Archive for the ‘Faith & Culture’ category

What About Pat?

January 14, 2010

If you have been on-line anytime during the last 24 hours, you are aware of the terrible devastation that took place in Haiti, the result of a massive earthquake. The number of dead and injured is horrendous and the destruction of property is truly staggering. It is a catastrophe of epic proportion that will require much relief and recovery efforts for a very long time.

And, if you have been on-line during this same period, you are likely aware that Pat Robertson of “The 700 Club” blamed the Haitians for the disaster. In his words, the Haitians were “cursed” because they made “a pact with the devil” to gain freedom from French oppression. In his own words, this supposedly happened “a long time ago.” Actually, almost 200 years ago to be precise.

Needless to say the backlash against Robertson’s comments have been swift and intense. I added my own comments of displeasure on Twitter. People from all over the ideological and religious spectrum have condemned his remarks.

I am not writing this to pile-on. To be honest, much of the reaction has been way over the line – some hoping he would die and “burn in hell” for what he said. Such remarks are, in their own way, far worse than what Rev. Robertson said. Thankfully, many of the comments from the Christian community have been more tempered – pointing out the serious theological flaws in Robertson’s statement and the lack of grace and mercy in his content.

I have to wonder, though, what could possibly inspire someone like Pat Robertson to make such sweeping statements? It’s not the first time – I recall similar pronouncements following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Judgement is a risky business. Jesus admonished His followers to “remove the beam” from their own eyes before pointing out the speck in the eye of another. He also warned that we will be judged by the same measure we use to judge another.

That is not to say we are not to be discerning. God’s people have a duty to point out sin, but always to do so redemptively. And we do so with great care, remembering that we are all sinners saved by grace. “There is none righteous, no, not one.”

I do not believe that God sent the earthquake to punish the people of Haiti. I do believe we live in a fallen world, where evil abounds and bad things happen. As the Bible says, “it rains on the just and the unjust.”

This morning, I read a verse that summed it up for me:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

As followers of Christ, we have an obligation to help the victims of the earthquake. Thankfully, that is exactly what will happen. People of all creeds and ideologies will pour into that devastated land to bring food, water, medical supplies and comfort to the stricken. Many who cannot go will help by sending money to fund the relief efforts. We will pray, give and go to give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name.

And what about Pat? I do not believe he is an evil man. He has done much good in the past, especially in the area of relief during disasters. But I believe what he said was wrong, based on flawed theology. In short, it was a stupid thing to say.

I will not condemn a man for saying something stupid, for I may do likewise before the day is over. Pat Robertson will have to live with his ungracious words. Followers of Christ have an obligation to forgive and love the man, though we may loathe what he did.

But we do not have to listen to Pat Robertson. I recommend that you don’t.


Listen and Learn

February 17, 2009

Recently, I read an article about “reverse mentoring.” (Unfortunately, I cannot remember the author’s name, nor the magazine. If this should ring a bell with you, please send me an e-mail or leave a comment). The idea began to resonate with me, so I thought I’d put down my own thoughts regarding the concept.

In short, reverse mentoring involves the old listening to the young, the experienced listening to the inexperienced, and the insider listening to the outsider. It has the value of opening our eyes to different perspectives and, perhaps, clearing up misconceptions between generations or groups. I think it has particular value for those steeped in the culture of “church.”

Most of the evangelism training I’ve had over the years focused on sharing my personal Christian testimony and/or how to present the plan of salvation in x number of steps. These courses had value as they helped me articulate my faith in a clear and concise manner. Unfortunately, the majority of these courses left me ill-equipped to actually listen to those with whom I wished to share. Too often, I felt as if I were giving a sales presentation rather than building a bridge with a living soul. That has been a source of frustration with me for many years. However, when individuals have sensed that I was genuinely interested in them, they were more apt to listen to me.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned the value of listening – even to those with whom I may not agree. In the process of reverse mentoring, we allow someone to share their perspective on a variety of issues – from faith and culture to politics and the economy. It’s an eye-opening experience to hear from those with completely different perspectives, and it challenges us to be better equipped to defend our own positions. We can do this is a respectful, engaging manner (despite what we often see on the public stage, particularly in the area of political discourse.)

The apostle Paul encouraged his young protoge’, Timothy, in this regard. Timothy was a very young pastor, serving in a culture where age and experience was revered and the younger generation was generally tolerated but not taken seriously. In 1 Timothy 4:12, he tells Timothy: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” Obviously, Paul was speaking as a mentor himself. But he encouraged Timothy to exercise his faith as a young man – to be ready to mentor those older than him. In our modern context, all to often our various generations and groups speak past one another without really comprehending each other. That is a tragedy, particularly for the church as we seek to impact our broad culture for Christ.

If we simply view people as projects rather than individuals who are created in the image of God, we can fall into the trap of an “us” v. “them” mindset. The goal of reverse mentoring is not to compromise our beliefs. The goal is to build relationships between the younger and the older, between the follower of Christ and the agnostic or skeptic, and between the traditional and the fringe. Look to the gospels and see how Jesus accomplished that very thing. It may feel awkward and there will be  deep chasms to cross created by differing ideas, values, and world-views. Building bridges is hard work. But as we learn more about those we call “different” or those with whom we disagree, we become better equipped to engage them in serious conversation.

And isn’t that where the Great Commission begins?

Godliness with Contentment

February 3, 2009

Unless you have been living on a remote desert island, you are aware of the world-wide economic meltdown that has been underway for the past few months. It seems that the primary focus of the new administration and congress is to address this problem. Politicians, pundits and every average Joe has an opinion on this financial crisis, but no one really seems sure how to “fix” it.

Christians are not exempt from the economic downturn. We all know people who have lost jobs, retirement accounts devalued and stores that have closed or are on the precipice. Perhaps you’ve been hit particularly hard yourself. It’s a trying time for everyone and we are left wondering, “What next?”

In the midst of the upheavel, we need to be reminded that our source of peace and security does not lie in the hands of the government or Wall Street. Our hope and security lies in Jesus Christ. Nothing can separate us from his love. Romans 8:35-37 reminds us: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long;  we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The implied answer to “who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” is – No-one and no-thing! Although we are not exempt from hardship or trying times, our circumstances cannot separate us from Him. We all need to cling to that promise.

So, how do we face such uncertain times? How do we live out our faith as followers of Christ when the world is in an uproar?

Consider the Apostle Paul’s words to his young protoge’, Timothy, who was facing similar trying times:

If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. – 1 Timothy 3:6-7

Godliness . . . with contentment. The two go hand in hand. And therein lies our security – the peace of Christ in our hearts – NOT financial gain (despite what the prosperity gospel advocates say). As we adhere to the teachings of Christ by living godly lives of obedience, we discover great contentment – in spite of the chaotic circumstances that surround us. Living godly lives does not exempt us from trials. Far from it. Paul shared his own experiences thusly . . .

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. – 2 Timothy 3:10-13

Did you catch that? Godliness does not exempt us from trials. In fact, it opens us up to persecution! Today, most of us are struggling over financial issues and the future as a result of the actions of such “evil men” who have done much damage to our financial system. But don’t miss what Paul also said in the middle of this passage – “Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.” Our Lord is in the rescuing business. We may face difficult times for the foreseeable future. Our savings may dwindle and our retirement accounts evaporate. And we may endure even further financial setbacks. Yet, in the midst of it all, the people of God are called to live godly lives with contentment. That contentment is a sense of peace and gratitude for how the Lord has blessed us and the provision for our needs – both now and in the future. It is confidence in the One who knows what tomorrow holds.

Followers of Jesus are not exempt from hard times. But neither are we exempt from remaining faithful to Him. In fact, in times of uncertainty we have a tremendous opportunity to be both encouragers and servants as people see foundations made of sand washed away. This is not a time for God’s people to point fingers of blame; it is a time for us to extend a cup of water in Jesus’ name and point toward Him as the way, the truth and the life.

Prayer as Public Spectacle

January 21, 2009

Corporate prayer has a long and storied history in Christianity (and other world religions as well). Public prayer has been a way of calling people to worship, a means of congregational intercession, and a way of teaching others to pray.

There is a danger, however, when we pray aloud before a group, that the intended recipient of our prayers may not be almighty God, but the assembled crowd. We may, intentionally or unintentionally, cross the line between humbly approaching God’s throne of grace with our petitions and giving a speech to a crowd using spiritual language. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for us to allow our personal agendas to slip into our public prayers.

I have to admit, I approach this topic with a sense of trepidation. In critiquing the public prayers of others I’m all too aware of the times I have fallen into this same trap – praying to be heard by the crowd more than by God.  But the public prayers offered up (out?) during President Obama’s inauguration brought this to mind. Apparently, I’m not alone – Michael Spencer (Internet Monk) had an excellent post on his blog yesterday. I invite you to check it out here.

Three prominent figures offered “official” prayers during the festivities – Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist and pastor of the Saddleback Church, is well-known among evangelical circles. He hosted both Barack Obama and John McCain at his church last year. Bishop Eugene Robinson of the Episcopal Church, USA, is well-known as the first avowed homosexual to serve as a bishop in the ECUSA. Rev. Joseph Lowery is a pastor and veteran civil rights leader, who offered the benediction at the close of the inauguration ceremonies.

Each of these men was invited by President Obama, as is his right and part of long-standing tradition. These three men represent very different segments within the Christian community of our country. Each is well-known and controversial in some way. Dr. Warren’s invitation evoked ire from the left for his support of Proposition 8 in California, which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. Bishoop Robinson is a vocal advocate of the gay/lesbian/trans-gender lifestyle and a divisive figure within the Episcopal Church. Rev. Lowery has been at the fore-front of the civil rights movement for years, earning both accolades and ridicule from various segments of our population.

Even before these men opened their mouths to pray, the media spent much air-time and bandwidth speculating about what they would say? Would Warren pray in Jesus’ name? Would Robinson mention God at all? Would Lowery say something controversial? As it turned out the answers were, in order: Yes, What?, and Of course!

Now, my comments regarding these men’s prayers are nothing you haven’t heard if you’ve watched 30 seconds of coverage in the past 24 hours. Warren prayer in Jesus’ name 3 times in 3 different languages. Robinson addressed a generic ” God of our understanding,” whoever that is, and Lowery’s prayer was very poetic, ending with a not-so-subtle dig at Caucasians.  I show my own evangelical bias when I say that Warren’s speech seemed more God-centered and less political or sectarian in nature. I would have said the same for Rev. Lowery’s prayer except for a recitation he has used before:  “…help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.” I wasn’t personally offended by that, but found it rather judgemental of whites in general.

You are, of course, free to disagree.

My point is that such public-event prayers tend to lapse into political speech. Personally, I believe both Warren and Lowery genuinely and sincerely offered their prayers to God. Robinson’s prayer was more to “whom it may concern,” sincere or not. All of these public prayers were spectacles within a larger spectacle – the inauguration of a president. I’m all for praying at inaugurations, but I wonder at all of the hype and media attention that surrounded these prayers (he opined, typing furiously away at his blog!)

A particular passage of scripture came to mind yesterday after the public inauguration events were over. Read it and mull over it. It sure made me think. . . and not very highly of myself.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people. – Proverbs 14:34

Like I said, think about it. Oh, and remember to pray for our new president and our nation! But maybe we should all do it from our prayer closets and not in front of cameras. Just a thought.

Facebook v. Face-to-Face

January 13, 2009

I like Facebook. Let me say that up front.

For those of you not familiar with Facebook, it is an on-line social networking phenomenon that allows individuals to connect with other people around the world. It’s easy, fun (and potentially addictive.)

Through Facebook, I’ve been able to connect with friends I’ve not seen in many years. It also provides a way to keep up with family members and local friends, particularly within my church. It allows me a place to post comments, share photos, pass along prayer requests, send virtual gifts such as bumper stickers and “flair” (virtual buttons), link to my blog, join groups and carry on conversations.

Well . . . sort of.

Though I am a fan of Facebook as a networking tool, I’ve come to realize its limitations. For starters, you aren’t looking at your friends face-to-face. You can’t pick up on facial expressions or changes in voice tone. You miss out on body language with its subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) gestures. Oh yeah, we can add smilies (or type in all-caps when we want to shout) but even then our messages might be misconstrued.

In other words, the Facebook experience is insulated and isolated from the real, sometimes messy and awkward, face-to-face interaction. We call that a “degree of separation.” Sometimes that’s good a good thing (the reason that bloggers are often referred to as the “pajamas media”) whereby we can interact with people from the comfort of our homes without worrying about how we’re dressed. That isolation has a down-side however, if our ONLY contact with other people is through an on-line social network. All of us need real face-time with other people. There are times we need a literal shoulder to cry on, a literal pat on the back for encouragement, a literal hug of affection, or a literal fist-bump of camaraderie. Not only do we need to receive these physical touches, we need to spread them – even if it’s just a smile. There are times when bytes of data streaming across a wireless connection are a poor substitute for real flesh and blood contact, non-Photoshopped warts and all.

I’m not advocating closing your Facebook accounts, far from it. I am advocating a healthy balance between virtual connections and the kind that only happens in person.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, someone just sent me a tweet on Twitter.

One Way?

January 7, 2009

Recently, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a report showing that a significant percentage of American Christians reject the biblical claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation.  From their findings, 52% of American Christians believe that “at least some non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life.”

Even more disturbing, 37% of those  identified themselves as evangelical Christians agreed, rejecting the claim that Jesus is the only Savior and indicating that at least some non-Christian religion or religions may also lead to heaven.

This is a sad indictment of how western Christianity has embraced multi-culturalism with it’s “tolerance trumps all” philosophy. It is considered impolite to express the exclusive claims of Christ – especially such statements from the Lord such as, “I am the way, the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father but by me.” – John 14:6. That is the central tenet of the Christian faith – that Jesus came into the world to save us from our sins by his atoning death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. That is NOT a minor point to be negotiated or discarded.

The Pew forum findings are a wake-up call to the church. If our message is not focused on Jesus, then we have certainly lost our way. As the apostle Paul said:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” – Galatians 1:6-10

Harsh words? Perhaps. Exclusive? You bet! Truth? Absolutely.

That’s the nature of truth – it offers an exclusive claim. I can no more say that all roads lead to heaven then I could all roads lead to Philadelphia. The notion is absurd. Why would Jesus voluntarily go through the humiliation, the torture, and the agonizing death on the cross if there were another way to the Father? The answer – He would not. Only the sinless Son of God had the divine mandate and moral authority to pay for the sins of all humanity. No other religion or philosophy makes that claim.

The gospel message will always be offensive to some. The very notion that Jesus is the only way to heaven seems politically incorrect and repugnant to many. Sadly, that seems to be the case for some who claim to be His followers.