jasonbwatson

September 30, 2015

Managing Time

Filed under: Personal Development — jbwatson @ 7:46 pm
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It is has been said that time is the great equalizer. No matter what else may separate, divide or differentiate us, we all have the exact same amount of time in a day. Accordingly, what we choose to do with our time may well be one of the biggest difference-makers in our lives. Some people are incredibly busy but never really accomplish anything. Some people waste their time, either doing nothing or in pursuit of those things which will not last: fame, pleasure, money and more. Still other people are busy primarily so they can either boast or complain about how busy they are. You’ve met people like that, I know–they say yes to everything and they seem to spend most of their time running around like a chicken with its head cut off, but they also derive tremendous fulfillment from letting everyone else know exactly how busy they are. I have not yet determined whether these individuals think they can shame the rest of us into helping them or if they are just soliciting compliments for all the great things they do. I do know that their prattling on can be tremendously irritating. I had a coworker years ago who was quite selfless. She would do anything for anyone at anytime. She had two major flaws, though. First, she would never ask for help herself nor would she usually accept it graciously when it was offered. Second, she could rarely have a conversation without interjecting something about all the things she needed to do and then providing a list for whoever happened to be listening. She was not unlike Martha, who busied herself in the kitchen and then complained to the Lord when Mary was not doing the same. “Everyone needs to be as busy as I am,” Martha was really saying. My coworker seemed to feel the same way. Jesus told Martha, though, that Mary had chosen the better part.

That was not because there was anything wrong with what Martha was doing, by the way. Cleaning the house, preparing meals, serving guests–those are all good things. Even good things, though, can get in the way of what is best. That was the message Jesus had for Martha, and that message is just as applicable for us today. We are responsible to give our best to whatever we are doing–I think that’s biblical. Still, we have to evaluate whether what we are doing is really what we should be doing, either at all or at least at that time. If my job, for example, requires sacrificing time I should be spending with my family or at church then I need to reevaluate my job and whether it is the right job for me.

One of the things I have had to learn since assuming a formal leadership position is that not everyone is capable of bearing the same load. This is why it is important for leaders to get to know the members of their team; taking a cookie cutter approach to determining work load is a recipe for disaster. Some people thrive under pressure while others crumble. Some people live for deadlines while others dread them. Some people need to be busy, busy, busy while others need to be able to work at a more methodical, even plodding, pace. Neither is inherently right or wrong, better or worse. Some may get more stuff done but, as mentioned above, getting more done may not necessarily mean much. I, for example, do well when I have a lot to do. I like to have projects to work on, goals to pursue, and meaningful work to keep me busy. I am quite capable of getting bored. My wife, on the other hand, cannot remember the last time she was bored. She can always find something to do and some worthwhile way to spend her time. When I reflect on what I am doing with my time it may be tempting for me to assume that someone else could surely do more with theirs. That may not be the case, though. Thus it is good both to be reminded that there are people who do far more than me and that there are people who are about at their breaking point but are doing far less.

I serve as the superintendent and principal of a Christian school. I also teach a college-level class. I am currently taking a graduate school course, I blog (semi) regularly, I fill a pulpit somewhere most every Sunday, I just started leading a Sunday evening Bible study that will last at least six weeks, and I read quite a bit. Some people would even say a lot. I am also a husband and a father. Oh, and I help my wife clean our church every week, too. I would be lying if I said there are never times when I look at someone else who seems to be overwhelmed and wonder, “what’s their problem?” Too, though, there are times when I consider how much someone else is doing, how much someone else is reading, how many balls someone else is juggling and I realize I have nothing to boast about. I might even be tempted to think I need to get it in gear. Therein lies the problem, though: comparing myself to others, or others to myself. There is no magic number or secret formula for knowing how much is the right amount of responsibility, of knowing what the optimal work load is or what the ideal work-personal life balance may be. The secret, if you want to call it that, lies in evaluating self against standards which help determine good stewardship of time without comparing self with others. And those standards are what I will address next time.

September 28, 2015

Defending the Divisive

I recently engaged in a bit of online debate with a friend who was supporting the banning of the Confederate flag. His primary argument was that the flag is divisive, and there is no reason to display, or allow for the display of, a symbol that creates division. This is a lovely-sounding argument, perhaps…until you really stop and consider where this road might go. Freedom of speech is not limited to speech that is pleasant or unifying or noncontroversial. If you doubt that, just turn on Fox News or CNN. Watch a presidential debate. Read the newspaper. In fact, read, watch or listen to almost anything and it will not take long for you to find something with which you will not agree. That is the dual effect of free speech–you get to share your opinions and convictions but so too do the folks that disagree with you!

I do not want to make this about the Confederate flag. I have opinions on it, and you might too. I love U.S. history–learning about it and teaching it. The Civil War, or The War Between the States as my southern friends call it, is an incredibly important of American history. It would be impossible to whitewash our history and foolish to try. If you want to have a conversation about the flag itself and whether or not it should be displayed, let me know. We can have that conversation. My emphasis in the discussion with friend, though, and my emphasis here, is not on the Confederate flag or any other specific object. Instead, my emphasis is on the dangers involved with limiting speech–even offensive speech (and I am using the inclusive definition of speech here, to include nonverbal speech such as the display of a flag). I have referenced the dangers of slippery slopes in this space on numerous previous occasions, and this is another such slippery slope.

Why is this a slippery slope? Because if we are going to limit offensive or divisive speech then we have to give someone, or some group of someones, the power to decide what is offensive. I am incredibly reluctant to allow any person or group of people that power. If we are going to limit offensive speech then we necessarily must allow there to be consequences assigned when speech which is deemed offensive or divisive persists. We all know that freedom of speech is not absolute. The most common example given of limiting speech is this one: you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Why can’t you? Simple. Doing so potentially puts lives at risk. Human nature being what it is, people will panic and scramble to get out of the theater, quite possibly leading to injuries and even deaths in the ensuing melee. Speech that results in panic or violence, however, is quite different than speech which offends or divides.

If we decide to ban the Confederate flag today, what comes next? Who gets to decide if something is offensive or divisive? And how many people have to be offended or divided before we consider it necessary to ban the offending and dividing speech? After all, plenty of people are offended by plenty of things. A Dallas Cowboys fan is probably offended by a Washington Redskins flag. Oh wait, that’s right, the Washington Redskins are automatically offensive because of their name and their mascot. The courts are already attempting to force that change by removing their trademark protection. Plenty of people, including me, are offended by the rainbow Doritos being offered to those who donate $10 or more to the It Gets Better Project, but that does not mean Frito-Lay should not be allowed to make and sell them. The number of examples I could give–and that you could give–of potentially offensive or divisive speech are innumerable.

Most important for those of us who profess to be followers of Christ is that the cross is offensive and divisive. Let us not be fooled into thinking that the banning of Redskin mascots and Confederate flags today cannot or will not lead to the banning of the cross tomorrow.

September 10, 2015

Integrity in Worship

With this post I want us to think about the matter of integrity. When I say integrity, what do you think about? If you say someone is a person of integrity, what does that mean? The dictionary defines integrity like this: “adherence to moral and ethical principles; soundness of moral character; honesty; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition” such as structural integrity.
I want to get even more specific, though. What does it mean to worship God with integrity? Along those lines, how do we keep familiar acts of worship meaningful–how do we make sure that we are not just going through the motions? Integrity of worship, I think, includes worshiping God sincerely and not for self-serving reasons. It means ensuring that there is not a disconnect between what we do at church and what we do away from church. It means making sure that what we profess and what we practice are consistent. It means that when we are here at church to worship God, we are here. Our minds are not elsewhere, we are not checking the clock or our watch, we are not just putting in our time. No, we are focused on worshiping God.

I would love to tell you I have this down, but I don’t. I would love to tell you that my mind is always fully engaged and focused on the hymns we are singing or the message I am hearing when I am in church, but it’s not true. I say that partially so you know that I am not telling you I have this all figured out and you need to get with it. I say it also partly to assure that if you’re thinking, “Sometimes I struggle with that,” you are not also thinking, “I really messed up. God is so disappointed in me!” We will all mess up at times. There will be moments when each of us will slip or get distracted or even, dare I say, fall asleep in church! That’s not the end of the world but it should not be something we are comfortable with, either. God wants us to prepare ourselves for worship and to commit ourselves to worship with integrity.

To consider this subject, I would like to draw your attention to Zechariah 7. I’ll wait a few minutes if you would like to read the passage.

Shall we continue? Here’s the setting: Zechariah has been ministering to the people of Judah in Jerusalem for approximately two years now when God gives him the messages that we have recorded in chapters 7 and 8. The rebuilding of the temple is half finished; there will be another two years. A delegation of men from Bethel arrive and ask the priests and the prophets whether or not they should continue some of the fasts they began during their time of Babylonian exile. In response, God asks whether they were keeping those fasts for the Lord…or for themselves. This delegation had come about 12 miles from Bethel, and their names suggest that they were born in Babylon and were given Babylonian names. Now that they are back in Israel, they want to know if they should continue to keep the fasts that they practiced during the time of captivity. They were seeking God’s will in the matter.

These men ask specifically about one of the fasts that the people had been keeping. There are others, though. The Day of Atonement was an annual fast that God clearly required of the people–you can find that in Leviticus 23:27. We also know from other Old Testament passages that God sometimes called for other fasts at specific times and for specific reasons. The fall of Jerusalem was actually remembered by four different fasts, held in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months of the year. Because the temple fell in the fifth month, that fifth month fast was considered the most serious one, so these men from Bethel use it specifically as a test case to find out whether or not they need to continue with this practice. They had been keeping this fast for many years–they were in captivity for seventy years–and in their situation at this time, now that they are back in Israel, the temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, it seemed that perhaps it was no longer necessary.

God answers, through Zechariah, beginning in verse 5. He refers to the fast of the fifth month and the fast of the seventh month, the one that mourned the death of Gedaliah, the governor appointed by Nebuchadnezzar. But from His response, we see that God was questioning the sincerity–the integrity–of the people’s fast. Were they fasting for God or fasting for themselves, out of self-pity rather than out of repentance and sorrow? Remember, the temple was destroyed because the Israelites had not obeyed God. When they fasted, were they mourning their sin and disobedience or were they mourning the fall of the temple and the punishment of God?

The purpose of a fast, throughout Scripture, is to help a person have a deeper experience with God. It is to be a time of confessing, of praying, of seeking God. Those things that can easily become routine and time-consuming parts of our day, and that can perhaps cause us to be comfortable, like eating food for example, are eliminated temporarily and instead we focus on God. The Hebrew word for fast literally means “to cover the mouth” and fasting does most often refer to abstaining from food for a time. We see it referenced many times in Scripture and I think fasting has a place in the life of a Christian for a specific purpose and time. I am not convinced that it needs to be a regular practice. If you fast regularly, and you do it for the right reasons, I think that’s fine. If, however, someone fasts because they think God expects it, or because they think somehow God approves of it and it earns them favor with God, that is wrong. The motives are not pure. There is no integrity there. I also, by the way, am skeptical of someone who wants to make sure everyone knows they are fasting. There may be times when a corporate, organized fast is appropriate (i.e. Esther asking the Jews to fast and pray before she went before the king), but generally speaking I think fasting is a personal matter between an individual and God. If you are wanting everyone to know about it, it more than likely means that you are seeking some kind of approval or recognition for what you are doing. That does not come from pure motives. There is no integrity there.

God then asks the people about other practices, the eating and drinking that would accompany some of the Jewish festivals such as the feast of the Tabernacles. Were the people at those times focusing on the meaning and purpose of the festivals or were they just eating and drinking for the fun of it, enjoying the fast and the celebration and all of the pleasure of the occasion? The answer that is implied in these questions is that the people were doing these things for themselves, not for the Lord. The implication is that their worship was not sincere.

We do not have anything really that equates to these fasts and feasts in the church today. We celebrate the Lord’s supper, and that is good and I think it is biblical. And while someone certainly may do that and just be going through the motions, I do not think many people celebrate the Lord’s supper purely for themselves. I think perhaps a better comparison would be Thanksgiving. Now Thanksgiving is not commanded in the Bible, we see no specific biblical example of it, but I think the example works. Thanksgiving was originally intended to be a day of feasting but along with that a day of focusing on God and His provision for the people–of thanking Him for His blessings. How often is that really what we do not? Other than a quick prayer before the meal, how much time do we really spend on Thanksgiving thinking about God, thanking Him for what He has done? Instead, we get caught up in the food, the fellowship, the football…. Thanksgiving today, for many people, is much more about the pleasure and enjoyment they get out of it personally than it is about truly giving thanks and worshiping God. That’s what God is getting at there with what He says through Zechariah.

In verse 7 of chapter 7 God asks the people about their obedience. God is basically here saying, “I asked your ancestors the same question before I sent them into Babylonian exile.” Indeed, their ancestors were exiled primarily because they were no longer obeying God. It was obedience to God that brought peace, prosperity, joy and blessing to the people of God for a time, but once their obedience was replaced with ritual accompanied by doing whatever they wanted, God judged that. And He is telling the people here that the same thing will happen to them if they get focused on ritual.

I think there are some sincere and pious Catholics. I think there are some Catholics who are saved. But I think there are a lot of Catholics who are doing exactly what is being addressed here. I have known some of them. As long as they went to confession and went to mass–as long as, in other words, they checked the right boxes and fulfilled the right rituals–they could do whatever they wanted, live however they wanted in the in-between times. That is not worshiping God in spirit and in truth. That is not worshiping God with integrity. It is not only Catholics who do that, though. There are plenty of other folks sitting in churches on Sunday mornings thinking they are doing their duty for God and as soon as the final Amen has been said they can live however they want until the next Sunday morning.

In verses 8-10 God provides instruction on what it means, what it looks like, to express or live out the integrity He is telling the people He wants. When we examine the messages delivered by some of the earlier prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah we see that God wanted the people to practice what they professed. Acts of worship become empty, ritualistic and meaningless when they are not accompanied actions. This is what James emphasizes, right? Faith without deeds is dead!

God, here, is telling the people that He wants them to produce fruits of righteousness. Basically, God is saying the rituals, the fasts, the feasts, in and of themselves mean nothing. “I want you and I want you to live your life in a way that reflects your relationship with Me, that demonstrates that to others,” He is saying. Justice, mercy and compassion should be character traits of true followers of Christ. The widow, the orphan, the stranger and the poor are people who are vulnerable and who have no ability to repay acts of kindness. Because of that these individuals become easy prey for those who are unscrupulous. Followers of God who worship with integrity, however, do not oppress or defraud or take advantage of those who cannot defend themselves. Again, this is exactly what James says in 1:27, writing, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Finally, in verses 11-14, God instructs the people to learn from the past. We can learn a lot from the experiences of others, from the lives of those who have gone before us. It is not necessary for us to experience everything for ourselves in order to learn! Here, God says that “they”–the Israelites addressed by the earlier prophets before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity–refused to listen to God. God gives five specific responses of the ancestors toward His commands to treat each other with truth, justice, love, compassion and fairness. What were those responses?

1. They refused to pay attention (v 11)
2. They turned a stubborn shoulder (v 11) – this pictures an oxen that will not let its owner put a yoke on its shoulders
3. They closed their ears (v 11)
4. They made their hearts like a rock (v 12) – God wants pliable, open, yielded hearts
5. They would not obey the law or the words of the prophets (vv 12 and 13)

What was the result of this? In verse 13, God says because of their hardness, their disobedience, their rebellion, when they called, He did not listen. Not until the invasion finally came did the people call out to God and by then it was too late. Even then, in fact, they called out to God primarily for physical deliverance, not out of repentance and confession.

The last sentence of verse 14 is important. No doubt there were some people among those in Judah who blamed Babylon for what had happened to Jerusalem and the surrounding land. No, God says; it was the ancestors, the unbelief and disobedience of the people that caused the downfall. Sin has consequences.

Like the people of Judah, we need to examine our worship. Are we worshiping God with sincerity? Are we worshiping Him with integrity?

September 9, 2015

These Things I Wonder

If you read this blog with any regularity then you know that I am not short on opinions. There are very few subjects on which I could not share some thoughts and which I do not have an opinion. Not that my opinions are necessarily right, but I usually do have one. One of my favorite graduate school professors would often say that he was “often wrong, but never in doubt.” Perhaps that fits me, too. Still, there are some subjects on which I have not been able to form an opinion. Within the past week, in fact, there have been three. That’s quite a few for such a short period of time, so I found myself somewhat frustrated by my inability to come to a conclusion one way or the other. So, I am going to share them with you, in the hope that (1) if you have opinions on these topics that you are willing to share you will do so, and (2) that if you have questions you wonder about too that you will share those as well. You can do either–or both–by leaving a comment.

First, I have been unable to decide whether Kim Davis was right or wrong in her refusal to issue marriage certificates because of her convictions that homosexuality is a sin. Herman Cain explained his opinion that elected officials have to obey the law whether they like it or not. To be honest, that was how I was leaning initially, even though I respected Davis’s willingness to take a stand and even go to jail for what she thought was right. As I read more, though–particularly Eugene Volokh’s piece in The Washington Post and Joe Carter’s article on The Gospel Coalition web site, I was feeling more inclined to say Davis was right. There are allowances made for religious convictions in many work environments, and there are laws designed to protect those convictions in the workplace. As Carter clearly pointed out, Kentucky should have made plans for how to deal with this issue before it came up. He also correctly points out, though, that part of the problem resulted when the Supreme Court–a branch of the federal government–interfered in a matter that is properly the domain of the states. The federal government then intervened in a state issue again when a federal judge ordered Davis jailed. It would certainly seem that there are reasonable and relatively simple ways to accommodate homosexual couples receiving a marriage license without Kim Davis having to put her name on them, so on this issue I think I may be close to having an opinion…certainly much closer than I was at the end of last week…but I am still not sure.

Second, I have been wondering about the expectations that there are, or should be, for pastors and other church leaders. It is biblical for them to be held to a higher standard, and there are clearly spelled out biblical expectations and qualifications for individuals holding the position of pastor and elder, so I am not questioning that. However, I am not sure I have a clear grasp of how high those standards need to be, or could realistically be. Last week Ligonier Ministries announced that it was suspending R.C. Sproul, Jr. until July 2016 because he visited Ashley Madison, the web site designed to facilitate discreet affairs. A recent hack of the Ashley Madison site has apparently resulted in a tremendous amount of information being released about users of the site. I would not even begin to defend the site itself. However, assuming Sproul’s admission was complete and what he has stated about his visit to the site is comprehensive, I was left wondering. Sproul said that he visited the site one time, in what he called a “moment of weakness, pain, and from an unhealthy curiosity.” He said he did leave an old e-mail address at the site, but he left it after that one visit and has never returned. He did not sign up to use the site’s service and he has not had any contact with any of the site’s clients. Was Sproul wrong to visit the site? Yes. Should a one-time visit to a site result in a suspension of nearly a year from the college and ministry where Sproul teaches? I am not sure. By no means do I want to downplay sin, and I certainly do not intend to suggest that we should lower the standards to which pastors and Bible teachers are held. At the same time, if Sproul’s explanation is entirely truthful, he erred but recognized his error and repented. He did not visit the site again. Sadly, I am sure that there are many pastors and Bible teachers who have had thoughts that they should not have had. I would like someone to show me an adult male who has not ever had moments of unhealthy curiosity. Grace is biblical, too. Grace does not mean letting someone off; there are still consequences to choices and actions. We must not allow a misunderstanding of grace to lead us into thinking that we can or should excuse away any sinful behavior. At the same time, we should not overreact to something or assign a harsher-than-necessary penalty in order to make someone an example, make a point, or demonstrate our attention to a current hot-button issue. I had hoped to find the thoughts of Christian leaders and teachers whom I respect on this matter, but thus far I am finding nothing. Tim Challies said on his site that he was “sickened and so sorrowful” to hear of Sproul’s actions and subsequent suspension, but that is all I have found to date. Yes, pastors and Bible teachers need to be held accountable, but is it possible to set the bar impossibly high? I am not sure.

Third, I am wrestling with whether or not there is such a thing as presuming upon God’s provision and the support of God’s people. My family recently received a support letter from a missionary family that is supported by the financial donations of individuals and churches. This family is currently expecting their tenth child. It is common sense that the more children someone has, the greater the amount of financial support they will require in order to be able to provide for their family. I have long said when people have criticized the Duggar family for having so many children that if (1) they have the financial wherewithal to care for those children, and (2) the children are receiving the love, care and attention they need, then how many children they have is really none of my business or anyone else’s. The Bible makes it clear that children are a gift from God and there are definite passages of Scripture that indicate that having many children can bring great joy. I have two children, and I am content. I do not feel any compulsion or obligation to have more. I know families with lots of children who are able to provide for them, and I think that’s great. If a family requires government aid in order to provide for their children, though, I do not think it is wise to have more children. I do not think it is good stewardship. I question whether it pleases God. Now I am certainly not suggesting that missionaries or other Christian workers in support-based positions are the equivalent of folks on welfare or other government assistance programs. However, these are people who are, for all intents and purposes, telling God and man, “I will work full time for God and trust Him to provide for my financial and material needs.” There are many scenarios and situations in which I do not have a problem with that. There are other times when I struggle with it. For example, should faculty members at Christian colleges have to raise their own support so that the school does not have to pay them, and therefore can keep the tuition low? My opinion is no. I think the students attending the college are receiving a service that has value and for which there is no reason they should not pay. It would make far more sense to have a reasonable tuition and to pay the faculty a reasonable salary so that they can devote their full time and attention to their ministry of teaching rather than scrimping and devoting time to asking for support. There are plenty of ways to provide financial assistance to deserving individuals who need it without keeping tuition artificially low across the board. At what point, though, does it become irresponsible and presumptuous for a family in a support-based position to keep having children, therefore creating a need for increased financial support? I am not sure.

September 3, 2015

Words of Judgment

The same issue of Christianity Today that contains the column I referenced in the last post includes a column by Christena Cleveland. Cleveland, an African American, is an associate professor of the practice of reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School and also the director of the school’s Center for Reconciliation. She has, in the past, received recognition from CT as one of the most influential young evangelicals, and in addition to her recent appointment at Duke (she had been a professor at St. Catherine University in Minnesota) she has also become CT’s “newest print columnist” because, in the words of the magazine’s managing editor, Katelyn Beaty, “she speaks words of judgment and of hope on racial reconciliation.”

When I read this, I was excited, because I have been aware of Cleveland for a while and I have both read and recommended her book Disunity in Christ. So impressed was I by the way Cleveland raised thought-provoking questions about the church and the issue of racial reconciliation within the book that not only I recommended the book to several people, I invited her to come speak at the school where I serve. While initially that seemed to work out, and we had a date scheduled, she later had to cancel and no rescheduling was ever completed. Having read her first effort for CT I am no longer sure I am disappointed about that. To borrow Beaty’s words, she definitely speaks words of judgement.

Cleveland’s column is titled “A Necessary Refuge,” and sub-titled, “I learned at age five that most US churches are unsafe for black people.” That’s thought-provoking and attention-getting to be sure, and while it rubbed me the wrong way I gave her the benefit of the doubt, thinking it was intentionally chosen to provoke interaction and to prompt reading. After setting the stage with her childhood experience, she would likely use the full-page essay to explain how that experience prompted her to pursue the career path she is on and how she has since learned that that assumption is not always the case, nor should it be. Sadly, that is not what her column does at all.

The first three paragraphs of the essay explain Cleveland’s first experience with being called the n-word. It happened when she was only five years old, and it happened at a Vacation Bible School she and her siblings were attending at a predominantly white church outside of San Francisco. It was one of the VBS teachers who shouted the word at the children when they did not respond immediately to a call to return to the classroom after some outdoor recreation. Cleveland writes that while she had never heard the word before, she “instinctively knew that it referred to out blackness. I lowered my head and ran back to the classroom, feeling unwanted and unsafe.”

I have no doubt that was traumatic for Cleveland and her siblings and that it happened is inexcusable. However, from there Cleveland makes a big jump. She writes, “This was the first of many times that the white church has dishonored the image of God in me as a black person, resulting in feeling unwanted and unsafe within the white church walls.” I certainly cannot speak for Cleveland’s feelings, nor would I presume to know what it feels like to be addressed the way that she and her siblings were at that VBS all those years ago. What I do know is that Cleveland is painting with a very wide brush. As tragic as it was for the woman to call her the n-word, it is just as tragic for Cleveland to blame it on the “white church.”

This goes to the same issues I have addressed in the last two posts. Zach Hoag wants to blame God for Josh Duggar’s behavior and Cleveland wants to blame the entire white church for one woman’s stupidity. Ligon Duncan wants an entire denominational body to apologize for the acts of some churches. Cleveland wants an entire race of Christians to be held responsible, and to apologize for, the acts of one individual. For reasons already addressed, neither option makes any sense of holds any water.

Cleveland writes, “Because of this early experience, I have long believed that white churches are not safe spaces for black people.” Notice she does not say she believed that for a long time and has now realized the error of her ways. No, she says have long believed—present tense, meaning she still believes this. And this is a woman who is a professor of the practice of reconciliation? This is a woman who directs a Center for Reconciliation? How, I am longing to know, can she teach or practice reconciliation when she holds millions of people responsible for the actions of a few? If Cleveland believes that white Christians are all responsible for the attitudes, beliefs and actions of a few white individuals who may profess Christianity does she also believe that all African Americans are responsible for the ridiculous violence that some African Americans engaged in over the past year in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere? Somehow I doubt it.

The impetus for Cleveland’s article is the attack, by a white male, on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. She says that the attack was particularly disturbing because “it communicated that black people are not safe even in our own churches. The trauma is exacerbated by the fact that the black church was created to be a haven for black people.” This is absurd reasoning. It makes as much sense as suggesting that because James Holmes shot up a crowded theater in Aurora, Colorado no one is safe in a theater. It makes as much sense as suggesting that because several hundred people lost their lives on the airliners that were crashed into the World Trade Centers, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania that no one is safe on airlines now, certainly not airlines carrying passengers of Middle Eastern ethnicity. When the United States rounded up and imprisoned anyone of Japanese ancestry after the Pearl Harbor attacks it was inexcusable. It is one of the saddest events of American history, in my mind. Christena Cleveland is essentially doing the same thing with her words.

Unsatisfied with suggesting that the actions of one white man in one black church mean that the white church is unsafe for blacks, Cleveland goes on to write that “anti-black racism” is “part of the DNA of the white American church. … The white-led church was a headquarters for black subjugation, birthing a legacy of racial inequality that has long shaped white Christianity.” Wow… With a few pecks on her keyboard Cleveland wipes out every white church that opposed slavery, that persevered in the face of opposition to bring about an end to slavery, to discrimination, to Jim Crow and racism. It is a very narrow and incredibly inaccurate view of history to suggest that all white churches were in favor of black subjugation. Cleveland gives no credit to those individuals and churches. Instead, she writes, “While many black churches were leading abolitionist and anti-lynching efforts in the 19th century, and the civil rights movement in the 20th century, white churches overwhelmingly maintained the status quo of racial inequality and actively resisted change.” Overwhelmingly? That’s a strong word, and one without sufficient evidence to support its use.

Cleveland cites, as well, a Public Religious Research Institute poll which indicates that white evangelical Protestants are “the only major religious group in which a majority doesn’t see the need for such a movement” as Black Lives Matter. I have not seen the poll numbers so I will not comment on them. But I am a white evangelical Protestant and I do not see the need for such a movement. I see no point in qualifies of any kind. Lives matter, period. Plain and simple. All lives matter—in the womb and after birth; young, middle aged and elderly. Red, yellow, black and white—all are precious in His sight. Those are the words of a children’s song, but they contain adult truth. The emphasis of movements like Black Lives Matter draws lines that need to be erased, reinforce attitudes that need to be obliterated and contribute more to the perpetuation of racism and discrimination than to the elimination of the same. Cleveland’s rhetoric, though perhaps less outrageous and more eloquent, is about as helpful as the rhetoric of Al Sharpton.

She continues, “How can churches filled with people who refuse to acknowledge that racism is still a problem possibly honor the image of God in the black people who darken their sanctuary doors?” I have a few thoughts in response to this question. First, I am more than happy to acknowledge that racism still exists. However, I am not willing to admit that it exists everywhere and certainly not in all white churches. Second, and I suspect Cleveland may not like this position, but racism is not a one-way street. There are plenty of African Americans who are just as racist as the most vehement white racist. There are plenty of people—Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and others—who cannot move fast enough, or open their mouths quickly enough to make every problem or crisis a racial matter. Unfortunately, as alluded to above, Cleveland’s tone in this column do much the same thing. Another point related to this question is that in my own experience very few blacks do darken the sanctuary door of a predominantly white church. I grew up in an area that was quite racially diverse. I taught at a school that was predominantly African American students. Indeed, I once taught a class that was probably 85% non-white. Still, there were very few churches in the area with multi-ethnic congregations. Yes, there were some, and as far as I knew there were no racial issues from the church as a whole. Am I naïve enough to think that no one within those churches was racist? Of course not. But multi-ethnic churches are possible and they do exist, successfully. I am well aware that this cuts both ways; after all, I have never darkened the door of a black church. But Cleveland has to acknowledge the dual directionally of this problem.

Cleveland concludes her essay saying that until the white church is willing to acknowledge its racist history and honor African Americans, the black church will persist as a “necessary place of refuge and resistance—a place where black Christians like me can encounter a God and community that labor for equality and seek to restore the racial identities that have been cursed both inside and outside the broader church.” I take real issue with this statement as well. I have lived in the south—the part of the south where anyone from north of the Mason-Dixon line is considered a Yankee, where men still wear belt buckles that proclaim “The South Will Rise Again”, where African Americans are still referred to by some in very ugly, very inappropriate terms. Sadly, I went to church with some of those people. So yes, there are some white evangelical Protestants who do still fit Cleveland’s bill. Not all of the people in the churches I attended, however, thought that way. Indeed in one church there was an uprising when the pastor performed a marriage ceremony for a white female marrying a black male. A number of people wanted him gone from the church. But enough other people in the church took a stand and did not let that happen. They researched the matter, said there is no biblical support for limiting marriage to people of the same race, and insisted that the pastor had done nothing wrong. Other people in that church went out of their way to welcome and include individuals who were not white. So Cleveland needs to put away her paint brush and take out her fine point pen.

I truly believe that if we would stop focusing so much on the racism that does exist and instead celebrate and focus on the inclusion that also exists we would be surprised at home many stories and examples of reconciliation we can find. Perhaps that should be the first assignment for the new director of Duke University’s Center for Reconciliation. I dare say it would be far more productive and constructive than the current attempt to incite and divide.

September 1, 2015

Generational Apologies

In the September 2015 issue of Christianity Today Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra writes a column that asks a question I have been asking for years. The column is titled “Sins of Our Fathers,” and subtitled, “Should denominations apologize for acts they didn’t commit?” My position, for as long as I can remember ever considering the question, has always been no. I have usually referred to them as generational apologizes, when one generation apologizes for something a previous generation committed. I can see no point in it, no real substance or merit. In my mind, such apologies are hollow words. Dictionary.com defines apology as, “a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.” I think that is a solid definition for apology, and that is exactly why a generational apology is, in my mind, worthless. For me to apologize to someone or to some group of people for something that happened to their ancestors before I was even born is as meaningful as Person A apologizing to me for something that was done to me, or said about me, by Person B. It might be a nice sentiment, but it ultimately does no good, costs nothing and therefore means little.

Zylstra’s column is centered around a vote held at this year’s general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Ligon Duncan III, the chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, and Sean Lucas, a church historian, introduced a resolution that would apologize on behalf of the PCA for “involvement in and complicity with racial injustice” during the civil rights era. Duncan said the motion grew out of the relationships and friendships he has developed with African American pastors. According to Zylstra, supporters of the motion said it would be “an essential step toward reconciliation in a time of growing diversity.” The motion was deferred by a vote of 684-46, and it will come up for consideration again next year. But even if it passes, what good will it do?

I respect Ligon Duncan and I have learned from him in the past. He said, “When you become friends with a person who has experienced oppression, and you begin to love that person, you begin to care about the things that have hurt their heart.” I believe those are sincere words, and I agree with them. My position, however, remains the same. Caring about someone, empathizing with them, even wishing that something had not happened to them or expressing sorrow that it did happen are all fine, all understandable and all appropriate. They are also all different from apologizing.

If I become friends with a woman who has been raped, and she entrusts me with that fact, do I apologize to her on behalf of the male race for what happened to her? I would not. And while I do not know for certain, I think she would find it hollow and contrived if I did. I did not perpetrate the attack, so how could I sincerely and meaningfully apologize for it? I do not and cannot speak for the entire male race, so what good would that do? Even if I knew the specific individual responsible for the attack, I could not apologize for him. I do not see these generational apologies by groups or churches as any different.

In this specific case there is a bit of difference since there are still individuals alive who experienced the racial injustice of the civil rights era. This makes it different than other similar motions passed by groups, including the PCA, on slavery, since there are no individuals still living who experienced the forced slavery that ended more than a century ago. However, any motions or apologies should still only come from the individuals or churches who were involved in order to be meaningful. Interestingly, Zylstra reports that some PCA pastors question the need of Duncan’s motion because the PCA did not even exist as a body until nine years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. This raises a valid point, one that serves only to reinforce my position. Alex Shipman is the leader of the PCA’s African American Presbyterian Fellowship and to this point he argues that while the PCA did not exist, many of its member churches did, and some of them, he said, barred African Americans from joining their churches and did nothing to bring about an end to Jim Crow. Fine. Then those churches should apologize if there is going to be any apologizing done, not an entire body like the PCA, with the vote being made by hundreds of individuals who had nothing to do with the attitudes and actions of those churches and who may not even have been alive at the time.

Apparently some individuals were shocked that Duncan’s motion was delayed by such a resounding vote. “There was a sense of, ‘Why would you want to drag your feet on repenting?'” Duncan stated. Hmmm… I am not a member of the PCA and I was not at their general assembly. But at least one reason someone might want to drag their feet springs immediately to mind: how can I repent of something I did not do? To use a definition again, Dictionary.com defines repent this way: “to feel sorry, self-reproachful, or contrite for past conduct; regret or be conscience-stricken about a past action, attitude, etc.; to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better; be penitent.” I cannot be conscience-stricken over something I did not do; I cannot be disposed to change my life for the better when what I would be changing from is not something I have ever done. When I watch movies or documentaries, or when I read books, that deal with slavery, with the way Native Americans were largely treated by the United States government, of the Holocaust, of the way many African Americans were treated in the American south, I do feel remorse, I do feel anger, I do feel sorrow. I will not, however, apologize for any of it, because I cannot.

Simon Wiesenthal addresses with this dilemma in his book The Sunflower. In it, Wiesenthal, a Jew, recounts being asked by a German soldier who was near death to forgive him for what he had done to the Jews. Wiesenthal’s book is excellent reading, and it includes thoughts on this matter from some of the world’s leading thinkers. Wiesenthal’s own conclusion is that no one has a right to forgive for others. I read Wiesenthal’s book as a high school sophomore, and perhaps his conclusion has influenced my own thinking, I do not know. What I do know is that he and I are in agreement: no one has the right–nor, I would add, the ability–to forgive on behalf of anyone else.

Alex Shipman references biblical examples of the people of Israel confessing the sins of their fathers. Daniel 9 is one example given by PCA pastor Lane Keister. he also acknowledges, though, that Ezekiel 18 provides an example of the opposite, making it “clear that each person is only condemned for his own sin.” I think there is a difference between confession and apology. I see no problem with a person or a group acknowledging that the actions or attitudes of previous generations were wrong. If any church stood by and condoned Jim Crow laws or segregation, that church was wrong. I will acknowledge and confess that in a nanosecond. That wrong is not on me, though; I hold to guilt nor blame for it. Neither can I apologize for it, nor will I. Such apologies, whether from me or any other person or group, are useless, pointless and meaningless.

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