We live in a divided age. Republicans vs. Democrats, rich vs. poor, English-speakers vs. Spanish-speakers, citizens vs. immigrants, Christians vs. Muslims, good guys vs. bad guys, peaceful people vs. terrorists: we have so many ways to categorize ourselves and our enemies. I use the term “enemies” very broadly to cover opponents, strangers, foreigners, people with whom we disagree, even people whom we choose to unfollow or unfriend on Facebook. Sometimes, given our emotions and our perceived level of risk, we wish harm on our enemies. Sometimes we even enact harm on our enemies. Sometimes we restrain ourselves from physical violence but use words that are quite damaging by themselves.

For people of faith (and Christians in particular), the temptation to harm our enemies is just as strong as it is for anyone else. We fool ourselves if we say we are innocent of this temptation while hating members of ISIS, cheering the latest lethal injection, or even ridiculing fellow church members who voted for the other candidate.

Christians are to follow the example of Jesus, who famously prayed that all his followers might be one as he and God the Father are one (see John 17). We have made quite a mess of Christianity by creating so many divisions, even within single congregations. But church unity is a red herring; God’s real desire is for all people to be reconciled to him and to each other.

The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel writes:

Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign LORD. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live. (Ezekiel 18:23 NLT)

As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die? (Ezekiel 33:11 NLT)

God is pro-life, in the broadest, most universal sense of the term.

Five hundred years ago, a man named John Redford served as the organist and choirmaster of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He is considered the author of a medieval poem which has been set to choral music, a piece which Tara and I have learned as part of a Holy Week choral service in which we will participate next month. Below are its lyrics:

Nolo mortem peccatoris; Haec sunt verba Salvatoris.*
Father I am thine only Son, sent down from heav’n mankind to save.
Father, all things fulfilled and done according to thy will, I have.
Father, my will now all is this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.
Father, behold my painful smart, taken for man on ev’ry side;
Ev’n from my birth to death most tart, no kind of pain I have denied,
but suffered all, and all for this: Nolo mortem peccatoris.

* Translation: “I do not wish the death of a sinner.” These are the words of the Savior.

As far as I can tell, Jesus did not say the words attributed to him in this poem, but he certainly lived out their meaning. Whether he met a woman caught in adultery, ten lepers, or a Roman centurion, Jesus consistently worked toward their life and well-being. Even his greatest enemies, the super-religious Pharisees, were people whom Jesus loved: after speaking strong words of condemnation against them, he expressed how much he longed to gather them together “as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings” (Matthew 23:37).

What if we lived our lives after Jesus’s example? What if our motto was nolo mortem peccatoris, “I do not wish the death of a sinner”? How would we live differently?

Who is your enemy, and how can you love him or her today?

(You can read the full text of this medieval poem here.)

Recently, I have heard a few people at church express their concern that my Doctor of Ministry work is leading to one inevitable outcome: my “moving on” to another pastoral position at some other church. If those few people had the courage to share their feelings with me directly, I can only imagine that others of you may be feeling the same thing privately.

Let me clear some things up for you: I have no intention of leaving Mt. Haley any time soon. I am not doing this Doctor of Ministry degree as a “career advancement” move. I’m doing these studies because I believe in this ministry, the Mt. Haley Church of God, and I want to enhance both my skills as a pastor and our ministry together as a congregation. Continue reading

Instead of “another day, another dollar,” today we could say, “another month, another sad story of conflict between police and citizens.”

In recent weeks, we have seen news reports from Texas, where an African-American woman named Sandra Bland was arrested by a Hispanic male state trooper named Brian Encinia. Thanks to today’s technology, we have seen video footage of the conversation, altercation, and arrest. That footage gives us reason to consider our lives and our choices. Continue reading

“But, God, they’re not like me! They come from a different place and worship differently than I do!”

Yet God says, “Take a look around yourself. Pay attention to the people you meet. Watch what I’m doing. And be ready to change your mind and your behavior when you see what I’m up to.” Continue reading

In recent days, an editorial in the Midland Daily News argued that “conservative Christians need to take a stand” regarding the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage in our nation. The author compared the present situation to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, in which Rosa Parks took a stand (by sitting down, ironically) against the cultural requirement that she yield her seat at the front of a bus to a white passenger. This editorial suggests that conservative Christians are being isolated, quieted, and accused of intolerance when they speak against current trends in society.

A few years ago, on an Easter Sunday, we had our usual lineup of special services and activities for that day. A “sunrise” service – I use the term loosely because the sun had already been up for a couple of hours – began the festivities. With awe and humility, we celebrated the mystery of the empty tomb. And then we shared in a special breakfast, a celebratory meal that reminded us of Jesus’s post-resurrection breakfast with his disciples. Our children participated in games, hunted down dozens of Easter eggs, and won a variety of prizes. Finally, our regular morning worship was full of praise and adoration of our risen King and Savior.

On this particular Easter Sunday, two middle-aged couples visited our congregation. Both couples visited us with other family members who are regular members of our congregation. And in both couples, the partners are of the same gender.

I’m not sure if others in the congregation realized this at the time, but I was aware – and happy – that we welcomed both a gay couple and a lesbian couple into our Easter Sunday worship service. After all, any time we join in worship, we do so in honor of Jesus Christ, not in honor of our particular worldview or political opinions. Everyone is welcome to worship the Lord.

In recent days, a pizza shop in Indiana closed its doors after its owners stated that they would not serve pizza at a same-sex wedding reception. The intense furor and passion around this story – by those supporting the pizza shop and those opposing it – has been amazing to witness. It seems that everyone has an opinion on this, whether or not they can even identify Walkerton on an Indiana map.

A few years ago, in another place, Tara and I built a close relationship with a wonderful young woman who is now in her early twenties. I’ll call her Nicole. She spent a great deal of time with us due to some instability in her own home. She loved us at least as much as we loved her in return – and probably more. And even now that we are far apart, we still remain in contact with Nicole and count her as part of our family.

Nicole is a lesbian. She “came out” to the world last year. She has shared with us some of the joys and pains of her relationships that have succeeded and failed. Because of her sexual orientation, she has experienced some emotional distancing from some friends at her local church, which I consider an unfortunate development in her life.

Nicole has held down a job for the past few years and works hard at what she does. She has purchased her own car, she pays her own rent, and she contributes to society in a number of ways. Nicole is a regular person, with regular needs, regular laughter, and regular tears. And for some reason, she counts us as part of her family too.

In recent days, the Indiana state legislature passed Senate Bill 101, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. No small amount of media coverage has accompanied this bill since it was signed by Indiana’s governor a few weeks ago. Again, everyone has an opinion on this, whether or not they are experts in law or politics. I, for one, am not concerned about this law; its worst elements will be corrected and its best intentions will be honored. In any case, I firmly believe that we cannot legislate morality (that is, make people behave by creating laws). Ban same-sex marriage, legalize marijuana, ban assault rifles, legalize gambling: the systems we form do not create morality and goodness. The law is not the ultimate measure of right and wrong. On the other hand, the law should uphold the cause of justice for all people, a goal that is much higher than any Senate Bill.

Many years ago, and in a very different place, a carpenter’s son crouched down and drew designs in the dirt with his finger. The people eagerly awaited his response to the most pressing moral question of the day: what should they do with a woman caught committing adultery? The conservative religious leaders wanted to stone her to death, as the religious law required. And if this carpenter’s son did not give the officially correct answer, then they could silence him as a radical progressive. Rather than taking sides on the issue, this carpenter’s son, this teacher, this divine reformer recognized the humanity of all those around him and called each of them to a higher moral standard:

“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

“Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 7:53-8:11 NIV)

I believe the recent editorial’s appeal to Rosa Parks is inappropriate. After all, people on the other side of this moral question can make precisely the same appeal as an argument to stand up against discrimination. Comparing conservative Christians (or the LGBT community, for that matter) to Rosa Parks is comparing apples to oranges; it is a rhetorical device intended to create an immediate victory. After all, who can argue against Rosa Parks?

But Rosa Parks’s victory was not immediate, nor, indeed, is her struggle finished. The issue of racial reconciliation and justice has not been resolved in twenty-first century America. Similarly, the gay and lesbian couples who visited our church, my friend Nicole, conservative Christians, and other Christians are all involved in an ongoing struggle over the question of homosexuality.

In some ways, this struggle is similar to the conflict in John 8. Jesus’s answer to the question in that story is not “black and white” or “quick and easy.” He understands both the value and the imperfections of each individual around him. He creates a new way of answering the moral dilemma: not by adhering to religious law, not by accepting sexual immorality as the new norm, but by extending love and grace to everyone. He desires justice for all and calls each person to higher standards of righteousness and holiness.

Perhaps we would do well to learn to imitate him in how we think about, discuss, and act on the important moral questions of our day.

Reconciliation is the process of restoring friendly relationships between individuals and communities. It is something that is desperately needed in today’s world, from the streets of Ferguson to the mountains of Afghanistan, from the hallways of public schools to the pews of local churches, from county courthouses to family living rooms.

Reconciliation is a one-word description of the work of God through Jesus Christ. This passage from 2 Corinthians is very important:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
(2 Corinthians 5:17-21 NIV)

You might recognize the last verse as the inspiration for the opening words of “Jesus Messiah,” a worship song that we sing with some regularity at Mt. Haley.

Biblical reconciliation – making things right between God and us, and between each other – is the theme of the Anderson University School of Theology, where I am currently working on a Doctor of Ministry degree. In mid-April, I spent a week on Anderson’s campus taking forty hours’ worth of intensive classes for my spring course; the emphasis of this course was all on biblical reconciliation.

In preparation for this course, I read a number of books and articles, as with any graduate-level class. One book in particular stood out: “Mobilizing for the Common Good: the Lived Theology of John M. Perkins.” This book is an anthology of essays about John M. Perkins, an African-American Christian leader who has worked tirelessly in his 85 years of life for the causes of God’s kingdom, social justice, and community development. Perkins founded the Christian Community Development Association in the late 1980s and has promoted “relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution” as three Christian principles that can transform local communities.

I did not know anything about John Perkins before taking this class. Our discussions about his urban ministry efforts reminded me of our time in inner-city Indianapolis. In a way, the issues facing urban areas – issues like poverty, drug abuse, homes in disrepair, and socio-economic segregation – appear in rural settings like ours, as well. This class gave me much food for thought.

On Friday, on my way home after classes ended, I stopped in nearby Muncie to have dinner with an old college friend of mine. She and her husband live in a depressed neighborhood with their two young children. I had not seen this friend for about a decade, so we had quite a bit of catching up to do.

I asked my friend about her church life, which I know is very important to her. She talked about how the core group of church leaders (including her family) moved into that Muncie neighborhood several years ago as a stabilizing force in a very transitional community. She spoke about how everything their church does is aimed toward the goal of reconciliation. And then she asked me a question that made me do a double-take:

“Have you ever read anything about John Perkins?”

Why, yes, actually I had just spent that entire week learning about John Perkins. And now I was sitting in the home of a friend whose church was putting into practice the principles of Perkins’s ministry.

It was like reading a book about baseball and then being thrust into the dugout of the home team during a regular-season game.

What kinds of reconciliation are needed in our community today? How can we partner with God (and with others) to accomplish this great work? It is, after all, the work that Christ left us to do in this world.

The Hunger Games

Yesterday, I finished reading Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  These are new fiction books that have become very popular in the past few years.  In fact, the first book has already been made into a movie.  The series portrays a distopian society in which violence and bloodshed are used by the government to keep the population controlled and obedient.  The books tend to be fairly graphic, especially later in the series, so I suggest that you use sensitivity and discernment when choosing to read The Hunger Games.

What I find fascinating is a theme that persists throughout all three books.  The main character, a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen, frequently faces situations in which she must observe, confront, or even participate in violence – often directed against innocent people like herself.  Yet from beginning to end, she is never comfortable with the violence that runs rampant in her society.  She always desires peace and considers it a virtue worth pursuing as long as possible.  Here is a quote that illustrates this theme, taken from the end of the final book:

…something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.  You can spin it any way you like.  [One government leader] thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control.  [Another] thought [a bombing campaign] would expedite the war.  But in the end, who does it benefit?  No one.  The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen. (Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins, p. 377)

The above image is part of a photograph of the old “tabernacle” meeting house on the Church of God campgrounds in Anderson, Indiana.  The building hosted multiple worship services every day at the Church of God’s annual week-long campmeeting.  Over 5,000 people packed into the tabernacle to worship together and to hear preachers from around the movement.  And where everyone could see them, banners printed with various scriptural phrases were hung around the building.  One of these, which you see here, was printed with a quote from 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (KJV):  “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly.”  Notice how the words “God of peace” are much more prominent than the other words on the banner.

As followers of Christ, we are to be in the business of bringing about peace in our world.  We serve the God of peace – even Jesus the Messiah, who is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).  We strive for peace between God and us, a peace that comes from the God who forgives our sins.  We strive for peace between human beings, among family members, and in neighborhoods, because we value human life and understand that God (who is love) calls us to love him wholeheartedly and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We strive for peace among people groups and nations so that the kingdom of God, which the angels heralded as “peace on earth” at the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:14), might grow throughout the world.

What The Hunger Games lacks is an understanding that peace is only available through reconciliation with God.  Katniss Everdeen ultimately desires peace but must live in a world of violence.  If you are interested, check out a copy of The Hunger Games (that’s the title of the first book) and listen carefully for its cry for peace in the real world.

–Pastor David