Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Here’s Why Your Pastor Didn't Say Anything About the SCOTUS Gay-Marriage Ruling

Three days have passed since the SCOTUS same-sex marriage ruling and the bloggers are a bloggin’ and the preachers are a preachin’.

Just not yours.

Sunday came and went at your church with nary a word about gays, marriage, SCOTUS or anything associated therewith. Pastor didn’t ask you to pray about the ruling, and there was no surprise homily from Romans 1. You keep checking the church blog and clicking on his Facebook page, but there's neither a rainbow filter on pastor’s profile picture, nor handwringing about the church losing its not-for-profit status.

Just silence.

It isn’t because he doesn't have an position. Trust me, he does. He has a carefully thought out opinion that he can persuasively articulate. Nor is it because she doesn’t study her Bible. She has. The fanciful theological convolutions that some scholars “recently discovered” - your pastor thinks them hubris. For recently minted seminarians to jettison two millennia of theology? The arrogance is offensive.

So why the silence? If your pastor has yet to articulate his or her thoughts on the subject, here are six reasons why your preacher might be sitting this one out.

Because she cares more about making a difference than making a point. 
Here’s the deal: your preacher really loves people. She believes that people matter to God - all people. And when someone is far from God your pastor wants - more than anything else - to help that lost soul find his way back to Jesus. Jesus is at the center of your preacher’s faith, and someone’s sex life - while not exactly peripheral - is something she’s willing to trust to the Holy Spirit. Not wanting to alienate someone who already thinks Christians are judgmental, your pastor trusts the Holy Spirit to convict people of their sexual sin because that’s His job, not hers. So rather than risk pushing someone farther away from God, she just shuts up.

Because he genuinely loves people and doesn’t relish the thought of hurting them. 
He doesn’t think about "the gays"; he knows gay people. He shuts up because he doesn’t want to hurt his college friend that has been in a committed relationship with her partner for the last ten years. He thinks about the two guys he met at the barber shop that have been together as long as he and his wife have been married. And while he doesn’t quite understand why some people experience same-sex attraction, he doesn’t hate the people who do, or think of them as perverts and degenerates. He cringes when he hears Christians use gay slurs, identifies with the pain that his gay friends have experienced, and chooses to show up as loving, not condemning.

Because he has dual citizenship in Heaven and on earth. 
Your preacher recognizes that, in a plural society, not everyone believes what he does. Because of that he is genuinely okay with two US citizens sharing property, making end-of-life decision for each other, and reaping the benefits of a lifelong commitment. He just doesn’t think it should be called marriage. For him, marriage is a word that is defined by a Deity in a throne room, not nine justices in a courtroom. The fact is, he was hoping that SCOTUS would find some third way; that the justices would recognize two persons’ rights to form a civil union while retaining the definition of marriage that has existed since it was instituted by God: the spiritual covenant between a man and a woman when they stand before God to commit to a lifetime together.

Because tension is hard.
It’s hard to wrap his brain around it. And it’s hard to talk articulate it. Your pastor recognizes the tension in grace and truth; that they are two sides of the same coin. Here's the truth: homosexual behavior is sin. Here's the rest of the truth: so is greed, selfishness, hate, lying, oppression, gluttony and on and on. Grace is bigger than all of that and your preacher knows that her sin is as revolting in God’s eyes as anyone else's. That’s why she clings to grace and that’s why she proclaims grace. For some, preaching about grace comes easily; for some, preaching about truth comes easily. But talking about grace and truth? That's hard for every preacher because it feels, sometimes, like they are diametrically opposed forces. Jesus was “full of grace and truth,” but your pastor feels entirely inadequate to proclaim them in the context go this subject.

Nobody wants a nuanced conversation anymore. 
Your pastor knows that most of the people he talks with about this don’t want a conversation; they want to conquer. They don't want to continue the discussion; they want to end it. They don’t want to talk about the social and spiritual implications of the ruling. And they for darn sure don’t want to recognize that “the other side” might be right - even if just a little. Dialogue means listening. It means hearing with the heart and the brain. And only then -  after really hearing - speaking. But this isn’t the time for that. This is the time for winning and that means someone has to lose, and since your pastor isn’t about people winning and losing, he just clams up.

Because he is grieving. 
Paul told the Romans “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” If your pastor is one of the majority of evangelicals that believes homosexual behavior is wrong, he mourns this decision. He grieves as he sees Americans, including many in his congregation, celebrating what was once thought to be immoral. When he sees the White House bathed in rainbow floodlights he aches. It feels, to him, like he is sitting shiva in the parlor, while there is partying in every other room of the house. When Facebook and Google are awash with gay pride, it feels like someone has died and he is expected to "just get over it!"

What now?
Truth be told, If your pastor is like me, I'm not entirely sure. Still, the path forward must wind its way through Paul's encouragement from Romans 12:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. (vv. 9-13)
Disagree. Debate. Vigorously, even. But love each other, always keeping Jesus at the center.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

If your life depended on passing a Bible quiz . . .

If your life depended on passing a Bible exam, how would you fare?

A story out of the UK details how Australia is struggling to deal with their refugee crisis. Like America, Australia has become home to asylum seekers. Among those are Christians from China who are eager to escape persecution.

One such believer recently found herself the object of intense scrutiny when an Australian tribunal tested her knowledge of the Bible.

According to court records,
The Tribunal member began by asking questions about the applicant’s baptism, the significance of baptism for Christians and in particular Catholics, and what was the significance of the water and pouring of the water. After asking further questions in relation to the applicant’s baptism, the Tribunal asked whether the applicant read the Bible, whether she had her own Bible, when the applicant first started to read the Bible, whether the applicant knew the Old and New Testaments . . . 
A lawsuit on her behalf also details some of the questions she was asked to further authenticate her faith. In truth, most of these have the feel of trivia. Check these out and ask yourself how would you do if your life depended on answering correctly.

  1. What is the first book of the Old Testament?
  2. Who was Abraham?
  3. Who was Moses?
  4. Who was the longest living person in the Bible?
  5. According to Genesis, who was the first murder victim in history?
  6. What did the dove carry in its beak when it returned to the ark?
  7. What did God convey as a signal or message of his covenant with Noah and all living creatures?
  8. Which plague fell upon Egypt from the sky?
  9. What was Moses’ sister’s name?
  10. Who went with Moses to confront Pharaoh?
  11. Why was Jesus condemned to death?
  12. Did the crowd have anything to do with Jesus being sentenced to death?
  13. Where was the actual place of Jesus crucifixion?
  14. When Jesus rose from the dead where did her first appear to two of his disciples?
  15. How long after his resurrection did Jesus remain on earth before he was taken up to heaven?
  16. What were Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples before he was taken up to Heaven?
  17. What visible sign of the Holy Spirit did the disciples see on the day of Pentecost?
  18. What was the name of the garden in which Jesus was arrested?
  19. What is the second book of the Old Testament?
  20. What were the Israelis supposed to put on the doors of their houses to save themselves from the last plague in Egypt?
  21. How was Aaron related to Moses and what book is that in?
  22. How often does Jesus say we are to forgive someone?

The tribunal, which took place in two separate sessions, determined,
. . .  the applicant “provided considerably greater knowledge of Christianity at her hearing than she did at the time of her departmental interview.” Second, the Tribunal rejected the explanation the applicant gave for the improvement in her knowledge and instead found “the applicant’s testimony was rehearsed and memorised [sic] in order to achieve a migration outcome”. Third, the Tribunal found that “even after having ample opportunity to study up on Christianity, . . . the applicant’s answers contained numerous errors” and “her lack of knowledge of Christianity is demonstrative of the fact that she is not a genuine practicing [sic] Christian.” Finally, the Tribunal found that, overall, “the applicant’s testimony in relation to her knowledge of Christianity was at best superficial, and lacked spontaneity, particularly at her first hearing.”
Not a genuine practicing Christian?! You have to wonder. . . If you were required to answer the same questions in order to gain asylum as a Christian, would you succeed? Knowing God's word is important. But - and let's be honest here - knowing answers in the book isn’t the same things as knowing the author.

Still, I am forced to wonder how American Christians would do if forced to prove their faith through a similar quiz.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Paradise (nearly) Lost

"I have come to believe that the major threat to the viability of our faith is that of consumerism. This is a far more heinous and insidious challenge to the gospel, because in so many ways it infects each and every one of us. I was trained as a marketer and advertiser before I came to Christ, and when I look at the power of consumerism and of the market in our lives, I have little doubt that in consumerism we are dealing with a very significant religious phenomenon . . . . Consumerism is thoroughly pagan." - Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways
I experienced the lure of consumerism first hand earlier this week. After last year’s oppressive winter, my wife and I determined that we need to have a “cold weather survival strategy.” The resulting plan includes some warm weather and sun so, when our friends suggested we join them for a five-day vacation to Cancun, we jumped at the chance.

I will admit that I was not entirely comfortable with the idea. There is something that seems a little unfair about bailing out of Antarctica while our friends and family stay behind. Even though this is the first vacation my wife and I have taken in over twenty-five years that didn’t involve me working, or attending a conference, or our kids tagging along, I still felt a little guilty.

My discomfort abated considerably when we arrived at the Iberostar Paraíso Del Mar. The resort was simply amazing. We spent the first few hours with mouths agape at the wildlife, the pristine beach and the pool. The marble colonnades and the verdant landscaping were incredible. Tracy and I remarked to each other how humbled and blessed we felt to be able to enjoy such a sublime setting together.

The next morning we sat down with the concierge to learn what to expect from our five days of paradise. She went through the meals we could expect to eat and helped us make reservations. She talked with us about the beach and the pool and the activities we could participate in. She explained the nightly shows. (Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Mexican theater troupe performing disco cover tunes complete with a live band and dance team!)

But then she did something unexpected. After telling us all that we could do, she told us what we couldn’t. She explained that our blue wristbands gave us access to two areas of the resort. But, if we wanted full access to all the resort, we would need to upgrade to a different wristband. Want to float
down the lazy river in tubes? You need the gray wristband. Want to enjoy the wave pool? Gray wristband. Want exclusive access to all the amenities, including the water park at the premium hotel? You got it. Gray wristband. It’s ironic, but our “all inclusive resort” turned out to have some exclusions after all.

Now here’s the thing: I was completely happy with my little corner of paradise until Shakira (yes, that was really her name) told me that there was more, and that – for only $70 more per day – we could have it all.

Truth is, that sounds a lot like the lie that the serpent told Eve. “You can have it all, Eve, just bite the fruit. God’s holding out on you. He doesn’t want you to be like him, but you can have it all if you’ll just take a little taste.”

And that is the challenge for most of us, I think. You got the 16 GB phone. Too bad, we just debuted the 64 GB. That 48-inch flat screen? So last year. Only one carat, and its not a princess cut?! Bigger. Better. Faster. Pricier. The god of consumerism whispers in your ear and mine, “Wait. There is more.”

Some sharp commenter will point out the deeper irony of me blogging about wrestling with consumerism after enjoying nearly a week at an all-you-can-eat-and-drink, cater-to-your-every-whim resort. Nevertheless I am grateful that Hirsch’s words came to mind as I sat at the Shakira’s desk. They reminded me that enough is enough. That I don’t need more, and that I can receive God’s provided blessings – including a vacation like this one – with grace and gratitude, knowing that the lure of consumerism is always present, tempting me to miss the goodness the Giver by overlooking the profound generosity of His gifts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The fate of all nations who ignore God

In my quiet time, lately, I have been focusing on the YouVersion verse of the day. I use it as a springboard and go deeper into the context of each day's particular verse. Today's verse of the day was in Psalm 9, which led me to Psalm 9:17 - "The wicked will go down to the grave. This is the fate of all the nations who ignore God."
This resonates with the conservative in me. After all, it feels like we, as a nation, ignore God. Violence. Corruption. Our obsession with sex and the resultant promiscuity. 

But when you look at the context of Psalm 9, the characteristics of a godly nation become apparent:

Verse 4 - "from your throne you have judged the world with fairness."

Verse 8 - "he will rule the world with justice and rule the nations with fairness."

Verse 9 - "the Lord is a shelter of the oppressed."

Verse 12 - "For he who avenges murder cares about the helpless."

Verse 16 - "The Lord is known for his justice."

Verse 18 - "But the needy will not be ignored."

Verse 18 - "The hopes of the poor will not be crushed."

Reasonable people can argue all day long about what constitutes fairness, or how justice is administered. And reasonable people can come to reasonably different solutions.

But, if we are serious about being God's people, shouldn't we at least be having the conversation?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Vietnam Veteran Finally Returns Home

Guest Blog by SSgt Tony L Lamson, USMC (ret), Deported Veterans Representative, Point Man International Ministries

Specialist Hector Barrios, a 70-year-old Vietnam Veteran who served with the 1st Air Cavalry, is finally home with his family this Memorial Day. Hector passed on April 21, 2014. He wasn’t one of the lost or missing of the Vietnam War. 

He was one of the discarded.

One of hundreds of deported veterans that the media isn’t covering today.

Hector immigrated to the United States legally in 1961 and was drafted to the United States Army. He could have sought refuge in Canada like so many others of his generation. Or he could have returned to his home country of Mexico. Instead, Hector chose to serve the nation he called home, earning an Army Commendation Medal for his actions in Vietnam and receiving an Honorable Discharge.

As with many veterans that return from combat or traumatic events during service, Hector found himself unable to adjust to civilian life. The anti-war sentiment that pervaded the nation at the time didn’t help much, adding to the struggle that he faced coming back to the country he served.

Since Hector was not a naturally born United States Citizen, when he was arrested for possession of marijuana – an offense that isn’t even a crime in more and more states – he wasn’t treated the same as his U.S. born fellow veterans. While the U.S. Citizen will do his time for his crime and go home, Hector served his sentence and then was deported, the victim of changes in immigration law dating back to 1994 and 1996. Like many foreign-born veterans, his service in the armed forces was not taken into account.

It is difficult to know how many veterans have been deported since the mid 1990s. Current numbers are only estimates as neither Homeland Security nor Immigration Control track these individuals.  Point Man International Ministries, the organization I work with, has had contact with more 200 deported veterans in 19 different countries. And while some of those veterans have chosen to blend back into the fabric of their respective homelands, many others feel abandoned by the government and country they served.

When Hector Barrios was arrested for possessing a few grams of pot, he had been living in the U.S. for 30 years. He was forcibly separated from his family while serving prison time, and remained incarcerated during deportation proceedings before being transported to Mexico and abandoned by the country that he swore an oath to preserve and protect.

After serving their prison sentences, some veteran detainees serve up to three years in lock down in deportation centers around the U.S. When they are deported, they are either dropped off at the Canadian or Mexican border or are put on a plane back to their country of origin where they end up on the street stripped of identity, without money, contacts or knowledge of anyone in the city or country, homeless, jobless, and without transportation or food. They are separated from everyone that they know and love, and dropped into a country that considers them traitors for having served in the U.S. military instead of the military of the country of their birth.

Hector was separated from his wife, children and grand children. Penniless, he was unable to collect Social Security benefits, veteran’s disability benefits for his service-related injuries, or have any access to medical or dental care through the Veteran’s Administration – each of which was rightfully his. At the age of 70, Hector worked sweeping the sidewalks and street surrounding a taco stand, delivering food to customers for 12 hours a day earning a meager $5 per day.

When Hector connected with Point Man Ministries he had lost all hope of ever being able to go home and reunite with his family. He tried to dull his pain and became addicted to heroin, living in a low-rent shack in downtown Tijuana. When he met other deported veterans living in Baja California he began to fight his addiction with the help of his deported veteran brothers in Tijuana and Rosarito.

Last month, after fighting through a lengthy illness and with access to the free clinics in Tijuana as his only healthcare option, Hector finished his fight. Surrounded by the only family he had - other deported veterans who looked after him - he was given military honors at a very low cost funeral in Tijuana before being cremated. Arrangements were made for Hector ‘s remains to be returned to his waiting family in the United States.

Ironically, the same government that deports these veterans and prevents them from ever returning to the U.S. provides a military escort to return their remains once they die. This is the only way most deported veterans will ever return home. Their deportation is a life sentence and the only hope they have of coming home is as Hector did – in a box, covered with the stars and stripes, receiving the full military honors “of a grateful nation.” 

They can be buried in a National Cemetery; they just can’t live near one.

This weekend we will honor and remember veterans who have given their last full measure of devotion for this country. We will remember veterans who returned home from war and who have since passed.

As we do, we should remember men like Hector Barrios and give them the honor they have earned. For Hector and his family, this weekend is a time that has been long awaited. They are once again a family. 

Once again, together.

Rest In Peace, Specialist Hector Barrios and welcome home brother!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Figuring It Out At Finish Line

Mrs. Frankly surprised me last night by suggesting we go walk around the mall. I’m trying to take 10,000 steps every day and I was a couple thousand short, so I was eager to agree. There was a time when we didn’t get out much. Little kids dominated our attention – as kids should when they were little. But now that the little Franklies are 22, 21, and 18 it’s fun to go out on the occasional whim.

We made a few laps around the Lansing Mall (soon to be home to a new Cineplex and Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill, by the way) before stopping at Finish Line.

We love Finish Line. The moment you walk in you’re immersed in high-energy music, the sort that has you bopping your head and beat boxing “boots n’ pants n’ boots n’ pants.” If the kids are with us they roll their eyes and pretend to be orphaned. But, by now, Tracy just shakes her head and zigzags her way to the ladies shoes.

Me, on the other hand, I head to the clearance rack in the corner of the store. I have a simple rule: never buy shoes when you need them; buy shoes before you need them. That way you can take advantage of a deal. Which leads to rule two: never pay full retail. In fact, if you can keep it below $50 that’s a win. Below $40 is a blow out.

I looked at several pairs and, by this time, was joined by Mrs. Weller. Josh, a big strapping guy with a sleeve of tattoos and gauges in each ear was shuttling back and forth between the stockroom and the bench where I sat. He seemed like a great guy so I chatted him up. The song on the muzak was something like, “All the ladies want me . . .” (Okay it might now have been that, but Chad Cronin can tell you I know nothing about any music written after 1992.)

Anyway, I said something to Josh like, “Hey this is your theme song isn’t it?” He replied, “This is on all day long; I don’t even hear it.” By then the “All the ladies want me,” caught up with his auditory nerve and he laughed. I said, “Must be the sleeves and gauges, Josh.” Mrs. Frankly just laughed and shot me that, you-just-can’t-resist-chatting-up-a-total-stranger look.

I got a pair of Reeboks and Mrs. Frankly picked out a half-price hoody for Son #2 and we headed to the register to pay, giggling the whole way about something funny I can’t recall.

As Josh checked us out he said, “If you don’t mind my asking, how long have you two been married?” I told him, “27 years this year.” “Congrats,” he replied. And then he said something that kind of startled me: “It looks like you two really have it figured out.”

In a flash I thought to myself: I didn’t have it figured out last week when I came home cranky and was short with her. I didn’t have it figured out when I went straight to my home office and worked all night while she was alone in the bedroom. I didn’t have it figured out when I freaked out about . . . No Josh; I don’t have it figured out.

So I told him.

“No Josh, we don’t have it figured out. But I tell you what: we are committed to spending the rest of our lives figuring it out.”

For better. For worse. That’s what we chose when we said, “I do.”

And, nearly twenty-seven years later, I still would.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Inside Out

Recess can either be a child’s greatest hope, or his greatest fear.

I recall many afternoons at J.E. Ober Elementary School where two captains would choose teams for a game of kickball. We stood in a line waiting to be called. The worst possible scenario was to be chosen last. The anxiety of those not yet chosen increased with each selection. We trembled with nervousness. Some pleaded with their eyes; some cried “pick me, pick me.”

As overpowering as the anxiety was, as soon as you were chosen your fretfulness was washed away in relief. For most of us, the feeling so overwhelmed that we immediately forgot about those still in line waiting to be chosen. And while there might be a friend or two that we would lobby our team captain to select, for the most part, we were already thinking ahead to the game, completely oblivious to those still not chosen.

It is as if there was some mental blackboard that was erased the moment we went from outsider to insider.

The New Testament contains two interesting words in the original Greek that inform our understanding of those on the inside and those on the outside: OIKOS and XENOS. XENOS is translated as stranger or alien. It means outsiders – those who don’t know Jesus and, therefore, are not a part of the church. Interestingly enough, though, it also refers to how we are to live in this world.

Paul uses this word in Ephesians 2 to remind Christians that they were once outsiders:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . .

Each of us was once estranged from God. We were outsiders, and not heirs to the promises of Christ. Tens of thousands in our city fit into this category. In fact – and I have repeated this so many times that our church must be growing weary of it – 36% of the people who live within three miles of our steeple, or nearly 20,000 people, have no faith involvement of any kind. They are XENOI. They are where each of us once was; they do not know Jesus.

The opposite of XENOS is OIKOS. OIKOS is often translated as household. In our culture household means something different than it did in Paul’s day. In Paul’s day it referred, not just to one’s family, but also to his neighbors, friends, co-workers and acquaintances. It had a much more eastern feel to it. Maybe the best way to think of it is that OIKOS refers to our spheres of influence. Who are the people in my life that I have influence with? They are my OIKOS.

Paul uses each of these words in Ephesians 2:19 to explain the transition from outsider to insider: “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers [XENOS], but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household [OIKOS]. . . “

The challenge for us, both as individuals and as a church, is to expand our OIKOS by moving people from XENOS to OIKOS. But how to we do that? We do so through a process that that Eric Bryant, a pastor at Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, explained to me a few weeks ago using the acrostic IPSIS:

I – Identify our OIKOS. Those people that God has already given us influence with.
P – Pray for our OIKOS. How often do we pray for our neighbors? Our co-workers?
S – Serve our OIKIS. I’ve been trying to do this this winter by snow blowing.
I – Invite our OIKOS. Not just to church, but whatever. Ballgames. Barbecue, etc.
S – Share with our OIKOS. We share our faith as God gives opportunity.

The problem, I think, is that many of us who are inside the church simply forget what it was like to be outside Just as we did when chosen by the team captain for her kickball team, we forget what it was like to be still in line, looking on with longing at those who were already part of the group.

When we become Christ followers there is such relief to know that Jesus’ death has purchased our freedom. There is such excitement as we dive into God’s Word and learn the amazing truths therein that now apply to us as new believers in Christ. There is a whole world of “Christian culture” to learn and interact with. Bible translations, Christian music, Christian events. On top of that are the great doctrines of the faith, the theology that helps us better understand this newfound belief. And so – quite unintentionally I am convinced – we forget about those who are still outsiders.

This is why Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:11-12 to remember. It is so easy to forget what it was like to be an outsider. And if we forget what it was like, we lose the motivation to reach those who are still outsiders.

This is doubly difficult for those of us who grew up in a church. Although there was a time when we were theologically outsiders – that is, before we submitted ourselves to Christ as Lord and Savior – we were still very much culturally insiders. We knew the Christian lingo; we were part of a church family even before we made our parents’ faith our own faith. Lifelong insiders are even more challenged to understand what it is like to be an outsider – a XENOS.

This is a challenge we face at South Lansing Christian Church: we are a church that is primarily made up of people on the inside.

The only way to change that focus is to turn our church inside out. To become an outsider focused church. We need to maintain our efforts to grow those who are on the inside while releasing them to go to those who are on the outside.

We need to remember what it was like to be “. . . separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.”

And then, having remembered, we commit ourselves to being an inside out church that sacrifices comfort and convenience for the sake of those who are still XENOS.