Our Citizenship (on earth as it is) in Heaven

In August of 2020, I guest-preached at Evergreen Church about the difficult historical moment the American church finds itself in. There are, of course, many and varied aspects to this unusually challenging period in American history, and by no means do I understand all that’s going on, not by a longshot. But one aspect had been getting clearer – the centrality of the human heart – and since that theme had been building in me for quite some time, that is what I talked about. (A Vimeo of that message – The Refiner’s Fire in a Time of Crisis – is here: https://wagingwisdom.com/2020/08/27/the-refiners-fire-in-a-time-of-crisis/ .)

Recently (Nov. 14, 2021), I guest-preached again at the church and spoke about another aspect of our still difficult period that seems pretty clear: the theme of “Our Citizenship in Heaven.” You may listen to it on the Vimeo, linked just below here. (If you prefer an mp3 file of the talk (vocal only), send me an email and I’ll send you the link.)

A brief word: although the word “heaven” turns our thoughts to the next life, the talk focused on our citizenship “on earth as it is in heaven” – to adapt a phrase from how our Lord taught us to pray. As I understand it, a challenging moment must be met with an even more challenging redemptive response. So in this message I introduce the much needed conversation that needs to begin among American Christians: the difference between the duties Jesus calls us to fulfill in the Sermon on the Mount v. our rallying around the protection of our individual rights.

I want to thank Pastor Wes White for the invitation to speak and worship leader Brennon Carpenter for making it available here.

PS: this talk starts immediately after clicking the white arrow, so if you miss the opening words, I’m just saying that Philippians is one of the apostle Paul’s prison letters.

 

Charles Strohmer is a Christian minister and writer. He blogs at http://www.wagingwisdom.com.

©2021 by Charles Strohmer

The folly of listening to conspiracy theories

glass chess piecesIn a 1952 essay on the return, or Second Coming, of Christ, C. S. Lewis wrote that our “ears should be closed to any future William Miller in advance. The folly of listening to him at all is almost equal to the folly of believing him.” It’s a warning not to fall prey to the heedless disregard some people have for Christ’s own words about his return. To typify this, Lewis looked back to William Miller, a nineteenth century American farmer who also served in the War of 1812. But Miller was also a religious enthusiast. During the 1830s, he preached and published pamphlets of lectures proclaiming the world would end in 1843, with the bodily return of Jesus Christ.

Miller justified his belief from Bible passages he had strung together and put his own spin on. He preached with such passion that many who at first just listened ended up believing that he had actually decoded from Scripture the unknown; that he actually knew. Tens of thousands of people, called the Millerites, amassed around his view, convinced that he knew. Of Miller’s folly, Lewis, relying on the words of Jesus – “of that day and hour knoweth no man” – writes that Miller “couldn’t know what he pretended, or thinks, he knows” (Lewis’s emphasis). But Lewis goes further. In the essay he shows the folly not only of claiming to know when “the world’s last night” (the title of the essay) would arrive but even of listening to the claim.

While reading the essay it hit me that we today would do well to listen to Lewis’s warning about listening. But not about dating systems for Christ’s return. Every generation of Christians since Miller’s has learned its lesson about that. Today we need to learn it about conspiracy theories. And if we say, “well, we don’t really believe them,” with how much honesty can we say that we aren’t listening?

I learned my lesson the hard way. In the late 1970s, a newish believer, I listened to Christians who spoke in hushed tones about secret organizations that had strange names such as the Illuminati, the Bilderbergs, and the Trilateral Commission. Most people don’t know anything about them, I was told, but they have a lot of money and power, and they control world leaders, and through the European Union they’re going to usher in the anti-Christ and set up a new world order. It’s all in the Bible, they said, the signs are everywhere if you look for them.

I came to regret my naivety, but what did I know? I was a young believer. Aren’t we supposed to listen to older believers? But I wasn’t going to take anyone’s word on conspiracy theories. Not even a Christian’s. The stakes were too high. During my years in the occult, before becoming a follower of Jesus, I listened to, and then believed in, and then taught what I later found out were the most unbiblical ideas and views. Christ had delivered me from those subtle yet powerful beliefs and I wasn’t going to let myself get fooled again. So after earnest prayer for guidance and my spiritual antenna tuned up, I plunged down the rabbit hole.

During that labyrinthine journey I saw how even well-meaning people might spin into dark webs of intrigue any number of conspiracy theories from twentieth century old bookshuman history. But after awhile I also saw that all such listening-journeys were a waste of precious time. A distraction from following Jesus and listening to him.

Trying to pin down the truth about conspiracy theories is like trying to trap a wet watermelon seed between the tabletop and your fingertip: just when you think you have it, it darts of at the last second. Time and time again. That personal experience was supported by a sense of the occult that I discerned on occasion drifting around the dark corners and cul de sacs of conspiratorial thinking.

Besides, I thought, if I were a member of a cabal that really could take over the world but did not want the public to know what our plans were, the first thing we would do would be to concoct a conspiracy theory that had nothing whatsoever to do with our plans; but to a naive public it would seem credible enough to be listened to, if not also believed. Once we had devised that, we would then cleverly use our vast resources to start leaking it out to the public. Its purpose would be to create an on-going distraction in the minds of a gullible public from our real plans. Surely, I thought, any cabal with the money and influence to take over the world would certainly have brains enough to include that kind of misdirection in its plans.

I should add that my decision to have nothing whatsoever to do with conspiracy theories anymore was not an easy decision to make. For the pull into listening is fascinatingly hypnotic, the spell hard to break once you’re lured. But it was such a relief to break free. Knowing the trap even of listening, I refuse to waste time looking into even the popular whisperings available to our ears today. I have done a little look-see into recent offerings, but only briefly, to know what all the fuss is about.

The bottom line is that listening to conspiracies reveals a childish ignorance of God’s sovereign rule over history and opens the door for replacing the fear of the Lord with one of the worst kinds of fear: “the fear of man, which brings a snare” (Proverb 29:25). It ought to be second nature to Christians to know that time and time again the Bible records various interventions of God to stop the wayward plans of rulers and their nations while simultaneously admonishing God’s people to “fear not” the plotting of cabals but instead to “fear the Lord.”

Yet through belief in a conspiracy theory the people of God become ensnared by fear. That is partly the topic of Isaiah 8:10-17, where the prophet announces God’s rebuke to the people for their belief in a conspiracy:

“Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread” (v. 12).

The prophet brings lack of trust in God’s sovereignty and both kinds of fear into sharp focus during a time of international intrigue, secret alliances, and public confusion. The message is clear. A faith-based confession in God’s sovereign rule had been replaced by a fear-driven belief in the sovereignty of man. Like severe arthritis can cripple the use of one’s hand or knee, the fear of man had stopped the ability of God’s people to think rightly as God’s people.

Isaiah is in effect disclosing a tragic irony. Bad times are indeed looming for the people of God, but its source is not going to result from the conspiracy being fulfilled but from God’s judgment (vv. 14-15).

But there is another significant part to the text, one that is often missed: even a prophet of God can be about to step into the trap. Using his own words, not the Lord’s, Isaiah includes an explanatory note to his audience that God had warned him not to follow the way of the people. The prophet was in jeopardy of being caught in the same snare, of not thinking rightly.

“The Lord spoke to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people…” (v. 11).

This personalized warning to the prophet needs to be heard and internalized by God’s people today. Pervasive fear in many Christian circles, particularly in American Evangelical communities, is greatly harming the church’s witness and damaging the nation. So it is encouraging to hear David French, for one, a notable writer in the conservative Christian world, speaking to this. As a pastor and friend of mine said, it’s admirable that one of the things to be admired about what French is doing is that he is writing not only as a member of conservative Christianity but as one who makes sense and appears to put Scripture above party platform.

French has been offering not only incisive analysis of why the fear is rampant but why it is rampant now, during a time in America when political and legal movements of the last forty years, at both federal and state levels, have favored conservative Christians, colleges, and businesses more the ever. And yet excessive fear reigns. Here is a recent piece of insightful analysis by French to get you going: “How American Christendom Weakens American Christianity.”

In his essay on the return of Christ, Lewis writes that believing in dating systems for the end of the world has “led Christians into very great follies… To write a history of all these exploded predictions would need a book, and a sad, sordid, tragi-comical book it would be.” We would do well to hear that today about our own folly.

We Christians have made ourselves into a sad, sordid, and tragi-comical lot in the eyes of the world, deservedly so. By listening to conspiracy theories, whispering to our friends about them, blurbing about them on social media, we are not thinking rightly. Enough is enough. “God has not given us the spirit of fear but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Best we repent and seek God for mercy and grace to close our ears to conspiracy thinking and to instead live in the fear of the Lord. And then, following Isaiah’s lead, let us publicly confess to our Christian friends and on social media how the Lord got our attention and warned us. Whether we are prophets or not. It would be a good start.

Charles Strohmer is a Christian minister and writer. He blogs at www.wagingwisdom.com

©2021 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Creative Commons.

Why the Experts Need the Intelligent Amateurs

“For the task [of] developing an authentic biblical wisdom among the people of God in this generation, we need in particular two kinds of Christians in our churches. One kind will be what rather hesitantly we might call the experts, those called to work in a particular area of life. It may be what they do for a livelihood, and often it is. But in this rather odd fallen world it may be a spare time activity. These people develop expertise by a certain degree of concentration and specialization. They are likely to be experts in only one field, and so in other respects they will be no better off than the rest of us. They tend either to become leaders and spokespersons in particular aspects of life or to provide resources for leaders and spokespersons.

“Besides the experts, we need the intelligent amateurs. These people are ordinary, average Christians who pursue their own callings but who also seek to understand the world around them as far as God grants them resources, abilities, and opportunities. They won’t be experts, but then they won’t speak like that, either. Most of the time they won’t be on platforms or in pulpits or writing authoritative books. This does not mean that they will be silently submissive or inert.

“They will do all sorts of study as their interests lead them, and they will be able to talk clearly, to listen intelligently, to make worthwhile contributions in discussions, and to have opinions worth accepting or disputing. Any of which may lead to discoveries. When they see a call to action, they soberly commit themselves to it. Above all, they know how to ask good questions. Such people are indispensable for creating a climate in which wise leadership can flourish. They may volunteer for community projects, or join education committees, or become precinct delegates, or even deacons and elders.

“The experts need the intelligent amateurs. This above all the expert needs. The worst possible thing is for the experts to go unchallenged. We suffer at present far too much from the tyranny of the expert. Not only does the expert tend to have an inadequately challenged authority in his own area of competence, but he also gets to be listened to with reverence in areas in which he is not competent. So rock stars are interviewed to pronounce on social ethics, physicists pontificate on the meaning of history, and politicians seem expert about everything! The only people who are expected not to address the world (though within the church the situation is different) outside their competence are religious leaders. (We wonder why?)

“Further, constant work within one’s own discipline easily leads the expert to become unaware of significant questions from outside that are vital for that work. Any teacher worth her salt knows, possibly more than she cares to admit, that her thinking and understanding has developed best in response to intelligent questioning, especially the sort that rocks her on her heels and makes her rethink some position.

“The intelligent amateur has a special power of discrimination. This is invaluable. Paul prays for those engagingly loving Christians at Philippi that their love would abound in thorough knowledge and insight, so as to discriminate the best from the rest (Philippians 1:9–10). Experts, curiously enough, are not the best endowed with this ability – maybe they are too busy studying the trees to appreciate the forest and the surrounding countryside.

“None of us can fulfill our callings as well as we might without a supporting community, and the experts are no exception. Other things being equal, a community like the church is going to have teachers and leaders whose quality is chiefly determined by the acumen of its general membership. If the members are suckers, they will be led by fools or rogues and hardly suspect it.

“If we hope to witness Christianly to this age in the Name of the Lord and in the interests of a more obedient culture, it is essential that as a Christian community we do good work in this area. A doctor will tell you that half her task is about good diagnosis, and half of that is about good observation and analysis. Careless work or arrogantly superficial efforts are going to be disastrous on the part of people who think that they are automatically experts because they know the Bible text or have a degree in sociology.

“It would be easy to give up. We may not be experts, and we may not have the time or the talents to embark on taxing programs of study. We may not be used to such demands being required of our intellectual life to become intelligent amateurs. And maybe our background has taught us to believe that our answers must always be simple, so that “he who runs may read” the message.

“Certainly there is a simplicity in the Gospel. To meet Jesus and trust him is the most natural thing in the world for a child. But living faithfully as an adult in a complex world is not simple. We are not expected to think like geniuses (unless we are one), but each of us is expected to think as hard as we can and to make what contributions we can to the ministry of the whole body of Christ in its witness, teaching, preaching, healing, and persuading. We must all do our part in this, as service to God in the world according to our particular gifts and callings. And we may need to be prepared to double up for others who have stopped functioning.” (Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, S.P.C.K, 2000; cpt 15.)

©2021 by Charles Strohmer

A rare astronomical event is happening this Christmas. Is it the Star of Bethlehem?

(This essay by Charles Strohmer was originally published in Religion Unplugged, December 14, 2020)

Stargazing into the western sky this December has captured the interest of millions, as news stories of every kind highlight the appearance of a rare conjunction appearance together of our two largest planets, Jupiter and Saturn. Amateur astronomers are manning their expensive telescopes taking once-in-a-lifetime photos. Astrologers are counseling clients to use to their advantage the energies of what they call “the great conjunction.” Social media outlets have millions imagining that this is the return of the Star of Bethlehem in the story of the Magi. But is it?

Most of the buzz has arisen from the fact that this is an exceptionally rare extra-close conjunction of the two giants, pulsing in the night sky with enough combined light to impress even the most uninterested. That the two planets will be at their closest and brightest on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, has only added to the mystery. The two giants may also be seen nearing their closest proximity night after night in the weeks leading up to it, and then moving away from it for many days afterward. The last time these two planets shone so brightly to the naked eye was 800 years ago, in 1226.

If I were still an astrologer, you can be certain I would be advising my clients to take advantage of the good vibrations. After turning to Christ and becoming a Christian, I lost interest in astrology, but since becoming a minister I still get asked about the nature and meaning of the Star and the Magi who followed it. But even after two millennia of scholarly research, questions remain.

Were the Magi astrologers, astronomers or some combination of the two? What starry indications, if any, motivated them to allocate time, money and effort to travel hundreds of miles from the East by desert caravan to Jerusalem to search for the Christ child? Were they following the stars, as many presume? Or some other natural phenomenon? Perhaps it was a supernatural sign seen only by the Magi? And what is the religious meaning of the Star made famous by the Gospel of Matthew and still the subject of speculation today?

Religious scholars generally agree that the history of the Magi can be traced back to an elite priestly class in the royal courts of the Medes and Persians, centuries before the time of Christ, and that their religion included belief in the advent of a savior. Their counterparts in neighboring Babylonia likely were persons such as the sage Daniel who, although Jewish, rose to become a diplomat and trusted counselor to successive Babylonian kings.

The biblical book Daniel details what their exceptional education entailed. The entrance exam alone would exclude many of us. Prospective students had to be “young men without any physical defect,” as well as “handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.” Once admitted, they were taught “the language and the literature of the Babylonians” and received “a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table.” After three years, “they were to enter the king’s service” (Daniel chapters 1–3). Religious historians also agree that the Magi (wise men) were learned in religion, diplomacy, literature, divination, esoteric wisdom, magical practices and the zodiac.

As for the nature of the Star of Bethlehem, views abound, from the purely natural to the mystical. Astronomers have calculated that Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction around the time of Christ’s birth, but they also have reasons to understand that the starry visitor may have been a nova, or a comet, or a meteor, or perhaps a supernova. Others think that it may have been a completely new star, a tremendously bright yet inexplicable light in the heavens created as a token of the Savior’s birth, a light that shone on the shepherds, which they took for angels and which the Magi saw as a star. Or perhaps it was not an external light, only a vision given to the shepherds and the Magi. Some think that it was a supernatural phenomenon. None of these views has ever been established to the exclusion of the others.

For the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel, as understood in the Christian tradition, a purely naturalistic view fails to account for the religious meaning of the Star of Bethlehem. The narrative does not deny that a natural phenomenon and the laws guiding it may have played a part in announcing Christ’s birth, but only a part. For it records the Star as having “appeared” at a particular time, and that it “went ahead of” the Magi “until it stopped over the place where the child was.” This seems to hint at some kind of personal rather purely natural guidance behind the phenomenon. The likelihood of that is supported by linguistic studies of the original Greek language of the New Testament, where many times the same words translated as “appeared,” “went ahead,” and “stopped” (to describe the movements of Star) also describe deliberately taken actions of people (Matthew 2:1–12).

Another possible clue that something more personal is taking place than anything purely natural may be found after the road weary Magi arrive in Jerusalem with their large desert caravan. Their persistent questions about a king of the Jews cause such a public and religious stir in the ancient city that it arouses the interest of King Herod, who invites prominent rabbis to the palace to get to the bottom of the disturbance. The rabbis point Herod to a prophecy in the Bible: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2).

Herod, now fearful about the birth of a rival king, secretly plots to have the child put to death, and he enlists the Magi as unwitting pawns. Summoning them to a private meeting, he sends them to Bethlehem to search for the child there, but he also directs them to return to Jerusalem to give him the child’s address, saying that he, too, wants to go to worship him. The Magi depart for Bethlehem, just several miles south of Jerusalem. But there’s a problem. They now know what town to go to but they don’t have an address.

It is clear from Matthew’s Gospel that the Christ child was no longer at the place of his birth, the manger, with Mary and Joseph. Months, if not a year or more, have passed since Christ’s birth when the Magi finally arrive where the family are living. And it is the Star that reveals the address. The Star “went ahead of” the Magi “until it stopped over the place where the child was.” This would be pretty unlikely behavior from a mere natural phenomenon. The Magi reach their goal, worship the child, and present him with their precious gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. Unaware that Herod is using them as pawns on his political chessboard to have the child murdered, the Magi are warned in a dream not return to Herod, and “they returned to their country by another way.”

In the Christian faith, the little phrase “another way” opens up the religious meaning of the Star of Bethlehem via some strange alchemy left to us by the witness of these Magi long dead. How so? It is commonly presumed that the Magi were astrologers who merely followed stars to Christ’s birth. Nothing in Matthew’s Gospel precludes the Magi as being astrologers, but even if they were, the record in Matthew does not show them relying on astrology but on Scripture to interpret the religious meaning of Christ’s birth.

The Magi leave Jerusalem for Bethlehem by following the rabbi’s interpretation of their scriptures, and it is likely that they left their homeland in the East by following the Bible. Magi of the Ancient Near East were, among their many other skills, sages learned in the religious literature of neighboring cultures. In their diplomatic roles as shuttle diplomats, this would have been a necessity. Ancient Israel being part of the neighborhood, the Magi of Matthew’s Gospel must have had among them some collective awareness of a prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, that a “star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). This was usually treated as one of Israel’s messianic prophecies about the divine Ruler to come. It may have been enough to motivate the Magi to head for Jerusalem, the heart of Israel’s religious life, to receive further their understanding after the appearance of the unusual and prominent Star.

In the Christian faith, more is going on with the Star of Bethlehem and the Magi than meets the eye. They represent the divine help that even the currently remarkably rare and bright conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn cannot provide to those soul searching for the Savior. Although some may need to suspend disbelief to imagine the possibilities, it is “another way” indeed.

Image via Creative Commons: Texas Monthly (stars); George Thomas (surprised look)..

©2020 by Charles Strohmer

“Arms and the Man” v. “Put up thy Sword”: Tough Questions for Rick Joyner, Jim Bakker, and the Prophetic Movement

Swords into plowsharesNot many years before Christ was born, the Roman poet Virgil died. In the decade preceding his death, Virgil was writing the Aeneid, a poem that has been called the national epic of the Roman empire. In the second half of the epic, Virgil brings his skill as storyteller to the subject of anger, revenge, violence, and bloody warfare.

In a visionary book that explores the limits of violence and war, and skillfully shows the benefits of peaceful change, the late Jonathan Schell puts his finger into history at the time of Virgil and Christ to write about two coexisting yet conflicting traditions. One is worldly and violent, Schell writes. It is “a system, at its best, of standing up for principle with force, right with might; at its worst, of plunder, exploitation, and massacre.” This tradition, Schell notes, was exemplified by Virgil in the Aeneid, whose opening words set the stage: “Of arms, and the man I sing.”

Not long after Virgil was writing “Of arms, and the man I sing,” Jesus, Shell writes, was speaking words that would become much better known: “Put up thy sword, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” And “it was in the heat and fury of [a] bloody altercation, not from the quiet of a philosopher’s study,” that Jesus said this. Jesus, Schell continues, “sang of the man without arms,” and since then “the two conflicting traditions – one sanctioning violence, the other forbidding it – have coexisted,” each retaining its power in spite of the other. But, he concludes, “Force can only lead to more force, not to peace. Only a turn to structures of cooperative power can offer hope” (The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People).

I was disturbingly reminded of the diametric tug of these two perennial traditions upon the human heart when I watched a recent television interview of Christian author and speaker Rick Joyner. For those unfamiliar with the name, Rick Joyner founded MorningStar Ministries in 1985 and became fairly well known within charismatic Christian circles for his books and for teaching about his many dreams and visions, which he claimed were prophetic. In 2004, MorningStar purchased part of the former Heritage USA complex, once owned by Jim Bakker and PTL, in North Carolina. Bakker and Joyner have been close friends for decades and it was Bakker’s interview of Joyner that I listened to.

The interview aired on September 11, 2020, on “The Jim Bakker Show” and ran for nearly an hour, slowly developing from much mutual back-patting to this question from Baker: “Where are we in the prophetic time line?” What follows is a long and disturbing conversation in which Joyner mentions a dream he had in 2018 about what he calls a “civil war” being fought in the streets of American cities.

As the interview progresses, Joyner sounds more closely allied with Virgil’s violent warrior Aeneas than with the gospel’s peaceable Jesus. Joyner asserts that America is now in that civil war and that followers of Jesus take up arms and fight in it. Although Joyner briefly mentions that he “hates to say this,” and that “some people don’t even want to comprehend” it, any fellow feeling meant dissipates before his contention that followers of Jesus get out their guns and join together in what he calls “good” militias to fight bloody battles in the streets of their cities against American citizens whom he identifies as “the bad people.”

One cannot listen to the second half of the interview and conclude anything other than that Joyner is talking about followers of Jesus getting their guns and participating in a violent civil war. That is the plain message, which Joyner loads with comments such as: “we’re already into it”; “we’re gonna have to fight for what we believe”; “it’s time to choose sides”; “we’ve gotta fight to win.”

wisdom traditionFollowers of Jesus are meant to join militias to fight and kill fellow American citizens? Followers of Jesus?

Joyner’s battle cry to Christians is not compelling. There are many reasons why, more than can reasonably be assembled here, including the dubious, if not flawed, enlistment of biblical texts to support the call to arms.

But one particular text must be discussed, Luke 22:35-38. It is a brief word from Jesus to his closest followers about forsaking the violence of swordplay and instead follow the gospel’s way of self-sacrificial love of others, including enemies. Strangely, Joyner flips this word about non-violent resistance around to mean the opposite of what Jesus meant. He lifts Jesus’ comment about a sword out of its context to justify today’s followers of Jesus heading out into the streets to fight a literal civil war in American cities. I want us to spend some time with that text here, as its meaning cannot be quickly understood. But when understood in both its immediate and larger contexts, Jesus’ words actually undermine the entire call to arms.

In the interest of full disclosure I should perhaps first say that I am offering this critical analysis of Joyner’s interpretation of the Luke text as someone who in principle is not opposed to what the New Testament identifies as the gift of prophecy, which, being part of “the way of love,” is meant to be spoken to people “for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort,” or, in short, for edifying the church (1 Corinthians 14:1-4).

I spent most the first fifteen years of my new life as a Christian in charismatic fellowships where, blessedly, mature expressions of the gifts of Spirit were operative, including that of prophecy. If someone stepped out of line, the leadership appropriately addressed the situation. I personally benefited from this learning curve. Although I was eventually called to serve (so-called) non-charismatic congregations, I greatly enjoy, and benefit from, being invited since then to teach or preach in charismatic fellowships, where I try to minister among them as best I can in the way of love, for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. (For the record, I am not a fan of the word “non-charismatic” applied to churches.)

If memory serves, I became acquainted with Joyner through two of his books in the mid-1980s, when I was still active full time within the charismatic tradition. (I don’t recall those books as objectionable in any fundamental sense within what I understood as charismatic theology.) In 1990, however, Joyner’s name and ministry dropped off my radar. Until recently.

Now let’s get down to business. Here is a typical translation of Luke 22:35-38:

Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”

“Nothing,” they answered.

He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”

“That is enough!” he replied.

During the interview with Bakker, Joyner places Jesus’ comment about the sword in the service of motivating today’s Christians to fight in a literal civil war in American cities. Joyner offers no explanation why he believes in this equivalency, which he makes when talking about followers of Jesus forming “good” militias and heading out into the streets to kill the bad guys. “We need to recognize the times, be prepared for them,” he explains, while confessing to viewers his worry that “God’s people” won’t become “part of the militia movements, the good militia” to fight the “bad people.” And then this: “Jesus himself said there’s gonna be a time when you need to sell your coat and buy a sword. That was a physical weapon of their day. And we’re in that time here. We need to realize that.”

Bakker makes not a peep of protest to what Joyner is saying. Nevertheless, prophecies and interpretations of dreams and visions presented to the body of Christ as authoritative have to be tested, examined to determine if they are credible, authentic, or morally acceptable. After careful consideration of the Luke text, I believe that Joyner’s contention fails the test.

Jesus’ meaning about the sword, when considered in both its immediate and larger contexts, cannot be interpreted as call to arms but instead undermines that call. Here’s why.

The immediate context is the Last Supper, where only Jesus’ twelve closest followers were assembled with him. The larger context is the three-year unconditional witness of Jesus’ life and ministry on the hillsides and in the towns of Galilee and Judea among countless amounts of people. During those exceptional years on the road with Jesus, the Twelve had witnessed Jesus countless times personally and intentionally modeling acts of self-sacrificial love of others, including of enemies. That is who Jesus is; his ministry is one with that. In all sorts of relational encounters – whether someone needed counsel, or healing, or was up a tree – Jesus graced the lives of others with all sorts of various and diverse good. Day in and day out, the Twelve not only saw the beneficial effects of Jesus’ agape on others, they even a hand at times in making it so.

But something else essential was also taking place. It wasn’t only through his acts of compassion that Jesus sought to instill his normative practice of self-sacrificial love of others into the lives of the Twelve. It was also through his teaching, especially the Sermon on the Mount, which, arguably, can be understood as the Constitution for his followers to live by. Their having been diligently taught for years by their Rabbi, whose acts cannot be separated from what he taught, you can be forgiven for assuming that the practice of self-sacrificial love of others would have by the time of the Last Supper become normative ministry for the Twelve. But the text in Luke reveals that a strong pull to take up arms against others swayed them.

The Gospels reveal that in the weeks leading up to the Last Supper, Jesus knew he would soon be enduring a violent religious and political opposition that would put him to death, crucified as the archetypal act of self-sacrificial love. He also knows he is not going to resist it with arms; he even refuses to command a legion of angels to fight for him (Matthew 26:53). With that understanding, try to enter the sights and sounds of the Last Supper.

All kinds of conversations and activities are going on among the thirteen men, who have gathered privately to remember the Passover, a ritual meal that takes several hours. Jesus knows his arrest and violent death is imminent and that this would be their final meal together. In what has been called his final discourse, he many words of comfort and instruction for the Twelve and a prayer with them (John 14-17). Yet at some point during those hours of communion in that room, Jesus detects a rising attitude of violence among the Twelve that needs to be addressed. So he brings up the subject of their purses, bags, sandals, and swords. He is, in effect, wanting them to know that although things are going to be different now, his message is not changing. It is still the gospel of peace. The good news. And they are to preach it and live it after he is gone.

wisdom wayWhy, then, was Jesus telling them to go buy a sword? The answer is, he wasn’t. The Luke text intends for us to understand that no one at the Last Supper slipped out of the room to buy a sword. They did not need to. Two of the Twelve had arrived carrying swords: Lord, we’ve got two swords right here, they tell Jesus, no need to go buy any. As if he hadn’t noticed. Of course Jesus saw their weapons. If you have dinner guests over and two of them are packing, you may not notice that, but you’re sure going to notice if they arrive armed with swords.

What’s with the sword comment, then? The answer will emerge from clues in a few other scenes during this period. One is found in John’s Gospel, which describes a scene during Jesus’ arrest that identifies the bluntly outspoken Simon Peter as one of the two with a sword (John 18:1-11). The personal identification seems more than coincidental. Not many days before the Last Supper, Jesus had revealed to the Twelve, in plain language, that he was going to get arrested, suffer, and die. Hearing that, (Simon) Peter tried to talk Jesus out of going the way of the Cross. For having that attitude, however, Peter got rebuked by Jesus in no uncertain terms. Then Jesus immediately added: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:21-25). Yet again, Jesus was seeking to instill in his followers a heart attitude of self-sacrificial love toward others, including enemies.

Did Peter take the hint? Apparently not. The arrest scene described in John’s Gospel implies that Peter arrived at the Last Supper armed with a sword. Maybe he regularly carried that weapon. Maybe he was carrying it the day he rebuked Jesus for wanting to go the way of the Cross. The Gospels are silent on these matters.

Another clue to Jesus’ meaning about the sword is found in Matthew’s Gospel in a scene described after the Passover meal. Jesus takes his inner circle to the Mount of Olives, where he again explains that he is soon to die. This time, Peter does not try to talk Jesus our of going to the Cross. In stead, he declares that he won’t desert Jesus; he will go to prison and die with him, and “all the other disciples said the same” thing (26:35).

How Jesus understood that agreement among his inner circle is an important clue. Under Roman law there would be no legal reason for Peter, or any of the Twelve, to be in jeopardy of prison or death unless they broke the law, which they would have done had they brandished weapons and fought against the Roman authorities who were coming to arrest Jesus. Yet the night of the Last Supper, the Twelve were being motivated by a spirit of violence. Locked and loaded and ready to fight the bad guys, the entire inner circle (now sans Judas) was intent on becoming a band of street fighting men for Jesus, a militia.

In other words, the weapons had not been carried in to the Last Supper or to the arrest symbolically. They had been given a literal meaning by the entire inner circle. They will take up arms to defend Jesus. Is it difficult to imagine how troubled Jesus must have been by that attitude? He does not want them to get arrested, tried, and executed for acts of violence. But they are intent on that. If they succeed, end of them, end of story. No Book of Acts. What must Jesus he have been thinking and feeling – with the entire group – after he had dedicated three years of his life to teaching and training them to have a heart to practice the peaceful way of the gospel?

This is their final meal together. He is going away. They are going to carry his message of self-sacrificing love of others forward, out into the world of violent hearts and minds. Or are they? Jesus sees a spirit of armed resistance animating the Twelve, in conflict with the message of the Cross. What the heck? They’ve brought swords and mean to use them. They’re going to try to prevent my arrest by fighting for me. What’s up with these guys? What’s going to happen to my message of love of others, love of enemies? Why do I even bother?

One of the most concentrated expressions of the great pain Jesus was suffering during this period is found when praying in the Garden of Gethesmane, as described in Mark 14:32–34:

“They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to he deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’”

Gethsemane, in the Aramaic language, means “oil press.” Jesus has gone there to pray about what lay just ahead for him; that imminent future is being clarified to him through the agony he endures in that garden. In Mark’s description, the three English words “deeply distressed,” “troubled,” and “overwhelmed” soften for us the unbelievable weight of Calvary that is being clarified to the Suffering Servant. A more accurate and piercing rendering of the Greek would be: “aghast,” “depressed,” and “grief-stricken.”

It is not a leap of faith to read the Luke text within the likely understanding that Jesus is deeply troubled when his inner circle wants to take up arms to defend him. His brief words to them, then, about a purse, bag, sandals, and a sword may be heard not as a call to lock and load but as a frustrated cry of grim humor perhaps, or something along the lines of a heavily ironical parable about non-violence. But they don’t get it. And they produce swords to prove it.

It is not difficult to see why the inner circle gave a literal meaning to the weapons. They had absorbed that meaning since childhood. By the time they reached adulthood it had become a given in their worldviews. All around them, for all their lives, they see Roman legionnaires carrying a gladius (short sword), a pilum (six-and-a-half-foot javelin), and sometimes a pugio (dagger). How often any of the Twelve saw these weapons used in violence, your guess is as good as mine. What does not need guessing is that the sight of these weapons on a regular basis was inescapable to anyone who lived in the Roman empire, and that since childhood everyone knew what the weapons were for. Jesus alludes to that widespread understanding in an arrest scene described in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?”

What other meaning can there be to the swords carried by his followers? I offer that in the Luke text Jesus, through grim irony, gives the weapons another meaning. Consistent with his message of the gospel of peace he eschews the literal meaning and instead gives the swords a symbolic meaning: the violence in heart that objects to following his practice of self-sacrificing love of others. That agape toward others, including is enemies, is about to be emphatically demonstrated by Jesus in the sacrificial meaning of his death. Yet his intimates have decided to move in the opposite spirit. Deeply troubled, Jesus bursts out, “I’ve had enough of this! Let’s go!”

Although that is not how any translation I’m familiar with captures the meaning of the Luke text, at least two paraphrases get it. Personally I am not partial to paraphrases, at least not for serious study of biblical texts. But I do enjoy the occasional fresh insight that can be derived from their language, and even the occasional gem, such as about our Luke text.

The Passion:
Then he said to all of them, “When I sent you out empty-handed, did you lack anything?”

“Not a thing,” they answered. “God provided all we needed.”

Jesus said, “But now I say to you: Take what you need. If you have money, take it—and a knapsack and a sword. Danger is imminent. For the prophetic Scripture about me ‘He will be accused of being a criminal’ will now come to pass. All that was prophesied of me will be fulfilled.”

The disciples told him, “Lord, we already have two swords!”

“You still don’t understand,” Jesus responded.

The Message:
Then Jesus said, “When I sent you out and told you to travel light, to take only the bare necessities, did you get along all right?”

“Certainly,” they said, “we got along just fine.”

He said, “This is different. Get ready for trouble. Look to what you’ll need; there are difficult times ahead. Pawn your coat and get a sword. What was written in Scripture, ‘He was lumped in with the criminals,’ gets its final meaning in me. Everything written about me is now coming to a conclusion.”

They said, “Look, Master, two swords!”

But he said, “Enough of that; no more sword talk!”

Why no more sword talk! What don’t they understand? They having gotten it through their thick heads that the way of the gospel is absolutely not the way of violence. Yet even during the heat and fury of his arrest Jesus has a last go at changing their hearts. When a band of Roman soldiers and Jewish religious officials come to arrest Jesus, Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. To that violent act Jesus immediately responds with a twofold action whose meaning could not be clearer: the sharp rebuke to Peter – “Put up your sword, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” – and the healing of the servant’s ear (Matthew 26:52; John 18:10-11; Luke 22:49-51). Jesus is literally acting out the symbolic meaning have gave to the swords at the Last Supper.

That was not the only time Jesus laid a stern rebuke on members of the Twelve for being motivated by a violent spirit. Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, the brothers James and John (the Sons of Thunder) cited an incident from the ministry of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:12) to try to justify calling fire down from heaven to destroy an entire village. The error of James and John is as subtle as it is profound. They knew their Bible but they drew the wrong conclusion from the Elijah incident. Jesus “rebuked them and said, ‘You know not what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man [has] not come to destroy lives but to save them’” (Luke 9:51-56).

There is this also. In our Luke 22 text, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12: “And he was numbered with the transgressors,” which Jesus explains, “must be fulfilled in me.” Christians understand Jesus’ execution on a Roman cross as signaling the public disgrace and horror associated with criminals, the lawless, transgressors of the law. In the ironic humor of Jesus’ reference to the purse, bag, sandals, and sword, we may also be hearing him indicate that the Twelve, by their very attitude to the swords at the Last Supper, are numbered among the transgressors (see 5:3-12, 21-22, 38-48).

Gruenwald's Isenheim AltarpieceIsaiah chapter 53 also indicates that Jesus is the suffering not the military servant. Sure, followers of Jesus may and do face violent opposition. If that hour arrives it is the time for them to come boldly before the Throne of Grace for divine help in their time of need, to cry out for the grace of sacrificial love toward others, include toward enemies, real or imagined.

Things are going to be different, now, Jesus is in effect saying in the Luke text. Times are changing. But my message to you to love others is not changing, even when you are threatened with violent religious or political opposition. You have not been called to take up arms but to open arms of love toward others, including to enemies. I have come into the world not to add violence to violence but show you through the peaceable gospel the way to subtract violence from the world.

Jesus’ followers eventually got the message. Authentic love toward others became the unconditional witness of his followers who received the Holy Spirit after his death and resurrection. There is no place in the Book of Acts, or in any of the other Epistles, where Jesus’ followers carried swords (never mind used them to slice someone up).

From our close look at the Luke text in context, it is safe to assume that Jesus’ comment about buying a sword was not in the end taken by his closest followers, or their followers, or the early church, as part of their marching orders, even in the face of violent political or religious opposition. Even the apostle Paul’s appeal (as Roman citizen) to the state – to be taken to Rome to stand trial before Caesar – eventually leads to his execution.

The early church faithfully communed with, practiced, the meaning and message of the Last Supper after Jesus was gone and the Holy Spirit – who testifies about Jesus (John 15:26) – took up residence in their hearts. Jesus’ self-sacrificing way, agape, became their normative witness to the world, even for the zealots among them.

We may not realize it, but every time we partake of Communion we are agreeing to intentionally incarnate that self-sacrificing love, including of enemies, in our daily lives. Whatever a church chooses to call it – the Last Supper, the Lord’s Table, the Eucharist, the Breaking of the Bread, Communion – at the heart of each person’s reception is an assent to commune every day with, to practice, the grace-giving life of self-sacrificing agape toward others. Will we not be judged as bearing false witness to Christ’s love if we if we take Communion one day and take up arms the next? What in the hell are we thinking, church of Christ?

There is another sword spoken of in the New Testament. It is not the sword of a violent, murderous world. It is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17), which we are called to study and rightly divide (2 Timothy 2:15). And “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Here are admonitions to let the word of God search our hearts and open them in an utterly personal way to God’s refining fire, including to how we interpret meaning of Luke 22:35-38 in the heat and fury of our national moment.

Today, choosing between the two perennial traditions – the one violent, the other forbidding it – is being placed before us. As followers of Jesus, will we walk humbly in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit into the pages of our own Book of Acts? Or will we take up arms to participate in the kind of violence that killed our Lord?

Top photo: Sword sculpture photo by Andrea Brizzi. Lower photo: Grunewald’s-Isenheim Altarpiece. Star flower and two paths images courtesy of Creative Commons.

©2020 by Charles Strohmer

The Refiner’s Fire in a Time of Crisis

If you missed this or haven’t had the opportunity to listen yet, here is a recent talk I gave, in which I plucked up my nerve to share some thoughts that have been pressing on me for quite some time about this difficult historical moment that is deeply challenging all of us across the whole spectrum of life. Thank you to Pastor Wes White for the invitation to speak about this, to Brennon Carpenter for making it available to you on Vimeo, and to those who have been sharing it around both here and outside the States.

I should add, briefly, so that it’s not confusing when it occurs, that at about 2/3 of the way through the talk, there’s an unexpected time of quiet when I became so overwhelmed I couldn’t talk. When I regained a little composure I was fighting back tears, voice cracking at times for the remainder of the talk. Also, stick around for the reading of a poem, which concluded the talk. If you have time to listen and wish to offer some input that would be good.

©2020 by Charles Strohmer

Video by Vimeo.

Conversation with Conservative Pastor Joel Hunter, Spiritual Advisor to President Obama

I have interviewed many people over the years, but I don’t think any of those conversations has ever been as timely and important as this one with Pastor Joel Hunter, a theologically conservative Christian who for eight years was a spiritual advisor to the theologically liberal President Barack Obama. Now retired from full time pastoring, the former senior pastor of “Northland, A Church Distributed,” in Central Florida, stays as busy as ever building bridges and coalitions to help people who are in vulnerable communities.

His website, appropriately titled “Imitating Jesus beyond Church Walls,” where he also blogs, bursts with hard-won biblical insight and understanding that he’s learned both as a pastor for nearly five decades and through serving in challenging public contexts, regionally, nationally, and internationally. These are too numerous to detail here, so you really must check out Joel’s website for yourself sometime, especially if you’re meeting him for the first time here.

For some time now, we have been living in a fast-paced and significantly changing world in which inescapable demands have been placed upon us to gain a godly wisdom for such a time as this, and to live by it everyday. The last decade or so has been particularly demanding, socially, economically, and politically. Even our best efforts at public witness in America have often revealed how divided the church had become. The only consensus today seems to be that society at-large says that it is turned off by what public Christian influence there is. Both church and society have come out losers here. And then along comes Covid–19.

In Joel Hunter’s public life and ministry, we find not only a clear understanding but a biblical working out of the demands of Christ’s discipleship on us at a time such as this. He is a respected and important voice in Christian leadership. Of his long and varied callings, we could have talked for hours about a great many things. Instead, we took a hour by phone for a fascinating and insightful conversation about what he learned during eight years as President Obama’s lone conservative spiritual advisor. We then moved from those personal experiences to President Trump’s spiritual advisors. We also talked about Covid–19, as well as about the kind of pastoring that brings healing into congregations that are divided politically, and the importance of crossing boundaries to build relationships. Some of his answers may surprise.

Charles Strohmer: Let’s jump right in, Joel. We first met at a Christian conference in DC when Barack Obama was the President, and you got my attention when you spoke about being a conservative Christian pastor who was also a spiritual advisor to President Obama. What did that responsibility entail during those eight years?

Joel Hunter: Several things. I wrote devotions for him every week out of the Scripture. We prayed together periodically. Really it was a mutually encouraging relationship. I went through some tough times and he called me to make sure I was doing okay. And right after he was out of office, I was making a transition from being a congregational pastor (after almost fifty years) to being a faith community organizer in Florida, and he called me before my last sermon as a congregational pastor and asked, “What are you doing, Joel?” And I said, “I have no idea. I’m going to be a community organizer. What am I doing?” Because that’s what he was before he went into politics. So we’ve had a mutually encouraging relationship, and I have been quite honored to call him a friend.

Charles: When you sent devotionals or prayed with him in person, what kind of approach did you take? Was it personal, or about family matters, or political areas?

Joel: It was all personal. It really wasn’t a political relationship. He did call me a few times before making big announcements. For example, he had just come out for gay marriage, so he called me before that got into the news cycle because he knew that with my conservative Evangelical background I’d be beaten up over our relationship, which I usually was. But almost always our relationship was about personal issues. So when I would pray for him I’d say, “What do we pray about?” By the way, when I would ask him that, he would never ask me to pray for him. He was always asking me to pray for somebody else. He’d said, “I got this letter this week …,” or, “There’s this family that …” It was always about somebody else.

He was also that way in conversation. You could not maintain a conversation about him. He was always more interested in talking about somebody else. That came out of a genuine sense of compassion and humility and the understanding that I’m here to offer others some good. So let’s go to the Lord about that.

Charles: How were you as a theological conservative able to square being a spiritual advisor to a theologically liberal President? It must have been a struggle.

Joel: Yes, we came down on various sides of issues. But when you love and appreciate somebody, you give them the space they need and you trust God to take care of all that. I’ve never needed someone to agree with me in order to love them fully. I would have a very narrow band of relationships if I demanded theological agreement before I loved people. And that’s the way Jesus was. Jesus crossed all kinds of boundaries in order to love people who were not like him. So it sounds difficult, but it was really very easy. When you see somebody as a person who you know is trying to do others good, and you know that even if you disagree on the interpretation of Scripture, that both of you have a keen appreciation for Scripture, then the rest, well, you’ve just kind of got to let go.

Charles: How did you get that gig?

Joel: Early in 2008, I was featured in a New York Times article on racism. A few weeks later, Joshua Dubois, Senator Obama’s religious outreach person, called me and said that Senator Obama would like to have a conversation with me. So I said, “Great,” and about a week later Senator Obama and I talked for about thirty minutes on the phone. His basic question was, “How can the government and faith communities work together without violating the commission of each?” And I said, “Senator, probably the most unused resource for community healing and well being in this country are faith communities. We have the highest percentage of volunteers and we just want to make things white dovebetter.”

I was then asked to be on a couple panels that asked the presidential candidates, during the campaign, questions, in forums. So I had opportunities to ask questions to people like Hillary Clinton. After I had asked her a question during the second forum, I felt someone behind me tugging on my coat and saying, “Hey, would you come back and pray with Senator Obama before he speaks?” I said, “Sure,” and so I followed this guy down through the catacombs of the building, thinking I’m going to be one of fifty pastors surrounding him. But when I got there it was just me and him in the hallway. And that week the press had just beat him up something terrible. So I said something like, “Senator, you’ve had a rough week.” And he looked at me and said, which was typical of him, “No. The single mom trying to put food on the table had a rough week. I’m fine.” So I prayed with him before he went on, and after that we had a deep relationship.”

Charles: Did he have other kinds of spiritual advisors in his circle?

Joel: There’s an article in the March 15, 2009 New York Times that talks about five of us. I was the only white Evangelical pastor. But there were others in his circle of prayerful encouragement. A couple of times T. D. Jakes and I were with him together in the Oval Office. And sometimes, like on his birthday or special occasions, he would get on the phone with several of us, including people like Joseph Lowery and other great old African-American preachers.

Charles: Was it beneficial for him to have a circle of spiritual advisors who were different theologically?

Joel: Absolutely. He thrives on various perspectives. He’s incredibly smart. I can’t tell you the level of his intellect. So it’s easy for him to take in various perspectives and come up with his amalgamation of what’s just been said and go with that.

Charles: Since Donald Trump’s election, there’s been an avalanche of stories in the media and the press about his conservative and charismatic spiritual advisors. Do you know if he has other kinds of religious advisors in his Presidential circle?

Joel: No. I know many in that group. They are all of the same theological perspective. This President really puts a premium on loyalty and on agreement, so that’s his circle.

Charles: President Trump has quite a different method than, say, President Lincoln. I mean, in her excellent book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes extensively about how Lincoln surrounded himself with advisors, including on his cabinet, who were different from him, including even some political enemies. But that method really paid dividends when it came to gaining the kind of wisdom needed back then to keep the union together, even through a civil war.

Joel: Yes. And that’s how President Obama was first elected. He had that team of rivals, a broad field of political friends and advisors. But the machinery of government always takes over. As the time went on, especially in his second term, it did become more consolidated into fewer voices and political agendas in order to get things done.

My mama used to tell me that I would never learn very much from people who think exactly like I do. You learn from people who have a different perspective or a different truth. So I acquaint differences with flourishing, or being enriched.

Charles: How did you process, internally, deal with, struggles you had, being a conservative Christian pastor, with some political decisions President Obama made that you clearly opposed?

Joel: Well, one time I was out driving with my wife, Becky, and I get this call, “The President would like to speak with you.” So I pulled off into a parking lot because I didn’t want to be talking to the President while I’m driving along. So he comes on the phone and says, “Joel, I just want to tell you about a decision I’ve just made. I’ve just had an interview (I think he said it was with ABC) to say that I’ve come out for gay marriage.” And my first response was, “Mr. President, I don’t see that in Scripture.” And his response was, “I know you don’t. But listen to how I arrived at that.” Then he talked about the difference between civil law, which is for all of the citizens, and moral or religious law, which is for the adherence of believers in that particular realm.

As I understood President Obama, you stick this guy and compassion comes out. If somebody’s being left out, it’s almost more than he can take. He made his decision on the basis of what he conceived as fairness, and compassion, and people being hurt unnecessarily as it translated into a law for all citizens. I understood that. When I was interviewed afterward and asked about it, I said, No, that’s not my definition of marriage. When I spoke about it to my congregation, I said you’ve got to be discerning between what’s fair for everybody and what’s right for those us who interpret Scripture in a certain way and our lives that way.

Charles: Over the years, I noticed that there’s a lack of understanding in some Christian circles about the difference between the purpose and function of civil law in American polity and that of moral or religious law. For one thing, I’m convinced that if you try to force a moral law on a people who don’t see the point of obeying it, you’re going to foster rebellion.

Joel: That’s right. Our natural human bent is to try to gain as much power for our POV as we can. Many Christians use politics for that. But there’s not a full trust of God in that process. We need to note this when we’re making decisions, as to why we are making decisions. Are we making them to keep in control and impose our views, or are we making them because we just want to do what we believe is right and then let the circumstances take care of themselves.

Charles: So President Obama didn’t track with your view on gay marriage, but do you know if over those eight years your prayers or wisdom for him influenced him policy-wise or personally or with his family?

President Barack Obama greets Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla., during the Easter Prayer Breakfast, Monday, April 14, 2014, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Joel: I think I know several ways that he took my perspective into consideration when he was making decisions. But I’m really not at liberty to talk about that. I can say that he invited my family to the Oval Office and told them that I had a profound impact I’d had on his life and presidency. He was very kind to say that.

Charles: If you got a call from President Trump’s Chief of Staff to ask you if you’d be his spiritual advisor, would you jump at the chance or would you beg off?

Joel: It’s the President, you know. Scripture tells us to pray for those in authority. I don’t think I’d last very long! But I would do everything I could to give my interpretation of Scripture as to what the subject was and be as supportive as I could while I was doing it.

Charles: Some years ago I participated in conference call with a number of religious and political leaders. We were talking about “learning wisdom from the other.” Which is a biblical idea. Tim Keller was part of that conference call, and when I asked him for his thoughts on this, he immediately located that kind of learning in the Bible’s teaching on common grace. I want to quote for you part of what he said and get your thoughts on it. All human beings, he said, “whether they believe in God or not, share gifts of wisdom, insight, creativity, and beauty because these gifts come to everyone. Christians call this common grace, because they consider these as gifts that come from God. If that’s the case,” he concluded, “then I could expect that my neighbor who does not believe anything like I believe might still have wisdom from God that I have to listen to.” You seem to me to have that kind of heart.

Joel: It’s how I’m wired. My mama used to tell me that I would never learn very much from people who think exactly like I do. You learn from people who have a different perspective or a different truth. So I acquaint differences with flourishing, or being enriched. I’m sure Tim, he’s a friend, must have had this in mind, that our full worship of God depends upon our full pursuit of truth wherever it is. “All truth is God’s truth,” as the saying goes. And as Kepler said, “I think God’s thoughts after him.” It’s so important for us, no matter where truth is coming from, whether from the realm of science, or philosophy, or even from other religions that have a sense of how God has created the world. I’m thirsty for it all. And I bring it all to Christ, because, as it says in Colossians, Jesus is before all things, and in Christ all things hold together. So I am always trying to learn all I can because I believe it will bring me closer to Christ.

Charles: Do you find people have sticking points when it comes to crossing boundaries to build relationships?

Joel: Yes. Our biggest enemy is inertia. We want to do what we’ve always done, and change costs. And that cost we can see. What we can’t see is the cost of not changing. And that’s a tsunami. It’s trying to say, Hey it’s worth changing to be more like Jesus. It’ll be more inconvenient and more uncomfortable, but boy will life be better.

People are driven toward ideology instead of to the harder work of relationship. Ideology has its appeal because it’s so simplistic, and it makes you feel self-righteous, and it gives you a sense of belonging that’s automatic but not real.

Charles: What can we do to break out of listening only to our own peer groups so that we can cross boundaries, be less self-focusing and more relationally open to people who aren’t like us?

Joel: What won’t work is argument and shaming. That works for maybe about a day. I had a professor who used to talk about how difficult change is. “It’s like pushing mush with a stick,” he would say. “The little part you’re pushing moves but the rest of it just stays the same.” But what does work is the general appeal, especially to believers, of what is right and what they could do that they could do fairly easily.

For example, years ago Becky and I created an initiative called Simple Help. You do one thing a day that takes less than five minutes and costs less than five dollars. There are thousands of us that are doing it, and incrementally the world gets better. When you do this it builds in you a mentality that says: I am making a difference. Most people think: I can’t make a difference. But if you don’t think “solve the world’s problems,” but you do think “I can open a door for someone,” or, “I can share with someone how I got through what they are going through, “ those little things make a huge difference. You just have to make the help concrete and accessible enough that people can act on it, and not feel like they’ve got to solve everybody’s problems all at once.

Charles: One ever-present stumbling block to learning wisdom this way can be social media, where a Manichean worldview is increasingly present, in which the world is said to be divided into two enemy camps that are eternally at war with each other. Christians are falling prey to this, too. It’s tragic. It’s further dividing the body of Christ. Using some of the principles you’re learned and applied over the years, how can we start to change that dynamic on social media, or is it hopeless?

Joel: Well, one thing is that I don’t do social media very much. I don’t have a Facebook account and don’t spent spend much time online trying to discuss issues. I’m on Twitter and Instagram, but mostly just to keep up with my friends. But what you’re pointing to is not just characteristic of social media. The whole country right now is becoming more and more polarized and politicized. There seems to be a choice, almost an ultimatum, that you’re either going to be a bridge builder or a wall builder.

You can have an approach that is Christ against the world, very adversarial, battle of light and darkness, which is not Christianity. So some Christians see this as a pitch battle between good and evil and we’re on the good side and everyone who doesn’t agree with us is on the bad side. To me, that is not at all resembling the life of Jesus.

Jesus had this philosophy and approach to life that all the world was God’s, and that even those who didn’t know him, those deemed unacceptable, need to be served and respected and reached out to with the love of God. It’s not about what’s in them. It’s about what’s in us. So I can’t help but hope that the voices that continue to make friends instead of create enemies will in the end gain more ground. But it is going to be a difficult slog with our present adversarial approach. .

Charles: All across America you can find all kinds of congregations filled with all kinds of people. They are ultimately united in Christ through the fellowship of the Spirit, but they still may have different if not conflicting social, economic, or political views within the same congregation, especially during the Trump Presidency, the difficult CV-19 period, and increased racial tensions and activism. You’re a pastor. How can pastors and ministers who are shepherding politically diverse congregations speak to these issues in their sermons, Sunday schools, Zoom groups?

Joel: First of all, put everything is a scriptural context, not a political or cultural one, because pastors need to be representatives of the healing and enlightening truths of Scripture. So whatever we’re talking about, we need to find the place in Scripture where this is a principle. It’s also very important that God made us for relationships. He himself is a relationship. When the Bible says that God created male and female, he created “them” in his own image [Genesis 1:27]. The word there for God is “Elohim,” which is a plural word used in a singular sense. In other words, God is a relationship. So if we’re made in the image of God we’re made for relationships.

How this applies to Covid-19 and also to the political divide in our congregations is that you won’t get very far in maturing your congregation by arguing issues or by trying to come down from the mountain with the answer. You will only get as far as you will build actual relationships with those in the congregation and empower or equip them to build relationships with those outside the congregation. Now, that doesn’t depend on a bunch of people assembling in a building. What it depends on is loving your neighbor as you love yourself.

So the answer is right there, dead center in Scripture, but we’ve become so accustomed to the paradigm of western Christendom; that is, we all gather inside a building, we listen for a while, and then we go back to our regular lives. That’s a very shallow version of Christianity. And that’s going to get wracked by both pandemic results and by the coming culture of a younger generation that has no appetite for institutional religion. So we’d better figure out how to build meaningful relationships that makes the world better. That’s what the first century church was. It was built on relationship, and the world came to Christ because those relationships were making the world better.

Charles: I’m thinking of Jesus’ heartfelt felt prayer for his followers in John 17, just hours before his death. Today we Christians seem so far away from anything even close to that kind of unity in diversity that Jesus wants of us through the fellowship of the Spirit. Instead, we seem increasingly divided by our rigidly held, conflicting ideological positions. That won’t hold the church together.

Joel: No, it won’t. People are driven toward ideology instead of to the harder work of relationship. Ideology has its appeal because it’s so simplistic, and it makes you feel self-righteous, and it gives you a sense of belonging that’s automatic but not real. The harder work of relationship is full of frustrations and ambivalence and “I don’t know if I’m doing any good here or not.” But it’s the only real work there is. Ideology is not a real-world comfort or strength. It’s just siding up with an idea, and getting mad that everyone isn’t going along with you.

Charles: To focus specifically on the rising division over race in our country, what are some creative strategies for helping white pastoral leadership who are resistant to, or even hostile to, discussions about racism in the current divisive crisis? Often the critical source for their hostilities comes from political perspectives.

Joel: One of the keys that Jesus talked about was that before you see the problem with your brother, notice the problem in yourself; before you would take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye, look at the log in your own. Self-examination is key to spiritual maturity. If white pastors will educate themselves, be brave enough to note the structures of privilege that they have because they’re white – the almost invisible systems of racism in which they were raised, designed for white people to keep power.

Part of the resistance is that automatically when we talk about racism people get defensive because they feel like they’re being accused of something that they didn’t intend. But this is not about accusation. It’s about education and self-evaluation. I think of the Psalm that says “create in me a clean heart, O God,” and the Scripture that says if a person says he has no sin, the truth is not in him. All of these call for the question that the disciples asked Jesus the night before he died: Is it me, Lord? Am I the one?

If we can encourage one another to ask that question, if we can say to ourselves and to each other that all of us have some complicity in the present problem – all of us have ways in which we could improve and walk closer to Christ – then we could say: Well, I guess they’re not trying to blame me. I guess they’re just trying to say that there’s something I need to discover that will make the situation better. I think that’s how to approach it.

Charles: Tell us a little about what you’ve been doing, publicly, since retiring a few years ago from pastoring full time. I know you like to regularly convene all sorts of people for regional conversations, with your Community Resource Network.helping hand

Joel: I went into the pastorate out of the civil rights movement, so I have always had in my heart a special place for people who were being left out. It’s important to me to spend my remaining days, and I hope they are many, to circle back a place where I can build bridges and coalitions to help people who are in vulnerable communities. So I’ve been trying to do less nationally and internationally and do more in my own region in central Florida. So I was chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, and right now I’m doing racial reconciliation with a lot of groups in our area. The more you can do in your own region, where you have the most influence, the more sustainable it’s going to be. So I’m working with a lot of people who have been left out and seeking biblical justice that is restorative and relationally reconciliatory. We have this ministry of reconciliation.

Charles: We’ve been talking about a pretty challenging kind of discipleship. It can be rough at times, learning from people who are not like us, building new relationships. But it’s a discipleship journey in which we get to know Jesus a little better all the time, understand more of his interests across the spectrum of life. So we need to see what Jesus is doing and partner with him for God’s glory and human flourishing. Your closing thoughts for us?

Joel: Well, the older you get and the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. But my grandmother used to say, “Leave a place better than you found it.” And Jeremiah 29:7 talks about seeking the well being, the flourishing, of the city, because in its well being will be your well being. So I would just ask people to be involved in doing whatever good they can for whoever they can, especially those who have been left out. And their lives will be filled with more satisfaction and more peace than they have anticipated.

Charles: Thanks very much for taking time for this conversation, Joel. Much appreciated.

Joel: Glad to help. Thanks for what you’re doing.

©2020 by Charles Strohmer

Images of Joel Hunter courtesy of Community Resource Network. Dove and Children images courtesy of Creative Commons.

Stranger at the Gate

The second time I saw the aged gentleman was at the gate where my wife and I were waiting to board our flight back east. He had been pushed there in a wheelchair by a muscular sheriff, equipped in full gear and accompanied by a social worker. I could understand the social worker’s presence, but a sheriff’s? Law enforcement did not fit the scene I had witnessed the first time I saw the fragile but well-dressed figure, an hour earlier, standing unsteadily in the queue at the airline’s check-in counter, just ahead of me and my wife.

He was alone and should not have been. Shrunk down with age, he was standing alongside a rolling walker as if he were balancing on thin ice. He would inch a tentative step or two closer to the walker and then slightly stoop to grab support from one of its handle grips. The walker sometimes wiggled on its small wheels as he moved like this. Then as if having second thoughts, he would release his grip and stand as straight as his frail frame allowed, for as long as possible – never for long.

He wore the pained expression of a helpless person deeply disturbed about something. But what? He regularly alternated his gaze toward the check-in counter and then to the nearby, large plate glass windows and sliding doors that offered a view of the drop-off area at the curb. He seemed to be searching for an explanation to come from either counter or curb. But none came.

Although it was 9:30 in the morning, there was hardly a soul in the small airport on California’s central coast. Four ticket holders had arrived before me and my wife, and we had all arrived too early to check in; there were no airline personnel at the counter. The third in the queue was the elderly gentleman. One of the ticket holders talked briefly with him from time to time, but he spoke softly and I couldn’t catch what he was saying. When I mentioned this to my wife later, she explained that he was agitated and kept whispering, Where is she? Why did she leave me here? When is she coming back?

Around 10am, he seemed to give up expecting any help to arrive from the counter or the curb. I was a mere two arm-lengths distant, but by the time I had quit arguing with myself about whether to assist him in the effort, he had labored himself down upon the rolling walker’s padded seat. As if on cue the check-in crew appeared. My wife rushed to assist him and to ensure that a flight attendant got the picture.

In a matter of minutes we had been checked in for our flight to Dallas and ushered uneventfully through the TSA scanners. In the waiting lounge near our gate–an hour to fill, and eager to finish an engaging book–I promptly forgot about the man I would soon know as “David,” whom I had last seen talking with a flight attendant at the check-in counter. A half-hour passed and suddenly there he was. The sheriff had left him with the social worker at a convenient spot near the gate. The two were sitting next to each other but not talking. I had a good view of his downcast face. When we made eye contact, he looked sorrowful.

They boarded him first. My wife and I were among the last. A ticketing issue and a full plane prevented us from sitting together. Never mind. We had been given window seats. As we boarded I followed her profile up the narrow aisle with my eyes until she found her seat, then I looked for mine. And there he was again, in a bulkhead seat on the aisle, the window seat next to him empty, no social worker in sight. He was clutching a wad of papers and a prepackaged sandwich in his right hand. He looked preoccupied and I hated to interrupt him.

Excuse me, I said. He looked up and turned sideways as best he could to make room as I bent to squeeze past him–banging my head sharply on the low overhead compartment–to occupy the seat next to him for the three hour flight. On planes I often argue with myself about whether to engage the person next to me, or to pretend invisibility and disappear into a book. This time I favored the book I hadn’t finished in the lounge. (Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, if you’d like to know.) I pulled it out of my carry-on bag and made sure my seatmate knew what I had planned. I wondered about the sheriff, but felt it wasn’t my place to pry.

Before I could get back into issues of prose structure and style, however, the joke I made about banging my head had brought a smile to his face. We introduced ourselves and made some small talk. He carried a gracious, almost dignified, manner, and seemed keen to tell me something. But I wasn’t getting it. At times he spoke in complete thoughts and was easy to follow. Sometimes he fell silent, leaving a thought uncompleted. Other times he jumped from topic to topic sans any segues that I could detect. Even when I leaned in, it was hard to hear his softly spoken words above the engines. I thought I caught the words “her daughter,” “kidnapping,” and “two women,” but I wasn’t sure, so I let it go.

Do you live in Dallas? I asked. I’m going to Connecticut, he said. Oh, you must have been visiting someone in California, I said, wondering why anyone had allowed this fragile figure to travel across the country on his own. No, he said, I’ve been living in California with my wife.

helping handA hostess locked her cart next to us at the bulkhead and handed out pretzels and drinks. I accepted a cranberry drink and took a protein bar from my carry-on. Papers and sandwich still clutched in his hand, David folded the papers out of the way and began slow work on the sandwich.

Man, you’ve got a long day ahead of you, I said after he’d finished eating what he could of his sandwich. You’re probably not going to get to Connecticut until midnight. My children are in Connecticut, he said. They want me and my wife to live with them there. I’m going to make arrangements. Then I clearly heard “her daughter” and “kidnapping,” and also “two women” and “one-year-old boy,” but for no apparent reason. I wanted to ask why he said this but decided not to.

My wife had a stroke in Florida last year, he said, emerging from silence. She can’t walk. Her daughter got her to move to California. Said she would take care of her. So we moved. But I’m done with her now. Who does he mean? I wondered, now more curious. [Unclear] we never should have done that, he added. [Unclear] worst decision we ever made. We lost everything.

As we flew on, I learned that he was eighty-six and that for thirty-two years he had been an assistant to the headmaster of a large boys’ school in the Midwest, and that afterward he had retired to Florida. That long career accounted for his gracious, disciplined deportment, but it could not hide his distress whenever he returned to “the kidnapping.”

This put me in a dilemma. The journalist in me wanted to probe, question, conduct an interview, get the story. The Christian in me wanted to be a listening ear, to befriend the stranger, to reach out somehow with grace.

I carefully slid from my seat and walked the long aisle to the toilet. Earlier in the flight, David and I had talked about our churches, and discovered we were brothers in Christ. When I got back to my seat, I said I was sorry to hear about his wife and that I would pray for her and the move to Connecticut. Thank you. I’ll say a prayer for you, too, he said. We had a nice house in Florida, he added after a pause. We should have stayed there.

I was learning something. But what? Even though he occasionally repeated himself, I was still missing many of his words. Whatever story he was telling, I wasn’t getting it. Afterward, it reminded me of trying to understand a movie you had walked in on in the middle of. I did catch that the kidnapping had taken place in California. It clearly pained him to talk about it, but talk about it he did.

When he asked if I’d seen the Amber Alert on the news in California, I explained that I’d been on vacation and tried not to listen to the news. They kidnapped a one-year-old boy, he said. Can you believe it? A one-year-old. It was on the news for days. When? I asked. A few days ago, he said. The boy was in protective custody. But they caught them. Her daughter put a knife to the social worker’s throat. Told her she’d kill her if she didn’t let them take her son. That’s terrible, I said, words failing me. They kidnapped him, a one-year-old boy, he said again. Can you believe that? That’s so terrible, I said again. David fell silent, and I wondered who he was talking about.

Will you have to fly back to California to bring your wife to Connecticut, I asked? No, he said. The social worker is arranging that. We’ve lost everything. After my wife had her stroke, her daughter convinced her to move to California so she could look after my wife. So we moved there from Florida. But we found out that she only wanted my wife’s money. Her daughter spent it on herself and her daughter. The social worker told me that after they caught them. Caught who? I blurted out.

My wife’s daughter and her daughter, he said. They caught them in Los Angeles. The social worker told me they think they were headed for Mexico. Kidnaping, attempted murder. Can you believe it? They’ll go to jail for a long time, won’t they? I guess so, I said. My wife is heartbroken, he said. When I told her about her daughter she cried. But the little boy is safe now. But can you imagine him growing up with them?

I could not.

But I could reflect on our conversation, and I had plenty of time for doing that during the four-hour layover after my wife and I deplaned in Dallas, before our flight home to Knoxville. As we said our goodbyes, David warmly shook my hand, said Thank you, and added: Say a prayer for my wife. He was wheelchaired to the gate where he would connect with a flight to LaGuardia. There, his family would pick him up for the drive to Connecticut. I kicked myself for not having asked him for his number so I could follow up. Many times I almost asked, but it never seemed appropriate.

I found a comfortable chair in a quiet area of the large terminal, where I pulled a pen and a small spiral notebook from my shirt pocket and scribbled pages of notes about the last three hours. Who would’ve thought this likable person was suffering so much? I spent days afterward thinking about him, and whether I’d been the right kind of seatmate.

God and AdamThen the penny dropped. He was heartbroken and needed to talk with someone other than with social workers, the police, or even his family about what had just happened to him and his wife. Talking with them, as necessary as that had been, had not been a means to the emotional distance he needed from so much anguish. Perhaps our long, off-and-on conversation had been that means of grace. David had seemed seem calmer, more at peace, when we said our goodbyes.

In a gentle, beautiful book, The Shape of Living, David Ford notes that people who suffer from severe evil and injustice are overwhelmed by it; they suffer alone and need to be held in non-physical ways that bring divine grace. But how do you hold a stranger that way in the middle of an airplane—on a flight across the country?

As I reflect on my hours alongside this kindly African-American gentleman, I remember one of the many things I learned from reading Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a line from God in Search of Man: “Something sacred is at stake in every event.” As a Christian, I’ve come to interpret this to mean that when I come into the presence of another human being, especially a suffering one, I can enter into the presence of Christ and it’s no longer about what I want, it’s about what Christ wants.

If I could talk to David again I would of course ask how life was going now for him and his wife, but I would also ask him if he was checking me out early on in our conversation to determine how much he could say to this stranger at the gate. Then I was glad that, by God’s grace, I’d leaned away from the journalistic me and instead leaned in as a listening ear.

©2019 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy of Creative Commons: Richard Lehoux; Mandajuice; Waiting for God