Middle Isaiah and the Churches of Christ

This is the third installment in my series on middle Isaiah, so if you have not read the first two, I encourage you to do so. That will provide the necessary background for what I want to convey in this post.

One of the necessary, although frustrating, statements that needs to be made anytime an entire group of people is discussed is that in doing so the author must depend upon generalities. So, in this post I am going to be making some general observations about the Churches of Christ in the United States, and invariably someone is going to be able to say, “That is not my experience at all!” To which I will say, “Great! I am glad that you have not had the experiences that I have had, and that you can see things from an entirely different point of view.” But, I cannot see things from eleventy-billion different sets of eyes, so what you will read below is my observations based on years of study and personal experience. As with every automobile commercial ever made – your mileage may vary. If the shoe fits, wear it, if not, find one that does.

What I can say from my experience and study is that the Churches of Christ, as a whole, are not a liturgical group of people. That is to say that our services are largely extemporaneous (although sometimes highly routine). We do not follow the lectionary readings, we do not follow the “church calendar,” and we most certainly do not have a hierarchical view of the priesthood v. the laity. This very decided “low church” atmosphere is even reflected in our architecture and interior building designs. Most congregations are housed in simple wood frame buildings, or if necessary, other very simple structures that, if the name outside were hidden, could be confused with a mortuary or a nursing home. “Ostentatious” is NOT a word that could frequently be used to criticize any of our buildings. Likewise, the interior of our buildings are almost exclusively utilitarian. We have no majestic arched colonnades, no awe-inspiring auditoriums, no sparkly stained glass windows, no lofty pulpits and certainly no jaw dropping organs or choir lofts. Most buildings in the congregations where I have served or worshipped have simple floor plans, and the auditoriums are sparsely decorated, save for a simple table that provides a place for the Lord’s Supper emblems, and a simple (although sometimes massive) pulpit for the preacher to hide behind (just kidding about that one!).

So what does our decidedly non-liturgical form and functionality have to do with middle Isaiah – and the points of emphasis I have made in the last two posts? I’m glad you asked, even if you didn’t.

I have often said, and even now repeat, that one of the greatest failings of the Churches of Christ – particularly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – is that we have forgotten who we are. We have no sense of history – of our own and certainly not of the Christian church. It seems like for many decades we have tried to prove that we are so unlike everyone else that we have lost sight of Him who we should be like.

In a short, pithy little sentence, – we have forgotten who God is, and in so doing, we have forgotten who we are supposed to be.

Enter in middle Isaiah. In the middle section of this magisterial prophecy, Isaiah proclaims the word of God to a people who have not only forgotten him, but who have actively rejected him and who are following gods that are not gods – the idols. While making a show of being good Yahwists, those who believe in and worship the true God, these syncretists had created a religion that by all appearances was devoted to Yahweh the true God, but in all reality was simply a veneer to cover their real worship of human imagination, and more to the point, of human strength. They had created God in their own image, and would have nothing to do with prophets who tried, with all their might, to get them to return to the Holy One of Israel.

I really have no objections to being non-liturgical, and there is much to be said for having simple, utilitarian buildings. However, there is an insidious danger that is attached to both of those characteristics that I do not think we have cared to think about. When you minimize the truly awesome experience of coming into the presence of a holy God (by making the worship merely extemporaneous and by minimizing the glory of the meeting structure) you inadvertently and I would say quite unintentionally minimize the God to whom you are offering your worship. There were good reasons why the liturgy developed – and why the churches of the middle ages became such magnificent edifices. The Christians of these ages realized it was simply too dangerous to come into the presence of God without some structure, some careful guidance, about how to do so. They also realized, just as with David and Solomon, that the place where God met with man was to be a magnificent dwelling place – not that God was restricted to that place or that he lived only there. But, I believe they rightly understood that if we were going to invite God to meet with us and to feast with us – might we not want to make the meeting place just a little more important than our own homes? I’m not arguing for the kind of ornateness that makes you afraid to enter lest you get dirt on the floor. But I am suggesting that if all we offer to God is some ramshackle little building, then maybe our view of the awesomeness of God is just, well, ramshackle.

Anyway, I think the teachings that are encapsulated in the middle chapters of Isaiah indict the majority of congregations of the Churches of Christ. I think we are too flippant when it comes to worship, and I think our “low” view of our meeting places communicates something that we do not intend, and would actually actively deny. In a word, I believe we are too humanistic in our approach to worship. We do not have, nor do I think we attempt to create, an Isaiah 6:1-9 kind of experience when we “enter his courts with thanksgiving.”

The natural outgrowth of this lack of “awe” in our worship is seen when we promote humanistic approaches to solving all of our problems (the parallel of Isaiah’s compatriots sending down to Egypt for deliverance from the Assyrian hordes). If our God is simply too small to demand our finest and our best, then why not put our faith in politicians and in the Supreme Court justices? They do demand our allegiance! They do demand that we respect their power. Notice how majestic the House and Senate Chambers are? Notice the pomp and circumstance when the President enters the room? Most male members of many congregations cannot even be bothered to put on a nice dress shirt these days. “Come as you are” has now deteriorated into, “who cares what you look like, just wear whatever ratty old clothes that are in the bottom of your closet.” Try wearing those clothes in a courtroom. I’ve heard of judges throwing people out of their courtrooms because of inappropriate dress.

How can we claim to worship a Holy God if we treat him with less respect than we are called to give to a magistrate judge?

You see, middle Isaiah (along with Amos, and Micah, to say the least) has much to say to the 21st century Churches of Christ. I’m afraid not much of it would be pleasant, either.

We have forgotten who God is. We have forgotten who are are called to be. And we have forgotten who we are.

May we all ascend by climbing lower.

The New Normal

We human beings function the best when we have at least a relatively certain belief that we can understand our past and anticipate our future. That belief is called “normal,” and without it our lives would be chaotic. No sentient being can exist in chaos for long – that is why soldiers and other individuals who face catastrophe and disorder for long periods of time are permanently scarred. Our psyches were just not made to endure severe turmoil or even mild disorder for long periods of time.

When something radical happens in our life we typically adjust – the “old” normal is replaced by the “new” normal. Most of this happens without much thought, and typically it is either benign or even positive. I don’t think anyone really wants to give up their cell phone or tablet.

Sometimes, however, the new “normal” is anything but healthy or even benign. New normals can be insidious, malignant, destructive. I believe that as a society we have reached a new “normal” in societal relationships, and it is anything other than healthy.

  • Item: a police officer mistakenly shoots a young man. Within days – seemingly within hours, people declare her to be guilty of MURDER and demand that she face the most violent of repercussions possible.
  • Item: an appellate judge is nominated for the Supreme Court, and AFTER THE LEGAL INQUIRY INTO HIS PAST IS CONCLUDED a letter is produced in which a woman accused him of sexual assault OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. Immediately he is condemned in the court of popular opinion, and many demand his professional career be terminated.
  • Item: a professional tennis player is admonished by an official for actions that are contrary to the rules of her sport, and over the course of the next few hours she repeated berates the official, throws a temper tantrum in which she destroys her racket, and then screams obscenities at the official. She is steadfastly defended by many for the apparent reason that she is (a) a female and should not have to abide by the rulings of the court official and also because she is (b) a minority and therefore has had to overcome more difficulties in life than a racial majority would have had to overcome. Never mind that her opponent (who was defeating her at the time) was also a racial minority, and a female who WAS abiding by the rulings of the same court official.

These are all examples of the “new normal” by which we get to condemn (and metaphorically execute) individuals on the basis of some bizarre Facebook or Twitter revelation, or that a lifetime of hard work and dedication can be destroyed by an unsubstantiated and unverifiable claim of wrongdoing that took place over three decades in the past, or that deviant, miscreant behavior can be tolerated and even celebrated so long as the perpetrator can claim some minority status or some real or perceived handicap.

I have a name for the new normal. It’s called anarchy, chaos, mob rule. If there is no straight line by which we can measure truth and falsehood, proper and improper behavior, then everyone will eventually become a savage. Societies, no more than individuals persons, can long exist in the face of a moral vacuum. We are living today in the reality of that moral vacuum.

Ours is not the first culture to experience this vacuum. Moral degeneracy has been a common feature of the human race. It’s just that for the past couple of hundred years the deviancy away from a universal moral plumb-line has been easy to detect – the American slavery experience, the Nazi regime, the Rwanda genocide. Today the plumb-line has been so bent and twisted that we (as a culture) no longer can recognize truth, integrity, honesty – or even beauty for that matter.

It is precisely at this moment that the truth of the gospel needs to shine the most brilliantly. Christians MUST accept that if we are to bear the cross and wear the name of disciple of Christ we are going to be labeled as counter-cultural, bizarre, weird. If the basic understanding of morality and truth is a lie, then those who hold up the truth of the gospel will be considered deviant. This is why Jesus – the very prince of peace – was executed for being a treasonous malefactor. There is no escaping this reality. We as disciples of Christ can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that the world will love us just because we use the adjective “Christian” in our name. If Jesus the messiah was killed because his world hated him, how can we even attempt to justify having our world love us?

If  the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)

I have grown weary, and have now even openly rejected, what I consider to be “weather vane” Christianity. These so-called “Christians” and the churches they populate function like a wind-sock at an airport. They point to the direction where society is headed, and then work furiously to make sure they are out in front so that they can appear to be “leaders” in the movement. They are loved by the culture they identify with, and they receive the commendation of those who have created that culture. As Jesus said, they have received their reward.

The new normal is not going to end up looking like anything most of us are familiar with. I’m not even sure what the eventual “normal” will look like. But I can see that as our culture continues to eviscerate itself, there will not be much left in it that will even be worth keeping. If there is no universal truth, if there is no common decency, if there is no consideration of authority, if there is no fundamental acceptance of a person’s dignity, if mere innuendo and accusation can take the place of verifiable facts – then where will we as a culture end up?

There is a place where the light of God’s kingdom can shine. There is a place where decency and honor can be practiced – and where forgiveness and grace abound. There is a place where sin is frankly and openly dealt with and repentance, confession, and restoration is the standard. It can be found in the church – the assembly, the gathering – of God’s redeemed people. It will increasingly be viewed with distrust and suspicion – and even hatred – and for that very reason its members must never, never, never surrender to the scandalous attacks of its opponents.

Our savior ascended by descending to the death on a cross. May we, like him, climb higher by descending lower.

A Week Without Social Media – A Review

Last Friday I made a radical, and some might add, too hasty decision. I had spent a sleepless night fretting over an argument I was having with someone I don’t even know regarding an issue that neither one of us had any inkling of the truth of the matter. Now, stop and think about that. We did not know each other. We were both making assertions the other thought was wrong. And, in perfect honesty – neither one of us was in a position to know any of the facts of the case. All we had was some quotes and a lot – I mean A LOT – of speculation and incendiary accusations.

When I finally woke up on Friday I thought – phooey with this. Why am I losing sleep over an event like this? So when I got to my office the first thing I did was to deactivate my accounts with Facebook and Twitter. I still have one “social media” account, but I have to admit it is about as useless as it can be. But it doesn’t cause my blood pressure to go ballistic, so I’m keeping it for a while.

Anyway, what I was getting to was this – here are some reactions to a week without Facebook and Twitter.

  • I really, really miss some aspects of Facebook. FB was how I kept up with many of my friends and professional acquaintances. That was how I learned about their joys and their hurts – and got to see some pretty hysterical pictures of pets. Cutting off all of that is pretty disorienting. I wonder if anyone is missing me – but that in and of itself reveals that much of my social media interaction was all about ME, so maybe God was letting me know how selfish I was becoming.
  • On the other hand, I do not miss the political posturing and hate memes at all. I had friends that were all over the political spectrum, and it was pretty distressing to see the vitriol expressed by people who I knew to be good and thoughtful friends. I could not care less who they supported or what issue they hated, but their FB posts made it impossible for me to keep up with them and avoid the drama. I know there was the “unfollow” and “unfriend” options, but then how was I to keep up with them?
  • Twitter, on the other hand, has become a garbage dump. I realized at one point that I was following certain persons – leaders within the Church of Christ with a large following of both real and “internet” persons – who were posting comments that were blatantly unchristian would have infuriated Jesus. They were not just border-line comments that could be excused as opinions or feelings – they were outright scandalous in nature and revealed the most bitter and hateful heart. I now have zero respect for those leaders, and I even question those who support them.
  • I have realized that I am going to pay a pretty steep price for deactivating my accounts. A purely tangential benefit of my FB and Twitter accounts was that I was able to keep up with the newest books and trends in theology. In the past week I feel like I have just had my left hand amputated. Somehow I will need to figure out how to stay abreast of this information via other sources. I just have to find those sources.
  • Another price to be paid – FB and Twitter were two avenues that I used to broadcast my blog posts. Now millions of my devoted readers are bereft of my profundity. “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is vanity and a chasing after the wind.”
  • You might be tempted to argue with me that all I have to do is to focus on the good and ignore the bad. The only problem is – FB and Twitter posts were created for the very specific purpose of NOT being ignored. No one posts a meme or tweet and then says, “boy, I sure hope no one pays attention to what I just said!” That is the big lie of social media. You can’t argue, “it’s just my opinion, get over it.” When you disparage a public figure, when you blindly accuse someone of murder, when you post bitter, hurtful words that are clearly intended to cause someone else to hate what you hate, you cannot just say, “I’m entitled to my opinion.” You may be – according to the US Constitution. But since when is being legal being right? Since when were the words of Jesus rescinded – “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” When was it that Jesus retracted his statement that the two greatest commands were to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and the second greatest command was to love others as we love ourselves? If we would not physically treat someone with such disrespect if they were in front of us (and with Jesus standing nearby), why do we think we can get away with treating that person shamefully just because we are “anonymous” on social platforms like FB and Twitter? I confess – I have stooped to the very behavior I am condemning, and it is primarily for that very reason that I deactivated my accounts. “If your FB or Twitter feed causes you to sin – CUT IT OFF!”

I won’t lie and say the past week has been easy. On way more than one occasion I have been tempted to restore my accounts “and just listen,” but then I realize my self-control when it comes to “just listening” is about as useful as putting up a stop sign in front of a hurricane. My FB and Twitter accounts were changing me – and I assure it it was not for the better. You can only drink poison for so long before it takes its effect. I know there are many good things about FB, less so about Twitter. But sometimes you have to put up barriers around your spiritual life to protect that which is the most important to you.

On the positive side, some of my guitars have seen the outside of their cases for the first time in months . . .

Reconciliation

Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the sad state of our American justice system. To recap: I believe the problem is the system itself. It is built on an adversarial foundation in which both sides try to “win” the case, and the truth of the situation at hand gets lost in the war. The goal of our current system is either vengeance or revenge (in the form of a conviction and incarceration/execution) or acquittal. In this system neither the victim nor the accused is served any kind of justice. Even if there is an acquittal, the accused is forever branded with the “Scarlet Letter” of having been arrested and tried for whatever crime he or she was supposed to have committed. As one famous defendant said following his acquittal, “What court do I go to to have my name cleared?”

Biblical justice, however, had an entirely different goal – reconciliation. In God’s plan there were no jails, no prisons. An accused was brought before the town elders, multiple witnesses were required to proclaim guilt, and there were steep prices to pay for perjury. Once “convicted” the guilty had to make restitution to the victim or the aggrieved party – thieves had to replace the stolen goods, plus and additional amount of “interest” or “punitive damages.” In the case of actions that were so egregious as to dehumanize the victim (pre-meditated murder, rape, kidnapping), the guilty was simply executed.

Notice that in every case except the last, the goal was the reconciliation between accused and victim. The goal was the repair – as far as was humanly possible – of the relationship between individuals and between the accused and the community he or she violated. In the case of premeditated murder, rape, or kidnapping that restoration was impossible. In God’s justice system there is a line that, once crossed, cannot be restored. When you devalue human life to the point that you intentionally take a life, destroy a person through sexual assault, or kidnap them, then you sacrifice your own life. It is elegant in its simplicity. We have corrupted it by trying to make it more “humane.”

When our founding fathers created a system built on an adversarial foundation, and where the goal is simply to establish a legal standing, they eliminated the possibility of the judicial system working toward reconciliation. In order for reconciliation to function, a different foundation needs to be laid.

  • Critical for the process of reconciliation to work there has to be the genuine offer of the possibility of forgiveness. The offer has to be genuine (not simply a legal fiction), but it cannot be considered to be automatic.
  • The other critical component for reconciliation to work is the prospect of an honest, complete, and unpretentious confession of all guilt. Once the door of forgiveness has been opened, it is absolutely necessary for all accountability to be expressed in genuine repentance. There can be no room here for self-serving confession (“I’m sorry you were offended” is the worst confession ever uttered).
  • The final critical component would be for each party to then agree upon what steps are necessary and proper for the restitution of relationship between the guilty and the victim, and between the guilty and the larger community. Forgiveness does not mean that in most situations there needs to be some form of restitution or punishment. Maybe it would be the full restitution of items stolen. Maybe it would be a public apology. Maybe it would be public service for the victim or for the community. What ever the decision, it would have to be agreed upon by all sides and it would have to be measured. Just as an example, our current system of incarcerating individuals for the mere possession of illegal drugs is both inhumane and unjust. It serves no good purpose at all – except to make some individuals very wealthy (lawyers, judges, prison builders).

A justice system built on reconciliation would look radically different from our current system. I think it can be done, though. I think it has been done before.

I think it was started by a man hanging on a cross outside the city of Jerusalem, some 2000 years ago.

Maybe those who claim to follow that man should think about reconciliation before we demand revenge. Just a thought.

One Second

It is terrifying how quickly our lives can change. No matter how much we plan, no matter how we protect ourselves, no matter how many layers of padding or insulation we wrap around ourselves, our entire life can be irreversibly changed in the time it takes to blink an eye.

In what can only be described as a horrific and unimaginable tragedy, a police officer shot a man in his own apartment. There is no “sense” to be made here – reason simply fails us. There are times in this world where all we can do is hang our heads and cry, “Oh God!” That is why we call them tragedies. Tragedies are unexplainable. They break our hearts and they devastate our lives, but trying to make “sense” out of them is hopeless.

And in that exact moment when disciples of Christ should be the most circumspect, the most hesitant to jump to conclusions, the most reticent to assign guilt or blame, we have “Christians” screaming for the blood of the officer. The hatred that has been expressed by those standing in or in front of churches is, quite frankly, repugnant. It seems, according to these “Christians,” that even the very lowest bar of justice – that of “innocent until proven guilty” is WAY too high for them to consider. The words of our Savior in the sermon on the mount about praying for one’s enemies, about walking the second mile, about loving as God loves – forget that. “I know I say I am a Christian, but that does not matter in this case. I can hate cops – its my right.”

I think I know why this case troubles me so deeply. A number of years ago I was involved in a car accident. I say, “involved,” but I should really say I caused it. I carelessly did not see a warning sign. No one was hurt, although to this day I don’t know why. One second earlier or later and there would have been serious injuries if not death. I was careless. I was negligent. I could have been criminally charged were it not for that blessed second of time.

I do not know what went through that officer’s mind as she entered that apartment, why she did not step back, why she drew her weapon, why she decided she had to shoot. None of us do – except that officer. Which makes it particularly important that we not assign motives to her actions without knowing more of the story.

It may very well turn out that she knew exactly what she was doing. She may have staged the whole event. She may indeed be guilty of a crime far worse than negligence. I am not omniscient, I do not know. None of us do. Right now I know she took the life of an innocent young man, my brother in  Christ. He was washed in the same blood that washed me, and it is that reality that pushes me to my knees when I think of the many times in my life when I have done things that have hurt other people – sometimes physically but much more often emotionally – and through that blood I am promised that I stand forgiven. Honestly, I don’t understand why.

One second. When I remember that accident I break out in a cold sweat. I think of the way I could have been treated. I think of the way I was treated. I had no excuses, I had no defense.

I just wonder – how many of the people who are screaming for the blood of this officer have been one second away from a similar tragedy – senseless, inexplicable, indefensible.

Almost 2,000 years ago a man stood in a Roman courtyard and received the whipping that I deserve. He died the death that was reserved for me. “By his wounds we are healed.”

I am terrified by the thought that only one blessed second separates me from the position this officer finds herself. If her story is true – if there is even the smallest possibility that she has faithfully and honestly reported her impressions and her actions to those investigating this case – at the very least she is guilty of negligence. In such a case there is no doubt in my mind but what she wants that one second back – would give anything to have that one second back. It won’t happen.

As I sit here hundreds of miles away from Dallas, I wonder: of all the thousands of “Christians” who are demanding that this officer be punished to the very extent (or even beyond) of what the law allows –

Is there one Christian, one disciple of Christ, who is willing to reach out to her?

One second. Dear God, I am so guilty.

9/11 – 17 Years Later and We Still Have Not Learned

Every anniversary of 9/11/01 is difficult for me. I was a pilot that day, in the air as those two planes were used as missiles to strike the World Trade Center towers one and two. To this day I get queasy as I relive the events of that day and the days following. I remember as if it was yesterday taking off and flying back to my hometown a few days later. Never before or since have  I experienced such conflicted feelings.

That was going to be the topic for this post, but another, much more recent event, has brought all of those feelings back to me, albeit in a much different manner. As I write this (9/11/18), it has been less than a week since a young man was shot and killed by a police woman who, according to her story, mistakenly entered his apartment thinking it was hers. The young man was my brother in Christ, according to all who knew him he was a great disciple of Christ. The young police woman was also highly respected by her peers, earning the right to become a part of a special unit to combat crime in her city.

This is a tragedy of epic proportions. There simply is no good way for this to be resolved. Botham Jean will never be brought back to life. The young officer will always have to deal with the fact that she took an innocent life. It simply does not matter at this point if she is convicted of a crime or not. If she was a conscientious officer – and by all accounts she was – this event will traumatize her for the rest of her life. It should.

Seventeen years ago we learned what hate can do to a country. It is obvious as I read what people are saying about this tragedy in Dallas, that we have not learned a damned thing about hate. And for those of you who wonder, yes, I thought long and hard about using that adjective. There is nothing about hate that is not damnable and damned. And, those of us who hate will share in that damnation.

When I told my wife about the events, her response was that she hoped the young man was not black. He was. She said she hoped the police woman was not white. She is. Those two facts are apparently all that some people need to know. People of another race are to be hated. Police are to be hated. Hate, hate, hate.

I do not want to suggest that the officer is not guilty of a horrendous crime. At the very least she is guilty of a gross negligence that deserves some penalty. I am simply not competent enough to know all the laws of Texas and to know what punishment is appropriate for her crime. She is guilty of taking an innocent human life, in his own apartment, where he should have felt the most safe.

But as I write this – less than a week after the events unfolded – there simply has not been enough facts of the story released for ANYONE to know what happened, except, of course, the officer. So much misinformation has been distributed as to make any decent understanding of that night almost impossible. Some claim there was a verbal exchange between Botham and the officer. There was at least one report that she was returning home after a fifteen hour shift. True? False? We as the general public simply have no way of knowing for sure.

One response that I have seen from a number of people is that, because the officer was off duty, she was no longer a “police officer” and should not be accorded any of the protections that come with her position. I simply want to ask: at what point does a person cease to fulfill his or her occupation? Does a doctor cease to be a doctor when he or she leaves the hospital? If he or she were to come upon a person in distress or having been wounded does the doctor say, “I’m sorry, I clocked out – I’m not a doctor anymore?” Does a fireman simply walk away from a burning house with the excuse that, “My shift is over – I’m not a fireman now”? A police officer, especially in uniform, is a police officer. In the event of an emergency, if a person is in distress, if there is a crime being committed, that officer is bound by their oath to respond. To suggest that the officer not receive the protections also afforded to those who put their lives at risk every day is simply absurd – and full of hate. Yes, she is also thereby held to a higher standard – especially when it comes to drawing her weapon. Is she to be exonerated simply because she wears a badge? Absolutely not! But as I understand the situation, the Texas Rangers have handled her case with all due respect and dignity. They did recommend charges be brought against the officer while carefully investigating her story. That should be enough – but apparently it is not.

I have been deeply touched by the response of the family. Botham’s mother has been the picture of grace – extending forgiveness to the officer while at the same time demanding answers for the death of her son. On the other hand, the interjection of lawyers has inflamed an already emotional situation, and the charges of racism have roiled the city. This was not, and is not, a question of racism. It is a deeply disturbing example of human weakness, even recklessness, that resulted in the death of an innocent man. As a city, as a state, as a nation, we need answers. As the grieving mother has stated – there are just far more questions than answers at this point, and that has to be almost impossible for the family to bear.

As I drove to work this morning I noticed that both sides of the main road of my little town were lined with American flags. I almost had to pull over (and probably should have) because of the tears in my eyes. I remember so clearly why those flags are out today.

Hate.

Seventeen years later we have not learned a thing about hate. We have a president who spews hate with every word he utters. We have a ruling congress that views each little opposing (D) or (R) as a symbol of execration. We have a culture in which polite discussion has ceased to exist, and in it place all we have is blind and deaf shrieking and screaming.

A sensible person would think, on this day of remembrance of one of the most horrific examples of evil this world has seen, that we as a civilized culture could put down our weapons long enough to realize the catastrophic end of a culture founded on hate. An eye for an eye works only until everyone is blind.

Jesus died because of hate. Our hate. Our hatred of God, our hatred of each other, our hatred of ourselves. If there is a symbol of hate that we should all recognize it is the cross.

It is not insignificant, then, that one of the last things Jesus said while hanging on that cross was, “Father, forgive them . . .” Jesus was nailed to the outside of the cross – he never let the hatred get inside of him.

Just a question – If Christ fills our heart – where is there room for hate?

God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Why Are We Divided?

I responded to one of those on-line questionnaires the other day, the kind where you are asked a million dollar question and you are given about 25 cents worth of space to answer. The questions were really good, don’t misunderstand me. I just did not feel like I could answer fully in the space allotted. Sometimes questions can be too good.

So, after some time to cogitate just a little more, here is a little more depth to how I responded.

First, are “main line” Churches of Christ divided, and if so, why? My response: I’m not sure that there is a “main line” Church of Christ, and maybe there never was. So, I guess I would have to say, yes, we are divided. Why? Well, as the questionnaire stated, it’s complicated.

First, I said we do not know our history. Many even deny we have a history. We have a history of historylessness. It is a grammatical and sociological impossibility, but somehow we have managed to pull it off. When I was an undergraduate one of the most despised courses (except for a few souls) was the course on Restoration History. The prevailing feeling among my fellow students was that we were just so much smarter than Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, “Racoon” John Smith, Walter Scott, et. al. Everybody wanted to spend time studying the modern gurus of religion like Bill Hybels. How is that working out for you now, fellas?

I once had a good brother express genuine shock when I explained that one cause of the split between the Disciples of Christ/Christian Church and the Churches of Christ was the introduction of any kind of musical instrument into the worship service. He had been under the impression that it was the Churches of Christ who caused the division because we decided we hated music and therefore kicked everyone who wanted to use an instrument out of the building.

Oy vey.

It’s trite, it’s been overused, but the saying is still true – those who do not know and understand their history are doomed to repeat it. You cannot learn from a lesson if you deny the existence of that lesson, and if you refuse to even hear the lesson taught to you. Our current state of disunion is nothing more than the seeds of previous generations sprouting in new soil. But, the overwhelming majority of folks just cannot see that, because they do not believe we have a history.

Second, I pointed out that we as a community do not handle ambiguity well. I fear I will be misunderstood here so let me qualify my statement. I DO NOT believe the Bible to be ambiguous. However, today’s culture is rife with ambiguity, and as a distinct religious community we have focused on the cut and dried, the black and white, of faith. As an aside, I think our focus on the New Testament is the major culprit here. The Old Testament speaks openly of ambiguity, of anguish, of pain, and to be honest, of doubt. Job, Jeremiah, the Psalms, major sections of the Old Testament – all contain long and wrenching passages that express that this world is not what it is supposed to be, and why doesn’t God do something about it. Job, Jeremiah, and the various Psalmists all believed in and proclaimed the truth of God’s message – but they had no reservations but what the world is full of ambiguity. I just do not think we handle the ambiguity of our culture very well. I know I don’t. I am a child of my tradition, too.

Finally, I pointed out that we as a community do not have any mechanism for communal lament and confession. Shameless advertisement here – I wrote my doctoral dissertation of this very issue, so I think I know a little of which I speak. We are very capable of confessing the faults of other groups. Confess our own? Perish the thought. We have no faults. We are perfect. We have never sinned in thought or deed, and an anathema be upon anyone who suggests otherwise.

Um, 1 John 1:8-10, anyone?

So, yes, the “main line” Churches of Christ are divided. Probably always have been, it is just that maybe the lines of division are becoming a little more obvious than in past generations. We now have “super” or “mega” preachers that openly teach and preach positions that are diametrically opposed to biblical doctrine. Scripture is not inspired, it is merely inspiring. Scripture is relativized. Cultural standards are held to be more authoritative than God’s word. I would suggest that the majority of Churches of Christ have gone “mainstream” Evangelical – we have certainly lost our apocalyptic (counter-cultural) roots. Alexander Campbell would probably be welcome in the majority of congregations, Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb would not.

It is not my job to “fix” the Churches of Christ. All I can do is guard my own teaching – follow the principles of biblical interpretation that I have been taught and hold to be valuable, share what I have learned and what I feel to be important, and rely upon the grace of God to “fix” what is deficient in my admittedly human understanding.

I don’t ever want someone to think or believe something because I said it. I want people to think or believe something because they can find it in the Bible – something that God wants them to think, believe, and obey. May we all have Philippians 2:1-11 as our polar star.

We ascend higher when we climb lower.