Holding Back the Chaos

I am in the midst of a military course that needs to be the focus of all my free time.  I therefore got off of social media for the month of October and focus on what I need to do.  Nevertheless, it is probably a good thing too because of the topics being raised on social media of late.  We have had yet another school shooting.  We have had another urgent call for gun control.  We have had yet another chorus of responses of why that is not the answer to many people.  We go in circles.  It is hard not to jump on the media merry go round and join in.  So, if for but fifteen minutes, I will in writing this.

I live in a city where violence is also on the rise.  Just like I try to explain to my children that school shootings have not been the norm in my lifetime, so has it not been the norm to be eating in New Orleans restaurants and have armed gunmen come in and rob everyone (it has happened three times in New Orleans of late).  Also, it has not been the norm for fifty year old men in the Central Business District to be robbed or beaten around dawn.  This too has happened twice in a week. The chaos, as I call it, is getting closer.

The response to the rising chaos nationally and locally has been the typical arguments.  One side wants to find a way to get guns out of the hands of the people who commit these crimes. The other side sees this as impossible and wants everyone to have more guns to respond when the chaos rises in their midst.  But guns are not going to go away.  And more guns surely are not the solution to our problems.

The only way to hold back the chaos is turning to the one who conquered it in the first place.  God turned back the chaos in the beginning.  And God’s son gave us the prescription forward – loving God and loving each other.  The only way to turn this around is to start putting God first again and to care about our neighbors anew.  We have to be the type of people that no longer find it acceptable to us that anyone, anywhere, has to live with chaos as the norm.  Somehow we have to realize that we are responsible for each other.  And we really do not live in paradise, or even in freedom, if someone else is living in a hellish existence.  Pretending that other people’s lives are not our problem is a delusion.

Psalm 49 is all about the futility of trying to build up and protect wealth in this world.  All it does is lead to death.  And there is only one who can save us from the power of the grave.

The way back to a more stable world will not be easy.  I would not serve in the military, and I would not support law enforcement as I do, if I did not believe that sometimes we need force to hold the forces of chaos at bay.  But at the same time, just as we cannot bomb someone into peace, or we cannot jail enough people to stop crime, fighting fire with fire is a holding operation at best.  The only thing we can do to change it, really change it, is not to be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

What is needed is people willing to step onto the dangerous streets and show people a better way.  To remind people that they are wondrously made and there is a way out.  We have to show people that the chaos is not inevitable or acceptable, for ourselves, or for them.  We have to invest in love more than body armor.  We have to have more compassion than bullets.  We have to show them who and what there is to live for.

Jesus Christ is still the way, the truth, and the light.  He is the light of the world. The only way out of the chaos is not only to live his way, but to teach his way, and to trust in his way.

Until next time,


Good Company


Being a pastor and a military chaplain, I have run across an incredible diversity of religious belief in our nation.  Through my readings in seminary and beyond I have been introduced to a wide variety of belief systems in our world. The way we approach scripture (even what we identify as scripture) and our fundamental beliefs about God differs.  We also surely have no uniformity over what our calling is as human beings and how we are to interact with people within and beyond our faith traditions.  But, the one thing that we all seem to do universally (if one believes in any type of Deity or deities) is pray.

Prayer is more than meditation.  Prayer is more than organizing your thoughts.  Prayer is much more than talking to yourself.  Prayer is opening ourselves to a conversation beyond ourselves.  And when we pray we join in with many people past and present who found the experience to be elemental and essential to finding solace when troubled, direction when unsure, a venue to express joy, and an avenue for healing.  Moses prayed for the people and went up a mountain to converse with God.  Job went to God when life seemed unfair.  Miriam turned to God to express joy in their deliverance.  The disciples seemed to lose track of Jesus at times because he frequently went off to pray.  Paul simply told us to pray constantly.

Does prayer change the world around us?  Yes, sometimes I think it does. I cannot explain why and when prayers are answered just as people have asked but I have seen it in my own life and in the lives of others.  At other times, I see God answering indirectly.  Sometimes what we want does not coincide with what God is doing in this world. I know God does not want to treat prayer as a magic genie.  God doesn’t appear to say, “Oh sesame….what do you desire next?” That is not who God is.  Yet, in conversation, I think God sometimes gives us what we ask.  Sometimes God gives us something better.  Oftentimes we are called for patience as our timeframe and God’s are usually not one and the same.  And sometimes we are not asking for the right thing and God helps us to see that in time.

Most of all though, I see prayer as a tuning system.  My mother gave up being a concert pianist when she agreed to marry a young med student back in 1945.  After my father achieved some success, he bought my mother a grand piano.  She practiced it regularly and played it for us.  About once a year, she would have a professional come out and tune the piano.  I would watch with interest but honestly could not tell the difference as he adjusted each key. Nevertheless, when he was finished, my mother would show us just how a tuned piano could sound and it was incredible.

I believe prayer tunes us to God’s Spirit, to God’s way, and to what is lasting.  It changes us, which in turn, changes the world around us.  If but for a moment, it gives us a tiny glimpse of what eternity is all about.  And best of all, it does not have to be scripted.  We can pray set prayers if that brings us solace.  But like a poet just sitting down to write or a jazz pianist improvising, God is ready to engage us where we are and make music with our lives.

I hope you are taking the time to pray.  It is where we hear that still small voice most often. I also hope you take time to pray with others.  Just as the best music is often made in concert, the same is true in prayer.

What do you think?

Until next time,


Your Sexual Desires Are Not All Important to God


Today, I learned the sad tale of a colleague (whom I had never met) named Dr. John Gibson, a seminary professor at New Orleans Baptist Seminary, who took his own life days after the Ashley Madison scandal hit. We know the story because his family shared it publicly. His widow, to be highly commended, said in part, “Nothing is worth the loss of a father and a husband and a friend. It just didn’t merit it. It didn’t merit it at all.” Spot on. I do not mean to say that adultery is insignificant to God.  But there are much more pressing issues.

The Ashley Madison site is an intentional adultery hookup site that got hacked last month.  All the participants names were released to the public.  Dr. Gibson apparently had signed up.  But I think he also subscribed to a belief common in our society and in our church that sexual sin is close to the most cardinal sin to God.

Let’s go back to the Bible.  What was David’s sin?  People will often point to Bathsheba.  But the Bible lists it as “David’s sin against Uriah.”  David had Uriah killed so that he could be with Bathsheba.  His sex with her was surely sin but it was not the sin that really got God’s ire up.  It was depriving Uriah of his life.

It isn’t that there isn’t moral and immoral sex in God’s eyes, there is.  But death permanently stops any chance of repentance or reconciliation in this life. We will post and talk about all sorts of sexual issues.  But news about suicide and homicide?  That’s not nearly so interesting to us.  Few would guess that suicides, for example, greatly outnumber the homicides we read about in the news. When we will grow up and see that homicides, suicides, and even worse, genocides, are far more grievous to God than sexual misconduct?  Talk about the log in our eyes versus the speck.

I am sorry Dr. Gibson made the choices he did.  I believe he still was greeted by a graceful God.  But his family will now live for the rest of their lives with his choice to take his life.  We need to pray for them and all the surviving families of suicides. And I am even sorrier that the church does such a poor job in teaching Christians, even Christian leaders, that God’s grace is far more powerful than our weaknesses and that reconciliation with those we have wronged is our primary calling rather than to  act as judge, jury, and even executioner over our or someone else’s flaws.

What do you think?


Sin Masquerading as Technological Advancement

I heard a report yesterday on the misuse of modern technology.  The BBC report explained that many corporations now tell their employees to download applications through which they can give kudos or make complaints against their fellow employees.  In some of these corporations, it is well known that those rated in the lowest ten percent of ratings by their peers are regularly dismissed.  It takes little imagination to see what human nature will do with such technology.  It surely is going to create modern day bullying. The “in crowd” will choose who to rate lowly to safeguard their own jobs.  The danger for abuse is high.  

This morning, my wife forwarded me a link warning me against what appeared to be a calculator application that is popular with young people.  How is this bad?  It really isn’t a calculator at all.  It allows you to punch in a code and then store pictures on your phone outside the phone directory. Parents can pick up their child’s cell phone, and it may appear to be clear, but in reality it isn’t.  And without the code, the parents will have no idea what pictures are stored on their child’s phone (but be assured the cell phone company knows). They could send out photos of a test or of themselves. Children may think that they can covertly send pictures back and forth, but often such “secret” pictures end up in public and, again, the cell phone companies and law enforcement still are watching (and arresting both children and adults) for pictures sent on smart phones.

Finally, companies are now offering, or even requiring, employees to take a work cell phone.  What’s so bad about this? The work cell phones have tracking technology, which tracks the employees both on and off the clock. Most employees wouldn’t want their employers tracking their every movement during the day.  And who in the world would want their employer tracking every step you take on your own time?  The danger to vulnerable employees is significant.

The real issue, the perpetual issue these days, is that technology is making us more and more powerful, but there is no corresponding spiritual growth.  Indeed, it can be argued in many cases we have been spiritually regressing of late.  The need for safeguards against human misconduct grows each day.

The technological genie is out of the bottle.  There is not going back to simpler days.  It, therefore, means that we cannot treat our spiritual lives casually.  We need to sharpen ourselves and become better Christians than our parents and grandparents ever were.

Stay alert.  Stay aware.  Draw close to God and God’s Word, which shows us how to live in right relationship, respectfully and lovingly, with each other.  And stand for what is right in this rapidly changing age.

In Christ, Tom

The Conventional Wisdom Has Not Helped

I have been in ministry since 1998. The conventional wisdom, in short, has been that the church is:

— Too enmeshed in its ways.

— Is resistant to change

— Want visitors to comply with church norms and traditions

— Plays music out of sync with the culture

— Acts as a private club

— Does not want to adapt to change

— Is too something (liberal, conservative, political, etc.)

In the time since I have become a pastor, in general, I have seen:

— The decline of the mainline church

— The rise of the mega church

— Many mainline churches taking more progressive stands (and many members revolting against such stances)

— The rise of people who maintain no faith

And almost everything I read is about how mainline and neighborhood churches have been doing things “wrong” for a long time. There is much advice over what to correct but few models of where this new “correct behavior” turned things around.  When I arrived at Parkway in 2008, our local Presbytery had hired a church growth adviser who came in to speak with me.  He described much of the conventional wisdom above and what we needed to do to correct it.  I asked him where his advice had been successfully applied and the local church had turned around.  He responded, “You’re asking the wrong question.”  Really?

I do understand as a social phenomenon that what worked for the World War II generation, and many generations before it, is not working for many younger people today. They are “voting with their feet”, as it were, and in many churches the percentage of folks with gray hair is perpetually on the rise. But I wonder if current generations have really thought through the world they are building – a world with far fewer churches, particularly churches that have traditionally served the most educated in our society, and what that will mean for them and their current or even future families.

I certainly am not trying to maintain that mainline churches don’t have their issues.  We certainly do. But with the criticism leveled at us, I do not see a response going on which raises the bar higher. Staying home or working for a charitable cause is not the same as being active in a community of faith.  I am glad more and more people are helping their neighbors with their physical needs but I don’t expect that that will also always fulfill spiritual and emotional needs. And most mega-church sermons I stream online are “feel good” sermons and lessons.  I’m not saying they have no value but many certainly lack the depth I hear from my sisters and brothers in mainline churches. Likewise, I am totally aware traditional church hymns to organ music do not have the appeal of more modern Christian bands. As a church growth professional asked us in seminary, “Who listens to organ music on the radio?” But when I put the lyrics side by side, there are few that hold the weight of most hymns. The hymns teach us something each Sunday (as do the anthems).  Equally, Bible studies I find online by “big box” churches tend not to have the qualitative depth I feel most people with any education beyond high school would find deeply engaging. There are certainly exceptions to these generalizations but I feel the church landscape is containing fewer and fewer churches geared to appeal to those who usually end up having a greater influence over the course of our society at large.

The church can be entertaining, but that is not its purpose. The church is not a charity though I see many mainline churches making a huge difference for their size in the world around them.  What the church is, in the end, is a family that gathers to worship God together.  And just like many family units in our society, I see it frequently under stress and fracturing. What I see with churches getting smaller and graying is future neighborhoods where there will be more lonely people with much less of a support network.  This will particularly come true as fewer folks get married these days and fewer have children.

What is the answer?  I am always searching for it. But I become less and less convinced that the answer for the small neighborhood church is to try to copy our mega church neighbors with their music, visuals, and entertainment appeal.  I think we have to go back and keep underscoring what we do well – build relationships, friendships, and show how seeking and serving God together has helped us and those around us.

To use some of the phraseology of recent years, we may need a new beginning but I don’t think that means starting over.  I think more than ever it means getting to know those around us and being in communion with them as we seek God together.  Change?  Change will inevitably come.  People change.  And as people change they will change things together around them.  But whatever we change we should do it because that’s what we think God is calling us to do rather than doing what we think the society around us will like.

What do you think?

Until next time,


Asking Forgiveness is a Start

Oftentimes, I will see on social media posts from people of faith lamenting the ways of our nation.  They will say they want a government that honors God anew.  They feel we are off course and are not being the people we are supposed to be.  I want to see “God back in school” or “God back in the White House” or “God back in the public square” is a frequent declaration. This was on my mind as I opened my devotions where I am working to read through the Bible.

My readings today were from 2nd Chronicles 28, 1st Kings 16, and 1st Kings 17.  In these three chapters you read first about how evil one of Israel’s kings was (King Ahaz) and then how his son turned it all around when he got on the throne (King Hezekiah).  Ahaz worshiped Baal, setup altars to Baal all over the land, even sacrificed some of his own children to this god. He also stole material from the Temple and tried to use it to bribe the superpowers of the day, closed the Temple so no one could pray there or offer sacrifices to God, and angered God all day long.  By contrast, when Ahaz died and his son got on the throne, Hezekiah called the Levites back into town, re-opened and re-purified the Temple, and called the people back to God.  Hezekiah did not hesitate to call his father and those that followed him evil.  But he didn’t simply lay the blame there  and move on.  He knew the people were complicit in his father’s sins.  He called on them all to repent (and they did).

This is what I find so lacking in church dialogue internally and in common analysis on what is wrong with our society today.   There rarely is a mea culpa that is part of the complaint.  There is no confession.  We play the blame game.  Sin is portrayed as simply wrong personal moral decisions by one particular leader or group of leaders. Problems, whatever they are, are because we elected the wrong person or people.  Repentance can certainly start by identifying a person or people who led us off course but that is never the focus.  The focus is on how we all become complicit when our society is off course.

I believe if we do want to be a society more focused on God, we need to reflect more on what we have all done wrong and endorsed together than on pointing fingers at others.  I also do not believe one politician or one political party is either our salvation or damnation.  We have gotten co-opted far too often by politics in recent years and we should remember as God’s people, while we are to be concerned with the here and now, we are also focused on what is eternal.  We are far too focused on ourselves if we distill what God is doing among all creation down to the platforms of one political party or politician (or thinking our primary calling is to be in opposition to one political party or politician).

For a people who has tended to consume more of the earth’s resources than our neighbors, for a society that has gotten involved in more conflicts than any of our peers in our lifetimes, for a society that has consistently cut services to the poor ever since the 1980s, for a society that embraces violence through the entertainment we watch and the games we play, for a society not investing for the future for our children and grandchildren (schools, infrastructure, etc.), for a society that shows a remarkable lack of curiosity about the rest of the world, for a culture that has embraced building more and more prisons as a solution to the challenges we face, for a nation that truly lives by the credo “do as I say, not as I do” to all of our neighbors, and a society who seems unfocused responding to plants, animals and insects going extinct, or maintaining a very sporadic level of concern on the ways our lifestyles are effecting almost all other forms of life around us, we have plenty to confess. We are a nation that also often shows nothing but a cursory respect for those sacrificing for others and working for a pittance of an income (law enforcement, fire fighting, teaching, etc.) None of this can be blamed on a person or even one party. It’s all of us, and we are all complicit.

May Hezekiah inspire us to be a better people.  We don’t need to wait for a king (or president, governor, or local leader) to get us on a better course.  We can start it ourselves by confessing where we have been wrong.

What do you think?  What else should we confess?


The Reported Decline of Christians in Our Society

If you have your social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter locked and loaded from the major news sources you trust, then you likely saw a report today on the decline of the percentage of Christians in our country.  As a pastor, I note the following:

A)  It is hard not to feel there is some larger group with an agenda out there.  Almost all the reports today are based on a study by the Pew Charitable Trust which projected faith groups up to the year 2050 based on current trends.  The issue is that the Pew Report came out weeks ago.  Why, on this Monday, this popped up again as “news” is, I suspect, a drive by everyone for hits on their websites (versus some grand agenda against Christians). Someone must have reported to our media sites this weekend that the Pew Report has generated an unusual number of hits in the first stories of its findings went out on the web.  All these news sources want to show their relevance by the number of hits on their websites (which helps them generate advertising money).  So, here comes a few weeks old report – again – in the news.  I saw it today on PBS, CNN, BBC, Christian Science Monitor, Pew Charitable Trusts, both area newspapers, a radio station, and all of the local television station’s sites. But the plot isn’t against us but rather to generate hits.  I was also pleased a pastor I know in New York saw it coming and sent words of encouragement to many of his clergy friends.

B) Christians can also take solace in this – the reported decline is really focused on our society.  This decline is not a worldwide phenomenon.  As a matter of fact, Christianity continues to grow in the places where most people live on our planet.  Yes, there are projections that Islam with catch up with Christianity by 2050.  But such growth comes from births largely, not conversions.  Also, projections like these are problematic at best.  Consider what the projections of today would have been thirty five years ago.  Keep in mind as well that the center of Christianity has been on the move since the Church’s inception.  Today is no different.  Our brothers and sisters to the south are likely to have much more influence than they have had in the past.  That might not be a bad thing.  Consider, Pope Francis is among one of those ‘southern hemisphere’ Christians.  Ditto the influence of the Church in north Africa and Asia.

C)  The report should make the Church in North America and Europe take stock of itself.  What has gone wrong?  Why are so many young people tuning out of the church?  I think a huge issue is Christianity in our society has been associated with a very narrow band of theological and political beliefs which are not attractive to young people. Christians today need to find their voice anew and relate that not everything labeled as “Christian” today represents actual Christian beliefs both ancient and modern. We also need to pay attention to our brothers and sisters oversees and stop thinking of Christians of our nationality as who we primarily mean when we talk of Christians.

D)  Granted , there are passages in the Bible that assert that in the end times people will abandon belief.  Even so, I do not believe that the Pew Charitable Trust’s report is our harbinger of the End Times.  Jesus said he didn’t know when the end will be.  If Jesus didn’t know, I don’t think we should presume to know otherwise.  I also find it highly problematic to associate trends in North America with Biblical Prophecies which were written in a time most people speaking and writing them were unaware that North America existed.

E)  Do not get boxed into the paradigm that you either believe in science or are a person of faith.  Non-believers often like to draw up this straw man argument that either you accept science or you believe in superstitious mumbo jumbo. There are also strands of Christianity which are opposed to science.  But that is not what most Christians believe.  Faith and science are not opposed to each other.  God not only made us but gave us our minds and this incredible creation, which goes beyond anything we can measure.  God wants us to learn and grow and trust.

F) Gone are the days that churches can depend upon people just showing up at church because it is the expected thing to do.  It is the unexpected thing to do in our society to a large degree (unless it is some type of special occasion).  Treat everyone who comes through the doors with great respect.  They are there by faith and by calling.  They win no popularity points in our larger society by coming to church.  Love them.  That’s what Jesus said to do.

God has placed us here in this time and in this place with a reason and a purpose.  Let’s make good use of it.  Let’s share our faith.

Until next time,