Friday, March 23, 2018

God Bless ...

I recently saw a large church-sponsored billboard in a nearby city that said “God bless America.” It had on the billboard the colors of the American flag, shaped like the map of the continental U.S. Underneath it was the name of the church that was sponsoring the rental of the advertising.

That is a good prayer. That is an appropriate prayer. There is nothing wrong with asking for God’s blessings on this nation, the one we call the land of the free.

We desperately need the blessings of God’s divine compassion for others, of justice and righteousness for all people, and of unity that comes with great awakenings of the Spirit such as those that have swept over our continent in times past. These days, we are an increasingly divided, violent, and secularized country that seems to be losing touch with our civility. We have seen difficult times before. Yet we need the blessings of God as much as we ever have.

Yes, there is much good in the midst of life these days, don’t get me wrong. Progress doesn’t come without price, and sometimes it takes time for things to shuffle themselves out in history.

But I have been thinking that if my church were going to spend that kind of money, I think I’d want our billboard to say “God bless the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemaker, and the persecuted.”

What? Why?

It’s simple. Those are the words of Jesus. We call them the Beatitudes. These are the ones God most wants to bless - the poor in spirit, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and the pure in heart. God blesses them in our country and God blesses them beyond our country.

Those are the ones I named in my imaginary billboard above, the “blessed” of the eight beatitudes themselves, in the same order as in Matthew 5.  They are Christ’s very definition of who is blessed in the opening of his Sermon on the Mount.

No, I’m not being un-American, I’m just being unashamedly Christian. I’m certainly not pointing fingers or making any judgments about those who would want to spend money on a billboard to express themselves.

I’m just saying that what makes more sense to me personally are the dear words of Jesus. My deepest desire is that we take the words of Jesus seriously, for the wisdom of his words trumps all cultural values and even, at times, our zealous nationalism.

So if I were going to rent a billboard to pray for blessings, it’s what I’d have to say.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Astonishing Red-Letters of Jesus

This is my column that appeared in The Arab Tribune on Wednesday, March 14, 2018. I found it humorous that the editor entitled the piece "Jesus' red-letter words show he was progressive," since I am, hopefully, claiming a set of Christian ethics that defies political labeling.

Somebody came in my study a few days ago and said, “wow, you have a lot of books. Have you read all of them?”

Why ask a pastor a question like that? Of course I haven’t.

In fact, I pulled one off my shelf and placed on my desk a few months ago … and it has sat right there ever since. It’s on standby. It’s called “Primal” by Mark Batterson, and I suppose I’ll get to it when the time is right.

But the back of the book inspires me. I read it every once in a while.

It says, “What would your Christianity look like if it was stripped down to the simplest, rawest, purest faith possible? You would have more, not less. You would have the beginning of a new reformation—in your generation, your church, your own soul. You would have primal Christianity.”

The book cover continues, “This book is an invitation to become part of a reformation movement. It is an invitation to rediscover the compassion, wonder, curiosity, and energy that turned the world upside down two thousand years ago. It is an invitation to be astonished again.”

Do you long to be astonished again?

If so, I have a suggestion. It sounds simple, and it is ... the simplicity is precisely why we don’t do it. It’s coming back to what Jesus actually said.

Christians focus so much on having Jesus “in my heart,” and holding a ticket to heaven, that we forget being a follower is about our whole life. Following Jesus is about our jobs, our marriages, our families, our neighborhoods, our finances, our health, our priorities, and our politics.

So if you want to be astonished again, go back to the "red letters" of Jesus. You find them in those Red Letter Bibles that highlight the words Jesus actually said.

Honestly I’ve always had mixed feelings about Red Letter Bibles. His words aren’t more “scriptural” than other scripture. But the farther along I get in my faith, the more I see that if I’m really going to live it, those red letters are more fundamental than fundamentalism.

The words of Jesus have profound impact when lifted out. Like raw sugar, it shows us the raw Jesus, pure and unvarnished.

What you discover may surprise you. Jesus did not talk at all about things we tend to make religion about in politics, when we reduce it to a couple of controversial moral issues. But on the other hand he lived an incredibly political life.

He was amazing in his progressive treatment of women. He confronted the racism of his people against Gentiles and Samaritans. He had a heart for the outcast. He lifted up mission with the poor and impoverished. He taught radical peacemaking, saying “those that live by the sword die by the sword.”

He said that it is what comes out of our mouth, not what goes in, that defiles. He spoke of those who are without sin casting the first stone, calling out judgmentalism for what it is. He affirmed those who are poor, meek, mourning, and weak.

He called people to a whole new world of grace, the kingdom of God, which has embedded in it a vision for justice for all people. He said strange things like “the last shall he first and the first shall be last.” He stood squarely against the accumulation of wealth.

These are the “Red Letter” issues.

Are you a “Red Letter Christian?” Or are you content with human, divisive labels like liberal and conservative?

I accept neither label because I’d rather just follow the gospel. It’s time that we disentangle divisive political labels from our faith and let the gospel be our guide.

Mark Lowry is a self-proclaimed "recovering fundamentalist." He sang with the Gaither Vocal Band, then took year off and decided to read the "red letters.”

I heard him speak once, when he said, “Have you ever read the red part of the Bible? It will mess you up!"

He continued, "You know what I found out? We've been hanging around the wrong people. We've got to start hanging around some more prostitutes! Jesus hung out with the outcast. Jesus hung out with the freaks and failures and vagabonds. The only people Jesus chewed out were the religious folks."

Lowry admitted "I didn't make a good fundamentalist because I could never figure out, how do you love the sinner but hate the sin? There's so many of you! I don't have time to hate your sin ... hate your own sin! Hating my own sin is a full time job! The psalmist said 'my sin is ever before me.' I say this ... love the sinner, but hate your own sin! You hate your sin, I'll hate my sin, and let's love each other!"

Now that’s a “Red Letter Christian” if I’ve ever heard one.

Steve West is a husband, father, minister, musician, and writer who pastors Arab First United Methodist Church. His blog, “Musings of a Musical Preacher,” is at