Sunday, May 24, 2015


I wanted to share with you some reflection on a marvelous book I have been reading (listening to).  It is The Road to Character by David Brooks.  I find it a wonderful and thought provoking work, and very challenging as I am forced to inspect my own character, or character flaws, if you will.

    In this book there is some great critique on the popular culture we all live and breathe in.  I found myself saying "amen" quite a bit as he speaks of the "big me" and the inability of this present generation to make moral choices except according to how things make them feel.  In one fell swoop he explains, without actually saying it, why so many Evangelical young people can grow up in Christian homes yet make moral choices, and socio-political choices, as if there were no moral absolutes.

    As far as I know David Brooks does not profess to be a Christian, though many wonder what God is doing in his life.  If he is not a Christian (at least yet) that makes the book even more interesting to me.  Many Christians don’t seem to think unbelievers or non-Christians really have moral or character struggles. 

    Our Evangelical theology tells us that they are all sinners, and our Reformed Theology tells us they are all totally depraved.  So, we have difficulty believing sinners can have moral struggles, or be moral, or have better morality and better character than we do.  Yes, you read me correctly, I do think the character and integrity of some so-called believers is terrible and shameful, while many non-Christians are seeking to the best of their own "lights" to be "'good."  

   Still other Christians think that once they are “saved” they no longer have any moral struggles, for to fall into sin would convince them they were not truly Christian.  If you have that view then you might be really put off by David Brooks.  However, I think you would be missing a feast of both moral philosophy and intellectual challenge, as well as conviction about how far we all have to go.

    In some ways Brooks cannot help being an elitist.  He is too educated and well read not to be.  I confess that he makes me feel as if I haven’t read anything, nor had a very good or well-rounded education.  I am still thankful for someone like him to be writing about some very interesting people and personalities in history, and the very personal character struggles they went through.

    There is good stuff in this book for young adults, there is good stuff in this book for parents, and good stuff for all the rest of us. 
    As a Christian who believes in both redemption, transformation and deliverance, and the grace of God to help us in a growing sanctification I feel I come to the inner struggle with some spiritual weapons to help me. What I find embarrassing is that a book like this shows me how lightly I take my sins and failings, and how lazy many of us Christians are about our own growth in being more like Jesus Christ.

   I am not sure what David Brooks thinks about sex.  He certainly speaks about it, but doesn’t focus on sexual activity as sinful in and of itself, as many religious people would.  So, while some of the personalities are promiscuous, homosexual, and adulterous that never seems to be their main problem.  I sense just a little bit of denial in how he deals with it. Because of that I don’t think he is actually in touch with how guilty sexual sins make many people feel, except maybe in the case of Augustine, who David Brooks doesn’t think actually had as big a sex problem as Augustine says he did.  This to me is slightly puzzling in what I think is just a terrific book.

    This is not a theological work.  I don't think Brooks understands real grace and faith yet, nor true conversion.   Brooks is not picking a fight with religion nor trying to substitute for one, but he is spot on about the inner struggle of character and brings us into the admiration for people who did see progress in their struggle.

    I hope that the Lord has used this book to drive me to a greater humility, a greater readiness to deal with my own envy, ambition, and pride.  As a believer I agree with David Brooks that the point of life is holiness not happiness and that everyone needs grace and that there is such a thing as redemption.  What wonderful insights.  I am also thankful that I am not left alone to struggle for those things without the very powerful and personal presence of the Holy Spirit,  nor have to bear the shame of my failure without the blood of Jesus. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


One of the questions that has come up several times in the course of my training churches in cross cultural ministry is in the area of worship.  Once I had a white pastor say to me, whose church was in an African American neighborhood, “we do lots of ministry in the community, but so far we can’t get any African Americans to come to worship with us.”

    I asked the pastor to describe his worship style or culture to me.  He agreed that essentially it was a traditional type white or Anglo service, they hadn't changed anything.  I asked him if he thought about adapting the style of the music, of bringing in some African American musicians.  I didn't get around to asking him about the style or content of his preaching.  He asked me, “why would we change the style of our worship, wouldn't that be unauthentic (he probably said, “inauthentic”) and therefore patronizing?”

    I confess the question set me back for a moment.  After all, here he was in a racially changing neighborhood and he wanted to be cross cultural.  He was asking us for help in that regard, yet in the way he asked the question I got the feeling that he didn't really want to change very much to cross ethnic lines.

    Before I give you my response let me assure you that I don’t believe there is only one way black people worship, or should worship.  Certainly there are African Americans who are Methodist, Episcopal, or grew up Catholic in their worship experiences.  There are traditional type African American Presbyterians who have lived their whole lives in a type of “high church Presbyterianism” that is as rigid and particular in liturgy as any white Presbyterian has ever been.  I even knew of one African American Covenanter type church in Alabama that only sang Psalms.  However, you will notice the word “one.”

    The vast majority of African Americans have been in Baptist and Pentecostal churches, and even the Methodists sway a little bit.  In the black community there have been at times churches built on shades of color, and they often sought to put distance between the way they worshiped and the way darker skinned black folk worshiped.  Shade of color, education, and class all played a part in that.  How about theological conviction?   Okay, I am sure there have been some that out of conscience sought a more literary, cerebral, and liturgical form of worship.  Certainly black fundamentalist Bible Church congregations were pretty consistent in being more focused on Bible learning than emotional in their worship.

    I confess I am a learner and admirer of the formation of what is a fairly consistent style of black worship in this country.  It is very pervasive, and all one has to do is go to a “Gospel” service on a military post to observe it.  It is attractive, engaging, and what may be called “cross-over” as people all over the world are drawn to it.  My wife has been in several African American Gospel groups on trips to France, Germany, Japan, and Kenya and has seen the evidence of this.  I confess I believe worship ought to be wholistic, and engage the heart and emotions, as well as the head.  Showing emotion in worship is not the same as out of control emotionalism.

    Having said these things I think my answer to the question that pastor asked me should be amplified by saying it would be silly to attempt to be cross cultural unless you are open to change.  It should also be reassuring that our primary tool in being successful in cross cultural ministry is love, revealed in humility and loyalty.  If you are convinced your worship style is the only Biblical style and therefore cannot be changed, then if you want to reach other ethnicities you had best find ways they can access it and make it their own.

    What I did say to him was, “are you married?”   He admitted that he was.  I said, “have you ever done anything for your wife that you didn't want to do, but did it because she wanted you to do it; was that patronizing?”  I think he got the point.  Love gives us a flexibility we never thought we could have, not to sin, but to win the hearts of others in authentic relationship.  We all give up something to cross cultural lines, but together we gain so much more.

Friday, May 8, 2015


If loving your neighbor as you love yourself means fulfilling the golden rule, i.e., "do unto others as you would have others do unto you," then what you say and what you do should rightly be taken as the way you want to be treated and the way you want others to speak of you.  Do I have that right, is that logical?

   I am thinking about this in regard to the recent circumstances in our nation concerning the behavior of the police, especially toward black men, and the behavior of citizens when their anger and protest explode into violence and civil unrest. The events of which most of us are aware have been surrounded by most of us as a media witness to those events usually via phone videos.  Then we become a witness to the media coverage of the reaction to those events, and we become participants  and witnesses as we make comments and  react to those consequent events usually through social media. 

  As we look for opinions that seem to express what we feel, or opinions that we adopt as our own we need a filter inside ourselves to be sure that what we are emotionally caught up in is actually true.  Surely some of what we read is ignorance, some articles reveal concern, some reflect sympathy, some reflect anger, some reveal and reinforce racism, and those comments add fuel to the fire of discord.

    I think the words of Jesus give us some perspective on how to judge our own opinions and actions. If we approve of police acting as judge and jury in the apprehension of young black men, and so execute (kill) them, whether from innate racial animosity, or from adrenaline, or from fear, or from rage, then shouldn't we want our own sons to be treated this way by the police, if they should do something stupid?  I am asking if the logic follows, assuming that we should do to others as we would have others do to us?

   I am wondering that if we think it okay to start a fire to burn someone's car, or store, or house, then shouldn't we approve if that fire consumes our own car, and store, and house?  It seems to me that the fire you start inevitably burns beyond your planning, has a tendency to not be satisfied until it consumes not just the stranger's house, but your own.

    It seems to me that if we excuse violence because we are angry at the way authority has abused its commission, then we should find it acceptable when others excuse their anger and the violence they might unleash on us.  If we excuse a stranger being grabbed off of the street, or out of a car, or out of a store and beaten by a mob because of the color of their skin then surely we should have no problem when that happens in reverse to ourselves, or someone of our particular race, isn't that right?

   If we find it acceptable for another person's son to be arrested and then while in the custody of police to be brutally beaten, even killed, and then have no one held responsible for it then shouldn't it be acceptable for that to happen to our own sons, and shouldn't we keep our mouth shut and just trust our legal authorities to have done the right thing?

    In almost all of these situations of suspected police brutality, all of which were terrible in outcome, but some having if not justification then at least explanation in confusion and human frailty while others were simply murder, there has been correct and righteous outrage and protest.   Some of this protest took great courage and real self control.  It was done with respect, even when it wasn't given respect.  Others in their rage became stupid and in their violence overwhelmed the legitimate voice and cry for justice.  Now all our eyes are on them, and some of our eyes are filled with dismay and tears, if not tear gas.

   The younger generation may not know this yet, but this never works out well.  Order is usually re-established and if necessary brutally so.  Some rioters will be terribly injured before it is over, some will be killed, and for a few moments of the feeling of heady power while in a mob, some will sit for a long time in prison.  Many will suffer in neighborhoods of burnt out buildings that will sit idle for a decade.

    For Christians there cannot be two moralities.  One hears people saying stupid things, such as, "if he breaks the law he doesn't have any rights."  We have said this about terrorists, about undocumented immigrants, or simply about someone running away from the police.  The issue of human rights is dead center when someone seems undeserving of them, that is usually when it is most important to protect those rights, for all of our sake.

    One hears stupid justifications of riotous behavior, of the refusal to label someone a "thug" when they act like a thug simply because they are being a thug while black and angry about injustice.  Redefining terms to make heroic what is actually ugly behavior doesn't really fool anyone, except maybe the pundits vying for a reputation that they stand for radical justice.   Justice is supposed to be blind, so the sword of its execution falls upon all equally.  

   In case you missed it, I am speaking to both sides in this conflict.  We dare not lose our moral compass, and with it the moral gravity of justice, with which we call authority and power to account.  If we reduce the struggle to identity politics, black versus white, wealthy versus poor, police versus citizens, then justice becomes relative and we lose the power of a compelling moral authority.