“Search Me”

These last few weeks have been particularly troublesome for those inclined to snoop into other people’s business.  Over at the Department of Justice, the Attorney General of these United States, Eric Holder, finds himself under the microscope of congressional curiosity over his involvement, or lack thereof, in snooping through the phone records and email accounts of the Associated Press and Fox News’ James Rosen, respectively.  Similarly, up in the great state of Massachusetts another case of snooping at Harvard College has left the dean there in such a position of weakness that she has resigned her post.  What has both A.G. Eric Holder and dean Evelynn M. Hammonds have in common is their suspected invasion of the presumed privacy of others.

No matter the motivations underlying the snooping these two individuals engaged in the fact remains that the American populace (or a diminishing number of those who pay attention to such things) automatically bristles at the notion that the sanctity of someone’s privacy has been breached.  It is a notion well woven into our national conscience and that of our organizing constitution.  Both the 1st Amendment (“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;”) and the 4th Amendment (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”) expressly protect the individual against inappropriate snooping of the sorts currently generating political heat.

Nevertheless, while the aforementioned national expectation of privacy is a right of the people of this particular republic, such is not an essential part of what it means to be a child of God.  Perhaps David captured it best when he wrote the following:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.”   Psalm 139:23-24

Clearly, when it comes to God we are and ought to be an open book, no matter how embarrassing the secrets uncovered.  Accountability is the core of our faith life.  Without it we miss the opportunity for God’s unfailing grace to take root in us.  With it we are reborn, renewed and restored to the order and condition God intended from the beginning.

The court of public and political opinion will determine ultimately the rightness or wrongness of Mr. Holder and Ms. Hammonds’ actions.  But when it comes to the soul of the faithful, is there ever a wrong time to let God in to look around?  Isn’t that the center of our response to Christ?  If Christ truly be our Lord and Savior, then how can we retain our autonomy?  Have we not already ceded our right to privacy?  When we pledge our fealty to Christ Jesus, do we not, through our own will, authorize a warrant to exploit to the good a thorough exploration of our soul?

“Search me, O God, and know my heart,” declares the Psalmist.  He is right.  Let me be the first to wave my right to keep my heart closed off and private.  I need His searching grace to make me whole.  How about you?

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“Heroic Endeavors”

At a time in our history of such remarkable advances in human understanding and technological know-how, it is strikingly curious that we are a people constantly in need of heroes.  One would think that essentially having domesticated the most extreme dangers we face in the world that surrounds us, we might be feeling a bit more secure in ourselves.  Yet, if popular culture is any indication of our common emotional condition, one might make the argument that we are anything but secure.

Take for example the unending flow of summer blockbuster films whose themes engender the celebration of extremely heroic characters over seemingly unconquerable adversity.  Drawn from the pages of our comic book and cinematic past, this admixture of every conceivable type and stripe of superhero will be flooding the screens of our local multiplex theaters in the weeks to come.  Following the huge success of this month’s latest Iron Man’s release, soon the Man of Steel will be joined by the exploits of a rebooted Captain Kirk and crew and a host of other superhero types.  Together, they will strive to relieve the tensions of an anxious populace, not entirely secure in the fluid and rapidly changing and tense world in which we now live.

Still, it is quite natural to desire our heroes.  In the hours that followed the Boston Marathon bombing and more recently the devastation wrought by the two-mile wide tornado that leveled the town of Moore, Oklahoma, we have been inundated by news reports of the heroic deeds done in response.  No, none of the heroes in question wore spandex tights or capes or specialized armor to battle the forces of destruction—both man-made and natural—but they did have one thing in common: a sense of the responsibility we have to one another, particularly when tragedy strikes.  From the many uniformed police, fire and medical to the 80-year-old grandmother who rescues the dog trapped in the rubble, ordinary men and women stepped up to make a difference in the lives of others.  Though they may have no extraordinary powers to animate them, what they all have in common is a God given sense that He and they are called to be there for others in need.  What every person has deep down in their DNA is an awareness of what is right and wrong and our obligation to one another as children of a righteous and loving God.

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, we read these words:

 19 “For what can be known about God is plain to them,
because God has shown it to them.
20 For His invisible attributes, namely,
His eternal power and divine nature,
have been clearly perceived,
ever since the creation of the world,
in the things that have been made.”
–Romans 1:19 ESV

This summer, as we fill our leisure time with images of super human, heroic endeavor, let us each remember that we are all called to be heroes in the lives of those around us.  Whether it be as a parent or a child or a sibling or a neighbor or a citizen or a soldier or a servant or a leader or a follower or in whatever endeavor we may pursue.  It is not just a Christian value to be of aid to our fellow man, but a human requirement, as I’m certain both you and the God who made us all would agree.

“Missing the Forest for the Trees”

Recently I had occasion to contemplate an article in the local Davidson newspaper reporting that Davidson College faculty had joined a prior effort of the Alumni Association to express their disappointment over the Board of Trustees’ recent decision to reaffirm a requirement that the college’s president be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA.  In the resolution that was adopted overwhelmingly by the faculty, professors at the college also said they opposed a college requirement that 80 percent of board members be “active Christians.” (DavidsonNews.net)   Together they argue that to maintain the requirement of a particularly Presbyterian and Christian influence over the college leadership was in violation of Davidson’s own values.  To quote one Davidson graduate:

“This move affirms that the Davidson community is in alignment on this issue and that students, faculty, and alumni share the belief that the bylaw in its current state neither reflects the values of our school nor the values of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”  —J. D. Merrill

The problem in all of this is the fact that Davidson College was established in 1837 solely by Presbyterians.  Their mission was a simple one.  It was not only to educate the eager young minds but to do so in the context of the fundamental values of the Christian life.  One might argue that the net result of all that educating and inculcating of knowledge and Christian values were what led the school to admit people of all races, creeds and colors, becoming a bastion of equality and inclusion.

So, I must ask, to what values do the faculty and alumni refer when they state that the bylaws mandating a Presbyterian president and 80 percent of board members be “active Christians” are in opposition?

Don’t get me wrong here.  Diversity is a good thing, but not at the expense of the core values of an institution like Davidson, whose very purpose it was to intentionally guide their students’ academic pursuits through the prism of a particularly Christian worldview.

Much the same sort of argument has been made regarding the condition of the Christian church today.  Our values are regularly treated to a chorus of arguments for the abandonment of them in favor of the so-called new and more enlightened values of tolerance, acceptance, equity and inclusion.  The irony is that those so-called more enlightened values were first found in the pages of Holy Writ: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  —Galatians 3:28 NRSV

It seems to me that sometimes it is hard for all of us to see the forest for all the trees in our path.  If Davidsonians (and Christians more generally) desire to truly embrace the larger values of tolerance, grace and the acceptance and equity of others, then it behooves them to step away from the trees of today’s political correctness and out of the forest in order to get some perspective.  It is my firm belief that they never would have discovered those values had they not been led to them by the obvious influence of the many “active Christian” administrators, board members and faculty who believed, embodied and shared them.  More’s the pity if they (or we) ever truly forget that.

“Identifying an Authentic Faith”

There are purists in every field of endeavor. Take baseball, for example. Though a diehard fan of a certain New York Area professional baseball club that happens to play in the great American League, I am constitutionally opposed to the existence of the so-called “designated hitter.” In a word, I find the concept to be inauthentic. So, too, the introduction of the aluminum bat and the attempt by some to take the competition out of children’s sports so that “everyone is a winner.” Again, in the absence of the “crack” of the bat and the thrill of a victory hard-won, I find the whole thing to be inauthentic.

In other fields like music, I find folk who have worked their digits to the bone or vocal chords to the limit in seeking to master a musical instrument or voice to be well within their umbrage rights when they decry the wholesale transformation of the music industry into a digitized and synthetic wonderland. Inauthentic, they would say, and it is terribly hard to disagree.

Closer to home, there are many today who decry the shifts and changes to the church and her practices in this new century. In an interview with the Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes, the newly appointed president of my alma mater Princeton Theological Seminary, the good doctor addressed the issue when he made an observation well worth noting. When asked what his greatest challenge would be in his new calling, he quickly observed the following:

“Princeton Seminary is perfectly organized for the church of the 1980s. The problem is that it’s not the 1980s. We’re now in the 21st century. The church has changed. Society has changed. And so one of the hallmarks of my work for my entire presidency, I’m sure, will be to put the seminary in the service of the 21st century church.” —The Presbyterian Outlook

Those are both prophetic and challenging words. Are the changes to the church and her practices that he and others at the Seminary will be promoting ultimately an inauthentic expression of the faith? No doubt, some probably will be. Nevertheless, like other generations before us, going back all the way to the birthday of the church at Pentecost, adaptation and new ways of expressing our faith will be needed. Like those before us who adapted to their circumstances in order to share the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ with a new generation, we will need to adapt, as well. The key to recognizing the real thing from the inauthentic will depend not so much upon how we share the Gospel but in the truthfulness and authenticity of the Good News we share.

To be sure, the bells and whistles of our post-modern society will likely jar many of our sensibilities and trample on many of our much beloved traditions. I can well imagine the same expressions of distress among the traditionalists when the first pipe organs began to invade European churches and cathedrals. Change is inevitable. The only thing that isn’t is how we react and adapt to it, for Dr. Barnes is correct. Unless we adapt we will miss the opportunity to impact a new generation in need of an authentic faith in which to invest their lives.

If the true test of the church’s authenticity is its effect upon each new generation, then the proof of our claim to an authentic faith will be born out in a church that is shaped to reach out to others and not just satisfy the already committed.

“Vote for INSERT NAME HERE…..”

By the time you read this missive the moment of truth shall be but a few days away. On November 6th, for better or worse, our nation (minus the early and absentee voters) will go to the polls to determine our next leaders.

INSERT RECOMMENDED NAMES HERE….

Of course the real question is what, if anything, we ought to do with this tortuous, quadrennial, uniquely American ritual?

INSERT WISE COUNSEL HERE…..

As a follower of Jesus, the answer is as plain as the nose on my face. What would Jesus do if He were here to vote? If Jesus were an American citizen would He vote or would he sit this one out, like so many of the American electorate traditionally do? And if He did vote, for whom would He cast His ballot? Unfortunately, the answer to those questions may not be so satisfying to us.

Jesus being Jesus, there is no shortage of opinions about whose side He sits on in this election. Many will argue that Jesus must be a Democrat, because Democrats are perceived by some to be more compassionate than Republicans. On the other hand, others will feel certain that Jesus would vote for Republicans, because by and large Republicans are perceived by some to be more “pro-life” (or anti-abortion) than Democrats. Still others, noting the well-spring of hypocrisy that exists in both major parties, may conclude that Jesus wouldn’t vote for either, preferring instead to vote for the candidates offered by the smaller political parties, due to the fact that they generally appeal to the boutique, disenfranchised, single issue voters of our post-modern, American politics. Fortunately, we both know which party Jesus belongs to.

INSERT PARTY NAME HERE….

Quite naturally, it is understandable that as your parson, I should seek to assure that you have the best information available when you step into the voting booth come Tuesday, November 6. It is also understandable that you would want to know, according to God’s Word, for whom you should cast your ballot. The answer is very simple.

INSERT ANSWER HERE….

Nevertheless, should you feel it is incumbent upon you to exercise your own judgment, expressing your conscience as it is guided by the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then by all means you must do as you must, and vote accordingly.

Oh, and if it doesn’t turn out like you thought it should, just remember, you should have listened to me.

“Raising Our Expectations”

Like it or not, we live in an age of limited expectations. It used to be reasonable to expect that most children would be respectful of their elders, learn enough in school to eventually secure a decent job and become a contributing member of society. Too, we used to expect that most families would have a mother and father living under the same roof with their children. We depended upon the notion that if you worked hard, played by the rules, and stuck with it, you could keep a good job in the same company until you retired. We believed that it was important to know and care about your neighbors, give something back to the community, and think of others as much as we might want to think about our own needs, and that the church would always be an oasis in the midst of the often uncertain world in which we lived. These, and many more, were among the things we once expected in this life, but, sadly, not so much anymore.

Sure, some children do respect their elders, but far more don’t seem to do that. Our schools are overloaded with under achieving students and teachers. Families eat 1.4 meals in common per week. Single parent homes are fast becoming the norm today. Companies come and go; up-size and down-size with such regularity that the idea of having a job with one company until retirement is unthinkable. We don’t expect to know or be known by our neighbors, owe anything to the community or care too much about the less fortunate strangers in our midst. In short, much of life has changed radically from the way it used to be.

Strangely, the one expectation we used to have about the church is the only one that needs to change. The expectation that the church would or ever was an oasis against a blighted world couldn’t be further from God’s truth. The truth is the church was never intended to be an oasis from the troubles of the world around us. Rather, it was established for exactly the opposite– to engage the world by encouraging it to raise its expectations of what a good and meaningful life could and should be. Rather than a social club or hide-a-way, the church has always been expected by God to be a gateway for the world to meet and enjoy the blessings of a relationship with Him.

What do you expect of the church? What do you expect of yourself as part of it? Are you willing to raise your expectations? I only know that if you do you can expect changes for the better!

“Translating God”

The other day, I received a message from my old friend and editor at Preaching Magazine, Michael Duduit, sharing a new high-tech discovery designed to transform and change the passionate dog-lover’s life.  Since Peggy and I are confirmed dog lovers, I couldn’t help but enjoy this latest and amazing new gadget for dog lovers everywhere.   Labeled the “Bow-Lingual,” this small-sized, waterproof computer device attaches to your pooch’s collar and is designed to do but one thing: translate your favorite dog’s barks into common English phrases!

According to Michael, the Bow-Lingual uses a specially designed mini-microphone to capture the sound of your barking dog and, almost instantaneously, translates the sounds into plain English.  With every bark, growl or yelp, little Fido’s expressions of delight, joy, concern or dismay are almost instantly translated into the appropriate phrases in English that match the intensity and tone of the underlying emotions being expressed.   As your little pup prances around the room offering his or her dog-like expressions, phrases like, “This is great!” or “I love it!” or “Who bought this awful-tasting dog food?” or “Look out, dear Master, but I think that fellow at the door wants to get you!” suddenly find their way into your heart by way of your ears.  Thanks to the genius of our new technological advances, for only $99.95 the devoted dog owner can begin to experience a new level of communication with his or her loyal companion designed to deepen and enhance the dog and dog owner relationship.

Sometimes I think that when it comes to conveying the good news of the gospel in the world the church could use something like the Bow-Lingual.  One need only look at the way Christians are portrayed in our culture today to realize we’ve not done a very good job of translating the message of love and grace God offers in His Son Jesus Christ to a world in need of good news.  Like the puppy who yelps and barks and postures and poses in an effort to communicate with its master, the church often does the same, failing to get through to a world in need because we just can’t seem to speak in a language that is understandable to them.

Instead of messages of love, grace, kindness, hope and faith we sometimes come across to the world as hypocritical, harsh, unforgiving and highly judgmental.  Rather than express the positives of a life lived in faith, we sometimes thwart our efforts to share good news by focusing always on the negatives in the world and not enough on what God is doing about it through His church.

The key to solving this mystery of miscommunication rests not in high-tech gadgetry but in something far more effective.  In short, it is not so much what we say but who we are when we say it that helps cross the chasm of ignorance and misinformation regarding God’s good news in Jesus Christ.  As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words; and more clearly, too.  All of which is why I believe that if the church truly does desire to share the good news of the gospel in our troubled world, it needs to first begin to act as if that good news applies to them, as well.  After all, I can tell you from personal experience that it has never been the frothy and full-throated growls, yelps and barks that tell me when I return home that my dogs love and are glad to see me.  Rather, it is always in the way they wag their tales and run to meet me with their affectionate kiss that confirms it best.  —wlk