Retirement Thoughts

Earlier today, my friends and colleagues at Gordon-Conwell hosted a retirement luncheon in my honor. It is hard to believe that this was the culmination of 15 years as editor of the Advent Christian Witness followed by 24 years as the Library Director at Gordon-Conwell. Below, I want to share my own reflections which I shared with those assembled at the close of the event. I share them in gratefulness to the Triune God for his providence and care for me over these past many years. I’m not done yet. There is more to do. But this represents the transition to the next stage in my journey of faith. Many of you have shared this with me and I am grateful to you.

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Thank you for your kindness toward me this afternoon. It is hard to believe that I’m wrapping up almost a quarter century at GCTS-Charlotte. Over the years, I’ve labored with you to build something special in this place—a campus that could contextualize theological education to a rapidly growing city and metropolitan area. While we probably have not accomplished all that we hoped, we’ve still done a lot against all kinds of odds. Gordon-Conwell Charlotte has been in the center of God’s purposes both for the people of God and for this community.

We have kept the gospel central to our mission. We have sought to prepare people for life and service with academically and spiritually strong programs. We’ve encouraged world missions and involvement with the great matters of contemporary life. We have welcomed Christians of all kinds—Black, Latino, Asian, and White; Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Presbyterians, folks from independent congregations and evangelical ministries, even from the Advent Christian churches where I first learned about following Jesus.

We have over a thousand graduates serving around Charlotte and around the world. Most of all, in the time that I have worked here, those of us who have worked here have sought to be a real Christian community in how we value each other and treat each other. We’ve rejoiced with each other and suffered with each other. We’ve seen times when things appeared impossible, and yet God has sustained us.

I remember being the new kid on the block. Wayne Goodwin gave me a look at the library and I thought to myself, “This will be a challenge!” And those of you who were here when I started know what I’m talking about. When I came, I had three goals in mind. 1. Find ways to serve well our students and faculty; 2. Connect the work of the library to the academic mission of the school; and 3. Build a high-quality theological library focused on the degree programs and courses we offer. That third goal took over 20 years to accomplish, but with a library team like Matt, David, Audrey, Nick Valadez, Abby Vinez, and a host of student workers, we accomplished it. As I have always told the library team, if you love students and you love books, what better job in the world is there?

Last month, during his retirement dinner Rodney shared some things that he has learned about life and leadership in his pastoral and academic ministry. If you will permit me, I would like to do something similar. I’m going to steal some from a poster that had graced my office here and earlier when I worked across town. But first, 25 somewhat  original thoughts:

1. Ground your life in the joy of Christ and pay attention to your own journey of faith. That allows your work to become a sharing of that joy with the others you serve.

2. Never stop learning.

3. Lead by example.

4. Always be willing to do any task that you ask others to do.

5. Listen to individuals on your team. They often have great ideas.

6. Remember that we do not live to work, but we work to live.

7. Almost all library mistakes can be fixed because books don’t talk back to you.

8. Listen, then speak.

9. Read more than one book at a time.

10. Don’t think you have to finish every book that you start (unless it is a textbook assigned by Dr. Davis or Dr. Wheaton.

11. Go see a minor-league baseball game every once-in-awhile. It’s good for the soul.

12. Charlotte is a great city with lots to see and do. Engage with the community in which God has called you to live and work.

13. Remember that technology has its limits. People are not machines.

14. Write personal notes and send them by snail mail. (Think of the joy you receive when you get a personal, handwritten letter or note.)

15. Communicate often and generously with others especially when you are introducing new policies or procedures that impact them.

16. When you get an Email or text message that rings your chimes, wait 24 hours before you respond. You need time to cool down and reflect.

17. If you are finishing an assignment for work or school, never submit it immediately. Wait a day and then give it one final proofreading.

18. Never, never, never, never ask a question that you don’t intend an answer or want someone else to answer.

19. If you have the opportunity, take two weeks off and drive west to the Rocky Mountains. There is something about driving through the Great Plains that opens up your soul and offers a sense of connectedness to God’s beautiful creation.

20. Worship is an embodied experience so be part of a congregation where you can worship and serve.

21. Remember that most sin comes down to the abuse of money, sex, and power. Be very wise in how you approach those areas of life.

22. Don’t be afraid to change your mind about something.

23. Keep in mind how little you know. When I graduated from Seminary, I thought I knew a lot. Now I realize that I know far less than I thought I did. But I know Christ, and that is the one important thing.

24. Remember that legitimate concerns make up only two percent of all the things we worry about. (I confess that this is a hard one for me.)

25. Have a favorite passage of Scripture that frames your life, a theme verse or passage if you wish. Mine is a simple phrase found in Colossians 1:27 “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Let me thank you for making GCTS-Charlotte such a good place to work While here, I had opportunity to work with six of the Seminary’s seven presidents, five Vice-presidents for Academic Affairs, six Charlotte academic deans. I have met and worked with so many wonderful Christian people who have studied and worked in this place.

And that is what has made GCTS-Charlotte such a special place. The people who have worked and studied here. In American organizational life since the industrial revolution there has always been a bias that people exist to serve the organization and that the preservation of organizations is paramount. I disagree with that. I think people are primary and that institutions and organizations exist to promote human flourishing and when they stop doing that, then they are propped up by either fear or force.

I think the Apostle Paul would agree as well. When Paul was challenged about his ministry on behalf of Christ, he responded in a rather startling way. He didn’t point to himself. Instead, he put it this way. “Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all” (2 Cor 2:2). I won’t go into the context of this passage, but when folks ask me about what I’ve done for the past 24 years, my simple answer is “you.” You, all of you who have worked here and you, all of the students who have come through this place, are my lasting legacy. So again, thank you for your friendship, your collegiality, and your love for Christ.

I’ve changed my mind

With formal retirement just over a month away, I’ve been pondering a half-century of adult life and all that has come with it. For example, folks around my age often identify major events that have shaped our human experience–the Cuban missile crisis, the JFK assassination, the Richard Nixon resignation, the Challenger disaster, and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I can tell you where I was when those events took place, and I have vivid memories of each.

I’m also fascinated by things about which I have changed my mind. I bet you’ve heard politicians and others brag about how they have never changed their minds. That always scares me because not changing one’s mind at least about some things tells me that you are not open to new evidence or better ways of seeing what you believe and live by. Changing your mind about something now is much harder than it was 50 years ago simply because all of us are bombarded with so much information that we have little time for disciplined thinking about things that matter.

So here is a list of some things about which I have changed my mind. It is not an exhaustive list. Some are trivial; others more important. Some are matters of preference; others a matter of conviction.

  • When I was a young adult, I used to think that preserving and building institutions was the most important thing I could do, especially within American Christianity. Now I’m deeply skeptical of institutions because way too many Christian (and secular) institutions strip the very life out of persons. Persons and communities of persons are far more important than our structures, and our structures should be framed by justice, compassion, and flexibility.
  • In my twenties, John Denver was my favorite musician. In my late sixties that honor goes to Paul McCartney.
  • When I graduated from Seminary, I thought it was important to get people to believe rightly about the right things. Now I see that Christian faith is both affective and cognitive, and in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” You cannot divorce knowledge from love for others.
  • In my younger years, I thought that pets were luxuries that detracted from serving God. Wow, have I changed. Now my cats remind me of God’s purposes for all of creation, and like C.S. Lewis, I will not be surprised if my favorite pets, Marbre and Tuptim, will be part of New Creation that the New Testament describes in various places.
  • When I first started voting, I was a registered Democrat. Now I’m a political independent who thinks that both the D and R parties are dangerous to our Republic.
  • I used to be skeptical about climate change. Now I think the evidence for climate change is overwhelming and that we face hard choices in terms of how we address it.
  • Once upon a time, I was sanguine about megachurches. Now I’m deeply skeptical of the celebrity culture they foment.
  • A long time ago, my favorite beach was Santa Cruz, CA. Now it’s Pawley’s Island, SC. (Let’s hear it for “arrogantly shabby!”)
  • Have you ever thought that you could preserve happiness by keeping everything the same? Yeah, I was there. Now I realize that joy comes as we follow the Triune God in our unique journeys through life.
  • Like a lot of Christians, I went through a big prophecy kick in my teens and early twenties. Now I don’t care about any of that stuff. I simply know three things: Our Lord Jesus Christ will return. Only God the Father knows for sure when that will happen. When it does, it will be beyond my imagination!
  • Family and friends can no longer be taken for granted; they are valuable in and of themselves and are God’s gifts to us.
  • In my early twenties, I was concerned for Civil Rights for African Americans but lived in my own racial bubble. Today, my historical studies have convinced me that African Americans have faced brutal realities long ignored by white folks like me (the evidence is overwhelming), so I’m reading more American history (especially African American history), listening to my African American friends describe their experiences, and looking for ways that I can influence church and society to come to terms with our horrid racial past (which spills into the present).
  • Fifty years ago, I was proud to be called an evangelical. Now I avoid the term like the plague; and prefer the simple term “follower of Jesus.”
  • I used to like labels like “Reformed,” or “Pentecostal,” or “Wesleyan,” or “credo-baptism” (and others). Now I reject labels like these and refuse to be pigeonholed by them. Life is far more complex than labels.
  • In college, I used to think that some ideologies were bad. Now I see all ideological thinking as essentially corrupt.
  • Forty years ago, I found myself mostly reading American theologians. Now I ignore most of them in favor of British theological scholars like N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, John Stott, and others not as affected by the “Modernist-Fundamentalist” controversies that split American Christianity in the 1920s.
  • In the 1980s I did not think NASCAR was even a sport. Now, I love it especially since I’ve seen a few races in person at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
  • Growing up, my favorite teams were the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. Now my favorite teams are…you thought I was going to say some other teams? Sorry.

That’s an incomplete list, but you get the picture. Changing what we think about some things over time is normal and natural. You know what? I’ll probably change my mind about more things. But the one eternal reality on which I stake my entire life is Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from death. On May 1, 1965, I gave my life to Christ and started on this amazing journey of faith. It is hard and challenging; there are times of deep sorrow and pain as life takes unexpected twists and turns. But ultimately, to turn a phrase from C. S. Lewis, it “surprises me with joy.”

Why I Read “The Message”

Earlier today, I finished Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson titled A Burning in My Bones. I remember Peterson’s first book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction published back in the early 1980s. That almost seems another time, another place and in many ways that captures just how out of place Eugene Peterson was in our world of megachurches, celebrity CEO pastors, and congregations modeled on the latest management theories.

Complexity shadowed Eugene Peterson through his 84 years on earth. An average student who became a brilliant linguist in terms of the biblical languages. An introvert who valued silence and solitude whose pastoral ministry focused on engaging people and being their spiritual friend and guide. Someone who grew up in Pentecostalism and found his way into the Presbyterian ministry. One who travelled in broadly Reformed circles who wasn’t much of a Calvinist. A human being who sought seclusion but much to his surprise wound up hanging out with Bono and U2.

Translations and Paraphrases

Eugene Peterson is best known for is his paraphrase of the Bible simply called The Message. My leather bound copy of the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs sits at my kitchen table marked with my underlines and marginal notes. For my devotions, I like to read the biblical text in different translations. One year I will use the NASB; the next the RSV; the next the NIV; and so on. That gives me opportunity to read different translations and discover how they present in English texts that were written originally in koine Greek and Hebrew. I also like to use specialty translations and paraphrases like The Kingdom New Testament done by N.T. Wright or The First Testament translated by the Old Testament scholar John Goldingay. My goal is simple. I want to read the text in a way that allows God to speak to me from its pages.

Along with my selected translation which for 2020-21 is the NIV (its most recent edition was published in 2011 and that edition fixes many of its earlier problems), I read the same passage in The Message. Beyond that I use The Message for longer blocks of Scripture reading. For example, when I start with a biblical book like Mark’s gospel, Paul’s letter to the Romans, or the Old Testament wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, I like to read it through in one setting to sense the larger context and discover what the author seems to be up to. And I use The Message to help me catch that larger context. (I don’t use it for preaching and teaching unless it is for illustrating the point of the NIV text I use for those activities.)

More Than Mere Words

Reading Winn Collier’s biography gave me an even deeper appreciation for what Peterson was up to in paraphrasing Scripture. His academic training in the biblical languages helped him grasp how those languages worked. Translation or paraphrase is not merely of converting a word or phrase from Hebrew or Greek to one in English. Languages are far more than mere words; they frame how people think and communicate in the era and the context in which they live. Moreover, all translation is interpretation and the point of translation is capturing the essence of what the biblical writer communicated in his cultural context and expressing that in ways that are sensible to English readers today.

Winn Collier captures Eugene Peterson’s sense of this work. “Languages are not mathematical equations; they are complex and expansive modes of thinking and communicating” (218). But there is more, because translating (or paraphrasing) involves communicating the written word of God. “Eugene believed translation is a kind of ‘lectio divina–more than only getting the words right, there is spirit, the vibrancy of the text, the livingness of the message.’ The Bible was not a dead book. It was vibrantly alive” (218). What Peterson was trying to do was paraphrase the biblical text into idioms common to the folks who worshipped at the congregation he served in the Baltimore suburbs and even more to working-class folks like his father, a butcher, and the people he grew up around in Kalispell, Montana.

Slow, Hard Work

It was slow, hard work. “This is going slower than I expected–and sometimes I think I’m doing excellent work, but sometimes it is pretty pedestrian….The translation continues to reinforce my feelings of inadequacy–and pushes me to prayer–trust–egoless work” (220-21). In addition, Peterson invited evangelical biblical scholars to read and critique his work and often adjusted the words and idioms based on their feedback. The Old Testament took ten long years. But the product offers a fresh window into Holy Scripture. Let me illustrate. Perhaps my favorite passage in the New Testament is Romans 12:1-2. Peterson’s paraphrase captures Paul’s intent and communicates it in idioms that we can grasp:

“So here is what I want you to do. God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping eating, going-to-work, and walking-around-life–and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (Romans 12:1-2, The Message).

That’s what a good paraphrase does. It captures the biblical writer’s intent in ways that he might say it if we were his original audience. The Greek that the New Testament writers used was not the classical Greek of the philosophers; it was the “street Greek” used by common folks in their daily lives. That was Peterson’s goal, to paraphrase the biblical text into the “street English” of our day, and do that while capturing the essence of what the biblical writers communicated in their day.

Did he get all of it right? Does any English translation or paraphrase? I know just enough Greek to be dangerous, but one thing I do when reading is when I read something that seems to be a mistranslation, I pull out my trusty purple pen and make a note by the text. That is not to judge the hard work of so many who have given us good translations like the NIV, RSV, ESV, NASB, and others, nor does it besmirch the work of Peterson, J.B. Philips, Eugene Nida, and others who have offered paraphrases that hopefully capture the essence of the biblical texts.

I love reading The Message, and if you are looking for a good paraphrase that captures well the overall contexts of Holy Scripture, I recommend it to you. Eugene Peterson died in October 2018, but God has used him to our generations a marvelous gift. My guess is that long after I am gone, someone else will craft a paraphrase that captures the “street-English” of the mid- to late-21st century.

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Winn Collier’s new biography of Eugene Peterson was released in March 2021 and titled A Burning in My Bones. It’s published by Waterbrook Press. Collier was given access to Eugene Peterson’s personal papers and his private journals, and spent significant time near Kalispell, MT interviewing and conversing with Eugene Peterson before Peterson’s death in October 2018.

Heroes

We don’t hear much about heroes today. Perhaps folks are too jaded and cynical to think that there are public figures worthy of our admiration for their character, their accomplishments, and for their contributions to humanity. Heroes are those who step up to challenges. They don’t back down in the face of struggle or difficulty. They inspire others. They do the right thing even when it costs something. They are folks who are not so much “me” centered as “we” centered. They are people who give us something to aspire to; folks whom you want your kids to admire and emulate.

I have four heroes, individuals whom I admire and desire to emulate. Let me tell you about them and why they inspire me. They are not anti-heroes, self-centered rebels, or quintessential lone-rangers. Instead, they are individuals of great accomplishment and character who see their contributions as beneficial for others.

Willie Mays

As a young boy growing up in San Francisco, baseball was my first love and the San Francisco Giants were my team. I remember my first major league game on July 29, 1959 when I got to see my first hero, Willie Mays, warm up right in front of me before the Giants played the St. Louis Cardinals. (Stan Musial was in the twilight of his career and in the starting lineup for the Redbirds that day.) Willie Mays was not only my hero; he was a hero to every boy my age who followed the Giants. I learned to read the newspaper by following his stat line every day in the box score and reading the San Francisco Examiner sports section as they described his play.

What I loved about Willie Mays is that he played baseball with such great joy, the joy that comes when men and women get to play a kids game and make a living doing it. As a child, I loved not only his exploits on the field, but the things he did to make San Francisco a better place to live, especially for children.

Later on as an adult, Willie Mays remained one of my heroes for very different reasons. I became aware that as an African American growing up in segregated Birmingham, AL (the place where Bull Conner turned his dogs loose against children in 1963), Willie Mays was not afforded the opportunities that were given to white children. In fact, if he would have been ten years older, he would never had played in the major leagues no matter how good a player he was. Even in San Francisco, he experienced the sting of racism when he tried to buy a home and a number of whites in the neighborhood objected to his presence. His life was difficult (especially when his second wife contracted early-onset Alzheimer’s and he focused on her care). But he rarely complained and today at age 89, he is still employed as a good-will ambassador for the Giants. Definitely a good selection for my childhood hero.

John Stott

My Christian faith reached a crossroads in college and during my sophomore year, I wondered whether Christianity could stand up to the intellectual challenges I found as I studied philosophy and mathematics. The Jesus Movement was at its peak and I had come through a “Pentecostal” phase that had lasted a couple of years but now seemed intellectually bankrupt. I can’t remember who, but someone handed me a little book by a British guy titled Your Mind Matters which I read between calculus assignments and Plato. It was a series of lectures he had given to a group of college students and as I read, I discovered that he was addressing my questions, my qualms, my concerns.

That British guy was John Stott whom I discovered knew the Bible better than anyone I had ever read or heard. Not only did he know the Bible, he was able to explain the Christian faith in ways that were intellectually credible for college and university students and for people like me who enjoyed asking hard questions. There was never a question that John Stott was afraid to answer.

I started devouring more of Stott’s work and twelve years after I graduated, he published his magnum opus titled The Cross of Christ, an amazing work that captures the essence of the Christian gospel. It wasn’t just his books, but his Christian character and his public ministry. What I saw in John Stott was an integration of mind and heart (of intellect and affections) that refused to reduce Christian faith to a cold intellectual/doctrinal framework, or to the continual seeking after emotional highs where people lived for experiences that were often times walled off from life.

John Stott became my second hero in life. I was blessed by the opportunity to meet him personally in the 1980s and hear him lecture on preaching. I’ve been blessed by the fruit of his ministry and his passion for both evangelism and social concern. Unlike so many “celebrity” Christians, John Stott never desired attention. I think heroes are folks who give us examples to which we can aspire, and John Stott, even though he died several years ago, remains that kind of hero for me, even today.

John Perkins

In 1968, a relatively young man left a good job working at a Ford factory outside of Los Angeles and took his wife and children to a small town south of Jackson, Mississippi with what seemed like a crazy dream–bringing the Christian faith to poor and disenfranchised people who had suffered the brutality of Jim Crow. His message was far more than talk, though proclaiming Christ was certainly at its center. He believed that Christ wanted not only to bring the gospel to Mendenhall, Mississippi but that the Lord wanted to lift its African American citizens out of poverty and help them claim their full rights and privileges as American citizens, especially the right to vote.

Perkins’s activities drew attention, not all of it good. In August 1970, he was stopped and arrested by Brandon county sheriff’s deputies, taken to the county jail, and beaten nearly to death that night. I heard him describe that night years later at a Fuller Seminary chapel. And I asked him about what he had learned that night when I had opportunity to interview him in 1992 for the Advent Christian Witness. (He describes this night in his first book, Let Justice Roll Down.) John Perkins came from a non-religious family with little use for Church. It was not until he had fled Mississippi the first time in the 1950s for a good job in the Los Angeles auto factories that he first heard the gospel at the little Baptist church where his daughter went to Sunday School. I wondered if he ever imagined that in turning his life over to Christ, God would call him back to Mississippi to suffer on behalf of Christ.

After hearing him in that Fuller Seminary chapel service, John Perkins became another one of my heroes; not so much because he suffered as I’ve met many who have suffered for Christ in one way or another. But what set John Perkins apart was how he came to love others, even those who brutalized him in that county jail and even white folks like me who had little clue of the deep harm that so many African American families had suffered because of segregation and Jim Crow. Loving others did not mean excusing their sin, and even today at nearly 90 years old he’s still active in community development and in fostering justice and reconciliation among Christians in society. If John Perkins could love those who harmed him and act to reconcile others to Christ and to each other, that was something to which I wanted to aspire. (And yes, I still have ways to go.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer was only a name to me until in one of my first seminary classes, I was assigned his little book Life Together. This short little book described a small theological school that Bonhoeffer established in 1937 in Finkenwald, Germany as the Nazi regime strengthened its grip on the German church and German society. Three years earlier, the Nazi’s had added the so-called “Aryan Paragraph” to German law. The law forbid any person of Jewish ancestry from being a pastor in the German state church and from holding a government position in Germany. A sizable group of pastors and laypeople disagreed and organized the “confessing church,” in opposition to Hitler and the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer and the Swiss theologian Karl Barth were prominent voices among the confessing church. Barth was responsible for the Barmen Declaration and Bonhoeffer was asked to organize a school to train pastors for the confessing church.

Before the rise of Hitler, both Bonhoeffer and Barth had been part of a reaction to the rise of German theological liberalism that dominated German theological schools and had minimized the role of Scripture in the life of the church. Both had studied under Willhelm Herrmann, the most prominent individual in the German theological establishment, and both ultimately rejected his theology and argued for an approach that viewed Holy Scripture as central to the life of the church. Both advocated a “Christocentric” approach seen in Bonhoeffer’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer also spent 1931 in New York City worshipping and teaching Sunday school at Abyssinian Baptist Church, at the time the most prominent African American congregation in the United States. His time there allowed him to grasp what it was like for marginalized people in society, and left little doubt in Bonhoeffer’s mind what he must do when the scourge of anti-Semitic totalitarianism struck his own country.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer abhorred war and violence and considered himself a pacifist. Because of that, he faced one of the great moral challenges of the 20th century when given opportunity to be part of a plot to kill Hitler and overthrow the Nazi regime. His response was that in a world plagued by what Genesis 3 describes as the fall of humanity, there were times when we face flawed choices and therefore his task as a Christian was to “drive a spoke in the wheel” of the Nazi machine. The plot failed; Bonhoeffer and his allies were arrested, and he was killed by the Gestapo on April 9, 1945 three weeks before the Allies liberated the Flossenberg concentration camp. Christ had bid him to “come and die” on His behalf.

So Dietrich Bonhoeffer became my fourth hero because he was willing to say “no” to evil when an entire society said “yes.” He was willing to say “no” when that same society declared Jewish people to be “other” and unleased unspeakable violence against its neighbors. He was willing to say “no” in the name of Christ when so many in the Deutsche Christen chose Hitler over Christ. I think that Bonhoeffer’s example frames my suspicion of anything that smacks of political authoritarianism– worship or veneration of “the leader,” marginalization of people because of their ethnicity or race or religion, and the use of money as a tool of political power. I want to learn more about how to live with Bonhoeffer’s courage.

Heroes are human

My four heroes are far from perfect. When you read about their lives, you discover that they never pretend to be perfect. They’ve all made their share of mistakes and misjudgments and they are comfortable with naming those. They are OK with their humanity. At the same time, they don’t let their mistakes stop them from living with integrity and to paraphrase Rick Warren, they recognize that “it’s not about them.”

Do you have any heroes? Think about that question. Whom do you admire and why? What is it about your heroes that inspires you to live in Christ-like ways? You don’t need too many heroes. In fact, having too many defeats the purpose. Moreover, do your heroes point you to Christ; the One who is our greatest hero, the One who took on human form, lived among us, suffered and died on our behalf, who was raised to life, and who lives today to draw you and me into vital relationship with our Creator.

I would love to read about your heroes. Post a response and let me know about your heroes, public figures whom you admire in church and in society.

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There are numerous books written about the four individuals about whom I have written. For Willie Mays, read 24: Life Stories and Lessons from the Say-Hey Kid by John Shea and Willie Mays (St. Martin’s Press, 2020). For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the best biography is Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh (Knopf, 2014). There are several excellent books written by and about John Perkins. Start with Let Justice Roll Down, his first book republished by Baker Books in 2012. Then read Dream With Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win (Baker, 2018). John Stott has published many works including the two that I have mentioned above. The best short biography is Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott by Roger Steer (InterVarsity, 2010).

“Away with the Atheists?”

Last week like many of you, I read about the results of a new survey that claimed less than half of Americans are now linked to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Guess what; it didn’t take long for the pundits to pile in with warnings, prognostications, and blame. “It’s all the fault of the religious right and their love of Trump.” “No, it’s those on the religious left who have succumbed to ‘woke’ culture.” The blame goes on and on.

Once we get past the blame game, others then tell us that this portends disaster for American Christianity, even America itself. Their implication is that this is bad for both. But what if it is not? Perhaps, we’re so ready to wring our hands in despair that we miss what this means. And what this means, at least in part, is that we now find ourselves in a religious context more like the first century AD than at any other time in history.

The first century and our century

Think about that for just a moment. The Christian faith was born into a world where multiple religions and multiple spiritualities flourished. Judaism in the first century experienced a massive transformation from Temple-based to synagogue worship. (The destruction of the Second Temple in AD70 forced this dramatic change, a change that has framed Judaism for the past 2,000 years.) A quasi-philosophical religion that we call Gnosticism flourished throughout the Roman empire in the three-hundred years after Christ walked the earth. Emperor worship became the Roman state religion and practicing this religion was a defining mark of patriotism. Religions like these and others were everywhere and people often practiced more than one.

What made Christianity different was its insistence on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christian confession was three words: “Jesus is Lord.” Hence, if Jesus was Lord, then Caesar was not. Now, Rome did not mind you practicing another religion as long as you acknowledged Caesar as supreme. Caesar had room for other gods, as long as Caesar remained supreme. But Christians could not confess the lordship of Caesar. And (get this), they were labeled “atheists” because they did not recognize Caesar’s lordship; and that meant they were off-and-on subject to harm and persecution.

The persecution was not constant. Instead it broke out at different times and in different places. The New Testament Book of Revelation and the post-Apostolic letter of Clement to the church in Rome were written at approximately the same time (AD90-95). Yet they describe very different contexts. The Roman church that Clement addressed seemed able to live their lives peacefully (though with memory of the brutal Neronian persecutions of AD64-68); while the churches that John wrote to in Asia minor (modern-day Turkey) were challenged by him to live faithfully in the face of oppression. John spends most of his narrative describing Rome as a “beast” that will unleash massive evil on the world before the return of Christ.

The best illustration of what many Christians experienced came from the second-century pen of a writer who described the martyrdom of bishop Polycarp. Polycarp was probably mentored by the Apostle John himself; and when he was arrested and brought to the Roman governor, he was 86 years old. The governor asked Polycarp to recant his Christian faith, and the writer described the scene like this, “Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say “Away with the atheists!” So, Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd…who were in the stadium and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, “Away with the atheists!” But when the magistrate said, “Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,” Polycarp replied “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 10.2-3).

Our chief enemy: Distraction

I’m deeply moved every time I read that account. What Polycarp’s martyrdom helps me grasp is the challenge Christians like you and me face every day: to live our lives with no other ultimate allegiance than Jesus Christ. It sounds simple on the surface, but it is not; especially in a world that offers so many competing loyalties and bombards us with hundreds of daily messages clamoring for our attention. Distraction is the order of the day.

And distraction is the enemy’s tool to draw us away from Christ. When we care more about religious things, about political things, about personal desires, they, and not our Lord, become our focus in life. Since the 1950s, American Christianity in its more liberal and conservative forms has become far more partisan in political terms. One of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, described how dangerous this is; “Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then, let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “Cause” (The Screwtape Letters, 39).

No earthly nation-state can be called “Christian”

How that describes American Christianity, especially American evangelical Christianity in our day and time. The root of this lies in the misguided idea that somehow the United States is a nation especially ordained by God for some special purpose. This idea has both Christian and secular versions, though in the past century it has been interpreted in different ways by liberal and conservative Christians.

The United States is not nor has it ever been a “Christian” nation. Like the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and other nations the U.S. has origins rooted in different versions of Christianity as well as in non-religious ways of thinking. Lewis is right. When people and churches make it their mission to elect the “right” politicians or get a particular political party in power, Jesus Christ is moved from the center to the periphery. The nation-state becomes more important and we become beholden to whatever political party we claim membership. Jacques Ellul had a name for this–the “political illusion” and far too many American evangelical Christians have embraced it.

Does that mean American Christians should simply withdraw from society? No, it does not. Our Lord teaches us to live our daily lives in whatever society he places us. He wants us to care for others, especially those who are poor and who have been harmed. He desires justice tinged with mercy. Jesus wants to use us to draw others to him and he wants to use us to make the United States (and the entire world) a better place for humans to live and work.

I’ve always viewed myself as a somewhat independent thinker. I think abortion needs to be curbed because it involves the taking of innocent human life. I think we brutalized African Americans and Native Americans for nearly 300 years and too many white Americans pretend that people of color should simply be able to get over it in one or two generations. I think that money, sex, and power are the American drugs of choice for many (and that is not to take away from the seriousness of opioid and other physical addictions). I think climate change is very real and that to pretend that it isn’t is to ignore massive scientific and anecdotal evidence. I think that Donald Trump won a free and fair election in 2016, and I think Joseph Biden won a free and fair election in 2020. I think our two major political parties are now a great threat to our Republic and our way of life.

I can hear some of you reading this. He’s a “communist.” He’s a fascist.” He’s a “Republican.” “Horrors, he’s a Democrat.” That demonstrates my point. We have traded Christ for our favorite political and social ideology, and our ideology no matter what it is determines how we perceive things, not actual evidence. So, I’m not asking that we agree. I’m asking how we as followers of Christ can resist the drive of political ideology and display the values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about over and over in the four gospels, values that apply to both individuals and communities. What if Christians like you and me become political independents for the sake of the Gospel. Even more, what if we treat folks who disagree with us for whatever reason not as somehow evil people who should be “cancelled” but individuals created originally in God’s image who need to hear the gospel? (Yes, “cancel culture” exists on both political extremes and sadly, even in American evangelical Christianity.)

This is part of the ongoing struggle that you and I have in following Jesus. Yes, I struggle with it. I have for a long time (and my opinionated nature makes it an ongoing struggle). But let’s not despair. Amidst all of the distractions we face, we can find ways to center our lives on Jesus himself and and create outposts for the gospel and for the Kingdom of God. Above all, let’s learn to give each other grace, especially when we disagree. And don’t worry about this latest Gallup poll. After all, it makes our Kingdom mission even more clear.

Covid-19 Vaccine: A Gift from God

Last June, I signed up to be part of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine trial. I signed up not only because of my interest in the project, but because I wanted to do at least a small thing that might help others and help stop this dangerous disease. By that time, Covid-19 had ravaged much of the United States especially the New York City area, the death toll was approaching 100,000 people, and most of us had been in lockdown for three months. The scenes from ICUs were heartbreaking, especially the grief that so many people were experiencing in being unable to be with their loved ones when they died. When I received news that my medical group, Tryon Medical Partners, would host the Moderna trials, I knew I wanted to participate despite the risk.

I was one of about 700 people in Charlotte (part of over 30,000 nationwide) who participated in that trial. Half of the participants were given the trial vaccine and the other half were given a placebo; and we had to get two shots spaced a month apart.

I asked a lot of questions on my first visit. I wound up being there most of the afternoon as they had to give me a physical, do the necessary blood work, and give me a Covid-19 test. It is hard to describe the discomfort of that, but my eyes watered for about ten minutes afterward. If you have been tested, you know what I’m talking about.

I had a lengthy conversation with the doctors and nurses about the vaccine, how it was developed, and about what the doctors and immunologists were discovering about the disease and how it spread. The doctor who treated me had been on the front lines in New York City treating patients and watching many succumb to the disease despite her best efforts to treat them. I learned a lot from her and the others managing the trial; about Covid-19 and about what we knew and what we still did not know. I also talked twice with my primary care physician who is also very knowledgeable about diseases and treatments.

Good news, bad news

I learned some good news and some bad news. The good news was that we had learned more about the virus faster than with any other disease like this in history. The bad news was that there was much we still did not know and that it would take months, even years to learn more. Covid-19 affects everyone differently, no matter their age. While those my age (60 and older) were more likely to suffer hospitalization and death, even younger people were not immune from those outcomes. By June, we learned that the disease was primarily airborne and it passed between individuals through close contact, especially in large groups. Social distancing and masks became the order of the day, especially when scientific research demonstrated that if two people are wearing masks the transmission rate is greatly reduced.

That was the first of five trips to Tryon Medical Partners. They managed the Covid-19 trials for Moderna in Charlotte, and I got my first two “shots” in September four weeks apart. Then I had to keep an online diary and log describing my daily activities and any medical reactions that I had; while keeping my normal activities as best as possible given the pandemic and restrictions in place in Charlotte. There were also weekly phone calls from the study. I was careful and Renee and I both stayed Covid free until after the vaccines were approved for use in December.

In January, the staff at Moderna called me back in, indicated that I had received the placebo, and said that I would get my first vaccine shot that day. A month later, I got my second shot. I had no problems with the first shot, and had a few side effects about 24 hours after the second shot (achiness and fatigue). Those passed quickly. Renee then got her first and second shots, and both of us have had no problems. We’re very grateful for the vaccines as we are now getting out more and are able to go to church in person. Our church is very careful about safety and the Lord has blessed us with no Covid cases caused by gathering for worship. We are both grateful for our elders and pastoral staff who understand the seriousness of the disease especially for our older congregants.

God’s mercies

In December, Leighton Ford invited me to participate in a videoconference for a group of Charlotte pastors and business leaders with Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health and an outspoken follower of Jesus Christ (and Dr. Fauci’s boss at the NIH). Dr. Collins began by sharing his testimony of coming to Christ when he was a medical resident at UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1970s, and then discussed with us of the process by which the Covid vaccines were made. He answered the questions the business leaders and pastors had, and I left that meeting thinking about how good God is to place one of his followers at the head of these efforts. I left that conversation knowing that the vaccine was both safe and effective, and that in many ways it is a wonderful gift from God designed to alleviate suffering and even death from a horrible disease.

What does that mean for followers of Jesus? Let me suggest several things. First, we can encourage others that the vaccines are both safe and effective, especially the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Should everybody get one? If you have some kind of pre-existing condition, you should talk with your doctor and get professional advice. But I think for most of us, the answer is “yes.” Covid-19 is a dangerous airborne disease that can spread easily between people, especially with the new B.117 strain from the United Kingdom spreading throughout North America. And more dangerous variants are ravaging Latin American countries like Brazil, where the death toll has crossed 300,000. Getting a Covid-19 shot is a safe, effective way to protect yourself and others you associate with.

Second, is the Covid-19 vaccine perfect? No, it is not. Nothing is perfect and that is to be expected because we live in a world damaged by sin and the fall of humanity. Will some who are vaccinated get Covid-19? Yes. But the vaccine will reduce the seriousness of the disease and has been demonstrated to keep people out of the hospital, so far. As more people are vaccinated and we get to herd immunity, then the pandemic will end and we can enjoy things like eating indoors at restaurants and going to movies, concerts, and sporting events (and I can’t wait).

Third, we can respond effectively to the propaganda that has swirled around the internet and television for the past year. You know the lies. Covid-19 will simply disappear if we ignore it. Masks are a government plot to control the population and take away your freedom. The vaccine will manipulate your DNA in harmful ways. And my favorite: the vaccine has a nanochip secretly loaded into it that will allow the government to track your every movement. (Someone has spent way too much time reading bad science fiction.) We Christians are people of the truth and people of kindness and mercy, and the vaccines offer a wonderful opportunity for us to encourage others.

So I share my experience with you in hope that you will both consider getting the vaccine when you are able to do so. May Christ have mercy–on you and me and on our congregations and our entire country as we navigate this hard and difficult season. Thank him for scientists, especially scientists like Francis Collins who serve Christ while serving us.

Read the Bible (Really!)

This May 1, I will mark 56 years as a follower of Jesus. I still think about that day in Santa Cruz, CA when the evangelist offered the invitation to come forward and accept Christ as my Savior and Lord. Well, I didn’t go forward (I was pretty shy at that time) but I prayed the prayer the evangelist asked us to pray right there in my seat. And I knew that something happened. At the time, little did I realize that I was beginning a journey that would last a lifetime and take me to Seminary, to doctoral work in Christian history, and even for more training as a theological librarian. Now, I’m ready to retire at the end of June.

It’s easy to think that retirement marks the end of the story. But following Jesus does not stop when we transition to another season of life, and I’m looking forward to more good years for research, writing, and teaching. Even more, I know the journey will not end when my earthly life is complete, but will continue at the end of this age when the Triune God will renew the entire creation and followers of Jesus will be raised to life in a new heaven and new earth.

I’m old enough to look back, and a big part of my journey of faith involves reading Holy Scripture. I never tire of reading the Bible. I think I still have the first New Testament that someone gave me back in 1966, Good News for Modern Man, one of the first modern translations designed for folks like me who struggled with Elizabethan English. I devoured that New Testament and it was my companion throughout Junior High and High School. Soon, I was reading the New American Standard Bible in college, and the Revised Standard and the New International versions when I was a young adult. Today, I like to read both a translation and a paraphrase at the same time. My preferred translation is the NIV, and I supplement that with The Message, the paraphrase translated by Eugene Peterson between 1990 and 2011 that I very much like for reading large portions of Scripture.

I also love reading books about the Bible. John Stott’s commentary on Romans is one of my prized possessions. N.T. Wright and Michael Bird’s The New Testament in its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (2019) is a stunning introduction to the New Testament. These are only two of many excellent resources for understanding the Bible in which I’ve been privileged to sink my teeth.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the shock that Renee and I experienced when we saw a sign with three Bible verses outside of the U.S. Capitol during thee 1/6 insurrection. We copied them down to read and discovered that they were ripped out of their original context and made to say things that the biblical writers had no intention of saying. My love for reading the Bible means a concern for good reading of the Bible, as opposed to bad reading of the Sacred Book. Hence, this post. What can we do to make sure that we are reading the Bible well? Let me suggest four ideas that help me and that will help you.

Read the Bible in Context

This is foundational to good Bible reading. Context. Context. Context. Yet, how many times do we hear people rip a Bible verse out of context and use it to say something they want to say. It happens over and over in Bible studies, small groups, youth groups, Sunday school classes, parachurch ministries, and sadly even from many pulpits.

The idea of context simply means that before we can understand what the Bible may be saying to us, we must understand what it said to the people who first heard or read it. What did Paul, John, Matthew, Peter and the other New Testament writers want to say to first-century Christians who made up the early congregations scattered throughout the ancient world? Only when we grasp that, can we fully grasp what it might say to us.

Context involves seeing the verse or passage of Scripture you are reading in light of what comes before and what comes after. Context also means that we read a verse or passage as part of an entire biblical book. In addition, we must understand some things about the history and culture of the time. For example, look at 3 John 2, “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually” (NIV). I’ve read and heard health-and-wealth preachers use this as justification that God’s will for you is to be healthy and rich, and that if you are not, then something is wrong with you.

But that is not what John is saying. With a little reading in a good study Bible (I like the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible) you discover that John used the format for a standard Roman letter, and in those letters it was the custom to offer a greeting that includes hope for the reader’s good health. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of these Roman letters and they follow a standard format, one that John uses here. So we dare not rip this little verse out of context and make it say something that it should not. You will find things like this when you are reading, and if you don’t understand what Paul, John, or others are trying to say, jot down your question and do a little background reading. I’ve been reading the Bible regularly for over 50 years and I don’t have it figured out by a long shot. I have some questions jotted down and when there is opportunity, I’ll do some research.

Read the Old Testament in Light of the New

The New Testament writers were adamant that the teaching of the Old Testament is fulfilled in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christians do not neglect the Old Testament. We value it because it tells us the story of God’s rescue plan to save humanity including you and me. That rescue plan centers on Jesus Christ.

Books of the Old Testament can pose a reading challenge. We’re confronted with all kinds of ceremonial and moral laws, especially in the first five books of the Old Testament. We find hymns, poetry, and wisdom sayings in books like Psalms and Proverbs. We read prophets pronouncing judgment on Israel and speaking of destruction of the Jewish temple. For Christians, all of this is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the story of Jesus did not end with his ascension into heaven. It is an ongoing story that Scripture teaches will conclude only when our Lord returns again.

Scripture’s Fourfold Symphony

Jesus Christ is the focal point of what I like to describe as God’s symphony, a great narrative or story described in four movements: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New-creation. The first movement found in Genesis 1-2 tells us that everything in heaven and earth is created by God. John adds to that in the first chapter of his gospel by telling us that Jesus Christ was an active participant in that creation and that through Jesus all of creation holds together. When you read those passages, notice that the emphasis is not on the mechanics of how God did it. Instead, the Bible in these passages and others, tells us that everything in all of creation, including you and me, are the result of God’s creative activity. That is the first movement of this great symphony, and I can imagine all of the instruments in the grand orchestra being played with joyful care.

The second movement becomes a dirge, where humanity chooses to go its own way independently of God’s purposes and plans. Genesis 3 describes it in terms of the first humans disobedience of God that results in you and I being cut off from our creator. That is the essence of sin, the human choice to live apart from God and his good purposes and the consequences are stark: we are cut off from God, our interpersonal relationships become deeply distorted, the human institutions that govern how we live no longer support human flourishing, and even God’s creation, to us a term from the Apostle Paul, “groans” under the weight of sin.

If the symphony stopped there, all there would be to life is hopeless despair. But the third movement shows us just how just and merciful our Triune God is. From Genesis 4 on all the way through the New Testament, we read repeatedly of God’s rescue plan not only for us, but for humanity, and indeed all of creation. It begins with God setting apart a people whom he desires to be a light to all nations and people. That rescue plan culminates in Jesus Christ, the one who dies for us and whom God raises to life. Through Jesus, God’s new world begins to break into our world, a reality that is in many ways hidden (see the Kingdom parables in Matthew 13) but is slowly leading toward the finale.

That final movement has yet to be played, but the orchestra is building toward it. We know that it will be played at a future moment known only to God. As followers of Jesus, we long for that day when God will remake the world without sin and disobedience, when the beauty of God’s creation will be restored to God’s original intent. I cannot even imagine what that will look like–a world and its inhabitants without the distortion of sin. The older I get, the more I realize how little I grasp of that reality, and perhaps the vision of Narnia described by C.S. Lewis is the closest that I can get to it. I do know that the enemy of our faith wants us to concentrate on fighting about the details instead of imagining the amazing future God has for us.

When I read the Bible, I keep this fourfold symphony in mind. I’m always asking what God is doing in light of this. How does what I am reading fit into his unfolding purposes? Whether the passage is a narrative, a poem, a proverb, a word of prophecy, a letter, or writing that uses symbolic images as metaphors, all of it fits into the symphony of Scripture. In fact, that is how the second and third century Christians identified what books and letters make up the New Testament we read. (Obviously, they were led by the Holy Spirit and I think that this is integral to the process of God inspiring the writing and the collection of the Scriptures we have.) They knew that the Old Testament and New Testament scriptures deserved to be read as Scripture because together they describe God’s rescue plan that culminates in Jesus Christ.

This is why I love reading the Bible. It is the Word of God expressed in human language, in the everyday idioms used by writers who sought to follow God. Sometimes, Bible teachers and scholars make it overly complicated. At other times, many resort to citing verses out of context to make a text or passage say what they want it to say to support their religious, social, or political views. The best way to deal with both of those extremes is to read the Bible regularly. Read it in context. Ask how specific passages fit into this fourfold symphony of creation, fall, redemption, and new-creation. Like the early Christians who wrote the New Testament we grapple with Jesus Christ and his significance for our lives, our churches, and all of creation. Join me in the ongoing adventure of learning to read well.

So Long to Mr. Fix-it

Yesterday, I sat in a faculty meeting as part of an ongoing conversation our school is having regarding issues related to race and ethnicity. These are hard discussions because as a group, we’re struggling with coming to terms not only with American Christianity’s historical treatment of native Americans and African Americans, but with contemporary stories from our colleagues of color and the continual experiences of animosity directed toward them in small and large ways in the communities and the metropolitan areas where they live and work.

The writer David French described his experience with discovering just how many Americans of color experience this ongoing animosity. He and his wife, Nancy, adopted an Ethiopian young woman and she became one of their three children. As they engaged in the normal things that families do, they began to notice something striking. Whenever they would do activities or go places, their African daughter was treated very differently than their two white children. Hostile looks. Questions like, “What are you doing?” Statements like, “You can’t be here.” Until they discovered that she was part of a white family. The French family got a lesson in the experience of so many persons of color in America. Over the last few years, it has gotten worse. Ahmaud Arberry. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. White Supremacists marching through Charlottesville; and storming the Capitol. These are the contemporary faces of the injustice directed at Americans of color since the mid-17th century.

In the meeting yesterday, one of my colleagues said something that grabbed my attention. I’ll paraphrase his words. “Those of us who have not experienced animosity or hatred directed at us because of the color of our skin often find that our first impulse is to try to fix everyone and everything now. We come up with bold plans. We think we have all of the right answers. Why? Because we are uncomfortable with our discomfort at hearing these stories. Perhaps we need to sit in our own discomfort and let God teach us lessons we don’t want to hear.”

God directed that right to me. I’m an activist, fix-it person by nature. When I hear about a problem, my first response is usually to ask what needs to be done to fix this, or at least start to fix it. Perhaps I jump to fix-it mode because I don’t want to be uncomfortable for long. Why should I be uncomfortable? Perhaps I’m uncomfortable because I live in a world where I don’t have to think about race, where I don’t have to negotiate a society whose long-term hostility toward persons of color continues to be manifested not only in large ways, but in the small everyday interactions of life. My friends and colleagues who are African American tell me about having “the talk” with their kids, meaning that they have to tell their teenage sons and daughters how to act when they are stopped by the police for no apparent reason. It happens all of the time.

So, I need to sit with my discomfort, even welcome it and not pretend that I can “fix” these realities. I’m blessed that God has brought my way a number of non-white people who have become good friends and colleagues. I need to listen to their stories, and let the reality of their everyday lives sit with me and make me uncomfortable.

That does not mean that I resist constructive action to deal with issues related to race and ethnicity in America. But I’m learning that for all of us there is something even more important than action. The Apostle Paul gets at it in 1 Corinthians 13.”If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2). This morning I’m seeing that passage in a different light and I might paraphrase it this way, “If I can think I can move the mountain of racial hatred, but do not have love, I am nothing.” I won’t stop looking for tangible ways to address matters of race and ethnicity, but even more important I’m going to listen to my friends and colleagues of color, and I’m going allow myself to live in the discomfort their stories and their experiences bring to me, and I’m going to let their stories reside in my human experience as a constant reminder of the depth of our human depravity, and how desperately all of us need to follow Christ every day that God allows us to live here.

The Reckoning is Now

The Insurrection of January 6 brought shock to our country like we have not seen since 9/11 when planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many of us watched in horror as armed militias stormed our American Capitol building shouting death threats at Vice-president Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I’m convinced that with another few minutes, they would have carried out their ugly intentions and the destruction to our Republic would have been beyond what we could ever imagine. As it is, the death and destruction was brutal and intentional.

What came to mind earlier today was a reflection on a time 1,600 years ago–a pivotal moment in Christian and world history. In 410AD, Rome was sacked and nearly destroyed. The seat of world power for over 800 years had been breached by a people nominally under Roman governance, much like what happened when the seat of American and even world power was breeched by a group of citizens so alienated from the rest of us that they are willing to believe conspiracy fantasies about our recent election despite no concrete evidence that would stand in a court of law.

Augustine was not in Rome at the time, though he certainly spent a lot of time in his early life in that great city. When he heard the reports brought to him in North Africa where he was serving as a Christian Bishop and overseeing congregations under his pastoral care, I can only imagine what he felt. The world as he had known it for all of his life was coming undone. I wonder if Augustine could even imagine a world without Rome at its center, just like I cannot imagine a world without our American Republic. Fortunately, Augustine went on to do some of his best theological work after those events, as seen in his magnum opus, The City of God. I wonder where are the Augustine’s that will guide us in the coming years?

Even more, I wonder about American Christianity, especially its evangelical variety. What is emerging from the Capitol Insurrection of January 6 is an ugly picture of many who claim to be Christians like you and me participating in the storming of our Capitol, and even some pastors and leaders who claim evangelical Christianity on hand for the events. Christian music blared from the speakers. Bible verses written on large picket signs. Christian flags and large crosses throughout the crowd. A few weeks earlier there had been a so-called “Jericho March” in the capital with Christian Nationalist rhetoric so bizarre that some evangelicals warned of “a form of fanaticism that can lead to deadly violence.”

The writer and lawyer David French put it bluntly. “I would bet that most of my readers would instantly label the exact same event Islamic terrorism if Islamic symbols filled the crowd, if Islamic music played in the loudspeakers, and if members of the crowd shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they charged the Capitol.

“If that happened conservative Christians would erupt in volcanic anger. We’d turn to the Muslim community and cry out, “Do something about this!” How do I know we’d respond in that manner? Because that’s what we’ve done, year after year, before and after 9/11.”

Friends, American Christianity, specifically American evangelical Christianity faces a reckoning! We have replaced our Lord Jesus Christ with political idolatry. And if we want to follow Christ and communicate a gospel message of grace to our fellow citizens, we had better come to terms with the hatred, with the fantasy thinking we have allowed to harm so many, with the “what-about-ism” that allows us to excuse our own idolatry.

I think this massive evangelical participation in conspiracy theories and now even violence against the rule of law in our country stems from a lack of biblical, expositional preaching in our pulpits, and in our inability to read Holy Scripture apart from our cultural location. Hence the Bible becomes a mere tool in our right-wing (or left-wing) politics as evidenced by one of the signs I saw carried into the Capitol by the violent protesters. Renee and I copied down the three verses on that sign and looked them up. Each one was ripped out of their context and used almost like a magic saying to justify a bizarre highly-charged political interpretation of our country as well as hatred for those who might disagree. Such a use of Scripture is idolatrous!

I have always contended that when theological liberals use the Bible, they say far too little. But when evangelicals use the Bible, they say far too much. Both point to the crisis of the Word of God we face in the church. Because of this crisis, we have become way too susceptible to crackpot conspiracy theories that are nothing more than extremist manipulations. Donald Trump is the most post-modern president ever. And what is shocking is that he uses the tools of Nietzsche and Foucault to deconstruct reality in a way that has duped many, many evangelicals and religious conservatives.

The most appropriate act of worship followers of Jesus can perform at this time is lament. This is not a good season for us and for our congregations. Nearly 400,000 of our fellow citizens are dead because of a horrific disease that spreads through the air and is especially harmful to our elderly and to those among us who are infirm. We have witnessed a brutal attack on our government and the rule of law. We have allowed partisan politics to fester among us. We’re worse than the theological and political liberals we claim to abhor.

Lament followed by repentance for the idolatry that we have allowed to fester among us is the order of the day. If we refuse to turn to the Triune God, don’t be surprised when God turns away from American evangelical Christianity.

____________________

David French’s words are excerpted from Only the Church Can Truly Defeat a Christian Insurrection published online in The French Press, January 10, 2021. https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/only-the-church-can-truly defeat?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjo1NDI2NTk2LCJwb3N0X2lkIjozMTE4OTU3MiwiXyI6Ikt3S01GIiwiaWF0IjoxNjEwOTc1OTQwLCJleHAiOjE2MTA5Nzk1NDAsImlzcyI6InB1Yi0yMTc2NSIsInN1YiI6InBvc3QtcmVhY3Rpb24ifQ.4xQkoVazp8LjkOyU-omJJzup05JzTeLl5sLmeMWxA1s

An American Myth

As I write, Election Day is in full swing and we’re hours away from the first results being tabulated. We’re living through the most divisive election since 1968 and probably the most divisive season in American life since the run-up to the Civil War in the 1850s.

What I’m struck with is how divisive this election season has been among American evangelical Christians. Inter-evangelical conflicts have been front-and-center ever since Donald Trump came down that New York City stairway five years ago, and the online sniping, dueling blogs, and downright boorish behavior by people who should know better has not enhanced our reputation. It’s even made me wonder whether American evangelicalism can survive as a renewal movement within American Christianity.

The political and theological battles among folks who claim to follow Christ have been percolating for at least two generations, ever since the so-called Moral Majority was established by Jerry Falwell in 1979. Those evangelicals who opposed Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other minions that made up the “religious-right” coalesced around the Post American magazine (later Sojourners) and the 1973 Chicago Statement of Social Concern. While their numbers were much smaller than those of the religious-right, they made up for that with influence in many of the Christian liberal arts colleges that are part of American evangelicalism. From the 1980s on, there has been a low-level cold war between the two with the typical political insults hurled back and forth every so often. With the retirement and eventual death of Billy Graham, the forces that restrained this cold war were removed and we’re at the point where for many, evangelicalism is defined more by political ideology than theological conviction.

I don’t think there is a quick way to put this genie back in the bottle. There are no trite little religious sayings or slogans that can address all of the complexity at the heart of this. So what do we do? In this writer’s view we need to grasp both Christian purpose and American purpose. Let me start with the latter.

Perhaps the greatest driver of American Christianity’s understanding of political life has been its embrace of the myth that the United States is somehow God’s chosen nation to carry out his purposes in the world. In other words, the United States has become a “new Israel” commissioned by God. God has made America and its citizens “exceptional” in the world. We’re different than Canada, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, and so on because to use the words of those great theologians Jake and Elwood Blues, “we’re on a mission from God!”

More Religious, More Secular

The roots of this are both religious and secular. When the Puritan communities settled Plymouth and later Boston they envisioned themselves commissioned by God to establish a Christian society based on John Calvin’s Geneva (in Switzerland), that would provide the half-hearted monarchs in England, France, Spain and the Roman papacy with an example of true Christianity applied to political and social life.

This Puritan dream collapsed in the early 18th century and was replaced in the American Revolution by a secularized version. The new American elites viewed the new country they had created as an example to the European monarchs of what a virtuous political community should look like. While for the Puritans, their settlements were a “city on a hill” (to use a term from Matthew’s gospel), the deistic, more secular revolutionaries of the 1770s viewed their revolution as creating a more secular “city on a hill” based on political and economic freedom.

Their vision was noble, but misguided. The reality is that the American founders envisioned a nation-state based on republican principles that came from enlightenment rationalism. The American founders were scared to death of the religious violence that decimated Europe in the 17th century, violence created by different forms of Christianity vying for superiority in the European monarchies. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin and others desired a government that would eliminate religious competition for government status and the violence that often went along with it.

American evangelical Christians in the late 18th century were more than happy to go along with this arrangement. They were willing to give up formal endorsement from the government in exchange for religious freedom–the liberty of individual Christians to choose their church according to their conscience and the freedom of churches and religious groups to conduct their work free from government intrusion. At once, the United States became more religious and more secular. Government could not interfere in religious life (as was the case in England) nor could churches demand some kind of religious test to hold political office (as was the case in most European monarchies at the time).

Resisting the Political Illusion

What does this mean? Three things. First, while Christian and Enlightenment ideas strongly influenced American society, the United States was (and is) not a “Christian nation” in the sense that many use this term today. We are a nation-state like all of the others which exist in our world. We are no different or no better than Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, or the other nation states that make up our world. Second, no matter what country in which they live Christians have a responsibility to make better their communities and their countries. Our focus is the Kingdom message of the Christian gospel. Christians believe that God is doing something radically new through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We offer the gospel, the news that the crucified Christ has been raised from death to life and that he offers life to all who will come to him in faith. We speak the words of life, but we also act in ways that allow human beings to flourish in our congregations, in our communities, in our cities and states. We speak and act on behalf of the poor. We desire that human dignity apply to all in the human family no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or geography. We’re even foolish enough to care for others with whom we disagree.

Finally, we resist what Jacques Ellul described as “the political illusion” the idea that everything can be reduced to politics. The political illusion is rampant throughout American Christianity to the point that what I think of Joe Biden or Donald Trump is almost determinative of our faith. How we need a return to the Gospel. How we need to speak the words of life. How we need to act in ways that address the physical, social, and spiritual needs of our communities. How we need to foster human flourishing for all in our churches and in our communities.

Let’s make our churches far less political. Let’s drop the partisan politics. Let’s make sure that our churches are welcoming to people who are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or whatever political group they identify with. No political endorsements from our pulpits. No letting politicians address our worship services. Instead let’s be gospel Christians, ones who tell others about our Lord Jesus Christ, who call them to repentance and faith, and desire to see everyone in our communities flourish where God has placed them.