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Jesus, Mary and Joseph! American Christianity’s Shattered Witness

Bill Leonard“Take the Bible: Zechariah and Elizabeth, for instance. Zechariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist. Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

That’s how the Alabama state auditor defended U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore as some eight middle-aged Alabama women came forward to accuse Moore of sexually harassing or stalking them when he was 30-something and they were teenagers, the youngest and most graphic at age 14.

Welcome to Advent in America, 2017. Advent, those four weeks before Christmas when Christians declare that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” is the church’s witness to Christ’s incarnation, and against our culture’s ceaseless effort to Christianize Black Friday materialism. This Advent, however, the Jesus Story has been sordidly deployed in defense of a political candidate beset by shameful accusations and ineffectual self-righteousness. Note to Alabama Christians: Vote for Roy Moore if you feel you must, but for God’s sake, leave Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of it!

In a Nov. 19 New York Times interview, Brett Pitman, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., sums up the current religio-political dilemma for congregations in Alabama and the nation: “I have people in my church who are strong liberal-leaning Democrats and strong right-leaning Republicans. Politics in a church is a divider.” Pitman’s words portend the future for churches, not only if Moore is elected, but also if the removal of the Johnson Amendment is finally approved in the tax bill now pending in Congress.

The original amendment, attached to the 1954 tax code, forbids (but seldom enforces) nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing particular candidates. It does not prohibit clergy or laity from speaking out against or advocating specific policies and practices of politicians or government agencies. The new law would permit greater candidate specificity and the possibility that churches become tax shelters for direct campaign funding. Approval promises to divide congregations over which candidates are “Christian” or at least supportive of “Christian agendas,” perhaps giving dangerous new meaning to the words of the Advent hymn, “how still we see thee lie.”

Various religious groups have offered opposition to abolishing Johnson, including the witness of our friends at the Baptist Joint Committee for (real) Religious Liberty who warn that weakening the amendment “would divide [faith] communities and distract from their mission.” Yet other Christians demand the right to politicize their congregations to the max, implicitly connecting Democrat or Republican policies and politicians into their confessional identity.

This Advent, the public witness of American Christianity isn’t merely compromised; it is shattered, with Roy Moore’s candidacy and the U.S. Congress among the worst of a great herd of enablers. Odds are that before the last Advent candle is lighted Roy Moore will be elected; and churches can expand their candidate-funding for certified “Christian candidates,” while tightly clinging to state-supported tax exemption and the neo-Constantinian ministerial housing allowance for their state-privileged clergy. “O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn.”

Amid this shattered koinonia comes the unforeseen yet poignant witness of late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, responding to Moore’s demand that Kimmel visit Alabama, where “we’ll go man to man.” Kimmel agreed to make the trip, but only if the two meet up at a mall food court, “have a little Panda Express” and “talk about Christian values.” Then Kimmel voiced what Alabama Baptists might call his “personal testimony,” telling Moore:

“I don’t know, it doesn’t fit your stereotype — but I happen to be a Christian, too. I made my first Holy Communion; I was confirmed; I pray; I support my church; one of my closest friends is a priest; I baptized my children. Christian is actually my middle name. I know that’s shocking, but it’s true. So if you’re open to it, when we sit down, I will share with you what I learned at my church. At my church, forcing yourself on under-aged girls is a no-no. Some even consider it to be a sin. Not that you did that, of course. Allegedly. But when you commit a sin at our church, at our church we’re encouraged to confess and ask for forgiveness for the sin. Not to call the women you allegedly victimized liars and damage them even more. To confess. But maybe your church is different. I don’t know.”

“Maybe your church is different.” Amid the silence of too many of us “Reverends,” irony of ironies, the church’s witness — its Advent “light in the darkness” — is awakened by a “secular” talk-show host who “happens to be a Christian, too.”

Frankly, Kimmel’s words hit me hard, shaming me and my conscience; hence, this essay. Indeed, his forthright witness chastened me into confessing that while I’ll retire as a professor at Wake Forest University next July, my conscience, by God, won’t file for social or ecclesiastical “security.” I learned that years ago from Roger Williams, on his way to that “shelter for conscience,” Rhode Island, and last week from Jimmy Kimmel, on his way to an Alabama mall.

And in my 71st Advent I heard with new ears the expectant song of Jesus’ own Immah: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

This Advent, one can only hope.

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Hoping for More Ethical National Conversation? Read the Instructions

In the wee hours of the morning on Dec. 25, parents everywhere will be frantically assembling toys to be presented to children just a few hours hence. Along about 2 a.m., some mom or dad will remember an old adage: “When everything else fails, read the instructions.”

Speaking of instructions, we continue to have important national conversations about the place of morality in our public life. What if we did a non-partisan, year-end inventory of how well our public servants have measured up alongside the Decalogue, God’s Big Ten, found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5? In other words, if we claim to be a nation founded on ethical principles, let’s read the instructions, the Ten Commandments! Time and space will not allow us to elaborate on each, so let’s primarily focus on the first three statutes as a yardstick, and assume that the reader can take it from there.

The first two Commandments assert that we are to have no other gods besides the one true God. God alone — nothing else and no one else should be worshiped. Idols can be physical objects, mental or metaphysical concepts, ideologies or ideas. How many times do we hear our elected officials exalt ideology, nation, flag, political party, personal ambition or capitalism above the true Lord God?

After many years of pastoring churches, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that for many of us —politicians included — scripture is a Rorschach test. We see what we are predisposed to see. Instead of using God’s instruction as a grid to read our personal preferences, we use our personal preferences to read God’s instruction.

But God is not a magic wand to be brandished for personal gain. George Bernard Shaw once said, “God created us in his image, and we decided to return the favor.” Listen up, politicians. We do not manage God. If our Judeo-Christian scriptures do not at some point convict and challenge us, that’s a pretty good sign our god is self-created. Anne Lamott said it best: “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

And that leads naturally to the third Commandment. “You shall not take the LORD’S name in vain (use it wrongfully).” Frankly, this mandate would be much easier to obey if it only referred to cuss words. But it’s more. The statute actually warns us not to take God’s reputation (name) and drag it through the mud. Someone recently asserted that alleged inappropriate sexual behavior with a minor is analogous to Joseph’s relationship with the Virgin Mary. There it is. The sacred, dragged through the profane — big time. It’s not enough that politicians break God’s law; they hide behind scripture, as if knowing some Bible verses (out of context) excuses bad conduct. Is it asking too much that our nation’s leaders not use God’s name as a good luck charm?

The story is told that Mark Twain once listened impatiently as a speaker droned on and on about a desire to visit the Holy Land. The pompous fellow said he wanted to climb Mount Sinai and from there recite the Ten Commandments. Twain, who did not suffer fools gladly, finally interrupted, “Had you ever thought of just staying home and keeping the Commandments?”

Here is a humble, year-end, public policy suggestion. Let’s stop worrying so much about getting the Ten Commandments posted on courthouse lawns and focus instead on getting them inscribed in our hearts and integrated into our collective national behavior. New Year’s resolution: Let’s read the instructions.

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Three Redwood Wishes – Rev. Susan Sparks – The Shiny Side Up

Hi y’all, welcome to the Shiny Side Up! A journal of infectious inspiration that will lift you up, make you smile and leave you stronger.

I want to thank you for your patience. I haven’t sent out a Shiny Side Up for a few weeks. One of the reasons is an epic trip that Toby and I took over Thanksgiving. First, Amtrak across the country from Chicago to LA in a sleeper car. Then a drive through the great national parks of California, including visits to the sequoia and redwood trees.

Anyone who has stood in the presence of redwoods knows that it’s a holy experience. As I walked under their great canopy, I began to wonder: what if these massive trees could talk? What wisdom would they share with our twenty-first-century society? What redwood wishes might be offered for our broken world?

While I’m not sure of the answer, if I had to guess, I’d say they would share three wishes. And those three wishes would come straight out of Corinthians 13: 7:  “Love bears all things, love believes and hopes all things, love endures all things.”

Redwood Wish #1:   Bear Each Other up
One of the tallest living things on earth, redwoods can grow up to four hundred feet in height (comparable to a thirty-five-story building). But they don’t reach these towering heights by sinking their roots down into the ground. They grow to these heights by sending their roots out — horizontally — and connecting with the other trees in the forest. In short, they’re tall because they bear each other up.

Redwood Wish #2:  Believe and Hope All Things Good
As I sat in that forest, I was struck by the cycle of life all around me. There were the great mature trees forming a huge canopy shading the entire forest. Then there were the tiny seedlings; scrappy, feisty little green shoots straining, reaching up and out to find sunlight to help them grow.

Perhaps that’s what meant in 1 Corinthians when it says, “love believes all things and hopes all things.”  Love looks for the good. Like those little seedlings, it strains to find the best, the sunlight in others.

But of course, there’s a trick.  In order to see the best in others, we have to be able to see it in ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us tend to go to the negative first, the faults first, the flaws first. We forget that we are made in the image of the divine; that each of us at our core is holy and loveable and full of sunlight. There is a reason that the bible says, “love your neighbor AS yourself.”   Like the sunlight for those little seedlings, love is about finding the good in ourselves and our neighbor; it is about finding our source of life and being.

Redwood Wish #3:  Endure with an Eye Towards the Longview
Not only are redwoods some of the tallest living creatures, they are some of the oldest, many dating back two thousand years. That means that some of these trees have lived through everything from the Roman Empire to Lady Gaga.

It makes you wonder: how would our lives be different if we had such a long view of the world. How would our choices – our life – be different with such a perspective?

It is so easy to get caught up in our day to day stress, the “crisis” de jour staring at us from our inbox, the ringing phone, the emails, the tweets.  While these may seem important now, if we look at them with an eye to the long view, they begin to fade into obscurity. In the long view things like family, community, health, joy, and compassion become the clear priorities.

Do we bear each other up? Do we believe and hope all things good? Do we take the long view? Our lives might take a different turn if we would only begin to orient our path toward love, compassion, and these three redwood wishes.

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Too Loud? Too Bad! – Shiny Side Up – Susan Sparks

The Shiny Side Up from Rev. Susan Sparks

Hi y’all, welcome to the Shiny Side Up! A journal of infectious inspiration that will lift you up, make you smile and leave you stronger.

Before I start, I want to offer an apology to all Honda motorcycle riders who may be offended by this message. God loves you. And I try.
Many years ago, before I bought my first bike, my husband Toby took me to a biker rally in Connecticut (an oxymoron if there ever was one). Like most rallies, the bikes were parked in rows with admirers walking up and down, comparing motorcycles and sharing stories.

Of all the gathered horsepower, for me, one bike stood out. It was hard to miss: red flames on a jet-black gas tank, fringed ape-hanger handlebars that you had to reach high above your head to hold, pipes that looked like two huge corn silos laid sideways, and a sticker on the back bumper that read: “Vietnam: We were winning when I left.”

Standing by the bike was the owner (again, who was hard to miss). Straight out of Road Warrior, he donned dirt encrusted black leather chaps, a leather vest (worn shirtless – and shouldn’t have been), and a giant tattoo on his left arm that was something akin to the naked woman silhouette on a tractor-trailer mud flap.

As we watched, he took the last inhale off his cigarette, ground it under his harness boot and swung his leg over the bike preparing to crank up and leave.

“This should be good,” I said to Toby, pointing at the pipes.

“Don’t count on it,” he replied, rolling his eyes.

The road warrior pulled the bike up off the kickstand, straightened the front wheel, pushed the kill switch to run, then turned to the gathered crowd with a Jacki Nicholson type grin, and pressed the start button.

The sound that came out made me gasp. It was like a grasshopper in puberty – breathy, high pitched, even a bit annoying.

“What is that?” I exclaimed. “How could something that big and bad sound so wimpy?”

Toby laughed. “It’s a Honda. That’s how they sound.”

“But what about all the badass leather stuff?”

“Hype,” he said, shaking his head.

I stood there in shock for a few more moments until another sound exploded out over the grasshopper noise. It was a sound that combined the threatening rumble of an approaching thunderstorm with the subtle “potato-potato-potato” rhythm chugged out by the exhaust stacks of my Uncle’s 1960 John Deere. I turned, and there behind us, gleaming in the sun, was a giant Harley Davidson.

“Oh, I love that sound!” I blurted out.

“Yup, I figured you would,” Toby nodded. Then he added the words that have stuck with me until this day: “Hey if it don’t roar, what’s the point?”  (I’ve been a Harley rider ever since.)

If it don’t roar, what’s the point?

Amen to that. It’s true for motorcycles and it’s true for us. We can live life with a whimper or we can live it with a roar. We’re going to be riding down life’s road either way. Why choose anything but living life loud and proud.

This is especially good advice now given our headlines. So many people are offering a voice that sounds more like a grasshopper, than a roar — veiled concerns, passive good wishes, the ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers.” But if you don’t back these passive words up with action – with a roar – it’s only hype.

And a roar is exactly what it’s going to take. We are facing gun violence, racism, mass murders, sexual attacks, natural disasters, and rampant terrorism. We have to dosomething. As the book of James says, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14).

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power of prayer. But prayer alone is not enough. As God told the Apostle Paul, “Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Maybe this means calling your government officials, or speaking out against gun violence, or offering a kind word to guests at a food bank or manning the phones at a battered women’s shelter.

Whatever it is, we must take a stand. We must speak out. We must not live our lives with a whimper. Because in the end, if we don’t roar, what’s the point?

If you want more, tune into my sermon HERE this Sunday at 11 am EST entitled “If It Don’t Roar, What’s the Point?”

Below you will find more inspiration via photos, articles, and sermons. Until next time, keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down!   –Susan

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