Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Some Things I’m Thankful For


As our annual day of Thanksgiving approaches, I thought I’d share some of the things for which I’m thankful.

      1.     I am thankful for people who are self-aware enough to know they’re not self-aware enough, open-minded enough to know they’re not open-minded enough, and well-read enough to know they’re not well-read enough.

      2.     I am thankful for people who give me hope for the future by doing risky things like getting married and having children.

      3.     I am thankful for how my Bible beats me about the head whenever I’m tempted to use it to beat someone else about the head.

      4.     I am thankful for those churches that invite me to preach in the hope that they need to hear what I have to say and for those churches that don’t invite me out of fear that they won’t like what I have to say.

      5.     I am thankful for people who live authentically without devaluing the experiences of others.

      6.     I am thankful for people who are able to live in gray areas where tension and nuance dwell.

      7.     I am thankful for those whose political positions begin with wanting what’s best for others rather than with what’s best for them.

      8.     I am thankful for people who are brave enough to think for themselves and wise enough to know that most of what they think has probably been thought before by someone else.

      9.     I am thankful for those who see and treat people as sisters and brothers to be loved rather than as objects to be manipulated.

      10. I am thankful for people who find strength in weakness and weakness in strength.

      11. I am thankful for those who move toward the future with hope and faith rather than cling to the past with fear and despair.

      12. I am thankful for people who are humble enough to know they don’t have all that much to be humble about because they aren’t as great as they think they are anyway.

      13. I am thankful for people whose agreement with me encourages me and for those whose disagreement with me challenges me.

      14. I am thankful for people who live in ways that show they try to remember that loving God and loving people go hand-in-hand. 

      15. I am thankful for those I’ve lost who help me appreciate those I have and for those I have who help me appreciate those I’ve lost.

      16. I am thankful that grace is greater than sin and that love is greater than hate.

I hope you have a blessed Thanksgiving Day, and I hope you’ll give some thought to what you’re thankful for.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Zombie Apocalypse

In an October 21 story on NPR’s Weekend Edition program, I learned about a course that Professor Eric Smaw teaches at Rollins College called “Zombies, Serial Killers, and Madmen.” It’s the most popular course at the college. It’s a morning class now, but Smaw used to teach it at midnight. Spooky.

Toward the end of host Lulu Garcia-Navarro’s interview with Smaw, the following exchange took place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Miami Herald profiled you this past week, which is where we heard about your class. And you had some advice for those of us fearing the coming zombie apocalypse. And I count myself among them. So how should we survive?

SMAW: (Laughter) OK. So if a zombie apocalypse hits, you'll need food and water, shelter and, of course, ammunition to fight off the zombie attack. And the place that I can think of that would have plenty of it and a lot of space for you to move around is Walmart. So I often tell people, go to Walmart. Hunker down. And fight it out for as long as you can.

I could make a joke about encountering zombies at Walmart, but I won’t.

Let me be clear: of all the types of apocalypse we could be concerned about, I’d put the zombie type way down the list.

Zombies, as you probably know, are the walking dead (thus the title of the series filmed just up the road). The fictional kind have died and then been reanimated. They lack personal will. They are soulless. They exist, but they are really lifeless.

If we interpret the word non-literally, maybe we already have a kind of zombie apocalypse going on.

It seems to me that a lot of us have given up our will. In particular, we’ve given it up to particular points of view that are put forward by particular politicians or political parties and championed by particular media outlets. We don’t think for ourselves. We let others think for us, and we just second what they say.

This is understandable in a way. After all, we only have so much time, and there is so much information out there. Most of us have a basic framework within which we view the world, and it is easy to just go along with those who seem to align best with our preconceived notions. But we do ourselves a disservice if we give our will up to others.

It also seems to me that too many of us have given up our souls. I’m using “soul” in the sense of “our inmost self that makes us who we really are” and I’m using “given up” in the sense of “surrendering even those basic traits that make us human.” The traits I have in mind are concern, understanding, empathy, and compassion.

In the movies, zombies devour the living. In real life, soulless folks devour other people by thinking of, speaking of, and acting toward them in cruel, hurtful, or dismissive ways.

I’m not worried about a literal zombie apocalypse, but I am very concerned about the figurative one that seems already to be underway.

I don’t recommend hunkering down at Walmart.

I do recommend prayer. I also recommend reading. I recommend thinking for ourselves and expanding our knowledge as much as possible so we can think as clearly as possible. I recommend relating to as many different kinds of people as we can. I recommend doing whatever we can do to develop more empathy and compassion.

Maybe the best way to combat the zombie apocalypse is to make sure we don’t give up our own wills, minds, and souls.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Vote for Science

According to the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have until about 2030 to make drastic changes to prevent environmental catastrophe. If we can hold global warming to under a 0.9 degree Fahrenheit increase, then, as a story at PBS.org says,

·  Half as many people would suffer from lack of water.
·  There would be fewer deaths and illnesses from heat, smog and infectious diseases.
·  Seas would rise nearly 4 inches (0.1 meters) less.
·  Half as many animals with back bones and plants would lose the majority of their habitats.
·  There would be substantially fewer heat waves, downpours and droughts.
·  The West Antarctic ice sheet might not kick into irreversible melting.
·  And it just may be enough to save most of the world’s coral reefs from dying.

Meanwhile, a recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—part of the Trump administration—says that Earth’s temperature will warm by 7 degrees by 2100. According to BusinessInsider.com, the report

was released with the goal of justifying Trump's decision to freeze federal gas-mileage standards for cars and light trucks by 2020. The report shows the administration believes this rise in temperature is baked into the global system, and freezing the aforementioned fuel consumption standards wouldn't make a difference.

In other words, the Trump administration says that we can’t do anything about the situation we’ve put ourselves in, so there’s no need to try. Besides, it might put some strain on the energy industry.

We don’t need such avoidance. We need a national and global effort to do all we can to take all available steps, including reducing carbon emissions by moving away from fossil fuels, to address the problem. This effort needs to be on the scale of what the Allies did to defeat the scourge of totalitarianism in World War II. Like then, the future of not just our nation but of the entire planet is at stake.

The IPCC report says that there are steps we can take, but it also expresses little optimism that we will. As a story in the Intelligencer (nymag.com) put it,

But creating the systems needed to clean dirty air on a global scale might be easier than convincing stubborn world leaders to join the effort. Jim Skea, a co-chair of the IPCC, says this report is all the scientific community can do. “Frankly, we’ve delivered a message to the governments,” he said in a press conference. “It’s now their responsibility … to decide whether they can act on it.”

So why don’t we do something about it? Why doesn’t our government join with other governments in doing more about it?

The biblical book of 2 Kings tells a relevant story. A delegation from Babylon came to Jerusalem to visit King Hezekiah of Judah. Wanting to show how great he and his kingdom were, he showed off their holdings.

When the prophet Isaiah found out about it, he told the king that the time would come when the Babylonians would take it all away. He also told Hezekiah that the invading armies would take his children away too.

Hezekiah said that all sounded good to him. His reasoning is shocking: “Why not, if there will be peace and security all my days?” (20:19).

In other words, he wouldn’t worry about what was going to happen to his children, so long as everything was fine for him.

I may live long enough to see the beginnings of the environmental calamity that our negligence is helping to bring about. My children certainly will. And I shudder to think what my grandchildren will face.

If this doesn’t trouble you, I don’t know what to say.

But if it does, and you’re wondering what you can do about it, one thing is to vote for the right candidates. In deciding who the right ones are, I suggest these three simple steps.

      (1) Find out where the candidates stand on science in general and on climate science in particular.
      (2) Vote for those who affirm science in general and climate science in particular and against those who don’t.
      (3) Encourage everyone you know to do the same.

Do it like your children and grandchildren’s future depends on it.

Because it does.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

What Kind of Leaders Do We Want?

Jerry Falwell Jr. is the president of Liberty University. He is also a self-appointed spokesman for American “evangelical Christians,” many of whom accept his self-appointment and take what he says seriously. He gets a lot of press.

(I still think of myself as an evangelical Christian in the sense that I follow and try to share the good news of Jesus. But, since the label now refers to people who think that devotion to Christ is best expressed through an unswerving allegiance to conservative political positions and leaders, I can’t use it to self-identify anymore. So I don’t.)

On September 28, Falwell tweeted the following: “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys’. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”

On October 1, he tweeted this: “That video of @JeffFlake in the elevator cowering and nearly crying as liberals screamed at him and then acquiescing to their demands for FBI investigation (hopefully not led by Comey/Strzok types) is the best illustration I’ve seen of what is wrong with the Republican Party!”

Falwell seems to be saying that Christians shouldn’t be concerned with whether or not our nation’s political leaders follow Christian principles, or even basic human kindness and consideration, in their governing. This helps explain how he as a “Christian leader” could be an early and enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump during the most recent presidential campaign and how he remains a cheerleader for the president.

When I was a student at a Georgia Baptist college and a Southern Baptist seminary a few decades ago, I learned that Baptists had throughout their long history championed religious liberty and separation of church and state. Many but not all Baptists have backed off of that conviction in recent years, but I still think it’s the American way, grounded in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.

That amendment opens with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” Too simply put, the amendment means that the United States government can’t endorse any religion and cannot prevent citizens from practicing the religion of their choice.

But the amendment doesn’t mean that Christians (or people of other faiths) shouldn’t play an active role in the government, either as elected or appointed officials or as citizens. We have the same rights as anyone to support our positions, to advocate for our preferred policies, and to vote for our preferred candidates.

Falwell’s words set me to thinking about the ways Christians think about and try to influence the government. Some Christians would like to see what they regard as Christian principles be the law of the land. They are the culture warriors.

Many of them would evidently have no problem having their views of morality imposed through legislation. Some—maybe most—of them support President Trump, despite his personal failings that would in their eyes immediately and irrevocably disqualify others, because they believe he will further their agenda.

Other Christians—and I count myself among these—do not want Christianity (or any other religion) to be the nation’s official religion for several reasons, of which I’ll name just three.

First, the Constitution doesn’t allow it.

Second, if Christianity were the nation’s official religion, crusaders with a very narrow view of what constitutes morality would end up in charge.

Third, the kind of “Christian” leaders who would end up running things would, through mental and spiritual gymnastics I can’t fathom, find a way of ignoring Jesus’ teachings. They’d base their policies more on Leviticus than on the Sermon on the Mount. They would govern in ways that would indicate an apparent belief that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a warhorse rather than a donkey and that, rather than dying on the cross, he “called ten thousand angels to destroy the world and set him free” (as the old song says he could have, but didn’t).

This brings me back to Falwell’s tweet of October 1, in which he chastises Senator Jeff Flake for evidently being influenced by the appeals of two sexual assault victims to ask for further FBI investigation of Judge Kavanaugh. I fail to see how a “Christian” leader can criticize someone for feeling sympathy and showing compassion.

It seems that in Falwell’s view, sympathy and compassion signify weakness, while callousness in pursuit of “conservative” hegemony signifies strength. (I put the word conservative in quotation marks because I don’t think a lot of what the GOP is pursuing under Trump is truly conservative.)

I must admit, though, that even as I support separation of church and state, I find myself wanting my government and my country to act in accord with basic principles of justice and mercy that lie at the heart of Christian faith and practice.

I realize that this must sound odd. After all, can a government and nation that aren’t Christian really follow Christian principles? Is it possible for a non-Christian government to behave in more Christian ways than a “Christian” one?

A member of a church I was serving as pastor asked me, “If I’m trying to decide between two candidates, and one of them is Christian and the other isn’t, shouldn’t I as a Christian vote for the Christian?” I answered, “I can imagine scenarios in which a non-Christian candidate might support policies and practices that are more Christian than those that certain Christian candidates support.”

I had in mind policies and practices in the realms of healthcare availability, economic justice, gender equality, race relations, war and peace, and others. I still have such issues in mind when I vote.

Some Christians seem willing to support political leaders who lead in ways that violate basic human, much less Christian, principles because they think they will make the country in some sense “stronger.”

Others of us support those who will govern in ways that reflect basic human compassion and concern as well as the Christian approach—be they professing and practicing Christians or not—of doing all they can to help “the least of these” (Mt 25:40).

We do so because we believe such governing will truly make America stronger.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Follow the Leader


Jesus tried to help his disciples understand who he was and what it meant for them to be his followers. He’s still trying, and we who are Christians need to do better at listening to him.

One day, Jesus asked his disciples what they were hearing people speculate about him. They offered various answers. Then Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. A disciple named Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (“Messiah” is a Hebrew word meaning “anointed one.” “Christ” is the Greek translation of “Messiah,” so when we say “Jesus Christ,” we are saying “Jesus the Messiah.”)

Jesus said that Peter’s answer was a good one. Then he proceeded to tell his followers what it meant for him to be the Messiah: he was going to suffer, to die, and then rise again.

Peter, who had given the good answer, took Jesus aside to tell him that wasn’t what he meant when he said Jesus was the Messiah. We’re not told what Peter meant, but we can reasonably conclude that it was the opposite of what Jesus said. Peter expected Jesus to exert military and political power through which he would drive the Roman occupiers out of the land and make Israel great again.

Jesus told Peter that he was very, very, very wrong: “Get behind me, Satan!” For years I read that as Jesus telling Peter to get out of his sight. But I now think he meant, “Get behind me and follow me; I’ll show you the way you should go.” Jesus called Peter “Satan” because Peter was trying to lead Jesus to go in a way he shouldn’t go, just like the devil did when he tried to get Jesus to take the easy way rather than the hard way in fulfilling his mission.

Jesus then described how his followers are supposed to live:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8:34-38 NRSV).

Christians follow a Savior who gave himself away to the point of dying on the cross. He calls his followers to give themselves away too. We do that by living lives that are characterized by selfless, sacrificial service.

We Christians talk a lot about how Jesus died for us. We talk much less about how Jesus calls us to die with him. We should talk about that more. We should also do it by putting God first, others next, and ourselves last.  We should do it by regarding our lives as something to give away rather than to hold onto. We should do it by practicing radical love, grace, mercy, and generosity.

It seems to me that many people wear the label “Christian” but share Peter’s flawed view of who Jesus is. Jesus came to love, to serve, and to give himself away. He calls his followers to do the same. Failure to do so indicates that we are ashamed of Jesus and his words.

After Jesus was arrested, Peter said he didn’t know him. None of us would come right out and deny Jesus that way. But what do our lives show about how well we really do know him? What do they show about whether we accept or deny what he said about the kind of life we are to live as his followers?

We who are Christians need to consider how we live. Do we take up our cross and lay down our lives? Or do we refuse to carry our cross and to give up our lives?

We see and hear a lot of “Christian leaders” quoted in the press. We need to consider who among such “leaders” truly represent Jesus in what they say and do. Are they trying to gain worldly power or are they trying to engage in selfless service? Are they promoting hate or love? Are they focused on themselves or on others?

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We follow Jesus when we do that. We don’t follow him when we don’t.

We Christians need to follow Jesus. We also need to listen to and learn from leaders who follow him. And we need to ignore those who don’t.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Lot About Baseball, A Little About Politics


The Atlanta Braves are five and a half games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies in the battle for the National League Eastern Division pennant. Their magic number (the combination of Braves’ wins and Phillies’ losses that would give the Braves the championship) is seven.

The last time the Braves won their division was 2013. They’ve been in rebuilding mode since then. The conventional wisdom going into this season was that the team was at least another year away from being serious contenders. My expert opinion was that if everything went just right, the Braves might win close to half their games. The conventional wisdom was wrong. So was I.

Veteran players like Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have had outstanding seasons. Youngsters like Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, and Johan Camargo have contributed greatly. By the way, if Acuña doesn’t win the National League’s Rookie of the Year award, they should do away with it. While I’m on the subject of awards, I’d say the same thing about the Manager of the Year award if Brian Snitker doesn’t win it.

It’s been a long time since the Braves played meaningful games in September. Whether they make the playoffs or not (oh how I hope they do), this has been the most fun of any season since that of the worst-to-first team of 1991. I’m grateful, as all Braves fans should be.

I’ve been a Braves fan since the franchise moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. That season, my parents took me to Atlanta Stadium, which held ten times the population of my hometown of Barnesville, to see a game. The Braves won, and I was hooked. I’ve followed them closely ever since.

We who have followed the Atlanta Braves from the beginning know what it’s like to go through cycles of winning and losing. They were about a .500 team during their first three seasons (1966-68). Then in 1969, which was the first year of divisional play, they won the Western Division pennant but lost to the New York Mets three games to none in the playoffs. From 1970-81, they never finished within shouting distance of first place. They came out of nowhere to win the West in 1982, but lost the playoff series to the St. Louis Cardinals three games to none. After a decent season in 1983, they went into a tailspin that saw them finish in last place in four out of seven seasons, including 1990.

But in 1991, the Braves won the Western Division championship and defeated the Eastern Division champion Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League championship series. They went on to lose the World Series in a classic seven-game matchup with the Minnesota Twins. This kicked off an amazing string of fourteen consecutive division titles (they’ve been in the Eastern Division since the 1994 realignment), four National League championships, and, in 1995, the Atlanta Braves’ only World Series Championship.

It’s been a mixed bag since the division championship streak ended in 2005. They won their division in 2013 and made the playoffs as a wild card team in 2010 and 2012. The three seasons leading up to the present one were bad, with records of 67-95 (2015), 68-93 (2016), and 72-90 (2017).

That brings us to the current season, which has been surprisingly successful. A winning season following several losing ones always feels like it comes out of nowhere. In fact, the team’s management has been laying the groundwork for such success by developing and following a long-term plan. If all goes well, this Braves season will be the first in a series of successful ones.

We who have been watching and participating in American politics know that the country also goes through cycles of winning and losing. We’ve endured a couple of years of serious losing. I’m optimistic that the groundwork has been laid for a turn in 2018 and 2020 toward better leadership.  

So go Braves!

And go 2018 and 2020 candidates who will offer effective, principled, civil, compassionate, and decent leadership!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Authenticity


Sometimes before a worship service in which I’m going to preach, I’ll tell the folks staffing the soundboard, “Try to make me sound better than I am.” We share a laugh. But I’m always suspicious that they’re thinking, “We would if we could!”

I don’t really mean it, though. I want my real voice to be heard. I furthermore want my real voice to reflect my real life.

In a recent RollingStone article, Eric Church was talking about losing the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award to Garth Brooks. He said he didn’t mind losing to Brooks. What he did mind, he said, was that Brooks lip-synched his performance on the awards show. The reason Brooks gave for doing so was that his voice was shot. But Church said that the Entertainer of the Year shouldn’t fake it. He said, “If I can’t sing, I won’t sing, or I’ll sing badly. But at least you’ll get what you get.”

Church’s point was that singers should give the audience what they have. They should be authentic. And if they aren’t at one hundred percent, then so be it. That’s what’s real, and you should give them what’s real.

I remember watching a SaturdayNight Live episode in 1978 (this was back when I was young and could stay up that late). I was excited because the Rolling Stones were going to perform. They opened with “Beast of Burden,” which was (and still is) a favorite of mine. The band played very well. Mick Jagger’s voice was shot. He croaked through it. It wasn’t good. But it was cool. It was real. It was authentic.

About ten years ago, Rolling Stone produced a list of the top one hundred singers of all time. Aretha Franklin (who died on August 16) was #1. Most of the others are generally acknowledged to be great singers. Here’s the rest of the top ten, omitting #7: Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown.

If I asked you to guess who #7 is, chances are you wouldn’t say Bob Dylan. But he is. We might wonder how in the world Dylan got listed along with those other marvelous singers. Let me quote what Bono (singer for the band U2) said in the article:

When Sam Cooke played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn’t understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.

It’s all about authenticity. That’s what we need from our singers, our preachers, and our politicians. It’s what we need from each other.