Tuesday, December 20, 2011

David Barton -- in denial about race and racism

Do you ever wonder why so few African-Americans vote conservative? David Barton should remind you. The modern conservative movement has never fully accepted its complicity in maintaining racist ideology and in fact has consistently tried to run from it, and Barton doesn't help matters.

Barton, head of the WallBuilders organization, which can be kindly described as giving a right-wing Christian spin on American history, and who once headed the Republican Party in Texas, has no training as a historian. Rather, from WallBuilders you get the kind of agitprop that distorts history and causes division. Earlier this week a friend forwarded me a number of his papers on black history which proved either irrelevant or misleading.

Let's take an entry on Richard Allen, founding bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. According to Barton, "Allen began to preach regularly at the St. George Methodist Church in Philadelphia. He suggested that Blacks should have a separate place of worship apart from Whites; and although his suggestion was at first resisted, his forceful preaching attracted such a vast number of Blacks to the church that when objections were raised, Allen's idea of a separate congregation was finally accepted."

However, Barton fails to note that the vestry of St. George had voted to build a segregated section of the church and that he had led a walkout in response. And that was hardly uncommon; black churches were established in the first place because black parishioners were abused or neglected in white ones.

In an entry on black voting rights published in 2003, Barton consistently mentions -- without perspective -- that the Democratic Party was the chief agent of racial segregation and discrimination (that was true only in the South). He's correct in saying that the Republican Party was founded specifically to take down chattel slavery -- but wait a minute. By the 1880s, with slavery gone and Reconstruction abandoned, the GOP had left its anti-racist past behind.

Moreover, what became known as the "New Right," pushed by William F. Buckley Jr. and developing appeal mostly in the West, was proving increasingly influential in the GOP in the 1960s, so much so that it was able to get Barry Goldwater on the ticket as its presidential candidate in 1964; Goldwater, who publicly opposed the civil-rights movement, was later denounced by Martin Luther King Jr. as "the most dangerous man in the country" at the time. Two years later, Richard Nixon enacted the GOP's notorious "Southern Strategy" which reached out to white Southerners by emphasizing, among other things, the national Democratic Party's commitment to civil rights (which was recast as "big government"). Slowly they began to trickle into the GOP but came full-scale with the election of Ronald Reagan -- who also opposed MLK Jr.

I wonder why Barton never mentions King and the civil-rights movement -- which of course came out of the black church and even to this day informs much of the African-American community -- in his writings. Perhaps because it clearly came from the political left and thus causes embarrassment to those on the right who want the exclusive franchise on religious activism. But that's a shame, especially considering his partisan view of history which leaves out much of the truth.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tim Tebow -- hot now, but wait

Tim Tebow, the former missionary kid, has made quite a name for himself over the past few years. The first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy while attending the University of Florida and the subject of an anti-abortion ad during last year's Super Bowl, he now plays quarterback for the Denver Broncos, who have lost only one game since he was given the starting job about two months ago.

Lately he's been somewhat of a lighting rod for his open displays of Christian faith both on the field and in the media. Some love it, but others have said that he should tone it down. (One of his critics is the now-retired Kurt Warner, himself a believer who led the St. Louis Rams to their only Super Bowl championship in 2001.)

Here's the problem I have with all the attention Tebow gets: There does appear to be a lack of humility, let alone depth, on his part. He has played for winning teams throughout his short career -- UF plays in the Southeastern Conference, arguably the toughest in the country and whose games are broadcast on CBS. It's easy to "praise God" in such situations.

But wait until he starts losing games. Then we'll see what he's really made of.

In 1996, after losing a close playoff game to the Steelers, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh still gave props to Jesus. Going further back, consider pitcher Orel Hershiser, whose Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series in 1988. However, two years later he needed surgery that prematurely ended his season; at a press conference, he said, in effect, "The same God that was there when we won the World Series is going to be there now."

And let's look at Warner, who played at the University of Northern Iowa, which participates in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA) and had previously worked in a grocery store before resuming his career. Because he didn't go to a football factory, virtually no one knew who he was -- that is, except for pro scouts.

In the early 1980s I used to watch the 700 Club, and I couldn't help but notice that when it broadcast athlete profiles only these qualified: 1) star players; 2) from winning teams; 3) with Christian parents or spouses (or, in one case, a fiancé). Yet it's very possible that a third-stringer from a losing team who's unattached and doesn't come from a Christian home may maintain a deeper walk with God than any of them -- and needs to.

In such situations I'm reminded of the line from "Blessed Be the Name of the LORD": "Blessed be His name/On the road marked with suffering/When there's pain in the offering/Blessed be the name ... " It's easy to be "on fire for God" when you're on top, but when things start to fall apart -- that's when you learn what you're made of.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

'Occupy Wall Street' -- highlighting the unspeakable

Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.

-- Isaiah 5:8

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

-- James 5:1-5

Republican strategist Frank Lantz has admitted recently that he's quaking in his boots over the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has called attention to the excesses of corporate power in this nation. As well he should be.

You see, by its mass ongoing demonstrations, which stated in New York's financial district but have since spread to other major cities, OWS has touched on a far bigger issue, one which few have ever addressed: Class warfare.

There, I've said it.

If you think I'm simply channeling Karl Marx, I challenge you: On what else was the opposition to civil rights for African-Americans based? The targeting for destruction of the labor union movement? The elimination of social programs that actually help the poor? Tax breaks and cuts for the super-wealthy? The weakening of regulation of large financial interests? The trashing of public education? And on and on and on ... if these don't represent an attempt to build a quasi-aristocracy, I don't know what does. And folks are waking up.

That said, over the years, especially in the recent tea-party movement, some have actually tried to scapegoat "government" as the ultimate source of all our ills. Let me remind you, however, that we have government in the first place due to a chronic problem called sin, that left to their own devices people will, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "take the low road" -- which is why the Apostle Paul told the first Christians to respect the government. (And don't forget that he was referring to highly corrupt Rome, which many of his Jewish audience despised with a passion.) Here in this country especially, because our system was built to give political power to private entities, the idea of "too much government" comes across as so much hooey.

Have you ever wondered why major Christian media "ministries," with all their bellayaching about abortion, gay rights and the "War on Christmas," never talk about the plight of the poor, a major theme in Scripture, especially the Old Testament? Check their donor lists and boards of directors and find out just who's paying to keep them on the air -- you'll be unpleasantly surprised.

So let's place the blame right where it lies: With the moneyed interests able to "buy off" any opposition. And that's just what OWS is protesting.

Moreover, OWS has to date never been part of any political establishment and thus truly represents a grass-roots movement. Contrast that with the tea-party movement, a picture of whose first local demonstration was placed on the front page of the Tribune-Review (its publisher is a supporter), that has run candidates for Congress and which now has several candidates jockeying for the Republican nomination for president. The tea-party movement has already been brought to heel, which OWS won't be -- and that freaks Lantz to no end.

None of this is to suggest that God is specifically endorsing Occupy Wall Street, although a few individual Christians and ministries have done so. Rather, I suggest that He is using OWS to send a message to the nation and perhaps also the church that business as usual -- with the emphasis on "business" -- will not be tolerated in the "last days."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A church that does it all

I was first introduced to my present church back in 1980 by a fellow first-year student at the University of Pittsburgh whom I met through the school's Inter-Varsity chapter. Two years later, when I was searching for another church and I was living on campus, I visited several times.

In those days, however, it was an almost-all-white, drive-in assembly which focused on maintaining conservative doctrine and foreign missions. Nothing wrong with either, of course, but I decided not to join then in part because I wasn't sure if I could fit in.

Eighteen years later, at a time when I was again church-shopping, I decided to give it another shot. By the end of that service, I knew that I had found home.

You see, the church had changed drastically in that time. Before my return, the then-new and current lead pastor encouraged the church to minister to the largely-poor and African-American neighborhood where it was located, in the process tearing down the spiritual stronghold of racism that had previously gripped its membership. On top of that, the church also began focusing upon "social justice" -- take that, Glenn Beck -- because of some of the political decisions that left that immediate area destitute. Eventually, members of the church began businesses that employed folks in the neighborhood; some years ago it received an award from the area Chamber of Commerce.

Learning that I was attending her old church, she came to Pittsburgh for a visit 2 1/2 years ago -- she has spent much of her life on the mission field and hasn't lived here since she graduated from Pitt in 1984 -- and decided to check things out. Even with its emphasis on neighborhood ministry, which I certainly agreed with, I assured her: "Don't worry -- it's still heavily involved in missions." (Which, with updates from four different missionaries, was borne out that day.)

I have come to appreciate my present church, which has grown in attendance about 10-fold in the past quarter-century, because of its willingness to do everything that the LORD tells us to do. In addition to what I've already mentioned, it has always believed in reaching the "lost" in this city. This is not to say that every person is involved in every ministry -- that would be impossible -- but there's an awareness of God's entire agenda and his/her place in it.

I bring this up because I've noticed that most churches don't do this because of what's considered "spiritual." White evangelicals, while rightly concerned about "saving souls" here and abroad, usually fail to recognize the suffering of people in this country of plenty. Black Christians, on the other hand, found themselves often in the forefront of social change, by necessity, but suffered from theological shallowness and a focus on entertainment during worship services.

Given these strengths and weaknesses, it just makes sense that folks should come together and build each other up. After all, even though we have many members, we belong to one Body, and all the parts have to function properly.

A former member of my church who is now a pastor in California noted that, when he was in seminary, four groups of students prayed with and for each other. One was focused on missions, another on social justice, two others had concentrations in other areas that I don't remember now. But all were aware of the passion of the others even though they was different.

For my part, though I've always been aware and have contributed financially, I have never had an inclination to do foreign missions myself. About 25 years ago I was wrestling with God about going overseas but confessed to Him that "I just don't hear the call!" He had to tell me, "No, I am not calling you to the mission field -- I have special work for you." That was all I needed to hear, and I'm grateful to be in a church where I don't have to leave the country to demonstrate my fidelity to God and His Kingdom.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Random thoughts about the Penn State scandal

In the fall of 1983 and while hanging out at my fraternity house -- I wasn't in school at the time -- I became somewhat friendly with a Pitt sophomore woman who started visiting us regularly. She and I even went out a couple of times, and eventually she decided to pledge our "little sister" program. Keep in mind that I had a deserved reputation there of not just being a straight-edge but standing up for moral values.

One night I saw her in the room of one of my brothers who had a reputation of being a lech and saw a look on her face that, perhaps, she didn't want something to happen. This time, however, I think I panicked and ended up doing nothing, and I'm not sure why. Bottom line, she never came back after the next year, and I never saw her again.

I never did find out what happened that night and am not sure if I ever want to know, but in that instant I betrayed my highest principles.

In one sense I can thus identify with Mike McQueary, the former Penn State quarterback who, as a graduate assistant in 2002, witnessed now-retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sodomizing a boy in the shower but never went to the police -- an inaction which eventually cost head coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier their jobs, with athletic director Tim Curley stepping down because Sandusky had been engaging in that kind of behavior since the mid-1990s, according to some sources.

Was McQueary motivated by fear of unpopularity, not being taken seriously or the potential loss of his job? We may soon find out.

-- Many folks have complained for years that Paterno, who will be 85 next month, had been a coach at Penn State since 1950 and got the top job in 1966, had been there for too long. In 2004 he was asked to step down but responded, essentially, "Get lost" -- the team was still winning and graduating players, so he still had all the leverage.

I never took such longevity seriously until last week because it seemed that Paterno may have been bigger than the program -- and that was a real problem because things could be, and in this case certainly were, swept under the rug.

Contrast this with its former chief rival Pitt, which in Paterno's tenure as head coach has had, by my count, 12 head coaches. Last year after pushing out Dave Wannstedt the administration hired Michael Haygood, formerly with Miami University; however, after two weeks he was let go the day after he was busted on domestic-abuse charges. Paterno had not wanted to play Pitt because he couldn't get Penn State into the Big East Conference, whose main sport then was basketball, while admitting Pitt. That may change now.

-- The Sandusky scandal will hurt Penn State in another way that isn't yet obvious to most: With African-Americans. The main campus has always had a reputation, deserved or not, of being inhospitable to people of color; minority enrollment was the lowest of just about any school I looked at in the late 1970s, and it has always had trouble fielding a consistently competitive men's basketball team.

You see, Sandusky founded the "Second Mile Foundation," which helped underprivileged kids in that area and through which he found his victims, and it turns out that one boy who stepped forward was black. (It's suspected, but not yet proven, that other of the boys he abused were also African-American. Why? Because they were often fatherless and thus emotionally vulnerable.)

-- On Facebook one person blamed "liberals" for the fact that such a scandal could take place, quoting a militant gay group's alleged motto "Sex at eight before it's too late!" Here's the problem: Pedophilia is about power, not really sex, and has gone on for thousands of years (with the Roman Catholic Church especially suffering a black eye for the behavior of a number of priests).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pulpit 'freedom?'

If you haven't heard -- and I hope that you haven't -- today was "Pulpit Freedom Sunday." For the uninitiated, it's an annual campaign by the Alliance Defense Fund to protest Internal Revenue Service rules enacted in the 1950s about politicking by churches. The organization believes, and says, that pastors aren't permitted to speak out on "moral" issues lest their churches lose their tax-exempt status.

Here's the problem: The ADF is wrong. On several fronts.

One, I don't know a church in this country that hasn't done so at some point. However, churches have historically never been directly involved in the political process anyway, and until fairly recently states barred pastors from seeking political office. Reason? The church needs to retain its independence and ability to speak God's Word regardless of whoever is in power. Two, even according to IRS rules, pastors are allowed to speak for or against candidates or office-holders in the pulpit. (That has always happened regularly in black churches.)

I suspect, however, that the ADF wants churches to have the ability to work directly for or against candidates. That's inappropriate for a number of reasons, as well as illegal.

For openers, when you examine the entire Scripture, you'll won't find a political candidate that fits every single issue, especially considering that even Christians disagree on politics. My church is as politically divided as any assembly you'll ever see; were my pastor to take sides he'd alienate half the congregation.

Second, working for specific candidates would get in the way of the church's spiritual goals, which are to demonstrate an allegiance only to a different, unseen world. Were the church to get involved in a worldly pursuit as partisan politics it would say that God Himself endorses or opposes such-and-such -- in essence, putting words in His mouth.

Third, the church would forfeit its ability to speak truth to power. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition gained strength when Bill Clinton was president but withered when George W. Bush went to the White House. (Recall that Robertson ran for president in 1988 on the Republican side.) Even before that, I never heard any pastor critique Ronald Reagan, especially the rampant corruption that took place during his administration; I suspect that's why their legitimate complaints about Clinton's tomcatting fell largely on deaf ears, especially during his impeachment.

And most important, it shows a lack of trust in God to get His work done regardless of the political leadership. This became clear to me when I hear about Christian fears whenever the Democrats get the upper hand in Congress or a Democratic candidate becomes president. Before the 2008 election I received a request to pray for the defeat of Barack Obama; I responded to a e-mail that God wouldn't answer that prayer.

The Binghamton, N.Y. church of Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry took out full-page ads in USA Today and the New York Times just before the 1992 election warning Christians not to vote for Clinton and taking donations to pay for it; for that the IRS slapped it. (I don't know what the penalty was.) At first, I resented that a church was going to tell me how to vote and wrote the church to say so; today, however, I realize that it was acting just like the world. And that's why the ADF appears to be doing as well. Churches need to be free to proclaim liberty, justice and reconciliation -- a concept not always accepted by the politically obsessed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dominionism -- old, new, but still flawed

Republican Presidential candidates Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have recently been linked to the "dominionist" movement, which espouses the notion that civil government can and should be ruled under Biblical laws.

This may surprise you, but it's hardly new -- indeed, it goes back five centuries with theologian John Calvin, founder of what we call the "Reformed" persuasion, and eventualy adopted by the Puritan movement in England in the 17th Century and transplanted to New England, where it was dominant politically. However, according to Jon Meachem in Time magazine, more recently it's been adopted by an outfit called the Pentecostal-oriented New Apostolic Reformation, which theologically certainly isn't Calvinist.

One thing I can tell you: It won't work, either politically or theologically. I have no doubt that the motivation is the "will to power," in this case using Biblical principles not to benefit the people but for that Christianity to become culturally dominant and its adherents be able to push people around.

The political problem is that we live in a land where only a minority of citizens subscribe to conservative, evangelical Christianity, with a large and growing number of those rejecting the right-wing GOP agenda allied with the dominionists. As such, the dominionists can achieve power only by subterfuge -- that is, they can't be totally honest about their goals because they know that people won't vote for them. That doesn't bode well for a movement that purports to be Biblical but needs to operate with deceitful tactics and motives; those on the political left understand this and even hope that the more extreme elements of the movement make most of the noise. Moreover, if you're going to maintain consistent Biblical standards you need to implement not just the punishment -- what I think they had in mind -- but also the proper prosecution, which means that, for capital crimes, you have to have at least two witnesses and the accusers must participate in the execution (Deut. 17:6-7); just try to establish that condition in individualistic American society. (I have heard that, in Jewish society, anyone who presides over two executions a year would be considered a "hanging judge.")

The theological problem is that God never established His law in ancient Israel simply to be obeyed for its own sake but in the process to demonstrate to the world of that day that He was indeed God and, ultimately, to be a blessing. However, Israel didn't get that. The Pharisees didn't get that. And theonomists and the NAR certainly don't get that.

This is not to say that Christians can't and shouldn't try to influence their political and cultural surroundings. Trouble begins, however, when becoming powerful becomes an end in itself and no longer seeks the highest good for anyone.

In other words, dominionists in general and the NAR in particular shouldn't try to pass their ideology off on God. Really, dominionism only uses God and cannot compel people to worship Him -- which was His real goal.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

'Freedom' without justice? Impossible

Earlier this week the Pittsburgh area witnessed the sentencing to death of Richard Poplawski, the troubled man in his mid-20s accused of gunning down three Pittsburgh police officers in April 2009 and found guilty at trial earlier this year.

A quick review: What urged him to ambush those cops was a fear that, after President Obama was inaugurated less than three months earlier, he would "take his guns away" -- a common refrain of the political right in those days. In that context, of course, a gun is a symbol of "freedom."

That's the wrong way to look at it.

The world soon learned that Poplawski suscribed to a mentality that the "state" doesn't have the right to exist, even though Biblically speaking it has the God-given function of making and enforcing laws -- even at the point of a gun if need be. Resentful because it tramps on your "freedom"? Tough. That's the price you pay for living in an ordered society, and the function of government regardless of level is to maintain order and administer justice.

Moreover, Poplawski used his "freedom" to commit an unjust act -- the murder of three men, leaving not only families but also friends, a department and even the city itself in perpetual mourning. Did he think about that? (I won't call it purely cold-blooded because he was operating out of fear.)

So let's not fool ourselves into thinking that Poplawski was defending his freedoms by going on that rampage. Progressive Catholics have a saying, "If you want peace, work for justice" -- that is, if you want things to be "cool," first make sure that they're right. Because, ultimately, there's no freedom without justice.

Monday, September 5, 2011

What will Jesus change?

There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitutions
There is no bloody revolution

I wouldn't normally think of Sting, the singer/songwriter who penned those words for his then-band the Police, as a prophet. Especially since the song they came from, "Spirits in the Material World," represents the kind of despairing cynicism that we Christians are supposed to reject.

But if you look at our world today -- even more so than 30 years ago, when the song appeared on the band's "Ghost in the Machine" album -- you have to marvel at his prescience. Especially in considering our "dysfunctional" Federal government, which people can't say get anything done. If Washington could only fix itself, people believe.

Well, as I've written before, "Washington" is not, never has been and never will be, the problem.

It really boils down to our basic selfishness as human beings, believing that everything revolves around us. We want the power to change things but not the responsibility of doing so. We consider how things affect us personally but not the other guy. We denounce people who don't agree with us as fundamentally evil, perhaps not considering that they just might feel the same way about us.

Given the uncertainty in today's world, my pastor during sermons has asked on a couple of occasions if this might be the time that Jesus actually returns. Let me say something sobering: It could be that His Second Coming might, in the long run, be the last thing some people want.

What?! Yep. As I said, folks want everyone else to change, often forgetting that they too are in need of deep repentance. And should He return in the next few years, let's keep in mind that we're not going to dictate to Him just how things should be. Indeed, it's likely that we simply won't be able even to stand before Him in all His utter holiness; He barks a command and our only response will be, "You want it, You got it."

Remember, friends, that Jesus will determine what He wants done with the money entrusted to us. He will determine the best, most equitable policies. He will determine how people will run their businesses. Indeed, we won't even have a "democracy" anymore because there will be only one vote. "Freedom"? Irrelevant. There will be only justice.

Let's also not forget the part of the "LORD's Prayer," "Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." So, to add a twist on the old saying, "Be careful what you pray for -- you will get it." And it may not be what you expect.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech

Rather than delivering commentary, I thought I would be good to publish it in its entirety as it was delivered 48 years ago today.
____________________________________________________________________

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Ron Paul conundrum

Last week in a presidential straw poll of Iowa Republicans, tea-party favorite Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman from Minnesota, came out as the winner.

But the most intriguing was who finished second: Rep. Ron Paul.

For the uninitiated, Paul, the 75-year-old former obstetrician and who grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Green Tree, has represented a district in Texas off-and-on since the 1980s from which he will retire after next year. A staunch libertarian and somewhat of a curmudgeon, he has long championed the dismantling of the Federal Reserve and, if my facts are correct, was the only Republican in Congress to oppose going into war in Iraq, in the process temporarily becoming a darling to anti-war activists.

But despite his showing in Iowa, don't expect Dr. Paul to become president or even to do much better in primaries and caucuses next year. Reason? He's not, and has never pretended to be, a politician. Isn't that the kind of person we need in office?

I would suggest not. While his support is deep, it's not wide.

We're long past the time where an office-holder or candidate can simply hold fast to certain positions and hope people will support them; in this way Dr. Paul represents a throwback to an earlier time but is out of touch with today's political reality. When you take such an uncompromising stand out of "principle," especially without communicating to people how it benefits them, you risk having them vote against you -- as the tea-party movement will find out next year. He's also somewhat of an isolationist, which won't fly today because of our relations with other nations; whether he likes it or not, politically and economically we're the most powerful nation in history.

Bottom line, the public, whether blue or red, simply doesn't agree with all or even most of Dr. Paul's views, and as such were he ever to ascend to the top spot he would never get a bill passed because Congress, bowing to the will of their constituents, would oppose just about anything he would do. (It's also the reason why the Libertarian Party, although the third-largest in the United States and under whose banner he's occasionally run, will never be a major player in American politics.)

But, from a Christian standpoint, I find something more troubling about Dr. Paul: I don't detect a sense of "justice" -- that is, what's ultimately right or wrong as opposed to what simply legal or illegal. He opposed the war in Iraq not because of what it might do to the country's finances or standing in the world but only because the Bush administration didn't take the proper steps to do so. It would be nice to hear Dr. Paul's moral vision, but to my knowledge he's never demonstrated one.

Yes, we live in a land governed, at least theoretically, by a Constitution; however, its meaning and ramifications have shifted over time because we don't live under the same conditions that existed in 1789. Besides, for us Christians, the U.S. Constitution isn't the highest authority; while I wouldn't advocate adjusting it to reflect Christian principles, still we have an obligation to state what we believe to be ultimately true. That's why it surprises me that Dr. Paul has such a following among Christians, many of who are still seeking a non-existent political messiah.

Especially one who can't win.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What we should have learned from Watergate -- but didn't

Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.
-- Psalm 146:3

Today marks the anniversary of the fulfillment of the first prophecy I ever made, in 1974.

That spring, as a seventh-grader at a Christian academy in suburban Pittsburgh, I was telling anyone who would listen that then-President Nixon "would be out of office in six months" -- and, like a lot of prophecy, no one took that seriously at the time. (I would soon leave the school and, with that, my "voice" was silenced.) However, I turned out to be right, as he did resign his office in disgrace after evidence surfaced as to his participation in the coverup of the Watergate scandal.

I wasn't simply a being a soothsayer, however. To get my drift, you have to understand that the families of almost all of my classmates were Nixon supporters, as I learned the previous academic year -- the teacher had polled us as to whom we favored in the presidential election then and I was the only one who definitively said, "McGovern." And while it was never stated openly, I did detect a sense that Nixon, who at the time had been friendly with Billy Graham and courted evangelicals, was somehow "God's candidate."

Having been burned, Mr. Graham subsequently, and permanently, removed himself from partisan politics. However, that episode with Nixon hasn't stopped some Christians from seeking yet another political Messiah, the next one being Ronald Reagan, whom Christians supported even more openly. Yet Reagan's actual record as president was at best spotty -- he raised taxes more often than he cut them, did little if anything to address social issues that evangelicals supported and presided over arguably the most corrupt presidential administration in my lifetime, with four members of his cabinet leaving under a cloud. Then you had George W. Bush as the next "anointed one" -- he even "spoke the language" -- but we as a nation are still paying through the nose for his mistakes. Right now some folks are calling Texas Gov. Rick Perry to get into the race, with perhaps more than a few convinced that he's destined to win.

That can go the other way as well. In the early 1990s, Operation Rescue head Randall Terry prayed for the death or Christian conversion of Supreme Court justices. Many conservative Christians willingly participated in the smear campaign against President Bill Clinton, and Philip Yancey, retelling the story in his book "What's So Amazing About Grace?", mentioned that he received a ton of hate mail in a response to an interview he had done with the president that placed what some would have considered positive spin and which was published in Christianity Today. And just before the end of the general election campaign of 2008, I received an emergency prayer request calling on God to defeat Barack Obama. (I called that prayer blasphemous.)

Bottom line, we Christians can't afford to be Manichean in our attitude toward political candidates, suggesting that "our guy is necessarily good and our opponents are hopelessly evil." Sin in the human heart is far more pervasive than we want to admit; occasionally we've even seen outspoken Christians who become powerful fall into temptation (e.g. Tom DeLay). Whomever we support is a matter of opinion and personal preference; let's never say, however, that having or removing (depending on our preference) so-and-so from office will by definition cause our nation to become more prosperous and moral. To do so is to put our ultimate trust in the political process -- and God will never allow that for very long.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tea-party 'terrorists?'

Soon after the recent deal in Washington on the debt ceiling, my congressman, Mike Doyle, complained that, referring to the tea-party movement that challenged any proposal that raised taxes, "We negotiated with terrorists." Of course, those remarks, echoed with similar comments from Vice-President Joe Biden, received considerable play, especially criticism from the political right.

But before you consider their remarks an outright slur, let's consider a few things.

One, the tea-party movement has never, and I mean never, operated within the existing political structure. Considering our anti-establishment political culture, that sounds wonderful on the surface; however, it also comes from an utter ignorance about basic civics -- how bills are passed and just how people are elected in the first place. Tea-party members often complain that, rather than finding ways to stay in office, elected officials should be about "the people's business." Well, guess what, folks? If you ever spent any time with them, you know that they're doing just that. Tea-party adherents don't want to understand that we have not just one nation but also 435 distinct regions which represent different constituencies that are often at odds with each other, and our "bottom-up" way of doing things simply doesn't allow for the type of "top-down" representation that the movement feels would be more efficient to focus upon their narrow agenda. And that's why you have to have deal-making in Congress.

Two, the tea-party movement has always fancied itself as "grass-roots" when in practice it's now anything but. This recent imbroglio was sparked by longtime anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who will tell you that he's not a Washington "outsider" -- indeed, his "Leave Us Alone" coalition was instrumental in having Bill Clinton impeached in 1999 -- and who had numerous Republican lawmakers sign a pledge not to agree to any tax increases. Furthermore, much of the funding for the movement came from the now-notorious Koch brothers, the latest in the gaggle of super-rich libertarians/conservatives eager to keep their gravy train rolling and that has spent large sums of money over the past 40 years or so to skew the discourse.

In essence, we're talking about bullies who demand their way no matter what. They have no qualms about insulting, then punishing people who don't agree with them and will wreck the country in the process in their pursuit of power.

If Doyle and Biden were guilty of anything, it's hyperbole. But perhaps that was their point -- because when only your group alone decides what's "best" for everyone without any consultation from anyone else, be advised that it's acting just like a terrorist. However, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has said, "Terrorists [substitute 'bullies' if you prefer] always overplay their hand." And because it's making a ton of enemies as I write, the tea-party movement will be lucky to survive the 2012 election.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rick Perry -- "called" to be president?

Recently a number of readers of the Los Angeles Times wrote in with their choice to be president -- Rick Perry, current governor of Texas and an overt evangelical who has called for statewide prayer. At least two people have convinced themselves that he can beat Obama next year, and some believe that Perry is "called" of God.

I can understand their preference, but "called of God?" That's theologically dubious at best, for two reasons.

Let's consider their context of "calling": This nation is under the spell of evil liberals and liberalism, so we need to find a champion who will defeat [choose the target of your choice] and restore our nation to greatness -- you know, "the way it used to be."

We've seen that one before -- Palestine in the first century. Recall that the Jewish people of that day were living under the rule of Rome, which they resented deeply and wanted overthrown and understood well the prophecy of a Messiah, who they believed would be the person who would kick the Romans out.

But in their desire for political freedom they missed what Jesus, who of course was the Messiah, came to do -- change the entire calculus in showing the world Who God really was. They ended up rejecting Him because He turned out not to be the political leader they wanted.

Two, "calling" in this context is connected to service and sacrifice, not as a will to power. It's perfectly appropriate to "call" a pastor or other spiritual leader to a place of authority; however, in such cases he or she has been specifically raised up to give of him/herself, not simply to be "in charge" and push people around. (See John Eldredge's description of the "King" in the book "Fathered by God.")

Those Christians who want Perry to be president have missed that point. You see, they have always sought someone who will fight the battle against what they consider demonic forces (read: Those who disagree with them politically) so that they can go about their lives and not have to engage in spiritual warfare themselves -- something that God will never allow. To wit, they want the "blessings" of God but not really to know Him personally and permit Him to change who they are, making Him in their image in the process.

They have also forgotten that God Himself raises up and takes down leaders for His purposes; I'm convinced that Barack Obama and, before him, Bill Clinton became president at least in part to demonstrate to politically conservative Christians that He is, and they are not, running the show. Sadly, some still don't understand that concept -- just before the general election of 2008 I received an emergency e-mail asking folks to pray that, by some miracle, Obama would be defeated. (I responded by saying that it was inappropriate.)

This is why "anointing" a presidential candidate -- keep in mind that the term "Messiah" means "anointed one" -- is flatly dangerous. And if Perry does decide to run, he needs to understand that he would lead all the people of this great country, not simply those who agree with his politics. Sadly, I don't think he does based on his speeches and record, which is why the "calling" is bogus.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The imminent revival -- part 4

Now that I've proclaimed in previous entries that revival is coming soon (and in some places has already started), the question comes up: How will we recognize it?

In good Jewish fashion, let me ask another question: What's the focus?

If it's on personal peace and happiness, cultural issues, church growth or putting on a show, walk away from that. If it's on desiring Christ's kingdom, freedom from sin, a craving to know truth and an emphasis on service to the world and in His church, you're getting warm. Let's keep in mind that God made us to glorify Himself and no other.

That said, here are some things to consider:

1) Folks 30 and younger will drive this revival. The reason is simple: Right now, the generation directly behind mine doesn't really have its own "move of God"; it's either submerged in parents' faith or running away from it. Therefore, it needs to reach its own generation in the way He dictates, and it needs to hear that. A couple of years ago at dinner I had the honor of telling a then-29-year-old man, "You're the next wave." The temptation for us in the "baby boom" generation, more culture-bound than we realize, will be to discount the ways in which God is moving in that generation; however, if it doesn't contradict the Scriptures we, like Gamaliel, should wait and see if this has staying power.

2) It will be interracial and multi-cultural. The generation behind mine was reared with "diversity" and this is used to it; as a result, it doesn't have the racial hang-ups that previous generations did. It will be the first generation to live Martin Luther King Jr.'s words about being "judged [not] by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." As a result, the faith will be taken places we've been afraid to go.

3) Abortion will be addressed and dealt with but only as part of a consistenly "pro-life" ethic. The biggest mistake that the anti-abortion movement made was to link itself to the modern conservative movement, which was interested only in defeating the other side for its own sake. Since that movement is, despite all the noise it makes, on its last legs, its eventual collapse will free us who oppose legal abortion to expand our reach to issues of poverty, the environment and other issues of social justice. In addition, the image of Margaret Sanger, the late founder of what is now Planned Parenthood, will undergo a makeover in large part because folks are now learning that, contrary to popular opinion, she was actually staunchly anti-abortion. (And that may actually help to split PP!)

4) The "evangelical left" will play a surprisingly large role. One thing God has always done is reach out to the marginalized and make them into His trophies of grace, and the evangelical left certainly has been marginalized by much of the rest of the church for not being "politically correct." However, it has always been close to the heart of God because of its love for people and its desire to change systems that hold people in bondage. Dr. King will be recognized as a true prophet of God, as will such luminaries as Ron Sider, Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo.

5) The church will get back to the Scriptures' true teaching on homosexuality. That is to say, it will be recognized as an outward sign of inward rebellion against almighty God -- no more, no less. Those "conservative" churches who teach and preach homophobia and the liberal ones who affirm homosexual behavior as a legitimate lifestyle will both become irrelevant.

6) Folks will reconcile with each other. As they comb through their lives and recognize the wreckage that their sin has caused they will seek to make amends on both a personal and institutional level. Doing so will strengthen the church because it will break long-standing barriers that have kept them apart.

7) Persecution will come -- from, believe it or not, "conservatives." Keep in mind that the movement at its heart always was secular and extremely combative and doesn't take kindly to disagreement. Not only that, they operate from a default attitude of fear, the exact opposite of faith.

If there are more, I will list them here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

David Duke -- he's ba-ack! (well, maybe ... )

You may soom be able to drive another nail into the coffin of the GOP's attempt to wrest the presidency from Barack Obama.

Recently, the Daily Beast reported that David Duke, the notorious white nationalist and former Ku Klux Klansman from Louisiana, is considering throwing his hat into the ring. What's worse from that perspective, Obama's election in 2008 has spurred considerable "white-rights" activity," and not just from Duke. If he does, that can only hurt the Republican Party.

Indeed, the GOP has had a race problem since its "Southern Strategy" first took hold in 1966 but especially since Ronald Reagan kicked off his ultimately successful 1980s presidential campaign in Neshoba County, Miss., where three civil-rights workers were murdered 16 years earlier. During his stump speech, Reagan told the people who supported him that he supported "states rights" -- in that context, a code word for racism because the primary legal argument against the civil-rights movement was its tramping on state sovereignty. That eventually led to an unwelcome endorsement from a Klan leader in Georgia who said, "The Republican platform could have been written by a Klansman."

And this wouldn't be Duke's first stab at elected office, either. He ran for president as a Democrat in 1988 -- making little headway -- but again four years later, as a Republican, which caused considerable consternation in the party, the Florida GOP trying to get him off the ballot. In 1990 he won a special election for the state legislature (but proved ineffective). In 1991 he ran for governor and, while he received less than 40 percent of the overall vote in the state-mandated runoff, he crowed afterward that he got 55 percent of the white vote. (In fairness, he was running against Edwin Edwards, who was the epitome of "laissez les bon temps rouler" and who got most of the black vote.)

While modern conservatism isn't inherently racist, all of your "racial realists" -- their preferred term -- are conservative in every possible way and today vote Republican. And according to the Daily Beast article, Duke has quite a following, with his YouTube videos going "viral." That's especially the case since Obama became president.

The tea-party movement in particular has a reputation for racist behavior that its leadership has categorically denied. But according to Stormfront founder and radio host Don Black, it shouldn't because, frankly, there are indeed racists who participate.

"Many of our people are involved in the tea party," Black explained to the Daily Beast. "But much of [its] leadership is skittish when it comes to talking about racial realities. The tea party is a healthy movement, but too many are conditioned to run like scared rabbits when called racists."

You see the difficulty. On the one hand, you have a party that's trying to build a coalition to regain the highest office in the land and arguably the most powerful political post in the world. On the other hand, you have forces of intolerance, a form of "religion" if you will, that won't accept anything less than capitulation. The GOP simply can't and won't have it both ways, so get ready for a major split.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The imminent revival -- part 3: The end of the culture war

Over the past couple of decades, I've rooted for the Republican Party -- to lose elections. It's not simply that I disagree with its platform, though I certainly do.

But there's a bigger issue involved: I believe that the less power the GOP has nationwide, the more likely spiritual revival will break out.

Before you dismiss me as a member of the loony left, hear me out. It's always been my contention that a focus on political matters -- specifically, conservative ideology -- has actually cost us in the long run.

The first thing you need to know is that the political right began as an entirely secular movement in the 1950s. Christians got involved only in the late 1970s, when former Nixon/Goldwater fund-raiser Richard Viguerie, whose spiritual leanings I'm not aware of, encouraged the late Jerry Falwell to found Moral Majority to add to the former's then-growing direct-mail empire. And that's how a pro-business ideology which has nothing to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ has wormed its way into "Christian" politics -- essentially, we sold out to the prevailing culture.

However, that alliance is crumbling, with "religious right" organizations becoming irrelevant -- notice that few people talk about abortion these days, and we've lost the war against "gay marriage" -- but secular conservatives becoming seemingly stronger by the day. Indeed, right now we couldn't witness to the non-religious right if we wanted to because our goals are almost exactly the same.

Thank God that He's doing something different. I look for a new movement that seeks reconciliation rather than division. I look for people more interested in ministry than demonization of "targets." And, above all, I look for reconcilers -- prayer warriors seeking Christ and His Kingdom and not satisfied with the trappings of modern "evangelical Christianity." So God has to take us out of all that -- and there will become a time when our so-called friends expose themselves as our enemies.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The imminent revival -- part 2

Those of you in my hometown of Pittsburgh will be pleased to learn that I believe that this metro area will likely become a haven of true spiritual revival that could sweep the world. I base that opinion on conditions in the church in general being right.

For those of you who don't live here, the religious culture of our city is such that you can hear a true Gospel message in even many of the "mainline" churches, whether Presbyterian (the largest Protestant denomination), Methodist, Anglican, Campbellite, Lutheran or Baptist; in fact, the "charismatic" movement started on a retreat of students from Duquesne University, the largest local Catholic college.

Renewal movements in those denominations actually started or are based here -- the local Presbyterian seminary is the PCUSA's most conservative, and the local Episcopal diocese left the national church two years ago, taking with it the majority of churches, over what it considered to be intolerable liberalism. Cults don't thrive here; during my days at the University of Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s I fought one which was struggling to get a foothold on campus. (And it still hasn't done so, from what I understand.) On top of that, "funky junky" theology doesn't go over too well either; the "prosperity gospel," "hyperfaith" and the so-called Toronto blessing and the Pensacola "revival" don't have that many adherents.

That said, however, I have an idea of three places where it might start:

1) My own church. In the 12 years I've attended there it has always sought to be proactive in ministry, looking for opportunities rather than excuses, and its leadership from my vantage point has always sought to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. Thanks to its extensive ministry it has a great reputation in the city and has even entertained leadership visiting from other churches across the country interested in similarly reaching people. But it would be willing to throw that reputation away to be faithful to Christ and His Kingdom.

2) My home area of Wilkinsburg, an eastern suburb which began falling on hard times when crack cocaine hit in the late 1980s -- drive-bys were a weekly occurrence and those who could afford to move did. Things have been so bad for so long that it has nowhere to go but up -- which is hopefully when folks there turn wholeheartedly to God. Also, a large number of good churches have always been there, so ... well, watch out!

3) Butler County, north of the city. I have a contact up there whose ministry consists of meeting with pastors to unify them spiritually to do work in that area, specifically because it has such a problem with heroin use especially among the youth that it doesn't even bother to hide it anymore.

Basically, God works primarily when folks trust Him to do the work and then obey Him. We in Pittsburgh might be at that point.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The imminent revival -- part 1

A couple of years ago, the Rev. Charles Stanley, pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta and who teaches through his "In Touch" radio and TV broadcasts, said that he saw no signs of spiritual revival in this country.

I don't agree with him. At all.

We need to consider just what he meant by "revival" -- when the enemies of what he considered "Christendom" were put away and that we would become, once again, "one nation under God." But, with all respect due to Dr. Stanley, that's not what He means by "revival."

Rather, revival can, and likely will, break out when the church realizes that it has sold out to the world's way of thinking and operating -- "selling" the gospel, softening its demands for the sake of an audience and focusing on changing the culture so that we don't have to engage in spiritual warfare. Just the opposite -- He is prepping us for a Great Battle but not using "carnal" weapons.

As such, the spiritual revival God has planned will not be obvious to everyone at first. Small pockets of believers praying for Him to move, realizing that things would be totally hopeless otherwise. A "remnant" focused only on His Kingdom and unwilling to compromise. Pastors shut up in closets until they hear from Him. And so on, and so on ...

When it happens, however, it might very well turn the established church upside down. The "hyperfaith" and "prosperity" preachers will be exposed. The "family values" groups will go belly-up. The Christian music "industry" might very well collapse. Mega-church buildings will sit desolate. "Inclusive" churches may find themselves completely excluded for forsaking Godly counsel.

In short, get ready for some big changes, as God Himself will, to use sports terminology, separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Disappointment -- part of life

Today marks the anniversary of one of the biggest disappointments of my life, if not the biggest one. Thirty-two years ago would have been my senior prom, which I didn't attend because there was essentially no one for me to invite.

At the time, it seemed that things were conspiring against me -- for a number of reasons I wasn't terribly popular with girls either at my school or in the immediate neighborhood and in fact didn't even have any casual female friends. Further, my dad never encouraged me to learn how to drive a car, so "importing" someone wasn't an option, either. It didn't matter that my closest friends at the time didn't go either. (And while I don't want to make a one-to-one comparison, I believe that my situation then is at least indirectly connected to why I'm still single today.)

I was a new Christian at the time, however; even then I knew that I was never guaranteed an easy life and wouldn't get everything I wanted. We don't always get the job, the girl, the house in the 'burbs -- in short, following Jesus may, and almost always does, mean sacrificing something, even cherished ambitions.

I'm reminded too that others have suffered as well, though perhaps not in the same way. When a formerly close long-distance friend, whom I did date at one point, came to visit we made it a point to get dressed up for an evening out, my wearing a tux. You see, six years after I graduated from high school, her prom date stood her up.

So perhaps its a good thing that we have some pain -- so that we can understand what others experience.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Where do we go from here?

A few months ago I became convinced that, at some point in the near future, same-gender matrimony will become a reality in the U.S. I say this as a concession, not in jubilation, as I have never believed that homosexual conduct can be of God.

I'm not the only one who believes that, either. Yesterday I read a piece on the wire at work by columnist Bonnie Erbe in which she quoted Focus on the Family's Jim Daly saying that the organization was no longer allocating resources toward fighting "gay marriage" -- it's convinced that it has already lost. Unfortunately, I think he's right.

The reason is because those of us who don't believe in it have lost every single argument in the greater society, especially among people in their 30s or younger who will be in power in a few short years.

Part of the problem is that, when Christians signed onto the "culture war" in the late 1970s, we already compromised our witness by partnering with unbelievers. That determined not so much our beliefs but the way we expressed them, often negatively -- based on fear of the "other" rather than a positive confession of foundational truth. (There was a reason for that -- Cal Thomas, vice president for communications for the late but hardly lamented Moral Majority, was once told by a fundraiser, "You can't raise money on a positive.")

As a result, we came across to gays and their allies as persecutors; truth be told, some of us became exactly that. When I was in high school the youth group leader passed out a paper saying, without any evidence, that "Homosexuals tend to recruit." (I later learned that it really meant that gay groups simply leave their literature on college campuses. Like any other group.) One interviewee on a Christian radio program referred to contracting AIDS was something that gays "deserved"; I won't go there.

What about "God's design" for marriage? Well, look what we Christians have done with it -- a higher divorce rate that the world, especially in some "red" states. And considering that too often we choose partners based on what some might call spiritualized lust, we don't have the authority to respond when someone attracted to the same gender says, "Can I help whom I love?"

And also consider the large number of family members and friends, even in the evangelical church, who are coming "out of the closet" -- at that point, it's no longer "out there somewhere." So when gay groups and liberal activists consider the right to marry as a civil right, well, it resonated. Court decisions and legislation cannot but follow.

I participated in a fast today, as my church does on Thursdays, and one of the issues we're wrestling with is how to minister to gays that may cross our path. There may come a time when, because we subscribe to a "traditional" sexual ethic, we may run into problems. Because of all the ministry we do in the community we maintain a great reputation citywide; are we prepared to lose it because we'll willing to say that homosexuality doesn't represent God's ideal? More to the point, will we and similar churches eventually experience persecution or, at the very least, be relegated to being considered "out of touch?"

But if that be the case and we do lose our standing in the 'hood, it might be good in the long run for us spiritually. After all, the early church didn't have the greatest of reputations and often found itself on the run -- and yet people were flocking to it, being drawn only by the Spirit of Christ. In that day the church took in strangers and riff-raff because it understood personally what that was. Maybe being marginalized will determine just who truly belongs to Christ -- or not.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Herman Cain and Allen West -- nothing but noise, avoiding reality

Many conservatives these days are touting two African-Americans, Herman Cain and Allen West, as the "next wave" in presidential politics, perhaps in the hope that folks would take them seriously as candidates that could topple Barack Obama. Of course, they're also saying that anyone who refers to them as "Uncle Toms" or "sellouts" is slurring them unfairly.

Well, here's the truth: The two pejoratives, if you understand history, are painfully accurate.

The conservative movement, when it got started in the 1960s, recruited Southern racists out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party -- something not lost on the vast majority of African-Americans (in this context, "big government" has a somewhat racist connotation). Understanding this and because of its wealth, for quite sometime the movement has been willing to pay top-dollar to blacks who are willing to put their names and faces on policies that historically been racially regressive, in part to try to convince whites not aware of that history. For that reason it doesn't matter if the blacks in their stable really believe what they're saying.

However, such a strategy has so far proven, and will likely remain, unproductive.

For openers, contrary to popular conservative opinion, African-Americans' overwhelming support for Obama in 2008 was totally unrelated to his color. Indeed, when he began his campaign most black leaders were somewhat suspicious of him in large part because he didn't come up through the civil-rights apparatus and was thus an unknown quantity; besides, because she had done the legwork ahead of time, conventional wisdom held that Hillary Clinton had the black vote locked up.

Furthermore, African-Americans don't do symbolic votes. Jesse Jackson had limited appeal as a candidate in 1984 and '88 primarily because they knew he had no chance of winning; they didn't even warm to Obama until he started winning primaries and caucuses that the Clinton campaign had pretty much ignored. Only when Hillary started playing the "race card," which she did here in Pennsylvania, did African-Americans begin abandoning her in droves. Then, with the memories of Florida in 2000 and amid concerns that Republicans would do their best to depress black turnout, the black community voted in record numbers.

So what do these have to do with Cain and West? A lot more than you might believe. As I said, African-Americans don't vote race; they vote policy, and to them the political right is by definition offensive regardless of color. I note a certain irony in that, while the right, and by extension the GOP, publicly opposes affirmative action as policy it will use it for political purposes -- no way would Michael Steele have become national president otherwise. Bottom line, if either Cain or West gets the nod next year he will go down in flames.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The end of the world -- NOT!

I come from a religious tradition that rejects the idea of the "rapture of the church" -- when Jesus supposedly comes down to take believers in Him out of this world and to heaven. Anyway, a couple of months ago, on the way into work I saw a man carrying a sign saying that it would happen on May 21, 2011. I said, to his face, that he was lying.

Now that the prophecy has been shown to be false -- and while a few people were convinced that it would happen, the vast majority of Christians correctly rejected it on the grounds that Jesus said that He Himself didn't know when He would return -- let's consider a couple of things.

One, a local revivalist said about two decades ago that, were there actually a Rapture, we'd hardly notice because of all the activity going on supposedly in His Name that in fact He didn't authorize. And that's especially the case in America, where many Christians are more interested in getting things, power, money and the like but truly aren't satisfied with Jesus. (At times I'm one of those.) Two, He said He would come as "a thief in the night," the point being that we're supposed to watch -- not wait -- for that.

So, with all the hoopla about whether He comes or not on this date or another, let's remember that, while He did say He'll be back, we need to be at His work until that day comes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Growth through pain

Last month I started working in earnest on a new big-band chart, an arrangement of a tune, "Summit in the Snow," that I wrote 25 years ago. The tune was inspired by a early March (thus, still winter) heart-to-heart talk in a city park with a student at one of the local women's colleges that at the time I had hoped to marry -- she, then and still a friend, was trying to "let me down easy" because I learned a couple of weeks earlier that she was dating someone else and I was, quite obviously, very upset.

So why would I even want to revisit that pain? Because the LORD used this particular relationship, despite the sad ending, to produce growth in me that I hadn't had before and, really, haven't had since. She had actually awakened a desire in me that I had never before experienced, but I recognized that I was powerless -- not only over her but also, at that time, my entire life, so I was forced to turn to Him. Since I knew that was His goal, I accepted the suffering of, in this case, unrequited love as part of the process. I also knew that He never promised her to me, so I was ready for even a "no" to my request. (Which I ended up withdrawing the next year.) Not only that, but it's a truism that pain produces the best creative product because you have to summon resources from a deep place in you, and big-band writing of late has become a passion of mine.

You see, Jesus promised that His followers would be "up against it" and thus have to learn to trust Him. Why does He do this? Darned if I know. However, I've told her a number of times that I didn't realize how messed up I was until I met her, and for that I'm grateful that God put her in my life -- even if it meant grief for a time.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Believe Out Loud" -- obscuring the point

The blogosphere has recently been riled by the Sojourners organization, generally progressive and the sponsor of the "God's Politics" blog that I frequent, over its refusal to support a Mother's Day ad featuring a lesbian couple and their son (the focus of the ad) entering a church -- while parishioners stare at them, the officiating pastor says, "All are welcome." Sojourners' rationale for rejecting the ad was that accepting it might threaten a broad-based coalition to fight domestic poverty it's trying to assemble because conservatives wouldn't associate with it. Sojourners is certainly right about that.

But there's a larger issue: The organization that produced the ad, called "Believe Out Loud" and which I understand to be an association of 10 mainline denominations, is unabashedly pro-gay; as such, its underlying message is not that gays shouldn't be welcomed into the church (they should) but that they shouldn't be required to change to belong. Such a stance spits in the face of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Who calls us not to a "good" or "moral" life but a transformed one. And while I have never accepted homosexuality as morally good and never will do so, there's a larger point to be made.

Which is: The core of the Christian message is that you can't make it on your own because of a chronic condition called "sin." You can approach Jesus properly if, and only if, you recognize that your life is a mess -- an insult to even "good church folks" (which is why the religious authorities hated Him) but a source of hope to the desperate. And rather than cleaning up one's act to come to Him, He does the cleaning. This is the part that many mainline and "liberal" churches miss -- redemption.

My previous church, while not openly "gay-affirming," toward the end of my time there had a number of gay couples who came in (which I didn't entirely notice) because the lead pastor was gay-affirming in many of his sermons, though in fairness he was right on a lot of other things. Over time, I noticed the spiritual discernment in the church, strong when I started, begin to slip and it developed a very bad reputation in the local Christian singles community; I eventually had to leave because I found myself backsliding a bit. My church previous to that was overtly gay-affirming and had no discernment whatsoever; I told my mother years later that we as a family should never had gone there in the first place.

On the other hand, my present church is full of those who weren't always "good church people" -- substance abusers and gang-bangers, for example -- and violence and prostitution have been rampant in that immediate neighborhood. However, one reason the church has grown so much over the past two decades is because, while we opened the doors, we never watered down that message of transformation; as a result, half our testimonies during our annual Thanksgiving service are given by people who are staying "clean and sober." (And though I rarely drink and have never used drugs, I applaud right along with them.) And while many of us still have issues -- I mean, who doesn't? -- we recognize what God has called us to and commit ourselves to knowing Him; my CLC group right now is studying the late Michael Yaconelli's book "Messy Spirituality."

This is why we evangelicals don't mix too well with what we consider liberal Christianity -- for our purposes it means two different and entirely contradictory things.

I see a certain irony in the pastor's line "All are welcome" because I wonder: Will Jesus Himself be welcome? Not just the kind, nurturing figure emphasized in the Gospels but the King and Judge who will eventually come down and kick some butt. (They are the same person, you know.) The "Believe Out Loud" group, in its desire to foster "inclusion," instead is in danger of excluding, in the words of Ron Sider, "the full Biblical Christ" due to making Him in their own image.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thank you, Miss Davis

A few moments ago I learned about the passing of Marian Davis, who retired in 1981 as the sixth-grade teacher at what is now known as Trinity Christian School in suburban Pittsburgh. It's perhaps not unusual to give props to teachers who have influenced your life, for good (in this case) or ill.

However, Miss Davis, I realized just a few years ago, holds a special distinction: She was, in effect, my first evangelist.

I came in 1971, in the fifth grade, to what was then the Christian School of Wilkinsburg, and in retrospect it was never a good fit. I was regularly bullied, usually on the bus home from school but also at home and, since I don't come from a classically Christian family where the Bible was the law of the house, many of the concepts of the faith just didn't make sense at the time. Even though I was a fairly bright student, excellent athlete and talented musician, I had trouble building relationships with schoolmates and ended up leaving the school during seventh grade because that teacher and I never got along (indeed, to this day I'm convinced that he hated my guts).

That atmosphere made my year with Miss Davis all the more remarkable and influential.

I'm not sure just how she viewed me back then, but I think I always felt that I counted with her. From her I got a lot of encouragement that in those days came from nowhere else in my life. One day she put me in charge of devotions and the Pledge of Allegiance while she left the room, and at the time I had no idea why she did that.

Decades later, it dawned on me: She was trying to get me to exercise some leadership. (She said later, "You were so timid.")

Every Thursday we had a ritual called the "Number Game," in which two students faced off to guess the answer to math problems that she had on flash cards; the first to guess correctly the first time got a point and moved on. Let me say that, if there existed a Hall of Fame for Number Game participants, I would have been a charter member because the game almost always ended when I was defeated, often with double-digit points (high game 41), while I don't recall anyone else getting any more than nine. Although my extreme success came at the expense of my classmates, I think Miss Davis was pleased to see me do something very, very well and develop confidence.

But it was the spiritual side that Miss Davis first nurtured in me. Once I came into class during one of my angry tirades, which unfortunately wasn't unusual, and she prayed for me -- by name -- that morning. Even in more private moments she was telling me that I needed to become a Christian; today I'm convinced that she had been praying for years for that day to come.

On May 16, 1979, just weeks before my graduation from Wilkinsburg High School, those prayers were answered. That afternoon at the school district picnic, facing my parents' impending breakup and seeing my future in the process -- to say nothing of an eternity separated from God -- I finally threw in my lot with Jesus Christ. I decided to call her three months later, just before going off to Georgia Tech, to let her know, and that was the second thing she asked.

The last time I saw her (in this life, that is) I attended her 94th birthday party in October at the personal-care home between Ellwood City and New Castle, Lawrence County, north of Pittsburgh, where she last lived. A couple I knew from our mutual church and kept in touch with her took some photos of us, and I will keep them in my Bible for as long as I walk this earth.

Whatever her flaws or influence on her other students, for what she did for me alone should earn her the ultimate accolade from God: "Well done, good and faithful servant!"

So here's to you, Marian Davis. And see ya later.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Christian women and sexuality

Some years ago I struck up a friendship with one of the women, unfortunately now deceased, who volunteered at the welcome center at my church. She was an attractive, friendly divorcee, had two daughters and worked in the health field.

During our second or third conversation, she wistfully confided to me, "I've been celibate for four years" -- obviously, not liking that -- and a part of me out of compassion felt like giving her what I knew she wanted. (Of course, the Biblical prohibition against sex outside of marriage kept me from trying to seduce her, not that I would have been successful anyway.)

I attend a lot of Christian singles events, these days dominated by folks in their 40s and older and probably a majority divorced, which means they have experienced sexual intimacy in a way that I haven't (though I admit to having occasionally crossed some lines that I shouldn't have). And probably most of them, including the women, "want it."

I was fortunate to grow up in a church that promoted a healthy view of sexuality -- beautiful if done right but ugly if done wrong. However, many of us didn't, that it's a subject that should be avoided until the proper time -- that is, the wedding night -- which I never understood. And as much as we may want to say differently, there still exists worldwide a cultural double standard that sex is somehow OK for us men but that women should give it only grudgingly. (Perhaps if a woman decided that she actually enjoyed sex for its own sake she may leave her partner if he doesn't satisfy her. While I can't say for sure, I surmise that's the motive behind the euphemism "female circumcision"; in cultures that practice it only the man is apparently supposed to derive pleasure from sex. Trouble is, that's not how God made us.)

And then, there's the issue of true intimacy, what most people, I would say especially women, are seeking but often not finding. Two girls in my childhood denomination, but not my specific church, that I knew fairly well who came from what I now know to be dysfunctional backgrounds became pregnant while still in their teens, one at 14. In the book "Beyond Culture Wars: A Mission Field or a Battlefield?", author Michael Horton noted that one out of every six abortions in the United States happens to an evangelical woman, which also suggests that something else other than "the act" is afoot. That's probably why my heart went out to the woman at the welcome center who expressed her cravings -- I understood what she really wanted.

Once in a while I receive on-line tips on how to get a woman into bed, and today I probably could if I really wanted to. That, however, smacks of exploitation, which I don't believe is how a truly strong man should operate -- he should focus on what he can give to, not get from, a woman. Last year I wrote about the late Teddy Pendergrass' performance of the 1978 song "Close the Door," which I didn't realize then but understand now is about true intimacy in the context of a committed relationship, hopefully marriage. God help me to "man up."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Obama, Bush and Clinton

The so-called birther movement has gone mainstream -- and that's sad.

You may recall that real estate mogul Donald Trump, now a Republican presidential candidate, has apparently taken the bait and is making noise that President Barack Obama wasn't actually born in this country, this despite evidence to the contrary. (For the record, he was born Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu, and the state of Hawaii has provided proof. After I started writing this piece, he produced the long form but still hasn't shut up the critics.)

Let's be honest that the obsession with Obama's birthplace masks the real issue -- that he's in office, which for reasons I don't understand sticks in the craw of some people. Or perhaps I do understand -- he beat them fairly and squarely, so he must be destroyed or denigrated. When are we Christians going to have any discernment and recognize this Obamaphobia as motivated by hate and envy?

We've seen this mess before: With Bill Clinton. Upon his reelection in 1996, his enemies vowed to have him impeached and removed; they got the first all right, but their evidence turned out to so weak that legal experts warned ahead of time that he shouldn't be convicted, let alone have been brought to trial in the first place. According to Jeffrey Toomer's book "A Vast Conspiracy," Clinton's lawyer time and time again refuted the evidence that the House managers put forward and, when the Senate found him "not guilty," they slunk away.

So, what's the difference between the right's treatment of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and the left's treatment of, say, George W. Bush? Like night and day.

What's often overlooked is that, as much as it may have hated him, the left almost never said anything about Bush that couldn't be proven from multiple sources as factually true. Ended up with the office due to a questionable Supreme Court decision? True. Had alcohol problems? True. Went to war in Iraq to settle a score with Saddam Hussein? True ("He tried to kill my dad"). Former Sen. and presidential candidate George McGovern wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that, for their actions connected with Iraq, Bush and Cheney ought to have been impeached. (And he didn't even feel that way about Richard Nixon, who beat him in the 1972 election.)

But what was said about Clinton? That he was doing shady dealings with Whitewater, a venture in which he and Hillary lost money. That he supposedly hired someone to go through files of President George H.W. Bush. (Overblown.) That he raped a woman in Arkansas. (Not likely.) That he allegedly had a bunch of people who crossed him killed. (Another website, "Liberalism Resurgent," once published a "Bush Body Count" detailing the people that met similarly "suspicious deaths" courtesy of GWB and his father. Now, if you expect me to believe that one ...)

Face it, folks -- we're talking double standard here. Let's end it -- now.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

My "favorite" misintepreted Scripture passages

One of my pet peeves is the misuse of Scripture to make points that it simply doesn't because of either misunderstanding its context or distorting its meaning to make a cheap political point. Below represent some I'm aware of:

1) "The poor you will always have with you ... " -- Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8

These words of Jesus are often used to suggest that nothing should be done for the poor on a political/structural level and that the truly Biblical way to deal with the poor should always be through private charity.

However, consider the background: All the references make clear that a woman had anointed Jesus with some extremely expensive perfume as a symbol of his upcoming burial; in response, His disciple Judas Iscariot had complained that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Indeed, the rest of Mark 14:7 reads: " ... and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have Me." Nothing at all concerning the "justice vs. charity" argument.

2) "For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: 'The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.' " -- 2 Thessalonians 3:10

This passage is often used to say that people should find work and not mooch off others or the government. However, the church of that day was convinced that Jesus would be returning in the next few years, so a few folks were just sitting around and waiting, not being active in any way. While telling people to find work is a good thing, it's not provable using this specific reference.

3) "No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again ... " -- John 3:3

Two problems with this passage. One, I understand that the original Greek renders the phrase "born again" as "born from above." Two, we often misinterpret it as accessing the afterlife. But it's clear from the conversation with Nicodemus, who as a Jew wouldn't have focused on that, was trying to pay Jesus a compliment by saying "You must be from God because Your teachings are first-rate"; Jesus responded, "If you don't look at things from His perspective, you won't recognize what He's doing in the here and now." Essentially, He was telling Nicodemus, "You miss the point."

4) The woman caught in adultery, John 8.

Here, Jesus is often referred to as being merciful toward her by telling the Pharisees who were about to stone her to death, "Let him without sin cast the first stone." However, this was a case where He went completely "by the book."

First, the Law made clear that her partner in crime was also to be stoned to death but, conveniently, was nowhere to be found. Second, to accuse someone of a capital crime you had to have at least two eyewitnesses; however, to watch people actually having sexual relations also was illegal, leading me to believe that it was a "sting" operation. Third, and most obscure, according to Leviticus 15:18: "When a man has sexual relations with a woman and there is an emission of semen, both of them must bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening" -- that is, assuming that her partner had an ejaculation, they brought a ceremonially unclean woman into the temple, where Jesus was teaching. Bottom line, the Pharisees, who were trying to nail Jesus in a Catch-22, instead were forced to withdraw the accusation.

That's what I have -- anyone have any others?