Wednesday, March 22, 2017

SEEKING PEACE

As someone who has been involved in the struggle for racial reconciliation for most of my life and ministry I am concerned at times with some of the rhetoric and conversation I hear and read from my side of the fence.  What I mean by “my side of the fence” are those folks with whom I am in general agreement, those who claim Christ and who seek justice. 

   I am often dismayed, but seldom surprised, with statements made by people on the “other side of the fence;” those who are racist, and especially those who actually seek to defend hostile racial attitudes while still claiming to be Christian.  I am also not that surprised by people we might describe as “on the fence;” those who want to take a neutral stand, who seem superior and condescending, who act like they don’t really have to take sides.  This last group thinks they can escape blame for fostering prejudice, supporting an unjust status quo, or can justify being silent on those days when a righteous voice is needed.

   I might be able to level criticism at these other people, at least at their statements or positions.  I might be able to in general raise a prophetic voice at attitudes and commitments that I feel are antithetical to Christ, which I believe is my calling as a preacher and minister of the Gospel.  However, I am constrained to make such statements, and to hold attitudes, and to foster only those emotions which are obedient to my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.  This constraint means I must be restrained in returning evil for evil.  The rules I live by are different than those who do not claim to serve Christ, and I only have a select drawer of weapons which I can legitimately use in this war.

   So, when I read or hear from those with whom I mostly agree say things, or write things, or post, or blog, or podcast, etc. that I think are going in a direction of bitterness, or retreat, or separation, or self-segregating, or revenge, or arrogance, or self-pity, then I feel a bit discouraged, if not a bit annoyed.  I also find myself wanting to give a warning.

    As a white man I am very conscious that I ought never to attempt to speak for African Americans, or actually any group, including my own.  I am certainly not the spokesman for white people.  I am however a spokesman for God, and I certainly do not mean that in any presumptuous or arrogant way.  This I accept as God’s calling on my life, and according to the power that God invests in me, and always bordered, controlled, and examined by the Scriptures.

       There are those who write or say provocative things, and though sometimes the “truth” they are sharing might contain some of the truth yet not the complete truth, it sounds clear and radical enough to get our attention.  Again, I am speaking about those on “the same side of the fence” as me.  This provocation presumes motives, then seeks to stir up a reaction, and those who don’t hold to Biblical rules (even while claiming to be Christians) respond with hatred and racially vituperative rejoinders.   I can roundly condemn all this racial garbage, all this meanness, all this spiteful and nasty commentary, and I most emphatically do.

    At the same time I don’t feel as much pity for the victim because he obviously started the conversation in the way that he did to provoke a reaction but not necessarily to solve a problem.  In other words it looked like he wanted attention but was not seeking some positive change.  Such provocations cloud motive, and they are sharp enough to make people angry but not prophetic enough to bring repentance.  On top of that the person who created the provocation tends to blame everyone else for not coming to comfort him.  So, he repeats the cycle, and continues the alienation by blaming whole groups of people for those who acted sinfully.  “…As much as it depends on you, live at peace with all men,” Romans 12:18 says.   I thought that was Scripture, not, “as much as it depends on you start fights with all men.”

    In this world of injustice, and then within the smaller world of those seeking justice is an even smaller world of those who seek justice but do it in the name of Jesus.  I confess with great sorrow that not all of those who associate themselves with Jesus as savior have any commitment to seeking justice.  In this relatively small world, (in this Christian community of justice seekers), there are various hurts, pains, reactions, intentions, commitments, and strategies.

   There is no way any of us will completely know someone else’s pain.  Proverbs 14:10 says, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.”  I cannot deny how much hurt someone is feeling.  However, I believe we can usually discern whether or not their response is Biblical.  This goes back to being constrained and restrained by what Scripture teaches us.  The delicate thing is that when people are hurting it gets a bit dicey to say to someone that they aren’t handling it well.  However, if enough of us keep our mouths shut when our very own brothers and sisters, and comrades in this fight, divert us from Jesus’ endorsed behaviors and strategies we risk being taken down some very dark roads.

     There seems to be in this present generation the idea that if a person feels hurt or can express that hurt in racial or ideological terms then they are free to say stupid things, even if in fact those things are not really Christian but sound like justice.   As I read the Scriptures I think we are told to test every prophecy, which I take to mean we have to align ideas, comments, statements, and proposals for action up against God’s Word.  The test isn’t how authentic the feeling might be, or how sympathetic we might feel to someone who feels hurt or slighted, or even brutally attacked.  The comparison is with Jesus, who being mocked and reviled did not respond in the way he surely could have, with ten legions of angels to kick the snot out of the world.

    The real heroes of course are not those who have simply had their feelings hurt but who have physically suffered, who have lost property, wholeness and health, family, and even their own lives but still forgave and rose above the bitterness and hate which would seem so humanly understandable.  I am convinced it is miraculous for God’s people to respond to injustice in such a forgiving way, but these are the miracles which God uses to convert the lost and convince the haters of God’s mercy and justice.  We still need these kinds of miracles, and we need less of petty sniping and bitterness.

   There seems to be a certain amount of insecurity and fear about how to deal with unjust power structures and privilege, even if residual from history.  Some of the discussion I hear or see is not the call to faith strategies, but about power strategies.  Are we after racial reconciliation or not?  To not be for it means to be after racial alienation and satisfaction in segregation. To not be for reconciliation now, to refuse to pursue it until there is “racial justice,” is to lose all hope that the Spirit of God is able to create new realities on earth before all is made right in heaven (and that is the only place and time when true justice will actually be brought to pass).

     We can retreat into the status quo and seek to create our own little strongholds protected from the storm of reality. Let us acknowledge that this is indeed retreat and not a quest for justice.  It might feel comfortable, but it is an illusion, and without the pursuit of reconciliation in the church we allow the enemies of justice to grow and perpetuate themselves.

    Is the quest for the advancement of minorities in formally white power structures a quest for ego, a quest for status and power (even in the name of justice), or is it a quest for relationship based on love and respect?  Is it reconciliation we seek, or simply position?  Sometimes those struggles that happen between pastors, between a Senior and an Associate or Assistant are simply personality issues.  Sometimes they are pissing contests between a younger man and an older man with the younger wanting position now, or feeling his ideas are better and he could run things in a better way.  This is all too human and it doesn’t matter what race you are to have such struggles.  We even have black men who don’t want another black man to serve under them because they fear competition, as we do with plenty of white men.

    Let’s be practical; can a black pastor work in a majority white church and be legitimately loved and respected if he holds a subordinate position to the senior white pastor?  Is he in fact an “Uncle Tom” type token?   Is the church legitimately cross-cultural if it doesn’t have black senior pastor leadership?  Now the reality is that sometimes people of color are tokens.  Sometimes people are hired for “window dressing” and don’t have authority or real influence. Sometimes there is a racial paternalism and patronizing spirit in an institution and this compromises what real reconciliation is and demeans individuals and institutions. Truth needs to be spoken to power to help correct such misguided patterns of church life.

     Yet, there is the corresponding damage of people making assumptions about black people in white institutions, and this has happened in all kinds of institutions and organizations, not just the church.  Some have offered generalized opinions that a black person in white institutions has to be a “sell out,” a “self-hater,” or “somebody’s boy.”  Wow, what racist destructive trash people sell and buy, as if no one could legitimately earn or keep place, privilege, and power on their own merits and not forget who they are or where they come from.


   I have lived long enough to see some racial myths broken down.  I remember being told, “White people in the PCA will never submit to a black pastor.”  Well, in the Presbyterian Church in America that has certainly been proved wrong as most of the black senior pastors we have do indeed pastor majority white churches.  Such racial myths will keep being made up and propagated; they usually have a motive, hold a portion of the truth, but are not usually positive or helpful.

      I write this with the conviction that Jesus want us to be peacemakers and that the only consistently Biblical way to do that is through peace, not by fighting.  As the Lord is my witness, and as my whole life of preaching might attest, I am not trying to protect anybody’s feelings from the painful conviction of truth.  I just don’t think being mean, demeaning, or needlessly insulting is the same as “speaking the truth in love.”  James 3:17-18 says, “but the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”

END.

Monday, February 13, 2017

PROTEST

  On a recent Sunday our congregation sat down to a discussion during the Sunday School hour.  We usually do something like this every year in February as we commemorate Black History Month.  This year our discussion leader (Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr.) led us through some thoughts on Black Lives Matter, the difference between the concept and the organization.

   The continuing discussion brought up questions about protest, the use of protest, and various efforts to bring about justice and righteousness in the community and the nation.

   One of my observations about Evangelicals, especially those of us in the PCA, is our hesitation to take public stands, or to become involved in protests or demonstrations.  We are reticent to make or do anything which might be construed as a political statement.  At one and the same time of course the whole country pretty much knows where we stand on political issues, both by our statements, our sermons, our social media discourse, and our votes.

    I read and hear criticism of pastors who write or speak very much about social or political issues.  I also read or hear comments that tend to spiritualize any approach to issues, such as calling to prayer, and a negative opinion about going outside the doors of the church to march, or demonstrate in some way.

   While many in our churches see any discussion or mention of social or political issues as straying from the Gospel I tend to see our reticence as a dogged maintaining of an often unjust status quo and a refusal to make our faith known concerning issues of justice.   We have in our church used prayer as social protest.  We have used protests at abortion clinics as evangelism.

      This last year we had a very public prayer walk and march, with seasons of prayer as we began and when we finished, in protest against recent gang shootings and killings in our neighborhood.  Was it spiritual to pray?  Of course, blessedly so!  Was it political to march?   I think so, but it probably didn’t seem that way to most people who are against murder.  Gang leaders might have taken it another way and as soon as you have two sides to an issue, whether they be right or wrong, you have politics.

   What often comes across during a “spiritual” rebuke to any public demonstration by Christians is that often the “issue” is what really matters, and this is the underlying offense, and not usually so much the behavior of demonstration or protest.   I think we always need to be discerning about both, not only to how a protest or demonstration is conducted but also as to what the issue might be.

     As believers we must be non-violent, we must be loving, even to our enemies.  We have to follow the example of Jesus who when he was reviled did not answer in the same way.  Another problem some have with protests is that good guys and bad guys might come to the same rally for the same reason, and conduct it in the same way.  So, if an anarchist, or a socialist, or a Muslim, or a Catholic, or a Democrat, or a Tea Party member shows up at a rally in which I am standing for something righteous, or just, then I welcome them to the event.  However, not everyone shares our values as to being loving, meek, non-violent, and seeking conciliation.

     There are times when we cannot stand with those who will take actions, or use strategies, that are antithetical to our faith.  For me there are uniforms that would be so antithetical to my faith that I couldn’t stand with them even if they were against the same things I am against.  I don’t think I could stand with a Klansman, or a Nazi.  A nudist would bother me as well.

   I believe we have to always be angry at evil.  There is no other godly way to feel about it.  This does not make us angry people.  I think we always have to be angry at oppression and injustice, but this does not mean we are called to slander, belittle, misuse, hurt, malign, or commit violence against those who practice it.  One of the problems with social media protest is that we often assume we know someone’s motives and mock them for a motive we actually have no honest or accurate way to discern. To articulate and describe their behavior is accusation enough.  To call for penalty within the law is legitimate and does not make us vicious. 

    Civil disobedience calls for a lot more thought and justification.  Sometimes there is absolutely no other way to protest an unjust and evil law except to disobey it, and be willing to go to jail for violating it, until such laws are changed. 

    Churches as churches have to be very discerning about what moral or justice issues they will speak about or against, but if they will not speak up against clear and sustained injustice or abuse then they are being disobedient to the Scriptures, hypocritical, and protectors and partners with oppression. One of our problems in Evangelicalism is that we won’t even discuss these issues in the church, so how are we ever going to have discernment about them?

     Pastors especially have to know where their place of leadership should be, and when and where they must curtail their political or social involvement for the sake of maintaining a pastoral and shepherding role for everyone to whom they must minister. They must never let their pulpit ministry be consumed with anything but the Glory of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the grace of God, and the call of the Kingdom of God.

     This is why pastors are subject to their brethren and have to be humble enough to listen to their Elders.  It is easy to become self-righteous when inflamed with the issues of social righteousness and justice.  It is also too easy to be passive and negligent in standing for the rights of the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the immigrant.  I personally don’t want to sin either way but I think the much more frequent sin, and easier and often taken road is to do nothing; and I don’t believe this is acceptable to God.  Lord, give us humility, wisdom, good counsel, strong Scriptural understanding and conviction, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, faith, and courage!


END

Friday, February 10, 2017

BEING PROPHETIC WITHOUT BEING A JERK

BEING PROPHETIC WITHOUT BEING A JERK!
   In these turbulent and polarizing political times how are we to speak a Biblical and true word to the actions, events, and words of politicians to those around us? Here are twelve tips, especially if you are going to use social media to express political opinions:

·       Don’t be rash or relationships might crash. (Watch out for your emotional reactions [to anything] and take time to measure your words. Surely you know someone out there will not agree with you, so in the way you express your argument do you just not care about their feelings, or how they will now feel about you, since you seemed to care so little about them?)  Proverbs 12:16, 13:5, 17:27, 29:20

·       Don’t be wise in your own eyes. (Be humble enough to get counsel and listen to the opinions of others.) Proverbs 3:7, 15:22, 16:18

·       Check it out before you put it out. (Please make sure you are not spreading “fake” news.  Investigate the facts first.) Proverbs 14:15

·       Stick like glue to what is True. (Always evaluate your words, actions and opinions against what you know the Bible says.) Proverbs 16:13, 30:5-6

·       What have you heard assuming makes, out of you and me? Proverbs 18:13

·       What you write can come back to bite. (Whatever you put out there is out there, and hard to take back, even if you later apologize or recant.) Proverbs 12:18, 17:27-28

·       We can forgive your fumble, if you remain humble. (God gives grace to the humble and it is hard to feel good about beating up on a humble person). Proverbs 4:34

·       If you just attack you will get off track.  (Always be angry at evil and injustice, but do not make it personal.  Love people!) Proverbs 3:30

·       We need prophets whose words bring profit. (Is what you are saying or writing helping anybody, are your words moving us toward positive change?) Proverbs 10:21, 15:23

·       Don’t get your back up about the blow back.  (No matter how kind, righteous, gentle, or correct you might be today’s climate seems to excuse bitter and biting retort.  Sarcastic and malicious response is common, so expect it.  Be sad, pray, forgive, and love.  Don’t return word for word, argument for argument, if there is no learning.) Proverbs 15:28, 17:14, 24:29

·       If you can’t be taught you will surely get caught, in your own arrogance. Proverbs 12:1, 15:31-32


·       A godly walk means sometimes you’ve just got to talk.  Proverbs 31:8-9

Friday, January 13, 2017

THE PRICE OF AMBIGUITY

Let me start this article by some “up fronts.” Since this article is about a political figure it is therefore a political article. I am not a Hillary Clinton supporter.  I am pro-life, I am opposed to homosexual marriage being made legal, I am concerned with radical Islam.  I am also pro-civil and human rights and I believe the government has a role to play in upholding justice and the care of the poor, the sick, and the elderly.  Okay, so these are a few things up front in case you seek to put me in a political box.   I didn’t vote for either majority party candidate for the sake of my conscience.

   I will try to pray faithfully for our new president, as I tried to do for our departing president.  As I seek to honor that office and seek to refrain from slander, gossip, or malicious talk about the President I am still committed to speaking out as to my concerns.  This means that sometimes those comments will be negative. I am concerned about the behavior of President-Elect Donald Trump, and therefore concerned about our future as a country.

    I am afraid our president elect is putting himself in the position of being suspected of some shady things.  This reminds me of the dilemma that Saddam Hussein got himself into when he just wouldn’t let inspectors come back into Iraq while the U.S. government suspected him of having weapons of mass destruction.  Many people accused George Bush of lying and using the WMD fear as a pretext for war.  I blame Saddam for creating ambiguity and defying the United Nations which ended up in our invading his country and in his eventual execution.  This is simply an example of creating ambiguity, and not of anything else in regard to Saddam Hussein.

    The ambiguity Mr. Trump is creating has to do with Russia.  He won’t disclose his tax returns, he won’t be open about his dealings with Russia, and seems to be in denial about Russia’s hacking of the DNC computers.  He seems to prefer Putin to many of his fellow Americans.  So, what are we to make of these things?   He has the opportunity to be transparent, and if he is an advocate of closer relations with the Russian leader he really needs to be transparent, or else the suspicions are going to linger.  We certainly hope there will not be further reason to suspect his motives due to some strange realignment of our national interests which might just compromise the freedom of other countries.

    I remember when the arch-conservatives were paranoid of the Soviet Union (the rest of us were somewhere between concerned and terrified, and not that there weren’t Americans who advocated for communism).  There was a book in the 1960s called, None Dare Call it Treason, by John Stormer.  The John Birch society loved this book.  It smacked of some of McCarthy’s accusations back in the 1950’s, with the suspicion that communists had infiltrated the State Department.  The Obama administration was accused of making room for Muslims in the government (which by the way is quite legal) and this was seen by some as giving way to the enemy, (which in not Islam but radical Islam). For any President to compromise our national interest or strategic security due to his own personal interests would indeed be a step toward treason.

  The way Mr. Trump has handled things leaves open the idea that the President Elect might be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian President.  The fear is that if he can be manipulated by them he could be used as a Russian stooge. Is it possible that a Republican President, not a Democrat or a liberal one, is in fact our worst nightmare for an unethical national compromise with an adversary that invades other sovereign nations (Georgia and Ukraine), supports and cooperates with our avowed opponents (Syria and Iran), attempts consistently to intimidate our military in fly-bys, uses cyber warfare against us on a fairly regular basis, and plays hard ball with us and our allies with the threat of nuclear weapons?   Ambiguity leads to just these kinds of questions.  Admiring strong leadership is ridiculous when it comes to strong arm dictators.

   When I see conservatives, especially Evangelicals, defend Mr. Trump from even being asked legitimate questions I am a bit chagrined.  Some of the same people who slandered Barack Obama incessantly, and insisted he wasn’t even born in the USA, was a Muslim, a Socialist, and a liar (and all of this before they mentioned what policies he stood for that they didn’t like) don’t seem to realize how hypocritical they sound today.  At one time character seemed to matter to these folks but evidently not recently.  What protection do any of us have for the pursuit of policies in which we believe not being thrown overboard by someone whose integrity we cannot trust?

     What I am left with is the impression that conservatives are saying, “if your policies are in agreement with mine I don’t mind your lack of character.” I think a President’s character is always an issue, as well as their policies.  They both count as either one can hurt or help us as a nation. Having endured top secret security checks during my own military career I know that consistent loyalty to America matters when you work for the government. Not only was loyalty an issue but so was susceptibility to financial or moral compromise. It wasn’t taken for granted, it wasn’t simply accepted by verbal affirmations or denials, and it had to be verified and proven.  But now, for our highest office it is evidently to be taken simply by trust while we are given no means of verification. 

   Defending Mr. Trump cannot be done simply by attacking the policies of Barack Obama, or those that Hillary Clinton might have advocated. He cannot be defended by simply bashing the press. This situation has nothing to do with them, it only has to do with someone in whom we will all have to (at least to some degree), and want, to trust. Our freedom of the press is one thing that helps the American people to believe that we have something on which we can rely to ask probing questions.  I certainly hope we will not have another Richard Nixon in office, nor a Richard Nixon type scandal.

     The President is someone we all will need to act wisely and faithfully in America’s interest and not his own.  Mr. Trump is, at this point, leaving us with lots of questions that come from an ambiguity which he has created, that leads to fear, and will create not only continued disunity but increasing cynicism.  Again, this has nothing to do with his political opponents, nor about changing the election.  It only has to do with him and the leadership that he is not giving at the moment.  I hope you will join me in praying for him, and our collective future.  My hope for that however lies with the God in whom I do trust.
END