Acting out our faith

A quick run through the New Testament, featuring the book of Acts:

The Holy Spirit

  • The Holy Spirit empowered Jesus first, because the Holy Spirit and Jesus both are God. This is beyond our ability to understand – but it’s true anyway. Our God is that big; in some ways, we cannot understand Him. But because He was as human as He was divine, there are plenty of things we can understand about Him.
  • Living in the Spirit is moment-by-moment fellowship with Jesus. We can pray deep prayers in scheduled “quiet times,” and we also can hold a conversation with Him as the day rolls on.
  • The same Spirit who lived in the apostles lives in you and me today. Which means we have the same power and authority that the apostles did.
  • The same Spirit in Christ lives in me. Since the Spirit is God, and Christ is God, therefore Christ – the same Christ who died on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago – lives in me.

Deception, trials, sin

  • The apostles had no idea Judas would betray Jesus. They asked: Is it I, Lord? Judas, without the Spirit, deceived them. (Later, Ananias and Saphira tried to deceive over material possessions, and were found out – Acts 5).
  • Simon (Acts 8) wanted Jesus and his own magic at the same time. God and … doesn’t work.
  • Trials are like taking our faith to the gym. That’s how we grow. The flood meant Noah and his family could never return to their old life.

The Gospel

  • The resurrection is fact, not emotion. This means our faith is based on fact, not hearsay or feelings.
  • The most hated truth in the Bible is hell. This is what we are saved from.
  • We cannot save ourselves. And the world cannot save us, either. Only Jesus can.
  • We are to share our faith, not consume it. We are not sponges; we need to be wrung out.
  • Christianity is more than doctrine or beliefs. It’s a way of living. Who are you, Lord? – is the most important question we can ask.
  • Salvation requires no action on our part – only to believe. It’s 100 percent a God thing. It’s inward, not outward.
  • Jesus is the message. The apostle Paul, a scholar, claimed to know nothing except Jesus and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
  • Jesus rose to live forever – not like Lazarus, who rose on Earth for a short time.
  • Christianity is not behavior modification. A changed heart is the result.
  • Why do some people discount the Gospel? For several reasons: We don’t want to face our sins or be held accountable; we want to do something for it; and/or resurrection is not logical.

Living the Christian lifestyle

  • Jesus said rivers of living water will flow from believers’ hearts (John 7:37-39). Living water, by definition, gives life, comforts and soothes. It moves. It quenches thirst, permanently.
  • The first believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (about Jesus), fellowship (sharing life), the breaking of bread (communion) and prayer (Christ-centered). This modeled unprecedented unity, which Jesus prayed for in John 17.
  • No one in Acts prayed for safety or good health – only for courage to share the Gospel boldly.
  • God can use anything – peace or trials. With trials, passion and purpose will come into sharp focus.
  • “Rights” are not for me, but for others, to promote the Gospel (1 Corinthians 8-9).
  • We are to keep ourselves unstained from the world (James 1:27). We are to live in the world, but not be consumed by its values.
  • If my heart is right, my words and actions will come out naturally. I don’t have to “practice” evangelism. I need to know the basics and how Jesus has changed my life. I need to live that way, and talk that way too.
  • Sin distorts the message of the Gospel. We must acknowledge this and seek forgiveness – first from God, then from others. Not just once, but repeatedly.
  • God’s will benefits everyone. Sin is not God’s will. He allows sin so that we can accept forgiveness, then change our lifestyles.
  • We do not follow people who point to Christ; we follow Christ Himself.

Servants of God

  • Abraham and Moses’ ministries began when they were old. God takes the long view.
  • Stephen did not defend himself, but defended Jesus and His crucifixion and resurrection. Unlike the religious leaders of his day, Stephen did not worship the temple itself, but the living God.
  • Stephen had no fear of death – he was already dead to sin and alive in Christ.
  • Stephen personified all of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
  • Cornelius, a non-Jew, and Peter both had lessons to learn (Acts 10), even though Peter was an early church leader.
  • Peter escapes from prison but the apostle James, one of Jesus’ inner three, is killed (Acts 12). The believers undoubtedly were praying for both, with different “answers” from God. We can’t understand all of God’s answers to prayer.
  • Paul valued serving God over his own safety.
  • God allowed Paul to remain in prison (Acts 25) for several reasons: he was safe there (many people wanted him dead), he wrote epistles there, and his friends were allowed to care for him there.
  • The people of Malta judged Paul twice after he was bitten by a viper (Acts 28:1-10). He was a murderer, the gods were bringing justice; then, when nothing happened, they worshipped him as a god. Both judgments were wrong.

Hope

  • Jesus is preparing a place for us in heaven.
  • We could lose our wealth or health overnight. Hope in God is not like that; once Jesus changes our hearts, we are sealed for heaven forever.
  • Hope is confident expectation, not wishful thinking.

Who God is

  • The law shows our need. Jesus meets our need.
  • The church fails, people fail, things fail, but the word of God never fails.
  • God sits on a throne of grace (forgiving us for our sins), not wrath (Heb. 4:14-5:10).

Faith

  • Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11). It’s outlandish: Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, his promised son, on faith that God would keep His promise of many descendants. Abraham obeyed, and God honored that (by stopping the sacrifice before it actually happened).
  • The Bereans tested Paul’s words with Scripture (Acts 17), then believed Paul when they discovered his words matched what they read about the living God.
  • Faith requires some belief.
  • Faith is not knowledge – even the demons know who Jesus is (James 1-2). Faith is living by knowledge.

WWJD is not a cliche

If Jesus Christ was to visit the United States in the flesh today, where would he go? What would he do? Who would he spend his time with?

I’ve been pondering this question for many years, and try to pattern my life after the answer. Here’s what I’ve discovered.

Jesus spent a fair amount of time in the synagogue, the church of his day. He preached, taught and argued there. He healed people there (despite the over-abundance of rules of the Pharisees and Sadducees). He toppled money tables in there.

Jesus was out there

But as I read the gospels – which is where we learn what Jesus did on Earth – I see that he spent most of his time on the road, outside the walls of the church. He met in homes, including those of Mary and Martha, and Matthew. He taught the masses on hillsides. He healed a demoniac near his own home (a cave). He spent time on the Sea of Galilee, preaching from a boat, walking on water and calming a storm.

He walked. He talked. He prayed, alone at night on mountains and in gardens. He poured into his 12 disciples, especially to his three leaders – Peter, James and John.

He healed people. Lots of people. Gave sight to the blind, and healthy limbs to the lame. Raised one or two from the dead.

He met people where they were. A Samaritan woman at a well outside her village, a place no self-respecting Jew would dare go. Nicodemus at night. Family and friends at a wedding.

Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. He went to them, spoke to their deepest needs, then told them, “Follow me.” Some did, many didn’t. Jesus did not chase after those who walked away. He let them go, and headed to the next town.

Truth, not judgment

But everyone who met Jesus was forced to choose. Will I follow him, or will I walk away? A rich young man turned away when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, since the young man had made his wealth his god. Did the young man ever repent and turn to Jesus later? The Bible doesn’t say.

Jesus didn’t judge. He put himself out there, claiming to be God, and let us choose.

And got himself killed for it.

What would Jesus do in 2020? He would follow a similar pattern that he followed when he walked around Israel and neighboring areas, I’m sure.

He’d visit our churches. He’d listen to what we were teaching about him. If we’d let him, Jesus would preach about himself to us. He’d shock us with his radical message. Yes, even though we have access to the Scriptures, we’d be shocked not only at what Jesus said, but the way he said it. He spoke with authority, after all. He’d get our attention.

We’d plot against him, because he likely would say things that anger us as church leaders. We are caught up in our own egos and power surges, just like the scribes and Pharisees were.

Jesus would teach, and equip

Therefore, Jesus would hit the streets.

He would visit our houses and apartments, teaching us in small groups. He’d show up in public parks and preach in fields and on hillsides. He might even do an evangelistic crusade in a big football stadium (once COVID-19 passes on, of course).

He’d challenge us, as his followers, to feed his sheep. He’d equip us to do his work, then send us out.

He would not judge our hypocrisy – unless we know better. Then, he’d let us have it.

He might heal some physical infirmities, but probably not do a lot of that. We’re too good at explaining that away. Instead, he’d reach for our hearts – our lost, broken, sinful, searching, damaged hearts. That’s where Jesus would do his greatest work.

And where he’d challenge us, his followers, to obey his commands.

A deep connection

Jesus would visit inner cities. Lots of people there, plenty of searching souls there. He’d stop in rural places too, like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I used to live. He’d get there, eventually. Jesus understood farming and growing plants, common activities in the days when he did walk the Earth.

He’d adapt to modern technology. He’d drive a car, maybe fly in an airplane to meet people in airports and in the skies.

Would he avail himself of social media? I wrestle with that one. Jesus is much more personal than that. He never preached to masses from a living room – he preached face to face. He wanted to see our reactions. No mumbling under our breath out of sight. No scrolling. No hiding behind memes. Jesus wants our hearts, and he knows how to reach them.

In the United States, Jesus would meet us where we are. In our workplaces. In our theaters and sports arenas. In the grocery store.

Again, he’s not judging any of our choices – of entertainment, food or anything else. He’s seeking our hearts.

When we encounter Jesus, we know intuitively what he would do. We know right away what good and bad choices are. We can judge these things for ourselves. The decision is yours and mine. Will we follow Jesus, or not?

Our challenge

This is what Jesus would do if he were here in the flesh today. He’d draw us to himself, and to his father, the living God. He’d give us the Holy Spirit so we could understand these things.

As his followers, he’d challenge us to draw our friends, family and other people we meet to himself, and to his father. If we explain the Holy Spirit to someone, Jesus is right there to give it – that is, to give himself.

That’s why Jesus is not here right now, actually. If Jesus was everywhere, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t be necessary. But Jesus was a man. Men (and women) can be in only one place at a time. That’s why he sends his followers out, so God can be everywhere at once.

But because we haven’t seen him in the flesh for about 2,000 years, we’ve grown complacent. We’ve misrepresented him. Even in our churches. Especially in our churches.

When Jesus walked the Earth, he was all compassion for people outside the church. He gave them the benefit of the doubt every time. He didn’t compromise his theology, but he explained it and showed it in ways that made it attractive.

Our shortcomings

To believers who knew the Scriptures, Jesus wasn’t so patient. He explained to them how the Scriptures were being fulfilled in their hearing, in his very presence. They didn’t buy it. Instead, they eventually crucified him.

If Jesus visited the United States in the flesh today, we’d crucify him again. I have no doubt. We think we know better.

This is why I never have been, and never will be, an ordained pastor or employed church worker. Bless you if you are; you have a wonderful calling. But Jesus spent most of his time outside the church, and so must I.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, inside the church and outside. We have the same message today that Jesus presented in the four gospels. Let’s take it out there, share it – and live it.

Let’s make it attractive.

Jesus is not very attractive these days. That’s our fault, as followers. Jesus isn’t here in the flesh to right our ship. He has already given us the blueprint. Let’s open our eyes and ears, listen and follow.

There is no Plan B.

The greatest miracle

When Jesus comes back – and he will, he promised – it will be too late for many of us.

Heart change is not instantaneous; that’s not how God works despite today’s instant-gratification society. We need to be different. A good different. Attractive. Appealing.

I won’t change your mind about anything. That’s God’s job. All I can do is show you God, in my sinful, pathetic way.

And yet, that’s often good enough.

When Christians talk of miracles, that’s the biggest one, right there. Jesus uses fallen, sinful people to share his message – and if you are paying attention, you’ll understand. You’ll see it. You’ll get it.

This is the Jesus we worship, the Jesus we live and die for.

If Jesus visited your town today, would you welcome him?

A lesson from 1968 we still haven’t learned

Racism and the National Anthem are not new issues. They go back a long way.

I re-discovered this as I re-read a book by, of all people, the great Detroit Tigers baseball announcer Ernie Harwell, who I grew up listening to with his partner Paul Carey. Best baseball radio duo ever.

Published in 1985, “Tuned to Baseball” includes a chapter titled “Jose’s Song.” Harwell, in addition to being a longtime sportscaster, was a songwriter and musician as well. In that role, the Tigers asked him to choose the National Anthem singers for the city’s three World Series home games in 1968 – games 3, 4 and 5.

Racial sensitivity

In Harwell’s words:

For the third game (the first in Detroit) my choice was Margaret Whiting. She was female, white, and represented the establishment. Margaret had strong Detroit ties. Her father and uncle, both famous songwriters, were Detroiters, and her sister Barbara still lived there.

For the second game, I picked Marvin Gaye – male, black, and a top star with a tremendous following. He also lived in Detroit.

Detroit race riots in 1967 and 1968 were still fresh in the minds of many at the time. Harwell proved his sensitivity to the era by choosing carefully his first two singers.

His choice for Game 5 on Oct. 7, 1968, revealed his deep concern for people of all racial and social backgrounds. Yet many who heard it were not happy with this musician’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner.

To sing the National Anthem for Game 5, Harwell chose a relatively unknown but up-and-coming blind Puerto Rican singer: Jose Feliciano.

Feliciano stood by himself in deep center field, with only his guide dog and his guitar to accompany him. Wearing dark glasses (because he’s blind), Feliciano sang a bluesy rendition of Francis Scott Key’s battle song.

The intense reaction

The public’s response? In Harwell’s words:

That evening in my apartment, the phone was ringing off the hook. Radio men for interviews, newspapermen, TV men – all telling me that a furious reaction was sweeping across the country.

A couple of pages later in his book, Harwell discussed why he thought the response was so intense, and negative:

Riots were still taking place. The war in Vietnam was a major issue of the day. Drugs and crime-in-the-streets were causing even more unrest. The campuses were restless, and the chasm between young and old was deepening.

Into this vortex stepped Feliciano. The establishment reacted violently toward him. His wailing, bluesy, rock-singing style was different. Because he played a guitar and didn’t have a crew cut, the establishment equated him with “long-haired hippies.” Yet, his hair was not long. And (as his own statements later proved) his attitude toward the song and America leaned, if anything, more toward the establishment.

Even the dark glasses (worn because of blindness) prejudiced some against him. All his critics seemed ready to find something to protest. And they let him have it – full volley.

The plot deepens

What have we learned in the past half-century? Not much, it seems.

The establishment today is still fighting differences among us. It’s not Vietnam, but Russia or China. Racism, including riots and protests leading to death, destruction and plenty of publicity. Judging differences, including physical (and mental) disabilities.

We are ready to protest. And counter-protest. Full volley.

I think there’s a deeper issue in 2020 even than racism, even than COVID-19. Another issue set the stage for those crises to turn vitriolic. President Donald Trump is the lightning rod, but the issue goes deeper even than him.

The one non-negotiable issue in this country today is abortion.

The Republican Party is unabashedly “pro-life.” The Democratic Party supports abortion rights.

My opinion: Republicans are more anti-Democrat than they are pro-Trump. They cannot support any platform that allows abortion. Period. No other issue rises to the level that abortion does in the minds of staunch Republicans.

The wrong forum

The president of the United States, it should go without saying, faces many more issues besides that one. Foreign policy. The economy. The federal budget (and deficit). Education. “All men are created equal.” Public safety. Working with Congress. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He’s commander-in-chief of our military. And on and on.

That’s why abortion is the wrong issue to stake our nation’s soul on.

Here’s a better idea. If abortion is the engine that drives Republicans, the presidency is not the correct venue for that fight. Shutting down abortion clinics doesn’t solve the problem either; it just drives it underground, out of public view.

The number of abortions performed in 2017 was less than half the number performed in the peak year of 1973, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which calls itself a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the United States and globally.

Even still, at 2014 abortion rates, about one in four (24%) women will have an abortion by age 45, the institute says.

Abortion is a complicated issue, with women who undergo the procedure listing several reasons – not just one – for doing it. Issues include not being financially prepared, an unplanned pregnancy, partner issues, focus on other children, and interfering with educational or vocational plans, according to a verywellhealth.com report updated last December.

Let’s focus on those issues rather than the procedure itself. In today’s sex-saturated society, that’s a tall task.

The right issue

Republicans, especially the evangelicals in the party, should realize that faith is a bigger, much bigger, issue than abortion – or politics itself. No, the Democrats don’t have all the answers. Republicans don’t either.

The Bible, and the savior who claims the Bible was written about Him, do have the answers. Again, not the Republican version of Jesus Christ. Please, no. Jesus is so far ahead of them.

The Bible talks of unconditional love, which is love that asks nothing in return. Sex of any type does not offer that. Politicians don’t offer that. Even churches themselves can’t provide that – and Biblical churches know it, and preach Jesus and not themselves.

Ernie Harwell, in his book on baseball, understood this. In addition to being a Hall of Fame broadcaster and songwriter, Harwell was a “born-again” Christian who let his faith shine, humbly, through his microphone and in the way he lived his life. He participated in the Major League Baseball Chapel program, which offers a faith message on Sunday mornings to ballplayers who can’t attend church because of time or they are away from home. He was married to his wife, Lulu, for 68 years. He visited clubhouses and heard the rough language, but he didn’t participate in it. He understood people, that we’re all sinners. We aren’t to judge anyone, but are to love them and serve them.

That’s Harwell’s legacy. As Christians, that should be our legacy, too.

The messenger matters more than the message

“Life was teaching me that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient.”

Faith takes time

I claim a strong Christian faith, but I’m not one to beat you over the head with it. I’ll probe here and there, make a comment, give you a look, write one or two sentences, engage in a respectful conversation if you’d like, and let it go at that.

My faith is a lifestyle, not just a list of rules and regulations to follow or not follow. So, it (hopefully) permeates most of what I write and how I talk and act, even if I’m not explicitly mentioning God by name.

Planting seeds, Christians like to say. Or, maybe watering seeds that someone else has planted.

God gives the growth. God changes hearts. I do not.

I will not change your mind about anything. I know this.

If I want to plant seeds of change, I must learn how to listen first. Because that’s all I can do: Plant seeds.

The fruit belongs to the living God.

The fruit of mentoring is …

When I connect with a young person through school or church, I’m giving my time, and not much more. In formal mentoring programs, I’ve eaten lunch with a youth for up to a year, perhaps played a game or two that he enjoys. We talk about his life.

I’m not allowed to discuss my faith, unless he brings it up first. That’s OK. I’ll listen to his story, because his story matters – whether I can relate to it or not.

Is that planting seeds of change? I’ll never know, actually. One year with the student, then he’s gone. Or, I’m gone. Or, the program is gone.

I’ve experienced all three scenarios.

One student moved to Arizona after the school year ended to be with his dad. Another time, I accepted a job out of state and had to leave a wonderful situation where I was reading one-on-one with students during class. Twice, the mentoring program itself ended – one with no notice at all, the other with a formal letter.

Did any of those young men gain anything through the time we spent together? Only God knows.

If no one else watered the seeds, or if I didn’t plant deep enough or water enough, perhaps not. But that is in the living God’s hands, not mine.

I donate blood regularly. I never learn who receives my blood; it’s done anonymously. They tell me the process saves lives; I take their word for it. That’s in God’s hands too.

That’s enough for me.

What seeds are you planting?

Societal change

During this time of COVID-19, we are seeing many changes. The virus is a silent killer, pervasive and unseen. It attacks certain people more readily than others, but not uniformly – so it’s impossible to predict who will get sick (and potentially die) and who will escape its effects.

Changes happened literally overnight because of the coronavirus. Schools closed. Businesses were shut down. Nursing homes became de-facto prisons – no one in, no one out. Social distancing became the norm. We wear masks and, in certain situations, gloves.

These changes did not happen slowly. Perhaps that’s why we’ve fought them so much.

Proportionally, the vast majority of us will not die from COVID-19. Or even get sick. But because it’s very contagious, we might be carriers without knowing it.

This is all old news.

We are gradually opening up our country again. It’s not fast enough for some, but we don’t want the virus to spike. Mass gatherings still won’t happen anytime soon.

The next town over just announced their very popular pool won’t open at all this summer. There’s no way to enforce social distancing and keep the pool and surrounding areas clean and sanitized, city leaders said.

The return to normal will take time. We must be patient. Americans have trouble with this. We are a fast-paced, immediate gratification society. We drive fast. We work long hours. We’re all about production and measurable results. We eat on the run, and pay for it with obesity and other health issues. We love our concerts and ballgames.

COVID-19 feeds on all of that.

We are forced to slow down. To be patient. To cook at home. To think of the health of others before ourselves.

I hope we don’t lose these lessons as we ramp up this summer and beyond.

We are seeing the best of our society during these days, and the worst of society too.

We deliver groceries for neighbors. Make and deliver masks. Call, text and/or Zoom with people we can’t visit right now, some of whom we haven’t contacted in quite awhile.

Since this also is a presidential election year, we’ve retreated to our social media platforms and dug in. I have friends on both sides of the political aisle, and I’ve had to un-follow several of them because of the vitriol they keep posting.

Political patience

Progress and change happen slowly. In the political arena, are they happening at all?

I think so, yes.

Extremists run both political parties now. But most Americans live somewhere in the middle. Most of us, I’d say, lean one way or the other, but we’re providing for our families, working and living life in our communities, not basing our day-to-day decisions on the latest U.S. Supreme Court ruling or tweet from the President or bill passed by the state Legislature.

Our governments should serve the people, not the other way around. Government, especially at the federal level, these days seems to be about selectively restricting who it serves – keeping immigrants out and reducing welfare programs, while allowing abortion clinics and gun shops to remain open.

Are there seeds of change we can plant politically? Can we learn to get along with each other, despite our differences?

Well, let’s see. I haven’t told you yet who said the quote I began this blog with. Actually, I read it in a book. I didn’t want to tell you right away, because a certain segment of you would dismiss it and not read this blog just because of who wrote it.

The messenger matters more than the message.

That’s how judgmental we’ve become.

Planting seeds of change means listening even to people we think we don’t like. No one on earth is the Devil personified. Truly. There’s good (and evil) in each one of us. You and I included.

I wish we not only understood this, but lived like we understood it.

That quote about progress, change and patience was written by Michelle Obama in her book, “Becoming.” Page 370. If anyone understands those concepts, it’s the former First Lady. She’s lived them, and continues to live them.

Are we listening?

 

Photo: Max Wolf spikes plants in a greenhouse of the August-Heyn gardening school on March 17. Berlin’s oldest gardening school has existed for 100 years. Every year it brings nature closer to about 30,000 children. (The Associated Press)

‘On every side the wicked prowl’

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;

the faithful have disappeared from humankind.

They utter lies to each other;

with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

 

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,

the tongue that makes great boasts;

those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;

our lips are our own – who is our master?”

 

“Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,

I will now rise up,” says the Lord;

“I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,

silver refined in a furnace on the ground,

purified seven times.

 

You, O Lord, will protect us;

you will guard us from this generation forever.

On every side the wicked prowl,

as vileness is exalted among humankind.

 

Psalm 12

Truth is discovered, not inherited

“I’m really not interested in bipartisan or reaching-across-the-aisle politics. The world is divided right now, and I’m OK with it, because the truth is, I feel like I’m on the right side.”

 

“… I have nothing to learn from …”

 

Can you guess the source of each of these quotes?

One came from a person on the “Christian left,” and the other was spoken by an ultra-conservative. Both are responses to anti-lockdown protests outside state Capitol buildings.

Hard to tell who said what, isn’t it? Liberals and conservatives use similar language to promote their ideologies.

Both sides claim they are right and the other side is wrong. Each claims the high road.

The bigger picture

Neither actually travels the high road, though.

gridlock - nbc
Lansing protest. (NBC)

Meshawn Maddock of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which organized the high-profile April 15 “Operation Gridlock” in Lansing, Mich., spoke the first quote, according to Bridge Magazine (bridgemi.com). The coalition organizes activists fiercely loyal to President Trump, Bridge wrote.

The second quote is a Facebook response to a comment I made on the friend’s page. My friend was making a point following a similar protest at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus.

Both sides are missing the big picture.

The “lockdown,” more gently called stay-in-place orders, was done for a reason.

The orders are hard economically, which means the protesters have a point, too. But by breaking stay-in-place and social distancing rules, the protesters compromised their own message.

There’s an even bigger picture here. Stay-in-place orders, while they are directed at all of us, are not meant to protect all of us. Some of us are more prone to the coronavirus than others are.

In other words, social distancing is not about you. It’s not about me.

It’s about protecting the most vulnerable among us.

The world unites

Politics, by definition, is divisive, as both of these quotes bear out. But COVID-19, the coronavirus that sparked worldwide shutdowns and subsequent protests, doesn’t care.

The shutdowns are attempting to “flatten the curve” – to reduce deaths from the virus. Most people who get the virus won’t die from it, but enough do that it quickly became a worldwide pandemic.

columbus protest - cleveland 19 news
Columbus protest (Cleveland 19 News)

It’s not about you or me. It’s a worldwide pandemic. The entire world is not wrong to make such a big deal of this, as some conspiracy theorists have said.

One in four positive cases in Ohio are prison inmates, The Associated Press reported this week. Other outbreaks are concentrated in nursing homes. There’s a home 10 minutes from my house where at least 66 residents and 20 staff are infected – the largest hotspot in the entire state of Ohio at the moment.

My parents live in an independent living center. They are in lockdown: No one is allowed in and they aren’t supposed to go out, unless for medical needs.

Overreaction, as the protesters claim?

No. If either of my parents contracted the virus, they likely wouldn’t survive it. Dad has medical issues that would compromise him, Mom’s health is good; both are in their 80s.

When was the last time we saw the world come together like this to fight a common enemy? World War II, possibly, but that was still human vs. human. When was the last time the entire world fought an enemy other than ourselves?

Not in my lifetime, at least.

Prevention works

If we ignored the virus and just let it run its course, it might have gone through the world faster, but it would have been much more deadly, as we saw in Italy, which delayed its response by weeks. It also would overwhelm hospitals far beyond their capabilities to serve us.

So now, we wait.

Schools are closed for the rest of the 2019-20 year. Ohio made that official this week. That forced spring sports seasons to get canceled as well. Barber shops, many restaurants, and a host of other “non-essential” businesses remain closed. Thousands of their owners and employees are filing for unemployment and/or are closing permanently.

Thus, the pretense for the protests.

The alternative, however, is more people dying. Many more. And overwhelmed hospitals.

Prevention is working. Social distancing, masks, staying at home … no news is good news. Prevention means nothing happens. That’s a good thing, not a conspiracy theory.

That’s the best thing.

How and when to open up our states and our country are the questions of the day.

But it’s not about us.

I very likely would survive COVID-19 should I contract it, but my parents possibly would not. That’s why I can’t take the chance to even visit them right now – if I was even allowed to, which I’m not.

It’s not about me.

The virus must run its course – or a vaccine must be created to prevent the virus from being so contagious.

Neither of those has happened yet, so we wait.

The higher picture

And we argue, sometimes impatiently, in actual protests and across social media.

“Christian left” is a political term, as is “Christian right.” Is it even possible today to call oneself a Christian, live that way and not get political about it?

I sure hope so.

The Bible – the non-political version – offers advice like this:

 

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

James 3:17

 

James says God’s standards and the world’s standards are incompatible (James 4:4). That’s painfully obvious to me these days. When we focus on ourselves, we fight. We see life our way, and only our way. The other side is wrong.

But everyone has a reason for living the way he or she does, right or wrong. Who am I to judge? That’s God’s job (James 4:12).

By even commenting on the protests, I’ve made judgments. In some ways, that’s unavoidable.

The motive has to be serving the greater good. The virus is making millions of us sick, sometimes without us even realizing it (because of the lack of testing), and has the potential to kill millions of us as well.

The economy drives our country. We make money and spend it. When those options are taken away from us, what do we have left?

Depends who you ask, doesn’t it?

All of us are affected, of course. Some Americans are having a much harder time weathering the economic storm than others are.

We do need to reopen the economy. But the greater good is preserving life, and preventing as much sickness as possible.

I hope and pray that our leaders are strong, and are making science-based as well as economically-based sound decisions.

I’d love to go to a ballgame again. But not if it kills me. Or you.

It will happen, eventually.

In the meantime, let’s not be so divisive. It’s not about you, and it’s not about me. “Truth” is discovered, not inherited.

Main photo: Wisconsin protest (The Associated Press)

Easter, every day

Christians proclaim “He is risen” one day a year. The tomb is empty. Sins are forgiven. Good Friday is defeated. Jesus lives forever.

So what?

I’m serious. If Easter is a one-day celebration, what’s the big deal?

Here’s a reminder: Easter is a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year event. We should post these “He is risen” memes every day.

The effects of that Easter morning about 2,000 years ago reverberate into the 21st century. It’s far from a one-time event.

All in

For some, “religion” is a once-a-week thing. Show up for an hour, give an offering, I’m good for the week.

risen 5Nothing in the Bible, which explains Easter in detail, allows for that. Jesus is an all-or-nothing relationship. Jesus gave his life for us. He didn’t have to, but he cares for us that much.

 

The Bible demands we do the same. Follow in Jesus’ footsteps, if you will. Give to those less fortunate, time and money. Serve widows and orphans (those groups are mentioned by name more than once.)

With our schedules turned upside down by the novel coronavirus, how are we doing?

There’s a high school junior near here who plays the bagpipes each evening for his neighbors. Many of us call or text people we haven’t connected with in awhile – I’ve received a few of those calls too. We donate to food banks. We make masks for hospitals and other first responders. We buy groceries for our elderly neighbors.

Many people are serving orphans, widows and others very well during this time of need. It’s heart-warming to see.

Just the beginning

What will happen when stay-in-place orders are lifted? Will we continue serving our neighbors? I hope so.

Or will we go back to our old habits? Traditionally we go from crisis to crisis, forgetting any lessons learned as we make our living, feed our families and hope we get some free time on the weekend.

risen 2

Easter has come and gone, and we don’t talk about it anymore. We should. Every day.

Jesus had 12 disciples in his inner circle, men who left their families and professions to follow him and learn from him. After the resurrection, their lives were transformed.

They couldn’t stop talking about it. They faced opposition, torture and even death. Didn’t matter. They kept talking and living their new lives, because now they had a purpose that transcended themselves.

Easter was not the final word. Easter was just the beginning of their story.

And ours.

New priorities

risen 6

They lived differently. They shared their possessions with each other. Not because a virus forced them to, but because their faith in the risen Savior encouraged them to share.

They did so without even thinking about it. Their priorities had changed that dramatically. They held on to their own possessions loosely. They supported themselves and their families, and shared their surplus with widows and orphans, and others.

They did something else, too. They talked about their new-found faith with everyone they could. Some believed; many did not. That’s the way it goes.

The power of Easter

I just finished a lengthy study of the book of Acts, where those first disciples (and many others) received God’s Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which helped them understand what Jesus had done.

One of the stars of Acts is Paul, an intellectual religious figure who knew the Scriptures and persecuted these new “Christians” because they weren’t behaving appropriately. Paul, however, had a dramatic encounter with the resurrected Jesus that changed his life overnight.

Some Christians today have a similar experience. For others, faith is a gradual process. God knows our hearts and what it will take for each of us to find him. He’s patient, and creative. But he won’t force you (or anyone else) to follow him.

risen 4

If your eyes get opened like those first apostles’ eyes did at Pentecost, look out! Your life will change. Forever.

That’s the power of Easter.

The apostle Paul was given a very clear mission: “… for (Paul) is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15)

Paul did that for the rest of his life. He was imprisoned for his faith. He was beaten. He was kicked out of town. He was shipwrecked.

Through it all, he kept his eyes on Jesus.

And he preached. That was his mission.

What did he preach? The resurrection of Jesus. Over and over and over. In synagogues, in city halls, in the streets, in private homes, on an island, in prison … he kept preaching.

 

“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 2:2

 

Paul, if he lived today, probably would have graduated from Harvard. Very smart, very intellectual. For a man like that to say he would proclaim only the resurrection of Jesus – everything else was a waste of time (“I count it all as loss”) – was astounding.

This is what the empty tomb does.

Paul did not throw away his intellect or intelligence. His focus changed, that’s all. No longer did he spend his time trying to follow all the rules and regulations of his religion, which was an impossible task anyway. Now, he followed Jesus – and talked about the cross and the empty tomb.

Paul used the gifts and talents that God gave him to worship God and live for him. We as believers today do that too. Every single day, not just on Easter.

He is risen. He is risen today. And every day.

That tomb will never contain Jesus’ body again.

Go ahead and look. You won’t find it.

Instead, you will find Jesus alive – in a different form, as the Holy Spirit – in your heart. Jesus the Son of God has returned to heaven, where he holds a place at his father’s right hand (Acts 7:55, Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20 and other places).

This is why Christians worship the living God today. The tomb is empty.

Easter has just begun.

COVID-19, Lent offer same message

Is it I, Lord?

I participated in a dramatic reading many years ago in our church of the Last Supper. Jesus’ 12 apostles were seated in the Upper Room, and Jesus had just announced that one of the 12 was going to betray him.

In turn, they all asked Jesus: Is it I, Lord?

I was assigned the role of James the son of Alphaeus, sometimes called James the Lesser. Hardly anything is known about him, so the paragraph I had to memorize was short.

Yes, it is I

The fact that the announcement troubled most – all but one – of the apostles proved that it was not them. But they asked the question anyway, sincerely.

They gave their lives for him. They gave up their careers for him – some of them permanently. (Once Matthew walked away from his tax collector job, there was no going back.) They listened, feared, walked on water, found food to feed 5,000 people, asked questions and learned.

After three years, it came down to this:

Is it I, Lord?

Jesus gave them the answer right away. No, it’s not you. It’s Judas.

A few hours later, they all fled during Jesus’ biggest hour of need.

Yes, it is I.

A time of reflection

As Christians, we are in the period known as Lent, which takes place for about six weeks before Easter.

Lent is a time of reflection. Christians often give up material things as a sign of penance in preparation for Maundy Thursday, when Christians remember the Upper Room scene. Some fast. Some give up meat. Some forego sweets. Or other things.

This year, everyone around the world, Christian or not, is being forced to give up a lot more than a Friday night steak. I don’t think it’s coincidence that COVID-19 struck during Lent.

What truly matters in life? We are doing without sports and entertainment. As with Lent, these sacrifices will be temporary. It’s not the new normal. We don’t know the end date, but there will be one.

Perhaps we will see a new normal. When sports and entertainment return, will we get caught up in them the way we did for so long? Or will they be as they are intended, an escape from “real life,” a chance to relax and unwind?

Temporary suffering

The Last Supper was not truly so for the apostles, of course. It was for Jesus. The apostles would continue the tradition later as communion, which Christians still celebrate today.

We remember what happened on that night.

The night that changed everything.

The night when Jesus transformed the Passover seder into communion, with his body and blood symbolized by the bread and wine.

We’re upset that our jobs are suspended, temporarily. And that does hurt (even with unemployment benefits). Our favorite concert halls, movie theaters, sports arenas and stadiums are dark and empty, temporarily.

Jesus gave his life. His Father gave it back to him on Easter Sunday, giving us the hope of forgiveness of sins at the same time. That’s why Christians view Easter as the most holy – and happy – day of the entire year.

But first, Lent came. Loss. Suffering. Anguish. Fear. Sleepiness. Anxiety.

Lent and COVID-19 serve the same purpose

Today, all of us, worldwide, get to share in that. Whether we want to or not.

We decide for ourselves how to respond to COVID-19. There are public responses which we are asked to support – stay-in-place, go to the store only when necessary. The virus spreads very rapidly. People are dying from it. The curve has not flattened yet, at least not in the United States.

The worst likely is yet to come.

Will we submit to our leaders?

That’s what Lent is all about. Submitting to a higher authority, the living God.

Today, all of us get to do that.

This life is not about us. Some of us are having a difficult time grasping, or accepting, this.

But it’s true. The world existed before any of us was born, and it will continue after all of us depart this Earth.

Is it I, Lord?

Yes, Lord, it is I.

Lent is a time of reflection, of self-sacrifice. To what end? To understand Jesus’ sacrifice for us.

COVID-19 sacrifices are temporary, except for those who die. That’s why we must sacrifice – so we can keep those deaths to a minimum.

It’s not about me. It’s not about you.

This is the message of Lent, and this is the message of COVID-19.

Sacrifice – and hope

What are we doing with the extra time we have, thanks to social distancing? Are we giving thanks for what we still have? Or do we complain about what we’ve lost?

What have we lost? Nearly all of you reading this blog don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, even with stay-in-place orders. We aren’t facing life-changing consequences, unless we get the virus.

When the social restrictions are lifted, and they will be eventually, we will return to some semblance of normalcy.

Will we be changed? Will we be more grateful for the blessings we’ve had all along? Will we appreciate more the things we’ve had to give up during our enforced Lenten season?

Time will tell.

Until that day, we will live in Lent. A period of sacrifice, waiting, suffering – and hope.

Easter is coming. Whether the pandemic ends on April 12, Easter Sunday, or not – I rather doubt it – Easter will come.

That’s a promise. Let’s get ready.

We often break the wrong rules

As a driver, I roll through stops signs all the time.

I look both ways of course, and if there’s no traffic, why stop? It wastes the brakes and gasoline. I slow down; I don’t speed through stop signs. With no traffic, I roll.

But I won’t speed through a neighborhood, ever. Other drivers frequently come up to my bumper when I’m going 20-25 mph. I raised three sons in a neighborhood. I’ve seen young children cross the street. I’ve seen basketballs and Frisbees sail past driveway boundaries. I’ve caused that myself. I see kids riding bicycles in the street. I see dog-walkers all the time. I occasionally see kids playing hockey in the street.

I will not speed through a neighborhood, mine or any other. Period.

I’ve been called out for rolling through stop signs. And impatient drivers wish I would kick it into gear when I’m driving past your house.

In this country, we frequently break the wrong rules.

“Must” and “should”

Last weekend I was challenge master for Region 16 (northeast Ohio) of the Fine Arts challenge of Destination Imagination, an international after-school creative problem-solving program I’ve been involved with for many years. I love “DI,” as it’s called.

DI

One thing I appreciate about DI is its willingness to stretch boundaries. The Fine Arts challenge this year centers around an “existing, publicly available photograph.” In the explanation of what that could be, the writers of the challenge sometimes used “must” and other times used the word “should.”

“Must” and “should” are not synonyms.

If the bullet point says “must,” that’s non-negotiable. Each team (of two to seven young people) must do that particular requirement as it’s written.

If the bullet point says “should,” then the team members can think outside the box. They don’t have to follow that rule exactly. There are limits, but the rule is not hard and fast.

How far can the team go? How creative can they get? That’s the fun part of the challenge.

We’re teaching our young people that some rules cannot be broken, and others are open to interpretation. In the written challenge, we tell them which is which.

If only life was that way.

Non-negotiable vs. interpretation

I claim a deep faith in God, in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I’ve written or alluded to my faith in this blog many times. I believe the Bible is God’s inspired word. The living God wants the best for us, and He describes for us, in detail, the best way to live. He created us, so He gets to do that, right?

When a contractor builds a house, he knows the purpose of each room, so he builds it for that purpose. God does the same with us.

We like to stretch or break God’s rules, don’t we? (Good thing contractors don’t do that.)

As a journalist by trade, I’m an out-of-the-box thinker. I’m not going to do what you say just because you say so. Show me why. I might know a better way.

God understands me.

The Bible actually has very few hard-and-fast rules. Our pastor this week told us that Jesus gave his disciples about 60 commands in the three years He spent with them. That’s a lot, actually. He’s going to preach on them for the next couple of weeks, so this will be interesting.

How many of those commands are open to interpretation? When Jesus commanded us to “love one another,” for example, what exactly does that mean? We have to read and understand all of who Jesus is and what He did to answer that question. The interpretation isn’t as wide-open as we often think it should be.

Let’s pick one example that’s relevant to today’s America: homosexuality.

The Bible calls it sin (a crime against God, basically) in multiple places. For example:

 

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

Romans 1:26-27

 

But those are the apostle Paul’s words, you say. Jesus Himself never talked about homosexuality, so it must be acceptable, right? I’ve heard some of you make that argument.

Bible

Jesus did talk about marriage and divorce, however – and raised the bar for both. In response to a question from the Pharisees (religious leaders who tried to justify themselves), Jesus quoted the book of Genesis, where God said that “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).

 

Jesus took that to another level. He added:

 

“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19:6

 

Jesus assumes marriage is between a man and a woman, because that’s the way God designed it from the beginning.

Marriage was a big deal in Jesus’ day, and followed a lengthy process. Joseph and Mary were “betrothed” during Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. For all intents and purposes, they were already married, even though they didn’t live together yet and hadn’t had the ceremony. That’s why Joseph planned to quietly “divorce” her even though they weren’t officially married yet.

A homosexual relationship is one of those rules that is not meant to be broken.

But, as with many of His commands, Jesus takes sexual sin to another level. All sex outside of marriage, including heterosexual sex (the Bible calls that fornication), is forbidden. We tend to focus on homosexuality because that takes the focus off most of the rest of us, who are just as sinful in our sex lives. Jesus called lust adultery (Matthew 5:27-28).

Gulp.

Worship styles? There’s plenty of leeway for that. Serving the poor and needy? That’s a command, but there’s many ways to do it.

Churches and denominations have split over worship styles and other non-essential issues. White American worship is not, by any stretch, the “right” way to do church. Despite what some would have you believe.

“Discernment”

stop 2

We hold fast the wrong rules.

And we break the wrong rules.

So, which rules are the non-negotiables, and which ones are open to interpretation? The Bible has a word to help us with that: “discernment.” It’s a fancy word that means understanding what truth really is, what right and wrong truly are, and which issues are mere shades of gray. It’s something God gives to people who try to understand Him.

Discernment is not a bad trait to have in secular society, either. Is rolling through a stop sign at a deserted intersection the same as speeding through a neighborhood where children might be playing?

I’ll let you answer that one.

Some battles should never be fought

As Christians, we are constantly urged to persevere, push ahead, keep striving, don’t give up, take the narrow path, do good, fight the good fight … get back up when we fall.

Is there ever a time to, as Elsa sings in “Frozen,” let it go?

Um, yes.

Jesus and his family did this soon after his birth.

Not a fair fight

After the wise men visited Jesus, an angel told Jesus’ father, Joseph, to pack the family’s bags and get out of town – immediately – to avoid the wrath of King Herod. They did, landing in Egypt, as the angel ordered.

What’s up with that?

Yes, the gospel writer Matthew is all about Jesus fulfilling Old Testament Scriptures, including Hosea 11:1, where the writer says, “Out of Egypt I will call my son.”

But I think there’s another reason as well. Herod, angry when he discovered the wise men tricked him by skipping town, ordered the slaughter of every male child in and around Bethlehem 2 years old and younger (Matthew 2:16).

Jesus was God, but this wasn’t his battle. Jesus, at this moment, also was a helpless toddler. Herod was the king, with a strong army and the authority of kingly leadership in his grasp.

It wouldn’t have been a fair fight. Jesus had no chance. A toddler against a powerful king, on the king’s stomping grounds with his rules?

Not happening.

So Jesus and his family fled to Egypt.

They lived to fight another day.

Herod won that round, because hundreds, maybe thousands, of young boys were brutally murdered in Jesus’ stead. And Jesus could do nothing about it.

Are there times when I’m in over my head, when the fight is not fair, when God’s message to me is get out of Dodge, back off, let the bad guys have this battle while the bigger war rages on?

Battlegrounds

I spend more time than I care to admit on social media. Many of my friends aren’t online at all, because for them the battles there aren’t worth fighting. They have a point.

Many of you who are on social media aren’t listening. Trying to spread truth is futile, because you have your own version and you won’t hear anything else.

Don’t point fingers at the other side and say, Bill, you must be talking about them. No, I’m talking to you. Well, not all of you. You know who you are. (Actually you don’t, but you should.)

Let it go, I say. Many times I do. Sometimes I pick a wrong battle. I discover that quickly. I don’t face the consequences Jesus would have with Herod, which proves I’m not as careful – or as in tune with God – as Jesus and his parents were.

There are certain battles we shouldn’t fight at all.

A few chapters later in Matthew, after Jesus had grown up, he offered a few insights on human behavior that emphasized this. For example:

 

“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment …”

Matthew 5:22

 

Don’t go there, Jesus told his listeners. That’s a battle we won’t win. Let it go.

And another:

 

“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Matthew 5:28

 

Guilty as charged. Been there. Done that. There’s a reason Jesus emphasizes repentance.

Did you watch the Super Bowl halftime show? I did. Shakira and Jennifer Lopez are excellent dancers, but they sexualized their performance. In prime time. Okay, the Super Bowl itself is a violent event, which we take for granted, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been watching in the first place, but we were, and then …

Jesus kept going:

 

“But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.”

Matthew 5:34-36

 

Ouch. Pretty self-explanatory. It’s been awhile since we’ve read the Sermon on the Mount, hasn’t it?

Jesus had many other things to say in that sermon, but he began his message by discussing a few things to avoid: anger, lust, cursing.

Just don’t go there.

Those are losing battles. Every time.

Practical living

If we didn’t get angry, we wouldn’t need to keep expanding our police forces to pick up the pieces. If we didn’t lust, abortion wouldn’t be an issue. Neither would sex trafficking, divorce, adultery, etc. If we didn’t curse, we wouldn’t get angry in the first place – we’d respect everyone we met, including the living God.

Jesus knew what he was talking about. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky preaching, but practical living.

Can you imagine what this country would look like if we didn’t get angry with each other? If Republicans and Democrats actually got along? Gasp.

What would this country look like if sex crimes weren’t an issue? Dream about that for a moment.

And what if no one cursed God?

Our broken hearts

All three of these issues are matters of the heart. The human heart. The imperfect, fallible, woefully self-centered human heart.

We need repentance, which is more than saying I’m sorry. It’s a lifestyle change. Every one of us needs this. I do. So do you. (It’s not a one-and-done thing, either. We need to keep repenting, because we are fallible.)

Some battles are not meant to be fought. We have no chance of defeating anger, lust or cursing. Can’t do it.

We need a heart change. We need to come back from Egypt, and return to the Promised Land.

The solution

First, perhaps we need to escape to Egypt. If we’re still living in a place where the battle is too strong, we need to get out.

I’m not saying we need to physically pull up stakes and leave town. There’s sin anywhere we go; we can’t avoid it.

This is spiritual warfare. It’s very real. First, we must acknowledge this. The battle is far beyond our ability to win.

Second, we must realize that the living God has already won the war. Not all the daily battles we face; some we win, some we lose; but Jesus has already gone to Egypt and back on our behalf.

Literally and spiritually.

If we understand this, we’ve won. Or, to use a Christian term, we are overcomers.

Overcome what? Our own weaknesses and shortcomings.

We all have them, whether we realize it or not.

Some battles aren’t worth the fight. We have no chance to win them. Read Revelation, the last book of the Bible. You want violence? Look out. But read it to the end. You’ll see why Christianity will never go away.

Why, indeed, Christ is the hope of the world. The only hope.