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.

Christ’s Passion and God’s Grace for You

Christ on the CrossEaster weekend is a good time to take a sabbath from chocolate bunnies and colored eggs to remind ourselves of how harshly the weekend began for Jesus 2,000 years ago. The following reflection is from one of my first books, edited here. It appears in the book in a discussion about pride, humility, and the amazing grace of God.

The sin of pride may not be the most basic sin, but it is probably way ahead of whatever is running in second place. The great American preacher Jonathan Edwards, in his typically vivid imagery, put it this way: “[p]ride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out” (Advice to Young Converts). Powerful words.

Pride is the all-too-human condition that makes “self” the center of my life, so that all others, including God, become subservient to me. The sin of pride is not the pride you may take in winning a scholarship to Juilliard, or by making an impossible catch in deep center field, or by the good feelings that arise when your child comes home from school with an “A+.” It is the kind of pride that says, however subtly, and in many diverse ways, “My will be done” (Isaiah 14:13–14 depicts the gravest expression of this).

Pride is the enemy of humility. Humility is about turning one’s attention away from self to God and to others. When we consider the purposes of God and the welfare of others as greater than ourselves, that is humility. “Self-forgetfulness” is the way C. S. Lewis put it.

Strange and annoying thoughts break in on our personal peace and security when our regard for God’s will and others’ welfare replace our attention to ourselves. A humility, or lowliness of mind, heart, or circumstance, then develops in us. This may occur with the discovery that I am inferior to God and must do what God says. It may come with the acceptance that I am powerless to do anything about the kind of hardship or suffering that is suddenly upon me. It may occur with the recognition of a barrier between myself and Jesus that must be terminated – a chosen career, a proposed marriage, an immoral relationship. There is, then, a shifting of priorities in the move from self to humility.

It may seem unlikely at the time, but in the process that spoils our own desires, hopes, pleasures, ambitions, or longings we receive more of God’s amazing grace to enable us to do what God is requiring of us. “Clothe yourselves with humility towards one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5).

As we approach the reality of deeper obedience, our imaginations clarify as never before. For what we are about to lose or suffer appears on the path in a last-ditch effort to try to turn aside a heart moving into tender obedience. It is a pivotal moment. Might we not turn the wrong way? We may not want to, but still . . . .

The “self-forgetfulness” of our Lord is our model for humility, as he is in all things. One of the most concentrated expressions of the clarification process comes into sharp relief when our Lord is praying in the Garden of Gethesmane, as it is 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 Pete, 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.”

Just hours before his death by crucifixion, Jesus has walked to the Garden of Gethsemane, which in the Aramaic language means “oil press.” He has gone there to pray about what lay ahead for him, and that imminent future is being clarified to him through the agony he endures there.

Christ’s passion begins. The unbelievable cost of Calvary is being clarified to the Suffering Servant. In Mark’s description, three Greek words in the original New Testament reveal what was taking place in our Lord’s mind. A more accurate rendering of “deeply distressed,” “troubled,” and “overwhelmed” are the words “aghast,” “depressed,” and “grief-stricken.”

That Jesus did not like what he saw is also evident from the long time he took in prayer to ask the Father if “the cup” could pass from him. Drops of his bloody sweat stained the ground while he endured that racking oil press of lowliness. We know that he could have called on his Father to send legions of angels to fight for him (Matthew 26:53).

But Jesus chose to drink the cup, to place the importance of others as greater than himself. This comes ringing home in that climactic outburst before he walks from the garden, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Thus strengthened by God’s grace, the Suffering Servant declares, “Rise! Let us go” (Mark 14:42).

Jesus exemplifies both the height and depth of realistic self-understanding before God, who has promised grace to the humble. If God had enough grace for Jesus in his passion, God will have more than enough grace for you in your humility. As the infinite depths of Christ’s descent mount up to the fullness of grace in Him, the humble have a share in both.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: Christ being raised of the cross, by Reubens

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while, to see if you like it. You can always unfollow anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

Faith Seeking Wisdom: A Prophetic Approach to Our Time

child reading a BibleThe title of this post refers to a sermon I preached last December to the hospitable Evangelical congregation, but I was nervous in the pulpit because I knew it would not be the kind of Evangelical preaching that most Evangelicals would be accustomed to hearing on a Sunday morning. I would not be talking theology. Instead, I had felt compelled to share some biblical insights and personal experiences to indicate ways in which good citizens of all faiths, or no faith at all, have a responsibility to work toward ending “the logic of violence” in this country and replacing it with the peaceable wisdom of God.

As I say, I was nervous and misspoke a few times as a result, such as when I used the word “church” but meant “mosque,” though the congregation understood what was meant. I was also nervous because I was, in part, going to contrast the effect that two different kinds of preached messages can have on a crowd toward stirring up or defusing adversarial relations. The one message was from a Christian, the other from a Muslim. I wasn’t sure how this congregation would take to an illustration in which it was the Muslim who got the gold star. So it was a great relief when, right after my talk the pastor of the church took the mic and affirmed the message to his congregation.

This is the first time we’ve put a talk (by anyone) on this blog. It may be the only time! So this is something of an experiment. We don’t know if it will fly. We’ll leave that up to you.

I should also say that because I’m no great shakes as a preacher, I hemmed and hawed about whether to put this talk on the blog. The tipping point came in recent weeks, as I and countless others have with great sadness watched the already heated social and political climate of this country being kindled with inflammatory rhetoric that has now burst forth into physical violence at Trump rallies. My talk is not on that subject, but I think its message is directly related. If it helps even a few listeners just in that regard, it will have been a successful experiment.

To listen to the talk “Faith Seeking Wisdom: A Prophetic Approach to Our Time,” just click the little arrow and you’re away.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Samantha Sophia, courtesy Unsplash

Our Confession is Good for Their Souls

sorry skywritingLike many people who would not consider themselves Christian, I as a Christian have grown to dislike much of what passes as Christianity. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Talk-radio clichés parroted by the Christian right; the ideological liberalism of the Christian left – both seem to me as different from a gospel-shaped wisdom as night is from day. And far too much privatized pietism and the Hellenistic dualism remain to be swept from our minds.

Inside various kinds of church leadership for decades, I have seen churches run more like business enterprises, psychology sessions, entertainment centers, or political enclaves rather than as sacrificial, life-giving biblical communities working for justice. I have worked in the Christian publishing industry for thirty years and been burned more than once by publishers increasingly organized around the gods of gold and silver more than the God implied in their founding principles. Like churches that follow a similar path, staying committed to “staying in business at all costs” is costing them dearly: the fear of the Lord.

People who are not Christians are not stupid. They pick up on this stuff that we try to pass off as Christian, and they see through it. All sorts of bad rumors about Christianity – many are deserved – have lodged in people’s minds as obstacles to seeking a gospel-shaped wisdom for the ills of the world. When nonChristians see us as hypocritical, irrelevant, simplistic, offensive, or even comic, we have stripped ourselves of our prophetic calling in the realities of contemporary life and end up with little public relevance.

Rather then being voices and samples of biblical truth, healing, and justice to a nation of drifting sinners, exhausted ideologies, and failing structures we too easily take our cues from the world system (already judged by our Lord). What is a transforming vision organized around the principle of a sacrificial life to us? We Christians thus deprive our communities and nations of true insights into their problems. Are we not, then, “wretched, pitiful, poor, and blind”?

Alternatives will have to arise, and many are, but the extent of what needs to take place often seems like a pipe dream to some of us. However, I have been talking in broad categories and abstractions here, but those are not what one meets in real life. There, it is people we meet. People with wounds from Christians. I believe that before we will ever be able to get a fair hearing from such people for whatever truly Christian alternatives we have on offer, we ought to start apologizing publicly for doing so badly. And I think that those of us who are public Christians have a special responsibility here. I have personally seen such wounds healed through a public apology.

Some years ago while traveling and teaching about a Christian view of the New Age Movement, I met two “readers,” as the women called themselves, who turned up at a Davis-Kidd bookstore where I was signing my recent book, a Christian criticism of a New Age subject. They were professional psychics and we had an interesting conversation. It became clear to me that the two women represented the class of non-Christian spiritual seekers who saw through Christian dopiness about the New Age. “A friend said you might be different,” they told me. “So we’ve come to see.”

Their honesty was refreshing, and they were not being petty or cynical or ever bitter as they described some Christian failings they had encountered. They just wanted to think out loud with me about why some Christians don’t seem to know any better. Even though I’m a professional gasbag I really didn’t know what to say to them. But as I listened I began to sense that, as a Christian minister, I ought to offer some sort of apology for the church’s failing of them. But what to say?

Then the penny dropped and I swallowed my pride and said, “I’m also disillusioned about much of the current state of Christianity. In fact, I feel so strongly about this that I wrote about it in my new book. May I read a couple paragraphs to you?” They were good with that, so I picked up one of my books from the table and read from it.

What I read wasn’t a formal apology, but it showed them a public face of Christianity that they had not encountered before. It acknowledged their concerns and commiserated with them, instead of fobbing off their legitimate criticisms and going for the juggler and, say, rebuking them for being psychics.

I don’t know what happened to those two ladies afterward, but we continued to talk and eventually they left. But not before they bought two of the books. Now I had some tough love in that book about the New Age. Did my “apology” lay the groundwork for that to speak to them later? I don’t know. But I do know that they wanted some honest conversation.

on air radioElsewhere during those same years, but now in Nottingham, England, near the legendary Sherwood Forest, I participated in a live, radio debate with a popular spirit medium (I’ll call her Sheila). Just minutes into the gave-and-take it was obvious to both me and the presenter that Sheila was being unjustifiably antagonistic toward me. You could feel the tension in the air of that quiet radio studio. Of course the presenter saw the makings of a real dustup, but I wanted to reach the woman’s heart. And something was definitely in the way. I had a hunch, looked to Heaven, and took a risk.

 

“This is off the subject,” I said gently, ignoring the presenter’s next question to me. “You seem upset with me. Have I offended you in some way?” When she said no, I asked if she had been hurt by other Christians. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve had some pretty bad experiences. I wasn’t even going come here today when they told me that a Christian would also be here. I’ve learned to stay away from Christians.”

Now what? I was acutely aware that this was going out live – who knows how many were listening – and that the presenter wanted to control what took place. And he wasn’t expecting Sheila to suddenly be talking about some of the wounds she had received from Christians. I was getting nervous and wondered where this was headed. Who ever heard of a debate like this?

I looked to Heaven and took another  risk. “I don’t know if this will make sense,” I said, “but as a representative of Christianity, I want to apologize to you on behalf of those Christians.”
In the air and on the air things changed dramatically. It was one of those golden moments. Her animosity melted away. I remember her brightening and saying how nice it was finally to be talking “to a Christian who understands.”

The presenter, bless him, after sidelining himself for a few minutes, reentered the conversation and we improvised for the remaining few minutes. Outside the studio afterward, Kris astonished me. “What are you doing this afternoon?” she asked. “If you’re not busy, how would you like to see some of the historic sights around Nottingham? My daughter and I could show you Sherwood Forest or take you to see the cathedral.” Or take you to see the cathedral? My. What had happened? Unfortunately, I had another commitment, but I probably would have taken her up on the offer otherwise.

An appropriately sincere apology to a nonChristian by one Christian on behalf of Christian failures can be an intercession that warms an offended heart and closes the gap between that person and Jesus. Confession is good for the soul. It may be good for others’ souls too.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Butupa and Radio Caravane respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

Islam and Christianity: A Conversation with James Skillen

The Farthest Mosque JerusalemA leading social and political thinker and practitioner, James Skillen is the author and editor of many books and journal articles, and he is president emeritus of the Center for Public Justice. His new book, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction, has been aptly cited as “a call to political repentance.” Having known Jim for a long time, I have greatly benefited from his biblical grounding and generosity of spirit on a staggering array of topics. Since retiring from CPJ, he is sharing his wisdom by writing, speaking, and mentoring more than ever. This conversation took place at the Terminal Brewhouse in Chattanooga and afterward via email.

Charles Strohmer: Jim, let’s begin with what you see as some core differences between a Christian and a Muslim view of religion and politics in the context of the spread of Islam and Christianity.

James Skillen: Islam is basically a religion of law and its scholars are scholars of the law, and there is no imperial authority. The chief authority is God, who has directed his word through the Prophet. And the Qur’an, in Arabic, is not debatable. It’s the law. Of course Islam has become very complex because you’ve now got all sorts of different schools of interpretation. But what gives it its identity as a whole is the Qur’an.

Where I think it makes the most sense to understand Islam politically is in its view of history, that the whole world should become the dar al-Islam (the abode of the people of God in obedience to Allah). The indisputable idea is that God is creator and sovereign over all, so the dar al-Islam has to unfold, but not necessarily by force, although the early Islamic conquests in the Arabian peninsula and across north Africa and into Spain were seen as satisfying this progress of the dar al-Islam. And this created the idea of the umma, the unified community of Muslims.

CS: Where do militant groups today, such as ISIS/ISIL and al Qaeda, fit in? They are seeking to spread the dar al-Islam through force and violence.

JS: For some Muslims, the big crisis since the end of World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman empire is the shrinkage of Islam. I just heard it again today on the radio: Why isn’t the umma increasing like it should, where is the progress of the dar al-Islam? So there has arisen a radical fringe element that believes you can take up arms to advance the spread of the dar al-Islam, and people like Osama bin Laden and the leader of ISIS [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] have found legitimacy for that militancy in the Qur’an, whether against non-Muslims or even against Muslims, such as those who support democracy and other things of the West.

So there’s this crisis in Islam in which, on the one had, you have those who, like ISIS, want to see rise of a new caliphate that rules the dar al-Islam through sharia law, and on the other hand you have those who have accepted much about the West.

CS: This doesn’t sound unlike the Christian hope for Christianity to spread around the world, for everything to come under the lordship of Christ.

JS: I would say it is very parallel to a Christian view of the kingdom of God that will someday be fulfilled. It can’t be stopped. The gates of hell will not prevail against God’s progress of this. But the Christian community is not called to conquer all nations but to preach the gospel. Christianity itself cannot be brought by force. With Islam, the nations need to come under rule and everybody needs to submit.

I think the parallel that ought to exist in Christianity is to say, and you see this in Isaiah and other biblical prophets, that to come to church regularly but not to live a life of holiness and justice, that’s mocking God. I mean, you can’t have the God who is the sovereign of all just as a Sunday activity. So to bring all things under the lordship of Christ has to be understood as each thing in its God-ordained sphere of activity. So the radical difference from the radical Muslim and the radical Christian, I would say, is that Christians do not see force as their means for bringing in God’s kingdom. God will do that in his own good time.

Wheat and Tares iconCS: Someone once said to me something like: Christianity is a kind of voluntary society and arose as such, but Islam arose as political religion. Would you say that’s an accurate way to describe a radical difference between the two faiths?

JS: I think Christianity is as much a political religion as Islam, but the view of the political is different. In Christianity, Christ is confessed as king and lord of all. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. But the political task of Christians is one of following Christ as disciples, and Christ did not call them to try to clean up this world of all the weeds that fell into the field of good plants (Matthew 13). God will decide when that should be done. In the meantime we are to live as those seeking justice and loving our neighbors in the world that God is upholding in Christ with the same rain and sunshine falling on the just and unjust alike. The Muslim view of human responsibility under God’s law on earth is very different.

CS: This idea about bringing all things under Christ’s lordship within their God-ordained spheres – many university students and graduates are struggling with this. You often call this “sphere sovereignty,” which is quite different than the Islamic view of sovereignty.

JS: I think Abraham Kuyper’s phrase about “sphere sovereignty” places too great an emphasis on the kind of authority the “sovereign” should have. This is understandable in his context, but his main point was that only God is truly sovereign. And he delegates that sovereignty in differentiated measure to the different arenas of human responsibility. No single human authority, whether church or state, can subsume all human responsibilities under its ultimate sovereignty.

The better way for us to think about this today, I think, is for us to emphasize different kinds of responsibility God has given us, most of which exist by the very nature of what God created us to be: friends, spouses, parents and children, gardeners and farmers and shepherds, priests and governors, and so on. What is required is that we learn how to serve God in every sphere of responsibility in accord with what is required of that responsibility.

In our sin we go crooked, backwards, destructively, violently with our responsibilities, such as by dishonoring our friends, rejecting our parent’s responsibility, destroying the earth, and killing each other. In the new life of Christ into which we have been called, the whole of our identity as human beings – the image of God – is called to repentance and to the renewal of all creational responsibilities. And since these responsibilities are diverse, it is a mistake (historically demonstrated) to ask governments to rule families, or to treat a farm like an engineering corporation, or to expect church leaders to tell us how to vote or how to run a business or how to do chemistry.

Jesus healing the blind manCS: What about the secular / sacred split that afflicts Christianity? It has been severely attacked by Muslim intellectuals such as the Egyptian political activist, the late Sayyid Qutb, who taught that the secular / sacred dichotomy is at the root of the world’s ills. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Osama bin Laden before him, and other radicalized Muslim leaders, are absolutely opposed to the split. And the caliphate that al-Baghdadi is trying to create through ISIS/ISIL seeks to rid the world of it.

JS: Christians should not be accepting any sacred / secular dualism, which in a sense goes back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic church established a distinction between the religious and the secular. The “secular” didn’t mean “not related to God.” It meant related to God via the Catholic church, the sacraments. Then after Christendom fell apart and the church could no longer command politically with moral authority, the secularists said: Thank goodness we’re getting rid of God and the priests and the hierarchy. We don’t need priests for the things of this world. And so they have what’s before them: a secular world.

All that remains is for that to be radicalized by saying: There is nothing else that exists but this world. There is nothing transcendent that can lead to faith in the radical secularity of this world, in which humans are totally in charge and the idea of God is dispensed with. In Islam generally and in radical Islam as well, there is no recognition of such a secular reality. There is only what God created and God himself, who calls us to rule everything under God. So ISIS would say: We’re not going to get anywhere just by blowing people up. We need a political entity not only to replace the Ottoman empire but to do better than that by establishing a domain, a territory, in which all who live there submit to shari’a in submission to Allah, who will bless this effort and pretty soon the whole world will be submitted to Allah. And the idea of the “secular” will disappear.

What the Christian would say is that there is no secular if what you mean by it is something separated from God and is on its own. Instead, every vocation should be seen as one of the aspects of human dedication to God, in which you love God with all you heart and your neighbor as yourself. And within that framework we would not accept any duality of life. You can and should accept distinctions, such as between churches and states or schools and families, and between this age and the coming age, but this age is not a secular age as compared to the coming age as sacred. It’s all part of God’s one creation.

CS: So where do we go from here? What do you see as a gospel-shaped-wisdom response to Christian – Muslim relations and to U.S. policy toward Muslim majority countries in the Middle East? The problems can seem so overwhelming that one may be forgiven for throwing his or her hands up in despair.

JS: There is no easy answer, because what is really required of Christians is that we show we agree with Muslims in rejecting any acceptance of the “radical secular.” Christians need to show what this means by living it out in every arena of their responsibility as disciples of Christ. In many cases this requires more than churches and Christian publishing companies, more than Christian colleges and some evangelistic organizations on university campuses. It will mean Christians finding appropriate ways to organize themselves in their responsibilities as attorneys, doctors, engineers, bankers, broadcasters, and much more. We have to learn how to quit treating any part of our lives as “secular” and not part of our Christian walk.

At the same time we need to gain a deep understanding of what Muslims believe and how they live in many different countries and settings. And then we must learn to engage them wherever possible in friendship and conversation – where we work, where we study, and where we vote and pay taxes. And in all of that we need to be bold to contend with them about our disagreements as to what the Bible teaches and as to why we ought to live to obey God.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

For interested readers, this site will help you start discovering the wealth of Jim’s wisdom, much of which is being made available on the Web.

Images by Mohammad Usaid Abbasi, Ted, and Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P., respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)