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).

 

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It’s best to approach Scripture with humility

I received a call Tuesday afternoon. One Christian woman called on behalf of herself and another Christian woman — one in her 20s, one not in her 20s. Speaker phone engaged.

They had a theological question in preparation for a women’s Bible study. The Bible study materials being used including an interpretation my callers found odd.

They conveyed the details. I gave my perspective.

The long and short of my view was that I did not agree with everything the study writer said, but I could see how she (the writer) came to such a view based on Scripture. The Bible doesn’t say the same thing the writer said, but she may be correct in what it means, even though I don’t think so.

We do this all the time. We read Scripture and seek to interpret it. Whenever we move from quoting Scripture to “explaining” it, we have moved into interpretation. This is the stock and trade of every pastor and Bible study leader. A problem arises when we confuse interpretation with what Scripture actually says.

Lots of us take the Bible’s words seriously, but we should be a lot more humble about our interpretations of what it means.

Christians were once convinced the sun circled the earth because of what they read in the Bible. Mind you, the Bible never said such a thing; people interpreted what it said as meaning that. They interpreted wrongly. Just like the folks in the Bible, when I say the sun is going to rise in the east and set in the west, I don’t mean the sun is circling the earth, but someone who did not know better might misunderstand me and misinterpret my words.

Let’s face it, we are not God. There are lots of things we do not know. And since that is the case, it seems a heavy dose of humility might be in order regarding our interpretations.

When the Bible study writer cited above (a woman) and I get to Heaven someday, assuming God lets us both in and we still care about such details, one of us will find out he/she was wrong and one will discover she/he was right. I hope the one who was right will not gloat; there should be no gloating in Heaven.

A little bit of Heaven is needed for our redeemed relationships now. As we try to understand Scripture and apply it, it’s good to also leave room in our theology to know we might be mistaken.

Again, none of us are God. The one Holy Spirit is working to help us know truth, but it’s pretty obvious we are not “listening” very well because we Christ followers come up with lots of different interpretations of the same Bible verses.

Humility! We need more humility regarding our interpretations of Scriptures.

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful (Colossians 3:12-15, 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.

Russell Moore offers help for families

My copy of Russell Moore’s book, The Storm-Tossed Family, arrived this weekend. Russell:

These families of ours can be filled with joy, but will always make us vulnerable to pain. And the joy and the pain are pointing us to the same place: the cross. Nothing can show you that you are loved and that you belong like family–and nothing can strip away your crafted pretensions and comforting illusions like family [p. 3].

As I share this, I’m thinking that friends are in different places with their families. Some of you are in a real time of thankfulness for the love in your families, and some of you are hurting with pain. Both point us to the cross that symbol of God’s love, the pain that comes from love, and the hope that arises through love.

To my friends whose lives and families are storm tossed right now, you may want to recall the biblical story that Russell cites in the first chapter of his book. On a storm-tossed sea, with Jesus asleep in the boat, the disciples panicked. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Jesus spoke to the storm, “Peace! Be still.” And peace came.

The storms of life do not respond too well to me. All I know is to give them to God, which isn’t easy for those of us who like to fix things.

Russell sites another storm and a boat with those same disciples.

Jesus, again was preternaturally calm, walking out on the storm-tossed waters themselves. When Peter attempted to join him, though, he was knocked down, not so much by the storm as by his own panic. . . . Jesus, of course, grabbed him by the hand [p. 4].

Peter took it.

May we today take Jesus’ hand of help in the midst of our panic. That “hand” is sufficient.

USA is no typical nation

People fleeing Western Europe in the 17th century created a unique civilization eventually called the United States. They left Europe but brought its ways and ideas with them — some that we cannot be proud of now, such as ideas of racial superiority, and some we can be proud of, such as unleashing human potential.
 
The English-centered nature of the U.S. civilization began, with time, to expand to be more broadly European, then more African, Hispanic, and Asian. (Africans participated from the start but were subjugated and oppressed. It took emancipation to free them to help lead this nation into its greatest days.)
 
Some things written 100 years ago about immigration can be instructive now. I’ve encountered two quotes lately that I love for describing the USA.
 
Randolph Bourne praised the United States as “the first international nation” in 1916.
 
Horace Kallen spoke of the USA as a “symphony of civilization” in 1915.
 
The historical context is different today, but I still like those two ways of describing and understanding the USA — an international nation and a symphony of civilization.

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.