Ferguson and Baltimore: Lessons on Respect

Baltimore was in chaos. Earlier this week, hundreds of people set fires, looted stores and confronted police. The disorder was triggered by the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. Thousands of troops and outside police have now been deployed, a weeklong curfew has been announced, and many schools and businesses have closed.

I wonder if the actions of the violent protesters will give them what they want? Will burning property and hurting police officers really give them justice? Value? Respect? Will the good people of Baltimore be able to thrive with a new, gentle police force, with a tranquil atmosphere throughout the community after this? Will the houses of worship, businesses, educators and government employees be able to enjoy a peaceful and quiet life as a result? Will more people prosper?

When I was 11 years old I watched Detroit burn. People burned businesses, cars, and neighborhoods. As my family watched 2,000 buildings burn on our little black and white TV, I remember my Dad saying that good people would move away from Detroit, the city would steadily decline and find itself in at least 50 years of poverty. Now it is fifty years later, and we regularly hear about the deprivation that plagues Detroit.

My observation is Ferguson made the same mistake. As I watched them destroying their own neighborhoods, I thought that all the wrong people were in charge. The good people were silenced, and my guess is responsible family and business leaders were quietly thinking about where they could relocate sometime in the next couple of years that would be a better environment.

Methodology matters. We do know how to improve the world. In our lifetimes we’ve watch the impact of Gandhi, King, Mandela, and many others take horrific situations and give future generations an opportunity to improve their lives. I’ve listed three things that might help.

  1. Value Relationships.

Relationships, civil government, and healthy community environments all seem to have some fundamental laws that are universal. History has proven we human beings can create a civil society when we are trustworthy and respectful of others, and when we seek to mutually benefit one another. As a Christian, I believe biblical love means living for the good of the other. In secular terms, when all of us treat each other respectfully and provide goods and services that benefit others, everyone can be better off.

I am persuaded that when we all think in terms of serving one another and using our strengths to improve our own lives and the lives of others, that our communities can be healthy.

  1. Use Chain-Of-Command Wisely.

In order to understand our roles, we have developed chain-of-command structures. When relationships are respectful, chain-of-command is helpful and efficient. When relationships are disrespectful, chain-of-command can be dehumanizing, hateful, and harsh.

When relationships break down, people typically resort to chain-of-command authority to bring order. When command authority is not lubricated with considerate relationships, disorder is looming, and the use of power is likely. We see this in families, businesses, and communities. If there are not cooperative relationships within our chain-of-command structures to get work done and maintain order, resentment starts to replace happiness. All governments, workplaces, homes and places of worship have to understand chain-of-command in order to define roles and maintain order. And when positive relationships fuel chain-of-command structures with those in charge caring and subordinates cooperating, people feel respected and satisfied.

  1. Understand the Purpose of Brute Force.

But when chain-of-command becomes ineffective, someone will use brute force. Obviously, we prefer those in charge to be just and fair, and those under their authority to be respectful and cooperative. However, when those attributes are not present, some type of force is typically used to bring order. It’s not surprising to me to see a police officer respond with excessive force when a citizen disrespects them, disregards their orders and flees. It’s not right, but it is predictable.

Throughout time, we can observe this progressive series of responses in families, communities, companies, and even international relations. I believe we are all created to be in healthy, respectful relationships. When our relationships need order, we depend on chain-of-command. When chain-of-command is disrespected or needs enforcement, or subordinates need protection, we use force.

Yesterday President Obama responded to Baltimore’s chaos by saying, “That is not a protest. That is not a statement. It’s a handful of people taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals.” Gov. Larry Hogan told reporters, “What happened last night is not going to happen again.” Predictably, disorder was followed by an overwhelming police force, which may be followed by the exodus of good people out of the area and years of disadvantage. I don’t think that is what Baltimore wants.

Today, Baltimore’s citizens have an opportunity to build respectful relationships through their cooperation. And Baltimore’s leadership has an opportunity to facilitate a civil community by serving with empathy and fairness.

Manners matter. If we want respectful relationships, we need to thoughtfully invest in the elements that will create them.

We do have a choice.

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Is Allah God?

God is the creator of the universe. He sent his Son, Jesus, to reveal himself to us. And Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to infuse his life into us. But he is not the only spirit in this world. There are other spirits masquerading as God.

Our world has five types of spirits in it;

  • God’s Holy Spirit,
  • human spirits,
  • angels,
  • demons, and
  • Satan.

The one true almighty God, who created the universe, created us to reflect him. We are spirits who live in bodies for a while here on this earth, but our bodies are not us. We are human spirits who have the capacity to be infused by God’s Holy Spirit and receive his life. Angels are spirits who serve the one true God. They are messengers who do his bidding.

In contrast, our spirits can also be infused by the “god of this world” (see 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2; 1John 5:19) or many other spirits who have evil intent and pollute people with bad ideas, deadly motivations, and darkness.

Evil spirits are commonly referred to as demons. Most Bible scholars believe demons were angels who rebelled against God and are now fallen. They are submitted to Satan, who is the god of this world.

As the god of this world, Satan wants people to believe he is THE all-powerful God. He rebelled against God because he wanted God’s authority, just as he does today. But he is not God, nor is he like him. He is a deceiver and a liar, and gains his power by lying to people and pretending to be light, when in fact, he is not. Paul wrote, Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no wonder that his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:14b-15a).

John addressed contrasting spiritual influences when he wrote 1 John 4:1-8

Dear Friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world. This is how we know if they have the Spirit of God: If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God. But if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard is coming into the world and indeed is already here.

 But you belong to God, my dear children. You have already won a victory over those people, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world. Those people belong to this world, so they speak from the world’s viewpoint, and the world listens to them. But we belong to God, and those who know God listen to us. If they do not belong to God, they do not listen to us. That is how we know if someone has the Spirit of truth or the spirit of deception.

 Dear Friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

I define love as “living for the good of the other.” Since God loves us, he lives and cares for our good. If we, in turn, love him, we live our lives caring for his good. When a man and woman love each other, they live for the good of the other. This is one way Jesus (God’s Son) contrasted himself with Satan. He identified Satan as “the thief” and said, The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life (John 10:10).

The world is in a clash of civilizations, which might be the manifestation of a clash between the ideas of people who submit their lives to contrasting spiritual influences. The west is influenced by the ideas of Christendom; the Islamic world wants to please Allah. Some believe that Allah is just a translation of the English word, “God.” But that is not entirely accurate. When a Muslim learns English, they don’t start referring to God instead of Allah, but instead maintain the name, Allah, as the name of God.

Several years ago, political scientist Samuel Huntington published his famous book, The Clash of Civilizations, which gave a gloomy prediction of our future. In contrast, Thomas Friedman gave us a compelling counter-argument in his writings, that the forces within freedom, liberty, prosperity, free-markets and globalization would make the world more prosperous and safer for all. His implication was that Muslims would choose comfort and prosperity instead of adhering to the growing fundamentalist Islamic movement.

During that time I developed a series of talks contrasting these views, and interjected within them the role of the Church, Islam, the necessity of Christian missions and education, and the importance of the Church for the success of western ideals in the future. In addition, I participated in a series of decision-making discussions with major global leaders on what we referred to as the Huntington/Friedman contrast of the global geo-political situation and thus, our futures. Back then, I hoped that Friedman was right, but I also said that it was contingent on the wisdom of our Christian leaders. At that time I was concerned that evangelical leaders were distracted, that they had taken their eyes off of our primary global responsibility. Sadly, that opportunity is now past for the Church, and based on current geo-political indicators, global events indicate that Huntington was right.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the popular author of the best-selling book, Heretic, Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, has hope. She is urging the Islamic world to have a reformation similar to that of Christendom. She wants Islam to:

  1. Amend Muhammad’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran.
  2. Amend the supremacy of life after death.
  3. Amend Shariah, the vast body of religious legislation.
  4. Amend the right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law.
  5. Amend the imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

I do not believe this will happen. Christian reformation happened because the practices of the Church had veered away from Scripture and the reformers were demanding a higher view of Scripture in both faith and practice. In other words, our reformation facilitated an emphasis on the Scriptures and thus, the life-giving Spirit of God. The opposite is the case for Islam. When Muslims adopt a higher view of the Koran, they are radicalized, not for representing the love of God, peace, respect for others and forgiveness, but for a harsh demand of obedience to Allah and annihilation of those who don’t comply.

For there to be a reformation of Islam comparable to the Christian reformation, its adherents would need to grow away from the tenets of their faith and adopt a lower view of the Koran’s teachings. In other words, they would need to separate themselves from the spirit of Allah and turn, instead, to the Spirit of life. When Christians become devoted, they increasingly adhere to the teachings of the Bible that encourages them to love, forgive, turn the other cheek, be healing, and be kind. When Muslims become devoted, they tend to go a different direction.

Certainly we’ve seen that not all of those who claim to be Christians are immune to demonic ideas themselves. But our historic mistakes have not been representative of Christ or the New Testament Spirit-filled life he offers, even though some Christians will try to use the Scriptures to defend their own atrocities. President Obama was right when he reminded Christians at The National Prayer Breakfast of what we as Christians do when we are not operating in the life-giving Spirit of God, but are religious ourselves. He said, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Jesus experienced this when Satan tempted him in the wilderness by using the Scriptures against him. God’s good work within the human heart is a spiritual uplift, an enlightenment, an ascent to a higher way of thinking. It lightens the load of life and provides encouragement. It is not the religious bigotry that some wrongly promote.

An open hearted reading of the New Testament offers God’s solution to wickedness in the human heart and removes the opportunity for outside evil influence, if and only if we submit to the Lordship of Christ and are filled with the Holy Spirit. If not, we’ll find ourselves hating and warring just like all who follow the “god of this world.”

Bottom line, any time we human beings depart from the Spirit of the one true God who is loving, redemptive, forgiving, healing, and kind, we find ourselves manifesting our own fallen natures influenced by the deadly god of this world. But this is the opposite of our Christian faith. Christian reformers had only to point to the Scriptures to teach us this. To what do Islamic reformers have to point their followers?

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The Press, Blogs, and Our Responsibility

The first amendment to our constitution prohibits the government from infringing on the freedom of the press, which forces all of us to be wise consumers of their information and, when necessary, hold them accountable when they misreport.

Finding responsible reporting is difficult. Very often initial reporting on a story is incorrect to some degree. But typically as time passes, fact and fiction separate and, if the story still merits coverage, more accurate information is published. This, of course, does not happen if there is no follow-up reporting clarifying facts, or if the narrative is so entrenched in the public’s mind, no typical reporter would challenge it with mitigating facts.

Public misunderstanding is exacerbated by the reality that later, more refined reporting is often not as well placed or well read as initial stories because the story has grown old. And on the web, when an interested person wants to read about an archived story, very often the initial story, that had the most errors, will come up first, before the corrected story, because it received more hits or is linked to more sites. Take that problem, add bloggers who have no editor, no supervisory board, and can’t be fired for dishonest or shabby reporting, and it becomes difficult for the average consumer to get the story right.

Let’s start with reporters.

 Local reporters are generally underpaid, overworked, and trapped in their careers. Their greatest hope for promotions, larger markets, or increased pay is to get a story that is picked up by a national audience or noticed by the national press. Thus, local reporters have great incentive to be sensational in hopes of getting more interest in their story.

This is why a politician’s slip of the tongue, drunken spouse or wayward child is more newsworthy than their work in office. It explains why we so often think we’re getting the facts about a court case, and then when the jury, who actually hears and sees the pertinent evidence first hand, makes a decision contrary to the filtered and incomplete evidence presented to the public through the press, we think they’re wrong.

Though I believe all responsible reporters try to be objective, they too perceive things just as we all do, through the lens of their own values, experiences, and knowledge. Their values include their beliefs, which shape their worldview, and personal needs, which often include a need to get their story earlier in the broadcast, on the front page above the fold, or interesting enough to be distributed by other outlets. Regardless of their training and intentions, their experiences do color the way they see things. Thus, two honest reporters covering the same story might report very different accounts.

Typically reporters re-report what other reporters have written, which is why reporters are often accused of being incestuous and lazy. Reporters often re-report information that has either been discredited or modified. If they do not invest the time, or lack the ability and relationships to research their material thoroughly, misinformation is perpetuated.

Take that and then have the managing editor of a newspaper cut the story down to fit into a certain number of column inches, or the broadcast news editor shrink a story into a 45 second segment, and consumers are left with only the most dramatic impressions being presented as news.

Sadly, it does not stop there. For the print media, the headline writer forms the first impression of the story in the mind of the reader. Typically, the headline writer is not the reporter who investigated the story, but someone else whose job it is to generate interest in the story in the space and size type that works for the layout. Their job is to make the article even more interesting. The vast majority of readers DO NOT READ complete news stories. Most simply read the headline, thinking the headline is a summation of the story. A few more read the lead, and a small minority read the complete story. Thus we may have a headline that accurately reads “Mayor Johnson Accused of Sexual Assault” while the body of the story reports that the police department investigated and found no basis in fact for the accusation, and that the mayor has been exonerated.

Or, worse, the first story is about the accuser and the accusation, some comments on the gravity of the accusations, and background material on how many people in authority commit sexual assault, which implies that the mayor probably did assault someone. The story exonerating the mayor might not appear for several months. Typically the exoneration story will not be well placed or well read. By then, the mayor’s career, family and future are ruined and the reporters have moved on to their next story.

Headlines are not the story, nor are they necessarily truthful. They are advertisements for the story, and the person who wrote the headline might not have even read past the lead in the story to write the headline.

There are a few exceptions on the national level. Seldom, but sometimes, national reporters are held responsible if there is no way their bosses can justify the misrepresentation. If they make up quotes, lie, or intentionally do lazy work, they are more likely to end up like Brian Williams, Dan Rather, or more recently, Rolling Stone magazine. But the above-mentioned were discredited only because their distortions were so obvious to all that their bosses had no choice but to respond to them publicly. And remember, bloggers who have no bosses can’t be fired, they just keep writing.

Which leads us to the internet.

 Recently, I read on the web that Abraham Lincoln warned all of us about believing what we read on the internet because sources are difficult to verify. So I decided to check it out and learned that aliens had impregnated a Methodist woman in Kansas, that George Bush planned 9/11, that we never landed on the moon, that Barak Obama is going to stay in office another term, and that Macaulay Culkin killed himself again!

Misreporting happens all the time without follow-up corrections or any consequences except to the subjects of the stories. News organizations have pressures that force them to move on rather than report their own misreporting. Wikipedia, which is largely composed from press reports, is so unreliable no credible academic institution will allow its students to reference it as a source. Sadly, millions refer to Wikipedia daily believing it to be reliable and factual, which it can be if we all do our part.

We as average citizens have to do our part to enhance a trustworthy press by being VERY responsible ourselves and wise to its shortcomings. Contrary to the press’s view of itself, it is made up of human beings, many of whom want to serve the general public, but who are fallible. The press not a branch of the government and it is not lofty, noble, or necessarily helpful. It is a business searching for influence and power, just like so many other businesses. But any alternative to the free press is even worse, so we have to protect it. How? By being thoughtful, informed consumers who understand there is always more to the story, by rewarding accurate reporting, and by holding those who misreport accountable.

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Can We Have a Little Respect In Washington?

Some say the greatest source of grief in the world develops either when someone wants you to do something you do not want to do, or when you want someone to do something they do not want to do.

I think it’s true. It seems as though we human beings can overcome just about any obstacle, but the suffering caused by one person or group demanding that another conform to their wishes has caused more human grief than any other single issue.

Religious people tend to do this. Those who agree are included and given benefits, while outsiders are shunned, punished, humiliated, and sometimes put to death for their lack of compliance.

Political leaders do this. When people refuse to submit to the dictates of some political leaders, those in office use the power of the state to cause their opponents to suffer.

Married couples, kids on a playground, young men and women deciding the pecking order in their group can cause immense grief.

We should never minimize the power of respect. In my younger days as a pastor, I thought about how delightful it would be to have a Sunday morning worship service with only those in attendance who wanted to be there. I envisioned no one there because of family pressure, religious guilt, shame or obligation. So I decided to try the experiment of respecting people’s choices about their own church attendance. Gayle and I decided many years ago that we would not use any of the popular techniques to get people to come to church. We decided that we would simply have a believers’ meeting and respect the decisions of others whether or not they wanted to join with us.

We have made a fundamental decision to respect the choices others make for themselves. And of course, we appreciate it when others are respectful toward us. It leads to a more peaceful existence for all—one more conducive to respectful dialogue in the marketplace of ideas as opposed to hostile division.

Now for the mid-term elections . . . Today I am dismayed with the headlines in our local newspaper. The banner headline across the top is “Obama takes a defiant stance” with the sub-headline, “vows to act alone to change immigration system; GOP opposes plan.”

I do not expect President Obama to start thinking or acting like a Republican, but I do expect him to be respectful toward those with whom he disagrees in Washington. I remember when congress was controlled by the Democratic Party for 40 consecutive years, while having a variety of Republican and Democrat presidents. During those years Democrats and Republicans dined, golfed, worshipped, and negotiated together. Even in the midst of significant conflict, decorum, respect, and a fundamental understanding that the other guy was elected too, provided a fundamental foundation for the democratic process to work.

We as Americans want our politicians to be statesmen, not just advocates. We want them to represent us, use wisdom, have manners, and when necessary lead us responsibly. We trust them with power, but that power is rooted in the dignity of the citizenry. So we want them to give their best arguments in a respectful way, and move our country forward.

We don’t want them to be such strong advocates for their position that they demean, embarrass, or dehumanize those who differ from them. They should debate, vote, accept the results, and go to dinner or play golf together. Disrespect prevents that from happening. If there is trickery, deception, blame, or embarrassment, then we human beings tend to get bitter, align only with those who sympathize with our view, and we stop thinking and start hurting one another. I believe that is what has been happening in Washington, but it’s time for it to stop.

Our mid-term elections count. President Obama needs to respect the people’s representatives, and those representatives need to respect our chief executive. If mutual respect is not upheld, then the power struggle begins again with our politicians simply positioning themselves for elections in two years.

Many have paid a high price so that we don’t have a monarchy, a dictatorship, or one party rule. I believe that President Obama is thoughtful and was elected by the left because of his political philosophy and pleasant demeanor. But there are many of us who do not believe his philosophy is best. If he will honestly work with those who differ from him, he could be heralded as a great president. But if unilateral executive actions continue, while mocking and blaming congress, then history might not laud our current administration.

When President Obama was elected, the majority in both houses of Congress shared his philosophy of government. We, the people, did not approve of what he did as president when his office had that much power, so we limited it to some degree by changing the leadership of the lower house of Congress. Two years later, our nation re-elected him as President, affirming his role, but not with the power of both houses of Congress, requiring that he respect, listen, advocate and negotiate, to enjoy greater success. But there was too much blaming and division, so rather than ending the gridlock by re-electing Democrat leadership in the lower house, we went the other direction. We elected to further limit his power and increase the level of accountability over his actions by electing Republican leadership in both houses of Congress. If those in the White House will respect the decisions we, the people, are making, we can move forward. Strong, humble leadership, Republican and Democrat, working for the common good, could serve our nation and the world well right now.

Today’s headlines make me wonder if this is what people in other countries feel like when their prime minister or president disbands their parliament. Checks and balances are gone, decorum and dignity are thrown to the wind, and brute force prevails. Is that what we’ll have for the next two years? I hope not.

We can all show more respect. We in the Church need to be respectful of those we may never persuade and protect them as we would protect our own. Christians should ensure that Jews and Muslims feel safe in our communities, and the opposite should be demonstrated as well. Atheists need to be respectful of those with faith, and vise versa. We should demand that all of our representatives be statesmen, and should they choose to be partisan advocates, let them, but not from an elected governing position. As citizens of a constitutional republic, we are ultimately responsible to ensure that our society is civil. Let’s begin by upholding the value of mutual respect.

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Genesis 1, Pope Francis and Evangelicals

Pope Francis stimulated interest in Genesis 1 with his comments on the Big Bang and Evolution, especially among conservative Evangelicals. We tend to defend a more literal interpretation of Scripture and are a movement that highlights the centrality of the Word in our faith and practice, so some evangelicals are concerned that the Pope is compromising biblical authority.

Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This is the first sentence of the first book of the entire Bible. It establishes one of the first great truths God wants all of us to understand—that he created everything.

Genesis 1:2 says, “The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.” Does this describe the first condition of the earth after its creation? And what of the six days which follow in this first chapter? Do they describe the process of the original creation?

Note that in verse 1, the Bible highlights creation, where God created the heavens and the earth. Later verse 21 describes the creation of the animals, and verse 27, the creation of people. The Bible differentiates between the original creation of the earth and its subsequent reconstruction making it suitable for people. It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the six days in this first chapter do not necessarily describe the original creation of the earth.

When verse 2 describes the earth as formless, empty and dark, it doesn’t mean that is the condition of the earth immediately following its initial creation. Actually, there is no way of knowing how many millions, or maybe billions, of years might have passed between verses 1 and 2. For us to assume that all God has ever done is create the universe, the animals and all of us is too limiting for the Eternal, Almighty God. He is God. This universe might just be one of his creations, and there are obviously mighty things he did before our Genesis account, and that he will do after the accounts in Revelation conclude. Remember he always has been and always will be. He was before the creation of the world as we know it, and will be long after we pass into eternity and the earth enters a new phase that is far beyond the final accounts in the book of Revelation. The Bible gives us an understanding of God as we need to know him for our salvation, so that revelation is not thorough in every other subject. We will all learn more when we step into eternity, and still more when we see him face to face.

The English Bible translators could have translated the third word in verse 2 “became.” “The earth became formless and empty, . . . “ The same Hebrew word is translated “became” in Genesis 2:7b where the Bible says, “He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.” In other places, translators use “and it came to pass” when translating this Hebrew word. So Genesis 1:2 could read, “And it came to pass that the earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. . . “ That would have given the average English Bible reader a grid for understanding when visiting the Natural History Museum.

The first verse of Genesis simply states the fact of the original creation, and leaves it there, in the dateless past. Then verse 2 tells of the chaos which came to this earth later. And then the six days which follow describe the re-formation of the earth with a view of earth becoming the habitation for people having the history of which we have a biblical record.

When I was in high school, my pastor taught that scholars guessed regarding the cataclysm that disorganized God’s original creation between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. He called this the Gap Theory, and speculated that maybe some pre-Adamite rebellion of which we have no record, or maybe the judgment of Lucifer, and the angels that followed him, created the disorder described in Genesis 1:2. We don’t know, but if you are interested, study Isaiah 14:9-17, Jeremiah 4:23-27, and Ezekiel 28:12-18. These passages certainly communicate that much could have gone on during this period that may not be explained to us by God until eternity.

The Bible does not say evolution is impossible, and it’s within biblical parameters that there might have been several big bangs in the development of the universe, with more to come. During the first four days in Genesis 1, no creative acts are recorded. It’s only when we come to the animals and the human race that the Hebrew word for “create” is used. It is not a stretch that these six days give the account of a new beginning, but they are not necessarily the first beginning.

As a conservative Evangelical with a high view of Scripture, I believe the Pope might be right on this one, without compromising biblical authority.

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Could Losers be Losers for a Reason?

It’s election season, which is an opportune time for us to think about success, security, the role of government, and our overall philosophy about what is important to us. As a pastor, I often think about these ideas because I want everyone I know to be better off, to be able to enjoy their families and their relationships, and to be free from worry and fear.

I understand the realities of earth in contrast to Heaven, but it’s sometimes frustrating to watch people destroy their own families, relationships, potential for greater earning, and future security. I’ve watched some live life well and enjoy the benefits; and I’ve watched others live without intentionality, often resulting in failure. The vast majority of the time, though, those who win are those who invest in making life what they want it to be.

I think Jesus revealed a major life principle when he said, “To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29).

I tell my kids that all good things are earned, but bad things will happen all by themselves.

I am aware of and don’t appreciate the shallow portrayals of success. I understand that the poorest American lives better than the royalty of 100 years ago, so I’m not writing this to promote the American “we’ve all got to have more stuff” idea. I know we all have reason to be grateful. I am, though, persuaded that God wants our lives to improve. I appreciate Jesus saying, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life” (John 10:10b).

No doubt, people who know their heavenly Father and consistently participate in their local church have greater potential to do better in life. Why? Because in church we learn that we are here for God’s purpose, that God’s grace is in us, so we have the power to obey him . . . which results in a better life. Yes, there are exceptions. All generalizations are faulty. But these ideas do help us live better lives.

I know there are some who believe all things should be equal for everyone, but I think they are delusional. We’re all born within varying circumstances, with different bodies, brains and socio-economic statuses. Human beings are born into different families, nations, and situations. Every one of us is unique and different, and we decide what we’re going to do with our own circumstances. I think the only potential realistic equality is our great American experiment striving for equality for every citizen under the law. But let’s face it, equality under the law is where equality ends.

So we can whine, complain, blame and compare, always pointing out where we are inadequate or not given the opportunities others have. Or we can take what we have and invest to build the best possible lives for ourselves and those around us. Whining, complaining, blaming and comparing weakens us. It displaces our responsibility and gives us an excuse for our failures, which removes our motivation to improve.

I think that’s what Jesus meant when he talked about us using well what we have been given. I hear folks from every race, socio-economic status and background, blame, complain and fight against those whom they blame. Black against white, white against black, rich against poor, poor against rich, conservative against liberal, and liberal against conservative. Those folks rarely enjoy the lives they could have lived. Then I see others who are better off because they appreciate the things they have and invest them to create their futures.The blamers call these folks “lucky” because they seem to have things naturally fall their way.

In Deuteronomy 28, God tells his people what will happen to them if they line up with him, and what will happen if they go their own way. In Matthew 25 Jesus clearly teaches what will ensure loser status, and what it takes to win. It’s not rocket science. And in 2 Corinthians 9, Paul is perfectly clear. Some of you will study these references, figure them out and build a great life. Others will go on to the next thing and assume the future will work for you. Yesterday you created most of the elements that are in your life today, and today you are creating your tomorrow. It’s your choice. You have more power than you might realize.

We evangelicals have so emphasized salvation by grace through faith, I think we might have unintentionally downplayed the importance of what we do and do not do, and how our actions impact our future. True, we’re saved by grace, but both the Bible and life teach that other universal laws give us opportunity to make life better for ourselves and those around us, or to make life worse.

It’s our choice to determine what we are going to do with what we’ve been given. We can do what leads to greater success, and peace and joy in our lives, or we can do the things that increase the probability that we will lose. Winning is work, but we can do it. Let’s win.

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Why Gayle and I Give

When Gayle and I were married 36 years ago, we decided to be givers. I was 22, she was 21, and we made two core decisions: 1. The local church was the most important institution God had established on the Earth, so we wanted to be participants in it, and 2. We were going to be faithful givers and tithers.

Now I’m 58 years old and Gayle and I continue to hold these foundational decisions as fundamental practices. One reason is that we don’t believe ministry should ever be a burden to anyone. When we see churches go broke, church workers go unpaid and church leaders struggling to meet basic financial needs within the church, we don’t want to be part of that problem. As a result, we have chosen to consistently give 10% of everything we earn to our local church. We see our church as a storehouse of resources from which all of us draw and out of which we serve others. It’s like an armory to strengthen us during weak times, or a granary from which we all feed when hungry. Cities are better when there are an abundance of local church based youth ministries, men’s and women’s fellowship groups, Bible studies and prayer meetings. One time our district attorney told me he had never had to prosecute anyone who had been in Sunday School the week before. Think of that. By simply increasing Sunday School attendance, crime rates go down. The impact of local church work is important, so we don’t want the men and women working in those efforts distracted with lack.

Gayle and I paid attention to the ideas Malachi communicated when he wrote, “Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! Your crops will be abundant . . . “.

How does God do it? I’ve watched people who faithfully and consistently tithe to their local church experience three vivid developments in their lives.

First, they become increasingly responsible and their responsibility leads to greater earnings. It holds true that those who make significant money usually have greater earning power because they carry responsibility well. Tithing develops responsibility, and being responsible is rewarded in every area of life. When people demonstrate they are responsible, they are compensated for it. Jesus addressed this in Luke 16:10 when he said, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones . . . “ This is the famous passage that concludes with Jesus saying we can’t serve both God and money.

Secondly, I’ve noticed that givers develop greater skills. God wants to bless the work of our hands. He values the development of our skills. When he wants something done, he calls on people who can do a good job. In other words, he rewards us for developing skills. God will place in us a desire to read, obtain an additional degree, or develop a technical skill. Thus, as we develop these skills, we make ourselves increasingly useful and improve our earning power, and we often end up enjoying greater prosperity.

Third, givers are gracious. I have no idea how this works with certainty but givers have attractive personalities. Tithers seem to grasp the big picture of what is truly important in life and are willing to invest in others. Tithers know the importance of strengthening the ministry of the church, the body of Christ. Tithers directly invest in the family of God because they know what it really is in a community and in eternity. As a result, they are not crass, crude, rude, or brutal. Instead, they know the application of love, because they invest in it.

I think this is why Paul was so extravagant when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 9: 6-10, “Remember this – a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.’ And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. As the Scriptures say, ‘They share freely and give generously to the poor. Their good deeds will be remembered forever. For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increases your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you.”

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Rational Charismatics

I was raised in the United Presbyterian Church by a Presbyterian Dad and a Methodist Mom. When I was 16, Bill Bright ushered me into a more dynamic and personal relationship with Christ, and when I was 18, I was baptized in the Holy Spirit. I loved serving the Lord and experiencing the fruit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit in my life. But when I turned 50, I went through a personal crisis as I tried to determine how I should identify myself within the body of Christ. After much internal debate, I finally decided that I was a “Rational Charismatic.”

I am Charismatic, knowing without any doubt that the gifts of God, as outlined in the New Testament, are available and operational today.

I am rational, meaning that facts and reason inform my beliefs. Evidence matters. A quality education and the ongoing development of ideas that impact our lives and inform our understanding of the world around us matters.

Sadly, after writing that, I feel the need to validate my conservative biblical beliefs to my friends reading this blog. That subtle feeling reveals the problem we have created. Why have we believers allowed ourselves to think a high view of Scripture and confidence in the person of Christ doesn’t coexist with rational thought?

Jesus is so completely the Son of God, Son of Man, Lord of all and Creator of all, I have no reason to doubt that he is who he says he is. So much so, that I have no fear in pursuing my doubts, thinking through the realities of life, and interfacing what I read in the Scriptures every day with science. In my mind, New Testament faith does not require blindness, because there is evidence for its truth. I have no trouble reconciling the discoveries found in the natural history museum with Genesis, or chemistry with Jesus turning water into wine. Because of the miracle Christ has done in me, I know he can override natural law, but natural law is not his enemy. He created this orderly system within which we live, which is why the scientific method of discovery works.

As referenced earlier, some conservative believers have made a horrible mistake by positioning their teachings against science. Modern science is the product of western civilization, which is the child of Christendom. Centuries ago the popes taught that science and the Bible conflicted in areas which science has since been proven correct. Now Bible scholars agree that the church’s interpretation of the Bible was wrong and that, in fact, the Bible and scientific knowledge are harmonious. Think of that. As science has proven to be correct, the church has had to refine its interpretation. What’s wrong with that? Our interpretations of the Scriptures are not the absolutes of Scripture. Some of our interpretations should change as we grow and learn. I believe that since God is a God of order, and he created all, that the knowledge we gain through studying his creation is harmonious with the Scriptures.

Those who deeply embrace and defend ideas they believe to be biblically based, which are not evidenced, might find themselves in the same position as our forefathers who tried to defend a flat earth. Facts are helpful in informing our interpretations of Scripture. Scripture is helpful in informing our existence. Facts are never the enemy of Christians.

I’m not defending the cynic or the unbeliever. In my view, people who let their hurts, arrogance, or bigotry shadow their thinking are just as vulnerable as sincere believers who are desperately hoping they are right, when they are wrong.

Accepting modern science is not a contradiction of Paul’s admonition to reject the “wisdom of this world”. He wasn’t dealing with science, but philosophy and our understanding of God and our existence. He wasn’t devaluing the importance of facts or truth, but emphasizing the temporary nature of trends and traditions, something we should continue to be cognizant of today.

We can grow in our understanding of the Bible, believe the New Testament, and fully operate in the power of the Holy Spirit, without having to deny the reality that exists in the world around us.

Let’s be rational, Bible-believing Christians. To be rational Charismatics might require that we discard some of the cultural superstition in our modern Christian practice. I think that would serve us well.

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Are Christians Hateful?

To do a quick survey on any subject, google it, and Google will automatically suggest what others have already searched regarding that subject with the most popular searches appearing at the top of the list. Anyone with a computer can immediately tell the most popular thoughts on a subject. With that in mind, I just typed in “Christians are . . . “. Every time I do this, the results are different, but sadly they are seldom positive. A good friend, Michael Cheshire, pointed this out at one of our Roundtables on Life-Giving Leadership. I knew that we Christians had a major public relations problem, but Michael’s suggestion confirmed that many believe that the positive image we project is not, in fact, authentic. So today I did it again, and the results were “. . . hate-filled,” “. . . annoying,” “. . . delusional,”  “. . . so narrow-minded,” and “. . . like manure.” I’ll stop there. Point proven.

I used to think that we were good, loving people and that the world hated us because of scandals. But that has not proven to be the case. I’ve ministered as a very successful, highly respected pastor, and as one considered to be among the chief sinners. I can say, without qualification, that ministering Christ from the position of an embarrassed and humiliated sinner who is gratefully redeemed is much more effective than ministering as a religious leader.

Maybe that’s why Paul chose that position for himself.

But even though we all value integrity and holiness, the reputation of Christians is poor even among Christians. It used to be that, “He is a good Christian man,” was a high recommendation. Now it’s common for even Christians to be cautious about doing business with someone who professes to be a Christian. What happened?

I think that in the midst of our Evangelical fervor, we’ve forgotten some of the core virtues Christ taught us and have neglected to do what he did. As you may understand, I am sensitive to how we as a church respond to those identified as “sinners”. More important, I believe our response to “sinners” reveals whether or not we are authentic according to God’s New Testament standard.

I also think that our willingness to surrender to Jesus’ Lordship is best demonstrated by how we respond to another’s sin. It’s those perceived to be morally inferior, like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, that cause those who think they are morally superior, to become like Javert. Right, but dead right. This is the situational twist that causes Christian leaders to become enemies of the Gospel in the lives of those desperately needing life and light. Our moden church’s revelation is wanting. Maybe Paul can help us regain our bearings.

While Paul was in prison, he wrote to Philemon, a slaveowner, about his runaway slave, Onesimus. This little letter communicates the ideas that, if incorporated into our churches, might keep us from ever being called hate-filled again.

According to Paul’s letter, Onesimus is the sinner. He was wrong. He ran away and deserved to be killed under the law. Though his name means “useful,” as a runaway, he became “useless” and would have probably been killed if Paul had not rescued him by being Christ-like, or Christian.

Paul, on the other hand, is the restorer. He understands the application of the Gospel and is working toward Onesimus being forgiven and thus, becoming “useful” again. As a restorer, he applies the Gospel in his plea to Philemon, Onesimus’ betrayed and disappointed owner. He does so in a letter to Philemon.

1. Note that Paul became an advocate for Onesimus by writing to Philemon, “I am boldly asking a favor of you” (1:8), just as Christ advocates for us.

2. Note that Paul invokes Philemon on the basis of love, which I define as “living for the good of another.” Here Paul establishes that love is the bedrock of the discussion involving the guilty one, Onesimus (1:9), just as the basis for Christ’s work in us, when we sin, is God’s great love for us.

3. Note that Paul’s belief that God places all of us in a family of faith actually has significant, tangible meaning (1:10) that demands a change in course. Paul indicates that God placing us in his famly is not simply good sermon material, but an idea that should dominate our discussions when dealing with another believer.

4. Note that Paul does not believe that Onesimus’ sins and shortcomings have excluded him from usefulness in God’s kingdom, but that because of his shortcomings, he came into relationship with Paul, in prison, and is now more useful than before (1:11).  Jesus’ imagery of God the Father welcoming home the prodigal, or the good shepherd leaving the ninety-nine to retrieve the one who wandered away, forces us to re-evaluate our common practice of discarding those who, in our view, have forfeited their value in the family.

5. Note that Paul, the Apostle, does not hesitate to connect personally and emotionally with Onesimus, the lowly imprisoned slave. Instead, he boldly states that “with him (Onesimus) comes my own heart” (1:12). Paul does not keep personal distance to protect himself from the potential of Onesimus’ future failures. Instead, he invests his own reputation in Onesimus and takes the risk of embarassment should Onesimus do what he did before, flee.

6. Note that Paul expresses his desire to keep Onesimus with him, indicating Paul’s respect for the value and skills Onesimus possessed (1:13). Very often the skills of those who fail are discarded because we believe, in some sad way, that that their skills are tainted and no longer useful. Jesus does not believe that about us, and Paul did not fall into that trap in regard to Onesimus.

I’ll not take space here to comment on the fact that Paul wisely deals with the reality of Philemon’s exalted social position in contrast to Onesimus’ and, probably Paul’s as well. But we do know that when we as a church deal with those with whom we disapprove, or those who have embarrassed us, we communicate our own moral superiority and want the other’s inferiority made clear. Our willingness to be Christlike and be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12 KJV) is rare in our modern church culture.

7. Note that Paul communicates that the status contrast between Philemon and Onesimus are irrelevant since both are in Christ. If in fact Philemon was an educated, wealthy, and well-respected landowner, as many scholars believe, and Onesimus was an uneducated, poor, disreputable slave, as is probable, then Paul’s request is profound. His request could only be required by a genuine application of the Gospel. “He (Onesimus) is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, . . .” (1:16). Note that being a brother actually means something material. It mandates a certain behavior toward another.

8. Note, then, that the Apostle Paul makes this truth profoundly personal, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (1:17). Paul gives to Onesimus his own reputation, credibility, and in this case, his relationship.

The  implications of these ideas are profound in today’s church culture. Think of those we’ve discarded! If we would inculcate these ideas into the culture of our churches, we would actually become what we say we are, which would not only revolutionize our practices with one another, but also our reputation.

9. Note that Paul takes responsibility for the sins and debts of Onesimus! When we have a grievance against someone else, we are essentially saying that they owe us something. Typically we want an apology, or for the fallen to demonstrate more humility, or sorrow, or simply to disappear so we are not reminded of the pain they caused us. Sometimes we want them to demonstrate what we would consider a greater commitment to integrity, or maybe even to repay us or the church or business for the costs their problems created. In contrast, here Paul states that if Onesimus has wronged Philemon or owes him anything, that he, Paul, will make it right (1:18-19).

10. Note that Paul does not ask Philemon to give Onesimus a favor for Onesimus’ sake, but Paul uses some of his relational credit by asking Philemon to do him a favor by treating Onesimus with respect (1:20). Think of this, Paul is fully invested in using his credibility with Philemon for the benefit of a lowly sinner, Onesimus. That is exactly what Christ does for us, expecting all of us Christians to model our faith by doing the same for others.

11. Note that Paul trusts that, because of his influence with Philemon, that Philemon will do even more than Paul is asking (1:21). This is EXACTLY what Paul encourages every spiritual Christian leader to do with those who have been overcome by some sin (Galatians 6) when he exhorts them to humbly help that person back onto the right path. Paul is, in effect, Onesimus’ savior, healer, redeemer, and intercessor. Paul demonstrated by his response and intervention for Onesimus that he was, in fact, a Christian.

12. Note that in conclusion, Paul makes this profoundly personal and strong. He tells Philemon he is coming to his house for a personal visit.This, in my view, seals the deal. He doesn’t say that he’ll follow up once Onesimus proves himself over time, or that he sheepishly hopes Onesimus will make it, or that their relationship is solid regardless of Philemon’s decision. He respectfully makes his plea based on his own integrity, and then, having confidence the matter will be settled, says he’s coming to the house for a visit. That is EXACTLY what Christ does for us, and what we can courageously do for others.

Are we Christians hateful? For many, we are, but we are not compelled by Scripture to be that way. I maintain that another’s sin is our opportunity to demonstrate that we are loving, healing, and restorative Christians. Paul demonstrates this for us. It’s time we forfeit our modern Evangelical culture with our lightly starched shirts unstained by sin, with pristine, lotioned faces and nicely pressed suits, and become Jesus for someone in need.

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Look Who’s Talking Now!

What is Jesus saying to the Father about you? Is he telling him the worst about you? I think not. Since he died on the cross for you, your failures, weaknesses, mistakes, and lapses are covered by him. Jesus has taken on the role of saving you from the eternal and some of the earthly consequences of your humanity, and infusing his perfect life into you. Now he is telling the Father about that, because he continues to want the best for you. He gave you his righteousness, his life, his nature, even his name. He is your friend. So like a good father defending his child, a friend protecting a friend, or a competent lawyer representing a client, Jesus is for you. He is your advocate.

What do advocates do? They present the best possible argument on your behalf. They promote, defend, and support you. As your advocate Jesus offers you his counsel, and he also counsels others how to see you and respond more positively to you. He wants the best for you. As your advocate, he speaks for you and champions your interests. He maximizes your good and minimize what is negative about you. Actually, advocates do not even bring up the negative unless it is to your benefit. When you are the subject, Jesus is neither cautious nor suspicious, but is 100% sold on you. Though he knows you better than you know yourself, he presumes the best about you. So what is Jesus saying to the Father about you right now? All good things. He’s defending you. He’s spreading good news of hope about you. He believes in you.

So as a Christian, as a man who strives to be Christ-like, I focus on what is good in people, to see them through the love of God, to cover over their sins, to be their advocate, and to give the best possible argument in their defense. As a Christian, I feel no obligation to be an expert in someone else’s sins, to nuance my compliments with any negative I know about them, or to ensure they experience the full consequences of the weaknesses in their lives. That’s just not my role.

The Devil is their accuser, but since I’m not a Satanist, I’m not compelled to be their accuser. Journalists are in the business of telling all they know, but I’m not a journalist, so I have no obligation to broadcast every negative impression. The district attorney has a responsibility to hold those who violate the law accountable and ensure they receive the consequences they deserve, but I don’t work for the DA’s office, so I have no role ensuring others experience just consequences. Instead, I am a Christian, which means I am like Christ in that my role is to forgive, heal, infuse hope, defend, provide, protect, and give my life for those who have not earned it, and advocate for those who are guilty. That is exactly what Jesus did, and continues to do, for us. And it’s what we can do for one another.

It takes courage to be Christ-like. It’s actually easier emphasize the bad in others, but I’ve chosen to try to find the speck of gold buried in mountains of dirt and talk about the gold. Others can talk about the dirt, but I’m highlighting the gold. Why? Because Jesus did that in me. By his grace, we can have grace. Many accuse the gracious of lacking standards, condoning sin, and being ungodly. But in my mind, grace is God’s solution to our sin problem, not the cause of it. And since I want to be Christ-like in my response to another, I find the courage to apply grace. In other words, I am willing to apply the same Gospel to them I so deeply appreciate having been applied to me. Jesus is talking positively about us. We can do the same for one another.

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