A Big Negative on the Negativism

I’ve noticed lately that there are activist pastors who seem to be making a cottage industry of bashing everything in the 21st century church. Now I’ve done plenty of complaining myself. I know it. But every now and then, it is a very good thing to stop, take stock, breathe a little, and praise those Christians who are indeed trying to live by the code of Jesus, i.e., other-centered, sacrificial love. I know they are out there. I’ve seen them. I have been moved by their words and their actions.

I know. They may be thinking this is tough love. We need to be whipped into shape and fast. But why would anyone want to be a part of any group where their leader never offers praise, never asks blessings on the “good-doers”? Didn’t Jesus open the Sermon on the Mount with a set of sayings called the beatitudes, each one beginning with “blessed” or as some might say, “happy”?

There is no doubt much to be ashamed of among the high-profile ministers and the celebrity “Christians of convenience.” But I heard something this past Sunday, Christmas Day, that made me stop and ask myself if I had ever before heard the same sentiment in any place I have ever traveled. A man prayed before the collection basket was passed at a small country church, and he was thankful for the blessing and privilege of earning a living to provide for his family, that the offering we give as contribution to the church treasury was in recognition of that blessing. It was a simple expression, nothing flowery, I don’t even remember any “thee’s” and “thou’s,” but it was real and heart-felt.

Why can’t some of the marquee ministers who are always up in arms take a few beats and praise those who are doing what they can with what they have?

I know there are problems in the vast array of groups that are expressions of a Christian heritage. But there is good, as well. There is quiet decency and dignity. Maybe a dose of good news–isn’t that the meaning of the word “gospel”?–would do more than the constant negativity against all things Christian from people who are supposed to be leading their fellow Christians. Read the short Letter to the Philippians to see how Paul treated these people who were so dear to his heart. He had instruction for them like being quick to settle disputes, but the letter is steeped in so much love that the correction is more like a gentle persuasion.

Like any group, Christians can most often benefit from being led by example. The office of overseer was instituted to be filled by those with a good reputation, men of age and experience, who could provide a good example to those in their charge. Ministers as the most visible of church posts are in a unique position to lead by example, as well. Again Paul urged his readers, his friends, to follow his example as he strove to emulate Jesus.

Christianity has enough detractors outside its ranks. It doesn’t need constant berating from inside. Instruction, yes; correction, yes, but with love, not vitriol.

Do we need to show greater love for the poor and the oppressed? In many cases, the answer is most likely “yes.”  But rather than berate us for a lack of caring, help us find our voice. Show us the way. Don’t condemn us all. The wise man said in Proverbs 15 that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words stir up anger.” If we could ever stop being so angry all of the time, maybe we would see more opportunities to live as Jesus did.

Living in a Messed Up World: Creation, Fall, Character and Commitment

It’s a messed up world.

Not that that’s any big news. But it really is. And it’s only getting worse, according to many observers.

Why am I thinking about this?  Because almost everything we see today is some sort of alteration, revision or perversion of how things ought to be.  One group fights for their rights, while another group wrings its hands and brays on about how awful things are, and offers no real solution.

And it’s been this way for a long time.  If you accept the Judeo-Christian scriptures, since not long after humanity came on the scene.  The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, the pride of life…and the Fall.  Not just any fall but the Fall.

I am far from being a theologian.  I am fascinated by it from an academic perspective, and I have tremendous respect for those who can engage in it objectively, non-dogmatically, and from a doctrinally neutral perspective.

But the Fall was perhaps the single most devastating event in human experience.  From the idyllic setting of perfection, a paradise of fellowship between God and all his Creation, a single act, followed quickly by another effectively broke the Creation.  Not just a little piece of it, but all of it.  The perfect became imperfect.  The complete became incomplete.  And all of Creation groans for redemption from that brokenness.

I have thought long and hard about this story.  Obviously, if God had intended for this never to happen, he could have denied mankind its free will.  But he did not, which suggests that although he suspected it would happen, he was willing to give humanity a chance.

Over the succeeding few generations, things got progressively worse.  By Noah’s time, evil had reached a peak and even God was sorry he had created such as mankind.  But he wasn’t ready to give up.  The slate was wiped (almost completely) clean and Creation started over.

Only to repeat the process of failure and loss and descent into imperfection.

And then, after generations of failure and partial restoration and deeper failure, he presented humankind with a new way of being: while the concept had been there from the beginning, the way of Love was cast in no uncertain terms as an alternative to the depravity of a broken, fallen system.  The coming of Jesus into the world restored a sense of goodness and directed any and all who would accept it into a life beyond the self, into a life that would channel the perfection of the original perfect Creation into a corrupted world.  And it was then as it is now based on Love and Service and Sacrifice.

So many who claim to follow that Way do little to show it.  When we complain about everything and condemn all that we disagree with, we are not children of a loving God, but instruments of a vengeful one.

If God made the world as perfect, is it not logical to conclude that it would be his will that it be restored?  The beautiful and moving passage in the Revelation of John declares, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  I saw where someone once said that he didn’t say “I am making all new things,” but the emphasis was on the restoration of what had been from that elusive, singular point of origin, the Creation.  In fact, the same could be said of how he handled the restoration of the Creation after the flood:  the Earth had not been sterilized or cleansed of all evidence of a previous state.  It was restored using pre-existing materials—i.e., living things, species including humans.

I cannot help but agree that the world is indeed broken.  And I cannot help but think that so much of what we see today is more related to a disconnect from the perfection of Creation and the perfection of that Way that Jesus so eloquently lived.  Of Jesus, Peter said in Acts that “he went about doing good.”

Consider a few examples.  Because of generations of systematic oppression and suppression, when a young black man is killed at the hands of law enforcement, a movement arises that declares, “Black lives matter.”  I fully concur: black lives matter, and so do white ones, and brown ones…. We all matter.  But when white people, and people of faith at that, automatically take up the unconsidered position that the anger brought about by a questionable or at least questioned killing is completely unfounded and unjustified, they essentially telegraph the view that black lives don’t matter.  This is an unloving expression of racism, and it is not consistent with a drive toward the restoration of a perfected Creation.

When a furor erupts over who can use a restroom assigned to be used by people of a specific karyotype, we are not displaying any understanding of how a broken world has affected a small minority of people who are not comfortable in their own “birth-bodies,” for lack of a better term.  The transgender restroom debacle may one day be seen as a point where people who claim to follow the precepts of love failed, not because they were trying to maintain a perception of God’s intent in the distinction between males and females, but by failing to lovingly deal with those who have from a very early age experienced a manifestation of that imperfection that happened as a result of that fateful event so very long ago, that rippled and echoed throughout all of Creation, darkening what was once bathed in light to a shadow of its former perfect glory.  To pledge violence and violation in response to a supposed danger from transgendered individuals is not in any way consistent with a restoration of a perfected Creation.

When people of faith support systems and measures that not only promote but ensure inequality, that allow wealth and power to be centralized in the hands of a few while the poor are oppressed, repressed and suppressed, this is inconsistent with a view that purports to herald and welcome a restored Creation.  Those with wealth have responsibilities to help those who have less.  It’s a principle from scripture, from the Old to the New Testaments.  But the Neoliberal co-opting of the socially and politically conservative element of the population has been so insidious and so complete that its anti-Christian foundations have been recast as being Biblical, effectively reversing the moral polarity and calling evil “good.”  (And no, Neoliberalism has nothing to do with what is commonly called Liberalism today.  For an excellent and thoughtful primer on Neoliberalism, see the article from The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot?CMP=share_btn_fb .)  The hopelessness of an unending cycle of poverty, the broadening gap in life span between the rich and the poor, the worship of wealth and its celebration through conspicuous consumption are all contrary to living by principles of love and goodness.

So what is a solution?  Should we close down, wring our hands in dismay, mutter curses in between expressions of disbelief, dig our heels in and vow to fight no matter what?  Should we acquiesce to any and every trend, allow our principles to be compromised, accept all social changes?  Some see these diametrically opposed sides as the only possibilities.  But like it is with so many things in life, the solutions are not cut and dried.  And trust me, I don’t claim to have all the answers.

But I do know that for every action that is launched in spite and anger, the cause of love and peace is harmed.  For every threat made to inflict harm on a person or group with whom we disagree, nearly irreparable damage is done to that cause.  For every sin we angrily or arrogantly accuse another of, our own are hovering in the shadows, waiting to condemn us.

In the 20th Century, there were two great leaders of the non-violence movement whose thoughts fit well with this argument:  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”  Mahatma Gandhi revealed, “Anger is the enemy of non-violence and pride is a monster that swallows it up.”  Love cannot be expressed in anger, nor can it be extended in pride and arrogance.  For a refresher on the characteristics of love, I Corinthians 13 is the place. Indignation precludes understanding.  Only by patient, rational consideration can we ever hope to understand that which opposes our values. If a quiet answer turns away wrath, shouting insults and threats will only engender it.

Here is the hardest part: we are conditioned to believe that since we are confident down to our very cores that we are in the right, we will always win when confronted with the social and moral dilemmas that accompany the moral entropy that is so evident around us. This is not always so.  Even though we want to believe it, there is a good chance on many issues that the opposition is insurmountable and we will lose.  How we respond to losing speaks volumes about not only our commitment but our character. If after losing on some point, we give up and refuse to face defeat again, we are not committed to our cause.  If we meet failure with anger and violence, we display a deeply and tragically flawed character.

Fretting over social changes, politics, and cultural drift will do little to maintain the central mission of doing good and giving hope by restoring even a small portion of a fallen Creation.  Contrary to what we may believe, today’s society has not sunk to the depths of 1st century Rome. We are not powerless in the face of change as long as we have faith and hope and love.  And continuing to do good in whatever way we can brings a little more of Heaven’s light to fight back the darkness.

So, yes, it’s a messed up world.  But we can make it better.  Like Jesus says in the parable of the talents, doing nothing, hiding the resources entrusted to us in the ground, is unacceptable.  The good we can do may be a little or it may be a lot.  But no matter what, we are expected to do something.

Whoever Knows the Right Thing to Do

Another semester has come to a close.

And as usual, I am drained and exhausted beyond measure.  I am exhausted because agonize over whether I was effective in getting my message across.  I agonize over grades, fully realizing that my actions and judgments affect the lives and futures of my students.  I always wonder how students can leave an exam completely oblivious to how they performed on it, and then irately contact me when they think they deserve a higher grade.

Another thing that exhausts me is dealing with those students that choose to engage in academic dishonesty.  I have little sympathy for the ones who engage in egregious infractions of a standard code of academic integrity.  It always feels like a personal affront when people cheat instead of try.  All students enter my class as equals, with my respect for them intact.  I hate that breach of faith that destroys an otherwise decent human interaction.

But something that hurts me worse than all else is something that I learned the last week of classes as I was making my way back to my office after my last lecture on Wednesday afternoon.  I started across the quad, pulled out my phone to check my messages, and was immediately met with the news that a student in another of my classes had completed suicide.

I was devastated.  I almost felt like I would collapse on the sidewalk.  I felt sick.  And helpless.  And I felt like I had failed.

I mean, after all, I’ve been trained in suicide prevention.  I thought after leading sessions on prevention, I would be ready for dealing with suicide, and I was going to be ready to help change the world.  But that just made me cocky and a little too self-assured.  Or deep down, maybe I just thought I’d never need to use it.    

In this case, I saw none of the signs that we are supposed to look for.  This quiet, bright young man apparently quietly suffered with depression.  He was bent on completing the only thing that he thought would end his pain. 

But in his state of confusion, he, like so many others who choose suicide, failed to account for the pain he would leave behind.  I can’t imagine the pain his family is dealing with right now. 

I barely knew the young man, as my only interaction with him was in the classroom.  But I have spent hours wondering what I might have been able to do to help him.  Why didn’t I expend the effort to get to know him? Why didn’t I give the talk I often give about suicide prevention in that class?  Why didn’t I let him know I was there to listen, and that I cared about him and that I wanted him to live?

But I kept my professorial distance.  

And I will forever be haunted by those questions.

I have written on many occasions about the need for learning more about how to help people with suicidal thoughts.  That has not changed.  We still need to know what to look for and be willing to ask the hard questions and reach out to them.  More than ever, I affirm my belief in Donne’s stirring declaration, that “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

I do feel diminished, but resolute that I must be more accessible to those in pain. I must be more empathetic.  I must be more compassionate. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.”  This is the goal: to achieve fulfillment as a human being, I must fully become part of humanity.  To take my place in the fullness of the human experience I must help others to achieve all that they can be. 

According to the biblical author, James, who some say was the brother of Jesus himself, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4.17) Therefore, from the position of faith, I must do what I can to help others, I must alleviate suffering, I must be willing to carry a weight.  To do any less is to sin against my own humanity, against all humanity, and by extension, its Creator.

Another semester is done.  But there is so much left to do.  I resolve to leave less unsaid and less good undone.  Life is too short to shy away from uncomfortable situations.  I hope that I will not someday look back on my life with regrets for lost opportunities to make a difference.  I hope that I can say and others can see that I did what I could; not for my own glory, but because of my understanding and acceptance of what it means to be made in the image of God, to show love and grace and mercy.

I must be better.  And while I may not be able to do it all, I know that through a strength born of faith and a fuller resolve to channel Heaven’s grace, I can do more to help others, and do it more effectively.  I know the good I can do.

Now it’s time to get to work.    

Refurbs

I am an electronics addict. Well, “addict” may be too strong of a term.  Maybe “avid enthusiast” would be better, less of a negative connotation.  Anyway, I love to tinker with electronic devices, learn about new products with enhanced capabilities, play with productivity packages…. In short, I am a middle-aged geek.  At one point, the term “geek” was considered to be somewhat derogatory.  However, with the dawn of the realization that tech is cool, being a geek became cool as well.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Electronics can be expensive, and if I paid full price on some items, I would feel a little—well, a lot—guilty.  It turns out that few of these things are actually essential.  Most are luxuries that 99+% of the world can and does do without.  But I tell myself that many of these things will make me more productive.  I’ll get more done by keeping track of things on the go.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

In order to curb my expenditures on my purchases, I often buy refurbished products when they are available.  Some people would have none of this, thinking that a factory refreshed item is really poor quality, or is damaged, or is not up to original equipment standards.  I’m sure that can be the case sometimes.  But with good companies, the factory refurbished products are returned to perfect working order.  In some cases, they get a new shell, repaired internal parts, and are restored to brand new condition, matching the specifications of the items rolling off the assembly line.

In a sense, when we are born, we are in perfect working order, spiritually speaking.  We have no flaws.  But as time goes on, we may start to demonstrate behavior that is different from the original specifications.  It may be that some of our parts have become corrupted, and we are in need of repairs.  What if after some experience of living, we become broken in some way.  What if we begin functioning differently from how we should.  We are no longer operating at peak efficiency, and we are no longer functioning as intended.

But we can be refurbished.  Like the wayward son in Jesus’ story, we may leave the family and seek fulfillment elsewhere.  Like that erring son, we may think that there is a good life to be lived in the wilds of looser society.  In the end, we may find that where we were originally is better than where we may have wandered off to.  Like with that loving father who patiently waited for his son’s return, we can be welcomed back into relationship with our Heavenly Father.  We can be restored to our original specifications.

I like refurbished products.  And I’m certainly glad God is okay with them, too.  He said so in the closing thoughts of the Revelation, when he declared, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  A heaven and earth that are new again, populated by remade people, free from incidental flaws and accidental imperfections.  What was broken will be made whole. What was empty will be filled to overflowing.

Being refurbished is not a bad thing.  I’m glad it was always part of the plan.

Beware the Sin of Sodom

Sin is a tricky thing.  It is always easier to see it in someone else than in ourselves.  A case in point is found in the Genesis story of Abram/Abraham and Lot.  You recall in the Abraham story that Abraham split the land with Lot.  Lot took the best, well-watered ground and Abraham was left with less desirable holdings.  Lot wound up living in the city of Sodom, whose rather prophetic name may be translated as “flaming” or “burnt.”

Sodom was indeed a wicked place.  God told Abraham that if he found 50 righteous men in all of Sodom, he would not destroy it as he had planned.  Abraham knew that was unlikely, and immediate set out to lower the required number.  To his credit, Abraham was trying to save his nephew and his family.  Perhaps the thought of so much death was frightening to Abraham.  God finally agreed to withhold his judgment against Sodom for the sake of 10 righteous people.

But that didn’t happen.

Most conservative Christians will point to a single issue as the trigger point of Sodom’s downfall: the apparent call for homosexual rape against Lot’s angelic visitors.  But that was merely one facet of Sodom’s sin.  Since not even 10 righteous people were found within its walls, it was a sin–or a suite of sins–shared by a population.  In Ezekiel 16 the prophet relates the words of God, “48 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done.  49  Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  50  They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.”

Of all the pertinent applicable lessons that could be learned from these three verses, I offer this:  Beware the sin of Sodom.  Today more than ever, we need to examine ourselves individually and as a nation.  Are we following in the ways of Sodom?  I am not speaking about the misplaced emphasis on homosexuality.  I am talking specifically about what God said through Ezekiel.

Having only the experience of being born in this country and living here all my life, I can only address my perception of this nation.  From our popular music to our bumper stickers, we are proud of our nation.  “I’m proud to be an American…”  And I can agree with some of that.  But when that pride prevents us from examining our faults and flaws, our policies and laws, our pride has become our downfall.  We are not perfect.  To declare ourselves perfect arrogates perfection: we claim what can never be reality in a fallen universe.

We have excess of food—or at least some do.  We are so careless and uncaring toward the needs of others that we have made food into sport.  We have eating contests where the object is nothing but thinly veiled gluttony.  We support all you can eat buffets, and the majority of the super-sized patrons of those establishments do not need to be there.  (As a person who has struggled with weight all my life, I’m talking to myself.)  We throw phenomenal amounts of food away.  When we have the means and opportunity to help feed a child or a destitute neighbor, our lawmakers opt to save money and cut aid to the needy.

While our people may work a lot, some say more than other industrialized countries, we do still have an enormous amount of leisure time.  The leisure industry spans electronics to motion pictures to sports, to recreational vehicles and travel resorts.  We focus more on our own leisure than on the survival of the less fortunate.

Sodom was prosperous, “but did not aid the poor and needy.”  God’s words.  They were haughty, and in their prideful arrogance, did “an abomination”, which was unspecified in the passage in Ezekiel.

God’s solution: “I removed them.”

That is a chillingly understated comment, if we take the Genesis account as true.  Sodom, and its sister city on the plain, Gomorrah, were utterly destroyed.

When we consider where we are, how we live, what we do, it is so important that we wake up and realize that as a nation, we are precariously close to Sodom.  But there is an answer to this condition.  God told Israel through the prophet Isaiah in the first chapter if his message, “16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

When we cling to our perceived rights to things like firearms and fail to feed a hungry child, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.  When we allow the sick to suffer because we are reluctant to regulate skyrocketing costs or pay for care, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.  When we support an economic system that entrenches the poor in abject poverty and sends the vast majority of all of the wealth to a privileged few, we are guilty of the sin of Sodom.

The sin of Sodom was not merely sexual.  It was the systematic, predatory oppression of those without power.

In a favorite passage in Micah 6, the prophet speaks for God, saying, “8 He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Justice is equivalent to righteousness in much of the Old Testament writings.  Are we practicing true righteous justice in seeing that the needs of all are met before any take more?  Kindness as rendered here is also seen as mercy, elsewhere.  How merciful is it to allow money to take precedence over people, whittling away at safety nets and forcing the most vulnerable into the darker indignity of poverty?  The humility of walking with God is far from the pride we exude on a daily basis.

God defined the sin of Sodom for us.  And all we have to do to see it is look in the mirror, collectively speaking.

But sin is a tricky thing.  It is always easier to see it in someone else than in ourselves.

On Justice, Kindness, and Walking Humbly with God

As I have revealed in previous posts, I am a fan of country music.  Well, I guess I could refine that a bit and note that I am a fan of country music that was played during my formative years.  That may seem unfair to artists performing today, but so much of their music just seems to leave me cold.  My experiences are different from theirs.  I have little in common with them.  That’s probably why I shake my head in wonder and disbelief when I see a man chasing a woman young enough to be his daughter.  But that is a topic for a different essay.

I reflect on this because I was listening to a song written by Phil Vassar and made popular by Tim McGraw, titled “My Next Thirty Years.” It really captures a feeling that I have been harboring for a long time now.  Obviously the song is written from the perspective of a man turning that landmark 30 year milestone.  While it has been a while (ahem, a long while) since I’ve seen 30, the words always speak right to my heart.  Vassar says,

“My next thirty years, I’m gonna settle all the scores.

Cry a little less, laugh a little more;

Find a world of happiness without the hate and fear;

Figure out just what I’m doin’ here in my next thirty years.”

 You would think that I would have figured that out by now.  And I guess for the most part, I have.  But the future is a moving target, and ideas and aspirations change.

When I was a younger man, I wanted to really make my mark on the world.  I wanted to be involved in making things happen.  I wanted to be next to the captain, if not at the helm.

Then, while you aren’t looking, life happens.  You make choices that change your path.  Dreams shift from visions of grandeur to finding contentment.  And contentment is a biblically commended virtue.

But there is a part of me that can never be content.  I am a man who is impatient and far from content when I see suffering and injustice.  I cannot be happy and content in my comfortable life while others are struggling to exist. 

What bothers me most at times is that choices and consequences and unforeseen eventualities have hedged me in, preventing me from being able to travel to faraway places to help people in need.  It’s hard for me to be able to do as much after hours kinds of activity related to my job.  More directly, being the father of a growing boy on the autism spectrum, I must be ready to jump at a moment’s notice to deal with any of a plethora of problems that may arise.  Any time the phone rings, I wonder if it is word that he has gotten into trouble.  Again.  While most parents look forward to being able to relax a little as their children grow, I almost think the anxiety increases for parents of ASD kids.

Now, I stress again that I am not fishing for sympathy.  Far from it.  I accept my responsibilities, and shoulder the burden as best I can.  But when people wonder why I don’t get more involved in some activities, that is why.  While those responsibilities may constrain me physically, they cannot completely cloud my mind and prevent me from all measures of action and involvement.  That is one reason I teach and more pointedly, one reason I write: I hope that my words may resonate with someone, somewhere, and spur them to action, to greater things.

I have written often about the calls to social justice throughout the Old Testament.  Poverty, oppression, and injustice must never be tolerated as a norm.  That they exist is not a cause for acceptance of some cosmic status quo.  We are not subject to the same laws of entropy as the physical universe: we are more than leaves drifting inexorably downstream.  We have the power to change things.

That is why I have tried in a small way to be a voice for those who have none.  I have deep respect for organizations whose mission is to bring life-saving water to people who desperately need it.  I admire people who leap into action to alleviate suffering when disaster strikes.  I speak out often about the need to fully engage the enemy in the war on hunger.  That any child dies for lack of food makes me sad and angry and frustrated to think that there are people who have plenty who look the other way.  We are better than that. 

One of my favorite verses in all the Old Testament is from the “minor” prophet, Micah.  In Micah 6.8, the prophet says, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  How can I do justice if I turn away from need?  How can love kindness if I ignore oppression?  How can I walk humbly with my God if I refuse to share my blessings with others?  There are times that I ache to see and to be involved more in actions to bring help and hope to people in need.

So I have resolved that if I cannot go where help is needed, I can support those who can.  I can call attention to opportunities to join in with others to make change happen.  I know my friends probably grow tired of my solicitations for donations to good causes.  I cannot stop in my efforts, regardless of how weary they may become of my crying in the wilderness.  I hope, however, that they will join with me in giving even a little to these initiatives. Nothing gives me a greater sense of satisfaction than to know I have helped change the world, and to give someone I may never meet from somewhere I may never visit a chance to experience a better future.

I cannot help but think about Jesus’ vision of the Judgment in Matthew 25, where he describes the separation of the sheep from the goats, the saved from the condemned. 

“34  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  35  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

37  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  38  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  39  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

As I write this, it is March 22, 2015—World Water Day.  It is a day set aside to remind if not inform the world of how important water is to life.  Millions of people remain in need of basic necessities like clean water and life-saving sanitation.  There are many organizations that are actively working to bring clean water to those desperately in need.  Won’t you learn how you can help them?

http://water.org/

http://www.worldvision.org/

http://www.charitywater.org/

http://www.unicefusa.org/

http://www.savethechildren.org/

Racism

Every church has a history, and the churches of Christ are no different.  Anyone who has even passing acquaintance with this wing of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement has heard of many of the names of the great leaders of the past, including the father/son Campbell duo, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, Moses Lard, David Lipscomb…the list could go on for quite a few lines.  In the 20th century, there were other famous personalities that were part of a definitive period of doctrinal debate and fellowship lines drawn in the sand.  Names like N.B. Hardeman, B.C. Goodpasture, Fanning Yater Tant, Roy Cogdill and Foy Wallace come to mind.  While these men wound up on different ideological sides of the institutional schism that would forever split the churches of Christ after World War II, through their voluminous writings, their voices still ring with fervor and more often than not, some variation on the theme of righteous indignation and/or condemnation for all who differed with them.

I recently came across a reprint of an article in the Bible Banner by Foy E. Wallace, Jr., dated March, 1941, in which the great warrior for the non-institutional faction poured out his venom on the horrible, soul-damning mixing of the races.

“The manner in which the brethren in some quarters are going in for the negro meetings leads one to wonder whether they are trying to make white folks out of the negroes or negroes out of the white folks. The trend of the general mix-up seems to be toward the latter. Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs. That kind of thing will turn the head of most white preachers, and sometimes affect their conduct, and anybody ought to know that it will make fools out of the negroes. For any woman in the church to so far forget her dignity, and lower herself so, just because a negro has learned enough about the gospel to preach it to his race, is pitiable indeed. Her husband should take her in charge unless he has gone crazy, too. In that case somebody ought to take both of them in charge.”

He went on later in the article to relate an incident experienced by the great N.B. Hardeman:

“When N. B. Hardeman held the valley-wide meeting at Harlingen, Texas, some misguided brethren brought a group of negroes up to the front to be introduced to and shake hands with him. Brother Hardeman told them publicly that he could see all of the colored brethren he cared to see on the outside after services, and that he could say everything to them that he wanted to say without the formality of shaking hands. I think he was right. He told of a prominent brother in the church who went wild over the negroes and showed them such social courtesies that one day one of the negroes asked him if he might marry his daughter. That gave the brother a jolt and he changed his attitude!”

In another memorable illustration, Wallace drew from his own experience at a gospel meeting:

“In one of my own meetings a young negro preacher was engaged by the church as a janitor. He made it a point to stand out in the vestibule of the church-building to shake hands with the white people. When I insisted that it be discontinued some of the white brethren were offended. Such as this proves that the white brethren are ruining the negroes and defeating the very work that they should be sent to do, that is, preach the gospel to the negroes, their own people.”

Now before you go off on the “It was a different time” speech, I’ve already thought of that.  And there is still no excuse for any of that sort of thought in any Christian, of any tribe or splinter group.  But I’m pretty sure that some of it is still there.

I am shocked at the apparent disgust that these preachers held for even shaking hands with a black man.  Were they so worried that the black would rub off?  Did they see dark skin pigment as a kind of inverse leprosy that required one not to touch?

I remember standing at the doorway of a church building one evening while two elderly white gentlemen were talking about the old days, and liberally using the “N” word.  I was shocked.  I was disgusted.  But I held my peace, to my own shame.  Both of those men are dead now, and I never rebuked their racism.

But I will not hold my peace any longer.

Wallace was wrong.  Hardeman was wrong.  Every person who listened to their racist diatribes and agreed with them was wrong.

Why would I say that?  It’s that pesky little old book called the Bible.

Maybe Wallace and Hardeman and every other racist church member had read the account in Acts where Peter was having his moment of doubt about delivering the gospel message to the Gentile.  In Acts 10, Peter’s vision culminates with the pronouncement from on-high: “15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”  (emphasis dlr)  Peter was perplexed by the vision, but the meaning finally dawned even on an uneducated Jewish fisherman.  “And he said to them, “28 You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” When Cornelius relates his story of answered prayer, Peter says, “34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35  but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (emphasis dlr)

Yes, they had read it.  And they had read into it, too.  They had read “separate but equal.”  But that is not what God had said.

In Galatians 3, Paul—whose Jewish pedigree and training were second to none, who should have known that associating with another race was wrong if indeed it was wrong—wrote,

“23  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  24  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  27  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  28  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  29  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”     

If we indeed believe the words of the Bible, we must not be so selective in our readings as to allow institutionalized racism to continue in our churches.  The bile that Wallace spewed was truly disgusting.  The attitude of Hardeman in not shaking hands with an African-American was loathsome to the point of contemptible.  That Wallace would hide behind the Jim Crow laws in another part of the same article was despicable, and placed him on the wrong side of Peter’s declaration in Acts 5.29, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

There is no way around it: racism is sin.  But as I think about it, while it may have been danced around in a discussion of James 2, I’m not sure I can recall if I have ever heard it specifically called such from a pulpit.  I do not know if Wallace or Hardeman ever repented of their overt racism.  I can only hope they did.  I know their influence likely had far reaching and very negative impacts on the African-Americans who were by choice, by faith and by the acceptance of a color-blind God their brothers and sisters.

In the tiny congregation where I maintain my membership, I have seen good and Godly African-American brothers come to be a part of our family—come to be accepted, loved, respected and honored as any brother should be.  One of those men was paralyzed, but not in his heart and mind.  One wanted more than anything to preach the Gospel and serve his God in the best way he knew how.  Both of those men died well before their times.  I cried many tears when they passed away.  I would love to hear their strong voices again, shake their hands, and worship together with those gentle souls with no regard for color or disability.  We were brothers.  I loved them.  I miss them.  And I look forward to a time when we shall all be together again, though not in imperfect bodies in this fallen and decaying world.

I hate the thought of racism anywhere.  But in the church, it must not, it cannot be tolerated.  There is no “separate but equal” in the body of Christ.  There is only equal and precious.  Let there be no whispered epithets.  Let there be no “us” and “them.”  In God’s eyes, we are one.

Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.”  Physics tells us that visible, “pure” white light is actually composed of all the colors of the spectrum.  Without all of them shining together, the world could never look quite right.  As I see it more and more every day, this tired old world needs pure, bright, unified light, maybe more than ever.  Maybe we should really listen to Jesus, take our place in that great spectrum of light and shine on.