When I was a teenager, I suffered from anxiety, depression, and what appears to have been obsessive-compulsive disorder (disorders with which I have learned to cope, but still battle from time to time even now). I hit the age of 16, and suddenly a massive load of pressure and stress collapsed on me. There was long-enduring family dysfunction and brokenness. There was my own sense of deep sinfulness and a longing to “get it together” spiritually, even as my efforts became frustrated again and again. There was isolation and loneliness. There was an awakening to the truth of my own mortality. This was a heavy load to bear at such a young age. I confessed my sins again and again, only to find more in need of confessing. I purged my belongings. I washed my hands again and again. I attempted to scrub my mind of any and all sinful thoughts. I read the Bible and attended church, desperately anxious for a sign of God’s love and favor. I was a living shell of a person.
Recently, I received a bit of a promotion as a blogger. I was approached by the editor over at Patheos Evangelical and asked to come blog for them. It’s a great opportunity, and I’ve decided to accept the offer. I signed with Patheos last week and hope to move my blog to their site later this month.
This opportunity has given me opportunity for some soul searching–and lots of prayer.
As a blogger, I feel a pull in two directions. First of all, there is the constant need to market myself, to promote my writing, to sell my “brand,” and to get people to click on posts. To accomplish these goals, I need to be relevant and fresh. I need to write about things that people are talking about. I need to be part of the public conversation. I need to align myself with popular hash tags. I need to read the latest books and watch the latest shows. I need to get noticed.
There is nothing inherently evil about marketing. I live in a capitalist society, and marketing is how you get people to pay attention in this society. I have the vocation of writer; I believe I have meaningful things to say, and I hope to find an audience willing to hear these things. This is more than a pursuit of fame: it’s a calling. It is absolutely true that I need to market myself in order to fully fulfill my calling, in order to share my message.
But at the same time, I am pulled in what feels like the opposite direction. In my race to keep up with current events, to read what everyone else is reading, to follow hash tags, to give my “two cents” about every water cooler topic, sometimes I find myself losing what makes my voice particular in the first place. I am reminded of a woman who attended a church I worked at once. She would often come to the senior pastor and ask to be put on the Scripture-reading schedule because (in her words), “Everyone loves to hear me read.” The temptation with blogs and social media is to elevate my view ridiculously high and convince myself that every topic needs a personal statement from me. After all, everyone loves to hear me blog, right?
Sometimes I find myself getting addicted to affirmation. Affirmation is great. I appreciate it a lot. But sometimes a quest for affirmation can make me lose my sense of mission. When no one but God is watching, what is going on in me? Am I cultivating paths of discipleship in areas where no one sees? Am I taking the time to reflect, to go more slowly, to grasp my sense of mission and my message? Or am I careening along, worried that the world will pass me by if I dare stop and reflect?
Here’s the balance that I hope for: A humble willingness to engage deeply in some conversations, knowing that not all conversations will be possible if I can ever hope to listen instead of blasting the world with my voice. A willingness to write a little less in order that the writing and engagement might be careful, thoughtful, and faithful–not reactionary. An understanding that this is about relationships with people and demonstrating God’s love, not about (as Margaret Manning said at the LCMC Annual Gathering earlier this month) marketing Jesus as “the best product ever.” My mission includes a refusal to be about critique alone; rather, it is an attempt to build up far more than I tear down.
This is why Sabbath is important. I take a break from email and social media and the internet once a week. It’s not a legalism; there are a few occasions where I need to use the computer, and so I do. But the break from the relentless pace of the internet is a helpful rest to my mind. It re-centers me on my mission. It reminds me that I don’t balance the world on my shoulders, but that I serve the One who’s “got the whole world in His hands.” It reminds me that even though I feel like I have a message, it’s meaningless if I forget who I am and Whose I am. Most of all, it reminds me that this work is God’s, not mine. I can trust Him that whatever I really need to get done can get done in the time I have.
I welcome your prayers as I take my writing to a new platform.
(By the way, you’ll still find me blogging here until I transition over. And my writing and editing website will remain here even after the transition.)
There have been many developments in the Ebola news story since I posted about the way Ebola in the U.S. has brought out some of our sinful nature’s tendency toward fear of “the other.” In particular, I expressed concern that prejudice toward Liberians and other West Africans would go wild as our fears increase. And I cited evidence that the Liberian Christians in Texas are experiencing a certain degree of prejudice just by nature of their country of origin, even if they they have been in this country for years.
On October 15, Amber Joy Vinson, another nurse from the Texas Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas that treated Thomas Duncan, was diagnosed with Ebola. It came to light that Vinson had traveled via airliner to Cleveland and back despite sustaining a low-grade fever at least on the trip home. Passengers on Vinson’s flights as well as passengers who flew on the same airplane later before it was taken out of commission were notified to monitor their temperatures, although the CDC continues to say that their risk of acquiring the illness is minimal. It now appears Vinson self-reported her low-grade fever to the CDC but was given the all-clear to fly, a decision the CDC has now acknowledged to be a mistake. Vinson is now at Emory University Hospital receiving treatment.
Meanwhile, the first nurse who contracted Ebola from Thomas Duncan, Nina Pham, is being treated at the National Institutes of Health hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.
In addition, a hospital worker who handled bodily fluid samples from Thomas Duncan was discovered to be currently on a cruise ship. Although this health worker is currently symptom-free, the worker has self-isolated on the ship.
Today, President Obama appointed an “Ebola Czar”, Ron Klain, to oversee the U.S.’s handling of this health concern. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reports today that out of 9,216 cases of Ebola worldwide, 4,555 people have now died.
In the midst of the dismaying news regarding Ebola worldwide, I continue to worry that our fears will get the better of us, that our fears will rage out of proportion to the threat, and that we will spend so much time looking self-protectively inward that we will ignore those who are facing far more threat than ourselves. A blog post by a Lutheran pastor, Erik Gronberg, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area said this far better than I managed to say it in my previous post:
This is very real for us here in the Metroplex. But I have a feeling it will be increasingly real for people around this country and ultimately around the world. It is easy to close ourselves off. To spread rumor and fear. To blame and to stereotype. It is harder, much harder, to have courage. To insist that hospitals quickly establish protocols for healthcare workers. To give generously to help stop the spread of this disease where it is most devastating. To recognize that thousands die in this country each year from diseases like the flu or from inadequate access to general health care.
I am afraid. Afraid that instead of mobilizing the massive resources and potential of our great nation to combat this crises here and abroad we will turn inward. “Let them descend into chaos and death” we will say. That the mission to proclaim good news will fall short. That we will lock our gates to our homes, neighborhoods, and ultimately our nation. That even in the church the mission of God in the world will be forgotten in our fear. That the one who can destroy both body and soul will win.
I agree heartily with Pastor Gronberg. Notice, he walks a careful line between cavalier ignorance of risk and the panic that draws us inward.
But I want to be gentle here too. Many of us are afraid. Ebola is a terrifying disease, and even the minor chance that it could spread in our own country is certainly terrifying. I am, without a doubt, a hypochondriac on a good day when there’s no Ebola to worry about. It’s ok to admit we are afraid. What is happening in Africa is a really frightening scenario. Because our world is so interconnected these days, we can easily picture and imagine Ebola happening en masse here too.
But, friends, we have to keep our fear in proportion to the facts. We have to remember and pray for those at most risk: health care workers and close family and friends of the afflicted. We have to let our feelings of fear drive us to prayer for those suffering in earnest in West Africa.
Some have wondered if we should stop traveling on mass transit at all in this country since a few people who might have had exposure to Ebola or who might have been carriers of Ebola have been on airplanes and a cruise ship. Again, we have to put our fear in proportion to the actual risk. There is no such thing as a completely risk-free decision in a broken world. However, there are better risks and worse risks. No, there is no way to be 100% percent sure you won’t come into contact with Ebola (or whooping cough or flu, for that matter) unless you lock yourself in your house . But you can have a pretty decent idea that you are pretty safe.
Here’s something I discovered growing up with a lot of anxiety, fear of germs, and fear of anything that wouldn’t be perfect: closing yourself off to the world has its own risks. You don’t get to build up your immune system as much. You begin to cultivate fear and anxiety as a regular response to life. This is damaging to mental health and to physical health. You miss out on the joy of life.
I think it is reasonable for those who have been in close contact with Ebola patients to self-isolate until the incubation period is past in order to ensure public safety. It is reasonable to avoid contact with those who have been in close contact with such patients or their bodily fluids. It is not reasonable to distance ourselves from anyone who has traveled internationally in recent months or anyone who has traveled on an airplane. It is not realistic or especially helpful to do so. Unless a person on a plane has had close contact with someone who is symptomatic, we do not have reason to worry about being around air travelers. After all, even if there were some strange improbable scenario in which an air traveler unknowingly came in contact with an Ebola patient on a plane, until the air traveler himself became symptomatic, he would be unable to pass the illness along. If you know someone who has stomach flu symptoms or a fever, you should avoid that person regardless of whether they have traveled on a plane or not–not because they in any likelihood have Ebola, but because you may get stomach flu. Common sense is very helpful in times of general panic.
In regard to travel bans from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, I think this is one option we can consider in order to stop the spread of Ebola as long as it can be done with the following considerations appropriately and mercifully dealt with:
–Aid workers are able to easily travel to and from the afflicted areas in West Africa in order to alleviate suffering on behalf of the afflicted African nations, and in order to prevent the spread of Ebola to other nations.
–U.S. military who are selflessly serving in West Africa are able to return home.
–Screening continues at international entry-point airports in the U.S.
–Afflicted West African nations are able to continue to get the supplies, food, and other necessities that they need for survival.
My initial concern with a travel ban was that it would simply follow in the tradition of xenophobia, but I am coming to realize that it might be possible to use it as a common sense tool to stop suffering and affliction if certain humanitarian concerns can be appropriately dealt with. I will continue to pray for leaders both in our nation and around the world that they might make wise decisions from calm minds and not from a state of panic.
Note: If you are particularly concerned about the Ebola outbreak, the CDC’s website is a good source of concrete facts.
Raise your hand if the news these days is making you scared. Raise your hand if you feel like locking yourself in your house with bleach and hand sanitizer. Raise your hand if you’re scared to fly on a plane because you fear a fellow passenger might have Ebola.
I’d have to raise my hand to all those questions. I believe in reaching out to the stranger in theory, but in practice it’s downright scary. Even though we live in a privileged country where we are probably safer than most other places on earth, the threats of disease and terrorism feel uncontrollable. My gut reaction is to shut myself away. Stay clean, stay healthy, stay safe. Distance myself from the threats “out there.”
We hear the call to strengthen the nation’s borders not only so that we know who is entering and leaving, but so that we can keep out the “other.” We hear the call to cut off travel to and from African nations afflicted with Ebola (never mind how this would cut off aid workers from going to help the suffering). We hear hostility lobbied at the Liberian community in the United States. We hear fear and rejection.
In a recent interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin, Bishop Nathan Kortu of New Life Fellowship Church in Euless,Texas (outside of Dallas), said that his community is suffering greatly. They are currently dealing with the double trauma of mourning family members in Liberia who have died from Ebola and simultaneously dealing with local community hostility and prejudice toward them as if all Liberians might be Ebola-carriers. He says:
You know, when people identify you as a Liberian, they’re going to think that you are an Ebola patient. So that is really a problem now for our community because some people here, they were born here, some of them never been to Liberia for 30 years.
Later in the interview, he adds:
Ebola is a disease that does not discriminate. So anybody can be infected with the disease. It’s not just Liberians, it’s not only Africans. So we need to educate the public that this is a disease. It’s not for just one group of people.
Simultaneously, we see good examples of Christian love and care. George Mason is Senior Pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church, the church where Thomas Duncan’s fiance, Louise Troh, attended and where Duncan’s memorial service was held, writes that when he heard of Troh’s situation, he instinctively wanted to visit her and offer pastoral care. He believes that the Scripture and good teaching he received throughout his life gave him that gut-level reaction to reach out with love rather than fear. He adds that his entire congregation supported him in his outreach, adding,
We encountered Ebola because one of our members came face-to-face with it. And to echo the words of the Apostle Paul, when one member of the body hurts, the entire body feels pain.
Apparently, this is an image that is shocking for much of America to see and hear. Few people expected a predominantly Anglo congregation in an affluent section of Dallas to stand by a Liberian immigrant forced to live in quarantine. But as those inside our congregation know, this is what we do. This is what it means to be a church.
We can say a lot of negative things about some Christians’ reactions to Ebola in America. But, honestly, when I critique fellow Christians on this, I have to stop and remember that my knee-jerk reaction to the “Other” and to crises like Ebola is often fear too. I give thanks for the good witness of fellow Christians who think first of the neighbor in need and not of themselves. I need to keep listening to their voices and being spiritually formed by the Scriptures that call me to reach out to the other rather than to retreat into my own private, “safe” world. I give thanks that God continues His work of death and resurrection in each of us as we walk the path of discipleship with Jesus. May those who do not believe in Jesus increasingly hear faith and not fear from those of us who do believe.
Islamophobia is on the rise in America–and, sadly, particularly in the Christian community. It’s whispered in gossipy comments about our President (“you know, he’s a secret Muslim”). It’s present in scary-music You Tube videos that go viral as they attempt to inform us about massive Muslim population growth (some manipulation of facts included). And it was especially present in the reprehensible op-ed piece by Gary Cass, recently published by Charisma News, “I’m Islamophobic, Are You?” Charisma was shamed into taking the post down, but one had to wonder why a mainstream Pentecostal website published it in the first place.
Cass’s piece is still readable on his own website, but I have chosen not to link to it. In his piece, he argues that all Muslims want to kill non-Muslims. He says that there are only three possible solutions to dealing with Muslims in America. First, conversion, but he argues that God hates Muslim Arabs, and although there might be one here or there who come to faith in Christ, “History does not record a mighty move of God in saving masses of Muslims. I believe the scriptures militate against mass Muslim conversions.” Since conversion is out, Cass argues that the next alternative is “D.A.M.N.: Depart All Muslims Now.” But since most people’s beliefs about Muslims are “irrational and stupid,” Cass argues this is not likely to happen. Finally, since he has discarded options one and two, Cass argues, “The only thing that is biblical and that 1400 years of history has shown to work is overwhelming Christian just war and overwhelming self defense.” Then he tells his audience to buy a gun and prepare their family. Finally, he closes his piece with this horrifying language:
We will have to face the harsh truth that Islam has no place in civilized society. Muslims cannot live in a society based on Christian ideals of equality and liberty. They will always seek to harm us.
Now the only question is how many more dead bodies will have to pile up at home and abroad before we crush the vicious seed of Ishmael in Jesus name?
Wow. Just wow. I have heard plenty of veiled Islamophobic beliefs, but this is so blatant and aggressive that I can hardly believe it was published by a mainstream publication. I would not be shocked if some radicalized Christian takes this his post as a mandate to kill and terrorize Muslims here in the U.S.
I want to stand against this kind of hateful, dangerous nonsense which goes completely against the spirit of faithful Christianity and utterly misrepresents the God who we serve. Here are 4 reasons why Christians absolutely must take a stand against both blatant and veiled Islamophobia.
1. Love your neighbor.
No one likes to be characterized by their worst representative. Imagine if all Christians were judged by those who shoot abortion doctors or by the Crusaders or by Fred Phelps. Does the presence of violent so-called Christians mean that Christianity is inherently violent? In the same way, it’s unfair and untrue to argue that “every Mosque in America is conspiring to kill you.”
As Christians, our number one mandate is witness to Christ (more on this below). We absolutely discredit our witness and align ourselves with the forces of evil when we engage in bearing false witness and fear-mongering. Consideration and respect rather than aggression is a witness to Christ. God calls us to love our neighbor. We do this by being willing to see our neighbor as a real human being, not a two-dimensional bogeyman. We do this by being willing to put ourselves in our neighbor’s shoes. What would it be like to be Muslim in a country where lots of people are afraid of you and hate you? Wouldn’t it be terrifying? Hate crimes against Muslims are a real thing, and they’re motivated by ignorance.
What if, instead of proclaiming jihad against Muslims, we got to know them? What if we chose to know them as they really are? What if we dared to let them know that we are their friend, and they have no reason to fear us? Just try to argue from Scripture that that is not a Biblical response to our neighbor in our midst.
2. The blessing of the “other.”
As sinful human beings, we are geared toward fearing the “other.” Someone who is different from us can be frightening.
But, Biblically, we are not called to fear the other, but to realize that we have much blessing to gain from the presence of the “other.” We see in the story of the Good Samaritan, the one who is of a despised class and ethnicity (and religion!) turns out to be the one who blesses one of God’s chosen people. When we dare to love and know people, we so often find out that we become the ones who are blessed.
What surprises might we find if we get to know Muslims? How might we learn from them? How might their friendship enrich our lives?
3. The mission field at our door step.
I’m not arguing that we make our Muslim neighbors a project (I will love them whether they convert to my faith or not), but I do argue unapologetically that God loves Muslims, and Jesus died to save them too. Enough of this nonsense about God hating Arab Muslims. It’s time to remember that we Gentiles were also outside God’s covenant, but as Paul says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). God longs to bring every person who is far away from Him near.
It is desperately frustrating to see the self-centered Church of Jesus in America missing an incredible opportunity that God has brought to our doorstep. It used to be that if you wanted to be a missionary, you had to travel to a far-away land. But God has blessed us by bringing the mission field to our doorstep. If we respond by turning inward, resorting to hate and violence, and trying to protect our comfortable little world, I honestly wonder what God will say to us on Judgment Day. I really do. The goal of the Christian faith is not to protect what I have, but to reach out to demonstrate and speak the Good News to our neighbors. We are all missionaries, and God has brought the world to our doorstep. What a blessing!
4. Love your enemies.
Someone will argue, “But what about Muslim extremists? There are certainly some of those hiding in our midst. And those people are dangerous!” Look, I’m a realist. I know there are some people here that want to do us harm. It’s a fringe element, but there are some. But here’s the thing: we do not get a pass to fail to love our neighbor just because our neighbor has declared himself our enemy. We don’t get a pass on loving members of ISIL or AL-Qaeda. Rather than a Satanic call to “crush the vicious seed of Ishmael in Jesus name,” Jesus gave us this call:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.–Matthew 5:43-48, NIV
Of course, nations must sometimes intervene and engage in just war against those who terrify and destroy the innocent. But our call as Church must not be conflated with some warrior mandate. Our call as Church is to sacrificially love and bear witness.
I hope at least one person reading this post will be willing to reject fear and hatred and turn to their Muslim neighbor with the embrace of God’s love. Let’s reject our self-centered, comfortable American Church and dare to reach out to those who are good and those who are bad. Let’s dare to know them. Let’s give thanks that these precious people who God loves are now in our midst. And let’s show them that we think so.
(Note: this post is written by me, a white American, to other white Americans. I leave it to the black community to address whatever issues they may have, as fellow sinners before a merciful Savior. I’m not the person to speak to that. My own community is one that I feel called to address. Because this is the community I know.)
I remember the first time I learned about white privilege. It was in a seminary class called “Dismantling Racism.” I won’t say I was completely closed off to the idea, but a bit of me was convinced that my instructor was trying to tell me that I was inherently bad because I was white, while minority races were inherently good. This class left some things to be desired in its completely liberal articulation of a theology of race, but I find myself realizing, years later, that I probably should have continued to push past my discomfort and try to better understand what white privilege means.
Today, when I try to talk to fellow white people about white privilege, more often than not, they tend to have the similar reactions as I did the first time I heard about it: “Why are you blaming me? I don’t hate black people! Heck, I don’t even SEE color! Obviously, black people just need to take more responsibility for their lives! Hello! Slavery is over! Segregation is over!”
To be told that I have succeeded at least in part because I simply was born white is deeply discomforting. “No, no,” I say to myself. “Surely this is because of my hard work, my personal effort, my applied intelligence.” Because I have always been white and will always be white, I miss the advantages I have had in life that those who are born black (or Native American or _____) in the United States do not have. I don’t even see how I’ve had more advantages. They are invisible to me.
Of course, for true reconciliation to occur, everybody has to take responsibility. But have we, the white race in America, taken responsibility for our part? Do we simply dismiss our brother and sister’s experiences because it’s too painful to consider that they might have a point? Are we willing to sit with them in the midst of their pain?
As a Lutheran, I believe in a doctrine that Martin Luther taught, the doctrine of the bound will. The bound will means that a human being is totally lost in sin, totally turned away from God. Our will is bound to unbelief and to sin. This means that I do not need to make a “decision for Christ” in order to find new life. I, as a dead person, need to be raised to new life. I am passive, not active in the salvation process.
I am Lazarus, bound in grave clothes, shut behind a heavy stone in a tomb that smells of decaying flesh. I am, as Dickens wrote, “Deader than a doornail.” My only hope is that Christ may appear on the scene and call me forth. Only through His Word spoken over the rot of my death can my icy blue rigor mortis began to pulse and pink with the fire of life. There is no “decision for Christ” to bring me alive. There is only the Alive One standing over me and re-making my clay anew.
This belief in the bound will is fundamentally unAmerican. Americans know that we must pull ourselves up by our boot straps. We choose Christ; He doesn’t choose us. If you’re poor, it’s your own darn fault because we all choose our lot in life. The American dream means that we will succeed in anything we choose if we just apply enough elbow grease. After all, the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves.”
It’s not popular to tell Americans that there are things about them that are outside their control. If you tell someone that they are a product of white privilege, they try to tell you that that is not the case. I tried to tell myself this was not the case. People tell you they have landed where they are because of their own good and righteous efforts. As I heard on Facebook this week from a fellow Christian, “WE in THIS PART of the country don’t riot when a police officer shoots and kills a man. WE have too much work to do.” We are terrified to see that we are part of a system that is bound. We are terrified to see that despite our very best intentions, we are still part of a system that oppresses. We are terrified to admit that the black community might just have a point about white privilege. We are terrified to admit that we are in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves.
But to say of the gathered protestors in Ferguson, of those who lament the second man killed in Powell, “there’s nothing to see here” or “everybody has problems; buck up!” is to haughtily ignore our own need for a Savior. For we are enmeshed deep in the fabric of oppression. We are dead in our sin. To admit white privilege makes us feel deeply and profoundly out of control. It makes us question everything we thought we knew.
But, friends, it’s ok. It’s ok to admit that we are part of a system that is broken, that we are part of the cogs of oppression. It’s ok to admit that we don’t get our neighbor’s experience. It’s ok to start admitting that we are part of the problem. Because, you know what? Jesus Christ came not for righteous, perfect, pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps people. He came for REAL SINNERS. He came for you and me.
Oh, how humbling to not be able to self-resuscitate! But when we come up sputtering with the air of new life, how free we are! How free to love our neighbor! Nobody is worse; nobody is better. We’re a bunch of corpses Jesus made alive. Christ made a decision for you. Oh, dear God! Thank You for Your mercy! Give me Your breath of life, day by day, that I may be merciful to my neighbor. Amen.
Recently, Ann Coulter got a lot of attention and ire directed her way when she criticized two Christian missionaries for going to serve those in another country. Coulter claims to be a Christian and God alone knows the truth, but one does not see a lot of good fruit coming from her. She has made an idol of her reputation for provoking people to anger, not from provoking people to love and serve God and their neighbor better. It appears nothing in this world is as important to her as arrogantly proclaiming her views and ticking people off.
Coulter is a famous and public provocateur. But there are lots of other provocateurs in the Christian community who claim they are simply continuing in the great Biblical prophetic tradition. We have provocateur-heavy and provocateur-lite going on in the Flathead Valley here in Montana this week. Philip Klevmoen’s 10 Commandments Park in Columbia Falls has been erected and will be dedicated this weekend. It features billboard-sized placards of the 10 Commandments interspersed with religious quotes from the Founding Fathers. It also includes three crosses. When we moved to the Flathead Valley, we were struck by the prevalence of 10 Commandments placards everywhere across the Valley. Some of them were just commandments signs, but more recently some have begun to include New Testament references that point the way to Jesus. The signs have always seemed to me to be very “in your face,” ineffective modes of communication. Undoubtedly, Klevmoen, who had a dramatic conversion experience after a past as a Las Vegas gambler, has some good intentions in displaying the commandments. He knows what it’s like to be without Jesus, and he wants people to know Jesus. I don’t know Klevmoen, but I’m willing to take that desire at face value.
However, Klevmoen has allied himself with others who exercise an even more in-your-face approach, such as controversial street preacher Ruben Israel. Israel is coming to the Flathead Valley this week to host a street preachers convention in Evergreen, MT. Israel is almost but not quite to the level of a Westboro Baptist-style of street preaching. He incites and provokes through images and inflammatory words, but he doesn’t protest at military funerals. Klevmoen stops short of affiliating his organization, God’s Ten, with the street preachers’ group, but he is allowing the convention at a former church building that he owns, and he and Israel have spoken well of each other. Israel is famous for being “stoned” by angry Muslims after provoking them in Dearborn, Michigan a few years ago (a claim Christ and Pop Culture’s Alan Noble has called into some question) In one of his stunts there, he carried around a pig’s head on a stick, claiming that he did this so that he would not be attacked by Muslims. He also carried placards claiming Mohammed was a child molester. One of his fellow preachers shouted things to the crowd like, “Go dye your hair blonde. Go dye your hair!” and “You’re a disgusting Muslim! You’re on the way to the devil’s hand.” Israel has at least some link with even more extreme provocateur Terry Jones, famous for inciting Muslims by burning Korans.
Such Christian provocateurs insist that if they tick people off, it’s simply because people don’t like to hear God’s Word. Is this true? Is the American Christian community so soft that we are unable to hear tough Biblical truth? Should Christians parade around with hellfire and brimstone signs, deliberately provoke groups they perceive to be “sinners” and “idol worshippers,” post 10 Commandments signs right and left? I don’t think so. Here are 6 reasons why:
1. Biblical prophets were characterized by grief and humility.
The Biblical prophets did not arrogantly lift themselves above the people, but grieved and wept over both the people’s sin and their own. Prophets often identified with the people and their sin in repentant prayer, whether or not they were personally guilty of the sins they confessed. Even the sinless Son of God wept over Jerusalem’s coming fate (Luke 19:41-44). Jeremiah was known as the “weeping Prophet” (Jeremiah 9:1, 13:17). God’s prophets, by and large, were humble. Not only this, but many prophets resisted the prophetic call. They wanted to do anything but be prophets (Jeremiah 1:6; Isaiah 6:5; Exodus 3:11; 4:10, 13). This seems to be the polar opposite of the Christian provocateur, who races headlong into whatever crazy stunt will create a reaction or give them more attention.
Because of their confrontational nature, prophets are especially vulnerable to having prideful chips on their shoulder. The Bible does not support this tendency; it condemns it. In the book of Jonah, we see Jonah’s resistance to God welcoming and forgiving his sworn enemy. The Ninevites were a fearsome people. I think it would be fair to compare them to ISIS or Al Qaeda. Jonah admits that he does not want God to save this people. He hates them:
“Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
–Jonah 4:2-3, NIV
When Moses loses his temper with God’s people, rather than praising him for confronting the sin of the people, God confronts Moses with his own sin:
“Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”
2. Prophets, Biblically-speaking, are those who actually speak for God.That means that someone who claims to be a prophet can be tested in order to determine if they are a true or a false prophet.
So-called prophetic voices make truth claims and predictions that can be verified against Scripture and against what actually happens.
With this in mind, challenge those who claim to be prophets with these Biblical tests:
–Do their predictions come true? (Deuteronomy 18:22)
–Even if they produce signs or wonders, do they turn people away from or toward the one true God? (Deuteronomy 13)
–Do they conduct themselves in a fitting, orderly, and peaceful manner? (I Corinthians 14:31-33, 39-40)
–Do they acknowledge Jesus Christ? (I John 4:1)
–Do they encourage you to test their “prophecy”? (I Thessalonians 4:19-22)
True prophets need to have not just one of these characteristics but all of them.
3. Christian witness should always be spoken with gentleness and respect.
Peter once gave this advice about Christian witness:
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.
–I Peter 3:15-17
In other words, when you communicate the Gospel, don’t be a jerk about it. Being a jerk just gives people an excuse to dismiss you. Being a jerk doesn’t convey that you have an eternal hope. And if you’re being a jerk, don’t claim that you’re being persecuted for your righteousness. Being a provocateur does not inherently make a person a prophet. Just because you tick people off, you don’t get to claim that you’re being persecuted. Live in an exemplary manner so people can take you seriously.
Paul gives similar advice:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.–Colossians 4:5-6
4.Provocateurs miss the need for contextualization and translation of their message.
Truth must be contextualized. Just as different nations speak different languages, the cultures of different generations and eras speak different cultural languages. When one seeks to communicate Law and Gospel, one must think about how they will be understood in the culture to whom one speaks. This does not mean abandoning core Biblical teachings, but it does mean doing all one can to come near to people in their culture and communicate truth the very best possible way we can. While hellfire and brimstone preaching, street preaching, some tracts, and religious placards may have been effective in certain previous cultural situations (and may even occasionally be effective in isolated cases now), for the vast majority of people in today’s culture, these methods come across like a giant middle finger being flung out at them by the Christian community. It’s difficult to communicate God’s heart to save when one is holding a sign covered in hellfire.
In our culture, preaching at people conveys an idea of superiority. It causes people to stereotype Christians and fail to give any of them a hearing. It is the opposite of conversation. How can I talk with someone who is preaching at me? How can I begin to even consider integrating their beliefs into my worldview? Conversation opens people up. Preaching at people closes them down.
Conversation opens people up. Preaching at people closes them down.
As part of truth contextualization is the need to glorify God through quality, though-provoking messaging. Not 10 Commandments placards, garishly displayed. Instead, how about something like this:
This t-shirt is advertising Skull Church, an evangelistic outreach of a local church in Kalispell called Fresh Life. This isn’t my church, but I admire these Christians for what they are doing to provide spare, thought-provoking, well-executed advertising and imagery to a world that has good reason to be skeptical of Christians. Fresh Life uses the image of the skull to evoke Golgotha and the beautiful act of salvation that Jesus brought about for believers at such an ugly place. That’s downright poetic and thought-provoking and different from what people expect to hear Christians communicating. The core teaching is the same, but it is translated carefully and well for the current culture.
5. So-called prophets need to beware when their god hates everyone else they hate.
That which is called prophetic in American culture is frequently allied with an idolatry and fetishizing of America as a Christian nation and with the idol of Republican politics. (There is another brand of “prophetic speaking truth to power” that fetishizes Democratic politics, but that is another discussion for another day.) Who can argue with your pronouncements against liberals, people of other religions, homosexuals, or whoever your current favorite Bogeyman is if you claim to speak for God? Sooner or later, false prophets begin to bolster their own prideful beliefs and to proclaim, above all, that they are right. What starts out as a concern for people who are captive to sin, death, and the devil quickly becomes an opportunity for sarcasm, harsh pronouncements, and self-justification.
In contrast, the Bible teaches that we are all wrong, and only God is right. In regards to politics, Christians are called “aliens and strangers” and citizens of another Kingdom. Our normal state as Christians is not being power brokers of some kingdom of God gained through politics, but rather in being humble, self-giving servants. This is why Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol have so impressed a world that is only out for itself. Rather than carrying placards, mounting pig’s heads on sticks, or burning Korans, these faithful missionaries self-sacrificially laid their lives down to care for those who are the most suffering on earth. This kind of service is what gets people’s attention. It’s a love and service that communicates through action that “it’s not about me,” but that it’s about Jesus.
Provocateurs frequently drive their negative energy in the direction of xenophobia. Rather than rejoicing that God has brought the nations to our doorstep, they reject outsiders and provoke them. The New Testament model is not to angrily provoke outsiders, but to engage them. Provoke curiosity not anger. Humbly serve with the love of Christ.
6. More often than not, prophets speak to God’s people, not unbelievers, calling them away from their idols and back to Him.
Who was Jesus the hardest on? The occupying Romans? (That’s who the rabble wanted Him to topple so they could be a Christian–er, Jewish–nation again.) No, Jesus was the hardest on the most religious crowd. The crowd who were most focused on defining perfect faithfulness to God. Jesus showed us that nothing can hide our worst selfish motivations better than religious words and claims. The Old Testament prophets did sometimes prophesy against the sins of the nations, but they confronted the sins of God’s people most stridently of all. So when you hear so-called prophets spending almost all of their time proclaiming that the evil, vile people of the world are going to burn in hell, maybe stop and ask yourself why they aren’t spending more time calling the Church out on its evils. True prophecy begins with calling God’s people to account.
Christian witness is not well-represented by Christian stunt artists. It is best represented by humble service, living the Christ life before a watching, skeptical world.
In contrast to the extremists discussed here, check out this interview that Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today Show did with Jeremy Writebol, the son of Christian missionary Nancy Writebol. Here we see Christians who have faced great personal cost for serving Christ; we see the joy of these Christians in spite of their suffering. And we see their willingness to go back to the place of greatest risk and suffering. Not even the often-flippant hosts of morning TV can dismiss the power of this witness. We need more of this and less of the publicity stunts. Through humble service, God is glorified, our neighbor is served, and people come in contact with the paradoxical cross–the instrument of death through which comes life.