Friday, February 20, 2015

Immigration: A Christian Dilemma

    Should we build a wall at the border, or should we let everyone through?  As I scroll through my social media feeds, I see posts by friends that seem to support both extremes.  Some say that, as a matter of security, out nation must seal the border.  Others say that as a matter of Christian compassion, we must care for the foreigners among us and allow them in. 

So what should a faithful Christian believe?

Is there a “right” answer?

Honestly, I don’t know. 

    What I do know, is that both extremes miss the mark.  I recognize that both “sides” are represented by people of faith who believe in the message of the gospel.  But at the same time, each group ignores vital and valid points that are made by the other.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I am the product of an immigrant family.  My grandparents came here from Germany, as did my Mother-in-law.  Our family is certainly sympathetic to the cause of immigrants.  But even so, I understand that the discussion pulls us in different directions.

Here are some points of discussion worth considering:

1)      As followers of God, we are called to be the voice for the voiceless (Proverbs 31:8) as well as to care for the foreigners among us (Exodus 22, Jeremiah 22, Ezekiel 22, Zechariah 7)

2)      There are limited resources with which to care for them and a limited number of volunteers who can provide care.

3)     Border crossings that avoid official checkpoints, cross deserts and other  inhospitable territory.  As a result, men, women and children die crossing the border.

4)      Unscrupulous people, who are hired to guide others across the border, often abandon their charges or sell them into various forms of human trafficking.

5)      Whenever the chance of success is higher, or the rewards for success become greater, more people attempt to cross the border.

6)      Is it fair, or just, to those who are following the law and applying for proper documentation, to allow undocumented immigrants to flow across the border?

7)      Is it fair, or just, for native born citizens to compete for employment against undocumented migrants?

8)      There are valid local and national security concerns related to some of the people who are crossing the border.  Is it justice to put others at risk by allowing known criminals into the country without a background check?

   Clearly, we are called to be compassionate and to care for the foreigners among us, but the most compassionate, caring, and just thing to do may not be found at either extreme.  Building walls and returning undocumented migrants results in injustice, but opening the floodgates and allowing everyone in creates a different kind of injustice.  Making it easier to cross the border will increase the number of people who die crossing it.  And the failure to regulate who is crossing, will drive migrants into the hands of human traffickers. 

    When the waiting list for legal documentation can drag on for years, how are those applicants harmed by migrants who are given such documentation after crossing the border in the dark of night?

    We have seen similar waves of immigration.  There were waves of Irish, Germans, Czechs, Chinese, Vietnamese, and others.  Perhaps with this wave of immigrants from Central America, we might reconsider an old idea.  What if we built a new “Ellis Island” on our border with Mexico?  It would be a place where migrants would be welcomed, cared for, and kept safe, but also a place where they could be documented, we could conduct background checks, and verify that they met other requirements. 

    At Ellis Island, migrants were tested for disease, and were required to provide documentation that they had employment and a place to live in their new country.  While most migrants passed through Ellis Island in a day or two, my grandfather was detained for a week because the man who was supposed to verify his employment was delayed.  He was finally approved for entry after that man sent a telegram which verified his status.

Once again, I don’t know what the answer is.  Most likely, there is no single answer.

But each extreme carries us toward injustice. 

Justice and compassion demand that we try to find a way between these conflicting demands. 


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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Snipers and Burning Pilots - God Weeps

    Lately there has been a great deal of publicity and social media chatter about the movie, American Sniper.  Of course everyone is also talking about the Jordanian pilot, Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, who was burned to death by ISIS fighters. 

I struggle with these things.

    I spent ten years in the Army Reserve.  For years I collected and read books on military history and one of the books that I liked was about the Marine sniper, Carlos Hathcock, who was the “most lethal” sniper during the Vietnam war and whose record held until Chris Kyle broke it.  I have always admired the courage and fortitude of men like Carlos Hathcock.  At the same time, seeing a helpless, caged man burned to death (I haven’t actually seen it.  I just can’t bring myself to watch a man die) stirs an incredible anger in me. 

A part of me wants revenge.

    But as much as we have made heroes out of men like Carlos Hathcock and Chris Kyle, and martyrs out of men like Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, we ought to stop and think about what God wants.

We know how these things make us feel.

But how does God feel?

    While it is true that our God is a god of Justice, and while it is true that God has sent armies to destroy evil and to avenge wrongdoing, God is also a god of compassion, mercy and love.  In cases like these, clearly, we find that there is tension between the world that exists and what God wants.

    But even if, in the darkest sense, we assume that God desires for evil to be destroyed and that, at least by our definition, ISIS is that evil, what do we know about God? 

I do not pretend to know the mind of God.

God did not speak to me from Mount Sinai.

    It is not my place to declare that God wants to kill or destroy ISIS regardless of their violence and evil.  If we have learned anything from history, we should know that it is not the place of human beings to go to war under the assumption that we have been “sent by God” or that we are doing the “will of God.” 

Unless God speaks to me in a clear and audible voice, I am not likely to change my opinion on that.

But I think that the message of scripture tells us quite clearly how God feels.

God weeps.

    God loves the people of his creation.  God loves the Jews, and the Christians, Buddhists, Atheists, Muslims, and everyone else. 

God claims all of us as his children.

    And God desires for every one of his children to come to him.  That, after all, is the message of scripture and especially the message of Jesus and the New Testament. 

    God loves us so much that he was willing to sacrifice the most valuable thing he had, his own son, in order to rescue us.  God loves humanity so much that he was willing to set aside his God-ness, come to earth in human flesh, and suffer and die as one of us, all so that we might have the chance to live forever in his home.

    And so I honestly don’t know how God feels about Chris Kyle or Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh except that he must feel like any other parent who watches their children fight.  God loved Chris Kyle, and Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, and the men they killed, and the men that killed them. 

    Every one of them, whether they were Americans, Jordanians, ISIS fighters, Christians or Muslims, were his beloved children.

And with us, God watched them die.

    And so, although I cannot say whether God sent Chris Kyle to impose some kind of “divine judgment,” I do know something else that is certain.

Just as any parent who watches a child die, when God watches the horror that is war…

God weeps.


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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Twelve Toxic Attitudes that Kill Churches

    I have witnessed ugliness in the church.  Both as a layperson and as a pastor, I have witnessed attitudes so unhealthy that they become toxic to the health of the church.  Most often these attitudes are limited to a handful of people, but occasionally these attitudes become a part of the church culture.  How much damage is done by these attitudes depends upon how many are present and how many people adopt them.   

Like any poison, the more there is, the sicker the patient is likely to become.

I want churches to be healthy. 

    My hope is that this list will spur a conversation within the church so that we can move toward health.

1)      We don’t want to be challenged – We don’t want to hear about how God is calling us to ministry, or to missions.  We don’t want to be told that we should pray more, or read the Bible, or study.  Challenging sermons tell us that we can do better, and that makes us feel like we aren’t good enough.

2)      We don’t want training – Whenever someone mentions training we know that they want us to do something new.  If we are trained, we will be expected to do more.  Asking us to get training means that you think we aren’t doing enough.  Honestly, we don’t want to do anything that we aren’t already doing.

3)      We don’t want to hear about “evangelism” or “outreach.”  - We’re all friends here, we’re comfortable with the way things are and we really don’t want to meet new people who might want to change things.  We don’t want to go door to door, or pass out tracts, or witness to our friends, family or coworkers.  We know what the Bible says we should do, but that would make us uncomfortable.
4)      We don’t want to change – Change makes us uncomfortable.  We don’t want to build anything, we don’t want to remodel the classrooms, or move to a bigger (or smaller) building.  We don’t even want to change the order of worship or try different music. 

5)      We don’t to be too “spiritual” - We don’t want to live differently, talk differently, act differently or memorize scripture.  We fit in the way we are and we don’t want our neighbors and friends to think that we’re “Jesus freaks” or zealots, or radicals or anything.

6)      We don’t want new technology – We don’t use the Internet so we don’t really care if the church uses a webpage, Facebook, Twitter, or any of that online stuff.  We don’t want flat screens or projectors in the sanctuary.  If it doesn’t benefit us, the pastor and staff don’t really need to waste their time on it.
7)      We don’t really want new members – We say that we want to grow because we know that we’re supposed to, but we don’t.  If new people come, they’ll have new ideas and want to do things differently.  We would love to have new people who are just like us, but we don’t really want anyone who is different because they might want to change things.

8)      We don’t really want to go deeper - We know that our pastor wants us to spend time in prayer, read the Bible and attend Sunday school or Bible study.  He calls this “going deeper” but we’re afraid that if we learn too much, God will ask us to change.

9)      We don’t want to feel bad about ourselves – We don’t want the pastor to talk about money, or giving (and certainly not tithing) because it sounds like we aren’t giving enough.  We don’t want to hear what the Bible says because we’re afraid that we won’t measure up.  We don’t want to hear about how rich we are, or how poor people live because we might be expected to do something to help.  In general, we don’t want to hear anything that might make us feel like we aren’t what God wants us to be, or that we could do better, because we don’t want to feel bad about ourselves.
10)   We expect the pastor and staff to do what we tell them – The pastor is not our leader, teacher or coach.  To us, the pastor is just another employee.  We don’t have to do what they ask, but we expect them to do exactly what we tell them to do, to preach what we tell them, and not to preach what we tell them. 

11)   Church growth is not our responsibility - We pay the pastor to do things like visitation, evangelism, and outreach so we don’t have to.  Growing the church is their job, not ours.

12)   We want a chaplain instead of a pastor - We want someone to tell us that we’re okay just the way we are.  We want someone who will tell us that we are good people.  We don’t want to take care of others; we want someone to take care of us.  We want someone who will be there when we’re sick, make us feel good on Sunday, pray over our covered dish dinners and, when the time comes, conduct our funerals and... close our church.

What do you think?

Have you seen these attitudes in your church?

Are there others that should be added to the list?


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Thursday, January 8, 2015

What is the Difference Between Islam and Terrorists?

In light of the murder of journalists in Paris this week, I came across this excellent article on understanding the relationship that radical Islam has to mainstream Islamic teaching (thanks to my friend Dr. Allen Bevere).  It is well written and extremely informative.  Before you form an opinion on radical juhadists you really need to read this.

Challenging Radical Islam

An explanation of Islam’s relation to terrorism and violence

by John A. Azumah

 January 2015

     The world is being subjected to horrific images of religious violence. The Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria records its beheadings. Boko Haram in Nigeria parades hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls. Al-Shabaab in Somalia attacks a shopping mall in Nairobi. These barbaric acts can make us feel helpless, fearful, angry, and even guilty, because there seems to be little we can do to stop them. Meanwhile, commentators traipse from one television channel to the other, presenting their analyses. Some condemn IS and Boko Haram but assure viewers that their acts have nothing to do with true Islam. Others opine that IS and Boko Haram do represent Islam’s true face. Neither perspective is helpful. Both distort the nature of Islam and its relation to terrorism and violence.

     Evangelical views on Islam understandably hardened after 9/11. Ted Haggard, past president of the National Evangelical Association, said, “The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health. The Muslim god appears to value...

(Click here to read the full text)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Scandal of Christmas

Christmas is a scandal.  

We may have shined it up, but that first Christmas was nothing like we pretend.  

We've made the manger look pretty and we added lots of twinkling lights and shiny decorations.   But in all of our celebrations we should never forget the scandal.

In Matthew we learn that Jesus descended from Rahab a prostitute, enemy, and foreigner who hid Israelite spies in the city of Jericho.  Ruth, who was a widow and a foreigner from Moab.  King David and Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba), who were adulterers.  David was also a philanderer and a murderer.  Manasseh, who was the worst king Israel ever had.  According to the Old Testament, Manasseh committed “detestable sins”, and was “…more evil than the Ammonites.”  And then of course there was Mary and Joseph who were just flat-out poor.

From the story of Mary and Joseph we learn that Jesus was sent to save his people from their sins.  He was to be called Emmanuel, “God with us.” This reminds us that we are not alone.  God has entered this world and lives among us. 

We remember that shepherds were the outsiders and the outcasts.  They smelled bad. They touched dead animals and were often ceremonially unclean.  They were very near the bottom of the social order.  And yet, God chooses to announce the arrival of his son, the son of the King of the Universe, to them rather than to kings or priests.

And then Simeon prophesied that Jesus, the promised Messiah of the Jews, had been sent by God as a light to the Gentiles.  Imagine that.  Israel's Messiah, for whom the Jews had waited for hundreds of years, had been sent to save the the non-Jews, the people who were outsiders.

Finally, John the Baptist proclaimed that Jesus was the creator of the Universe who became God in human flesh.  Jesus was the light that gives light to everyone.

Jesus came and made his dwelling place among humans, he came to live among us, as one of us.  John’s whole purpose was to reveal Jesus so that all might believe.

This is the great scandal of Christmas.

Centuries before the arrival of Jesus, God was writing a story that invited and welcomed outsiders, outcasts, foreigners, foul-ups, criminals, and sinners.   

Everybody that society looked down on, God invited in.   

Everybody who thought they weren’t good enough, or rich enough, or who just thought that they weren’t enough, Jesus came to open the door and pay the price so that everyone could come into his father’s house.

The savior of the world was not born in the capitol city.  The king of the universe was not welcomed by the powerful and the important.  

The rich, the royalty, and the politically powerful weren't even invited.

The Christmas story is filled with the rejects, outcasts, outsiders, screw-ups, foreigners, and everyone that the rich, powerful, popular (and even regular people) loved to hate.

The story of Christmas is about redemption and transformation.  It is a story of outsiders being invited in, a story of poor people becoming parents to a king, a story of the outcasts hearing the good news long before the rich, the powerful and the popular.

The story of Christmas is an invitation.  

All of us who thought that we weren’t good enough, or rich enough, or too messed up, or too sinful, or whatever.  All of us have been invited in.  Jesus announced to the world that God has set a place at the table for everyone.

As we begin a new year, remember that no one is too far from God to be invited in.  

Look around.

Who are the people that are looked down upon, unpopular, poor, despised, outcast, or ignored?  

The Christmas story invites them too.

That's the scandal.

Every one of us, no matter who we are, and no matter what we have done, has a place at the table.

Even me.

Even you.

Without the scandal, there is no Christmas.

We are called to be like the shepherds, and Simeon, and Anna, and John the Apostle, and John the Baptist, and the angels, and everyone else in this story, Let us go out into the world and share the good news of Jesus, the light of the world, so all might believe. 

Even the outcasts.

Especially, the outcasts.


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