After a Tragic Day: Reflections on Peace

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”  Matthew 5:9, ESV

There is sure a lot of news happening around the world this week, and not much of it is good.

For the second time in a period of just a few months, passengers boarding an airplane operated by Malaysian Airlines lost their lives in a tragedy.  This time, the plane was shot down over Ukraine, near the Russian border, in an area where a war of sorts is happening between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government.  It’s not likely that anyone on that plane had anything to do with the conflict.  They were innocent bystanders, and had no control over the circumstances.  Maybe you’re not really interested in what is happening in Ukraine right now, but this tragedy is a real life example of how something can affect you, whether you are involved in it or not, and interested in it or not.  There are several hundred families, scattered around the world, who were suddenly affected by it.  And if you watched the images, and listened to the descriptions of it, it was impossible not to be affected by it.  Put yourself in the picture, or in one of the seats on that airplane, and think about it for a few minutes.

At the same time, Israel has launched an invasion of Gaza.  We’ve seen those images for weeks, too, of rockets being launched from Gaza into Israel, some of them hitting and damaging buildings and houses, and rockets and air raids in retaliation from Israel, dropping bombs on targets in Gaza identified as Hamas strongholds.  Some news outlets aren’t showing pictures of the terrified residents of Gaza, mostly women and children, fleeing from the bombs, or the mangled bodies of citizens in the wreckage of what was once their homes, while others are not showing much of what is happening on the Israeli side.  I really don’t see how you can watch any of that, regardless of which side is being shown, and not be affected.  Most residents of Gaza, while they are Islamic, and Arabic, aren’t terrorists and aren’t involved with Hamas, but like the passengers on the Malaysian airliner, are caught in the tragedy.  Likewise, there are Israelis who support their government’s actions, but there are those who openly express a desire for a peaceful solution and resolution to the issues which prompted the violence in the first place, but they are still targets of rocket attacks, regardless.

“For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust”  Matthew 5:45b, ESV

It’s pretty easy for us to take sides.  We don’t like the Russians, much.  So it is easy to lump them all together, slap the “evil” tag on them, blame them for the tragedy and be done with it in our mind.  Likewise, faulty eschatology and theology leads us to place all Muslims in the category of extremist terrorists, and take the side of Israel, based on “Juda0-Christian” tradition.  Read the book of Acts to see what happened to Christians in the early church at the hands of Jewish religious leaders.  The tradition is only a modern one, not historical.  Israel is certainly one of the closest allies of the US in the Middle East, but the whole recent history of the region is a botch that goes back to the Versailles Treaty which ended World War I, the bottom line being selfishness and greed.  Modern Israel is a Jewish state from a racial perspective, but it is a secular government with an atheistic influence in political philosophy and the conflict that involves the Arabic population in Gaza, as well as the surrounding area, stems from all of that, and not just the recent events which triggered the most recent round of rockets and bombs.

Do we really believe that the Bible is truth, without any mixture of error, and is infallible in its teaching?  If that’s the case, shouldn’t the words of Jesus, recorded in the gospels, and particularly those that are found in Matthew 5,6 and 7, prescribe the position, and the response, of Christians to these tragic events?

When I was in college, one of my friends was a Palestinian Arab whose family lived in Nazareth.  He was also a Christian, and though his family had originally been part of the Orthodox tradition, they had come to know Jesus through the ministry of an evangelical church in their community.  Though his family had experienced religious and political persecution because of their Christian faith, and their Arabic heritage, his father set an example of being obedient to the law, and submissive to the government as directed by scripture.  As a church leader, he was involved in the resolution of many conflicts involving members and their neighbors, and from his son’s description, I imagined him as a genuine peacemaker, a son of God.

My friend and I would discuss the situation in his homeland from time to time, and he believed that the only way for peace to be achieved was for people to come to know the “Prince of Peace,” and to take Jesus’ words about loving your enemies seriously.  I never heard any resentment from him about his circumstances, though I know they had some hard times.  The family had been displaced from property that they had owned for generations, so fellow church members financed his education in the US.  His dream was to go back to Israel and plant a church that would reach people of all the races and religions in his community.  Last I heard, he was doing that.

Peace seems like a huge job in the face of what is going on in the world today.  Why is it so easy for us to find someone else to blame, and find ways to bypass these clear words of Jesus recorded by Matthew in the Bible?

What Have we Learned?

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”  Matthew 5:9, ESV

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Matthew 5:43-48, ESV

What catches my eye in these two passages is the phrase “that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven,” and “they shall be called the sons of God.”  That’s quite an honor.  And from what these verses say, having that honor is the result of very similar characteristics.  Being a peacemaker requires the kind of love for people that is expressed in the second passage when Jesus says to love your enemies.  If God bestows that kind of honor, the characteristic that leads him to it must rank high on his list of things that please him.

So, among Christians, how common are peacemakers?  And how common is it to exhibit love for our enemies?  I won’t comment on that, but I’ll let you think about it.  If those things are characteristic of the sons of God, how well do those who claim his name measure up?

Most people can tell you what Christians are against.  We’ve done a really good job of communicating that, in no uncertain terms.  And if we think the world might not be listening, we can always find ways to demand our rights and stake out our territory in secular politics.  I wonder, though, in our approach to things like secular politics, and even the way we handle doctrinal disagreements and differences of opinion over the interpretation of scripture, whether the qualities of peacemaking, and love for our enemies, can be seen so that those who are watching get a clear picture of the essence of the Christian church, and the faith of those who belong to it?

Peacemaking, which isn’t conciliation or compromise, but which is actually a skill, and perhaps a spiritual gift, that brings the very presence of God’s peace into people’s lives, is something that has the potential to change the world.  Peace isn’t the natural by-product of human community.  In order for genuine peace to occur, the presence of God must be directly involved.  It shouldn’t be a rare gift, but somehow, it seems to be so.  Can you imagine the impact that the Christian church would have on this world if peacemaking was as familiar and common as our political involvement and rhetoric, or our evaluation of the spiritual condition of other people whose sin problems have become obvious?

Loving your enemy is the toughest commandment in the Bible.  It’s far more difficult than loving your neighbor as yourself, even when it is hard to love yourself.  This isn’t just the nasty neighbor.  This is your enemy.  This is the person who hates you because of who you are, and who wishes to do you harm.  This is the political liberal or the tea party extremist, the Islamic jihadist, the cult preacher.  You can fill in the blank, then you can figure out just how to love them, and keep in mind the context and definition of the word “love” here.  It’s the phileo love that God expects his followers to have for their fellow human beings, all created equal, all created in God’s own image.  It’s more than just talk, and it’s not something that you can do from a distance.  I think Jesus meant that you must love your enemy in a way that your enemy knows about it.  You have to get pretty close for that to happen.

It’s not that these things aren’t being taught in our churches, and preached from the pulpit.  It’s that the honor is high, because the characteristic is so commendable, and not easy to practice.  It’s a Holy Spirit thing, which means that being a peacemaker, and loving your enemy, requires God’s help.  It can’t be done in your own strength.  It’s a matter of trusting, not trying.

A church that is known by the world because of what it stands for, rather than only what it opposes, is a spirit-filled church.

 

 

The Supreme Court and the Hobby Lobby Decision

This has become the hot topic of the week, maybe beyond.  So why not wade in and see what happens?

There’s no doubt in my mind that the convictions of the Green family, who own Hobby Lobby, are sincere, and that their beliefs about abortion are consistent with Biblical teaching on the subject.  The constitution guarantees their right to hold that belief because of their Christian faith.  In fact, the constitution would guarantee their religious freedom even if they didn’t hold beliefs consistent with Biblical Christianity.  The broad definition of religious freedom applies to any conviction that can be categorized as “religious” in nature.  Personally, I hold the same conviction about abortion as they have expressed.  I believe that there isn’t an issue of “choice” for a woman after conception occurs.  The choice that a woman has regarding her own reproductive rights begins with the decision to engage in a sexual relationship.  After conception, it’s not just her body anymore.

And there’s something to be said about a business that operates on Christian principles.  I have never actually been in a Hobby Lobby store, mainly because I’m not really in the market for much of what they sell, and there aren’t any really close to where I have lived in recent years.  But I’ve heard that their prices are fair, their policies reflect good customer service, and they treat their employees well in terms of fair wages and benefits.  It’s a retail business, so there aren’t a lot of employees who have complicated jobs, but the few people I’ve met who work in their stores seem to be satisfied with their wages and benefits, and with opportunities for advancement.

But this decision isn’t really about the Green family, or the way they choose to run their business.  It’s about whether or not a corporate business can be “Christian” by nature, and whether or not the constitutional guarantee of individual religious freedom makes a corporation “religious” in nature simply by virtue of its majority ownership.

Religious freedom is an individual protection, in the strictest constructionist interpretation of the constitution.  It is a right that is guaranteed to individuals, recognizing that religious beliefs and convictions are a matter of individual choice.  Individuals can experience conversion to Christian faith, believe they have been justified, and sanctified by the blood of Jesus, and believe that they have a relationship with God as a result of that experience.  They cannot be penalized, or considered second class citizens, or be forced to accept a different religious perspective under the constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom.  Likewise, an individual who accepts and embraces the teachings of Buddhism, or Islam, or Wicca, is guaranteed the same right.

But how can a corporation be, by nature, religious?  It does not have a soul, and therefore, it cannot exercise the freedom to convert to Christian faith.  Does the fact that its majority shareholders hold Christian beliefs allow them to extend the constitutional protection of religious freedom to a business which they run, and from which they earn a living, but from which its expenses are paid by profit, not personal income of the owners?  I think this decision is going to have some far reaching implications that are going to cause some problems when it comes to the application of individual constitutional rights.

For most of its history, the US Supreme Court has upheld individual rights over corporations, trusts, and other business conglomoraes, and protected the rights of employees and customers, recognizing that individual rights are constitutionally guaranteed.  Businesses and corporations have been prevented from encroaching on individually guaranteed freedoms by numerous court rulings.  Now, however, the court seems to have changed its opinion.  The Citizens United ruling, allowing corporations to make virtually unlimited campaign contributions will ultimately have the effect of allowing big business to buy Congressional favor and influence.  If you have doubts about that, just be observant.  It is already happening.

A corporation can’t “convert” to a religious belief.  It’s individual owners can, but the corporation itself does not have a soul, and is, in fact, an entity that exists on paper, not in the flesh.  It’s owners do not use their personal assets to pay its bills, the corporation itself owns its assets.  I don’t believe that by providing the required insurance policy and prescription drug coverage, the Green family would have been violating their religious convictions regarding drugs which they believe cause abortions.  It would have been the corporation’s funds, not theirs, that would be paying the premiums.  Their individual religious freedom, and that of their employees, is protected.  I think this ruling is going to open some doors for corporations to hide behind religion to take advantage of employees, or customers, or to use against their competition.  I think the court will have to revisit this decision in the near future, when some of the negative aspects of their ruling begin to manifest themselves in legal actions.

Religious freedom is a cherished, and extremely important constitutional guarantee.  Think about all of the possible long term implications of this ruling before deciding it was the right thing for the Supreme Court to do.  There are a lot of laws and regulations that businesses are subjected to which are simply the cost, and price, of doing business.  Compliance is not surrender, it is an acknowledgement that the Bible’s principles to be obedient to the civil government is important, and it is an opportunity to share personal convictions publicly.  I would not want to see any of that undermined by a court decision that could be used to do more harm than good.  And I can be almost certain that somewhere, this ruling will be applied and turned upside down to be used in a way to restrict religious freedom for Christians.

It seems to me that if abortion really is at the bottom of this issue, as supporters of the decision insist that it is, that the simplest way for the Supreme Court to rule would be to overturn the Roe decision.  That’s been the bottom line ever since it was made back in the 70′s.  It would solve this problem, without having to walk the fine line of disturbing individual religious liberty.  It would take courage and conviction, something which politicians have promised, but have not been held accountable to do for more than thirty years.  That’s the issue.  The Hobby Lobby decision is just subterfuge, a bone thrown to pacify a constituency that doesn’t demand accountability from the politicians it supports.

 

Missions Reflections: Personal Experience and Practical Advice

For the past 20 years or so, every summer I’ve been involved in some type of short-term missions project.  I volunteer as a coordinator for a denominational-based student missions program, though I think I get as much, or more, out of the experience as the students who participate do.  It’s a basic type of ministry, where students are involved in some kind of construction which provides them with a platform to share the gospel to a homeowner who needs a hand up, and their neighbors who want to know why a bunch of students are working in the middle of the summer on a neighbor’s house.  This past summer, for the first time, I helped with a project that brought students in to help local church planters.  The students did everything from handing out flyers, to surveys, to conducting basketball camps, VBS in the park, and block parties.

There’s definitely a lot of value in involving students in these kinds of mission opportunities.  They give the students real missions experience, hands-on training, and they are carrying the gospel to their own Jerusalem and Judea.  It’s an effective and efficient use of resources.  And the ministry gets results.  It is helpful to the churches who are working that particular field.  And I think the involvement of people in domestic missions projects indicates a recognition of the need to carry the gospel next door and down the street.  We can’t assume that because we live in America, everyone is exposed to the gospel.  With better than half of those who claim some kind of church affiliation not bothering to be involved in their church, I don’t think we are as saturated with the gospel as we think we are.

As far as taking groups on short term international mission trips, I have a different perspective.  In order for such a venture to be “successful” in achieving its goal, it needs to be carefully planned, and those on the field where the trip will take place need to be the initiators of the effort, and issue an invitation.  The purpose, especially if it is a student trip, must go well beyond “exposing” students to missions.  I’ve seen too many churches take everyone who signed up and paid the fee (especially if the group leader gets a free trip if there are X number of participants) rather than evaluating the participation based on the spiritual maturity and qualifications of each person who participates.  Most missionaries have a calling, and several years of intense, concentrated preparation for their mission work.  I have a hard time believing that a group of high school kids can be called, trained and sent as qualified missionaries, even short term, in just a few weeks.  And many churches don’t really bother too much with the training.

A blog by Joel Rainey, who is the Director of Missions for the Mid-Maryland Baptist Association, on SBC Voices, caught my attention:

http://sbcvoices.com/missions-reflections-why-we-go-by-joel-rainey/

10 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):

1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ.

I think that list should be mandatory reading for any church leader who wants to take a group on an international mission trip.  Who is it really about?  I hear a lot of bragging about who has been where, and about the “great” results that occurred because a church or a country overseas was blessed by the presence of a couple of dozen short term mission participants.  This is the first time I’ve heard reactions from international pastors and church leaders about how they feel when they see a group of Americans coming with matching T-Shirts, looking for photo ops.

A group of students from the Christian school where I am administrator accompany a medical-dental team that goes to the Dominican Republic each spring to minister to residents of a Haitian refugee community that can’t get medical or dental services because they are in the Dominican Republic illegally.  There’s no pretension of any kind of special spiritual endowment that will come with the group.  They are providing a service that people can only access when they are there once or twice a year.  Some of the students work with a couple of the area churches to provide VBS for the children in the community during the time they are there.  But when it comes to worship, or the ministry of the gospel, it is the Americans who are taught the lesson.  Many of the students will tell you their experience in worship in those churches in the Dominican is the first time they’ve ever really seen the dynamic, active presence of the Holy Spirit in a worship service, and they are the ones who receive the benefit of the ministry of the gospel from preachers who are filled with the spirit, and are preaching because they are called, not because they are paid.  The ministry is mutually beneficial, because the community receives the benefit of the medical and dental service that is provided.  But when it comes to worship, and evangelism, the Americans are the ones who observe what happens in a church when there is complete and total dependence on God.

It might be wise to consider the benefit of taking money that would be spent on a mission trip to an exotic or tourist destination and instead bring some Christians from outside the country to help us revitalize one of our congregations, and introduce Americans to ministry that relies on the Holy Spirit rather than on the money that it takes to create a “look and feel” in a capacious edifice with a state of the art sound and video system.

:-)

 

 

10 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. – See more at: http://sbcvoices.com/missions-reflections-why-we-go-by-joel-rainey/#sthash.Fij1R1jW.dpuf

10 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. – See more at: http://sbcvoices.com/missions-reflections-why-we-go-by-joel-rainey/#sthash.Fij1R1jW.dpuf

10 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. – See more at: http://sbcvoices.com/missions-reflections-why-we-go-by-joel-rainey/#sthash.Fij1R1jW.dpuf

10 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. – See more at: http://sbcvoices.com/missions-reflections-why-we-go-by-joel-rainey/#sthash.Fij1R1jW.dpuf

0 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. – See more at: http://sbcvoices.com/missions-reflections-why-we-go-by-joel-rainey/#sthash.Fij1R1jW.dpuf

0 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. – See more at: http://sbcvoices.com/missions-reflections-why-we-go-by-joel-rainey/#sthash.Fij1R1jW.dpuf

0 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. – See more at: http://sbcvoices.com/missions-reflections-why-we-go-by-joel-rainey/#sthash.Fij1R1jW.dpuf

0 Things I Hate About American Mission Projects. (From 250 National Pastors):1. You act as if the American church is the true trendsetter for how we should all do church.

2. You’re so concerned over the evil spirits ruling our land when so much evil breeds in your own backyard.

3. You live so far above the average standard of living and you behave as if you’re still in North America.

4. You conclude that you’re communicating effectively because we’re paying attention when we’re actually just intrigued by watching your foreign behavior.

5. You underestimate the effectiveness of our local church leaders.

6. You talk to us about your churches back home in such demeaning ways.

7. You too quickly get into the action without thinking through the implications on our churches long after you go home.

8. You’re obsessed with picture-taking and videos during our evangelistic programs. It’s really quite embarrassing for us.

9. You call us ‘backward’ for having little regard for your music, no palates for your green salads, no IQs for your advanced technology, and the list goes on.

10. We are not naive and backward. Instead, we are your brothers and sisters in Christ. – See more at: http://sbcvoices.com/missions-reflections-why-we-go-by-joel-rainey/#sthash.Fij1R1jW.dpuf

Outside the Box: Faith and Politics

It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes. Psalm 118:9, ESV

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.  Psalm 146:3

We live in a place and time where the general assumption is made that if a person holds to a conservative perspective of the Christian faith, they also hold a conservative political view.  It’s quite an interesting study to get into the details of how that happened, and there’s a lot of disagreement over the origins of that view.  What I have discovered, from personal experience, is that 1.) that is an assumption that isn’t necessarily true and that 2.) most people who are conservative, Evangelical Christians have a rather eclectic political perspective that is not nearly as monolithic as might be assumed, especially if they are under 40 years of age.

Some conservative political views have been derived from conservative theology, including the position that is opposed to abortion as a “choice,” and the belief that life begins at conception.  But I hesitate to categorize that view as “pro-life,” based on that position alone.  Being pro-life involves a lot more than just a belief about the practice of abortion.  The sanctity of human life has a much broader application than just that.  The concept of right to life also extends to quality of life issues, such as poverty, the right to medical care, war, violence in the culture, and anything else that has something to do with human survival and existence.

Accountability is important, and I believe it is a major failing of conservative Christians who are active politically.  The issue of abortion is a great illustration.  It looms large in importance to conservative Christians, at least, they say that it does.  But they do not hold politicians accountable for their lack of action on it.  Through three Presidential administration since 1980 who all claimed to be committed to changing the Roe V. Wade decision, none did.  But they all got a pass.  That’s why there’s so little political movement now on the conservative Christian social agenda.  Conservative politicians don’t believe they have to do anything to get conservative Christians to show up at the polls and vote for them, regardless.

Younger Christians are increasingly thinking out of the partisan political box.  Health care is a good example.  The younger Christians I know are universally displeased at the way the health care system works in this country, and believe that access to health care of the highest quality available is a basic human right, not a privilege of wealth.  The younger Christians I know also happen to be quite involved in a Christian faith that is much more than just sitting in a large crowd in a big church enjoying the worship and soaking it all in.  They want to serve, and they are discovering that, through Christian service, their faith grows and becomes more real to them.  They see the unfairness and injustices of a broken, profit-centered, health care “industry” that operates in a way that doesn’t consider all human life as sacred.  And their Biblically centered values are what takes them there.  I’d like to think that my generation taught them to apply what they find in scripture to all aspects of life, and what has resulted is a generation of critical thinkers, not partisan robots.

Though it’s anecdotal, I just spent some time with some younger Christians who have a pretty clear picture of the current political situation in this country.  They see the Republican house as obstructionist, with no clear political objective except to frustrate any possible accomplishment of the current President.  And they see this as destructive to the progress of the country, faulting a partisan Congress for the problems, rightly so.  They are also realistic and fair in their analysis of the President’s policies and actions, giving credit where credit is due, understanding that give and take is necessary for a democratic republic to function, and pointing out where his policies are inconsistent with their values.  These are kids who vote, and they are also committed believers in Jesus, with a sound, conservative, Biblical worldview.  They haven’t checked their brains at the door, though, and perhaps that’s an indication that there is hope for the future.

The politics of today, the result of a level of hatred and bigotry introduced into it by the likes of demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who are more interested in how much money they can earn by stirring up trouble than they are in any real resolution to the nation’s problems, aren’t working.  And there’s no place in the Bible where I can see that Christians are responsible for changing their culture through the ballot box.  I think the church has turned to politics because it is failing in evangelism and waning in influence as a result.  And I think the turn toward involvement in conservative politics is directly behind the decline in membership, participation and evangelism.  It’s polarized the church, made it more difficult to reach people, and it shows a lack of faith in our belief in what God can do.  We’ve got it backward.  We should be able to preach and teach the gospel in any environment, and what we preach and teach should be salt and light, reflected in the culture at large.  We should never have to rely on princes to carry out the mission and purpose of the church.

Know Your History…Know it Well

Alarmed by plummeting test scores, especially in math and science, American education has gone through several periods of reform which has shifted curriculum objectives and teacher education programs.  The end result of this is that over the past 20 to 30 years, American students are graduating from high school with little to no knowledge or appreciation of history.  History is an essential subject, because it teaches you where you came from, and points toward where you might be going.  It also outlines a path that allows you to see the progress humans have made over time, and how particular cultures developed, including your own.  The main outcome of a history class is to help you understand your origins, your thinking, and your life, as it exists, and give you a context for planning your future.

As time has passed in my education career, which began as a history and English teacher in 1983, I have observed a noticeable drop in the level of understanding of history exhibited by students, and by college graduates and adults.  People form opinions about the way things should be in the world without the slightest knowledge of how things got to be the way they are.  Even government leaders demonstrate an appalling lack of historical context and knowledge, and make decisions which create problems that are worse than the ones we are trying to resolve.

In the assumed role of “world policeman”, the United States does not have a great track record when it comes to intervention in the affairs of other countries, and in the “protection” of it’s own interests.  The ISIS insurgency that is now occurring in Iraq is an excellent example of what happens when you don’t know history, and don’t pay attention to the past.

The first major military operation involving the United States and an invasion of Iraq occurred in 1990.  It has become known as the Persian Gulf War, and the goal of the US invasion was to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation under the military ambitions of Saddam Hussein.  During that war, the US went in, freed Kuwait, put security measures in place to prevent another invasion and occupation, and got out with the objective accomplished, though it was months before the fires were extinguished in the burning oil wells in the Kuwaiti desert.  The balance of power, though somewhat disturbed by the defeat of Saddam Hussein, remained in place.

The second invasion of Iraq was a blind and misguided adventure that rode on the wave of anti-Arabic, anti-Muslim fever sweeping the country in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy.  The fact that the victims of 9-11 were disrespected by the use of their tragedy is bad enough, but invading and occupying a country, bombing its cities, creating ruins and spreading death on the pretense of looking for weapons of mass destruction is inexcusable.  The cost is still being counted, and the events that are now occurring, namely the ISIS insurgency, were predicted by a number of people long before the invasion, and the previous administration was warned.  History was the resource used to make the prediction, which turned out to be quite accurate.

The presence of European imperialism, American capitalist enterprise, and the support that both of those things give to the continued existence of the nation of Israel is the reason for the Muslim insurgencies in the first place.  The tangled mass of variant strains of Islam, all built on forced conversion, goes back to the Caliphates that formed in the wake of the collapse of the Muslim Empire, which in turn developed on top of the corrupt and self-serving Byzantine Empire, has led to all sorts of violence in the region for over a thousand  years.  Post World War I British Imperialism was interested in how it could profit economically from the natural resources of the area, the cheap labor and the trade routes.  The lines they drew on the ground, and the countries they created were designed to protect their interests, not to advance those of the region’s residents, who were treated with contempt.  While Syria was a bit more homogenous, in terms of race and religion, Iraq was a monstrosity in which the majority of Muslims were subjected to the control of a religious minority.  Favor granting allowed some Sheiks to express loyalty to the crown in exchange for independence.  As long as the oil and goods flowed cheaply and richly toward Britain, and there were no disruptions of the order, it was quiet.

After the disruptions and intrigue of the Second World War, the British continued to pursue their economic and imperial interests in the middle east, under increasing pressure from the US to open up Palestine to Jewish immigration in the wake of the Holocaust.  There had been a small Jewish presence in the region prior to the war, but Britain was adamantly opposed to upsetting the political balance, which they had orchestrated for their own interests.  Pressure eventually forced the policy to be withdrawn, though it would take more pushing to get them to reluctantly agree to the creation of the state of Israel.  That pretty much spelled the end of imperial British rule, but left seething ethnic and religious minorities grouped together behind artificial borders in nation-states that were not ethnically, linguistically, culturally or religiously homogenous.  The presence of a growing and prosperous Jewish minority was an agitation, as was the continuous foreign presence in the oil fields.

Oil money enriched Sheiks, who were virtual dictators, and further oppressed the majority of the people who longed for prosperity, watching mineral wealth extracted from their “country,” but receiving little of the benefit from it.  Ancient hatreds were used by foreigners to keep themselves in the position to reap the benefits.  That, in a historical nutshell, is the reason groups like Hamas, Al Qaida, Isis, and other insurgencies, have formed, and receive growing support, including financial resources.  It has contributed to the use of Islam as a weapon or tool to gain control, most often by violent means, and to enforce a more fundamentalist practice of it on the people who fall under its jurisdiction.

Iraq was not a fundamentalist Islamic country under Saddam Hussein.  He was much more of a political leader than a religious one.  Like most Middle Eastern dictators, he learned how to play one side against the other for his own benefit, and that had a detrimental effect on his country, its people, and their prosperity, but the invasion, and occupation of Iraq by the US did not lead to the formation of a democratic republic.  It led to large sections of the country falling into anarchy.  It is wrong to think that there was ever a time when there was even a chance for that to happen without the presence of large numbers of American troops.  It is clear that Iraq can’t be held together peacefully, and develop a strong, democratic republic without the force of an occupying foreign military presence.  It is also clear that the anarchy has produced an opportunity for insurgencies to develop, and to create a situation that is more dangerous for the Iraqi people, and for “US interests,” than prior to the war.

It is a mess, and a dilemma that may not have any easy solution.  If we just back out, leave, and let things go, the whole region may become anarchic, allowing extremists and insurgents free rein, along with access to the region’s oil wealth and technology.  Iraq and Syria would become rogue states like Iran and Afghanistan, with Taliban-like governments supporting terrorist activity that could be devastating.  The other Middle Eastern countries, like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the circle of highly developed nations around the perimeter of the Arabian peninsula, would be in grave danger, requiring military assistance in large quantities from the US to fend off invasion.  The Bush Administration was advised by some men who knew their history, like Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell, that this would be the end result of an invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The can was kicked to the current administration, who must now figure out how the US will respond, and is left with no good solution.  The current Congress, with a house determined to defend the indefensible, is of no help whatsoever.

Those who do not know their history, are doomed to repeat it.”

 

Celebrity Christianity

It just took a short visit to the Christian bookstore to get my mind moving on this subject.  Browsing books to buy as gifts, I looked at a lot of stuff that tells me how much Christianity has changed, at least in this country, since I became a Christian about thirty years ago.

My first real Bible was a black King James version on which my Dad had my name engraved in the cover.  It didn’t have anyone else’s name on it, though.  Now, it’s hard to find a Bible that doesn’t have some celebrity Christian’s name on it, and their own personal notes inside of it.  I don’t know why that bothers me, except that selling a Bible for $80 with a celebrity Christian’s name on it, and notes inside it seems to sound an awful lot like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons or another group whose leader has written a book that interprets scripture, and becomes equal to it when taught.  I mean, other than the content, isn’t that the same thing?

The only Christian bookstore I’d ever been in, prior to becoming active in ministry, was the Baptist Book Store in Phoenix, Arizona, and one of its sister stores in St. Louis when I served there as a summer missionary.  It was pretty much that, a book store with a wall of sheet music in the back, and a small rack of records and tapes on the side.  Now, the book section of the Christian store is about half of its space, the rest being taken up by gift items that are generally decorative in nature, with scriptural sayings on them, or not, depending on the item, or t-shirts or other clothing items.

The celebrity stuff is on full display.  Name recognition is important, because you don’t just want any old Bible, you want the special edition endorsed by your favorite Christian celebrity, that costs $20 more.  Without the name it’s just not the same.  Perhaps.  But there’s some really mediocre stuff that sells far better than it should because of whose name is on the cover.

I’m just not comfortable with commercial Christianity.  I guess someone has to sell Bibles, or other religious items, but the way it’s done right now, well, does walking into a Christian bookstore give you a good impression of Christian faith, especially if you’re paying attention?  It doesn’t give me one.  Capitalizing on a person’s celebrity status somehow elevates their celebrity over the message Jesus preached.  It’s about them.  I don’t think that’s enough.

The Return of a Soldier

Unconditional.

It has been a long standing American military code that our soldiers don’t leave anyone behind, regardless of the circumstances.  So it’s a bit confusing to see some of our military personnel expressing regret and dismay over the return of one of their own, and one of our own.  Obviously something happened to cause these guys not to like Bowe Bergdahl, and not having been there, I can’t speculate as to the reasons behind their feeling that he didn’t deserve the attempted rescue that went after him, and that he didn’t deserve to be returned home.  There’s something about those accounts, however, that just doesn’t ring true, especially when they are strung out together in a news report.  To me, there’s a lack of consistency in the way the story is being presented, and there’s something under the surface that’s not coming out at this point.  Something happened before Bergdahl was captured, to create the attitude of dislike that is being conveyed now.  I think that’s obvious.

There is a moral principle here.  How about if the soldier who was returned wasn’t Bowe Bergdahl, but instead was the ideal, boyish faced, flag waving patriot, dragged off kicking, screaming and resisting?  Would his return have been worth allegedly “negotiating with terrorists and sending five members of the Taliban to Qatar?   You’ll have to decide that on your own, but I know what I think.

It will be a long time before Bowe can address the issue and speak in his own defense.  Years of captivity in Afghanistan, with your life in the hands of the Taliban, would have driven most people crazy.  Living in fear of your live, of torment, of brainwashing, or anything else a people who have no respect for humanity would possibly do would turn anyone into a bowl of quivering jelly.  His recovery will be years in the future.  For now, his body is in a place where he’s safe and cared for, something that he has not experienced for a long time.  Before we start judging his character or behavior, he should at least be given a chance to recover.

This deal was brokered through the small, Arabian peninsula nation of Qatar, an oil rich country that is closely allied to the US.   The members of the Taliban who were exchanged cannot leave Qatar, as part of the deal.  That’s not exactly negotiating with terrorists, though the hope I harbored that Americans would react with a level of decent humanity is fading fast in the wake of all kinds of judgemental criticism.  Allowing him to remain with the Taliban, when the means finally existed to get him back, would have been cruelty compounded.  I’m sure the mind games and cruelty were endless. It’s evident, even in the pictures we’ve seen.  Getting him back was the right thing to do.

It would be the right thing to do every time we have the means available to do it with.

 

Before Baltimore, for my SBC Friends

Four years ago, I accepted a position as administrator of a Christian school in Pennsylvania.  I had worked in the public education system before, but all of the vocational Christian ministry I had done prior to this position had been connected to Southern Baptist churches.  This would be the first time I’d be involved in a ministry that wasn’t.  And on top of that, finding a Southern Baptist church to join turned out to be more difficult than we’d thought.  We wound up joining a church of another denomination for the first time.  It wasn’t so much that we left the SBC by choice or design, that just turned out to be the way things worked out, though we are confident it was what God wanted.  We have not seen any real doctrinal difference between the SBC churches we’ve belonged to, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance church we now attend.  The doctrinal statement is kept simple, and as a result, the churches are theologically conservative.

The differences we have observed were surprising, especially to me.  After seven years in Baptist higher education, both college and seminary, I more or less accepted the assumption that Southern Baptists are unsurpassed in missions mindedness.  But I’ve learned a lot of things on this side of the crossed denominational line.  The CMA is much less of a denomination, and much more of a missions sending agency.  The bulk of churches and members affiliated with it are overseas.  The American churches, with a membership of around half a million, represent only about 10% of the worldwide membership.  Per capita, the CMA sends about five times more missionaries overseas than the SBC does, and the percentage of church gifts that go to international missions is far higher than it is in the typical SBC church.

Another major difference is the lack of denominational bureaucracy.  There is no discernible squabble or push by any particular group to put certain prominent people in certain prestigious positions.  There aren’t any of those, really.  Leadership in the CMA requires hands on work, aimed at the missionary effort.  There is a denominational structure that involves district superintendents, overseeing the ministry requirements for pastors and church staff, but it is not as extensive as most connectional denominations, and it also requires hands on work, rather than pure administrative duties.  There’s no jockeying for position, and as a result, the efficiency level of the missions effort is high.  That’s a stark contrast to the Southern Baptist layer of associational missions, state conventions and the SBC agencies and institutions itself.  My friend Bob Cleveland notes that the SBC thinks it is taking action and making progress when they “vote on things.”

The CMA in the United States is one of very few denominations or church groups that is showing growth in membership.  They don’t depend on the conversion of church member’s children to boost their baptism numbers. Their ethnic membership is not exclusively collected in churches with ethnic labels, but exists in a lot of blended, multi-ethnic, multi-racial churches.  There are few “mega” churches, because the mission mindedness leads congregations to plant new churches when they reach a certain size.  Our church of 120 in attendance on any given Sunday plans to start a new church when attendance begins to average 200.  Since newer, smaller churches tend to reach more people by conversion, most baptisms in CMA congregations reflect evangelistic outreach.

On the eve of a convention meeting in Baltimore, with declining baptisms and Cooperative Program giving, there are some things here that Southern Baptists might just want to think about.  The kind of change needed to bring about the revival that so many Southern Baptists seem to long to experience, isn’t going to occur because the convention votes on it.  There are problems at the very core of the denomination’s structure and in its leadership that have shifted the focus to who’s in charge.

It would be very easy to just move forward, be grateful for what I received from my spiritual upbringing among Southern Baptists, and leave all of the bickering and fussing behind.  But away from the denominational core, so many people are doing real ministry, and it just keeps calling me back.  From a career perspective, my life seems to be settled until I retire.  But I’ve been excited about seeing the work that Southern Baptists are doing in this Northeastern US metro area and city.  Churches are small, but they’re growing.  Most of the membership is ethnic of some sort.  Evangelism is happening, and the bureaucracy is far, far away.  Baptist work thrives when missions is at its core, and the bureaucratic fussing is far, far away.

Worship in the American Christian Church: Where do you draw the line on Patriotic Expression?

Several years ago, I was involved with a mission project with high school and college students that was camped out in a church facility.  We used the classrooms for sleeping areas, they had a kitchen and dining room, gym, and a nice sanctuary in which we held worship services.  The team that came to help lead worship consisted of several college students.  The church’s sound system was adequate for the worship, but the video system was not.  So, in preparation for worship that had a lot of visual elements involved, they set up a large screen and projector on the platform.  It required a lot of space, so they asked permission to move things on the platform, like the choir chairs and the pulpit.

In the process of arranging things for worship, the team rolled up the flags on the poles, and placed them inside of a closet.  That illustrates a generational, cultural division.  They did not see that an American flag on the platform was a necessary element of the worship of God, and these students, who have been taught that worship is an act that is totally and completely aimed at God, not at the worshippers, respectfully put the flag in a place where it could not be knocked over or damaged.

One of the older church members noticed that the flag was not on the platform, and was respectfully informed that it had been put in the closet for safekeeping.  The church member, however, could not understand how worship could even take place without the American flag on the platform.  I give the students credit for recognizing that this was not a hill on which to die.  Explaining that they meant no disrespect, and in fact they wanted to protect the flag, they offered to bring it out and place it at the back of the sanctuary instead.  The church member wouldn’t hear of it.  She couldn’t understand how worship could occur without an American flag prominently displayed.  She told the students that she was going straight to the pastor to get the problem resolved.  We determined that, rather than cause him a problem, we would replace the flag as far on the outer edge of the platform as would be acceptable, and hopefully out of danger.

But I don’t think those students ever understood why worship couldn’t take place without the presence of an American flag.

“If worship is all about God, and is directed toward him, what role does the American flag play in that?” one of them asked.

It doesn’t.  And that’s consistent with scripture, folks.

“God and Country” is a cultural concept.  God above country is the Biblical concept.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with patriotism.  Waving the flag, singing patriotic songs, celebrating national holidays that recognize those who have served their country, all have their place, and are of the utmost importance.  As a nation, we lack a lot of the respect and honor that is due because of the great benefit of freedom that we enjoy because we are Americans, and we need to pick up a flag, wave it, and let the Star Spangled Banner bring tears to our eyes.  We need to do that in celebration every time there is an opportunity.  The flag flies from my front porch every day, except when there’s rain or snow.  I love my country, and I show it.

But worship as the body of Christ should be completely focused on God.  Anything that distracts, or diverts attention from God is not worship.  The scripture is pretty clear that worship, which is the adoration and praise of God by grateful, redeemed sinners, puts worshippers in place as those “on stage” and makes God the audience.  It isn’t even about what you get out of it.  If you leave a worship service feeling that you “didn’t get anything out of it,” it doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is whether God got anything from you.  The whole consumer culture in which we live, which turns on the commercial value of everything, including the trappings, look and feel of worship, has completely changed that.

There’s nothing wrong with singing “God Bless America” as part of a worship service on a day set aside to recognize the sacrifice o those who serve the country, or died in its service.  Look at the words.  It’s a vertical worship song, and a prayer which speaks to God.  When we sing it, we are praying to God, asking him to bless our land.  That’s a good thing.  But not all patriotic songs are aimed at worshipping God.  Their focus is country, not savior, nation, not divine being.  Mentioning God in a song is not the same as praising him in worship.  If worship is defined by scripture as having God as its object, then having a flag, or a country share the platform detracts from that focus.  If we’re singing a song that is praising the country, then our singing isn’t praising God, and its not worship.

Among those for whom “God and Country” is part of their church culture, I think there’s a fine line between patriotic expression, and making patriotism an act of worshipping the country and the flag.  Most people who think that patriotic expression in church is just fine don’t really see the difference.  But I must say, honestly, that many of them do not have the depth of understanding of the act of worship that most younger Christians have.  They can’t distinguish between hymns that merely mention, or sing about God, and those which are written for the purpose of singing to God, and attempting to get into a discussion of that won’t yield positive results.  Its the same kind of thinking that organizes a worship service with announcements which come after the call to worship and opening prayer, because there’s not an understanding of worship as spiritual meditation.  It’s just a liturgy, a ritual, a program in a bulletin.

When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s,” he meant it.  Worship is all God’s, all the time.