Category: Christian Living

Face-to-face encounters need understanding, grace

Face-to-face encounters possess great potential for good or evil, and both possible outcomes have been illustrated over the past few days.

First, Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann became part of our national “conversation” as a video went viral showing a grinning Sandmann standing before a drumming Phillips.

Sandmann, a Kentucky teenager, wore a “Make America great again” hat, a symbol of President Trump’s political campaign. Phillips, an older Native American, beat his drum in prayer. With other teenagers in the background, the short video portrayed a confrontation of threat and disrespect for the elder Phillips.

We now know there is more to the story. Sandmann, in my eyes, was being disrespectful. He should have stood aside and let Phillips walk back to where he had been earlier. The group in the background makes it more confrontational because loud, unruly crowds anywhere become threatening, whether or not that is the intent.

The hats, however, provided more fuel; they are a political symbol. Some people, including many Native Americans, view the MAGA hats as representative of a racist president, specifically because of insensitive comments he has made about indigenous people.

More information revealed the broader context of the incident. Sandmann and friends had not descended on Phillips as the short video clip seems to indicate. The situation began when the Catholic boys and another identity group exchanged taunts.

Phillips walked into the group of teenagers while beating his prayer drum in order to diffuse the situation that had not involved the Native American group. Sandmann then stood in Phillips’ way and refused to move. The smile and grin, with friends in the background, conveyed disrespect of this elder to a watching world.

But this became political, not just because of the MAGA caps, but because a Twitter account pushed the provocative clip. Twitter later shut down the account, but the damage had been done. Another essentially anonymous social media presence had ignited a national furor. This account sought to provoke left-leaning Americans; other accounts work up right-wing Americans.

Two new names — Guy Jones and Don Wegman — later entered the national conversation. Jones is a Native American, and Wegman is a MAGA-hat-wearing Anglo man. They met Tuesday at a protest outside the Covington Catholic Diocese. Jones was there to protest; Wegman was there to make personal contact. The two men ended up exchanging phone numbers and planning to meet for coffee.

We need more people like these two — people who will have civil conversations about what they think.

The early church had a problem with people stirring up trouble. There were Judaizers, gnostics, and others. Some people simply like to stir the pot of public discourse, and they usually are not seeking greater understanding and fruitful dialogue. They are seeking to divide.

A frustrated Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church.

For my part, brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, since you were not yet ready for it. In fact, you are still not ready, because you are still worldly. For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans? For whenever someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not acting like mere humans? (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, CSB).

We are so prone to act like “mere humans.” I belong to Calvin (or Calvinism). I belong to free will Baptists (or Arminianism). I belong to Conservatives. I belong to Progressives. I belong to Trump. I belong to Clinton.

We can understand this in the world, but it should not be this way among Christ’s people. And we can bring the same respect for differences to our broader social and political context.

Paul talking about church factions:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? … According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one is to be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:5, 10-11, CSB).

Today, we are thrust into a world in which anything we say or do can be captured and shared globally. Any of us can go viral. We can be both understood and misunderstood when one moment of our lives gets the world’s attention.

But we also are consumers of such messages. It is good to bring grace to our judgments, understanding that we do not know the whole story. We can be thankful we know what is going on and be moved to action while also remembering that one short video or photo can be very misleading.

One more word from Paul:

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:2-5, CSB).

 

God calls Christians to the divine work of pursuing justice.

The “arc of the moral universe … is bending toward justice.”

These are now famous words, but are they true? What do you see when you do a personal memory scan of what you know about history. Some of us may see an arc toward justice; others of us may wonder.

We surely have not arrived at complete justice in the United States.

We live in a nation of laws, which is a huge step toward greater justice, but those laws are not always justly applied across economic and racial divides.

We live in a nation of inclusiveness that promotes justice for all persons without regard to race or ethnicity, but still bigotry and racism flourish in both language and violence.

Justice and injustice — both are real.

Scripture makes it clear that God is just and wants justice. One reason some people miss this is that in Scripture the words translated as justice or righteousness are often the same words in Hebrew or Greek.

To keep this simple, we can just say that justice and righteousness are intimately connected in Scripture. We can say that God is both righteous and just and also that God’s people are to be both righteous and just.

Matthew 13 illustrates the connection between righteousness and justice, and it shows the importance of both. Jesus said at the end of time all of those who cause sin and are lawless will be thrown out of God’s kingdom. “Then the righteous [just] will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom. Let anyone who has ears listen” (Mt. 13:43, CSB, bracketed word added).

In short, God’s children are righteous and just.

God is bending the moral universe toward justice, and God has called us to join in this work.

Some may doubt the truth of what Martin Luther King, Jr., said about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, but I think this great pastor described exactly what God is doing and wants all of us to participate in doing.

Here is the full quote from King’s book, Stride Toward Freedom:

But amid all of this we have kept going with the faith that as we struggle, God struggles with us, and that the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.

We struggle or should be struggling in pursuit of God’s great purposes, and one of those is justice. We do not, however, struggle alone. When we pursue God’s purposes we have the Divine energy and power with us. Justice is our struggle, but it is not ours alone.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.

Young people have their reasons for leaving church

Symptoms, we call them. When I can’t stop coughing, it’s an indication something is wrong in my lungs. When my truck will not start, there’s something wrong under the hood. When young people drop out of church, there’s something wrong. Dropping out is a symptom.

It’s not really news that many young adults stop attending church regularly after high school. New numbers show the situation is actually a little better now than 10 years ago.

But if we care about the people these numbers represent and the teenagers who are following them, then the reasons why they leave are very important.

Top five reasons for dropping out:

  1. Moved to college

  2. Judgmental or hypocritical church members

  3. Disconnected from people in church

  4. Disagreed with church’s political/social issues stance

  5. Work responsibilities prevented attendance

The LifeWay Research post said this:

Virtually all of those who dropped out (96 percent) listed a change in their life situation as a reason for their dropping out. Fewer say it was related to the church or pastor (73 percent); religious, ethical or political beliefs (70 percent); or the student ministry (63 percent).

Accurate, yes, but something very disturbing is said here. The change in life situation is a huge factor, but it’s not only that these young people moved out of the house. Church life bothered them to a high degree — 73, 70, and 63 percent.

These are young people who had been attending church regularly. They are not people from outside with impressions shaped by word of mouth, stereotypes, or the media. They didn’t like what they experienced INSIDE church.

Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at LifeWay, said:

For the most part, people aren’t leaving the church out of bitterness, the influence of college atheists, or a renunciation of their faith.

True, but:

What the research tells us may be even more concerning for Protestant churches: there was nothing about the church experience or faith foundation of those teenagers that caused them to seek out a connection to a local church once they entered a new phase of life. The time they spent with activity in church was simply replaced by something else.

Read that paragraph again. Nothing about the church experience or the faith learned there “caused them to seek out a connection” to a church in a new place.

If this is true, it’s an indictment of our churches. How can a person go to church and not have an experience and a faith that people want to replicate in a new place?

Something is wrong; the symptoms are clear. Whatever the diagnosis, the treatment is clear — a healthy dose of Jesus.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.

Trying to find the Jesus side of Christmas

There are always two sides to Christmas. There is the 2,000-year-old side of it with the Emmanuel Moment — God with us — in the birth of Jesus. Then there is the today side of our experience with the living Christ.

On the today side, if the subject of religion comes up, I often say to people that I’m a Jesus guy, at least I’m trying to be — the highest standard can never be fully met. The odd thing that happens is the look I get. People don’t seem to know what to do with that response — with a Jesus guy or gal.

I guess it’s easier to respond Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Calvinist, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever. Then we can put people into neat little contemporary boxes.

To say one is a Jesus person is to be a bit odd, I guess. I think it’s because most people only think of Christmas and Easter when they hear of Jesus — a miraculous birth, a brutal death, and an astounding resurrection.

New birth and death to ordinary life are part of what it means to be a Jesus person, but Jesus’ life conveyed so much more. He healed hurting people. He taught confused people. He challenged and confounded religious people. Most importantly he loved God and people.

When I say I’m trying to be a Jesus person this is what I mean. I’m trying to die to self and live to Christ — trying. I’m trying to bring healing to hurting people out of my own hurts. I’m trying to teach confused people out of my own confusion. I’m trying to challenge and confound religious people out of my own need to be challenged and confounded. I’m trying to love God and people.

A special star announced the first Christmas. Today, each Christ follower is a new star shining into darkness — pointing toward new life.

May we live with the awakening brought about by that first birth and all of the new births it has led to since that day.

Learning from George H.W. Bush

It’s easy to say we need more presidents or more politicians like George H.W. Bush. That lets the rest of us off the hook.

Joseph de Maistre famously said, “Every country has the government it deserves,” and, “In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve.”

We are not the same nation today as the one which nurtured Bush into maturity. This nation is always shifting and changing. It’s interesting that the U.S., in its 1992 incarnation, dumped this good and great man as president who had overseen the fall of the Soviet Union and led the nation to victory in a war to stop aggression — The Gulf War.

But here we are at now. We need a nation that nurtures and lifts up truly great leaders as it did with George H.W. Bush.

Whenever we learn of a person’s values, we should ask ourselves how they align with Jesus and the broader scriptural wisdom. So let’s try that with a few ideas attributed to Bush. His biographer, Jon Meacham, said Bush’s life code was “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.”

Tell the truth. This is about as solid as it gets. It’s in the 10 Commandments — don’t bear false witness. Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” In other words, you should be so trustworthy that a simple “yes” or “no” will do; you don’t need to swear on your mother’s grave or anything else when you are trustworthy.

Don’t blame people. The first thing that comes to mind is Genesis 3 when Adam blames Eve for his sin, and she blames the serpent for her’s. It didn’t work; God punished all three. Proverbs 28:13 says we are not to conceal our transgressions, and blaming others is a way people often seek to do that. One other thought occurs to me. Blaming others is really childish behavior; it’s immature. The Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” 1 Corinthians 13:11, ESV).

Be strong. Paul’s words come quickly to mind. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10, NIV). To live a life of character, to live a life for God requires courage and strength. It’s throughout the Bible.

Do your best. Try hard. Colossians 3:23: “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men” (NKJV).

Forgive. This is at the core of Christianity. The model prayer asks God to forgive me as I forgive those who wrong me. In other words, we need and want God’s forgiveness. We should be like God and be forgiving of those who wrong us.

Stay the course. This one is a little tricky. Staying the course is a good thing if you are following a good path; it’s the opposite of what we need to do when we are on a bad path. Hebrews 12:1-2 talks about the importance of following Jesus with perseverance. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross,scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (NIV).

Those are a few of the values that characterized the way George H.W. Bush lived. They are consistent with Scripture. Bush, however, was not perfect. Like the rest of us, he can be open for criticism.

As we think of the late president, we can see shortcomings in ourselves and seek to be better Americans. Better yet, we can look to Jesus and seek to be better followers of Him. As we follow Christ, chances are we will choose leaders who can someday be eulogized as was George H.W. Bush.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.

Finding joy by running in the wind

My brown, wavy hair once grew to touch my shoulders. At that same time, my legs could move me faster than most young men when running full tilt. It is odd to remember the sensation, but one of the things I loved then was to feel my hair blowing in the wind created by my own endeavor, my own speed.

Four decades later, I still think of letting my now-white hair grow long just so I can experience that sensation again. I surely cannot run as fast, but I think I could run fast enough.

Why did that sensation strike me then and stay with me so long. Maybe it was the feeling of freedom. Maybe it was not psychological at all. It could merely have been the molecules of my hair roots massaging my scalp in a way that is pleasing, as when you touch the skin of a newborn baby. Maybe a bit of both.

When riding my bicycle, the same thing happened — hair blowing in the wind (no helmet) — but I do not have memories of feeling the same satisfaction. It’s as if my subconscious self minimized the feeling when machine-aided; something inside me knew when it was my energy alone creating the thrill.

Have you ever noticed in real life the difference between the speeds of light and sound? It doesn’t happen often. I noticed it clearly once as I watched a car entering a freeway in Dallas and plowing into the backend of a Ram pickup. I saw it, before I heard it — clearly. It was about 50 yards in front of me. That’s the difference between the speeds of light (seeing) and sound (hearing) in very non-technical terms.

I’ve also seen it on highways as the smoke from braking tires is seen before the squeal is heard. (I drive too much.)

Those two speeds are constant (though it gets technical). The difference is always there, but we don’t usually notice it.

The key is noticing.

There may be another factor in my experience. I didn’t have it until I was in my upper teens.

I grew up with a crew cut (very short) then migrated to a longer-but-well-trimmed haircut. During my crew-cut years, I never experienced the sensation of hair blowing in the wind. When my hair got a little longer, hair blowing in the wind meant only that my well-oiled hairdo had been disturbed — not good when your hair has to look just so.

When, at about 17, I let my hair begin to grow longer (against Dad’s wishes), I experienced something new — for me.  Sometimes the wind, on its own, blew my hair this way and that into a mess. But running differed. When I ran, the wind pushed my hair back and away from my eyes, and I finally noticed the joy of it.

I felt free, as if in some small way I was escaping time and space and simply experiencing pleasure in that moment. We really need to at times to just feel the joy of being human — created in the image of God, who clearly loves joy.

Moral of the story: When we move through life using the gifts God has implanted in us we can experience great joys and little joys. When we don’t use those gifts, we never know what we are missing. That’s why it’s so important for us to tell each other about the little and odd joys that just come from living as the gifted persons God has made each of us to be. It may encourage someone else to live a little.

And here is one more thought: Some Christians seem afraid of freedom and joy. They are bound up in fear and anger. This is so sad. The world turned to Jesus because of the love, forgiveness, hope, joy, and celebration that He has brought to living. We need only notice it.

And, don’t tempt me, or I may let my white hair grow long, part it down the middle again, and run like the wind — or more like a breeze. Trese, however, would not like that look on me, so I may need to just dream it.

 

‘When bad things happen . . .’

On the phone to my oldest son last night a thought popped into my mind. And when thoughts pop into my mind, they often pop out of my mouth. I said:

“When bad things happen, some people blame God. I’m not like that. When bad things happen, I blame Satan.”

I don’t use “Satan” language much. But I believe evil is at work in this world, and sometimes it helps to personify it in order to fight it.

I do say this a fair amount: “Earth is not Heaven. We get glimpses of Heaven here, but we also get glimpses, some very big glimpses of Hell.”

We are nanby-panby about God sometimes because we think of this place as benign, as the Garden of Eden Extended. It’s not. This is a fallen world.

I can get worked up about this; you gathered. The cancer didn’t make me that way. The suffering I’ve seen made me this way.

Two days ago I got some good news, there is no evidence the cancer in my prostate has gotten beyond it, and it’s now gone. Good news! Celebration!

Well, there’s more. There was some not-so-good news: the cancer is more aggressive and advanced than the docs originally thought. No time to panic, but it does mean eight weeks of radiation are in my near future. Celebrate! There are good tools to fight this stuff.

So that was the context for my comment to Landon tonight. I don’t expect this cancer to kill me, but if it does, God is not to blame. God doesn’t do this kind of thing. The Divine is on the side of life, true life. God’s still got us in this Hellish-with-a-touch-of-Heaven place because God is calling all of creation into Divine relationship, and God wants us to help do it.

It gets messy at times because Satan or whatever you want to call it, the Dark Side maybe, is working against the life-giving of our Creator.

So pray for me, please, because I don’t like the Dark Side winning anything. We let God know that we really do care about each other when we pray. We love. We pray. God hears. God rejoices because when we love we are like God, and this is the Divine purpose revealed in Christ.

Sorry, I got kind of wound up. I’m competitive by nature. I want people to know that as “we” fight this cancer we are not just fighting a disease; we are fighting all that is bad in this world. We are going to continue to lose some of those we love to cancers, to other diseases, to disasters, to accidents, to this and to that, but in the end we win. Love wins. God wins.

Good enough for me. I love you, my family and friends.