Friday, August 21, 2015

Land Stewardship on Campus and a Holistic View of “Health”

I remember my first visit to a college campus.  Unlike high school where all of my classes were in one building, now I would have to walk across campus to separate buildings for classes in the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, and physical education. 

Today, many universities still house each major academic discipline in a separate building or at least on a separate floor of the same building.  Given that a university’s mission is generally to integrate the different disciplines of study into a meaningful whole, a physical separation of disciplines may not encourage students to unify the knowledge and understanding they are gaining from a diversity of academic disciplines.  Yet, such integration is essential if students are to acquire a truly “uni-versity” education.

Having taught biology at Cedarville University and having used the natural habitats and “built environments” of SW Ohio as learning laboratories, I have learned the importance of landscapes in acquiring a broad, holistic education. During my final years at Cedarville, some of my students and I considered how the physical structure of the campus landscape and buildings might be managed (stewarded) in a manner consistent with the aim of providing a “uni-versity” education.

Cedar Creek area can be developed for "health & wellness"
The Cedarville College campus of the 1950’s and ‘60’s had expanded onto gently rolling agricultural land on either side of a lazy meandering stream on its way to Massies Creek just downstream from the village of Cedarville, Ohio.  In the early 1970’s, the lazy stream was dammed to create “Cedar Lake” in order to enhance aesthetic beauty and provide a ready source of water in the event of fire.  During most of my tenure at Cedarville, the landscape downstream from Cedar Lake existed as a combination of pastoral landscape with a sheep pasture on gentle slopes surrounding a community of wetland shrubs and trees along the creek.

By 2006, two additional campus buildings, the Engineering-Nursing-Science Building and the Stevens Student Center, had been erected, one at each end of the Cedar Lake dam.  The two buildings were connected by a sidewalk across the dam.  From this sidewalk, pedestrians could look down upon the quiet, pastoral and forested landscape.  At this time, my students and I began a cooperative effort with the administrators of the Physical Plant and the Grounds Department to develop the functionality and aesthetic appeal of the downstream landscape we began to call “Cedar Creek and Wetland.” 

In 2010, as our project began to blossom (literally), excavation began for the construction of a health sciences building on the west slopes above Cedar Creek.  I have outlined some of the progress we made between 2006 and 2011 in a previous Oikonomia, entitled “Land and Water Conservation: Value in the Unseen.”  During this time, the mission of our research effort was as follows:

The Cedar Creek and Wetland Project aims to apply ecological and biblical stewardship principles to manage runoff water on the Cedarville University campus, particularly adjacent to the Stevens Student Center and the new Health Science Building.  This aim will be accomplished through construction of a “basin wetland” surrounded by an upward-sloping landscape to be populated with suitably adapted plant and animal species.  In so doing, we aim to enhance stream water quality, plant and animal biodiversity, and aesthetic beauty while involving students in meaningful research experiences and conveying to the university community and visitors our intent to provide a landscape that models Cedarville University’s commitment to the biblical mandate to exercise good stewardship and care of creation.

Cedar Creek Area can contribute to health sciences mission
In short, we wanted to demonstrate that if land stewards at Cedarville University are intentional about following a biblical “land ethic,” then expanding the “built environment” of the campus should be compatible with conservation of soil, water, and plant-animal biodiversity.  It follows that when a university gives priority to “human health” it can enhance its mission by including the larger context of the “land health” of its campus landscape.   Specifically, efforts to enhance the “health” of Cedar Creek and Wetland surrounding the Health Sciences Building are justified by an understanding that “human health” includes not only medical but also environmental, emotional, and spiritual components that are nurtured by landscapes that reflect aesthetic beauty, health, and functional harmony.

By 2011, several of my research students had gained valuable experience from working on various phases of the development of the Cedar Creek and Wetland ecosystem.  (See “Land and Water Conservation: Value in the Unseen”).  Some of these have completed graduate programs or are completing them; others have been hired into positions involving land stewardship.  Although our efforts were bearing fruit in helping to educate and launch professional “creation stewards,” our efforts to enhance the diversity and “land health” of the Cedar Creek landscape had also taken a direction that was not deemed compatible with the vision of some decision-makers on campus.  Therefore, it was decided that many of the native wetland and prairie plant species we had established should be sacrificed to give way to a more uniform, easily maintained, lawn landscape regularly maintained by mowing.  Although some of us were dismayed, we were thankful for our progress in protection of the riparian zone of Cedar Creek and for the construction of a catch basin to buffer the stream against storm surges.

The direction of land management projects are always governed by the consensus of decision-makers, many of whom must face the realities of budgets and public opinion.  Yet these factors can change and we still hope that there may be a time when the Cedar Creek and Wetland area can be managed in a manner that “speaks” of the integration of “human health” with “land health."

Lemmon and Rice Health and Wellness Garden, Wooster, OH
The landscape of the Cedar Creek area on campus has retained numerous trees and herbaceous plant cover that encourage songbirds and small mammals.  As such, this site has the potential to offer a place of quiet reflection, rest, and renewal from the more bustling portions of the Cedarville campus.  In fact, The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) campus in Wooster is completing a project that may lead the way for other campuses including Cedarville University.

The OSU will soon showcase the Lemmon and Rice Health and Wellness Garden located in the OARDC’s Secrest Arboretum here in Wooster, OH.  According to Tricia James, assistant director of development, “Growing evidence suggests that the use of wellness gardens can be very therapeutic and improve overall quality of life.”  Interim director of the Secrest Arboretum, Joe Cochran, explained to Karen Skubik, writer for The Bargain Hunter, that “the garden features six pillars of wellness: emotional, environmental, intellectual, physical, social, and spiritual.”  Kevin Rice, who has applied his education in landscape architecture from OSU to lead the wellness garden project, explained that the low-maintenance garden includes woody plants, perennials, ornamental grasses, and sedges.  Bright orange flowers are located in the “social” section, with seating still to be added, while blue-toned flowers provide a more reflective atmosphere for spiritual contemplation.  According to Rice, “A black gum (tree) grove will eventually create an overhead canopy in a more quiet area.”  Interpretive plaques will be installed to explain the theme of the garden as well as the multidimensional and holistic aspects of wellness.

Bright orange flowers are located in the "social section"
In summary, we have noted that a college or university campus landscape plays an important role in the institutional mission.  In this view, the campus is much more than bricks and mortar or ivy-covered walls that appeals to a prospective student’s concept of a home away from home.  Rather, a truly “uni-versity” campus is one in which the “land-scape” itself is managed intentionally in a manner that respects and values the soil, water, trees, and wildlife that characterize this “place” of learning.  For example, on such a campus, students may enter a building to study what it means to be a “healthy person” in mind, body, and spirit.  Then, as they leave the building, their notion of “human health” may be broadened and integrated as they absorb the sights and sounds emanating from a “healthy landscape” surrounding the building. 

How about this?  Have you thought about the importance of intentionally managed landscapes for human health and wellness in the more holistic sense of the term?  Perhaps you have knowingly or unknowingly benefitted from devoting time in certain landscapes and would care to comment on your experiences.  Or, you may wish to share how your walk with God is renewed by your attentiveness to both His written revelation in Scripture as well as His wisdom as revealed in creation.  Do you believe our spiritual, emotional, and physical lives are diminished to the extent that we underestimate the importance of finding time and place to regularly commune with God and feed upon His Word?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Local Churches and Spiritual Awakening

Readers of recent articles in Oikonomia are no doubt troubled as I have been by the seemingly increasing pace of the moral breakdown in America.  My first reaction to developments like the erosion of respect for law enforcement and justice, and the legalization of same-sex marriage was to blame the president for lack of moral leadership, and the Supreme Court for overriding the will of the majority by “legislating from the bench” (See “Cultural Influence of a Committed Minority”).  Then, God’s Spirit reminded me, convicted me, and caused me to look upward as it were to an even “higher court,” the throne of God.  My sharply pointing finger weakened, fell limp, and then turned to aim at my own heart, so often “prone to wander… prone to leave the God I love,” and so much in need of confession and repentance of sin in my own life.

My personal soul searching in recent weeks led to what I expressed in a second Oikonomia article, “IndividualAccountability and Spiritual Awakening.”  While I was finishing this article, the leadership of our church, West Hill Baptist Church, unbeknown to me, was meeting and prayerfully considering God’s leading for our local church in the community of Wooster and Wayne County in the midst of the increasing evidence of moral breakdown in our society.  The result of this time of prayer and submission to God on the part of West Hill pastors and lay leadership was an assembly of pastors from 15 churches in our area to participate in a prayer vigil, held at 1:00 pm on Sunday, August 2 at the Wayne County Fair Grounds.

Front-page account of prayer vigil

The purpose of this prayer vigil was not to point fingers, call out sinners, or assign blame.  Rather, the pastors who participated communicated by their presence that they have decided to “put a stake in the ground regarding what the church is and Who it represents.”  In the words of Pastor Mark Davenport, co-pastor at West Hill Baptist Church, as quoted in The Daily Record, “Let’s as churches pray for the churches.  The church needs to start loving people better, making our marriages better, making our relationships better.  These issues must be a priority,” he said, “if Christians are to minister to others.”

It was a humbling and moving experience for Abby and I to join over 1,500 others as we were led in prayer by several local pastors, each in their turn, from the Scripture in 2 Chronicles 7: 14 which states:

and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

As we sensed the presence of God’s Spirit, I thanked God for our local church and our pastoral staff that preaches and teaches the Word of God regularly both from the platform and by their living example of humility and godliness.  We also stood that day with many fellow believers with whom we have served, and for whom we have prayed, and who have prayed for us.  In all of this, I realized that although it is true that spiritual awakening in a nation begins and spreads when individuals mourn and confess their sins to God and repent, there is also an important responsibility of the local church and pastoral leadership to foster an atmosphere of humble submission and repentance within individuals which in turn can impact families and the community.  I pray that the ground on which we stood and prayed on August 2 will be the beginning of a spiritual awakening in our church as well as in the Wooster and Wayne County area, and across our nation.

Thomas Doohan's coverage in The Daily Record (continued)
I want to thank Thomas Doohan, Staff Writer of The Daily Record for attending the prayer vigil and providing an excellent account of the event.  You can read Mr. Doohan’s article by clicking on the graphics above and at right.  The article is linked here by permission of The Daily Record, Wooster, Ohio.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Individual Accountability and Spiritual Awakening

In the previous Oikonomia article, “Cultural Influence of a Committed Minority,” I confessed that my first reaction to the High Court legalization of same-sex marriage was to resent how five unelected justices could alter the definition of marriage when a large majority of Americans had opposed it.  I even blamed President Obama for not providing moral leadership in opposition to this “legislation from the bench.”

Then I realized that biblical morality is not ultimately upheld by the bench, the legislature, elite focus groups, or the will of the masses.  The Bible teaches that a nation rises or falls based on whether or not individuals and leaders respect God’s moral absolutes, or “ancient landmarks” (Proverbs 22:28; and, see Oikonomia, “Stewardship and ‘Natural Law’.”)  Throughout history, God has used a committed minority to provide moral leadership and spiritual revival.  According to many Christian leaders, America needs revival now more than ever.  Now, I wondered what it would take to bring another great revival.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
In the mid-1700’s, the Holy Spirit moved through men of moral conviction like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield who preached that salvation depends upon individual accountability to God, not family traditions or church membership.  The American Revolution and the founding documents of America were consistent with a biblical understanding of individual responsibility, moral conduct, and governance.  Later, the Spirit used leaders like George Finney (second awakening, 1790 to 1840) and Jeremiah Lanphier (third awakening, 1857 to 1859).  The latter began with a small prayer meeting in New York City.  Each awakening brought men and women back to God’s moral landmarks, and each influenced the social and political landscape of America.   

Today, many are praying for revival in America, believing it to be the only answer to our spiritual decline.  As I have sought revival in my own life, I am learning there are no quick answers or “how-to-do-it” steps to revival.  Rather, by remembering the principle of individual accountability, I am first seeking to identify those hindrances to revival in my own life.  I am becoming less prone to find fault or assign blame to others for moral decline in America.  Christ’s “Beatitudes” are teaching me about my spiritual poverty (Matthew 5: 3), the logical response to mourn and confess my sin (v. 4), and the need to exercise gentleness when I confront my neighbor who lives in rejection of God’s plan for him or her (v. 5).  On the one hand, I want to offer acceptance and compassion toward my “neighbor” (one is gay, one, a lesbian).   On the other hand, I must ask if I am helping my “neighbor” by offering only acceptance and compassion? 

Andree Seu Peterson, in an article, “
Compassion in the Midst of Evil, addresses this difficult balance:

All of us were at one time lost, and occasionally lose our way even now, and so we all want compassion, and must all exercise it too. The main ground rule seems to be that compassion must never wimp out into any sympathy for evil. That would do no good for you or for the one you’re trying to help.

The Apostle Paul, when speaking to the Greeks in Athens about the God of creation said, Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent….  Elsewhere, in Romans 1: 16, Paul professes that he is not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  And, in verse 21, he adds (emphasis mine), For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  While it may seem arrogant (and can look that way to those who reject God’s plan), Christians have been given the commission to be salt and light (Matthew 5: 13-16).  Salt can sting in wounds and light can reveal embarrassing flaws—but salt can also preserve against rot, and light can reveal deadly danger ahead. 

The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes, Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (v. 16).   Today, Christ’s followers are enduring great suffering and even death to glorify God (See Christianity Shines in Dark Places,” Oikonomia July 11, 2015).  Am I willing to at least “die to my pride” so that my neighbor might be reconciled to his or her Creator?  After all, it’s not ultimately our government or the collective will of Americans that will steer us toward godly living.  Rather it requires our individual accountability to God and to our neighbor, in addition to being responsible citizens who will participate knowledgeably in government and hold our respective representatives accountable to exercise moral leadership as civil servants.

How about you?   How have you come to terms with offering acceptance and compassion to our “neighbor” versus challenging him or her to consider the claims of Scripture that will decide their eternal destiny?   I welcome your thoughts about our need for revival as a nation and within the evangelical church.  Perhaps you can suggest spiritual disciplines that are essential to the working of God’s Spirit in our lives to bring revival in the midst of our wandering, wanton, weary world.  What helpful resources in Scripture or extra-Biblical have you found helpful?   I am currently reading some articles from the
Gospel Coalition webpage (Search under “Church Life”/ “Revival”). 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Cultural Influence of a Committed Minority

According to many mainstream news commentators, a majority of Americans are in agreement with the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage.  The supposed minority who disagree are challenged to exercise tolerance and get on board with the changing mores of our culture.  But, not so fast!  Consider two indicators that Americans who oppose the latest high court decision are not in the minority.

First, recall that the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage by a narrow 5-4 decision.  Amazingly, this decision means that 1 vote overturned same-sex bans in 31 states and altered the millennia-long definition of marriage.  The same five justices had already struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton.  That instance of “legislating from the bench” meant that a 1-vote margin brought an end to a law that had been ratified by huge majorities in both the U.S. House (342-67) and U.S. Senate (85-14).  The highest court in the land had sided with the liberal minority of Americans against the will of a large majority of Americans and their elected officials. 

There is even more evidence that a liberal minority is revolutionizing America while conveying the false impression through liberal media that they represent the majority.  This evidence comes through a Washington Post-ABC News Poll published this month.  According to authors Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement,

In this poll, 63% of people say they are uncomfortable with the country's overall direction on social issues these days; four in 10 feel "strongly" uncomfortable about the nation's changes. 

Some core Democratic groups are finding a disconnect with the rapid change in social issues as well. Fifty-one percent of non-whites, a growing group of Democratic supporters, say they are uncomfortable with the pace of social change. Two-thirds of women also say they are uncomfortable, as are 50 percent of adults under age 30.

Even some liberals worry that expanding the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and allowing them to adopt children may push us rapidly down a slippery slope.  Already, Montana polygamist, Nathan Collier sees the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage as a gate-opener to legalizing polygamy so that he can legally marry his second “wife.”

Since the Garden of Eden, the Bible and history have repeatedly taught us that actions based on human reason, when contrary to God’s principles, will always yield a bitter harvest.  Adam and Eve reasoned that God was holding out on them and ate the only fruit that God had forbidden them to eat.  The result was spiritual and physical separation from God.   Genesis 3: 8 describes the nature of this alienation between God and mankind:

They heard the [familiar] sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and [for the first time] the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 

But when Adam and Eve heard God calling to Adam, the husband, they realized that their physical hiding had failed.  So, they tried to “hide” by playing the “blame game”—Adam blamed God for giving him Eve; Eve blamed the serpent that Satan used to deceive her.  But God’s response decimated their poor effort to deny individual responsibility for their action. 

Since the Garden, we have continued to rebel against God’s plan for His creation.  We have continued to “hide” our sin by blaming others, by “hiding” in groups, and by trusting in human reason, or “group-think” to justify disobedience of God’s laws.   The collective judgment of the masses, no matter how well intentioned or how popular, is still folly apart from submission to God.

Today, God still calls, “Where are you?” to men who are the stewards of His unconditional love toward women, and toward wives.  Instead, men often view women as objects of self-gratification, thus depriving themselves of true fulfillment and godly leadership, diminishing the key role of women in God’s plan, and leaving both themselves and women vulnerable to Satan’s lies. 

Just as Satan convinced Eve that she would find fulfillment in eating of the fruit, so he has convinced many women in the mid-20th century that they could be fulfilled sexually outside of marriage without the unwanted consequence of a baby.  If contraception failed, then abortion of the baby would “clean up the mess” so her life could go on without hindrance.  But last week, the latest bitter fruit of abortion became evident.  We learned that Planned Parenthood has begun marketing functional body parts of babies by modifications of abortion procedures designed to “protect life” or at least the parts needed.  What began with deception and departure from God’s plan for the sanctity of marriage and procreation has gradually led America down a dark and slippery slope to the horrendous reports in recent days.

Returning to the recent High Court legalization of same-sex marriage, my first reaction was to resent how five unelected justices could alter the definition of marriage as one of the foundations of our culture.  I blamed President Obama because he had already surrendered his moral leadership when he changed his mind and supported same sex marriage.

Then I realized that biblical morality is not ultimately upheld by the bench, the legislature, elite focus groups, or the will of the masses.  I believe the Bible teaches that a nation rises or falls based on whether or not individuals and leaders respect God’s enduring moral absolutes, or “ancient landmarks” (Proverbs 22:28; and, see Oikonomia, “Stewardship and ‘Natural Law’.”)  On the other hand, the ongoing social reengineering of American culture represented by the High Court decision reflects nonbiblical moral values.  These values are being imposed by a very different but committed minority as explained above.  The question Christians must ask is “Which minority will determine our future?”

According to many Christian leaders, America needs revival.  Historically, the power of God’s Spirit has brought awakenings through the repentance and prayer of a few committed persons—a very small minority.  In the next Oikonomia article, we will look further into how God has used and can still use a “moral minority” for His glory and for the benefit of a nation when men and women accept individual accountability before God as stewards of His Mercy and Truth.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Christianity Shines in Dark Places

One year ago, we were receiving daily reports of the devastating effects of the Ebola virus on the people of Liberia and surrounding nations.  Now that the worst is over, experts are raising concerns about the quality of the local and global response to this crisis.  Consider an excerpt from the not-to-flattering “Report of the Ebola Interim Assessment Panel” of the World Health Organization (WHO):

Poor communication and messaging were a big hindrance.
WHO failed in establishing itself as the authoritative body on communicating about the Ebola crisis.  Although an emergency media team was put in place to manage WHO’s messaging and content, the communication strategy was not able to counteract the very critical reporting on the work of the Organization.  …The Panel is clear that WHO failed to engage proactively with high-level media and was unable to gain command over the narrative of the outbreak.

As suggested by the Panel, ineffectiveness of WHO in facilitating accurate messaging among government and nongovernmental organizations and media outlets resulted in disorganization, false narratives, uninformed local communities, widespread fear, and distrust.  The Panel’s report summarizes some of the consequences of the ineffectiveness of WHO (emphasis mine):

Owing to a lack of involvement on the part of the broader humanitarian systems, many of the resources of nongovernmental organizations from the countries and communities themselves were not mobilized in the early stages.  Had other partners been involved, it would have enabled community engagement because nongovernmental organizations with considerable experience in communities, including in health campaigns would have been brought in.

Included with its critical evaluation of how the WHO functioned in the 2014 Ebola crisis, are recommendations by the Panel to address the causes.  One key recommendation was as follows (emphasis mine):

WHO should establish the WHO Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, which will be based on the currently separate outbreak control and humanitarian areas of work.  This WHO Centre will need to develop new organizational structures and procedures to achieve full preparedness and response capacity.

Forgive my pessimism, but when I read about the inept performance by yet another in a long list of large bureaucratic organizations (Think Veterans Administration, Medicaid, and Internal Revenue Service to name a few.), I am not too optimistic when I read a recommendation to fund yet another layer of bureaucracy; especially one charged with making the existing bureaucracy do what it was already charged to do.  Although nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) are not immune from such ineptness, many NGO’s deliver excellent outcomes with much more efficient use of funds.

One NGO among several that were responsible for combating the Ebola outbreak is Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organization that has been ministering in Liberia since 2004.  Samaritan’s Purse’s online report entitled “Recovering from the Ebola Crisis in West Africa” includes the following encouraging claims:

In May 2015, more than a year since the deadly virus first surfaced in Liberia, the country was declared Ebola-free. The unprecedented outbreak claimed thousands of lives across West Africa.  Samaritan’s Purse responded aggressively in Liberia, where we have had a country office for more than a decade, through our Ebola Community Protection Program. Now that the virus has been contained, our office is starting programming to help the country recover.

Samaritan’s Purse has demonstrated competence in the face of the Ebola crisis based on its decade-long, trusted relationships and networking in local communities.   Consequently, this NGO, led by Franklin Graham, provides comprehensive help while using donor funds very efficiently.  For example, their Christian faith-based approach has enabled Samaritan’s Purse to provide community health education integrated with a message of hope to dispel centuries-old superstitions and false religious beliefs.  The Telegraph (London, July 30, 2014) commented on the way in which the grip of false beliefs hindered efforts to contain the Ebola virus:

There is a section of population here who simply don’t believe Ebola is real, they think it is witchcraft and so they don’t come to the treatment centres.

The Daily Kos, a liberal blog, reported as politely as possible (July 30, 2014):

Many rural western Africans have no formal schooling at all, and are accustomed to using village "witch doctors.”  I apologize if this seems rude, I am not trying to be insensitive to traditions, but one such doctor seems responsible for infecting nearly everyone in a village after suggesting Ebola was spread by snakes, and conducted a ritual involving group touching.  [Note: A Daily Kos reader suggested the use of “traditional healers” instead of “witch doctors”].

Samaritan's Purse provided health care, education, and hope.
Overcoming the deadly threat of Ebola requires a coordinated and decisive effort to combat ignorance, superstition, demonic influence, and fear.   Organizations like Samaritan’s Purse assist whole communities by offering education in community health and hygiene, and provide medical care.  But Christian faith-based organizations have an even greater advantage over secular and governmental organizations.  They rely on the power of God’s Word and His Spirit to pierce the spiritual darkness that prevents many Africans from knowing how to achieve and maintain their physical health and spiritual life in Christ.  

In order to foster Christian growth and maturity, Samaritan’s Purse emphasizes the importance of believers, both new and old, being regularly involved in a local church.  Their website states:

Through a massive public education campaign, which included thousands of church leaders, we provided potentially life-saving information to more than 1 million people, directly or indirectly, through a variety of events and media.

Dr. Kent Brantly of Samaritan's Purse contracted Ebola
and drew worldwide respect for faith-based efforts.
In our last Oikonomia article, “Censoring Vocabulary, But Not Virtue,” we emphasized that even where Christians are increasingly forbidden to speak words of truth to convey God’s good news it is still possible to convey the biblical message through a Christ-like testimony of love and forgiveness.  Those who ridicule and reject Christianity are often overwhelmed by the dedication of servants of God who have given their lives for the sake of Christ’s love to serve in “hard places.”  A visit to the website of Samaritan’s Purse, or better, a short-term ministry with Samaritan’s Purse to witness one of their field projects will reveal God’s love and its transformational power at work where words alone are often not possible.

Christian organizations like Samaritans’ Purse that serve in hard places must be encouraged as they follow the teaching of the  Apostle Peter’s letter to Christians living in hard places in the first century AD.  May Peter’s words encourage you also as you face challenges to your faith in a world that rejects much of what they see of Christianity:

Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?
But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness,
you are blessed.
but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts,
always being ready to make a defense to everyone
who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you,
yet with gentleness and reverence;
and keep a good conscience
so that in the thing in which you are slandered,
those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.
For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer
for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.
   – 1 Peter 3: 13-17

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Censoring Vocabulary, But Not Virtue

During my boyhood years in the mid-20th century, I quickly learned that the English vocabulary could be sorted into two major groups -- “acceptable words” and “bad words.”  I encountered an unending stream of acceptable words on spelling lists, and I received many positive incentives to use them in polite conversation. I am now thankful for both the spelling lessons and the positive incentives.

I was also allured into using certain “bad words” that were expressed by unseemly characters who apparently felt bigger or more masculine when they spewed them out.  Fortunately, the positive examples and high expectations of men and women of godly character in my life won out over the more limited influence of “bad characters.”

Since the days of my boyhood, we have witnessed a major change in the realm of acceptable and unacceptable words.  For example, the code phrase for “sex” during my adolescence was “the birds and the bees.”  Although in retrospect, it would have been helpful to have had more instruction on sexuality as an adolescent; today we are exposed to a broad vocabulary complete with visual “aids” on the subject of sexuality including all manner of sexual perversions and classifications.  One would think that there are no longer any “bad words.”  But that is not true.  Instead we have a whole new class of “bad words” that represent the forbidden vocabulary in secular American culture.

Dylann Roof
Today, when anyone uses a “new bad word,” our secular culture is at least twice as perturbed as our mothers and grandmothers were when we let “bad words” slip out as adolescents.  Witness the current media discussion of what would lead Dylann Roof to burst into a South Carolina church and murder nine people meeting together for a Bible study.  “Acceptable words” in the current discussion of causation include gun access, drugs, video games, racism, negative talk radio, and Fox News.  These words have become code words for political agendas including the passage of gun control legislation, increased role of the federal government in local law enforcement, retaining support of minority voters, and the censorship of conservative media.  Taking the politics of gun control, for example, in an earlier article, No Gun Control Without Self-Control (March 30, 2013), I posited that violent crime is not simply a result of access to firearms.  Rather,
Whatever "weapon" Cain used, murder started in his heart.
"Our protection from both tongue and gun is rooted not in civil law but in the moral code.    The moral law is grounded in Jesus’ teaching that it is out of the heart [that] come evil     thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders (Matthew 15:19).  Therefore, the answer to a safe and civil society is not found alone in “tighter controls” on guns and speech.  Instead, there must be a revival within institutions that nurture a godly disposition of the heart; namely, the family and the local church, both within the context of caring communities."

Many who reject “band-aid approaches” to reducing gun violence may wish not to hear the vocabulary of this argument-- “new bad words” like moral, evil, revival, heart, self-control, and church.  Add the words, sin and forgiveness, and the liberal media often turns a deaf ear or cries “foul!”  In fact, the word evil was already headed for “bad” in the 1980’s when President Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”  Today, liberal progressive culture includes sin in the vocabulary of “hate speech.”

But occasionally, liberal media and the progressive culture are caught off guard as for example, at the events on June 17, in Charleston, SC.  On that Wednesday night, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old allegedly entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, attended a Bible Study for an hour, and then opened fire on those who had welcomed him.  Even before all the gruesome details were reported, the mantra began—the sour lamenting of “white-on-black” crime with all the expected vocabulary--
gun access, racism, negative talk radio, and the Confederate flag permeating the airwaves.  President Obama challenged the nation to confront the “terrible toll of gun violence.”

The AME church in Charleston, SC has had a long and troubled history beginning before the Civil War.  In the 1820’s, it survived its building being burned.  After the Civil War and during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, AME church members worshipped in secret because all-black churches were outlawed.  But the June 17 shooting was not just another violent event in a region having a long history of racial unrest.  This time the media was faced with reporting a different message, complete with a vocabulary of “new bad words” like mercy, forgiveness, and enduring love.  Yes, in Charleston, SC, under the Confederate flag, and near historic Sullivan’s Island, the location where nearly half of the enslaved African people were brought ashore and auctioned to slave owners, came an eruption of an entirely different sort.

According to the
Washington Post, “There was no yelling. There were no accusations. Instead, people who had lost the loves of their lives blessed the accused murderer.” Felicia Sanders, a hair stylist whose son Tywanza was allegedly killed by Roof, expressed this unexpected tone with a different vocabulary.  As we stared at Roof’s face filling much of our TV screens, she spoke directly to Dylann saying,

Tywanza Sanders
We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms.  You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know.  Every fiber in my body hurts, and I’ll never be the same. . . . But as we say in Bible study, ‘We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.’ “Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero,’’ she said, her voice trembling. “May God have mercy on you.”

The vocabulary of love, mercy, and forgiveness of Christians is seldom applauded in our secular culture. However, the words of the Charleston believers were powerful because their virtuous behavior affirmed their words sacrificial love, mercy, and forgiveness to Dylann Roof.  The same open arms that welcomed young Dylann Roof before he unleashed his violent hatred were now open to him in Christian forgiveness and in prayers for God’s mercy upon him.

From where does this kind of strength and forgiveness come?   The prophet Isaiah uses the word strength over twenty times.  His words may resonate with the hearts of many black Americans, and all of us who are weary because of the curse of sin and its manifestations—selfishness, pride, divisiveness, anger, and violence.

You were tired out by the length of your road,
Yet you did not say, 'It is hopeless.'
You found renewed strength,
Therefore you did not faint.
– Isaiah 57: 10

Yet those who wait for the LORD Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.  
– Isaiah 40: 31

As America celebrates another 4th of July, instead of saying “God Bless America” many of us
want to say, “God Help America” or “God Bring Repentance, Humility, and Revival to America.”  Again, these “prayers” are filled with the “new bad words” in the view of many in our secular progressive culture.  But, until we individually acknowledge our sin and repent, and then pursue mercy, forgiveness, revival, and holiness, neither we nor our nation will be blessed by God and experience His forgiveness and blessing.  Only then will be able to love our neighbor regardless of his or her race or beliefs.  Only then will we respect authority and realize that violation of civil and moral laws begins with the pride-filled heart, not with weapons or even our words.   And finally, only then will Americans be able to do what black Christians in Charleston, SC did—look into the cold face of an alleged murderer and say words we so seldom hear, May God have mercy on you.

Perhaps America will soon enter a time when “word police” will prohibit the use of “the new bad words,” labeling them as “hate speech.”  Given prohibition of words like sin, repentance, Jesus, salvation, mercy, and forgiveness we may be left with no other recourse but to show the loving, forgiving, regenerated life that is possible in Christ.  Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3: 18).  Indeed, many Christians today have a powerful and transformative witness in very oppressive Muslim and other authoritarian countries.  There is much we can learn from Christians under more severe restrictions as we pray for them and become prepared for likely hard times ahead.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Maya Angelou: A Trophy of God’s Grace

I dared to do anything that was a good thing.
I dared to do things as distant from what seemed to be in my future.

If God loves me,
if God made everything from leaves to seals and oak trees,
then what is it I can't do?

These are the words of celebrated civil rights leader, writer, playwright, poet, and teacher Dr. Maya Angelou in a 2013 interview with The Times-Picayune.  Many of us have respected Dr. Angelou for her grace, beauty, reverence, and wise, articulate manner.  My favorite encounter with this lovely woman was in the Tyler Perry movie, Madea’s Family Reunion.  Perhaps you remember Ms. Angelou from her role in the 1977 TV Mini-Series, Roots.

Maya Angelou passed away on May 28, 2014 according to her only child, Guy B. Johnson who released a statement confirming her death and honoring her life:

“She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”

Dr. Angelou's illustrious career testifies that it is possible to endure seemingly tragic experiences as a child and yet rise above them by the grace and power of the One True God.  According to Brownie Marie, writing in Christianity Today,  Ms. Angelou was born Marguerite Anne Johnson on April 4, 1928.   She and her brother were shipped between Missouri and Arkansas throughout their youth, and she was raped at the age of eight. The assault was life-changing, and it was in the dark years that followed that Dr. Angelou discovered her love of literature.

Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson in the Mini-Series, Roots
Today, when it seems that Americans are becoming increasingly divided over race, gender, socioeconomic status, and a host of other factors, we must remember that many Americans distain the politics of division and patronization being spewed by those seeking votes, power, and position. Although their disadvantaged beginnings are undeniable, many members of ethnic minorities like Maya Angelou have become overcomers.  Instead of surrendering to adversity and its frequent companions, fear, hate, cynicism, and blame, Maya found peace, restoration, and courage through the love and redemption of God. 

Again, according to Brownie Marie, Dr. Angelou authored several autobiographies including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  She rose to positions of leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, and had close friendships with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, and Nelson Mandela.” 

How is it possible for a little black girl without the benefit of a stable home and family, neglected and abused, to rise above great adversity?  Today, there all too many children facing similar circumstances and many will not be overcomers.  But, for Maya Angelou, victory over adversity came as she surrendered to a loving God Who rescued her and restored her dignity.  In the 2013 interview cited above, Dr. Angelou says it was God Who “allowed her to achieve such incredible feats.”

"I found that I knew not only that there was God
but that I was a child of God,
when I understood that,
when I comprehended that,
more than that,
when I internalized that,
ingested that,
I became courageous."

Maya Angelou has encouraged many a downcast soul to look up in faith to a God Who has overcome this world of division and despair.  And God does lead those who surrender to Him in a “victory parade” in triumph in Christ, and manifests through [them] the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place (2 Corinthians 2: 14).   May God help us to be mindful of the downcast and needy all around us each day. 

Perhaps as a reader, you are struggling with adversity and are discouraged or in despair.  Don’t bear it alone, but reach out to God through a local Bible-teaching church in your area.  Or go to one of many online resources that explain how to become a child of God by faith such as this link provided by the Billy Graham Association.  God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life (John 3: 16; Romans 5:8).

If you are a child of God through faith (John 1: 12), the teaching of the Apostle Paul can be a challenge to you and to me to be Christ’s ambassadors to a needy world.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5: 19, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.  May God help the tribe of Maya Angelou to increase; and, may God help members of the body of Christ to be “ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5: 18).

Related Oikonomia article on overcoming adversity:  Jackie Robinson -- “YOU Don’t Belong Here!”