What Would I Say?

I’ve been reeling over these last 72 hours or so by the news in my country. I’ve seen two men die—killed by police officers in what appear to be unnecessary uses of deadly force. I’ve watched the aftermath of a sniper attack on police officers that killed five and maimed a handful more. There is far too much tragedy to go around right now.

After serving as a pastor for most of the last decade, I no longer preach regularly, but I wonder in times like this just what I would say if I had to step into a pulpit on Sunday. How would I try to make sense of this? What tiny little corner of the gospel could possibly bring meaning or comfort to the way a congregation might be feeling? How would I keep the peace, and still be faithful to the words and sacrifice of the Prince of Peace?

It’s a wrestling match, this weekly agony of what to say, and it only gets harder when the events and surrounding issues are as painful and contentious as the ones we’re neck-deep in right now.

What would I preach if it was my job to give the sermon this Sunday? Here goes.

So that I didn’t just find my own favorite crisis passage, I turned to the lectionary, a weekly list of passages that are designed to ensure that our congregations hear the whole Bible over time. I looked to see what was listed for this Sunday.

The gospel passage for July 10th is Luke 10:25-37.

That’s right, this Sunday we will read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus tells the story of a man who was beaten by robbers who took everything he had and left him in the street to die. Two religious leaders pass him by with no explanation—they simply cross the street so they don’t have to look at the man as he bleeds to death. Then Jesus introduces the hero of the story, the Samaritan. He bandages the man and takes him to a place where he can be treated for his wounds—all at his own expense.

Now we think of Samaritans as people who are somehow genetically predisposed to be helpful, but that’s not the story Jesus is telling. Samaritans were considered defective Jews—they worshipped in the wrong place and practiced the wrong rituals and generally believed in the wrong way. Think of the kind of person who offends you the most. Muslim? Gay? Republican? Liberal? Now make them the hero of this story, and you begin to see the point Jesus is making, not just here but in multiple places in the Gospels: Nothing—not behavior, not theology, not worship style—nothing matters to Jesus as much as the way you demonstrate love to the weak and helpless and wounded.

So why is that important on this sad Sunday?

I saw a man on my TV held down and shot to death in the street.
I watched a man on my laptop as he bled to death in his car.
I’ve seen the aftermath of police officers killed while guarding a peaceful protest in response to these two deaths.

The question I’m faced with now is this: Am I going to cross the street to avoid these tragedies, or am I going to look for some way to help?

I have the voices of my black brothers and sisters in my ear, desperately and persistently reminding me that these are neither the first nor the last black men who were killed by police while going about their daily business. I hear the stories—though I can never fully enter them and experience them—I hear the stories of what it feels like to be black and know that armed law officers see your teenage sons as criminals first and humans second. I feel the guilt at the idyllic life my own teenaged son has in front of him. He will never be pulled over and searched and humiliated because the color of his skin.

Am I going to cross the street to avoid these interruptions to my own busy life, or am I going to look for some way to help?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a holy dare—it’s a slap in the face and a challenge from the Savior of the world to get off our collective rear ends and do something. It’s a cautionary tale about walking by when someone is dying in the street—or bleeding to death from a wound he didn’t deserve. No one wants to be the priest or the Levite in this story, crossing the street to keep our shoes clean. I don’t want to walk by, either, not when I claim to love and follow someone who died from a wound he didn’t deserve.

To walk by is to approve, it’s as simple as that. To walk by is to pass on an opportunity to use our status and influence and privilege to make something right that never should have been wrong in the first place.

Psalm 82 is also a part of this Sunday’s lectionary. Brace yourself. This psalm is a direct challenge to complacency, right from the get-go. Listen.

2 “How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Consider this the benediction to the story of the Good Samaritan. How long will you throw your weight behind the perpetrators of injustice and wickedness? Because make no mistake, walking by is just another way of condoning what’s going on right in front of you.

The call to action—the call to faithful discipleship—the call to each one of us is to defend the weak and fatherless; take up the cause of the poor and oppressed; rescue those who have no power to rescue themselves; and literally to move them out of the path of those who would roll right past them or over them.

The point of Jesus’s story is that if an unclean outcast can be the embodiment of God’s love and compassion, how much more is expected of a safe, comfortable, privileged, redeemed child of God?

If I were preaching this Sunday, that’s what I would say. The real question I’m asking now is this: Would I really do any of this? Would you?

Whose Lives Matter?

I write this in the shadow of two more contested shootings of a black men by police officers. There is video of both—troubling and haunting as they show the last few minutes of a person’s life—it appears that one man was largely subdued when the shooting took place, and the other was sitting in a car complying with a policeman’s request to show ID. Now full disclosure here: One of my closest friends from childhood just retired after 20+ years of service as a police officer in our hometown. I believe that the men and women who protect our streets do a dangerous and mostly thankless job, and that they deserve to go home at the end of each shift. I know that there is often more to these stories than first appears, but I also know that not all police officers are like my friend.

Last week I was in St. Louis for a gathering of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). It’s one of the perks of being a seminary president that I get to attend conferences like this one—the ATS is the accrediting body for seminaries and other institutions that train Christian and Jewish leaders. For the most part it was a very positive experience—governance wonks are rarely the life of the party, but these were good people of faith doing important work. Not much more you can ask for.

Turns out that our ATS meeting place was just a few blocks from where the Dred Scott decision originated, and a mere 13 miles from Ferguson, where a young black man was shot and killed by a policeman in 2014.

The close proximity to two ugly chapters in American race relations created space for our gathering of Christian and Jewish leaders to reflect on what it means to prepare women and men for leadership in such a troubled context. On the final day of the conference there was a plenary panel titled “Theological Education After Ferguson,” which was helpful and deeply moving for me.

One interesting part of the event was a discussion of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which emerged after an unarmed black teenager was killed in Florida by a civilian who was patrolling his neighborhood. The whole idea that someone feels the need to say that black lives matter is still foreign to me, but I’m a 53-year-old white guy. That’s no crime, of course, but neither is it much of a vantage point from which to understand what it means to be black in these United States. That it needs to be said—that we need a reminder that the lives of our black neighbors matter—should break our hearts. It should compel us, like the leaders in the Old Testament, when faced with their complicity in the brokenness of their community, to wail and tear our clothes and cover our heads with ashes. But that’s not the response that’s getting through.

Too many white Americans try to evade the message that black lives matter.

How? Well, many police officers react by saying blue lives matter, too. More broadly I hear people say that all lives matter, appearing to agree with the protestors, but really trying to gut the protest of its content and context. Saying that all lives matter, which should be true on its face, negates the experience of millions of black Americans all over this country. Why?

Because unlike the lives of our black neighbors, the idea that white lives matter in America has never been broadly or functionally in doubt.

For six years I worked on the fundraising staff for Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. Each year we would design direct mail campaigns to bring in donations to support our work. We would test different stories and pictures to see which would spark the most generous response, and since 80% of our guests were black, we always tried to be faithful to represent the people we actually served. The problem was that the picture which brought in the highest level of giving, every year, was a stock photograph of an old white man.

White lives have always mattered in this country, but that’s not been the case for black Americans.

The Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court stated that black people did not legally exist in America. After years of slavery and a dangerous century of freedom, life is still a stacked lottery for too many black Americans. I have no idea what that pain is like. Black-on-black crime is bad enough, but when the legal system has been against you and you can’t even begin to trust that your kids are safe with the local police, that’s a kind of fear and anger that I will never know. I hadn’t grasped the bitterness and frustration that the statement, “all lives matter” caused for black men and women until I listened to the panel discussion in St. Louis.

Now we’re faced with two more shooting deaths of black men by police officers. How do I face my friends who fear for the lives of their kids, simply because they aren’t white? How do I help my son understand the unintentional and unmerited privilege that he enjoys, and inspire him to make sure his generation does a better job of this than mine is doing?

I wish I knew the answers to those questions, and to the others I’m too ashamed to ask in writing. All I can say for sure is that Jesus doesn’t want it this way, and in that statement I find my marching orders as a Christian and a pastor and a teacher.

The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rooted as it is in in the aftermath of another tragic death, has to break us and remake us into people who love our neighbors—even when we think they’re our enemies—and reach out to the hopeless and marginalized. Of course all lives matter, especially to Jesus, but in our society that’s not the way it works just yet. And so it’s good and right and our holy responsibility to affirm that black lives matter, at least until it’s true.

Christians and Independence Day

(This was originally published on an earlier blog in 2009. It resonates still as a message for Christians on American Independence Day.)

What follows is a bit of a rant about the relationship between Christian faith and American patriotism. That may seem like old news or a closed topic to some of you, but I’m getting the feeling that it’s about to make a comeback. I write this as someone with ties to both camps, as an American and a Christian, and also as an historian of the relationship between the two. Mark Noll introduced one of his books by saying that he was writing as a ‘wounded lover,’ and I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant. With that said, here goes.

I’m proud to be an American.

There, I said it. That may be one of the most unpopular things a guy can say these days, especially when he lives outside the US.

I love the country that gave me birth and provided a place where I could meet Jesus freely and without fear of persecution. I love the ideas that illuminated the Founders and drove them to the truly audacious conclusions that became our Constitution. I love the size and diversity and complexity of the place, and the way that, at its best, it welcomes newcomers eagerly and with the expectation that they will bring some new and necessary ingredient to the table. I’m proud, hopefully in an appropriate way, to be an American. Now that doesn’t mean I think the place is perfect or above criticism…far from it. The resources and ingenuity and freedoms of this country mean that we may have even more of a responsibility to be just, generous and humble. It’s on these items that we might be judged most harshly; it’s in these precise areas that we fail most often.

Being a Christian and an American is a difficult dance sometimes. Some of my friends think it’s impossible to be both, that the exploitive and violent acts in our history mean that the nation’s legacy has to be abandoned along the way to mature discipleship. Others see the same events and practices and arrive at the opposite conclusion. ‘America is God’s chosen and ordained nation,’ they say, ‘the greatest force for good in the history of the world.’ To be an American, they might say, necessarily includes being a Christian.

The ‘America-as-villain’ point of view is easy to find these days, but check this out if you’re not convinced about the ‘America-as-New-Israel’ orientation. There’s a new edition of the Bible that is targeted at American Christians who believe that God has set the USA apart from all other nations in the history of the world. This reframing of the Scriptures, called The American Patriot’s Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers), is just the latest in a long line of attempts to position American history (which I love) in a narrow understanding of God’s plan for his creation (which I reject).

So let me get this straight. The choices appear to be to see America as the pinnacle of God’s work among the nations, tied inextricably to his plan for the world, or to dismiss the nation as so bloated and sinful and deviated from holy purposes as to be beyond the pale. Hmmm…

I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to disassociate from both of these positions.

Instead I talk a lot to Christians about balancing our responsibilities as citizens with our deeper identities as followers of Jesus. I was raised to be proud of my country, and when I was old enough to choose for myself I found that didn’t change. As a historian I know that there are episodes in our past that erode our image and faithfulness to our values, but unlike stone, that erosion is repaired quickly by the generosity and courage of other Americans. For every injustice there are multiple examples of people who work for fairness and the marginalization of tyranny. For every corrupt politician whose indiscretions dominate the news, there are hundreds of public servants who do the right thing…even if they could earn far more in the private sector.

I suppose the point here is that I have been reminded lately that the idea of America is a living thing—it heals its own wounds and renews its own depleted energies through the commitment and creativity of its citizens. Completely apart from religious belief, there is something unique and special about the inception and development—and even the future prospects—of the United States.

What really matters about America is the network of new ideas that formed its foundation. Bernard Bailyn, one of the great historians of American history, said this about the creators of the American Constitution in a series of lectures that later became the book, To Begin the World Anew (2003).

“We know for certain, what they could only experimentally and prayerfully propose, that formal, written constitutions, upheld by judicial bodies, can effectively constrain the tyrannies of both executive force and populist majorities.

“We know, because they had the imagination to perceive it, that there is a sense, mysterious as it may be, in which human rights can be seen to exist independent of privileges, gifts, and donations of the powerful, and that these rights can somehow be defined and protected by the force of law.

“We casually assume, because they were somehow able to imagine, that the exercise of power is no natural birthright but must be a gift of those who are subject to it.

“And we know, what Jefferson so imaginatively perceived and brilliantly expressed, that religion—religion of any kind, secular or revealed—in the hands of power can be the worst kind of tyranny…”

All of that is great. I loved re-reading it and writing it for you because I believe it and hope to pass it on to my son as he develops his own ideas of what it means to be an American. But the awareness and careful stewardship of my American-ness is has to be balanced—overshadowed, even—by my core identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. I think I should say that in a more declarative way.

My identity as an American resides as a distant second to my standing as a redeemed child of the living God.

Why go into all of that?

Because some of my American Christian friends are starting to sound a bit shrill in their complaints about the direction of their country. They picture themselves as patriot-heroes, but in reality they’re (mostly) middle-aged, middle-class professionals dreaming of a new Revolutionary War. Each new edition of the Drudge Report sends them to new levels of panic and anger. Taxes? Too damned high. Gun control? Some gibberish about their ‘cold, dead fingers.’ Cooperation with other nations? No! Only America’s interests matter!

Uh-oh.

They talk about intrusive government and the gay lobby, and they rail about Communism just like their dads did. I’ve heard some talk about panic in the streets and a brewing revolution in ways that used to be caricatured in films and TV shows about skinheads and other crazy radical groups. Some worry constantly that between homosexuality, Islam and Barack Obama, America is going to hell in a handcart.

What calms me is the reminder from Dr. Bailyn that the idea of America is based on restraint and the rule of law. The idea of America—which is really its core essence—will survive the attempts of the good and the not-so-good to steer it off its path.

What gives me a sense of peace is the more important reminder that my identity as an American resides as a distant second to my standing as a redeemed child of the living God.

What is sad to me, though, is that some of the people most likely to affirm that last statement are also among the most likely to be threatened by what it means.

Because if we’re honest and faithful (in addition to being historically and biblically accurate), then our allegiance to Christ subsumes or even replaces all other allegiances, including the one we used to pledge every morning at school. Throwing our eternal weight on the one who made us, redeemed us and sustains us is a higher, bigger and more important thing than any earthly citizenship. To believe differently is to miss the point not only of the Christian faith, but also of what it means to be American.

Of course there were strong Christian influences on the founding of the United States, but it’s so important to know that the Christianity practiced in those days would be virtually unrecognizable to contemporary evangelicals. Evangelical Christianity as we might know it doesn’t really emerge until 1740 or so, and without any effective mass media it takes almost a century for Christianity to become the dominant cultural influence in America. People toss around the term ‘Deism’ as if it described just another variant of the Christianity they would find at their church. From that faulty foundation too many will build a continuity of faith and practice between then and now which simply does not exist.

Why is that important? Because the result is a misunderstanding not only of what was present at the founding, but also a near complete misreading of what is under threat today. Some of my friends will lament the growing dominance and acceptance of lifestyles which might not align with how we read our Scriptures. But they miss the point when they equate a loss of Christian control or influence over American politics with a decline of Christianity in America.

The two were never—nor were they ever meant to be—one and the same.

The strong link between Christian faith and American political life left us with a generation, oddly enough, of conservative American Christians so dependent on their influence in politics that they ended up (get this) too lazy to compete in their own religious free market. What a shame.

Now they perceive a new president’s liberal vision as being imposed on them from the outside, when the fact is that all partisanship should have been seen that way. As Christians we should hold all political and national loyalties lightly, not least to prevent us from mistaking them for the one loyalty we should hold above all others. The complaints I’m hearing about the threat to Americanism are sadly much louder and heartfelt than any complaints I’ve heard about the nation’s treatment of the poor, or the lack of biblical literacy among many Christian adults and children, or for any unrepentant sinner who hasn’t yet heard a credible expression of the gospel.

For Christ’s sake—seriously—for Christ’s sake! How can any Christian complain, say, about the loss of the freedom to own an assault rifle when people are living lives apart from the good news of Jesus Christ. Just what, exactly, is so evangelical about that?

Bernard Bailyn was right when he talked about religion in the hands of the powerful as “the worst kind of tyranny.” That makes the shrill complaints of today’s frightened American evangelicals even more hollow. It’s not really tyranny that they fear, but rather, in too many cases, the loss of their own leadership role in that tyranny.

It should concern us that in discussions about God’s standards for his American faithful, some evangelicals seem more comfortable quoting John Winthrop’s sermon than the Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop, in a 1630 sermon given to his shipmates on the Arbella, said this:

‘For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken… we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God… We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going.’

That ‘city upon a hill’ line is from another, far more important sermon—a sermon for all people, not just Americans. In its original context Jesus said:

‘You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:13-16)

Oops.

Not much there to support the idea of American or any other kind of national exceptionalism. Not much there to indicate that Jesus was saying: ‘Wait about 1600 years, when my true followers get their country started, and you’ll see how this is really supposed to look.’

Later in the same sermon Jesus clarifies where our true allegiances should be:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’
(Matthew 6:19-24)

When American evangelical Christians (of whom I count myself one) realize that the faith they have inherited, when joined with the resources they control, could be a force for good and freedom that would exceed even that of the entire nation, then we’ll see a real revolution that matters. But as long as there are those among us who would serve two masters, who would trade the redemption of the world for nationalist glory or financial security, we’re going to continue on as if paralyzed somehow.

Patriotism that isn’t shaped and informed and fully yielded to Jesus Christ and him only is doomed to be the very problem it seeks to remedy. Without that crucial level of submission we won’t get any farther, or accomplish anything greater, than a dog chasing its own tail. What a shame.

What Brexit Can Teach Us About Guns In America

It was a fitful night’s sleep. I live in California, so the results of the British referendum on staying the European Union were already in before I went to bed. I’m still shaking my head at the decision—the campaign was ugly and even cost on Member of Parliament her life—I’m still a little shocked at how divided the United Kingdom is over its bond with Europe.

Why do I care? Some background might help.

Last July I moved back to my hometown after almost nine years in London. I was the pastor of the American International Church there, a community with more than 25 countries represented in the congregation—we were a model of the multi-national diversity present in most European cities. It was an amazing season for me and for my family. We followed the process of thousands of immigrants and held visas, then permanent residency, and finally full citizenship in the United Kingdom. With that status came citizenship in the EU, and we were grateful for the privileges that afforded us.

The decision to leave the EU affects some things for us, and leaves others unchanged. We are still honored to hold dual citizenship in the US and Great Britain—we love the people and the history of our new nation, and want only the best for the people of the United Kingdom. But there’s a sense of loss as well. EU citizenship meant being able to live and work in any of the 28 partner nations without the need to apply for visas. For our son it offered educational and professional options that will now have to be renegotiated, if they survive at all.

But as I was reflecting on these developments today, I found something instructive in the vote to leave the EU, even in my disappointment.

The Brexit vote shatters a core tenet of the defense of gun ownership in America.

If you follow the tortured debates over gun rights in America, then you’ve no doubt heard the trump card (no pun…oh, forget it) played when all the rational arguments have been dismantled.

If Americans can’t own guns, then they’ll lose their ability to resist the tyranny of their own government. Armed defense is the only guarantee of personal freedom.

Forget that our government taking over individual homes and communities is logistically impossible. Forget that the soldiers from our all-volunteer army who would theoretically show up at your door would be your neighbor’s kids, or someone your daughter went to high school with. Forget that even if the army did come to your house, the plastic AR-15 copy that you bought at Walmart would be quickly neutralized by the most powerful fighting force in the world. Forget that this is nonsense on its face.

But still, the idea presses on. If you give up your guns, the fantasy story goes, the government will come and take over your life.

This is where the news about Brexit is instructive.

The United Kingdom has some of the strictest gun laws in the developed world. You can’t buy a gun for personal protection, and hunting weapons are strictly controlled and monitored. Further, Britain is a liberal democracy in the post-WWII European model, which means that it provides healthcare and pensions and housing for its citizens and legal residents. It also means that the government is much more involved in the lives of individual citizens, there’s no getting around that fact. But as you consider the deeply held belief that a disarmed population is somehow powerless against its government, consider this fact:

The Prime Minister, most of his cabinet, and a supermajority of Members of Parliament all opposed the referendum to leave the European Union, and yet the vote was allowed to proceed and the results will be honored.

Think about that. A strong majority within the British government, across both major parties and including most of the minor ones, oppose leaving the EU, but they’re going to do it anyway. Why? Because democracy can work without one side being held at gunpoint by the other.

If there’s a lesson for Americans from the Brexit vote—besides checking your fears about immigration and economic partnership at the door—if there’s a lesson to be learned from Britain’s vote to leave the EU, it’s that the gun lobby and political fringe in America is built on a pernicious lie. If guns are controlled, we will NOT lose our personal and political freedom—we will not be subject to some political bondage fantasy, as some have argued.

Guns are not the source of our freedom—that’s what a disarmed Britain taught us today. Guns are not the hedge against corrupt or incompetent government. What protects us from the dark side of a coercive state is an intelligent and educated voting public, where disagreements are passionate but civil, where both sides are informed but always focused on the goal of a better, freer, more productive, happier life.

Oddly enough, we Americans learned much of that from Great Britain over the years, even as we eclipsed their primacy in production, diplomacy, and military might. Maybe we should learn this lesson, too. Maybe we can learn to reject the lies about guns and tyranny and government overreach, and become better educated—more committed citizens.

The Brexit referendum, which I voted against, still offers a hopeful lesson for American society and our own practice of democracy. We don’t need more guns to direct our government. We need better ideas to energize and shape it to lead us in the directions we want to go. The gun lobby has lied about this essential truth long enough. It’s time to take our own country back.

Isaiah 53:2-4

It’s a bad sign when you get writer’s block a few weeks after starting a new blog.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say–quite the opposite–but the grief of Orlando and my general sense of malaise over the US election season hasn’t left me with too many polite or even marginally appropriate things to say. I’ll try anyway.

So many strands of our tortured cultural life came together in that nightclub in Orlando. The radical Islamic beliefs of the shooter force the event into the broader discussion of terrorism. The fact that the killer bought his weapon legally invites yet another round of handwringing about gun culture and the absurd frequency of mass shootings in America. The overwhelming majority of the victims had Hispanic surnames, which places the story within the shadow of the contentious debates over immigration. That the shooting took place in a gay bar and that the motivation for the murders was reportedly a sense of revulsion over two men kissing, triggers the culture war rhetoric over homosexuality.

My sense of grief over that last paragraph is palpable.

I grieve for the loving, generous Muslims that I know, who will experience suspicion and hatred and even violence because of the radicals who pervert their faith. I’m frustrated that my country, great in so many ways, refuses to act on the proliferation of assault weapons in our neighborhoods. I shake my head in disbelief that the America that has fetishized its history of welcoming immigrants, now blames them for conditions they have no hand in creating. But mostly, I feel guilt for the way my own Christian tribe has treated our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, for the ways we’ve helped to paint them as less than human.

See what I mean?

But there are tiny pushbacks of hope today. Vigils around the world are showing support r the victims and their families. In Orlando so many people lined up to give blood for the wounded that the wait was more than 7 hours–hundreds of donors were turned away. Today the story broke that the bouncer at the club was a former Marine, and that he forced open a door that freed more than 70 clubgoers. The Marine’s name? Imran Yousuf.

Some Christian groups are reminding the world of who Jesus is and what he stands (and died) for. This is a part of a prayer posted on the Church of England website:

“We cry out for peace and respect in a violent world, we commit ourselves to unconditional love. We stand in furious solidarity with queer people in Orlando and around the world, and ask, ‘How Long, O Lord?'”

I want to shield my son from the bitter streams of hate and conflict in the world. That sentence makes me laugh a little, but because as I write it he is touring the Killing Fields of Cambodia with a student group (see the previous post)–today he wrote about his experiences at the museum of the Khmer Rouge genocide. There will be no such shielding for him, not any more.

So what do we do, then? Our country seems so divided. Our LGBT neighbors are being marginalized and murdered. Our Christian witness has been compromised by culture war divisions and partisan politics.

There is a prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures about the coming of the Messiah.

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.

Every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of why God sent his son to redeem the world. But alongside that story–and especially in the aftermath of the tragedy in Orlando–it’s crucial to remember that Jesus was “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” The person at the center of our faith is someone who suffered and suffers with us as we flail our way through this broken life.

The gift of the Messiah isn’t always the solving of our problems and struggles. The gift of the Messiah–the “God with us” gift–is that the God who made us and redeemed us loves us still, and that he calls us to a new way of life.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy like Orlando to remind us of these things. But on the other hand, we can never allow the violent deaths of our neighbors to pass by without telling the old, old story once more. Maybe we can begin with the verse that comes right after the best known verse in the Bible, John 3:16. In the next breath we see the roadmap to living Christ’s redemptive work here, now, and everywhere we go. Let this be a path to comfort as we walk the to dark road ahead:

“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Maybe the beginning of healing is the application of this simple verse. Back off on the condemnation, and remind people of Christ’s saving, sacrificial work. It’s worth a try.

Good News From Awful

Our son is in Vietnam.

I’m old enough to remember the terror in the eyes of families who had to say that same thing about their sons.

I remember being 8 or 9 years old, and going to a welcome home party for a man who had been a POW. He sat in the living room, politely refusing to answer the curious questions of the kids who surrounded him. Were you scared? Were they mean? How did you get that scar? All I can remember him saying was, “I can’t tell you.”

I earned a small music scholarship in high school that was named for a Burbank High graduate who had died in the Vietnam War. The memorial wall on campus had hundreds of names on it—most were from WWII, but there were a handful of other conflicts represented, too. I imagine there are a few more names on it than when I last saw it in 1981.

My parents bought the house I grew up in from an older couple whose son was a Medal of Honor recipient, but who had given his life to earn it. They were kind and gentle people, but even at 7 years old I noticed that there was no life in their eyes, especially when they realized there would be another little boy in their son’s room.

For a few months I wore one of those shiny steel bracelets with the name of a POW engraved on it. My mom and I got up very early in the morning once to watch some of them return home. I can remember her crying.

Our situation could hardly be more different.

Our son is joining 15 or so of his fellow students from Polytechnic High School on a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, to learn how those countries continue to heal after decades of war and genocide. They’ll spend time with Arn Chorn-Pond, who survived the Khmer Rouge first by playing music, then by being forced to fight in their army. They’re meeting Kim Phúc, the young girl burned by napalm in that famous picture, along with Nick Ut, the man who captured the image. (Ut also carried Kim away and got her treatment for her injuries. He made sure she was in a medical facility before he filed the pictures.) The two have stayed friends for more than 40 years.

Ian will be touring Ho Chi Minh City and learning some of the history of the long war in Southeast Asia. He’ll stay with families in Cambodia and teach English in an orphanage there. He’ll realize a dream of his to see the great temple at Angkor Wat. He’s making and solidifying friendships at a school that still feels new to him. It’s a life-changing opportunity, and we’re so proud of him.

But it has me thinking of the 60,000 or so American families whose sons and daughters didn’t come home from their visit to Vietnam, and for the hundreds of thousands of families whose kids came back permanently scarred from the experience. It has me reflecting on the million or so Vietnamese who died or were wounded in the conflict—kids like Kim Phúc, only without the photographer there to immortalize them.

War is such a complicated thing. In the last few weeks we’ve remembered America’s war dead on Memorial Day and celebrated the achievement of Allied soldiers in the Normandy landings. I get the awe of heroism, and I even get the cruel necessity of conflict—how the world can be so upside-down that all-out military action becomes somehow the merciful option. But as a Christian I struggle so much with the awful intersection of lethal human sin and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, though, I’m thinking of the people who bear the weight of conflict—the soldiers and civilians who are thrust into the chaos of war, who do things and see things that change them forever. Where is the good news for them?

I’m not sure there’s ever enough grief to go around for the survivors of war. Part of them dies, too, and that living death becomes a part of what they pass on to their children and grandchildren. Too many of them come home to face the questions of the curious, only to respond, “I can’t tell you.”

That can’t be the end of the conversation. They may never be able to communicate the awfulness of what they’ve seen or even done, but we can tell them that their experience isn’t the whole story—that there can be good news even in the shadow of horrible conflict. Christ came to redeem all things, and if all things means ALL THINGS, then even the catastrophe of war is included in that promise.

Besides, right at this moment, a group of high school students are walking around Old Saigon, learning a little of how peace is made and maintained there. A dozen or so kids—a dozen or so glimmers of hope for a different kind of future.

I’m glad our son is in Vietnam. How amazing is that?

 

A Teachable Moment

(This message was given on May 14th at a gathering of the New Theological Seminary of the West community at La Canada Presbyterian Church. It was my first public engagement as president of the seminary.)

Thank you all for your warm welcome. I’ve been on the job for about two weeks now, but already it’s such a gift to be able to serve the New Theological Seminary of the West. There is such an excitement and sense of vision for the way we can offer ministry training to a new generation of leaders—training that is practical and rooted in the best of what theological education has to offer.

In my family we’re still getting used to life in the US after almost nine years in London. We loved our neighborhood and our friends—we enjoyed the lifestyle there. My son, who’s now 16, grew up in London—he was 6 years old and about halfway through first grade when we moved.

When you move into a new neighborhood or a new country, you try to listen for things that help you understand or settle into the culture. We watched British TV—in-between reruns of Friends—and read British newspapers. When you live in a new place you have two choices: hold on to what you miss so tightly that you never really settle in, or embrace where you are and learn how to be not just a visitor, but a resident. When you have kids who are learning a new place you look for teachable moments—times when something about where you live can help you explain a life lesson.

I say all that because when we first moved to London there were news stories about how red-headed kids were being bullied at school. They were teased, or worse, for the color of their hair—the insulting slang term was “Ginger”. Now at first I didn’t see the problem, but then again I grew up with Gilligan’s Island, and no one teased Ginger for being, well, a ginger.

So one morning my son and I were on one of those red double-decker buses on the way to school. We were talking and joking a little, and that day we were listening to music on an iPod with a splitter so we could listen to the same songs.

I noticed a woman getting on the bus who had red hair. In my head I was thinking of all the teasing she must have endured as a schoolgirl—being called “Ginger” and having a miserable childhood. I thought to myself that this was one of those teachable moments between father and son—that this was the time when I would make sure that my son never teased someone because of the color of their hair. I leaned over to Ian and said: “See that woman with the red hair? Isn’t she beautiful?”

Ian looked over at me—he had one earbud still in his ear so he had no idea how loud he was talking—he looked over at me and said in full voice:

“Daddy, you’re married.”

I froze. My face turned bright red. I was hoping there weren’t any members of my church there. I put my earbuds back in. So much for having a teachable moment.

This is just one of the many reasons I was never tempted to write a book about parenting. Or marriage.

Our text today is 2 Tim 2:1-2

You then, my child, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.  And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.

The early church was focused on making sure there were teachers and leaders for the next generation. Between Roman persecutions and the lack of a printing press, the leaders of the church in those first few centuries knew that they had to make sure there were always new people to carry on the message of the Gospel.

The Pastoral Epistles, probably written by a follower of Paul or someone in his circle, is about shaping and encouraging a young leader for the task ahead. For us, as leaders of a seminary that trains church leaders, these are valuable words.

Just a few details about the text here.

First, that reference to “be strong” is actually “be strengthened”—it’s in the passive voice. Why is that important? Because our strength for this work and for our daily lives doesn’t come from ourselves, it comes from God. We don’t make ourselves strong on our own. God strengthens us for the journey.

Second, in that second verse, the writer mentions “the things you have heard me say.” It’s crucial for us to remember that this business of passing on the gospel isn’t doctrinal or institutional. It’s personal—we learn it best when it’s shared from person to person—from life to life, and not simply from books or traditions or denominations.

Finally, that part about the “presence of many witnesses” should stand out to all of us. Never forget that the word we translate as “witness” is “marturas,” the word that became “martyr” for us in English. Teaching the good news of the gospel comes with a cost—don’t ever forget that. I’m guessing they probably didn’t mention that in the application materials for the seminary.

This is what Paul and his disciples were all about—teaching the gospel to the next generation. Paul spent his life preaching and teaching on extended journeys around the Mediterranean world—those maps in the back of our Bibles show the places Paul traveled to.

Paul was committed to entrusting the legacy of his faith in Jesus Christ. Paul spent his time training younger leaders to go out and do ministry. Paul was a new kind of seminary all by himself.

My grandmother emigrated from Italy when she was almost 40 years old. Because she made the move so late in life, she never really learned to speak English very well. But she was wise and faithful and funny, and the more I learned to speak and understand Italian, the more connected to her I felt.

Once I asked her if she would teach me how to bake these cookies she always had at her house. I thought it would be a fun thing to do together. She was reluctant at first, but she gave in after a while. We tried to write the recipe down, but the measurements were too informal—it was impossible to learn how to add a handful here, a pinch there, which was how my grandma baked.

Finally I decided we were going to videotape the whole process, which changed everything. She walked me through the process, chatting and laughing along the way, and in the end we not only had a batch of great cookies, but I had a precious record of my relationship with my grandmother.

Paul was different—he wasn’t reluctant at all about sharing his faith. We know from the rest of his letters and from Luke’s story in Acts that Paul was a passionate communicator of the Gospel. He shared the good news with anyone who would listen. That’s what his life was all about.

But in our text we see a different part of what Paul’s followers were trying to do. They knew that if the world was going to hear the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, then they were going to need a lot more teachers to get the job done.

“And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”

The reminder to Timothy was that part of his job was to train up good, faithful, reliable people to continue to grow the church.

This is what I love about the New Theological Seminary of the West, because this nation and this world aren’t hearing much good news from Christians these days.

On one side we hear an expression of the faith that is so bound up in rules and behaviors and boundaries—so obsessed with who’s in and who’s out—that there isn’t much good news in their message at all.

On the other we see an expression of the faith that empties the biblical message of its supernatural power—that works so hard to explain away the unexplainable that in the end most of their system would work whether God existed or not.

We’re going to be better than that.

We’re going to be a place where being faithful doesn’t mean dividing the world into Us and Them.

We’re going to be a place where being progressive doesn’t mean we give up on the saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is our teachable moment, and we’re not going to let it pass by.

We won’t ignore the radical inclusion of the gospel of Jesus Christ, just as we won’t gut that gospel of its transforming power for our lives and our culture and our world.

Instead, we’ll entrust that amazing message to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. We’ll entrust it to our students, who will go out and share that message in their churches and homes and neighborhoods and businesses. We may not finish this job, but we’re not going to hinder it, not on my watch.

When I go back and watch that video of my grandmother teaching me how to bake, one of the things I notice is that she explains everything in Italian. My own Italian is pretty rusty, and I don’t always catch everything. That makes me do the work to understand what she’s saying—I have to conform my ears to her words, so that I get the recipe right for those delicious cookies.

We’re going to do that work here at the New Theological Seminary of the West.

We all bring our own histories and even our biases to this Kingdom work—that’s what makes it fun and interesting—we all bring ourselves to this community project, but we’re going to shape our hearts and minds to the gospel, and reflect it through our own personalities and our character. We’re going to do the work to understand the gospel as it has been entrusted to us in the best way we can, so that we can be authentic and effective teachers and leaders.

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday. It’s a day when we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit—the gift that energized and empowered the church to go out and share the message of the gospel with the whole known world.

That Spirit is ours now. It brought us to this place and it shapes us into the disciples God made us to be. The calling on us is to allow that Spirit to work in us and through us to train up the next generation of servants to the church. We do that as people who are strengthened by God, who are willing to live and teach relationally with our students, and as people who are willing to bear the cost as witnesses to the gospel.

That’s our gift to each other as a community, and it’s our gift to the church of Jesus Christ.

To the glory of God alone. Amen.