Words Have Consequences!

From my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” (#10)

Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.

Since long before the election in 2016 we have been regaled with Donald Trump’s mean spirited and very often blatantly racist words, primarily through his “Tweets,” short pithy little statements uploaded to the social media platform Twitter. Mostly these have just been food for his ultra-right wing base, and fodder for his enemies. Christians who understand the seriousness of even any careless word have recoiled from such statements, but, up until Saturday, these outbursts have been viewed as the rantings of a demagogue, someone who is more bluster and bloviating than substantial.

That all changed on Saturday, August 3. That was the day someone took some racist words and transformed them into racial terrorism.

While it is still far too early in the investigation to know everything for certain, there are some facts that I believe are incontrovertible: Trump has said/tweeted some unconscionable statements regarding immigration and the racial makeup of many of those immigrants, the shooter in El Paso targeted persons of a specific race and nationality, and (this point is still being confirmed) the shooter has written a “manifesto” in which he speaks approvingly of Trump and his racially twinged statements.

It’s not impossible to connect these dots.

Do I think Trump intended his words to have this effect? Absolutely not! Do I think Trump is a racist? Probably, just like 99% of the current House of Representatives and Senators. But, mostly, I think Trump sees people in terms of green, red, and black. That is, if you can further Trump’s personal agenda (raising money, erasing debt or furthering his narcissistic agenda) he likes you, regardless of your race or gender. If you cannot do any of those three things, you are useless to him, regardless of your race or gender. Also, mostly I think Trump is just a fool – in the biblical sense. He does not believe in God (at least, the God of the Bible) and he thinks he can solve all of his problems with his own intellect. That is the biblical definition of a fool.

Do I think racist statements, regardless of how innocuous they are made, can have the kind of result that we saw on Saturday? Absolutely. Our nation is becoming more hateful, more racially divided, more prone to racial violence with each passing year. In one sense, what happened on Saturday, August 3 was inevitable. And, let us be clear about something else – the long road that ended in El Paso was promoted by the election of Barack Obama. Obama saw every event during his two terms of office in relation to race. Trump was NOT the first racist to be elected to the office of president. I’m pretty sure every one of the presidents has been racist to some degree or another – some quite blatant. To suggest that Trump is the first to be afflicted with this sin, or that Republican presidents are racist and Democrat presidents are not, is beyond preposterous.

Trump and his political minions are trying effusively to distance Trump from the shooting in El Paso. I’m sorry, but that ship sailed from the harbor a long time ago. In my mind there is just one thing Trump should, even can, do to extricate himself from this tragedy – confess that his language has been horribly offensive and exploitive, and apologize to the races and nationalities that he has targeted. He will not do that, of course, and it would just be a beginning, but it would be a good start.

Every individual who has spoken in a public setting has said things he/she did not mean or later regretted. I am certainly in that list of offensive speakers. It is not that we intentionally set out to offend – but our mouths are not always connected to our brains, and even when they are, sometimes our brains are not connected to our consciences. We sin with our mouths, let us be honest and confess that proclivity. But, I stand by my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection number 10 with all of my being. Words have consequences. Words that relate to theological truths have eternal consequences.

Let us be so diligent, so careful, so painstaking in the choice of our words, that we never have to apologize for denigrating the value of another human being simply based on the color of their skin, the nation of their origin, or the language that they speak.

By our words we will be justified, and by our words we will be condemned. (Mt. 12:37)

Video Sermon Link

Funny what happens when you go drudging through your computer files. I had actually forgotten that this video existed. As I am searching for a new ministry position, I thought this might be a valuable tool to help folks understand a little bit better about my preferred preaching style.

It might also be a valuable tool to eliminate me from consideration, but I suppose those are the risks.

Anyway, here is the link to my YouTube version of me “waxing an elephant.” (P.S., it is from 2016, but I only get better with age!!)

FWIW, I start out behind the pulpit, but later move to the front. Also, there are a couple of technical glitches, but they are resolved after a few seconds (the microphone gets turned on, and the voice sync is resolved).

I actually thought this was a pretty good lesson in spite of many obvious weaknesses.

Hope it helps.

Some Times There Are Just Not Enough Rocks

What a difference a year makes. This time a year ago I was on the top of cloud nine. I was on the 9th peak of cloud 9. I was going to return to my beloved Colorado, in a place where I once truly felt like I was home – close to the mountains, in a veritable Garden of Eden.

I have always loved Colorado. When I was younger we would spend weeks up near where I am now, fishing on one of southern Colorado’s best, although not that well known, trout streams. When I am here I feel a connectedness not only to the land, but to God as well. There is a line in John Denver’s song, Durango Mountain Caballero that says, “I can hear my mother speak to me and hold my father’s hand.” Well, I can hear and feel my parents, and I can hold my spiritual Father’s hand as well. I am truly, deeply, alive when I am in this place.

So, on Tuesday I was dismissed from the position I had dreamed about having for two years, and where I have served for one. It was sudden – I had no clue it was coming. No reason was given either, save for a generic “it is just that you are not a good fit for this congregation.” Hmm. Too much of something? Not enough of something else? There was, at least to this point in time, no explanation, and I do not anticipate one forthcoming. It is my experience in a long, long history of preacher dismissals. We love you right up to the day we fire you. Next!

I have to say the past three days have been a roller coaster of emotions. Crushing sorrow, bitter tears, enough anger to fuel an aircraft carrier, utter and total confusion.

In the movie Forrest Gump, Forrest and his friend Jenny are walking along and come out of a line of trees in front of her childhood home. It was the place where she had been abused, and all the bitterness and anger came flowing out of her as she hurled everything she could at the house – her shoes, rocks, rocks, dirt, and rocks. Finally she collapses in a heap and Forrest, who is watching in silent shock and confusion, slowly walks over and in tender compassion sits on the ground near Jenny. The scene ends with his slow drawl,

“Sometimes, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.”

I always understood that scene, but I never really got it until this week. Sometimes, there are just not enough rocks.

But, there are some moving John Denver lyrics about this beautiful country.

You know I love the trail I’m on and the friends who ride with me,
The country that we’re passing through is a paradise to see.
A haven for my spirit, the homeland of my dreams,
My heart flies through the wilderness, and on an eagle’s wings.

Durango mountain caballero take me for a ride,
on the back-bone of this mighty land, the continental divide.
To the place where earth and heaven meet, the mountains and the sky,
In the heart of Colorado, Rocky Mountain High!

You know I love  the campfire, and the circle that I’m in
The stories and the laughter, they should never, ever end.
Forever in my memory, forever in my song,
On a San Juan mountain trail ride
I’ll carry you along.

Amen.

How to Kill a Church

Working on my sermon for this week and it occurred to me how many ways there are to kill a church. Here are just a few that I have identified:

  • Attack the leadership – the congregation’s problems are all their fault.
  • Make every issue about you and them, not us.
  • Never, ever, under any circumstance, volunteer to help.
  • Criticize everyone who does volunteer to help.
  • Compare your congregation to one that is bigger, wealthier, in a larger community that has far more resources.
  • Be sure to be offended by every effort to grow – both spiritually and numerically, and be sure to let everyone else know just how offended you are.

Any others?

The Loss of Transcendence and the Death of Humanity

Pardon me as I continue (sort of) my lament from yesterday . . .

We are experiencing, in increasing measure, the slow death of humanity. I don’t mean humans as such (although that might be coming), what I mean is the loss of what makes us human, what separates us from lower animal life. It seems to me that the more technologically progressed we have become, the deeper into nihilism we have fallen. We know more and can do more with greater ease than ever before, and we are far sicker than we have ever been.

What got me to thinking about this was a recent camping trip. Not that long ago it was natural to assume that a family went up into the wilderness (or, at the very least, away from the confusion of the city) to get away from the noise, the hustle, the frantic pace. You left all of that “behind” so you could unwind, relax, shed some of the stress of the “dog eat dog” world. I noticed this past weekend how all of that has changed – and not just a little bit. I was stunned to see that off-road vehicles (we used to call them ATVs) are now almost obligatory for the modern camping family. That, along with mammoth fifth-wheel campers makes most camp sites look like the infield of the Indianapolis 500 auto race. As I stood knee deep in a gorgeous little stream I had to strain to hear the birds and squirrels fuss at each other because the almost constant barrage of four-wheelers on the nearby road made it impossible to hear God’s awesome creation.

It got worse. From time to time I could look up and see the passengers in these noise making contraptions. From what I could tell they were not happy. They were in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere but where they were. Many had scowls on their faces, but virtually all were expressionless. Here they were in quite honestly the closest thing to the Garden of Eden, and they were either bored, or actually pained. They had to get somewhere else fast, so they could not enjoy where they were or what they were doing. Every so often they would come ripping back down the road they had just zoomed up. In a hurry, oblivious to the world of creation around them. Making noise, and utterly, completely unable to here the birds and squirrels chatter and talk to them.

It was so unbelievably sad.

We, as humans, have created a world where we can control virtually everything. If it’s too hot we turn on the air-conditioner. If it’s too cold we turn on the heater. If we are bored we turn on the TV or the tablet or our cell phone. If it is too quiet we blast our stereos or plug our ear-buds into our tablets and tune out the world. I just saw an article pointing out how there are signs of increasing mental struggles of pre-schoolers because of the increasing use of “screen time,” the fact that children do not interact with their physical world, but are increasingly tied to computers, tablets, or cell phones. It has now become the norm that even when we try to “get away from it all” we pack everything up and bring “it all” with us. We haul around our stress, our anxiety, our utter inability to deal with life if we are not stimulated to the ends of our hair follicles.

We have, or at the very least, will soon lose every concept of transcendence, of the “awesome.” When we do we will have lost the very last vestige of what it means to be human. To me that is not theoretical – I have actually witnessed it. People, human beings, created in the image of the Divine God himself, so completely engrossed in technology that they cannot even recognize, let alone appreciate, the awesomeness and transcendence of God’s most holy creation.

I do not have a Ph.D in psychology, but it really does not take a psychologist to recognize that we are a sick culture. Anger, depression, anxiety – all symptoms of a decaying society are rising at an exponential rate. Children are displaying acts of greater and greater violence at younger and younger ages. Prescriptions for anti-depressants are skyrocketing. Young people are identifying feelings of rootlessness and meaninglessness like never before. And, yet, the demand for the next upgrade for a cell phone or the next greatest app is unending.

I am not naive enough to believe that all of this can be reversed if we only clicked our heels together three times and repeated with Dorothy, “I wish I was home.” But, I am equally opposed to the idea that I should just shrug my shoulders and say none of this matters. It matters, and for future generations it should matter very much.

Somehow, someway, in calm and reasoned thought or in pure desperation, we are going to have to learn how to unplug, unwind, and “deconstruct” our over-stimulated lives. Maybe when we run out of fossil fuels and we can no longer drive massive trucks that pull 40 foot fifth-wheel camp trailers we will learn how to live life patiently again. I think learning how to hitch up a horse to a wagon might be valuable for a great many of us. It would, at the very least, teach us that we need to respect and nurture God’s awesome creation.

And, it would be a lot quieter. Maybe we could learn to listen to the birds and squirrels again.

Things Will Never Be the Same (Or, Change is Inevitable, but not Always Progress)

I was going to write a post today, a lament really, about how things have changed, and not for the better. The main source of my melancholy being a recent camping trip. When I was a little boy my family spent a lot of time in the mountains above Santa Fe, New Mexico. Not every trip was a camping trip, we would often just spend a day on a river, fishing and just enjoying the mountains. Several times each summer, however, we would head out as soon as my father got off work and spend Friday night and all day Saturday on one of New Mexico’s many streams.

I have always wanted to give my daughter the same gift that my father gave me. The problem, as I have come to realize it, is I cannot. It is simply impossible. When I was young the opportunities for “primitive camping” were almost limitless. You could drive up a dirt road, find a little pull off or winding little path down to the river, set up camp and enjoy yourself. Slowly but surely those pull-offs and winding paths were closed off and the only way to camp became official “camp-grounds” complete with water and, in some cases, septic services. And, to be sure, ridiculous camp “fees.” Tents and cab-over campers were replaced with pull trailers, and now massive fifth-wheel camp trailers dominate the countryside. When I was young if we heard our nearest camp neighbor’s dog bark, my dad believed we were too close. Now, as dusk settles all you can hear is a cacophony of electric generators providing power for the air-conditioners and satellite tv sets.

Oh, yeah, the noise. One of my treasured memories is sitting on a rock above a stream, watching the little birds and chipmunks play along the water, and singing my favorite church songs. I was struck this past weekend as I stood by the river by the constant, almost never-ending noise of off-road and ATV traffic. The wilderness is not a place to go and to enjoy nature any longer. It is a place to go and be assaulted with the vanity of humans showing off how much money they have – and their utter disrespect for nature and for their fellow man.

I wept as I realized one of my great dreams for my daughter will never be realized – or certainly not as I expected to fulfill it. She will remember our tent camping experiences, but not in the same way I experienced  the joys that my father gave me.

Then, today I was reminded that on July 16, 1969, three men left the confines of this earth to travel to, and for two of them, to walk on, the moon. So far, only 12 men have done so. But I wonder – at what cost? I don’t mean money, and I certainly understand and appreciate the good that the Apollo moon landings have brought to us. But I ask again, at what cost? For millennia humans have looked up at the moon and have wondered. The moon was always mysterious, even as we came to understand more of its power over tides and even animal and human emotions. When Neil Armstrong stepped off of the ladder of the Eagle, something changed, and we will never be able to undo that. The moon’s mystery has now been revealed (or, at least, some of it has) and there is a part of me that wonders if that scientific achievement can fully be described as progress.

We now have robotic machines on the surface of Mars. There is much talk of colonizing the moon, and even of sending humans to Mars. So, I guess it is only a matter of time until the moon is littered with massive fifth-wheel trailers and fee-only campgrounds. Mars will only be a few years behind. After we have finished trashing the moon and Mars, what will be next?

Not all achievement is progress. Just because we have the ability does not mean we have the mandate, nor the justification, to destroy that which is wild. Sometimes the wilderness needs to remain the wilderness, if for no other reason than to serve as a reminder that we are pitiful human beings, and that we are all too often slaves to our stinking, noise making inventions.

Thus endeth my lament, but not my sorrow.

That Terrible, Exclusivist, Divisive Apostle Paul

Getting ready to preach on Ephesians 4:1-6. For those not familiar, this text reveals just how exclusive and divisive the apostle Paul was. I mean, really, how mean and provincial can you get? In today’s world where I get to make my own rules, decide on my own truth, even get to decide whether I am a male or a female – how can we even read these words, let alone use them as some kind of standard for how the church is to behave itself? Just consider how “unchristian” the apostle Paul is:

  • There is only one body – one and only one church.
  • There is only one Spirit – not a Spirit for each worldly religion.
  • There is only one hope.
  • There is only one Lord – Jesus, not Mohamed nor Buddha nor some angel that claims to have a latter-day revelation from God.
  • There is only one faith – only one road leads to God, all others lead to destruction.
  • There is only one baptism – the death that is focused on Jesus and begins the new life.
  • And, finally, there is only one God and Father.

Wow, you would think that the apostle Paul was some kind of radical or something. And you would be right.

The apostle Paul lived in a time – much like ours – where there were literally hundreds of gods and dozens of competing philosophies and religions. Even within his “home” faith of Judaism there were a number of sects that all claimed to be primary. He lived his early adult life as one of the most strict – the Pharisees. But, on that road to Damascus Paul had his entire worldview torn down. God let him think about things for three days (I just wonder if there was not a subliminal message here – Paul had to spend three days in the darkness of blindness just as Jesus had to spend three days in the darkness of the tomb. God is really good at making these little “coincidences” occur at the most opportune times!) Anyway, Ananias comes and preaches the gospel to Paul, and from that point on Saul the Pharisee becomes Saul/Paul the Christian evangelist, apologist, and author.

The book of Ephesians, I am coming to learn, is really a manifesto for Paul’s new life. Where the world in which he lived had dozens of societal divisions – Roman/barbarian, Jew/Gentile, slave/free – Paul only saw two – those in Christ and those outside of Christ (the “world”). Those in Christ constitute one body, the church of God through Christ. It is not that Paul now views all mankind as saved (the inclusivity or universalist view), but that all mankind can be one through the blood of Christ.

Today we live in a world where individualism and individuality reign supreme. The defining term for our culture is tolerance, but in reality it is a mis-definition of the word tolerance to which we must submit. To be precise, tolerance means that one must identify and actually disagree with the viewpoint of another, yet allow that person to hold that viewpoint however mistaken or ignorant that viewpoint may be. Today, tolerance means that we must validate and even agree with the viewpoints of others, which basically means that we cannot even disagree with the other person. To disagree, and especially to label another’s viewpoint as “wrong,” “ignorant,” or (heaven forbid) “sinful” is to commit the most grievous of societal prohibitions.

Which takes me right back to Ephesians 4. The apostle Paul is utterly, completely, and totally exclusivist. There is only one road to God. One Lord means just that – any person who claims equality with Jesus or to be Jesus’s latter-day prophet is simply a charlatan and deceiver. There is just one body, one church, and all the claims that the divisions we see in Christianity are somehow blessed by God are just ludicrous. There is just one faith, not dozens or hundreds of equal “roads to heaven.” There is just one baptism, not one for the forgiveness of sins, and one for admission to a church, and one for the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, and one for the gifting of special talents and abilities. And, just to top everything off, there is just one God.

Even for many in the church today, the claim of exclusiveness is a troubling and divisive one. Our culture has so absorbed the doctrine of individualism and “equality” that to suggest a differing viewpoint is wrong, and especially worthy of being condemned by God, is just, well, so unchristian. But it is exactly that fear, that uncomfortableness, that reticence, that we must overcome if we are going to fairly and truthfully present the gospel of Christ.

I am in no way suggesting we do so in a rude, hateful, or condescending manner. Within the Churches of Christ I am reminded almost daily of our history of shameful rhetoric. But the pendulum can swing too far the other way, and never to challenge an incorrect or dangerous belief is no more loving than it is to ridicule that belief. I am reminded of Alexander Campbell’s practice (which infuriated some of his supporters) of spending time, and even eating several meals, with his debate opponents during his long, and lest we forget, vigorous debates. Campbell never surrendered an inch to those he disagreed with (and, sadly, his prodigious verbal broadsides became the model for far less charitable disciples), but it appears to me that he viewed those he debated as erring opponents and not enemies. There is a huge difference.

Ephesians 4 is a great passage of Scripture, to be sure. But it has a sharp edge – and Paul will go on to say some very harsh, and condemning, words about those who are outside of Christ (walking in futility, darkened in their understanding, alienated from God, ignorant, hard of heart). We must learn to handle that edge carefully and wisely. But, let us never be fearful of that edge to the point that we bury it.