Saturday, October 27, 2007

Holier Than Thou

Joel 2:23-32
1 Corinthians 13
Luke 18:9-14

The people of Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka KS are back in the news. For some reason they’ve taken up the practice of picketing at the funerals of service members killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe because this is where they believe they can get the most attention for whatever king of message they think they have for America. As a result of their actions, many state legislatures and the US Congress have initiated laws to help protect grieving families from such displays by mandating an acceptable distance so that these families can be somewhat shielded from these people. A group called “Freedom Riders” also takes part in these funerals, with the family’s permission, by offering a motorcycle escort and barricade so that these Westboro people cannot be heard or seen by the grieving families.

Why do these people travel from Kansas to all parts of the country where families are laying their loved ones to rest? Why do they go to such lengths, such trouble, and such expense knowing as they must that they are bringing undue grief on an already grieving family? They proclaim that those killed in action are the result of the Lord’s judgment against America. In this particular instance, they were also picketing the fact that the young Marine had been raised in the Roman Catholic “monstrosity” (Westboro’s word choice). They are now being sued by this Marine’s family for causing emotional distress and for violating the family’s desire for, and right to, privacy. There may well be a constitutional issue pertaining to whether the right of free speech supersedes the implied right to privacy, but I’m not so sure that this is the issue at hand for the Lord’s faithful.

The judge had instructed the jury to determine whether the “speech” displayed by Westboro can be considered so “offensive” and “shocking” as to fall outside the acceptable parameters of 1st Amendment protection. For Christians, there are greater issues at stake than constitutionally protected “free speech”. It must be determined how such displays as those advocated by Westboro and other groups like them can in any way be construed as having come from the Lord as something that needs to be heard and particularly at the funerals of young service members whose families are grieving and who may not even be in full support of this war OR the rights of homosexuals which, incidentally, seems to be the entire focus of Westboro’s “ministry”, if “ministry” is even the appropriate word in this case.

There are those among us who will not argue for homosexuality. I will be first to say that there is a biblical prohibition against homosexuality that cannot be ignored by the faithful. I will also be the first to say that bringing such a message of judgment or warning of judgment comes with enormous responsibility that also cannot be ignored, and that responsibility is this: be very careful with handling the Word of the Lord because Jesus Himself proclaimed, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” John 3:17 NKJV

This is huge for the faithful. If there were any during the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth who might have been in line for condemnation, it would have been the Pharisees and the scribes and the chief priests and the Sadducees. These were religionists who were constantly at odds with Jesus, and the Gospel accounts are chock full of these confrontations in which Jesus uses the words of the Hebrew Scripture against them. I suppose if there could be anyone who could be trusted with the Word, it would have been Him since He IS the Word.

Speaking the truth, however, and refusing to soft-pedal that which is clearly written is also part of the responsibility in handling the Word of the Lord but if we get caught up in a “holier than thou” war of words, we may find ourselves in the predicament of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. By his own words, the Pharisee may well have brought condemnation upon himself by his own proclamation of self-righteousness. It must also be noted in the language that the Pharisee has clearly taken it upon himself – in his PRAYER, no less – to condemn the tax collector or, at the very least, elevate himself to a spiritual position superior to that of the tax collector. It should be equally clear that the Pharisee GOT *** IT *** WRONG.

By the Word as written, the Pharisee clearly lives according to the standards of the Mosaic Law; by his actions alone, he stands as a righteous man. Where we faithful typically fail, however, is in our lack of understanding that when it comes to righteous behavior and judgment, the Lord is speaking to our personal behavior and not to us as appointed judges of others. We have problems enough of our own just trying to live up to such a holy standard as that established by Jesus. It is not reasonable or practical that we would choose to take the burdens of others upon ourselves to judge as well. We have enough to do by just trying to be the faithful witnesses we are called to be.

Even speaking of the truth as it is written, Paul also raises a pretty high standard in his First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13. St. Paul summarizes the whole thing for us in simply this: lacking genuine love in our speech or in our assessment of others, and we are only making noise; incomprehensible noise that no one can understand or even care to listen to. In our words we may be telling the truth as we see it and we may be honest in our assessment but if we lack a genuine concern for those to whom our “truth” is directed, we’re only judging others to our own condemnation.

For the faithful, it is never enough to simply be “right”. There has to be more in a richer and fuller understanding of what the Word of the Lord is all about. Yes, there are laws and yes, there are standards of conduct and behavior. There is also Paul’s admonition to Timothy as to the purpose of Scripture: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
2 Timothy 3:16-17

It’s not what the people of Westboro are saying that is so disturbing. Rather, it is the way in which they present the message. Going to a grieving family who has lost a loved one in a war the family may not even support and suggesting to them that the death of their 20-year-old son was of the Lord’s doing and then displaying signs and placards which state such reprehensible messages such as, “Thank God for IED’s” is hitting below the belt and stands to serve more as a message of alienation than a message of hope. Such messages of condemnation remove all hope, and the Gospel of the Lord is nothing if not hopeful, for all “who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Who are any of us to dare try to remove these words that come from the Word of the Lord Himself?

It is not easy to live according to the standards which have been established for us. We don’t typically want to judge others because if we use our ability to reason, we can surely understand that there is probably more that we DON’T know than that we do know. Each of us can easily think back to a time when someone jumped to conclusions about us based only on what they were only able to see with their eyes – or worse – based on what they’ve been told, and it turns out we never had a chance to begin with. It is not fair that we should have to stand up to such unfair assessments, but we do because we are left with few choices once someone gets done with us.

It is the same thing that happens when people like these Westboro folks go off on a tangent such as they do. They may well have philosophical, ideological, or religious objections to certain public policies, but none of these differences give them a legitimate calling to take this hateful message to someone who is already in pain and not necessarily responsible for such public policy. Kicking someone while they are already down is almost always counter-productive and must never be considered an act of Christian love.

I question how much of the Bible people like these actually read. In the case of Westboro people, I’m still waiting for them to get to the part where Jesus tells His disciples that if the message they bring is rejected – and these people have been rejected from coast to coast - they are to then “shake the dust from their sandals” and move along. Then again, there is a lot more that I DON’T know about these Westboro people than what I DO know. I hate what they are doing, but I must not allow my disdain for their actions overrun my emotions to the point of coming to hate them. Remember, Christ was raised for the sake of their hope as well as for ours.

This knowledge must be the key to everything we do, and this knowledge must overcome every thought we ever have when confronted with angry, hateful, blind, and ignorant people. They do more harm than good and almost always leave a swath of destruction in their wake. It is up to Christians of good faith to come along and help pick up the pieces and raise up those who have been kicked down.

We were once down but have since been raised up with nothing but a Word of Hope. Dare we offer the rest of the world anything less?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


The Arkansas legislature does not seem to show much interested in ethics reform but come to think of it, why would we attempt to “reform” ethics? Does a decent standard of behavior not come with its own expectations and demands that educated grown-ups can agree upon? Apparently not if a recent turn of events is any indication.

Lobbyists have long been a thorn in the side of the general public. The perception is that members of Congress are too busy trying to please “big” (name your industry) with little regard for “little” America (although “big” is demonized during reelection campaigns and “little” America is schmoozed). To this end there have been attempts at both the state and federal levels to require certain reporting standards by members of legislatures to make public how much they receive from “big” such as lunches, gifts, trips, etc. And each time such reporting issues come forward, there is always a reason why such reporting requirements cannot be agreed up although the one thing most public officials can agree on is that it is ok to accept freebies from groups who otherwise would not have given them the time of day were they not somewhat influential.

The truth is, lobbyists serve a need and like it or not, they do in fact represent “little” as surely as they represent “big”. After all, what is a lobbyist but a specialist in a particular field or someone who has access to such specialists and who approach members of Congress or a state’s legislature to present their case? The lobbyist speaks for a group or an industry made up of numbers sometimes too great for legislators to ignore. It is not only “big” oil, et al, who is doing the talking. There are other social groups such as “Right to Life” and PETA, et al, who also have the numbers and capability to gang up on members of Congress or legislatures in order to be heard. On a rational level, I think Americans can accept this concept. What they have a hard time digesting is that legislators seem to believe it is ok to use the office which actually belongs to the public for his or her own personal gain. After all, if a member of Congress accepts a free trip to the Bahamas from a lobbying group, how does this possibly benefit his or her constituents? Is hearing and reasoning somehow more acute in such an environment than in, say, Washington DC or Little Rock AR?

I think it is not lobbyists who are the problem. These are sales persons who will do whatever they must do to get a legislator’s attention. It is up to the legislator to draw the line because it is he or she who is – like it or not – accountable to the public, and not the lobbyist. The legislator has been enabled by a complacent public to get away with seemingly endless perks and privileges because voters do not pay attention to anything but sound bites and TV personas – and legislators know this because they have hired professional political consultants who actually do pay attention to “little” America. They see how our eyes light up at the offer of “shiny beads” political promises, and they know how to feed that appetite.

This will not end until voters end it. Two things have to happen: 1) there must be at least a 50% turnover in the Congress and the state legislature, and 2) the replacements must be sent it with an agenda. It is possible, but it will require a committed and informed voting public. But as long as Congress and the state legislature enjoys a better than 90% incumbency rate, we may as well resign ourselves to higher and higher taxes and more and more government control over our lives. This is the reality of our future on the present course.

The Ottoman Empire and American Politics

The US Congress, with its usual efficiency, sound reasoning and lightening speed, and under its glorious 24% (or less, depending on which poll) approval rating, is moving to condemn an early 20th century Turkish government for the genocide of Armenians in its early days after the fall of the Ottoman Empire some 90-plus years after the fact (perhaps it took that long to move the legislation out of committee?). Those who are pushing this legislation are somehow gratified, reasoning that it's about time we "did" something while following the lead of other nations. Meanwhile, the present-day Turkish government is set on edge and is making veiled threats that could compromise the existing relationship with the US. There are few reasonable persons who might try to deny that there is genocide currently
taking place in another part of the world which could be more forcefully addressed by this US Congress with a similar resolution, but we certainly would not want to offend an oil-producing nation such as the Sudan. After all, we have an economic reality with which we must contend. And given that it only took us 90-plus years to condemn an empire which no longer exists and long after time in which more appropriate action could be undertaken, we should be able to get around to condemning Sudan in perhaps lesser time. That'll show 'em, and all those who suffered such a cruel fate will be vindicated.

There is nothing funny about genocide nor is there anything funny about the move afoot in the Congress to address this tragedy. What responsible persons in the US government must know - or should know - is that such a move now has already upset a valuable ally in a volatile region in which US military personnel are currently engaged in combat operations and will get worse if the full House actually passes this resolution. For the life of me, I cannot determine exactly the Democrats hope to accomplish.

History is never kind to those who have something to be ashamed of because truth, although stranger than fiction, is also the single most potent force at mankind's disposal. There are simply matters of history that cannot be denied though revision is another matter altogether. Because it happened and because it is recorded by too many witnesses, only the most foolhardy would undertake such an action as to proclaim aloud that it never really happened. Just look at the president of Iran and his persistent denial of the Holocaust. Does anyone really take this man seriously at all when he makes such ridiculous statements? Does he present himself as a statesman on any level or with the credibility to make such a statement? He certainly tries, but he must surely be the only one who believes what he says though
that must be arguable.

More to the point, however, is that the Iranian president's denial changes nothing. The Holocaust is no more or less true simply because of a raving lunatic regardless of his status as president of anything. In the same way, Turkey can deny complicity with what happened nearly 100 years ago because the truth is, there is likely no one left alive who actually had a part in it. Does this mean, however, that such things can be swept under a rug since those who were actually responsible can no longer be held responsible?

The question that this congress must answer for itself is this: what purpose will this resolution serve? What overwhelming issue of national significance is so important that this particular resolution will directly affect, and is this issue so significant that it is worth the risk of alienating a not-so-insignificant ally? The Democrat-controlled Congress and especially those Democrats running for president are insistent that the Bush administration has so enraged and alienated the entire world that they will work to "restore" our national credibility. Is this resolution a step in that restorative direction? It hardly seems so especially in light of the fact that the Turkish ambassador to the US has already been recalled by
his government, and it could get worse.

Further, this matter risks not only offending a major US ally but also puts US military operations at great risk since Turkey is one of our major supply routes into Iraq. Risking this resupply route puts our soldiers on the ground in Iraq in a very tenuous position. Is this worth the risk if we support the troops like we say we do?

Finally, how can we take such an impotent resolution seriously as a proclamation that we "must never forget" while we are witnesses to a current event happening right under our noses? How much time must elapse before we issue a similar proclamation against another nation while absolving ourselves of responsibility when we had the knowledge and the wherewithal to do something while it is happening? The Armenian situation will not go away, true enough, but its time is past. Darfur is here and now, and we are apparently powerless or without the will to anything about it.

If history has taught us anything with respect to acts of genocide, the lesson is this: we've learned absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.

Them's My Young-un's!

I'm 'bout happy's a pig in slop. Our young-un's kin git hitched - long's they gits purmishun from they maw and paw. An' soons I git a tar on mah truck and hitch up mah overalls, I'ma gonna go yonder to the state house and thank them thar state house fokes fer givin' me purmishun to raise mah own young-un's the way I sees fit.

I ain't never saw no sucha mess as the one fixin' to happen down yonder to Lil' Rock. Dun awready bin a mess over yonder at Binton County whar th' judge dun tol' a gurl's maw thet her young-un cud git hitched if'n she wonted to 'cause the fokes in Lil' Rock dun messed in they own cer'al. See, whut's funny 'bout all this is they's 'posed to be a buncha edge-ee-kaited ol' boys down to th' state house but near's ah'cn figger, they kain't spell 'not'. Or mebee it is thet they kin spell 'not' jes' fine but just ain't shur whut t' do withit onest they dun spelt it.

Whut ain't so funny is that they's this buncha fokes called a "cumit-ee" thet's 'pos'd t' fix what sum dun said is a mis-take in the language. But this heer judge dun said, 'naw, it ain't thet easy'. Says if they's a wurd stuck in thar, then its 'pos'd to be thar. If'n you wus ta take that wurd out, then it don't mean the same thang no more. Them politishuns, the judge dun said, shulda took care a that 'fore they dun signed they names to it 'cuz thet thar cumit-ee ain't bin voted fir. This cumit-ee has they job t' do, and the politishuns gots they own job t' do. Sump'n 'bout the state cons'tooshun.

Makes plenty since t' me 'cuz if'n I say 'ain't' and you-uns ain't heer'd me say 'ain't', then you-un's might thank I dun said, 'ok'. If'n I say 'ain't', I means it 'cuz I ain't gonna say nuthin' I ain't meant t' say. Reckon them politishuns shulda dun know'd thet? Most of 'em dun been t' law skool. Ain't thet why they's so miny foks dun voted fir 'em t' bugin with, 'cause they's so et up w' the learnin'? I'da thunk so.

Now thu guv'nir says he ain't agonna brang the state 'sembly in so's they kin fix it. I ain't shur whut ain't fix't, but I'm purty shur whut ain't needin' t' be dun. We-un's don't need them edge-ee-kaited geen-us's atellin' us how t' raise young-un's or whut they kin or kain't do. I figger this nu law dun give us what we-un's needed t' bugin with: permishun t' duh-cide whut we-un's thank is best for are young-un's. We's the ones gotta live withit, ain't we?

Shoot. Who sez we's back-ards?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Selective Hearing

Lamentations 1:1-6
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Luke 17:5-10

"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts or evidence."

John Adams

President Adams made an undeniable observation, but such statements also open the door to discussions about exactly what constitutes the difference between "fact" and "truth". A pastor friend of mine was reminded of what so many people of faith are tempted to say: God is; whether or not we choose to believe it does not alter this "fact". For people of faith this is true enough; His presence cannot be denied. What happens to this “fact” during those times when His presence cannot be felt? Does this make Him any less real?

In such a dramatic instance as the Holocaust it is impossible to speculate as to whether the Lord God was present or absent though it would be equally impossible to say that He is omnipresent and simultaneously absent during any particular period in human history. However, during such moments of trial and tribulation it is easy to blame the Lord for "allowing" such things to occur and not accept some of the blame ourselves.

We would rather not be held accountable because it is much easier to blame some invisible cosmic force without acknowledging that we could perhaps avoid certain disasters and heartaches if we were more intentional about and confident with our faith. Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel have made similar observations – understandably, with a certain amount of bitterness - not only about the Lord's perceived silence but also about the world's silence during this horrific period in human history.

At the time I found it unsettling, to say the least, that some evangelists and preachers claimed that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were the result of the Lord's judgment against America and for a brief period following these attacks, churches across the nation were "standing room only". More reasonable voices countered that the Lord would not use evil men with evil intent to accomplish His worthy goals because such thoughts can lend credence to and legitimize such cowardly and dastardly acts, yet evil acts perpetuated against the Jewish people are recorded in the Hebrew scriptures and are directly attributed to the Lord as judgment, according to the prophets, against His people for turning their backs on Him and turning their attention to "foreign gods". Such records can only be denied by people who live in denial.

Humans are a funny breed, and people of faith are no exception. We hear what we want to hear, and we apply what we care to apply according to what is pleasing to us and suits us. We have what is before us some of the most "negative" readings I can recall assigned by the lection for a particular Sunday. Readings from Lamentations pine for the days when Glory was present which makes its absence that much more profoundly felt; blessings that were once abundantly present are now notably absent. The writer of Habakkuk laments not about the "absence" of the Lord but rather, the "deaf ear" that does not seem to hear the cries of the people. And Jesus seems to be encouraging us to be reminded that we are essentially no good as independent human thinkers but that we are of some use as "slaves" and must remember "our place" as such.

Such readings come across as somewhat dehumanizing on the surface, maybe even more so for western Christians because we live in societies that are not so heavily controlled or regulated according to how a government thinks we should act or worship. We are free to do as we please and if someone somehow interferes with that freedom, we have been "violated" and our rights endangered.

We should be mindful, however, that these readings serve a useful purpose on so many levels. These kinds of readings may not be the uplifting, "everything-will-be-ok", messages we prefer, but they are still soul-saving reminders that we do, in fact, belong to Someone and that being a member of such a family comes with it certain expectations. We are owned lock, stock, and barrel.

I get the impression that ancient Israelite society was a lot like ours though certainly not to the American degree. It seems obvious as it is written that Israelites were free to choose their own courses of action, and it is equally clear that they often chose poorly. As a result of those poor choices, the chickens came home to roost. Come to think of it, this could help to explain the restrictive notions of the Pharisees and their legalistic interpretations of the Law.

Notice what happened, though. As the Israelites, through their "freedom", sought to assimilate themselves into such cultures and societies foreign (in every sense of the word) from their own, this is precisely what they got though the assimilation was less than voluntary and was certainly not what they had in mind. The lamentations come from a society that wants to "have its cake and eat it, too". Sort of reminds us to be careful what we wish for, doesn't it?

As a result, what has happened? The city, the Holy City, the Beacon that was supposed to be a shining example to the world, has disappeared. In the vision of Lamentations, the city that was once full of life and full of people sits empty and void. It is not as if it never existed because the writer is painfully aware of what is absent and why it all disappeared. Habakkuk is painfully aware of the strange silence within a city that once heeded the Voice that called a people forth from bondage and slavery, but the Voice that called them forth from bondage was the Voice they were willing – in fact, eager – to hear. The Voice that established standards and set limits, however, either did not seem so clear or was not so willingly received.

I do not suggest that the Holocaust was a judgment against the Jews nor do I suggest that 9/11 was a judgment against America. This is not my call and it is utterly unfair for any human to make such a proclamation. However, we must also be aware that the Lord is willing and able to speak to us through calamity. It is through disaster and heartache, however, when we are most able AND WILLING to listen.

The Message itself is the same, and the Voice is still the same Voice. We are a people set free and called forth for His Glory and not our own, to serve His purpose and not our own, to serve and not be served. And when we are true to this Message of hope and redemption, we are a City filled with Life and with Purpose and with Meaning. We are a City with a Mission, and we are His. Let us hear always the Voice that calls us forth in good times as well as in bad.