A Shot in the Dark

Yesterday, July 13, 2024, there was an apparent assassination attempt on former president, Donald Trump.

I suspect that there will be a lot written about this and discussed by television pundits and the like. But I would like to take this opportunity to address a specific group of people, those who consider themselves, as I do, to be evangelical Christians.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I saw the word ‘fundamentalism’ transformed from describing those who held to the fundamentals of the Christian faith to a descriptor of those who practiced the opposite, using how long our hair was or high our hemline was to determine who was a “good Christian”.

In the last decade, I have seen the same migration of the phrase “evangelical Christian” from describing people with good news for the whole world to people who would use non-Christian means to achieve what they were convinced would be a Christian end.

None of this comes as any surprise to anyone with even a casual familiarity with the stories of the Bible. The cycle of losing the godly principles each generation inherits has been repeated ever since the time of Adam and Eve.

Many of us have been alarmed by the changes we have seen in our country and in our churches. I’m going to attempt to provide a fairly deep dive into understanding how those changes might well be related and how, as Christians, biblical principles might inform how we respond.

Although the following quote is often attributed to Alexis DeToqueville, there is no documentation of that. However, I believe the gist of what these words say:

“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there … in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there… in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there … in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

I have witnessed some dramatic shifts in the demographics of my country. When I was in high school, only 5% of Americans said they had no religious affiliation. By 2020 that number had grown to 30%. Over that same time span, Protestant church goers declined from 51% of the population to about 34% (Christianity Today). Roman Catholicism has suffered a similar decline (Pew Research). And, of those, with religious “affiliation” there was a large number for whom active involvement in their church steeply declined. For example, only 30% of those who identify as Protestant attend church weekly. Only 23% of those who identify as Roman Catholic and only 16% of Jews worship with other believers on a weekly basis (Gallup). The Judeo-Christian values that once dominated the American ethos has melted away from prominence here.

While I can offer no proof of causation, there has also been a decline in the percent of income Americans give to charitable causes. We peeked in 2005 at 2.4% of our disposable income. By 2022 that had dropped to 1.7%. That is almost a 30% drop in giving (Axios).

Those are the facts which can be measured and verified. But I have to ask myself why. Why has the Judeo-Christian ethos that dominated western culture for millenia lost its mojo? Why has the church lost its appeal?

I can’t answer that with statistics or facts. But I have my own thoughts on the subject. The number one reason I hear from those who don’t go to church as to why they don’t go to church is that Christians are hypocrites. We talk the talk and don’t walk the walk. That is how those outside our walls see us. And, frankly, for good reason.

What does it mean to be evangelical or to evangelize? The root of these words comes from the Greek word, εὐαγγέλιον ( euaggelion), which simply means ‘good news’. The good news is that God sent Jesus, and that we get a foretaste of the kingdom of God in experiencing our relationship with Jesus. But, with Jesus now ascended to heaven, how can we, who have lived since that time, experience this good news?

Paul in the Bible put it this way, in 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 he said,

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

The challenge in making the good news known is tucked away in those verses. Although the church is set apart by God to let the light of the good news shine, that light is in regular old people – people Paul refers to as jars of clay. So, the question we must ask is, when the people of the world that God loves so much (John 3:16 et al) look at the people of the church are their eyes drawn to our jars of clay or to the light we’ve been set apart by God to share with the world God loves?

Jesus himself foresaw that this would be a challenge for us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16, Jesus said,

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 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. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

How can we jars of clay put our light of the good news under a bowl (to mix metaphors)?

The light the church brings to the world goes under the bowl when we forget to keep first things first.

Jesus said, in Matthew 22:37-40,

““‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I love the church and I have experienced love from so many Christians. But does the world outside the church, the world God loves so much (John 3:16 et al) see love? I’m asking for a friend – a homosexual friend. Does the world see love? I’m asking for a lady whose pregnancy is threatening her life.

Some of the Bible’s teachings are thematic and crystal clear. Others are shrouded in mystery and encrusted in centuries of theological debate. But nowhere in the Bible is Christianity meant to become a tool of hate or division.

Jesus draws a direct contrast between himself as the Good Shepherd and the thief and the wolf that pose a danger to the flock.

Jesus said in John 10:10-12.

10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.

The forces of evil, be they spiritual, political, culturally systemic, or the acts of an individual can be easily identified from these three verses. The forces of evil steal, kill, and destroy – the very opposite of giving a life of abundant blessings. The forces of evil attack the vulnerable, make scapegoats, and do everything they can to divide people in order to make each of us even more vulnerable to attack. The shepherd gathers the flock together and protects them with his own life. The shepherd creates a safe place within the sheepfold.

Remember, a moment ago, we looked at the verse in which Jesus avowed that all the law and the prophets hang on loving God and loving our neighbor?

The Old Testament prophet, Micah, put it this way in Micah 6:8,

He has shown you, O mortal, 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.

Jesus echoed that in chastising some religious men. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus said,

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

These guys were doing a great job of following the letter of the Levitical law but missing the important matters of moral law – justice, mercy and faithfulness, Jesus choosing here to use the word faithfulness to describe what Micah had called walking humbly with God.

Yet, the majority of evangelical churches have little grasp of what it means to act justly, to champion and exemplify justice. Just read Psalm 72 to understand what God’s idea of justice is.

Psalm 72:1 says “Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness.” For the king to be given God’s judgments is for the king to judge according to the will of a just God. See especially, Psalm 72:2, 4, 7, 12-14, 17. By justice the righteous “flourish”. By justice, the afflicted (3x), the weak (1x) and powerless (v14), and the needy (4x) are rescued from oppression and violence. By justice, oppressors are “crushed”. By justice, all nations are blessed.

Jesus wasn’t known for running with the crowd at the top of the social pyramid or political hierarchy. That crowd killed him because he was a threat to their power and privilege. Yet, we see people who claim to be evangelical, “bible-believing” Christians who sell out justice routinely for a seat at the table with the privileged and powerful.

The second weighty matter of the law is mercy. The Hebrew word, chesed, translated as ‘mercy’ in Micah 6:8 means showing goodness by providing kindness, favors, and benefits to the lowly, needy, and miserable. In my early years I was amazed by how the church was letting the light of the good news shine by building hospitals, orphanages, and schools in underserved areas all over the world. Today, I can’t remember the last time we had a foreign missionary speak in church about their ministries. I would love to know how many churches spend more on security for their buildings than they do meeting the needs of the homeless or providing women’s shelters. I ask you brothers and sisters where is the light?

The third and last weighty matter of the law is walking in humble faithfulness with God as, not only our Shepherd, but also our Lord. We follow God’s lead because we trust God to provide for the needs of the flock.

And it is here perhaps that we have most obviously placed our lamps under a bowl. When the world that God loved enough to send God’s Son, Jesus, when the world looks at the church they see an organization bent on coercing everyone else to act they way they think people should act. Some of us say they are doing God’s will when they seek to impose their religious views on the court system and the school systems. In God’s name they have courts who happily step on the rights and interests of the afflicted, weak, powerless, needy and oppressed. In God’s name they ban books from libraries and place religious plagues on the wall.

But, all of that is hypocritical. They are not promoting God or Jesus.

“Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”” John 18:36. When Peter grabbed a sword and cut off the ear of a centurion who had come to capture Jesus, Jesus reprimanded Peter, telling him to put his sword away (John 18:11). Jesus’ life was on the line and he didn’t back down from his teaching that we should turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39).

Despite the fact that Jesus and the entire New Testament renounces coercion, force, and violence on behalf of the kingdom of God, the church has a horrific history of repeated failures in this regard.

According to Gallup, going into the 2020 election 78% of evangelicals supported Donald Trump as their candidate. From early days up through January 6 Trump has urged his supporters to be violent against individuals, the press, and even the Congress if they were in opposition to him. Somehow, “evangelical Christianity” has become synonymous with this coercive and violent ideology. I believe history will judge us harshly for this.

Have you ever been walking down the sidewalk when you smelled the exhaust from a restaurant, maybe a barbecue or bakery, and that delicious smell drew you in even though moments ago you didn’t have any idea that you were hungry? The fragrance of love as an umbrella over justice, mercy, and humbly and faithfully trusting in and walking with God, that fragrance is what can draw the world to the good news.

But if the church continues to betray our core principles, the world without principled churches will continue its descent into evil exploitation, coercion, and violence. We cannot afford to put our trust in political figures, culture wars, fear-mongering cable news, military or financial might, or anything less than trusting in God to bring the world good news.

Peter himself instructed us in 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” The gap between being manipulative, coercive, or violent and being gentle and respectful is much like the gap between the Good Shepherd and the thief or the wolf. We who choose the former will no longer be the church with an answer. We will have become part of the problem.

I hope that the attempted assassination of our former president, will serve as a reminder to us all that the path of violence is purely and simply evil. It is not a path for those of us who place our trust in the Lord and in God’s Word.

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A Unique Witness-7th Day of Easter

1 John 5:9-13

We accept human testimony, but God’s testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. 11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

On the day that I am preparing for the seventh, and last, Sunday of Easter this year, the news in the United States is brimming with details of our former president’s criminal trial. There hasn’t been this much popular attention on a court case since the trial of O.J. Simpson.

In the former president’s trial there are a number of documents that have been entered into evidence, but probably nothing as sensational as the glove of O.J. Simpson’s trial.

Anyway, in addition to physical evidence, the US judicial system gives weight to the testimony of witnesses. This has long been a fact. For so long, in fact, that the apostle John refers to this as we open our pericope. “We accept human testimony”, he says.

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that because of our prejudices and biases we may be more or less inclined to accept what those witnesses report – especially in such polarizing cases. But would that still be the case if our witness was more reliable than a human witness?

John isn’t here to talk about human testimony. He quickly shifts to talk about God’s testimony specifically about God’s Son, Jesus. As we read this, it might bring to our minds how God spoke out of the clouds at Jesus’ baptism, ““You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” Luke 3:22. Or, maybe at the Mount of Transfiguration, when God said,  “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” Luke 9:35.

But we don’t need to go back to those events, because John tells us in verses 11 and 12 what God’s testimony to us is: “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

John is rehashing words that he had already quoted Jesus as saying like:

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 17:3

“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

John 14:6

6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

As Jesus has explained it, eternal life isn’t something on the other side of death’s door. It is the life lived by anyone in whom Jesus lives. These are those of us who believe “in the Son of God”. In the original language, ‘believe’ is the verb form of ‘faith’. It means more than just to accept that God’s testimony as factual. It means that we have placed our trust in the truth that Jesus is the Son of God and in him we have an ageless quality of life that can be attained in no other way than through Jesus.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be in love have had taste of, have seen a glimpse of what this testimony tells. The quality of our lives is just better when our lives are shared with that loved one. John is saying if we believe God’s testimony, we too can have a life changing relationship with God through God’s son, Jesus.

 

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Joy? Really? or Real Joy?

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

For few adults and too many children, life is not all peaches and cream. We have hardships, heartaches and trials. So, when the Bible tells us to rejoice, what are we to do? Fake it till we make it? Christian joy does not depend on happenstance like happiness does. From the Old Testament (for example, Isaiah 61:1-3) through the New, joy comes to us even in the midst of suffering. Our joy is that, in the midst of darkness, we also see light. In the midst of our troubles, we see God’s grace working in us, through us, and around us. If we have the eyes to see God’s graces in our world, we have a joy undefeated by our suffering.

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Has the Greatest Commandment Become the Lost Commandment?

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday is from John 13:34-35 (New Revised Common Lectionary). Before Jesus utters these words, he demonstrates them by taking a towel and bowl of water then brushing their dirty, smelly feet.

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Later in the same gospel, John reports Jesus as saying, “12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

In addition to the mundane foot washing and the heroic self-sacrifice there is the parable of the Good Samaritan who saw a stranger in need and went out of his way (and gave out of his pocket) to meet that need.

The Good News that we, the church, are to share with the world is born of a verse that, if we give a moment’s reflection, is extraordinarily revolutionary. It is easier to believe in the Creator-God, because the heavens and the earth declare God’s glory. When we have such a visceral response to evils perpetrated around, it is easier to believe that there is a just God that will call those evils to account. But it is easy to gloss over John 3:16 as just a sign that is held up at sports events or child’s memory verse. But listen to what it says.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This love that shows up in the little things (like footwashing in the first century), helping the needy like the Samaritan, and loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, is modeled on how God loves everyone!!! everyone in the WHOLE WORLD!!!

In Matthew 23:23-25, Jesus chews out some religious leaders. Why? Because they got lost in the minutiae of the Law and neglected justice, mercy, and faith. Because they washed the outside of the cup and left the inside dirty. Because they “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel”.

This is such a great description of where many find themselves in the 21st century church. I would challenge you to ask your non-church-going friends to describe what they think of the church. What is her message? What is her character?

Chances are solid that if they do have something good to say it will be because they perceive some secular cause with which they themselves are aligned. What I venture to say is that we will not hear them say that when they think of the church, they think of how much we love one another or how much we love the world.

In the first century, the high priest was appointed by a Roman governor and the council was eager to appease their Roman overlords. Jesus was seen as a rock-the-boat figure and a threat to their position of privilege. Just as in the first century, today we have church leaders who are enamored with earthly political forces at odds with the church’s mission of love. They endorse mean-spirited and divisive politicians and engender mean-spirited attitudes toward those in need of the church’s love. We are witnessing the fulfillment of the words of the Apostle Paul. Paul said of some that falsely present themselves as apostles, “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light,” 2 Corinthians 11:14.

When I hear people with esteemed names like Graham condemn Disney for working to protect vulnerable children from further isolation while at the same time extolling the virtues of politicians who promote hate, evade military service, undermine our system of government, and boast of molesting women it breaks my heart. When I see the church focused on attacking those who work for justice and mercy in order to curry favor with corrupt politicians it breaks my heart. We can battle Critical Race Theory (gnat) and swallow racism whole (camel). We can divide over theological minutiae but we can’t unite behind shouting the good news of God’s love for all from the house tops.

Instead of warring and creating division in our country and in our world, the church should be focused on sharing the good news that Jesus was God in the flesh come to live, die, be buried, resurrected and ascended to return to his place of glory in heaven. Why? Because God loves the world.

Instead of uttering words and taking actions that divide and destroy the church, we should be united in bringing the grace we have received in Christ to a world in need. Feed the hungry; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; give refuge to the stranger, the foreigner, and any in need of a safe place; create places of healing in Christ’s name; stand with the prophets and Christ himself in the cause of justice, equality, and the human dignity of all people. To be Christ’s disciples we must join him in acts of service and sacrifice to build community.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” Jesus.

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Did I Actually Exercise?

Today, I changed up my fitness routine. Normally on a good day, and only on a good day, I get up and stretch a few minutes with Classical Stretch: By Essentrics on PBS. Later, Joy and I usually go for nice walk. If it’s windy we walk to the north side of the island and watch boats go up and down the ICW. If it’s calm and on the warmer side, we walk up the beach, either toward our friends’ beach access or toward the town pier.

We won’t talk about what happens on not-a-good days (but thank God for Hallmark).

A couple of days ago, Apple announce the release of a new exercise program called Apple Fitness+. If you don’t have an Apple Watch 3 or newer just move along. There’s nothing to see here. After watching the CNET review on YouTube, I, an elderly man with a leg that’s been messed up since I was a younger man, decided I wanted to give it a try.

So, I signed up for the one month free trial. As I’ve already described, I do movement regularly, but not really anything that I would categorize as exercise. In fact, I don’t really remember the last time I closed the exercise ring on my watch.

But after watching the Absolute Beginners preview video, I gave the Absolute Beginner Strength with Kyle class a shot. I have to say I loved it. As a young man I was a gym rat and loved working out with my buddies. Kyle stood in the front and did a moderate version of each movement. Another trainer stood behind him and did an easier version. Still a third trainer stood behind him on the other side and did more advanced motions. The vibe was positive and upbeat. Maybe the novelty will wear off, but this first go round was fun. I got myself grinning as I exercised. When my back started to hurt, I switched to the easier version demonstrated in the rear. For exercises that didn’t hit my back wrong I just switched back to following Kyle directly.

Now, if I was still in my 30’s and could be lifting weights with the same group every morning, I think I would still prefer that. But for someone my age, during the pandemic, this looks like it might be a great value. I’ll know better by the end of the month.

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