowledgement, let alone celebration, of the fact that the DA/DT gave homosexuals the opportunity to serve their country honorably as long as they were able to control their behavior and did not openly advocate their life-style.
    As a former Army Chaplain I have known that there were homosexuals serving in the military and I in fact was gratified that our nation and our military did allow them to serve under certain conditions, namely that it was something held as their private life or struggle but would not openly be condoned.  I take the position that some folks that would be referred to as "Gay" are conflicted about their desires, that they haven't figured themselves out yet, but that they can be effective soldiers if their behavior does not corrupt themselves or others.  I remember the late Dr. Robert Rayburn, CH (COL), US ARMY speaking about this subject when I was in seminary.  He encouraged us to treat people with compassion and that Chaplains had an obligation to do so.  At the time I was surprised he took such a loving and humane view of it, but I have tried to follow his admonition in my service as a Chaplain.
    I have experienced female soldiers coming to me and telling me that they felt pressured by lesbians in the unit, and that due to the fraternization between ranks it was becoming coercive and threatening.  My challenge to them of course was to make an official complaint, to use the Chain of Command, but they were fearful to do so.  I did inform the Commander of this dynamic in his unit, though he didn't seem to be too bothered by it.
    Here of course is where the military, and our entire society, needs to understand the impact of morality on issues of justice.  Our society seems to continually be moving to the divorce of these two things from each other, that morality is a private issue and that it is unjust to prohibit or contain certain moral practices.  In fact Justice is being redefined so as to permit individuals to follow their own private sense of morality and that Government should have little or nothing to do with it.  In a culture that no longer has a consensus of moral absolutes it is extremely difficult for that culture (our culture here in the United States) to establish a line of morality and hold to it.  Justice becomes equated with morality and Justice is defined as the right to live as I please and not have anyone hurt me or deprive me of the freedom to do and live as I please.
    It is my contention that Justice and Morality are inseparable but yet distinct.  There is a morality inherent in the concept of Justice, there is real justice to others in living a truly moral life in society, and there is resultant injustice in a life-style of immorality.
    Having stated this I realize that there are many instances of "moral" people, religious people, self-righteous people in fact, who created a system of injustice and maintained it while being otherwise "honest, law abiding, decent" folks.  They were in fact immoral by allowing the enslavement, disenfranchisement, and discrimination against people of color in this country.  Racial attitudes of superiority were in fact issues of pride, selfishness, fear, meanness, and a despising of the image of God in fellow human beings and led to murder, man stealing, rape, exploitation,etc.  The immorality displayed by otherwise so called "decent" folks gave the lie to their claim of morality.  Nazis did the same thing in running concentration camps.  They showed up to work on time, did an "honest" days work by not shirking their duty, didn't steal from the prison offices, etc. all while they were murdering millions.
    To those people in their daily interactions there was a "semblance" of moral living which made their lives comfortable and predictable.  Stealing from each other was wrong, even while washing off the blood from their boots due to what had just happened down at the slave block or the gas chamber.  I believe it was the moral consensus that moved the North to fight for the abolition of slavery (and make no historical mistake in assuming that there would have been a Civil War in America without the spirit and drive of the Abolitionists).  It was the moral consensus in England in the face of Ghandi's resistance to British tyranny in India that moved them to finally give way to the cry of that nation for independence.  I believe it was the moral consensus of America that gave way to the moral superiority of a non-violent demand for civil and voting rights from people of color, especially in the South.  Without that moral consensus Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have gone the way of  those (unknown but to God) justice advocates in the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea and Nazi Germany.  I also believe that the moral consensus that worked for the good of justice in those instances was an inherited Biblical sense of Justice, and one that particularly came from the  perspective of the Protestant Reformation.
    We are approaching an equal hypocrisy though from a different angle.  Without a Biblical consensus of morality in a culture it will become more and more difficult for that culture to actually define or defend justice while it in fact begins to deny justice to those who maintain resistance to immoral acts.  In short, evil will be called good and good will be called evil.  Without a commitment to true justice arising from a moral consensus then injustice can be explained away, redefined, and even defended as necessary.  This has been done illogically yet nonetheless extensively by exploitative oppressive powers and governments.
    Our challenge is always to champion both of the things that help us to truly love our neighbors as ourselves, and that is being moral and being just.  Many people in our nation who in fact live fairly moral lives have surrendered the high ground of conscience to those who play the justice card when it comes to sexual orientation.  This erosion has led to a tidal wave of changing laws which leads to the silencing of those who prophetically warn of the consequences to our children, our marriages, our military, our health, our culture, and our freedoms of speech and religion.  Tolerance and acceptance has in fact led to coercion, casting a blind eye to cabals and groups of homosexuals advancing each other (in government, the military, business, education, and entertainment) and getting revenge against their critics.  Why should any of our children be mocked and ridiculed in a classroom if they believe that homosexuality is an immoral behavioral choice but their teacher now teaches a section of curriculum that labels our child's belief as hate speech (declaring good evil and evil good)?
    Let me state plainly that I believe that homosexual behavior is immoral.  That it should be proscribed behavior, especially in the military.  That all homosexuals should be treated with common courtesy and respect, even sympathy, and called to repentance and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.  I believe that if our nation could agree that this behavior is immoral (once again) we would have no need to advocate a change to the constitution defining marriage as possible only between a biological male and a biological female.  I am afraid however that we will have to fight this descent into the legitimization of immorality by just such an amendment.
    My hope at the present, and my fervent plea for the military is for Commanders to be very pro-active in discipline against any form of sexual harassment, coercion, promiscuity, or political and career game playing due to sexual orientation issues.  Unless our Commander and Chief and highest ranking officers make this standard policy some units are going to become nasty places of intrigue and in-fighting, and that is already bad  enough in our military bureaucracy.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Kingdom and the Middle Class

Mark 10:25 says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (NIV)  I would not want us to miss the the challenge of this verse because we consider ourselves "middle class" and not "rich."  I would say our wealth and power as middle class Americans would put us solidly in the group Jesus was speaking about.
   Can wealthy people go to heaven, can they get into the Kingdom?  Our American Evangelicalism casualizes this teaching of Jesus by immediately referring to verse 27 where it says, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God." (NIV)   So we tell folks if you just believe in Jesus you will be saved, and that salvation is for everyone, and salvation is a miracle of God's saving grace.  So, no problem, rich people can indeed be brought into the Kingdom.  What goes unsaid is the implication that they can keep their money too.  This implied we do completely away with the sting and the radical edge of this passage of Scripture.
    It is just this dismissal of the radical sayings of Jesus that causes folk to miss the Kingdom.  The Kingdom is about radical choices, ultimate commitments, giving away all we have, leaving all we have, taking persecution, being last so others can be first.  It is the proof of whether we have chosen to follow Jesus or not.
   I am not at all speaking of a salvation by works, but one of a real and genuine faith that counts the cost and is willing to pay it.  Without real faith we cannot be saved, and without a faith that is lived out in very practical ways one can question whether or not someone really has it.  How can we preach the Kingdom without calling people to real Kingdom choices?
    Before someone accuses me of universalizing the call of Jesus to this rich man as applicable to all wealthy people let me say I do not know if Jesus is calling on you, the reader, to sell everything you have and give it to the poor.  I am saying Jesus does universalize the dilemma of the rich.  He says it is hard for them to enter the Kingdom.  I would say it is hard for all of us to make choices that cost us everything, or seem to cost us everything, or that will demand real sacrifice.  I would universalize that issue of choice, which is really the issue of idols.  Will we follow Jesus and trust Jesus to take care of us, or do we want to follow Jesus with our material suitcases so as to make sure we can live in the style to which we have grown accustomed?
    Among American Christians I see this struggle over radical choices played out most when it comes to our children.  We can't take them into the inner city, we can't take them to the mission field, because we are responsible for their safety and happiness.  We can't expect them to be happy in a cross cultural church with kids from the hood when they can find so much more happiness in a full service mega church that provides all their needs. Shouldn't we let our children decide what church our family should be in based on their feelings of security and expressions of where they are comfortable?  My short answer is, "nope."  What middle class child wouldn't want to be in an environment where everything is provided, not threatening, and caters to his or her self-indulgence?
    One of the interesting things to me is to see missionaries shelter their children in American schools wherein their kids spend most of their "cultural" experience as tourists in buses that pass by the masses, get tightly wrapped around their own families, and begin to see missionary service as a family business and not as a risky and sacrificial choice.  What I see most often is the creation of an Evangelical elite, in the name of helping our children to grasp a "Christian World and Life View."  The view from here is that it looks like the same old status quo and not too radically Christian at all.
     I thank the Lord for the four children the Lord gave us, one adopted and three by birth, all of them Covenant children and all of them ours.  I love them, want the best for them, want them to be smart and well educated, want them to have every door opened for them if possible.  I don't want any harm to come to them.  I really would like them to have every material opportunity and not to be poor or have to suffer.  If the truth be told I want the same for myself.  Our struggle as a family, as parents, as children is that we are sinners and we love our idols.  These choices are as hard for us as anyone.  At the same time I want my children to be the kind of folks of whom the world is not worthy.  I want them to be radical, completely committed, awe inspiring spiritual people who follow Jesus in all that they do.  I want them to shake and shape the world for the glory of Christ.
    I would like to be that kind of person too.  Can these two desires work together, are they mutually opposing?  My take from the teaching of Jesus is that they are mutually exclusive if we cannot hold our stuff, our possessions, and even our families, with loose hands.  Wouldn't it be great to live so for Jesus, so focused on him and his kingdom that you didn't care about worldly stuff, but he kept making you rich anyway?   I think that is the way it ought to happen, that if money is what Jesus wants you to have he forces it on you.
    All the stuff about generous giving, stewardship, managing our money in a Biblical way is fine if we don't come to the conclusion that the kingdom is about us being out of debt, having great investments, and leaving lots of stuff for our children when we die.  I believe in every Scriptural principal, but I don't want my faith disguised or distorted as American entrepreneurial and pragmatic genius.  It can become just another congregation of materialism in the Prosperity Gospel Denomination.  It is the obedience that comes from faith that we seek.
    We are not preaching the kingdom, or living it, if we mask the hard choices for ourselves, our children, and our churches.  Mark 10:29ff. "I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields-and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Farmer's Tale in City Streets.

Today I was trying to outline our strategy for ministry to a young man I am hoping will come on our staff to be a community evangelist.  We spoke together of the challenge of reaching children and seeing how excited they are when someone enters their life and loves on them.  We remembered children who were so bright eyed in coming to Bible clubs, Sunday School, tutoring, summer camp.  Then we spoke about what seems to happen in middle school and when kids reach puberty.
    Of all the many children we first met, of all the children we have shared Jesus with and included in our ministry and programs, so many of them have wandered away as they entered the teen years.  Boys making girls pregnant, producing more girls and boys.  The good news is there have been a few that have hung on, followed Jesus, and given back to the Lord.  The tragedy is that most have not.   We spoke of the challenge of how over the lifetime of our ministry we have seen the inner city community go from a culture that had a church tradition (at least somewhere in the extended family) to the current culture where we now see grandparents who themselves did not grow up in church, with that repeated in their children and their grandchildren.  We encounter African American kids with absolutely no experience of church, and that is something that has radically changed in the South.
    :Unfortunately I also spoke today to a grandmother who did grow up in our church, (I have known her since she was a girl herself) whose daughter has been making babies by different men, and whose lifestyle forced the State to take away her children.  This neglectful mother did grow up in our church, but the culture and drugs of the inner city seems to have won, for now.  When I say "for now" I imply that the story is not finished yet, because we have seen that to be true as well.  We have seen kids we invested in, loved on, pursued and prayed for but who then seemed to disappear come back, sometimes years later.  The seed of the Word finally took root, and they came home, to the Lord Jesus and to church.  This reality gives us hope, that the Word does not return to God empty, that the Word is on a mission and it will accomplish its' mission.
    What this says to me is that evangelism to urban children must be pursued, no matter how tough it is to continue it as they grow up.  No matter how many obstacles get thrown our way by dysfunctional lifestyles, we must take the Gospel to the poor.  It may not bear fruit right away, and the fruit might seem to fall off and away before we have a chance to pick it, but if the seed takes root, and if God has made their heart good soil it is going to bear fruit, maybe to a hundred fold.
   There will be no fruit if no seed is sown, that is simply the way it works.  If we don't give up we shall reap.  Even if we have to go out weeping, if we bear precious seed, we are going to bring back big bunches of the harvest.  So the battle rages not just in the hearts of  the children, or their parents, but in mine as well.  It is like the farmer listening to the birds who steal the seed, to the insects that devour the plants, to the drought and sun that burns them.  They all say, "stop wasting your time, it is hopeless, we will destroy all you sow."  And I almost believe them, until I see a face I knew once as a little kid, now grown, now singing, now serving, now lifting holy hands to Jesus.  That face may have gone through all kinds of pain, all kinds of trial, even failure, but there was something planted deep in their heart that has maybe only now grown fruit.  And as I sit watching the harvest, even at what I would call a banquet table of those who speak my name and say, "I remember when you came and got me, I remember when you took me here and there, I remember when you told me..."   I forget the words of the birds, the bugs, or the heat.  I'm too busy eating, feasting, on what has grown.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why Urban Ministry?

  Today I had lunch with someone who was trying to get to know me and he asked me, "why urban ministry?"  I wasn't quite sure how to answer the question.  I don't think I had any choice really, but someone not knowing me or my background might assume that I did.  I know some great men and women of God who did not come from the city, or the inner city, but have been called to it and are being greatly used by God.  I can't pretend that my particular background makes me effective, or that it has somehow resulted in a unique holiness that would allow me to be powerfully used by the Spirit.  I believe God gives gifts the way he wants them, not that God goes looking for people with gifts and hopes they will respond to his call.  I believe he gave me a set of gifts and in his mercy gave me a set of experiences, and training, to prepare me for what I do.  I believe that without holiness and faith and a real of work of the Spirit nothing significant gets done, unless God is going to do something in spite of what we are.  If you think of me pray for that, for holiness and to be used by the Spirit of God.
    Urban ministry of course is my life.  It is how I came to Jesus in the projects of Newark, NJ.  I hold that as a unique present from God, as well as being raised in a single parent home.  These are my credentials, "street cred" if you will.  As I tried to answer the question I began to feel passion rise within me, as I told him we all have to own what is happening in our cities, in my city.  This is my despair, that as Americans, as Christians, we don't own it.  That certain zip codes of our city (Chattanooga) have some of the highest rates of violence in the country, that we have a high unwed pregnancy rate, high infant mortality, high obesity and diabetes.  That after all these years of ministry in Chattanooga (over forty) we still have the same intractable problems in some of the same neighborhoods.  And we don't own it, as if we can hide in our homes and neighborhoods and pretend these are not my problems, this is not my city, this is not my country.  At this point I could no longer speak because I realized I was about to burst into tears and I just stared at the wall for a few minutes.
    It was a surprise to me as I didn't see it coming.  I didn't know just reciting these things would move me, hurt me so.  And I was glad it did and I am unashamed to feel it.  I am ashamed I have done so little and seem to be so ineffective.  Then I see faces in my mind, of those who are coming to church, those who are serving Jesus here, those who are given work, and food, and education, and Jesus.  Then I am glad again, until the next time when I think where we have not come, where some still are, what still remains undone.
   It was a good conversation because we were working on another organization to help the poor, the sick, the ones in need.  I wish we would all cry a little bit, and do a damn bit more.