Thursday, July 2, 2015

God's Judgment

Mosaic of Christ from Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

I hate to say it, but it is a total rout.  Conservative American Christians of all stripes were at first back-footed by the sudden gains in opinion polls in support of gay marriage, and the relative rush of court decisions effectively legalizing gay marriage in a succession of states.  But then came the 2013 decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, more state legalizations, and finally this past week, the Supreme Court ruling that gay marriage is a constitutional right throughout the United States. 

The Triumph of Bacchus

The celebrations by homosexual people and their friends across the country are raucous and heartfelt.  For them this victory amounts to recognition of their legitimacy as full participants in American society.  And it is a victory, from their perspective, over the hypocritical and censorious moralizers whose sexual scruples informed public morality in the United States from before its beginning.  Some perspective here is helpful.  In a few brief decades, homosexual activists have succeeded in overturning centuries of American legal precedent.  They have succeeded in provoking a shocking reversal of public opinion about gays in society.  And with gay marriage now the law of the land in the most powerful nation on the planet, these activists have caused the unraveling of millennia of moral tradition regarding sexual mores in Western civilization.  This seems unprecedented to me.

Constantine the Great

And it has all happened in a country that has a vast majority of people, 71% according to the most recent Pew survey, who claim to be Christian.  The United States of America, and Great Britain and her antecedents before her, claimed to derive their morality from the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible.  The same is true of all the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox nations and kingdoms in the old country.  The same is true of the vast majority of African Americans whose ancestors were brought to this country against their will as slaves.  They adopted the religion of their captors and made it their own, finding in the gospel promises a solace and hope that has been the foundation stone of the African American community for centuries.  The same is true of the burgeoning Hispanic community, who brought into the American experience not only their passionate culture but their conservative Roman Catholic or Pentecostal faith as well.

American religious realities notwithstanding, over the past thirty years, homosexual activist increasingly took their cue from other civil rights movements.  They succeeded in diverting attention from their sexual behavior to how they were treated in society.  They succeeded in defining and framing the debate, away from that of morality and towards liberty, freedom and equality.  In doing so they claimed the ‘moral’ high ground for themselves, making anybody who dared criticize them look small and mean in comparison.  Sadly, Christians from the beginning took the bait and denounced the homosexuals as perverted, as reprobate, as headed towards hell unless they repented.  However ‘true’ or ‘biblical’ their position (and even that was debated fiercely by more liberal Christians), these appalled conservative Christians were labelled as ‘homophobic’ and ‘bigots’, and not just by homosexual activists.  Increasingly in the past decade, the national media seems to have determined that the gay cause was going to be a winning cause, and they gave escalating airtime to gay grievances, as well as a shocking amount of negative publicity to the Westboro Baptist Church, a tiny congregation of less than 20 that the national media seemed to delight in elevating to the status of implied spokesman for biased conservative Christianity.

390 CE Roman Mosaic from Santa Pudenziana

The WBC ‘crowd’ aside, Christians at least thought they had the Bible on their side in their fight against what they assumed were the demonic forces of perversion and sin.  At least until homosexual sympathizers within the Biblical studies community began to question the texts on which Bible-based arguments against homosexual relationships were grounded.  The Old Testament prohibitions were immediately written off as irrelevant because of their cultural context in the Sinai covenant.  The NT discussions of homosexual behavior, particularly those by the Apostle Paul in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians, were recast as arguments not against homosexuality per se, but against pederasty.  It didn’t matter that careful conservative scholarship answered point by point the arguments of the homosexual sympathizers, enough noise was created and enough doubt was generated by the debate that homosexuals and their supporters took it as demonstrated that the Bible actually supported their position.  In the total free-for-all that is Biblical Studies, the louder one argues one’s perspective, the more persuasive it seems, the more right it becomes.  Support of the homosexual position regarding the Scriptures soon went from the realm of academic debate to a theological given and civil rights necessity.  Men and women who disagreed with the new gay orthodoxy were increasingly not welcome to air their positions or even to be part of the academic community.  And given the previous emphasis by all of these same institutions on the value of academic freedom (this emphasis and insistence occurred during times when their own opinions were in the minority, thus to their advantage), the sudden unwillingness to extend academic freedom to Christians with whom they differed on this point of homosexual support is nothing less than hypocritical.


Among the general population, the support of the mainstream media, social media and entertainment industry people succeeded increasingly in drawing the under thirty crowd with them.  Normally members of this demographic like to pride themselves as being free thinkers and rebelling against the status quo.  But this time they fell in lockstep with the homosexual activists, and this without thinking (many of them) other than through the superficial slogans parroted by social media.  In terms of revolutions, it must rank very high on the list of those accomplished with the least amount of actual thought.  This is because the leaders of the gay revolution did not want you or me to think at all.  They wanted us to feel.  They wanted us to listen to their stories and feel their pain of rejection and then to rise up and throw down the cause of their marginalization.  And the cause of homosexual marginalization was/is understood as not just the law of the land (which American courts have since systematically overturned and rewritten), but the morality behind those laws (which the gay revolution seems to have completely redefined in the space of a decade or two).  But morality doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and in the case of Western nations, the source of our morality has been Christianity.  It is no surprise, then, that there has been an unprecedented war against Christianity, waged particularly in the media, over the past forty or fifty years (essentially since the 1960s).  Christianity is understood as being in the way of the kind of society many if not most Americans think they want.  It’s a society that is increasingly libertarian with respect to sexual mores, as well as other matters of ‘personal liberty’ that Christians have historically described as sinful.

Mausoleum of Galla Placida 425 CE

In all of this, Christians have been portrayed as the enemy, the ones who are always against.  If gays are for liberty and freedom and equality, Christians are by extension for denial and censure  -the party of ‘No’.  It’s the 19th century Puritan trope writ large.  It’s H.L Mencken’s classic (if historically wrong) definition of Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.’  Who wants to be against happiness?  Who wants to be seen as getting in the way of love?  Who wants to be thought of as a ‘hater’?  Who wants to be perceived as the deniers of another’s civil rights, this generation’s equivalent of Jim Crow racists?

The Emperor Justinian, from mosaic in San Vitale in Ravenna

Well guess what?  That would be us, conservative Christians.  We see ourselves as standing up for traditional morality, as standing up for marriage the way it’s always been understood, as standing up for families.  But every time we open our mouth the rest of the country applies the label ‘Bigot’, ‘Hater’, and ‘Hypocrite!’  And we don’t know when to stop.  Every time we press the point again, we dig ourselves deeper into the hole of cultural pariahdom.  In order for the homosexual lobby to accomplish all that it has done, it needed a foil.  And we conservative Christians have been just what the doctor ordered.  Every time these people needed an example of how someone shouldn’t treat a gay person, all they needed to do was go to the conservative churches and turn on a microphone, and it was just a matter of time before we obliged.  If we conservative Christians had only learned from our mistakes, that would be one thing.  But we keep doing the same thing again and again, we keep telling homosexual people that they are wrong, that they are sinners, that they need to repent, that they are going to hell, and that by the way it’s just your sin we hate – but we actually really love you.  Well, that’s convincing.


If I needed any further evidence that we conservative Christians missed the boat completely on this one, all I needed to do was scan the blizzard of Fb posters that appeared in the days immediately after the recent SCOTUS decision saying such brave things about Christian marriage, about standing firm against the cultural darkness that is upon us, hinting darkly that Jesus is about to come and put everything (read: all those perverts) to right.  Excuse me.  But if ‘liking’ a Facebook slogan in defense of heterosexual marriage is the best we can do, then we Christians deserve the cataclysm that is engulfing us.  I have read more comments than I wish to recall about how God’s judgment is about to fall on our country because of all the perversity we have plunged into.  Please.  God will indeed call all men and women to account for the lives they’ve lived and the choices they’ve made.  But what is happening right not is not about God’s judgment on America, or on homosexuals or on any other special class of ‘sinners’; it’s about God’s judgment on us, God’s judgment on the American churches.


We American Christians have enjoyed generations of unprecedented religious liberty.  We have seen Great Awakenings, Second Great Awakenings, Camp Meeting Revivals, Azusa Street Revivals, Evangelical Revivals, Charismatic Renewals and a host of more local outpourings.  God has raised up godly men and women as signal examples of what it means to be His people in this place.  We American Christians have been the best resourced, the best provisioned, the best trained and with the most awesome opportunities – there has never been a national Christian movement like ours. Ever.  In the history of the planet.


But somehow, something has gone very wrong.  And I believe it is at the very heart of our understanding of the gospel.  In many respects, our situation in the US parallels the situation in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.  In what I am about to say, I in no way wish to imply that the current drivers of American culture are in any way like the Nazis of Germany. (Along with the transformation of sexual morality, we Americans have the plague of abortion, and the horrendous failure of our stewardship with respect to the environment, and our ongoing pervasive racism among other things, for which we will have to stand before God and give account – while we are not Nazis, our own moral failures have had their own colossal consequences). Rather, I want to raise a similar question about American Christians that Dietrich Bonhoeffer raised about German Christianity.  Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was full of Christians – Lutherans, Reformed and Roman Catholic.  And yet, despite the presence of so many Christians, and so many powerful theologians, Christianity wilted in the face of neo-pagan Nazism.  In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer traces the failure of the churches and of individual Christians to a fundamental failure to grasp the true meaning and call of the Gospel.  Jesus calls us to a life of radical discipleship – ongoing, daily, intentional choices to put the kingdom of God first, regardless of the cost.  Too many German Christians understood the Gospel as a kind of ‘cheap grace’ (Bonhoeffer’s own phrase), so that if I have been baptized then I am saved, or if I have had a ‘salvation experience’ then I am saved, or if I participate in the sacraments then I must be saved.  But according to Bonhoeffer, such a ‘salvation’ has missed the transformational point of the gospel.  Yes we are saved from judgment, but we are also saved to a new life in Christ.  We seek to live as Jesus would live, to love as he would love, to engage with the social ills of the day as Jesus would.  In doing so we bear the fruit of His character and love in our lives.  We don’t just ‘go to church’; if God’s grace doesn’t thrust us out into the world, then it’s not grace we have experienced.  Demonic Nazism triumphed in Germany because too few Christians were willing to follow Jesus regardless of the cost.


We conservative American Christians have our own version of cheap grace.  It comes hand in hand with the preferred style of evangelism in many churches, where we call people to come forward to the ‘altar’ and ‘accept Jesus as your personal savior’.  We give the impression that praying a prayer will remove a person from the elevator to hell and give them instead citizenship in heaven.  We give the impression that responding to the Gospel changes one’s status from condemned to (now I have been) saved.  We give our people the impression that this is what salvation is – a change of our legal status.  Never mind that the Gospels themselves and the rest of the NT uniformly talks about salvation in terms of a process that involves the bearing of fruit, of growing in holiness, of walking with Christ in a growing relationship of love.  It’s easy for these things to get lost if all the emphasis is on making sure that you and I and everyone else we can get to hear the 'gospel' is ‘saved,’ by which we mean ‘is going to heaven’.


I think we are in a position to begin to see that this understanding of salvation is reaping the whirlwind.  We have churches with lots of people who ‘came forward’ and ‘got saved’, but whose life is practically no different than that of the pagans next door.  Our churches are filled with practical atheists, ‘Christians’ who live from day to day as if God didn’t actually exist.  We’ve been so busy trying to get people into our churches (‘seeker-sensitive’ R us) and saved that we have forgotten that our primary call is to love them.  We are so busy trying to manufacture ‘worship experiences’ that we have forgotten that St. John the Apostle warns the churches that whoever claims to love God but hates his brother is simply a liar, and the truth is not in him.  We’ve so watered down what Jesus says and what Jesus calls us to that we have given the impression that if we are just going to church giving something when the plate goes around and sending our kids to youth group and Sunday school and participating in the church-sponsored Jazzercise class, then we are good All-American Christians.  We may be good All-American Christians, but we might as well be examples of how not to be a disciple of Christ or a church of His followers, at least as far as the New Testament is concerned.


If fruit is the measure of one’s Christianity, then I’m afraid appearances indicate we either haven’t heard the Gospel, or haven’t understood the Gospel, or both.  There are signal exceptions to this, but they tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule.  Repentance looks much different than what we hear and see church by church across this land.  Love looks much different than what we see church by church across this land.  The homosexuals are doing us a huge favor by calling out our hypocrisy.  They are right, of course.  But they see only so far as our behavior has affected them.  But our self-deception extends much deeper and to a far greater extent than we seem to have the capacity to realize. 

To the lions.

American conservative Christianity is mostly about ME, and as such, has been the American Dream at prayer.  So long as it tends towards my comfort, towards my peace of mind, towards the resolution of my issues, towards the success of my dreams – so long as God is on my side, then all is well with my soul, Hallelujah!  At its extreme, this posture has given birth to the Health and Prosperity ‘Gospel’ that has begun to corrupt even mainstream Pentecostalism not just in our country but across the globe.  Aside from the fact that one must studious refuse to actually read the Gospels and totally disregard the Lord Jesus to come to such theological conclusions, most American Christians are infected with the notion that we are in some way God’s Chosen People and thus eligible to the perks and benefits thereof.  God must be on our side.  Let His enemies be scattered!

Christ as soldier.

Which is why our world seems presently so scrambled.  We have been stunned to find ourselves living as moral foreigners in our own country – How can this be, if God is on our side? The uncomfortable answer is simply that we have long ago ceased to give any meaningful evidence that we were on God’s side.  We have become increasingly irrelevant in the life of our country precisely because we have surrendered our Christian character and call and exchanged it for a right-wing conservative Republican political agenda, for example, or for a left-wing liberal Democratic political agenda, or for a conservative (or liberal) social economic agenda, for example, or for a comfortable middle class life agenda, for example, or for climbing the ladder of my career agenda.  We have failed to see just how much the values of our own culture are in opposition to the values of the kingdom of God.  And if it emerges that God is not on our side, then know that it wasn’t God who left.


We are experiencing in this moment a very serious call to repentance.  Not the showy, TV evangelist ‘come to Jesus’ kind of repentance.  Not the post another stupid slogan about Jesus on Fb kind of repentance.  Not the stand up and give a tearful testimony kind of repentance.  None of these costs us anything.  None of these requires of us anything.  The kind of repentance that Jesus calls us to means first of all that we just shut up.  We are not in any position to condemn homosexuals, or Muslims, or immigrants, or abortionists, or murderers, or thieves, or adulterers, or divorcees, or substance abusers, or I could go on.  The very fact that we are so habitually judgmental is evidence that we simply have not understood the Gospel, or forgiveness, or grace. Period.  It puts us in the same category as the man in the parable that Jesus told, who when in prison with an unpayable debt pleaded with the ruler for mercy and was granted full pardon.  And yet this man went and immediately throttled another man and had him imprisoned for a fraction of the same offense for which he had been forgiven.  That man was marked by Jesus with a great big ‘FAIL’.  And yet we do the same thing again and again. Christian condemnation of anyone has never been a winning strategy for the gospel.  And the fact that we are still doing it must mean that our brains have been transplanted out and nothing put into replace them.


Our repentance, instead, must be the hard choice to change actual behaviors.  We must go to those with whom we have broken relationships and do everything we can to mend them.  We must go to those we have offended and own what we can and ask forgiveness.  We must seek out tangible ways to help those around us in need, either financially or materially.  We must take time to have a relationship with God, which means time for prayer, time in the Bible, time for devotional reading and study with others.  We must reorder our priorities so that they reflect those things that are most important from Jesus’ perspective.  We must find someone with whom we can be accountable, a father-confessor or the equivalent, with whom we can share anything.  We must do a thorough, fearless and searching moral inventory (in the words of the 12 step programs) and identify those behaviors and aspects of our character that we need to change.  And then we need to change them.


We don’t do any of this to earn God’s grace, or because our salvation is dependent upon this.  We do this because this is salvation.  This is what salvation does.  This is what salvation looks like.  Salvation is not some ultimately irrelevant change of legal status; salvation is the progressive transformation of our hearts born witness by what we do and how we live.  Salvation is becoming like Jesus.  However we got on the road of salvation, or in the process of salvation - be it responding to a preacher, reading a book or pamphlet or Scripture, conversation with a friend – this is where that road leads us, into a life of increasing renovation as we follow Jesus, as we hear His Word and take Him seriously.  This salvation is in fact our new relationship with Jesus.  And Jesus, as we discover as we get to know Him, is not concerned about how religious we are.  He is concerned, however, that we get this love thing right, because love is what He came to restore to this world.  Not the hyper-sexualized love of the homosexual activists or the pleasure seeking hedonists of our American Dream culture.  But the ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ love of transformed relationships.  Where this is present and increasing, we are on the right road.  Where this is absent, we have gone off the rails.


How we American Christians respond to this moment will determine our future as a lampstand in God’s presence.  Per Revelation, God in his goodness chose to set this lampstand in this place as a light to the nations.  And like the seven churches of Revelation 2-3, if we are no longer being and doing what He has called us to be and do, the Lord reserves the right to remove His lampstand from its place.  We have hard choices to make.  Just like Jesus’ original disciples.  We will be called on to give sacrificially of our time and talents and possessions and wealth.  Just like Jesus’ original disciples.  We will be called on to suffer.  Just like Jesus’ original disciples.  But all of this is because we have been given a mission.  Christianity is not intended to be the religious part of our lives, along with our career, our finances, our family, or leisure, our pets.  Jesus’ claim on us is a totalitarian claim.  We give everything to Him precisely because we get it – because we understand who He is (the incarnate Lord), and we understand what He has done (overcome sin and death through His crucifixion for us and His resurrection from the dead), and we understand what He is doing (if I be lifted up, I will draw all men and women to Myself).  The Everything I can offer is actually too little in comparison.  But that’s the starting point.  And we go from here.

It's just a statue.   What harm could a pinch of incense do?

We are at a turning point.  Mercifully, we will not be allowed to be as we have been.  We will either try to hold on to what isn’t the gospel so that we can carry on as we always have and drift into marginalized irrelevance, or we can follow Jesus, divest ourselves from our materialism, and learn anew how to love, and embrace the suffering that will come, and engage with winsome charity the new world that is upon us as Jesus’ disciples engaged the Roman world in which they found themselves.  

I have used the first person plural throughout intentionally.  Self-righteousness is my natural posture. To paraphrase Nathan the prophet, 'I am the man.'  Repentance, reconciliation, renewal always start with me, and not with them.  I preach, for that is my calling; but always to myself.  And if anything here is helpful to anyone else, then God be praised.

Roman Mosaic from Tunis

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Great Debates: Gay Rights, Abortion, Obama the Muslim [?],and the Marriage between Conservative Politics and Conservative Christianity

Simply walking out the door in the morning puts one at risk of finding oneself in another totalitarian debate on the great issues facing our society, or at least the great issues American Conservative Christians believe are facing our American society.  Yesterday and today are no different.  I made the mistake of reading this Christianity Today article posted by a friend on her Fb page: 'Stop Explaining Away Black Christian Forgiveness', highlighting the media's curious response to the altogether Christian response of relatives and friends of the murdered Bible study attendees at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church.

Remembering the Murdered at Emanual AME Church in Charleston, SC

The article is worth a read and makes several significant points.  Then I made the mistake of reading the comments to my friends post, where I discovered another friend of mine said this:


I agree with this basic article.  But it suggests that Obama is a Christian.  I see no evidence of that, not fruit.  While he may not be a Muslim, he is also not a Christian.

Onesimus sometimes feels motivated to engage in some friendly back-and-forth on certain issues, and this is one of those times.  What follows is the conversation between me and my friend yesterday and today.  It will likely go on, as these sorts of debates never result in conversions.  But I thought it worthwhile to post here as it gives an example of just how wide is the divide on fundamental issues facing Christians, as well as the tremendous pressure Christians are under to conform to competing political agendas on both the right and the left.  The temptation to judge, to demonize and to accept hear-say as must-be makes such conversations all the more fraught.  My takeaway from the current disputation is that the risk of possessing a nullifying blindspot is so great that it would almost be better just to keep quiet.  Almost.  There also runs a corresponding risk that I might actually learn something from my debate partner, and that makes the exercise worth the risk of simply being confirmed in my own small-mindedness.

So here's how it's gone so far:


Onesimus:
But if we go by ‘fruit’, whose criteria are we to use?  Who’s to judge?  Besides, by that measure the rest of us are gong to have issues at the pearly gates, as our own records are, um, uneven at best.  I’m not sure my life measures up to all the different versions of what it means to be a ‘real’ Christian. ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner’ is the only place I know to go on this one.

My Friend:
Bill, we have disagreed on this one before.  His support of abortion and of gay “marriage” are examples of agendas he advances zealously that, I believe, are clearly contrary to the Scripture.  He seems to identify more with Islam.  I’m not sure whether he is a Muslim, but I see fairly blatant things that suggest he is not a follower of Christ.  Perhaps you share his stances on these issues.  I just know he aggressively advances agendas that are clearly antithetical to the Gospel as I profess and he pursues that with zeal.

Is President Obama not a Christian because he supports gay rights
in the workplace and 'gay marriage'?

Onesimus:
We have disagreed.  And I think the point is worth pressing.  I just know that I live in a see of blatant, unrepentant materialists who claim to be (the right sort of) Christians and who think their idolatry is simply normal, for example.  When the log is removed from my own eye, then I might be able to see clearly to deal with what’s in my brother’s eye, so said someone significant.

My Friend:
It’s ok to disagree.  But just to be clear, I’m not talking about logs and specks.  I believe in the inerrancy of the Scripture.  Romans 2, in my interpretation and that of all the theologians I respect, prohibits homosexual practice.  Yet just this week OBAMA hosted a LGBT celebration at the White House.  In my mind and understanding [this is] glorifying sin.  Things that are clearly prohibited by the Scripture.  Likewise, the Scripture is clear about killing being a sin.  Yet, since Roe vs Wade, 55 million babies have been killed.  Just this week my president sent me an email about “reproductive rights” and decrying actions I applaud to do away with heinous late term abortions.  So, I can’t really buy that OBAMA is a Believer because he glorifies sin and works to codify it into law.  That you do not see this leads me to believe that you may agree with him on these issues.  I am an Anglican under the Rwandan church and we clearly support both the sanctity of life and of marriage.  My president does not.  These are not speck issues.  They are giant examples of wrong theology that the current administration is working tirelessly to make or retain as the law of this land.  About all I can say is “Lord have mercy on our godless government.


President Clinton signing the Welfare Reform Act in 1996.

Onesimus:
I totally respect your perspective.  And I respectfully disagree.  There is a significant difference between the secular United States of America, and the Anglican, Orthodox, RC and other churches.  As you know we don’t elect a pastor or priest of bishop in chief, we elect a president whose job is to defend the constitution.  Whatever else you may think of homosexuals, they have been discriminated against in the past and the courts have decided that they, like other minorities, should be given equal protection under the law.  Our current president appreciates this difference, as to I, as I have family member s who are gay and who have labored for decades in a society that has not treated them very well.  God did not make a covenant at Sinai with the uSA, and so the stipulations of the covenant are not applicable to us as a country, or any other society besides Israel, and even they could not keep their end of the covenant and brought upon their heads the covenant curses.  Christians, and Christian churches, however, are under obligation to keep the laws of the new covenant (Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and love your neighbor as yourself.), which is something altogether different.  This is a good thing, because as the psalmist says, ‘If You were to judge us [under the terms of the Sinai covenant], Lord, who could stand.’  BTW, none of the presidents since RvW have done a damn thing to undo legalized abortion, both democrats and republicans, and all of them have claimed to be Christians.  This does not make it right, but it does make it more complicated.  Moreover, the only time the abortion rate in this country ever decreased was under a democratic president, President Clinton of all people, whose welfare reform act actually addressed the situation many women find themselves facing and which thus gave some alternatives to killing their unborn babies.  The rest coming from candidates and presidents promising to do away with RvW has just been so much bloviating leading to nothing.  

March for Life in Washington, DC

It saddens me to see so much Christian hand-wringing over a tiny minority committing same-sex sin, when heterosexual adultery and divorce and abuse rampage our marriages in the church like a plague, not to mention the gross mortal sin of greed that has possessed American Christianity for decades.  A little humility on the part of us Christians before a world that has to deal with us as we really are would go a long way towards relieving us of the well-deserved charge of hypocrisy.  In my opinion.


******

Mercifully, Christians are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the political sphere (except when used by politicians looking for votes in Presidential primaries).  This means that eventually the corrosive and corrupting acid of political power will be decoupled from Christian engagement with the issues of our society.  We have long been persuaded that we Christians can make a difference in the great moral issues facing our land if we just elect the right people.  One would think that forty years of this game, and no end of politicians willing to co-opt gullible Christians into their own electoral ambitions and who then, surprise! do nothing to further Christian perspectives on said issues - one would think we would learn.  But evidently not, as we Christians of all persuasions are working ourselves into a lather (again) over the same issues, thinking that this time, this time surely we will see the political revolution that will 'turn our country around.'  But God's priorities are otherwise.  He's concerned more about mercy than about sacrifice, more about relationships than about movements, more about charity than financial success, more about the least of these than the greatest, the last than the first.  God's kingdom will not be a political one.  It will not be an economic one.  God's kingdom is instead a relational one, and the school of Christ, the hot house for this revolution is the Church.

Christians are right to be concerned about all the wrongs in our society.  But I don't think we will make any difference in our world until we start to live our call in the context of our local parishes and churches.  If we can't get it right there, then we don't deserve to take our show on the road.  It would seem, to this observer at least, that we have a ways to go before we are in any position to tell anyone else that they should get their house in order.


I certainly don't and won't have the last word, as I suspect my friend has got significant things to add. I welcome your comments.  Please keep them respectful, otherwise the censor will have to do his thing.


Update #1

As I suspected, the conversations continues.


My Friend
Bill, I, too, have friends that are gay.  I also have friends that have been rescued from the homosexual lifestyle and walk in holiness.  So I do not buy the God-made-me-gay argument.  I believe the same power that raised Jesus from the dead can give men the ability to walk in holiness.  The pull of sin is so great that I fully understand how it feels like no choice.  Yet I can cit numerous examples of men who daily choose not to submit to a homosexual lifestyle.  I fully agree that adultery is a great problem in the church.  But, homosexuals build their identity on what I believe is sin.  Their life is a monument to sin.  I do not know adulterers that build their life on the foundation of adultery.  But regarding civil rights for gays, I would contend that our government treats homosexuals as a protected class at the cost of denying civil rights to others, particularly Bible believing Christians.  After the Supreme Court denigrates marriage by claiming same sex couples can marry, Christian ministers will be forced to marry gay couples or face jail.  The pastors I know are preparing themselves for that.  That, of course, is not America that once stood for freedom, it is akin to Nazi Germany.  You may say that these are not the implications of this redefinition.  But it is, in my thinking, just another descent of America and I believe the signs of such moral decline indicates that we are approaching the end times.  Apparently we both call ourselves Christians but have widely different views of what that looks like.  I simply do not buy the view that Christians are to only be tolerant of sin and not call it out.  Jesus called out sin on many occasions.  Therefore it is authentic for His followers to do the same.

Onesimus
Which is, ironically, what I am doing here.  I think you can be relieved that we actually line up on the same side of all most of the issues you have enumerated above.  [And as an Orthodox Christian, I suspect I’m actually more conservative than you, theologically speaking!]  Where I suspect we disagree is on the role of government as enforcer of Christian values.  Every time governments have taken on this role in the entire history of the Church, it has not ended well for the gospel (how’s that for a sweeping claim!)  And the Church has actually often been at its best when, even with all its internal challenges, it has had to live the gospel in the midst of a hostile social, political and economic context.  The early church (through 312 AD at least) was never in a position to enforce its views on anyone.  And they suffered greatly through the spasmodic persecutions that periodically bloodied the Churches’ witness.  And they weren’t perfect.  But the people around them respected them for their love, for their willingness to suffer for Christ, for their charity.  And the Roman world was well on its way to becoming Christian as a result.  I personally think that we Christians need a serious rethink of how we engage with the pagans and sinners who surround us.  That’s why I think Jesus’ example is so revolutionary and counter-cultural.  He resists judging the terrible sinners of his day at every opportunity.  But notice he doesn’t hesitate to call out the religious and political conservatives of Judaism for the hypocrites that they were.  We conservatives today are in danger of making the same mistakes as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, iIf we haven’t done so already.  And I’m not sure I want to be identified with that crowd when we all have to stand before the Lord and that coming last day.  Why do we think that a posture, a stance vis a vis the world that has served us so miserably will somehow miraculously work when we take it up again this time?  Fulminating against their sin has not worked with homosexuals, nor has it worked with abortionists, nor has it worked with the pornographers, nor has it worked with the thieves, murderers, drunkards, drug abusers, extortionists, cheaters, bullies and whatever sinner one wishes to add to the list.  The only thing this posture has done is made us Christians feel better than/superior to the rest of the sinful riff raff around us.  But nobody out there is listening to us Christians, nor should they (because of the a-fore mentioned hypocrisy).  But the engine of self-righteousness is so seductive, so powerful, so ennobling, we have lost sight of who we are.  Are we not sinners? Saved by God’s mercy?  Our churches are meant to be hospitals for reprobates like me.  But look what we’ve made almost all of them into – museums of the holy.  And who wants that?  Who needs that?  Theological rightness is a beautiful thing when it’s illumined by love.  But theological rightness means nothing if we don’t have this love thing down.  St. John rather pointedly declares that the person who claims to love God and yet does not love her/his brother, is simply a liar.  The greatest sin, it turns out, is not homosexuality, or abortion, or being a democrat; it’s the choice not to love.  Everything evil in our society flows from that.  And we Christians are too often leading the wrong parade on this one..

Monday, June 22, 2015

Ostrich Nation, Ostrich Church


Majorities have it easier.  We usually have access to the mechanisms and  the means to make things the way we think they should be.  Our fears and dislikes are the ones that determine the boundaries in our societies.  Our political and social and religious agendas are the status quo.

Most of us never come into meaningful contact with the minorities among us.  We relate to them – those Blacks, those Mexicans and Hispanics, those Asians – as if they were a caricature, a pastiche of the crude impressions we have accumulated willy-nilly through the numerous media we access.  But one thing is certain – they are not us, and thus can be safely pushed to the periphery.  Sometimes this is a literal pushing out of our affluent neighborhoods and into blighted city centers.  Sometimes this is an exclusion from circles of friends, memberships in clubs, admissions to schools, positions in companies.  Oh, I almost forgot, our enlightened society has laws against these sorts of discriminations.  But we too easily forget that these laws exist for a reason.


Most of us in the majority are far removed from the repeated spasms of documented police violence against minorities.  Most of us are far removed from the millions of law-breakers we now have incarcerated in our prison systems.  Most of us are far removed from the cycles of broken homes, substance abuse, unemployment, welfare subsistence, gang identification, turf warfare over control of drugs or other illicit means of generating riches.  Most of us are far removed from the sex-on-demand culture and the unsurprising result of the need for abortion-on-demand.  If one is the wrong color or the wrong income bracket, the so-called ‘American dream’ is a joke; instead, life is lived on the margins, where violence could intrude at any moment, where alcohol and drugs create zombies whose lives can find nothing better to live for than the next fix or the next drink.


The majority has its problems, to be sure.  But we have access to our Dr. Phils, to our self-help books, to our yoga classes.  We can go to the local mega church and hear an uplifting message about how God really does love ME and how God really does want to bless ME, and that this life is all about tapping into this wonderful source of blessing for ME.  Non-megachurches have their own issues.  They are usually controlled by people of the majority who have always been there and who have created a church in their own image.  Such places define ‘comfort zone’, except when petty civil war breaks out because someone else would rather be in control or when the status quo feels threatened.


Whether it’s the wider majority, or the Christian majorities, we have succeeded in creating a context in which we hear what we want to hear.  And we studiously ignore (if we can) or react against (if we’re pushed) what doesn’t fit our majority world, what we don’t want to hear.


This is the only way I can explain the racial issues of 2013-2015 America, the years I’ve found myself back in the USA.  There have been a horrific succession of events involving police and young black men, each one ending in the black man dead and the police either saying or wanting to say, ‘It was his fault, not mine.’   One time, ok maybe.  Twice, it gives one pause.  But repeatedly?  Something fundamentally wrong is going on.  Even so, though some social media denizens from the majority have registered their ‘outrage’ (whatever that has come to mean) on the appropriate app, everybody else carries on as if nothing untoward is going on.


That’s why the killing of nine Black Bible study attenders in Charleston by a young white supremacist who seems to have known exactly what he was doing and who actually sat in the meeting for an hour listening to the earnest discussion about the Scriptures and how to apply them to our lives before he stood up and one-by-one blew these men and women away – that’s why this massacre is so significant in my opinion.  We can’t dismiss those people as drug addicts, gang members, welfare siphons, or other miscreants who are somehow to blame for their misfortune and whom we can ignore as not meriting our concern.  These are men and women who were killed because they were not white, killed by a young man who is the creation of our majority culture, slaughtered by a guy whose family members are church-going Lutherans.  That in 2015 our country (of all the countries in the world) is still treating our minorities in this way beggars belief.


That being said, the disconnect may just be too great.  I am sitting in a Starbucks in northern Virginia.  The wealth and affluence that surrounds me seem normal (from the perspective of someone with a privileged background like me).  But nearby DC is a different universe.  And Baltimore is not far away.  And Philly, and Trenton, not to mention the wrong-side-of-the-tracks in my home state of SC which includes both Charleston where this past week’s massacre occurred and Lexington and the middle class white community where the racist murderer received his education in racism.  As long as I am content with the status quo, as long as my place at the trough is unthreatened, then the pressure to ignore the plight of my neighbor who has been segregated out of my life (by virtue of economics or opportunity or zip code of birth) will be too great to overcome.


Christianity taken straight will thrust us out of our comfort zone and straight into the lives and contexts of the other.  Christianity diluted will redirect our energies into our building programs, our petty theological disputes and our power politics.  That African American people are still suffering in our country suggest that its Christianity of the latter sort that inhabits all those thousands of church buildings scattered across our land.



I am on the verge of leaving this country again and returning to Kenya.  And the needs I am feel compelled to address so far away from here are not insignificant.  But I am very aware that I am leaving an American Christianity in crisis, and for a number of reasons.  But this one – how we deal with the minority - strikes at the core of our very existence as God’s people.   Because if we can’t get this love thing right, it doesn’t matter how right we are theologically, or how successful we are in terms of attendance.  If we don’t get this love thing right, we simply are no longer the Church.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Green Light!


Dear friends and praying partners,

I have good news.  Last night I received an email from my missions director giving me the green light to begin my transition back to Kenya.  Since just after last Thanksgiving, I have been working hard to assemble the support team that would make my return to Nairobi more than just aspirational.  I have watched week by week as an astonishing number and variety of people have let me know they are praying for me, while others have given towards my mission support or made pledges to give.  Some days I was tempted to think it was just too much to hope it would ever come together.  On other days, especially when informed that another someone I had never met had given a substantial amount of money, I began to allow myself to think that maybe, just maybe God really was in the middle of all this and that He was in the process of doing something special.


Well, God has been doing something special! Let me take a minute and tell you about the financial support team behind my return to Kenya so that I can help train the next generation of Christian leaders at the Makarios III Orthodox Theological Seminary and at St. Paul’s University.  There are 77 individuals, couples and families who have given towards my support.  This is out of 350 who have indicated they want to receive my prayer updates.  In addition, seven churches have come along side me financially.  About 40% of my support has come from monthly or quarterly giving.  The other 60% has come from one-time gifts.  My supporters come from 18 different states, with two from Canada and one from GreeceTen of my supporters are people who were supporting our ministry when I was still a Presbyterian pastor and a Protestant missionary.  Fully half of my supporters are people I have never met, who either heard my interview on OCN radio or read about me on the OCMC website or even the Ukrainian Orthodox Church website, or who heard me give my presentation at one of the many churches I have visited this past winter and spring.  I received $3.00 from one source, and more than $8,000.00 from another.  Just this past Sunday, a seven year old boy slipped me an envelope during our fellowship hour, and when I got home and opened it there were 13 one dollar bills and a note that said ‘for Dr. Bill’. 

The Markios III Orthodox Seminary where I will live is in Riruta on the left midway down

Every gift given for God’s work is precious in God’s sight.  Each of these people has not given to me or to my project, but to the Lord.  They enable me to offer my gift to the Lord, the gift of going and giving my education, my experience and my life to these young men and women in Nairobi.  It’s like the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians: we give out of our abundance now to help those would otherwise be struggling.  But the time will come when they, the Christians in Africa, will pay a return on our investment in their leadership and churches beyond our wildest dreams.  We are part of something bigger than all of us that God is doing with His people there.  Thank you for being willing to join with me to make my little part of that possible.

Road trip to a new Church in  Maasai country with our clergy and choir

I am in communication with my friend, Fr. Evangelos, who is the Rector of the Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi, letting him know that the way is clear for me to return.  When he consults with His Eminence Archbishop Makarios and his other colleagues, he will then be in a position to let me know when the best time to return will be.  I am also communicating with my friend Professor Joseph Galgalo (we were students together at Cambridge), who is the Vice Chancellor of St. Paul’s University, as well as with my Dean, Dr. Sammy Githuku.  I have let them know that I am coming back and am available to teach in the fall semester.  As soon as I hear back from my friends in Nairobi, I’ll be in a position to set a date for my journey back home. I am guessing this may be early to mid-July, but this is just a guess.

St. Paul's University Library in Limuru, Kenya

Keep praying!  This will be a full month as I begin sorting out my life in Crozet, divesting as well as packing, and saying my farewells.  One huge blessing from having unexpectedly to spend the past two years of my life in Virginia is that I have had some wonderful time with my older daughter Linnea and her husband William, as well as with my newly married (two weeks ago!) younger daughter Caroline and her husband Will.  And yes, I am a William, too.  I try not to think about it too deeply.  That being said, this tender-hearted dad will miss his girls and their beaus to pieces. 




Those of you who have made pledges, please keep giving.  The decision to allow me to go is based on the trust that those who have made pledges to support me will in fact do so.  Also, there is still plenty of room for additional giving if you would still like to join my support team.  In terms of actual funds received, I still have a ways to go.  You can become a sustaining member of my support team by giving a monthly amount of $100, or $50 or $25.  It’s easy to do.  Just go to my page on the OCMC website here: http://www.ocmc.org/about/view_missionary.aspx?MissionaryId=41    
and click on the ‘Support’ button at the bottom, and you will be led through the process of making your gift.


There are so many verses in the Bible that trend towards hope:
David writes: ‘You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; You have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness.’ (Psalm 30:11)
Paul quotes Isaiah: ‘This is what the Scriptures mean when they say: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.”’ (1 Corinthians 2:9)
And again Paul writes, ‘And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.’ (Romans 8:28)

My spiritual father, now His Grace Bishop Innocentios of Rwanda and Burundi showing some joy in Bujumbura

Many of you have ministered hope to me during these past difficult years.  It’s my prayer that you, too, are finding these things to be true in your own life.

By grace,

Bill

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Pikeville Necropolis

I hopped in the car this morning and drove to Pikeville, KY.  My mother is buried in a mountain-side cemetery just off the main road as you come into town.  I arranged to have a stone to mark her grave back in December.  This is the first time I've been able to come, to see for myself and make sure things are as me and my sisters want them to be.

Today the cemetery looks like the morning after a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration - gaudy artificial flowers festoon every other marker, along with flags and mementos.  I don't remember this cemetery being this effusive.  On not a few graves are those solar powered lights that glow in the dark, turning the ranks of graves into an eerie light show at night.  I pick my way across the graves, around the markers and tombstones, and suddenly what anybody else does for their dead doesn't matter because I'm standing at my own mother's final resting place.  The black stone is bigger than I thought it would be.  I read her name and weep.

The trip had been matter of fact.  Five hours of interstate and the last 90 miles a tour-de-force of human achievement blasted through the mountains, the resulting four lane taking an hour and a half instead of the three or four hours it took us when I was a boy getting car sick on winding mountain roads learning early how to pray as my father narrowly avoided careening coal trucks as he passed unbearably slow cars and trucks in front.  It was an obligatory trip, as my parents were going home.  Pikeville is where they grew up, and my father's parents - my grandparents - still lived there.  It's funny how those memories are fading to black and white.  So it was an obvious choice for my mom to be buried there, back where she grew up, where she was a high school cheerleader, who fell in love and married the high school quarterback.  Her own parents are buried there, too, as are my father's mom and dad.

All pretense dissolves in the presence of the dead, especially those who are known and who are loved.  We occupy the stage only briefly.  And then the gig is up.  Our context has done an astonishing job at giving the impression that this moment, this day, this life will always be just like this.  A quick check in the mirror, for those whose eyes actually see, rather quickly disabuses one of this delusion.  But amazingly the delusion persists, and I (we?) so quickly fall into investing our money, our talents, our time into the equivalent of junk bonds and ponzi schemes with offers of impossible returns.  I stand before my mother's earthly remains and my life flashes before my eyes, and I find myself telling her how sorry I am for my mistakes, for not being able to hold my marriage together, for bringing distress and hurt into the lives of loved ones.  My tears take me by surprise, the emotional equivalent of the piles of flowers all around me.  I find myself praying for her, as she is in the presence of God with all the saints.  And I ask her to pray for me.

I walk slowly away.  I suddenly appreciate all the artificial flowers and flags, and even the tacky tombstone lights for the love that they are.  A memory suddenly transports me back to Christmases as a boy.  My mom would decorate our house with exquisite taste,  With one small exception.  We had those new-fangled electric candles in our windows, the ones that illumine a house so beautifully at Christmastime.  Except that my mom had this thing for blue, and so the bulbs in our candles were, yes, blue.  I grew up thinking this was normal.

As I write this, I am sitting in a restaurant across from the Pikeville Walmart.  I am tempted to go in and find where the little solar powered lights are and pick out a blue one. I'm tempted to pay my mom's grave one more visit and leave my little solar-powered blue candle on my mom's tombstone to twinkle through the dark hours of night. I think my sisters would be appalled.  But my mom - she'd love it!