Finding Truth on the Internet (or anywhere else!)

Like many families with school-age children in the 1960’s and 70’s, my parents bought a very expensive but very helpful encyclopedia set. It had 30 volumes and came with 10 years-or-so of annual supplements that provided us with new knowledge and corrections. It became for us (after the Bible of course) the “standard” of truth that we all agreed was an acceptable solver-of-questions, referee-of-arguments, and source for school papers. Even though we knew that scientific answers were changing rapidly and history was being lived right before our eyes, we accepted it as a fair and unbiased statement of facts.

When it comes to faith, I still have an ultimate standard in the Bible. And I spend a lot of time praying that I will understand it correctly. But when it comes to scientific, historical, medical, or political truth, there is no such accepted standard upon which we all agree anymore.

So I am deeply concerned about our ability to know and understand the truth—on nearly every subject in the public eye. Politics, medicine, religion, science, and any number of other subjects are increasingly pointed and polarized, with news articles, social media posts, videos, and newscasts giving half-truth, partial-truth, their-side-of-the-truth, altered-truth, made-up-truth, and untruth. It’s often hard to find the truth in the mix of opinions, slants, and lies that surround us on a daily basis.

And I want to know the truth. I’ve spent much of my life studying the Bible and applying those truths. But I also want to know the truth about the coronavirus. About climate change. About vaccines. About the accusations against politicians. About the age of the universe. And about a hundred other things.

In recent weeks I’ve read the truth and the lies about the coronavirus, vaccinations, and other medical issues—and sometimes wondered what was true and what was false. I’ve read the truth and the lies and the exaggerations about President Trump and Vice-President Biden. I’ve read the truth and the lies about Christianity, Islam, and churches. I’ve read the truths and the lies about racism, murders, crimes, and other current news articles.

It frustrated me, but unfortunately, I’m finding that many people like to live in a world of untruth. They don’t want truth. They want their opinions confirmed and validated and they will seek out a source of news, or science, or medicine that will conform what they already think. Having a ready source of distorted truth is easier than thinking and trying to understand.

Discernment, the ability to judge between opinions in an effort to find the truth, is a lost art.

Unfortunately, this seems to be exceptionally true in the Christian world. We have purposely and understandably put our blinders on to keep out that which is false. The net result, though, is that in our blindness we are heavily influenced by a small number of opinion makers—many of whom may be wrong.

And we have forgotten how to think for ourselves.

But for those of you who want truth and are dissatisfied with the lack of it all around us, I offer you six steps to find the truth on the internet, or anywhere else.

STEP ONE: Seek the truth. If you are just looking for someone to validate your already-formed opinion, that is always easy to find. But if you really want to find the truth, it will take some digging, some reading from both sides of the aisle, some deep thinking, and some discernment. 

For example, if you already have the opinion that President Trump is one of the greatest presidents in history, I could point you to hundreds of articles and videos that will confirm your thinking. If you already have the opinion that President Trump is one of the worst presidents in history, I could point you to hundreds of articles and videos that will confirm your thinking.  But the truth may be far more nuanced, and if you want the truth, you will have to go deeper, look at both sides of the argument, and wade through the opinions and exaggerations of a multitude of modern newsmakers. You would also have to have a good grasp of United States history as well as a good understanding of Biblical principles of leadership. It would help to have a better-than-average grasp of business, science, international affairs, political science, economics, political ethics (is there still such a thing?) and much more.

It’s easy to form an opinion. It’s much harder to find the truth. And on any given subject, it takes hard work. Truth only comes to those who really seek it and put in the work to find it.

STEP TWO: Read everything with skepticism. Every writer, speaker, and newsmakers has an opinion, a bias, and a point of view—so anything said is coming from a certain perspective. It is necessary to understand that perspective and have a healthy level of skepticism about anything that is said—even if that word comes from your favorite politician, pastor, musician, or commentator.

For example, Fox News has a pro-President Trump and pro-Republican bias. And CNN has an anti-President Trump and pro-Democratic bias. Remember that. See through it. And figure that into your thinking.

I’m not criticizing them. I’m just pointing out that it is healthy to be skeptical of any anti-Trump thing said on CNN and any pro-Trump thing said on Fox. Other news organizations have built-in biases as well, from the far-left to the far-right. I’m not saying that you can’t find truth in these places; I’m just saying that you have to account for the bias before you accept their version of truth.

By the way, it’s true of me as well. If I were to try to give you an accurate comparison/contrast of Christianity and Islam, you would recognize my bias. I would try to be fair and accurate, but my bias is there. It is real. And I don’t deny it. I’m a believer in and a follower of Jesus, so clearly I have a built-in opinion. Someone seeking truth might want to balance my words with a Muslim speaking on the same subject, and I would have no problem with that, for (and here is my bias) I believe that someone who has heard both sides of the argument will choose faith in Jesus.

Extend your critical thinking to all sources. Some news agencies (AP for example, and to a lesser degree USA Today) do a decent job of being fair and unbiased in their news reporting, but not in their commentaries. Skeptics and critical thinkers, though, will look for the bias, account for it, balance it with bias from the other side, and use discernment before concluding that they have found the truth.

STEP THREE: Fact check everything. Unfortunately, most people lie on a regular basis. And those who don’t lie can and do make serious mistakes. The only solution for us if we hope to find the truth is that we fact-check everything we read.

For example, I listened to two news radio stations yesterday. One said that the United States has tested far more people for coronavirus than South Korea.Less than ten minutes later, the other station said the EXACT opposite. Both inundated me with numbers, statistics, and expert opinions. Both cannot be right. If I want to know the truth, I have some real research to do.  I haven’t done it yet, so I’ll withhold my judgment.

Here’s another example. I have heard all of my life that “Republicans are business-oriented and so the stock market increases more rapidly when a Republican occupies the White House.” It seemed to be accepted truth, but I decided to fact-check it for myself. I set up a spreadsheet covering the last 10 presidential terms, recording the Dow Jones averages at the beginning and ending of each term. I now know the truth about stock market increases for the last forty years, for every president from Reagan to Trump. 

I won’t share my data in this blog, because I’m not promoting Republicans or Democrats.  (But feel free to email me if you feel you must know.) Instead, I’m encouraging you to do your own fact-checking before you accept what anyone tells you is “true.” Your opinions will be better-informed and more likely to be true.

(And, yes, some people have told me I’m a little obsessive in seeking the truth, but I’d rather know for sure than accept what someone told me—even when it seems to be widely accepted as true.)

STEP FOUR: Seek informed opinions. Some opinions are much more informed than others, so seek the opinions of those with expertise in that area. If you seek scientific truth, seek the opinions of scientists with a great reputation for honesty and professionalism who have published in established scientific journals. If you seek medical truth, find it in doctors who have done thorough research and whose work has been peer-reviewed.  (That means that other medical researchers have thoroughly read and reviewed the opinion before it was published.) For history, seek the input of thorough historians who have researched in primary sources. For preachers who claim to know what the “Greek” really means, ask them to read directly from a Greek New Testament.  (Don’t ask me; I can’t do it quickly enough to satisfy myself or my Greek professor—Dr. Mike Baird.) There is a reason why I don’t use much Greek or Hebrew in my preaching. I’m not an expert in either language.

You get the idea. In every field of research, there are those who have done their homework over many years. They aren’t perfect in their understanding of truth, but their opinions must be carefully considered and not easily rejected without real evidence.

Today, unfortunately, we tend to look at the wrong things. “This video has gone viral and has been viewed X times” means nothing in the realm of truth, other than people watched it. “My friend read this article and really likes it” tells you nothing about the article, even if you really like your friend and think he is wise. Is the author credible and does he have expertise in his subject matter?  Is the article or video peer-reviewed by other experts?

We often enjoy conspiracy theories which go against the flow of accepted medical, scientific, or economic theories, but there is a reason why the accepted theory is the widely accepted theory. Usually, it’s because the accepted theory has the weight of scientific and medical data and research on their side. Don’t be quick to accept the new and the exciting without reading the accepted theories. 

You may have a different opinion than I do—and I won’t criticize you for it—but there are many scientific reasons why vaccines are considered to be safe and effective, why climate change appears to be human-caused, why a diet high in fruit and vegetables is good for you, and why the universe is billions of years old.

Don’t automatically buy into the argument of those who contradict widely accepted theories without first reading and understanding why the accepted theory is so widely accepted. Always seek the opinions of those who are accepted leaders in their field.  It’s an important step in finding truth.

STEP FIVE: Read both sides of an argument before you form an opinion. I get a lot of flack for this one from my politically oriented friends. I firmly believe that if you want to know what’s happening in politics today, you should listen to both Fox and CNN and maybe three or four others to get all sides of an argument. I want to hear directly from “the other side” of whatever issue I’m thinking about. It’s not enough for me to hear “my side” tell me what the “other side” is thinking or saying.  They don’t usually get it right.

If I only listen to “my side,” I’m not really thinking. I’m just seeking validation for what I already believe.

There is a big political race going on in my state (Arizona) and I had heard repeatedly that one of the two candidates wants to “take our guns away.” I was more-than-surprised when I heard him say when asked about it, “I probably own more guns of more types than anyone in this room, and I intend to keep them.” I’m still not sure I agreed with his overall stance, but at least I heard it from him, and his stance was much more nuanced than what his critics were saying. 

Here’s another example. I grew up attending many classes (in Baptist Churches) on denominations and cults, and so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Mormons thought.  It wasn’t until I talked to a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, and a Mormon that I had a good handle on their beliefs. I had the general facts right—but not the nuances and emphases. I told a Mormon acquaintance, “But you guys believe this, one of your prophets said so.” His answer caught me by surprise, “I’ve been an active Mormon for 20 years, and I’ve never heard that. I don’t know if he said it or not so I won’t dispute it, but that is not at all what I’ve been taught.” Obviously, I’m still a Baptist and not a Lutheran, Episcopalian, or a Mormon, so their arguments didn’t convince me. But I am a better Baptist because I’ve heard their beliefs directly from then.

I was recently criticized by a well-meaning friend when I said that I wanted to talk to a transgender person. (My friend just said, “You don’t have to talk to one to know that they’re wrong.”) My motivation is simple—I want to hear their story directly from them. I want to be fair and know if my assumptions about their thinking are right or wrong. I have an opinion, but it is only fair to listen to their point of view. I will be better informed if I do.

STEP SIX: Be willing to change your mind when new evidence arises. Let me tell you of an experience I had in a class at the University of Arizona.  (Sorry, Sun Devils, for mentioning the school. I hope you won’t stop reading.)  I had always been interested in space, so when I needed a science course, I jumped at the change to take an introductory astronomy course.

It was a big class in a big lecture hall. On day one, the professor came in, introduced himself and gave the standard talk about the course, the syllabus, the expectations, and the textbook. He pointed out that the textbook had just been published and that he himself was the primary author. We were duly impressed that someone with his credentials would be teaching the introductory course.

He shocked us, though. He said, “Let me show you what I think of the textbook.” He held it gently for a few seconds, and then threw it noisily into a metal garbage can he had placed on the platform. “New research in the last year has shown that many of my theories are wrong. I will change them in the second edition, but by the time it is published, much more may be wrong.

I was impressed that an expert would be willing to change his opinion when new evidence arises. But that is exactly what wise people do.

So seek truth. Search for it. Don’t just accept what your friends or heroes say. Don’t watch the latest video on social media without a critical eye. Don’t listen to your favorite commentator or politician or friend or musician or celebrity or pastor and automatically believe that they know the truth.

Truth will only be discovered when the real work of seeking it has been thorough and honest.

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Religious Freedom in the Parking Lot

Many churches have used their church parking lots as a drive-in worship service.  The concept is pretty simple.  People drive to church, stay in their cars, and listen to the worship service over loudspeakers or on their FM radios.  It is one way of doing church while trying to maintain social distancing.

We talked about having a ‘drive-in’ church at ABC, but when our governor issued a stay-at-home proclamation, we decided not to invite several hundred people to leave their homes—even if they stayed in their cars.  We have led our worship services over video, allowing people to both worship and stay at home.

So though I didn’t think it wise to host a drive-in church, I am frustrated that ‘drive-in’ churches have suddenly become a legal and even a constitutional issue.  Some states and cities have started to issue warnings and even $500 tickets (at a church in Mississippi) for those in the church parking lots.  Other have threatened to force those who drive in to church to quarantine for 14 days.

Here is my own opinion:  It’s currently best to worship over a live-feed or over video. 

But, on the other hand, I believe that the states and cities who are issuing tickets to those at drive-in churches are dead wrong—unless they apply their logic to all parking lots.

The first of our Bill of Rights prohibits the government from (among other things) establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.  It is one of our most cherished freedoms.  I do not believe that even in a health crisis, a government can pass a law or a proclamation aimed at limiting churches.

They can—at least for the short term—prohibit all groups of more than ‘X’ number of people.  Those laws aren’t specifically targeting churches, even though they impact churches.  If they apply equally to all groups (sports, schools, governments, clubs, etc.), they don’t violate our Freedom of Religion.  But if a law says, “No churches shall meet,” the law would be unconstitutionally prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

And that’s why I believe that prohibitions against church drive-ins are unconstitutional, at least in the way they are currently structured and enforced.

A government can, in the interests of health, prohibit more than “x” cars in a parking lot, if they apply it fairly to all parking lots.   But the states that are ticketing cars in a church parking lot aren’t doing the same to cars at a grocery store, a lumber yard, a restaurant, or even a golf course.  I believe their actions are therefore unconstitutional, because the law (or proclamation or executive order) is targeted or enforced only at churches.

Please understand where I’m coming from.  I believe that governments have the right to issue short-term proclamations aimed at maintaining the public health.  And I will support them and abide by them.  For that reason, I have decided not to invite people to our church parking lot. 

But I do not believe that governors or governments have the right to pass a proclamation aimed only (or enforced only) in church parking lots.  It’s more than an issue of fairness. It’s a basic tenet of our Freedom of Religion.  

And I am unwilling to surrender that freedom.

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Why Did We Close?

Like most churches (but, unfortunately, not all), we have decided to close our doors through at least April 30 or until the stay-at-home order by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey expires.  We are not holding any classes or services and none of our groups are meeting—except for various online settings.  Our office is closed, and our staff is working out of their homes.

We were not required to do so!  The letter of the executive order allows an exemption for churches, and we could have insisted on staying open.  We chose instead to follow the spirit of the order, so it is appropriate for us to share our thinking.  There are two primary reasons why we chose to close:

  • We did so as an act of love.  Loving people is one of our core values.  To show love to all our members and guests we chose to close up to remove the chance of anyone getting the coronavirus from us.  This virus is far too easy to pass on inadvertently.  We don’t want our staff, our members, our attenders, or those in any of our ministries to get the virus.  It’s love in action.
  • We did so as an example to others. We understand we are called to be “salt” and “light” to our community. In addition to sharing the gospel, this includes setting the right kind of example to our members and those around us. We wanted to set an example of both love for others and obedience to the government.

I have talked to some pastors who feel that government has no right to ask a church to close their doors.  (If the government singled out churches, I would agree—but that’s not what’s happening.)  I’ve talked to some pastors who feel that the need for public worship and spiritual growth and health overrides the need for physical health.  (I think that is reckless and maybe even arrogant on the part of the pastor.) I’ve talked to pastors who believe that God will protect their members if they choose to gather and worship.  (I think that is a gross misinterpretation of the Bible. We are called to live with wisdom.)

We know that not everyone agrees with us—every church had to make this decision on their own—but we honestly believe that we have made the right choice.  We believe that our members will stay with us and look forward to returning as soon as we are able.  We believe that our members will continue to give generously as they always have so we can continue our ministries and come back strong when we do re-open.  We believe that our members are strongly enough committed to Christ that they won’t suffer spiritually in the meantime.

I actually believe that this time of trial (and the extra prayer that results) will lead our members to an even deeper level of spiritual commitment.  That, I believe, is part of what James 1 teaches us!

That doesn’t mean this is easy.  I’m tired already of preaching to a camera.  Our worship team misses meeting and working together.  We all miss the sense of fellowship and teamwork that meeting together gives us.  We love serving our community, and most of that ministry has been temporarily curtailed.

But I trust God for all things.  He will bring us through this temporary trial, and we will be stronger for it!

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A Plea For Truth

“”I don’t know if this is true or not.”

I know it’s not true, but I wanted to get people’s reaction.”

“I just reposted it.  It’s not my job to verify it.” 

“I know it’s not true, but it’s funny!”

“I’m not sure whether it’s true or not, but this guy shouldn’t be elected.  All is fair in politics.”

These are just a few of the responses I’ve received when I’ve pointed out—mostly to close friends and some from other ministry leaders—that their social media posts aren’t true.

And, honestly, they are all pathetic justifications of dishonesty and a direct violation of the ninth commandment, which states, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”

Some of the people I’ve talked to justify their dishonesty by ignorance.  (“I didn’t know.”)  Some justify their violation of God’s commandment because of humor.  (“It was funny.”)  Some justify their deceit because the lie didn’t start with them.  (“I didn’t say it.  I just reposted it.”)  Some justified their violation of God’s command against false testimony because they wanted to start a discussion, or because of politics, or because of laziness.  (“I didn’t check it out, so don’t blame me.”)

You know the kind of posts I’m talking about.  You’ve seen them.  Posts about birth certificates, tax rates, and crime rates.  Altered pictures and manipulated videos.  Misquotes.  Innocent pictures claiming to be incriminating.  Medical misinformation.  Altered statistics.

And the worst part of it?  They are epidemic in the Christian world.  I’ve had to “hide” or “unfriend” many holding responsible positions in the church because of their continued dishonesty and their repeated justification of it.

It’s time that all Christians and especially Christian leaders read once again the 10 commandments and pay particular attention to commandment number nine.  “You shall not bear false witness” includes everything we post on social media.

So if you don’t know it’s true and you haven’t personally verified it—don’t post it or repost it.  If it’s not true but it’s funny—don’t post it.  If you want to get other’s reaction—post something you know to be true.  If you are tempted to repost something, verify it first.  If you repost, it is now posted under your name and you are responsible for the content.

We cannot claim to be preachers of truth and lie about other people.

Speak truth.  And only truth.

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Before I vote

Questions I Ask Before I Vote

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As a pastor, I do not publicly endorse candidates, nor do I share my party affiliations publicly.  I’d rather be known as a follower of Jesus than a supporter of ‘Candidate X.’  In the same way, our church does not endorse a candidate, and we try to keep political arguments out of the fellowship.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have strong political opinions.  And since we do, we want our faith to inform our politics.

Since my faith comes first in my life, I work hard to look at politics and politicians through the eyes of my faith in God and in the Bible.  As a result, I spend a lot of time thinking, praying, studying the Bible for insights, and talking with trusted people.  But it is hard to vote Biblically when candidates don’t tell you where they stand on important issues—or when they tell you one thing and do another when they are in office.

So I have some serious questions I consider before I vote.  I hope you think through these same questions as well—and more—before you vote.  The following questions all have a Biblical basis.  Unfortunately, not many of these questions are addressed in a campaign, so I have to work hard to discern the answers to these questions from political candidates before I decide who to vote for. 

Here are some things I want to know about a candidate before I vote: 

  • Do you believe in a balanced budget and prudent spending?  (See Proverbs 27:23-27.)  I usually hear—but only from the out-of-power-party—that spending is out of control and we need to balance the budget.  This seems to be forgotten once in office.  Do you believe it enough to do something about it?  And if so, how would you (1) cut spending, and/or (2) increase taxes?
  • Do you believe in religious liberty for all?  The first amendment to our constitution guarantees all Americans the freedom of religion.  Do you only believe in religious liberty for Christians?  Or do you only apply it to members of minority religions?  And what does freedom of religion mean to you?
  • What do you believe about war and peace?  All Christians desire and pray for peace, but we also know that war is sometimes necessary.  When it is appropriate to use military force or to go to war?  What is your plan for promoting world peace?  How involved should we be in wars in other countries?
  • Do you practice personal generosity by giving to churches, charities, and those in need?  (See 1 Timothy 6:17-19.)  I believe that the values of your public life should be evident in your private life, so can you show (via statements or tax returns) that you are personally generous and charitable?
  • Do you believe in protecting the environment?  Or, to use Biblical terms, do you believe in good stewardship of our air, water, land, and resources?  Who should make decisions on what is appropriate—the government?  Businesses?  Individuals?  What do you believe is an appropriate way to be faithful stewards of our planet for the next generations?
  • Do you believe that, to use a Biblical phrase, a “worker is worthy of his wages?”  How do you apply that to the concept of a minimum wage?  Should we have one?  Is the current $7.25 federal wage sufficient?  If not, what should it be?
  • The Old Testament says much about foreigners living within the land of Israel.  For example, Exodus 22:21 says, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”  Does this concept have any bearing on current immigration laws, asylum seekers, border issues, dreamers, etc.?  What should be our stance on immigration?
  • Both parties believe in caring for and protecting underprivileged and under-represented people, though they talk about it in different ways.  What is the government’s role in caring for seniors, widows, the homeless, the mentally ill, and the poor?  And do you believe in extending that caring to the unborn? 

Obviously, there are no perfect political candidates, for all are human and all human beings are imperfect.  Still, though, I use the Bible as a standard for my faith and politics, and these questions—and many others—are important to me!

I am a man of faith—an imperfect one, of course. But my faith is important to me.  So I work hard to make sure that my politics are informed by my faith!

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Happy Thanksgiving From President Lincoln

We trace the history of Thanksgiving in the United States of America to 1621, when the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest in the New world.  It was a three-day feast attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. 

It was celebrated by our nation on-and-off from 1789, when President Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving.  President Jefferson chose not to celebrate it, and its celebration was intermittent and celebrated on different dates in different states until the time of President Abraham Lincoln. 

In 1863, in the midst of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national observance of a day of Thanksgiving. His proclamation is a beautiful statement of how to be both thankful and prayerful in the midst of tough times.

 I encourage you to read the following proclomation prayerfully and carefully.  It is a significant and Godly statement of a man who was grateful to God for the blessings of life while maintaining a humble, repentant, and prayerful heart.  

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

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Respect at the World Series

I’ve sung this song before, but it needs to be repeated.  RESPECT—in American culture—is sorely lacking.

The latest issue that led to this blog is the booing of the President at a World Series game and the crowd chants of “lock him up” that occurred in Washington D.C. on Sunday, October 27. That is a complete lack of respect for the President.

I’ve heard all of the excuses, explanations, and rationalizations.  I don’t buy them, but here they are.  You will hear them:

  • It’s democracy in action.  Every American has a right to share their opinion.  I agree that every American has a right to speak their mind.  You disagree with the president?  You have a right to say so.  Blog. Tweet. Debate. Post. Vote. Speak up. Write letters. Find a crowd and speak. Run for office. But do it all respectfully.
  • He started it at his rallies with cries like “Lock her upand other disrespectful remarks.  One person’s disrespect is never an excuse for mine—or ours.  We are all responsible for our own actions.  “He started it” sounds like something I expect to hear in a preschool class, not from adults.
  • We have a right to stand up to what we perceive as wrong.  Of course we do.  And if we see anyone doing wrong—a president, a senator, a governor, a mayor, a pastor, or a police officer—we have the right to speak up and take appropriate action.  Petty and disrespectful chants in a baseball stadium are neither appropriate nor respectful.

Our nation is strongest when we can learn to stand up for our beliefs respectfully. 

Am I defending the President? 

No.  I am neither defending him nor accusing him.  It’s not about Donald Trump the man. 

What I am saying is that the office of the President demands a level of respect whether we agree with him or not.  If you know me, you know that I apply this to other leaders as well. I apply it to this president and the previous one. It applies to senators, congressmen, judges, governors, mayors, teachers, police officers, referees, and pastors.   

As the Bible says (in 1 Peter 2:17, NIV), “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”

That verse is often quoted, but we need to do more than quote it. We need to live it.

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Freedom of Religion

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Those are the opening words of the very first amendment to the constitution of the United States of America’s in the portion known as the Bill of Rights.  If you know your United States history, then you probably know that our constitution would not have been ratified without the Bill of Rights.  Citizens—especially the members of churches—insisted that freedom of religion be included before they would ratify the new constitution.  The constitution called for a much stronger government than the previously existing Articles of Confederation, and citizens did not want a document guaranteeing a stronger government unless certain rights were guaranteed in that document, starting with the freedom of religion.

Our citizens showed great wisdom, for now—232 years later—a constitution guaranteeing the freedom of religion is needed more than ever.

Those of you who know me know that as a pastor, I do not endorse a political party or a candidate for office.  But that does not prohibit me from calling out leaders or candidates when they are Biblically or morally wrong.  So I believe it is necessary for me to say that one candidate for president, Beto O’Rourke, was dead wrong when he said that we should remove the tax-exempt status of churches (and colleges and charities) who aren’t pro-gay marriage.

In order for that to happen, congress would have to pass a law that would call some religions “correct” and therefore tax-exempt and some other religions “incorrect” and therefore ineligible for the tax-exempt status.  That law would immediately be declared unconstitutional by any honest judge who has read the Bill of Rights.  (Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe that all of our Supreme Court Justices—both conservative and liberal, anti-gay marriage and pro-gay marriage—would be honest enough to align together on this issue and unanimously declare it unconstitutional.) 

When Congress, or the President, or the courts, begin to decide which religions are valid and which are not, then we no longer have freedom of religion.

There are some strange (in my opinion) beliefs in the world of religion.  And I am well aware that there are some people who believe that I have some strange opinions.  In our Bill of Rights, however, we are given the right and the freedom to hold to our opinions.  And our government cannot tell us that one religious opinion is more valid than another.

So what should happen now that this issue has been brought out into the open?

  • Candidate O’Rourke should acknowledge his mistake and reaffirm his belief in our Bill of Rights.
  • Other presidential candidates should tell us where they stand on this crucial issue.  (To his credit, openly gay candidate Pete Buttigieg has already publicly disagreed with O’Rourke’s statement.)
  • The Democratic Party (it was, after all, a Democrat who made this shocking statement) should let us know where they stand as a party on this important issue. 
  • And churches, pastors, believers, and even non-believers should loudly remind our officers, candidates, judges, and politicians that freedom of religion is a cherished and guaranteed right that cannot and should not be tampered with.

All Americans, apparently, would benefit from a rereading and a renewed understanding of our constitution.  It’s not a perfect document, but it gives us some incredibly important freedoms that cannot be taken away by our government. 

And no candidate for our highest office should even hint that these freedoms could be taken away.  They are too important to us to be trifled with.

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The Good Samaritan Retold

Most people have heard the story of the Good Samaritan.  It may be the most widely known of all of Jesus’ parables. What you may not know is that the story was particularly and even purposely offensive to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.  The “experts in the law,” the “priests,” and the “Levites” that Jesus referred to in the text would have understood that Jesus had picked on them intentionally. And they would have been even more deeply offended by his choice of a Samaritan as the hero of the story, for the Samaritans were among the “most despised” people of their day. 

So as Jesus told the story, the religious leaders must have squirmed and flinched as their anger grew.

It’s worth another reading—before we retell it in terms that might make us squirm today.  Here is Luke 10:25-37 in the NIV:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

That is the familiar story of Jesus’ day, but since most of us do not identify as priests or Levites, nor do we understand their hatred of Samaritans, it doesn’t make us squirm today as it did them. To get the same response as the original, I offer this simple retelling.  If it makes you squirm—or if it makes you mad—then you can understand the intent of the original more clearly:

An expert in theology and ethics asked Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what does it mean to be a Christian?”

“Haven’t you read the Bible?” he replied. “What does it say?”

He answered, “The heart of the Bible’s teaching is found in ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“That is correct,” Jesus replied. “Do these things if you want to follow me.”

But the expert wanted to feel good about himself, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was traveling from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, when he was attacked by robbers. They stole his car and his wallet, beat him horribly, shot him, and left him on the side of the road, near death.

A conservative evangelical leader happened to be on the same highway and saw the man.  He stopped, but with no wallet, he could not verify the man’s citizenship, so he left him there on the side of the road and went on his way.

So too, a progressive leader of a mainline denomination came to the place.  He stopped, saw the man, tweeted a passionate cry for gun control, and went on his way, leaving the man on the side of the road.

But an Arab on a student visa saw the man and stopped.  He took pity on him.  He used his belt for a tourniquet and his shirt for a bandage to stop the bleeding, put him in his car, and drove him to the nearest emergency room.  With no wallet, the hospital could not verify the man’s identity or insurance status, so the Arab paid $500 of his own money and asked to be called later that day with more details.

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “Obviously, the last of the three—the one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “You have your answer.  Go and do likewise if you want to be my follower.”

Jesus’ teaching was incredibly simple even if it was offensive.  We are called to love people—all people.  It doesn’t matter where their citizenship lies.  It doesn’t matter what political party they belong to.  It doesn’t matter what skin color they possess or what language they speak or where they are from.  It doesn’t even matter if they share my faith.

All men are my neighbors.

Jesus made that clear. And he was perfectly willing to upset some people in order to make it abundantly clear.

“Loving my neighbor as myself” means loving all people.

That’s what Jesus taught. I hope I made that as abundantly clear as Jesus did.

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Honor The Emperor

We’re doing it wrong.

Christians are fond of quoting 1 Peter 2:17, “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”  We have no emperor (or king, as in some translations) so we correctly apply the verse to mean that we are to respect and honor the President.

But we’re doing it wrong.  What I’m seeing is that our partisanship has overridden our belief in the Bible.  Republican Christians are fond of insisting that we apply that verse to the current President.  Democratic Christians were fond of insisting that we apply it to the previous President.

It’s wrong to limit the verse only to presidents that we approve of.  Remember that the Christians of the first century didn’t approve of their Emperor—but they were commanded to honor and respect him anyway.   The same is true today. Our faith and obedience to the Bible must be far more important to us than our political affiliation.  So the command is to honor and respect all presidents.

But honor and respect don’t stop with the President. 

In order to make my point, a little lesson in American Constitutional Government is in order.  We don’t have an emperor.  In our system, the responsibilities of an emperor are divided into executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.  If that verse applies to believers today—and it does—then we are to respect the leaders of all three branches of government.  It’s not just presidents.  It includes senators, representatives and judges as well.

So let me be clear. 

If you only apply the command to those in your party, you are disobeying the Bible.  If you show respect to this President but not to the last one, you are disobeying the Bible.  If you show respect to the President but you feel free to disrespect the Speaker of the House, you are disobeying the Bible.  If you show respect to the President but you feel free to disrespect the Supreme Court Justices, you are disobeying the Bible.  If you show respect to the senators and representatives of your own party but feel free to put down the senators and representatives of the other party, you are disobeying the Bible.

Believers need to obey the Bible when it is easy and when it is not. 

So respect this President and the last one.  Respect senators, representatives, and judges.  And do so whether you agree with them or not. 

Honor the Emperor.

And if I can make a literary allusion, honor him even when he’s wearing no clothes.

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