A Shared Story

As the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg captured the attention of the nation this week, accounts of her storied friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia appeared in my Facebook feed. The two were very different; one a male, Catholic, conservative the other a female, Jewish progressive. Their views on the interpretation of the Constitution were radically divergent and they tore each other apart in the opinions they wrote. Yet they remained fast friends because of common interests, chief among them a reverence for the law.

In commenting on the Ginsburg/Scalia relationship, most have pointed out how relationships can prosper even when there are disagreements. Yet the furor that has erupted in the Capitol over the appointment of a successor points to a seemingly intractable divide, based on competing views of the law, politics, and procedure.

Writing at UnHerd.com about differing views of American history and ethos, Douglas Murray says, “It is becoming harder to communicate across the [ideological] gulf, as increasingly the two Americas cannot consort or discuss with each other. And if there is one reason above all why that should be the case it is because they no longer have a shared story.” 

That sentence leaped off the page to me. “A shared story!” I thought to myself, ‘Christians have a powerful shared story that should unite us in common cause: the redemption of Jesus Christ.’

In our Salvationist tradition, the “testimony time” gave individuals the opportunity to tell their story of being saved by grace. This not only encouraged others but also reinforced the power of the salvation message to those who might not yet have responded.

Our shared story is one of personal experience – “Once I was blind, but now I see“– that has universal application. In its telling, we invite those who do not share our story to experience it for themselves.

I confess that I sometimes worry whether we Christians spend more time arguing over our differences of doctrine, ecclesiology, and worship styles than we do celebrating our shared story.

I want to loudly sing Fanny Crosby’s testimony: “This is my story, this is my song: ‘Praising my Savior all the day long!’”

Will you join me?

False Dichotomy Fallacy

My favorite college graffiti: “There are two types of people in the world. People who believe there are two types of people in this world and people who do not.” Of course, that statement is a tautology – it relies upon itself for its own proof. But an internet search for that initial statement garnered 143,000,000 hits. Apparently, there are lots of ways to divide the world into merely two types of people.

The current racial tensions in the USA have tended to divide people into two camps. E.g., building on the work of Ibram Kendi in How to be an Antiracist, many have said that if one is not antiracist, then he/she must be racist – there is no middle ground, no grey area. (This notion strikes me as ironic, given that biological sex is clearly dual, but gender is increasingly “non-binary.” One variation of the graffiti I quoted above is this: “There are 10 types of people in this world. Those who understand binary, and those who do not.”)

My fear is that much of the acrimony in our current political debate is due to this false dichotomy fallacy. One must choose between two starkly opposite extremes. No other range of options is presented. One is either racist or antiracist … period.

Examples of false dichotomy fallacy abound. Congress seems incapable of discovering a middle ground on legislation; choose the Democrats’ bill or the Republicans’ but make no effort to reconcile the differences. Antifa/BLM or Proud Boys/QAnon – one side’s good the other’s evil; what about “both are extreme and do not represent the views of the vast majority of Americans”?

It is my view that this false dichotomy fallacy threatens a proper understanding of Biblical theology. In the realm of good and evil, there is a real distinction made between the two. When choosing a path to follow, obedience to God stands in contrast to disobedience. These are real, not false, dichotomies.

Psalm 1 draws a picture comparing the godly person to the unrighteous one. Joshua (Joshua 24:15) and Elijah (I Kings 18:21) both challenge Israel to choose to follow God.  Jesus draws a contrast between those who are saved and those who will be condemned (John 3:16-17). 

Followers of Jesus face some challenges of discernment. One is identifying the difference between good and evil in an age of relativism, avoiding the beguiling appeal of evil that masquerades as good. Another challenge is confining our moral outrage to only certain kinds of evil.

Evangelical Christians have tended to focus their attention almost exclusively on abortion and LGBTQ issues in their political advocacy. Such staunch support often contrasts with ambivalence, even disdain, for addressing social ills that keep some classes of people under oppression. The Salvation Army has a rich heritage of advocacy in this arena and we are still fond of quoting William Booth’s “I’ll fight!” speech.

My appeal is to be certain that we maintain a Biblical view of good and evil, taking care to avoid the false dichotomies that the political world presents to us. Let’s preach the whole Gospel, including “good news to the poor, … freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, [and releasing] the oppressed.”

Blessings to you as you “go about doing good.”

A “love/hate” relationship?

I’m not sure I believe that there is such a thing as a “love/hate relationship.” It’s used to describe ambivalence: sometimes I love him; sometimes I hate him. Apart from fictional relationships like Ross and Rachel on “Friends,” I don’t know that one can swing all the way to hate from real love, and then back again.

I think the phrase is more likely to be used to describe an activity that one does because of the benefits it brings but is not a source of enjoyment while doing it – running, exercise, calisthenics, etc.

The notion came to mind recently when discussing “hate speech” and its definition. It seems to me that voicing disagreement with another’s opinion is too often labeled “hate speech” even when it is nothing of the sort. Just look at the ease with which Chi-fil-A’s Cathy family have been called “haters” for vocalizing their support for traditional marriage and lamenting the way society has moved to accept gay marriage. 

One of the common phrases we have used to explain our position to unbelievers is “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” For decades, condemning sin and preaching God’s forgiveness and redemption was an effective evangelistic strategy. But for a half-century or so, evangelism has focused on God’s love and mercy, calling unbelievers into relationship with Him (think ‘Evangelism Explosion’ and ‘The Four Spiritual Laws.’). This change in strategic direction coincided with society dispensing with the notion of “sin,” as witnessed by psychologist Karl Menninger’s seminal work “Whatever Became of ‘Sin’?”

In today’s world, labeling someone’s behavior as sin is perceived as being hateful. To say we “hate the sin, but love the sinner” is dismissed as being impossible. If one hates the sin, one must also be expressing hatred of the sinner. In fact, it is considered hateful to even use the word “sinner”!

So what are we to do? If acknowledging sin and repenting of it is necessary to receive forgiveness, how do we preach the Gospel with integrity without identifying the sin? I believe it is a matter of relationship. Welcoming unbelievers into our fellowship exposes them to God’s love through us. The Holy Spirit will convict of sin; our relationship with the unbeliever then provides the opportunity to explain repentance. It is the same as a parent who has demonstrated love for the child correcting his/her behavior. Love is the platform on which the correction is based.

My wife was won to the Lord and to the Army by the warm fellowship she found at the Corps. She was not labeled a sinner (though that was her state of grace). She was wooed by the love of God as demonstrated by the officers and locals of the Corps; they welcomed her to find the same relationship with God that they enjoyed.

In a time when the Church is challenged by a variety of factors that threaten our witness, I am grateful for those on the front lines of ministry who demonstrate God’s love daily in word and deed. Blessings!

Integrity, Simplicity, Effectiveness

Here are the final three of my nine statements of organizational values which I tried to apply in my ministry as an active officer. The first two are also values that I try to maintain in my personal life.

#7. Integrity will be the hallmark of our business practices.  We will avoid deception in fund-raising, we will not exploit others for the benefit of The Army, we will be truthful and accurate in all our public communication.

“Integrity – the state of being whole and undivided.” On a personal level this meant that my wife and kids should never see a different person in the home than what they saw in the pulpit. On the organizational level, integrity means that we should always do our work consistent with the image of that work that we present to the public.

In times when resources are scarce and survival seems threatened, the temptation can arise to sacrifice integrity to the urgency of the circumstances. But the testimony of our forebears is that God honors those who maintain their covenant with him even amid trying times.

#8. Simplicity is preferred over ostentation, keeping faith with the needs of those we serve as well as those who support us.

Our culture has a fascination with the best, the fastest, the newest, the prettiest, etc., etc. It’s not enough to have a smart phone that’s great at performing multiple functions if there is a newer device that does it better or faster. A 50” HDTV isn’t good enough when you can fill the wall with an 8K LED UHDTV with maximum image refresh.

So it is counter-cultural to prefer simplicity. But it is eminently consistent with Jesus’ teachings. To illustrate this principle Tony Campolo famously asked the question whether Jesus would wear a Rolex.

It is important for us who follow Jesus to value the stewardship of the resources that He entrusts to our care. There is no subject on which Jesus had more to say than this. 

#9. We will strive for maximum effectiveness in all that we do, seeking an efficiency that turns 85% or more of our resources into direct service to those in need.

The graveyard of evangelical ministries contains the remains of organizations and their leaders who failed in their first purpose and spent their dollars recklessly. The Army has a well-earned reputation for turning the maximum of the donor’s dollar into the services they donate to provide. Let’s keep it that way.

I recognize that this four-week foray into organizational values is not particularly inspiring or uplifting. My hope is that it provides a framework for thinking through those principles that should permeate who we are and what we do.Remaining in prayer for my beloved Salvation Army and those who keep its ministry honest, vigorous and effective. Blessings!

A matter of perspective

Position determines perspective. A photographer takes shots from many different points of view because lighting, focus, depth perception, etc. create different images from different angles.

The same idea is stated in organizational terms that where you stand on any issue depends on where you sit in observation of that issue. Many problems look much different in the boardroom than on the front lines.

This concept came to mind as I was reviewing the next two values I want to share. As the political rhetoric heats up and as I hear starkly different views from speakers at the two parties’ national conventions, the reality that “position determines perspective” is underlined to me. And there are several dimensions to this; “position” might refer to socio-economic status, age, occupation, family history, religion, political ideology, etc. If you don’t think so, just listen to the different take on the same set of facts: COVID statistics, unemployment rates, economic growth, mail delivery, and on and on.

Don’t misunderstand; I have my own “spin” on these political issues, my own interpretation of “the facts.” (It was once fashionable to quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.” It now appears that many political commentators and journalists feel entitled to their own facts.) But a failure to acknowledge that our position informs our perspective leads to misunderstanding and mischaracterization of others’ perspectives.

This political season is perilous for evangelical Christians. We who are called to be salt and light are too often at odds with one another over a political point of view. When I first drafted these value statements, I had no clue that my elaboration on these two would have a political element to them.  But here we go:

#5.  The Gospel is not “culture bound”; we will refuse to encumber it with cultural trappings, insisting that the imperative is to take the Gospel to all people without cultural pre-requisites for salvation.

When first written, this was to caution against requiring certain kinds of music in worship, requiring certain dress codes for attending worship, etc. Right now, for me, the imperative for The Church is to avoid a political litmus test for whether one is a true follower of Jesus Christ.  We are already divided on public policy issues such as abortion and gay marriage; let’s not add party affiliation to our “cultural prerequisites” for whether or not one can call himself/herself a Christian.

I wrote these values to describe what is important to me as a leader in The Salvation Army. For me, the Gospel is preeminent. We are to “preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human need in his name.” Anything that I say or do that diminishes my capacity to proclaim the saving love of God with clarity and integrity is anathema. The Gospel must not be encumbered. 

#6.  As part of “the universal Christian Church,” The Salvation Army will operate as a body of believers, caring for the needs of its members and enjoying fellowship with believers of other denominations.

Again, this was written to encourage the care of those who are part of the worshipping community of a Corps or ARC, and to discourage isolation from Christians of other affiliations. But this, too, has undergone a “perspective change” more recently. Hear me out–

Salvation Army preachers (myself included) have concentrated on personal piety to the near exclusion of messages that call for engagement in building community. This is based partly on an assumption that community building happens naturally when believers grow individually and partly on the Army’s institutional efforts to serve the community.

But now, it seems to me that caring for the needs of our congregation in these times of COVID and civil strife calls for prophetic proclamation formed from a proper understanding of scripture rather than the worldviews found in news, entertainment, and social media. This means calling our congregation to engage in reconciliation efforts rather than choosing sides in political warfare. This value also calls for us to revisit what it means to obey Jesus’ second great commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself; it means not just individual acts of charity, but advocating on behalf of the poor and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).

I ask myself, “What would I preach if I were a pastor in Kenosha WI?” … or a Corps Officer in Anytown USA. I know the Spirit answers that question for the searching heart. Thus, I am praying as always for God’s matchless grace to flood your spirit as you minister in His name.

Constant values; changing times

Management consultant Fred W. Smith put it in the form of a couplet: “Methods are many, principles few./ Methods often change; principles never do.”

As every individual, every organization, and every congregation contemplates what kinds of lasting impact COVI-19 will make, I think it is important to review the principles – the values – by which we operate. Here are the next two value/principle statements I articulated for my work in The Salvation Army: 

#3. Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) will energize our activity:

  •             — we will work for the salvation of the lost,
  •             — disciple them in the faith,
  •             — enlist them in the “salvation war,”
  •             — and train them to disciple others.

Most preachers are aware that in the Great Commission there are four verbs, only one of which is an imperative. “Going (participle), therefore … make disciples (imperative) of all nations, baptizing (participle) them … and teaching(participle) them what I have commanded you.” Jesus assumes that his followers will go and teach and baptize; he wants to make certain that they are not mere activities but methods to make disciples.

Just so, while we are fond of counting our activities (and recounting how busy we are), we ought to make certain that our activities are directed toward the salvation of the lost and discipling them in the faith.  

#4. Jesus’ Great Command (Luke 4:18-19; Matthew 25:31-46) will drive us to:

  •             — feed the hungry,
  •             — clothe the naked,
  •             — visit the sick and imprisoned,
  •             — love others as ourselves

Our Salvation Army mission is singular: preach the gospel and meet human need in Jesus’ name. “Methods are many,” said Fred Smith. “Preach the gospel every day. When necessary, use words,” said St. Francis of Assissi. Our works of mercy are not a distraction from preaching the gospel; they are intrinsic to it.

I confess that in retirement my personal value on obeying Jesus’ Great Commission and Great Command has undergone a methodological change. It is no longer “built in” to the work I do; it has to be intentional and I must see neighbors and acquaintances as those to whom I minister.

Maybe this week’s reminder is unnecessary to those still active on the front lines of ministry. You put methods to these principles every day. But, just maybe, the reminder is useful in a time when change is inescapable.

            “Methods are many, principles few.

            Methods often change; principles never do.”

Submitted for your consideration with prayers for focused ministry.

What do you value?

Mission, vision, purpose, values. These are words that drive much of an organization’s attempts to increase its effectiveness as an organization. For me, the one most frequently overlooked or undervalued is the matter of values. Values drive decision-making in many ways because what you consider important (whether articulated or not) is what determines your decision.

Shared values are important for organizational effectiveness. When Commissioner David duPlessis became Territorial Commander in South Africa, he confronted the treacherous realities of ministering in a culture emerging from decades of apartheid by articulating the values by which he would lead the Territory. Some years ago, I followed his example and set forth the values by which I wanted the part of the organization that I was leading to operate.

During our current time of social upheaval, it has become obvious to me that there is a clash of values at the heart of what is happening: safety vs. freedom, rights vs. responsibilities, economic security vs. health security, which identity group dominates our thinking (race, religion, nationality, gender, etc.), etc., etc.

For the purpose of this blog, I decided to revisit the values statement I used to guide decision-making in the Divisions I led. Over the next few weeks, I’ll set them out and reflect on their current applicability.

#1. Our common love for God will be the principal motivation for all we do, our devotional life will be the source of our strength, and the Scriptures will be the basis of our guiding principles.

This value comes directly from The Salvation Army’s Mission Statement: our “ministry is motivated by the love of God.” There are two dimensions to this statement – 1) the love of God for us draws us to him and issues in 2) our love for him, expressed in obedience to his commands.

Our love for God means a desire for intimacy with him, which drives our devotional life and results in a deepening relationship and growing spiritual strength.

The Word of God revealed in Scripture is “the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice.” Our guiding principles must be Biblical principles – for us as individuals and for the organization we serve. As Christians contend with new paradigms for worship and fellowship, e.g., it is important that we keep Scripture and not politics as the source of our guiding principles. 

#2. People matter to God, therefore they matter to us. Compassion will characterize our ministry, courtesy our social and business interactions, and consideration of the needs of others our service.

It is easy in the warp and woof of organizational life to forget that “meet[ing] human needs in His name” is intrinsic to our gospel proclamation. It is about people! (For example, any discussion about schooling during a pandemic that talks about anything other than the best interests of the children is a sad case of missing the most important thing. It is about the children!)

We do damage to our witness when compassion, courtesy, and consideration give way to anger, argument, and arrogance – which is happening too much lately IMHO. We are quarreling over “black lives” vs. “blue lives” and more than our egos are being bruised!! People matter. PERIOD

This is where I start. It’s where Jesus started when asked the greatest commandment. He replied, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” That’s the foundation for all other values.

More to come. Praying for you still.

A Return to Normalcy

When I was in college, I took a course called “Abnormal Psychology.” The movie Young Frankenstein has a great scene where Igor admits that the brain he brought the scientist was from someone named “Abby Normal.” There are those who resist using the label ‘abnormal’ because it connotes deviance and elevates ‘normal’ to a prized value.

But while the word ‘normal’ has made a comeback as weariness of the changes wrought by COVID-19 builds, it has also been the subject of controversy: “if by ‘normal’ you mean a return to systems of racism and oppression, I don’t want to return to ‘normal’.” And in other contexts, “normal” is disdained — even though 90% of the population are heterosexual, “heteronormative” thinking is to be avoided due to the negative impact on the remaining 10%.

So let me define my terms.

  • A “norm” is is a commonly agreed value or behavior that becomes standard and followed. Norms generally fall within a range to be considered as such.
  • Something is “normal” if it lies within the range of accepted norms or practices.

For example, it is a norm that adults be clothed in public. The range of acceptable clothing has widened considerably since my mother first dared to wear anything but a dress in public — even when hanging clothes on the line in the back yard. And while the range has widened, there are points on the extremes (visible underwear, e.g.) that cause some to say, “That’s not normal.”

Here are some things that by the terms I’ve defined above are now normal: wearing a mask in public, athletes kneeling during the national anthem, rancor in politics, bias in news media, etc. And yet there is no common agreement that these situations should continue as normal.

I suggest that one of the crises our country is facing is absence of consensus around what should be “normal” because we are struggling to define our shared values.

  • What do we value most in our public interactions? Safety, courtesy, friendliness? (BTW, I value mask-wearing right now because I value all the above.)
  • How do we best honor our country while still advocating for her shortcomings to be addressed?
  • Do politicians value the well-being of their constituents more than that of their party and/or their own electoral prospects? Do we/they still value civility? (Politicians have their own definition of “truth” – they all say they value it.)
  • As to the news media, do we prefer factual information or a well-crafted narrative that reinforces our own biases?

I long for a return to shared values. That is the normalcy I desire.

I began this blog as an encouraging word to colleagues on the front lines of ministry. This post has not been of that ilk, but it introduces what I shall be sharing in coming weeks. As we react to the current situation, I think it is as important as ever for us to have clarity around the values that drive our decisions. My next few posts will be about the values I hold dear.

As always, I am praying for y’all.

I choose joy

It may be a function of age but it seems that I am more and more intrigued by how the choices we make affect our lives. Even seemingly small choices can make a big difference. For example: in cleaning out a closet, someone came across an old picture that looked like a Picasso and asked my wife about it. Arvilla figured it had to be a knock-off (what would a Picasso be doing in a Salvation Army closet?). But just to be sure she had it evaluated and while Sotheby’s could not determine for sure, they said that the picture could be worth thousands. What would have happened if she had simply just thrown it away? Nothing — except The Army would have lost the income from its sale.

The reality is that no matter what the situation, one always has a choice and the choice almost always makes a difference, whether we see it or understand it. For example, to a simple “”how are you today?” greeting from me, the THQ receptionist paused for a moment and then replied, “I choose joy!!” Her choice brightened my day.

In the film “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” Richard Dreyfuss played the part of a young artist who was paralyzed from the neck down in an automobile accident. The doctors told him he would never paint or sculpt again. He would never leave his bed under his own power. With that future before him, the young man decided he no longer wanted to live. Death seemed to him to be the best option. The rest of the film detailed his fight to force the doctors to let him die.

Now contrast that fictional situation with the true story of Joni Erickson Tada. At 17 she was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident and faced a helpless existence as a quadriplegic. She was told she would never feed herself, never drive a car, and most likely never marry. She too wanted to die and would have committed suicide if she had been able. When confronted with the Gospel, Joni chose to follow Christ and to let God bring joy and healing to her life. Although God never “healed” Joni in the traditional sense of the word, her choice unlocked a vast ministry – she paints by holding a brush in her teeth, speaks to audiences across the country, drives a specially equipped van, and is married. What could have been the end of her life was only a new beginning

Granted, we are seldom called upon to make drastic choices such as this. But we do make choices daily that affect our lives in a multitude of ways.

  • If someone is rude to you–are you rude back?
  • If someone hurts you–do you try to get even?
  • Are you quick to judge?
  • When faced with a problem, do you look for quick easy answers?
  • How faithful are you in fulfilling responsibilities?
  • What about your daily time alone with the Lord, reading His Word and praying?

How we choose to respond in any given situation reflects on the outside what is happening on the inside. Just like the THQ receptionist, I choose joy! How about you?

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Aretha Franklin’s soulful plea more than 50 years ago came to mind recently. I am now an old codger who remembers when showing respect was a matter of common courtesy: words like “please” and “thank you”, “sir” and “ma’am” were expected parts of social interactions. Men removed their hats in the presence of a lady, when at a meal table, or when the national anthem was played. My brothers and I were taught to open doors for ladies, and how to escort them on the streets or on the stairs. And behavior towards one’s elders must always be respectful — Mr. and Mrs. were required; first names only if expressly requested.

We were also taught to be respectful of positions like pastor, policeman, teacher, clerk, etc. Among the soldiers of the Old Orchard Beach Corps was the retired Territorial Commander who commissioned me as an officer, Commissioner Bramwell Tripp. During the four years I was his Corps Officer, he never addressed me by first name even when visiting him in his home; I was always “Captain” – even though he and his wife insisted that my wife and I call them by their first names as we did other soldiers of the Corps. He respected the office of the Corps Officer and symbolized that with his term of address.

I fear that our current national trauma includes an absence of respect. As we critique the institutions of our society and hold them accountable for their faults, we seem too eager to dismiss the positives and deny respect for the institution as a whole because of the shortcomings. There are those who seem to have no respect for our country, her history, or her enduring institutions. And our political leaders speak and act in ways that would have brought a sharp rebuke from my parents.

I believe respect to be a Biblical value. Jesus was respectful, even of those whose behavior and principles he condemned. We believe that the image of God (the imago dei) exists in every person, calling for us to treat even the most sin-marred personality with respect and dignity as one for whom Christ died.

Many were the times that I had this value tested as a Corps Officer by those who accused me falsely, or betrayed my trust, or acted disdainfully toward those who were providing assistance to them. But I tried my best never to let the behavior of another dictate my own.

I applaud today’s front-line servants who manage to show respect to those they serve amid an increasingly disrespectful society. Thank you for your show of respect!