Time to Forget

Let me begin by saying that I’d rather not be writing any of this. I had taken new encouragement from the recent events, spearheaded by Christian people (both black and white) to remove a hurtful symbol from their government. And in my travels through the deep South this summer I’ve noticed that many Confederate flags flown on private property have likewise disappeared. Seems like many folks are rethinking that symbol and I’m glad for it.

Of course there are still pockets of resistance. One of those is my home; Walton County, Florida. It reminds me of that old license plate that had almost fallen into the dust bin of history on which a bitter old Confederate veteran declares he will never forget; never forgive; never quit the fight for the cause.

I wrote this to the local paper:

I recently read with stunned disbelief the incredible actions of the Walton County Commissioners who have insanely determined that replacing the battle flag of the Confederacy with the “Stars and Bars” (official flag of the Confederate government) is an appropriate solution and a “compromise” that should be acceptable to both sides of the debate. This is not a compromise, but a further entrenchment for those who see an enduring nobility in the legacy of the Confederacy.

The Confederacy was defined accurately by her vice president in Savannah, Georgia in 1861. Alexander Stephens in his speech entitled “The Cornerstone of the Southern Confederacy” said, countering the ideas of racial equality:  “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

The “Stars and Bars” flew as the embodiment of that sentiment, and now it has reappeared on the courthouse of the county which is my ancestral home. As a veteran who served under only one flag, not a flag of rebellion, but the flag of the United States; as a Baptist minister who many years ago was licensed to preach in a Walton County church to proclaim God’s love for all people; and as citizen of one of the few countries on this planet who defiantly declares that “all men are created equal” I’m appalled and sickened.

Advertisements

Church – State Separation: Two Differing Ideas

I read the following article in the   Piedmont Christian News. I tried to respond, but I’m not sure they are set up to receive commentary on their articles. Nevertheless, I think it is good to listen to one another’s views and engage in Christian dialogue. So here is the (unsigned) article and my response:

As the United States celebrates Independence Day, I think it is worth a second look at the declaration which marked the beginning of this nation nearly 240 years ago. I find it fascinating how many people want to argue, one way or the other about who the founding fathers were and whether to cast them as heroes: champions of secular freedom, defenders of Christian faith, revolutionaries for the people, or as villains: greedy landowners, tax evaders, slave holders, misogynists. I am less interested in the people who founded this nation than the theory of government they describe in the Declaration of Independence. Even more, I am amazed to see how the meaning of the words that set this nation into being are ignored or misunderstood, even as those same words are celebrated every Fourth of July.

The Declaration of Independence
In the Declaration of Independence, a revolutionary concept of government is proposed. That is, that government exists by the consent of the people in recognition of “certain unalienable Rights,” which include but are not limited to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” and exists for the purpose of securing those rights for the people consenting to it.
You may not notice it right away, but those words imply a remarkable concept completely contrary to the notion of separation of church and state as it is understood today. The founding fathers based the legality of the revolution and the formation of a new government on the presupposition that there was truth out there, real truth, which includes the truth that humans all have rights. They believed government did not establish those rights, but rather was formed to recognize and protect them.

Human Rights
But notice that if “human rights” are real, they come from somewhere deeper than simple nature. That is, they are supernatural ideas. Whether it is biology, psychology or sociology, science won’t find them. Today, we act as if supernatural truth, such as the existence and nature of “rights,” is more like an agreement of the majority to pretend certain things are true. Truth is not a reality to be recognized, and if everyone changes their mind, we can just pretend something else instead.
That won’t work. A government that recognizes and protects human rights protects the minority against the majority regardless of public opinion, when the majority is impinging upon the minority’s rights. U.S. law protects the atheist’s right to disbelieve God because U.S. law is based on the belief that the atheist is wrong! The U.S. democracy is built on the notion that truth is not democratic, that some truths are self-evident, and that an educated populace will seek to protect those truths, not redefine them.

Dependence on Truth
I don’t know how many of the founding fathers were truly followers of Christ. I don’t know how much they meant to connect their law to God’s truth or to defend the God-ordained special dignity of humanity. But when they declared independence from British rule, they set into motion a nation whose whole existence depended upon the existence of deeper truths rooted in God’s creation of this world. The “right” U.S. government arises from people who believe in truth, seek truth, and defend truth, not people who get to redefine it however they want, and who must fearfully keep God out of the public sector.
I am pessimistic that the church will succeed in ending the hypocrisy in our current government and law. But I am glad there is a little bit of God’s truth in U.S. law because I think God’s truth is good even when people fail to recognize it.

Here is my response:

The idea of church state separation is found in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…) The author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote those words about the “unalienable truths” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness also wrote to Baptists in order to reassure them that the government is separate from the church. Thomas Jefferson’s reply to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association contains a phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.”

The author of this post is confusing in his or her reasoning. The truth of history is that Baptists, along with other Christians who were victims of persecution from churches supported by the state actually advocated for the common sense solution of church-state separation.

About this issue historian Jon Meacham has said: “The hunger on the part of many later generations of evangelical believers to see the nation’s founding as a Christian event from which we have fallen is understandable… The preponderance of historical evidence, however, suggests that the nation was not ‘Christian’ but rather a place of people whose experience with religious violence and the burdens of established churches led them to view religious liberty as one of humankind’s natural rights – a right as natural as those of thought and expression.” (American Gospel, p. 84.)

So let’s get our story straight. As a Baptist minister and an American my hope is that all my brothers and sisters will reconsider the meaning and purpose behind church – state separation. The good news of Jesus does not rely on any government (Roman or American) to reach people with the truth.

Ain’t a Lie in Jesus’ Name Still a Lie All the Same?

Lately I’ve taken particular notice about an epidemic of religious lying exploding in the Christian community. I’m not referring to sincere but mistaken individuals who unwittingly pass along falsehoods. Oh the stories they tell! This happens, I think, because they put their confidence in some individuals and organizations who when it comes right down to it believe that a twist of the truth to serve God’s will (as they perceive it) is justified. That is, of course, an ethical failure. But worse it winds up being an embarrassment to the Church and the One who said, “I am the truth.” We all need to ask, “Ain’t a lie in Jesus’ name still a lie all the same?”

Need some examples? Here are a few I’ve heard in the last few weeks:

A prominent Baptist pastor warned his national audience that “anyone who opposes gay marriage will (now) be guilty of a civil rights violation.” That is a hyperbolic lie and the pastor[i] who said it should tell the truth. Individual and church freedom is not threatened by the Supreme Court Ruling. Nevertheless many now believe that they may not personally disagree with the law enabling same-sex marriage. Some are even going so far as to incite the fear in local churches that they now must allow marriages that violate their religious consciousness. Of course working in the public sector or government (this is not a religious activity) does not provide cover for those who desire to discriminate.

“The military and in particular the Chaplain Corps of the Navy is persecuting conservative Christian chaplains.” That lie makes the rounds quite frequently and in several differing ways. Usually these can be contained in the complaint, “Chaplains cannot pray, preach, or counsel in Jesus’ name.” Now I know this is entirely a self-serving fabrication because I spent 22 years as a Navy chaplain and currently serve on the Council for Chaplain Endorsement of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Nevertheless I continue to hear and read these kind of statements. There have been several of these kind of tall tales and at least one of them involve a chaplain I personally supervised. One such prominent lie being spread says a certain chaplain was released from the Navy for praying in public ceremonies in “Jesus name.” The actual truth is he was rather gently allowed to exit the USN after deliberately disobeying a direct order not to represent the Navy in uniform at a political rally.[ii] Not surprisingly he has managed to manipulate the lie that he was persecuted out of the Navy for praying in Jesus’ name into a political career. No doubt sincere Christians in Colorado helped put him in office, but his Christian heroism is a complete fabrication.

Oh it seems like I could go on forever, but let me mention one more; End Times Profiteers. These are a seasonal product of a fearful and angry Christian subculture. They claim surely the end must be near. There are the signs they can detect and (for a price) they will share them with you. These may come in the form of conference speeches, best-selling books, television ministries, and even selling “survival food.” I’ll not bother to reference these but only mention that there are many out there with their theories and yes, they are making a fortune scaring people, and in the end they will be proven wrong. As a pastor my frustration is that there are so many who will not learn this lesson but will willingly clamor over the next doomsday prophet and whatever he is hawking.

Lies in Jesus’ name. Not mistakes or misspoken thoughts. Deliberate lies for self-serving reasons. As Christians let us agree to do two things:

First let us be committed to telling the truth. Whether preaching or sharing with a Sunday School class always do your best to be truthful. Even if it does not reinforce your theological or political agenda. Remember Jesus is truth and we should be a reflection of our Lord.

Second, let’s start calling lies what they are. And we need to cease rewarding the ethic that plays fast and loose with the truth even if we think it serves a “good” purpose.

It’s just that simple.

[i] Robert Jeffress, on Fox News as quoted by Piedmont Christian News July Issue page 1.

[ii] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/14/AR2006091401544.html

Into the Storm

There is a line from a Mumford and Son’s song that goes, “There’s nothing like a brush with the devil to clear your mind and strengthen your spine.”
I’m writing today from my mother’s home in Freeport, Florida. Forget those images of Florida that may come to mind of an overbuilt retirement community surrounded by chain restaurants and amusement parks, our ancestral home (for almost 200 years now) is located in one of the remaining wilderness areas of the state. It is beautiful and relatively untainted by the building boom that has so grossly changed the look of my home state. Where mom lives the dividing line has been a massive bay; though now the future is clear, “progress” is making it’s way north.
In my lifetime I have been able to find and enjoy the wild places when I return home. This trip was no different in that respect. I headed out the other night to spend some quality time on Black Creek in my small boat. I said I went to fish, but I think I really went to spend time in the untouched nature I’ve loved since I was a boy.
Into that trip I carried everything: concerns for my church, my community back home, our national cultural divide, and a slew of theological imaginings that play continually in my mind. As I put-putted down the placid river I began to relax some. At last I arrived far down the river to the site of an old Indian camp. The Uchees had mounded up the land there and left no trace of their presence except the unusually high earth and thousands of oyster shells. Today a upscale fish camp is located across a slew from the Indian camp, but I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of the tourists who visit there have no idea that they are not the first people to treasure that dear spot.
I was casting my line toward the south so naturally I was looking that way. The sky was beautiful with just a trace of a strange coolness in the air. That was when I turned around and saw the wall of black. It reminded me of the sandstorm scene from the movie “The Mummy.” Quickly the weather had changed, but I knew what to do; I had no time to spare. I pulled in my line and fired up the six horsepower Mercury outboard and headed at full speed into the the storm.
I went into the storm because it was the only way out. The boat ramp I had launched from was up the river, the river now turned fully sinister. My mother called me on my cell phone. I could not answer; too busy trying to keep the bow directly into 65 mph winds as I pushed my way toward Black Creek Lodge and safety. Had I been able to answer I would have heard the concern in her voice. The National Weather Service had issued an alert. “Severe thunderstorm warning” – seek shelter IMMEDIATELY.”
But I was on the river and fully exposed to nature’s wrath. The towering cypress trees were bending low with the gale. At last I could see the dilapidated boat house and pier. The ramp was next to that. The only thoughts I had were for my safety and next, if possible, to try to save my boat.
I pulled alongside the pilings and then quickly moved forward toward the bow and secured the boat with the bull nose facing the wind and waves. That might sound like a simple move, but it required clear thought and flawless movement to get it just right. one slip and my boat would be lost for sure.
I ran to the car just as the lighting started striking. The car was a safe place, the only safe place to resort to. Mom called again. I answered this time. “Mom I’m safe, but my boat is still on the river.” I planned to wait for the storm to pass and then bring her up on my boat trailer. But the storm did not pass.
The lighting moved south and the wind subsided some, but then it began to rain. For those who are not used to tropical rain, let me tell you, it is not like rain in cooler regions. It dumps buckets. And this rain was going to swamp my little boat. So having no other choice I backed by boat trailer into the black water and dashed back to the boat and the threat I had escaped as darkness descended.
Now I had to untie my boat at the front while getting it under power from the stern at the same time. That is a two person operation, but I was alone in the darkness and the deluge. I got in the stern first, yanked the cord and left the motor in neutral. Then I moved forward and untied the bow from the piling. The next moment was critical. I did not know how it would go.
I moved toward the rear of the small craft as swiftly as possible. One hesitation. one gust would put me broadside of the waves and I’d find myself capsized in the middle of the river. It was “dicey.”
I made it. Then immediately I put the boat in gear and drove it directly onto the trailer. I had positioned the trailer a little higher than normal so I could drive it as far out of the water as possible. I rammed it onto the skids and then moved as fast as I could forward once more to secure it to the trailer hitch. I cranked it as fast as I could and once the boat was fully forward I hopped into the car and moved it and the boat up and out of danger.
When I made it to mom’s I was fully soaked. I came through the door and told her about my adventure. It was then I realized that I had a marvelous time. I really forgot all of the pressures and concerns of my routine daily life. For a while it was just me and the storm and God. My mind was clear. My spine was strong. And I can’t wait to get back on the river again.

Symbols Mean Things

confederateflag

The tragic shooting in an A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina has broken the hearts of so many in our nation. I’m one of them. My heart breaks not only for the victims and their families, but also for the pathetic, broken, misguided individual who perpetrated the violence. I hate what he did. I hate why he did it. I hate what he has become. But I pray for him and I pray for all of us. I pray that from this horror some good may emerge. In fact, some good is now quite evident. It is evident in the renewed conversations on important topics, conversations that are difficult to have, yet conversations we must have.

Race relations will certainly be discussed. I’m encouraged by the efforts of so many, particularly in South Carolina to identify and connect through their common humanity and not let the color of their skin divide them.

The obscene degree of gun violence in this country will be a hot topic for a while. We will talk about it a lot in coming days. Maybe, one day, we will actually collect the national will to enact laws to protect people more than to protect guns. Hey, I know this is a complex and multifaceted debate. And lot’s of folks I know own guns. But isn’t there something better we can do than pass laws that allow people to carry guns into church, as was recently done in Georgia? Can’t we do better than that?

And finally there is the symbols that represent us. This has become for me something of a cause. As a son of the South I know something of my heritage. I also know that many of my fellow Southerners take an entirely different lesson from history. Truth matters. History matters. Symbols matter. And that brings me to the subject of the Battle Flag of the Confederacy.

Here is a symbol viewed by people, people who live in the South, in very different ways. It evokes great emotion and divides people. The question of who should be represented here was a subject of great turmoil in South Carolina, where a few years ago the Confederate flag was flown over the capitol dome in Columbia. Because of the controversy a political compromise was enacted. It pleased neither side, but it was the only way South Carolina could figure out how to deal with the official waving of the Confederate flag. So the flag was moved. It is still on the capitol grounds, but a statue remembering the evils of slavery was erected as well.

My ancestors on both sides of my family fought for the Southern Confederacy in the Civil War. One did not survive. He was killed as he was returning home after the war had ended. The Yankee sniper who shot him between the eyes had not gotten the word the war was over. So, yes, I’m kind of invested in this whole heritage thing.

And I also have many friends who are equally invested in the heritage of the South, but for them it was not a story of soldiering for “the cause” but the memory and legacy of slavery. Personally, my Christian conviction informed largely by the words of Paul to the Corinthians (1st Corinthians 8) prompted me many years ago to abstain from displaying the Confederate flag ever again. When I was a young man I purchased a Confederate flag beach towel. I took it to the public beach near my home. Now I regret what I unintentionally communicated to those who were the descendants of slaves. Yet I want you to know I did what I did because I was ignorant.

And that leads me to the photo of the T-shirt that reads: “If this shirt offends you, you need a history lesson.” Well I agree. A history lesson is indeed called for here! That’s what I got.when I went to college. Instead of the mythology surrounding the Civil War I read, for the first time, the actual history of causes and consequences of the most tragic war in American history. The facts changed my mind. Christ changed my heart. And ever since I’ve felt obliged to, from time to time, insert the truth into conversations that concern the meaning and legacy of the Confederacy. I’ll not attempt to do that in this article. But if you would like you can read an excellent treatment of the subject in a brief article by Sean CW Korsgaard.

My prayer is for all, even for those who do not agree with me. Let’s talk. Let’s listen to one another. Let’s think on solutions. Most of all let’s love one another.

Good Advice from Graham

Over the course of the last few weeks I’ve heard or read story after story concerning human sexuality; specifically the matter of homosexuality in the church. The question at hand is essentially a matter of inclusion: “Can gay Christians be included in the life of the church?” And some are even more harsh when they ask, “Can there even be such a thing as a gay Christian?”

Regardless of where you stand I think we all must agree that there are multiple answers to those questions from those inside the church. Outspoken church leaders and theologians do not agree, denominations do not agree, local churches do not agree, and individual Christians have individual opinions about these questions.

Another thing all sincere players in this theological argument must also admit is that this has become for some THE defining marker for Christian orthodoxy. In other words, how you believe on this issue is the core issue for Christians and churches. Churches are splitting over this issue, other congregations are defecting from their denominational homes, and some Christians are even breaking fellowship with lifelong friends because they disagree on the issue of gay Christianity.

Yesterday I learned that Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, has decided to withdraw the organization’s funds from Wells Fargo Bank because of a television advertisement that depicts a lesbian couple adopting a deaf child. For him it is a moral stand he must take. (Ironically he has moved the funds to another bank that is at least as gay friendly as the one he left.)

My question and concern here is quite specific:”Why is the acknowledgement and inclusion of gay people in the church the battle line for the truth of our faith?” Through the course of my life I’ve seen that battle line change. How one felt about civil rights, pacifism, end times, abortion, Charismatics, women ministers, and Muslims have all had their turn being THE issue that determines “real” Christians from the “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” I’d like to suggest to all those who make such matters the ultimate test of true Christianity that they actually read what Christ said and emphasized in his ministry. Let me recommend four amazing books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Oh, and one more thing; some good advice by Graham; not Franklin, but his dad, Billy. Years ago he met with some Christians with whom he had a disagreement. The issue of war and Christian pacifism was thick in the air. Here is an account of how the great evangelist handled the matter:

After a detailed presentation of Anabaptist beliefs—particularly nonviolence—the Mennonites asked for Graham’s advice. How did evangelical leaders view Mennonites’ pacifism? How might they improve their evangelistic outreach? Graham was gracious. … Graham told the group that he “could easily be one of us in about 99% of what has been said,” the secretary recorded. He expressed willingness to discuss the doctrine of nonviolence in the future, but warned of the “historical danger of a denomination putting undue emphasis and overweighting ourselves on one particular point.”*

Pretty good advice. I wish we all might learn from it.

*Molly Worthen – http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2013-11/billy-graham-and-fracture-american-evangelicalism

My Bathroom is Done

At last. After a year and a half my bathroom is finally complete. I’ve put it back and had my first successful shower today.
I know that’s a long time, but I’ve had a few interruptions along the way. My wife’s emergency surgery, work demands, kids needs, and too little money and time have made this a significant challenge.
But now its done.
Persistence. I never thought it would not happen. I just did the best I could a little at a time and never gave up.
Could it be there is a life lesson there? Maybe. All I know is we are all glad it is finally done.