Preaching to the Choir

What’s wrong with preaching to the choir? Someone commented recently that she thought most political ads at this point in the campaign are just “preaching to the choir.” Whoever the intended targets are most political ads are a terrible waste of money that could be used to actually do some good, and I just want them to stop! I plan to vote early this week and how I wish that would somehow trigger a magic switch somewhere in cyber space that would exempt me from hearing or seeing any more hateful negative ads.

But my friend’s comment got me wondering about “preaching to the choir.” We all know it means unnecessarily trying to persuade people of something when they are already convinced. Anyone can sell a product or an idea to those who have already decided to buy, I get that. But consider “preaching to the choir” more literally. With all due respect to musicians who faithfully give of their time and talent in church or elsewhere, I would argue that choir members need to hear the Gospel just as much as anyone else, preachers included. In fact I’ve known both choir members and preachers who need to hear God’s Word more than other folks.

That understanding of what preaching to the choir or those already converted reminds me of something Dr. Everett Tilson, one of my seminary mentors often told us many years ago. He said, “You can’t understand the Scriptures until you are willing to stand under them.” Both the judgment and grace of God are for all of us, saints and sinners alike and we need to hear it early and often, especially in campaign season. As St. Paul put it, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And “all” means all, no exceptions, no deferments. Christ died for all of us fallible human beings, and we are in great danger if we ever forget that. When we are tempted to judge others as more sinful or less worthy of God’s love, we are treading on very thin ice.

Humility is a very basic requirement of faith. As any regular reader of mine knows, Micah 6:8 is my default summary of what is required of a faithful follower of God, and the final item in that verse is “to walk humbly with your God.” (See my 10/4/15 post “Finding Our Way Back to God: The Search for Meaning” for a discussion of that text in more depth.) The same advice from a negative perspective is given in the familiar adage that “pride goes before a fall.” But if you check out the biblical source of that proverb, the consequences of pride are much worse than a just a fall. What Proverbs 16:18 says in full is “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Pride is such a serious problem that it comes in at number 4 on the Roman Catholic list of seven deadly sins.

Wouldn’t you think with all those dire warnings there would be less ego and more humility around? But just the opposite seems to be the case in our selfie-crazed society. Dare I say especially in campaign season there is a plethora of hubris in the air? One of the big problems with pride is that it often gets expressed not by building ourselves up but by putting others down so we look better by comparison. If truth be told most of our visits to eye doctors would include a reminder that part of the trouble with our vision is that we can’t see the logs in our own eyes because we are too busy criticizing others for the tiny specks in theirs. (Matthew 7:3-5 and Luke 6:42).

I could go on showing off my biblical prowess by proof texting many other references to pride, but that doesn’t seem wise at this point. An image of stones and a glass house comes to mind! And yes, in this age of digital transparency where all of our actions can be captured on cell phone video and all of our tweets are fair game for public exposure, we all live in glass houses, including the choir. The prescribed antidote for pride is a regular reminder for all of us that the peace of mind and heart we crave never comes from the fame and recognition worldly values tempt us to pursue. It comes only to the humble who know that “the greatest of all is servant of all.” (Mark 10:44).

By the way, that bit about the glass houses isn’t biblical, but it’s close to Jesus’ daring those of us who are without sin to cast the first stone. (John 8:7).

Humbly yours, as one who can’t sing a lick, but I know I belong in that chorus who need to stand under the Scripture.

Trump: A Joke No Longer

maxresdefaultGiven the state of our nation and world today, I often feel like this: “Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they’re here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday. Suddenly I’m not half the man I used to be, there’s a shadow hanging over me. Oh yesterday came suddenly…… Now I need a place to hide away, Oh, I believe in yesterday.” (The Beatles)

Martin Niemoeller’s words are quoted often and have always inspired me, but until recently they were just a nice philosophical abstraction. Never did I dream they would become an honest to God existential warning for me and my contemporaries living in our blessed democracy. I was wrong.

I learned more about Niemoller last year in a biography about another contemporary clergy of his, in “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” by Eric Metaxas‎. It was there I realized even as the storm clouds of Trumpism were gathering that Niemoller’s words were a painful confession of his own failure to act out of Christian compassion to save his sisters and brothers from the Nazis until it was too late for them and for him.

Although he is most famous for the quote above Niemoller was taken in by Hitler along with his fellow Germans. “Niemöller’s sermons reflected his strong nationalist sentiment…. Niemöller believed that Germany needed a strong leader to promote national unity and honor. When Hitler and the National Socialist Party emerged, touting nationalist slogans and advocating autonomy for private worship of the Christian faith, Niemöller voted for the Nazis—both in the 1924 Prussian state elections and in the final national parliamentary elections of March 1933. Hitler espoused the importance of Christianity to German nationality and Christianity’s role in a renewal of national morality and ethics (sound familiar?) leading Niemöller to enthusiastically welcome the Third Reich. Niemöller later confessed that even Hitler’s antisemitism reflected a more extreme version of his own prejudice at that time.” It was only much later after Hitler’s fanatical power was firmly entrenched that Niemoller awoke to the error of his ways and became an active opponent of the Nazi terror. He was imprisoned in several concentration camps for 7 years for his opposition until he was liberated by the Allies at the end of the war. (Above quote and more information available in “Niemoller: A Biography,” http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007391).

For good or ill I have tried to avoid public statements about partisan politics in my 40 plus years as a pastor. Call it wisdom or professional survival or cowardice, the truth is that the only two times I am aware of that anyone complained about my ministry to church authorities were two times that I could no longer be quiet about political issues and candidates that I felt strongly were in opposition to Judeo-Christian values and principles. We are now again in one of those “if we are silent the stones will shout out” (Luke 19:40) moments when to paraphrase Lincoln, we are engaged in a great struggle to see if “this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” That may sound melodramatic, but I believe it to be true.

I will not be one who regrets not speaking up at this critical juncture of history. The racist, nationalistic, xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is too much like that of Hitler to ignore it and hope saner heads will prevail. Trump bragged the other day after his victory in Nevada that he “loves uneducated people.” Of course he does. He is leading a war on critical thinking and shouting down rational, civil discourse verbally and with vulgar, shallow Tweets. His Twitter campaign is brilliant in its strategy. No in depth dialogue can occur when utterances are limited to 140 characters.

A friend and I were discussing in bewilderment yesterday how self-proclaimed Christians can support a candidate who espouses in no uncertain terms blatantly unchristian values. We started listing the values Trump trumpets, and I realized it sounded like a recitation of the 7 Deadly Sins of the Roman Catholic tradition. I double checked the list: greed, lust, wrath, gluttony, pride, envy and sloth/laziness. I’ll give him a pass on the last one, but Mr. Trump certainly seems guilty as sin on the other six. It’s one thing for a secular society to embrace “Greed is Good” as a motto but quite another to allow anger and fear to blind oneself to the crass character of a leading contender to become the most powerful person on the planet. No matter how you feel about any other political or social issue, do you really want someone as volatile and undisciplined as Trump having his finger on the nuclear trigger?

The test for being a Christian is not just claiming the label; it is taking up a cross and following Jesus. As we all make these critical political decisions about the future of our world, let us not confuse what the radical right is peddling with the Christian Gospel. Read the parts of Scripture that say: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44). “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:28-31).

These are critical times that call for acts of courage and faith. As tempting as it seems, don’t just seek a “place to hide away” or fail to learn the lessons of history so we are condemned to repeat them. Niemoller waited too long to speak up, but we dare not be silent.