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If character is ‘irrelevant’ in politics, eventually the Church will be, too

Russ DeanI do not even know where to begin.

Life has always been confusing, and there have never been easy answers, but we live in a very bewildering time. Is it my imagination, or has it gotten worse? The confusion seems just recently to have magnified pretty dramatically.

No one trusts facts anymore. And what is truth?

The conservative Christian influences of my younger years used to disdain the danger of “liberal relativism.” But what “truth” could be more relativistic than what we are now hearing from some evangelical pulpits?

As reported by Baptist News Global, Robert Jeffress from the First Baptist Church of Dallas, recently pronounced that having an affair with a porn star is “completely irrelevant” to evangelicals. Jeffress believes forgiveness is between the sinner and God, “for anyone who asks.” The sinner in question, of course, has publicly and proudly admitted to never in his life having asked God’s forgiveness, for anything. But maybe that’s irrelevant, too.

I trust the reporter, I know the source, and I’ve never appreciated the accusations of “fake news,” but when I read this I thought, “This has got to be fake news. It just cannot be.”

For my entire adult life evangelicals have unwaveringly inveighed against the personal immorality of political candidates (not wrongly, though maybe a bit too piously at times). Character has always mattered, significantly. Today, suddenly, it is “completely irrelevant.”

According to Jeffress, apparently personal morality and integrity are no longer the measure of Christian character. Personal morality is now irrelevant as long as you toe the party line regarding national policy on abortion rights and as long as you threaten to rain down all-consuming “fire and fury” on our enemies.

You know, just like Jesus said.

In this age of bitter polarization and angry divisiveness, maybe critical words, words that challenge someone else’s point of view only fuel the unhealthy animosity so many of us are experiencing. I worry about being the one to offer those words. I sincerely do not want to be part of the problem.

But can the Church really afford to allow such breathless hypocrisy to define Christian ethics and spirituality? Can we tolerate such an example to be the model of “Christianity” for the wider culture? Or could it be that people are running from the Church today in droves because we have allowed exactly this?

To be sure, navigating our political system will always present a challenge, especially for voters of faith. There’s the law, and there’s the “higher law” — and then there’s that thorny concept of the separation of church and state. Making voting decisions difficult for all is the fact that there is no perfect candidate (and no perfect voter either!). No candidate will perfectly mirror a voter’s views, issue by issue, point by point, and given the complexity of our democracy, based largely on the “either/or” of a two-party system, voters — maybe especially religious voters — will sometimes have to settle. Choosing a candidate might come down to choosing an issue or issues, being willing to compromise on other concerns …

… but never compromising our own, core values in the process.

The primary job of a leader is to lead — and no one leads without first setting the example. In leading by example, character and integrity are essential. Jesus said you will know a tree by the fruit it produces. Conservatives used to say this was Truth.

I believe it still is.

In a recent sermon about gun violence I told my congregation that I am not “anti-gun.” I said this because … I am not anti-gun! I am, however, anti-foolish — and I believe what we are doing, and all that we are not doing proves our utter foolishness with every tragic, often preventable, killing. Likewise, I am neither anti-conservative nor anti-evangelical. I am, however, anti-… well, anti-whatever-this-is. I just have no idea what to call it.

I have never seen anything like it. I do not even know where to begin. Character doesn’t matter. How do we even talk about truth?

It is a confusing time, but one thing is crystal clear to me: if committing an adulterous affair with a porn star, if that kind of morality and that kind of character is “completely irrelevant” to a Church that has always said exactly the opposite, there is another thing that will be “completely irrelevant” to today’s culture — and that is, sadly, the Church.

*Russ Dean is co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. A native of Clinton, S.C., and a graduate of Furman University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he earned a D.Min. degree from Beeson Divinity School. He and his wife, Amy, have been in church ministry for 30 years, and they have served as co-pastors of Park Road since 2000. He is active in social justice ministries and interfaith dialogue, and when he isn’t writing sermons or posts for Baptist News Global you’ll find Russ in his shed doing wood working, playing jazz music, slalom or barefoot water skiing, hiking and camping, or watching his two teenage boys on the baseball field.

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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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