Loving Church vs Judgmental Church

Time magazine is publishing articles about a road trip being undertaken by regular columnist Joe Klein. Klein is traveling across the country in a meandering path, taking time to visit small town America, especially towns that have been devastated by the recession. These are places where factories have closed, where many people are on some form of government assistance, and where drug abuse and other social problems have exploded. Increasingly, Klein has found that churches and related Christian ministries have stepped in to help people survive, especially by providing food.The latest installment by Klein is titled, “Where Checks Alone Can’t Help.”

Klein stopped in Newcomerstown, Ohio to see how folks were doing. He doesn’t say much about the town, but I did a little research. This is an old town site, originally an Indian village. Its famous leader was Chief Newcomer, who gave it his name (although I don’t know how he came by the name “Newcomer”). So it wasn’t named by a Welcome Wagon group or a creative real estate developer. It is a small place, about 4,000 residents. A claim to fame is that Newcomerstown was the hometown of Cy Young, the famous baseball pitcher.

In Newcomerstown, Klein came across a food pantry called Journey’s End Ministries, a joint project funded by 30 churches and operating out of an old car lot. Klein’s observation was that there was something in this ministry that was missing in any government assistance. He put it this way, “… they had found something at Journey’s End that they couldn’t find at government agencies: a loving community that wasn’t judgmental.” Here is what I think he means by this. In Newcomerstown, I could be a meth addict living with my girlfriend without marriage and need food, and Journey’s End would feed me. No questions asked. No games to play. No shaming. They would just feed me. I can’t help but try to see this through Klein’s eyes: a Jewish American man from the big city seeing the churches of Newcomerstown operate on the ground to feed the hungry people of this community. Klein, very much the outsider, seems to be saying, “This is what the church should be.”

I believe one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century church is to be a loving church without being judgmental. It has more often been phrased this way: How can we be a faithful church without being judgmental? In other words, how can we hold to high standards of biblical morality and behavior without using them as a lofty perch to judge others who fall short (at least fall short more than we do)? This is indeed a challenge. I don’t want a church that winks at godliness. But I don’t want a church willing to let the community’s meth addicts starve to death.

Jesus explained this conundrum through his story known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this, the Samaritan gave assistance that saved the life of a Jewish man, a man whom he had every reason to hate. They were not countrymen. They weren’t neighbors in the physical sense of sharing a fence in their neighborhood. But the Samaritan is held up as the example of how to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). Why was the injured Jewish man his neighbor? I can only think this: he was his neighbor because he was in a position to help him.

Whom can we help? Whom can our church help in our community? Maybe if we can be guided by these questions, we have take a step toward being a loving church. Maybe we will even garner the attention and respect of someone like Joe Klein.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

The Lord IS!

Slow down, Mark. 

I follow a blog written by Alan Falding, a man from California who is deeply into the disciplines of spiritual formation and direction. His recent post was based on Psalm 28:7-9:

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.
My heart leaps for joy,
and with my song I praise him.

The Lord is the strength of his people,
a fortress of salvation for his anointed one.
Save your people and bless your inheritance;
be their shepherd and carry them forever.

Falding makes a point that in this psalm, David keeps saying “The Lord is.” Not “the Lord was” or “I hope the Lord is.” When we are stressed and hurried and too busy this is a very comforting thought for me.

I thought I might check this out in Hebrew and was not surprised to see that the verb “is” must be supplied by the translators. The divine name of God, YHWH, is used here, and it means something like “The One Who Is.” A Krause rendering might be “The One Who Is: Strength and Shield … The One Who Is: Strength of His People.” I need to be strong in my life, to be sure, but I don’t need to be strong alone. And just now, as I write this, I feel encouraged, my heart leaps for joy too.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Bullies, Perjurers, and Roger Clemens

I haven’t discussed sports much in this blog, but I was flabbergasted yesterday to learn that Roger Clemens (the “Rocket”) had been acquitted on all charges of lying to Congress. The case was based on an appearance Clemens made before a congressional committee in which he categorically denied using illegal performance enhancing drugs. There was considerable evidence that Clemens had used such drugs, but federal prosecutors who brought him to trial for lying to Congress (perjury) were unable to convince a jury, so Clemens is now a free man rather than a convicted felon. I find this deeply dissatisfying, almost disturbing, for two reasons:

First, many who have been commenting on this believe the feds “overreached” by prosecuting Clemens in the first place. (This is part of the general background din of accusations of “overreach” in government that are largely partisan political attacks.) This theory says, so what if he lied to Congress? He shouldn’t be prosecuted for this, and he certainly should not go to prison. And everyone was using steroids, so what’s the big deal? To those who defend this line of thinking let me say that this was not about the crime of using illegal steroids or HGH. It was about defiantly lying to Congress. I don’t care if Republicans or Democrats are in control, you cannot tolerate lying to Congress. This whacks at the heart of the legal system and American democracy. If there are acceptable ways to perjure oneself, American justice is a chimera. And to those who think this is “overreach,” I hope everyone suspected of lying to Congress is prosecuted, even if a conviction is not obtained.

Second, this all seems highly ironic to me in the current climate of anti-bullying legislation. Roger Clemens was called a “fierce competitor” in his time, but let’s be honest: he was a bully on the mound. I can’t help but remember my Seattle Mariners playing the Yankees in the 2000 playoffs and seeing the Rocket pitch to Alex Rodriguez, then the star of the Mariners (and later an admitted steroid user). Clemens threw right at A-Rod’s head on his first pitch, causing him to hit the deck. A-Rod looked at the umpire, expecting a warning or something, but the ump looked away and stuck his hands in his pockets. The next pitch was in almost the same place, aimed directly at A-Rod’s head and causing him to fall flat to the ground. The umpire again did nothing and even seemed to chastise A-Rod to get back in the batter’s box. The camera showed a grim Clemens, the fierce competitor/bully glaring from the pitcher’s mound. And I knew the game was over, the series was over. Clemens was going to be allowed to use his bullying tactics and everyone on the Mariners knew the umpires were not going to stop him or protect them. The bully had won.

This seemed to me to be partly what happened in the federal courtroom this year. The government’s chief witness, Brian McNamee, was”grilled” by Clemens’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, for fifteen hours over four days. How this was allowed to happen, I can’t imagine, but it was a systematic attack on the man’s credibility and every piece of testimony he had offered against Clemens. It was like four days of fastballs aimed at his head.

The final verdict on this may rest on the voters for baseball’s Hall of Fame. There are early indications that Clemens will join the club of Pete Rose, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Raphael Palmeiro, and Barry Bonds as MLB players with great careers and stats, but who probably will not be allowed into the Hall of Fame. Justice sometimes comes in unlikely places.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Legislating Morality

As the election cycle heats up, it is interesting to see which social issues come to the fore. This election seems to be mainly about the economy (code language for high unemployment, depressed housing prices, loss of household overall wealth, and stagnant wages). This elephant in the room may be so big that social issues are crowded out and seen as irrelevant. But, I suspect that a few will make a reappearance before I enter a voting booth in November.

Remember: the so-called “social issues” arena has specific issues involved. In the media world, things are often labeled so they can be ignored. This labeling strategy is especially helpful in regard to seemingly no-win issues that cannot help a certain candidate, only damage him or her. So we can take real-life issues such as gay marriage, abortion, content of health insurance policies when it comes to contraception, drug use, and others, and have them labeled as “social issues,” with the implied meaning “mere social issues that are a matter of opinion in which there is no right or wrong and therefore should not be part of the discussion.”

Often this is backed up with the long-standing truism, “You cannot legislate morality.” I would like to analyze this statement a little bit this morning.

On one level, I believe this statement is completely true, because morality comes from the heart. The truly moral person is not necessarily the one who follows the rules, but one who does so willingly. There is no remedy in the legal system to change a person’s heart. This has been recognized in the last half century by the shift in terminology for prisons from “reformatories” to “correctional institutions.” No one maintains the illusion that a hardened criminal will be reformed by a prison experience. Prison are meant to be a deterrent to criminals and as a way of removing criminals from the street.

On another level, though, I think it is possible and even appropriate to have laws in place to keep the order that will be seen as legislating morality by some. The state has the responsibility to legislate and enforce laws that are for the greater good of its citizens. The fact that these are based in the moral convictions of some legislators does not make them illegitimate. Social order depends upon people following an agreed-upon set of rules. Those who seek to change the rules that have been in place for generations should have the burden of proof upon them to show the common good, not hide behind the truism, “You cannot legislate morality” or “whatever a person does in private is of no concern to the state.”

Let me give you an example of this. Recently I read about some Florida municipalities’ battle against illegal signage, the “I Buy Houses,” “Lose Weight Guaranteed,” or “Learn to Speak without an Accent” signs posted on corners or stapled to telephone poles. These signs are illegal in most towns and cities, yet they multiply like the flower-eating rabbits in my neighborhood (that will be a future blog). These Florida cities have taken to using a robocall system to call the numbers on these signs every hour until the perpetrators come in and pay a fine and remove their signs. This has been very successful, with a reported rate of 70% fewer illegal signage in one city. (See this ABC News report.) Yet one of the offenders in illegal signage (using it to pump her Real Estate business), said, “I know this is technically illegal, but it is very productive for me.” She was willing to pay the fines and continue to operate illegally, even if her tactics were seen as wrong by a majority of her fellow citizens. You cannot legislate morality. You cannot make this woman understand that municipal ugliness and blight is not OK as long as she is making money. What is wrong in the eyes of the law is a minor inconvenience to her amoral business practices.

So, yes, you cannot legislate morality and we should not fool ourselves into thinking we can. But our legal system reflects the moral principles of someone. When our laws coincide with “Thou shalt not murder” or “Thou shalt not steal,” we are affirming principles in line with what Christians believe the Bible teaches. And I don’t think we need to apologize for this or be cowed by the “You cannot legislate morality” chorus.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Entrepreneurial Christiantiy

Many years ago I served as a student minister for the venerable A Christian Ministry in the National Parks (ACMNP), working in Grand Teton National Park. Most of the employees who worked at the lodge where I was were college students, many of them Mormons. I arrived in mid-May, before the lodge had geared up for its summer season and before the ACMNP program had begun. The nearby campground was not yet open, so the lodge owner allowed us to have one of the cabins to hold a Sunday evening service. Although I was only 19, I was the only “minister” around, so I was deputized to lead a worship time. Everyone was invited, and all of the Mormon kids came (not having anything else), about 20 of us. We kept it simple. I read some Scripture I though everyone would know, Matthew 5-7 (if I remember right) because I knew that the Sermon on the Mount was also in the Book of Mormon.

It was an interesting experience in many ways. I had grown up with Mormon friends in Idaho, so I was not afraid of this. I knew it was more for employee fellowship than anything Christian. The most interesting part, though, was when someone suggested we sing some hymns. We had a box of hymnals that belonged to ACMNP which I handed out. I suggested several traditional hymns to sing, but the Mormon kids didn’t know any of them. I asked them if they could find any hymns in the book they knew … and they did: the Christmas songs. So, on that cold night in May, we, people from radically different faiths who barely knew each other, sang all the Christmas carols in that hymnal.

I mention this because I have had a similar experience in my preaching experiences among various churches. My experience has been in churches that are Christian, not Mormon, but some very different flavors of Christianity. In the last few weeks I have been in a Disciples of Christ church, a Reformed Church of America congregation, and two large suburban Christian Churches. All four were different, but strangely the same. I knew all the songs they sang. Why? Because they sing a lot of the same songs in these churches. The NIV translation was used in all four churches. Why? Because it is the most popular translation in the USA today.

In Russ Douthat’s book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, he chronicles the rise of “para-church Christianity” in the 1950s through the guidance of people like Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and Bill Bright. The neo-Evangelicalism these guys invented was based largely on ministries outside the control of any local church or denomination. Part of this was the rise of Evangelical publishing houses and the Evangelical music industry. And these are for-profit business, very big businesses.

Now, churches get their songs from CCLI’s Song Select, not a denominationally approved hymnal. Maybe the worship leader first heard a song on Christian radio, perhaps one of the Salem Communications group stations (SALM on NASDAQ). They get their NIV Bibles from Zondervan, a division of the massive publishing conglomerate Harper Collins.

Why is this important? Maybe it isn’t, but consider this: what is the control over doctrinal content from Salem’s stations or Harper Collins’s subsidiaries? One thing cannot be ignored: marketability. These are corporations in business to make a profit. It may be dressed up in pious-sounding mission statements, but the bottom line is the bottom line for these corporations. I would imagine that for every writer-program host-employee concerned about biblical fidelity, there is an MBA somewhere pushing profitability.

This is entrepreneurial Christianity in full bloom, the faithful as a market, an opportunity to make a lot of money. If you need some convincing, watch Christian television shows. Why are they so loaded with prosperity Gospel teachers and preachers? I think it is because that is what people will watch, not someone preaching sober biblical truth. In their own way, they are market driven, too.

This isn’t all bad. We would not have the NIV 2011 if someone had not funded the project. But the result is both a flattening of church distinctives and traditions, and ceding control of a lot of content coming into our churches to corporations.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Finding Jesus in the Heart

I would like to give you another sermon illustration today. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember where this came from:

The story is told of a little boy, who, many years ago, was diagnosed with a severe heart defect. This was before MRI’s or CT scans or other advanced technology. But his heartbeat was irregular, and he was not expected to live very long. His family happened to live in a small city that was the home of one of the nation’s most respected heart surgeons. This doctor was a crusty old character, near retirement, and usually refused to work with children. After hearing the pleas of the boy’s mother and father, he finally conceded to take the youngster as a patient.

After the examination, the old doctor knew that surgery was required and that it would be very risky. There was something badly wrong with the boy’s heart. The old man told the boy, “Son, I’m going to try to fix your heart. I will have to cut it open, and I’m not sure what I will find there.” The boy brightened when he said this, and said, “Don’t worry, when you cut open my heart, you’ll find Jesus, ‘cause he lives there!” The surgeon was silent. Dealing with life and death on a daily basis had embittered him horribly, and he had long ago abandoned any pretense of faith.

As they prepared for the surgery, the doctor was determined that the little boy understand what was happening, so he repeatedly warned him of the risks involved in this surgery. Each time the boy smiled and said, “Don’t worry. When you cut my heart open, you’ll find Jesus, ’cause he lives there.” In this process the bitter old doctor began to have his own heart touched by this little boy. He was so ill! But he was so happy! On the day of the operation, just before they wheeled the boy into the operating room, the doctor tried one last time, and said, “I want you to be brave, because when I cut your heart open, I’m not sure what I will find.” Again, the boy beamed at him and said, “Don’t worry. When you cut my heart open, you’ll find Jesus, ’cause he lives there.”

After the surgery, the doctor went to the waiting room to give some horrible news to the parents: the boy had died on the table and he had been unable to save him. They were people of great faith, but now they were extremely distraught. As the father grasped for something to explain what had happened, he asked the surgeon, “Doc, when you opened his heart, what did you find?” And the hardened, cynical old man gave the slightest of smiles and said, “I believe I found Jesus.” And for the first time in many years, his tears flowed, too.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Theological Mistakes: “Everything Happens for a Reason”

While attending a funeral today I was talking with Paul Miller about the difficulty of expressing condolences. When a loved one dies, what do you say to those left behind? We often want to give words of comfort, but our desire to do this may cause more damage than help.

Specifically, when a father dies, it is not helpful to tell his son, “God knows what he is doing, boy, this is for the best.” or “It’s hard for you to understand now, but God has a plan.” or “Someday you will understand why God did this.” There are many variations on this theme, but the idea is that God either allowed or caused the death of this person. We are put in the untenable position of trying to say that our loving God is responsible for a horrible tragedy that has ripped hearts open.

To me, this is a variation of the pop theological statement, “Everything happens for a reason.” I have blogged before about this, but let me review a little. This is not a Christian idea. It might work in Buddhism, or possibly in extreme forms of Islam, but it is not a biblical idea. Why?

The laws of cause and effect would assume that there is a reason (cause) for all things that happen (effects). So, at one level, the idea that everything happens for a reason is true. There are two explanations for this. First, if we life in an entirely mechanistic world, everything is preordained because of its physical nature. Everything is matter and chemical, all things that happen are the coincidences of nature, There is no free will or independent decision making because everything humans do is the result of chemical processes in their brains. Freedom is an illusion. Second, if there is a divine reality outside of our material world (God), the only exceptions to mechanical processes are God’s deliberate manipulation of the forces of nature. In other words, these two choices say that human tragedy is either the result of inevitable mechanical processes or the intentional machinations of God.

I don’t think this is what most folks have in mind when they say, “Everything happens for a reason.” What the usually mean is “Everything happens for a good reason.” The implication is that something good always comes out of tragedy, even if we have to wait a long time to experience it. A variation on this is “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” concluding that horrible experiences have a useful side: strengthening our bodies or our character. All of this seems to have a biblical patina, proof-texting such verses as Romans 8:28, “We know that all things work together for good,” or Romans 5:4, “endurance produces character.”

But how does this play out in real life, especially in the time of tragedy? Is there comfort to be found in “Everything happens for a reason”? I don’t think so. If you are in a position to offer words of comfort to a grieving son, let me suggest three things you might say:

1. God still loves you and so do I.

2. Don’t try to figure out a reason for this terrible thing. Your head will explode.

3. It’s OK to be sad, because your father was a wonderful person and he has gone to be with Jesus now. I miss him, too.

There is one other thing I am tempted to say, but usually don’t:

4. The people who tell you this is for the best and that good will come from it are idiots. Just ignore them.

Maybe I’m being too judgmental, but grief should be comforted, not rationalized. If you have been through tragedy, you know that it does get better eventually, but now is not the time to share this. Walk with your friend in his grief and don’t try to dismiss it.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College