US Liberty or Libertines: Church and Society

Pondering the news from the Harris Poll yesterday that Millennials are less tolerant of others on progressive social issues has me a bit dumbfounded. It gives me hope that America might be on the brink of a newfound morality, but doesn’t Jesus call us to love, not just tolerate? Walking a thin line between grace and judgment is the path we Christians tread: hating sin, loving the sinner; standing for something, so we don’t fall for anything. We’re living in the tension between Fourth of July freedom and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. That clause says that all laws must apply to everyone. It’s about properly defining the common good for our society, and balancing that with our individual or constituency group’s preferences.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in visiting the US in the 1830’s, said, “America is great because America is good.” Polarization on issues has inflamed Congress and Churches alike. Jesus implored in Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” How salty are we? Is the Church composed of paragons of virtue, or panderers of moral relativity?

It’s so easy to believe that God wants us to be forgiven, but being “saved” doesn’t just mean having our tickets punched for heaven. That notion makes heaven about us more than an eternal worship of God. In our own self-centered American way, we have made the after-life another what’s-in-it-for-me consumer product – a sad commentary on our priorities. No, we’re saved not just for heaven, but for now. “Saved” means “changed.” Its that big word that maybe our Millennials are grasping better than the rest of us: Sanctification. Sanctification is believing that, through the power of the HOLY Spirit, Jesus died to save us FROM our sins; i.e., keep us from them, deliver us, and set us free. That’s the kind of freedom we need to celebrate on July 4th!

The Equal Protection Clause has been mistakenly co-opted by people and courts to mean that everybody can do whatever they want, no matter what. Orthodox Christendom says, “Not at all!” The Equal Protection Clause is really a way to determine how WE can live together in commonly agreed upon ways that support the protection of what’s right and the punishment of what’s wrong. None of us should be able to do whatever we want to without regard for common decency.

But, to those who say that the church should stay out of the public sphere, I say it’s impossible. If we truly want the world to be a better place and honor God’s laws, we must obey Jesus’ words and be the salt of the earth. If not, we’re doomed and the world is doomed with us.

Here’s a wake-up call story: A guy wanting to buy some salt went into a little Mom and Pop grocery store and asked, “Do you sell salt?” “Ha!” said the owner. “Do we sell salt? Just look!”

The owner proceeded to show the customer an entire wall of shelves stocked with nothing but salt: Morton salt, iodized salt, kosher salt, sea salt, rock salt, garlic salt – every kind of salt imaginable. The customer couldn’t say anything but “Wow!”

The owner said, “This ain’t nothing. I’ve got more!” So, the store owner showed the customer a backroom that was filled with more and more salt everywhere. There were boxes, bags, and bins of salt. The owner in a daring way said, “Well, what do you think? Do we sell salt?” The customer exclaimed, “Oh, yeah! You’ve got salt to sell! This is unbelievable!”

The owner then said, “There’s more!” and led the customer down some steps to the basement. The basement was huge, at least triple the size of the backroom, and it was filled from floor to ceiling with, you guessed it, more salt of every kind, even 20 lb. salt-licks for cattle. “Incredible,” said the customer. “You really do sell salt!” Then the owner said, “Yep, except for one small thing. We almost never ever sell any, but that salt salesman – hoo-boy, does he sell salt!”

Paraphrasing Jesus, “Salt that stays on the shelf doesn’t do any good at all.” Come on, Church, let’s get to work and help the US and the world to know the transforming grace of Jesus Christ!

Scruples: Too Many or Not Enough

Scrupulosity is an interesting phenomenon. Some might call it perfectionism or a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. God bless those folks (I’m not one of them) who use up a bottle of hand-sanitizer every day. They have to physically or mentally touch base with all their possessions or routines ad infinitum in order to bring order out of their personal chaos. They are over-achievers who have high standards, and beg the question in our morally lax culture, “Is it possible to have too many scruples?”

“Scruple” is an old word, “a small piercing stone,” the kind that gets caught in your sandals as you make your way to the beach lugging all the chairs, towels, and suntan lotion for the family. It’s literally a pain to stop, put everything down and shake out the offending pebble. In ancient days people actually put scruples in their sandals as reminders, sort of a “to-do list” to keep them from forgetting something important. A person with scruples, therefore, is a person quite aware that there are things worth remembering, especially when it comes to morality. When I was a child we tied strings around our fingers to remember things. I don’t think we do much of anything to do it today. The absence of these reminders is dangerous, but there must be a balance between being over and under scrupulous.

Sometimes scrupulosity takes remembering your Mother’s admonitions to the max: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t hang around with those who do.” Being obsessive about scruples leads to a perfectionism that is not forgiving of others and even worse on oneself. It can also lead to the fate of the hyper-religious. Hyper-religious people can take sin so seriously that they become callous to all those sharp little stones and forget that there’s anything wrong. Over-sensitivity can led to insensitivity.

It’s like the Native American story of people’s conscience being shaped like a diamond in their chest. When they do something wrong the diamond turns, and it hurts. However, if they continue to do wrong things and the diamond perpetually turns, pretty soon the edges of our conscience have worn down and our wrong-doing doesn’t hurt anymore. Building a rock pile out of scruples can actually lead us into worse trouble. Those with an over-the-quota number of scruples have little or no tolerance for slackers or sinners. They have set the bar so impossibly high that they become judge and jury on the rest of the world.

Frankly, the swing back and forth between being judgmental or non-judgmental is cultural and religious quicksand. Not having enough scruples is just as dangerous as having too many.  It’s pretty weird that we spend so much of our time sanitizing our hands while we let our minds, bodies, and souls go to pot. Can’t we find a place somewhere between grace and judgment? My wife uses hand sanitizer religiously thanks in no small part to her beloved nurse grandmother and germ phobic mother, but then she kisses me! See the problem?

It strikes me that as a church and as individuals we aren’t sure what to do about scruples. We are either too holy and self-flagellate ourselves with a list of sins, or we preach prevenient grace a lot more than sanctifying grace and end up with a mushy goo of over acceptance of sin. Sure we believe that God draws us through pre venio grace, a grace that comes before we ever come to God, but some of us want to theologically and personally stay in this warm fuzzy place and never judge anyone or move toward real change. We’ve given up on transformation. There is no need for justifying grace. We have reduced sanctifying grace into little more than an extension of prevenient grace, except on steroids; i.e., “God loves everybody so let’s do it even more!” Wow, that’s 20th century United Methodism defined.

We missed the step in the three-fold Wesleyan stages of grace that calls for Jesus’ righteousness to supersede our own and entails repentance, humility, and a clinging to Jesus as our only savior. With our focus on prevenient grace we have called everything good as if that stage is our end all of the Christian faith. We have become so pre-loving due to prevenient grace that we forgotten that God has prejudged us and found us all wanting. We need to move beyond a shallow blind acceptance of the way things are, and we need some more sharp rocks in our sandals, standards in our hearts, and values in our society. We cannot keep on accepting things the way they are and sitting back as if this is the way God meant it to be. God wants better for us. God didn’t send Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

21st century United Methodism is trying to find a way to the middle of grace and judgment. We must not clean the outside of the cup like the Pharisees and leave the heart as-is. We can’t make ourselves perfect no matter how many rocks we put in our shoes, but if we let Jesus rule our hearts then there’s a winning chance that by the sanctifying grace of God we might actually change.

Do you want things to stay the same old way every day in your life? I don’t think so, and neither do I. I also don’t want so many scruples that I become desensitized, callous, and careless in the way I live. Neither do I want to lose all my rocks, marbles, and moral compasses and end up lost forever. We cannot have it, whatever it is, both ways, but there has to be a middle way!

Hand sanitizer pic

College Baseball and the Strike Zones of Life

Most who know me are aware that I am a big fan of college baseball. I actually think that it’s one of the purest sports left today. Only a handful of each team’s players are on scholarship. The rest play because they love the game. I’ve been to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska 6 times. I stay in a tent for $11 a night at Lake Manawa State Park across the Missouri River in Iowa, about 5 miles from TD Ameritrade Stadium. It’s a blast and a definite bucket-list item for anyone who loves baseball.It’s big time on my mind today because tonight the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will play the University of Arizona Wildcats for the National Championship. I’m pulling for the Chants! The whole thing has gotten me to thinking, especially as we approach Independence Day. There are the usual notions about teamwork, and the ways that each person is important, an e pluribus unum sense of “out of many, one.”

I cannot help but think about a baseball field’s foul lines. Some things are fair and in play, and some things are foul, out of play. Tolerance is the key word on my mind as I anticipate how much leeway tonight’s umpire will give to the strike zone. Every ump seems to call it differently. By rule, a strike is supposed to go over the plate somewhere between the batter’s knees and the midpoint of the torso. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they don’t. I’m almost ready to let a machine do it, except for making baseball’s history of stats meaningless.

Home plate in baseball, all the way from Little League to the Majors, is 17 inches across – every time. It doesn’t change based on the pitcher’s ability or anything else. It stays the same. Shouldn’t some things, some rules of behavior, morals, or whatever you call them stay the same, too? Do we have too much independence? Baseball has a degree of order and rules, but our country is so conflicted over who’s right and who’s wrong.

Can we agree on anything? Sure, we all know that terrorism is wrong, and all children are precious gifts. Lots of things are right and lots are wrong, but in our good old USA we have confused tolerance and love. We have blessed and embraced our inalienable rights to the point that they are harmful to civilization. We don’t know what’s fair or foul or any clue as to the strike zone. The biggest victims are our children. They have to survive our self-destructive bent toward too much freedom that really isn’t free!!!

British theologian N.T. Wright has something worth hearing as I wonder about baseball, Brexit, Western pluralism, and all the precious children who have got to grow up and try to make sense of what’s right and wrong in our confused world:

“I was going to quote a Beatles song, but then I remembered that you have to pay a lot of money even to quote a single line. But the song is well-enough known, declaring that the only thing one might need is love. It’s ironic, of course, that you have to pay through the nose to quote a song whose whole message is that love matters and money doesn’t.

That irony haunts the mood, and the philosophy, of a large swathe of Western culture over the last forty or fifty years. ‘Make love, not war’, ran the slogan from those who were protesting against the war in Vietnam. Nobody was going to say that love was a bad thing. Surely life would be simpler and better if we all agreed to love each other and not fight any more. But the protests, insisting that love is better than war, contained a dark note of hatred against Western governments and ways of life, a hatred which easily spilled over into a different type of violence. What happened to all that love?

The trouble is, of course, that ‘love’ covers far too many things in our language today. Yes, as Peter says, ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (I Peter 4:8, quoting Proverbs 10:12). But it is clear throughout the whole New Testament, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself, that ‘love’ was never meant to mean one of the main things which, sadly, it has come to mean today.

Today, ‘love’ is regularly supposed to mean ‘tolerance’. You should never insist on anything, but always ‘love’ the other person who does things differently. You should never say that anything is actually wrong: that’s ‘unloving’ to the person who is not only doing it but claiming that it’s the right thing to do. You should never say, either, that this way of doing things is ‘right’, still less that it is the only ‘right’ way to live: how ‘intolerant’, how ‘arrogant’, how ‘unloving’. That is where a large part of our culture now stands. So strongly is this view held that if a Christian attempts to challenge it they are accused of being, well, unChristian.

But, as with protest movements, this passion for ‘tolerance’ only extends so far. Such a position is in fact extremely ‘intolerant’ of people who take a more definite stance – which includes the mainstream of adherents of many traditional faiths. This shows up the cult of ‘tolerance’ for what it is: the moralistic invention of the modern secular world, borrowing Christian language to refer to something very different. Underneath the nice language this view is just as ‘arrogant’, just as ‘intolerant’, as those it opposes. If anything more so, because it effortlessly claims the high moral ground without taking seriously the claims of other world-views…

Is it ‘intolerant to warn people that they should not drive down that road, because the bridge has been weakened by floods and might collapse? Is it ‘unChristian’ to insist that if we are to worship the God we know in Jesus we can’t simultaneously be worshipping one of the very different gods who are on offer elsewhere? Of course not. Is it a failure of Christian charity if we warn people that certain styles of behavior lead to ruin rather than to life?

Of course not – though, naturally, we need to be sure we are standing on the firm ground of the gospel, not on a point that just happens to embody our particular prejudices. All of that has to be worked out. No doubt this challenge is too hard for some. And, yes, it is difficult to know where to draw the line today. It’s quite unlikely that we will be faced with people teaching what John’s opponents were teaching. There may well be other issues which, when we understand what’s at stake, function as flash-points…”

What are the flashpoints where we need to take a stand? Is it too late? What is the “firm ground of the Gospel” and is it too broad or narrow? Is the Scripture inspired to give us the Word of God more than words of God? What is Christian? Our strike zone is all over the place with conflicting answers. Lord Jesus, help us, help me, to find our way back to you. Amen.



To Judge or Not to Judge?

Weeds are a pain! It’s hard to distinguish them from good plants sometimes, and by the time you can tell the difference it’s too late to do much about them. I guess you can just use an herbicide to kill everything, but that throws out the good with the bad. Somebody said that the way to tell a weed from a valuable plant was to just pull on the plant and if it’s hard to pull up, it’s a weed. If it comes up easily it’s probably a good plant. From my experience, that’s pretty accurate!

Someone else said, “To distinguish flowers from weeds, simply pull up everything. What grows back is weeds.” Jesus had a different take in Matthew 13:24-30. He said that we should be hesitant to do any pulling up of weeds until the harvest when the Divine Harvester knows what’s what. He doesn’t say there won’t be a Judgment or that there aren’t any standards. I think what Jesus is suggesting is for us to be very careful in our assessments on this side of eternity.

Therefore, pulling up everything is usually counterproductive. So how do we distinguish the good from the bad? Haven’t you found yourself wondering sometimes what or who the “weeds” are? We have to ask questions daily that are judgment calls: “Is this opportunity legit?” “Should I vote this way or that way?” “Is this guy/gal the real deal?” Sometimes the answers are iffy, either pro or con, and we hedge our bets and try to abstain. Most often I try to stack up the plusses and minuses and go with my mental winner leaving a lot of room for intuition and God’s gentle nudges.

I know Jesus said to let the weeds and good plants grow together until the harvest and let God do the judging. But aren’t you challenged just a little, if not a lot, to try to go ahead and distinguish between the well intentioned dragons and the good guys, God’s best plans and the train wrecks? Doesn’t judging have as its goal the best interest of God and humanity? So, no matter what, aren’t we supposed to be careful fruit inspectors and discern a tree, a person, or an idea’s legitimacy? Jesus did say that we would know a person’s character by their fruit (Matthew 7:16).

Gosh, that last thought sounds a lot like unchristian judging to me, but aren’t we supposed to discern right from wrong? Paul was pretty plain about it in I Corinthians 5:9-13. He was addressing a situation in the Corinthian church where a step-son married his step-mom and Paul asked the church to show him the door: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy, and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. Now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a person do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’”

However, before we start expelling all the sinners from the church we must leave room for grace and forgiveness. Paul, writing about the same guy and situation, says in his next letter (2 Corinthians 2:5-11) that the man learned his lesson and says that the church should welcome him back, “I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” Both of these texts are helpful in how to be church! We do have standards and should not turn a blind eye to the shenanigans of fellow Believers, and, if we do our judging with an eye to reconciliation and wholeness, the offending party will find renewal with God and in the fellowship. It’s like parental love. You have to have rules, time-outs, and consequences or you’re raising a barbarian!

To take this a step further, I’m reminded of Revelation 2:1-7 about the church in Ephesus. They are accused of forsaking their “first love.” I have often thought that it meant their love of God, but if you go back and look at what’s written about the church at Ephesus in Acts or Paul’s letter to the Ephesians you might agree that their first love is about their care for each other.

A big clue as to the identity of this lost first love is found in Revelation 2:6 where it says about the Ephesians: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Note that God didn’t say, “… the Nicolaitans, who I also hate.” We don’t know who the Nicolaitans were but we know that the Ephesians weren’t commended for hating the actual people, just their practices. My problem sometimes and perhaps yours is in hating not just somebody’s actions but the very person, too.

I guess all this is to say that we need to be very careful to separate how we critique things, so that in our judging we never cross the boundary between who someone is and what they do. If we get this right we might just be able to sustain civility and community even when we passionately disagree. The Bible isn’t against judging as much as we think. We must be careful, however, to do it with what’s best for the person and community in mind. That’s a major thrust of holiness anyway.

We have made holiness an anachronistic tired mean pharisaical word when actually it is the promotion of God’s own character in each other, plus it endorses lifestyles and actions that make our lives better. Holiness is not about who’s in and who’s out of our community as much as it is about how God wants us to best live and thrive. It’s like my grandmother who often corrected me by saying about the punishment: “This is GOOD for you.” I hate to admit it, but she was right! Indeed, judging is supposed to help our fellow strugglers know what’s best for them and how they can more clearly reflect God’s image and character.

Therefore, judge we must if we care about people and want them to have the best lives imaginable. The end game is to glorify God and love people. If we don’t stand for something we will most surely fall for anything. So what is right and wrong? I think for the most part we already know the answer to that question about any given topic, but we are either too guilty ourselves or too afraid to have the chutzpah to back it up. We aren’t brave enough to actually try to help somebody by pointing out their shortcomings, and we aren’t that interested in hearing it about ourselves. Well, whoever said being a Christian was for the faint of heart? We have work to do in our garden! Do we want weeds or fruit?




Truth, Justice, and the American Way?

I like the band Five for Fighting and especially their song “Superman.” Superman is one of those superheroes that is very patriotic. Superman’s mission, in his words, is to fight for “Truth, Justice, and the American way,” but what exactly is the American way? Is it one way or many ways? Are we a melting pot of peoples, ideas, and values or are we a salad bowl that seeks to promote the separation of the tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, and lettuce? In other words, do we value commonality over individuality, or what?

Sure there are some things that will likely be common fare this coming Fourth of July weekend: vacationing, bar-b-ques, and fireworks. I, for one, don’t feel like I’ve had a proper Fourth unless we watch the Boston Pops on the Esplanade beside the Charles River via PBS. What do you do for the Fourth? Are you into group stuff or doing your own thing? That is a metaphor for my assessment of our society right now.

I am worried that we have taken the “pursuit of happiness” and expanded it to a selfishness that appalls the rest of the world and our own common sense. But that is actually the problem, isn’t it? Do we have COMMON sense in our ultra-personalized country? I remember when all the Moms and Dads had a set curfew for all their kids and everybody just “knew” what the rules and boundaries were. Now it’s anything goes.

Sure everybody is unique and different, but aren’t there some best practices that would benefit everyone? Everyone wants freedom, but freedom without a higher purpose than personal or national gain is enslavement to our own agendas. Just look at our national debates about recent court decisions, or the lack of bi-partisan cooperation for evidence of misused freedom. Freedom without regard for the common good is terrible for everyone.

No matter how one stands on the issues, should we promote individual rights over what is best for all? Should personal standards of right and wrong trump what has been decided is best for society as a whole? I am concerned that courts have overturned state legislatures’ actions and voter referendums on definitions and laws on many subjects. These decisions have largely been based upon the “equal protection clause” of the US Constitution. The “equal protection clause” is part of the Fourteenth Amendment which took effect in 1868. It provided that no state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction “the equal protection of the laws.”

This amendment has been very helpful in our common desire to protect persons from racial or gender discrimination, but it has been a lightning rod for other court cases. Those cases have thrilled very disparate groups. Many on the Left celebrate the “equal protection clause’s” use in same-sex marriage cases, and many on the Right are happy with its use in the Hobby Lobby ruling. However, regardless of your political, theological, or personal notions about such issues, the question in my mind is the logical conclusion of the enforcement of the “equal protection clause.” If we all get to decide what’s negotiable or non-negotiable then anarchy prevails and no one is protected. In other words if we’re not careful equal protection means no protection.

Therefore, this Fourth of July my prayer is that we stridently avoid the promotion of individual freedom over and above our shared liberty. I don’t have as many answers as I do questions about the courts and the issues, but I’m hoping that whatever we do we will work for what’s best for everyone! I don’t want to see our freedom devolve into a free-for-all individualism.

We are better than that if we truly believe in our motto of E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One.” I’m wondering how to we get back to the idea of one over many? How do we value diversity while promoting a democratically decided unity? I feel the need to safeguard our society’s boundaries of decorum, morality, and civility rather than let anybody and everybody decide what floats their boat. A baseball diamond without foul lines isn’t baseball. What’s fair and what’s foul, and who decides? These are questions that we must answer in order to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. God bless America and save us from our freedom!