Shootings, Fires, and American Generosity

Americans responded to the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT in 2012 with immense generosity toward the victims’ families. But, as the New York Times surveyed in an article three weeks ago, there were unintended consequences from the large scale donations. Families saw their loved ones’ names and pictures used in ad campaigns to raise money, implying that donations would go to victims. But the national organizations often used the money for their own projects in Newtown.

Many people are now cautious about where they give during a tragedy.

Here in Chico, CA, we experienced incredible generosity to help survivors of the Camp Fire, which destroyed nearby Paradise last November. Local corporate giving was awe-inspiring. Sierra Nevada Brewery, along with many restaurants and stores, fed survivors free meals for weeks. National groups have also done amazing things. Samaritan’s Purse and other relief organizations have helped people sift the ashes to find belongings. Retailers like J. C. Penney gave away new clothing.

But relief can pose challenges. Almost immediately, our town received truckloads of used clothes and furniture. Initially these donations met lots of needs. But leftover mounds sat for weeks in storage rooms, garages, and sometimes parking lots. I fielded calls a month after the fire asking where to send clothes. Like many others, I pleaded with givers to desist.

Scuttlebutt was that many of the trucks were carrying donations from other disasters. I can’t confirm that. But I do imagine pastors on the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast lifting their hands in praise as shipping containers of used flip-flops and camo shorts finally departed their churches.

Local leaders advised people that gift cards were a better way to help, which set off a blizzard of plastic. Survivors could buy what they needed right away instead of digging through pressed-wood TV stands, plastic chairs, and pink Hello Kitty t-shirts with sparkles.

But we had to think fast about how to handle the cards. At a funeral I conducted days after the fire (an unrelated passing), people who came from out of town were shoving thousands of dollars of pre-paid credit cards into my hands. “I don’t need a receipt,” they would say. “Just pass it on to the victims.” Then they would drive off. My staff and I hustled back and forth to the office safe as fast as we could.

Local organizations scrambled to keep up with the giving, and the flaws have sometimes exposed larger entities to public resentment. The issue of where money goes has been at the heart of every conversation I’ve had with donors, especially strangers who call from out of town. “We want to know that our gifts will help the victims.”

The day after the fire, we opened a fund for the 28 individuals (12 households) from our church who lost everything in Paradise. On the web page, in phone conversations, and in email and text threads, we were clear that the fund was not for the broader community, only for our people. We were not able to administer anything larger than that. If the donor wanted a broader fund, we referred them to organizations that operated on a larger scale. Donors always asked, “Are you confident in that organization?” When we said yes, reporting what community members had experienced from the group, donors were grateful. All they wanted was due diligence.

Our fund received a total of $131,115.07 from November 2018 through May 2019, when we closed it. Every couple of months, a committee divided the proceeds equally among the 28 individuals. The committee also distributed the gift cards equally, but their value is not included in this total. The gifts made a significant difference to the survivors. We did nothing to promote this fund—no advertising, no pictures, no names. No part of the fund went to “administrative costs.” It closed with a deficit of one penny. (Please, do not help.)

If disaster strikes your community, you will see urgent generosity from strangers. You will also hear questions. Scale your disaster response to what you can really achieve, and be clear with donors about your limits. Advice about how to do this will be contradictory, and early on we spent too much time seeking input instead of cutting checks. Just set a simple goal and meet it.

The survivors will also be generous. Our job is to give. They can decide what to do with the help. My friend Joey Newton, a pastor in Newtown who prayed with grieving families at Sandy Hook on that horrifying day, told me that “many of the families started foundations to honor the death of their child by giving back. One such case not mentioned in the [Times] article is Race for Chase, named after one of the victims. It is a summer triathlon program run in partnership with the YMCA for children up to 12 years old. It has been a great program and is spreading throughout the state and beyond.”

Even though this kind of suffering is profound, our gifts can help survivors create redemptive legacies.

My Accidental Life Skill

The other day, it hit me that I accidentally developed a life skill, one that I’ve been using since I was 28 years old. I didn’t build the habit consciously. It just never occurred to me to live any other way.

Twenty years ago this month, I became pastor an elder-led church that had no elders. At 28, I was the only officer constitutionally in charge of setting policy and direction.

I see now what I should’ve done—if I had been smart. I should’ve gone to seminars on how to maximize my own performance, extend my influence, and incentivize others to buy into my vision. I should’ve become a driven executive imposing my will on the organization. And I probably could have done it. Within two years, I was not only the sole elder of this church, but the founding chairman of two non-profit enterprises.

But I wasn’t smart. I wasted this opportunity to expand my power. I brought on more elders, recruited boards for the two non-profits, stepped aside as the chairman, and handed them off to paid leadership.

I was not smart enough to be threatened by the expertise of people who understood childhood education, real estate, and business strategy better than I did. I was so dumb that I thought my job was to support, spiritually feed, and advise those people.

And they took all the power. Elders, managers, board members, counselors, school teachers, fellow pastors took the power and used it without me. They discipled others without my looking over their shoulder. They had meetings without me. They even spent money without my vote. They built buildings, created jobs, taught classes, and helped people through intense personal crises—as if I didn’t even matter.

In spite of how dumb I was, all of these institutions still exist, show resilience, and have the ability to reach people. My failure to actualize myself somehow made space for other leaders to serve Christ and his people.

What hit me the other day was this: giving away power is a life skill. Christians who give their power away to others and support them in their work are the pistons driving the growth of Christ’s Kingdom. Christians who hang onto their authority, positions, and opportunities, who assert their own value against others, and who guard their status against every threat are the brakes. They stop the flow of energy from one person to another, clamp down the drive of churches, and sometimes bring entire institutions to a halt.

It amazes me how people resist giving away power. There is no shortage of people who have low opinions of others. Their argument is always the same. If you give power to this person, he/she will do damage.

Indeed. We all do damage just by showing up. Some of the people I’ve supported misused their power. They sometimes became haughty. Some froze and became indecisive. Others refused to develop their own character, so that they lost credibility with those they needed to lead. A few did all of these things.

Most of the time, the community of leaders helped those who stumbled. The faltering leaders took their lumps, grew, and became more effective. The Lord redeems damage. He is also capable of stopping leaders in their tracks when they are willfully destructive. I’ve seen him do that too.

But the damage that comes from turning ministry into a battle of wills, or a turf war, or a popularity contest is far worse. This damage lasts for decades because many people become trained in slander and malice. It has also impossible to calculate: who can tally the lost love from attitudes that James 3.13-18 calls demonic? There is in my memory a sad gallery of people who spent so much energy neutralizing threats to their personal worth that they now accomplish little for Christ’s kingdom.

Some might imagine that the faces in that gallery are all old. Not so. Many old people learned the skill of giving away power early in their lives, and still thrive in ministry as a result. In fact, if people do not learn this skill early, they rarely learn it later. I am frightened at the number of young and middle-aged people I see whose energy is devoted to controlling their kids, controlling their homes, controlling their business, controlling their free time, and controlling their image.

Every Christian says he or she loves Jesus, wants to serve him, and wants his kingdom to thrive. Every single one. Every church corporately says these things. But a church’s spiritual success may hang on the answer to a single question.

Do you spend your energy creating and guarding a ministry role for yourself, or creating and guarding roles for others?

The Synagogue Shooter

At Living Hope’s leadership meeting last Sunday security was the dominant topic. The day before, John Earnest, 19, had assaulted a San Diego synagogue, killing 60-year-old Lori Kaye and wounding 3 others, including a young girl. A week prior, bombers killed Christian worshipers in Sri Lanka. A month ago, Muslims were massacred in Christchurch, New Zealand. Six months ago, 11 worshipers were killed at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA.

Our church, like many others, has been preparing for this kind of incident for years. In every meeting, it is a shock to contemplate what murder would look like in our building.

John Earnest, however, raises an additional problem for evangelical pastors. He was raised in an Orthodox Presbyterian church. In eighteen months, he rejected his evangelical faith, and radicalized himself to such a degree that he tried to burn down a mosque in March, and began planning his assault on the synagogue.

Terrorists are not “them” anymore. The lone gunman may be hanging around evangelical churches. Self-radicalization is now so unpredictable that law enforcement is struggling keep up. And California, in a fact that belies its self-image, leads the nation in the number of organized hate groups that encourage him. Evangelicals, like many other subcultures, are stirring their political opinions into a cocktail of racial ideologies.

A few months ago, I got a message from a man who has been in and out of our congregation. It was a chain email (“Do you have the guts to forward this?”) protesting black pride. White pride is not racism, it said, and whites have been too ashamed to stand up for themselves. “That’s why we have LOST most of OUR RIGHTS in this country [caps original].”

The narrative in the man’s email plays right into the theology that Earnest espoused in his manifesto. Kinism, which Earnest wished he had been taught by his church, claims that God created ethnic groups, and that ethnicities must remain pure. Ethnic pride is his new religion. Lots of people are ready to convert to this sort of piety and to use fake-intellectual jargon to label people who disagree with them, terms like “cultural Marxism.” (Joe Carter’s post is essential reading on these issues.)

The man who messaged me had been subjected to the most powerful accelerator of racial hostility in our nation: the prison system. Some of our men have described to me the pressure to conform to racial identity in prison. “It’s how you survive,” said one. California’s incarceration rate may have more to do with its high number of hate groups than anyone wants to admit.

I don’t mean to suggest that this man will become the next shooter, or that his chain email is at the same moral level as Earnest’s manifesto. But if he wants to feed his racial grievances, he will have plenty of help.

Further, converts to the religion of race just as easily come from the upper middle-class. Constricted sources of information—approved cable news and YouTube channels—are enabling people of every demographic to live in their own heads.

Many evangelical pastors find it hard to imagine that racism might be strengthening among professing Christians. Many others are tired of their social and political views being equated unjustly with racism—enough to have stopped listening to the alarms going off around us. But we have to engage far more deeply on matters of race and theology.

John Earnest will not be the last terrorist to have dropped out of an evangelical church.

Speeches from the Land

In July of 1987, an old English lady drove me around the Oxford countryside. While we curved through the greenest hills I’d ever seen, she told me stories about the region, spinning the elegant sentences that come from a lifetime of hearing Shakespeare. I was 16 and serving on a team at her thriving church in Didcot. She slowed between hedgerows and bumped across a stone bridge over a creek, interrupting her story to say, “That was the Thames.”

She enjoyed my shocked expression. She knew that the Thames in my mind was the mighty river flowing by Parliament in London, not the brook we’d just crossed.

Landscape talks to us—sometimes even making jokes.

I asked her about World War II, when she had been a child in this valley. Though London was more than fifty miles away, she said that the German bombs pounding the city at night rattled the window panes of her bedroom. Imagine falling asleep to the vibrations of bombs. Her own home would have spoken about violence ever after with each rattle of glass.

The English landscape has reminders of the war everywhere. I stood in the ruin of Coventry Cathedral later that summer, preserved in its shattered state as a memorial to the German air raids. Tall shards of stone with grass growing in their midst are all that remain of a house of worship. It is a new holy place, where a crowd of people will not make any noise. Dealey Plaza in Dallas, TX, where John Kennedy was shot, is another place shrouded in silence, even though life goes on around it.

Paradise, CA, devastated by the Camp Fire on November 8th, is often compared to a war zone. When my wife and I finally drove through it a month ago, the abandoned, burned out cars had been removed, the power lines repaired, and litter from the flight of 20,000 people replaced with signs saying, “Paradise Strong.” But the impact remained searing.

“Camp Fire Aftermath” (December 18, 2018). CC by  Cal OES -NC 2.0.

“Camp Fire Aftermath” (December 18, 2018). CC by Cal OES-NC 2.0.

The buildings were carved open, their insides lying in tangled heaps. Metal pipes, awnings, and gutters were twisted like broken limbs. Surprising views across the hills had been blasted through walls and trees. Those trees had created the town’s feeling of shelter as if covering the inhabitants with hands, but the place now feels exposed. Off the streets where our friends had been trapped amid flames by traffic, there were neat rows of flattened mobile homes, looking like beds in a ward.

The very dirt speaks as it rides away from town in hundreds of trucks every day. Six inches of topsoil will be scraped off the ridge because it is contaminated by burned pollutants. There are deeper problems too. The entire town was on septic systems. I recently heard about a septic tank made of plastic that melted underground, its toxic contents seeping out. The business that owns it still stands, and might be open if it weren’t for the contamination. There are questions about reservoirs and aquifers. What do they say about this fire?

The land of America’s west has always talked about possibilities. It has never been like the land in Europe, or even the eastern U.S., which holds ruins and battlefields and graves to tell us about tragedies that overwhelmed human achievements. In our part of California, the land is teaching us a moral reality that is older than climate change, and more pertinent. All that we attain in this world is temporary.

But there is another message from the land. Grass appeared when much-needed rain came after the fire—in doses somewhat too large. Driving south only weeks after the hills were charred, I was amazed to see them green. In Paradise itself, the grass covers the burn scar, as if holding a balm on the soil, the pipes, and the blackened bricks. Life grows inside the ruin, and overflows beyond it.

The land will preach to us for many years that the world is fallen, groaning with expectation for a permanent life. And so the land will also preach hope.

What I Learned from Final Phone Calls

Photo by  Joanne Francis  on  Unsplash

In a few minutes on the morning of November 8th, a black arch reached from the Sierra Nevada ridge into the Sacramento Valley over Chico. One minute it was a sunny morning, the next it was dark and cold. It was the fire Paradise, CA had been fearing.

Ten households from Living Hope Fellowship lived on the ridge until that morning. Now they were on the roads fleeing for their lives. My job as pastor was to make sure we knew where our families were.

I hit the phone, texting and calling. Here’s what I learned from those conversations.

  1. God gave us family and community to save our lives.

Paradise was full of people who lived alone, often but not always the elderly. With her husband driving down the road, flames behind them, Sheryl told me that their elderly neighbor had been standing helpless outside. She had never used her cell phone, and never drove. Her car wouldn’t start. With propane tanks exploding around them, they gave the woman a quick phone tutorial, got her car started, and fled together.

My associate pastor Heath was only blocks away from Sheryl. Heath had pounded on doors and windows to awaken his neighbors, and with me on the phone was bellowing at his neighbor to leave. She wouldn’t. Heath’s baby was in his car, and his wife had already fled with their two other children. My baby can’t help himself, but my neighbor can. We hung up, Heath got in his car, and drove off.

Dave drove a school bus. His wife Irene, at work in Chico, kept me posted as he loaded elderly people onto the bus, and then physically carried them off when they had to abandon it. They crowded into other cars nearby, and he rode on a guy’s tailgate all the way to Chico. Hayley and I were texting as she drove four patients stop-and-go through the flames. She called when they got to Chico, her account of their escape interspersed with reassurances to the four older people, scared and perplexed in dementia.

It is not good for us to live alone.

2. God gives us strength when we face death.

On the phone with Beth, she described flames towering over the road. The road was jammed, traffic at a standstill. It was dark as midnight. Beth had seen a 90-year-old lady plodding through the flames with her walker, and the lady was now in her car. Beth’s voice was profoundly frightened, but she was calm, even joking about forgetting to grab her toothbrush. I prayed with her, then called Louise, her roommate one car ahead.

One of our young mothers was driving with her children. Her voice shook as she described how flames had leaped over their car. Her husband was ahead of them, and they had already doubled back after their first route was consumed by fire. Inching toward the main road, she had to hang up because her husband was calling. Authorities would tell them to abandon their cars and run, then to get back in their cars and drive. An hour later, the mother mistakenly called me, unaware that I was on the line. She was talking with her children calmly about their home as they inched through the flames, the wind howling outside the car.

All these told me later that prayer with them in the middle of the crisis was crucial to remaining calm.

3. When there is no hope, God gives us his presence.

At 11:47 AM, my brother texted me that Lou was at the church office. Lou had gone to Chico early in the morning, and his wife Rita was stuck in Paradise without a car. When I arrived at the church, Lou’s grandson had returned from trying to get to her. Authorities turned him back.

Then Rita called the church, her cell phone battery nearly dead. The flames were three houses away. Lou told her to get into the shower, turn the water on, and stay there. He told her he loved her. The battery gave out.

After Lou called 911 to report her situation, several of us gathered around him to pray. When we were finished, Lou told us that he felt the Lord’s presence and peace in a way that he had not before. Weeping, he started to call their adult kids.

At 5:55 PM, my brother texted me again. Rita was safe and reunited with Lou in Chico. While in the shower, she had seen sunlight through the bathroom window. She changed into dry clothes and left the house. Two minutes after she started down the street, the windows blew out. Someone had then picked her up and taken her to the authorities. She told Lou that the Lord had been present with her through the whole ordeal.

With this news, we knew that all of our households had escaped Paradise with their lives. Praise God, none of these phone calls were in fact final.

4. When we face death, there is only time for what we know. There is no time for opinion, speculation, or positive thinking. We either know the one who triumphed over death or we don’t.

Facebook and Human Nature

After dark revelations about how we use Facebook and how it uses us, we want someone held accountable. We have shared lies packaged as news. The lies came from shadowy groups seeking power. Facebook sold our information to some of these groups, like Cambridge Analytica, that enable other groups to microtarget their lies. Facebook and these groups, we think, have harmed our institutions and civility.

The story provokes three theological observations about human nature.

First, we look away from the obvious. The facts we “learned” about Facebook after 2016 are only “revelations” in the sense that we finally looked at what we already knew. We knew that information on Facebook was sketchy. We knew that Facebook was using our private data. But after 2016, we decided to be shocked—shocked—at what we had been doing all those years.

Second, we shift blame away from ourselves. The bad guys in Russia did evil. I can’t be blamed for my own online behavior. I can’t help feeling passionate about my causes. So when I troll people, heaping abusive names on them like “crisis actor” or “bigot,” I’m just telling “the truth.” The truth is that I joined a mob, and it’s my own fault.

Third, we imagine that technology will fix us. The Facebook and Google founders surveyed the world from under their hoodies, sincerely believing that they were making a global community where human goodness could finally blossom. Instead, they created a smarter delivery system for toxicity, and were surprised when the system worked. Telling ourselves not to be evil is not enough.

What makes these observations theological? The issue of accountability.

Suppose a pure, neutral observer were watching all of us online. That observer would only need a few minutes to form a judgment. We are all guilty of self-deception about our actions. We all invent ways to reject accountability for ourselves and demand it for others.

The observer exists, and has been watching us a lot longer than a few minutes.

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Who Are the Needy in California?

What some people are experiencing in Chico.

A few months ago, I talked with a single mother who heard gunshots in the street and dove to her apartment floor with her children. A retired woman who lives alone also hid in her apartment across the driveway.

These are some of the people our community depends on. Single mothers work hard—often at more than one job—to provide safe homes for their children, supervise their education, and create some fun amid escalating costs of living. Grandmothers support their adult sons and daughters and their grandkids, and are often the first responders in family emergencies.

I recently heard about an elderly woman who cannot do her shopping, even in daylight hours. She gets around with a scooter and is surrounded by people seeking handouts the instant she shows up at the shopping center. How much has this lady served the community throughout her life, only now to be unable to run errands safely?

Student representatives from Chico State recently made a presentation to the city council asking for more lighting on the streets around campus, where they walk to and from jobs and classes. They were not asking to “feel” safer. They were saying that the streets are not safe—a claim that is demonstrably true.

When we use the word “needy,” we usually refer to the homeless. We have responsibilities to help with that level of need. But having a home does not meet all your needs. If you have to hit the deck because of gunfire, or if you can’t leave your home, or if you fear for your safety coming and going from your home, your needs are profound.

The tool a community uses to start meeting the needs of housed and homeless alike, unemployed and the working poor alike, old and young alike, is called the law. Enforcing public safety is a matter of compassion for all citizens. For the sake of our most vulnerable people, it is time for us to criminalize crime.

A Look Inside the Harassment Culture in Sacramento

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Frank Erb is a pastor to legislators, staff, and lobbyists in California's state capitol. Behind heavy, ornate doors he holds nonpartisan Bible studies, meets privately with members of both caucuses, and prays with them about career moves, infighting, or family troubles. He is used to handling secrets.

The sexual assault accusations flooding Sacramento are becoming an important issue in his meetings. He has the immense pastoral challenge of sometimes counseling and praying with the accused, as well as counseling the network of colleagues who try to untangle their loyalties.

The accusations are part of a broken culture in the capitol--one of "late night events, alcohol, separation from families, flirtatious legislators, staff and lobbyists"--that Erb has been ministering to for years. There is a profound spiritual need among political leaders that should be a higher priority for Christians than lobbying for specific policies.

Last week I interviewed Frank about this issue, and you can find it by clicking the "Apple Podcasts" button at the top of this post. I hope you will not only listen to this interview but also subscribe my podcast.

 

A New Violin Concerto

I’m a freelance violinist, and it is not a glamorous life.

Last weekend, I played in the North State Symphony’s concerts in Chico and Redding, California. It went like this. Go to wedding rehearsal as the officiating pastor Friday afternoon, then directly to NSS rehearsal. Saturday, go to NSS rehearsal dressed for the wedding. Explain several times why I’m in a suit and tie. After the rehearsal, officiate at the wedding. Then play in the NSS concert. Sunday, preach in church, then guzzle coffee and a sandwich while my son drives me to Redding for the second NSS performance in the afternoon. Flee that performance to return to the church and teach again in the evening.

All of us are doing some version of that schedule every concert weekend.

To such disarray, add some existential angst. Orchestras are expensive to run and their audiences have conservative tastes. Most ensembles at the level of the NSS aim to deliver the standard classical repertoire with (maybe) some audience-building flair. Musicians like us are not usually playing risky new pieces (or even risky old pieces).

But, in this respect, the NSS has been a standout group from its first season in 2001. Kyle Wiley Pickett consistently programed modernist and new music, and he was able to challenge our audiences with good humor and wise dosage. Scott Seaton is building on this legacy in a big way. In his first two seasons, there was a work of new music on every single program. Last season, we participated in the premiere of a new violin piece by Libby Larsen, one of the most important contemporary American composers.

Dan Pinkston

Dan Pinkston

Dan Pinkston, the composer from Simpson University in Redding, has written a terrific violin concerto, which was brought to life last weekend by Chloe Trevor, a young virtuoso from Texas.

Pinkston’s piece is full of orchestrational gems, from well-chosen combinations of instruments to the addition of unusual sounds like water-filled crystal glasses tuned to a perfect fifth. He makes the orchestra by turns terrifying, haunting, and beautiful. Pinkston also weaves quotations into the piece from disparate sources — “Somebody” by Depeche Mode, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and Pinkston’s own song, “Jesus Wept.”

An especially strong feature of the concerto is Pinkston’s violin writing. There’s this term violinistic that means, roughly, “appropriate for the weird way the violin works —with the bow, four strings, and no frets — and for the bizarre and obsessive frame of mind a violinist is in while playing.” Pinkston wrote a violinistic piece. He made the most of spreading notes across the strings, calling for different hand positions to create unusual harmonies. He also created many lyrical moments by placing the solo line in strong registers in relation to the rest of the orchestra.

Chloe Trevor

Chloe Trevor

Trevor plays in a splendidly well-organized way. Even though Pinkston created a difficult violin part, she had no problem making music with it. Her tone is marvelous, both up close in rehearsal and in the hall. Her intonation is spot-on, and her facility with double-stops (playing multiple voices at once) is fine as can be.

I was curious how the piece was received by the audience, so I asked two colleagues who were in the hall in Chico to report in. Joshua Hegg (piano) and Matthew Weiner (violin) are some of the prime movers of Uncle Dad’s Art Collective, and their wheelhouse is jazz.

Hegg thought the work was “marvelous.” He especially liked the “woody percussive” sound of the snap-pizzicato in the cellos and basses. (This is pinching and then plucking the string up from the fingerboard so that it snaps back against the wood. Sounds like Robin Hood shooting an opera singer.) Hegg also noted the big dynamic contrasts. “I’m a sucker for the huge crescendos that go nowhere.” His only proviso was that the opening seemed “a bit scattered for my tastes.”

Weiner agree that the piece was “great,” singling out the water glasses for special praise. He said that they projected well into the house, though neither of us could figure out whether they were amplified. Weiner liked the “texture that they created when paired with the rest of the orchestra.” He also loved that a lot of the piece was “downright scary.”

Weiner said the audience seemed really enthusiastic about the concerto, and Hegg agreed — though he wondered if local pride might have played a role. Regardless, the audience response looked strongly positive to us onstage. (The only exception I could see was young lad in the front row, who listened with decided skepticism.)

Bringing a new work to an audience is always a fantastic experience, and especially gratifying when the risk pays off and the applause is genuinely appreciative. It makes the less glamorous aspects of a violinist’s life well worth it. Plus, the world has a new married couple!

The Conflicted 500th Year

October will mark the fifth century since Martin Luther started a debate about the pope’s authority. Luther split Europe by questioning Rome’s power over a person’s spiritual life, control of information, and misuse of money. Limiting Rome’s authority helped remove the institution from the relationship between the individual and Jesus Christ.

Yet as I observe this anniversary, several ironies intrude.

American evangelicals often miss how similar our current situation is to Rome’s then. Like Rome, evangelicals have well-funded lobbyists with political agendas. We also have hucksters like Rome’s, but instead of selling early release from purgatory ours sell prayer-cloths, “healings,” and positive thinking.

The most striking parallel between Luther’s day and ours is skepticism. Rome, marinated in privilege, had lost credibility with the average European, and assumed that the loss didn’t matter. But the skepticism of commoners was powerful.

Today the average American rejects evangelicals’ consumeristic attempts to make spiritual life easy, and their obsession with creating a parallel pop culture where they won’t be offended. Many think evangelicals’ public smile is hiding greed and bigotry. Fair or unfair, this is the skepticism evangelicals face.

The loss of credibility is stark. Too many people have gone forward to “get saved” at mass meetings — only to be abandoned when the hard spiritual work started. Too many have trusted “faith healers” to restore their health, authoritarians to shape their conscience, or politicians to save their culture. And too many, when the gimmicks fail, have been told that it was their own fault.

500 years after Luther, we need another reformation. There are questions we can’t duck. Should pastors “prophesy” that Donald Trump is God’s choice? Are 20-minute TED talk imitations on Sundays really opening the Bible — or obscuring it? Is it right to sell “training” on how to control the Holy Spirit? With practices like these, institutional pragmatism has overwhelmed biblical principle.

Many pastors in our region are grieved by our decline from the Reformation. We are determined to recover that heritage. We are willing to debate these questions candidly. Our goal should be to reset the Bible’s boundaries around the institutional interests of churches, and return to the core of evangelical teaching: the direct relationship between the individual and Christ.