Category Archives: Religion in General

“For the Lord is a God of Justice….”

A turning point of sorts occurred for me in 1980, when I attended an Evangelical Press Association convention in Chicago. The closing speaker, Wes Pippert, referenced biblical teachings about the poor and justice. I remember it distinctly. It was as though God grabbed me by the collar and said, “Pay attention to this! It’s important!”

I grew up under great biblical teaching, but don’t remember ever hearing messages about justice. Four years of Huntington College were similarly silent. So when I heard Wes Pippert, I was pretty much a blank slate. Ignorant. And thus began for me a decades-long journey during which God taught me about issues of poverty and justice. God reshaped my mind, and prepared me for things he had planned for me.

IN MY EXPERIENCE, evangelicals just don’t teach about justice. I’ve sat under some excellent pastors, but only one has preached on the subject (thank you, Tim Hallman). It’s puzzling to me. To an extent, I think white evangelicals (my tribe) view justice as a “black” issue, or as something only “liberals” champion. Beyond that, I can’t figure it out.

After a couple decades along this journey, I reluctantly accepted that the Republican Party TENDS to work at odds with bringing justice in society. They care about justice for the unborn, but that’s about it. When I talk or write about justice, I sense people’s eyes glazing over. They think I’m just trying to spiritualize what they view as anti-God liberalism. I get that a lot.

Anyway, I don’t talk about justice because, as people sometimes mistakenly assume, I’m a raging liberal. I talk about it because God stabbed me through the heart with the issue way back in 1980, and has patiently shown me how much he cares about justice. Justice for the poor, for prisoners, for aliens, for the marginalized, for racial minorities, for women, for workers, for children, for the oppressed.

These SHOULD be concerns for all Christians.

So no, I won’t shut up about it.

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Divine Ambiguity

Watching coverage of the Pope’s visit, I’m torn over a few issues.

I love watching the rituals Catholics have built around the faith. I find something very beautiful about them, an attempt to attach meaning to even mundane elements of worship. And yet, I’m glad we United Brethren don’t do them.

I like the robes, hats, and other garments. I remember watching a UB man be ordained while wearing shorts–the guy clearly didn’t think it was all that big a deal. That would never happen among Catholics. But I’m glad we don’t place importance on how people dress, and I don’t mind seeing my pastor preach in bluejeans.

I am awed by Catholic cathedrals; we visited St. Peter’s in the Vatican back in 2000, and it blew me away. So much beauty, majesty, and symbolism. But I’m glad we don’t invest that kind of money in our church buildings.

Ambiguity is okay. It’s not necessary to decide definitively that one way is good and the other is bad.

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Conversion Experience? Converting from What?

An interesting point was raised on a private Facebook forum I’m part of. It regards the Christian term “conversion experience.”

For example, I point to my conversion experience as occurring at age 9 at Rhodes Grove Camp in Pennsylvania. However, what was I converting from? I was raised in a strong Christian home, had always attended church, had always been taught the Bible, and had never strayed from that path.

My parents, essentially, had put me on a course which led directly (but not inevitably) to that camp altar in 1967. I didn’t convert “from” anything. It’s not like I was a Hindu or atheist. I was just accepting for myself what I’d been raised with.

I had never thought of this before, and have no replacement lingo to suggest.

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Musings on the Creation Story

Did God create everything from scratch during a six-day period 10,000 years ago, or did God guide the creation process over a long period of time (like, millions of years)? Or did everything develop with no help from God? Typically, about half of Americans take the six-day-creation view.

But a study done through Calvin College (published on Slate) shows that when you drill down, people aren’t as certain about their beliefs. In fact, the number of hard-core Creationists falls as low as 7%. Only 15% of people are confident that the earth was created within the last 10,000 years (a core tenet of Creationism).

Disclaimer: I wasn’t there when God created the earth. But I, along with probably most evangelicals that I know, are in the “God guided over a long period of time” camp. Where are you?

All of this reminds of of an article I wrote 30 years ago, not long after I became associate editor of publications for our denomination. We had a monthly magazine at the time, and I wrote a monthly column called “RandomPokes.” One of my first columns dealt with the Creation issue. I subsequently sold it to probably a half dozen other Christian publications (mostly Sunday school take-home papers). Here it is.


Musings on the Origin of Genesis

Picture yourself as Moses. Off and on for about 40 years, you’ve been sneaking out of the Israelite camp to some vacant piece of wilderness where you won’t be disturbed. It’s just you and God. You pull out your notepad, and the Almighty starts telling you some things, events of the past which 1) you already know, 2) you’ve heard before, but down through the generations the facts got distorted, or 3) you didn’t know happened.

Sometimes you hear tales of courage, of deceit, of mighty faith–even a few love stories. Other times it’s just a bunch of names strung together by endless “begats.” You carefully write everything down. Then, the session finished, you return to the day-to-day problems of leading the Children of Israel.

Could this be the way Genesis came about? Moses wrote Genesis, and he got his information from God. But Moses didn’t bother telling us the details. Did God reveal certain stories through dreams or visions? Did He lead Moses to some engraved tablets buried in the desert? Or did the Almighty just reminisce out loud while Moses scribbled everything on a notepad?

I don’t have the foggiest. But since it was left to the imagination, I prefer the Notepad Theory.

You’ve probably seen the movie “The Ten Commandments,” with its memorable scene where God gives Moses the tablets. Our hero, portrayed by Charleton Heston, Hollywood’s all-purpose Bible character, cringes against the mountain while ten specially-effected lightning bolts strike a rock wall, ultimately forming the two stone tablets. It’s a spectacular scene. But that’s not how I feel it occurred.

I don’t want to limit God’s power; He’s certainly capable of lightning bolts. But on a one-to-one basis, I think God acts in more commonplace ways. He doesn’t need to turn on the theatrics, especially if that person is attentive, like I’m sure Moses was. Granted, the Burning Bush episode was a pretty dramatic way for God to introduce himself to the future Deliverer. But after that, I’ll bet God never had trouble getting Moses’ attention.

So, without a single shred of evidence, I picture a much more peaceful Mt. Sinai than what Hollywood filmed for us. No wind and rain, no thunder and lightning, no angels singing or trumpets blaring. Just God and Moses atop the mountain on a clear, sunshiny day. And when they say good-bye after 40 days, Moses descends with the sacred tablets cradled in his arms.

That’s how I think God revealed the Genesis story to Moses, too. Universal Studios would show us an old man being buffeted by wind and rain, and cringing in fear while lightning strikes all around him. But I see Moses sitting on a rock on a moonlit night with a notepad on his lap, scribbling as fast as he can while God reminisces about In the Beginning.

I suppose some of the stories were familiar to Moses, passed down by Israelites from generation to generation. But a lot of the information had to come directly from God. Some of those stories probably astounded Moses so much that he couldn’t wait to get back to camp so he could tell everyone what he had learned.

I can imagine him exclaiming, “You mean this Methuselah guy lived 969 years!”

Or interrupting the story of Jacob and Esau to say, “I didn’t realize it was Rebekah’sidea to steal Esau’s birthright!”

Or, after hearing about the Tower of Babel, saying, “So that’swhy people speak so many languages!”

Or shaking his head in amazement–“Wow! A boat big enough to hold two of everykind of animal?”

One particular session must have stood out far above the rest.

Picture yourself as Moses again. You’ve seen scores of miracles in your time, some totally mind-boggling, like the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire, the earth opening up to swallow Dathan and his rebellious crew, etc., etc. So the story of your ancestors, though interesting, is pretty believable and maybe not the kind of stuff best-sellers were made of.

But then one day you’re told something completely new, something you’d never really thought about before. You sit down on a rock with your notepad and God says, “Today, Moses, I’m going to tell you how I created the world.”

We’re all familiar with the seven days of Creation, Adam and Eve, and the Garden of Eden. But until Genesis, not a single piece of Scripture existed, so this was all new to Moses. Maybe he and everyone else back then just assumed the heavens and earth had always existed. Now he learns differently.

Imagine being the first person everto hear how the world–the universe–began. That the earth was once “without form and void.” That God spread His creative acts over a tiny week’s time, with the creation of life alone covering two of those days.

I’m not sure that my little mind could have taken it all in. The fact that the first chapter of Genesis contains so few details may mean that it was even a little too much for Moses. I’m sure I couldn’t have handled it if, at the same time, I had to deal with thunder and lightning.

Like I already said, I don’t really know how Genesis came about. I’m just guessing. Maybe God placed the knowledge in Moses’ head so that when he started writing, everything came out like God wanted it to. Maybe the whole Genesis story was already known, and Moses just went around compiling all the available information, with a large dose of divine inspiration to help him know what to use. Maybe there’s another explanation.

But then, maybe Moses did grab a notepad and sneak off into the wilderness to be alone with God and listen to Him speak. I’d like to think so, anyway.

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Five Mentalities Christian Leaders Should Avoid

Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist, wrote on ChristianityToday.com about five mentalities pastors should avoid. I found them worth passing along.

1. Elitist Mentality: Your church is the only one you know doing things the right way.

I’ve seen this plenty. I find it very annoying.

2. Theologically Superior: You won’t read authors from outside of your own theological stream.

United Brethren, as a breath of fresh air in the religious spectrum, don’t insist that only we have everything figured out.

3. Exclusionary Attitude: You refuse to partner with other local churches on community initiatives.

My local church does a great job here.

4. Narcissistic: You are more worried about what people think of your church than what they think of your family.

A couple examples come to mind–big name ministers (uh, Oral Roberts?) and more common fare. Not true of my own pastor, thankfully, who strikes me as a really good dad. And it certainly wasn’t true of my dad.

5. Overly Competitive: You consider the church down the street your competition.

This one is widespread–too close to human nature, I guess. When a nearby church is going great, and you’re struggling, it’s natural to feel a sense of competition.

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Letting the Government Serve the Poor

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Keith Drury, a Wesley Church leader and professor (now retired), once wrote about how evangelicals have accepted a division of labor with the government: the church does some welfare ministry on the side, but lets the government carry most of the load. We talk a lot about giving to the poor, but, “We need million-dollar buildings and a dozen staff persons to succeed in today’s competitive market.”

Besides, the cost of caring for the poor is prohibitive. “In most towns in the USA, to pay for just the poor’s welfare we’d have to take every single dollar coming into every single church in the town–Protestant and Catholic alike–and use it for poverty programs. There would be no money left to pay the pastor or staff, or to cover the heat bill–let alone pay for a building. We like the notion of the church handling welfare, but when we crunch the numbers we see it just can’t be done. We can ‘help out,’ but we simply can’t match the government’s power and money.”

Drury says we COULD do it if every Christian tithed (an idealistic dream) and if we used all of that new income to care for the poor.

But, he says, “That raises a disturbing question. If all Christians started tithing this Sunday…would the church REALLY spend it on the poor?”

Would we?

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Compromised

Two quotes worth considering in this day when evangelical Christians are so intertwined with Republican politics.

“We as a church have become spiritually lazy, substituting aggressive culture-war tactics for the generous, self-sacrificing humility Jesus taught and modeled. Cultural aggression is easier, and it allows us to think we’re still ‘not of this wold,’ even as we use worldly strategies to get our way.” (Justin Lee, “Torn”)

Philip Yancey tells of asking airplane seatmates what the words “evangelical Christian” bring to mind. “Mostly I hear political descriptions: of strident pro-life activists, or gay-rights opponents, or proposals for censoring the Internet…. Not once–not ONCE–have I heard a description redolent of grace. Apparently that is not the aroma Christians give off in the world.”

Because evangelical Christians have so closely aligned with conservative politics, I suspect way too may nonChristians lump us all together as narrow-minded, Obama-trashing, immigrant-hating, gay-bashing, science-denying, poor-despising, FoxNews-worshiping, war-mongering, and generally government-hating zealots.

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The Lent Exemption

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Anchor Community Church hosted an ecumenical event on Sunday night. A United Methodist pastor, before getting dessert, said he had given up chocolate for Lent but, because Sundays are exempt, he was getting a chocolate dessert.

Huh? Sundays are exempt? This was new to the three United Brethren at the table.

He explained that Sundays are a biblical day of celebration. He said you don’t fast on Sunday, either. He was surprised that I hadn’t heard about this exemption.

Do we United Brethren just have a hole in our theology?

When Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, I’m wondering: did each Sabbath find him in Jerusalem at the Golden Corral? I’m thinking not.

My brother Rick pointed out that it reverses things. “Instead of being bad the rest of the week and being good on Sunday, you are good the rest of the week and bad on Sunday.”

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The Cross in the Netherworld

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I recently read, “The Day I Was Crucified,” by Gene Edwards. Frankly, it’s not a very good book. BUT, early on, Edwards raised an idea I’d never thought of.

Did Christ’s death atone not only for the sins of mankind, but for sins in the supernatural realm? Like, with Lucifer and other angels who rebelled against God? I doubt you can build a biblical case for it, or against it. It’s just an interesting concept. The total context for Christ’s death went way beyond Planet Earth, but we don’t normally think of it that way.

Is a blood sacrifice necessary for forgiveness of sins committed by Satan and his minions? I’m not aware of any counterpart to bulls, sheep, and goats in the supernatural realm. Can they sacrifice a unicorn?

As with mankind, this would be a continuing offer of reconciliation, rather than a one-time deal. Can a fallen angel “accept Christ as Savior”? Do fallen angels come to God seeking reconciliation? Or are they condemned forever for their rebellion, with no possibility of redemption?

Like I said, I’d never thought of anything like this. Just something to muse idly upon and go, “Hmmmmm.”

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Rush Limbaugh and My Crisis of Faith

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Theological guru Rush Limbaugh is criticizing Pope Francis for speaking out against “unfettered capitalism,” poverty, growing economic inequality, and the “idolatry of money.” Limbaugh says the Pope is espousing “pure marxism.”

I’m having a crisis of faith. Thanks to the biblical insights and moral authority of Rush, I now realize that Jesus himself was a marxist. And as all good American Christians are taught, only capitalism in all its unfettered glory is truly biblical and God-ordained.

So, should I abandon my faith? How can I follow a lie?

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