God and the Transition of Power

God and the Transition of Power

There is none.

What?!!  We’ve have just gone through a well scripted national process of moving from one president to the next, from one political party to another, from one ideology to another underlying philosophy of national life.  It was not a military coup.  One president and first lady welcomed the next president and first lady into the presidential residences with grace.  The well broadcast ceremony of taking the oath of office was observed.  The new president and first lady went to their luncheon, parade, celebrations and the past president and first lady walked up the steps to Executive One, flew away from the White House and on to a much deserved vacation. 

Transfer of power, right? 

Well, across the nation there were many who said “No.”  “He’s not my president” was a slogan heard over and over again.  “He is an illegitimate president” was proclaimed by some of our most established elected leaders.  “This is my country and I am not giving it back” was heard being said by many millennials.  “We are drawing a line and not allowing anyone, president or not, to demean us with his words or his actions” was an underlying theme of protest marches supporting women across this nation. 

Transfer of power, right?  “Never” seems to be the response from some.

Yet in our nation we follow laws.  Our laws allow demonstration and protest, an avenue of free speech, but not anarchy.  Our laws state that “There is a new sheriff in town” as some supporters of the new president would say.  The Electoral College took its vote and that vote announced a victor from the national election process.  As a nation of law, whether a group of individuals like it or not, a new leader has legally been sworn into office.  The emotional like or dislike, even though real, is not the new reality. 

Transfer of power, right?  The law of the land says “Yes.”

My opening statement is not addressed in the realities of what I have just said.  I said, “With God, there is no transfer of power.”  “Is God blind?”  “No.”  “Does God care about what is going on in our nation pro or con?”  “Yes.”  So what do I mean when I say, “With God there is no transfer of power?”

I have been a Presbyterian minister for almost 40 years.  The new president and I share this religious affiliation even though I don’t recognize many of our core beliefs within the actions or attitudes of the president.  One of the underlying tenants of the Reformed Tradition, the theological description of our core beliefs, is that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and sovereign. 

God is omnipotent By God’s nature God is all powerful.  From creation to re-creation, from the power to heal to the power to call a person home, God is all powerful.  From the power to install or to remove those in office, God is all powerful.  From the determination to enforce or to forgive, God is all powerful.  From the decision to use those who obey God as well as those who disobey God, God is all powerful.  Such is the nature of God.

Power in and of itself can be terrifying.  Nuclear energy is tremendously powerful.  In the right hands it can be of great service to humanity.  In the wrong hands it is devastating.  God’s omnipotence in and of itself also falls into this category.  We also believe that…

God is omniscient … God is all-knowing.  This part of God’s nature could be very unsettling if we did not also believe that God is good.  Therein, the all-powerful One uses that power in a good way not only in the moment but also in relation to how a moment fits into history as it unfolds.  As some have said, “God is good all the time.  All the time God is good.” 

For me, this blending of omnipotence and omniscience might best be seen by comparing God’s nature with that of a loving parent or a skilled and compassionate physician.  A parent might choose to discipline their child (creating some element of pain) so the child can learn and mature.  At times a parent may allow a child to do certain behaviors so they can learn from the natural consequences an action produces. Hopefully a more powerful and more knowledgeable adult can help a child grow through those decisions.

Think of the role of a physician in the healing process.  A physician must discuss difficult realities with their patient.  When the best and most loving decision to advance healing is surgery, and the decision to perform surgery has been made, the physician uses their power and the knowledge (creating pain and suffering) so that the road to healing can begin. 

To me these are human images of the heart of an omnipotent and omniscient God.

God is sovereign.  Even though there are many other descriptors that we use to define the nature and character of God, God’s sovereignty – God’s rule – is the one that to me is most grand.  In Mark 1:15, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he proclaimed,

The Kingdom of God is at hand (near), repent and believe this good news.   

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9f) Jesus taught his disciples to begin that prayer by saying:

Our father who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth (as it already is) in heaven.   

Simply put, Jesus was acknowledging that God is sovereign, God is in control.

  • We may or may not like the course of a health episode, but God is sovereign/in control.
  • We may or may not like the course of an election, but God is sovereign/in control.
  • We may or may not like the transition of power, but God is sovereign, God is in control.

Transfer of power?  From God’s stand point, from the standpoint of eternity, NO. 

This statement does raise another and final question for this blog: if there is no transition of power because God has ALL power and God IS in control, then what are we to do when those with earthly power behave in a way that is in opposition to this sovereignty of God? Let me challenge you with three things.

First, remember that when you choose one direction, one course of action, you are by default rejecting many others.  The kingdom I choose determines my course of action.  When I choose to walk in the Kingdom of God that choice takes precedence over the Kingdoms of this world.    

Second, stand for God’s Kingdom and the principles upon which it is based. This is part of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  Moses stood against the Pharaoh.  David stood against Goliath.  Isaiah stood against Ahaz.  Jesus stood against the Sanhedrin.  Peter and John demonstrated this opposition when they were told to no longer speak about Jesus, they said:

Judge for yourself whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God.  For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.      Acts 4:19

Third, pray.  Regardless of which side of a political equation you may be on, we are commanded to pray for those who lead the nation in which we find ourselves (1 Timothy 2:1-7).  Nero was emperor of Rome when Paul uttered those words.  Nero was no friend of God’s Kingdom.  Prayer commanded then.  Prayer is commanded today as well. 

By doing these three simple yet profound actions we will continue being the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16), two qualities Jesus said his followers are and are to be. 

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep

On Sunday evening Meryl Streep was given the Cecile B. DeMille Award for a Lifetime of notable work.  It was presented at the Golden Globes Awards by the Hollywood and Foreign Press Association.  My wife and I love her acting.  She brings characters to life.  We would personally agree with those in the know as well as those in the theatre seats that she has given a lot to her profession and to those who have watched her.  Our minds, hearts, and experiences have been expanded because of her contribution.  Thank you, Meryl.

In her acceptance speech, Ms. Streep stated some important observations about the power of those in the public arena to shape social attitudes and behaviors.  CNN reports the following from her six-minute-long acceptance speech:

Streep used her speech to highlight the importance to American culture of outsiders and foreigners, whom she said were among the “most vilified segments in American society right now.

“Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts,” Streep said to huge applause from the room.

[without naming the president elect] Streep said Trump’s attack on the New York Times reporter legitimized bullying.  “It kind of broke my heart when I saw it and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie, it was real life,” Streep said. “This instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public … by someone powerful, it filters down into everyone’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same.” 

Streep added: “When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”  She called on the press to “hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage” — another apparent reference to Trump.

Streep asked audience members to support the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists “because we’re going to need them going forward and they’re going to need us to safeguard the truth.”

In this short speech, Streep highlighted some extremely important behaviors from within our culture that became highlighted during the past political campaign.  Even though president-elect Trump said them, they resonated with all too many of our citizens.  Here are a few of my own observations accompanied by my comments as a pastor. 

  • Making promises with no intention of fulfilling those promises is lying.
  • Mimicking people because of a disability is demeaning of all human beings who are created in God’s image and beings for whom Jesus died.
  • Calling people names is a form of bullying. It is an adolescent tactic of pulling a person down to make oneself look better.  I am reminded of a Psalm a friend sent to me.  Psalm 52:7 says, “Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others.”  If Melania Trump is truly going to focus on cyber-bullying as her primary work as First Lady she may want to begin that work at home.
  • To target women as an object for self-gratification (even though it was only locker room banter) not only reveals the narcissism of an individual but also creates a predatory atmosphere in society. Adultery, even though it is often portrayed in the movies as being exciting, is a destructive force in human relationships.  Often it is children who suffer the most when adultery breaks up their family causing society to become destabilized since family is one of society’s primary building blocks. 
  • To make universal statements is a sign of arrogance and stupidity. A friend once told me that universal statements were “God Almighty” statements because the only person with the right to make them was Almighty God.  Therein to lump all people of a given race or nationality or religion into such a universal statement is wrong.  To call a group of citizens “deplorables” is wrong.  We simply don’t have enough information to do so.

The list from one of the ugliest political campaigns in American history could go on. 

Not only the press, but all civilized human beings need to stand against such behaviors.  It is only when people join forces and say “NO” that there is hope for these behaviors to stop.  Unfortunately, I do not believe attitudes behind the behaviors will end with “just say no.”  That type of change only takes place when a person is willing to admit their attitude is wrong and choose to work hard at replacing it with something better.  However, when people stand against these wrong behaviors a message will be sent that people who engage in these illegal or immoral behaviors will be held accountable.  This accountability for wrong behaviors may assist in transforming the underlying attitudes.    

On Monday morning (1/9/17), Kellyanne Conway, president elect Trumps senior advisor, rejected the reaction to president-elect Trump’s negative statements.  She stated on a CNN interview that people are listening to Mr. Trumps words and not to his heart.  She implied that his heart is different than his words.  My biblical Christian friends should remember the scriptures we memorized as young people:

Proverbs 17:27 (NIV)
A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.

Proverbs 18:4 (NIV)
The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters, but the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.

Proverbs 10:19 (NIV)

When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise. 

Psalm 19:14 (NIV)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. 

And these familiar words from none other than Jesus need to be remembered as well:

Matthew 12:24 (NIV)

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

Yes, we need to listen to Mr. Trump’s heart.  But, the scriptural presentation says that the heart is revealed through the words. 

Based on the use of words by Mr. Trump, I believe we have justifiable reason to question his heart.  In this free society, we need to be bold to raise questions for in so doing we will also help Mr. Trump, his supporters, and our nation as a whole to better understand the heart from which those statements have come. 

One final thought.  I do not believe that Ms. Streep went far enough in her criticism expressed in her acceptance speech. 

Presidents of the United States are not the only ones with power.  It seems to me that the very industry in which Ms. Streep participates has a great deal of power as well.  Hollywood creates images and delivers messages to millions upon millions of people every year worldwide.  Not all of those movies are noble and uplifting.  Not all of those movies dignify humanity.  These messages presented in public…

“… by someone powerful, it filters down into everyone’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same.” 

I understand the argument that the arts simply reflect the realities of the world in which we live.  To a large degree, I believe that is true.  However, it must be an acknowledged that art, especially expressed through movies and music, educates society as well.  They create images, not unlike the image she says she cannot get out of her head, images that reside in our minds for a long time.  Not all of that education is constructive.  Emotionally stable people can interact with the message of movies and music and agree or disagree.  But those who are not as emotionally stable are given “permission…to do the same.” 

So, Ms. Streep, thank you for highlighting what has caused anger and heartache in so many.  The policing of our elected officials is important because our voice and vote put those individuals into office to make decisions on our behalf.  I challenge you, do the same analysis and confrontation amidst those who stood to applaud you last night.  

 

Changing landscape

Changing Landscape.

For the better part of my life Christmas was regarded as the birthday of Jesus.  Even though this is not the most likely date for his birth, and, even though his birthday celebration has been increasingly blurred with the secular emphasis of a capitalistic society, Christmas has been the acknowledged holiday to remember and celebrate when Jesus came into this world.

Over the past few decades we have seen this acknowledged celebration begin to shift even as the faithful still remember.  But, with actions taken by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union who work to force the separation of the secular from the sacred, the presentation of Christmas as a religious celebration is no longer dominant and in many cases is outlawed in the public forum.  A few generations from now, when children raised in a different public school system than my point of origin, a system where you celebrate Holiday Parties and Winter Concerts instead of those focused on Christmas, the cultural memory of this holiday will not be Jesus.  The social landscape has begun to change. 

In addition to these changes we have the additional reality that followers of Christian faith are decreasing and those of other faiths or no faith are increasing within our society.  Even though Christian faith is still the majority religion in America at the present rate of change it will no longer occupy that position by the end of this century.  Religious pluralism is an increasing reality.  The religious landscape in America is beginning to change.

Over the past few years these changes have been highlighted by the Cultural War proponents demanding the use of “Merry Christmas.”  I am an advocate of saying “Merry Christmas” for those who understand what that means.  I am also an advocate of saying “Happy Holidays” for those who don’t know what “Merry Christmas” means.  I am also an advocate of saying “Happy Chanukah” for those of Jewish faith or in recognition of those with Jewish heritage. I am also an advocate of saying “Happy Kwanza” to those who are of native African heritage.  The genie is out of the pluralistic bottle and instead of fighting it I believe it is better to acknowledge it and open the door for conversation and understanding than confrontation and alienation. 

We live in a changing landscape in America.  We have seen it on another front in our recent political process.  If somehow we missed it, this political cycle revealed how diverse and divergent we are.  I do not know when or how we will ever move toward a more unified nation.

Now, let me suggest that this change is not all bad for those who celebrate Christmas and attempt to follow Jesus Christ as the one who forgives their moral and spiritual failures and is the director of their lives.  Sometimes when we have grown up in a religious ghetto we so elevate our spin on the history of Christmas that we forget the social landscape of the world into which Jesus himself came. Let me explain:

  • Jesus came into a world that was not Christian. In fact, there were no Christians. 
  • Jesus came into this world as a Jewish boy in a world that did not necessarily like Jews.
  • He came into a mixed political world.  At one level it was stable.  The Pax Roma was the dominating force.  At the same time the political landscape in Jesus’ home country was hostile toward this occupying army and political trials and executions were common. 
  • In terms of pluralism Rome demanded emperor worship. However, for those nations that had been conquered their native religions were ‘grandfathered in.’  Therefore, even though there was a dominant religion there were many other options as well.  Paul’s sermon in the Areopagus addresses such pluralism (Acts 17:16ff). 
  • In terms of Jesus himself, outside of the Gospels of the New Testament, there were only a few obscure references to him on the pages of history. For most people of his day, Jesus was an irrelevant person from an irrelevant country on the outer reaches of an all-powerful empire. 

History reminds us that this irrelevance did not last forever.  In fact, in just a few years longer than the United States of America has existed, Jesus and his followers moved from being a small blip on the radar of history to being a dominant mindset on the pages of one of the most powerful nations of the era.  The landscape had changed.

How did this happen?  I believe the answer is quite simple.  It is the same answer that I believe is needed today to determine if the Christian faith will survive and thrive in our present changing landscape.  They lived the love they proclaimed.  After all, Jesus had given them a new commandment:

Love one another as I have loved you.  So you must love one another.  John 13:34

A prolific Christian writer of our day, Chuck Swindol, reminds us how seriously those early Christians took this command.  He said:

One of the most profound comments made regarding the early church came from the lips of a man named Aristides, sent by the Emperor Hadrian to spy out those strange creatures known as “Christians.” Having seen them in action, Aristides returned with a mixed report. But his immortal words to the emperor have echoed down through history: “Behold! How they love one another.” 

However, they didn’t just love one another.  They went into their world and lived that love in practical ways outside their faith community.  They remembered the words of Jesus:

 For God so loved the world (kosmos) that God gave his only son, that whosoever   believe in him will not perish but shall have eternal life.   John 3:16

God loved the world before the world could love God back.  Jesus came to love the world before the world knew to love him back.  God’s love initiated an action then anticipated a response.  And, even though Jesus came as the “Word of God” (John 1:1-14) it was his actions that brought his words to life.  In like fashion, those who followed Jesus didn’t just love others through pious words.  They followed the admonition of the Apostle Paul who directed:

Whatsoever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God the father through him.  Colossians 3:17

It was this loving in word and deed that took a belief system and impacted the world.  Different from our time in history where so much discussion has been focused on the number of people who are ‘going to church’ (or not), the emphasis of that early era of Christian existence was on ‘being the church!’  They weren’t content with just bearing the title, “Christian,” they lived their faith in practical ways being salt and light…love and truth…faith and hope…in word and deed in their homes, communities, and society.

So, when we celebrate Christmas, when we remember the sweet little baby born in a manger, when we read the words and remember the angels, and the shepherds and the magi, let’s remember the whole story.   Let’s remember that Jesus became the incarnate love of God within our world and shared that love in word and deed.  Let us remember that to be a follower of Jesus demands that we follow in his footsteps in word and deed.  Being a disciple is not simply academic pursuit but a behavioral one as well, word and deed.  Then maybe, just maybe, by ‘being the church,’ by demonstrating in deeds the love of God we proclaim, maybe the landscape of our world will change once again. 

I believe this is ought to be the hope of Christmas. 

Amen. 

Political Confessions…Political Actions, Part I

Political Confessions…Political Actions, Part I

Political Confessions…Political Actions

Over the years I have discovered a number of things I do not do very well.  When I was younger I learned the hard way that I am not very good at humor through sarcasm.  I remember a “put down” battle I got into with a friend.  I thought I was doing great.  Everyone was laughing.  Then he made a comment for which I had no response.  My mind went blank.  I knew I had come into contact with someone of greater intelligence, wit, sarcasm.  I do put-downs poorly.

Another part of life which others far excel my abilities is that of political diagnosis, dialogue and response.  In my growing up years I don’t remember talking much about the politics of my day.  This was huge since it was during the Civil Rights Movement and that of the Viet Nam war.  I now find this especially amazing since my parents had worked for years in a military focused ministry, my father was a weekly reader of Newsweek, and I had one brother and two brothers-in-law’s who had served in the military during Viet Nam.  I do remember the daily count of those who had been killed and to some degree some of the protests and rioting.  Our focus, as I remember it, was upon knowing the Bible and living a faith that rose above the mud and the muck of a world gone awry. 

An outgrowth of being poor at political dialogue was that of being poor at political action outside of the voting booth.  To be honest, I don’t remember the concept of being ‘politically active’ even being on my radar.  I don’t do political discourse very well.  I haven’t really done political action at all.  I am a political world novice. 

This having been said, I now understand that the Bible is very conversant with politics.  What are politics?  Here is one definition from Webster’s.

Politics(noun)

The science of government; that part of ethics which has to do with the regulation and government of a nation or state, the preservation of its safety, peace, and prosperity, the defense of its existence and rights against foreign control or conquest, the augmentation of its strength and resources, and the protection of its citizens in their rights, with the preservation and improvement of their morals.

One of the realities of scripture is the structuring of a society after the exodus from Egypt.  The Ten Commandments and the further defining laws were given to create a godly society.  It presented a method of governance, a theocracy.  It provided leadership: the prophet and the priest, and regional judges.  The Old Testament records the history, the successes and failures of that society, the prophetic words against it when it strayed from its founding order, its praise when it returned and succeeded, and its visions of hope for a prosperous and eternal future. 

The New Testament also knows politics.  It was a political system into which Jesus was born.  Israel was occupied territory under Roman control.  The Sanhedrin was allowed political (and religious) control over the population of Palestine and those who participated in Judaism within the empire as long as it did not go against Roman law.  The Zealots (of whom one was a disciple of Jesus, Simon) were a political party committed to the overthrow of Roman oppression.  Certainly those who followed Jesus and spread his Gospel were familiar with and used to their advantage the politics of the much larger Pax Romana.

Politics and faith have always coexisted.  So it is today.  How do I know?  I read Facebook, I get e-mails, I watch a breadth of news programs, and I read a variety of articles from a variety of papers.  I hear people making their comments from the religious right which I often see as wrong.  I hear people making their comments from the religious left that is often filled with as much rancor and venom as those on the right whom they criticize.  Both claim moral and often spiritual superiority within their political bubble.  Both have blind spots within the ideologies they proclaim.  I know this is true for me.  “For now we know in part…”

What is most difficult for me is discerning where my faith needs to be turned into action.  As pointed out above, deep in the DNA of my soul there is a disconnect between the two.  Yet, I am pushed by my reading of the Old Testament and the judgement of God against those who did not stand up against ungodly politics.  The words of Micah 6:8 are so deeply disturbing:

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

‘Good’ … ‘Required’…Ouch!  How I wish Micah had said, “Love justice and act mercifully…” instead of “Act justly and love mercy and walkhumbly with your God.”  I think I am much better with the former scenario than the latter.

I am also pushed by those simple words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when he said,

“You are the salt of the earth…  You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”              Matthew 5:13-16 (NIV)

It seems that Jesus is directing his followers to be people of action and not simply observers who critique the action and thoughts of others.  You are the salt to be rubbed in the wounds and abrasions of society as a disinfectant, a medicinal technique of the ancient world.  You are the light of the world so that the darkness is removed and the path made clear.  Be salt and light in such a way that they may see your good deeds and (I think today might want to say ‘but’) praise your Father in heaven.  As a Christians from an evangelical background I need to remember the simple adage, “Actions speak louder than words.” 

Two additional observations: self-concept and focus.  Self-concept.  Jesus said, “You are…”  Sometimes I sense we Christians don’t believe that statement.  Sometimes I sense we are attempting to make ourselves something.  No, we are salt and light.  The question is will we be salt that has lost its ‘saltiness’ and will the mirror with which we reflect the One who is “the light of the world” be smudged?  We don’t need to prove ourselves.  We already are salt and light.  Sometimes the reaction we get from others when we take a stand for that which is right is because they are being blinded by the light or stung by the salt.  We don’t act justly to get the response.  We do what is right because it is right.  We are simply being who we are.

Focus.  Sometimes I think we attempt to upstage God.  Like an athlete who showboats after a good play we can make our good deeds to be more about us than about God and God’s kingdom.  Yes, people will “see our good deeds” but those deeds needs to be so righteous, so holy that the praise is not turned to us but toward the God whom we serve and whose light we are working to shine forth.   

I am reminded of a simple poem I learned as a child which bears repeating.  It says:

Only one life will soon be passed.

Only what’s done for Christ will last.

I now understand that Christians need to be people of action.  We need to be people of action in our homes, in our businesses, in our communities, in our churches, and in the world of politics.  But, our political actions need to be about advancing God’s eternal kingdom for God’s praise and glory, not our own.   A helpful to to help guide our actions, political and otherwise, can be found in this verse with which I close these thoughts,

 “And, whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the father through him.”  Colossians 3:17.

A Few Post-Election Thoughts

Howdy Friends.  Broke my right hand on Sunday evening so am having a hard time writing thoughts in our post-election nation.  This blog came across my path that I thought said things well.  So, I share it with you and hope it broadens our thoughts and stimulates your spirit to follow in the footsteps of Jesus our Lord.  After all, he is the one we follow.  He is the hope of our nation and world.  Blessings.  Pastor Paul…and thank you, Pastor Jason.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Few Thoughts on a Perplexing Morning

One of the tasks of ‘pastor’ is to help shepherd the flock through times of confusion and transition. It is not necessary to be the only mouthpiece for the congregation or to quickly heal all wounds, but I think it IS important for the pastor to offer some words of encouragement, hope, and direction moving forward after events of huge magnitude. So here’s my best attempt at faithfully responding to what happened last night…

__________________

This is a strange morning. Perplexing. Confusing. Disorienting. President Trump wasn’t my first choice…and yet he’s the choice. And I honor the democratic process that has gotten us to this point this morning. I don’t love the outcome, but I respect it. President Trump will have my support – as a person. I will pray for him. I will try my best to keep my words about him from ever being dishonoring. And yet, I find myself torn this morning as I wonder about the future of our country…and most importantly, it’s people.

This morning I find myself thinking about the Beatitudes – the beautifully challenging opening words of Jesus’ infamous Sermon on the Mount. I find myself thinking about the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the hungry; the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.

What does this morning feel like for those on the underside of our nation?

See, I’m going to be just fine. I’m a straight, white male who has a good job and is doing just fine financially…and we just elected a straight, white male who has a good job and is doing just fine financially. But what does it feel like for those who aren’t in my demographic? What does it feel like to wake up this morning as a Muslim man or a gay woman or an undocumented Mexican whose kids are American? What does it feel like to wake up this morning as someone passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement or the Dakota Access Pipeline or the ongoing destruction of God’s creation? Because up until this point, our President-elect has not proven to care too much about these folks and these issues.

And I pray that he actually does…truly I do and I will. I pray that President Trump will be a unifying force for a nation divided. I pray that President Trump will faithfully lead us into a new future as a nation – a united nation; a peaceful nation; a nation that loves and cares for all of its people.

But more than anything, on this strange and disorienting morning, I woke up committed to being the sort of pastor who leads the sort of church into loving the sort of people that Jesus loved. I woke up committed to helping my church actually be the church. I woke up committed to actually knowing and loving our neighbors. I woke up committed to actually being a supportive presence for all those who so often feel neglected.

I woke up convinced that, perhaps more than any time in my life, God could really use the church to be a leading and guiding force for peace, justice, hospitality, reconciliation, and goodness in our society. I woke up convinced that the church has a unique opportunity, at this moment in American history, to reclaim its original, grassroots mission of being ordinary radicals – a rag-tag group of normal people who have had their lives upended by the abnormal love and grace of Jesus and are committed to being the incarnation of this love and grace in a world that could desperately use a little love and grace.

So now is our time to rise up – not in fear and opposition; not in mindless allegiance to the status quo – but in subversive love that breaks down barriers, crosses bridges, and unites the country under the platform of Jesus – the poor, humble, Middle-Eastern vagrant who changed the whole world through a death-defeating, salvation-bringing, enemy-loving, peaceful means of self-sacrifice.

America’s been great for a long time and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. But it’s time to make America love again…and it can start with us.

Jason Bowker at 9:50 AM

The New Commandment

I have been silent too long.  Partially this has been because of illness.  Partially this has been because I still cannot understand the lack of civility expressed between the presidential candidates and the pundits that talk about them.  Partially this has been because so many others have responded so well to the publicized issues that I felt no desire to be redundant.  Regardless, some of you have requested to hear my thoughts and so I will share them with those of you who will choose to read these words.

My focus in these remarks is not about promises politicians make.  These promises are given to induce people to vote and often will receive only minimal attention during a term of office.  The United States government is a huge ship and any directional shift will take a long time.  Yes, a president has the hand on the rudder and therein has the power to shift course, but, the actual shifting will be a long time in the making.

As a pastor I must focus my attention on a spiritual component to what I hear going on.  Many in the United States of America have prided themselves over the Christian foundation upon which this nation was built.  However, I do not believe we are a “Christian Nation.”  I do not believe our founders designed or desired us to be such.  But, we did have a Christian foundation because of our religious heritage and because many of our forefathers and mothers were familiar with the Bible, the foundational document of the Christian faith.  Because of this foundation it may be more accurate to say that in our earliest years we were more a ‘nation of Christians with general Christian understanding’ than we experience within the pluralistic culture of today.

Most political candidates at some point in their campaign bow their knee to acknowledge our national religious heritage even while affirming the pluralism within our society.  In such acknowledgements often a candidate will affirm the religious affiliation within which they were raised and in some cases which they still practice.  For Donald Trump that affiliation was Presbyterian and for Hillary Clinton it was Methodist.

There is often a wide gap between the affiliation in which one was raised and the practice of one’s life, especially within the subcultures of politics, business, sports, Hollywood, etc.  Not everyone who claims to be a Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Evangelical, etc. demonstrates the priority in their words and deeds of being a true follower of Jesus Christ.  If a person is a follower of Jesus Christ a denominational label should be of secondary or tertiary importance.  I believe it is of the greatest importance when wearing the label of Christian to embody in word and deed, in attitude and behavior the meaning of that title.

So, what is a Christian?  It is really quite simple.  A Christian is one who has accepted God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ (the one who rescues us from the consequences of brokenness with God) and choses to follow him as their Lord (the boss of your life).  To those who fit into this definition Jesus gave a new commandment [John 13:34,35]. He said

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Since this new commandment is based on Jesus’ behaviors and not just his words (love is a verb not only a noun) the critical question becomes ‘How did Jesus love us?’

On the positive side he loved us by providing a clear vision of a divine future.  Jesus came proclaiming that “The Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe this good news” [Mark 1:15]. It was not to the Kingdom of humans that Jesus directed attention.  Jesus had a clear vision of something greater, something higher, something better that he worked to insert into the political, financial, social, religious world of his day and ours.  He loved us by revealing the power of God’s Kingdom over the evils and ills of this world.  He loved us by reminding us that we are to seek on earth the reality of God’s heavenly kingdom.  He loved us by challenging us to seek that kingdom first before all other things.  He loved us by showing that the following of this higher goal may not always be received well, it may lead to crucifixion.   He loved us enough to advance this clear vision and not demit to the lesser visions of his day.

How did Jesus love?  He loved by staying close to God.  It appears that he made the habit of rising early to walk and talk with God becoming focused on God’s will so that the rest of his day would be spent living the direction he had received [Mark 1:35-39].  Jesus loved us by keeping his priorities right and loving God first.  He said to those folks long ago,

“When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am [the one I claim to be] and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”  John 8:28-29 (NIV)

From a more negative side I must ask, “Did he love us by shaming and defaming others?”  Well there may have been a bit of that in Luke 11 when Jesus spoke harshly (and directly) to the religious leaders of the day.  But, for the most part, he did not shame or defame.  His desire was to set people free from those earthly things that held them in bondage as the key verse of Mark’s Gospel reminds us:

For even the son of man did not come to be served, but, to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many [Mark 10:45].

How did Jesus love?  By filling people with fear and hatred so they would rise up and attack a perceived enemy?  The Apostle Paul would write to those who would claim the title ‘Christian’ that

God has not given us a spirit of fear but of love, power, and self-control [2 Timothy 1:7].

The Apostle John, the one who would be remembered as the Apostle of Love, would write:

There is no fear in love.  But, perfect love casts our fear, because fear has to do with punishment.  The one who fears is not made perfect in love [1 John 4:18].

And Jesus, as he was preparing his disciples for his crucifixion in but a few hours said to them:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid [John 14:27].

How did Jesus love?  By seeing people as objects?  By demeaning people through course talk, locker room talk, especially women, or through private e-mails categorizing people into ‘types.’  No, Jesus stood against the culture of his day by allowing women to touch him, to anoint him, to travel with him, to financially support him out of their own wealth, and to defend their dignity as human beings, i.e., the woman who would have been stoned because she had been ‘caught in the act of adultery (where was the man?) [John 8:3] or Mary who wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet as a disciple and not as a cook in the kitchen [Luke 10:38ff].  He accepted the Samaritans and the Romans for who they were, created in God’s image even when they pursued a different religious path.

How did Jesus love?  By manipulating the political system of the day to gain selfish advantage?  By engaging in political double talk or enlisting the voice of a Roman centurion or by playing the people of power off the people without.  Jesus knew the systems of the Kingdom of men and women but chose to live within the Kingdom of God.  Jesus spoke the truth in love, confronted the people who were abusing the power they possessed, and was willing to allow evil to reveal itself knowing full well that when there was a death there would also be a resurrection.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Christians, regardless of political parties or participation within a political process, Christians, regardless of an office for which they may be running, Christians, regardless of their professional expertise, Christians should commit to living the new commandment of Jesus to love through both words and in deeds.

So, am I saying that the candidates for president are not Christian?  I am not in a position to judge an individual’s response to God’s gracious offer.  Am I saying that some of the behaviors leading up to their candidacy and their behaviors during their campaigns are not Christian?  Yes, I am.  Furthermore, I find it tragic to see Christian women and men who are so devoted to their candidate that they appear to justify what is un-Christian behavior by all standards of the faith we profess.

So, within a political process that sets on center stage flawed candidates (All four are flawed.  Yes, the 17 before them were flawed.  To say otherwise would be to set a person to a standard that will certainly lead to their destruction) what are we to do?

First, let’s not deify a political candidate.  They are not going to be our savior politically and certainly not religiously.  A political candidate is not a Messiah regardless of how opposed they are to the old order of things nor by how ‘vision-casting’ they are as an ambassador of hope nor by how much they happen to agree with one’s own political perspective.  There is only one Messiah and he is the one who gave his life to set people free. If we go down the road of candidate deification, we only have to read the prophets of the Old Testament to see the course we are setting for our own history.

Second, Let’s get a grip.  People who run for political office, especially the highest office in the most powerful nation on earth, have huge egos.  In many ways I would not want a leader who doubted their capacity to do the job for which they are running.  That having been said we need to be aware that large egos can lead to placing self-service above public service and we the people need to hold all leadership accountable to those who have voted them into office.  This leads to my next thought.

Third, let’s remember that whomever we elect, locally, statewide, or nationally at all levels, those officials work for us.  As a good employer, we must keep them informed concerning the job we expect them to do as well as to how we see them performing as they do the job.  We need to communicate with them and not simply listen to their verbage.  Political leadership should be dialogue not monologue.

Finally, let’s pray and pray not only for the election process but for whomever it is that wins the election.  Scripture directs to pray for those in government (1 Timothy 2:1-5) and the leader in the passage was Emperor Nero.  The familiar passage oft quoted during political campaigns as well as national crisis,’  “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray…then I will hear…” (2 Chron. 7:14) is not a scriptural reference as to how I can guarantee that my candidate can be assured of winning an election.  It is God’s way of reminding us that God is God and a President of the United States is not.  It is reminding us that our spiritual lives ought to be of primary importance not simply a tool we might use as we seek to put our candidate into power.

Those are my thoughts as of today.  Thanks for listening.  Pastor Paul

Fire Cavities

Fire Cavities

In the Redwoods there are many surprises.  One of the ones that I personally love is the impact of streams of sunlight that sneak through the giant trees and illuminate the forest in unexpected ways.   I stopped along the road while driving to take a picture of the light streaming through and making the forest pop with beauty.

Another surpriseFire 1 that caught us as we walked through the forest is what I have come to learn are “Fire Cavities.”  The one in this picture was large enough that it could have been an overnight shelter if one was lost in the woods.  This one had a special beauty for us because you could look through the entire base of the tree to the forest on the other side.  Terri actually took a better picture of this particular tree but I think you get the idea of what this fire cavity looked like

Looking at the fire cavity led me to ask the question “How?  How could a tree that obviously went through such a major fire event have survived?”  I lived for 20 years in the valley between Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest.  I witnessed the devastation caused by the Pine Bark Beetle infestation in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  I witnessed the devastating fire to those forests by lightning strikes and human failings.  Why did the pine forests of the northern Rocky Mountains burn and cause such huge destruction while the Redwoods seem to survive?  Here is a bit of what I found out.

“The thick, tannin-rich bark, combined with foliage starting high above the ground, provides good protection from both fire and insect damage, contributing to the coast redwood’s longevity. The oldest known specimen is about 2,200 years old…  Because of their seemingly timeless lifespans, coast redwoods were deemed the “everlasting redwood” at the turn of the century… Redwood must endure fire to attain such great ages, so this species has many fire-resistant characteristics. In addition, fires appear to actually benefit redwoods by causing substantial mortality in competing species while having only minor effects on redwood. A study published in 2010, the first to compare post wildfire survival and regeneration of redwood and associated species, concluded fires of all severity increase the relative abundance of redwood and higher-severity fires provide the greatest benefit.”  Wikipedia

Fire 3 Fire 2

Something in the make-up of the Redwood gives them added protection from fire.  Even though they bear the mark of fires past, they survive and continue to grow as a testimony to their unique design.

Fires are a natural part of many eco-systems.  The organisms that are equipped with the right stuff have a better chance of survival than those that are not.  Temptations are a natural part of our spiritual eco-system, fires of the soul you might say.  1 Corinthians 10:1-13 tells us that this has always been the case with God’s people.  Just as forests and fires go hand in hand so lovers of God and the temptation to do it our own way go hand in hand.  The Apostle Paul reminds us at the end of this passage that walking in the faithfulness of God is our natural protection against being consumed.  Listen to these words as I remember them from the King James version of the Bible:

There is no temptation taken you but such as is common to man.  But, God is faithful who will not suffer you to be tempted beyond that you are able, but, will with the temptation make a way of escape that you may be able to bear it. 

And what is that “way of escape?”  Staying close to the one who is our protection.

Walk close to the Lord today…and each day.

Pastor Paul.

 

 

 

Wandering Wonderings

 As with all of Pastor Paul’s posts, if you are touched by these thoughts feel free to “share” them with others.  

Wandering Wonderings.

So many thoughts.

Such random reflections.

Such sadness for what we have lost.

sadness for our society,

our culture,

our nation with such division.

Such anger for those who have inflicted violence.

Such sorrow for those who have lost loved ones: husbands, fathers, sons, brothers…

Again I see aloneness that has moved into hatred.

I see the need for love by someone who is hurting

Human contact for one who has become self-isolated.

Friendship, simple caring for one created in God’s image.

I see that without loving contact an injured mind can become distorted into seeking its own justice, its own revenge for hurt perceived.

I wonder, who or what has misdirected power?

From good that seeks to establish and maintain peace

to aggression, control, fear, lashing out, hair-trigger reactions?

I observe that the 1% is not just those with wealth against those without

The 1% are the bad cops amidst the 99% good

The 1% are the bad guys/gals amidst the rest of solid citizens

The 1% who cheat, scam, abuse, amidst those who work hard and honestly to make a life instead of just making a living.

I ask will it ever change?

There are times I am hopeless, pessimistic, cynical (maybe I should say sin-ical)

There are times I see hope.

I am reminder that Jesus said, “Blessed are the peace-makers.”  How different that is from the role “peace-keepers.”   How different is the work.    My guess is that real change will take place when the 99% choose to Make Peace.  My guess is that the establishment of justice will play a key role in this process.

I remember a time in my youth when veterans came back from Viet Nam.  When they were scorned by a nation they had been called upon to serve often not by their own choosing.  I remember a time when people walked in the streets and turned over cars in protest and demonstrated against that unrequested war.  I remember when troops fired on protesting citizens and the national conscience went into shock.

I remember that something changed, something shifted in this nation.  I don’t know the moment I only remember that the consciousness of America decided that young men and women may have been sent to serve but they didn’t choose the war that was to be fought.  That these Americans: black and white, Hispanic, Asian-American, African-American, Caucasian, tall and small, well educated or not, sexually and religiously diverse, from north, south, east, and west were putting their lives on the line to protect and preserve our freedom…

…a freedom so many have taken for granted and sometimes chosen to abuse.

I don’t know when, but a shift occurred when we as a people chose not to condemn but to thank those who served; To recognize that these men and women had given of their lives so that we could have our lives;  To consider the impact that their service had upon their families who also served…through support; That we were called upon to be grateful and to voice our gratitude not only in prayers but vocally to those men and women.  .

I ask: was it because of the protests that this change began?  Was it because of the shame we began to experience as we reflected upon those days?  Was it because we understood that change comes from love and gratitude and not guns and violence?  I don’t know.  I simply ask.

I wonder:

…Will change in race relations come because we understand that a person did not choose to be born black or white, in the ghetto or of privilege, into a single parent home or one with multiple parents?

…Will change in human relations come because we look past the façade and into the eyes and see a person?

…Will change come because we refuse to pull a trigger at an object of hate and choose to see a person who is suffering or serving or simply attempting to survive.

…Will we ever understand and live the “Be-Attitude”

            ‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’

and in being peacemakers experience

                           ‘…for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.’ Matthew 5:9

I wonder.

The Road Less Traveled

As with all blogs and lessons on this site, if they are a blessing to you, don’t hesitate to pass them along so they might be a blessing to others.  Pastor Paul

The Road Less Traveled

Over the past 34 years I have been privileged to live in three of the most beautiful locations in our nation: The San Juan Islands (Friday Harbor), Jackson, Wyoming, and now, the Central Coast of Oregon, Lincoln City.  Each of these areas thrives on tourism.  During tourist season the main areas of the community are overrun with humanity.  It is the life-blood of those communities even though the influx of humanity is often despised by the ‘locals.’  I remember a bumper sticker I saw on a ‘local’s’ vehicle that said: “If it’s tourist season, why can’t I shoot ‘em?”  Not very welcoming but certainly expressive of the deep seated feelings of some ‘locals.’

That having been said, I have always been amazed at how quickly you could get away from tourists if arRedwood Roade willing to exert some energy and do some exploring.  There are many beautiful beaches in the San Juan’s or the Oregon Coast with relatively few people.  20 minutes down the path on trails in the Jackson area there are noticeably fewer people.  In the Redwoods during Thanksgiving break I found the same principle to be true.  I took this picture of the highway driving through the Redwoods because I was amazed that the traffic was essential non-existent.  To get into the solitude of nature can be relatively easy if you know where to go and are willing to exert some energy to get to a road less traveled.

Robert Frost wrote a poem about what happens when we get off the busy thoroughfares of life and begin to travel some of the paths and trails into more wild areas.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel bothRedwood Trail
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The road we choose to take makes all the difference.  The road we choose determines what we will see, what we will experience, the people we will meet, the things we will believe, the things we will choose not to believe.  The broad road, the well-traveled road has a lot going for it.  There are lots of people, jobs, possessions, …  But there is also conformity which often leads to a losing of self.  I become what everyone else is.  I blend in to the masses.  I can forget the unique person God has made me.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, talked about the wide versus the narrow road, the road well- traveled and the road less traveled.  He said:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)

What I am convinced Jesus meant was that broad road was the road of religious rules.  Every religion has them.  Religions and rules go together and have an important place in social function.  They provide a broad road upon which many people, the religious, can walk.

But, the broad road can also miss something very important.  Within the context of the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) the road less traveled is living life by the heart of God.

An example?  Jesus said,

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.                                                                   Matthew 5:21-22 (NIV)

 The broad road says “don’t murder.”  This is important.  But the heart of God says don’t be angry (condemning of) with your brother.  To say it another way, the heart of God says, ‘don’t write your brother off (Raca).’  It is a lot easier to not commit murder.  It is a lot tougher to see your brother as a child of God, equally loved by God as God loves you.

The road less traveled, listening to God, means I have to spend time in solitude learning to and discern God’s voice, God’s heart.  I have to spend time meditating on what I hear.  As I hear God’s voice I know I may have to buck those who are on the broad road and choose the narrow way reflective of God’s heart.  It may not be easy.  The narrow road is often more time consuming, more arduous, a road less traveled.

What I have found in walking the road less traveled in both the spiritual and natural realms is that it may be more difficult, but, it is also more rewarding. We saw magnificent sites in the Redwoods.  I have seen wonders on the back trails of the Tetons, the Sierra Nevada, the base of Mt. Rainer, the beaches of Lincoln City and San Juan Island.  I can say with Robert Frost in that wonderful poem of nearly a century ago

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

 

Orlando

Almighty God: You are the God who created and sustains life.  It is your breath that animates us.  It is your image that is reflected in the best we human beings do.  It makes no difference the color of the skin, the age of the body, the origin of our heritage for You are the creator of all and You love the whole world.  Thank You for creating us and loving us.

God of grace, even though we are created in your image and are animated by your breath, we are not You.  You are eternal and we are temporal; You have all knowledge and we are extremely limited; You are good, always, and we try to be, most of the time.  Lord, even though we are created in your image we do not have the ability to live in harmony with that image. Even in our best attempts we must confess that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’

Your law commands, “Thou shalt not murder.”  When we choose to rob a person of your breath, with whatever rationalization we may create, we make ourselves into gods, the greatest of all sin.  Certainly this is what happened this weekend in Orlando.  One man, incited by the anger and hatred of many men, determined to take your breath from those who were defenseless, those having a night on the town among friends.  He murdered.

Was it because they were American?  Maybe

Was it because they were gay?  Probably

Was it because he was a radicalized Muslim attempting to create terror?  Maybe

Did it create terror?  Absolutely

Will it immobilize a people?  Probably not

Will it activate a people to work for the common good?

Lord that is what I pray for, that we who call upon your name, we who claim your name, will work for the good of all.  That we will bind ourselves together as we pray for your Kingdom to come.  That we who seek your kingdom will commit ourselves to living your kingdom now by being a light that points the way and salt that heals wounds. That we will not see our commitment as an event but as a process, a lifelong process until You bring this human history to conclusion and your eternal Kingdom is the only Kingdom in which we live.

And so, Lord, in the midst of the suffering from this event, during a time when violence seems to be on the increase and the desire for power and control of others seems to be the primary motivation, we seek your Kingdom and look for that day when it will reign:

A day when the lion will lay down with the lamb.

A day when these former things will have passed away.

A day when there will be no more violence or hatred, no prejudice or bigotry.

A day when the focus of life will no longer be on what I want and what will make me happy, but,

A day that will be focused on You, your kingdom and your will.

Until that day I ask You Lord to comfort those that mourn (once again there are many) and to strength those who are weak.  I ask You to raise up your people to be your presence, and your hope, and your love in the midst of another shooting tragedy in our nation and in your world.

In Jesus name we pray.  Amen

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