A Sermon about Nicodemus


Terrific and thought provoking sermon

Bread and Wine

I haven’t posted anything for quite awhile … life after Christmas got very complicated and very busy. But I’m back in some sort of groove now and here’s the sermon I preached on the Second Sunday in Lent (February 17, 2008). The Gospel lesson for the day (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A) was John 3:1-17, which recounts Nicodemus’s night-time conversation with Jesus about rebirth.

Fire. For just a moment, before we delve into the story of Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus, I want you to think about fire. Close your eyes and imagine a fire and listen to how one professor of mythological studies describes this archetypical element:

It fascinates and frightens, warms and scorches. Too little and we die. Too much and we die. It sings, dances, plays, inspires, destroys. It purifies and consumes. In a burning bush, it marked the presence of God. In a volcano, Pele surges into…

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The Salesman’s Prayer

praying hands_bibleOh creator of all things, help me. For this day I go out into the world naked and alone, and without your hand to guide me I will wander far from the path which leads to success and happiness.

I ask not for gold or garments or even opportunities equal to my ability; instead, guide me so that I may acquire ability equal to my opportunities. Help me to remain humble through obstacles and failures; yet hide not from mine eyes the prize that will come with victory.

Spare me sufficient days to reach my goals; yet help me to live this day as though it be my last. Guide me in my words that they may bear fruit; yet silence me from gossip that none be aligned.

Discipline me in the habit of trying and trying again; yet show me the way to make use of the law of averages. Favor me with alertness to recognize opportunity. Bathe me in good habits that the bad ones may drown. Suffer me to know that all things shall pass; yet help me to count my blessings of today.

But all these things be only if thy will. I am a small and lonely grape clutching the vine yet thou hast made me different from all others. Guide me. Help me. Show me the way. Let me become all you planned for me when my seed was planted and selected by you to sprout in the vineyard of the world.

Help this humble salesman. Guide me, God. Amen

 The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry. My cup runneth over

The Cross


imagesJesus Christ’s last day on Earth was a zero-sum situation. All creation had come to that point and for a moment the entire universe pointed to a single spot on this dust ball we call plant earth. Jesus faced a simple choice. Live as the awe inspiring God-Man that he was, return to heaven and be welcomed by the angels in songs of praise and worship or, he could be beaten and torn, made filthy with the worlds sins and be nailed to a cross until his lungs filled with blood and he died from pain and exhaustion and a body that could give nothing else.

On one point we must be clear; Jesus Christ was not a mere man so either choice would have done nothing to reduce his integral nature. He was not faced with being a noble hero or a coward, nor would he have returned home to heaven in shame and disgrace. This was the son of God, this was God. And his nature would have remained intact even if he called the angels to remove him from the cross and leave mankind to our deserved fate. And yet he chose to die. Why?

Jesus Christ died to save mankind. This is the Sunday-School conceit and while true it is far from the whole story and does little justice to what was at stake and why the cross mattered. After all, many men have been heroes, many have saved the lives of people they cared for, and many have saved the lives of those they never even knew, even unto death but the cross was different. The cross was special.

Despite the profound implications the cross is actually a simple equation if we think carefully. It goes like this…

As a Man, Jesus Christ died for us because HE loves us – HE loves us because HE was one of us. HE experienced the pain and suffering that is the lot of mankind; living in a fallen world filled with death, sickness and despair. The sacrifice of HIS precious life was the sacrifice of a husband who saves his bride, a father who saves his child, a patriot who saves his nation. As faithful Christians we in turn love HIM all the more because that act is familiar and because we are moral beings motivated by the same love even when we fall short.

And through the cross

As Messiah, Jesus Christ conquered death on our behalf out of a higher form of love that is unfamiliar and sometimes frightening– HE loves us because HE created us and because HE takes joy in his creation. This is unfamiliar because even though we are creative beings, our creative ability is limited and unrefined. It is frightening because though GOD is familiar he is also unfathomable in a way that no father or husband or patriot can comprehend. The husband understands his bride because they are the same more than different; the father understands the child because the father was once a child; the patriot understands his nation because he helped make it. But GOD does not merely take part in creation because HE is the source of creation. By contrast GOD created all things out of himself and for himself. He needs no love to fill an emotional deficiency or to compliment a divided nature. Though Jesus Christ is the son of GOD, GOD needs no son to carry a legacy into the future. Though GOD loves the land HE made he does not need borders or national identity because the whole of the world is contained within his creative nature.

 

Nothing changes this equation. And the equation holds true regardless if we are talking about Jesus Christ or GOD because they are consubstantial. GOD’s mercy is motivated by love for his creation | GOD’s wrath is motivated by love for HIS creation | Gods destroying sinful cities is motivated by love for HIS creation. Every action of GOD’s hand, even those we find shocking and distasteful is motivated by love for HIS creation. By contrast when humans show wrath out of fear of jealousy or anger. We hate injustice because God hates injustice, but we are also the instruments of all injustice. In GOD we see the higher example but through our limited and faulty moral reasoning we can never and will never live up to that standard. Which is why the cross had to happen. It was the ultimate corrective. Just as fire is used to burn away the danger of infection in soiled rags so the cross was used to burn away the danger of infection in sin. The fire does not abolish infection from the world nor did the cross abolish sin from the world. It only checked the danger of infection and gave a means to minimize the risk until the last days when the infection itself is abolished.

Or to put it another way Emancipation was a check against chattel slavery and later the 14th amendment was a more perfect check against the evil of chattel slavery. But neither abolished the source of slavery which is racism, fear of the unfamiliar, and a desire to control, all hallmarks of evil. GOD sent plagues and destroyed cities and sent his chosen people wandering as a check against evil, not a means to abolish it. GOD gave the temple and condoned sacrifice and sent kings to rule and to conquer to check evil not to abolish it. And GOD sent his son to provide the final check against evil, not to abolish it from the world. But the cross marked the point to which mankind could look forward from in anticipation of that future time when evil will be abolished that is the return of Christ and the world restored.

But what about those shocking actions? It is too easy to simply brush past them and not confront them. The Bible is honest in reporting them so we must be honest in seeking to understand them. We focus on GOD’s love for us but while it is certainly true that GOD loves his creation it is equally true that we sinful human beings have made a mockery of that. If God stepped in only because he has love for us, then it would indeed be monstrous to destroy whole cities, to lay waste to whole human populations. Love for someone could just as easily mean letting that person get away with the bad and continue on in sin. After all if God is all powerful could he not simply erase evil or turn evil acts into good? Could he not change the rules that dictate what it means to be Holy? If god simply loved us individually then any of these would suffice. But they don’t suffice because more than GOD’s love for us as individuals GOD has love for his creation of which we are the apex as individuals. It is the love for HIS creation that motivates those seemingly questionable acts and from which god must occasionally act against individuals and groups.

Consider this. If it was enough to love all people individually out of a love that directs us to become self-actualized then the slave master who beats his slave and the slave who is beaten would be equally moral. The slave master acting on his natural impulses inclined towards sin and the slave on his natural state of fallen humanity to be deserving of domination. The best a deity could do is to encourage a change of behavior in one or both parties. BUT the individual is part of created order and so what we do has implications for that order. In the business of combating sin, and the cross was exclusively about sin, we cannot recognize the zero-sum business of it AND attempt to reconcile it with toleration of a sinful nature.

The cross is the greatest monolithic moral statement there is. It is an absolute refutation of moral, radical autonomy and the reconciliation of the sinful individual and the fallen creation into which he is born with the original intent of GOD’s perfect created order.

Moral Relatavism makes ambiguous all things true


Few Christians would disagree that our modern culture here in the United States is defined by moral relativism. Some fallen churches praise it for being more open and welcoming, while other, traditional churches either ignore it or fail to come to terms with what it means and how to confront it.  I will put it simply… Moral Relativism is a great evil.

Now that that’s out of the way lets be honest. This election year of 2016 more than any in history is being defined by moral relativism and how we respond to it. Lets look at the playing field with a fair and honest seeking heart.

  1.  Bernie Sanders, a self avowed advocate of communist inspired socialism, that old enemy of both America and Christianity is a viable contender for the Democratic nomination. Only 15 years ago such a thing would have been unthinkable.
  2. Hillary Clinton, having lied about secure emails, having lied about the deaths of men serving the United States in Benghazi, Libya and after having supported a serial predator of woman in her husband Bill Clinton is the very pinnacle of what the Democrats want in a leader. Feminists flock to her, despite her calculating stand by her man gambit and even after very credible evidence points to her directly threatening victims of her husbands alleged rapes.
  3. Donald Trump is leading among Conservative and Christian voters despite having a deplorable history of conservative values and no recognizable Christian faith. Here is a man who has committed adultery, promoted himself on greed, changed political loyalties not once, not twice, but four separate times in his adult life. Not to mention his pride in having bought people to pay attention to him, in business and in things as personal as his own weddings. Here is a man who declares his chief opponents are not eligible for office implying they are in fact not American enough (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio), who links men who have risen from poverty and violence (Ben Carson) to life saving commitments as pediatric neurosurgery to crazy people and pedophiles. Of course he did this ONLY when Carson was rising in the polls.

But wait… Donald Trump and his supporters are far too righteously patriotic and much too strongly opinioned to be accused of moral relativism! This is absolutely correct. However they are still victims of it in so much as they are reacting to it, or more to accurately reacting against it. When Trump proclaims his will that a wall be built, it is a reaction against the idea that borders do not matter and national identity represents cultural bigotry, which has long been the narrative of the Left. It deforms patriotism, which should be love of ones country owed on account of civic virtues into a monolithic, radical superiority that demands recognition of and adherence to authoritarian nativism. As sad as it is to say, this sort of patriotism is more akin to National Socialism than to Republican Democracy.

When the dust settles and the last ballot is counted I fear three things will remain.

  1. The future of America promises to be bleak.
  2. Any divine mercy that has protected America may be revoked, and with just cause.
  3. Moral Relativism will become the default ethic defining this country for at least two decades while those who hold to traditional moral systems, including the virtue of family, procreation, male/female uniqueness, or religions that have long been the foundation of the United States will  increasingly be marginalized, demeaned and possibly suppressed.

But there is hope, because Christianity is in the very business of hope. All  nations stumble and all nations fall. This is not a theological idea but a basic historical fact. The good news of an America in shambles is that it might reveal what was rotten all along but also what was good and noble, a sort of American Evangelium if I may use the imagery of the crucified Christ who, on the cross was grotesque, and foul and filthy and yet only in that most detestable state was his true beauty most magnificently revealed.

Unlike the promise of Israel that was a blood covenant, we have only assumed that God set America aside, and perhaps he allowed us to have that delusion because for a time we were faithful. Once the arrogance of a thriving nation is deceased perhaps, just perhaps we can  begin to make ourselves worthy of the grace we tried to purchase through patriotism.

I believe America must come to a Nehemiah moment before change can be effected. What do I mean?

Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem because the great city had fallen to ruin and was shameful. Her walls were broken, her gates asunder. While it is true God is not bound to any place, this was the city he set apart and it was being used to make a mockery of Gods majesty and power.  Jerusalem was a city upon a hill which meant that in good times her light could be seen far and wide, but tragically in bad times, her darkness could not be missed.  Nehemiah came to rebuild not a city, but a symbol. So it will be with America.

Perhaps it is fitting Donald Trump speaks of building walls and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders erect walls between those they favor and those they oppose.

Unlike Nehemiah’s wall building, we are graced with the indwelling temple of Jesus Christ whose walls can never be breached or torn asunder so while we need a different corrective, I believe we also will see a different type of man (and woman) emerge from the ruins. A patriotic Tatterdemalion echoing an earlier age when America was rough and rugged and its promise lay ahead of it.

If this new America is to be born it will be in a gathering of spirits, the spirit of 76, the spirit of self-determination balanced by humble faith, the spirit of bible reading and plan speaking and the heart that desires abounding grace. This is not the America of Clinton or Sanders or Trump. It is, and I believe this with all my heart, the nation that comes after America has been burned away.

Why I oppose Donald Trump & why those who support him should think carefully


Will the leader reflect the ugliness of egotism or the transfigured glory of Christ the Lord            - J. Oswald Sanders
Will the leader reflect the ugliness of egotism or the transfigured glory of Christ the Lord
– J. Oswald Sanders

 

NO MAN SHOULD LEAD UNTIL HE HAS WALKED THE JOURNEY HIMSELF

Before a man can lead others  he must have taken the long walk himself.  Donald Trump speaks of conservatism, of traditional family values, the sanctity of unborn life, the need to rollback Obama’s faltering steps towards Socialized Universal Health Care and of the importance of controlled immigration, all of which are are important to the conservative and the Evangelical whom he now courts, however Donald Trump has never walked any of these journeys himself.

What journey has he walked then? Donald Trump has vocally supported universal healthcare and unrestricted (meaning even partial birth) partial birth abortions in the past. His traditional family values have included adultery, divorces and seeking out trophy wives. His current stance on immigration seems to have appeared fully formed only after he became a candidate at a time when immigration is a chief concern. In fact very serious allegations of hiring illegal immigrants persist.

While it is true a man can change his mind, learning from new information or be given a new heart by GOD, all of which will influence new opinions, nothing in Donald Trump’s character or life-story suggest a change of heart, only a change of message and the facts prove this out.

In April of 2011 and again in June of 2015 The Washington Post and Politico reported on Donald Trumps political contribution history. The evidence proves, and Trump does not deny donations to the nations most liberal candidates among them are the most socially progressive and least committed to Constitutionalism, Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama. In addition Trump has given freely to the Clinton Foundation, which has itself partnered with Planned Parenthood, employed Nicola Moore, the so called “Fly-In” Abortionist, and other radical pro-abortion groups. Not to mention donating large sums to Hillary Clinton for her political successful campaign as Senator and failed campaign as President, a woman whose commitment to fostering and expanding abortion from conception to partial-birth and her deep loyalty to Planned Parenthood is well documented. Why did he do this? In his own words, it was to ensure Hillary Clinton came to his wedding. Now friends lets look at this without rose tinted glasses. How many babies did Donald Trump’s money help to abort so he could fill a seat at his celebrity wedding? We cant speculate, but in at least one example, an abortion provider proudly proclaims that with the financial backing of the Clinton Foundation they performed more than 4000 abortions.  If you believe that abortion is a moral wrong, perhaps even rising to the level of infanticide then how do you measure that in terms of blood money?

A CHANGE OF HEART

A man can change his mind, but can a man change his heart? II believe it can be done, in fact such a change is foundational to Christianity itself, but it takes more than mere man to do it. The sort of meaningful change that broadens a man’s heart comes only from a work of grace. Such grace comes from the divine, or it can come from a deeply meaningful human contact such as true love or an act of profound mercy. But men’s hearts do not change easily and when the change comes, if  true, it is a visible outpouring of a new substance from within the man, like lead turned into gold. In other words, people see clearly that a changed man is a new man, altogether different from what he once was.

How should we view leadership in light of this? If a man  does have a change of heart and  wishes to become a leader he should know why and speak to why he changed, and what that changed did to him. But Donald Trump, in atypical narcissism never admits to mistakes, never admits to being wrong and an honest change of heart means recognizing that you were in the past wrong. When the Apostle Paul encountered the Jews he once persecuted he owned up to his past mistakes, recognizing it as a work of grace and his change of heart was so self-evident that audiences who once hid in fear at his approach came out to hear his new message. Think of Paul when Donald Trump speaks and understand how suspicious it should be that a changed man fails to speak of his own changes, even more so when there is no visible outpouring of such a change.

Can we trust a man who admits proudly to never having asked God’s forgiveness? Is there a visible change of heart in the man who proclaims he has a “great relationship with God” and goes on to say he hasn’t done anything to apologize for. Let me be clear on this. Contrition is at the very heart of the Christian faith. We are called to repent and to confess our sins. This is not a suggestion but a commandment. The equation here is simple my dear friends, without contrition there is no faith.

CHRISTIANITY IS  NOT OF SPOKEN WORDS, BUT LIVING DEEDS

Donald Trump speaks of being a Christian yet prior  running for elected office, where Evangelicals will make or break a Republican candidate, he never spoke of faith. None of his books speak to faith; for the people who know him best faith has never been a characteristic that has mattered enough to be mentioned. And while there is nothing morally wrong with wealth, his lifelong commitment to mammon and his lack of visibility in charity work beyond tax shelter donations should raise certain questions in the mind of any Christian.

It is possible that his faith is private and subtle but if this is so, why attempt to speak of it so often now? We live in a day and an age where a man’s faith is of so little regard in public opinion that it matters little if he claims the mantle of Christian. In fact, now more than ever it is easy to be elected to higher office without having any manifested faith at all. Recent polls show that even among self-professed Christians, religious commitment is no longer a prerequisite for electability.

Yet Donald Trump does speak of faith, and he does so clumsily, as a man uncertain about what he says. His speeches are almost always unscripted or loosely scripted yet he admits to relying on a script when incorrectly citing a Bible passage. And he attends church only to place money in the communion plate, confusing it for a tithe plate. It could be said of his character how odd to so easily confuse holy-communion for a financial transaction. This latter remark may be reading too much into a mistake. But a mistake it was, and one that would not have been made by a man familiar with the trappings of the church. It calls to mind a story…

There was a man who mastered his profession and grew fabulously wealthy. He bought companions when he needed them and then got rid of them as if they were a bad investment when he was done with them. This man could buy anything he wanted, except for one thing. Eternity! If we were honest with ourselves each of us wants to live forever to some small degree. Such everlasting life represents power over the one thing we are all powerless against. And this man loathed being powerless. He traveled the world speaking to shamans and gurus, scientists and philosophers, Physicians, both practical and metaphysical, all in the search for eternity. His thousands, and tens of thousands and millions of dollars bought him attention, and people were eager to give him an answer that would sate his craving but in the end none could deliver. One day this man, this very rich man came to a humble church. It was Sunday and having nothing else to do with his time or money he went inside, sat down and listened with bemusement at the quaint music and the sermon that spoke of salvation, and of eternal life, and most of all contrition. Now he agreed that any person in their right mind would want to be saved from death. And he liked what he heard about eternal life, which was after all the very thing he was seeking. But contrition! He scoffed at it. He had done everything right in his life, just look at his wealth for proof, which was a hard thing not to do as he rarely let a conversation pass without making mention of it. Finally the minister called for silence and prayer, which he mimicked as best he could, and before long a plate was passed around. Having so little experience with church he wasn’t sure what the plate was for, but he knew that those Christians asked for money, a thing they called tithe, which wasn’t that different from a charitable donation he supposed, and he was used to donating to charity. They were after all great tax shelters and giving just a little made for such good press. So absorbed was he in his own cleverness that he failed to notice those around him taking the plate, and drinking from it in humble memory of the GOD who became man and gave himself so that others might live. When the plate passed by this rich man he did was most comfortable, he used his money to buy his way in to belonging and in so doing missed the very thing he was looking for, a chance at eternal life.

Was Donald Trump guilty of a simple mistake or was he doing what was most comfortable for him. Buying his way into belonging the way he bought the attention of people he wanted to belong with.

Perhaps this is owed to his religious affiliation which is not Presbyterian, as he says, but personal magnetism, and ego of the sort espoused by Norman Vincent Peele, the author of the Power of Positive Thinking.  As a child it was this book, not the Bible that occupied the family attention and it was Peele himself who from the pulpit taught a young Donald Trump the tenants of a self-centered, greed filled life in search of worldly success.

THE THINGS THAT MATTER CAN’T BE BOUGHT FOR SILVER OR FOR GOLD

Donald Trump easily, and with amazing comfort admits to buying people’s attention. He admits to “wanting” the Clintons at his wedding, so he gave them large contributions. This is akin to buying favor, or a friend. Some argue that because of his wealth it’s unlikely he will be beholden to someone else, including powerful political interest groups, but a careful examination of his campaign contribution history reveals a pattern that says otherwise. Those states he has donated most frequently in are those states where he has the most concentration of business interest including his office towers, hotels and casinos. This pattern reveals a history of a man who has embraced a pay to play ethos, or at least a man who is so committed to money that he believes he must pay to play as a matter of due course. If his entire fortune is based on real estate and that real estate was acquired through the benefices of campaign contributions then why would we not expect him to be beholden to anyone.

Wealth when defined as a virtue of itself is a spiders web of conflicting loyalties. Can we trust that as President Donald Trump will abide by the democratic process and allow pieces of his agenda to fail if they are unpopular or will he continue to purchase the attention and favor of others to push his agenda through in the same old pay to play that has been at the center of his campaign contribution history. Or for that matter, what pieces of his agenda might be for sale, if the price were right? Our healthcare, the wall he will build, the life of our sons and daughters in the armed forces?

Even a good agenda, won through rotten means can only produce rotten fruit.

TO EVERYTHING THERE IS A SEASON, EVEN ROTTEN FRUIT

 

ThoseRottenHoneycrisp-S_Bitter-rot-after-heat-drought-stress-620x423
Good Fruit and Rotten Fruit do not mix.

 

Donald Trump comes at the right time with the right promises to the right people. We should always be wary of gifts that seemingly appear out of nowhere to deliver exactly what we most want, especially when what we most want is informed out of fears and trepidation.  American Christians today face soft persecution. This is a simple reality; prayer is openly mocked and frequently prevented in public spaces; good men and women lose their jobs for simple acts of devotion to their faith and refusal to embrace those things their faith call for them to reject and the normal argument is that you can be free to believe whatever you want in the privacy of y our own home, effectively denying a public voice to dissenters of any persuasion not approved by the secular state.

Contrary to what many believe it has been a great failure that religion in America became inextricably linked to civic responsibility. The American Civil Religion transformed Christianity from a GOD centered, grace filled way of life into another way to speak of patriotism, as if being a good American meant by default being a good Christian. Over the years church evolved into a place where the American flag stood equal to the cross and where the Decalogue and the United States Constitution were held in equal esteem, as if both were carved by the same divine finger in the same stone on Sinai. Where the Fourth of July is more sacred than Easter and where politicians evoked impressive prayers even as they supplanted GOD’s grace for political favor.

For the Protestant, America’s civil religion came to be as political as the Papacy and for the Catholic it was as rebellious to the body of Christ as the Protestant Reformation. For each the consequences have led us to a near complete of erosion of honest public faith. We have fallen from the religious, though often contentious freedom of our forefathers now being free to practice only that religion that is not “offensive” or that cannot be deemed “intolerant” by the state. In other words the so called establishment clause has been turned on its head and only those religions not out of favor with  official state positions on morality can be tolerated.

To fully appreciate this a little history is in order. As Christians we need to be honest about our national past.  This country was settled and later founded on the grounds of religion. Religion permeated the sinews of the American experience unlike any other nation on earth. Separatists and Catholics, Protestants and Quakers and all the other different and divergent Christian expressions that came to the shores of this new world could be fiercely opposed to one another, engage in vile and slanderous attacks and banishment of those deemed intolerable to the established “Christian” order of things but they all came, and they all settled here for reasons that were mainly religious. On its surface this is hardly a praiseworthy example of Christian pluralism and to be sure modern ecumenical urges would have been highly offensive to our ancestors of old, but it should be remembered that only in America was religious dissent, even amongst the most bitter of enemies settled through discourse and not at the sword.

With very few exceptions the most bitter sectarian rivalries ended in banishment, not death and when death did result, it was not the sect but the threat of destabilization that was to blame. As was the case of the early American figure named Mary Dyer, who was banished numerous times for her aggressive, outspoken and order challenging opinions before  at last she was hanged. In her case, sad as it is, her execution was not the result of a persecuted fringe belief but rather the threat she posed to a well-ordered society living at the edge of a vast and dangerous wilderness. In fact, her execution so shocked and troubled the consciences of people that by royal decree executions for her crimes were halted.

This unusual, and often uneven Christian tolerance that was unique to America is the foundation upon which the whole of our culture is based. And from the dawn of America to the end of the 19th century it informed and guided Americans in deeply profound ways. To be fair not all in America were bible reading puritans seeking a divine kingdom in the wilderness.

In the state of Georgia up until the post revolutionary war years religion was infrequent with few churches and little literacy to read the bible. While the Great Awakening’s shows there were entire fields of un-churched, religiously indifferent people ripe for harvest. Then something happened. The Industrial age came like a hurricane and with it the explosive growth of urban centers. For a nation that had been tempered by the pastoral, rural church this new urbanization posed numerous challenges and new ways of thinking. For Protestant Christians who were the majority the answer came in the form of Revival and Revival gave birth to what we now call the Evangelical Church. Prior to the end of the 19th century America had gone through several “Awakenings” where after periods of stagnation people yearned for a powerful communal and personal religious experience. During one of the latter Awakenings, Mormonism was born and the Spiritualist movement emerged (We can thank the latter for the perpetual interest in ghost and all things supernatural). And each Awakening  strengthened the various Christian denominations and in many cases led to the rise in prominence of formerly marginalized denominations, such as the Baptists.

By the end of the 19th century America was ripe for a new Awakening but when it came it took on a decidedly different form. While religious zeal was the central theme numbers were the focus. And while the awakenings represented new flowerings of Christian fervor this new “revival method” represented a call directed primarily towards believers who had fallen away.

At its center was the Biblical “great commission” calling for believers to go forth and make believers out of all nations but new modes of transportation, including railroads and later telephones and automobiles and the ability to quickly and easily gather large numbers of people due to their concentration in new urban centers meant that the efforts of pastors could be measured in ways that were unheard of before. These new Revivals quickly grew into a numbers game. The first to take advantage were men such as Lyman Beecher and Dwight Moody. On their heels were even more vocally gifted powerhouses behind the traveling pulpit, men like Billy Sunday and women like Amiee Semple McPherson who put religion on the radio and who in turn paved the way for the likes of Billy Graham whose Crusades gathered more people than almost any other event in cities across America. These Christian revivalists created something new at a time when America was beginning to become entangled with the rest of the world. If America was a Christian nation, and no one doubted that we were then the question had to be, what kind of Christian nation were we? Evangelicalism which was both deeply spiritual and uniquely American in form was the answer. It alone was best suited to pick up the Civil Religion our founders placed such high value in because it was at once egalitarian and in many ways absolutist. It was the perfect religious expression for a nation that was growing arrogant in its unbridled success and unbounded optimism. It declared proudly that God was on our side while echoing the old concept that America was a new Jerusalem. Had it not been for two world wars and the threat of atheist communist expansion Evangelism might have withered on the vine of came to be just one of the many denominations that dot the American landscape instead it came to be synonymous with America, with patriotism and with exceptionalism.

The shorter history is simple. Colonial America was religious in almost every respect, including theocratic governance. Post Colonial-America was not and never was meant to be a theocracy but religion, religious experience, religious freedom and the joining of religious morality and public responsibility was implicit in nearly every founding document and letters, both public and private left by our diverse founding fathers.

This brings us to Evangelical question. By itself there is nothing specifically negative about the Evangelical movement. It has strong and weak points, much to commend and much to condemn. But because it came of age during a time in America when challenges to religion were becoming commonplace among them the slow rise of secularism, the emergence of socialism from Europe, the advance of science that was embraced by atheists not as a tool but as a new type of religion itself and lastly the new European Intellectualism priding itself on extreme liberalism and a rejection of any fundamental truths created a reactionary movement that quickly became the majority within Evangelicalism, especially in the south that answered intellectualism not with the vigor backed by a legacy of Christian knowledge but with anti-intellectual zeal that used the Bible as a shield to hide behind. This laid the foundation for what would became super-radical public Christianity, the Christianity that told itself it was right not because its arguments were sound but because the pews were filled and the bank accounts were flush with cash. Churches praised themselves on the number of missionaries they could afford to support and not the quality of the mission work. Shiny suits and gold watches  proved that our pastoral leaders MUST be morally good, because they are successful. The term mega-church and televangelist became hallmarks of American Christianity to an alarming degree Christ on a rugged cross became WWJD on t-shirts and sell out Christian rock concerts and best selling books telling us how much God just wants us to realize our own potential and make lots of money while were at it.

The disaster here can be summed up by saying simply this. The church became a celebrity and celebrity is fleeting. Ground was lost to atheists because Christians couldn’t articulate answers to simple, and sometimes honest questions. The Establishment Clause was turned against us because we lacked the ability and the desire to defend Americas true legacy. And we were so busy being morally right, and frequently morally presumptuous, that we never imagined we could be accused of ever being wrong. It was the very success of American Christianity as a Civil religion that led to the decline of the church and where we are today, near ruination.

This is the Christian nation Donald Trump is now speaking to and it is confused, broken and fearful. It is for us to ask tough questions and far too many of us don’t have the answers because we live in a sort of spiritual dark age where old paths have been lost and smooth talkers can easily lead us astray. The first question I believe we should ask is this – Does Donald Trump speak for the benefit of the disenfranchised or does he speak to manipulate the disenfranchised?

Perhaps it is this Civic Christianity Trump lays claim to and not in any real sense the Christianity of the cross. This would explain how he so often uses profanity or mocks those he disagrees with. Or the way he takes such pride in only surrounding himself with “winners” as if life were a game and winning that game the price of admission for the Trump National tour. Indeed as far back as 1999 Donald Trump was testing Presidential waters (In fact his 2000 book “the America we Deserve” was nothing less than a presidential  taste test) when he asserted to Tim Russert that he was “pro-choice in every respect”. Take that in for a moment. PRO CHOICE IN EVERY RESPECT. This means the man who now calls himself a champion of life because he “evolved” was ready and willing to see babies murdered at the moment of conception in the process called partial birth abortion. This puts Trump at the fringes of all but the most liberal pro-choice advocates and in the company of his sister, a Bill Clinton appointed Judge who has shielded planned parenthood on numerous occasions. Today he calls it a topic of sibling disagreement. A short time ago he called it his shared belief.

THE KING YOU DESERVE

In the Biblical story of Saul’s rise to Kingship we learn of a warrior whose feats and victories inspired a nation. But they turned sour because each victory elevated the man, Saul higher and higher as GOD’s role in those feats was diminished. There is no doubt that Saul was a great warrior or that he was a good King, in the beginning at least but as time wore on Saul’s righteous anger at the foes of Israel and his loyalty to his GOD turned into a self-serving mental state propped up by paranoid visions, deceit and bloodlust against his perceived enemies. To Saul the world was occupied with those who were loyal and those who were enemies.

The People of Israel wanted a King. They got the King they asked for, the one they deserved and cost them dearly. It wasn’t until later that Israel got the King GOD had in mind for his people.

In contrast to Saul, David was also a great warrior with feats that eclipsed the great King Saul. Where Saul led armies, David stood alone against Giants. Where Saul’s slew thousands, David slew tens of thousands (literal or metaphorical can be debated). Yet David remained humble, always praising his God, always seeking to be Gods servant. Even in later years, as King David strayed from the path he never wavered in his obedience to God, though pride and lust clouded his judgment and led him to murder. When confronted with his fall from grace David repented, begged God’s forgiveness and accepted with humility his well-earned cupful of wrath. To David, the world was filled with broken people, all sinners alike and this was a source of both his greatness as a Leader and his humility as a servant. It is for this we remember David as a King, as a Psalmist, as a nation builder and can forgive his many failings. David was a true leader.

Now the question for people of faith and conscience is simple. In Donald Trump do we have a Saul or a David? Donald Trump is far too big a personality to be anything less, and we the people have vested far too much importance on his presence and his persona to see him as less.

I believe Donald Trump is like the King the people call out for heedless of the warnings.

Lastly, a word on Profanity

Who amongst us has not let slip a bad word; one of those harmless tidbits of profanity at an ill-timed moment. Traffic seems to urge profanity, stressful bosses make us want to cuss. A bad call against your favorite team elicits this or that and we may or may not regret it but we forget that profanity, those vulgar things we say, those obscenities that are so seductive are not befitting of a leader of a moral nation. Why do you think that is? The very word profanity comes from the Latin “profane” which means outside the temple. Literally this was speech that was not fitting for the presence of the holy.

From a Christian perspective such language is filthy and unclean, the sort of words God turns away from in shame. These words are the refuse of human speech, the detritus  that fuel the fires of the garbage heaps that once stood outside Jerusalem, the same refuse heaps that came to be symbolically  linked to Hell. But such words coming from human lips do not simply burn up, they burn in our mouths and the ears of those that hear them because no matter the circumstance these words are designed to cause harm.

Our earthly leaders are not Priests dedicated to temples and so, being fallen beings just as we all are a certain forgiveness should be extended for words  that we all find ourselves tempted by. But consider how easily Donald Trump uses them, and how often.  These are not stray words lightly uttered or meaningless slips. No friends, they are practiced words used with a purpose.  As I said a moment ago profane words are designed to cause harm and the man who uses them with such ease is a harmful man.

As a father I know that words coming from my mouth have the weight of a god to the ears of my children. I know first hand how easily my own accidental profanities become the language of choice for my beloved son and how much it pains me to know that I was responsible for placing such a dirty stain in his innocent mind. So Christian friends, ask yourself – How much more seductive will profanity be when it is a commonplace to the leader of the free world. What pride we as Americans will have earned when we must cover the ears of our children to protect them from the words of the President we chose.

 

 

Tough Questions American Christians shold ask themselves August 2015


Why do I believe when not believing has never been easier or more socially acceptable?

Is the Bible enough for me?

Do I stand on biblical traditions and traditions as laid out over the last two thousand years or should I abandon them and stand with cultural trends?

Should I demand that a church or individual that moves from Biblical tradition and stands on modern, cultural moral and ethical standards explain why the church has had it wrong for so long and why they believe they have it right?

Is the time right to consider reconciling Catholic and Protestants traditions in some form?

What is my church doing wrong?

What am I doing wrong as a Christian?

Am I willing to face persecution?

Am I willing to help those who are facing persecution?

Am I judging others hypocritically of my own sinful nature or discerning right from wrong?

How heavy is my cross today… This week… This month?

How heavy is my neighbors cross? Can I help them to shoulder the weight?

How much of Jesus Christ do people see in my actions? This does not mean people will like you better because you are being nicer. In fact this may mean you will be hated more intensely than ever before!

Am I praying MY will be done, or Your will be done?

Do I really take comfort from the rest in our lord Jesus Christ?

To whom have I ministered this week?

Have I given up on listening for the voice of God because his voice seems to long in coming? Remember Abraham and his long wait. Remember Joseph and his years servitude.