Diluting our Witness

The pernicious stain of politics in religion continues to dilute the Christian witness. My heart falls each time I read a snide remark by a Christian brother or sister on social media, or in conversation. We are at the point now where scoring political points, or making wink-wink references for like-minded ‘friends’, is more important in the public square.

We have to stop this.

Our claim to follow and emulate Christ has to be more basic, more fundamental, to our worldview and approach to everyday life. Jesus’ ministry was an effective mix of compassion and hard truths. He held a hard line on moral behavior, warning about how sin ultimately originates from the thoughts we entertain. Further, he explicitly warned his followers, and all who would listen, to avoid the corrupting influence of popular politics upon one’s religious life.

We’re at the point now where political gamesmanship has unfortunately, and effectually, obscured Jesus’ message of love, compassion and salvation. From the neutral position, the awful mix of political messaging thorough the Church is an unappealing sight. To be more effective witnesses, we have to work hard at prying off the grasping fingers of political machinations. And keeping them off.

Our charge to “go and make disciples of all nations” is a serious one. Disciples are those who work diligently to adopt their Teacher’s worldview, methods and goals. How are we doing on that?

Morals matter – sometimes.

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As a society, we have shifted toward demanding the ‘real’ version of public people: the more warts, the better, it seems. A person with no skeletons in her closet is a ‘fake’ and ‘obviously’ trying to make others look bad by comparison.

There is less appetite for classical role models – clean, ‘good’ living folk. We want those who appear to be ‘ordinary Joes’ – campus stories of drunkenness, roughhousing and locker room talk are today’s badges of honor. Now everyone seeking public confidence must preface her comments with ‘I am not perfect…’ before sharing a shocking personal failure in order to gain ‘credibility’.

The thinking now is that the price of getting my vote is baring your soul and spilling your own dirt. If I can see myself at a bar with that political candidate, pastor, CEO, then she can win my support.

We really, really want to be part of the group that wins, survives and dictates terms to all others. Its at the core of our human nature. Our heroes are those who get the results we demand. Methods are a secondary consideration, subject to the shifting sands of our declared morality.

There’s even scriptural acknowledgement that one needs to be very aware of the world’s rules. “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” Matt 10:16.

The ineffectual nice guy loses his luster quickly, at serious risk of being branded as weak and limp-wristed. Al Gore has (and will) never been forgiven by his party for yielding the contentious 2000 US presidential election. In the desperate contest of life, the ‘greater good’ must make way for our side’s good.

So morals matter – sometimes. And only when the result will be in our favor.

“I am not looking for a church deacon, I’m looking to vote for a President,’ was an opinion voiced quite boldly by a church leader. The shock is still real to me.

I had not realized that the moral expectations for such key leadership roles would be different.

Honor and Shame – Old School?

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Honor is an outdated concept. Quaint. Naïve. Suicidal.

“I am not a role mode,’ was basketball star Charles Barkley’s position in the mid-1990s. However, he was exactly that, despite hoping to avoid the public scrutiny that it brought. We don’t get a choice in the matter.

People, especially our children, will elect to model our actions and behaviors, as much as we may not want them to. “Do as I say, and not as I do” is the foundational plank of the charge of hypocrisy.

However, worries about ‘hypocrisy’ are no longer a consideration for preventing or disincentivizing a course of action. “We don’t get embarrassed!” proudly declares a character in one of the popular anti-hero television series that have captured our imaginations.

The days of the scarlet letter are way behind us. Poor Hester Prynne, much abused by her old Puritan society in the 1600s, would today have millions of defenders rallying to her cause.

Do we do our children a disservice when using shame as a disciplinary tactic?

As the Body, Christians Need Each Other

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Philippians 2:4 “Look out for each other’s needs.”

Christian life, living in close accordance with Jesus’ words, can put one in isolated circumstances. The entire bent of the Sermon on the Mount was to live in a way that is almost opposed to the world’s priorities and ‘common sense’. Allowing someone to ‘get away’ with hurting you with impunity is tough enough, not to mention teaching your family to adopt the same principles.

Our Bible teaches we ought to treat those who offend us with grace and forgo keeping score. The proverbial ‘turning of the other cheek’ offers guidance on how to deal with those who may have taken offense at our own actions. We may have to yield the ‘rightness’ of our position for the sake of peace.

Such an approach has the potential for the practicing Christian to come near to a state of exasperation. If people know they can mistreat you with impunity, the world’s rules dictate they do so gladly. Isn’t Christian ‘suffering’ a badge of honor? 

The leaders of the early church appreciated the potential for new converts to face this harsh reality. Becoming a Christian comprised making a serious, considered, and sober commitment to the much harder road, the narrow path described by Jesus. Taking up one’s cross was not merely a figure of speech. Many balked at the demand that the new life would place upon them and their families. One’s prospects would dim quickly as employment, business and other necessities of real-world life were placed in jeopardy.

So, Christians formed communities for mutual support and sustenance. They literally looked out for each other’s material needs. Congregations in one city collected and sent funds to new bodies in others. Paul, Peter and others wrote many letters of encouragement and guidance, hoping to keep these new fledging flames alive. They succeeded.

Today’s western world is certainly a much more hospitable place for Christian practice. Yet, even within the church body, groups of believers face distinct challenges at the intersection of society and beliefs. How does one continuously turn the other cheek in the face of racial-based or politically motivated mistreatment? What happens when members of your church family can’t comprehend, or worse, dismiss, your perspective? Won’t even try?

There lies the root of today’s phenomenon of believers losing ‘faith’ and seeking alternatives, despite hewing even closer to Jesus. They steadfastly believe in the gospel, but leave, because as a family, we have stopped looking out for each other’s needs.

So, listen closely to someone’s response to ‘How are you doing today?’.

Can we be that place where an individual, going through trials and doubts, finds a listening and compassionate ear? We ought to examine ourselves – do our fellow believers consider us trustworthy and non-judgmental enough to even have a conversation about differences? It would be a good start to helping the Body heal and thrive.

Illustrations of Evil

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As humans, and especially as religious people, there is a overarching tendency to illustrate or personify ‘evil’. Christians speak of the devil as a fallen angel, the most beautiful that was once in heaven. Having grown envious of God, he and other angels rebelled against that Highest Authority. For their efforts, they were cast from heaven.

In the popular Western imagination, the previously beautiful angel ended up in hell, usually regarded as being ‘below’ or under the earth. A very hot place, it seems that the very environment transformed those fallen angels into a grotesque tribe. The devil came into being in our minds.

Now when seeking to illustrate evil, people draw, paint or dress up actors in dark costumes using earthen colors: blacks, browns, reds. How did this come to be?

In films and books, there is the ‘dark’ side that must be avoided. The bad guy usually gives himself away by standing in shadow, decked out in black. Beware of the dusky snake, the black panther, Darth Anyone.

I rather imagine evil instead as  being deceptively beautiful. Temptation begins with attraction and enticement. A more accurate and instructive approach is to present an ‘evil’ character as someone you would see, and trust, in everyday life. Someone you would never believe would mean you harm.

Think back to the horrors of the past, man’s injustices to others. That’s usually how it happens, isn’t it?

Religion and Wellness

The notion of the Sabbath, a rest, reflection and worship day, has been slowly chipped away at over time. I can still recall the discomfort with having my church announce it was offering Saturday night services in order to allow families with Sunday activities to still get some ‘worship time’ in. I don’t have anecdotal evidence that Seventh Day worshippers have seen the same happen with their traditional Saturday Sabbath time. But I imagine the pressures may be similar.

As the door opened to Sunday being just another day, the creep began. Sunday afternoon basketball, baseball or soccer games turned into all day tournaments, with matches starting as early as 8:00am. Suddenly the choice became whether to attend church or tell your child’s coach that she wouldn’t be able to make the early game. Would your kid then become labelled as ‘undependable’, leading to a long-term role on the bench? Would the youngster feel the pressure to explain why he was ‘different’? Was that fair on a ten-year old, who was just trying to be ‘normal’?

What’s odd is that as we have moved away from the notion of a widely agreed upon ‘time-out’ day for worship and quiet family time, there is an increased emphasis from secular society on wellness. Blog posts, apps for mindfulness, videos on ‘self-care’ multiply at an impressive rate. There is certainly a need for a time in one’s schedule for a ‘reset’.

In a book I read recently, “The Closing of the American Mind” (Alan Bloom, 1987), the author observed that as society moves away from organized religion, there has arisen a great need for therapists to address the wellness gap. Answers that may have been previously provided by ministers and priests, or by personal study of the Bible or Koran, are now sought on couches in small, quiet rooms. Instagram and Facebook posts by ‘influencers’ garner large followings as people seek to address these fundamental needs. We find ourself swiping through short video clips, looking everywhere for nuggets of wisdom on how to achieve that state of human satisfaction and contentment.

My challenge to the church, and believers everywhere, is to think on these things. As we guide our families and children towards success in this earthly life and the joys to come after, we need to set the example. Deliberate time spent in reflection and worship is an essential part of a well-balanced life. It reminds me of the well-known anecdote of the rocks in a jar. We fill our lives with the small stuff – social standing, kids in the right sports and activities, making sure to keep our relevance on social media and real-life networks, jockeying for dominance in the savage jungle of the workplace. Once that small stuff, sand really, fills up our jar, there is no place to insert the rocks, the things that matter in life. Relationships and family.

When these things suffer, our wellness goes down the tubes. And in seeking to correct the balance, we look for insufficient remedies from everywhere, and everyone, but God. But as humans feeling our way through the gloom of this world, we all know that there is a light out there. This knowledge has been imprinted in our DNA by our Creator. It is closer than we think, and we need to just open our eyes to what is right before us. When we do so earnestly, things begin to fall into place, and the journey to wellness is already well under way.

Divorcing Ethnicity and Culture

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A few recent events have led me to think about society’s notions of ethnicity and culture. How many times have I heard an African-American comedian start a joke with “You know how it is with us Black people, we’re…”?

What usually then follows is a listing of examples of ‘Black’ behavior and attitudes, typically of the negative variety. Baby mama drama. Drug abuse. Credit woes. No job. No income. Ni**a this, b*tch that. And so on, and so on.

Included among those laughing and rolling in the aisles are middle class, or upwardly mobile African-Americans. These are people who live lives so much different from that described on stage. People who persevere to get educated, people who save, people honor their obligations in family and business settings. Continue reading

Liberals and Conservatives – Why?

Seems like wherever people form themselves in groups, eventually they neatly divide themselves into liberal and conservative schools of thought. Pretty soon, they’re all hard at bashing each other to gain control over the direction of the entire group.

Why is this always the case?

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense, though. Liberals tend to be largely those who believe that existing societal injustices ought to be addressed by rule changes that impact the entire group. The most fervent liberals of course, will be those that are directly impacted by these injustices. Thus, they will fight hard to gain remedies in order to enjoy more full membership of the group i.e. society at large.

We see this most clearly with the waves of European, then Asian, immigrants that journeyed to American in the 1800s and 1900s. African ‘migration’ to America from the 1600s to mid-1800s resulted in millions of people seeking social justice well into the mid-1900s.

New immigrants were perceived to be the dregs of society – the takers, the vagrants, the ones that were ‘here’ to reap the rewards earned by the sweat and tears of previous generations of immigrants. Check out TV shows like BBC America’s ‘Copper’ or films like ‘The Gangs of New York’ to get some insight into how the ‘nativists’ treated the starving Irish, arriving in droves during the Potato Famine, as well as escaped or freed African slaves coming up from the American south.

However, a funny thing happens once a sub-group gains its measure of social justice, becoming an ‘equal’ member of the larger group.

Conservative views find fertile ground. The liberal focus on injustice, even while other sub-groups are still undergoing that experience, shifts instead to economic progress, as well as a consolidation of the hard earned rights of membership. With the yoke of persecution lifted, people can more freely compete as equals, investing their treasure and effort, seeking to earn just rewards.

People are liberals, until they feel they have an equal part in society. After that, they wax conservative, determined to maintain and improve their place. Perfectly human behavior.