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.   

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Speaking for Those Who Have No Voice

 “Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings. It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted. Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more. Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:3-10

Advice is a good thing.  And when the advice comes from your mother, it’s usually worth listening to.  This passage from Proverbs is reportedly an oracle from the mother of King Lemuel.  Some think that Lemuel was one and the same with Solomon.  At any rate, the advice was sound and the thoughts worthy of consideration.

In this teaching, the wise man relates to his listeners and readers that anything that might cause a distraction or detract from sound judgment must be avoided.  The wise woman tells her son that women can be a problem if he pays them too much, ahem, “attention.”  If Lemuel were indeed Solomon, he should have listened to his mother—as numerous modern day leaders should have, as well.

She continues on to say that alcohol can muddy the mind and should be reserved for those with woes to forget.  Seems reasonable.  However, this has been used to exclude any and all use of alcohol outside such “therapeutic” uses.  That is not what the rest of the Bible says.  As we have observed before, drunkenness is condemned, not all use of wine.  Use is one thing; abuse is another altogether.

As I have often reflected on many passages, the first part of this teaching is remembered frequently and given general observance as it specifically warns against some things that we wish to warn against: ill-advised sexual relationships and alcohol.  The latter part of the passage is too often forgotten, and yet it is as applicable if not more so to general teaching and the general public.

Lemuel’s mother tells him to speak for those who have no voice: the destitute, the poor and the needy.  Then as now there are those who would seek to forget the poor and those who have needs of various kinds, not only those lacking in wealth and goods, but those with conditions that limit their abilities.  Too often, those who are most guilty of doing these things are the ones who wrap themselves in a shroud of religion, touting family values and traditional morality.  I have nothing against family values and morality.  I would only hope that anyone who holds to these ideals would not just cling to those that are politically or socially expedient at any given moment and forget the rest of the package.

In past essays, I have explored the commands to see to the needs of those in distress and those less fortunate.  It is inescapable, although many religious people have done a pretty fair job of ignoring the issues.  If we are to live our faith, we must not neglect even those teachings that make us uncomfortable.

So here goes another attempt to speak for those without a voice.

It’s time to change our attitudes about people with mental illness, developmental disorders, and intellectual disabilities.  Maybe I’m more sensitive these days than I used to be, and for good reason.  I have a son with autism.  It is hard going some days just getting him ready for school and getting him on the bus.

That would be the “short bus” that so many people joke about.

It’s time for that to stop. 

To use that expression is to demean the people who ride that “short bus” with the “SE” number on the side.  The intent is to say that a person on the short bus is sub-standard, is not as valuable, or is less important than anyone else not riding that particular bus.

But when I step aboard that bus in the morning to get my son strapped in his seat, I am greeted by beautiful children with smiling faces.  Some are tired and catch up on some sleep as they make their early morning journey to school.  Each and every one is like every one of the rest of us in a very important way: we are all God’s handiwork, and we were meant to look out for each other.

I have been impressed with businesses and institutions who hire people with developmental or intellectual disabilities to perform specific tasks.  These are not glamorous jobs.  But they give these wonderful people a sense of worth.  I remember a young woman with Down Syndrome on the serving line at the local primary school.  She seemed to take pride in her work.  At the university cafeteria, there are people who appear to be autistic or may have other intellectual disabilities who work at cleaning the tables and other things that many people would not want to do.  I applaud these places for taking the chance and letting these people contribute in whatever way to their organizations.

So, plus one for the employers, but minus a big one for some people I have heard who have made remarks about these workers.  That’s right, I have heard several disparaging comments about these very individuals.  And it breaks my heart to hear it.  Mocking the speech of a disabled person is not funny.  It is demeaning.  Making fun of their performance is not funny.  It is petty and small-minded, even if the person making the remarks is highly intelligent.  And what is so sad is that–like every one of us–the person who makes that sort of comment may be only a head injury away from a similar condition.  There but for the grace of God….

I remember a sketch on Saturday Night Live years ago when someone was giving directions, and one of the landmarks was to turn left at the “retarded kid selling fireworks.”  I hear people lightly use words like “retarded” to describe a thoughtless act or remark that they themselves may have made.  They may easily joke with friends, calling each other retarded, or simply “retard.”  I know people do these things because I did those very things in my younger and far more foolish days.  Are such comments really that different from the recent report of a bunch of young punks who doused a stripped down autistic teen with a vile concoction of human waste and cigarette butts in a mockery of the “ice bucket challenge”?

There is no humor in making fun of someone who cannot defend himself, whether by some premeditated cruel and heartless prank or by a derisive remark in passing.  There is certainly no humor in belittling an entire segment of the population.  Or in running down someone that I love.

Several years ago, country music singer Mark Wills recorded a song by Steve Seskin and Allen Shamblin titled, “Don’t Laugh at Me.”  The lyrics are worth exploring.  They touch on many different human conditions, from physical differences to unfortunate circumstances that lead to depression.  The bridge challenges, “I’m fat, I’m thin, I’m short, I’m tall / I’m deaf, I’m blind, hey, aren’t we all?”

The chorus admonishes,

Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names

Don’t get your pleasure from my pain

In God’s eyes we’re all the same

Someday we’ll all have perfect wings

Don’t laugh at me

 We have a responsibility to speak for those who cannot, who have no voice at the table of society.  In Isaiah, the Lord asked what almost seemed like a pair of rhetorical questions, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”  Isaiah spoke up, and said, “Here am I.  Send me!”  When the moment arises that someone disparages the intellectually disabled or a person with autism or a person with a mental illness, remember Isaiah.  Stand up and speak out.  Ignorance is only forgivable when there has been no chance for enlightenment.  Beyond that, such behavior is merely rude and boorish.

There may be no direct profit in shutting that sort of juvenile bad-mouthing down.  It may lose you a friend or two.  But you will have done the right thing.  Ask Lemuel’s mother.

The Great Deficiency of The Bible

I’ve been thinking about why so many people have trouble with getting past things like pattern and organization when it comes to religion, when Jesus stressed changes in heart and life and action. As I thought about this earlier, I was reminded of something a dear friend once said to me. It went something like this, “You people in the church of Christ only pay attention to the letters of Paul. You should be called the church of Paul.”

In a sense, he’s right. We spend more time dealing with the details of Paul’s interactions with and instructions for the early churches who were experiencing specific issues from growing pains, to poverty, to inertia, to misconduct the likes of which was not even tolerated by the pagans of that day.

When we were children, we heard the stories of the great heroes of the Old Testament. Every child in Sunday school knows about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Joseph, Jacob and Esau, Elijah, David, Solomon, Samson, Daniel and the other exciting stories. In the New Testament, children hear about Jesus and the apostles. And this is well and good. But somewhere along the way, we read about needing strong meat, and not milk and we get the idea that the gospel story of Jesus is just milk, maybe because we tell the stories mostly in Sunday school. Paul serves up the meat in the New Testament. All the other stuff is just background. That seems to be the perception, at least. And I was told by a wise dean once that perception becomes reality.

I believe with all my heart that we have gotten things turned around.  The gospel message of Jesus is as strong a meat as any in our practice of religion.  We need to tear apart every story about Jesus in the gospels, every teaching he presented, and get every bit of truth and meaning from each and every one of them. Jesus is the focus of the gospel message. His life is the one Paul said he was emulating.

So what is the deficiency I am talking about? First off, that was just one of those “made you look” phrases. Writers call them hooks. If you’re reading this far, the hook has been set, and I hope you will continue through the conclusion of the essay.

The deficiency is not so much with the Bible itself, but in our understanding of it. The Christian life, or the Way as it was called in those days after the Crucifixion and that first Pentecost after it is not an organization. It is indeed a Way of Life. It is Jesus, translated into the life-language of every follower.

What did Paul say in Philippians 1.21? “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Contrary to what some seem to think, Paul never said, “To live is church….” So what did he mean? I think he was saying that it was needful for his friends that he not die at that juncture, but carry on and teach and serve and encourage them. To live is to act.

Paul’s writings are rich with truth. Make no mistake. But many of his letters were addressing specific issues experienced by the groups to which he was writing. Personally, I have never been tempted to eat meat sacrificed to idols. I don’t think I would be offended by it if anyone did. I have never known of a case of step-mother/step-son incest in any church with which I have been associated–not that there cannot be such. Certainly, principles applied in dealing with those situations have value and merit and are instructive to us.

But the letters are not histories, either. They tell us precious little about how people lived and what they did. Paul alluded to some of these things throughout his letters, and a rich cache of comments praising the actions of many of Paul’s friends and associates is found at the close of Romans and in other letters.

While there are those who would squeeze the scriptures to find commands and patterns to follow and bind them on all, there is a wealth of examples that we have rarely ever considered, at least not in the light of “living Christ.” So who did “live Christ” in the New Testament? In Acts 9, there is the story of Dorcas, or Tabitha of whom it was said, “…she was always doing good and helping the poor.” Sounds like Jesus to me. In Romans 16, Phoebe is commended as a servant of the church at Cenchreae. Later in the same chapter, Tryphena and Tryphosa and Persis, all were praised as women who had worked or were working hard in the Lord. Rufus’ mother had been a mother to Paul–that takes action, not words. Urbanus was a dear co-worker. Mary worked very hard for the Christians in Rome. Sounds like Jesus to me.  What about Paul’s description of Timothy as showing genuine concern for the Philippians’ welfare like no other: it was not just spiritual welfare.  It was  their physical, temporal well-being, as well.  Epaphroditus was commended as one who saw to Paul’s needs, and was distressed for his friends at their concern over him in his recent, near-fatal illness. Sounds like Jesus to me.

In these examples and in many others, the emphasis is on action, not perfect, lock-step conformity.  In Matthew 25, at the scene of the great Judgment, the separation of sheep from goats was based on acts of service and mercy, not doctrinal purity and organizational correctness.  I am in no wise saying that those things are not important.  They are.  But they must not be pursued to the exclusion of justice and mercy. 

 Jesus addressed such issues throughout his ministry.  Work on the Sabbath was forbidden by Jewish law, but Jesus and his disciples plucked heads of grain and winnowed the kernels in their hands, working for a bite of sustenance. Jesus gave relief to the suffering on the Sabbath in direct violation of the Law, and made the point that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In each of these examples, an action was taken to address a physical need. He reminded the Pharisees of the prophecy, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” His brother James reiterates that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Mercy, in any time and in any culture, carries the connotation of action in service to another.

So to set the record straight, The Bible is not deficient. We are. When we fail to see the shadow of Christ in the merciful actions and service of every disciple mentioned even in passing, we are deficient. When we plow the field searching for shards of buried commands and cover over the precious jewels that are the wonderful characters who lived Christ, we are deficient.

We should always remember Paul’s comment, “To live is Christ.” We should internalize it, and live Christ, too. He is the Way. He is the Truth. He is the Life that leads to a better and unending life. Let the world see Jesus in us, not just Peter, or Paul, or Martin Luther, or Alexander Campbell or any other reformer who tried to light the way back to Jesus.

To live is Christ.

That should certainly give us a lot to think about.

And much more to do.

Of Broken Lives and Broken Dreams

NOTE: This post is not a cry for sympathy, or just random, self-absorbed, self-pitying or venting.  This is real.  This is what it’s like to deal with a never-ending stress every day of your life.  Many people have no idea how much baggage we carry around as parents of a special needs child.  We don’t have extra skills or abilities to deal with it.  What we have is simply stretched to the limit and beyond.  And our situation is far less severe than that of some.  But I wanted to give you a small glimpse of how life looks from the inside of this particular fishbowl.  It’s not always pretty.

Life happens.

No matter what the best-laid plans may be, there will always be something that will come along to upset the apple cart, and all the polished produce goes flying beyond your reach, becoming bruised and maybe even damaged beyond use.

When I was a young man, like so many other young men throughout history, I dreamed of finding a wife, starting a family, having a quiet but successful career, growing old, retiring, enjoying life, reflecting…. I dreamed of normalcy.

Long story short, the first part happened, and so did the second, but after that….oy.

My wife and I had both spent years in college and grad school and beyond, preparing for a career in higher education. We met soon after we both were hired into the same department at a middle sized, student oriented school. We became friends. And good marriages are made with good friends.

After our first child was born, we discussed whether or not our family was complete. Ever the pragmatist, I suggested that two children would be a good number, so that when we get old, the burden for decisions about our care would not fall on one. So we had a second child.

Then, the world caved in. That quiet life to which I aspired became a life of not-so-quiet desperation in what seemed like the blink of an eye.

Our son was slow to reach the early benchmarks of development. His mother saw it, I refused. He continued to experience developmental delays. His mother saw it, I refused. With each new problem that cropped up, it became more and more difficult for me to keep my eyes closed.

And then one day, we were faced with the diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder.

The last several years have been filled with medical appointments, therapies, meltdowns, school suspensions, school conferences, more medical appointments, showdowns with disrespectful people in public, the odd police report…. In short, a nightmare of sub-epic proportions.

The epic part may yet arise.

We have experienced more lows than highs through the years. More than once I have nearly reached the end of my rope. And more than once, the stress on our marriage has been so severe that I have wondered if staying together was worth it. Of course, the realization that one of us would then be even more responsible for the daily care and upkeep of a child with autism was more than I could take. I couldn’t do it alone. And I know that she couldn’t either, nor should she. He is our responsibility. We must both share in it.

I have seen figures that the divorce rate among parents of children with autism is in the vicinity of 80%. Recent studies have disproven that figure, and the actual numbers may be lower than the national average. One writer speculated that it may be because of the support the couple provides for each other. But if I were a betting man, the scenario I just described is more likely the reason why. The marriage may be in shambles, but the shame of running away and the sense of responsibility are so great that a person of integrity will carry on despite the pain and agony every day may bring. As trite as it sounds, it feels like you stay together for the sake of the children. You hope for the best. You hope to rekindle civility if not passion; friendly tolerance, if not sustaining love.

The deeper pain there is not the loss of romance, although that’s stressful in and of itself. It’s in the terrible feeling I get sometimes that I may have lost my best friend, and I hate autism for having come between us. Make no mistake: I love my wife. But after the third argument or sternly serious (and usually well-deserved) “discussion” of the day regarding my inadequate actions and poor displays of parenting, I sometimes wonder if she still loves or even likes me anymore. I can’t blame her. She is the mother lion defending her cub.

The stress of trying to physically manage a boy who is big for his age, his weight disproportionately so because of the vicious side effects of medications, is getting more difficult with every day. He has outgrown my wife’s abilities, so the physical redirection tasks have fallen to me almost exclusively. Outbursts and meltdowns in public are harder to contain. Physical interventions are misinterpreted by well meaning people who think the child is being abused or abducted. The indignity of having the police called is one of the worst things I have experienced, but then it is not out of the ordinary for parents of children with autism in today’s society. Recently, I have started developing a lot more pains from overstressed muscles and tendons. I often reflect that this kind of parenting is a younger man’s game. And I’m never going to get any younger.

The stress of preparing for the future is daunting for anyone, but when autism is factored in, it goes off-scale. How will we provide for our child after we are gone? For typical children, there is hope and expectation that they will grow up, get the training they need to get a job, find a job they love and become successful, even more so than we have been. But the future for a child with autism is not as bright, no matter what rosy pictures are painted in the movie of the week.

Through it all, we are expected to be happy and involved and engaged with society. The reality is that we are prisoners of autism. Sometimes, it seems that for every step we make in progress, we lose two in other things. Trying to make sure a sibling gets enough care and attention is hard, and there is always the nagging question as to whether we have done enough for either of them.

When your life feels like it is in a downward spiral, faith should be a refuge. I have no complaints about my fellow church members at the tiny congregation where I worship. They have shown nothing but love and concern as we have gone through this crucible of a trial, and I love them dearly for it. My concern is with the specific emphasis of the teaching that goes on in so many churches. Sometimes I come away wondering why I bother anymore. The teaching focuses more on frequently ineffective evangelism and first principles and minutiae of doctrinal differences among denominations and less on things that I, for one, so desperately need. The emphasis is on getting people in, but when they get there, they are supposed to be fully self-sufficient and functional to make the rest of the trip on their own. Too often, the teaching they get deals more with the “correct” organization of the church than dealing with real-world trials and problems.

There are so many things I need to hear from a pulpit, and so many things I either don’t hear or don’t need to hear. I need practical things that help me get through the next hard day and the next endless week, or even the next public meltdown. I need to be encouraged to keep going even when it feels like I can’t go on at all. I don’t need to be told that many of the painful thoughts and feelings I have revealed in this very essay could get me eternally damned. I need to know I am not alone, that God really does care about me, and about my suffering family, and that things can get better. I don’t need to be told to buck up and pull my weight. I need to hear ideas and suggestions for dealing with this difficult, soul-quenching life, not a constant barrage of dogmas and damnation.

When you get right down to it, life is more than church membership. It extends beyond the doorway of the so-called “sanctuary.” It’s out there in the streets and in the home and in the workplace and in the marketplace where people interact, maybe in tense conflict. What spiritual armor will protect me from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?  How do I cope with all I have to deal with, day in and day out?  Why is there so little emphasis—especially in the conservative churches—on helping people in the here and now? Why did Jesus heal the sick, and relieve people who were oppressed and afflicted with many other things, from accusations of sin to evil spirits? It was not only to show his power and divine nature. It was to show his compassion. I need that compassion and understanding and deep comforting help.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think many other people are feeling the same thing.   I need help with this life. If I can’t fix my life here, I’ll never make it to the next one. And just focusing on the sweet by and by only means admitting defeat in the not so sweet here and now. It means we give up on trying to make things better here, because all of our suffering will just make that ethereal bliss of heaven sweeter.

I can’t buy it. I can’t give up, and I won’t. But there are things I have come to know as I have floundered about these last years in a seemingly losing attempt to find my way. In order to get to where I need to be, I need more action and less axiom. More faith and less formula. More compassion and less condemnation. More Savior and less system. More love and less law. More emphasis on the church family and less emphasis on the church organization. More Christ and less conflict.

“Pray about it.” I have. “Work on it.” Always. But sometimes, I just need to shout down the pain and stress and turmoil.

We will continue to provide everything in our power to help our son. But we need to remember to save something for ourselves and for each other, too. I know Jesus never promised perfect comfort in this life. He told his friends to expect hardship. But he also told them to love each other and bear each others’ burdens, no matter how heavy.

Right now, I’m about as broken as I’ve ever been. My hopes and dreams lie scattered, shattered and fading. I could use some mending.

Oh God, I could use some mending.

Rest Easy

I was introduced to the work of Christian singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson a couple of years ago when Lipscomb theology professor and writer, John Mark Hicks quoted a few lines from Peterson’s album, Light for the Lost Boy, in his blog.  On his recommendation, I gave the album a listen, and I was immediately impressed.  Peterson’s lyrics are literate and thought-provoking without venturing down the “Jesus is my girlfriend” path of what sounds virtually like romantic love songs for God.

The song from that album that probably resonates most with me is his “Rest Easy.”  The lyrics are so reassuring and comforting, especially when the world seems to be crumbling all around you.  Take a look at the lyrics, or better yet, listen to the song for yourself.  (YouTube is a great place to experience music you want to try.  Give it a search.)  

You are not alone
I will always be with you
Even to the end
 
You don’t have to work so hard
You can rest easy
You don’t have to prove yourself
You’re already mine
You don’t have to hide your heart
I already love you
I hold it in mine
So you can rest easy
 
Do not be afraid
Nothing, nothing in the world
Can come between us now

You don’t have to work so hard
You can rest easy
You don’t have to prove yourself
You’re already mine
You don’t have to hide your heart
I already love you
I hold it in mine
So you can rest easy

You work so hard to wear yourself down
And you’re running like a rodeo clown
You’re smiling like you’re scared to death
You’re out of faith and all out of breath
You’re so afraid you’ve got nowhere left to go

Well, you are not alone
I will always be with you

You don’t have to work so hard
You can rest easy
You don’t have to prove yourself
You’re already mine
You don’t have to hide your heart
I already love you
I hold it in mine
You can rest easy

Peterson writes as if Jesus were directly talking to the listener, the concepts and comments garnered and gleaned from throughout the gospels and apostolic letters.  The application is so real and true on so many levels.  The song will resonate with anyone who has struggled with pretty much any of life’s challenges.

I can admit it: I struggle each and every day.  I am frequently discouraged and angry and disappointed with myself when that discouragement and anger spill out and affect others.  My faith falters and I lose sight of the higher calling.  I blame others for my own poor state of affairs, when I am responsible for making the best of what comes my way.

What kind of struggles do I face?  There have been times when I have been so discouraged with my job that I just hated even thinking about going to work in the morning.  I attended faculty meetings and experienced chest pains born of anxiety and dread.  Another struggle I face is in marriage: probably every married man in America, if not the world, has had moments of doubt as to whether that relationship would be strong enough to weather the storms that life sends.

One of the biggest challenges I face on a daily basis is dealing with a son on the autism spectrum.  Autism is a constant challenge, not only from the behavioral issues and developmental delays, but also in trying to make sure that my son receives the services that he needs to give him the best chance of success later in life.  I get discouraged when all of the appointments and therapies seem to be having little effect.  My plate is so full at times that I don’t have as much time to devote to my work as I would like.  The stress of dealing with autism makes trying to maintain a working marriage far more difficult than a “normal” life would—if indeed that normalcy does exist for anyone.

I struggle with matters of faith, too.  I have been on an extended journey of spiritual discovery that began when I came to realize that God is more about love and grace and less about retribution and punishment.  That journey has led me to question many of the tenets of my faith tradition, and through that lens of love and grace, the legalism I was raised in becomes less appealing and more difficult to defend and maintain.  I have been unhappy with my church situation for a long time, but I remain, because of a perception of duty to, as well as love for my dear friends who make up that tiny congregation.  Such a conflict of spirit wears a man down, and brings him to some of the deepest lows of life.  In my experience, to be soul-sad and soul-weary shakes me to the very foundation.

And then I hear Andrew Peterson, and through his words and organizing thoughts, I remember the great invitation that Jesus gave to all who were soul-weary and heavy-laden.  In Matthew 11.28, Jesus offers, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus was likely talking to people who were tired of the Pharisaical burden of law.  I can’t help but believe that the offer stands for all time and for all who labor under any circumstance that would break a person’s spirit and drive him to despair.   

In light of my own experience, I hear Peterson’s words decry the burden of legalism when he relates that, “You don’t have to work so hard…You’re already mine.”  Jesus paid the price, took the burden on himself, and made the gift of soul-redeeming grace possible through his life and example of selflessness. 

Sometimes, I think we make things too difficult.  Life gets harder as we pursue ridiculous things that have little in the way of lasting–let alone eternal–value.  Religion gets difficult when form and pattern distort and obscure the most important pattern and example for our lives, that being none other than the one we say we revere and worship and hold with gracious esteem, that earthly son of a carpenter, that spiritual guide of common fishermen, that friend of tax-collectors and sinners. Jesus.  The journey home gets so much longer when we get sidetracked chasing elusive and often inferred rabbits.  We look for more religious tasks to do to the exclusion of becoming what we are called to be: people defined by the love and mercy and kindness that are not just actions, but qualities that become our very essence and suffuse every aspect, every facet of our lives.

In matters of faith and in the mundane exercise of daily life, the bridge rings so amazingly true:

You work so hard to wear yourself down
And you’re running like a rodeo clown
You’re smiling like you’re scared to death
You’re out of faith and all out of breath
You’re so afraid you’ve got nowhere left to go

I’ve been there.  Out of faith, out of breath.  Running on a hamster wheel with no relief and no end in sight.  I’ve been there.  I’m weak, but by faith, I know a fountainhead of strength is only a heartbeat away.  I’m so very tired, but Jesus invites me to rest easy.

I need to listen.  Oh, how I need to listen.

Why Is It…?: The Value of Answered Questions vs. Unquestioned Acceptance

I am an inquisitive person. I want to know things. I want to know why things happen. I want to know how things work. I like to think, although thinking has gotten me into trouble on occasion. I like learning. Even at my age, I am constantly learning. I hope I never stop.

So why is it that others don’t do those things—ask questions, seek objective answers—especially in the realm of faith? Why can’t people question the status quo and challenge the system without being threatened? Questioning is not the same thing as apostasy. In fact, questioning is scripturally approved, because it leads to truth.

How do I know this? I am drawn to the story of Thomas in those dark days after the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ followers were continuing to meet, perhaps to commiserate, perhaps to encourage each other on the first day of the week. Thomas was not present at the meeting where Jesus first made his presence and continued life known to the disciples. They told him the news, but he refused to believe it without proof. When he was gathered together with the others on the next meeting day, Jesus appeared and challenged him to touch the wounds and believe. I do not believe that Jesus condemned his action. If he had, he probably would not have acquiesced to the request for proof. After all, if a man was not willing to believe the corroborated testimony of his peers, men he had known and worked and studied with for years, what would that say about his intellectual honesty?

Perhaps Jesus realized how incredible this claim of resurrection might be. Of course, Thomas knew the Old Testament record, how Elijah had raised the widow’s son in I Kings 17. But like other cases in the New Testament, that took an external agent to channel the power of resurrection. But here was Jesus, known to have died and been buried, and without a visible external agent, without someone to speak or lay hands on the body or pray for reanimation, here he was alive again.

Some might see Jesus’ comment about those being blessed that had believed without proof as being superior to Thomas’ need for physical evidence. Those Jesus pronounced blessings on would include, I suppose, us as believers, because the only proof we have is the testimony of scripture that we accept as substantiating the story, and that provides the foundation for our faith.

Later in the apostolic period, Paul tells the Thessalonians in chapter 5, verse 21-22 of his first letter, “20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good.”

“Test everything.” That does not mean try to find a way to merely poke holes in a doctrine, nor does it mean to blindly, mindlessly accept all teaching. No, with respect to prophecy—which we might extend to teaching—we are not to despise it, but test it. To test or prove is to observe and consider objectively, as did the Berean hearers, who searched the scriptures to determine if what Paul taught was true based upon scriptural evidence.

But is there anything truly objective in religion? We often talk about and encourage study, but is that study in an objective sense? Too often, the study that is encouraged is merely the rehearsal of the doctrine of the particular group with which one is affiliated. In fact, in many instances, it is possible that objective questioning may be actively discouraged, because it may lead to rejection of the group’s accepted teaching.    

So what happens if a person objectively studies and finds the position of his or her faith tradition to be wrong? There are several possibilities. One may be that this person quietly remains in submission to the group’s standards, seeming to be a satisfied participant, while inwardly he remains miserable. Another possibility is that she speaks out and is castigated for her heretical candor. A third possibility for such people is that they decide that they can no longer remain true to themselves and what they have determined to be true and stay with that group.

There are probably elements of every group, evangelical or otherwise, that looks at any such defection with derision. The group will try to badger the seeker into returning. There may be little consideration that this decision was reached with thought and care, and since the heretic has departed from the group’s dogmas, there is little effort to hear the arguments and genuinely study to know if this person’s conclusions are true or right.

That is perhaps the most ironic part of the progression: the one who has objectively studied beyond the limits of his group’s teachings is not met with the spirit of God’s invitation to Israel through the prophet Isaiah: “Come let us reason together.” It is more like “You have left the only true path or position on this topic, and you stand condemned for departing.” There is no real offer of objective study. There is only condemnation.

Perhaps the most dangerous example of this is found when one questions something like the method by which the group determines authority. In the churches of Christ, that method has been, since the 19th century, a method known as Command, Example, Necessary Inference, and Silence, or CENI-S, for short. If a person has examined this fourfold pattern and found it to be based not wholly on scripture, but largely on human reasoning, that person is considered to be in error. The establishment will brook no question contrary to the pattern, and will refuse to even consider if they are possibly in the wrong. To question CENI-S is to question the infallibility of scripture. To reduce the list by one or two allows too much liberty. Freedom is erroneously equated with anarchy, and that simply is not true. The other illogical conclusion is that greater freedom is found in greater bondage to tradition. Such paradoxical conclusions are far from scripture.

When a person reaches a point where “pattern” no longer means specific regulations with respect to organization but an example of how to live, his religion changes from one of fear for getting something wrong to one of joy for making something right. The life of faith is more expressed in action toward others and forward thinking, not focusing on questionable minutiae. As long as we argue and quibble over the correct interpretation of a single word, we are not doing the good that we are expected to do. In Matthew’s record, Jesus twice quoted Hosea when he charged the Pharisees with finding out what God meant when he said that he desired mercy—a word that is often associated with the concept of “steadfast love”—rather than sacrifice. I’ve thought about what that means. Maybe it suggests that if people would only do the good toward others that they were expected to do there would be no need for sacrifice. Maybe he meant that if your heart is seeing to the good of others, you won’t have time to sin. Mercy looks outward and forward. Sacrifice looks inward and back.

Too often today, people are caught up in getting the “sacrifice” just right, whatever they perceive that sacrifice to be. They lose sight of the fact that there was one perfect sacrifice, and we accept that and honor it by means of emulating the one who willingly laid down his life. In trying to get the “organization” of the church right, we forget what the function of that collective body of believers was really meant to do: build each other up and look out for each other, body, mind and soul. The attention we pay to the qualifications of elders and deacons often fails to really address what those recognized as such actually were and are expected to do. In trying to reconstruct the form of worship, that form is elevated above the function of the gathering. The expression of joy and gratitude succumbs to the fear of a spiritually fatal ceremonial misstep, and the exercise is relegated to checking off the parts rather than experiencing the whole. In trying to identify those with whom we fellowship, we apply honorifics of “Bro.” and “Sis.” as titles, but fail to recognize the people for what they really are: adopted siblings sharing the care, love and grace of a common father.

Maybe people don’t ask questions because it’s easier to just accept what someone else tells them. But when we start seeing a chain of acceptance we may also see a chain of misunderstanding. Life is too short to blindly follow and not enthusiastically, emphatically know. To be a believer does not have to mean gullibility. Belief is stronger if it is built on investigation and questioning. The basics of “who, what, when, and where” are easier to tackle. But to answer “why and how” can take a lifetime, or maybe even more. But that’s okay in the long run. Eternity may just be long enough to find and savor those answers.

 

 

 

For Us or Against Us? A Question of Intentions and Purposes

I was listening to a presentation the other evening in which the speaker was extolling the values of the early church with respect to the concept of evangelism.  In the course of the talk, he began quoting a number of seemingly disjunct scriptures, one of which was Matthew 12.30:  “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  This is also found in Luke 11.23. 

Immediately, my mind went to the scene recorded in both Mark 9 and Luke 9 where the disciples are complaining to Jesus that they had rebuked a man who did not “follow with” them for casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  Consider both of these passages:

 Luke 9.“49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.”

50  But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”

 Mark 9. “38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

39  But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.  40  For the one who is not against us is for us.”

There is no denying that both diametrically opposed, seemingly inconsistent comments are recorded in the gospels.  However, Matthew/Luke 11’s incident heuristically contrasts with that of Mark/Luke 9.  In Matthew’s record, Jesus is responding to the attacks of his arch-detractors, the Pharisees.  Their purpose was to tear down what Jesus was building because it did not fit with their plan and vision. Jesus’ comment is pointed and definitive: if one is not unified in purpose with him, they are at cross-purposes, and in conscious, defiant opposition.   

In Mark and Luke, Jesus is responding to the complaint of his disciples about someone who appeared to be “stealing their thunder.”  This individual was casting out demons in the name of the Messiah, but was not specifically counted among the followers.  Perhaps this person was an admirer who saw the power and authority even the name of Jesus wielded.  Besides that, Jesus knew the heart and intent of the accused person in this case.  He knew that the intent was good, and the effect would be that Jesus’ reputation and message would be spread farther as a result of this man’s action.

I have heard many examples of preachers in the faith heritage with which I fellowship (and others of slightly different stripe) use Matthew’s report to emphasize the centrality of distinction and distinctiveness.  As I grew in my study of the Word, however, I came across Jesus’ comment in Mark and Luke 9, and I was puzzled by it.  I know I have heard very few if any preachers in my faith heritage relate the other message from Mark and Luke 9.  Why?  Perhaps it is because it contradicts the strict exclusivism to which we have adhered since our predecessors began splitting and dividing over minutiae, opinions and irrelevant distractions.  Perhaps it is because to admit that there are those who are not in lock step with us who are not outright condemned diminishes our message that we and only we are the only ones who have attained perfect knowledge and all others stand condemned and lost.

I subconsciously arrived at this thought before I started checking commentaries for clarification.  I usually like to focus on those commentaries that are more language and cultural tools rather than those that have a particular doctrinal angle to defend, whether of my own tribe or any other specific denomination.  However, I was struck by the comment by 19th century theologian, Albert Barnes, regarding Mark 9.39:

“Forbid him not – Do not prevent his doing good. If he can work a miracle in my name, it is sufficient proof of attachment to me, and he should not be prevented.

“Can lightly speak evil of me – The word here rendered “lightly” means quickly or “immediately.” The meaning of the passage is, that he to whom God gave the power of working a miracle, by that gave evidence that he could not be found among the enemies of Jesus. He ought not, therefore, to be prevented from doing it. There is no reason to think here that John had any improper designs in opposing the man. He thought that it was evidence that he could not be right, because he did not join them and follow the Saviour. Our Lord taught him differently. He opposed no one who gave evidence that he loved him. Wherever he might be or whatever his work, yet, if he did it in the name of Jesus and with the approbation of God, it was evidence sufficient that he was right. Christians should rejoice in good done by their brethren of any denomination. There are men calling themselves Christians who seem to look with doubt and suspicion on all that is done by those who do not walk with them. They undervalue their labors, and attempt to lessen the evidences of their success and to diminish their influence. True likeness to the Saviour would lead us to rejoice in all the good accomplished. by whomsoever it may be done – to rejoice that the kingdom of Christ is advanced, whether by a Presbyterian, an Episcopalian, a Baptist, or a Methodist.”

Regarding Luke 9.49,50, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown explain,

“John answered, etc. — The link of connection here with the foregoing context lies in the words “in My name” (Luk_9:48). “Oh, as to that,” said John, young, warm, but not sufficiently apprehending Christ’s teaching in these things, “we saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and we forbade him: Were we wrong?” “Ye were wrong.” “But we did because he followeth not us,’” “No matter. For (1) There is no man which shall do a miracle in My name that can lightly [soon] speak evil of Me’ [Mar_9:39]. And (2) If such a person cannot be supposed to be ‘against us,’ you are to consider him ‘for us.’” Two principles of immense importance. Christ does not say this man should not have followed “with them,” but simply teaches how he was to be regarded though he did not – as a reverer of His name and a promoter of His cause. Surely this condemns not only those horrible attempts by force to shut up all within one visible pale of discipleship, which have deluged Christendom with blood in Christ’s name, but the same spirit in its milder form of proud ecclesiastic scowl upon all who “after the form which they call a sect (as the word signifies, Act_24:14), do so worship the God of their fathers.” Visible unity in Christ’s Church is devoutly to be sought, but this is not the way to it.”

In his commentary on Luke, Leon Morris wrote:

“49…John and whoever else is included in his we told him to stop (the imperfect may mean ‘we tried to stop him’ or ‘we kept stopping him’) because he does not follow with us.  Luke does not say that the man claimed to be a disciple, only that he cast out demons in Jesus’ name. But for these disciples it was not enough that he should be able to do in the name of Jesus what they had so recently and so conspicuously failed to do (40).  He had to follow with them.  This has been the error of Christians in every age and it is interesting to see it in the very first generation of Jesus’ followers.

“50.  But the Master would have none of it.  Do not forbid him, he said, and added the important rule, he that is not against you is for you.  There can be no neutrality in the war against evil.  Anyone who opposes demons in Jesus’ name in to be welcomed, not opposed.  He is on the right side.”

Paul wrote about the same sort of thing to the Philippians. In the first chapter of that letter, Paul wrote, “14  And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. 15  Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16  The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17  The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18  What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice….”

Paul knew that some people were preaching Christ in an attempt to discredit him.  If they were proclaiming the same message, it is hard to imagine how one could be discredited.  But Paul reasoned that no matter what, no matter the motive or rationale of the proclaimer, the message of Jesus was being broadcast to people who needed to hear it.

There will always be differences among people who claim to be followers of Christ whether among fellowships, or within a fellowship or even within a congregation.  It is an unfortunate result of imperfect understanding and the distinctly human nature possessed of us all.  However, we have the directive to discern motives and intentions and rise above partisan bickering where good is being done in Jesus’ name.  If good is being done and attributed to the cause of Christ to change lives and to the advancement of his power to accomplish just that, then we must not condemn.

If military history teaches anything, it is the value of coordinated action. An army that only holds the line can expect little more than to fight to a draw.  In order to win, it must advance, gain ground, and end the conflict in victory.  The Allied victory in Europe would not have been possible without the efforts of Americans, British, Canadians, and others.  When there was in-fighting among the commanders, the progress toward victory stalled.  When there was unity, peace became the attainable prize.

Too often, the people that are most likely to condemn the actions of those who “do not follow with us” are the ones most likely to do nothing.  I often return to the image of the one talent man, who buried the money entrusted to him in the dirt so that he would not lose it, so that he would be able to return it to his master, unchanged.  But his failure was not in losing the money.  It was in the fearful failure to gainfully invest.  If we look down on the efforts of others to accomplish good, we must be ready to do twice as much to see that more good is done.  Otherwise, all we have to show for our lack of effort is a dirty shovel.  We can—no, we must—do far better than that.