In Black and White

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Growing up in New Orleans in the 1960s and 1970s I was distinctly aware of the racial divide in the city.  You would run into African Americans and Anglos working together in businesses  but residential areas, churches, playgrounds, social clubs, and even Mardi Gras parades were frequently segregated (by law when I was little, more by tradition when I was a teen).  I saw it as normal because it was all I had ever known.  And it did seem to me that certain ethnicities were involved in trouble more than others.

It all began to change in my twenties when, at Louisiana Tech, all of my classes in school were integrated.  I got to know people of color and of all different kinds of ethnicities.  One thing was clear to me – good and bad, smart and less so, contributor or detractor had little to do with skin color.  There weren’t tendencies in any ethnic group.  I saw the same good, and the same mess, coming out of everyone.

By the time I was in my thirties, I was living in Texas and Alaska.  It was interesting watching the self-imposed segregation go from white/black to white/Hispanic.  You could tell people thought they were making themselves safer, or simply hanging out with better people, by doing so.

By contrast, in the USAF, I can absolutely tell you that some of the smartest, most capable, and flat out good people I worked with, who worked for me, and I worked for were not lily white.  Any “lessons” learned from my youth where crime frequently came from the African American parts of the city were wiped away.  Crime, drug abuse, and poor education frequently come from poverty, not ethnicity.  I saw the same in Texas.  I saw the same in Alaska.

But my biggest eye opener was on a mission trip to Nicaragua where I found that people again were labeling others but this time it was the Hispanics in Nicaragua labeling those of native central American origins.  Guess who were more affluent.  Guess who came from the poor section of town.  There were no Anglos involved but I saw the same dynamic going on of judging people by skin color and it had no merit at all.

I have been blessed by my life experiences and my ability to travel and see much of the world.  I recognize that most people have not had these experiences in my hometown.  But I find myself back here and I will go onto the local social media, and even hear aloud, arguments and thinking going on that was common to me back in the 1960s and 70s.  This is highly distressing to me. There absolutely continues to be people who largely see others through what I consider to be a highly inaccurate racial lens and judge people accordingly.  And while society as a whole has made progress I find it less so in my hometown and that troubles me.

There is good and evil in the world.  There is intelligence and ignorance.  There is much to fight for.  We live in pivotal times.  But it is an utter waste of time to think you can figure out what is going on simply by looking at someone’s skin color.  Just think if someone judged you by how much hair you have on your heads or the color of your eyes.  Would it really tell them anything about you?  No.  Skin color is no different.

Beyond all this – poverty – systematic poverty and poor education are huge issues.  Many people will agree that we should judge people simply on their own merits.  But, just to do that at this point (particularly in some parts of our country) is kind of like telling runners they need to run a mile and a half race but some have to start at the starting line, others at mid-point, and others still can start at the mile and a quarter mark!  I do believe that people need to strive and grow and everyone needs to achieve.  You can’t just give people a prize from running.  But recognizing that some have a much longer and difficult race to run has to be considered.  And striving for a society where everyone runs as close to the same race as possible should be a perpetual goal.

I strive to be a part of the change that is needed.  But as we continue to approach major challenges in the 21st century we absolutely, as a society, need to jettison thinking that was never really valid in any time period and is detrimental to us all.

And as Christians, we need to remember we confess we were saved by a Middle Eastern Jewish man who was neither of Anglo, African, or Hispanic origin.  Few of us are Jewish.  Most people in our society have few ethnic ties to the Middle East.  Yet, we see such a man as the source God gave us of ultimate good.  If we drop the racial lens for good then, can’t we do it at other times too?

Jesus called on us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  And that doesn’t mean just loving the neighbors in neighborhoods where everyone looks just like us.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

The Bible…after 106 Weeks

bibleIf anyone had asked me before 2014 if I had read through the Bible, I felt I could answer yes because, at various times and points, I remember going through each book of the Bible.  Yet, even though I was baptized as a Christian, spent much of my life in church, and have been an ordained minister since 1998, I never really sat down and read it through.

The Bible app gave me a way to track this, so I jumped in on January 1, 2014 with the intention of reading it through in 52 weeks. Fifty two weeks morphed into one hundred and six, but I finished it today.

Imagine running around a track with someone saying, “Do that lap again” over and over.  That’s what it was like for me as a pastor because even though I had long read through passages in my reading plan, my other duties returned me to the same texts.

I’d like to share my thoughts now that I’m done.

The Bible is so unlike any other book we have. Its genres, authors, editors, and translators are diverse. They do not have any uniform perspective. Nevertheless, I absolutely continue to believe that the Bible is inspired, and if you listen to passages in concert with others, you hear something new, and learn something new, over and over.

People struck me differently when I read this at 54 years of age versus in my childhood, teens, twenties, thirties, or forties.

  1. David seems far less a hero to me today. He may have been a man after God’s own heart at times. But he also was a violent (and heartless) leader at others. His sins can’t just be condensed to one weak moment with Bathsheba. But the same can be said of us all.
  2. And his son, Absalom, while not a hero at all, is less the villain than I remember him.
  3. Solomon is probably the least heralded major figure in the Old Testament. He likely contributed to the Psalms, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. As much as his wisdom helped him, it alone wasn’t the answer. He fell into error (although in different ways from his father David). Reading Ecclesiastes anew makes me feel he was depressed (a common malady in the modern world). But many of his observations remain true today. Faith, in the end, is what we need.
  4. Joseph was a truly admirable man. Not only do we see grace in his actions as an adult, but you have to sympathize with the challenges he went through.
  5. Jonah is always read with utter seriousness, but I think when it was written it was supposed to make people smile (and make them think about the scope of God’s love by the end).
  6. The whole Bible is very male-centric. I wish the authors had included more women. But you see heroism, wisdom, faith, intelligence, and love in many of their stories (as short as they unfortunately are).
  7. I flat out question some of what the royal narrators in Samuel and Kings attribute to God as actually being from God.
  8. If Solomon is an unsung hero in the Old Testament, Luke is in the New Testament. Many don’t realize that he not only wrote one of the Gospels but the Acts of the Apostles as well. It is Luke, more than any other, who underscores the scope of Christ’s love. And John, while different in focus, really gets down to what it is all about. We all need to pay particular attention to his epistles.
  9. Ezekiel is likely the most unknown major prophet. His book is a challenge to get through but has some really good points.
  10. After reading, I absolutely think Mary, Jesus’ mother, is a primary source of our Gospel writers. There are so many stories that they could not know (unless by God speaking to them directly, which is not how I think the Bible was written) without Mary telling them.
More thoughts on the Bible:
  1. The Bible is a mix of actual history and symbolic storytelling and metaphor. Discerning the two is vital.
  2. The Psalms never gets old.  They are wondrous.
  3. I feel that the tragedy of our generation is that while the Bible is more easily accessible than an any time in humanity, our society is getting more and more biblically illiterate.
  4. At a time when symbol, myth, and metaphor can help us so much, we live in an age where people think if something is not literal, it has no value.
  5. We still, largely, do not appreciate the era in which the Bible was written or think that the Bible was never intended as a 21st century rulebook. Nevertheless, its value is beyond measure.
  6. To complete reading the Bible, I have spent a great deal of time in the Hebrew Bible. We are so guilty of erasing the ethnicity of all the stories. We need to appreciate the Israel of the Bible and the history of the Jewish people if we are to truly understand the stories.
  7. I absolutely see patterns in biblical times alive and well in modern times. God’s Word can continue to speak to us today if we study it together.
I look forward to continuing the read Scripture.  These are just my thoughts before I jump back in. Have you read through the Bible recently? What are your thoughts reading Scripture?

Until next time,

Tom

 

 

 

The Longest Night

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In seminary I heard there was once a pastor on Christmas Eve who preached a sermon in which he highlighted all that was wrong in the world Jesus was born into – subjugated lands, slavery, gross gender inequality, rampant militarism, hunger, poor health care, and the like.  He spoke of the many ways human beings mistreated each other a little over 2000 years ago and the reason why they needed, and we still need, a savior.  People hated the sermon.  That’s not what they wanted to hear on Christmas Eve.

Nevertheless, what the pastor asserted was true (even if his timing might not have been the best).  And on the longest night of the year, perhaps when there are more than a few people in our world who are sick, unemployed, suffering from a broken relationship (or one that is over all together), who are watching Christmas coming from behind bars, under a bridge, who cannot pay their bills, who hear bombs or gunfire in the background, or are alone in an assisted living facility – it is important to remember God sent them Jesus too.

God cares about the poor.  God cares about those who are sick.  God cares about those that mourn.  God loves peacemakers.

God sent his son into the world to help change it – to change us.  God sent his son so that death is not the end of the story.  God sent his son so that any distance or alienation we have had from God could be erased.

If this isn’t the best Christmas this year for you – know that better ones are still in store for you.  God loves you.  God always has. And for the many things still wrong in this world (and even within us), Jesus came to help make it right again.

Pastors and Stephen Ministers are great resources if you need to talk.

I wish you, a beloved child of God, a Merry Christmas.

Until next time,

Tom

Dr. Who, CSI, and Biblical Characters

I am a late comer to the Dr. Who universe  I really started watching, in the past four years, a series that is fifty plus years old.  But, I have taken in a fair amount in four years.  I am familiar with all of four of the recent doctors, taken in some of three more, and hope to catch up on the rest in time.  My spouse, who was born in Scotland and followed Doctor Who on and off through her life is more into CSI of late.  She catches up on episodes when she can.  She says, it is less the crimes than the characters she finds interesting.

So, what does all this have to do with Biblical characters? I think a major challenge we have in the church, as technology progresses, is that people today can get to know fictional characters in much more depth and complexity than the Biblical text can convey.  Think of Dr. Who or CSI and imagine how much you would know any of the characters in those stories if you were limited to the amount of text that the Bible devotes to most characters.  If a picture tells a thousand words, how much more does multiple seasons of a television series give us the chance to understand a character?  Also, as my spouse points out, the worlds of modern fictional characters are often more real to us than the ancient societies portrayed in the Bible.

Of course the Bible does have the perpetual advantage is that it is dealing with something very real versus the fictional and it is inspired by God. But, I think preachers and teachers have to push themselves today more than ever to help build up three dimensional Biblical characters as we tell their stories and immerse ourselves in their world as we help build a better bridge to our own. As television producers keep upping their game in telling stories, we in the church need to do so as well.

Because, in the end, as much as I like Dr. Who, or my spouse likes CSI, we need those Biblical characters more than ever to help to be our lens through which we weigh right and wrong in our world and help us to understand and get closer to our Creator.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

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,

Tom

Good Company

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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,

Tom

Your Sexual Desires Are Not All Important to God

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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?

Tom