White, Black, Brown

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Last week I came across these two graphics. The first one was reposted by someone who commented, “This is at least half true.” I would echo that sentiment for the other one.

Back in September, a Muslim guy in Oklahoma lost his job at a food processing plant. He walked into the workplace and attacked one of the first people he saw, a woman. He cut off her head, then attacked another woman. Conservative pundits quickly labeled it Islamic terrorism, and criticized the President for not jumping to the same conclusion.

More recently, a Muslim went into the home of three whites and shot them in the head. That, too, is terrorism…. Oh, I’m sorry, it was a white guy who shot three Muslims in the head. So that is NOT terrorism. That’s just a dispute over a parking space. My bad.

If nothing else, these graphics should admonish us to think about how we view other persons, and caution us against letting the media shape our view of people who are not like us.

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The Crusades: For I’m in the Lord’s Army

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I learned something about the Crusades that made me laugh, if it’s permissible to laugh about something involving the Crusades.

Since so many folks currently claim to be experts on the Crusades, and I skeptically figure “claim” is the operative word, I decided to educate myself. I found a short book (135 pages) by a real authority on the Crusades, Jonathan Riley-Smith, “The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam.” There are massive, multi-volume histories of the Crusades, but being a simple person, I wanted something short and sweet.

Sure enough, I’m learning, too many people are full of hooey when talking about the Crusades. It’s all very complicated and nuanced.

But I digress from the aforementioned laughing point. It regards how the Catholic Church recruited people for the various Crusades. This is back in the 1100s and 1200s, but it sounds startlingly akin to 20th century evangelistic revivals and missionary appeals.

Church leaders, accompanied by Crusade vets, would travel from town to town holding inspirational recruiting services. Many of these places had never been visited by Cardinals, Bishops, and war heroes, so they were star-struck.

They would emphasize the penitential aspect of the Crusades–forsaking everything, putting your life on the line to engage in this holy pilgrimage to liberate the Holy Places from the Muslims. Do you want to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Christ? Then join our holy Crusade. Demonstrate your unreserved love for God, and watch God return the favor.

They held services which, intentionally, tugged mightily at heartstrings. They would read a letter from the Pope himself. Crusaders would testify to the holiness of the mission and how it had deepened their devotion for God.

Then they would invite men to come forward to dedicate themselves to the upcoming Crusade. It was like an altar call. Peasants, nobles–anyone yearning for a deeper relationship with God, and wanting to be absolved of their sins and get a fresh start–would come to the front and be embraced by church leaders. Probably a few psychopaths, too. A cloth cross was pinned to their clothing; they were to wear it until they returned home, their vow fulfilled.

It was not unlike a challenge to missionary service, inviting someone to leave everything behind to serve God in a foreign land–and perhaps die there.

Here’s the part that made me chuckle. When the invitation was given, the standard order of service required a hymn being sung underneath, probably by a choir. They found that very effective in pulling on emotions. It was not “Just As I Am” or “I Surrender All,” but probably close. Maybe some combination of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go.” In Latin.

Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. Billy Sunday was just ripping off the Crusades.

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Lingering Regrets from the Mountaintop

In 9th or 10th grade, I bought a pack of cigarettes (it was Winston), rode my motorcycle out into the Arizona desert, and smoked 5 or 6 of them. I didn’t know how to smoke, and wanted to figure it out on my own, without anyone watching. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.

I’ve (happily) never smoked since. But let me tell you the backstory.

Dick and Nora Lundy were a fabulous couple at my United Brethren church in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. They ran Lundy’s Diner. They also built a big lodge in the Hualapai Mountains, about 60 miles away. It would host church retreats.

Three of us from the youth group spent a couple weekends helping Dick with construction. Tom Wilson and Tim Armour were fairly new Christians. And me. It was a blast. We worked hard, and the Lundys fed us royally. Dick was a big, jovial guy, somewhere well above six feet. We held our breath every time he ventured onto the makeshift scaffolding he cobbled together from scrap pieces of 2x4s and plywood. It always held, but only by divine intervention.

On one perfectly calm star-lit night, the three of us sat outside the lodge just chillin’. out. That’s when Tom and Tim pulled out some “supplies” and began rolling their own cigarettes. They offered to make me one. I said no thanks. Are you sure? Yep, no thanks, but you go ahead.

It wasn’t a principled no. I said no because I’d never smoked before and feared making a fool of myself. I didn’t want to leave Tim and Tom and the Lundys with the burden of explaining to my parents how their firstborn son asphyxiated himself in the Hualapais.

I watched Tim and Tom sit back against large rocks and leisurely puff away, with tiny tendrils of smoke wafting skyward. The stars, the fresh mountain air, the pine trees all around–it was so tranquil, so peaceful. Nicotine addiction played no role. They were just young Christians relaxing after a very long day of servanthood.

I wished I had said yes. Even now, I do. I feel like I missed sharing a very special moment of community with my friends in the Lord. As I watched them sitting there smoking away, they were so at peace with the world. Me? I was thinking more about my ambivalence and discomfort, and felt a bit envious. I wanted to join them. I really did. Having a cup of coffee in my hands might have accomplished the same thing, but I was 7 years away from trying coffee. In that moment, a cigarette just seemed perfect.

After finishing one cigarette, my memory is that Tim and Tom smoked a regular cigarette. When it was done, they were done. And then we just sat there a while longer under the heavens.

Reflecting on that specific moment, in that specific context–yes, a cigarette would have been just right. Just one. I should have told Tim, “Sure, I’ll take a cigarette, if you’ll show me how it works.” Just one cigarette, nursing it slowly, while gazing into that vast sky with my friends in Christ.

In the 40 years since, I’ve never had a sense that God would have minded. As long as it went no farther than that. And that’s why, if this situation ever arose again (which it never did), I wanted to be prepared.

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The Continuing Indiana Soap Opera

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Indiana schoolteachers are hopping mad at Gov. Mike Pence. Every day, my Facebook timeline is strewn with links to articles which, basically, express disgust at what Pence is doing to public education, and in particular, how he is treating Glenda Ritz, the state’s elected Superintendent of Public Instruction. We’re talking conservative evangelical teachers who would probably prefer voting for Republicans, but have had it up to here. (Try this article, for instance.)

I have no horse in this race–we’ll homeschool our cats–but it’s been interesting to follow. The policies of two successive Republican governors have thoroughly demoralized Indiana schoolteachers. In 2012, teachers mounted an impassioned campaign to get rid of Tony Bennett, the Republican superintendent (a total jerk by all accounts, and now being brought up in federal charges), and elect their own. They succeeded.

But now Glenda Ritz is the only Democrat holding statewide office, and Gov. Pence is doing everything he can to marginalize her and make her powerless. Pence already appoints members of the State Board of Education, which the Superintendent has always chaired. But now, the Republican-dominated legislature is working on a bill that would enable the board to select its own chairman–in other words, Pence’s choice. Ritz, the teachers’ choice, would be powerless. David Long, who is president of the state senate and represents my own district–I’ve voted for him every time he has run–dismissed Ritz as a mere “librarian.” Okay, I won’t be voting for him again.

This is just pouring gas on what already is a raging fire.

Then there’s the annual ISTEP test given to kids in grades 3-8. This year, the length of the test has increased from 5 hours to 12 hours for third-graders, and more than doubled in length for every grade up through 8th. Yes, third-graders sitting for 12 hours taking a test. From what I’ve read, you can trace this right back to Republican policies. However, the other day Pence came out saying the test’s length was unacceptable and he would have none of it, and he pretty much blamed Glenda Ritz. It’s almost comical (especially since the testing starts in just a couple weeks).

The thing is, if Mike Pence runs for president–and he probably will, at least eventually–he’ll get points by bragging about how he “took on the powerful teacher’s union.” But it sounds to me like all he’s doing is demoralizing teachers and hurting the state of education. On teacher told me she was so upset, she would never again vote for a Republican governor.

Like I said, I have no stake in this. But it’s interesting to watch. No doubt my timeline today will contain many additional articles linked by totally disgusted educators.

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Christians, Muslims, and Mongols

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“The Next Christendom,” by Christian historian Philip Jenkins, provides an interesting take on Christianity in the Middle East. In the Middle Ages, he writes, Christianity was much stronger in the Middle East than in Europe. In fact, Christianity came to dominate Europe much later than we normally think. So in 1200, the world’s “average” Christian was not a French artisan, he says, but a Syrian peasant; an Asian, not a European.

Christianity in the Middle East largely survived the Muslim conquest, and the two religions co-existed pretty well for centuries. Yes, the Muslims were definitely in charge, and not always nice about it. Yet, large Christian communities flourished throughout what are today predominantly Muslim countries.

So what happened to all of those Christians?

Jenkins points to a force we don’t normally think about: the Mongols, from central Asia. Several times over a 200-year period, they invaded the Middle East, slaughtering Muslims and Christians alike. The Mongols threatened to wipe out Islam, and were allied in ways with Crusaders coming from the west.

Interestingly, some prominent Mongols identified as Christians as a result of the ancient Nestorian movement in the East (the Mongols practiced freedom of religion). Some Middle Eastern Christians came to see the Mongols as potentially liberating them from Muslim domination, and so allied themselves with the Mongols. The Mongol king who captured Baghdad in 1258 had a Christian queen who influenced the Mongols to destroy Muslim mosques (the Mongols took a high view of women, as compared to the Muslims).

In 1260, a Mongol Christian led the Mongol invasion of Palestine. However, Muslim Turks stopped them cold at the battle of Ayn Jalut, near Nazareth. This ended the Mongol advance, and Islam once against took the lead…and began exacting revenge on Christians for siding with the Mongols. Since then, it’s been downhill for Christians in Muslims lands. In addition, Jenkins says, while Europeans blamed the plague on Jews, Muslims blamed it on Christians and intensified their persecution.

Jenkins estimates that between the Nestorians and Catholics, there were several hundred thousand Christians in China, and they were associated with the Mongols. When the Ming dynasty took power from the Mongols, they began wiping out Christians. By 1500, says Jenkins, “There is no evidence of any organized Christian activity in China.”

And thus did the mainstream of Christianity shift to Europe.

It’s a bit of history I find quite fascinating.

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Do Miracles Require a Charlton Heston Voice?

To learn the do’s and don’ts of healing, you need to watch TV faith-healers in action. Healing someone requires strutting around a stage in front of a lot of people. Healing requires using a deep, authoritative voice to say, “Be healed!” Healing requires knocking somebody in the head so they topple over. Just ask Benny Hinn.

James Martin, in “Jesus: a Pilgrimage,” suggests a different approach. He notes that Jesus described himself as “gentle and humble in heart.” With that image in mind, he mentions the demon-possessed man in Mark 1 whom Jesus healed in the temple at Capernaum. We sort of imagine Jesus silencing the demon by shouting loudly in a Charlton Heston voice. But Martin writes: “Isn’t it possible that when Jesus saw the terrible force that consumed the man, he first paused in silent pity, as any compassionate person would do when faced with such torment? Maybe Jesus simply turned to the man and said quietly, ‘Come out of him.'”

There’s nothing magical about tone of voice when it comes to God doing a miracle. At the Bridge at Khazad-dum, Gandalf yelled at the balrog, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS.” If that were Jesus, he could have just wagged his finger and mumbled, “That’s far enough.” No booming voice required.

Now, John says that when he raised Lazurus from the dead, Jesus “called out in a loud voice.” But he didn’t need to. He could have walked up to the tomb, gently rested his cheek against the stone, and whispered, “Lazarus, you can come out now.” And it would have happened. Amazing to think about.

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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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The President’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

After getting home, I read the transcript of President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. It’s really, really good. He made very strong statements about ISIS, and superb statements about the approach Christians should take. I’m proud to see such words come from my president.

I point this out because, on the way home, I listened to The Five on FoxNews. They used one sound bite in which President Obama used the Crusades to illustrate a theological point about the sin nature. They totally didn’t get it. Clearly, none of them are versed in basic Christianity, else they would have understood what the President was saying. Instead, they treated it as a political speech, and took this soundbite as condemnation of Christianity (which it wasn’t at all). It’s just dishonest, and I feel compelled to say something. Because all night long, the other FoxNews shows are going to be saying the same nonsense, and many of you will be listening. You may assume FoxNews is giving you an accurate report on the speech, when in fact they are giving you a very intentional hack job. It’s what they do.

As a Christian interested in the truth, I read the entire transcript. I often do that with speeches which pundits on either side are criticizing. I want to see the entire speech, with everything in context. In this case, I wanted to read what President REALLY said–not what the FNC pundits tell me he said.

Here is an early part of his speech, in which he set up his theme.

Part of what I want to touch on today is the degree to which we’ve seen professions of faith used both as an instrument of great good, but also twisted and misused in the name of evil.

As we speak, around the world, we see faith inspiring people to lift up one another — to feed the hungry and care for the poor, and comfort the afflicted and make peace where there is strife. We heard the good work that Sister has done in Philadelphia, and the incredible work that Dr. Brantly and his colleagues have done. We see faith driving us to do right.

But we also see faith being twisted and distorted, used as a wedge — or, worse, sometimes used as a weapon. From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it. We see ISIL, a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.

We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

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Second Thoughts About That Teacher in 1973

We moved to California at the beginning of my junior year of high school. I played basketball that year at Tulare Union High School. Practice went until about 6:30. Since we lived 15 miles away and I had no car, I usually walked a couple blocks to the bookstore on Tulare’s main street and waited for one of my parents to pick me up.

As I stood there browsing through magazines, a short guy with stringy hair wearing gym trunks, a tank top, and flip-flops came and stood besideme. In a whisper, he asked me if I wanted him to perform a certain sex act on me. Being a naive preacher’s kid, I was totally flummoxed, but I managed to mutter a “No.” (Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what he was asking, but I knew it was bad.) He then gently placed his hand on my thigh. I batted his hand away and quickly exited the bookstore, my heart racing.

The next day, I saw him at school for the first time. He was a teacher. Another time, I entered a restroom and looked down the long line of urinals. There he was, along with a very strange student, standing side-by-side at neighboring urinals. Gross. I immediately turned around and left.

That was 1973. I never told anybody about the guy. The idea was unthinkable at that point in my life. Nobody talked back then about reporting things like this. I was new to the school, and couldn’t imagine telling anyone what the guy had said to me. I saw no upside. I didn’t even warn my younger brothers about the pervert (both graduated from that school).

The experience had no lasting affect on me. It left no residue whatsoever (please don’t play amateur psychologist and imagine affects buried so deep that I’m not even aware of them). It was just something that happened, and that I kept to myself. I almost never think about it.

But yesterday I came across an article about a predatory teacher whose signature move was to put his hand on a girl’s knee. So it reminded me of him. Curious, I Googled his name. It turned up a few times. One article identified him as a retired teacher from Tulare Union High School, with a $30,000 pension. So it sounds like he taught at that school for another 30 years and never got caught.

I should probably have done something, but I’m not sure what. Even now.

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The Muslim Name Game

For a while now on Facebook, Christians have felt it vitally important to convince people that Islam is a “Religion of Violence.” When they hear someone say Islam is a Religion of Peace, they go bonkers: THIS MUST BE REFUTED. So they regularly post stories about the many atrocities currently being committed in the name of Islam. Stories we’re all totally aware of. Duh. But they feel it’s vitally important that everyone acknowledge, “Islam is a terrible, horrible, very bad religion.”

Which raises the question: Why are you so passionate about this?

Such arguments go back and forth on Facebook. Someone puts out further obvious evidence of Muslim terrorists committing atrocities. Then people counter with stories from Christianity’s history. The Crusades get mentioned, the Inquisition, the Catholic-complicit genocide and enslavement of native South Americans, the KKK, etc. Round and round it goes. We have people who suddenly declare themselves as experts on the Koran, and who can PROVE that Islam is all about killing infidels.

I’m SO weary of it. Why must a religion of a billion people, most of whom live peaceably amidst practically every nation on the planet, be denounced as a Religion of Violence? Why, my Facebook friends, do you consider this so vitally important?

We all see what’s being done in the name of Islam. It’s horrible. Should we throw that at our Muslim neighbors, coworkers, and others living in our communities: “You realize you belong to a Religion of Violence. Cutting off people’s heads is what your religion is all about.” Would that be helpful?

Should the United Brethren denomination, perhaps, make some official statement about how evil Islam is? “Whereby Muslims did such and such, we hereby declare….”

In Sierra Leone, our church leaders work harmoniously with Muslim leaders. A few months ago we started a school in a predominantly Sunni town, and they welcome us. In Turkey, the organization we work with has been offered property–by Islamic government officials–in which to start a Christian church. Would it be productive if they knew we view them as a Religion of Violence?

I just don’t get it, friends.

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