Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Closed Letter To Our Government On Religion And Policy

So many people have been writing open letters, so I figured I'd write a closed one. Hope you enjoyed it!

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Sounds of Silas

Even in the deepest hallways of biblical scholarship, it is still little known that, first, the Apostle Paul did actually write a short letter about his brief time in prison with Silas and Philippi, an additional source on the events to Luke’s account in Acts 16. Secondly, one of the first minstrel groups of the early Church, known as Simon & Barthumkel, wrote a song about it called “The Sounds of Silas.” We actually have the lyrics below, translated from Koine Greek.

Stanza 1
Hello prison, my old friend
I've come to be with you again
Because I’d rather be free, preaching
But I suppose another way, outreaching, 
Is writing letters to the churches across the plains
But still remains are the sounds of Silas

Stanza 2
In restless dreams he tends to snore
Restful nights I have no more
Inside this jail down here in Philippi
I turn and toss, and my throat is dry
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of angelic light
That split the night
And stopped the sounds of Silas

Stanza 3
And in the shaking jail I saw
All the chains and all the doors
Chains unlocking without creaking
Cell doors clearing without squeaking
We’d be fleeing, but our jailer would take his life
He had much strife
But for my shout with Silas

Stanza 4
“Do not give yourself such pain,”
Said I, “for in our cell we’ve stayed.”
The jailer called the cell, “Illuminate!”
And then before us, fell the man prostrate
Asking, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
He was depraved
Down on the ground near Silas

Stanza 5
“Believe in Jesus,” we relayed 
And at the jailer’s home we stayed 
And our wounds were washed before morning
And more relationships with God forming
And the household was also baptized in the holy name
That we proclaim
The God of Paul and Silas

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Church and the Need for Visible Authority on Race Relations

(FYI: I wrote this weeks ago, not in response to what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend.)

Should we be worried about the future of American churches?

I know that some people are. But they’re worried because of other reasons, such as the music (it’s either too old or too anti-intellectual, etc.), the watering down of the message (just preach the Penal Substitution aspect of the Doctrine of Atonement, dang it!), and various (sometimes orthodox, sometimes not) capitulations to popular culture. I’m not worried about any of those issues eliminating the Church.

Many outside the Church (and some within) think that its survival will depend on its whole affirmation with the LGBT community (get with "the times"!). The Church should be against all forms of bullying, but it still mostly struggles to minister to the LGBT community, while afraid of its wealth of political and cultural capital. The outspoken leaders for the LGBT community, however, require nothing short of complete theological affirmation. This brings the two communities to an impasse, sadly stunting the ability to work or even live together in the name of charity and cultural flourishing. However, the Church has survived far worse persecution than any social or political action the States have ever seen on their own turf. So no, unlike others, I’m not worried about that issue eliminating the Church.

However, I’m worried about a hurdle that plagued the global Church for centuries since its inception, and with which many American churches continue to struggle: truly communicating the full message of Jesus Christ to different cultures.

No, seriously, how many different races and cultures attend the same particular church service?

Because of discourse in recent and current politics, the rise of #BlackLivesMatter, and a host of late and tragic incidents, the need for all types of racial reconciliation continues to grow. And it needs to be addressed by an organization (not just one person) with visible (not just theoretical) authority on the issue. 

Who can do this? Not a culturally-homogenous group of people. Not a group that will sell out to money and influence. Not a group that regularly vilifies or condemns the disagreeable. There are many political organizations and pop-culture icons who give lipservice to the racial tension in our diverse country, but they can’t speak or act effectively to the issue. The American Church can. The question, I believe, is a matter of if it will.

Two significant changes in the past 75 years:

1) Good news: Christian gatherings are now regularly occuring all over the world. From basements of secrecy to beautifully-decorated sanctuaries, the message of Jesus Christ and the group efforts to exposit the Holy Bible have been very (but not thoroughly) globalized. The Church of Christ, born in the Middle East and raised in Europe, was challenged by the Enlightenment and is no longer the “white man’s religion.”

2) Bad news: Very few Americans (regardless of their religion) can really see that, partially because our diverse country has become very culturally-segregated. My home metropolis of Chicago is, perhaps, the strongest example, as its cultural demographic layout is basically striped.

Now, there’s nothing wrong, inherently, with living and worshipping with what’s familiar, but if Christianity is truly a global religion, what should a church service in a diverse country look like? How tied to local culture should theology be? For example, the most headline-grabbing denominational leaders and influential bloggers of churches in the States are predominantly white, male and suburban/rural. However, some places with more exponential church growth are Africa and China. That’s a bit of a worrisome disconnect (among many).

I’m worried that as the occurence of race-based tragic incidents and need for racial reconciliation grows (and it will), our information age will bring American churches’ congregations to light. The cultural segregation of our country’s congregations will be made apparent to all in a time of crisis, and the Church (even the Gospel message?) could then wrongfully lose its credibility of transcendence. 

In the Church’s early days in the Roman Empire (a very racist, misogynist and overly carnal culture), one of the (many) reasons that gatherings grew is that men, women, Jews, Greeks, Romans (and every kind of Gentile), rich, poor, slave, literally anyone felt equally welcome there.

Today, when there are suspected (at the least) racially-motived kidnappings, murders, and hate crimes, people should be able to come to the Church. But most churches today are culturally segregated. And because of the cultural trappings that dominate the homogenous church services, many people are feeling excluded where they should be “one in Christ Jesus.” Building unity despite diversity with grace and (sometimes) reconciliation is messy, but the result is much better than anyone’s default tribalism. But so many people and organizations (including most churches) aren’t making the effort. So, I’m worried.

Should I be worried? If not, why not? If so, what should we (as Christians) do? 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

God, Humankind, and Cell Phones

Sometimes I feel like God’s relationship with me is like my relationship with my cell phone.

There are times I’ll be riding in the car through an area packed with businesses, and I want to check my email. My cell phone tires, to no avail, to connect to the internet using an “unlocked” and weak WiFi network that it might have found 30 feet away. My cell phone does this without my approval, supposedly to save me data, or maybe it’s just being too lazy to connect to the cellular network.

I wish my cell phone would trust me. For I have paid, sometimes dearly, for its reliable cellular network and safe WiFi networks where it can find rest for its weary connection-finder. But my cell phone feels it can do this and other things on its own, such as dictating and interpreting my words, understanding where I want to put the cursor, and when I want the screen horizontal.

If only my cell phone would learn to trust me and the internet connections I have paid to provide it, as well as the gentle commands I give it, it would serve me well and it would live a long and prosperous life. For I will not forsake a cell phone before it is well-utilized.

I am actually a caring cell phone user. I don’t exhaust the gigabytes with photos, videos and applications. I make efforts to keep dust from getting in ports and I buy cases when necessary. I have access to a plethora of cell phone doctors. I haven’t and never will use it for more than what it’s built for.

So, if I could say something to my cell phone, it would be: “Please don’t exhaust yourself. You’re a wonderful creation and I yearn for your service to me. But you must learn to trust how I’ve made you, my provisions for you, and my commands to you.”

Anything you want to add?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Rise of Church-less Evangelicals

I grew up, as many have, with the cliche that you aren’t a Christian just because you go to church. One saying went like, “Being in church doesn’t make you a Christian just like being in a garage doesn’t make you a car.” It can be a clever exhortation for regular churchgoers to follow James 1:22. I get it.

But it seems the times have really a-changed. There is a large population of people that call themselves “evangelical” or “Christian” in surveys and exit polls, but they don’t go to church

Perhaps the divorce rate among self-dubbed Christians is disturbingly high. But among those who regularly attend church, it’s “markedly lower” than the general population’s average.

According to exit polls, the vast majority of white self-dubbed evangelicals voted for President Trump. “But as Notre Dame’s Geoffrey Layman noted, ‘Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.’”

Because of this factor, there are potentially a lot of generalizations and assumptions being made about evangelicals and Christians. 

Could there be other things that we’re getting wrong?

For all purposes (statistical, theological, etc.), how should we define “Christian” or “evangelical”? Should church attendance really (still) be a non-factor?

P.S. I think you should go to church regularly. Research has shown that it does more than just lower your divorce probability.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

My Prayer For #NationalDayOfPrayer (2017)

(Originally posted for last year's National Day of Prayer, updated).

Dear Heavenly Father, Creator of All Things,

Thank you for our country. As I strive to worship You and serve the poor, I regularly am blessed by the fruit of our country’s founding vision of freedom, responsibility and humility. My children attend a very resourceful and culturally-diverse school and church, and there are many other ways my wife and I feel uniquely blessed by our community.

However, we have erred from what is right by Your commandments and what would continue to be deemed good stewardship and cultural flourishing in the land You have given us. 

We have sought self-fulfillment in the wrong places, storing up treasures on earth. Have mercy.

We have treasured our sub-culture and/or country more than Your love and grace. Have mercy.

We have had the over-confidence to disregard the notion of intelligence other than our own, pridefully refusing to be teachable. Have mercy.

Under a guise of justice, we have sought vengeance and victory instead of reconciliation and the common good. Have mercy.

Wanting to create a culture that we thought was better, we have ignored facts and believed heinous lies about people. Have mercy.

We have selfishly sought our own trivial good and ignored the significant plight of others. Have mercy.

We have continually mocked leaders and those in authority that You have ordained, and not prayed for them as You commanded. Have mercy.

Unlike many of Your children outside of our country, many of us continue to lack an adequate theology of suffering. Have mercy.

We ask, Lord, that You would give wisdom and strength to President Trump and all those who are given the difficult task of leading and shepherding a diverse and polarized country. 

May we have the strength to continue to serve You, help others and work for the common good. 

May we, following Your commands, in our relationships with one another, seek absolute grace and not relative justice. 

May we, following Your commands, be elitist about ideas but egalitarian about fellow children of God.

May we never forget, Lord, that You are not surprised or intimidated by actions of men. You are our perfect example of humble servanthood. Give us the strength and courage to serve our country.


Friday, March 31, 2017

Clarifying the Billy Graham Rule

A recent piece in the Washington Post had some questions and comments about the “Billy Graham Rule,” now that it’s been brought back to the public eye by its use by Vice President Mike Pence.

Recently, a Washington Post article about second lady Karen Pence has brought the Billy Graham Rule back into the public eye. The article cites a 2002 interview with Vice President Pence — who has called himself an “evangelical Catholic” — saying that he “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife,” and that he doesn’t attend events serving alcohol unless she is with him as well.

I’ll answer the question and comments as best I can.

In this case, the Billy Graham Rule risks reducing women to sexual temptations, objects, things to be avoided.

Women should not be objectified. However, if there was an official list of Top Things That Dehumanize Women That Should Be Challenged, the Billy Graham Rule wouldn’t even make it into the first one hundred. What about the rampant pornography on the internet and sex appeal in the media? If anything, the continued practice of the Billy Graham rule is a reaction to our increasingly pornified culture. It really can’t be blamed for perpetuating it. 

If a woman at work cannot meet one-on-one with her boss or colleague, her options for advancement (or even being taken seriously as a colleague) are extremely limited.

Do these career-necessary meetings have to be one-on-one, behind closed opaque doors and completely unaccountable, even to the rest of the business?

In this conversation, we also have to keep in mind the fact that Pence is the vice president of the United States. He is not a pastor and does not act in that capacity. How on earth can he be expected to represent half the country if he won’t eat at the same table as us? Not to mention that his ideological purity is called into question by his support of our current president, who has bragged about committing sexual assault.

Again, the Billy Graham Rule is about private, individual and completely unaccountable meetings, which are not necessary for any affirmation of human dignity or career advancement. The Billy Graham Rule is not just for pastors avoiding scandals for the good of their jobs. It’s for maintaining integrity within marriages and institutions. I think it’s a good thing that one of our elected leaders is practicing it.

However, if we look not to Graham for an example of how to treat women but to Jesus, we will find a different path to follow. Jesus consistently elevated the dignity of women and met with them regularly, including his meeting with a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day.

While Jesus elevated the dignity of women in many more examples in Scripture, one could make the argument that Jesus followed the Billy Graham Rule, as he never had a one-on-one and completely unaccountable meeting with someone of either gender. 

As for Billy Graham, he has always been a non-partisan, non-denominational, scandal-free, charitable man of prayer and integrity. He’s been a friend to all sorts of presidents for decades. Billy Graham always released his ministry tax returns to the newspapers so he could be held financially accountable, and the Billy Graham Rule is another simple way he (and now our Vice President) keep themselves accountable to the public.

What’s really wrong with that?