Sunday, November 25, 2012

What I Want For Christmas!

1.  For Rush Limbaugh to apologize for defamation of character, slander, and impugning the motives of politicians he doesn't like.  I suppose he would have to admit that he does indeed do that, and maybe some of his Christian listeners would have to admit it too.
2.  For Libertarians to stop sounding so selfish, and implying taxes are evil and that a democracy doesn't have a right to make choices based on its values to help those in need.
3.  For Liberals to admit unborn children are human and to realize and admit abortion is destroying not only our posterity but our humanity.
4.  For judges to lock guilty people up so we wouldn't keep hearing of crimes being committed by someone arrested and found guilty numerous times, but still walking the streets.
5.  For the Criminal Justice System to make sense; to stop giving people silly sentences like five live terms plus fifteen years (shouldn't life mean life?), to get back to rehabilitation (since most of these people do return to our communities), and to give quicker trials, but shorter and definite sentences.
6.  To commit crazy people instead of trusting them to medicate themselves (this so they won't be out here killing the rest of us).
7.  To actually fire the entire Congress, at least once, until we get a group that can solve problems instead of making them worse.
8.  For Atheists and people who hate the mention and celebration of religion in public places to be declared their own religion, and told to go create their own private schools, instead of constantly annoying the rest of us.
9. For Conservatives and Liberals alike to repent of demonizing their adversaries instead of presenting positive arguments, rationally presented, for their point of view.
10.  For the Public School system, in every state and federally, to admit that in some places they are a total failure and to give that tax money to any educational institution in those places that can do a better job.  It is time for the anti-religious people to become anti-ignorance.
11. For Cuba to finally be treated like we treated the USSR, and like we treat China, so capitalism and liberal democracy can start bringing change to their government and freedom to its people.
12.  For this country, built on immigrants, to have a rational, understandable, fair (in line with our own Bill of Rights), welcoming, and enforceable immigration policy.
   Yes, and if I could have that gift wrapped please?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where Does Radical Islam Come From?

  One of the dilemmas for U.S. foreign policy is coming to grips with where, or from where, Islamic radicalism arises.  The President is stuck with the real world truth that there are a lot of Muslims in the world, and a lot of countries that are predominantly Muslim if not ruled by an Islamist government.There isn't much doubt on any government or military level that Islamic radicalism, extremists, Jihadists, etc. are at war with us.  When I say "us" I mean the United States and the secular West, as well as any government in nations where Islam holds popular control but is ruled by a government sympathetic or cooperative with the West.
    The rhetoric of war is tricky.  The Islamic radicals can use extreme language, and this language is powerful, incendiary, and very religious.  The West has to be very careful how it uses language so as not to insult or alienate the great Muslim multitude and those Muslim nations which we seek to use as a buffer against radicalism.  This careful use of language is politically calibrated to protect the interests of the West, but at the same time it fails to arouse the military fervor of its own people, and it leads to a certain ambiguity about who or what is trying to kill us.  It is almost as if we are fighting a committee that keeps coming up with recruits, arms, and money, but we don't want to use religion to explain it.
   This of course is often the problem with Islam, and with Muslims, and the attempts of the West and of Christianity as well to engage it in honest dialogue. Islamic communities will only allow discussion of their religion as long as there is no direct critique, no attack against their prophet or their book.  It doesn't matter what the laws of their country may say, the community is religiously Muslim and considers certain subjects to be off limits.  It enforces this barrier through physical intimidation, force and violence.  Even the rumour of criticism or disrespect can result in community turmoil and violent attacks in which the perpetrators feel justified to maim and slaughter even children.  The result is a muted conversation, side stepping the truth, and a growing acquiescence to the domination of Islam.
    I make a distinction of course between Christianity and the secular West because they are distinct.  Neither Christianity nor the secular West are at war with Muslims, both Muslims and Christians have a critique of secular materialism and its attendant immoralities, and both Christianity, Christians, the secular West, and moderate Muslims are being attacked by radical Islamists.
     Christianity is of course opposed to Islam, and sees it as false religion with a false prophet and a false claim to divine revelation.  Christianity is not at war with Muslims, though certain so called Christian entities (even the Roman Catholic Church) have in the past called for Crusades and Holy War.  Biblical Christianity knows no such thing as Holy War as part of its religion, at least not in any material sense.
    The answer as to where radical Islamists come from is frighteningly easy, they come from moderate Muslims, even lethargic or unengaged Muslims, who become radicalized.  What radicalizes them?  Islam does, from its Koran and from its Imams, as it has always done and as it always will.  As long as Islam is a weak religion, and that it is weak intellectually is proved because it cannot survive strong critique against the claims of its prophet or its book, nor especially of its practices, without the protection of the loud shouting down of its opponents or else killing them.
    All of the rhetoric of those seeking to assuage the Muslim masses by attempting to redefine Islam as a religion of peace just cause confusion and make the West look weak.  I can understand verbal restraint, being politic in how we define and explain circumstance, attempting not to offend or inflame situations.  I cannot excuse those who purposefully try to poke a stick in the eye of the Islamic world with videos and Koran burnings.  I can understand the anger and frustration considering the war we are in and which we have been fighting a long time but we need clear thinking and determined action, not drama.
    Radical Islam has conquered nations such as Iran, and the Iranians are a government determined to cause trouble.  Through them they help finance the Muslim brotherhood where and when it helps them, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, the Syrian government, and the radical Shiite elements of the Iraqi government.  This is the Islamic mob hysteria to stone a blasphemer morphed into a government attempting to develop nuclear weapons.  This is the religious fervor of not only dying for a religion, which is the real definition of martyr, but killing for it which has become the radical Islamic definition of the term.
    Both Sunni and Shiite fervency is flooding Gaza with weapons and rockets, in spite of Israel's blockade.  It is easy to sympathize with the people in Gaza, 1.7 million of them trapped in a urban twilight zone, but Hamas will only succeed in the death of the people of Gaza, not in the destruction of Israel.  Hamas knows Israel will remain unintimidated and so it has its apologists attempting to create the idea that Israel is America's creation and America's puppet and that the U.S. can end Israel's response and Israel's blockade.  Hamas, like radical Islam, is intransigent, and believes that violence and force will either intimidate its opponents or destroy them.
    So the question remains as to when the West will stop muting its own criticism of Islam, which it does freely against its own historic foundation of the Bible and Christian faith, and demand that Islam give up its ignorant and primitive use of violence as a means to give legitimacy to a religion that can't seem to stand up to a free and open discussion of its origins and ideas.  At the very least sooner or later those governments that are driven by radical Islam will have to be held accountable (read fought, conquered, destroyed)  by Western democracies for being the instigators and merchants of war. I don't think we have any other evidence except that Islam will continue to be the wellspring of hatred, violence, and war.  Even if it conquered the world it would consume itself with its competitive radicalism.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sex, Truth, and Erasing the Tapes.

Has anyone noticed how powerful sex is in our lives?  Now this article is not so much about sex but about its consequences, especially in the life of the church.  It begins however with the fundamental understanding that sex is powerful, that it is going on just about all the time, that it is what fills young minds and lingers long into old minds as well, it drives us into behavior and relationships, it creates family, complications, comfort and scandal.  Sex is also avoided, denied, hidden, and undiscussed when it should be addressed.  Sex is exploited, advertised, pimped, and drenches our media and entertainment.
    We are a society that, in my opinion, has diverging even mutually opposing ideas of sex and sexual behavior, sometimes in the same moment or the same situation.  Of course a lot of this is not our conscious fault. Sex is a biological given and a divine mandate.  "Multiply and replenish the earth" got the engine started and sin got in the transmission.  Sin is our fault, and though we might admit it is inevitable it nonetheless makes us accountable.  This notion of accountability is where we have differing views.
   Some makers and shapers of modern morality have decided that we cannot be accountable for sex, but as makers of modern technology we can protect ourselves from the physical and social consequences of it.  We have created birth control, we have created abortion, we have created no fault divorce, and no shame out of wedlock pregnancy.  Those makers and shapers of modern morality have sometimes meant well.  They noticed the power of sex, they noticed the biological drive of young people, and they doubted the power of the community and the church to curtail it.  Earlier in the twentieth century they noticed the failure of community and church in the individual exceptions, the notorious and scandalous moments of an unwanted  pregnancy, and the saddness of unwanted children in orphanages, foster homes, and single parent homes.
    If they were human they knew their own thought life, their own illicit moments, their own lust, their own feelings of desperation, guilt, and shame.  They didn't like what they saw as consequences for themselves, their children, or the cost to society.  Some of these folk who made decisions in earlier, not so distant past, generations, were in the church.  They felt the censor, the public ridicule and snickering over young people who got caught doing something they knew they themselves wanted to do, and might have done if they could have gotten away with it.
    I was part of a generation that had to read "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  It seemed that the lesson they taught from that book was to condemn what secularists thought was puritancial morality and an unhealthy view of sex.  Since sex was so universal in a sexed race and so powerful and so appealing, and seemingly so unavoidable, moralities that tended to circumscribe or deny it must be harmful and could only lead to hypocrisy.
    So what do you do when you are a pastor and young girls in your congregation become pregnant?  This brings the role of pastor in its multiple responsibilites into a quandry.  Are we responsible to console, comfort, and encourage?  Are we there simply to dispense forgiveness?   Are we to be protectors of morality, virginity, and self-control?  Are we there to put shame on young women, or the young men if we can find the culprit?  Are we to be prophets of morality in an immoral culture, and how can we do that without seeming like we are legalistic, mean, stone throwing Pharisees?
    There are practical questions that evolve; do we throw a baby shower for an "illegitimate" birth?  Do we banish the word illegitimate so the young woman, her family, and the child can feel loved and accepted?  Do we handle this privately, quietly, so know one even knows, as they used to send young women "away" to cousins, or somewhere, while she was in "confinement?"
    A so-called youth pastor once came to me to ask if I could help him solve his problem.  "What is the problem, and what can I do to help you?"  I asked.  It turns out he had sex with a teen-ager in his youth group and wanted me to give him money so she could get an abortion.  That conversation did not end too well, and later I found out that the baby's life didn't end too well either.  He told me he has gotten his problem solved, "but not God's way."
    It is not just the young and unmarried that the pastor deals with, but the married and adulterous, the married and the pornograher, the sexually addicted, the sexual predator of children, the same sex attracted.  No one prepared me for this much sexual trouble while I was in seminary.  Of couse I myself am as pure as the driven snow and have never had a lustful or sexual thought in my life, never lusted in my heart after a woman who wasn't my wife, never was attracted to porn, never flirted with anyone but my wife.  Stand back before this computer is struck by lightening. Guilty, guilty, guilty, and as I struggle with myself I realize my calling won't let me back away from what seems a tsunami of human frailty.
    Our society of course takes the wrong lessons from the Gospel.  They love the story of the woman caught in adultery and the punch line of "let him who is without sin cast the first stone."  They seem to forget the brutal, no compromise morality of Jesus saying, "go and sin no more."  How could he do that, doesn't he know how normal and unpreventable sex and romance are?  Why doesn't Jesus go after the man and rebuke him too, or are only women the causes of sex?  So the world settles for the idea that we can't stop sinning, so don't start throwing stones.
    It is the pastor's misson to deal with his own sexuality first.  To admit his own needs and weakness, to be a repenter, to be a depender on the grace of God for his own sexual purity, to be constantly in touch with his own need of cleansing at the cross and a humble receiver of it.  To never be self-righteous about the call to sexual purity or legalitic.  It is also his mission to be uncompromising about the standards of Scripture, to call all people (including himself) to sexual purity, chastity, and faithfulness in marrirage.  It is his job to not allow public evidence of sexual sin to go undealt with in a public manner.  Discipline should be as private as the sin, but without church discipline we simply are saying "amen" to the morality of the culture.
    It is the pastor's job to help his church leadership deal with sexual sin in a loving, healing, restorative, yet morally uncomproming way.  If this means a young pregnant woman must come before the Elders, and the young man who sinned as well, and confess and repent, then it must be done.  If it means the Elders must pronounce forgiveness to them, it must be done. At the baptism of the infant, or the wedding of a prenant woman, the pastor announces that confession and repentance, and therby demands no gossip and no slander, but now only support and inclusion, it must be done.  It is only repentance at the foot of the cross that effectively erases the never ending playing of the guilt tape in our minds.
    Americans are averse to public shame, but the reality is that guilt and shame already happened, and the gossip will spread unless the boil is pricked.  Telling the truth dispells the hidden, dirty story, and we all sympathize with the weakness, and we forgive those who like ourselves mess up, and we protect those yet to come with cautionary tales.  We don't endorse evil by our silence, we don't surrender to biological inevitability, whether normal or  perverted (as is so much in a society of moral abandonment).  We do not let our own failures and temptations disqualify, blackmail, or silence us from telling the truth, only letting it help us tell the truth with sympathy, love, and kindness.
    The prevelant myth was (and is) that sex could not be stopped but the consequences could be avoided with technology and new laws.  That it was a myth is proven by the avalanche of unwanted pregnancies, millions of abortions, millions of unfathered children, millions of divorced women, and their suffering in poverty since the introduction of such strategies.  It was always a myth, and it turns out the Bible's take on it is reality and truth.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hey, Show A Little Respect to the Godfather.

    Have you seen the Godfather movies?  Did you catch the idea that showing respect was highly valued by the Mafia?  That is of course until they murder you, but it is the idea of getting murdered that helps one to focus on showing some respect.  We have no such enforced system of respect in the church, the denomination, and it seems we are sometimes scarce on the practice too.

    I am speaking here of the respect between church leaders.  One of the most valuable things I have learned from being mentored by African American church leaders is showing respect.  I learned it again in Africa where Elders, the Wazee, are considered worthy of respect.  I learned it, and had it enforced, when I became an officer in the U.S. Army.  I also grew up in Newark, NJ so I fully understood the Godfather movies.

    I am a Presbyterian Teaching Elder.  I was one of the longest serving pastors in my Presbytery.  I have some experience in urban church planting, cross cultural ministry, and mercy ministry to the poor.  I noticed when younger pastors came into the Presbytery and took no notice of me, or didn't visit me, or didn't consult with me about mutual concerns.  I'm not saying I was all bent out of shape about it, didn't say I was sending anybody in limos to pick them up, I'm just saying I noticed.

    Recently I spoke with a pastor who has a considerable ministry among Hispanics.  He felt the disrespect when the denomination had a meeting about Hispanics, for Hispanics, but didn't have anyone translate things into Spanish.  He felt it because he had carried some pastors to the meeting, most of whom couldn't speak English.

    I remember when the denomination had a meeting about cross cultural ministry and simply sent me an invitation to the meeting.  No one asked me about my view of the meeting, about who was going to speak.  They didn't have to do that, but it would have shown some respect if they had, at least given some indication that they (the agency involved) had noticed that this was my life's work.  I'm just saying that I might have known something about the subject, and it sure would have felt like they had an understanding of the "political love" that is needed to make progress in a community.  For those whose community is only their movement or network, I am telling  you that you need to realize our community is larger than you know.

    Part of white culture is to be self-deprecating and self-disdainful.  We of course spiritualize it and say we are seeking God's glory.  That is fine when you practice it for yourself, but to deny respect to those who have earned it is not just a breach of etiquette but an insult.  We should seek God's glory, and we shouldn't seek our own glory, but we certainly should show respect to one another and recognize the value of other people's work.

    By the way, this isn't about me, I'm just using my personal examples to make a point.  In a day when we have more and more "networks" and multi-site church movements and denominational agencies who plan agendas we have to be careful we don't roll over people who have been doing the spade work of ministry, have spent the years in a place, know the players and where the bodies are buried (so to speak) because we think we have a new and fresh way to get results fast.  Of course these results are for Jesus and the Kingdom of God, so we feel we don't have to be too careful around the old guard who haven't been seen to make much progress before we arrived.

    I think some of this is simply white culture (which most of us white folk don't know we have because we think it is "normal").  Some of it is youthful and movement arrogance.  Some of it is just pure ignorance of knowing how to show what I call "political love."  The reader might be in favor of love, but not the word  political.  OK, why don't we refer to it as "wisdom."   One never knows when the bridges one has burned may be needed, one doesn't always know that the friends they could have had got tired of being had, and tired of being overlooked.  It is amazing how suddenly one might need friends in Presbytery, or General Assembly, or at some denominational agency, or even help after a disaster has swept through your town.

    Some may find this amusing coming from me.  If you know my history you will know I haven't suffered fools gladly, haven't believed in continuing things the same way we have always done them, and have basically advocated burning systems and things down if it meant we could pursue the Kingdom and the Commission of Jesus faster.  So I must come with some repentance (alright, a lot of repentance) and ask for forgiveness where and when I have been impulsive and failed to respect my elders and those in leadership.  I realize how much I am involved in networks, multi-site church planting, and denominational agencies.  Please forgive me where I have been heavy handed and clumsy, too blunt, not careful to love as deeply and fully as I should.

    When I was getting started in the city where I worked I consciously kept a low profile.  I didn't want my name in the papers, didn't want to draw attention to what I was doing in the black community.  I was not the "white Moses."  I know that envy, covetousness, and jealous competition spring very quickly among preachers and leaders.  I have learned this in some painful ways.  I had to earn the right to be respected, and I earned that right by showing respect.

    With that awareness of myself let me shout out a warning to those who think their new helicopter church planting method, their mega church ideas, their denominational agency efficiency gives them the right to step on and over those who are already in the fight, in fact may have suffered much, but don't have the same publicity machine.  You and I need to learn to show respect.  It is not too hard and it pays off big dividends.  People actually like me better when they realize I am not such an arrogant....kind of person. Well, maybe I am, but I don't want to be, I really do want to be more like Jesus.  It is never just the goal, but the means to the goal has to have the same nature as the goal.  If love is where we are going, then love is how we get there.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Presents New Opportunities and Exposes Our Usual Practice.

When disaster strikes pastors are key players in their communities.  Well, maybe we should say, "they could be."  I would like to say, "they, or you, should be!"  Many pastors like to think of themselves as leaders in the "community."  Most times they are only leaders in their own congregations, and unfortunately many are not very good at it.  I believe the Barna Group did a survey and found out that about 70% of pastors didn't want to be leaders.  They wanted to preach, teach, study, write, but not lead.
    When I first read that statistic I was saddened by it, but not too surprised.  In some ways we don't want our pastors leading too much, we prefer they that be kind, sweet, holy people who only lead by suggestion.  If they get on their high horse of leadership they might start telling us how to live, or calling us out that we ain't living right, or become political and the next thing  you know they will be telling us how to vote.
    When disaster strikes people in a community might assume their local church, even if they don't go to it, would lend a hand, would be a sanctuary, would mobilize to help at least their own people.  The reality is that the way pastors lead normally will result in them responding pretty much the same way when disaster strikes.  What I mean by that is that pastors will do little or nothing to be of practical help, and most likely won't be much spiritual help either.
    Now, one good thing about a disaster is that it does give pastors a chance to change, a chance to step up and become the leader their church has always needed them to be.  Some of them have taken that responsibility to heart, some of them have become different in the way they do ministry.
    I am speaking of the propensity of pastors to stay in their studies, to prepare sermons, hopefully they pray, but not to exercise leadership by casting vision to their people to learn how to reach out to their neighbors through what the Bible calls, "good works."  When the Apostles told Paul to "remember the poor" I don't think it was because he was having memory problems. I think they wanted him to do something about the poor.  So when Paul planted churches there he was spelling out to the new pastor the need for the office of Deacon, the qualifications for it, the need to take care of widows, the need to do good to all men but especially to the household of faith.  Paul even wrote about in his epistles and helped set up a system of subsidizing widows who couldn't provide for their own needs or had no families to help them.
    When we develop a practical plan of helping our neighbors in their physical needs, in the name of Christ and with the accompanying Word of God to share the Gospel with them many wonderful things take place.  Not least among them is what it does for our own church members and our children.  Personally I think one of the greatest things that happens in a church that lives out justice, especially racial justice and accompanies that with ministries of economic mercy and development is that it gives our children an identity of religious integrity.  Our kids go to college, go away to other communities, and they hear someone bashing the Church because it is hypocritical and is segregated and doesn't care for the poor.  Children from churches that practice Biblical mercy and justice speak back to such slander and say, "I don't know what you are talking about, all our church did was help the poor and stand for justice, we have nothing to be ashamed about."
    Pastors need to learn how to lead in their communities in the daily need for mercy, but especially when disaster comes.  I am proud of the Presbyterian Church in America for its disaster response ministry, and this is true for both MNA and MTW, our mission organizations.  The PCA responds, and shares its wealth, and its people move to help those in trouble and they sacrifice to do it.  However, not all our churches, nor do all our pastors participate.  Usually they have to wait to get the message when the storm falls on them and the community comes and asks for food, shelter, support of some kind.  Then they wonder what they can do because they haven't taken the time to learn it when things would have been easier.
    Here are some things you can do: go out and walk the neighborhood and see what is affecting them.  Go up to those who have trouble and ask them to tell you their story.  Offer to pray for them.  Take notes on what they need.  Go back to the church and tell them what the needs are, ask for ideas and suggestions, pray over it.  Go to local government and institutions and speak up for the community about what is needed.  Ask your Presbytery or regional group what resources they can give you to help.  Call the denominational office and ask for their help.  You will be amazed how welcome your presence will be on almost every level if you are there to offer a prayer, give a word of encouragement.  You will be amazed at how respected your congregation will be if they sponsor a team to come in and clean out someone's flooded house, or give a stipend to someone who couldn't work for weeks or a month.
    Some pastors feel they can't do anything because they think they have no resources.  Are you kidding, don't you believe in God, do you think he is broke?  You have not because you ask not; neither from God nor from your brothers and sisters.  I think it is a shame to the name of Jesus that in times of disaster a pastor says to those who ask for help, or to his own people who ask what can they do, "we don't do that kind of thing, we are a spiritual ministry."
    I am proud of those pastors who are out visiting their neighbors, coordinating with other local leaders, calling on the denomination and marshaling resources so they can deliver some help.  May God bless them and sustain them, especially as the burden of need falls on them and they hurt for those around them.  They are not abandoning their spiritual ministry but rather filling their physical ministry with a spiritual authenticity.  They are doing it in the name of Jesus and they are doing it at the right time, and they are ready to do it because they have trained themselves to do it by the practice of normal, usual, and daily acts of compassion and mercy.