The essence of Christianity…in less than a “tweet”

We live in an age of 140 characters.  That is how many characters one is allowed to use in a tweet on Twitter.  Modern day cultural sociologists point to the development of social media as one reason that we are fast becoming a culture that wants everything boiled down to the bare minimum.  Ideas and the communication of ideas need to be done quickly and efficiently.  According to some of my friends who live in the Eastern part of the world, this is proving especially troublesome.  The Chinese language has over 54,678 characters, of which 2,600 are essential to effective communication.  Before we gasp in despair, the English language boasts an estimated 1,025,109 different words with about 600,000 in regular use.  Greek, the language of the New Testament, has over 5 million different words.  Researchers tell us that the average human, for whom English is a first language, has mastered and regularly uses about 100,000 different words to communicate.  That means we are expected to use less than 1/10% of our total capacity to communicate.  Like your coaches, teachers, and parents always said, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Many bloggers, religious commentators, and preachers try to summarize the essence of Christianity.  Isn’t Christianity all about loving our neighbors and even loving our enemies?  Certainly, all of us can attest to the ultimate reality of living with hate in our hearts.  Hating or not loving others is a tomb.  Tombs are not the place for Christians.  When we hate others we are allowing our fears to control our lives.  We feed that fear with constant attention and the inability to live into the calling of a resurrection people.

Isn’t Christianity all about forgiveness?  Yes! There is a kind of resurrection that happens in our life when we easily forgive.  For those of us living under a failure to be forgiven or inability to receive forgiveness, it can be a very dark and confining place in which to live.  Of course, the sin of hurtful statements or deeds can change the dynamics of a relationship, but an unwillingness to forgive and accept forgiveness is itself a disease that robs us of the joy of life.  Our minds become consumed with brokenness rather than the relief of healing and forgiveness.

Isn’t Christianity all about healing?  Yes, most definitely!  Physical illness, mental torture, and addiction are stone tombs that coax us into a state where we define the world by our pain.  Being healed is not just a relief of suffering, but it is a suggestion of possibilities.  The New Testament always joins the relief of pain to an opportunity of new life, an occasion to service and a moment to consider new possibilities for a life reclaimed.

Of course, none of these answers are really given justice in 140 characters.  Especially since the true essence of Christianity is about following Jesus.  Christianity is about becoming a disciple of Christ.  Like the first disciples, following Christ introduces us to love, forgiveness and healing.  It is a whole new way of living life.  Rising out of the waters of baptism is the moment when we step out of the tomb with Jesus.  It is the moment when we are introduced to what it means to be a Christian.  It is a new way of doing everything.  It is a new way of being.  It is a new way of thinking.  It is a vastly new perspective on the possibility of living a life that glorifies God, honors Christ and is empowered by the Holy Spirit.  It is a new life.  Unfortunately, that description is way over the 140 characters allowed.

“Christianity is all about leaving the tomb with Jesus.” That was only 55 characters. Does that work?

Christ leads us into life.

Two Garfields and humility

President James Garfield

When you hear the name “Garfield,” you most likely think of the fat, orange cat who spends his days sleeping and eating lasagna. What you may not know about Garfield the cat is that his creator, Jim Davis, named the lovable curmudgeon after his grandfather, James A. Garfield Davis. His grandfather was, obviously, named after James Abram Garfield, the United States’ 20th president. President Garfield has the distinction of being the only ordained minister to have served as President and is one of only two Presidents who were members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). President Lyndon B. Johnson was the other Disciple. President Reagan had been raised as a Disciple of Christ, and although he attended a Presbyterian Church in adulthood, he did not transfer his membership until after his Presidency.

Garfield’s presidential candidacy is very peculiar and completely unconventional. In 1880, seven years before the founding of this congregation, he was invited to speak at the Republican National Convention for John Sherman, a fellow Ohioan, and hopeful nominee. As he took the stage at a contentious convention in Chicago, Garfield’s opening words were an attempt to unify a bitterly divided party. He began, “This assemblage seems to be a human ocean in tempest . . . but I remember that it is not the billows, but the calm level of the sea, from which all heights and depths are measured.” The audience fell silent as Garfield called upon his gifts as an orator. With each gesture and a cadence of a frontier sermon, the delegates began to grow more and more excited. As his speech neared its conclusion that would hopefully rally the divided delegates to join forces with his friend John Sherman and ultimately lead to a moment when a nomination for Sherman might be received from the crowd, Garfield graveled his voice and asked: “What shall we do?” A lone and unnamed delegate broke the stunned silence and shouted, “Nominate Garfield!” A preacher is rarely caught off guard, especially one as gifted as Garfield. He desperately tried to recast his remarks toward nominating Sherman. It was hopeless. On the 34th ballot, Garfield received 17 votes. The preacher rose in anger and scolded the delegates for not voting for Sherman. “The announcement contains votes for me. No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name and vote for him in this convention. Such consent I have not given—” Before he could finish, the convention chairman gaveled him out of order. On the 36th ballot, Sherman threw his support behind Garfield and he was nominated to run for President. As the celebration commenced, Garfield excused himself and returned to his modest hotel room, closed the door and sat in silence overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility that had been placed upon him by his party. In the subsequent moments and occasions where he was congratulated on his nomination, he would apologize. “I suppose I am morbidly sensitive about any reference to my own achievements,” Garfield acknowledged. “I so much despise a man who blows his own horn, that I go to the other extreme.”

Five months later, he was elected president. On March 4, 1881, he was sworn in and delivered an inaugural address passionate in its emphasis on the rights of freed slaves. Biographer Candice Millard recounts, “Former slaves in the crowd openly wept.” Many more Americans wept six months later when Garfield died of the gunshot wound he received on July 2, 1881. Garfield’s modesty would make him seem wildly out of place in today’s political arena, but it fits his role as a preacher and Christian.

Great leaders who change both our society and the human heart are those of great character and humility. They are the pastors who help put away the tables and chairs, the elders who run the dishwasher, the deacons who vacuum, the Sunday School teachers who spend their life teaching of God’s love to students whose attendance fluctuates wildly, and every believer who recognizes that our task is not to glorify our congregation, but to glorify the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. It is these leaders, both in the church and in our society at large, whose words and actions encourage us to, “Take up your cross and follow me.” They’re everywhere—but rarely rewarded. And that’s probably how they want things to be.



The original use of the megaphone

Edison’s original megaphone: used to hear

In his book, The New Adapters, Jacob Armstrong writes, “Thomas Edison coined the term megaphone in 1878 with a new device to benefit the deaf and hard of hearing. The first megaphone was actually three funnels. Two funnels that were over six feet long were inserted in the ear to aid hearing. The third, a smaller one, fit the mouth to project the voice.” It is a wonderful image of a device that was once used primarily for hearing that is now generally understood to be one for speaking. His context for the analogy is in helping congregations hear the issues and concerns in the communities they serve. However, the analogy works equally well in our day to day experiences. Some say that our nation has never been so divided. Although I understand the sentiment, that isn’t true. Consider for a moment the Civil War. That was a pretty divisive time in our nation. In the years leading up to the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, our nation was fiercely divided over the scope and authority of the federal government in the life of states. This division was primarily along socio-economic lines with vast differences between urban and rural voters. Sound familiar? Federalists like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton fought viciously with Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry and George Mason. At one point, George Mason declared that he would “rather chop off [his] right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands.”

The media is often accused of partisanship today. Although history does have examples of newspapers that sought to be non-partisan, like the old New York Tribune, most newspapers were proudly advocating current events of their time from a partisan perspective. The Springfield Republican and the Cynthiana Democrat have in their history an intentional effort to report the news from their Party’s perspective.

As a pastor and preacher myself, I have had more than one person ask me what it is like to have a job where I get paid to talk. It is true that the time when most people see me in a large group, I’m the one doing most of the talking. Sunday mornings is, by far, the holy time our congregation gathers and by the nature of our worship style, the sermon is an important part of that time. The truth, however, is that throughout the week, I do much more listening than I do talking.

Today’s megaphone: used to speak

My point is that although we are certainly divided as a nation, this isn’t as foreign to our DNA as we might expect. Perhaps the difference is that social media has connected us far more than we were in the past. Think about your neighbors and those with whom you attend church or your co-workers. You may differ with them considerably on a whole host of issues, but you know them. Our children play together, we see each other at the store, funerals, weddings and at ball games. They are our friends and although we may have ideological differences, we know they are good and decent people. However, in this culture where we need to only open our laptops or turn on our tablets, we are given the means to engage in rigorous debate with people we don’t know. That makes it easy to ridicule them, demonize them and, ultimately, refuse to listen to them. We use our technological megaphones to speak and never listen. My suggestion? Take one week and just read what people are feeling and thinking. Or better yet, have a conversation with your neighbor or co-worker. What would it be like to listen and understand before we speak? To my congregation and those who join us for our live stream, I appreciate my congregation listening to me each Sunday and Wednesday. I put a great deal of time and effort into preparing what I will say. I pray that I will also put in as much time and effort listening throughout the rest of the week.

A mathematician’s use of proof and faith

Blaise Pascal was a French mathematician born in 1623. He is famous for his study of the concepts of fluids, pressure and vacuum.  He is noted for having written one of the strongest defenses for the scientific method. As a child prodigy, he had a deep fascination for mathematics and physics, and by the time he was a teenager, he had invented over 20 different machines, including the mechanical calculator. Pascal is credited with adding significant new thinking in the areas of geometry and influenced the development of what we now call modern economics and social science. For many classical thinkers, Pascal was not only a mathematician but a philosopher of mathematics. Some of his later works looked at how we might be able to discover truth. His book, Little Schools of Port-Royal was a geometry textbook of sorts that was not published until after his death. In it, he argued that all propositions needed to be based on already established truths. The problem with this proposition, he continued, was that every established truth would require other truths to back them up, wherein the idea of “first principles” would never be reached. Although he believed geometry was the closest to coming to understand truth, he concluded that ultimately, any principle upon which we build other principles can only be grasped (or “defined” as he argued) through intuition. It was at this point that Pascal was convinced of the necessity of submitting to God in searching out truth.

Pascal is remembered and celebrated as a scientist. His name has been given to the unit used to measure pressure, a computer programming language, Pascal’s law of hydrostatics, Pascal’s triangle and, of course, Pascal’s wager. In the world of literature, Pascal is regarded as a great author of the French Classical Period and is considered a master of French prose. His writing used satire and wit to oppose the rationalism of the philosopher Descartes (Descartes’ writings would influence John Locke, who would in turn influence one of our founders, Alexander Campbell).

However, what many folks may not know is that Pascal was also a theologian of sorts. Although he was by confession a Roman Catholic, he was a member of the Jansenist Movement within the Roman Church. Jansenists preached a form of theology which they credited to Augustine of Hippo. It is important to remember that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk before the Reformation. Augustine’s theology had a significant impact on Luther, Calvin and Zwingli and Augustine is often referred to as the “Protestant Church’s Saint.” Some historians argue that the Jansenists, to which Pascal belonged, were Roman Catholics with deep sympathy for many of the key doctrines articulated by the Protestant Reformers, of which justification by faith and limited atonement were most notable. Pascal’s most influential work was Defense of the Christian Religion. In it, he approached the Christian faith from two opposing philosophies to thoroughly confuse the reader and drive the reader to such despair that he or she would embrace God. Such a method is not my first choice in trying to share the truth of God’s existence with the world, but it does serve as an example that every generation is often overwhelmed with the multiplicity of truth claims. All those claims to truth have been used by many to explain why they do not believe, yet for Pascal, it was what drove him to faith. His philosophy and his scientific approach led him to believe in a Supreme Being, but it wasn’t what led him to Christ.

In 1654, only eight years before his death, he was involved in a carriage accident. One night following the accident, he had a “vision” that led him to embrace Christ. On his death in 1662, a note written on that night was found in his clothes. A portion of that note is as follows: “Fire. The God of Abraham…the God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God…This is eternal life, that they know you the one true God and J.C. [sic] whom you have sent…May I never be separated from him.” It is said that Pascal spent the rest of his life in devotion and service to God. One of my favorite quotes from Pascal is, “Faith is different from proof; the latter is human; the former is a gift from God.” I have been a part of a church that has always encouraged me to love God with my mind as well as my heart. There are many Christians who love God with only their mind. They navigate easily through the philosophies of the world and even Scripture to a sure belief in a Supreme Being but wonder why their hearts are empty. There are many Christians who love God with only their hearts. Their faith risks becoming nothing more than sentimentality and they live in fear of new ideas that might overwhelm them. Pascal reminds us that the Triune God comes to us through both the mind and the heart. Proof leads us to the Master. Faith gives us the strength to follow the Master.