Archive for January, 2013

Calling an Idol an Idol

Our nation’s relationship with guns is a hot topic right now. So much is being said in so many places that I hesitate to add to the noise. I don’t want to parrot others. I do want to amplify a theme that is critical for people of faith. The issue has been raised, but not nearly loudly or widely enough. For people of faith, the issue in this discussion isn’t merely “Constitutional rights”. It’s idolatry. I believe that idolatry is the most basic form of human sin. Very simply, idolatry is putting anything or anyone (including ourselves) in God’s place. We commit idolatry whenever we give to anyone, anything, or any idea the ultimate loyalty (worship) that belongs to God alone.

Idolatry began with Adam and Eve. Genesis 3 tells how God gave them unlimited access to the fruit of every tree in the Garden–except the one at the center. Naturally, that’s the one they wanted. So they did, encouraged by that wily serpent (hiss if you wish). We talk about that incident as “sin” and “temptation”. But I suggest it’s also the first example of idolatry in the Bible. Adam and Eve wanted to taste that fruit and “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). They valued their desire to have godlike powers more than their relationship with God. So they declared themselves gods (small-g)–with catastrophic results. It may have been the first time, but hardly the last.

Idolatry is a prominent but little-mentioned element in the current gun-control debate. Over the last few decades the National Rifle Association has moved beyond its original mission of promoting safe and responsible gun use. It has become the high priesthood of what it claims is the absolute right to own unlimited firepower. This recent article traces that evolution. On May 20, 2000, NRA President Charlton Heston (yes, the actor) told the national NRA Convention that “Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blue steel…” (Click to view the entire speech.In  America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose`, James Atwood quotes former NRA executive Warren Cassidy: “You would get a far better understanding [of the NRA] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.”

“Sacred stuff”? “One of the great religions of the world”? The god this new religion worships bears no resemblance to the God we know in Jesus.  The way of Jesus is absolutely incompatible with every cultural idolatry from the first century to the twenty-first. This particular idolatry is merely the latest episode in a struggle that’ started even before Jesus’ death. The NRA religion may call itself politics, patriotism, freedom, whatever. People of faith correctly call it idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:3-5 NRSV)

Jesus taught us to love God and love our neighbor. “Neighbor” includes everyone within our reach and influence. By contrast, the “religion” of Heston, Cassidy, and LaPierre exalts an absolute right to shoot one’s heart out with all the firepower one desires to possess, regardless of how that “right” impacts our 30,000 neighbors killed by guns in this country each year. Jesus’ twelve closest followers included at least one violent revolutionary, but he consistently rejected violence as a means to achieve change. The NRA’s answer to gun violence is more guns. But Jesus told the disciple who drew his sword to protect Jesus from arrest, “’Put your sword away. Anyone who lives by fighting will die by fighting.’” (Matthew 26:52 CEV)

BEFORE YOU STEREOTYPE ME, PLEASE LISTEN: I don’t support taking everybody’s guns away. I don’t own a gun, never have, and never will. I don’t hunt. I don’t target-shoot. I don’t feel a need to have a gun for self-defense. But I support the right of those who choose to have guns for those purposes. I believe responsible gun use has a legitimate place in our society. Learning that skill has been an important part of growing-up for millions of boys and girls. They’ve learned from their parents, from other adults, and often through NRA-sponsored classes.

But guns are not “sacred stuff”. Guns are powerful tools designed to kill. They need to be treated with great respect—but not worshiped. Our society needs to find a balanced approach that keeps these powerful tools available to those who will use them responsibly, yet denies access to those likely to misuse them and harm themselves or others. We will honestly differ about the best way to strike this balance. Ideally it will happen through public-private partnerships. It will include changes in the mental health field, improved security at schools and other public places, gun regulations, and broader cultural changes. Gun owners who value and respect their lethal tools are an essential part of the conversation and the resulting change. Many have already spoken up to say that those who worship the “Sacred stuff…in that wooden stock and blue steel” do not speak for them. Responsible gun owners respect their tools and reject the idolatry that values one’s gun more than one’s neighbor. They are the first to affirm that the “…wooden stock and blue steel…” is a tool—a deadly tool—but nothing more. Let’s not stereotype them either.

The emerging gun debate is an opportunity for our democracy to work. People of faith who are also citizens of this country have both a right and a responsibility to be involved. Let us enter vigorously into this debate as people of faith. Let us do so respectfully civilly, boldly, and assertively. Let us love our neighbors by listening as well as sharing our own views. Above all let us never forget that we are first and foremost followers of the Prince of Peace.


Remember Your Baptism AND GROW UP!


(NOTE: I began writing this post on Jan. 13, the Sunday referenced below. But once again Life superseded my carefully-crafted schedule and imposed its own timing.)

Last Sunday the Christian liturgical calendar led many churches to focus on the Baptism of the Lord. We heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and were reminded of our own baptism. Many United Methodists shared a ritual in which we reaffirm the promises we made, or that our parents or other sponsors made on our behalf, at our baptism. Finally the liturgy challenges us to “Remember your baptism and be thankful”.

This ritual,“Renewing Our Baptismal Covenant”, always involves water. Sometimes the water is only symbolic. Nobody gets wet.  Other times all who choose to do so are invited to touch and experience the Water of Life. Many find this service a powerful moment of renewal. It’s been a high moment in my ministry to lead these services and say to each worshiper who comes to the water, “Remember your baptism and be thankful”.

But sometimes I’ve wished I could ad lib. I would rather have said, “Remember your baptism—and GROW UP!” I would have said that to men and women who’ve been Christians their whole lives, yet still behave and/or believe immaturely; to folks who cling fearfully (faithlessly) to “the way we’ve always done it”; to those who stubbornly resist inconvenient and sometimes risky change in the form of new ministries designed to reach new people. I would have said, “Grow up!” to those who treat the church as their private club rather than God’s precious gift to be shared extravagantly with all in reach of our influence; and to those enslaved to the idols our culture worships—money, sex, power, success, celebrity; nationalism, consumerism, racism, me-ism, and all the rest. (NOTE—All of these apply to both laity and clergy, including myself.) Finally, I would have said “Grow up!'” to youth who feel they’ve outgrown church. While most are experiencing normal growing pains,some have in fact outgrown what their local church is able or willing to offer them and think that’s all the church they need. Most have outgrown well-meaning adults’ patronizing “you’re the church of the future”. These youth are ready, willing, and able to take an active role in leadership and service today. Yet they often meet stiff resistance from adult church leaders who block their participation, yet wonder “why we have no youth”.

“Remember your baptism and grow up”—into our God-given identity as persons created and claimed by God’s love to follow Jesus together. At his baptism Jesus heard God’s Spirit declare him “…my own dear Son…I am pleased with you”. (Luke 3:22 CEV) On this side of Easter that gracious affirmation extends to all who follow Jesus. It references two different understandings of the expected Messiah. “…My own dear Son…,” from Psalms 2:7, refers to the kingly Messiah. The second half, “…I am pleased with you…,” from Isaiah 42:1, introduces a character commonly called “The (Suffering) Servant”. The Servant speaks God’s word to Israel and to the nations. A series of four poems describes the Servant’s s gentle faithfulness in the face of growing opposition that ends with his humiliation and death (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).

So who are you, Jesus? King or suffering servant? The gospel writers would answer, “All of the above.” They claim that these two streams flow together in Jesus. They claim further that he called all who follow him to follow his way of representing the God of the Universe with gentleness and self-emptying love. We work with our Risen Lord and all his disciples in God’s mission of healing this broken world and building a new one. We do so not with aggressive win-at-any-cost secular power plays, but with self-emptying servant love.

“Remember your baptism and grow up” into those who embody God’s love for the world as we see it in Jesus. I believe strongly that Christianity’s decline is due largely to our corporate spiritual immaturity. Does our memory fail us when we get involved in the daily-ness of life in our clearly less-than-Christian culture? Or we were never adequately taught the fullness of what it means to be “God’s own [child] with whom God is pleased”?

A few months ago I was privileged to help baptize our granddaughter Amelia Rose, and to preach at that service. (CLICK HERE to read the message) I asked that congregation to help her parents teach her grow into her baptism. I reminded them of an early Christian hymn which describes the life to which Amelia and all of us are called:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what… he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave…an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges…he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Philippians 2:5-8 (MSG)

With help from Time Magazine religion writer Jon Meacham, I pinpointed four marks of that cross-shaped life: 1)“To reach out when our instinct is to pull inward;” 2) ”To give when we want to take;”3)“To love when we are inclined to hate;” 4)“To include when we are tempted to exclude.”

Brothers and sisters, Remember your baptism into the cross-shaped life of a follower of Jesus, along with countless brothers and sisters from every time and place. Remember your baptism and grow up into its fullness. Grow up into God’s dream for you. Grow up together into the Body of Christ that can help heal our broken world. Remember your baptism and grow up—and be joyfully thankful every moment along the way.




Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is one of 81 women in the new 113th Congress. She followed the custom of taking the oath of office with her hand on a sacred book. But in her case that book was not a Bible. It was her personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita. Tulsi  Gabbard is the first Hindu member of Congress. The Iraq war veteran explained, (LINK) “I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad-Gita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country. My Gita has been a tremendous source of inner peace and strength through many tough challenges in life, including being in the midst of death and turmoil while serving our country in the Middle East.”

In addition to Rep. Gabbard, the 113th Congress also includes Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Buddhist  Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI)., and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), the first legislator whose officially-stated religious preference is “None”. A recent Pew Forum report informs us that the first Jew was elected to Congress in 1845, the first Mormon in in 1851 (from Utah, of course), and the first Sikh in 1957. For all these faithful servants let us thank our nation’s founders who declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

I doubt that the framers of the Constitution envisioned today’s religious and spiritual climate. They stretched their imaginations to include assorted Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Deists. But I’m confident our nation’s founders would look at this very diverse 113th Congress and say, “Yes! It’s working. Everybody has a place at the table. Everybody has freedom to practice his or her religion, even if it’s ‘none’.” They’d also recognize that making space for all interested parties is a constant balancing act, but one well worth the effort.

But not all our fellow citizens celebrate our nation’s spiritual/religious diversity. You may share my observation that some of our Christian brothers and sisters are among the least happy. They insist that this country was founded as a “Christian nation” and we’d better always do it that way—or else! This view seeks (futilely in my opinion) to portray our founding fathers as contemporary evangelicals. (Deists among our founding fathers included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and George Washington.) While we do have prominent Judeo-Christian elements in our national background, that doesn’t make us “a Christian nation” by definition. [Detailed treatment of this issue requires another whole post—more likely a book!] The “Christian nation” myth conveniently ignores the religious diversity present at our nation’s beginning and ever since. It equates late 18th-century Christianity with late-20th-century conservative Christianity. Above all, it views today’s diverse spiritual/religious climate with a mix of denial, condemnation, contempt, and fear. Fear of the unknown future; fear of losing control; fear of opening the door even a crack to ideas that (in this view) are contrary to scripture or that “Christian nation” foundation on which our security supposedly rests.

By contrast, the Bible repeatedly has God telling us, “Do not be afraid.” The wonderful, fearful truth is that the USA in 2013 is a dynamic, rapidly-changing society. The First Amendment provides room for all of us. We can change or not, as we choose. But we must balance our own freedom of religion (and speech and assembly) with our neighbor’s freedom to think and act very differently. Christians no longer have a privileged place in the national religious landscape. The causes include social and cultural forces beyond our control; the church’s willful insistence on “doing it the way we’ve always done it”; refusing/failing to reframe our message and our practice in contemporary terms; and our laziness and carelessness in discipling ourselves, our children, and one another. Disciples don’t just happen. We learn to follow Jesus by watching and imitating other disciples in the family and the wider church community. Disciples grow best in small face-to-face groups. Acts 2- 6, the early Methodist movement, and the best of contemporary Christian small groups are among numerous examples in the history of the church.

“Do not be afraid” of our nation’s broad diversity reflected in the 113th Congress. Diversity is a source of strength in nature and in most social organizations. 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 (about spiritual gifts) suggest it’s also a source of strength for the church. The First Amendment suggests it was viewed as a source of strength for our infant nation. It invites all of every persuasion to express themselves, allowing room for others to do the same. So let us who follow Jesus cultivate and express our discipleship as fully and faithfully as possible. Historically, that’s the course Christians in the minority have typically followed. More often than not, we’ve had an impact far beyond our numbers. Let’s be the most authentic, devoted Christ-followers and Body of Christ we can be in this diverse new world—and leave the rest to our God who is bigger than any idea or ideology.


Living Toward the Light (Flood Journal 2)

The house we’re living in while our “water incident”-damaged home is repaired is only about three miles away. But it feels much farther. We’re a little higher up the mountain. The neighborhood is more densely wooded. The houses are farther apart. It gets much darker much more quickly.

That’s why Carson and I walk less at night. Neither my aging eyes (yes, I admit it!) nor his nine-year-old dog eyes work well in the dark. Our eyes need light to see! I have no desire to run into four-legged strangers larger than a rabbit, especially a coyote or javelina with a temper—and an appetite for a 17-pound Shih Tzu. Carson’s self-image is “Fierce Invincible 100-lb. Rottweiler Lap-Dog”. But four-legged strangers don’t always see that side of him.

Our ritual morning walks continue. Lately, however, they’ve started in “deep darkness” as the days have grown shorter. We walk east the length of our quarter-mile driveway to the road. Our “light” as we set out is at most a very faint hint in the east. By the time we’ve followed Carson’s meandering route and turned back toward the house, the light has begun to grow. As we turn around and walk west, the light is rising behind and around us. The light reveals the true identity of menacing shadows. They are rocks or bushes—just as they were yesterday, last week, and last year! Now, ten days past the winter solstice, we celebrate the light’s growth each day.

We longed for the light this past Advent season. Many people honestly wondered whether it would come. On a personal level The Flood dislocated us literally and spiritually. Newtown shocked the nation, even more so because it was the week’s second mass shooting, following the previous Tuesday’s incident in a Portland, OR mall. Congress again displayed its dysfunction as it failed to solve the “fiscal cliff” issue and left other critical legislation untouched. [I give our legislators minimal credit for today’s Band- Aid, assuming the House has sense enough to add its consent.] Syria and Egypt continued to be unstable in the Middle East with little hope for peace on that patch of earth. Extreme weather hammered much of our country while climate-change denial continued unabated. You can write the next verse as well as I.

But “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5 NRSV)  The Sunday after that horrific Friday our Methodist choir joined with Catholic and LDS singers in a community Christmas concert. It’s a long-standing annual tradition here in Chino Valley, Arizona. Some Christians in the community don’t care to associate with such a doctrinally-diverse group, but we just keep on singing. The young LDS missionary from Ogden, Utah who sang next to me struggled to fit this unique gathering into his worldview. We don’t agree on everything, but we agree on the joy of Christmas. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” After the concert, Dianna and I watched the Newtown Memorial service we’d DVR’d. Again we saw people transcending deep divisions to share comfort and hope. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” TV journalist Ann Curry invited us to do “26 Acts of Kindness”, one for each Newtown victim. Thousands of people responded. (I’m among those who count 28 victims, including Adam Lanza and his mother.)  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Serious conversations around the issues of guns, mental health, and the pervasive violence in American culture are happening and will continue. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  It’s early, but some politicians show signs of growing enough backbone to confront ideological extremists with common sense. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Recently my colleague Rob Rynders posted a blog titled “Why the UMC Needs an Era of Innovation.” It‘s so boldly visionary that I hear “realists” refusing to believe, mumbling, “It’ll never happen”. But Rob’s next post, “Innovative United Methodist Ministries”, lists eleven innovative ministries already in progress. That’s by no means all the newness blossoming in the wilderness, United Methodist or otherwise (cf. Isaiah 35). “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

I started writing this nearly two weeks ago, before Dec. 21 and the Winter Solstice. Shortly after Christmas, we experienced a period of extended moonlight. Carson and I really appreciate moonlight in the “deep darkness” of this land we now call home. The moonlight can be nearly as bright as the sun. But that brightness never lasts. That brilliant light happens because the earth, moon, and sun are aligned so that the maximum surface of the moon catches the sun’s light and reflects it to earth. But as the heavenly bodies move, that alignment shifts. Eventually we have moonless nights and “deep darkness”. (That’s more than I know about astronomy, so no follow-ups, please!)

On a recent morning walk (Carson calls it “Dawn Patrol”), I thought about how our lives of faith reflect Christ, the Light of the World. When we’re aligned with Christ, the light is as brilliant as that full moon that turns darkness to daylight. Folks see Christ in and through us with laser clarity. But when things get out of alignment, the darkness deepens. “Christ-in-us” is anything but clear and inviting. “Deep darkness” covers everything.

If I were a resolution-maker, 2013’s one resolution would be: “I will do all in my power, and be open to God doing all in God’s power, to keep my life aligned with Christ, the Light of the World, so that Light may shine through my life for all to see and live by”. We who follow Jesus are “The people walking in darkness [who] have seen a great light”. We know on this side of Christmas and Easter that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Never. Not ever. Thanks be to God!