The Young Messiah

by Glenn on November 26, 2020

Q. Have you watched any good movies lately?

A. Actually, I have. I watched the movie, The Young Messiah, on Netflix.

Q. What’s it about?

A. It’s based on Anne Rice’s novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. Both the book and the film are fiction, trying to imagine what it was like for Jesus as a child to come to understand who he was.

Q. What do you think about a made-up story about Jesus?

A. Well, I suppose you need to approach the subject cautiously. And this one does. The gospels are mostly about Jesus as an adult. They give us a brief look at Jesus as a baby and a very young child. But then there is no record of anything until he is twelve, attending Passover in Jerusalem. You can understand why someone would want to fill in the details.

Q. What did you like about the movie?

A. For starters, it’s a movie I can recommend without reservations. It’s short. I don’t have to warn anyone about language or tell them about a bad scene. It’s pretty well made.

Q. Anything you didn’t like?

A. I guess in general I don’t like movies about Jesus. The production quality is often low, which is disappointing. And then I don’t like the specificity of one particular actor trying to represent the Son of God. There are too many interpretive issues involved.

Q. What do you mean by interpretive issues?

A. Well, we tend to think of the gospels like a modern biography—where we’re given all sorts of information about a subject’s appearance—their height, weight, hair and skin color, personality, what they were wearing, etc. But the gospels don’t give us any of that sort of information.

And in the gospels we get the words of Jesus and not much more beyond that. We don’t get a lot of characterization—was he smiling when he said that? Did he sound angry? And so the actor that plays Jesus is making decisions in terms of the tone of Jesus that simply aren’t in the text. He is interpreting the text. I prefer having to use my imagination and to think deeply about the words—not see the representation of someone else’s imagination.

Q. So what was different about this movie that you don’t seem to have those objections?

A. This movie is dealing with a subject that has always interested me—what was it like for a young Jesus to come to terms with who he is? Obviously, he was human and didn’t arrive speaking complete sentences. But he was God, which means he had the power of God. And somehow he was an eternal being. Presumably he would not (or could not) sin. How did he relate to other people? The gospels don’t say anything about this. I don’t think it’s wrong to wonder or to try and fill in some of these details.

Q. Were there any surprises in the details?

A. Yeah, I think there were two. One was the presence of Satan in the life of the young Jesus. Satan isn’t always visible to the other characters in the story, but he does influence them. And so this brings a deeply spiritual emphasis to the film. It’s not creepy or spooky, as in a horror film, but we are made aware that there are spiritual realities that we tend to deny in our modern world. Jesus as an adult would be doing battle with evil. His presence in the world as a child was not unknown to dark powers. So I loved that this film represented a reality the Bible presents.

The second surprise was how dangerous the world was for Jesus and how much anxiety his parents felt. Obviously, the danger is represented in the gospel story. God appears to Joseph in a dream and warns him that he needs to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The threat is real and they live with an understandable level of pressure. They are living with both the normal anxieties of parenthood as well as this extra mission of keeping God alive until he is old enough to care for himself. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like. Jesus was a little kid who needed protecting. God speaks to them and gives them a general instruction—”Go to Egypt”—but then all the details are on them. There’s so much of life that Joseph and Mary have to figure out. This, too, feels real.

Q. There’s the age-old question: the book or the movie? Which is better.

A. The book always wins. I’ve seen some enjoyable “based on the book” films, Sully, Remains of the Day, Pride and Prejudice, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the first Harry Potter. In this case, it’s been a long time since I read the Anne Rice book. My memory is that I really enjoyed it. Rice’s research was impeccable. She comes from a Catholic perspective, which has some traditions associated with the child, Jesus—but these so-called “infant narratives” aren’t historical accounts. For example, the scriptures tell us that the first miracle of Jesus was at Cana of Galilee, while the book (and the film) have Jesus performing miracles, although not consciously.

So maybe the fact that it’s been so long since I read the book made this film so much more enjoyable. Something I liked about both the book and the movie—while they are both fictional accounts, they are out to present a historical Jesus. I am behind any enterprise that tries to make the real Jesus known to the world.

The Story of 2020, Part Two

by Glenn on November 26, 2020

Note: A version of the following appeared previously in an email I sent to my congregation this past summer.

Previously I wrote about the coronavirus.

It’s a difficult disease to manage because you’re contagious before you’re symptomatic, and you may never become symptomatic. As a disease it’s not a big deal, unless it’s a big deal, and then it can be a pretty big deal. To keep it from becoming a public health crisis, you need to act early, when it doesn’t look like a problem.

You can contain it when a small number of people have it, but if you don’t, then it becomes about mitigation, which is where we’ve been the last seven months, and may continue to be for some time. (In fairness, it did take medical professionals some time to realize that the coronavirus was being spread person-to-person.)

The coronavirus was a lot to deal with. And continues to be. Part of the story of this year is that we had a hard time finding common ground and holding on to the center. Somewhere we lost the spirit of “we’re all in this together.”

We have even felt this in the Church (not so much our congregation, but in the larger Church). There were some on one end of the spectrum who said (and continue to say) that they weren’t going to wear masks or maintain distance from others. Some have called this a “scamdemic” or a “plandemic,” suggesting conspiracies and/or no actual health problem. They maintain that the Church as well as the general economy should be business as usual. On the other end of the spectrum, there are churches that are effectively closed.

We have been trying a middle way. We want to obey the scriptures which remind us not to be “giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25) and be part of the efforts to mitigate the disease—wearing masks and keeping our physical distance. To me this seems reasonable. We don’t want to live in fear. But we don’t want to be foolish, either. In the same way that you would sneeze into your elbow so as not to pass on your cold to people around you, it seems both loving and wise not to pass on the coronavirus, made more difficult because you will spread it before you have it, if you ever become aware that you had it.

This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t have opinions on the handling of this public health crisis. I’ve been pretty vocal in saying that we need better testing in this country. First of all, we need an easier and quicker test. (One of the members of my congregation had one of those early tests. He said something about the feeling of someone scratching his brain.) But a lot of problems would be solved if we had a way to test, even at home, and know if we are sick or have been sick.

And we need to trust our leadership. The most famous example is the prominent doctor and government spokesman who told us early on not to worry about masks. But now he says we should wear masks. His story was that he was worried that there wouldn’t be enough masks for medical professionals if everyone went out to buy them. So did he lie? What are we to make of his words now?

I’ll try to avoid a rant, here.

All this to say, we had plenty to deal with and we weren’t necessarily doing it that well.

And then George Floyd died in police custody on May 25, 2020. This absolutely should not have happened. Is it fair to say he was killed? I know it’s innocent until proven guilty, but we saw it with our own eyes. It was horrifying. I understand Floyd had some underlying health conditions, but isn’t it likely he would be alive today had that former police officer not knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, with three other police officers watching and bystanders asking, pleading, for him to stop?

Most people were disturbed by this. Many people were upset deeply by this, particularly members of the African-American community. Can you blame them? We had a conversation on one of our Wednesday night Zoom meetings with a Black pastor who was pretty outspoken about his feelings.

The death of George Floyd (as well as Breonna Taylor and others) was awful, but maybe there was some good that could come out of it. It looked like we could have a discussion about police procedures. (A friend of mine in law enforcement discovered that kneeling on someone’s neck is an actual police procedure in Minneapolis. It’s not here in Portland.) It looked like we could talk about police unions and removing the few bad police officers so that the vast majority of good ones could be trusted to do their jobs. It looked like we could have a discussion about racism in this country. It is, after all, America’s original sin.

I was certainly ready to go there.

But then something strange happened. The coronavirus was still a problem and family members could not be in the room with relatives as they died from the coronavirus, but large gatherings of protesters were allowed.

We decided—I use “we” because I really do believe we are all in this together—that the police were a greater health threat than the coronavirus.

And then protests turned into destruction and looting and rioting. We even, for a while, had an anarchist zone in Seattle. Reforming the police turned into defunding the police.

And here is where things get really difficult, because we don’t all see eye to eye on what has happened and what should happen, even in our little community. Some of us are overwhelmed by profound loss. Others see opportunities that need to be seized.

I see some good right now. These are personal reflections, but see if they ring true for you. Let me share three right now:

1. I believe this year is exposing some idolatry in our hearts. What do I mean? It’s just possible that for some of us love of country is more important than God right now. That, by definition, is idolatry. It’s one thing to be concerned about things you see and make them a matter of prayer. It’s another thing to be unsettled by the things you see and feeling as though all is lost because your vision of what America is and should be has become a kind of god to you. If God is the most important person in my life I won’t be troubled by anything else.

2. I believe this year is reminding us of sin and its effects. This is a fallen world—a good world gone wrong. A fallen world has disease and being a Christian does not always provide immunity from it. There are a number in our community struggling with bodies that aren’t working well right now. Broken bones. Heart trouble. The prospect of surgery. We have a friend who, recently, in the midst of all of these large-scale events this year, lost both parents in a ten-day period. If sin and death were the end of the story, it would be an unlivable tragedy we could never recover from. But we are promised both an abundant life in this world and eternal life in the one to come. That gives us hope. In the center of human sin and suffering is Jesus on the cross. Dying for our sin. Experiencing our suffering. Sin is not the whole story. It’s certainly not the end of the story.

3. I believe this year is reminding us of the importance of individuals. Presidents and governors are important. We need leaders who will lead us well. Can we agree that good leaders can make things better and bad leaders can make things worse? But the power and beauty of this country is not found in our leaders. It’s found in its citizens. The Constitution opens with “We the people …” The same is true of the church. The pastor and elders matter. They can make things better or worse. But nothing matters more than the individuals in the church. It’s what individuals do day in and day out that matters. I am so proud of this community that we get to be part of. I ran into town yesterday afternoon and there was a 94-year-old member of our community out with the weed-eater, keeping her lawn tidy. You’re doing what you know to do. And you’re making things better. I should say something about the importance of families, but I’m running late and long. I know there’s one family at the coast right now. There’s another one headed there this weekend. There’s another family that is camping. Another one went kayaking the other day when dad had a day off. These are triumphs. They won’t get reported on the news, but they matter so much right now.

The Story of 2020, Part One

by Glenn on November 26, 2020

Note: A version of the following appeared previously in an email I sent to my congregation this past summer.

How will you tell the story of this year? Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Does your Christian faith influence how you tell the story? Here’s my first attempt:

We knew 2020 would have some drama to it. After all, it was an election year, but we had no idea what was coming. Early on there were some rumblings out of Wuhan, China about a new (“novel”) virus. It was called SARS-CoV-2 because of its similarity to the virus that caused SARS in 2003. [1] The disease it causes has been called Covid-19: “‘co’ for corona, ‘vi’ for virus, ‘d’ for disease, and ‘19’ for the year it appeared.” [2] It’s a little easier just to call it the coronavirus. At the end of January, travel from China was restricted to The United States because of it.

In the middle of February, Nancy and I traveled to California to work with some friends at a conference. At the event, we learned one of the speakers had cancelled. He was an older gentleman and his doctor told him not to travel because of the coronavirus. Then one of the support staff for the conference caught the flu and was banished to her hotel room. When I saw her a couple of days later, I remember feeling anxious about being near her. And then there was the flight home. I thought: “Is this a good idea?”

In March, we watched this novel coronavirus hit the country of Italy hard. The death toll was greater than in China and hospitals were overwhelmed. And then here in the States, as a country, as a state, as a church, we made changes to how we would live and move in the world. We wanted to flatten the curve. We refer to “lockdowns” in this country, but they were nothing like the lockdowns in China and Italy.

As a church, we stopped meeting, physically, but then someone had the idea of gathering online, which we began doing in April and have done ever since (with a few joyous experiments with drive-in church sprinkled in). As of July 5, we have begun a hybrid of meeting in our building, outside or in cars, and online on Sunday mornings at 11:00 am.

Normally, as Americans we have this ability to rally around each other. I remember when President Reagan was shot in 1981. I was a senior in my journalism classroom at San Pedro High School as we stood around the television. The report came out that Mr. Reagan had told the doctor, “I hope you’re a Republican.” The doctor responded, “Today, we’re all Republicans.”

9/11 was the same thing. We were all New Yorker’s. We were all especially aware of our own mortality and fragility and living accordingly.

Something was different with this coronavirus, though. We did hunker down. But then we hoarded. Toilet paper. Cleaning supplies. And then we got angry. Especially online. I suppose we were looking for someone to blame. But it’s hard to know who to blame.

I read a book on Covid-19 (Deborah MacKenzie, COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One. New York: Hachette Books, 2020.) and the author tells a story that is more complicated than this or that person/country is to blame. It’s probably better to say there’s plenty of blame to go around and the sources for our information share in some of it.

You wouldn’t think a disease like this would be political, but it is. And it has fractured our culture or at least has exposed the fractures.

The problems with this disease begin with the fact that you’re contagious before you’re symptomatic and you may not ever be symptomatic. And while the death rate is relatively low (somewhere between worse than the flu but not as bad as, say, SARS and MERS), it seems to affect different parts of our population differently—older Americans especially hard and young people hardly at all. The worse your economic situation right now, the worse your experience these last five months.

No one has a particularly good solution aside from a vaccine and we’re a ways away from that. Creating a vaccine is a complicated enterprise. It’s a race, but it’s not necessarily a race to be first. Everyone wants to be first, but the first vaccine may not be the best. And a bad vaccine will be worse than no vaccine. It will make the problem worse.

We have learned that an older person with the virus should not be put back into their retirement home. That seems clear. Physical distancing (which sounds a lot better than “social distancing”) and certain types of masks seem to help contain the spread. But the main thing is avoiding close-proximity to others in enclosed spaces over a period of time.

Anyway, this is what we thought this year would be about—dealing with the coronavirus. I mean, there were those murder hornets, [3] but that turned out to be nothing. At least for now. No, we were trying to figure out how to return to anything like normalcy. How do we plan? What is possible? What is safe? How do we balance economic concerns and human safety? There were and are a lot of questions. There’s a lot there to think through.

But then on May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed while in police custody. Like most people, I thought this was horrific. It was wrong. And the arrogance on display in that image of the now former police office with his hands in his pockets while he snuffs out the life of Floyd is staggering.

Even a friend of mine in law enforcement told me this week that he and his colleagues have looked at the video and can’t make sense of the decision-making or the police procedures behind this person who knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. After all, there were four police officers there and the man was handcuffed. What could he do? This death shouldn’t have happened. But it did.

I thought, hoped, we would have an opportunity to discuss issues of race. It is, after all, America’s original sin.

To be continued . . .

 

_________________________

[1] Deborah MacKenzie, COVID-19: The Pandemic that Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One. New York: Hachette Books, 2020, pp. ix and xxi.

[2] MacKenzie, p. ix.

[3] I mentioned “murder hornets” to a friend and she wrote back, “Please don’t call the Asian giant hornet a ‘murder hornet.’ That’s offensive!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Broken Lights

by Glenn on October 21, 2020

You never know what’s going to happen when someone hands you a book to read. One thing is true for me: there’s always a little bit of anxiety. Will it feel like a duty or will it bring pleasure? What does the person say when they hand you the book? Is it, “I loved this book and I thought you might, too”? Or is it, “You really need to read this book!” (What does that mean? Is it that good or are you trying to fix me?)

Someone handed me a book a little while ago and said they really enjoyed this particular author because he “thinks outside the box.” That was as gracious as it was intriguing to me. The author is Charles E. Poole, who is senior minister at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and the book is called, Beyond the Broken Lights: Simple words at sacred edges (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2000).

It’s not a long book, so I took some time on Monday to read it through in a few sittings over cups of coffee. Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Favor 15 | Chapter 4.2

by Glenn on May 19, 2020

In The Power of Favor, each chapter has references to both Biblical and personal stories to illustrate lessons. If I’m correct, Moses is the 14th reference to a Biblical character as an example of favor. Osteen uses this story to illustrate the idea of “A Hedge of Protection” as this section of the chapter where I am picking up again is called. He refers to the plagues that God sent on the Egyptians and how they didn’t affect the Israelites. As the plague of flies is about to be introduced, Osteen has God speak to Pharaoh in this way,

“I will deal differently with the land where My people live. No swarms of flies will be there. I will make a distinction between you and My people.”

He continues to tell the story,

“Millions and millions of flies came into Pharaoh’s palace and all the houses of the Egyptians. The flies were so dense the people couldn’t see, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. Their land was ruined by flies. But right next door, the Israelites had no flies. . . . It didn’t make sense in the natural. This was the hand of God putting a distinction on His people.”

And then there’s the application,

“God has put that same distinction on you. When He breathed life into you, He marked you for favor, marked you for blessing, marked you to stand out. What will defeat others won’t be able to defeat you.”

One of my ongoing questions about this book is Who is “you”? Who is marked for favor? Those who read this book? If so, what is it about reading this book that makes it so that a person is marked for favor? Is everyone who reads this book marked for favor? Is it possible to be marked for favor and not read this book? Other questions come from the statement, here, that the moment God “breathed life into you, He marked you for favor.” It sounds like favor is given to us at birth. Do I understand that correctly? Is it given to everyone? If favor is connected to salvation, does that happen at our first birth or does it require, as Jesus explained to Nicodemus, a second birth. Do “you”, whoever you are, have any responsibility related to that favor? Is there a way to reject it, for example?

Leaving behind this ongoing question of Who is “you”?, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of these words and the global Coronavirus pandemic that we are experiencing. We’re told that “What will defeat others won’t be able to defeat [us]”, but in our current circumstance there doesn’t appear to be a distinction between who gets and does not get the virus. And maybe this statement doesn’t apply to a global pandemic. To what does it apply, then? Is what Osteen is saying meaningful or meaningless? I don’t mean to be snide, but I am trying to understand the author’s claims.

To what extent do the promises of God create better and different realities in this world than they do for non-Christians? In other words, do we play by a different set of rules? Gravity seems to apply to everyone.

I watched pastors defy stay-at-home orders when the Coronavirus hit. On the one hand, I admired their faith: “No weapon formed against me will stand!” At the same time, it felt so foolish. Christians get colds, the flu, cancer, why was it that they wouldn’t get this disease? Either faith doesn’t work, or we are bringing the wrong expectations to our faith. I was curious what Osteen was saying about the virus and I found this press conference. When asked what encouragement he had for people, he said,

“I think it’s important to make that choice to not live from a place of fear, a place of worry, a place of panic. You know you draw in what you consistently think about and it’s easy—you know, you’re watching the news, and I’m not saying, you know, there’s not a lot of negative going on, but you have to make that choice, I’m going to live from a place of faith, a place of trust, a place of hope, not downplaying it, I want to be smart, I want to use wisdom, I’ll wash my hands, I’ll stay away from people, but I’m going to stay in a place of peace. I believe when you do that you draw in peace, you draw in faith, that helps you to make it through.”

This seems absolutely reasonable. Have faith. Don’t be foolish. What it doesn’t say is that Christians aren’t any different than anyone else. The measured tone is markedly different from the claims of the book. When asked about parents with kids at home, Osteen remarked,

“I believe God will give you grace for every season and this is not a surprise to him, so I think that as parents if we can stay in peace, if we can be the example, that we’re not panicked, that we’re not upset, I think it translates down to our children and again I think we have to take it one day at a time. God gives us grace for today. You think about Can I do this for a month? Can I do this for a year? I don’t know, but if you come back to Can I can get through 24 hours?—“God, give me your grace for today,” I believe that is going to help you make it through each and every day. Not looking at the long term but looking at today.”

There was a check for understanding from the reporter, and Osteen continued,

“You can use your energy to worry or you can use your energy to believe. It takes the same amount of energy to worry or to say, ‘Okay, God I know you’ve got me in the palm of your hand. I know you’re guiding me, that you’re protecting me, that you’re helping those who need your help.’ And so you just use that energy to stay positive, to stay grateful. Yes, it’s difficult. Some of us can’t go to work, but you know it’s time that we can spend with our family, that we can make the most of that. I even have a friend of mine that’s doing a little bit … learning more of a new career, improving his career, because he has the time off, so I think we have to see the good in it and stay in faith and pray for those that have contracted the virus, but let’s stay in faith and believe that good will come out of it and I know like it always happens we’ll come out of it better than we were before.”

This strikes me also as a good response. The essence of the Christian faith is that while we’re not immune from the emotions we all feel from the things going on around us, we’re not undone by them because we have inner resources given to us by God. This is the only way I can explain, for example, the lack of pain mentioned in the letters of Paul. He describes these awful things that happen to him but he always speaks of the joy he feels in the midst of trying circumstances. It’s both inspiring and convicting.

These are tough times. And there are questions that aren’t easy to answer. For me as a pastor, what do I say to my congregation? I’ve seen a number of approaches:
1. Continue on in ignorance of science. I think this has been largely seen as foolish. Well, and it’s illegal right now, although that appears to be changing.

2. Continue on in small groups. I’ve noticed some churches that are very small simply continuing to meet.

3. Cooperate simply by stopping meeting.

4. Cooperate and innovate. Figure out new ways to do and be the church.

It appears that Osteen has taken the last path. Honestly, I don’t envy larger churches right now. There is such a potential for disaster if they re-open.

To return to the book, after assuring his readers that we “don’t have to live worried … even though there are so many negative things in the world, so much crime and violence. It may be happening all around you, but you have an advantage. God has put a distinction on you,” Osteen hedges his bets a little bit:

“I’m not saying negative things will never happen. That’s not reality. I’m saying you are protected by the One who controls it all. If God allows it to happen, He’s promised that He will turn it somehow and use it for your good.”

I can’t tell if he is being contradictory, here, or finally acknowledging that the blessing of God is not a straightforward path of everything getting better and better. Where I think he wants to go is to say that God has good in mind for you. That good may include material blessings and protection from bad things. If not, don’t worry, because God still has good things ultimately. I feel like the difference is between “good things are coming your way” and “Trust in God’s goodness.” The former is a promise that not even God makes. Or perhaps he is saying that everything that happens is an example of God’s favor. Why pray, then, for example God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? It really is challenging to reconcile all of this.

Osteen picks up the Moses story noting that Pharaoh wouldn’t let the Israelites go even after the plague of flies. He says that the rest of the plagues only applied to the Egyptians. Even if they tried to get away from the flies (and frogs and locusts), “everywhere they went, the plagues followed them.” As far as the Israelites, “It wasn’t where the Israelites were that kept them from the plagues. It was what was on them—the distinction, the favor, the blessing that comes from being a child of the Most High God.”

I wish Osteen would address this point that while the Israelites have the favor of God, the Egyptians most decidely do not. If there is a point of application for us today from the story of the Israelites in terms of favor, isn’t there a point of application that could be made about disfavor in the story of the Egyptians.

Also, this would be a good place to establish how one becomes “a child of the Most High God.” What if this was the first of his books that Osteen’s reader picked up? It is in my case. It feels like there are things assumed that are never explained. Rather than take the time,  Osteen simply moves on to make an application for his readers, who he tells,

“You and I have that same blessing. We may have things around us that could harm us, keep us from our dreams, bring us down. Stay in faith. There is a distinction on your life, on your property, on your children, on your career, and on your health that is put there by the Creator of the universe.”

Is this the message he would have written had he known the Coronavirus was coming? Maybe not a fair point on my part. But there certainly are plenty of assurances about the future and one wonders what Osteen would have said had he known about the coming crisis. At the very least, measured tones would be in order, although there are some preachers who are not measured at all about anything.

Next, Osteen tells an incredible story about an orange farmer who heard a freeze was coming and walked around his property “thanking [God] that [his oranges] wouldn’t freeze and that he would have a harvest that year.” Osteen says the other farmers thought this man was “so strange” and “[t]hey made fun and ridiculed him.” We can see where this is heading. This man’s orange grove was saved while the orange groves around him died. Osteen anticipates objections of those who might think this man had a lucky break, but he says “that was the hand of God putting a distinction on his property.” I have no problem with the miracle. I take that at face value. There are Christians who experience tragedy, though. It’s hard to reconcile it all. How do we rejoice at the one thing and help people know what they can expect from God.

Osteen says, “The economy doesn’t determine if you’re blessed: God does.” He goes on to talk about someone who was having a great year in sales even in a bad economy. We get something of a condition, here. Osteen writes,

“Here’s the key: As long as you stay close to God, as long as you keep Him first place, you are connected to a supply chain that will never run dry.”

Wouldn’t it be good to have that notion of staying close to God explained? Osteen talks about how his father raised an enormous sum of money to build a building in tough economic times after having open-heart surgery. And then we’re back to Joseph. This jumping from Bible story to Bible story gives me a bit of whiplash. Joseph made an appearance in the first chapter. Here he is back again. Two pages later it’s Abraham.

One of the things that needs to be explained is how can we make this promise of favor to the general masses when one of the things in Scripture is the way God seems to single out individuals to put his favor on. Abraham received favor that no one else did. The point that Osteen makes, though, is that favor will spill out onto those around us, so that favor may not be on everyone, but if it’s on us, it will get on others.

Chapter 4 ends with another story of someone in his congregation for who great things happened. I rejoice for them. It’s not that I don’t believe the story. It’s that the world is more complicated than the story we are being told. We need stories to illustrate the points we want to make, but the stories would easier to accept if I felt like they were illustrating points I understood or agreed with.

Churches Suing the Governor of Oregon | Pt. 2

by Glenn on May 19, 2020

This is an update to this post.

A legal battle is underway. The churches suing the governor of the state of Oregon received support from a judge but then the state supreme court put a stay. Who knows how this will play out. I still have a hard time with churches claiming their rights are being trampled on when there is a fairly obvious health crisis underway. To argue with myself for just a bit:

Q. Don’t you think the churches had a point?

A. I think it goes without saying that the right to assemble peaceably and the right to practice faith were both hindered by the governor’s order. But, that wasn’t an absolute prohibition. The governor’s order didn’t mean you couldn’t meet, say, virtually. It didn’t mean you couldn’t do something like a drive-in service. It didn’t mean you couldn’t record messages or services and share them. It didn’t mean you couldn’t live-stream services. There was an intent behind the order that needs to be considered. If human safety would be infringed by meeting together physically, the governor would not be doing her job if she permitted gatherings. That’s what I assume she has done. These are unusual times. The law suit simply didn’t make sense in these circumstances.

Q. Don’t you feel like churches were being singled out?

A. No. Because they weren’t. Plenty of other organizations are closed right now.

Q. But what does this say about the church not being included in the list of essential businesses? You can go to the grocery store. You can go to the hardware store. Why shouldn’t people get their needs met at church?

A. I suppose the idea of essential businesses and needs met depends on what you mean by essential and needs. On the Abraham Maslow-style “Hierarchy of Needs,” I consider faith a higher-level activity. Christians are not the only citizens in Oregon. While I consider my faith a need and believe that knowledge of Jesus (actually belief in Jesus) is essential for eternal life, others most certainly do not, particularly if they are someone who claims that this life is all there is. A lot of businesses are having to be creative right now, for example, restaurants with take-out only or other businesses who are using curbside check-out. I maintain that churches need to be creative right now. Even for businesses that are open, it’s not business as usual.

Q. Don’t you care about the legality of what the governor is doing? Wasn’t she supposed to get approval from the state legislature?

A. I don’t know the legality of what she is doing and perhaps I don’t really care right now. I imagine the argument that these churches made was correct, but honestly, I have no legal background and so I have no idea if the suing churches are right in their claim. I take a sort of Who cares if you’re right? approach to this, though, particularly because it’s not clear what is to be gained. What I see is the practicality of what she is doing. She is saving lives. We are in extraordinary times. Let’s say these churches had won an outright victory. What next? Business as usual at church? I think we can say, reliably, that this disease is passed on from human to human. It makes sense to limit human-to-human contact.

Q. There are counties that aren’t experiencing the Coronavirus? Why should they be treated the same as other counties?

A. Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what the governor is doing? She is treating each county differently. When a county meets certain criteria, they can open up.

Q. She is not moving quickly enough.

A. Perhaps. It’s hard to say how quickly she should be moving, though. One of the challenges of this disease is that there is no “real-time” data to inform decision-making. The effects of decisions made today won’t be understood for a couple of weeks. I’m okay with an abundance of caution. Something helpful to us here in Oregon is that there are certain states in the South that are opening up. We will know in a couple of weeks if that is a good move or not. They are a kind of experiment where the test results won’t be known for some time. I guess I would suggest patience should be the order of the day. I’m also pretty happy to live in a state where the death count is only 138.

Q. Our faith teaches us not to fear death. Are you afraid of death?

A. I don’t think so. I will say that the Coronavirus has caused me to think about my own death. I had in my mind the idea that I would live to my 80’s, giving me decades of life ahead of me, but this disease has me numbering my days a bit, not making any assumptions. This disease aside, I note in passing the death of the apologist Ravi Zacharias at age 74 from a sarcoma. I continue with long-terms plans while remembering that life is fragile. This disease can be mild or it can light up your immune system so much that you experience a life-threatening condition. I read today that patients near death are struggling for air so badly that they have to be restrained to keep from pulling out their breathing tube. I’m not fearing death, but I’m not wanting to engage in actions that could hasten my death. I don’t think I have that right. And, as I said, I have plans.

Further, I don’t think it’s right to hasten the death of anyone else. That’s another of the challenges of this disease. You can be asymptomatic and contagious. If you truly believe that people must choose Jesus before they die, then why would you do anything that could cause the death of unbelievers?

Q. I don’t think you appreciate what’s at stake here.

A. The same could be said of you. All of this talk about how the church here in Oregon is being hurt by the government feels more dramatic than anything based on reality. There are Christians around the world who are being imprisoned or tortured or killed for their faith. What we are experiencing here is nothing like that. We’re being told not to meet in large groups. Our government is telling us in actions, if not words, that our lives matter. That is hardly anything approximating let alone approaching persecution.

The people I am concerned about right now are people who have lost their jobs. I guess unemployment is working for at least some of them. I am eager to see the economy open up so people can get back to work.

It will be great to have services in our church buildings again, but we don’t want to do that until it’s safe. This is not cold and flu season. This is something very different. 90,000 Americans have died over the last couple of months. Now is not a time to be demanding anything.

On Churches Suing the Governor of California

by Glenn on May 12, 2020

Ten churches in Oregon are suing Governor Kate Brown over her restrictions on gatherings. I think this is perfectly ridiculous. I am writing this to say so.

The article I read may be found here.

Background

Last week, a motion for a temporary restraining order was filed by an attorney named Ray D. Hacke (depending on the pronunciation, maybe one of the most unfortunately—or appropriately?—named lawyers ever), who is based in Salem. He is quoted as saying,

“If we’re risking our lives to go to church, if we survive great. If we die, then we’re going to heaven. If we want to take that risk, then it’s on us.”

According to the article, the churches “have so far respected the governor’s order banning gatherings of more than 25 people and discouraging Oregonians from being around more than 10 people at a time,” but they “no longer believe such an order is justified.”

While the governor on Thursday increased the permissible size of gatherings to 25, apparently that didn’t go far enough. Hacke complains, “If a congregation has 250 members, what are they going to do? Hold 10 services? That’s just not realistic. It’s an infringement on religious liberty.’’ They are through with “having their rights trampled on with no end in sight.’’

According to the governor’s spokeswoman, Liz Merah, churches are still able to “tend to the spiritual needs of their congregations without putting the health and safety of their entire communities at risk.” That rings true for me. We’ve had to be creative as a church and we’ve had to accept the fact that things are less than ideal right now. That’s life. It’s not always the way we would like. Isn’t there a song about that? I certainly understand that if you have a larger church, it’s more complicated to try and be creative and hold things together. But it seems like thinking hard and being imaginative is the place to start rather than demanding that we go back to business as usual. There will not be business as usual for the near term. In fact, there may need to be new business as usual. That will take us some time to figure out.

First Thoughts

First, this is really annoying. That needs to be said. It’s hard to see how anything improves with this lawsuit. I can see all sorts of reasons for the church to sue the government. This isn’t one of them. As far as I can tell, Governor Kate Brown has saved the lives of Oregonians. We can question how many, but the fact that we’ve only had 3,286 cases of COVID-19 and 130 deaths is something that churches should be rejoicing in. We should be thanking Governor Brown. And, if there are complaints to be leveled at her, it doesn’t seem like the church should be first in line. It’s an incredibly complicated circumstance we find ourselves in. We have a disease that when it makes you sick can make you really sick. And it disproportionately affects the elderly, those whose health is compromised, and certain ethnic groups. And the calculus of savings lives over against all other concerns—economic, educational, spiritual—is tough to think through. I’m willing to give some grace toward the emphasis on saving lives.

Second, what’s next? Let’s say there is a judge who agrees with these churches, then what are they going to do? Are they seriously going to gather in large groups during a pandemic? What are they hoping to achieve? And why now? What has changed? Why do they believe the governor’s order is no longer justified? What do they know that the health experts don’t? There wasn’t a sufficient explanation of why the order should be lifted right now. The odds of getting the virus are obviously lower here in Oregon than they are in, say, New York. If churches in New York were doing this, we’d all question their sanity. Here, it’s a question of wisdom. At best this lawsuit seems unwise.

Third, I don’t like this cavalier attitude toward human life. The statement was, “If we’re risking our lives to go to church, if we survive great. If we die, then we’re going to heaven. If we want to take that risk, then it’s on us.” Of course it’s not that simple, is it? For the Christian, we believe the timing of our deaths is in some way in God’s hands. In other words, God decides when our lives are over and we shouldn’t hasten them.

End of life decisions are always difficult because we don’t want to place ourselves in the role of God. I find myself torn over people who are experiencing great suffering and want to die. Assisted suicide is a difficult subject. Let’s leave aside the difficult cases that make that such a troubling issue and simply address a more general principle with a question: Should I do things that hasten my demise? I think in general the question is no. So I shouldn’t eat fast food for every meal every day because that is putting my life at risk. I shouldn’t smoke. And maybe I shouldn’t meet with large groups of people in the midst of a pandemic.

It’s complicated though, because while we say we shouldn’t play God, we do tend to celebrate self-sacrifice as a worthy thing. We honor our military for just that reason. I love that quote (Orwell? Churchill?), “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” Those who serve in the military are willing to sacrifice their lives for us. We honor them for good reason. Further, we celebrate the doctors and nurses and other health care workers who are dealing with those who have COVID-19. It’s dangerous and stressful for them and it’s tough on their families, too. We celebrate those firefighters who on 9/11 ran into the World Trade Center.

So while self-sacrifice can be lauded, in general we stand against self-destruction. And so I don’t understand this Let me kill myself if I want approach, which may not be what they are literally saying, but it is the effect, isn’t it? This lawsuit seems wrong to the extent that they are playing God, potentially hastening their own death. There is an admission that there is a risk which is downplayed mightily.

With this acknowledgment of risk, I think there is a distinction that needs to be made between risks I am willing to take and my putting another person in harm’s way. What makes the lawsuit and the statement of the lawyer so troubling is that while it’s one thing to be cavalier with your own life—I admire how blithe Hacke is to go to God—I wonder about someone who intentionally puts others at risk. As a pastor, If I was sick, would I visit someone in the hospital who had immune issues? Absolutely not. Let’s say after I demand my right to assemble and somehow get a crowd to gather with me, what happens if I have the virus and don’t know it? It feels like one thing to put myself at risk, it feels quite another to put others in danger. It would be great to hear a plan for protecting human life to accompany this lawsuit.

I suppose if the members of these congregations intended to meet together and have no contact with anyone outside of their congregations, I wouldn’t object. They should enjoy their joyful though risky connection with each other. But then they shouldn’t leave that meeting and head to the supermarket. The song is, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” not “They’ll know we are Christians by our absolute disregard for the legitimate health concerns of others.”

There is a tension between faith and science. It’s not always been an easy relationship. When we have a headache, do we pray for God’s healing or do we take some ibuprofen? Christians haven’t always been on the right side of what we know today to be true. Our dogma sometimes gets in the way of facts. When Copernicus was trying to teach a “sun-centered” understanding of the solar system, he ran into, among others, Martin Luther who took a literal approach to Scripture:

“‘The fool wants to overturn the whole science of astronomy,’ said Luther ‘but, according to the Scripture, Joshua bade the sun and not the earth to stand still.’” [1]

Of course, Luther during the plague also said,

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.” [2]

The lack of consideration evidenced by these churches is astounding. By consideration I don’t mean politeness, although that is certainly part of this. You wouldn’t sneeze in someone’s face. That’s bad manners for sure, but it’s also a demonstrable lack of love if you give your sickness to someone else. Perhaps, under these circumstances, it’s a crime. Maybe they are just playing the odds. The mortality rate is something like 6%. Perhaps less. If there was more testing,  we might find it’s much less. It’s hard to know. In the meantime it seems like these churches are saying that they can take a 6% hit on the size of their congregations or are willing to see 6% of their congregations die and are okay with that.

Fourth, in the statement of the lawyer there is something like a lie. I can’t say it’s an outright untruth, but it’s certainly ungracious at best. He says rights are being “trampled on with no end in sight.” I disagree that there is no end in sight. I think we are beginning to see the end, now. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t want that light to be an oncoming train. So patience should be the order of the day. We may not know the date we can meet safely, but we can sort of see the conditions we need to meet safely that would determine a date. We need statistically insignificant numbers of cases or a vaccine. One or the other will be here sooner or later. It’s not as foggy as we think. What we don’t want is an out-of-control virus wreaking havoc in our state. In the meantime, the governor is relaxing restrictions on those parts of the population (young people) who are not in so much danger and activities (camping programs, for example) that are safe for the participants.

Along with the idea of “no end is in sight” is the complaint that rights are being trampled on. In the same way there is tension between faith and science, there is tension between the authority of the church and the authority of the state. We are taught to submit to our rulers. But then we live in a society that guarantees free speech and so we can speak up. We may sue. The claim here is that the state is somehow abusing its authority. It’s worth noting that the church is not being singled out. That needs to be acknowledged. Schools are also closed. Most businesses are closed. This idea of “trampled on” just doesn’t ring true. I believe intentions matter. We can’t always understand the motives of people’s hearts, but there is nothing in the actions of our governor that suggests anything other than the desire to save human lives. It’s as though we are about to step off a curb and get hit by a car and someone grabs us to pull us back and we complain that it’s an assault: “You can’t touch me. I have rights.” It’s hard to understand the motivations of the churches who are suing.

The most un-Christian thoughts I have had these last weeks has been toward other Christians who believe that their faith makes them immune to COVID-19. The Christians in this particular case aren’t claiming that kind of immunity, but they are claiming that their rights to assemble are greater than the responsibility of the government for public health and safety in the midst of these confusing circumstances. Why would they even question government authority under these circumstances? The government is not saying they can’t preach the gospel. The government is not saying they can’t meet in smaller groups. Actually, the government is saying we are responsible to and for each other, which feels like a Christian impulse.

I guess part of this that I question is the actual level of commitment. If you really felt your rights were being trampled on, wouldn’t you simply ignore the stay-in-place order? Force the issue. These churches could take the route of civil disobedience. Others have. So why don’t they?  Do they recognize the danger but want to draw attention to themselves? Do they honestly believe the government is simply doing this so they as a church cannot meet? These churches could actually meet and force the government to arrest them. The fact that they are suing could be the desire to respect authority. I guess the test will be if a judge tells them no. Then what will they do? I guess we will understand their level of commitment at that point.

 

____________________

[1] David Ewing Duncan, Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year (New York: Avon Book, 1998), p. 184.

[2] https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/coronavirus-and-our-sacred-duty-to

After a Bad Press Conference

by Glenn on May 5, 2020

On Friday, I watched a press conference about the COVID-19 crisis with Oregon Governor Kate Brown. What I understand the governor to have said is that beginning May 15, there are counties within the state where she will relax stay-at-home restrictions, but that will depend on the ability of state officials to test for the disease and track it. One might have wished for more clarity around which counties, but I understand she is dealing with an enormous time lag—we see now the effects of the decisions she made back in March and realize that the consequences of decisions she makes now won’t be known for quite a while. It’s a tough job because it’s a complicated issue.

As a church leader, I respect her authority in these matters and I am grateful that because of her quick and authoritative actions, so far Oregon appears to have avoided a major outbreak. For three days in a row, now, the total cases in Oregon have continued to go up (2,635 on Saturday, 2,680 on Sunday, and 2,759 on Monday) but the death count has remained the same—109. That’s good news. I know that she is weighing health and economic costs and I pray for wisdom for her and all of us.

What was troubling about this press conference Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Favor 14 | Chapter 4.1

by Glenn on April 28, 2020

I return, tentatively, to The Power of Favor by Joel Osteen. I’m finding it’s a book that is interesting to think about, but doesn’t relate well to life. It’s actually a little infuriating right now. Part of that may simply be the storm we are in right now. It’s hard to see the favor of God in this pandemic. Perhaps I am feeling more than usually gloomy as I write this particular morning but, in a way, the COVID-19 bug was the perfect way to inflict the most damage on this country. The United States was heavily in debt (both the collectively as a state and as individuals within that state) and we are going into deeper debt. (Isn’t there a cliff ahead somewhere?) And then even before this crisis began, a significant number of people were living paycheck to paycheck. Now, food supply chains may be disrupted. Like some medical treatments, the cure of social distancing comes with complicated and heavy side effects that could be with us for a long time. Read the rest of this entry »

David French on Donald Trump

by Glenn on April 22, 2020

On Sunday, 19 April 2020, David French wrote a provocative editorial on the president, which I think is worth thinking about. He begins with the report of a “horrifying milestone” on April 15, which was the fourth day in a row where “COVID-19 was the single leading cause of death in the United States.” He juxtaposes this fact against reports that the president was reluctant “to come to terms with the crisis that wasn’t just forseeable, it was foreseen by members of his own administration.” He gives the president credit for banning travel from China, but criticizes him for the way he “actively spread misinformation about the virus throughout the month of February and into March.” A report can be seen here. Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Favor 13 | Chapter 3.5

by Glenn on April 20, 2020

I pick up in Joel Osteen’s The Power of Favor on page 43 of Chapter 3, a section titled “Vertical Favor.” Osteen presents another quick outline of a Biblical narrative, the story of Elijah meeting Elisha. The idea is that Elijah was a guy who had favor. He asked Elisha to come and be his servant, which on one level wasn’t appealing because Elisha came from some wealth. To be the servant of Elijah was a step down. But Osteen writes that Elisha “recognized the favor on Elijah’s life” and served him “with honor.” Osteen says there is a principle there:

“When you honor someone who has more influence, some of that influence is going to come back to you.”

The end of the story is that when Elijah was taken to heaven, Elisha “received a double portion of Elijah’s anointing.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Power of Favor 12 | Chapter 3.4

by Glenn on April 14, 2020

There’s an abrupt shift in The Power of Favor from the use of Ruth to explore “Favor Connections” to go back in time to Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first high priest. Joel Osteen writes,

“In the Scripture, when they poured oil on the head of Aaron, the high priest, it flowed down to the rest of his body. This is symbolic. Oil represents favor, and when you’re connected to people with favor, the more blessed they are, the more blessed you’ll be.” Read the rest of this entry »