Friday, December 29, 2017

Sure, it hurts — but I’d do it again

Lately I’ve had reason to remember the old dictum “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

As I write I’m dealing with some grief but, in those times when I can look at the situation objectively, I’m seeing as a good thing that my heart can break in the way that it has done so. It means I’m not hiding it away under lock and key and was willing to take a risk to open it up.

Basically, I was reminded that I do have love to give and am thus refusing to become cynical.

It’s well understood that much music — most notably, the blues — is created in the midst of pain, and as a musician myself I’ve experienced that a number of times. It isn’t pleasant at the time but can lead to beauty in the end.

Six years ago I did a big-band arrangement of a tune I had composed a quarter-century earlier under similar circumstances; though I thought the tune was good, though simple, it took on a whole different air once I started working on the arrangement. After I finished it and my band went through it, our then-singer called it “heartfelt” — and I knew in that instant that I had succeeded. It has become the closest thing I have to a masterpiece, though I’d written many charts before and have since.

A few years ago I learned another, this one spiritual, reason for going through heartbreak; I actually heard from God, “Now you know how I feel.” Time and time again He waits for us to come to Him but we run away, perhaps because we’re afraid to trust, and that grieves Him. But this time, rather than share my affliction with others, I went to Him first. 

Indeed, the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
That sympathy helped me recently, as on Sunday just after a service I spotted a churchmate whom I knew had recently lost her father to death and waited for her to give her an extended hug. As she sobbed into my shoulder I was thinking, This is what it’s all about.

Don’t get me wrong — I still have to go through the process and face the temptation to short-circuit it. But on the other hand, a part of me can’t wait to see just what else will come from it. As written in Psalms 30:5b, “[W]eeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

'Total depravity' and supply-side economics

When I first heard the theory behind “supply-side economics” in the 1980s I immediately smelled a rat. The idea that cutting taxes on the wealthy would benefit everyone else down the road because they would invest their money I suspected from the start to be complete nonsense.

Here’s what might surprise you: I got that idea from my Calvinist background — specifically, the doctrine of “total depravity,” which holds that sin has affected every area of life. That is to say, when some supposedly foolproof idea comes to the forefront with a lot of flash-and-dash I start looking for the sin.

The truth is that such tax cuts not only haven’t led to such investment but probably were never designed to do so in the first place; it was always a justification for straight-up greed because our economic culture was shifting toward short-term (read: immediate) gains.

I learned nearly 20 years ago that a healthy economy comes from money turning over several times in a community before it leaves, and in such a mentality that’s never happened in the neighborhoods that could use it the most. Folks complain about the poor being on welfare, but 1) If the jobs aren’t in those neighborhoods, what is someone to do?; and 2) They still have to buy stuff from stores that might employ people.

That’s why the new tax-reform bill — probably better referred to as “tax-deform” — being voted on in Congress will have no lasting positive effect. Numerous analysts have noted that under the proposed plan federal taxes on people making $100,000 per year or less will actually rise in 10 years. Basically, the sin I’m talking about is not only greed but outright lying about its long-term effects.

Last month a group of left-leaning religious leaders were arrested while protesting in the Hart Senate Building; they recognized that it would hurt the poor, so they read a number of Bible verses about justice for the poor, numbering around 2,000, in the rotunda. Of course, when people like Isaiah made some of the same claims they paid with their lives.

I’m thinking — and hoping — that we’ll see more of this.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Dubious eschatology: Missing the point of "prophecy"

This week President Trump officially declared that Jerusalem was the true capital of Israel, indicating that, among other things, the American embassy in Israel would be moved there from Tel Aviv, though no timetable has been set. Of course, that move has pleased pro-Israel Christian dispensationalists, who for decades have argued passionately for that recognition as a fulfillment of prophecy.

And I’m not convinced that it’s biblically correct.

The thinking is, among other things, that a return of the Jewish people to that part of Palestine would result in the long-prophesied bodily return of Jesus Christ. But I see several flaws in that thinking.

Let’s remember that God promised Israel could remain in the Promised Land so long as it continued to worship Him “in spirit and in truth.” Indeed, part of its founding was that, according to Genesis 18:18-19, “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Read that again — “all nations on earth will be blessed through him.” And that promise would be based on the obedience of his descendants.

But even a cursory look at the Old Testament, most notably the Prophets, would show that ancient Israel didn’t follow through and God as a result sent the nation into captivity a number of times. Indeed, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene only two of the landowning tribes, Judah and Benjamin, were still left.

And even here, God never demanded ethnic purity. One often-overlooked reason Jesus overturned the tables of the merchants in the temple was because they were set up in the Court of the Gentiles, the idea of which violated Isaiah 56:7, which He quoted: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (That’s likely why He added, “But you have made it a den of robbers.”)

In the days of the early church, of course, it took some prodding for the Jewish members to accept Gentiles; refer to Peter’s vision of the unclean foods. And even Jesus disciples didn’t get it, asking Him in Acts 1:6, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He responded, in effect, “None of your business.”

I do understand that some Orthodox Jews regard the modern state of Israel as illegitimate because they believe that its establishment won’t occur until the Messiah comes.

But let’s remember one thing about “prophecy”: It’s about declaring the intent of God, not necessarily predicting future events; indeed, the prophetic books, including Revelation, have always been more “Get it right!” than “Here’s what the future holds.” That’s why I’m suspicious of any attempt to say “This-and-this must happen for Jesus to return” — doing so misses the big picture.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Partisanship: It’s always been that way

President Donald Trump has all but thrown his support to Roy Moore, the twice-ousted former judge in Alabama who is now running for the Senate seat vacated by now-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Given that Moore is now facing charges that, as a much younger man, he had been involved with underage girls; and the ongoing #metoo movement that has highlighted sexual harassment, a lot of angry folks are asking if the strong Christian support for Moore was based solely on, shall we say, his “tribal” identity as a Republican.

But here’s something that folks don’t often understand: It’s always been that way, going back decades — and I’m talking about the early 1980s.

With the exception of a church I attended in suburban Atlanta in 1980, my brushes with the “religious right” took place generally on Christian media, which was pretty hard-right and very supportive of modern conservatism and, in practice, the Republican Party. The "700 Club’s" Pat Robertson had guests on his show that I knew not to be “born again” but were there to support that worldview. The Rev. Charles Stanley, then and now pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta (and whose “In Touch” radio broadcasts I’ve listened to for years), once said, “God isn’t a Republican or a Democrat — and He certainly isn’t a Democrat!” Stanley, by the way, was involved from the beginning with the late Moral Majority.

In 1992 I attended the opening of the campaign office for Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, which was covered on television; I ended up doing a little bit of volunteer work (though I wouldn’t do so today). Not long after that, one of the women in the singles ministry at the church I attend today who saw me said she was shocked to see me there, saying, “I thought all Christians were Republicans!” In fact, no — most African-American evangelicals are still Democrats because the conservatism that dominates the GOP is odious to most of us.

Let’s move to Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton.

When the former was up for Supreme Court justice law professor Anita Hill testified during his hearing about his sexual harassment. There was more, however: ABC News “Nightline” mentioned three other women set to testify and the Wall Street Journal published a front-page story, “Strange Justice,” that corroborated such claims; in his book “Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative,” then right-wing journalist David Brock said that Ricky Silberman, one of Thomas’ patrons, responded angrily, “He did it, didn’t he?”

Brock, by contrast, was part of the right-wing media conspiracy, the subject of the book, to take down Clinton, who never has been credibly charged with rape or sexual harassment; indeed, we’d have never even heard of Monica Lewinsky had it not been for Linda Tripp, who worked in the White House, hated him with a passion and got together with “independent counsel” Ken Starr and lawyers for Paula Jones and cooked up the illegal perjury trap that led to Clinton’s impeachment. Should he have resigned? I don’t think so, because it was a setup. In fact, I’d say that his enemies should have done time. And there are many more examples besides.

The book of Ecclesiastes mentions, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” If you think that today’s hyper-partisanship is new, I can assure you that you haven’t been paying attention.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Empathy, not 'race'

The internet and some social media have been buzzing over a New York Times op-ed, “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?”, that was published on Sunday. The author, Ekow N. Yankah, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, I assume is of African heritage. A number of supporters of President Donald Trump were outraged by the statement, that we as a nation are being dragged backwards. 

But the point that Yankah is making is not about race per se; it’s about empathy. And on that score I think he’s right.

Indeed, he wrote, “Real friendship is impossible without the ability to trust others, without knowing that your well-being is important to them. The desire to create, maintain or wield power over others destroys the possibility of friendship. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dream of black and white children holding hands was a dream precisely because he realized that in Alabama, conditions of dominance made real friendship between white and black people impossible.” 

In other words, he’s not talking about casual friendships where people drink beer, watch sports or in some cases even worship in the same church together. It’s about being able to let one’s hair down and share his or her stories and experiences without being judged or attacked for holding a different point of view.
And as a person of color I would agree that Trump, with his longstanding and documented decades-long racist practices, anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican rhetoric during last year’s presidential campaign and tacit support of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Va. over the summer, has indeed made race relations more difficult by sabotaging the hard conversations needed to repair the breach. 
At the turn of the millennium I was dating a white woman who wanted to marry me but for us as a couple and family — she had three sons from previous marriages — to attend the church that was across the street from her (that was precisely why she chose that church). The trouble was that on a visit I noticed some literature that one of her sons was bringing home that I suspected that was racist, which turned out to be the case; over time I had other experiences that demonstrated to me at least the insensitivity of church members, including another son, when it came to such matters and because I refused to attend that church and she wouldn’t leave the relationship ended up being destroyed.
But when I shared these situations with some people I knew to be Trump supporters I was told, “You were looking for it.” Oh, no, I wasn’t, and that’s the kind of disrespect I’m talking about — the kind of disrespect that causes folks to label "Black Lives Matter" falsely as a hate group and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as being divisive for protesting police brutality for "taking a knee" last year during the national anthem, which isn't remotely true either.
One thing I have been privileged to hear over the last three decades is the incessant pain some women friends (and, in some cases, girlfriends) have shared with me over being sexually abused, including raped. Since I’m not a woman I cannot myself enter into that pain, but I can show empathy toward them and like to think I’ve done so. Nearly eight years ago, a singer in one of my bands shared with me some of the details of her abuse, which was why she was in the area in the first place, and I felt the need to tell her in response, “I will never lay my hand against you.”
She responded, “I didn’t think you would.” I can’t tell you how that felt — knowing that I had truly heard someone not like me. 
You see, it’s not enough simply to say that you don’t support racist behavior or have friends of color. They need to hear that you’ll go to the mat with them when push comes to shove, that when an incident happens to them or they feel threatened you’ll stand with them.
As the Rev. R. Loren Sandford, pastor of New Song Church and Ministries in Denver, wrote to white Christians in about the George Zimmerman verdict in 2013, “[L]isten compassionately to the hurt delivered by the lingering taint of racism with which our nation still struggles. Nothing can be done now about the verdict, but we can certainly work to bring reconciliation in the wake of it. In fact, this is our commission from Jesus who is Lord of all — Jew, Greek, white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American. We must be ministers of reconciliation together, especially now.”

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The immiment revival, part 10 — speaking out for the powerless

The irony in white evangelicals’ support of Donald Trump for president last year is that he promised to protect them from persecution — especially since they’ve complained about that since, as I recall, the 1980s. I say that because if they ever spoke out against him they’ll find themselves on the wrong end of persecution.

How do we know this? Well, given that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a Christian, a large number of players in the National Football League share that faith and Trump referred to those who “took a knee” during the playing of the national anthem to protest police brutality as “[S.O.B.]s” “that should be fired,” it’s clear to me that cultural supremacy, not even “religious freedom,” was always their intent. But in doing so they’ve sacrificed their witness and, even more ironically, weakened themselves spiritually in the process.

The reason for that might surprise you: They’re ignoring Jesus’ second great commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” — or, as I paraphrase it, “Do right by all.” That in practice can mean standing up and speaking up for the powerless in society and allow them to tell their stories, which is never popular with power-hungry despots and their allies.

Many in the Jewish community have always done this because they have personal and historical experience with such persecution, as did the early church, much of which was on the run — but membership grew exponentially. Sounds to me that the church grew because of the persecution, and not just in numbers, either.

I can only conject on this, but it seems to me that the spiritually strongest church we’ve ever seen in this country was the historic black church in the South during the 1950s and ‘60s that birthed the civil-rights movement, which was born from prayer and revival meetings. You need to be spiritually strong to put up with what it did with all the direct action and protests that proved fatal to many of its adherents, most notably Martin Luther King Jr. Few, if any, white evangelicals have that kind of encounter with authorities but are willing to complain about the proverbial hangnail.

So what does this have to do with revival? Well, it can be produced when, and only when, a people or a church are completely sold out to Jesus, which down the road might mean calling out people in power that abuse their authority and taking up the banner of the powerless. In other words, being filled with and committed to the Spirit of God may, and probably will, anger compromisers interested only in saving their own necks, but they’re willing to pay that price.

After all, not for nothing did Jesus say, “For whoever wants to save [his] life will lose it, but whoever loses [his] life for me will save it” (Luke 9:24).