Overcoming Fear

Here’s a question for you: what is the most negative, most destructive, most harmful emotion? There certainly is no shortage of candidates to consider – anger, hatred, pride, just to name a few – but in my opinion, the worst of all has to be fear.

For example, have you noticed how many television commercials make their appeal by trying to stoke your fear? A majority of money management and investment ads fall into this category. They’re trying to make you afraid of outliving your money, or not being able to “keep up your lifestyle,” or some other vague concept to threaten you and make you afraid.

Insurance companies excel at this, promising to protect you from “mayhem,” and the fear that arises from the unknown and unexpected. We enjoy spending time on social media, but then are horrified to discover that personal information has been shared without our permission. Our elected officials give lengthy speeches that pump up our fears and appeal to our basest natures. A recent study by a major university found that an overwhelming majority of gun owners point to “being afraid” as their number one reason for buying weapons – and especially buying multiple weapons.

Last summer’s hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and mudslides affected millions of us, and made us realize how helpless we are to prevent natural disasters, and how susceptible we are to becoming a victim. And fear grows.

We are living in a society that is drowning in fear – fear of running out of money, fear of burglars, fear of disasters, fear of “others.” We are afraid of dying, and afraid of living too long. We are afraid of the government, afraid of corporations, and afraid of each other.

It’s my opinion that this fear is destroying the very fabric of our society.

We need to realize this type of paralyzing, crippling fear is not new. In fact, one of the most frequently quoted phrases in the Bible is, “Do not fear” – by some counts, that phrase appears 365 times in the scripture. And it’s clear from the Holy Word that while fear may be common and understandable, it doesn’t have to rule our lives. Consider –

  • For God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim. 1:7)
  • Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isa. 41:10)
  • He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, … (Psa. 91:1-5)
  • The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psa. 27:1)
  • When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me? (Psa. 56:3-4)
  • I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

God wants to walk in peace, not fear. So how can we do that?

Recognize fear when it appears. It’s natural and normal – even healthy – to have a certain level of fear about the unknown, about new situations, or other unfamiliar circumstances, but we can’t let that fear paralyze us into inaction. When we are making a decision about something, we need to evaluate that choice, consider the pros and cons, seek the counsel of wise friends – then decide! We must not let the fear make the choice for us.

Pray. In Philippians 4:6, Paul says “Don’t be anxious about anything; instead, in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”. We need to cultivate our relationship with God so that we can stay in touch with Him about every situation of our lives.

Stay positive. One of the most important techniques for battling fear is to fill our minds with positive and encouraging thoughts. Please don’t misunderstand: I am not suggesting any strategy that ignores reality. But as believers we must be filling our hearts and minds with the teaching of the Scriptures, the encouragement of Christian music, and the help of the Holy Spirit and godly friends, so that we are not vulnerable to falling into fear and despair. Remember that the first time God appears to Joshua after the death of Moses, three times in that conversation, God tells Joshua, “Be strong and courageous!” (Joshua 1:6-9).

Plan well but realize… Nothing I am saying here should be interpreted as if I am against planning or preparation. By all means, we should plan and be as ready as humanly possible. We should try and anticipate possibilities and be as prepared as possible for any situation. But at the same time, we must remember that we are not in charge, that sometimes situations and circumstances come that no one could have expected or prepared for. I say this as a survivor of Hurricane Harvey. In those situations when our planning fails, let us not fall into fear, but let us know that our God is still bigger than our circumstances, that it has not taken HIM by surprise, and that He is with us, through everything.

Let us, then, have full confidence that we do not need to be anxious, that we can face each day and every situation knowing that He is with us, and that we need not fear. Strength and courage!

A Little Kindness

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my favorite singer was Glen Campbell, and among the many other records of his that I had was “Try a Little Kindness” –

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he’s sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say, you’re going the wrong way

You got to try a little kindness
Yes show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness
Then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

Don’t walk around the down and out
Lend a helping hand instead of doubt
And the kindness that you show every day
Will help someone along their way

It’s a message I’ve been thinking about lately.

Item: An elderly diner in a “Waffle House” in La Marque, Texas, recovering from surgery, asks his waitress to cut up the slice of ham he’s having at breakfast. The busy 18-year-old pauses from her duties to help the man; another customer sees this and snaps a quick picture, which goes viral and causes the Internet to lose its mind. City officials are so impressed they honor the young woman with an official day, and Texas Southern University gives her a scholarship. (Photo by Laura Wolfe)

Item: The Marriott Hotel chain late last year began running a series of TV ads based on the theme of “The Golden Rule” – they even have their own hashtag, #GoldenRule. Part of the commercial includes a poem with the line, “What if mankind were made up of kind women and kind men?” The ads show Marriott employees – and others – performing simple acts of kindness to help others.

I realize that expressions of kindness towards others have often been in short supply, but it seems that lately such acts of kindness are even more rare than ever, and it makes me sad for our society. When did simply being nice to another person become so rare and remarkable that it makes the national news?

This may come as a shock to some of my younger readers, but there was a time in this country when politics “ended at the shore,” when political parties would not criticize a president (even from the other party) about the way he handled foreign policy; a time when we could disagree about political issues without assuming the other side was evil and out to destroy the country; and a time when we could discuss politics without the conversation degenerating into shouting match on the level of, “You’re stupid!” “No, you’re stupid!”

It seems to me that Jesus went out of his way to tell us that we should be kind to others, and not merely to those we already know or love, and especially not only to those who are able to pay us back. He told us specifically to dinner those who COULDN’T pay us back. He calls us to set an example of kindness and grace to everyone.

He’s not the only one. The prophet Micah told us to “practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God” (Micah 6:8). The Apostle Paul lists “kindness” along with the other fruit of God’s Spirit. And that list is not a buffet – we don’t get to pick & choose which ones we want. If God’s Spirit is alive and active inside of us, He will be producing all of those qualities in us.

The problem with kindness is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s more concerned with serving others than in tooting its own horn. And in our self-promoting, selfie-obsessed culture, most of us simply don’t think of how to serve others.

Caring about others – putting the needs of others first – is a learned behavior, and contrary to human nature. It’s an act of discipleship that follows in the self-sacrificing steps of our Lord. Maybe that’s why it’s so rare.

Jesus is still looking for disciples who will walk as He walked, and live as He lived. That includes showing kindness to all. Especially those who don’t deserve it.

“No More Squinting”

My friend Kacy Latham wrote an interesting article the other day, entitled “No More Squinting.” She’s a good writer, and more often than not, I find myself agreeing with her. This time, I felt like she REALLY hit it out of the park. So with her kind permission, I wanted to share it with all of you. It’s worth thinking about.

No more squinting…

There were years that I drank a little to much of the “Hyper-Christian punch…”

You know the kind… Jesus is always coming back on this certain day…only to see it come and go without a rapture…

I lost my keys because “Satan was messing with me.”

Every bad thing from thunderstorms to temper tantrums were caused by “demons.”

The biggest thing was a buzzword that was misused… A lot.

Discernment.

I believe that normal discernment is very important.

Discernment can be a code-word for sanctioned fear or rejection of all things unfamiliar. This is just a cover for fear. It makes good-hearted Christians act like snotty mean brats. It also draws a big line in the sand, marking our right to shun and judge others.

This fear of being “polluted by the world,” caused me to view everything through a very narrow lens.

Movies were scoured for secular humanistic messages. Pop songs were judged for glorifying lust and sin and other people (even other kinds of Christians) were always “suspect.”

Well, there comes a time when you get tired of “squinting.” You get tired of fretting. You get tired of your darn closed mind…

This isn’t the “freedom” we sang about.

So I stopped “squinting.” And it has been the best move of my life. In the same way I can marvel at the beauty in a perfect spiderweb, I can also enjoy the painting made by my friend who is Muslim. I can make an extra effort to smile and genuinely engage with the transgender woman behind the counter at Walgreens, without fear, without condemnation or the need to invite her to church!

My vision not so restrictive and cynical now…

I am not God; it’s not my job to reject people. It’s okay to be fellow human.

Quoting those “heathen” musicians, The Beatles, I’ve decided to “Let it be.”

Quoting Freddy Mercury, that homosexual, “open your eyes, look up to the sky… And SEE.”

I honestly don’t think your faith will be damaged by reading Harry Potter, listening to Kendrick Lamar, having a Halloween party, or watching a movie like “Life of Pi” which alludes to Universalism…

Faith should be robust and mystical…

Not rigid and easily shattered

We really can relax.

Opening our eyes makes us wiser… It makes us kinder and more loving… It’s okay to relax and appreciate strange new things.

I’m done with “squinting.” It’s a fear based prison… And the opposite of what real faith and love ought to be. ❤

Reblogging Max Lucado

I had been thinking a lot about the presidential primary coming up in Texas, and have been very troubled by many of the things that are being said and done. I had been trying to come up with a way of saying what was on my heart, and then I found this blog from Max Lucado.

Let me say, in reposting this blog, I am using copyrighted material. His people may contact me, and tell me to pull it down, which I will do if asked. But this is good, and says what I was thinking, and says it better than I could, so at least for the time being, I’m borrowing it.

His title for this piece is, “Decency for President.” To that, I would simply add, “Amen” and “Hear, hear.”

As the father of three daughters, I reserved the right to interview their dates. Seemed only fair to me. After all, my wife and I’d spent 16 or 17 years feeding them, dressing them, funding braces, and driving them to volleyball tournaments and piano recitals. A five-minute face-to-face with the guy was a fair expectation. I was entrusting the love of my life to him. For the next few hours, she would be dependent upon his ability to drive a car, avoid the bad crowds, and stay sober. I wanted to know if he could do it. I wanted to know if he was decent.

This was my word: “decent.” Did he behave in a decent manner? Would he treat my daughter with kindness and respect? Could he be trusted to bring her home on time? In his language, actions, and decisions, would he be a decent guy?

Decency mattered to me as a dad.

Decency matters to you. We take note of the person who pays their debts. We appreciate the physician who takes time to listen. When the husband honors his wedding vows, when the teacher makes time for the struggling student, when the employee refuses to gossip about her co-worker, when the losing team congratulates the winning team, we can characterize their behavior with the word decent.

We appreciate decency. We applaud decency. We teach decency. We seek to develop decency. Decency matters, right?

Then why isn’t decency doing better in the presidential race?

The leading candidate to be the next leader of the free world would not pass my decency interview. I’d send him away. I’d tell my daughter to stay home. I wouldn’t entrust her to his care.

I don’t know Mr. Trump. But I’ve been chagrined at his antics. He ridiculed a war hero. He made mockery of a reporter’s menstrual cycle. He made fun of a disabled reporter. He referred to the former first lady, Barbara Bush as “mommy,” and belittled Jeb Bush for bringing her on the campaign trail. He routinely calls people “stupid,” “loser,” and “dummy.” These were not off-line, backstage, overheard, not-to-be-repeated comments. They were publicly and intentionally tweeted, recorded, and presented.

Such insensitivities wouldn’t even be acceptable even for a middle school student body election. But for the Oval Office? And to do so while brandishing a Bible and boasting of his Christian faith? I’m bewildered, both by his behavior and the public’s support of it.

The stock explanation for his success is this: he has tapped into the anger of the American people. As one man said, “We are voting with our middle finger.” Sounds more like a comment for a gang-fight than a presidential election. Anger-fueled reactions have caused trouble ever since Cain was angry at Abel.

We can only hope, and pray, for a return to decency. Perhaps Mr. Trump will better manage his antics. (Worthy of a prayer, for sure.) Or, perhaps the American public will remember the key role of the president is to be the face of America. When he/she speaks, he/she speaks for us. Whether we agree or disagree with the policies of the president, do we not hope that they behave in a way that is consistent with the status of the office?

As far as I remember, I never turned away one of my daughter’s dates. They weren’t perfect, but they were decent fellows. That was all I could ask.

It seems that we should ask the same.

© Max Lucado
February 21, 2016

Thoughts on Juneteenth, 2015

On this date in 1865, black slaves in Texas learned they were free. The date has been celebrated as “Juneteenth” in Texas and elsewhere ever since. And now that same week, in another part of the Old South, a young man gives expression to his hatred and murders nine innocent people. Really? A hundred and fifty years later, this is where we still are as a nation?

What happened in South Carolina is not primarily an attack on Christianity; neither is it primarily about gun violence, although that’s the direction the politicians on the right and left are trying to spin it.

What happened is about race. It is about hate. And all Americans have to acknowledge it, and in humility ask if we are part of the problem, or part of the solution.

Some white Americans have got to stop pretending that institutional racism doesn’t exist, and admit that black people in this country have a long way to go, just to level the playing field. To quote Ann Richards, some folks are born on third base, and think they hit a triple.

Meanwhile, some black Americans have got to stop blaming white folks for every problem, and take some responsibility for their actions.

But I’m white, so let me speak to that side of things. Getting some whites to acknowledge the level of racism that still exists in this country is next to impossible. Want a very subtle example?

I see commercials all the time for prominent churches here in town, and all the folks are smiling, and seem genuinely warm and friendly. But when I look closer, I notice that all the people are white. And kids are overwhelmingly blonde. And judging by the way they’re dressed, they’re all comfortably middle-class. The unspoken, subliminal message is pretty clear – “You can come to church here, if you look like us and know how to act.”

I can feel some of you getting defensive. You might say, “We would welcome those people if they would come.”

We are all “those people.” Jesus came to find us. And He sent us to do the same. We’ve got to be intentional about building bridges and making friends, and quit waiting on other folks to make the first move. I’m pretty sure the Great Commission didn’t say, “Go into all the world and build pretty buildings, and welcome anyone who shows up.”
I remember as a young man when integrating schools and “forced busing to achieve racial desegregation” were the issues. And I remember the marches, and the race riots of the 1960s, and “We Shall Overcome.” And I remember a restroom marked “Whites Only.”Fifty years later, things are different. Sort of. As a white guy, it seems to me that things are better in some ways, and worse in others.I wish I knew what the answer was. I certainly realize that we won’t solve this until Jesus returns and brings the Kingdom in its fullness. But I don’t think that means we can sit around on our Blessed Assurance and do nothing until then. I don’t know what that answer is, but I know that it will take people of good character on both sides who are willing to talk. And listen.We need to be intentional about making friends with people who are not like us. We’re going to be in heaven with one another for an awfully long time. Maybe we ought to start getting to know one another before then.Let it begin with me.

Remembering Dr. King

MLKDr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a personal hero of mine. I think there was so much to admire about him. He consistently stood for justice, for peace, and for non-violence. He believed in the Kingdom of God, and he believed that Christians, regardless of color, ought to do all they can to create outposts and colonies of God’s Kingdom here on earth – to create what he called “beloved community.”

When I was in grad school, I did a project on Dr. King’s rhetorical skills, looking at the way he was able to take traditional black preaching styles – with its use of storytelling, rhythmic phrasing, and uplifting hopefulness – and combine that with the logic and power of traditional white sermon styles. (And thanks to my lifetime friend from college, Kurt Stallings, for giving me the idea!) In the process, I read just about everything that Dr. King ever said or wrote. I was absolutely blown away by the body of his thoughts.

Many of us are familiar only with his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, and obviously, that’s wonderful. But there is much more, so on this day set aside to honor him, I will let him speak for himself.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’

 

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.

 

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

 

The time is always right to do what is right.

 

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

 

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

 

Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.

 

The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.

 

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus and extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

 

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

 

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

 

There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey Gad rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment… By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent — and often even vocal — sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club.

 

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

Just My Two Cents Worth

Let me say from the start, that I know a lot of people – including many of my friends – will be upset with what I am going to say here. Some because they will think I have gone too far. Others, because they will think I have not gone far enough.

I want to tell you a story about a neighbor; let’s call him Jose. That’s not his name, but that’s what we’ll call him. Jose is in his early 40s, a good husband and loving father. He is a roofer, pays his taxes, and works hard for a living, frequently putting in very long days on brutally hot roofs.

And Jose is in this country illegally.

When he was a baby, his parents brought him and his siblings across the border – illegally. Eventually, his parents and his brother and sisters were able to get their status changed and become American citizens. Unfortunately (I think because of some paperwork errors), their new status did not apply to him, and so he remained illegal.

Jose eventually learned English, got married, got a good job, and began raising his family. Then he was caught in a surprise raid at a job site, and deported. He found out that even though he was technically a Mexican citizen, because he had been taken out of that country while still a baby, there was no record of him being born there, or ever living in Mexico, and so he couldn’t get any kind of paperwork from that government, and had no legal status there. As far as that country was concerned, he did not exist.

He came back to America, determined to get through whatever bureaucracy he had to in order to become a legalized citizen. But before he could make that happen, he got caught again. And deported again.

So now, because he has been deported twice, he is permanently ineligible for citizenship.

I have lost track of Jose. The last I heard, he had gotten back across the border, and was back with his family. But I don’t know any more than that.

I don’t know if the rule changes announced last week will apply to him or not. I hope they do. I do know that a family has been torn apart, and a good man caught in a political mess, mostly through no fault of his own.

So there’s a lot I don’t know. I’ll tell you what I DO know, and what I do think.

I know that we must have better security on the border. We obviously have to be vigilant against terrorists coming across. We cannot have open borders, and I know we cannot have programs that promise citizenship to anyone who can find their way across.

On the other hand, I know we must not allow ourselves to be swallowed up in the “climate of unreasoning fear” which now seems to grip our country. We must not be so anti-immigrant that we forget that very few of those of us now living here now, had families who were here when the Pilgrims landed.

I think we need to remember that the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants are NOT like the headline-grabbers who make the news and are taking benefits they are not entitled to. In my experience, the illegals I have known pay their taxes, don’t take any benefits, get taken advantage of by their bosses and landlords. They mind their own business, and live in constant fear of being caught and deported.

I agree with President Reagan, who said in 1984, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots here and have lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.”

I know that over and over again, God urges His people to care for the alien, the widow, the orphan – to plead the case of the defenseless, to care for those in distress. I know that those scriptures still apply.

And I’ll tell what else I think. I think if it was a bunch of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Canadians sneaking across the border into Montana or North Dakota, we’d be having a different conversation.

Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

addressIt was on this date 150 years ago – November 19, 1863 – that Abraham Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history.

Yes, I know there are plenty of other nominees for that honor:  John Kennedy’s Inaugural, and “Ask not;” Martin Luther King, Jr., and “I have a dream;” FDR and “Fear itself;” even Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and “Malice towards none.”  And as important as those speeches – and many others – were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

gettysburgIn this speech, President Lincoln redefined and refocused the reason for the Great Struggle, he provided comfort for a nation reeling from staggering losses; he took what had been a relatively obscure line from the Declaration of Independence and made it a national mantra, and once and for all seized the moral high ground in the war.

And the fact that Lincoln did all this using only 272 words is a reminder that when it comes to words, it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

There was a time when school children had to memorize it.  In my case, it was in Mrs. Thigpen’s eighth grade class at Orangefield Junior High.  Some may still have to commit it to memory, at least long enough to pass the test.  Good for them.

Like any great historical event, numerous myths surround the speech and its delivery.  For one thing, Lincoln did NOT compose it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up from Washington, nor did he scribble down a few thoughts at the boarding house where he stayed the night before the speech.  The historical evidence shows that he had already completed at least one or two rough drafts of the speech that he had shown to some of his friends and advisers before he ever left the Executive Mansion (as the White House was called in those days).

Another enduring myth is that the speech was a flop when it was first delivered, and the crowd was visibly displeased with it.  Not so.  It’s true that newspaper editorials about the speech differed widely in their reviews of it, but generally broke along party lines – most Republican papers praised and endorsed it, while most Democratic papers dismissed it.

It’s true that it was short.  But then, it was supposed to be.  Dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg was primarily a state function, and national involvement was not considered necessary or automatic. The main speaker at the dedication was Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, perhaps the most skilled orator of the time, who spoke for over two hours, reviewing the battle, condemning the Rebels and praising the Union.  President Lincoln had been invited only to give a few brief remarks, and nothing more was expected.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate what a different time it was, politically.  But if you know our nation’s history, you know that the framers of the republic didn’t know what to do about slavery, and since they couldn’t agree on a solution, they basically just punted that particular ball to a future generation.  The Constitution says that a black man counts as 3/5 of a person when it comes to the census.  It’s not clear just what the framers originally meant when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” but to one extent or another, they were thinking educated, white, landowning males.

In the Bible, words have the power to create.  When God created the cosmos, He did it by speaking it into existence.  When John was writing his gospel under the influence of the Holy Spirit, when he wanted to find a way of describing Jesus’ inner nature, he chose the Greek term “Logos” – the “Word.”

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write; good speakers can do the same, helping see things “as they could be.”  And so in this speech, Lincoln took the Declaration’s words about equality and breathed new life into them.  He redefined a war that had been about political theory, economics and states’ rights, and turned it into a moral struggle for liberty for all.

To this day, we’re still debating some of those issues.

garry_wills_lincoln_at_gettysburgOut of all the books written about the Gettysburg Address, I think the best is Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg.  Prof. Wills is, in my opinion, a really great historian, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books, including John Wayne’s America.  But he received a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg, and I think the committee got it right.  If you enjoy American or Civil War history, or want to better understand how to use language effectively, I highly recommend it.

There are five versions of the speech with slight variations.  Here is best known version, which the President himself wrote out and signed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I would say the President was wrong about one thing: the world has indeed long noted what he said. And rightfully so.

No Need Among You

I was blessed last week to be able to attend the “No Need Among You” Conference in Waco.  This is an annual conference that brings together churches, para-church ministries, non-profits, NGOs, and other groups whose focus is serving and working among lower income and inner-city populations.  The conference is sponsored by the Texas Christian Community Development Network.

The conference title is taken from two scriptures.  One is Deuteronomy 15:4-5, which says,

However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.

The other is Acts 4:33-35 –

33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

(Quotations from the NIV, emphasis added.)

How am I to think about the poor?  What kind of responsibilities do I as a Christian have towards them?  Even asking those questions causes some people to become defensive.  Others will immediately begin offering excuses for why they can’t, haven’t or shouldn’t offer help.  There will be stories about welfare scam artists, professional freeloaders, and abusers of the system.  Some will even cite scriptures such as, “You will always have the poor with you” (John 12:8), and “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

Do those stories exist?  They do.  Are they true?  In some cases.  Are those scriptures correct?  They are.

None of which relieves me of my responsibility before God to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien and the stranger among us.

First of all, in regards to those Bible verses, even a beginning Bible student can tell you that one should always let the context of a particular verse guide your interpretation of that verse.  In John 12, Jesus is NOT giving us an excuse for failure to address problems of economic disparity; rather, He is teaching us that we should set appropriate priorities for how we invest our resources.  He was acknowledging the reality of a situation, not expressing His approval of that situation.

And in 2 Thessalonians, Paul was correcting a lazy bunch of so-called Christians who had talked themselves into thinking that because Jesus’ return was imminent, they didn’t have to work to provide for themselves or their families, and could instead live off the generosity of other believers who were footing the bill for lunch.  This laziness, masquerading as spirituality, is what he was addressing.

Nearly everyone agrees that there are those who abuse the system, and take advantage of other people’s desire to help.  Does that mean that we should encourage fraud and ignore waste?  Of course not.  Our systems should be as streamlined and fraud-free as we can make them.  But that does NOT take away from my responsibility to live a generous, open-handed life, and to love and care for those God puts in front of me.

If they abuse my help and kindness, that’s between them and God. My job- my calling- is to help.  And to love as Jesus loved, without judgmentalism or limit.

Go read Amos.  Learn how God feels about the poor, and those who abuse them.  Perhaps the prophet’s sharpest comments are directly at the religious people who sat by and let others take advantage of the poor without doing anything to stop it, sometimes because they are so busy their religious ceremonies.

Merchants who have one set of scales for buying, and another set of scales for selling.  Exploiting those who can least afford it by charging outrageous prices.  Failing to pay fair wages, and finding reasons to withhold even what is owed.  Some of the very things that business owners today – sometimes even “pillars” of the local church – are still doing.

They call it sharp business practice.  God calls it something else.

Fine, you say.  I don’t own a business, I’m not cheating anybody, I want to help but don’t want to enable someone’s drug habit or other destructive lifestyle.  What can I do?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are five suggestions:

1.  Get informed on what poverty really is, and the face of poverty in America today.  Turn off the TV, spend a little less time on Facebook, and read these books if you really want to see things from another perspective.

Every Church MemberWhat Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty, by Bill Ehlig and Dr. Ruby Payne.  Ruby Payne is well-known for her groundbreaking research and helpful organization of economic classes and how people in one class use “hidden rules” to survive.  This particular edition is geared towards helping church members understand this complex issue and have a Nickled and Dimedpractical framework for channeling their desire to help.

Nickled and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich.  From our middle class perspective, we tell people, get a job, get off welfare, support yourself.  Start out with “unskilled” jobs and work your way up.  But here’s the secret: there was a time in America when a minimum-wage job was indeed a ticket up to the middle class, but generally speaking, it is no longer that way.  In this book, Ms. Ehrenreich tells the story of going around the country for a year, working as a waitress, a nursing home aide, a Walmart employee, and trying to make a living at it.  Remember the old joke about, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts”?  That applies to this book.

When Helping HurtsWhen Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  This is another book that will challenge you and what you think you know.  Beginning from a Biblical perspective of understanding how the Fall has corrupted our world, the authors show way our usual “band aid” approach of trying to give poor people things brings unintended consequences, and actually can end up doing more harm than good.  You’ll never look at a food pantry, clothes closet or Thanksgiving basket the same way again.

2.  Cultivate relationships with people who are different.  It’s easy to stay within our little cliques, to read only those who agree with us, to gravitate towards others of our own background and status.  But that is not community.  God compels us to go out into the highways and byways, to reach out to the lonely, the marginalized, the forgotten among us.  Go next door and meet your neighbor, even if they are different from you.  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

3.  Tip the maid.  You may think your hotel room is overpriced, but I guarantee you, the lady cleaning your room is not getting rich off the deal.  She is helping to subsidize your trip.  Give her a tip when you leave, and more than just a buck or two.  And for Christ’s sake (and I mean that with all reverence), do NOT leave her a gospel tract.  A $10 or $20 bill will do fine.

4.  Support local businesses, farmer’s markets and buy Fair Trade Certified goods.  Yes, I know FTC coffee is more expensive, and cantaloupes are cheaper at Walmart.  But when we shop with a conscience and with some awareness, we are having an impact that goes far beyond just the dollars that we spend.

5.  Get involved at church.  Help transform your church’s outreach from relief to one of empowerment and development.  (Read “When Helping Hurts” to understand the difference.)  Start a financial ministry so that people don’t have to borrow money from a payday lender.  Turn your food pantry into a food co-op.  When you sit on the budget committee, advocate for giving the janitor a living wage, and hire him 40 hours a week so he can have health insurance.  Yes, I KNOW  that might mean not paving the parking lot this year.

Which option do you suppose God is more interested in?

Enemies, Foreign and Domestic

(Anybody else here a Mike Rowe fan?  I loved “Dirty Jobs” when he was doing that show, and the quality of his voice-over work on “Deadliest Catch” is amazing.  And today, I’m going to reblog something he wrote on his “The Real Mike Rowe” Facebook page, then I’ll make a few comments at the end.  For clarity’s sake, the quoted section is printed in navy blue, with the links presented in a lighter blue.)

Photo: [Bob Reidel: "Mike - Saw you hangin with Bill Maher. I had no idea you were a liberal. Really blew me away. Love everything you do but now that I know who you really are, I won't be tuning in to watch anything your involved with."]Well, hi there, Bob. How's it going? Since your comment is not the only one of its kind, I thought I'd take a moment to address it. Bill Maher is opinionated, polarizing and controversial. I get it. So is Bill O'Reilly, which is probably why I heard the same comments after I did his show. ("How could you Mike? How could you?") Truth is, every time I go on Fox, my liberal friends squeal. And every time I show up on MSNBC, my conservative pals whine. Not because they disagree with my position - everyone agrees that closing the skills gap is something that needs to happen. No, these days, people get bent simply if I appear on shows they don't like, or sit too close to people they don't care for. What's up with that? Is our country so divided that my mere proximity to the "other side" prompts otherwise sensible adults to scoop up their marbles and go home? Back in 2008, I wrote an open letter to President Obama, offering to help him promote those 3 million "shovel-ready" jobs he promised to create during his campaign. (I suspected they might be a tough sell, given our country's current relationship with the shovel.) Within hours, hundreds of conservatives accused me of "engaging with a socialist," and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe if I didn't come to my senses. When I made the same offer to Mitt Romney (who actually responded), thousands of liberals chastised me for "engaging with a greedy capitalist," and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs if I didn't take it back. You may ask, "But what did these people think about the issue at hand?" Who knows? They were too busy being outraged by my proximity to the devil. (Poor Ed Shultz at MSNBC nearly burst into tears. "You were on the wrong stage, Mike! The wrong stage!! With the wrong candidate!!!") Oy.Here's the thing, Bob - Profoundly Disconnected (http://profoundlydisconnected.com/) is not a PR campaign for Mike Rowe. It's a PR campaign for skilled labor and alternative education. PR campaigns need ... that's right, PR, and if I limit my appearances to those shows that I personally watch, hosted only by those personalities with whom I personally agree, I might as well start a church and preach to the choir. Point is, I didn't go on Real Time to endorse BM, and I didn't go on The Factor to endorse BO. I went on because millions of people watch those shows. I approached our liberal president for the same reason. Likewise, his conservative opponent. And I showed up on Sesame Street with the same agenda that I took to Congress. Closing the skills gap is bigger than you or me or any particular venue, and Real Time gave me an opportunity to reach 5 million people. I'm grateful for that, and I'll do it again if they want me back. As for Bill Maher off-camera, you'll be pleased to know that the guy was a perfect gentleman. His staff is excellent, and his after-party included an open bar with a spread I've never seen in such a setting. Bill took the time to hang out with his guests and their friends after the show, chatting about this and that for over an hour, and taking pictures with anyone who wanted one. Trust me, that's rare. Yes, he's outrageous, inflammatory, and to many, a jagged little pill. But he's also gracious, generous, engaging, and taller than he appears on TV. Which, frankly, surprised me.
[Bob Reidel: “Mike – Saw you hangin with Bill Maher. I had no idea you were a liberal. Really blew me away. Love everything you do but now that I know who you really are, I won’t be tuning in to watch anything your involved with.”] Well, hi there, Bob. How’s it going? Since your comment is not the only one of its kind, I thought I’d take a moment to address it.Bill Maher is opinionated, polarizing and controversial. I get it. So is Bill O’Reilly, which is probably why I heard the same comments after I did his show. (“How could you Mike? How could you?”)Truth is, every time I go on Fox, my liberal friends squeal. And every time I show up on MSNBC, my conservative pals whine. Not because they disagree with my position – everyone agrees that closing the skills gap is something that needs to happen. No, these days, people get bent simply if I appear on shows they don’t like, or sit too close to people they don’t care for. What’s up with that? Is our country so divided that my mere proximity to the “other side” prompts otherwise sensible adults to scoop up their marbles and go home? Back in 2008, I wrote an open letter to President Obama, offering to help him promote those 3 million “shovel-ready” jobs he promised to create during his campaign. (I suspected they might be a tough sell, given our country’s current relationship with the shovel.) Within hours, hundreds of conservatives accused me of “engaging with a socialist,” and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe if I didn’t come to my senses.

When I made the same offer to Mitt Romney (who actually responded), thousands of liberals chastised me for “engaging with a greedy capitalist,” and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs if I didn’t take it back.

You may ask, “But what did these people think about the issue at hand?” Who knows? They were too busy being outraged by my proximity to the devil. (Poor Ed Shultz at MSNBC nearly burst into tears. “You were on the wrong stage, Mike! The wrong stage!! With the wrong candidate!!!”)

Oy.

Here’s the thing, Bob – Profoundly Disconnected (http://profoundlydisconnected.com/) is not a PR campaign for Mike Rowe. It’s a PR campaign for skilled labor and alternative education. PR campaigns need … that’s right, PR, and if I limit my appearances to those shows that I personally watch, hosted only by those personalities with whom I personally agree, I might as well start a church and preach to the choir.

Point is, I didn’t go on Real Time to endorse BM, and I didn’t go on The Factor to endorse BO. I went on because millions of people watch those shows. I approached our liberal president for the same reason. Likewise, his conservative opponent. And I showed up on Sesame Street with the same agenda that I took to Congress.

Closing the skills gap is bigger than you or me or any particular venue, and Real Time gave me an opportunity to reach 5 million people. I’m grateful for that, and I’ll do it again if they want me back.

As for Bill Maher off-camera, you’ll be pleased to know that the guy was a perfect gentleman. His staff is excellent, and his after-party included an open bar with a spread I’ve never seen in such a setting. Bill took the time to hang out with his guests and their friends after the show, chatting about this and that for over an hour, and taking pictures with anyone who wanted one. Trust me, that’s rare.

Yes, he’s outrageous, inflammatory, and to many, a jagged little pill. But he’s also gracious, generous, engaging, and taller than he appears on TV.

Which, frankly, surprised me.

I like his comments.  Very much.  And I want to add a few of my own.

First of all, when and from where did we get the idea that people we disagree with politically are the enemy?  We may have a differences of opinion about what is good public policy, or how the government should or should not respond on a given issue, but that does not make us enemies.

As some of you know, I used to work for Rick Perry back when he was in the state legislature.  One of the first things they taught at orientation was that the job should not be personal.  The guy you were opposing today on issue “A” might very well be the guy whose vote you need tomorrow to help you with your bill on issue “B.”

I used to love to read Molly Ivins, may she rest in peace.  Yes, she was loud, brassy, obnoxious, and as liberal as the day is long.  But she was also outrageously funny, and she made me laugh, and and she made me think.  Molly used to love to tell a story about John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater.  They had served in the Senate together in the 50s and were good friends.  In the early 60s, when it became that Goldwater was going to be running against Kennedy in the 1964 Presidential election, they were looking forward to it, and had already begun having discussions about a sort of traveling debate roadshow.  The idea was for a series of debates, where the two of them would slug it out over public policy before the cameras, then go out for a drink together after the show.

Democrats. Republicans. Progressives. Conservatives. We need to listen to each other.  We NEED each other.  Compromise is NOT a dirty word.  It means recognizing that sometimes the other fellow also has a good idea, and maybe we are not perfect in our judgments and opinions.

Are we so afraid of the weakness of our political views that we cannot stand to have them questioned?  Are we so intellectually lazy that we can’t form a decent argument in support of our position?  Or have we just completely lost all sense of common decency and respect, so that we simply can’t talk with each other anymore?

Standing with our fingers in our ears and yelling “NO” to those who disagree with us is the behavior of a three-year-old throwing a tantrum, but we need to do better as a nation.

Especially a nation whose founders believed in the power of ideas.