Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Fighting over Christmas and missing its meaning

I originally posted this to the now-defunct Examiner.com seven years ago today. The supposed "War on Christmas" debate continues to this day. Donald Trump declared recently that we are going to hear "Merry Christmas" in stores again. My thoughts on the subject are pretty much the same today as they were in 2009. Why are so many obsessed with political power instead of spreading goodwill?  

Blessed are the Peacemakers Wikimedia
You find it in Examiner.com articles, message boards, e-mails, and all over the blogosphere: “Don’t say ‘Happy Holidays,’ say 'Merry Christmas.’" We are being told that there is a “War on Christmas,” and it is implied that people are trying to undermine Christmas by using the generic phrase.

But using the phrase "Happy Holidays" does not necessarily mean the well-wisher is consciously avoiding the term "Christmas." The generic greeting is, first and foremost, shorthand for "Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year." And when we talk about the "Holiday Season" in today's culture we are usually including Thanksgiving as well.

Not everyone who says "Happy Holidays" or "Holiday Season" has insidious motives, as some might have us to believe! This time of year good cashiers used to mix up their closing remarks to avoid sounding stilted: "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" or even "Have a great evening." But with the attitude of some today, retail workers are afraid to say "Happy Holidays" lest someone thinks they are heathen!

On the other hand, some of the nonsense from the other side of the issue is just ridiculous. Calling a Christmas tree a "Holiday tree" is just silly. One ad even went so far as to say that their item would cause joy when it was unwrapped on "Holiday morning." Come on. Have we really come that far in this culture that we are afraid to call things what they are lest we offend anyone?

In the 1960's and 70's the big deal was X-mas. Don't put X-mas on your store signs--that's blasphemy! That's X-ing Christ out of Christmas. Well, not exactly. Christians have been using "X" for Christ since the first century. The letter X looks exactly like the Greek letter Chi (pronounced khee), which is the first letter in Christos--Christ.

A ladies singing trio from the late 50's and early 60's, The White Sisters, sang a song titled "Keep Christ in Christmas." Whether the whole X-mas controversy "inspired" the song or not is unclear. Part of the song speaks about letting "Christ have first place" at this time of year. But it does not seem that Christ is having "first place" in most of the complaining about and campaigning against "Happy Holidays." When Conservative groups send out e-mail newsletters saying "Send us money because we’re getting Christmas back into the stores," is Christ getting first place? When the average person sees "Christmas Tree" instead of "Holiday Tree" is he more likely to think of the "true meaning of Christmas"? These questions should give the Christian pause.

Christmas is about giving, not winning. Christ himself was the first Christmas gift. If Christians spent their time giving themselves to feed the poor, visit the sick and generally spread goodwill among men, instead of organizing boycotts and sending threatening e-mails, wouldn't that better reflect what Christmas is all about?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Manger and the Swaddling Bands

The following was originally published on the now-defunct Examiner.com on December 22, 2009.
Modonna & Child Ambrogio Lorenzetti 1319 Wikimedia

Sweet little Jesus boy
They made you be born in a manger….

So begins a traditional Christmas song. In a few words which seem almost an afterthought, Luke 2:7 tells us why Jesus was placed in a manger: “because there was no room in the inn.”

Bethlehem was so crowded there was only room in a cattle trough for the Child. Much has been made of the five small words “no room in the inn,” and rightly so. These words picture what the Apostle John tells us in his Gospel.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1: 10-11 ESV)

Sweet little holy Child,
We didn't know who you was.

But there were two at the scene, Mary and Joseph, who did know who he was. They didn’t understand everything, but they had been told by God through his angels who the child was. They only had a manger to lay him in, but they received him.

Luke 2:7 tells us Jesus was placed in a manger. Why? Because there was no room. But what they did before they laid him there is significant.

Mary "wrapped Him in swaddling cloths." Swaddling cloths or bands were a tradition that had been handed down for centuries. When a child was born, its skin was rubbed with salt and oil, and cloths were wrapped around it. It was thought that this would also insure the child’s limbs would grow straight. In Ezekiel 16:4, a baby that had not been wrapped in cloths is used to describe an abandoned child.

With this in mind, note the paradoxical scene. Here is a baby in a cattle trough, probably cut into the wall of a cave used to shelter domestic animals – not the place you would normally find a baby. There is a horror in the sight of a child so treated.

But there are also the swaddling bands – an indication that the child was loved and cared for. Mary and Joseph made the only room they had available, and cared for the child as best they could. His own people had not received him, but Mary and Joseph did.

The scene of Jesus lying in a cave wrapped in swaddling bands is reminiscent of another scene – Jesus wrapped in grave cloths lying in a tomb. Again we have a picture of horror, and yet of the love which prepared the body for burial. It was another Joseph, the one from Arimathea, who had provided the tomb and had wrapped the body in linen.

The only room for Jesus according to those who rejected him was in the grave. He was there because the religious leaders of the day had no room for him. But even in his death there were those who cared.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:12 ESV)

Do you have room for Jesus?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Labor Day Rest for Your Souls

I don't know about you, but my Labor Day weekend was way too short. Last year today's date fell on a Sunday, so we were right in the middle of the long weekend at this point. On September 6, 2015, I posted the following article on Examiner.com. Since Examiner has closed their cyberdoors, removing their content,  I replicate the post here for posterity.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALabor_Day_New_York_1882.jpg

Many laborers are enjoying some well-deserved extended rest this weekend as the United States celebrates Labor Day Monday. The FOX28 website gives some recipe ideas for you to use this holiday, and the South Bend Tribune lists some activities in the area.

Labor Day isn't considered a religious holiday, but the words of Jesus come to mind as many workers take an extra day off.

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30 NKJV

Jesus was not just talking about physical rest. He was offering spiritual rest—rest for your souls. This rest doesn't involve inactivity, either, as implied in the phrase "Take My yoke." A yoke is a device used by farmers to link animals together when working the fields or pulling a wagon or cart. Jesus invites people to join his team, and promises to pull together with them and refresh their souls.

Jesus' words end chapter 11 and lead up to a confrontation with the Pharisees in chapter 12. Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field and gleaning some of the grain and eating it. The Pharisees are incensed – not because they are stealing; the provision of leaving grain for the poor to glean was part of the Jewish law. The Pharisees objected because Jesus and the disciples were "working" on the Sabbath. Jesus responds first by declaring his authority. But even if the Pharisees do not recognize his authority, their legalistic response goes against the spirit of the law. In verse seven (NKJV) Jesus asserts, "But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless."

Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 to show the Pharisees they had the wrong spirit in how they applied the law. In the parallel passage in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus adds, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." [Mark 2:27 NKJV] God's law was made for our benefit; to use it in a merciless way so an individual is not benefited, or is oppressed, is not God's intention in giving it.

Jesus came to give us rest. Not by putting a yoke on us which we are unable to bear (See Acts 15:10.), but by working with us and in us to help us be what God intended us to be.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Notre Dame Football and Fundamentals

Notre Dame Stadium
Public domain photo from Wikimedia

Last night, Notre Dame lost a heart-breaker to the Texas. Both teams were up for the game, and neither gave up. It should be an interesting season for Irish and Longhorn fans. Back on this date in 2010, I wrote an article for Examiner.com. Since Examiner has ceased to exist, and their posts have been removed from the internet, I am re-producing that article (slightly edited) here. Although dated, the themes I discuss are relevant today.

2010 Notre Dame football - the fundamental difference
Notre Dame's overall impressive 23-12 win over Purdue Saturday come down to one word: fundamentals.

People are talking about it all over the Internet, expressing what this Examiner was thinking all through the game. It was obvious. The team has been concentrating on the fundamentals.
Do a basic Google search for "notre dame football fundamentals" and you will see it over and over. Three replies left to Al Lesar's South Bend Tribune article stressed it. Matt Mooney and Eric Murtaugh both mention it in their articles for BleacherReport.com. Keith Arnold wrote about it for NBCSports.com. I could go on and on.

No matter how good your coaching on game day, if you haven't gone over and over the fundamentals during practice, it will show during the game.

At about the turn of the Twentieth Century, a movement began in American Christianity called Fundamentalism. When we hear the term "Fundamentalist" today, it is usually said in derision. But, just like football, getting back to the basics can be a good thing. 

The early Fundamentalists were not concerned with political power. They were not interested in building huge monuments or enterprises. Their focus was on the need to restore Christianity to the "fundamentals of the faith": such as the deity of Christ and the authority of the scriptures. The movement crossed denominational boundaries, building bridges instead of creating secluded islands.

Whatever happened to Fundamentalism? Where did it go astray? Perhaps Jesus gives us a hint in his rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23-28 (NIV):

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness."

The Pharisees were the strict Fundamentalists of their day. They were very particular about how they followed the scriptures. That was not the problem. The problem was that they replaced mercy and love for others with a lot of outward ritual. They thought they could think and act toward others any way they pleased as long as it looked like they were outwardly following all the religious requirements.

Those of us who claim to follow the fundamentals of Christianity need to examine ourselves whether we have replaced love and mercy with keeping a list of do's and don'ts. It's not that we should abandon the fundamentals, but we need to relax a bit and not become a bunch of killjoys.
After the win yesterday, the team was not exactly exuberant. Especially late in the game there were some mistakes that could have lost them the game, and their focus was on the mistakes instead of the win.

It's not that they should abandon the fundamentals this coming week in practice. You can be sure there will be some intensive drills related to securing the football. But Coach Kelly told the media that the team needs to lighten up and enjoy the win.
Christians are on the winning team. Do the drills, but lighten up and enjoy the victory!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Searching for a Real Faith: Review of Clear Winter Nights

Last year on this date, I posted a review of this book on Examiner.com. Below is the text from that review. An earlier, more personal, version of the article can be found on HollywoodJesus.com. Following review are some quotes from the book I had posted to Facebook while in the process of reading the book.

Believable novel examines a millennial's crisis of faith 
Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After is one of those rare books which examine Christianity in a thoughtful way. It is a bit different in that it is touted as “Theology in Story,” and is about a young man who has a crisis of faith.

Examining theology through novel is not exactly a… well… novel approach. But doing it well without being cheesy is difficult. Trevin Wax is up to the challenge. His attention to detail gives the reader the impression he is present, watching the events as a semi-omniscient fly on the wall. And, while not being afraid to tackle some deep issues, Wax is also not afraid to let the reader come to his own conclusions. Nor does he attempt to tie everything up in a tidy bow at the end of the story. The characters feel real, and the story is believable.

The book follows a few days in the life of Chris, who is on the verge of marriage and becoming a leader in a new church being planted. However, Chris’s doubts, exacerbated by revelations about his father, cause him to break the engagement as he reexamines his faith. He ends up visiting his grandfather, Gil, an retired preacher who is recovering from a stroke, and his honesty about his doubts sparks a lengthy conversation over a few days.

The book has much to say to millennials who are wondering about their faith, and to those in older generations who are seeing the church change. There is a paragraph in the book which meaningful to parents and grandparents of millennials, and hopefully many who read it, from every generation, will take it to heart. Near the end of their time together those few days, Gil says to his grandson (p. 129),

I’m proud of the young man you are becoming. You’ve come face to face with some devastating sin and hypocrisy. You’re asking big questions and wrestling with important things, and there’s no shame in that. You want to own your faith, not satisfied to go through the motions of a faith you’ve inherited. That’s admirable, if you ask me.

For millennials who may be reading this review, know that many in older generations admire you when you honestly wrestle with the truth. Keep being real.

Quotes from Clear Winter Nights:
“Truth is not a formula… Truth is a Person.”
“No Christian who truly understands grace can feel superior to anyone else. Grace shatters any sense of superiority.”
“A Christian is not defined by the sins of the past or the struggles of the present but by the vision of the future.”
“The world says, ‘Be true to yourself.’ King Jesus says, ‘Be true to your future self.’”
“The true rebellion is in the heart of the Christian who follows King Jesus by swimming upstream against the current of the world.”
“Don’t trust in your strength, because there is such a thing as pride. Don’t despair in your weakness, because there is such a thing as forgiveness.”
“Authenticity isn’t accepting your sins. It’s admitting your sins and then being true to the person King Jesus has declared you to be.”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Remembering the Ashley Madison Scandal: The Consequences of Sin

Last year, the country was rocked by the Ashley Madison scandal. On this date in 2015, I posted the following article on Examiner.com. Since the powers that be have decided to pull the plug on that website and remove the content from the internet, I am re-posting the article here.

Ashley Madison cheaters include local officials: your sin will find you out

The internet is awash will news about the hack on Ashley Madison, the website whose mantra is "Life is short. Have an affair." Recently it was revealed the hack uncovered hundreds of federal employees used government computers to access their paid accounts at the website for cheaters. This raises concerns those in sensitive positions might be blackmailed, potentially compromising government secrets.

The list revealed by the hack includes military email addresses, which the Pentagon is said to be looking into. Adultery is potentially a court-marshable offense. White House and Homeland Security computers were also used to access the website.

Local media is reporting the hack has also implicated a local official and some non-elected workers. The South Bend Tribune reports a South Bend Clerk used a government computer to access the site, and email addresses linked to the city of Mishawaka were also used. Investigations into the matter are being conducted by both cities. WSBT reports email addresses from some Indiana law-enforcement agencies, including The State Police and the Attorney General's office, were also involved.
Earlier this week, it was discovered Josh Duggar of TLC's 19 Kids and Counting fame was among the myriads of account users on the Ashley Madison site. On the Duggar family website, Josh released a statement, which reads:

I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have been unfaithful to my wife. I am so ashamed of the double life that I have been living and am grieved for the hurt, pain and disgrace my sin has caused my wife and family, and most of all Jesus and all those who profess faith in Him. I have brought hurt and a reproach to my family, close friends and the fans of our show with my actions. The last few years, while publicly stating I was fighting against immorality in our country I was hiding my own personal failures. As I am learning the hard way, we have the freedom to choose our actions, but we do not get to choose our consequences. I deeply regret all the hurt I have caused so many by being such a bad example. I humbly ask for your forgiveness. Please pray for my precious wife Anna and our family during this time.

There is a verse of scripture which may come to mind when Christians hear about names being revealed in this scandal. The last phrase of Numbers 32:23 (KJJV) reads, "...be sure your sin will find you out." However, this often misquoted verse does not say, "people will find out about your sin." There are many things which will never be revealed until judgement day—"the day when God judges people’s secrets." (Romans 2:16 NIV) The context is when the children of Israel are about to invade the promised land. The two and a half tribes were tempted to remain beyond the Jordan river and not help their brothers take the land. But God tells them that would be sin, and sooner or later they would have to face the consequences of that sin. The verse is not talking about someone finding out about the sin, but the consequences they would face. (Some might call that karma.)

Sometimes the best thing that can happen to us is that our sin is revealed. If the statements by Jared Fogle's lawyer can be taken at face value, the revelation of child porn on his computer could be the beginning of the healing of his soul. It is easy to go on letting our secrets gradually destroy us when nobody knows. Family and friends may be kept from the hurt for a time, but the hidden sin gradually eats you alive and twists your spirit. Hopefully this huge scandal will lead to many getting their lives back on track. That should be our hope and prayer.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Revisiting Super Tuesday 2008

This is not intended to be a political blog. But quite often, I'm sure, politics will come into it. As Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer so wisely posted in his official blog today:

...politics isn’t the primary way Christians are called to change the world. Love is.Not that Christians can’t be involved in politics. We can. Not that change can’t happen through legislative process. It can and it has. But God did not become man to show us how to vote. He became man to show us divine love, and then to teach us to do likewise. Christians lose the Gospel when we become known more for how we vote than how we love."But if we can change the laws, we can change the culture." Ehhh… not really. Any good student of legal history will tell you that laws don’t shape culture, culture shapes laws.

Back in 2008, I posted an opinion piece on my I Have an Inkling blog, which was also published on Hollywood Jesus. It was titled Special “Super Tuesday” Edition: What DO We Want Changed? With all the craziness this week in politics (with more sure to follow next week), I thought it might be good to re-post the article here. Certainly there are concepts which are relevant to today. Here goes:

Special "Super Tuesday" Edition: What DO We Want Changed?

There are some mistakes which humanity has made and repented so often that there is now really no excuse for making them again. One of these is the injustice which every age does to its predecessor; for example, the ignorant contempt which the Humanists (even good Humanists like Sir Thomas More) felt for medieval philosophy or Romantics (even good Romantics like Keats) felt for eighteenth-century poetry. ... Why should we not give our predecessors a fair and filial dismissal?

So C. S. Lewis began "The Funeral of a Great Myth" (published posthumously in the anthology Christian Reflections, as I mentioned in a recent Blog entry). Lewis realized the wisdom in taking the good from those who have gone before us while we seek to improve and expand our knowledge today. We must be cautious of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" as they used to say.

As we arrive at "Super Tuesday," it seems that every candidate is claiming to be the "Candidate of Change." America seems ripe for "change," and perhaps rightly so. But we must beware of change for change sake.

Jesus was certainly a catalyst for change, but even He said, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill." [Matthew 5:17 NKJV] "Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old." [Luke 13:52] As we seek new and better ways of running government, we must not forget the old foundations.

We must also beware of the tendency of politicians to--how shall I put this politely--exaggerate to try to make a point about their opponent. This has been going as long on as our country has had elections. James Madison, in the Federalist No. 55, 15 February 1788, commented on the mudslinging going on even then:
As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form. Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us, faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than
the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

As we seek change, we need to not only be aware of the good of the past, but we must seek the truth in the present. Don't take what your favorite candidate says as the unvarnished truth--do some digging. When Jesus said, "The Truth shall set you free," He was speaking primarily of the truth about Himself. But the principle applies to other areas of life, not the least of which is politics. In this case, we may lose political freedoms if we are not careful to seek the truth. How often lies have led nations into slavery. With much freedom comes much responsibility. Choose wisely.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Pastor reflects on the chaotic childhood which helped shape his life

Review of the book All But Normal: Life on Victory Road

Disclosure: I have known the Thornton family since the early 1970s, attending Twin Branch Bible Church with them for years. While never experiencing first-hand the chaos of the Thornton household, I was blessed by the personal lives of John and Bev through the years, especially Bev's encouragement in my own ministry. I was licensed to the Gospel Ministry at Twin Branch in 1997. This review was recently published on Examiner.com.

Growing up, Shawn Thornton had no idea how God was going to use his chaotic home life to shape his future. The story begins before he was born. His parents, John and Beverly Thornton, had just begun to get acquainted when the seventeen year old son of well-to-do parents agreed to take the girl of fourteen on an expedition to Goldblatt's in the new Town and Country Shopping Center. John didn't see the truck as he negotiated his new 1962 Corvair into Miracle Lane. He woke up in the hospital later that evening, and his parents took him home. Bev would remain there quite some time, at first in a coma, and then facing some grueling physical therapy.

John continued to see Bev, and even picked her up for school when she was eventually able to return. However, beside the obvious physical disabilities, Bev's mental state had been permanently affected, and it was soon obvious she would have to drop out of school. John decided to join the military, but corresponded with Bev while he was stationed in Korea. They married when he was on leave in 1966. 

After the honeymoon, John was deployed to Vietnam, where he was when Shawn was born. (A brother, Troy, would come later.) His term of duty ended in June of 1967, just before the North's major escalation when the U.S. suffered its worst casualties.

But a war was already brewing at home. After the accident, Bev was prone to outbursts of anger since the day she awakened in the hospital. As the years progressed, her tirades escalated, involving salvos of both physical objects and vulgar profanity. There were even occasions when she tried to throw herself from the car at highway speeds. However, as the back cover of Shawn's new memoir puts it, "this same woman was also a devoted Bible reader, Sunday school teacher, and friend to the elderly, the poor, and the marginalized wherever she went. How the same woman could be a saint one minute and a nightmare the next was a constant source of frustration for the family."

It all came to a head one night as the police knocked at the door, and after a brief conversation, led Bev off in handcuffs. In one of her fits of rage, she had thrown nearly every loose object in the house, leaving broken glass everywhere. She would spend several weeks in the hospital mental ward. While she was there, she did learn some techniques to help calm herself, and John firmed up his commitment to do everything he could to keep peace, enlisting his two sons to help as much as possible around the house. Despite the changes, Bev was still prone to her outbursts.

As Shawn trained for the ministry, he was becoming sure he understood his mother's problem. He was convinced it had to be a problem with sin in her life she wouldn't let go of. During one Christmas break during his junior year of college, he confronted her. "As long as you have sin in your life like cussing and irrational anger, throwing things and threatening to kill people, you will never be right! Never!" [p.265]

At this point, his father burst into the room. "If you think this approach is going to help your mother, you're dumber than I thought you were. And you will never talk to your mother that way again. It's time you got off your high horse. You are not going to fix her with this stuff you're bringing back here. Now get out of here and never talk to her that way again."

As Shawn walked up Victory Road where they lived, he began to cool off, and started to change his tune. "God impressed on me that the issue was not just the combative spirit in which I approached her, it was that I was wrong," he writes. "Confession and repentance would not 'cure' Mom. Her problems were more complex than my simple formula." [p.266]

On another occasion, John shared with Shawn some research he had been collecting over the years about TBI—traumatic brain injury. At the time, this was a subject that was just beginning to be understood. We know now from research on NFL players more about what such injuries can do. Shawn was beginning to understand her mother's case was not a problem with willful sin, but had a physical cause. This knowledge has served him well in his ministry as senior pastor atCalvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California, affecting the way he deals with people. Combined with his experiences growing up, he is able to empathize and help people in a way he wouldn't have been able to otherwise.

It is so easy for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, who try to order out lives by the words of the Bible, to get on our "high horse" like Shawn did that December day. We think we have it all figured out. But things are not always so simple as we think. Shawn's story will hopefully speak volumes to those who read it. The book has a Foreword by Joni Eareckson Tada and an Afterword by Nick Vujicic. Joni and Nick are both Christians who have what seem devastating disabilities, but have been greatly used by God to encourage others. Add Beverly Thornton to that list.

You can find out more about the book and pastor Shawn's ministry at PastorShawn.com.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Have Christians become what Jesus came to stop us from being?

This post is adapted from an article I recently published on Examiner.com. 

Morgan Guyton is a fairly popular online presence, blogging for years under the title Mercy Not Sacrificenow part of the Progressive Christian Channel at Patheos.com. Some will immediately balk at the word "progressive," but, although Guyton can be very political at times, his writing does not always fit the typical rhetoric of the Left. As Edwin Tait asserts in his review of Guyton's new book on Amazon.com, "the book is far more than yet another attack on the distortions of conservative Protestantism, and the Christianity it offers should challenge anyone who thinks that 'progressive Christianity' is just a watered-down, culturally accommodated version of the real thing. This is a winsome, beautifully written, passionate presentation of the central truths of Christianity."

"Mercy Not Sacrifice" is, of course, based on Hosea 6:6, which reads in the NIV: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." Jesus quotes this passage in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7, telling his critics they have not understood the significance of the passage in Hosea. In Chapter two of How Jesus Saves the World from Us (Mercy, not Sacrifice: How We Love People), Guyton points out the word "mercy" in Hosea could be translated "steadfast love" (as in the New Revised Standard Version) or "loyalty"—"the kind of unconditional love that people have within a family." In verse four, God compares Israel's love to morning mist or dew which quickly disappears. God wanted people to be loyal to him instead of going after other gods. The Pharisees thought they were being loyal to God by judging Jesus and his disciples for eating with sinners and plucking grain on the Sabbath. But Jesus says they are not understanding loyalty to God involves how they treat others. "Jesus' interpretation means that the best way to show God steadfast love is not through a stringent life of sacrifice, but by extending mercy to other people."

This is reminiscent of what the Apostle John writes in his first epistle: "...if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?" [1 John 4:20 NLT] We too often forget our love for God is demonstrated in how we treat people. Our devotion to God is shown, not by being nit picky and critical of what people do – as if God needs us to keep people perfectly in line, but by showing mercy. Isn't that how we would want to be treated? As the master in one of Jesus' parables puts it, "Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" [Matthew 18:33 NIV]

The first chapter of the book describes how we are able to love God because of the mercy he has shown us. If conservative Christians have any doubts about the gospel Morgan is promoting in his book, they should be relieved by what he says in the chapter: Worship, Not Performance: How We Love God. There can be no doubt about the author's commitment to justification by grace through faith. He writes, "God loves it when we do our best. god loves hearing us sing our hearts out and watching us perform the deeds of our lives with excellence. But God doesn't want us to do anything out of an anxious need to justify ourselves.... the Christian gospel teaches that instead of being justified by our good deeds or right answers, we are justified by God's grace." He goes back to the beginning with Adam and Eve and discusses how the Fall caused them to lose their innocence and become self-conscious. Humans now learn to hide under "masks of social performance" in order to look good to other people – and to God. Jesus can to save us from that so we could freely worship him instead of trying to perform well enough to be accepted.

Many conservative Christians have forgotten their roots and what the gospel is really about. This comes out in our judgmental spirit and self-righteous attitude toward others. Morgan would call this toxic Christianity. But he doesn't exclude himself as part of the problem, as implied by the "us" in the book's title, "How Jesus Saves the World from Us: Antidotes to Toxic Christianity." In a recent blog post, he gives this humble assessment of himself: "A wicked thought came into my mind when I learned about the shootings in Orlando: This is why people need to read my book. Thankfully, before I could post anything stupid on Facebook, the Holy Spirit convicted me with a second thought: This is why you’re still toxic."

Morgan would be the first to admit he is not perfect. His book is not perfect. But hopefully people will give his book a try in the same spirit of humility he tries to bring to his blog. There are twelve total chapters which follow the same pattern: This, Not That: How We... He describes what he believes are toxic attitudes, what these attitudes should be replaced with, and how we should live. You may not agree with everything he says, but, as someone wisely said, in order to grow, read those with whom you disagree.

More Light Than Heat

This post is adapted from an article originally published on Examiner.com July 3, 2010. 
Photo by Mark Sommer

Storms become more likely as heat and humidity build up in the atmosphere. For those of us who love the cool weather, the past few days of sunshine without the sticky heat have been a welcome relief.

As the atmosphere can become unstable and stirred up by the heat, so harsh words can stir up anger and strife. Gentle, tactful words, however, are like a dry high pressure system keeping the storms away. (Proverbs 15:1)

Too often our society is characterized by more heat than light. An open dialogue about important issues is vital for a democracy, but talk show hosts who deliberately use inflammatory words to create ratings are not helpful. Politicians more concerned about “energizing the base” than solving problems only make things worse by their combative rhetoric. Creative banter can be a good thing, but name-calling and mudslinging do not create an atmosphere where rational decisions can be made.

That is not to say that we should be afraid to speak out on the issues. Jesus and his first century followers certainly made some waves. But they did it in a spirit of humility, with love and compassion. The Apostle Paul wrote of “speaking the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15) Sharing God’s love in the spirit of humility is a far cry from self-righteously beating a person over the head with “the facts.”

The recent sunshine and cooler temperatures have been nice partly because we had plenty of rain earlier. Sunshine without rain is only a good thing for a while. The atmosphere needs to get mixed up occasionally or the flowers will wilt and the crops will die. But how much better it is to have a nice gentle soaking rain than thunderstorms laced with tornadoes.

This blog is an attempt to present spiritual matters in a way which creates more light than heat. That does not mean I will never present anything controversial—far from it. But I will endeavor to present facts and logic without resorting to name-calling and tirades. Although not always successful, I try to live by what C. S. Lewis called "intellectual hospitality." For more on this subject, please refer to a post on my companion blog here on blogger.com. See C S Lewis and intellectual hospitality: learning to listen to the opposition.