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Christians

Misplaced Guilt

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Guilt often misleads us. We think that we ought not to fail, that we ought to be competent at whatever we undertake, that we ought to anticipate what will happen and be prepared for it. The things we berate ourselves for are our incompetencies. But only God is all-competent.

Jesus showed us what a good person is like. A good person is totally dependent on God. Jesus did only what he saw his Father doing. He always left outcomes up to God and just did what he knew was right. From a human perspective, his life was a failure. Executed for insurrection, he did nothing of lasting note except persuade his followers of something really insane—that he was God’s unique Son. Yet his life and death and resurrection have transformed the world.

God does not consider our failures as important as our disobedience. Again and again in the bible, he demonstrates his displeasure at being disobeyed. And disobedience arises from distrust. It was so when the Serpent tempted Eve. She doubted the goodness of God’s purpose in prohibiting the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is so now whenever we don’t do what we know is right because we fear the repercussions. One essential part of Jesus’ teaching is that God loves us and treats us as his own children. He taught us to trust God so that we would have the courage to obey him. The repentance he demands is not for our failures but for our disobedience and the distrust it springs from.

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Brother Shadwick

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When I was about 14, my family started going to a new church. It was still an Assembly of God church, but it was not the one in Columbus, Ohio we had been attending. This one was in Delaware, about the same distance but in the opposite direction. We were living near Sunbury, Ohio at the time. I don’t remember why we switched churches, but I think it had something to do with our former pastor leaving. The church in Delaware was small, maybe 35 or 40 members, so when the 10 of us started going, of course we were going to have an outsize impact. The pastor, Brother Moore was a young, sincere man, and the congregation was made up mostly of middle aged and older folks. I’m sure our family alone doubled the number of kids attending.

Fifty years ago, churches had Sunday School followed by Worship Service every Sunday morning. Sunday School was a time of instruction, mostly for teaching kids, but most churches of my acquaintance also had adult Sunday School classes, but the folks who attended were mostly people with kids who were bringing them to be taught. The format was usually less formal than public school. Classes were small. There were often kids from 3 or 4 grades mixed together. Still, you were expected to listen to the teacher teach, not interrupt or talk in class, and generally behave yourself. At 14 I was really good at that, having attended church since before I could remember.

My Sunday School teacher at Delaware Assembly of God was a man in his 40s named Brother Shadwick. (In the Assemblies of God of my youth, every adult was either Brother or Sister from the pastor on down.) Brother Shadwick was short but wiry; he looked like a fighter with close-cropped hair, big ears and a bulbous nose, thick lips, and one of those sallow complexions that would go beet red when he got angry. He proved also to be proud and ignorant, always a dangerous combination.

Our class was in a small room off the fellowship hall. There couldn’t have been more than four or five of us. I don’t know if Brother Shadwick took an instant dislike to me, or if it was our first skirmish that made me his enemy. The lesson that day was about Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Brother Shadwick was trying to set the scene. He told us that fishing boat Jesus and the disciples were in was very small, about the size of a row boat.

I raised my hand.

“It must have been bigger than a row boat,” I said. “It held Jesus and twelve disciples and their fishing gear. Jesus fell asleep in the prow. How could he sleep in the prow of a row boat?”

Brother Shadwick looked daggers at me. He stopped the class and had us all bow our heads. He prayed that God would forgive my sins and overcome my rebellious spirit. I was embarrassed, of course, but I also knew that I was right and the Brother Shadwick was wrong. Rather than admit to being wrong, he had treated me as if I had done something shameful. I knew I was not rebellious. In fact I was a compliant child, and I resolved to keep my mouth shut unless I was called upon.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I was a 14-year-old boy. There is no other age when boys are more obnoxious. I was certainly not immune. I was no doubt tactless and cocky. But I was not interested in how he felt having his word questioned by a mere boy. I was interested in truth, and it mattered to me that he was changing the story to suit his own preconceptions. But after that incident I was wary.

Some months later another incident occurred. Our class had been combined with another, and we now met in the fellowship hall where there was more room. My younger sister, Lani was in the class. There may have been as many as a dozen students. This time the lesson was from Jonah. The story of Jonah is bizarre even compared to other Old Testament stories. The feature most people remember is that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and survived inside it for three days, but that is not what makes it truly bizarre. Taken as a whole, it is a story about the compassion of the God of Israel for people who were not Israelites, who were in fact enemies of Israel. The last sentence, which God addresses to Jonah as a question, makes the point explicit:

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals? (Jonah 4:11)

Brother Shadwick claimed that this meant that the people of Nineveh were savages, unable even to tell their left hand from their right. He compared them to people living in mud huts, eking out a living at subsistence farming. Sitting there listening, I kept thinking, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to say anything.”

Then Brother Shadwick looked straight at me and asked, “Isn’t that right?”

What could I do? I pointed out that Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, that they represented the dominant political power in the region at the time, and that the verse probably referred to children rather than to the entire population of the city. Brother Shadwick turned red. My sister rushed from the room to find our mom or dad. I found out later that she thought he was going to hit me. He did come toward me and stand over me. But he did not lay a hand on me. Instead he resorted once more to prayer for my rebellious spirit because I had dared to know more than he knew.

I do not know what resources Brother Shadwick turned to when he was preparing his Sunday School lessons. Perhaps he thought, as many people still think today, that he needed no resources but his own understanding to make sense of stories that were hundreds of years old. I was not so self-assured. My family had encyclopedias, bible dictionaries, study bibles, and alternate translations. When I read the bible, I referred to those resources to help me understand. I still use such helps when I read the bible.

Two more incidents help illuminate Brother Shadwick’s character. Both occurred shortly before my family left the church. The first was that Brother Shadwick got into a fight with a co-worker and was badly beaten. His nose was broken, and he came to church with his face heavily bandaged. He sued his attacker and lost. The judge decreed that Brother Shadwick had provoked his attacker, so no compensation was due. The second was a confrontation between Brother Shadwick and a new pastor who had come to set make things right at the church. I don’t remember what it was about. I just remember Brother Shadwick standing nose to nose with the pastor, flushed with anger, his hand balled into a fist and spitting his words between clenched teeth. He still had bandages on his nose. The pastor regarded him with absolute calm but refused to back down. We left that church, and it closed for good not long after.

Some people would have been soured on church forever by these incidents, but I was fortunate in several respects. My parents knew me well. They knew I was not trying to cause trouble or show up Brother Shadwick in front of the class. They didn’t berate or discipline me for standing up to Brother Shadwick when he said things that revealed his own prejudices, especially when he asked for my opinion. I also knew that Brother Shadwick was not best representing the character of Christ in these episodes, so they did not make me question God’s goodness. Besides, I had my own relationship with Christ, and he sustained me even when others who also claimed to follow him misunderstood me. So I bear Brother Shadwick no ill will. I hope he has found peace and been delivered from his anger.

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Segregated Sundays

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“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
—Ephesians 2:14

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:28

Why are our churches so segregated? Not just by race, although that is bad enough, but by political affinity? The early church was made up of people from all walks of life. There were rich widows and poor layabouts. There were Greeks, Jews, and barbarians. There were slaves and slave owners. There were young and old, rich and poor, male and female, smart and stupid, tall and short, native and alien, slave and free, extroverts and introverts, dark-skinned and light-skinned all in the same church. They had arguments and offenses and jealousies and lawsuits, but they still met together and worshiped together. Could it be that we have missed some central, unifying truth in the gospel?

I met Marv Sauers in 2006 a couple of years before he died. He was 80. He had been a pipeline technician (or engineer, I’m not sure what his job would be today) in northern Minnesota. He fought in World War II. He grew his own tomatoes and shared them with friends. (He grew and shared zucchini too, but—let’s face it—everyone who grows zucchini shares it.) We attended the same church, a nondenominational evangelical church near Hastings, Minnesota. He used to say that he was their token Democrat. When he died the church lost a little of its diversity. It became even more Republican.

I understand the need for a Credo. Without a statement of belief spelling out exactly what we stand for, the church could become a social club, standing for goodness in some unspecified way. Yet somewhere along the way being Republican has become a tacit tenet of evangelical faith. Why? It comes down to just one issue: abortion. Republicans are against it, and Democrats are for it. For many evangelical Christians, abortion is non-negotiable. If you are for it, it is like being for serial murder: you don’t deserve a voice in civil discourse about anything else. How can you vote for someone who favors killing babies just because they haven’t been born yet?

Yet there are plenty of liberal Christians who are also Democrats. They are brothers and sisters too. Some favor abortion—not, of course, because they favor killing babies—because they favor women’s autonomy. They see a world that wants to make childbearing the defining characteristic of women and use that characteristic to exclude them from full participation in other areas of life. Abortion may be an imperfect solution, but it is a solution within the control of the woman, and they favor letting a woman control her own destiny rather than letting others control it who do not have to bear the consequences of their decision. For liberal Christians, abortion is not a litmus test in the same way that it is for conservative Christians. It is one issue among many, not the one issue that defines a candidate’s—or a party’s—character. (It is plain, however, that a Democrat who opposed abortion would have as tough a time getting elected as a Republican who favored it. As with so many issues that divide America at present, there seems to be no middle ground, no room for imagining that those who disagree with you might have the best of motives instead of the worst.)

Our churches are as politically segregated as they are racially segregated. The same is true of economic class and, basically, any indicator by which we commonly self-segregate. The church is just like the world. The only difference seems to be that the Christians think they are better.

The reasons for this self-segregation are partly technological. In the first century, if you wanted to go somewhere, you walked. Everyone walked to synagogue. Everyone walked to church. Everyone walked to hear the latest theories discussed in the marketplace. If you went to church at all, you went to one that was nearby. For the same reason, people were more connected to their neighbors and communities. The people you lived near were the people with whom you worked, talked, celebrated, and worshiped. You were forced to get along with people who did not share your views. Our technology has made it possible to go to a church miles from where we live where the people are as like us as possible. Unless we deliberately seek out people who differ from us, we quite naturally drift into insular relationships that never challenge our prejudices about anything. Our churches even become adept at excluding difference merely by being unwelcoming to those who are not like us. This makes it possible to go to a church where you never encounter a dissenting political view to say nothing of different theological or philosophical views. We can go to a church where there are no feminists and talk about feminism as if it were hell’s agenda. Meanwhile across town a church of feminists is meeting and discussing how patriarchy is pure evil.

Somehow—and it can only be by conscious, deliberate effort—we have got to get out of our cocoons. We have got to accept that everyone who loves Jesus, no matter their theology or political party, is part of the family of God. I’m not suggesting we should not fight. Let’s fight among ourselves. Let’s bring to bear our best arguments and our strongest defenses. But let’s fight like brothers and sisters who love one another, not like warring camps who hate one another. Let’s open our minds and hearts to one another and learn that we might just possibly be wrong about some things.

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