Thursday, March 27, 2003

My post of March 25, was the latest edition of a column I write for the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area, a column called Better Living. I submit these columns via e-mail and as I do so, copy them to a number of family, friends, and colleagues around the world. The March 25 submission, Preachers Aren't Called to Be Politicians has evoked mostly positive responses thus far. But I thought that I would share this exchange of e-mails initiated by Pastor Heather after she read the column...

I felt numb, I guess, when I read your column. And a little sad. Just because there are different opinions on how we, as Christians, view the war doesn't mean that we are required not to speak on the issue. If that was the required litmus test for pastors then we would have little to say. I believe that the Lutheran tradition is full of people who spoke a word that conflicted with the prevailing view of the church and the world, starting with Luther himself. The religious right seems to have no problem being "political" but I refuse to allow to be the only voice of Jesus.

Clearly, we have to speak with great care and always from the position of the gospel of Jesus. I have read your column and now I ask you to read mine. I wrote this at the request of my synod and it was published along with four other pastors articles (of differing view points).

Peace Be With You and Our World,

> Passing the peace is one of my favorite parts of the worship service. I
> encourage people to leave their seats, move around, and greet as many people
> as possible. It is a visible reminder that as Christians we are called to
> share the peace of Jesus Christ with each other and the rest of the world.
> I suppose I was thinking of the passing of the peace when the reporter from
> the local radio station asked me why I was standing on the corner of a busy
> intersection a holding a sign that read ; ³Will work for peace. Will you?²
> I, of course, was participating in an anti-war protest on February 15 as
> millions more were across the world. I told the reporter the every Sunday I
> stand up and say peace, therefore, I should willing to stand up for peace on a
> cold and rainy Saturday afternoon. I also told him that, as a Christian, I
> believed that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God
> calls us to proclaim a message of peace.
> During his life Jesus responded to violence with calls for peace, prayers for
> the enemy and teachings that tell us to turn the other cheek, go the extra
> mile, and give away our our cloak (vital for protection and comfort). During
> his crucifixion, Jesus called for forgiveness not retribution. After his
> resurrection, he continues to offer all people a word of peace.
> As a Christian, as pastor, and as a human being I am called to offer the world
> a word of peace, Christ¹s peace. In this time of impending war with Iraq, I do
> that by voicing my opposition to use of violence against Iraq and by praying
> for peace. Maybe my sign should have said; Will pray for peace? Will you?

I've read what you sent with great interest. The passion with which you adhere to your views is obvious. At one time, I felt as you do. But today, while I think that there are times and circumstances when it is right and appropriate for the Church to declare, "Thus saith the Lord" about political issues, I believe that most political questions are fraught with ambiguity. I prefer to see people's hearts and consciences enlivened by the Gospel and then trust the Spirit to help us all collectively make the right decisions.

As a Christian, I feel that I am duty bound to be an informed citizen. I have an opinion about the war in Iraq and as a private citizen, have registered my views with the President and others. But I can't claim that my opinion has the imprimatur of heaven. This is especially the case when I consider the Christian folks I know who, after prayer and reflection, believe differently than I do about this war. I have no warrant to tell people, "God is for the war" or "God is against the war." And that inevitably is what people will think we are saying simply by virtue of our being pastors. The folks at Luther Northwestern have it right when they describe pastors and other church professionals as "evangelical public leaders." As public leaders then, we must therefore exercise that office with great care, letting our answers be yes and no. To me, this means only saying what we feel certain to be God's Word.

Like you, I am frustrated by the way the right has hijacked the perceptions of the Church among the public at large. But just because, as you write the "religious right seems to have no problem being 'political'" doesn't mean that we have to make the same mistake. I believe that much church-based political activism is nothing more than idolatry. Whether from the left or the right, we can fashion images of a Jesus who buys into our isms, ideologies, and philosophies and then, like a golden calf, bow down and worship it.

Life is fleeting. It's important that we use it to declare the Gospel, good news that can change the way people live today and how they spend eternity.

I could be wrong in what I'm saying on this issue, Heather. But, I have come to this perspective after years of thoughtful prayer and reflection and as one who, in my younger years, was an ardent political activist. I do not disdain politics. And I agree with what Luther said, "If you preach the gospel in all aspects with the exception of the issues which deal specifically with your time, you are not preaching the gospel at all."

But I think it's nothing other than Pharisaism for us to attempt to micromanage people's views as citizens. All I'm saying is, "Let's trust the Spirit of God" to lead us all in the right directions.

Thanks for writing, Heather. God bless!

Yours in Christ,

Thanks for your response. And, yes, you may post our "e-conversation" on
your blog.

I agree with many of your points and I realize "that most political
questions are fraught with ambiguity" as is much of life. My question is
when, how and who decides it is time for the church to speak on a public
matter? You may not think this is the time. I feel, compeled by the gospel,
that now is the time. I also believe that I follow in the footsteps of our
Presiding Bishop in calling for peace and opposing the war with Iraq.

I, too, may be wrong about the role of the church in the war with Iraq and
politics. I have choosen to err on the side of grace and (to paraphrase
Luther) to sin boldy believing more boldy still that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the end, I fear that the words of Martin Neimoller will be realized (in
ways we never imagined) if we do not risk speaking up.

> First they came for the Communists,
> and I didn¹t speak up,
> because I wasn¹t a Communist.
> Then they came for the Jews,
> and I didn¹t speak up,
> because I wasn¹t a Jew.
> Then they came for the Catholics,
> and I didn¹t speak up,
> because I was a Protestant.
> Then they came for me,
> and by that time there was no one
> left to speak up for me.
> by Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1945

Thank you, Mark, for this conversation....

I'm blessed to have a lot of good people in my life. My wife and kids. An extended family in which I know I'm loved. Great friends.

I'm also blessed to serve as pastor of a wonderful group of people at Friendship Church [].

Among the best blessings I can count though, is my kid brother, Marty, who also is my friend.

At the age of thirty-six, Marty dramatically recasts my definition of that adjective, kid. (It's funny how young and old get older as I hurtle toward the big 5-0!) Marty also helps me define other words.

One of the words Marty defines for me is "faithful." Back in 1986, at a rock concert, Marty began to follow Jesus Christ. He didn't suddenly become perfect then. No one who follows Christ is perfect. (That's why I like the bumper sticker that says, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven.") But anyone who observes Marty can see a guy moving in God's direction, toward a deeper love of God and neighbor. It shows in the way he lives, the things he does, and how much he cares.

That word "faithful" also describes the relationship that he has with his wife of fifteen years, Trina. You could see faithfulness too, in the care that Marty gave to Trina's uncle in the months before he passed away.

Another word that describes my brother is "talented." Okay, make that "multi-talented." Marty has spent years in radio and is now involved in what I would call "brand identity" work. In his new business, he creates web sites, videos, and radio spots, among other things, for everything from colleges to radio stations.

Another word to describe my brother is "funny." He's a fledgling stand-up comic who is truly one of the funniest people I have ever met. Marty is funny whether he's standing on a stage or in private conversation. Some times when he and I are speaking on the telephone, I am astounded at how his mind works and how quickly he can identify the funny side of any situation. The synapses of his brain must have pathways where I only evidence unoccupied grey matter.

Marty is also a "risk-taker." Both of our grandfathers were entrepreneuers. Each started or owned several businesses over time. Neither became wealthy. But both derived enjoyment from their entrepreneurial risk-taking. Marty inherited those entrepreneuer genes big-time. Right now, he and Trina are working hard to get their company off the ground []. It isn't easy. But risk-takers (which is another title to be applied to those who are faithful, by the way) don't take the easy route through life. They're too busy challenging themselves to be their very best, too intent on leaving the world a better place than it was before they showed up.

That leaves me to mention another word I associate with my brother, Marty, and my sister-in-law Trina: "heroes." They're heroes to me...Faithful, talented, funny risk-takers...Good people I love and of whom I am very proud!

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Politics Doesn't Belong in the Pulpit

[This is another installment of the column I write for Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area. It's hopefully a refinement of something I posted on this site a few weeks ago.]

Several weeks before the war in Iraq began, I got two pieces of correspondence—one an e-mail and the other a church newsletter—from two different pastors who said completely different things on the same subject.

One of the pastors argued that followers of Jesus couldn’t possibly support the war.

The other pastor argued that it was the moral duty of followers of Jesus to do just that.

Both of these pastors are sincere, loving followers of Christ. But their conflicting opinions show difficulties that come when members of the clergy decide to make political pronouncements.

One difficulty was identified by the late C.S. Lewis, a British intellectual and author who moved from atheism to deep faith in Christ, when he wrote that, “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have, a detailed political programme for [application at every] particular moment.” [from Lewis' book, Mere Christianity]

God’s Word, the Bible, points us to a life-changing relationship with God that we can have through Jesus Christ. It teaches that Christ frees and empowers people to solve problems and live creatively.

So, the world doesn’t need preachers telling it how to vote or what to write to members of Congress. The world needs Jesus Christ.

There are reasons I say this.

I believe that God loves all people. I also believe that all people suffer from a problem which the Bible calls sin, a condition of self-will and separation from God. Sin keeps us from experiencing all the good that God offers in this life and the next. Sin is like a pit we can’t crawl out of on our own. Because of God’s love for all of us, God offers to pull us out of the pit. Jesus Christ came into the world and took the death sentence for sin that you and I deserve. Then He rose from the dead. Today, He extends His hand to us and says, “Take My hand. Trust me. I’ll pull you out and I’ll take you to eternity with Me.”

That’s why the Bible says, “...everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). The person who humbly takes Jesus’ offer has a new life and looks forward to eternity with God.

Jesus once said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself” (John 12:32). I believe that when Jesus said this He wasn’t only talking about His being lifted up on a cross. He also was referring to preachers and all followers of Jesus lifting Jesus up for the whole world to see—in our words and in our lives. And the promise is that if preachers and others will patiently do that, people will come to follow Jesus. Their lives—including their lives as citizens and politicians—will then be changed and they will live differently.

The New Testament book of Second Timothy was written by a man named Paul to a young preacher. One spot in that book says, “I can’t impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder. Christ Himself is the Judge, with the final say on everyone, living and proclaim the Message with intensity...Challenge, warn, and urge your people. Don’t ever quit. Just keep it simple. You’re going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching, but will fill up on spiritual junk food...But you—keep your eye on what you’re doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God’s servant.” (Second Timothy 4:1-5)

Preachers don’t need to offer the world a political program. Preachers who feel the need to “get political” are expressing frustration that the world around them isn’t going the way they want it to go. But we preachers need to learn patience. We’re to keep sharing Jesus Christ whether people seem to be listening or not. We’re to trust that as we lift Jesus up, the world will come to follow Him not because a preacher ranted, but because the world sees Jesus in the loving lives of those who call Him God.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Disciplines That Free: Harnessing Your Anger
John 2:13-22

[Shared with the people of Friendship Church, Amelia, Ohio, March 23, 2003]

I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to our teenage daughter’s magazine purchases. And I guess that I could have passed over the latest issue of YM with its cover picture of recording artist Nelly and the feature article, “Is That Boy Worth Your Time?: Nine Ways to Tell.” But one item on the cover caught my attention: “Chill Out! Take Our Anger Quiz.” I flipped to page 122 and found eight multiple choice questions. I’m going to try a couple of them on you. If you’re not a teenage girl, pretend that you are for just a second and consider how you might answer:
1) Your dad won’t let you go see Dashboard Confessional in concert. When you ask why, the answer is, “Because I said so.” You: a. scowl and request a better explanation. b. hurl the TV remote at his head and stomp upstairs. c. shrug.

8) A really bad cold has your brother laid up in bed for two days. You happen to walk by his room, and he demands in a pompous tone that you get him a glass of orange juice. You: a. tell him that saying please doesn’t hurt, and then head to the kitchen. b. immediately walk to the garage and slash both of the tires on his bike. c. rush to see if there’s any fresh-squeezed in the fridge.

At the end of this quiz, you’re supposed to know whether your anger is too tepid, medium heat, or boiling over. While we can quibble with the accuracy of a magazine quiz, this little exercise is based on a reality written into us as human beings. It’s this: the capacity for anger is something God has built into us and there are times when it’s right and times when it’s wrong to be angry! Our call as followers of Jesus Christ is to harness our anger, putting it at the service of God.

Someone has said that, “Anger is an emotional reaction to your interpretation of a life experience in which your expectations are not met or are violated.” A wife comes home from work expecting a quiet evening alone with her husband and kids only to learn that her husband has invited buddies over to watch the NCAA basketball tournament. An employee gets good reviews for three years in a row and is promised a promotion, but the promotion never comes. Our lives are filled with a hundred potential flash points each day. Anger happens. We need to learn to manage it, harness it, and use it creatively. The Institute for Mental Health Initiatives has developed a method for coping or controlling our anger built on the acronym RETHINK: Recognize when you’re angry and what’s causing it; Empathize, trying to see the other person’s point of view; Think of other ways you might be able to interpret the situation making you angry; Hear what the other person is saying; Integrate love and respect into the way you deal with your anger; Notice your body’s reaction to anger and find ways to calm down; Keep your attention focused on the present and don’t bring up past offenses.

In His Word, the Bible, God doesn’t condemn anger itself. In the New Testament, for example, the apostle Paul advises, “Be angry; but do not sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” In other words, it’s okay for us to get mad as long as we don’t let our anger turn into spitefulness or hate. And by all means, if we’re angry with someone, we should try to resolve our disputes right away. Unresolved disputes inevitably cause us to sin.

I must confess that anger doesn’t come easily to me. I would probably lean toward the tepid end by the YM quiz’s reckoning. My son and I were talking about this the other night. Getting angry is so foreign to me that when I do get mad, I look silly. That makes people laugh and that makes me angrier. There may be others in this room today who tilt toward the boiling over end of the spectrum. Either place is unhealthy. But if we can find a way to use our anger, putting it under the discipline of God, it can become a force for good.

Our Bible lesson for this morning recounts a famous incident in which Jesus, visiting the temple in Jerusalem, gave full vent to holy anger. You see, in those days, people would go to the temple to offer sacrifices to God. Wealthy folks could afford to sacrifice cattle and sheep. Poorer people sacrificed doves or even grain. In the outer court, the place where non-Jews allowed to be, the temple featured a kind of shopping mall. At the temple, you could only use temple money to buy the animals that were used for sacrificing. But out on the streets of Jerusalem, Roman money was used. If you came to the temple to offer a sacrifice then, the first thing you had to do was exchange your Roman coins for temple coins. You did this with a person called a moneychanger. These moneychangers were notorious gougers. They didn’t care what the exchange rate was. They were the only game in town, so to speak. So they got away with charging the worshipers exorbitant service charges. The same gouging was practiced by those who sold the animals to be sacrificed. Jesus was enraged! We’re told that:
Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling doves, “Take these things out of here!...”

Jesus showed “holy anger.” He let loose with what forest firefighters might call a “controlled burn.”

As followers of Jesus, the only legitimate kind of anger is Jesus’ brand of holy anger. We see what holy anger is in our Bible lesson. First: Holy anger has to do with zeal for God. After Jesus’ followers saw His temple tantrum, they remembered words from the Old Testament’s Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for Your house will consume me.” Jesus was zealous for the things that makes God the Father zealous. Mother Teresa was zealous for loving and cherishing life. That’s why she took care of the dying on the streets of Calcutta. It’s also why she spoke out with firmness and fierceness against abortion as a form of birth control. As Lutheran Pastor Dan Anderson puts it, “Holy anger is righteous indignation that leads to action.”

Holy anger is also about love for others. Jesus didn’t give vent to rage because somebody had cut him off in traffic or because somebody took the last scoop of black walnut crunch ice cream that He’d wanted. Jesus was upset that the merchants at the Temple Mall had put a price tag on God’s love and forgiveness. You and I know that these are gifts that God offers to all through Jesus Christ. When we see others being hurt, our call is clear. Holy love demands that we get angry for our neighbor’s sake.

Holy anger is productive and useful. Much of our anger is unproductive and useless and ultimately, paralyzying. Ann and I have been married nearly twenty-nine years. The angriest she has ever seen me was one spring day back when we lived in northwest Ohio. She’d had a rough week, mostly confined to the house with our two then-little kids. On a Friday, we arranged for me to spend the afternoon with the kids while she ran some errands and got some personal down time. That evening, I was to do a wedding at a neighboring church which was without a pastor at the time, a little country congregation that didn’t even have a phone. Long story short: Ann completely forgot when I needed for her to be home so that I could do the wedding. I had no way of contacting her or the church and no way of getting out of the house to do the wedding. I couldn’t even find a person to watch the kids for me so that I could do the ceremony. The wedding was to take place at 7:00 and Ann sauntered in at 6:55. I was in a frenzy. For a few seconds, I was paralyzed with anger, jumping up and down in place while I yelled. That was unproductive anger!

But holy anger, anger rooted in what upsets God, can be productive. Martin Luther, the founder of the movement of which Friendship is a part, knew this. “When I am angry,” Luther said. “I can write, pray, and preach well, for my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart.”# Luther’s holy anger compelled him to do the right thing as he sought to give all people personal access to the God we know through Jesus Christ.

Anger is an inevitable element of our humanity. But God calls us to harness our anger for His purposes. In 1979, on a Maryland street, the car in which five-and-a-half month old Laura Lamb and her mother, Cindi were riding was hit head-on by a drunk driver traveling at 120 miles per hour. Laura became the world’s youngest quadriplegic. In California less than a year later, thirteen year old Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver. Just two days earlier, he had been released on bail for a hit-and-run drunk driving crash and already had two drunk driving convictions behind him. Cari’s mother Candace formed an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and soon linked her efforts with those of Cindi Lamb, who had already undertaken similar efforts in Maryland. Twenty-three years later, MADD is still a controlled burn, translating the anger and rage of parents who have seen the pain inflicted by drunk drivers into positive actions. MADD has heightened our awareness of the dangers of driving while under the influence of alcohol and of the need for designated drivers. They’ve gotten laws passed that get drunks off of our roads and highways and make all of us safer.

What holy anger do you feel today? I myself am angry that the devil has so fogged our minds—inside and outside the Church—that the Church holds Jesus captive behind a wall of obscure liturgy, churchy words, and indecipherable rites and clothing. That’s why Friendship features “relaxed reverence,” seeking to welcome all people with the same grace that Jesus has given to us. Jesus’ action in today’s Bible lesson this morning suggests that you not ignore your holy anger, but use it to share His love with the world. Maybe you’re angry over child abuse. Or maybe it’s the inability of individuals and nations to resolve their conflicts peacefully. Or maybe you, like Jesus, are ticked off by the sin that keeps people enslaved and unable to experience the joy, peace, and hope that Jesus gives. Today, commit yourself to harnessing your holy anger and using it in positive, productive, proactive, loving ways. Burn for God and let the world see the glow of Jesus’ love at the core of your being!

[The description of anger and the first two descriptors of holy anger come from a sermon by Pastor Dan Anderson; the anger survey comes from the April, 2003 issue of YM magazine; the quote from Martin Luther appears in The Friendship Factor by Alan Loy McGinnis; the story of MADD appears on that organization's web site.]